Saturday, December 29, 2012

Otis Spann - The Biggest Thing Since Colossus (1969)

I wasn't expecting this album to be anything spectacular. I'm a huge fan of Peter Green, and in my musical explorations (quite possibly during my period of research for my radio show) I discovered that he provided lead guitar duties on this album, backing up legendary blues pianist Otis Spann.

Now that I have the album in my hands, I see that it's not just Peter Green, but half of Fleetwood Mac (recalling that time The Yardbirds backed Sonny Boy Williamson), including Green's dueling partner Danny Kirwan, and half of the titular backing section - John McVie on bass.

The result is that this album sounds very much like an amalgam of classic blues and Green/Kirwan-era Fleetwood Mac, and indeed, there is a heavy flavor of the latter present on this album, which is actually quite awesome. I wouldn't say that any of it rivals Green Mac's best stuff, but it was definitely worth getting my hands on. I like it even better than that Memphis Slim album (Blue Memphis) that features Peter Green on lead guitar (the two parts don't quite come together as smoothly there as they do here).

Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa - Don't Explain (2011)

Full Disclosure: I'm not real crazy about Beth Hart. She's a very talented musician, and I think it was a great idea for Joe to team up with her, but musical taste can be a picky thing, and while I don't dislike Beth Hart to any extent, I'm not smitten with her either, as a lot of her fans seem to be. That's largely why I didn't rush out to pick up Don't Explain right away when it came out in 2011 (that, and the unfortunate fact that I'm becoming poor).

Don't Explain is a duet between virtuoso blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa and soul singer Beth Hart. It draws soulful inspiration from the likes of Etta James, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin, while marrying it to Joe's bluesy atmosphere. It actually works pretty well - the combination of blues and soul, creating a rather smoother minor feeling than Joe's usual blues/rock stuff. Of course, I like Joe's usual stuff, and I'm generally more fond of hard music than the smoother fare, but one thing you can't say about this music is that it's "light".

As a matter of fact, it is good mood music - the sort you could put on to create ambiance. I'd say it's a romantic album - and I still do - but that this is soul and the blues, and so it's not very happy. But romantic music has never had to be happy - not in my opinion, anyway. As soul music, though, what I like the most about soul music and soul singers especially, is the type of virtuoso singer who puts so much power and emotion into their performance that it threatens to drag you to tears. Like when Cheryl Barnes sings Easy To Be Hard in the hippie musical Hair. But I can't say that Beth Hart quite reaches that level on this album.

The standout tracks, for me, include the opener, Sinner's Prayer, easily one of the bluesier songs on the album - and one that I remember most distinctly Eric Clapton covering on his excellent From The Cradle blues album; I'd Rather Go Blind, a song that's been around the block, but I remember Christine McVie (who would later be part of Fleetwood Mac) singing in the band Chicken Shack - Bonamassa and Hart's version is very smooth and creamy; and I'll Take Care Of You, which features Joe's best solo on the album.

Joe Bonamassa - Beacon Theatre: Live From New York (2012)

These are just my initial impressions, having only thus far listened to the album twice or so. The sound quality seems a bit muddy, which detracts from the recording a little, but on the other hand, gives it almost a slight bit of a bootleg feeling. After all, not all of Joe Bonamassa's live albums should sound exactly the same, and this one, only a couple years removed from Joe's phenomenal Royal Albert Hall concert, apart from giving some space to some of the new tracks and musical threads he's been working on since then, seems to emphasize Joe's post-star reputation, with several musical guests this time around.

I saw Joe on his Dust Bowl tour (great show, by the way), and I have to say, Slow Train doesn't sound nearly impressive here as it does when you hear it in person, where the sound has a chance to totally surround you. I was really surprised to hear Cradle Rock, as that's a song I don't think Joe's done since all the way back to his early days, on A New Day Yesterday - his rookie live album which, nevertheless, is what got me hooked on the Bonamonster in the first place. The River is another of Joe's songs I really like a lot, but one that I think sounded better on Joe's Live At Rockpalast DVD from six years ago.

It could just be my own musical tastes, but Joe's duets with Beth Hart, John Hiatt, and Paul Rodgers (I was kinda hopin' they'd do Heartbreaker) underwhelmed me (though to be fair, so did Eric Clapton's appearance at Royal Albert Hall). The highlight tracks on this album were the old time numbers Joe's done before, like the always incredible Mountain Time, which was at least as good, and probably better, on Live From Nowhere In Particular which, despite being four years old now (my, how time flies...), would probably be my go to pick of Joe's mature live albums (which counts out the raw intensity of the aforementioned A New Day Yesterday Live).

