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Monday, February 28, 2011

Daytripper


With the blog up and running once more, I thought it was about time to add some brand new original writing to go with the stuff that I take from my "day job" at channel24 and those slightly embarrassing but fun epinions reviews that - and I don't know if you've noticed this - tend to go on a bit. And then a bit more.

I could seldom think of a better way to start than with a review of Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba's Daytripper. This 10-issue comic book series has just been released as a very affordable trade paperback by DC Vertigo and there's just no two ways about it: this is a book that deserves to cross the great divide between the somewhat niche world of comics and the significantly less niche world of pop culture. Daytripper doesn't merely belong at the top of the New York Times bestselling graphic novels list (and, seriously, how insanely awesome is it that the freakin' New York Times has a list for the best selling graphic novels) but deserves to top their general fiction list as well.

I say this despite long been adamant that comics are, in fact, not literature and don't really deserved to be classified that way. Now, before all you crazy fanboys ("it takes one to know one, she cried!") come at me with your pitchforks, torches and Absolute Sandman hardcovers, let me just make one thing clear. Comics (or comix or graphic novels for those of you who shudder and shrink away at the merest hint on spandex and capes) are a valid and vital artform and they can be one of the absolute best media in which to tell a story. However, much like cinema, radio plays, novels and television, it is a storytelling medium with its own strengths and weaknesses that are, by and large, very different from prose novels and short stories.    

I know, I know, I know: what's with the digression? I'm sure you're all massively interested in my take on the comic book as an artform and my being a ridiculous stickler for separating comics from prose literature but what the hell does any of this have to do with Daytripper?

Everything, as it so happens. For a start the only way to truly earn Daytripper as wide an audience as possible is by putting it in bookstores, right next to the latest fiction releases. Sad but true. More importantly though, Daytripper is a story with the kind of depth, richness and humanity that most people associate with the most literate of novels - but it does this by staying absolutely true to the form and language of the comic book. It is, very simply, a shining example of its medium and is a perfect showcase for just how much can be done with, as Will Eisner called it, sequential art storytelling.

The story of Daytripper is a very simple one. It tells the life story of a fictional Brazilian writer named Bras de Oliva Domingos. The story may allude to the miraculous when describing his birth and he may become a rather successful writer as his life goes on but beyond that, there is little that makes Bras' life any more special or extraordinary than anyone else's. This makes his story far more universal and while it's doubtful that anyone will relate to every single aspect of Bras' story, I would imagine that it's the very rare individual who can't find anything within the book to grab hold onto emotionally.

Of course, however resonant this sort of story might be, it can easily become one that drowns in its own mundaneness. "Slice of life" stories can be wonderful but they can just as often be uninspired, unimaginative and all together a bit too nasal-gazing for their own good. The true masterstroke of Daytripper is that, through the storytelling possibilities of comic books and an ingenious conceit that grows naturally from the profession of the lead character, they brothers Moon and Ba avoid this trap entirely.    

Rather than conventionally telling Bras' story in chronological order and trying to fit decades of a person's life into 10 quite brief chapters, the Moon and Ba go a different route. Each of the first eight chapters of the book deal with a day in Bras' life, day's would play a pivotal party in defining who he would be from that point on. This leaves the final two chapters to wrap everything up. Here's the real genius part, though: When we first meet bras, he is an obituary writer for a small newspaper and every chapter ends with an obituary to Bras himself - obituaries that are written because Bras "dies" at the end of each day.

Now, how one interpret these "deaths" is entirely up to the reader. You can see them as nothing more than devices that allow for those all important obituaries; you can see them as literal deaths and allow for a certain amount of magic to mix in with this otherwise (mostly) grounded story or you can see each death as a metaphor for the closing of each chapter of Bras' life or even as a metaphor for the "death" of each day that goes past as each of us race through life.

What does matter, though, is that these "deaths" are a brilliant storytelling device used to give the reader an almost unheard of insight into our protagonist at these different points in his life. More than that, it is genuinely thought-provoking in that it forces us as reader to consider not only what days define our lives but how we would be remembered if our life was to come to a sudden end at those points. By killing Bras at the end of each chapter, Moon and Ba give the story a level of insight, universal appeal and emotional resonance that few stories ever even adequately achieve.

Not that those final pages of each of the chapters are the only aspects of the story that works. Every chapter has a slightly different feel - occasionally even crossing genres - to reflect the complexity and constantly evolving nature of human existence. The book moves from the innocent wonders of childhood and a first kiss to the rote, mundane existence that sometimes defines adult life. It deals with lust, death, loss, young love, mature love, birth, parenthood, familial bonds, conflict between generations, career uncertainties, existential angst and more.    

Best of all though, while this is certainly present in the writing, it is the art that finally drives it home. While Ba and/ or Moon's art (it's hard to tell them apart as their styles are so complementary) is far more cartoony than it is photo-realistic, it actually represents real life far more convincingly because of that. By allowing for a certain amount of abstractness in the art, it is far easier for the reader to allow our own imaginations to bring the images on the page to life.

