Friday, October 28, 2016

Honeymoon (2014)

It's crazy how movies can sneak up on you sometimes. And once again, I'm baffled by how disparate people's opinions can be, that I can watch a movie that I think is great, only to hear people complain about how awful it is, when the movie I thought was dreadful has viewers lining up to sing its praises. Sadly, it's almost predictable. I made up a shortlist for this October of lesser known horror movies that have received some accolades. As expected, they've been hit or miss; so you never know going in what you're going to get. The description for this movie sounded like a typical slasher setup - young couple's weekend in the woods turns into a nightmare. So I was pleasantly surprised when after the first night there was something considerably more otherworldly than a masked killer stalking the woods - something that looked suspiciously like a UFO searchlight. But, to its credit, this movie doesn't develop like a stereotypical alien abduction flick either. It's a creepy slow burner, that builds to a majorly anxiety-inducing crescendo. And for a movie that's focused almost exclusively on two characters, the production scored a couple of good actors with very natural chemistry together. They make for a very cute newlywed couple on their honeymoon, at least until things start to get weird. And the way that the one character begins to transform - little things that are off here and there that make you feel like something's wrong - is majorly unsettling. I recommend it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Angel Heart (1987)

Now this is an old-fashioned horror movie. It starts with an intriguing premise - a 1950s era private investigator (Mickey Rourke) hired by a thinly-disguised avatar of the devil (Robert De Niro in a creepy portrayal, if somewhat more by-the-numbers compared to Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate) to track down a crooner who sold his soul for success, and then wound up a vegetable following his service in the war, precluding the devil from collecting on his contract. But what really sells the film is the atmosphere it exudes, right from the steaming New York City alleyways in the opening shot, to the voodoo-laced streets of New Orleans where the detective eventually ends up. Kudos also to this movie for not holding back, and crossing a particular line few ever dare to cross (even in horror movies that are supposed to be "messed up"). But as with most mysteries, the less I say about the plot, the better. "How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise?" Suffice to say that it's an excellent movie worth taking a couple hours out of your schedule sometime to sit down and watch.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - The Ballad of John Henry (2009)

1. The Ballad of John Henry
2. Stop!
3. Last Kiss
4. Jockey Full of Bourbon
5. Story of a Quarryman
6. Lonesome Road Blues
7. Happier Times
8. Feelin' Good
9. Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter
10. The Great Flood
11. From The Valley
12. As The Crow Flies

Whether or not you call it his best (there is a lot more greatness to come!), I feel like this is the quintessential Joe Bonamassa album. Upon reflection, John Henry is a perfect choice to symbolize what Joe stands for. A true American legend, John Henry was the steel-driving man who raced a steam-powered engine, and won. And though the effort conquered him, in The Ballad of John Henry, Joe Bonamassa sings, "bring me the hammer that killed John Henry, 'cause it won't kill me." What a show of bravado and confidence! And yet, coming from Joe - the hardest working musician alive - it sounds completely genuine. It's the reason why I count Joe Bonamassa not just an amazing artist whose music I enjoy listening to, but a genuine role model that I look up to in my life - someone with a dream, guided by a true passion for what he does, who just keeps on chugging along like a railroad train no matter what obstacles lie in his path. In my case, it may be a bit of wishful thinking, but we all need something to live up to, to drive us forward.

The Ballad of John Henry is a mature album. I said that Joe's music started sounding "modern" as far back as Had To Cry Today, but this is Joe as a professional musician, and not just a guitar wunderkind (as if that wasn't enough!). And if Joe demonstrated newfound control over his raw, unbridled talent on You & Me, on this album he displays a remarkable level of command - not just as a guitarist and singer, but as a songwriter, too, as a full half of the tracklist consists of Bonamassa originals (not including his contribution to adapting the title track from a blues ballad by Mississippi John Hurt). The music here is polished, with less reliance on clichés, and songs that aren't so easy to categorize into preconceived roles (such as "the slow blues", or "the pretty ballad"). Apart from the title track, there are less peaks (songs that immediately jump out at you), but the background quality of the album as a whole is higher than ever before.