But best of all is the "bonus track" (I don't know if it was recorded separately or what - I haven't even read the liner notes yet) - If Heartaches Were Nickels. Despite being another song that Joe's done more than once before, including on A New Day Yesterday (Live), and the acoustic version on Live From Nowhere In Particular which is a nice variation, this version, which harkens back to the electric original, is nonetheless sublime, and the best version I have heard ever. I don't know if it was just the mood I was in when I listened to it or what, but this disc is worth its price for that track alone. It renews my desire to learn how to play that one...

In conclusion, I find it kind of scary to look back and think that this album could be considered an over-the-hill kind of record for Joe, now that his career has reached a climax with the Royal Albert Hall spectacle. But, there's no reason to suggest that Joe's career should (or will) contain only one climax, only one 'story arc'. There is plenty of room left to explore and to grow, and if any one artist has the talent and integrity to make it interesting, Joe's the man. His latest studio album, for example - Driving Towards The Daylight - sounds fantastic, and his recent work with the hard-rocking supergroup Black Country Communion is consistently impressive. I ain't givin' up on Joe yet. ;-)

2012 Movie Releases (In Review)

As has become tradition in the last two years, the end of the year marks the time for me to reminisce about some of the movies that were released throughout the year, to recall the ones I had a chance to see, and regret the ones that looked interesting but that I missed (which makes for a great "to watch" list for the future - not that I have any lack of titles on my ever-growing watchlist...).

But, before we take a look at some of the titles from 2012, let's quickly go over the movies I missed last year that I did manage to get a hold of this year. Of the three I couldn't see due to a frustratingly limited release (i.e., they weren't playing in any theaters near me), I watched two this year (not a bad ratio). Trust was, unfortunately (although not too surprisingly) a sappy Lifetime-style piece of trash, not even worth wasting my breath on lambasting, even as I was looking forward to doing. Texas Killing Fields, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, on the other hand, was really good. It had great music and a very good atmosphere, which is something I can appreciate a lot. I did not, however get a chance to see Shame, although I'd still like to, even though it's another title where I don't expect to like its moral. (I know, I'm a masochist :p).

Of the other movies listed last year that looked interesting but I didn't get around to seeing, I finally saw the remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (I didn't properly review it, but made a comment on my review for the original). I had mixed feelings about it, but ultimately I liked it. I also got to see Red State, the Kevin Smith horror film that pokes satire at government and religion alike. It was different, and, ultimately, really good.

Interestingly, looking back at my list of anticipated films of 2012, I managed to see all of them in the theater this year! They are included in the list below, along with the others I saw in the theater over the past year.

The Hunger Games - As planned, I did get around to reading The Hunger Games trilogy before getting to see the first movie installment. Although I did review the books, I didn't get around to reviewing the movie (a theme you will see recur in this post). I enjoyed it, but ultimately, I was too tied up on comparing it to the book - which was just fantastic - that I think it kind of marred my appreciation of the experience a little.

Titanic - For a while, I kind of prided myself on the fact that I hadn't ever seen the movie Titanic, despite its success and positive reputation. What could change that, you ask? Well, I was presented with the opportunity to watch Titanic on the day that marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the real-life RMS Titanic. Come on, how could I resist? It was a good movie. Sappy, yes, but not in a bad way.

Snow White And The Huntsman - When I heard early in the year that Kristen Stewart was going to star in a new adaptation of the story of Snow White, I was thrilled. It looked exciting! So the time came, and I went out to see it. My reaction to it was pretty lukewarm, however...

Prometheus (twice) - Prometheus was one of the most anticipated movies of the year for me (and this was a year that saw the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy as well as the first installment of The Hobbit). As a humongous fan of Alien, Ridley Scott's return to the universe of the xenomorphs was an absolute must-see. The movie is very well done, if not flawless; and while I did have some complaints, it was worth seeing twice, even if just for the (spoiler!) end scene glimpse of the proto-xenomorph! There weren't enough of them in the movie, but that scene sent a chill down my spine!

The Dark Knight Rises - This was a fitting conclusion to Christopher Nolan's very entertaining and well done Dark Knight Trilogy, a dark and serious look at the Batman mythos. I'm not sure I liked it as much as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight - only because both of those were such good movies - but that opinion may evolve as time passes, and anyway, this movie was no disappointment. Anne Hathaway did an excellent job in the role of Catwoman, by the way (as I had complete confidence that she would), not stepping on the toes of Michelle Pfeiffer's previous portrayal, but not allowing herself to be overshadowed either. All in all a fantastic film to close a fantastic trilogy.