Besides, though the art may not be "realistic", it is certainly not lacking for detail. Both the characters and the world they inhabit are perfectly and expressively drawn. There is a strong sense of location in the book as open fields, hospital rooms, crowded cities and paradise-like beaches all have very distinct looks and, more importantly, evoke very different emotions. The characters too are very well defined. Take Bras' two main lovers, for example. The first is exotic, voluptuous and rawly sexual in her appearance, the second - Bra's soul mate - has a much softer, sweeter and much more individual countenance. The significance of his being attracted to each at a different parts of his life is something that is portrayed almost entirely through the art.

The colouring too is an invaluable storytelling tool here. Colourist Dave Stewart has long been considered one of the best - if not THE best - colour artists in comics and his work on Daytripper does nothing but solidifies this reputation. Aside for his lush, painterly work simply being beautiful aesthetically, it actually plays a big part in setting the mood. Contrast, for example, the bright, vivid colours of Bras' childhood with the muted tones of his later life. Colourists are often easy to overlook but it's impossible to discuss Daytripper without paying special attention to Stewart's sterling work here.


Daytripper is an exemplary piece of slice-of-life storytelling, a shining example of the comic book art form and a proud testament to the power of stories. Don't miss it.




*All images courtesy of Google Image but the ownership obviously belongs to DC/Vertigo Comics and Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. No breach of copyright intended.



South African readers: Buy Daytripper from Take2 (Alternative, slightly more expensive option)

International readers: Buy Daytripper from Amazon

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Big Momma's: Life Father Like Son

Yet again, I'm posting my original unedited and slightly longer review. And once again, check out the link below for the professionally edited review. As for the film itself, well, read on...

But, really, take a wild guess what I think about Big Mommas Part BLOODY 3!

From Channel24.co.za (Originally published 25 February 2010)



What it's about

Big Momma is back! This time with his/her/its rapper-wannabe son in tow as the two go undercover (enrolling in, would ya know it, an all-girl's-school in drag) to retrieve some pretty damning evidence to bring down a master criminal.

What we thought

Oh where to even begin with this unholy piece of -

OK! All right! Deep breaths everyone. Lets try and keep thing in perspective. It's not a holocaust, it's not an apartheid, it's not nuclear war, it's not Keeping Up With The Kardashians. It's just a movie. That's all it is: just a harmless piece of entertainment. It's just a little bit of multiplex fodder; something to keep the cash rolling in and the masses stupefied for a couple of hours. That's all. It's nothing to get worked up about. Right?

Right?

Well, maybe, maybe not. All I want to know is just how much more of this undiluted crap are we as audiences supposed to put up wit? I mean, really! Big Momma's: Like Father Like Son is unredeemably awful with absolutely nothing to recommend about it but what's really shocking is that this howling load of codswallop is the THIRD in a series! How on earth did this happen? Are we, as a culture, so starved for entertainment that we have financed THREE different films whose main source of “comedy” - and, boy, do I use that term loosely – is the utterly unfunny Martin Lawrence dressing up as an utterly unconvincingly woman? Is this really what we've come to?

Now, the whole cross-dressing breed of comedy is hardly a recent occurrence, nor is it an intrinsically bad one. It all started, after all, with one of the great comedy classics: Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot. While few (if any) of the film's that followed it have come close to reaching the levels reached and set by Wilder and co, it's hard to imagine a film doing a greater disservice to the comic conventions established by that film then Big Momma's: Like Father Like Son.

And yet, the “creators” of this monstrosity have taken the insult one step further by constantly referencing Some Like It Hot – not least by essentially stealing Wilder's plot wholesale. As if it wasn't bad enough that greats like Billy Wilder, Marilyn Munroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon are no longer with us, Lawrence and friends effectively dancing on their graves is almost too much to bare.

If this sounds unfair and overly harsh, it's only because this film deserves ever last bit of bile and venomous hatred that it has so rightly been receiving. Granted, it's nowhere near as hateful as it could have been – and it's certainly nowhere near as ill-advised as Gun or as mean spirited as the upcoming Night Drive – but its obvious contempt for the intelligence of its audience is really, really difficult to stomach.

There's no two ways about it: the writers, director, producers and main star responsible for this abomination of good cinematic comedy obviously see us film-goers as a bunch of meat-headed Neanderthals with all the cumulative sense of humour of a stalk of celery. Everything about this film is insulting. It's insulting to believe that anyone would believe in any of the so-called characters. It's insulting to believe that anyone would be taken in by the film's ham-fisted sentimentality. It's insulting to believe that anyone would go along with any of the insane plot contrivances that are liberally splattered all over the film (how is the make-up of two idiots on the run this convincing and why oh why oh why would any man be attracted to MARTIN LAWRENCE IN DRAG?). But most of all, it's insulting to believe that anyone would laugh at any of this.

Let me put it this way and leave it at that: Big Momma's: Like Father Like Son is less funny than all of those films nominated in the best film category at this year's Oscars. Winter's Bone (remember that? The very bleak film about this dirt poor teenage girl trying to look after her broken family while looking for her deadbeat – or just plain dead - dad) has more laughs than this.

Oh, Martin Lawrence what will you get up to next? For all of our sakes, might I suggest carpentry? Or even a career as a living statue? Anything really – but, please, for all that is good and right and beautiful in this world, PUT AWAY THAT BLOODY FAT-WOMAN-SUIT AND STOP MAKING BIG MOMMA'S MOVIES! Thank you.


