Sunday, January 20, 2008

Musical Discoveries

Note: This feature was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Following is a discussion of how I discovered some of my favorite musical artists.

Classic Rock (Popular)

Most of the classic rock artists I'm into I discovered from a combination of my parents' listening habits as I was being raised (more of a subconscious inspiration), and the stuff I heard on what was (alas, no longer) the classic rock station in this area when I first consciously started recognizing music and acquiring a taste for it (around the end of my high school years). But here are a few specific stories:

Led Zeppelin

Stairway To Heaven was one of the first songs that I really got into in a big way. During the first semester of my senior year in high school, I spent a lot of time at home after school sitting in the dark and listening to the radio. I was "earning my chops" as a listener, in terms of getting to know all the most popular classic rock tracks (at least on big name radio, anyway). But every time Stairway To Heaven came on - which was relatively frequently - I went into a total trance. It was practically a spiritual experience. The magic of the song, and the power and emotion of the solo. Once, a little later, after acquiring a girlfriend, I pulled the car into the driveway when Stairway came on. She was anxious to get inside, so she shut the radio off - cutting off my reverie. I was pissed. (I got over it :p).

As far as the rest of Zep's catalog, in addition to what the radio played, they did a Top 50 Albums countdown over Thanksgiving weekend that year. I got introduced to a lot of good albums on that countdown (as opposed to just songs), and I actually used it as a guide for writing up my Christmas list, since before then I didn't really know what albums were good. The albums on that countdown that made the biggest impression on me were Zep's.

Another formulating experience was the weekend with the ZoSocar. One weekend that December, my brother 'traded' cars with me for the weekend, because he wanted to take the van up to Canada. So I got to drive his white Firebird. It was a sweet ride. He left Zep's fourth album in the CD player, so naturally, driving the car meant listening to the album. It was an amazing experience, that I am sure only increased the magic of that album.

Pink Floyd

I discovered Pink Floyd pretty much the same way as Led Zeppelin, though there wasn't necessarily one song that stood out for me as much as Stairway To Heaven did. But I do remember one Floyd-related incident from my childhood. I was in some way familiar with Dark Side of the Moon, because I remember I would sometimes beg my mom to put it on so I could listen to my favorite part, which was the ambient portion at the very beginning of the song Time. Floyd was probably the band I was most consciously aware of during the early years. In the discovery period, during the end of my high school years, I attached myself to Pink Floyd because they seemed a bit more sophisticated than the average rock band, and also because their music had a certain emotion to it - something a bit more introspective and atmospheric - which attracted me. I remember driving back from the mall one day, by myself, and Hey You came on the radio, and I thought back on my experiences, since I was approaching graduation, and I just had this feeling that Pink Floyd had some underlying connection to me.

The Doors

Something about The Doors reminds me of our lakeside family vacations from my childhood. It probably has a lot to do with hearing them a lot during those vacations. But it might also have to do with a very important experience that has stuck in my memory all these years. We were just coming off the lake as a storm broke out. While our relatives were tying up the boat, my brothers and I ran ahead to the cottages for cover. The doors were locked and nobody answered. We ran along the road from our parents' cottage to our grandparents' cottage, and the van drove right up to us, coming back from shopping. They opened the door and we climbed in out of the rain, and Riders on the Storm was playing on the CD player. Perfect.

The Who

The Who was actually the first rock concert I ever went to. But it wasn't me, it was my brother, that suggested it to my dad in the first place. I wanted to get a better idea of who The Who was - in essence, which of the songs I knew from the radio was actually The Who. I heard Who Are You one day, and I remember coming to the realization that "this is The Who". So I've kind of always felt a little behind the curve in my appreciation for The Who, but there's something very unique about the band, particularly Pete Townshend's approach to playing the guitar, that I've come to appreciate more and more over the years.

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones is my dad's favorite band, so my awareness of them is pretty self-explanatory. They don't really have a searing guitar god - Keith Richards has always been more of the rhythm/song-writing type - so I've always spent less attention on them than other bands. But there's no doubt that they have a solid groove, as well as being just downright cool. And listening to them a lot, and learning about them on the side, from my dad's influence, I've learned to appreciate them more and more.

Neil Young

My first encounter with Neil Young was the song Cinnamon Girl which came on every once in awhile on the radio. I remember having to separate it in my mind from Brown-Eyed Girl, since the title was similar in structure. But between the two, Cinnamon Girl was more interesting because it was electric and had a rock edge. Another time, in a rare occurrence, I heard Down By The River playing on the radio, and I was captivated by the electric jamming and groovy atmosphere. Yet another time, I heard Like A Hurricane, and I wasn't sure it was Neil Young, but I had a pretty good idea that it was, because I could hear the stylistic similarities to Down By The River. I tried to look it up, but kept getting Rock You Like A Hurricane, which obviously wasn't right.