Paranormal Activity 4 - PA4 continues the series' decline into profiteering franchise hell, although that could hardly be considered an unexpected development. If there's any surprise, it's that Paranormal Activity 2 managed to be just as effective as the first. And it was the first's groundbreaking approach to horror movie scares that earned my devotion to this series even as its lifespan seems to be nearing its natural end. PA4 has the dubious merit of being less scary but a lot sexier than its predecessors, thanks to the filmmakers choosing to capitalize on the 'sexy teen webcam' potential of the premise. Well, that's saying something, at least. -_^

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower - Perks interested me due to two reasons. First, that it was Emma Watson's first post-Harry Potter role (and I kind of became obsessed with Emma Watson thanks to her portrayal of Hermione Granger throughout the Harry Potter series), and second, because it was filmed in a neighborhood not far from the one I grew up in, which is the one the director and author of the book the film is based on also grew up in. Well, it turned out to be a pretty sweet and sensitive high school coming of age sort of story, with some likable characters. But then there's this plot twist at the end that doesn't nearly explain itself well enough and just kind of confuses you and leaves you with a sour aftertaste.

Hick - I did finally get to see Hick, though not until it left the (very limited) theaters it was playing in. It was a cool, country-fried coming-of-age story totally carried by Chloe Moretz's uncanny charisma. That girl is a star. And not even old enough yet to drive a car!

Silent Hill: Revelation - As huge a fan as I am of the Silent Hill video game series, I felt bad about skimping on my duties as a reviewer for this title, but there it is. As a matter of fact, I didn't realize they were even making a sequel to the first Silent Hill movie until mere weeks before it came out! So I went and saw it, and I can say, as a Silent Hill fan, it's pretty good. It doesn't perfectly capture the mood of the games, but then, that was never possible with a film adaptation of a video game series whose atmosphere was inspired by countless sources, including other films - so I don't really rate the Silent Hill movies on that aspect, and I can enjoy them. They're actually pretty faithful, with much material that fans can enjoy. And this one actually does a really good job of tying together a lot of the games' convoluted plot threads, especially in a way that's not completely out of whack with the narrative liberties the first movie took. For that alone, the filmmakers deserve credit. This movie is based on Silent Hill 3, where Heather, grown into her teenage years, is drawn back into Silent Hill to find out the truth about her origins. I don't know that I'd go so far as to praise it - it certainly is not without its flaws - but on the other hand, it's pretty good. I think fans of Silent Hill will enjoy it, even if it's not what a Silent Hill movie could be (for that, you probably have to watch some of the original game's inspirations, like Jacob's Ladder or most things by David Lynch, etc.).

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - The much anticipated Hobbit trilogy (I know, it's not supposed to be a trilogy...) finally begins with this first leg of the journey! This is another movie I really should have reviewed, being an enormous fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world (I even marathoned the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy back-to-back-to-back (in a twelve-hour long extravaganza), in anticipation of seeing The Hobbit), but I didn't really have much to say about it. I wasn't overly impressed nor disappointed with it - it was pretty much exactly what I was expecting, knowing what Peter Jackson is capable of, and knowing his plans for the movie(s). It has a bit of a more lighthearted touch than The Lord of the Rings, which is appropriate to the tone of the book, and I'm very interested to see the 'added' portions of the story about all the stuff going on in the background - with Gandalf and the Necromancer and all that. Plus, I really appreciated the references to Gondolin and Ungoliant - there are some stories in Tolkien's extended works that would make for some fantastic one-off tales. I like Bilbo as a character very much, by the way. I am looking forward to the continuation of his journey!

Now for the movies that came out this year that I wanted to see but didn't, or look interesting but flew under my radar.

The final installment of The Twilight Saga finally came out. I'm actually not real interested or the least bit excited about Twilight - it's just that because Dakota Fanning played a role in them (even if it is a minor role - yes, I'm that obsessed), I dedicated myself to watching them - but I decided I'd wait till they were all released so I could just go through them all at once and not drag it out. So, probably sometime in the next year would be a good opportunity to finally do that.

I guess Cabin in the Woods came out this year (after long studio delays)? I didn't see it in the theater, but I did see it on the recommendation of two of my good friends. If you've been following my blog, you'll know about my spirited reaction to that movie, but it's really not bad, and is actually fun to watch. It's when it tries to be intelligent and insightful that it all breaks down.