 

Of Gods And Men

Now here is one odd duck of a film. I was really looking forward to it and I do largely admire it but I can't really say I enjoyed it. And I don't mean "enjoy" as in "have fun with" because, obviously, Of Gods and Men is not a fun film. When I say "enjoy", I basically mean that I wasn't anywhere near as emotionally engaged as I wanted to be. More about this in the review itself. Also, while I gave the film 3/5 on Channel24, I'm going to refrain from rating it here (yes, those stars are ratings out of 10) because I'm still struggling with whether I actually recommend it or not. 


From Channel24.co.za (Originally published 25 February 2010)




What it's about: 

The true story of a group of monks, living peacefully in the moderate Islamic country of Algeria in the 1990s, whose existence suddenly comes under attack by the rise to power of a very malicious extremist Islamic group. They soon find themselves faced with the choice of whether to stay and very probably die at the hands of ruthless terrorists or to abandon those who depend on them by fleeing back to their native France.

What we thought:

If ever there was a movie that begs for respect and admiration it's the brilliantly and evocatively titled Of Gods and Men. It is a film filled with powerful themes, poignant human emotion, subdued but impressive performances, glorious cinematography and an understated,approach that places it a million miles and 180 degrees away from most Hollywood fodder. It is also a film that I went into with the highest of expectations, thanks to a tidal wave of nothing but the most glowing, most complimentary of overseas reviews. However much I admired the film and its intentions and however much I was very much taken in by certain moments, I was really bored by the overall experience.    

I have never subscribed to the "intellectual" school of arts criticism. I firmly believe that, while it's important to be able to express what does or doesn't work about a certain piece of music, theatre or cinema, it is one's emotional response that should be considered above all else. Of Gods and Men is a perfect example of that brain/heart dichotomy. However much my brain was telling me that what we have here is a truly magnificent piece of cinematic art, my brain was quietly lulling the rest of me to sleep. 

I have come across many suggestions that Of Gods and Men is a film that can only be appreciated by truly devout Catholics and there is probably a certain amount of truth to that. Mind you, I can even see the argument that the film's appeal could be even further limited to Catholic monks. I don't want to speak for all audiences but I'm sure I'm not alone in finding myself extremely alienated by the monastic lifestyle that is so – or so I presume – authentically portrayed in the film.     

There are, as I said, certain parts of the film that I really did respond to. The scenes that portrayed the genuinely peaceful and mutually beneficial bond that these Catholic monks had with their Muslim neighbours were charged with feelings of hope and inspiration and, without descending into cheesy sentimentality, the idea that people can put aside their differences and actually live together in peace and harmony. On the flipside, I was reviled by the rise of militant, Islamist fundamentalism that threatened, and ultimately destroyed that bond.

And then there is the scene towards the end of the film where the monks enjoy their own last supper while listening to a recording of Swan Lake. By doing little more than lingering on their aged, smiling faces, the film is suddenly taken to a whole new level of emotional resonance. I struggle to think of any film released in recent years that is as profoundly moving as those quietly devastating five minutes. 

Much of what came before, however, threatened my patience. The many long and reverential scenes of the monks going about their daily routines and rituals may have made sense dramatically but purposeful monotony is still monotony.

As for the endless progression of scenes where the priests argue amongst themselves whether to abandon their "mission" and flee the increasingly volatile and antagonistic country, I was very surprised by how little they worked for me. I may not be Catholic but I'm hardly irreligious and, more importantly, I am someone who is generally fascinated by films that tackle religious topics but, because I felt so far removed from the most basic ideologies, beliefs and practices of these monks, I was never truly engaged by their plight on anything but a level of pure survival. 

My growing frustration with the film was further compounded by the final forty minutes of the film, where it looked to be on the verge of ending a good half a dozen times. I suppose it could easily be argued that these scenes are there to illustrate the impending and mounting inescapable fates awaiting these monks but I quickly found myself desperate for the film to end.  

Of Gods and Men is a film that is so idiosyncratic and personal in its approach and subject matter that its effect on its audience will vary wildly from person to person.

Drive Angry 3D!

Neither my editor nor I realized that this was coming out this week until the last minute which is why it's so short. Mind you, there wasn't that much to say about it, if I'm honest. It's basically this year's Piranha 3D - total trash, yeah, but total trash that I adored the hell out of. Also, and I will be doing this from time to time, I have used my original review for the blog. If you want the edited version check out the link below. 


From channel24.co.za (Originally written 24 February 2011) 





What it's about

Nicolas Cage is back as Milton, an escapee from hell (Milton? Hell? Where do you think they're going with this?) who has returned to the land of the living to exact nasty revenge on a cult of wacko Satanic worshippers who brutally murdered his daughter and to rescue his kidnapped granddaughter that the cult intend to sacrifice as a way of bringing hell to earth. Only this time without his head bursting into flame.

What we thought

Nicolas Cage has been on a bit of a winning streak lately with awesome performances in The Bad Lieutenant remake and Kick Ass and just before it all comes crashing down in a few weeks with Season of the Witch, we have another chance to see Cage at his demented best. Drive Angry 3D has probably the worst title I have ever seen but that's nothing in comparison to just how rotten the film itself is.

