Monday, March 28, 2011

Down Will Come Baby (1999)

I sought out Down Will Come Baby, a TV movie from 1999, because I learned that it starred a young Evan Rachel Wood, who was also in Thirteen and the TV series Once and Again, both of which I liked - a contributing factor to both being that Evan Rachel Wood was, in her prime, one of the most beautiful girls to ever grace the TV/movie screen. Here she is rather young, but her beauty no less apparent for it, and incredibly adorable to boot. Actually, discussing this movie is really an excuse for me to show you just how pretty she is in it.

Now, if you don't want the movie spoiled, then I suggest you navigate to a different page (such as IMDb) and read the synopsis there (though not before you've taken a quick look at the pictures in this post), because it's hard to talk about what makes this movie interesting without giving away the game. But one more thing before you go: I've seen some negative reviews, but it's really not as bad as all that. As long as you go into it expecting TV movie quality, with Lifetime-style moralism, it's actually pretty good. (Of course, having ERW contributes much to that determination). Ok, bye!

Spoilers ahead!

So the basic plot revolves around a three-piece family. Mother and father love each other, but they're having some conflict over their careers. Mom wants to move to Denver, but Dad (as well as daughter, Robin) want to stay in Phoenix. The result of this conflict is that it stresses out Robin, and causes her mom not to have much time to spend with her (hm, could this be a trigger for a future calamity, I wonder?). In a hastily construed plan to get her parents to stop fighting, Robin convinces them to let her go away to summer camp (to give them time alone together or something). At camp, Robin befriends an eccentric girl who apparently has an abusive mother. One night, the two girls sneak off from the campfire and go for a moonlit swim, but the other girl tragically drowns, leaving Robin confused and depressed.

A budding photographer!

Back home, a mysterious woman named Dorothy shows up to console Robin, and more or less fill the void left by Robin's mother, who has gone to Denver alone to give her new job a trial period to see if it's worth moving the whole family out later. Dorothy turns out to be a good friend to Robin, helping her with her homework, and discussing her emotional problems. But she becomes rather possessive of Robin, even to the point of becoming abusive, and eventually it's revealed that (as one might have expected - I certainly did), this woman is the mother of the girl who drowned at camp. But what may be less predictable is the fact that she's mentally unhinged, and not out for revenge so much as a desire to replace her lost daughter (with Robin - talk about trading up :p).

Doing homework on the floor.

So after insinuating herself into the family, Dorothy finds the perfect opportunity to whisk Robin away to her secret hideout. But, considering that this is a TV movie, it all works out nicely in the end. If it sounds like a pretty stereotypical stranger abduction plot, then you're right, but Evan Rachel Wood makes it very watchable. And Diana Scarwid puts in a good performance as the creepy woman, who at times you almost want to like, except that you sense something odd about her, that makes you wary, and that feeling grows over time until it's obvious that she's rotten.

The mark of true beauty is being able to look pretty
even when bruised (as Emma Watson has also proven).

The one substantial complaint I have against this movie is that an uncritical viewing is bound to reinforce mindless 'stranger danger' fears. This kind of story makes for an exciting and dramatic thriller, but I shudder to think of the countless mothers watching not just this but dozens of other plots like it, and as a result, becoming so fearful of the rare occurrence of stranger abduction, that they end up denying their own daughters (and sons) potentially enriching experiences, by shunning through suspicion anyone who might respond to their child's friendliness or gorgeousness.

As it turns out, the mother in the story's suspicions are well-founded, but she had no way of knowing that from the start. Her approach was no more stubborn than the father's, except on the opposite extreme - and it was the father's permissive attitude that left Robin vulnerable to being abducted. What I find interesting is that, not only was Robin in the best position to gauge Dorothy's behavior and intentions, but she knew exactly when the relationship went from friendly to controlling - and had [both] her parents listened to her, the near-tragedy could have been averted. That is, even if the mother hadn't been as suspicious from the start - which would have been a more humane approach in the case that Dorothy wasn't dangerously insane (as so many of us aren't). Just something to think about. ;-)

Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl Tour (2011)

I saw Joe Bonamassa live for the third time tonight. He's really on top of his game, and only growing more impressive year by year - both on his records, and on stage.