I've heard a lot of good reception to the new Bond movie, Skyfall. I actually like James Bond movies, even though they don't fall under the realm of horror. But the espionage theme really gives the over-the-top action sequences a fun flavor. Some people have complained about Daniel Craig being too "James Blond", but I don't mind his portrayal of the character - I watched Casino Royale, and liked it. I'm thinking that maybe I should pick out a spot some time and catch up on Quantum of Solace, which I never saw, and then watch Skyfall. That sounds like it could be fun.

The Woman in Black looked interesting. Not interesting enough to get me out to the theater, but interesting enough that I might watch it at home sometime. Django Unchained - being a Quentin Tarantino film and all - does look interesting, but it's one of those that I think I'd just as soon wait and watch at home than rush out and see it in the theater.

As for next year, it looks to be another exciting year for movies. Kick-Ass 2, Catching Fire (the followup to The Hunger Games), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - lots of good-lookin' sequels. Then there's World War Z - although I'm ashamed to admit my friend gave me a copy of the book years ago and I still haven't read it. :-x And then of course there's the new remake of Carrie - starring Chloe Grace Moretz! I'm excited!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Silent House (2011)

Spoiler warning: This review contains massive spoilers for both this movie and the Spanish-language original that it was based on.

So, take a movie with a subtle plot about a young woman who may have had a romantic relationship with an older man, resulting in a pregnancy that didn't go well (for one reason or another), and put its domesticated remake (because Americans just hate reading subtitles) into the hands of a proud American team of filmmakers, and what do you get? A heavy-handed and highly stereotypical revenge fantasy about a young woman whose angel of lost innocence goads her into reaping murderous vengeance against her dirty uncle and perverted daddy who did nasty things to her when she was a little girl (that she doesn't remember, but screwed up her life just the same). Typical American obsession... Either this story resonates with a lot of Americans' life histories, or a lot of them find it to be an intriguing fantasy (I don't know what they find more exciting - the notion of children being violated sexually, or the fact that it gives them a legitimate excuse to commit violence against their fellow human beings). Neither case is very comforting.

Comparisons with the original:

* The basement in the remake is pretty creepy, but otherwise, the house is not nearly as dark or decrepit (and thus, scary) as the house in the original.

* On the other hand, I liked the motif of the mold infecting/rotting the house. Very Silent Hillish.

* As I said, the remake switches out the main character's anger over losing her daughter for a contrived plot about repressed childhood abuse. This could have effectively ramped up the horror (if it weren't so cliché), but is undermined by the film's attempt to associate photographing a pretty little girl in a tutu with extreme violation and loss of innocence. There are other things that could have been taking place on that pool table that would have better set up the plot, rather than offensively reinforcing the fear of 'the male gaze' as a weapon of rapacious intent.

But alas, the delusional minds that profess that rape is a worse fate than murder would be all too thrilled to have you believing that getting your picture taken is even worse than that. So if someone snaps a polaroid of you half-dressed, that's worse than being stabbed to death. Personally, I wouldn't trust anyone who fears semen more than blood. The way I see it, life is created when semen flows. But when blood flows, life is destroyed...

* Following on that plot point, the girl ghost that was the missing daughter in the original is reinterpreted as the main character's younger self (which works effectively as a memory device)/manifestation of lost innocence (which is much less effective and comes off as being really contrived). The result is a much less scary/unnerving apparition (despite the torture she represents being a victim of).

* Also in line with those points, this movie appropriately demonstrates the importance of hiding the photo evidence! Because showing photos that sufficiently demonstrate our fears would get the filmmakers in a lot of hot water, and showing photos that don't undermines their terror value as a narrative tool. I actually appreciated the original version for actually lingering on the photos and showing them off clearly, instead of keeping them under wraps, as is all too often (and obviously) the case, and letting the audience use their imagination. But as a result, the photos - ambiguous as they are - kind of undermine the revelation I think we're supposed to get from them.

This is an apt demonstration of the problem that self-censorship imposes, when we have to tiptoe around the subjects we intend to address. Not that subtlety and suggestion aren't effective narrative tools, but in this case, the story is so overwrought and has become so convoluted that a nice straightforward approach is necessary if you want to tell a convincing tale. Otherwise, it runs the serious risk of falling into hollow cliché, as it does here.