It has some really over the top violence, plenty gratuitous nudity and sex and the kind of adolescent badassary that is more embarrassing than anything else. Oh and it's also immensely stupid. Here's the thing though: I absolutely loved it. Like Piranha 3D before it, this is (presumably) intentional exploitative trash of the highest order. It's the sort of film that if it was any LESS prurient, nasty and just plain dumb, it would have been very very bad. As it is it's just flat out awesome.

We have Amber Heard for the sex appeal and David Morse for some (ha!) respectability but the film really belongs to two actors. Nic Cage is, as I said, in full on nutso mode – the mode, incidentally that he is by far at his best. Best of all though is William Fichtner as hell's “accountant” whose character is just as out there as Cage's but he plays it with this hilarious deadpan viciousness that steals every scene he's in.

As for the script and directing, that seems a bit pointless in this context but, on the other hand, credit does have to go to writers, Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier for coming up with increasingly mad situations for our anti-heroes to go through and for the gloriously ripe dialogue as well. And of course, kudos to director Lussier for actually putting all of that into such a stylish and yet puerile package. And in 3D that actually works, to boot.

Oh if only all bad movies were this good!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs The World

I don't know why the hell it has taken me so long to this review. Not only was Scott Pilgrim one of my absolute favourite films from last year - so much so that I saw it 3 times in the cinema - but it tanked at the box office so I'm always eager to try and get more people to give this wonderful piece of work a shot. Not just because I think Edgar Wright, Bryan Lee O'Mally and co. utterly deserve it but because I want to live in a world where something as original and inventive and heartfelt as Scott Pilgrim makes oodles of money.

From channel24.co.za (Originally written 3 December 2010)


What it's about:
Scott Pilgrimis, more or less, your average 23-year-old guy. He lives in Toronto, Canada, and shares a crummy apartment with his gay roommate Wallace. He plays less-than-great bass in a less-than-great garage band and is dating a high-schooler named Knives Chow. He has no real ambitions beyond this. That is, until Ramona Flowers, literally the girl of his dreams, enters his life and steals his heart. There's only one catch: in order to date Romona he has to fight, and defeat, her seven evil exes. 

What we thought:


It has been less than four months since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World debuted on American screens and, though it may have bombed rather horribly at the box office, it is already a bona fide, modern day cult classic. Mainstream audiences may have turned their backs on it – because apparently Vampires Suck was much more worth their hard earned cash – but it has already developed a fervent, passionate fanbase, one that very much includes me as a member.

I went into Scott Pilgrim with high expectations. I dare say that there were few, if any, films released this year that I expected more from. Already a fan of most of its constituent elements, I expected the film to deliver and deliver big. Directed by Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Spaced fame) starring the immensely likeable Michael Cera and based on one of my all-time favourite comic books, there was surely no way that Scott Pilgrim vs. The Worldwould be anything less than awesome.  

On the other hand, with those kinds of sky-high expectations, there is always the worry that it wouldn't be able to live up to my potentially unreasonable hopes and dreams for it. It would have been all too easy for Scott Pilgrim to have been the crushing disappointment of the year. The trailer looked great but bad movies have had great trailers before, right? Maybe there was just too much story to be told in a two-hour movie, maybe Edgar Wright just wasn't as good without his usual collaborator, Simon Pegg. What if it all just went horribly, horribly wrong?

I needn't have worried. Not only is Scott Pilgrim an absolute corker of a film, delivering on almost all levels – it actually feels like a game changer. It's the sort of film that not only feels remarkably fresh but is one that may well have reinvented the way films based on comics AND video games are made from now on. 

There have been plenty of great comic book films released over the past few years – some of which have even been better, though not much better, than Scott Pilgrim. However, no matter how much they may have caught the spirit of the comics on which they were based, they have seldom reflected the very unique visual language of the comics' medium itself. Those that have attempted such a feat in the past have either been largely artistically unsuccessful (Ang Lee's admirable misfire The Hulk) or played purely for laughs (the 60s Batman TV show). For Scott Pilgrim however, Wright has finally found a way to mix the poptastic, eye-catching visuals of comics at their most energetic with a style and feel that is the very definition of cinematic. 

Even more impressively, he has made the first true video game movie since possibly 1982'sTron. I know, I know, there have been loads of movies based on video games. The thing is, though, that those movies essentially took the cinematic aspects of the video games - the bits that basically were movies in the first place - and turned them into feature films. Big deal. Scott Pilgrim does something far more interesting. Wright doesn't base the film on the story of any particular video game. Instead, he infuses the look, the sounds, the feel and the non-logic of the least cinematic bits of old Nintendo games – think Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter 2 or Super Mario Bros – into every last inch of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. 

Scott Pilgrim is, aesthetically, breathtakingly original. It's not all about the surface though. Beneath the sheen and spectacle is a simple, heartfelt love story. A love story that uses the film’s surface pinnings – the dazzling action scenes, the frantic editing and the story's flashy fantastical elements - as visual metaphors. Why tell us that Scott is a kid with a short attention span when you can show it instead? Why tell us that Ramona has a complicated romantic past that Scott has to come to terms with, when you can bring it to vivid, high-kicking life? 