I knew my dad had some Neil Young in his collection, so I looked through it one night, and discovered the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, with the song Down By The River - bingo! Listening to the album, I heard Cowgirl in the Sand for the very first time, and it blew me away. I loved it, but I didn't become totally obsessed with the song until my freshman year in college, sitting in the window, watching the students pass by down below, listening to the song on repeat for hours, waiting for just a glimpse of heaven...

Other Classic Rock/Blues

Robin Trower and Ten Years After

I'm lumping these two together only because I 'discovered' them simultaneously. Ten Years After has more or less been my dad's second favorite band, and my introduction to them during the Woodstock film (Alvin Lee totally smoking on the guitar throughout I'm Going Home) whetted my appetite for more. As for Robin Trower, I heard about him from an online classic rock forum, and decided he was worth checking out. So sometime during my college days, I ordered a TYA album and a Trower album. When they arrived, I took them to the library to listen to while doing some homework (I'm thinking this must have been sophomore year). I was entranced by Trower, and TYA blew me away. One of the TYA songs, You Give Me Loving, actually sounded familiar to me. It was bizarre, because I know I hadn't consciously heard the song before, but the riff must have been burned into my brain subconsciously from listening to TYA a lot during childhood, as I'm sure I did.

Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac

My first introduction to Peter Green was waking up halfway in the middle of the night, with the radio still playing, and hearing the song Oh Well, including the full acoustic portion. It mesmerized me, and I made a point to jot down the name of the song and the band, that the DJ announced after it ended, on a strip of paper so I would remember it the next morning. I woke up and looked at the piece of paper, and told myself that there was no way that song was by Fleetwood Mac, the band that did the Rumours album. So I shrugged it off for the time being.

I don't recall how Peter Green re-entered my consciousness, but I was curious, perhaps still wondering about that Oh Well song, so I went and bought the BBC Sessions featuring not just Fleetwood Mac, but Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. I was sold instantly, after listening to it. Peter Green, with his heart-rending soulful blues licks, and his melancholic sensibilities, immediately became one of my favorite artists of all time. He's an amazing musician, and the very personal songs he sings, I feel like it could have been me that wrote those songs. There's a deep connection there.

Michael Bloomfield

I came upon Michael Bloomfield in a roundabout way. It's pretty ironic, actually. One day, jumping into (or maybe just before getting out of) the car at Guitar Center, I heard on the radio - a rare occurrence, indeed - the version of Season of the Witch which turned out to be by Al Kooper and Stephen Stills. Not at first, but this gradually led me to the Super Session album, from which the track comes, which features some of Bloomfield's best playing. The session was conceived for just that purpose, and Stills' contribution came only after Bloomfield skipped out halfway through the proceedings. So by chance, I was drawn to Super Session by one of the non-Bloomfield tracks!

And then there was The Monterey Pop Festival DVD. Bloomfield plays on it with a band called Electric Flag. But what caught my attention even more, was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's performance on Driftin' and Driftin'. Once again, I just barely missed Bloomfield, because shortly before Monterey, he had quit the Butterfield Blues Band to form Electric Flag! Still, I got interested in the Butterfield Blues Band, and bought the anthology, half of which features Bloomfield on guitar. So from both this and Super Session, I came to discover, in a roundabout fashion, the genius of Michael Bloomfield, forgotten blues virtuoso guitar god of the sixties (and to a decidedly lesser extent, the seventies).

Other Genres

Joe Bonamassa (Modern Blues Rock)

I don't recall exactly how I came across Grooveyard Records, but when I did, I realized that here was a potential treasure trove of modern music that could appeal to my guitar-driven blues-influenced rock sensibilities. I downloaded all of the sample tracks from the various albums they were offering, and I listened to them, paring them down to the very best four. Then, I ordered the albums those best tracks were from. This is how I discovered Lance Lopez, also. One of those first tracks was A New Day Yesterday from Joe Bonamassa's live album of that title. I got the album and I've been a dedicated fan ever since. He's my favorite modern guitarist.

Shannon Curfman (Modern Blues Rock)

One day during my senior year in college, I was sitting at my desk in my dorm room, reading from a hometown mag I had just got in the mail. I scanned through it for anything interest-catching. Well, in the live performances section of the magazine, there was an article about an upcoming performance by a young female blues rocker. My interest was piqued. When I read that she had recorded a blues album at age 15, I was fascinated. I couldn't get home to see her perform that time, but I bought her album and got a chance to see her next time 'round.