Take The Great Flood, for example. This is a song I didn't even really notice until I was blindsided by the live version from Joe's Tour de Force. Now it's one of my favorites. It's unassuming, but it constructs a very melancholy atmosphere, before laying out a subdued (albeit less so on the live version) yet very soulful guitar solo, accompanied by a distant, wailing saxophone. It doesn't reach out and say "look at me!"; it's the man in the corner nursing a bottle whom you'd just as soon overlook, but given a chance, would regale you with incredible stories of woe from his life. And then there's Happier Times, which sounds like it would be more upbeat than it actually is, until you realize that it's not called "Happy Times". A couple albums ago, Joe was boasting that he'd go down any road there is, but now he's singing like a man who's already been around the block a few times, and has seen some things. But don't despair, for in the very next song, Joe sings about how he's Feelin' Good. And why not? He's managed to carve out success for himself with his own bare hands.

We've already been introduced to the recurring railroad theme in a lot of Joe's songs, but this album takes a detour from the cotton fields of the Mississippi delta, and the electric blues clubs up north in Chicago, to head out west, molding those influences with a reverence for the American frontier (which we'll hear more of on Dust Bowl). To wit, Jockey Full of Bourbon (a truly inspired Tom Waits cover) sounds like something straight out of a wild west saloon (if, you know, they had electric guitars back then). On that note, and perhaps inspired by the success of Sloe Gin, there are some less obvious choices for covers on this album, such as Ike & Tina Turner's humorously titled Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter. For better and worse, Joe has evolved beyond the stage where his albums are defined by big name classic rock covers. (And though I've always enjoyed those covers, I love the new direction he's gone in - and it's better for his career and reputation in the long run).

The Sam Brown cover Stop! is an infectious hit (I tell you, Joe is introducing me to some eclectic music), and the Bonamassa original Last Kiss is another one that tends to stick in you ear ("tell me how long supposed to keep a good man down, 'fore he packs his suitcase and gets the hell out of town?"). Story of a Quarryman rocks pretty hard, with a nice, chunky riff, while Lonesome Road Blues is the best rock filler track Joe's recorded yet - but hold out for live versions if you want to hear some even more frenetic solos. The album finishes with a sparse and airy gospel-flavored acoustic instrumental titled From The Valley, which sounds very much like something from Michael Bloomfield's collaboration with Woody Harris, followed by an electric cover of Tony Joe White's As The Crow Flies (which I remember hearing on Rory Gallagher's Irish Tour album from 1974). It's a mature album from a mature artist, and a great record to spin. What's next for Joe? Headlining one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world (a far cry from "nowhere in particular"!), and inviting one of his lifelong idols up onto the stage to play with him!

Rating: 💿💿💿 Frequent Spin

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Starry Eyes (2014)

"That's what I want to capture in this film: the ugliness of the human spirit."

From the very first scene, you can tell that there's something wrong with this movie. And, being that this is a horror movie, I unfortunately don't mean that in a good way. I can't believe it's gotten so many good reviews! The lead (Alexandra Essoe) - playing an aspiring Hollywood actress - is excessively prone to neuroticism. It's distracting. As much as I appreciate the Poe school of thought on constructing atmosphere (i.e., every word in the story must contribute to the desired mood), you need to start with a sympathetic character (which is not the same thing as a "good person", if Breaking Bad has taught us anything), and an intriguing story. I don't doubt that picking up and moving to Los Angeles and pinning all your hopes on the remote chance that you're really as talented as your parents and boyfriends have always told you is scary, but it's not literally a waking nightmare, with hallucinations and everything. At least, not unless you have a serious mental disorder - but this girl, prone to hyperventilating, and pulling her hair out over auditions that she really did well at, is not so much fascinating to watch (as was the case in They Look Like People) as simply annoying. I'd mention, too, that the movie seems to play too nicely into the hands of those who love to overemphasize the perils of the modeling industry, but perhaps that's more of a personal gripe.