* While the three characters were a lot more conversational and amiable in the remake's opening scenes - which sort of facilitates this version's movement from "everything's cool" to "everything's fucked", as opposed to the original which starts out, socially, just as uncomfortably as it ends - the acting leaves something to be desired, and the creepy tones to the characters come off more cringe-worthy than shudder-worthy, which should have been the intent.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Silent House (2010)

Note: This review refers to the Spanish-language original ("La Casa Muda"), and not the American remake (why do Americans feel they have to remake every good foreign-language film that comes out?).

The Silent House is the scariest movie I've seen since Paranormal Activity. It hasn't got much in the way of an intriguing plot or characters, but strictly in terms of crafting a frightening atmosphere, it is extremely effective. The location, the filming style, and the music/sound effects all work together to create a frequently unsettling mood, and when the scares come, they are genuine. The director clearly understands that to make a person scared - in the true, goosebumps-all-over-your-body sense, and not just in the jump-out-of-your-seat sort of way - you don't just throw some danger at them, you have to take your time to put them in a suggestible frame of mind, and then feed them little tidbits that make them think, "that's not right..."

It's interesting to note that, while not actually being filmed from the 'found footage perspective', this film does have a lot in common with the found footage style. It even boasts having been shot in one continuous take, which gives it very much a 'following people around' cinema-verité sort of feeling. It's based on a true story (although I take that claim with a grain of salt these days), but the 'found footage' in this case is a stack of polaroids, so instead of getting to view the footage, you could essentially frame the movie as a dramatic reenactment of one person's possible interpretation of the allegedly true events. (Yeah...)

However, one significant criticism I have against this movie, as good a job as it does at being scary, is that its ending revelation is hugely disappointing. Obviously, I can't tell you why without giving away serious spoilers (that could significantly diminish your ability to appreciate the film's horror), so if you haven't seen it, you best skip the next several paragraphs.

Spoilers below!

The majority of the movie works because we sympathize with the main character - a vulnerable-looking girl caught up in this spooky house, who doesn't know what the hell is going on. Thus we can identify with her, and as she becomes scared and confused, we become scared and confused.

This works fantastically. But then the big revelation comes, and it turns out that the girl - who is mentally unstable - is the one responsible for everything going on. I'm not gonna nitpick about 'how could she kill her dad when we were there with her when her dad was killed in another room' because I'm willing to allow that her mental state could have produced that confusion.

While some might say it works as a satisfying twist - and certainly, I appreciate the psychological manipulation the director has used to paint the portrait of a terrified young woman, and then turn it upside-down to reveal that she's the life-threatening menace in both of these two older, stronger-looking men's lives - I was disappointed because it immediately deflates the atmosphere of terror that had been building up, and because the narrative point regarding her lost daughter is a little too cliché - and too little explained - and just not, for me, a very satisfying ending to a very terrifying movie.

I don't know how - if it's even possible - one would construct a more satisfying ending that doesn't so totally undermine the viewer's fear (although the obvious choice is to make it a haunted house and not try to be all 'original' by putting a down-to-earth twist on the story), but the fact remains, after such a tense journey, the destination was a bit of a letdown for me.

End spoilers!

Otherwise, though, the movie does such a fantastic job of creating a tense and scary atmosphere, that I recommend it wholeheartedly to true horror fans. Regardless of what you may or may not end up liking about it, if you're serious about horror, this one's worth a viewing.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Aristocrats (2005)

So, after writing that post about Horror as Transgression the other day, I was thinking about one of the things I said - the part about horror being the best equipped genre to explore the transgression of moral codes (what with people running around murdering other people and all). And I was thinking, is that really true? Is horror really the best genre to explore transgression? Is there another genre that's well-poised to do that? And I thought, what about comedy? There are a lot of different styles of comedy, but one of them certainly involves drawing humor from the transgressing of taboos.

And then I wondered, so how come I'm not a bigger fan of comedy? Because I'll do fantasy, drama, documentary, action, sci-fi - you-name-it, pretty much. Except comedy. And the reason is partly because I'm a serious guy - I derive more entertainment from considering serious truths than I do laughing about something stupid. But another part of the reason is that I have a distinct style of humor, and it's not about doing or saying stupid things to make someone laugh. It's an intelligent, cynical sort of humor, where the humor derives from - get this - transgressing taboos and speaking uncomfortable truths that we're not supposed to be able to talk about.

