Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

I added this new series on Netflix to my queue last month, but I made the mistake of not making it a priority. I guess I thought maybe it was some kind of remake or spin-off of House on Haunted Hill. But it's not. I watched it after Halloween, and it's one of the best shows I've seen in a long time. With high production values - particularly the writing and acting talent - it's one of those titles that rises above the din of the horror genre, and makes me proud to be a fan. I recommend it to fans of great TV, even outside the realm of horror fandom.

Although the show has its fair share of scares, much of its dramatic weight comes from its themes and its characters - five siblings and their parents, each a broken person, living as adults but still haunted by the traumatic events they experienced in childhood, during a brief but unforgettable stay in a haunted house. The show intersperses scenes from the past, constructing an intriguing mystery about what happened in those last days before they moved out in the middle of the night. The child actors that have been cast all do a phenomenal job (also, Annabeth Gish - who was Agent Reyes in late seasons of The X-Files - appears as one of the house's caretakers). But the real story is how these kids are navigating their lives in the present, and to what extent the house's supernatural draw still pulls at them - as an author, a mortician, a psychologist, a drug addict.

I particularly liked the way the series provides natural explanations for a lot of the supernatural phenomena (the kids' dad explains, "dreams can spill out sometimes") - one character, in particular, presses the mental illness angle. Another seeks therapy for recurring sleep paralysis. And while the series presents the supernatural elements in a very matter-of-fact way (and the narrative relies on them), at no point does it ever feel like you couldn't interpret them as "dramatizations" of an otherwise non-supernatural reality. (Somebody seeing something, for example, doesn't mean it's really there).

It's a well-crafted show, that relies heavily on suspense and drama, while also delighting in occasionally shocking viewers (but never in a way that feels "cheap" or undeserved). There's even an episode midway through that's shot in a series of long takes without cuts - which must have been a challenge for the actors, but it gives a very raw and spontaneous feeling to the expression of their emotions, in what is indeed a very dark day of their lives.

This show ruminates on fear and death, existential dread, but also maternal love (and how it can be corrupted), the human need for closeness and comfort, to listen to one another, and not take for granted the connections you have with loved ones, because they could be gone in the blink of an eye. Except that they never really are gone, so long as you hold them in your heart. It takes you on a dark journey, but the trip is a blast, and there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I give this series my highest recommendation.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

13/14 Cameras (2015/2018)

I noticed a movie titled 14 Cameras on Netflix, and I thought the voyeuristic premise sounded interesting. Luckily, I did my research first, and found out that it's actually a sequel to an earlier movie titled 13 Cameras, also available on Netflix. So I watched them both, in order, on two separate nights.

Preying on the fear cultivated by a growing spy cam industry, both of these movies focus on a particular slumlord who likes to outfit the properties he rents with lots of hidden cameras - for purposes that start out perverted, and quickly escalate to much worse. As someone who spends time defending voyeurism as a sexual fetish, I was at first very frustrated with these films. Not because they depict voyeurism as the appetizer to kidnapping and even murder (although perhaps that should frustrate me more), because I guess I'm used to that.

Rather, I thought the portrayal of the slumlord was so ridiculously over-the-top, that it didn't even have a hint of verisimilitude. Compared to, for example, a documentary I recently watched on Netflix (simply titled Voyeur) about a guy who built a motel specifically designed to enable spying on its inhabitants (whose first name curiously matches the villain in 13/14 Cameras). Sure, this guy's enterprise was morally dubious, but I consider him to be a sympathetic person (and, true to the voyeur's code, he never physically assaulted anyone, let alone anything worse than that).

The slumlord in these two movies, however, is a different story altogether. Played to devastating effect by a man named Neville Archambault (comparisons to the slimy worm at the center of The Human Centipede II are apt, in the sense that you can't fathom how the casting department managed to dredge up such a revolting example of humanity), his look and (apparently) smell inspire one renter in the first movie to apply such colorful phrases as "dirty diapers" and "spoiled mayonnaise" to describe him. Meanwhile, he can barely string a full sentence together, leaving you to wonder how somebody so disgusting, and so socially inept, could possibly run a successful business, renting properties out to more or less normal people.

And then when he sits in front of his 13 or 14 monitors unblinking (wearing his glasses perpetually the way a state trooper wears his hat), with his mouth hanging open, you have to ask yourself, does this guy not know about the treasure trove that is internet pornography, that he has to go to such trouble, putting himself at great personal risk for relatively limited gains? By the end of the second movie, though, I began to realize that the creators aren't taking him completely seriously, and there is a little bit of [dark] humor to his character. So as a creation of pure fiction, designed precisely to be so outrageous, I have to concede that it is kind of interesting to watch him in action.