Silvertide (Modern Classic-style Rock)

When Silvertide were just getting popular over in Philly, there was a Philly-based member on an online Zeppelin forum I frequented at the time. He was advertising the band, but I pretty much ignored them at first. Finally, this member sent me an audio track or two, and I was really impressed. I also visited the band's website and heard a few more songs, and I was hooked. I got a chance to see the band live as an opening act, and I eagerly anticipated their first album release. Afterward, I even hoofed it out across the state line to see them perform for a future live DVD release, which was ultimately canned. Unfortunately, the band faded into the void behind lies of a second album. Nobody knows if they will ever resurface, but at this time, it looks highly doubtful. Ah well, they were good while they lasted.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Post-Rock)

My initial foray into the post-rock and, more generally, the ambient and atmospheric music genres, came out of my discovery of the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And that occurred while initially watching zombie horror flick 28 Days Later. Despite their anti-publicity stance, Godspeed allowed one of their songs to be used in the movie - and to breathtaking effect. It certainly made an impression on me. Not only did I fashion the main riff of the first "original" song I wrote on guitar after the riff in that song, but I tracked the song down (which doesn't appear on the film soundtrack, by the way), and I've been a fan of the band ever since. Those post-apocalyptic soundscapes that journey from very loud to very quiet sections entrance me.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Legend (1985) and the Lure of Fantasy

Note: This review was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

I got the Ultimate Edition of Legend on DVD for Christmas, which includes the original US theatrical release version as well as a Director's Cut version with the original score. If you're unaware, there were two scores cut for this film. Originally, Jerry Goldsmith composed a classical score for the film, which, from what I've seen, is widely considered the better score (certainly the director thinks so). But director Ridley Scott, from what I can tell from the Making Of featurette, got paranoid and decided to create a more "rock", or perhaps "pop", score for the American release, because he thought it would be more accepted than the classical score. So he hired Tangerine Dream to totally re-score the American version of the film, which also featured a few cuts and other variations. So there was the American version with the Tangerine Dream score, and the UK/International version with the Jerry Goldsmith score. And now that I have the DVD, I get the chance to watch the film with the original classical score for the first time (in a Director's Cut which features even more material not originally shown in either version, I believe).

Well, here's the rub. The version with the Tangerine Dream score consistently put me in tears, while I can hardly get myself to continue watching the version with the classical score.

I was thinking to myself, watching it yesterday (with the TD score), wondering what it was about this movie that makes it so unique among other fantasy films. Something about it that makes it so much more magical and ethereal than any other fantasy film I've seen. Well, now I know what the primary factor contributing to that atmosphere is - it's the score. Tangerine Dream's score is so unlike the music you hear in most movies, particularly in fantasy movies, and it fits the theme of the movie so well. In contrast, the classical score is so dull and contrived. You can hear the different themes and the way it switches from good to evil when the screen focuses on the heroes and villains, and how it gets louder and jumps at you during action sequences and all of that. How incredibly boring. It's like every other film I've ever seen with a classical score. Classical music does not make the film more fantasy-like, by giving it some old-world atmosphere or whatever. It might seem like a contradiction, but an electronic band in the 80's has managed to create a soundtrack infinitely more magical and fantastic than any classical music that could ever be composed. Fantasy is about imagination, isn't it? I want to hear music that's different and unique, and Tangerine Dream has provided that.

The bottom line is this: with the Tangerine Dream score, Legend is one of the most imaginative and unique fantasy films ever created; with the classical score, it's just another fantasy tale in a long line of more or less interesting titles. To think, the TD score was merely an afterthought that might never have come to be...

On a related note, I came to a realization about the lure of fantasy. What I realized, was that the true magic of fantasy comes from the way that everything is so polarized - particularly between good and evil. By creating a pure good and a pure evil, and pitting them against each other, you eliminate the troubling circumstantial judgements of the real world. You can get behind one side, and not feel any guilt when the hero defeats the villain once and for all. You can also feed your desires for a world where purity exists - pure good, pure innocence, pure joy. Even though it is at the expense of conceding the existence of pure evil, that evil can always be fought off, and the pure good can be enjoyed without the taint of doubt that exists in real life.

Another thing that's so alluring about fantasy is the way that a normal person - a simple commoner - can become a hero and save the world. Sometimes the hero has a special gift, but he often becomes aware of it by surprise - fueling the notion that any normal person could suddenly discover that they have the blood of kings running through their veins, or something like that. So however lame and disappointing your real life is, for a moment, while indulging in this fantasy world, you can imagine that even you could be a hero. And not only that, but the world of fantasy is filled with a magic that makes it far more interesting, and potentially a lot more fun, than the real world.