That's why, I guess, I like Family Guy so much, because they really don't hold anything back, and aren't above making really tasteless jokes that poke fun exactly where fun needs to be poked. See, that's a strange irony - because I'm all about being serious - but as a skeptic, it is my firm belief that nothing should be held sacred in the realm of discourse. No subjects are taboo. That's the fundamental importance of the First Amendment - the freedom of speech. And jokes that take advantage of breaking taboos - it's almost like to hear those jokes, your whole mind and body sighs a breath of relief because it's pure human nature to be curious about what lies beyond that line that everybody else tells you you're not allowed to cross.

That's also probably why I like George Carlin's style of humor so much. I've never, like, sat down and watched comedians do stand-up on any kind of regular basis or anything because usually I don't much go for humor. But obviously George Carlin has a pretty solid reputation, cult or otherwise, and it's impossible for me to avoid having overheard some of his monologues here and there over the years, and I really like his style. It's intelligent, it's biting, and it's unforgiving, and that's just what I like. It's not people doing silly things - what I might be inclined to call "kiddy humor". It's funny because it's so, so true, and yet it's things that most people are afraid to say or even admit to themselves - and hearing somebody make those points so confidently thrills me!

So anyway, I remembered The Aristocrats, which I heard about around the time it came out (but otherwise casually ignored). The concept is downright fascinating - that there is this sort of "in-joke" among the comedian community, whereby in telling it, the comedian is required to improvise, and encouraged to concoct the most vile, most offensive stage act his mind can conjure. Now, it's a very easy criticism to consider this just the grandaddy of all fart jokes - but the point isn't simply to be disgusting - the point is that you can be disgusting, that there is no ceiling - no taboo, whatsoever. It's the ultimate celebration of free speech and that's why I love it.

I love it, but not because it's funny. Most of the time, it's not even that funny. For me, it's not about being funny. Even when it is funny. But whether it's humorous or scary, enticing or downright repulsive, it all depends on the joke-teller. But the mere fact of its existence, and what it stands for, and the fact that comedians are willing to "go there", to exercise free speech and break any and all taboos - the bigger the taboo, the better the joke - and understand and respect the need to be able to do that, is so incredibly refreshing in a world with powerful authorities ("aristocrats", if you will) hell-bent on censorship and 'cleaning up' speech to make it palatable to their own disgustingly sanitary sensibilities.

But I sense it's the sorta thing you either get, or you don't.

For those of you who have seen the movie, I think my favorite version of the joke was Jon Ross's, because I like the way he used symmetry and build-up, and the way that it seemed more calculated for effect rather than "let me just run off all the most disgusting things that come to mind". But I also liked the mime's version, and the card magician, both of which were very clever. The South Park version was good, too, though I can't quite put my finger on why. And the deadpan way that Sarah Silverman was willing to efface herself for the sake of the joke. And how Taylor Negron told it so compellingly, it didn't even sound like a joke. I love that this joke really brings out the personality of the joke teller; that's definitely one of its selling points, and why it's actually interesting to hear dozens of comedians tell their own versions of the joke (that are bound to be hit-or-miss depending on your individual taste), and why a documentary like this one works.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Horror as Transgression

One of the reasons (not the only one) I enjoy the horror genre is very similar to the reason I like rock music - it's about rebellion. No genre is more suited to exploring the transgression of strict moral codes than horror. And whatever you might say about the need for rules and order - because I actually agree - it is just as necessary that we explore the transgression of those rules, and keep an open dialogue about why we follow the rules we follow, or whether we should really be following them at all. That is far more important to freedom and equality than blind allegiance.

And that is why I take special offense to horror filmmakers - no less - having the gall to suggest that horror is about following strict rules and blindly adhering to stale formula. Maybe that's a problem in some parts of the industry, but it's not what horror is about, and it's not what makes horror good. Horror is about making you feel uncomfortable because all the rules you rely on in your everyday life (like that that stranger is probably not going to kill you) are being tossed out the window. You're losing your safety net (except that it's still just a movie, otherwise it wouldn't be scary fun, it would just be scary). Horror is not about reciting a standard script where every viewer knows exactly who's going to die and in what order, where people get off on being able to say, "that bitch is a whore, she deserves to be mutilated, and I can't wait to see it."

And you know, that's actually what makes Funny Games such an effective horror movie (unlike The Cabin in the Woods). In taking away your safety net of expectations about how people are supposed to act and what sort of things are supposed to happen in a horror movie, it leaves you guessing and puts you in uncomfortable situations the other horror movies you've seen before may not have put you in. Now if only true horror filmmakers were more concerned about making films like this without wasting time trying to wrap them up in some pretentious commentary on the state of the genre, they'd alienate less fans and improve the genre overall, reducing the need for criticism as stale as the movies it criticizes.