Now, I'm not going to say these two movies are anything other than the cheap horror smut the premise makes them out to be, but if that's the kind of bad movie you like to watch, you could do a lot worse. Considering the subject matter, these movies actually don't go too far with the explicit violence, and there's actually very little sexuality (mostly implied - to wit, I can't even say for certain that this guy rapes his victims; he's so developmentally stunted, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he doesn't actually know what to do with his...erm, equipment) - especially compared to the waste-of-celluloid that was The Human Centipede.

As for the other characters in these movies - a dysfunctional young married couple in the first one, and a vacationing family with three [twenty-something] teenagers in the second one - nobody's going to be winning any awards for acting (or likability, for that matter), but they do an adequate job of creating some unfolding drama to distract from the central theme of voyeurism, even if it's nearly always present in the form of a multi-view hidden camera perspective (kind of like Paranormal Activity without the paranormal activity), accented by heavy breathing.

There's a point in the second movie where the subject of the dark web comes up - when the slumlord starts live streaming his feed, and a group of bottom feeders spontaneously start bidding on one of the girls (the slumlord's unconvincing response: "not for sale"). This isn't the movie to explore the ramifications of that kind of behavior (and how likely it really is), but I appreciate a movie that's willing to go there without getting super preachy about it. This is horror, after all, and a total work of fiction. And as long as you're viewing it as such, you just might be able to get some twisted entertainment out of it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween 2018

The Ritual (2017)

Saw this on Netflix. A good cross between The Descent and The Blair Witch Project (though not shot in the found footage format). Four Englishmen take a hiking trip in the remote hills of Sweden to honor the tragic killing of a friend. When they elect to take a "shortcut" through the woods (as one of the characters warns, "if a shortcut was a shortcut, it wouldn't be called a shortcut, it would be called a route"), they stumble across a pagan cult worshiping some ancient beast as a God. For a while, it seems mostly like all the baggage is just what the friends bring with them into the forest, but there really is something out there, and you do eventually get a good look at it in the end (in a climax that had me quoting Princess Mononoke: "I'm going to show you how to kill a god"). The cinematography is breathtaking - the beautiful setting goes a long way in establishing an atmosphere that is genuinely instilled with fear. I recommend it.

Temple (2017)

Three Japan-o-philes visit the land of the rising sun. The girlfriend is doing her thesis on religious studies. The boyfriend (who is kind of a prick) is mostly along for the ride. The third wheel is actually the most interesting character, and the only one who can speak Japanese. They quickly and conveniently stumble upon clues leading them to what must be the most haunted temple in Japan. There's a potentially interesting story in there about six kids who went missing, and the monk who was found living in the temple, but that's not what this movie is about - that's just background fodder for a gimmicky ghost story. Unfortunately, the acting is a bit wooden, and the writing leaves something to be desired. The creature(s?) are creepy, but the nighttime chase is just too dark (and there are too many shots pointed down the barrel of a flashlight, as opposed to the other way around). There's a novelty (for me, at least) to occult symbolism being associated with oriental spiritualism (as opposed to Christianity or paganism), but the various story threads don't really line up into a logical framework beyond "ghosts are creepy, right?" in the end (which came sooner than I expected). I'd like to see this story told with more substance and less fluff.

The Devil's Candy (2015)

Now this movie has style - and I do love a movie with style. Its taste in music is so good (a heavy metal cross-section of Pantera, Slayer, Metallica, even Sunn O))) - not music I typically listen to, but great for setting the mood of a horror movie), even the "trailer" music on Netflix had me hopping over to Youtube for more. The setup is recurrent of The Amityville Horror - a nice family moves into a house with a dark past, and their lives subsequently take a dark turn - but with a strong serial killer flavor - starring an older-than-I-remember Pruitt Taylor Vince. The cold open is so captivating - a Lizzie Borden/Jim Morrison singing The End-type situation, where a man gets up in the middle of the night and plays power chords on his electric guitar to drown out the Satanic voice in his head - I was instantly sold.

The protagonist family - a metalhead slash painter, his wife, and their teenage (also metalhead) daughter - are attractive and likable, and the movie is largely free of dumb clich├ęs. When the Satanic element begins to manifest itself through art - the father's painting, provided by the real-life artist who's worked on some of Sunn O)))'s album covers - it's glorious. Did I mention this movie has style? It's terrifying - albeit, in less of a supernatural way than one might hope (on that note, it's telling that the killer watches a lot of fire-and-brimstone televangelist preachers; it's not hard to imagine it fueling the delusions of an impaired mind - though the preacher thinks he's helping people, by preying on their fears, he's only magnifying the horrors in the world; it is the height of irony that he, himself, is among the worldly devils he warns about) - culminating in a harrowing climax, but damn, it's not often that I have this much fun watching a horror movie! It just goes to show how powerful a movie can be when it's not just trying to tell a story, but aspiring to be a work of art in its own right. It's no wonder the music and painting plays such a critical role. This is the kind of movie I'd be proud to display on my shelf. (Even Black Phillip makes a cameo!)