Fantasy is the realm of dreams.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Fountain (2006)

Note: This review was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

The Fountain was among the DVDs I got for Christmas. I remember noticing it when it originally came out. It looked interesting, but I didn't get around to seeing it. Well, now I have. I have to admit, it was a fascinating movie, although it went in a bit of a different direction than I was hoping. I guess you could say I was expecting more fantasy and less drama. But it was still a great tale. With lots to interpret.

I guess the core of the story is what takes place in present time. A doctor on the verge of discovering a medicinal elixir of life, extracted from a tree in Central America, is racing against time while the love of his life is dying of cancer. She in turn is writing a story about the Tree of Life, related to Spanish/Mayan history. Part of that mythology involves the Mayan underworld, named after a dying star observed in the heavens. A star that the main character is traveling toward, in a bubble-like spaceship with a dying tree, presumably far into the future. These three timelines tradeoff as the story unfolds, leaving you to guess just exactly how they fit together.

I guess one interpretation would be that the past scenes are merely an embodiment of the story, and the future scenes part of the doctor's madness - leaving us with just the present. But, if we want to be a little more adventurous, we could conjecture that the doctor does in reality discover the secret to immortality and that the future scenes actually happen as is. But is there an interpretation where the past scenes could be real as well? Because that's what I was hoping for - a tale about two lovers who exist through many ages, from the past through the present and on to the future. But considering what happens when the conquistador in the past finds the Tree of Life, it doesn't seem too reasonable.

Still, the beauty of the story is the sheer imagination of it and the way it was filmed, and how the different timelines interact with one another to create a rich tapestry of storytelling. That, and the question of immortality that is inevitably brought up. Is death just a disease, that needs to be cured? Or is death the road to awe? It's a tough question that's been asked as long as man has been around, I imagine. And I don't think the answer is as easy as some people pretend. Life and death both serve a purpose, and neither one is purely good, or bad. I don't think there is an ultimate answer as to whether or not death should have a place in life. But it does have that place, and there is very little we can do about it - and this fact, I believe, will continue to inspire people to fight against it. You have to be careful, though - there is a balance to be found between vying for eternal life and accepting the simple fact of death. If we get too caught up on living forever, we make death all the harder to bear. And I think that's one of the messages that The Fountain carries - the need to accept death.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

My Favorite Bands

Note: This feature was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

My brother goes through phases in terms of his music fandom. He'll be totally obsessed with something for awhile, then he'll reach some kind of breakthrough and find something new. I've known a lot of people that are like this, that seem to drift from one scene to another. In contrast, I've always had a certain respect for a person who stuck fast to the things he enjoys. My taste evolves and my moods change just like anyone else, but I like to think that I'm a little more stable than the average person.

Granted, I'm much more into blues these days than I ever have been, and I tend to focus more concentration on it than my beloved classic rock. But if you look behind the outer layer, I think you'll see that my focus really hasn't changed at all these past 6 years or so, since I've really gotten into music. My favorite band in high school was Pink Floyd, and my favorite band in college was Led Zeppelin. I don't listen to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin as much as I used to, because frankly, I've kind of worn them out (not to say that I don't still enjoy listening to them when I get the chance, though).

But in their place, I'm listening to bands a lot like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. It's not really new, it's kind of just more of the same. I haven't switched genres, I've just gone deeper. Instead of Pink Floyd, I listen to Tangerine Dream, post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and various ambient/atmospheric stuff. And instead of Led Zeppelin, I listen to other blues rock bands like the original Fleetwood Mac, and Robin Trower, etc. So I feel like, where other people might like to journey laterally, I like to spend my time going deeper into the environment in which I'm already ensconced.

So my brother's favorite bands seem to change every year or two, and he comes up to me and asks me what my favorite bands are. And I sit there, and I have to think, "why are you asking me this question? You already know what my favorite bands are. I told you a year ago, and a year before that." But anyway, in case my list has changed slightly over the years, and for those who have never asked me, here are my favorite bands, and an example of an album or two from each which represents well what I like about them.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Studio: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Live: Live At The Fillmore East (1970)

I have great respect for Neil Young as a musician, and the things he stands for, but when he combines his style with the engine of Crazy Horse, that's where it all comes together in the perfect package. People are hesitant to praise Neil Young's rough and idiosyncratic approach to lead guitar, but to me, the rawness of his licks touch the base frustration of my soul like nothing else can. The lead lines in Cowgirl in the Sand - the definitive version presented on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and a powerful live version on the newly released Fillmore concert - express perfectly the frustration within me at the mental struggles I endure. Wanting so badly to be more than I am, but being held back by unreasonable fears and insecurities, and the anger that stirs within me. Neil's stinging leads are the vocalization of that, in Cowgirl, as well as the other songs where he plays in that style.

Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac
Studio: Then Play On (1969)
Live: Live At The Boston Tea Party (1970)

The beauty of the original Fleetwood Mac, as I see it, is three-fold - and each fold covers the leader, Peter Green. On the one hand, you have Green's intensely personal rendition of the blues, stimulated by his tasteful and deeply emotional guitar style. Tracks like Jumping At Shadows, A Fool No More, and Love That Burns, are legitimate proof that white boys can play the blues just as sincerely as anyone. On the other hand, you have Fleetwood Mac's amazing rockers, epitomized by Rattlesnake Shake, which itself expanded into a beautifully intense exploratory musical jam inspired by bands like The Grateful Dead, but with a much harder edge. On the third hand, you have Peter Green's depressing personal songs, like Man of the World, Oh Well, Closing My Eyes, and The Green Manalishi, which convey a sense of sadness, paranoia, and even anger at the pattern of the world, as well as his confusion about the path his life was taking him in, from being nobody to a superstar, leading him to question the value and worth of it all. These feelings of being lost in a lost world I can relate to, and sympathize with, and they are a beautiful expression of the same kind of feelings I've been trying to communicate in my own music.

Led Zeppelin
Studio: Led Zeppelin (1969)
Live: The Song Remains The Same (1973)

Led Zeppelin was one of the first bands I got into. Not only do they have a certain cool factor that crosses all kinds of social and cultural barriers, but they actually have the talent and the style to back it up. Although the untitled fourth album was as influential in my development as a rock fan as any of Zep's albums were, their debut is probably their most bluesiest album, and while I'd be hard-pressed to pick one album as my definite favorite, this one would have to be considered. Among other things, the relaxed tightness of the band, their confidence in their own abilities, and the communication between Plant's voice and Page's guitar totally enthralled me. The band's live performance in The Song Remains The Same awed me to the point that I actually went out and bought a guitar, with the intent to learn to play like Jimmy. And I'm still working on that.

Pink Floyd
Studio: ?
Live: Live At Pompeii (1972)

As you can see, it's just about impossible for me to pick out one of Pink Floyd's albums as my favorite. I could easily choose Dark Side of the Moon, and it would be deserving of the position, but doing so would leave out so much other greatness the band accomplished, including the lesser known stuff that gets overlooked by pop culture - which is represented in the mind-blowing live show at Pompeii. Pompeii to me represents the height of what Pink Floyd was about, even more so than Dark Side of the Moon. Rather than a perfectly polished meditation on life's mysteries, Pink Floyd was originally about experimentation, and journeying unprepared into the unknown, which they would later spend so much time relating to the world, after they had returned from the intellectual voyage.

Robin Trower
Studio: Twice Removed From Yesterday (1973)
Live: Live (1976)

I got into Trower from a tip on a classic rock forum, but it was love at first listen. Trower's guitar style is gorgeously emotive. And his aesthetic carries a kind of spacey mystery. It's like Pink Floyd mixed with Led Zeppelin, in a way. Additionally, Dewar's vocals are the perfect match for Trower's licks, and that combination makes a powerful impression. Most people who know of Trower would cite Bridge of Sighs, but I'm more impressed by the original Robin Trower Band's debut album, Twice Removed From Yesterday. Besides featuring a lot of Trower's awesome guitar work (such as in the sublime Daydream and the torching Rock Me Baby), some of my favorite, and most heartbreaking, songs are on that album - specifically, I Can't Wait Much Longer and Hannah. For the live side of things, the Live album from 1976 is amazing in that it's not quite as self-conscious as a lot of live rock albums are. The band is truly in top form, and while the setlist regrettably does not include the hit title track from Bridge of Sighs, Trower's outstanding - and unmatched - playing on Daydream more than makes up for it. Nowhere else does that track sound quite as good.

Ten Years After
Studio: Cricklewood Green (1970) or Rock & Roll Music To The World (1972)
Live: Recorded Live (1973) or Live At The Fillmore East (1970)

Like most, my first conscious exposure to Ten Years After was the stage-stealing performance of I'm Going Home featured in the Woodstock film. However, after the Stones, my dad's favorite band is Ten Years After, so it partly runs in my blood. Alvin Lee never fails to impress with the fluidity of his lightning-fast licks. I'm the kind of guy who takes substance over speed, but Alvin Lee's got both. As if that weren't enough, his vocals, while maybe not musically on par with the legendary rock vocalists, capture his songs perfectly, and add a unique touch that really make the songs his own. The band as a whole is very tight, and has a strong foundation in the blues, which naturally appeals to me. At their heart, Ten Years After were a monster live band, and you can check out either of the live albums I've picked to witness not only their impressive improvisational expansion of the track I Can't Keep From Crying, Sometimes, but also the heavy emotional power, and the never-ending guitar drama, of the blues Help Me - my personal favorite from the band.