I mean, the way Funny Games is shot, it seems to want to be saying that deriving entertainment from violence is wrong. The film shows all the horror and trauma of the situation, but makes a deliberate and successful attempt to avoid much in the way of explicit gore. It seems to think it's doing a good job of denying the viewer the pleasure of seeing gore, while forcing him to endure the uncomfortable reality of how violence affects people. What it doesn't seem to realize, though, is that it is an effective horror film in its own right, even without the gore. I'd prefer to believe that that is its message, because I'd rather believe the filmmaker is a horror fan who just happens to prefer subtlety to shock value, because I'm not too thrilled by the idea of putting a person on the Commission to End Violence in Media in charge of making a horror film. You might just as soon charge a conservative pastor to pen a rock song.

But then, as the viewer, we're still deriving some kind of entertainment value out of watching people suffer, even if we don't see the gore. I have a hard time believing someone would think that being entertained by gore is problematic, but wouldn't think the same of someone being similarly entertained by people's non-gory suffering. For me, it seems like the question of gore is immaterial (or simply a matter of taste). And anyway, if you're going to show the horror of violence, part of that is the gross-out of gore - whether some people find that entertaining (in the movies - beware anyone who thinks movies are the same thing as reality, which this movie also seems to subtly be saying) or not. It's as if this filmmaker doesn't understand that there are horror fans who enjoy horror because it's unsettling, and not just because seeing people exploding into giblets makes them happy. In other words, he doesn't understand horror. It's what I can only assume is pure coincidence that he managed to actually make a good horror movie, quite in spite of his attempts to frustrate the very people he intended the movie for...

Funny Games (1997)

Well, the Funny Games remake is, literally, a scene-by-scene, line-by-line reenactment, even directed by the same writer/director of the first one (apparently to push his film to the American audiences it was intended for...), so I don't have much to say about the original that I didn't say for the remake. There are some minor differences. The wife in the English version is younger and hotter, while the one killer's shorts in the European version are a lot shorter. And the victims' suffering is a bit more believable in the original version. I'll be honest, I got pretty bored during the scene that just drags on where nothing happens. I agree it has a purpose, and I sat through it the first time I watched the movie today, but twice in one day is just too much.

Addendum: Upon further reflection, I do have a few more words to say.

Funny Games (2007)

Funny Games is one of those infamous titles that you hear talked about among the devoted horror fan community, and as a member of that community, it's been on my watchlist for a while. (Alas, there are so many movies to watch, that you can't even guarantee seeing all the good ones first, or even just the genre landmarks). In the wake of watching The Cabin in the Woods (the second time), I overheard discussions comparing it to Funny Games in the sense that it is another self-conscious horror movie that examines the horror fan's desire to be entertained by sadistic violence.

I'll be honest, I'm not real big on horror deconstruction. As a philosopher and an intellectual, I enjoy examining the inner workings of things, but movies that attempt to answer the question, "why are people entertained by violence" all too frequently come at the question from the wrong direction. They assume that being entertained by violence is disgusting - which is a valid perspective, but one that comes from people who criticize horror, not the people who enjoy it. I don't need someone to point out to me how odd (if not downright disturbing) it is that I should glean delight from a fictional scene involving the physical and/or psychological pain and torture of a human being.

As a horror fan, I know that it's not the same sort of entertainment one gets from watching porn, or from sharing a good meal with friends, or any other kinds of entertainment in the vast realm of human experience, each with its own qualities and functions. And as an intelligent horror fan I also understand that though I may seek out the thrill of watching people fight for their lives in an on-screen dramatization, it does not in any way correlate to any sort of desire to make real people really suffer. In fact, I'm quite squeamish on that count. To me it's pretty simple why a person might respond favorably to the vicarious excitement one finds in a horror film, and the fact of it doesn't particularly alarm me.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize when I watched Funny Games that the copy I had acquired was actually the English language remake (ten years after the Austrian original). I confess, I did not do my homework well enough this time. But that's okay. I am going to watch the original as well. As for the remake, I have this to say about it - it definitely has some scenes that borderline on the "okay, this is clearly not being done to entertain the viewer, but to unnerve him". But then, there is a valid place in horror cinema for that kind of discomfort. I wouldn't expect all horror films to glorify violence and gloss over the very real and unglamorous aftereffects of this kind of trauma, and that sort of experience is worth depicting as well.