Apostle (2018)

At over two hours long, this movie is an epic journey, with a plot that strongly resembles The Wicker Man. Around the turn of the century (last century), a man is sent undercover in his ailing father's stead to infiltrate a goddess-worshiping island cult and rescue his kidnapped sister. The first half plays a bit like Colonia in a colonial village with a medieval sense of justice. But at the halfway point (and I suppose this is a bit of a spoiler), it takes a very dark turn, with some supernatural elements, as the cult begins to implode from within. Most of the horror is human-generated, however, and it gets pretty gruesome. It's a sleek production, with good writing, solid leads, and ace cinematography. It's undoubtedly a tense viewing experience, but if that doesn't bother you, it's very well done.

"The promise of the divine is but an illusion."
"God is pain... is suffering... is betrayal."

P (2005)

The granddaughter of a witch leaves the Thai countryside to seek a living in Bangkok, where she uses her supernatural talents to navigate the sex trade - and get herself into trouble, when she loses control of her powers and a bloodthirsty monster is let loose on the city. It's fascinating to see different cultures take on particular subjects - like witchcraft - to see the similarities and differences in how they're interpreted across cultures. True to Bangkok's reputation, this is as much an erotic film as it is a horror film (and I have no complaints about that). In fact, it feels like three movies in one - a gritty, country-girl-meets-city-life coming-of-age drama gives way to a flesh-eating night stalker thriller, that eventually evolves into a Thai version of The Exorcist! Plus, it deserves an award for most captivating ending credits sequence - this film really knows how to keep the audience engaged through the credits. ;-)

Haunted (2018)

This is a short series available on Netflix - I view it as a sort of modern analog to Sightings. Six stories told in bite-size, 20-30 minute episodes, with dramatic re-enactments. Obviously, you can take "the following is a true story" with a grain of salt, but since none of these stories is designed to prove or disprove the existence of paranormal phenomena (this isn't science, this is entertainment), you might as well suspend your disbelief and take them at face value - they're certainly presented that way, told by the victims and eyewitnesses themselves in first person. Most of the tales lack a satisfying conclusion, but I think that contributes to the scariness, by leaving things hanging out there. Fair warning: you might want to watch this one with the lights on.

Here's what you can expect: in the first episode, a man is h(a)unted by a vengeful ghost, in a setup reminiscent of It Follows. The second episode is the story of the kids who grew up with a devil-worshipping serial killer father. Episode three takes a few pages from the Poltergeist playbook. Episode four is the most positive episode (relatively speaking), about a medium who awakens his gift after being contacted by three kids who died in a well. The fifth episode is your requisite alien abduction episode. And in episode six, a teenage girl's deadbeat boyfriend gifts her a stolen gravestone, so she dumps him and shacks up with the demon that's attached to it. (That description's not a fair reflection of the tone of the episode, but it's not inaccurate, and I couldn't resist describing it that way).

Discussion: it's almost more fascinating trying to think up a psychological explanation for these experiences*. I mean, assuming they're not fabricated whole cloth - obviously, I don't believe in ghosts and aliens (anymore), but I believe that these people (or, if they're actors, then others like them) have had experiences that defy conventional explanation. (To quote Scully from The X-Files, I believe that they believe - doubting their explanations isn't the same thing as denying their emotional experiences). I think it will be fascinating somewhere down the line, when we have a better grasp of how the human brain functions, to explore the physiological (and/or environmental) factors** that lead to things like hearing sounds and voices, seeing apparitions, etc. Just having had an episode of sleep paralysis once in my life, I've experienced the unbelievably realistic delusions the human mind can conjure when it's not functioning correctly, and the intense feelings (especially sheer terror) that can go along with that. Take mere suggestibility as a start. I don't believe in these things - these entities - yet thinking about them is enough to cause a palpable reaction of fear (accompanied by such physiological symptoms as goosebumps) in my mind and body. To quote The X-Files again, we have yet to discover how neural networks create self-consciousness, let alone how the human brain processes two-dimensional retinal images into the three-dimensional phenomenon known as perception, yet we somehow brazenly declare that "seeing is believing".

*When some of the people in this show say things like "houses aren't haunted, people are haunted", or that spirits are "attached" to them, or when one person in a household experiences a lot of paranormal activity but others don't... this all could be interpreted as one person being "psychically open" or "empathically gifted" or some such, but it suggests to me the possibility that these could be the manifestations of an impaired mind (or an enhanced one, depending on your perspective).