Derek And The Dominos
Studio: Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)

Despite only releasing one album, I still consider Derek and the Dominos to be one of my favorite bands. Part of that is because it's that good an album. And part of it is because it represents to me the pinnacle of Eric Clapton's career. Better than his solo career; even better than Cream. Part of the magic is the addition to the album of Duane Allman's prowess on the slide guitar, but the bulk of it comes from Clapton's inspiration - his unrequited love for the wife of his best friend. The result is the most beautiful, sincere, and moving collection of love songs ever recorded. My personal favorite track is the unconventional Hendrix cover of Little Wing. Clapton's version is decidedly unique, but it plods on with a power that speaks to me more than the delicate phrasing of Hendrix's original, and even Stevie Ray Vaughan's fantastic version. But to single out that track alone would be a disservice to the rest of this amazing album. Eric Clapton's never performed better.

And of course, there are other names not listed here, that I greatly respect. For example, guitarists like Michael Bloomfield and Roy Buchanan, whom I consider primarily as musicians and less as members of a great band. Then there are bands like The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and others whom I've always loved, that I would place only slightly lower on the list than the ones I've detailed above. And there are others, but these are primarily the best, in my mind.

Friday, January 4, 2008

My Favorite Movies

Note: This review was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

(More recent additions can be found at the end of the list)

I love watching movies. Maybe it's not as intellectual or high-brow as reading a book, but it's easier because you can put in a two-hour commitment and then you know you'll be finished. Plus, it's just less effort. Anyhow, my favorite genre is horror, but I enjoy drama, fantasy, and sci-fi flicks quite a bit as well. For those that know me, there may or may not be any surprises in this list, but here is generally what I consider to be my favorite movies of all time (not necessarily in any particular order):

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Strangely, it seems that most of my favorite movies are ones that I inadvertently caught on TV unexpectedly once or more times, and slowly grew on me over time. The first time I saw Jacob's Ladder was in the month of October, during one of the major channels' horror showcases. I don't remember what year it was, but it can't have been later than 2000, and it wasn't more than a couple years earlier than that. I only caught part of the movie, so I had even less of an idea what was actually going on, but that didn't dull its effect on me. I specifically remember the dance-party scene, with the bloody snapping dog skull and the grind-beast. Boy, that totally blew my mind, that a movie could have such horrifying and yet realistic depictions of demonic beings, in a sophisticated manner, where the filming style and pacing of the story add a very disjointed and psychological aspect to the imagery. And then the story itself was so sublimely emotional, and the film was shot in a very careful manner, that you could jump between a confusing scene where you don't quite know what's going on as horrific images pass by left and right, and then enter a serenely peaceful scene that's relaxing yet carries a sad sense that things are not going so well and that hell could break loose again at any time. I'm not absolutely certain, but I believe this may have been the movie that ignited my deep fascination with the theme of "the journey to the afterlife".

Dead Man (1995)

I was attracted to this movie for Neil Young's score alone, but the film managed to win me over completely. The subject matter of journeying into the afterlife parallels the theme of Jacob's Ladder, but deals with it in a distinctly unique, and somewhat more abstract and symbolic, manner. In case I haven't made it clear, the soundtrack is downright spectacular. Some of Young's most haunting soundscapes, not tied down to the usual barriers of "words" and "songs". In fact, the soundtrack is almost like another character in the movie, lurking in the background, waiting to jump out and accentuate certain sections here and there. Johnny Depp plays an excellent confused accidental-outlaw, who gradually comes to accept as fact the riddles Nobody offers him (Nobody is his enigmatic Indian guide), confusing him for the poet William Blake, with which Depp's character shares a name. The story is bizarre, and moves along slowly, but the atmosphere is consuming. Though it appears to be a western on the surface, Dead Man is really far from the genre stereotype. This movie (in addition to Blow) turned me into a Johnny Depp fan. Anyone who would play the lead role in a film this obviously eccentric, and pull it off so well, deserves my respect and admiration.

Midnight Express (1978)

This is another movie I first saw on TV. My dad was watching it, and he deserves the honor of having introduced it to me. I caught the beginning of the movie over dinner, knowing nothing of what I was in for. William Hayes (the movie is based on the real life story of William Hayes) gets busted in a foreign country for trying to smuggle drugs over the border. He gets tossed into a rather frightening Turkish prison, and all his attempts to legally extricate himself from the situation get quashed by a political system that wishes to make an example of Hayes, to discourage smuggling. The sheer terror of being stuck in a foreign prison, so far from anything that is familiar, with people that don't even speak your language, and above all that, being a victim of some injustice your family and your country can do nothing about, is terrifying indeed. I was gripped by the movie and continued to watch the rest of it in my room. The physical and psychological torture that William Hayes endures, as he faces thirty years in a dirty foreign prison for a petty crime, and the painful journey he makes to try to escape from it beyond the unjust 'rules of the game' are incredibly intense and emotionally powerful. This is a story of true struggle, against the unfair odds that life sometimes throws upon us, and the ultimate lengths to which we must go if we are to have any hope for the future. An absolutely outstanding story, executed to perfection in this film adaptation. To think that it is based on a true story is terrifying, indeed.