It's a movie packed to the gills with snappy dialogue, brilliant sight gags, unforgettable characters, frantic and varied action scenes as well as large dollops of surrealism – all of it working together towards a greater purpose; a more cohesive whole. That it suffers slightly being dragged down by one (or indeed two) too many evil exes towards the end, can be forgiven by the fact that there is always so much going on on-screen that you will barely notice, let alone care. 

I could also mention the fantastic performances of everyone in the cast (seriously everyone, but special mention must go to Kieran Culkin who steals the show as Wallace), the hilariously cool cameos, the note-perfect soundtrack and the sheer genius of how Scott deals with Nega-Scott, his evil twin of sorts, but I'll leave all that for you to discover on your own. 

I understand that Scott Pilgrim won't be for everyone. It clearly has not caught on with most mainstream audiences and critical responses have been decidedly mixed. That doesn't mean you shouldn't see it though. It is, if not one of the best films of the year (and I will argue that point to the death), certainly one of the most inventive and unforgettable. It is, despite what box office takes might suggest, the very definition of a must-see movie. 

So please, go and see it. See it and hate it. See it and love it. See it and debate it. Whatever. Just see it.




SA readers buy Scott Pilgrim vs The World (DVD) from Take2 or Buy the Blu-Ray instead

International readers buy Scott Pilgrim vs The World (DVD and Blu-Ray) from Amazon.com:
                                                                                                                                                                            
                                                                              













The Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call - New Orleans

There are two Nicolas Cage films coming out very soon (or perhaps are already out overseas). One is rather weak and I really, really didn't like it. The other is absolutely, head-smashingly AWFUL and I kind of loved the hell out of it. Go figure. I'll let you know closer to their release dates which one is which but in the meantime I thought I would take a look at a film from last year (or the year before in the UK and US, I believe) that really shows Cage at his gloriously demented best. 


From channel24.co.za (originally written 27 August 2010)


What it's about:

Set in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, The Bad Lieutenant follows Lieutenant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), a policeman who is, by and large, viler and nastier than the criminals. Charged with solving the brutal murder of an entire family of African immigrants, his investigation is constantly sidelined by addictions to drugs and gambling.   

What we thought:

Nominally, a sort-of remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 film, The Bad Lieutenant (or, to give it its full name, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans) is infamous German filmmaker Werner Herzog's own take on the same basic idea. Like Herzog himself, apparently, I have not seen the original film but I would be very surprised if the two had anything but the most passing of surface details in common. Love it or hate it, I guarantee you won't see another film like Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant this year.

Make no mistake, this film will undoubtedly polarize audiences, especially if the comments on the Internet Movie Database are to be believed. Personally, I loved the hell out of every minute of it but it's definitely the case that you'll either go with Herzog and his amoral, nihilistic and unutterably bonkers take on the crime film or you'll be left feeling confused, alienated and more than a little angry.

This is a film that takes any and all preconceived notions about the genre and turns them on their head. We have at the centre of the film a character that, under normal circumstances, would either be used as a catalyst for a story of redemption or, if the film were to go a tragic route, a descent into hell. Herzog and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein do neither. Even madder, this is a crime film where the action suddenly comes to a halt to make way for an up close and personal look at the romantic life of two iguanas as a totally incongruous soul ballad plays in the background. I kid you not. I'm sure some film buffs, critics and students will find some greater meaning in all this but, personally, I see this as nothing more than Herzog again screwing with his audience, knocking the film even further off the rails. 

I've talked a lot about Herzog but the success (or, depending on your perspective, the crushing failure) of the film lies at least as much in the hands of its star Nicolas Cage. Kick-Ass, released earlier this year, was a genuine return to form for Cage who has floundered for years, giving mostly bland performances in sub-par movies. His great work in Leaving Las Vegas, Matchstick Men, Adaptation and even Face Off quickly started to seem like the fading glimmers of a once bright star that has been fading constantly over at least the last half decade. Well, that star has very clearly been reignited during this last year: He was terrific in Kick-Ass and he's even better here. 

In many ways, this is the role that Cage was born to play. Cage is an actor of a unique intensity with an arsenal of odd tics and mannerisms. When these tendencies are misused he can be a fairly irritating screen presence, but in Lt. Terence McDonagh he has found a character that not only brings out his strengths but highlights them. McDonagh's actions are fairly rotten for a cop but are clearly small fry in comparison to the hardened criminals he hunts down. And still he seems far, far worse simply because of the way Cage portrays him. 

A hunched posture here, a threatening walk there and bulging eyes everywhere are almost enough to create the effect on their own but its his genuinely violent, ranting and raving style of talking/screaming that really makes the character so utterly terrifying. In keeping with the rest of the film, there isn't much depth to the character and you're certainly not going to sympathise with him but I don't know if there's been a more magnetic and electrifying screen persona this year.

The Bad Lieutenant might not be for everyone but go in with an open mind and your sense of humour firmly set to "twisted", you may well find much to enjoy. If not, just stick around for that central, brilliantly controlled out-of-control performance. It's really not to be missed.