**In both genetics and conditioning - as reinforced by The Devil's Candy, it always seems to be those with direct exposure to religious mythology (not always in the form of devotion - sometimes it's "inflicted" upon them by others) that interpret these experiences in such archetypal ways. To provide an example of this phenomenon, a schizophrenic who hears voices or feels presences will be more likely to interpret them as ghosts or demons if he's been taught to believe in things like pure evil and the immortal soul.

Tales of Halloween (2015)

It's fun to watch scary shows and horror movies during October, but I always like it when I get a chance to watch something that captures the true essence of Halloween - costume parties and jack o' lanterns and trick 'r treaters - on the holiday itself. Especially when I don't get a chance to get out there myself (and not being a kid anymore, that kind of depends on the whims of other families). That's one of the things I like about the early Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons. That's also part of what makes the slasher classic Halloween such a perennial favorite. So I saved Tales of Halloween for October 31st - an anthology of ten (very) loosely connected stories that occur on the night of All Hallow's Eve, very much in the vein of that other, more recent, Halloween classic, Trick 'r Treat.

I'll tell you straight up that it's not as good as Trick 'r Treat, but it wasn't a bad way to spend a Halloween night, cuddled up on the couch with a bag full of candy, after all the excitement of the day has wound down. The stories are more sequential and less interwoven than they were in Trick 'r Treat - occasionally a reference to one short will be made in another, and the trick 'r treaters who feature predominantly in one story are recycled in the others. To give you an idea of what to expect, here's a...well, short description of each of the shorts:

Sweet Tooth - An urban legend about a kid who will eat all your candy (even the pieces you've already eaten) comes to life.

The Night Billy Raised Hell - An unfortunate kid learns why it's a bad idea to egg the guy's house who never gives out candy. (spoiler: it's not because he doesn't know how to enjoy the holiday).

Trick - A group of kids decide they'd rather draw blood than receive candy from a group of adults spending the holiday under the influence (spoiler: that decision is entirely justified).

The Weak and the Wicked - A bullied kid attempts to summon a Halloween demon to exact vengeance on his (rather sadistic) bullies.

Grim Grinning Ghost - A fairly straightforward exercise in suspense, expectation, redirection, and jump scares, when a woman's car breaks down and she has to walk home after listening to ghost stories at a friend's house.

Ding Dong - A rather quirky segment, featuring some kind of demon lady who really wants children, and her soft-spoken mate, as they navigate the temptation of having children delivered right to their doorstep on Halloween.

This Means War - A short that seemed more interesting in its setup than its ultimate conclusion. Basically, a tale of one-upsmanship in the realm of decorating your house for the holiday.

Friday the 31st - An over-the-top, humorous parody of Friday the 13th, involving a costumed victim, a Jason rip-off, and, believe it or not, a UFO.

The Ransom of Rusty Rex - Two desperate would-be kidnappers get a whole lot more than they bargained for when they try to take a millionaire's trick 'r treating son hostage.

Bad Seed - a killer goes on a rampage during Halloween, but it takes the novel form of a sentient (and bloodthirsty) jack o' lantern. Kind of reminded me of Halloween III (the one without Michael Myers).

And there you have it - take it or leave it. I hope you've had a haunted holiday, and if I don't see you sooner, I imagine I'll meet you back here next Halloween!

Monday, May 14, 2018

ZML^2 - Yardbirds Covers

Preface: The last edition of Zharth's Music Log was posted almost six years ago, if you can believe that. But though this might not seem like a sufficiently awesome theme to resurrect the mlog over, the truth is, this is a theme I've been sitting on for a long, long time. And the Yardbirds - the quintessential guitar supergroup of the '60s, featuring no less than Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page on guitar (at various times) - interestingly, the focus of Joe Bonamassa's triple tribute to the British Blues Explosion, which is finally being released this month - is one of my favorite bands of all time. And they're not like Bob Dylan - official covers by high profile bands are few and far between. But every once in awhile I stumble upon one, and it's always a treat. And that's what we're celebrating this week.

The James Gang - Lost Woman (Live) [Live In Concert, 1971]
Comments: I think this is one of the first Yardbirds covers I stumbled across, and it's certainly the longest, being stretched out to a near 18 minute long mostly-instrumental jam by the early band that featured Joe Walsh of later Eagles fame - The James Gang, better known for their radio hit Funk #49 (you may not know it by name, but you'd probably recognize it if you heard it).

Rainbow - Still I'm Sad [Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, 1975]
Comments: Fresh from Deep Purple, guitar virtuoso Ritchie Blackmore paired up with one of heavy metal's first and foremost poster children - Ronnie James Dio - to form Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. Opening with the radio hit Man On The Silver Mountain, their debut album closed with an interesting choice of a Yardbirds cover, the melancholy Still I'm Sad, ably interpreted as an instrumental with a very lyrical lead guitar part.