It's kind of funny, when Joe took to the stage at 8pm sharp (sharply dressed and right on time - a rarity among rock acts), my experience playing at bars lately interceded and instead of hearing the waking of the guitar and thinking, "it's concert time", I felt like I was back at the bar, and somebody I knew and hung out with was about to perform. So that when Joe started playing, I almost felt like the gap between him as a worldwide superstar (on a relative scale) and me as a lowly amateur wasn't so big after all. Of course, getting up on stage and starting to play is a familiar enough experience for me, but the quality of music Joe and his band puts out is way beyond my capabilities.

The concert had a nice mix of songs from throughout Joe's now decade-long career, reaching even back to his first solo album A New Day Yesterday. It was a nice homage to his earlier days opening the show with Cradle Rock, and I was thrilled when he pulled out the slow blues If Heartaches Were Nickels early in the evening - one of my first favorites of Joe's recorded songs, years ago when I was first discovering him, and he was first making a name for himself as a solo artist. I was also surprised to hear the title track from his second album, So It's Like That.

The second song in the setlist was one of my more recent favorites - So Many Roads - a song that Peter Green recorded with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in the sixties, and Joe covered on his You And Me album. It's a great slow blues with lots of emotion, and it kicks off with a great-sounding and immediately recognizable lick.

Joe visited his latest album, just released this past week, during the second quarter of the set list. He played the first two tracks from the album in order, followed by You Better Watch Yourself. Slow Train sounded fantastic live, and they managed to duplicate the instrumental train sounds on the record right there on stage, mostly with the guitar and drums. It was great how they started up, ever so slowly, it really sounded like a train from the old west slowly firing up for a long haul across the plains. Dust Bowl, the title track from the album also sounded really good live.

The first half of the setlist ended with Sloe Gin, one of Joe's more recent show setpieces. The drummer and bassist left the stage while the keyboard player played the chords for the song behind Joe's soulful extended intro on guitar. The rest of the band eventually returned to the stage to continue the song. The only disappointment I had tonight was that Joe didn't find a way to weave No Love On The Street (from Dust Bowl, and also a song Tim Curry recorded, just like Sloe Gin) into the coda of the song or something. I think that would sound really good. But, alas.

After Sloe Gin, Joe stopped long enough to greet the crowd, halfway through the show. He mentioned that this was the last show on the American leg of the tour (I didn't know that - exciting!). He also talked about his history in Pittsburgh, and how he worked his way up from playing Moondog's, to Rex Theatre (where I saw him my first time), then over to the Palace Theatre in Greensburg (which I missed cuz it was kinda out of the way), and now, finally, he's made it to Carnegie Hall. Which is fitting, given that it kind of parallels his recent show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Of course, our hall is a lot smaller, but still a very nice place - with beautiful architecture.

The second half of the setlist featured something of a miniset from The Ballad of John Henry. Joe started off by introducing the title track, saying that he had received a call from England informing him that it was the #10 best rock riff of the decade. It's a really good riff, and definitely deserves the award. When Joe played The Great Flood, which is another slow blues number, I noted that it was very reminiscent of If Heartaches Were Nickels, though a bit tighter and fresher, given that it's a more recent (and more original, I suspect) song for Joe.

It just goes to show, Joe plays a lot of the same types of songs, but he just gets better and better at writing them and performing them over the years. I used to think it was sad that he doesn't do A New Day Yesterday live anymore (or in such a truncated form), seeing as it's such a kickass song, the way he does it, and that it's the one song that ignited my appreciation for Joe years ago. But I don't think it's that sad anymore, because the songs he's playing now are so good, there's no room to be left wanting. And anyway, the newer songs have that freshness of life I mentioned, where I imagine the older songs, unless constantly shuffled and renewed, might get a bit stale after awhile. On the other hand, it's great that Joe digs back through his catalog and keeps a few of the old ones around. He's got so many good ones.