The Passion Of Darkly Noon (1995)

Yet another movie that I caught on TV first. I saw this one a long time ago, then forgot about it for awhile, before remembering it once again and bringing it back to the forefront of my knowledge. This is truly a bizarre tale, but beautiful in so many ways. At times it seems like something that could have really happened, other times it feels like a fairy tale. The underlying theme, as indicated by the title, is passion, and the power it has to consume our mortal souls. Ashley Judd plays a convincing Callie (Kali?), part lonely wood nymph, part evil seductress. Brendan Fraser ropes in a mesmerizing performance as the innocent Darkly Noon, raised strictly by his ultra-religious parents, whom he is separated from by a fire which precedes the opening of the story. Now lost and alone in the middle of an unfamiliar forest, he is befriended by the beautiful Callie, for which he begins having feelings he doesn't quite know how to handle. An old woman who lives elsewhere in the forest provides a darker characterization of Callie, leaving the viewer uncertain of her true nature or intentions. Naturally, when Callie's mute lover returns from a long voyage, Darkly's jealousy gets the most of him, and he seems to summon up the rage of the devil himself just before an incredible climax. The plot aside, it is the beautifully enchanting and surreal atmosphere of the film, juxtaposed against the all-too-normal scenes, that really gives this film a unique and engrossing flavor. The scene with the floating circus shoe is just downright brilliant. But not only because it's random. If that were the case, I'd have much less respect for it. But because it has such a normal, rational explanation, yet the coincidence of its appearance yields something very profound, just makes it so magical for me. Fantastic all around.

Lost And Delirious (2001)

Unfortunately, this film doesn't get exactly the kind of attention it deserves, being a love story set in an all-girls dormitory, but make no bones about it - this film is modern Shakespeare. It is at times endearing, watching these young girls shedding their innocence, and at times heartbreaking, watching them crack under the pressures and realities of life. Watching this film had a profound effect on me, because I was simultaneously in awe of its beauty, and depressed at its inevitable conclusion. Is there anything in life more powerful, more important, than love? Can love truly destroy all barriers? And is love even more important than life itself? How do you deal with life when it takes away from you the one thing that truly matters? Do you try to move on, and conform to the role that's been laid out for you, or are you resolved to remain free and enlightened for eternity, at the ultimate cost? "Once you're up there at the top, looking down on everyone else, you're there forever, because if you move, you fall."

School of Rock (2003)

Originally, I didn't give this film much attention, because I figured a movie about kids starting a rock band would naturally be a little low-brow for me. I was wrong. And even though Jack Black isn't really my kind of comedian (not that I'm really into comedy much, anyway), I think he was perfect in this role. The philosophy of the movie is spot on, about the power and importance of music in life, and what it means to rock out. And I have to say, the kids are adorable, and the jokes are actually damn funny. This is one of those movies that I agree with on many levels, but don't really have to think about to enjoy it. I can just sit back and watch it over and over again and love every minute of it. I'm really not that kind of a movie-watcher, but this one is good enough to be an exception! That should explain enough.

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)

I guess this means that I can't ever say that remakes are terrible based on principle alone! But this one does it right, by going back to the source material and taking advantage of what the previous effort ignored. The result is a fantastic story with a very paranoid and claustrophobic atmosphere. Set in a research base out in the middle of Antarctica, a team of scientists becomes the target of an extraterrestrial lifeform, freed from the ice, which can disguise itself like a chameleon by assimilating the cells of its victims and morphing into an exact biological duplicate. This is an excellent premise, as the story focuses on the paranoia experienced by the scientists, who have no idea which one is the alien, hiding behind a familiar face, waiting for the right moment to strike. And before you start thinking that this is just a ploy not to have to design any complicated monster fx, the truth is that this movie has some of the most spectacular special effects in any movie I've ever seen. Not all of it is exactly believable, but it's convincing within context, and the effects themselves are very well-done and so over the top that it can't help but give you nightmares. The problem with most monster movies is that they either don't show enough of the monster, or they do and it looks terrible (either it looks fake or just not scary). But this movie doesn't have this problem. Add to that the tense atmosphere and suspenseful pacing, and you have a true winner of a horror film. Top grade.