Fleetwood Mac - For Your Love [Mystery To Me, 1973]
Comments: Sandwiched between the trailblazing Peter Green era and the chart-topping Buckingham-Nicks era, comes this Bob Welch-era cover of what was itself a transitional song for The Yardbirds - For Your Love. It's rumored that Eric Clapton quit the band after the release of this song, their first hit single (on which he refused to play), because the band was going in a more experimental direction, away from their blues roots. He transferred to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers for a short stint before setting off on his own progressive experiment with the Cream. His replacement in The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, had and never has had a problem with musical experimentation.

Jeff Beck - Shapes of Things [Truth, 1968]
Comments: Recorded by a former Yardbird himself, not long off of his tenure with the band, on the debut album that paralleled Jimmy Page's own reinvention with Led Zeppelin's first album (a band that was originally billed as The New Yardbirds for contractual reasons), this is undoubtedly the least distilled cover we'll listen to this week, and yet, underneath Rod Stewart's distinctive vocals, Jeff Beck still manages to make it sound unique.

Rush - Heart Full Of Soul [Feedback, 2004]
Comments: One of two Yardbirds covers (the other being the band's most popular and most frequently covered song, Shapes of Things) featured on Rush's 21st century EP of covers, appropriately titled Feedback, also including the likes of Buffalo Springfield and The Who. Though never having been a diehard fan of Rush (but Working Man was one of the hardest rocking songs of the '70s), when this EP came out, I sat up and took notice. A band is only as good as its influences, after all.

Aerosmith - Think About It [Night In The Ruts, 1979]
Comments: Speaking of influences, Aerosmith is another band with great influences - and one of the few I know of who has covered both The Yardbirds and the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac. If you've ever listened to their song Livin' On The Edge, it contains a not-so-subtle homage to The Yardbirds' Mr. You're A Better Man Than I (I'd've liked to've heard them cover that one!). Although Aerosmith is somewhat known for doing The Yardbirds' signature cover of The Train Kept A Rollin', and I also have a live version of them doing I Ain't Got You, for this theme I picked the somewhat more obscure Think About It, which is interesting in that it features the guitar solo that Jimmy Page recycled for the middle section of Led Zeppelin's epic Dazed and Confused.

David Bowie - I Wish You Would [Pinups, 1973]
Comments: Perhaps the most unexpected artist to show up this week, from David Bowie's own album of covers (preceding Rush's Feedback by three decades, however) - also including the likes of The Who (as well as Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd), and yet another version of Shapes of Things - comes Bowie's tripped-out version of the harp-heavy blues I Wish You Would.

Honorable Mention: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Tom Petty's cover of I'm A Man, which can be heard on his Live Anthology box set, released in 2009. Truth be told, I'd been holding off this theme for the sake of this very song, until I'd reached a point where I realized I had at least seven other Yardbirds covers accounted for! I'm not including it here because its heritage as a Bo Diddley tune is possibly even stronger than The Yardbirds' claim to it (although Muddy Waters might have something to say about that), and because it gives me an excuse to rule out another version of the song covered by The Who on their debut album from 1965, which I just don't have room for - there are only seven days in a week! It is absolutely still worth mentioning, however, as, like Aerosmith, Tom Petty was also an artist with strong influences, including both The Yardbirds and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. His unexpected passing last year has left a devastating hole in the music world.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Halloween 2017

I'm a little out of practice, but here's what I watched for Halloween this year:

The Void (2016) - a Lovecraftian horror with shades of Silent Hill, Hellraiser, and creature effects that would do justice to John Carpenter's The Thing. You never know what you're going to get when going into a horror film - a stylistic tour de force or a cheap 'b' flick. While seeming like the latter, this fortunately leans more toward the former. A group of small town nobodies is besieged in a local hospital by hooded cult-like figures. But rather than a routine run-around hack-and-slash, themes of occult medical experimentation, dark gods, and dimensions to alternate realities are the rule of the day. Recommended.

The Babysitter (2017) - A geeky adolescent finds his courage as he struggles to survive when a night with the babysitter turns unexpectedly homicidal in this campy horror-comedy that was (to my disappointment) more suburban slasher than Satanic ritual. Nevertheless, it's got the style and the humor to be a throwback cult teen movie. Samara Weaving nails the hot-to-trot babysitter with a heart of gold (and also a dark secret), even if she doesn't make as convincing a baddie. For people who prefer fun over scary movies for their Halloween viewing.

Cabin Fever (2002) - Eli Roth (of Hostel fame)'s cult classic tongue-in-cheek horror about the outbreak of a flesh-eating virus in a backwoods setting, starring Rider Strong (Boy/Girl Meets World's own Shawn Hunter). Irreverently self-aware, this movie pokes fun at many horror tropes, while competently bringing the gross-out (no surprise there, given Eli Roth's reputation). I've never been prejudiced against "gorror" movies, but I do have to admit that I'm losing my stomach for them, and I have to say I was easily distracted while watching this one, and lost a lot of interest as lunch time loomed near.