South African readers buy Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant DVD from Take2

International readers buy it from Amazon.com:














Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Who - Live At Leeds (1996 expanded version)

Now here's one that's very typical of my old epinions reviews. The writing is often kinda cringe-inducing but there's loads of enthusiasm to make up for it. It's interesting that thought it's been something like 10 years since I first heard Live At Leeds my opinion hasn't changed about it very much at all. Also, while my musical tastes have expanded in those 10 years, "hard rock" is not a genre that I've been all that attracted to. Maybe it's just that once I heard some live Who, all of their imitators feel like exactly that.


From epinions.com (Originally written 20 March 2004)


  
The Who are a terrific studio band. From the pop of Sell Out to the hard rocking of Who’s Next to rock operas Quad and Tommy, the band have released some of the most well-written, expertly performed music in the short but turbulent history of rock and roll. The simple fact of the matter though is that the Who are not going to be remembered for their studio work – no matter how impressive it may be. No, the Who are first and foremost going to be remembered as a wildly energetic live act. More accurately, they will probably be remembered as THE wildly energetic live act. 


See, unlike most, the Who understood the difference between the studio and stage. When performing live, it is damn near impossible to create the same intricate, subtle effects that can be achieved in a studio situation so instead of even trying to do so, the band went for an entirely different approach, transforming even the poppiest of songs into powerful, energized juggernauts. Of course having a band of talented musicians like the ‘Oo certainly didn’t hurt. On Live at Leeds, an album often considered to be the Who’s crowning achievement, you get a perfect example of the band at their live peak.

A great live album must of course have a great song selection and Live at Leeds (at least the new fourteen track versions) certainly have that. Mixing some of their best known sixties material with some surprising album cuts and a hefty representation of covers, the track list serves as a perfect catalyst for some great performances. Speaking of which, the performances here are exemplary.



Roger Daltrey doesn’t so much sing as he does roar and though his singing may lack the emotional range that he displays on Quadrophenia, here it is power that is important – and for sheer, manly POWER, Roger is most certainly your man. Keith Moon, in the meantime, is his usual maniacal self. His chaotic drumming style is the main driving force behind all these songs and if there are any doubts as to “Moon the Loon’s” supremacy over hard rock drumming, this album should surely put them to rest once and for all.


On the guitar front, Pete Townshend is in very fine form belting out some of the most demonic sounding riffs you ever shall hear. Also, quite unlike the studio albums, there is plenty of soloing to be found here and though Pete can’t really measure up to Page or Clapton when it comes to complexity, he completely outclasses them at sheer power. Even more impressive, again quite unlike Page or Capton – or for that matter most virtuoso guitarists – his solos are always precise, never becoming monotonous or tedious on even the longest of tracks.


The breakout talent here though, is most certainly John Entwistle. Right from the start of the Who, John’s mastery over the bass was obvious but it was only with Leeds he showed us once and for all that he is THE bass guitar player. The interplay between Pete and John completely redefines the bass/guitar dynamic. John Entwistle does not treat his bass as a rhythm instrument as most bassists do but as a lead instrument every bit as important as the electric guitar. His playing here is so unique, so groundbreaking, that to this day people still ask who the second lead guitarist is on Live at Leeds, not realizing that, at least at that time, the Who never employed a second guitarist. Of course, the fact that the Ox actually managed to better his performance here with his jaw-dropping performance on Quadrophenia only solidifies his position as the ultimate bass guitar player.


Before getting into the specific songs contained within, some background behind this monumental live album is probably in order. 

The original six-track version of the album was culled from a performance at Leeds University in early 1970, right in the middle of some intensive touring promoting their ridiculously successful rock opera, Tommy. Unlike most performances that become the basis for live albums, Leeds was a show that was performed specifically with this reason in mind. Not that that was the only reason, mind you, after all they only used six tracks from a lengthy performance that included the entirety of Tommy as well as a dozen other tracks. For years because of the time constraints of a vinyl record most of the show remained unreleased.



 In the mid-nineties, however, with the advent of the compact disk and the longer running times the format afforded, the album was re-released with a further eight tracks. This meant that all the non-Tommy tracks along with Amazing Journey/Sparks were now readily available for your listening pleasure. This is the version that I’m reviewing but a few years later a deluxe edition was released and at long last the entire show – Tommy included – was available on a double CD set. The rather steep price added to the fact that with the earlier release of Live at the Isle of Wight, I already own a full live performance of Tommy from the same time period (and a superior one, apparently) has stopped me from rushing out and buying this version. Still, if you have the money to spare, the deluxe version is probably the one to buy.


As for the performance itself, remember that unlike Isle of Wight or Woodstock, Leeds is a university hall attended by kids who were not entirely brain dead. A fact that I’m sure sort-of intellectual, Pete was very glad about as you will see especially in the awesome banter between the songs. Some people also call the performance here restrained when compared to Wight because of this but whether they’re right or not is irrelevant. Leeds is a million times tighter than the sometimes overly chaotic Wight and as such is the better performance.

Now, at long last, onto the songs themselves.