Legend (1985)

Peter Jackson's fantastic adaptation of The Lord of The Rings aside, Legend is probably my favorite fantasy film. It paints such a picture, with the engrossing environments, and the simply out-of-this-world soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. My older brother also did his part in hyping up the movie in my younger years, remarking at how scary it was, with the depiction of Lord Darkness and all ("Black as darkness, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch!"). In my mind, everything about this film, from the characters to the lines, even to the character's voices and the way they say their lines, is classic. I love the dichotomy in this film, between light and darkness, and between hope and despair. You've got princesses, unicorns, elves and faeries, goblins and demons, the devil himself, enchanted forests and labyrinthine tunnels. And the best part is that it doesn't feel childish. It's all dead serious. And very artistic. I love it.

The Matrix (1999)

Probably my favorite sci-fi film, The Matrix is mind-blowing. And although the first movie gets the most exposure, you really can't talk about it without bringing in the continuation of the story in the two sequels. Still, the premise of the original alone is enough to get people's attention. What if the world as we know it is just an illusion, a computer program created to deceive us humans, so that we never realize that we are slaves to a race of machines out in the real world, who rely on our energy as their primary power source? Maybe the idea has been thrown around in various forms over the years, but this movie encapsulates the confusion of such a hypothesis in such a simultaneously entertaining and engaging manner. Meanwhile, it manages to ask all the myriad other philosophical brain-fuck questions that college students tend to ask when they're sitting up late, drinking some coffee after a last-minute study session before the next day's exam. This movie is cool.

Aliens (1986)

The Alien movies had a huge impact on my youth, and of the original trilogy, it was the middle child that made the biggest impression on me. The first movie was groundbreaking, and terrifying, but the first sequel upped the ante by literally multiplying the alien threat many times over. This movie gave me nightmares. The hive, with the victims all gooed up, awaiting their inevitable and torturous death; the paranoia of the team with the aliens closing in and them not knowing how to escape or survive; and the Queen, by god, the Queen. Absolutely terrifying, and so powerful in its execution. Few movies (particularly horror and sci-fi) have ever managed to create such a believable and terrifying creature design, but H.R. Giger pulled through on the general form of the xenomorph. Well done.

Omissions (movies that should have been included on this list, but were omitted):

28 Days Later (2002) [and 28 Weeks Later (2007)]

Not only did 28 Days Later reinvent the zombie horror subgenre, it's the movie that made me a horror fan. And what's more, it also introduced me to a whole new genre of music - post-rock, thanks to the perfect placement of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor song in the scene just after Jim wakes up in a hospital to learn that, as far as he can tell, the entire world has been wiped out while he was unconscious. Well, except for those bloodthirsty "zombies" scattered about the city, all of which are twenty times faster - and angrier - than your typical Romero-style undead. This is an intense movie, and one of the best post-apocalyptic approaches I've yet seen in film. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, is also not to be missed.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

I'm not typically a fan of musicals. I don't like movies that periodically break out into ridiculous song and dance routines. However, Jesus Christ Superstar is a different kind of musical - actually more of a rock opera. The whole thing is music, and it's not crappy music, but good 70's rock-tinged music. As for the story, not only is it one of the biggest stories of all time (I mean, the crucifixion of Christ, come on), but this adaptation of the story has an approach that I really dig, even though I'm not a very religious person. I was singing this rock opera word for word, start to finish, when I was young, and it still comes back to me every now and again.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) a.k.a. Master Killer

The truth is, I enjoy watching martial arts movies, but I haven't seen a whole lot of them. Still, Shaolin Master Killer stands out from the crowd. Any self-respecting martial arts flick has its share of kickass fight scenes, but what sets Master Killer apart is its focus on the training process. The bulk of the film, between the setup and the conclusion, follows our main character (played by Gordon Liu)'s efforts at mastering the 35 chambers of kung fu at the Shaolin temple - first training each part of his body, and then learning various weapons and fighting styles. By giving the moves this kind of contextual meaning and background, the fights are far more interesting and satisfying to the viewer. Even apart from that, it's an all around good film.

Additions (movies that have been added to my favorites since the original posting of this list):

Innocence (2004)

The Runaways (2010)

Bug (2006) - A claustrophobic character study (adapted from a stage play) of a burn-out and a schizophrenic (played by Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, respectively) who together descend into paranoiac insanity when they begin to suspect they are at the heart of a government conspiracy to implant the public with organic insectoid transmitters.

The Beguiled (1971) - Clint Eastwood stars in this erotic thriller set during the American Civil War. A wounded soldier in enemy territory ends up at a girls' seminary school, and attempts to charm each of the women there in the hopes of making an escape - but the women may not be as vulnerable as they seem.

Kissed (1996)

Black Snake Moan (2006) - Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci star as a farmer and a nymphomaniac in search of spiritual peace in this soulful, blues-drenched erotic drama.