American Fable (2016) - Good, in spite of its flaws. Tries to be a surreal, "modern day fairy tale" (think Pan's Labyrinth), but is too rooted in reality to get its feet off the ground (it wasn't really the movie I thought it was going to be from reading the description). The plot, however, is as compelling as it is a damning portrait of the lows to which its farmers stoop to save their lifestyle from urbanization (or something). The acting is a little wooden, and some of the characters are unrealistic caricatures (perhaps this was intentional), but young Peyton Kennedy is a vision of radiance and worth the price of admission alone.

Mindhunter (2017) - Not a movie, but a series, and a Netflix original, at that. Was introduced to it from a blurb in Time magazine of all places. It sounded interesting, so I gave the first episode a watch, and was instantly hooked. It's fantastically written, acted, and directed, based on the experiences of the guy who literally wrote the book on criminal behavioral science and (I'm guessing) invented the term "serial killer". The series depicts upstart FBI agent Holden Ford's crusade to redirect the bureau's efforts from trying to hunt inscrutable evil (and always staying one step behind), to learning to predict deviant behavior by studying the criminal mind first hand - by interviewing convicted killers, some of whom are disturbingly captivating. Also costars Anna Torv, formerly of Fringe. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Spoiler Note: If you're like me, and would prefer to go into this movie without too many elaborate preconceptions, then you're probably not even reading this to begin with. Nonetheless, I will keep this review very light on spoilers, focusing more on overarching themes and my personal reactions than intricate plot details (because if you need to know who does what when, then you can just watch the movie, am I right?).

Alien: Covenant isn't the Alien movie I was hoping to see (although, to be fair, I think what I want is to be an impressionable kid discovering Alien for the first time all over again, and that's just impossible), but it's a thrilling and satisfying followup to 2012's Prometheus. Covenant is less the devastatingly raw horror of Alien (although it has some very tense moments), and more the high-concept science fiction of Prometheus, tackling such existential themes as creation and destruction, the purpose of life, and what happens when a life form meets its maker (and - like its immediate predecessor - for a movie with Biblical themes, it's not overbearingly preachy). However, the classic xenomorph does make its unambiguous debut this time around, and the movie answers many (if not all) of the frustrating questions that Prometheus raised, especially regarding the nature of the creature and how it relates to what we've seen in the past.

That having been said, I don't think I like the "broad daylight" CGI (the white-skinned "neomorphs" were a little too stereotypical del Toro-esque digital movie monsters; and the much talked about flute scene seemed to be trying too hard to impress the audience in a "look at me!" sort of way) as much as the bump-in-the-night practical effects that 1979's Alien was forced to employ. The xenomorph ought to be stalking its prey from the shadows, not being drawn out into the open. Furthermore, while learning about the genesis of the creature is a truly fascinating study - here's a clickbait title for the movie: who engineered the "perfect organism"? The answer may surprise you! - I think this is a case where mystery prevails over curiosity satisfied. Although it makes a lot of sense for the xenomorphs to be a kind of biological weapon, I find it scarier to imagine that they are a natural phenomenon, a dark force of nature existing in remote corners of the universe, to terrorize and haunt anyone who dares probe too far into the deepest reaches of space. Call it a Lovecraftian interpretation.

Regardless, for anyone who enjoyed Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is an exciting continuation of that story thread, even if I don't consider it the equal of the original series, which started with Alien, was expanded upon in Aliens, and concluded in Alien 3. There have been some more and less crappy titles in the interim (yes, I actually watched Alien: Resurrection again, and I still think it's a piece of crap not worth your time - nobody could say I didn't give it a fair chance), but one may be reassured that Ridley Scott's return investment in Prometheus/Covenant has restored some grace to the franchise. It is not clear yet precisely how these movies dovetail with the original encounter on LV-426 in Alien (there was a moment that was close in Prometheus, but then it was snatched away), leading me to wonder if these movies are not intended to be a fresh start - recycling some of the elements of the earlier movies, without being burdened by the limitations of connecting up with what's come before. But the timeline of these movies is marching towards the opening of Alien, and it appears that there is room for another potential title to follow Covenant. Only time, I guess (and box office figures?), will tell.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Joe Bonamassa - Blues of Desperation Tour (2017)

Joe Bonamassa - March 3, 2017 - Benedum Center

"The Guitar Event of the Year" may sound like promotional hyperbole - and with most acts, that would be the case - but when Joe Bonamassa is involved, it's nothing but the stone cold truth. I'd even go so far as to call it "the guitar event of your life", although I've now had four such events in my life (going back 11 years to 2006, when I saw Joe Bonamassa live for the first time), and I hope to have still more in the future.