One song that completely took me by surprise was a cover of Young Man's Blues, which I don't think I'd heard (or heard of) Joe doing before. It didn't have quite the swing of The Who's version, but it was very fun, with lots of stops and starts, and you could tell the band (as well as the crowd) was enjoying it.

When the entire band, minus Joe, left the stage for the sole acoustic number, I noted how everyone but Joe had taken at least one break during the performance. I'm willing to believe that Joe is the hardest working musician in the industry. His stage show has even grown to a solid two and a half hours, where previously I remember him making excuses for cutting off after about an hour and a half. There wasn't even an opening act - and he didn't need one. The acoustic number he did was his old favorite - Woke Up Dreaming - which is a real show-off piece. It's truly impressive what he pulls off in that song, and he took his time putting flourishes into it. This is acoustic music on speed.

The final song of the regular setlist was the consistently inspiring Mountain Time, which is a song that has really come into its own over the years. I remember not thinking all that much of it when I first heard it on Joe's second album, So It's Like That, but he's turned it into such a riveting show-stopper in his live sets that it refuses to be ignored (hear the version on Live From Nowhere In Particular, for example). I do remember that when I drove out to the desert a few summers ago, I was driving "west on 80", which is a line from the song, and I had that song going through my head the entire cross-country trip!

We got two songs for an encore, first the Leonard Cohen cover Bird on a Wire, which Joe recorded for Black Rock, his last album before Dust Bowl. Not personally one of my favorites, as it's kinda more laidback and 'sweet' a song, but it sounded really good live with the heavy electric treatment coming in later in the song. But the final number was the one I was waiting the whole show to hear - Joe's rendition of Just Got Paid, with the Led Zeppelin solo break in the middle. Great, epic song to close the show with. Although, with the amount of talent displayed throughout the night, I can't even say that it was the best song performed. I'd be hard-pressed to even pick a favorite, because the musical consistency was so solid.

And one thing I'll note about Joe's audiences. I imagine they're getting bigger (as well they should), though they're still no match for what those stadium bands have. But when you go to a Joe show, it's clear that the people there are all huge fans, and in the case of a guitar virtuoso like Joe, many of them are musicians themselves. It's a very different kind of crowd, and much more appreciative, than the drunken buffoons you might get at a, say, Tom Petty show, for example. No disrespect to Tom - I love him - but you can't argue about the crowds, which include lots of people who are there just to get blasted and have a party with some good songs they know from the radio performed live to enhance the atmosphere. But at a Joe show, those people are there to appreciate the music that's being played. And it's a testament to the kind of musician Joe is. Here's to many more years, and much more success, for the man deserves it as much as anyone (and more than quite a few).


cradle rock [a new day yesterday]
so many roads [you and me]
when the fire hits the sea [black rock]
so, it's like that [so, it's like that]
if heartaches were nickels [a new day yesterday]
slow train [dust bowl]
dust bowl [dust bowl]
you better watch yourself [dust bowl]
sloe gin [sloe gin]

the ballad of john henry [the ballad of john henry]
lonesome road blues [the ballad of john henry]
happier times [the ballad of john henry]
steal your heart away [black rock]
the great flood [the ballad of john henry]
young man's blues
woke up dreaming (acoustic) [blues deluxe]
mountain time [so, it's like that]

bird on a wire [black rock]
just got paid [live from nowhere in particular]

Whew, I'm tired! Until next time, Joe. I'm really excited about your new band project, Black Country Communion. I would love to see the band perform live. Please tell me you've got plans to tour America soon! Can't wait to hear your second album, which I've heard is coming out soon!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl (2011)

Dust Bowl is Joe Bonamassa's latest album, just released (today). It's a strong album, possibly even his best to date. Bonamassa is unique in that he possesses great consistency in his performances and recorded output, and yet, over the ten years that he's been releasing records as a solo artist, he just keeps getting better and better. His talent as a guitarist was apparent immediately from the get-go, but over time he's honed not only his singing, but also his songwriting, and his ability to put on a good, rounded, passionate performance, whether on stage or on record.