The album starts off on an intriguing note. Not only was Heaven and Hell written by John Entwistle but, even stranger, it was never been released on any studio album. Still, you can’t really fault it for being anything less than a perfect beginning to this typically invigoratingly energetic show. It’s actually no real surprise that we have never seen a studio version of the song because, quite frankly, it is only with this almost tangible energy that emerges when the Who perform live that the song really works. The song works here not because it has a strong melody or interesting lyrics – it has neither – but because of the electrified performance that the song affords each and every band member. Roger screams to his hearts content while Pete solos – genuinely solos – with enough ferocity to make even the heaviest of metal guitarists green with envy and Keith bashes away on his drums as only he can. John, in the meantime, lays down a thick, rock-solid foundation with his astonishing bass lines – if, of course, the phrase ‘bass lines’ can even be applied to John’s unique style of playing.

 After that perfect start, we move onto the band’s earliest single (as the Who at least), I Can’t Explain though, as you should realize after about three seconds, it bears little resemblance to the studio version. The original was released long before the Who turned into such tight performers so the booming vocals, even more distorted electric guitar riffing, wild drumming and thick bass lines that are present here, more or less blow the almost amateurish original straight out of the water. One thing that does remain though are the somewhat, well, wimpy backing vocals, which tend to stick out amidst all the heaviness. The funny thing is that this is not actually a complaint at all but another indication of how important these little quirks tend to be when it comes to defining the Who’s personality as a live – and, for that matter, studio – band.



Next up is the first of several covers to found scattered throughout the album. Much like the other covers here, Fortune Teller, is done in such a way as to completely annihilate any real connections between the original and the Who’s version. For the first half of the song it definitely appears to be the weakest of the covers thanks to a horribly plodding pace and boring melody. Suddenly though, about halfway through the song it changes direction with the introduction of an unforgettable guitar riff and sped up pacing and becomes one of the albums most exhilarating moments. Too bad that this part of the song is so short as I would much rather have spent the previous two minutes listening to it rather than the unfortunate first part.

Fortune Teller then segues into a seriously strange choice of a song for the band to play live, the very poppy Tattoo from the very poppy Sell Out album. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the more restrained performances here but it is just rocking enough to make the song a solid contribution to the set. Besides it has always been an immensely enjoyable song so instead of complaining about its inclusion as so many others do, I will state – quite gladly – for the record that the song SHOULD be here. After all, the ‘Oo are nothing if they’re not diverse.







But not to worry all you crazy head bangers because the next song should more than make up for Tattoo’s relative lightness. Young Man Blues was apparently once a jazzy tune by one Mose Alison, as Pete informs us with some enjoyable as ever pre-song banter. Now, I don’t know about the original but this version has got about as much to do with jazz as it does with classical. The Who unleash a performance so powerful and so outright threatening that it is hard to believe that this song ever existed before they left their indelible mark on it. The song is all about youthful aggression and who better to bring it to life than those rascals who brought us My Generation all those years ago. Pete delivers a riff so threatening it sounds more like it was played on a machine gun than a guitar. Keith’s apocalyptic-sounding drums don’t exactly undermine Pete’s guitar attacks and Mr. Entwistle, as ever, supports Pete’s playing (or is that the other way around?) as only he can with some of the most fluid and downright noisy bass playing you ever shall hear. Roger, of course, sings just like a little girl. But then you knew that already, right?

We are then treated to three of the band’s best singles released between the years 1966 and 1967. Or as Pete tells us, they chose them because they are easiest to play. Have I mentioned recently how much I LOVE the hilarious banter between the songs – the Who are seriously some of the funniest down and dirty rockers out there. As for the songs themselves, well, they really are great. They’re all actually quite poppy in their original forms – not that you could tell that from these performances.



First we get an absolutely perfect rendition of substitute, a song that would later become an anthem for one of those first generation punk groups – the Ramones, I think – and I’m fairly certain that they used this version for inspiration rather than the lighter studio version. Still, Substitute is actually quite an obvious candidate for a heavy live treatment.


The same, however, cannot be said about Happy Jack, the next track, a song that was originally so happy and so poppy that only a band of the Who’s gutsy – or insanely – status would be able to pull it off. And pull it off they do, anything of the fun little original is replaced by some pounding drums, powerful singing and… well, I’m sure that by now you’ve gotten the point. Simply put, that fun little pop song called Happy Jack is one mean rock and roll song. Apparently.


As for the last of the three sort-of-hits-because-the-Who-weren’t-exactly-the-Beatles-when-it-comes-to-hit-songs, I’m a Boy, a weird little ditty-opera (Tommy it wasn’t) about a boy living in the future (I think) who was supposed to be a girl, according to his parents who then go on to treat him like a girl. I for one am glad to see that Pete’s operas become slightly less silly as they go along. Anyway, it’s another great rocking reinterpretation of a classic pop song by the ‘orrible ‘Oo.

Next we come to my favourite track here: A Quick One, While He’s Away. It’s my personal favourite for several deep reasons. Firstly it’s by far the best reinterpretation of a Who song. The original was, to be perfectly honest with you dear reader, horribly boring but this version, well what can I say, it’s really, really not. Secondly, it’s got like twenty different melodies, all of them great and the more great ‘Oo melodies the better. Thirdly, the song is absolutely hilarious with one of the simplest but insanely effective stories ever to appear in a Townshend rock opera. Fourthly, it has all four band-members playing the parts of the different characters and they’re all a riot – especially Keith, obviously. Lastly, this song has the funniest pre-song and, for that matter, during-song banter ever. I laugh out loud every single time I hear it and as a favour to you, patient reader, I will not divulge a single line. The song also acts as unrefutable proof that, yes, it is in fact possible for a hard rock band to be extremely heavy and extremely funny at the same time. CLASSIC.