This Train (om) Blues of Desperation
Mainline Florida (BB) Eric Clapton
Mountain Climbing (om) Blues of Desperation
Blues of Desperation (om) Blues of Desperation
No Good Place For The Lonely (om) Blues of Desperation
How Deep This River Runs (om) Blues of Desperation
Boogie With Stu (BB) Led Zeppelin
Never Make Your Move Too Soon (3K) B.B. King
Angel of Mercy (3K) Albert King
Love Ain't A Love Song (om) Different Shades of Blue
Dust Bowl (om) Dust Bowl
Little Girl (BB) John Mayall's Bluesbreakers
Pretending (BB) Eric Clapton
Black Winter/Django (BB) Led Zeppelin[-ish]
How Many More Times (BB) Led Zeppelin
Hummingbird (3K) B.B. King

(om) = original material, (3K) = Three Kings, (BB) = British Blues Explosion

I made a prediction for this concert. Judging from the trajectory of his career (and rumors that he was ejecting long-time staples such as Sloe Gin from his repertoire), I predicted that Joe would play nothing but original songs on this tour. In spite of the fact that he rose to prominence as a singularly talented cover artist, for his last couple of studio albums, Joe Bonamassa has dedicated himself solely to original compositions (with a little professional assistance). Presumably, if one is to play in the big leagues, one has to develop a songwriting craft, and not rely indefinitely on borrowing others' tunes (if we look at the history of The Rolling Stones, for example, we see a group that started out as a blues cover band, and only really hit it big when frontrunners Jagger and Richards decided to start writing their own tunes - and discovered they were pretty good at it). And if ever there was a time for Joe to take off the water wings (for better or worse), and see if he would sink or swim on the strength of his music alone, it seemed to me that this was the time.

But I was dead wrong. And I'm a little bit embarrassed, because I of all people should know Joe better than that. Leave it to him to eschew the traditional path to mainstream notoriety. I had forgotten one critical fact - Joe Bonamassa is not just a musician. He's also a music lover. And while a good half of the concert's setlist consists of original tunes - the vast majority of which hail from his latest studio album, Blues of Desperation - and none of them digging any further back than from the album Dust Bowl, I had underestimated the extent to which this tour would be an advertisement for Joe's other recent projects: the Three Kings and British Blues Explosion concept tours (featuring nothing but covers). The former has already been released under the title Live At The Greek Theatre (at least two of its highlights are represented here, including the encore, which was that show's climax). The latter is still on the way, explaining the fact that it brought all of the big surprises at this show, including the few songs I was not immediately able to identify.

In fairness, Joe played a good half of his latest album Blues of Desperation - and all the songs I'd have been most interested to hear (especially Mountain Climbing with its mean riff, and No Good Place For The Lonely with its off-the-hook outro solo). The show actually began with an audio recording of Muddy Waters playing Mean Old Frisco as the band took to the stage, before blasting into This Train, hinting back at Joe's other recent concept tour, Muddy Wolf, and emphasizing the fact that, basically - at its heart - the blues hasn't changed in the last 50+ years. It's just grown and evolved. The title track from Blues of Desperation sounded really good, as did How Deep This River Runs - leave it to a live performance (as ever) to enhance my appreciation for a song. I'm surprised Joe didn't play Drive - a mellower track, but one that I sense has been getting good press. I also would have expected to hear You Left Me Nothing But The Bill and the Blues and/or Livin' Easy, but I'm not disappointed, because what we did hear was probably even better.

I am, however, disappointed that I didn't get to hear either Oh Beautiful or Never Give All Your Heart - two of my favorite of Joe's more recent songs, from the preceding album, Different Shades of Blue - live and in person. I have to admit I'm surprised that he didn't play more tracks from that album, dragging out only Love Ain't A Love Song (albeit a popular one), while leaving off such songs as the title track, Living On The Moon, and I Gave Up Everything For You, 'Cept The Blues (all of which turned up on the recent Live At Radio City Music Hall album). Nor was there an acoustic set (not that I cried any tears over that development). The only other original tune Joe played - and the only song pre-dating 2014's Tour de Force - was the title track from Dust Bowl, which has received a bit of a makeover.

Clearly, I'm more of a thinker than a feeler - as I have an easier time analyzing the show than explaining how it made me feel. But what can I say? Joe Bonamassa is an amazing guitar player. I actually caught myself wondering a few songs into the show, is it possible to play a guitar solo in every song without it eventually getting stale? I guess that's a stupid thing for me to wonder, because I'm a huge guitar fan, and I could listen to an artist as talented as Joe play guitar for hours nonstop (and this show went for a full two plus hours from start to finish, without more than a minute or two's break before the encore). But a great show isn't just about the guitar (did I really just say that?) - it's also about the songs.