It's a little hard to compare Joe's albums without going back and listening to them in succession, but I would say that Dust Bowl has the maturity and energy of The Ballad of John Henry. His last album, Black Rock, veered a little into "world music" territory (without betraying Joe's consistency of quality), but Dust Bowl is, to me, more straightforward Joe Bonamassa music. The album opens with a track called Slow Train, and that's exactly what the song sounds like, as a modern polished approach to the old blues technique of mimicking environmental sounds (especially trains) with their instruments. Following that is the title track, which is a strong number that has a guitar part that, for me, is reminiscent of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game.

Dust Bowl features a few special musical guests, which, in the friendly spirit of musical camaraderie, is not unusual on Joe's albums. Tennessee Plates features John Hiatt, and takes on a bit of a country flavor, which is not out of place among the Wild West theme of the album. The drums in The Meaning of the Blues plod on as if the train from earlier were still rolling, while Joe takes an extended guitar break. I imagine this would be a great album to listen to while riding a train across the American countryside.

Black Lung Heartache starts out acoustic-like, but doesn't waste time building up energy, and features Joe playing some slide. You Better Watch Yourself is a pretty conventional blues shuffle, with a front row Wah effect. And then we come to The Last Matador of Bayonne, which is one of several songs on the album penned by Joe himself. It's very moody, and slow, and has a feel to it, in both the guitar and singing, that makes it very characteristic of Joe. I almost want to say that it's kind of like Asking Around For You, but with a much heavier weight to it, and a very passionate blues lead.

There are a million songs in the world titled Heartbreaker. When I first saw it on the tracklist for Dust Bowl, I wondered if maybe it was the Led Zeppelin song, since that's the one I've known best and longest. But I figured I would have heard something about Joe doing another Zeppelin cover on one of his albums, and I hadn't. I was also excited to see that that track featured Glenn Hughes as the special guest, who is the legendary rock bassist and vocalist who is currently playing with Joe in their supergroup Black Country Communion. As a result, Heartbreaker definitely has a bit of a BCC feel to it. But the album credits the song to Paul Rodgers, which reveals it to be the band Free's song titled Heartbreaker, which I had not previously been familiar with. But it's a great track, and Glenn sounds fantastic as always, and the riff (moreso on Free's version) vaguely reminds me of Mistreated, which Glenn played on with Deep Purple in the seventies.

Opinions are bound to change over time, but from a preliminary listening to the album, if I was pressed to select a favorite track, I'd have to pick No Love On The Street. It opens with sirens and ambient street sounds that immediately reminded me of Joe's cover of Sloe Gin a few albums back. When I looked at the song credits in the CD booklet, I discovered that, indeed, this was another song from one of Tim Curry's albums, just like Sloe Gin was. It works great as a sort of "second act" to Sloe Gin, and while not quite as epic or comprehensive as that song, it's a very powerful song with a searing guitar lead that seems to run throughout the entire song (which is precisely the reason I choose it as my favorite), and the beat of the song has an unsettling feel to it which I like. It's not a song you sit back and relax to, but the kind that gets your heart pumping and your mind racing.

The Whale That Swallowed Jonah pulls it back about halfway, keeping up the motion, but easing off on the emotion. And then Sweet Rowena comes in with featured guest Vince Gill. It's a bit of a swinging blues shuffle, with some very B.B. King flavored licks sprinkled throughout. The album closes with a track titled Prisoner. Sometimes, albums will go out on a light, mellow note. Prisoner seems to wrap up the energy of the album and give you one last desperate pump before the journey comes to a final stop. I would rate it another one of my favorite tracks from the album.