Apart from that, I will say that Funny Games (this version, at least) can stand as a really effective and original horror movie in its own right, with some really uniquely disturbing villains who totally defy horror convention in a really intriguing way. The brief moments where the film becomes unapologetically self-conscious are simply unnecessary, and don't really add much to the film except to give it a bit of a pretentious "see what we're doing here?" kind of an attitude. I could just as well do without that, and I think the movie would be no less effective as an examination of the phenomenon of 'horror for entertainment' even without it. Oh well. I look forward to seeing how the original version compares, although I've heard that it's a very close remake.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Top 5 Greatest Songs Of All Time

(in my opinion)

Really, the point of this list is not to say that these are the 5 best songs ever recorded, without question - because, as we all know, musical taste is extremely subjective. The point is, rather, to demonstrate MY taste in music, just in case you're curious about "who I am" as a music fan - to show you what I like about music, and what sort of music moves me. That's why I'm limiting it to just 5 tracks, because I could go on and on for days about songs I like (and have - I used to host my own radio show in college, where they give you 100% creative control over the programming), but chances are your tastes don't match mine, and the more buffer room I allow, the easier it is for songs to slip in that really aren't the best of the best of the best (even in my opinion). Furthermore, this list is going to be about songs - songs that stand out, and represent what I like in music - at the expense of great albums and even some great artists.

The most obvious trend in the music I like is my appreciation for lead electric guitar, and extended "solo" guitar passages. I don't know what it is that draws me to the instrument, but more than anything else, that's what speaks to me. That partly explains my concentration in classic rock and blues music - two music styles that have a history of featuring not just guitar, and not even just electric guitar, but lead electric guitar. Two common things that I don't look for in music are a beat that I can dance to, and lyrics that mean something to me (which pretty much rules out pop music). Not that I don't appreciate songs with lyrics that have personal meaning, but that's really an afterthought. When I listen to music, I listen to the music and practically tune the lyrics out. I evaluate the vocals as an instrument, but I pretty much ignore the words the first five or ten times I listen to a song.

Pink Floyd - Careful With That Axe, Eugene
[Live at Pompeii, 1972]

Before Pink Floyd made record charting history with Dark Side of the Moon (one of my top favorite albums of all time), they were engaged in a period of experimentation. This track demonstrates the band's ability to create a captivating soundscape - in the ambient tradition - with a strongly spooky flavor. The way the song explodes into a crashing crescendo somewhere in the middle is indicative of my favorite aspect of post-rock music, which this song predates by decades.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Cowgirl in the Sand
[Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969]

Even for an inspiring artist with a long discography, this song stands out. I have a long history with it, including the many times I've performed it myself on guitar (though not half as well as Neil and the Horse). Neil has said that he wrote this song while in a fever, and with the long, tortured instrumental passages, it's not hard to imagine. It's an excellent demonstration of Crazy Horse's ability to jam out on a hard rocking song, but more than any other in their discography, it's filled with a fevered intensity that seems to mirror the feelings of frustration and anxiety that plague my mind.

Robin Trower - Daydream
[Live, 1976]

Robin Trower is fabled for his thick and vibrant guitar tone, but among many unique and original interpretations of the blues and rock formats, this song stands out as an example of how pretty music can be - without sacrificing passion. It is a standing testament to the guitar as an instrument, and how it can be manipulated to create both beautiful melodies, and heart-wrenching solos. George Harrison sang about guitars weeping, but this is the real deal.

Led Zeppelin - Since I've Been Loving You
[Led Zeppelin III, 1970]

It's hard to pick out just one song from a band that has meant so much to me, but this one has always been one of my favorites, and it represents what I appreciate most from the blues. The lyrics are fairly unspectacular - just your typical woman troubles (as is the case with so many blues songs) - but what matters is the intensity of the emotion that goes into the music. Maybe that's why I love the guitar so much - it speaks with intensity and emotion, without being bogged down by interpretation and meaning, the way words are. This song is the song that made me pick up the guitar.

Roy Buchanan - The Messiah Will Come Again
[American Axe, 1974]

I am not a religious person. I don't even believe in God. But it's a captivating fantasy, and it can inspire some very genuine emotions in people. My appreciation for this song is no less sincere on account of my disbelief in superstition. Roy Buchanan was a guitar virtuoso who truly had masterful control of the guitar. And this is his magnum opus, a piece both haunting and beautiful, in which he manages to coax otherworldly sounds out of his guitar. In addition to everything else one can say about this song, it demonstrates the power that music can have to move people - not just to get people moving.