And the backing band. Joe's got a world class band backing him up - Anton Fig on drums, Michael Rhodes on bass, Reese Wynans on piano/organ. He's also got Lee Thornburg on trumpet, and Paulie Cerra on sax, plus Jade McRae and Juanita Tippins singing backup. The music veers a little more toward the horns and piano than I'd prefer, but that seems to be the direction Joe's going these days. When the band pulled out Never Make Your Move Too Soon (from the Three Kings tour - although Joe also previously recorded this song - in a slightly different arrangement - for his Had To Cry Today album), Joe left plenty of room for the band to shine, and I could just imagine B.B. King smiling down proudly from his lofty perch in blues heaven.

If pressed to choose a favorite song from this show, I'd be tempted to name Angel of Mercy, another remnant from the Three Kings tour. I noted when I listened to the recent Live At The Greek Theatre album that Joe has recycled the formerly-retired riff from A New Day Yesterday for this song, much to my delight. When he started playing it in concert, I recognized it, but couldn't quite place it, on account of it being such an old song in Joe's repertoire (that I hadn't heard live since the first time I saw him). But it came to me at the last minute before the first verse started, and for a brief moment, I thought that Joe was playing the first song of his that I ever heard, and the song that turned me into a lifelong fan. Alas, it was "only" Angel of Mercy (still a good song, though), but it was a thrill to hear nonetheless, as it's an incredible riff, and Joe plays it well. The song ended with an extended drum solo, so I think that Joe was intentionally channeling his earlier power trio days. Hats off to you, Joe, for not turning your back on your past, even if you have to cloak it in the vestiges of the ever-advancing present. (Isn't that just a metaphor for Joe's entire career?).

But there was more than one highlight that night - another one being the encore, Hummingbird, another song from the Three Kings tour (penned by Leon Russell and later recorded by B.B. King), which highlights the backup singers well. I didn't put two and two together at first, so much of the British Blues Explosion material threw me for a loop. I didn't recognize Mainline Florida (an Eric Clapton song), and though I heard Robert Plant singing in my head during Boogie With Stu, I naively presumed that Joe was covering an older song (Ooh, My Head/Soul?). I also recognized the lyrics from Little Girl, but couldn't place it as one of the 'b' tracks from the otherwise infamous "Beano" album by John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. (Some obscure choices for covers - but they sounded pretty good in concert, providing some lighter rock fare between Joe's heavier, bluesy numbers).

It wasn't until Joe started playing the Eric Clapton song Pretending - which I recognized from having spied the British Blues Explosion tracklist previously - that I figured out what was going on. Surprisingly, there didn't appear to be any representation from either Freddie King or Jeff Beck (both of which could have been accomplished in one blow if Joe had played the song Going Down, which I've heard he played the night before - alas), but there's only so much time in one night. The show's climax was a spectacular rendition of Led Zeppelin's How Many More Times - another song that muddies up the distinction between these artists and tours (what with Albert King's The Hunter mixed into that song; on a related note, did you know that Jimmy Page recorded a version of Hummingbird for the 1988 album Outrider? I'll bet you could write up a setlist that you could just as easily call a tribute to American Blues as British Rock!). Hailing from the band's first album, it fills the hole left in the concert setlist by the removal of Just Got Paid, during the extended solo of which Joe liked to throw in the guitar solo from Dazed and Confused.

But before Joe broke into the very recognizable riff from How Many More Times, he spent several minutes in one corner of the stage playing guitar furiously and nonstop, culminating in a run-through of the instrumental Django that he recorded for You & Me (which really sounds great, by the way), and would usually play in concert as an intro to either Just Got Paid or Mountain Time. Researching other setlists, it would appear that this extended intro is a track Joe (or his fans) has taken to calling "Black Winter" - mimicking Jimmy Page's White Summer/Black Mountain Side. I wouldn't have made the comparison from the song alone - I don't know how similar musically they are - but as an extended solo instrumental emphasizing the player's virtuosity, they serve an identical role.

You know, when Joe addressed the audience midway through the night, he told us he had a terrible cold and was pumped up on prescription meds, but honestly, if he hadn't said anything, I wouldn't have even noticed. It didn't detract from his playing at all. And he seemed to be enjoying himself, in spite of it, as the audience was, too - enthusiastically. I know I was. This time around, I had the opportunity to bring my brother back to see Joe again for his second time, and to introduce a new fan who is now begging me to see him again the next time he comes around. I know musical tastes can be very individual - which is why I really enjoy being able to share what has become my all-time favorite guitarist and musical act with other people. Keep doing what you do, Joe Bonamassa - I look forward to seeing what you'll come up with next. (More Peter Green and Ten Years After covers, hint hint!)