Next up, Tommy (everyone cheer)! Okay, so it’s not the entire performance of Tommy but a wonderful performance of Amazing Journey/Sparks acts as a pretty cool snapshot of the whole rock opera. The Amazing Journey part is actually pretty similar to the studio version only with, you know, electric guitars and stuff – whatever, it’s as good as ever. Sparks, on the other hand, is completely different. Well, all right not completely different, it still has the same basic melody but everything else is a complete departure. While the studio version was based around an acoustic guitar and had a sort of mystical feel to it, the live version is all about heavy electric guitar riffage and heavier soloing.

Next we get a another superb cover in the form of Summertime Blues. Unlike, say, I don’t know, Limp Biskit (the only band in the world who could ruin the foolproof Behind Blue Eyes) for example, the Who really know how to cover someone else’s song. Yet again I’ve never heard the Eddie Cochran original but – between you and me – I have my doubts that it sounds anything like the ‘Oo’s HEAVY version. And yet again the song is absolutely electrifying.



Shaking All Over follows and is another wonderful cover and while I can sort of see Summertime Blues as a non-hard rocking song, the same can not be said for this song. That riff simply begs for a hard and heavy treatment and surprise, surprise, the Who deliver. In spades. Everyone’s instruments are turned up to full volume (even if not literally) for this song resulting a song that could quite easily blow down even the sturdiest of structures if played at full volume. This is hard rock at its most uncompromising and just might be the heaviest song here. Oh, as a side note, also check out Live at the Isle of Wight for a wonderful version of this song that features a surprising rendition of Twist and Shout.

After the sonic onslaught of Shaking All Over you would be forgiven for hoping for a gentler, less ear-shattering song so it is with my greatest sympathies that I report this not to be the case. You all remember this great little three-minute rock and roller released by the Who sometime in 1965. Of course you do, it’s the classic anthem of youthful aggression with the immortal line “Hope I die before I get old” and those killer bass solos. On live at Leeds there is also a song that goes by the moniker My Generation but it is most certainly not that tight, relatively short little rocker that we all remember. No, this song comes in at just under fifteen minutes where only first three or so of which bear any resemblance at all to the 1965 classic.



Starting off as a fairly faithful but much more aggressive adaptation of the original My Generation, the “song” then proceeds to turn into a ten minute jam featuring not only some wonderful improvisation (I assume) but also a return to some of the themes from Tommy – including See Me Feel Me! Unlike your extended jams of any lesser band (even giants like Deep Purple, Cream or Led Zeppelin – sorry but it’s true and you know it is) this jam never grows boring. Not for a single, solitary minute. The band keep things interesting not only by some surprisingly effective false stops but my by keeping the melody in a constant state of change. Finally, and this is important, make no mistake, extended drum solos NEVER make for great extended jams. Never. Keith Moon, the greatest rock and roll drummer of all time (“I’m the greatest Keith Moon-type drummer in the world” – Keith Moon. Cool Guy… but I digress) avoided the things like a plague so you should to (you know who you are). This version may not be better than the original, after all the brevity of the original was an essential ingredient for its tremendous success but it is still an essential, exhilarating listen.

Ending off the album, we come to another radical reinterpretation of a classic Who single, Magic Bus. The original was a straightforward little Bo Didly-ish (that’s what I hear, I’m not familiar enough with the man to say but I can’t think of what else to call it) ditty that though enjoyable pales in comparison to what we have here. The best word I can think of to describe this version is BIG – that is if I’m not allowed to use the word ‘fun’ because more than anything else this song is tremendous FUN. 



The song starts off with some wonderful electric guitar bits courtesy of that Townshend fella then presents us with some equally wonderful vocal interplay between Roger and Pete and John (possible) over some fairly restrained repetitive instrumentation. And as near as I can tell absolutely no drumming. Then, well, the song EXPLODES. Keith comes crashing in with those noisy drums of his at which point everyone else follows suit – for a while before the whole thing sort of repeats itself with another restrained section followed by another musical explosion. Well, sort of because the song never actually repeats itself – not really any way – and the only way to truly understand the epic greatness of the song is to listen to it.

With that we come to the end of the album that is considered by many to be the greatest live album ever. I definitely agree, of course, but seeing as how I haven’t exactly heard every live album ever released, my opinion sounds a bit hollow to these ears. Still, whether or not Live at Leeds is in fact the greatest live album ever by anyone, one thing should be clear: it really is rather good. Simply put this album is the consummate live document from a genuinely dynamic, humorous, energetic, professional and, let’s be honest here – noisy band. It is also against this that I will judge all other live albums. Sadly for everyone else, the standard is immensely high and – between you and me for the last time for this review – I rather doubt anyone else will be able to match it.

Highest of recommendations. 





South African readers buy this version of Live At Leeds from Take2 or Get the later deluxe version

International readers buy any of these versions of Live At Leeds from Amazon: