Wednesday, January 22, 2014

You're Next (2011)

You're Next categorizes itself as a home invasion thriller, and there have been no shortage of home invasion thrillers made over the years. And this one had been getting some pretty good reviews from what I heard, so when I started watching it, my mind immediately went to wondering how this one would do things differently and push itself ahead of the pack. It doesn't screw with the formula too much - so it's not an out-of-the-box experience like, say, The Cabin in the Woods (for better or worse) - but it does offer enough novelty to feel like a fresh perspective on a classic horror setup, and it does what it does well, which is to say that it's a good, fun horror movie watching experience.

Of course, I can't say too much about what this movie does to make it exciting without giving away some of the mystery, so if you don't want to be spoiled, you're better off watching it before reading the rest of this review. It's a home invasion thriller - that's probably as much information as you need to determine whether or not you think it's worth watching. It's also very much in the classic slasher vein, but with a more modern and mature angle that's less supernatural killers and teen hijinks, and more in tune with recent "masked killers" movies like The Strangers. On that note, I found the animal masks utilized by the killers in this movie to be very creepily effective, and when they eventually unmask and reveal their (not-so-significant) identities and personalities later on, I thought that was a nice and satisfying twist on the usual perspective for a movie like this one.

Other things that made this movie stand out for me was the way in which the usual conceit got flipped around in the second half where the so-called "final girl" was not merely scrambling for dear life, but actually putting pressure on the killers, to the point where you almost (almost) lose some of your sympathy for her. The style of the film was also very effective in creating a tense atmosphere with intimidating villains - although my biggest complaint against the movie is for the excessive and unnecessary use of the shaky cam technique. Another thing I liked was the approach towards humor taken by this film. In some places it's being described as a comedy. While there is some obvious humor in the movie, I think that calling it a "comedy" is a stretch - as explained by the filmmakers in the "making of" featurette, there are no jokes in the movie, it doesn't wink at the audience - but it has more of a situational humor that's entirely straight-faced, which is honestly the kind of humor I can appreciate the most.

One of the more conventional aspects that nevertheless worked well was the mystery part of the home invasion. It starts as a typical dysfunctional family reunion on the eve of the household head's wedding anniversary, before erupting into a terrifying home invasion nightmare. Of course, with all the bad blood between the family members, and the question of big money inheritance hanging in the air, you as a member of the audience start wondering who's responsible. Which is good, because it gets your brain working, and even if you have a pretty good idea which direction it's headed, the smaller details are not too obvious, and when you get there, it's treated very matter-of-factly, in a way that avoids a lot of cliches.

If you look at critical reactions to You're Next, now that it's been out and around and seen by many people, I think a lot of people are criticizing it for not living up to a certain level of hype that it had previously (and with warrant) attained. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece or the best horror movie you've ever seen, but I think it's very good, and I have much respect for the approach taken with it, which is a nice mixture of old and new: things that are familiar (and much loved), and things that feel fresh and original (without the underlying current of contempt for its viewers that The Cabin in the Woods hinted at :p). It's gripping and intense, smart and violent, and I think you'll have a lot of fun watching it, if this is the kind of movie you dig.

Monday, January 13, 2014

6 Films To Keep You Awake (2008)

I didn't know anything going in to 6 Films To Keep You Awake (a good substitute, perhaps, for the discontinued 8 Films To Die For? -_^), but I learned soon enough that it is a collection of six Spanish horror films, that I think may be based on some older series, that possibly ran on television in Spain, called Films To Keep You Awake, or something similar. Regardless, I pretty much had zero expectations about these films, and wasn't sure what kind of quality they'd be, from hit-and-miss indies to solid genre staples, but I was generally impressed with the series and had a very good time watching them. Allow me to say a few things about each one. I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.

1. La Culpa (a.k.a. Blame)

A single mother and her impossibly adorable little girl are taken in by the obstetrician (who runs an abortion clinic in her own home) she works as a nurse for. The female doctor's unwelcome advances, a devoutly religious neighbor, and a creepy attic, along with the subject of abortion and the anxieties that come with it, all contribute to a suspenseful atmosphere. But where this film is heavy on mystery, it is light on action. The story unfolds slowly, and while it teases some very disturbing implications (like what that little girl is carrying around in her tin box), it ultimately fails to come together in the end and deliver on its promise of being a pro-lifer's wet dream (which, for the rest of us, would make for a pretty chilling nightmare). It might keep you awake, but mostly for real-life psychological - and not scary, supernatural - reasons.

2. Regreso A Moira (a.k.a. Spectre)

Following the suicide of his wife, an old man returns to the small town of his youth, and reminisces about a relationship he had with an older woman the superstitious villagers all believed to be a witch, and that ended in tragedy. The details of that event are revealed piecemeal, and prove to be a rather intriguing mystery. The movie drags on a bit long, but it has a satisfying payoff. The last fifteen minutes or so had me perched on the edge of my seat - in more of a mental than an adrenal sort of way. Spectre is an exercise in subtlety, but it's pieced together very well. It serves as a textbook example of how to construct an effective atmosphere with scares that do not rely on loud noises and things springing at the screen from out of the shadows. I recommend it.

3. Adivina Quién Soy (a.k.a. A Real Friend)

A young girl with a fascination for the macabre carries her favorite movie monsters around with her like imaginary friends. But danger mounts when she meets a real life monster - a sociopath who takes advantage of her vivid imagination and easy embrace of the strange to infiltrate her home life. This movie accomplishes an impressive homage and imitation of several horror classics, namely Nosferatu, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Night of the Living Dead, and most especially The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There is an element of surreality to it, that has you questioning what's real and what's imagined, but it all comes together in a twist ending that doesn't feel cheap, but actually suits the story. The actors' performances all contribute to the eerie atmosphere of the piece, including a subtle but delightful performance by the young Nerea Inchausti. I think I liked this one even more than Spectre.

4. Cuento de Navidad (a.k.a. A Christmas Tale)

Five kids find a Santa Claus impersonator trapped and lying unconscious in a ditch, and when they discover that she's a dangerous criminal, they decide to keep her as their secret pet (in the way that only 12 year old logic can do). But things go from bad to worse when a couple of the kids decide to imitate a voodoo ritual from a cheesy zombie flick (shot as a film within a film in a humorously over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek fashion). Directed by Paco Plaza of [Rec] fame, A Christmas Tale takes a comedic approach (and thus is more in line with [Rec] 3 than the original). The interactions between the kids, who all give natural performances, are fun to watch in a Goonies kind of way, but with more horror and less adventure. I'd say it's a good flick for a little bit of fun and some gross out, but it's not going to keep me awake at night.

5. La Habitación del Niño (a.k.a. The Baby's Room)

A young couple and their infant son move into an old house where they begin to pick up some paranormal phenomena on their baby monitor. At first thinking it's an intruder, the father's obsession with protecting his family may lead him to put them in grave danger instead. Halfway through the movie, you think you know exactly where it's headed, but to its credit, it goes off in another direction entirely, trading the conventional haunted house narrative for some speculation about parallel universes via a discussion of quantum physics (no fooling!), and the perils of opening a door between them. The Baby's Room utilizes some Paranormal Activity-like techniques, in a natural variation that lends itself to some humorous passages like when the father rigs up the house and then sits down behind a bank of baby monitors like a professional security guard. But even those scenes are played with a straight face, and the scares are pretty effective; I'd say this is probably the scariest movie yet in the series.

6. Para Entrar a Vivir (a.k.a. To Let)

An expectant couple meets a real estate agent to check out an apartment in what appears to be an abandoned building, when their visit turns into a real-time nightmare from which they can't escape. Directed by Jaume Balagueró, the other half of the creative team behind [Rec], To Let may be the most "conventional" horror movie in the series, but that doesn't mean it isn't any good. In fact, it's probably the best and most terrifying of the movies in this collection. It's not entirely free of horror cliches, but it balances them with style and substance and a very grueling pace, that avoids even finishing with a happy ending. There are some exciting twists along the way, and it is very much a tense movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It may not be as subtle or intellectual as some of the other titles, but it's a good, solid horror movie to fill out the collection, and is a welcome addition to the roster, as well as a great title to finish the series on.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Joe Bonamassa - Tour de Force - Live in London (2013)

A few years ago, Joe Bonamassa had the privilege of being able to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, a highly esteemed concert hall in London. He had been chugging along like a tank engine for the better part of a decade, touring relentlessly, and building up a loyal fanbase by word of mouth. The Royal Albert Hall show was a milestone, and it served to demonstrate to Joe as much as his fans and the rest of the world, that he had made it. So then the question that remained was, what was he going to do next? The answer is: pull off the most ambitious touring week of his life (and that's saying something for this workaholic).

In 2013, Joe Bonamassa made rock history with his Tour de Force, in which he played four different shows on four different nights at four different venues in London, with four different bands and four different setlists. It was in essence a retrospective of his career, tracking his rise to success through larger and larger venues, and an opportunity to perform a mixture of old and never-before-played-live songs on the stage alongside his contemporary material. And all four shows are available now on DVD - although I recommend the box set, which is shaped like a Marshall half stack (so cool!), and includes a mini tour book with lots of glossy photos. Press releases are calling it the guitar event of the year, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be the guitar event of the decade!