To me, Joe is one of those artists whose work over the years has earned my loyalty. I'll buy Joe's albums without thinking twice, and without even hearing them, because he has a flawless track record of putting out quality music. He has yet to hit a rut. And I see that same attitude in other Bonamassa fanatics. Unfortunately, though Joe keeps chugging along and getting more exposure, he hasn't really broken into the mainstream - but considering the kind of music the mainstream deals in, it's not surprising, and perhaps it's better that way. But if you're a blues rock guitar fan, you owe it to yourself to give a listen to Joe, who is my personal favorite guitarist of this generation. And if you haven't been introduced to his music yet, Dust Bowl is as good a place as any to make a start.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Steven Spielberg Presents Taken

The special features describe Steven Spielberg's Taken as something of an alternate history, in which aliens really did crash land in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The television mini-series tells a story over ten feature length (90 minute, give or take) episodes that spans at least five decades of American history related to extraterrestrial matters. From the foo fighters sighted by pilots in World War II, to the Roswell crash and resulting military confiscation of a UFO and alien bodies, to the flying saucers and alien abductions reported in the ensuing decades, crop circles and government conspiracies, the story covers all the ground and builds up to the climax of the aliens' secret plan for the humans.

"There's nothing beyond the sky. The sky just is. It goes on and on, and we play all of our games beneath it."

As important as the aliens are to the plot of the story, it's not a story about aliens and who they are and what they do and where they come from. It's really a story about people. And viewing it that way will reduce your disappointment in the ending, which doesn't reveal to you as much about the aliens and their plan as you would like. In the end, it's about the questions we ask - both the humans and the aliens - and the efforts to which we go to find their answers, even though the answers won't come to us in our lifetime. It's how we deal with the hardships in life, that are beyond our understanding, and whether we can come to terms with our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. And in that way, it's a story that we can identify with, even in a world without [overt proof of] extraterrestrial alien contact.

"Hope is the biggest lie there is, and it is the best. We have to keep going, as if it mattered, or else we wouldn't keep going at all."

At its core, Taken is a story of three families. There is the Crawford family, which inherits the government secret and goes to great (and ultimately futile) lengths to try to understand the aliens' plan, at any expense (even that of their compassion and humanity). There is the Keys family, which struggles with alien abductions, and tries (futilely) to find peace and respite from the continued trauma of being 'taken'. And there is the Clarke family, with special powers, their genesis a one-time fruitful (and friendly) tryst with an alien visitor.

The core of the aliens' plan is a breeding experiment, and the ultimate desired result is the girl Allie, part-alien, part-human, more evolved than either. Played by a young Dakota Fanning, she narrates the episodes with wisdom-beyond-her-years, until she finally comes into the story after the final time skip. One of the most fascinating aspects of this series is how it moves through time, and you get to see the main characters age, and you see their kids grow up and take over the family legacy, as the focus of the story shifts to them. You get to see three generations of history (four in Allie's case), and note the similarities and differences between parent and child (and then grandchild). All the while, the alien plan progresses, and the humans get a little bit closer (though never close enough) to understanding it.

Taken is a good story - entertaining, and heart-warming, though also sad in parts. The show is really more of a drama than a sci-fi, but it's a sci-fi themed drama. It's not the ultimate alien-themed fiction out there, despite how comprehensive it tries to be, but it's certainly worth seeing. The aliens aren't really all that scary, though. The CGI just doesn't really do it for me. And some of the characters' accents sounded really fake. Lots of great themes though, and the generational nature of the story is not to be missed. Dakota Fanning makes a convincing alien hybrid girl, and her philosophies about life are very inspiring, but it was Taylor Anne Reid as young Lisa Clarke that really caught my attention.

"When you're a kid, anything can take you away. Soap bubbles. Or a hose spraying a rainbow up over a new mowed lawn. I guess growing up means that it gets harder and harder to find your way back to that kind of place where you can be taken. One time I see grownups with that same sort of look on their faces, is when they're first falling in love."