At any rate, the theme of this story is a cross-pollination of The Neon Demon and Rosemary's Baby, that develops not unlike The House of the Devil (minus its subtlety and restraint). The idea is that the Hollywood elite are populated by devil-worshipers, and it's an exploration of what a person can be willing to do for fame. It's not a completely original idea, but it's an interesting one, which is why it's such a shame that this movie lacks a feeling of "truthiness", and that it spends so much time focused on gore that you lose interest in whatever it might be trying to say. Like, that maybe sucking a bigwig producer's cock (apparently, blowjobs are a viable method for demonic impregnation - I'm not sure if this is a neat idea, or just lazy plotting) for a gateway part might actually be worth it if you really want to be a star - and that when your non-famous "friends" protest in the name of moral outrage (while hypocritically popping pills they can't even identify), they're just proving the point. Maybe "body horror" isn't really my thing after all (although some of my favorite movies of all time are body horrors - Alien, John Carpenter's The Thing), but the story should have been the cult, not using it as an excuse for (spoiler) the film to devolve into a typical slasher. Could there potentially be a delicious steak sitting here on the platter in front of me? Maybe, but I can't taste it for all the blood and vomit poured over top of it. Save yourself a stomachache - make a list of all the much better movies this one is being compared to, and then watch those instead.

Friday, October 7, 2016

They Look Like People (2015)

They Look Like People is a moody, psychological thriller that riffs on a familiar premise - the idea that people are being replaced by some kind of alien or demonic body snatchers, and that a war for the human race is being waged in secret, that only a few chosen warriors are aware of. But don't expect an invasion epic - this is a very personal, claustrophobic film about people, not monsters, that explores the possibility of the more plausible cause of such a phenomenon - namely, insanity. It's a small, character-driven film, with few sets, and fewer characters, that begins when an anxiety-prone neurotic shows up and crashes at the apartment of an old, career-minded friend. What follows is a test of the man's sanity, in a slow and unsettling production, with a few genuinely terrifying sequences, that ultimately demonstrates how severe mental illness could, conceivably, cause an otherwise good person to be capable of committing atrocious acts. It's a wonder to me that this film has gotten some negative reviews, but it goes to show how much people's tastes vary. This is not a "boo!" scary, comfort-your-girlfriend kind of horror flick, but the sort that takes the time to subtly explore one man's waking nightmare, and in the process crawl up and nestle underneath your skin. In other words, a true horror film.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Final Girl (2015)

Probably due in part to the film's marketing strategy (for better or worse - I was pleasantly surprised, but I imagine that other moviegoers with less sophisticated palates could have been disappointed), I was fearing that this movie would be another cheap slasher with a well-intended but ultimately ineffective attempt to circumvent the usual clichés - as was the case with All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. On the contrary, this movie turned out to be more of an artsy, atmospheric thriller. It's a clever take on the genre, more akin to stories you see about orphaned little girls turned deadly assassins - such as the anime classic Kite, or the more recent Violet & Daisy, Hanna, or even Hit Girl. On that note, Abigail Breslin (who's grown quite a bit since she was Little Miss Sunshine) is enchanting, but then so is everything in this movie. It was also a pleasure to see Wes Bentley again, whom I recognize from recent seasons of American Horror Story. The plot of this moody film - final girl gets revenge against a group of well-dressed, smooth talking lady killers - plays out pretty much how you expect it to, but what makes it so fascinating to watch is its stylistic ambiance (like a modern day Suspiria), and exploration of its characters' fears. At times it's almost like watching a dream. I recommend it highly.

"Most people's biggest fears are on the surface - waiting to pop out."

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Live From Nowhere in Particular (2008)

1-1. Bridge To Better Days
1-2. Walk In My Shadows
1-3. So Many Roads
1-4. India/Mountain Time
1-5. Another Kinda Love
1-6. Sloe Gin
1-7. One Of These Days
2-1. Ball Peen Hammer
2-2. If Heartaches Were Nickels
2-3. Woke Up Dreaming
2-4. Django/Just Got Paid
2-5. High Water Everywhere
2-6. Asking Around For You
2-7. A New Day Yesterday/
      Starship Trooper/Wurm

This is an album that kind of snuck up on me. It was before the era when Joe would begin to pump out live albums almost as prolifically as he's done with studio albums. As far as I know, in 2008, there was only the live counterpart to Joe's debut album (which is, nevertheless, fantastic), and the much-forgotten (but not un-memorable) Live At Rockpalast concert video. As the title implies, this was not a "destination" live gig, like a lot of Joe's subsequent live albums (which read like a who's who of prestigious concert venues - Royal Albert Hall, Beacon Theatre, Vienna Opera House, Red Rocks, Radio City Music Hall, Greek Theatre, etc.), but sounds more like a hodgepodge of recordings gathered throughout a tour (which, sometimes, is the way you get the best live recordings, rather than staking everything on a single night - although Joe is a very consistent performer).

The second time I saw Joe Bonamassa live in concert (in 2007), he was still a small and relatively unknown act, playing an outdoor arts festival. But, already a huge fan by this time, I brought my dad and my brother out to hear him play. When he launched into the extended instrumental section of ZZ Top's Just Got Paid, and started jamming out on a solo lifted from Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused, I was blown away. I felt like I was listening to Led Zeppelin in concert during the '70s! I thought for sure this was going to be a limited concert special, as Joe had seemed to largely avoid the "obvious" choices for classic rock covers, whether to solidify his reputation as a "true" fan of the music (who doesn't just play the popular tracks), a "serious" artist, or otherwise. But I thought to myself, I hope he puts out a live album from this tour, because I want a recording of this song to listen to over and over again.

Little did I know, Just Got Paid (complete with its extended jam solo) would become one of Joe's enduring live staples (never recorded in the studio - not that there'd be anything to gain if it was), along with Sloe Gin, heard for the first time live here (as I heard it for the first time ever - even before the album came out - at that show I attended, and instantly pegged it as one of Joe's best songs), and one we won't hear until Joe's next studio album. Regardless, that's where Live From Nowhere in Particular came in, which also contains recorded evidence of the soaring, ten minute epic that Mountain Time had grown into, since its humble beginnings as a sweet but mostly forgettable track on So, It's Like That. And those are just the highlights of this incredible live album.

Even the acoustic set is capable of holding my attention, with an unplugged version of one of my favorite of Joe's electric blues, If Heartaches Were Nickels, and the much anticipated live version of Woke Up Dreaming (eight minutes long!), that I've been hyping up since Blues Deluxe. Meanwhile, the last two albums' opening tracks have been converted into full-on acoustic numbers (it's no wonder I have trouble remembering which of these songs are acoustic and which are electric sometimes). Ball Peen Hammer is a little too "jangly" for my tastes, but the stripped-back arrangement (not trying to be an electric song half the time) draws more attention to its lyrical merits. I still prefer High Water Everywhere, though, which makes for a pretty rollicking acoustic song, featuring some of that fancy fretwork that must have been left over from Woke Up Dreaming.

Hailing from You & Me, this album also features the first live version of Bridge To Better Days, which sounds great as a set opener, with its chunky riff and extended solo. Walk In My Shadows dips back into Joe's early catalog, proving that he's lost none of his fire in his recent attempt to branch out and reach wider audiences - even placed alongside a typically searing live version of the slow blues So Many Roads. Another Kinda Love fulfills its function as a satisfying filler song, and a funkier take on One Of These Days manages to improve upon its studio counterpart. The show's encore features an especially dynamic version of the pretty piano ballad Asking Around For You, which places keyboard player Rick Melick in the spotlight. (Joe's band at this time also includes Carmine Rojas on bass, and Bogie Bowles on drums).

Finally, we get to hear how Joe's first big hit - A New Day Yesterday - has evolved over the years, shortly before he would retire it from his live shows. It still sounds heavy, but it's not as pure and undiluted as it was before - almost as if Joe had gotten bored of playing it the same way so many times. Now he wanders off onto a musical tangent - albeit an interesting one, incorporating the instrumental portion from Yes' Starship Trooper/Wurm. It's an apt demonstration of the simultaneous principles of homeostasis and transistasis that Joe - ever the evolving musician - paradoxically embodies in his career. Every time you hear him, he's the same Joe you know and love, but he's always got something new and exciting to play for you.

Rating: 💿💿💿 Frequent Spin