Night 1 - The Borderline (Power Trio Night)

Of all four nights, I was most looking forward to the power trio night, not because I necessarily thought it would be the best, but because it's the most removed from the kind of shows Joe's been playing recently, and also because it recalls the kind of small club shows Joe was playing about a decade ago, around the time I first discovered him and became interested in his music. And the first night definitely recalls the early concert DVDs A New Day Yesterday Live and Live At Rockpalast - although, unfortunately, Joe did not play A New Day Yesterday, which was the song that singularly made me a fan.

But he did play Blues Deluxe and The River/Burning Hell, which were some of my other favorites from that period of his career. And I was also ecstatic to hear Joe do a live version of Pain And Sorrow from his under-appreciated second album So, It's Like That (which was his most "straight rock" album), which I don't believe he's ever played live before, and is one of my top favorite of his early songs. He also played Miss You, Hate You, which was the closest thing to a "hit" Joe has ever had (before he broke away from the mainstream music industry paradigm). And Jeff Beck's Spanish Boots sounded very good in this context, as did Joe's own Story of a Quarryman.

Night 2 - Shepherd's Bush Empire (Blues Night)

For the blues night, Joe augmented the guitar/bass/drums format to add a keyboard player and a three-piece horn section. Although I don't share Joe's enthusiasm for horns in the blues, their performance was for the most part tasteful and restrained, and in a lot of cases genuinely contributed to the songs performed. Highlights of the night include a fantastic version of Gary Moore's Midnight Blues, and an emotional rendition of The Great Flood that caught me completely by surprise and reduced me - honest to god! - to tears (so appropriate for the blues night). I was also very excited to hear Joe perform Chains & Things, which is one of my top favorite lesser known B.B. King tracks.

Seeing Joe go from the club show to this larger theater (and consecutively larger venues on the third and fourth nights) - where we're used to seeing him these days - really emphasizes how much Joe benefits from the extra space (both for larger crowds, and more room for his sound to breathe) and sophistication these upscale venues provide him. The old recordings he's done are still good, and I don't think Joe can match the hungry energy he had back then; he's a different player now - more mature - but he's playing better than ever, and his singing and songwriting have both improved considerably. He's come a long way, and I feel that he's right where he belongs now (although he could always use more recognition). I'm glad he's been able to make it here.

Night 3 - Hammersmith Apollo (Rock Night)

For the rock night at the historic Hammersmith Apollo, Joe stuck with the basic four piece rock band (guitar/bass/drums/keyboard), keeping the same players as the previous night (without the horns), while adding an extra percussionist, and bringing in Doug Henthorn to sing backup (and the lead on Tea For One). I was surprised to discover that the show opened with an acoustic set, but then I remembered that many of the great rock concerts of the '70s included an acoustic set. It's just as well, because it serves to break up Joe's setlist and add a little variety. I noticed that during the blues night, the band kind of alternated between uptempo and slow songs, so the acoustic set was a fitting counterpoint to a night of high-energy rockers. The highlight of that set was Woke Up Dreaming, the song in which Joe tries to see just how fast he can play his guitar.

The rest of the night was chock full of great rock performances. Joe pulled out a doubleneck guitar for Dislocated Boy, which featured a fierce keyboard solo. Dust Bowl also sounded very nice. It's gratifying to notice that Joe has a lot of original songs that are strong enough to showcase in his setlist, even if the most exciting moments of the night came during cover songs. On Tea For One, guest vocalist Doug Henthorn (who also sang on the record) put in a rousing performance, giving Joe enough space to channel Jimmy Page on the endlessly liquid leads. Sloe Gin and Just Got Paid, both part of the encore, are guaranteed crowd pleasers, and were performed excellently. This night also saw the first repeated songs of the tour, in the form of Lonesome Road Blues and The Ballad of John Henry (the latter of which, a song with a killer groove that I feel epitomizes Joe as a musician, is the only song with the distinction of being played on three of the four nights of this special tour).

Night 4 - Royal Albert Hall (Acoustic/Electric Night)

The final night of the Tour de Force begins with another acoustic set, this time with Joe's band from the An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House live album. The electric part of the night turns out to be a bit of an amalgam of the previous three shows, with all of the musicians Joe's played with on the tour being featured (minus the horn section) at various points. It kind of emphasizes the fact that this isn't really four bands playing four setlists, but more like two and a half bands (with some small adjustments) playing three and a half setlists. But that's fine. The setlist for night four borrows much from the blues and rock nights - so, in essence, it's pretty similar to a typical Joe show.

But this is Joe Bonamassa at the Royal Albert Hall, on the tail end of his Tour de Force. And he's much more confident than the last time he played there. In lieu of guest musicians this time around, Joe brings some guest guitars to play on, including Rory Gallagher, Bernie Marsden, and Peter Green/Gary Moore's guitars. The standout track is probably Django/Mountain Time, which has become a live staple for Joe. That song is amazing - most of the songs serve as vehicles for Joe's talent, but this one manages to become something more, with a life force all its own. The rest of the highlights were more or less repeats of moments from the last two nights, including Midnight Blues, The Ballad of John Henry, and the explosive encore consisting of Sloe Gin and Just Got Paid.

Bonus Features

Included with the DVDs is a fascinating four part documentary. Through a series of interviews, the documentary examines the genesis and execution of the ambitious Tour de Force project, and also delves deeper into Joe's history and explores the formula that got him where he is today. (Apparently, in addition to talent and hard work, it takes creativity, confidence, and a willingness to take risks in order to make it big). The documentary also shines welcome light on the least public member of the triumvirate responsible for Joe's success. Aside from Joe himself, and his record producer/creative collaborator Kevin Shirley (who has worked with big name bands like Led Zeppelin, Rush, Iron Maiden, Journey, Dream Theater, Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, and Silvertide!), the documentary introduces manager Roy Weisman, who is the "R" to Joe's "J" in their homebrew company J&R Adventures.

It's an insightful and affirming look at the scaffolding behind Joe's public career, and it's highly recommended viewing for fans of Joe Bonamassa, people currently involved in the music industry, or really just anyone who harbors the ambition to pursue their dreams and passions in a world suffering from a rigid, cookie-cutter mentality. Other bonus features include slideshow photo galleries, and a look behind the scenes of each of the four concerts. I couldn't possibly imagine what's next for Joe, and I don't expect him to ever top this extravaganza. But I know that he will continue creating interesting music, and putting on amazing performances for his fans, and I'm looking forward to hearing the next solo album he releases. But no rush, Joe - you've earned yourself a rest!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Stonefield (2013)

Just last month, I was complaining about the relative dearth of female musicians in the realm of rock music. Well, Stonefield is just what the doctor ordered. They are a modern band making the rounds in Australia, with a very groovy 'retro rock' sound, in the vein of all the best rock bands of the 1970s. And the band consists entirely of young women - all four of which are sisters! They are, in spirit, the second coming of the Quatro sisters (of The Pleasure Seekers/Cradle), with comparisons to Heart's Wilson sisters (who were also fans of Led Zeppelin) and the all-girl teenage rock group The Runaways entirely (and excitingly) appropriate.

Stonefield broke onto the scene three years ago with their exciting single Through The Clover (click for the official video), following it up with two EPs (2010's Through The Clover and then Bad Reality in 2012), only this year finally releasing their first full length debut album. As an Australian band, their music can unfortunately be hard to find here in America, but it is worth seeking out. The self-titled album is a strong demonstration of their particular flavor of "vintage" rock, built around a four piece band - Amy on drums and lead vocals, Hannah on guitar, Sarah on keyboards, and Holly on bass.

The music sounds fantastic, and it is refreshing to hear music of this quality and format being performed by female musicians (not to mention the fact that their most direct influences predate them by decades). If there is any one member of the band that stands out in particular on this album, it is perhaps the lead vocalist, who proves that she is a formidable rock singer. But the whole band cooks, and the mixture between the four instruments is nicely balanced without too much emphasis on any one (although I personally would have mixed the guitar louder, but I'm a guitarist, so I'm a little biased :p).

I don't know what lies in this band's future, but I'm hoping for the best. They seem to really enjoy playing this kind of music, and I hope they have the opportunity to continue doing it for a while - they certainly possess the talent for it. The last modern retro rock outfit I got really excited about - a band called Silvertide - imploded not long after getting their first album released, which was a shame, because they had enormous potential. With any luck, Stonefield will have better success - and if what I'm hearing about the attention they're getting on the festival circuits in their home country of Australia is true, it just may come to pass.

It's a distant hope, but it would be awesome if Stonefield had the opportunity to go on a world tour. I think they could be a huge hit among the classic rock-loving crowd here in America, if they're marketed right. But they're all still young, and I'm happy to sit back and watch their careers grow at a comfortable pace. I'll leave you with a video of the band's debut album trailer, which pretty well speaks for itself: