Friday, December 28, 2007

When Hearts of Darkness Collide
As promised, the second season of Dexter ended with an explosive finale. Not to put to put too fine a point on it, but that’s actually how the final episode began. From the moment Doakes discovered Dexter was the Bay City Butcher, the plotline took an even more ominous tone than the rest of the season had already established. What followed was a collision course among the characters, from which no single victor would emerge unscathed.

Before I go any further, here’s the obligatory SPOILER ALERT. Even though it’s been over a week since the finale premiered on Showtime, what follows reveals key details to the finale’s outcome.

From the outset, the second season of Dexter traveled a darker path than its predecessor. Once treasure-hunting divers inadvertently stumbled upon his underwater dumping ground in Episode One, the series shifted from playful mayhem to an almost surreal tragic epic as told from the killer’s desperate perspective. The supporting characters roles, from Doakes’ dogged pursuit of Dexter, to Lila’s demented devotion to him, to Deb’s quest for love, to Rita’s torn loyalties—all served to advance the notion that Dexter is the dark personage that lives in our universal heart.

The genius of Dexter lies in its unerring ability to force us to drop our disguises. Even though the series largely plays it with a wink and a nod, it conceptualizes our primordial desire for justice. More importantly, it recognizes the more important need for survival. And that’s really what this season was all about: Dexter coming to grips with that dichotomy. The first rule of Harry’s Code was to not get caught while meting out vigilante retribution, and it became Dexter’s mantra once the task force began closing in on the Bay Harbor Butcher. The problem with that strategy was that it found him in a crisis of conscience through most of the season, grappling with his own motives while covering his tracks.

In the end, Doakes and Lila serve as the links to Dexter’s past and his path to the future. Locked in a cage while Dexter decides to deal with the man who has happened upon the truth about him, Doakes eventually becomes Dexter’s confessor. He almost convinces Dexter to turn himself in, until Dexter experiences an epiphany while having dinner with Deb. The dinner’s cut short when Deb receives a phone call that the task force is closing in on Doakes’s location. Dexter races back to he remote cabin where Doakes is held prisoner, realizing he must release Doakes before the Feds find him, lest his plan to frame Doakes for the killings goes seriously awry.

Oddly, it’s Lila, in her delusion that she’s Dexter’s soulmate, who first finds Doakes imprisoned in the cabin. Once Doakes tells her who Dexter really is, and offers the body parts in garbage bags as evidence, she does what any sociopath with a tendency towards pyromania would do, and blows him, and the cabin, to smithereens. As they pick body parts out of the water, it’s obvious to the Task Force that Doakes was indeed the killer, and the case is closed. Only Dexter knows the truth, and he decides, in his topsy turvy logic, that he must honor Doakes’s memory by killing his killer.

Lila has always represented Dexter’s dark side—that Dark Passenger who can justify anything if it serves a purpose. Unlike Dexter, though, she was never panged by matters of conscience—or logic. In a way, she became the lynchpin of the entire season as a result. For a fleeting moment, it even appeared that Dexter might spare her. But when she torched a building with Rita’s kids inside, her fate was sealed. Dexter tracked her down to Paris, where he killed her, with unusual respect, for Dexter, anyway.

It seems like a tidy ending, but it leaves a number of chilling questions. Both Doakes and Lila had their own dark secrets, presumably left to speculation now that they’re both out of the equation. The most chilling premise has to be the teaser for the next season. Dexter, in his mind at least, has come to grips with his identity. “Am I a good person doing bad things, or a bad person doing good things? I’m done asking myself those questions. . .”

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Reasonable Cause to Dig Mafioso Rap
“You’re a writer?” she says, suddenly interested. “You write—like, books? I love romances and mysteries—“

“Actually,” I cut her sentence in mid-stream, “I write about pop culture—mostly about film and music—“

“Oooh! I love music—all kinds,” she parries, “except country and rap— especially rap. Some country I like, but I hate all rap.” She says it as if it were a treatise, a definitive statement on all things holy and right with the universe as we know it.

“Are you sure?” I reply, arching my eyebrow sarcastically as I launch into my patented retort. “How do you know? Have you heard ALL rap?”

This is the part I love, because I’ve heard it, with a few variations, so many times before, and it’s so predictable. “I—I don’t need to hear it,” she stammers, “I know it’s bad.” And that’s when I know she and I will not be doing lunch after all.

Americans love outlaws—we’ve romanticized them from Colonial days. There’s something universal about a solitary figure born in poverty, rising up against all odds, spending a stint in hell and emerging more powerful as a result. It’s not the American Dream—it’s the universal dream, and it stretches to our earliest literature. From Stone Age drawings to Beowulf to mythology to revolutions to cinema, the outcast made good is an inherent part of our thought process.

Given that, I find it strange we can embrace The Sopranos, The Godfather and even Scarface as high-minded allegories of the human condition, while dismissing gangsta rap as one of the first signs of the coming Apocalypse. It’s not that cut-and-dried simple. Like the crime movies it’s modeled after, the gangsta genre of rap can be broken down into several sub-genres, ranging from mindless, violent garbage to works that utilize the criminal underbelly as a metaphor for societal frustrations. The former celebrates the criminal lifestyle—the latter illustrates its consequences.

Jay-Z’s 1995 debut, Reasonable Doubt, recounted how Shawn Carter put his dubious background behind him to resurrect himself as the redoubtable godfather of mafioso rap, Jay-Z. It was an album full of bravado, and if not listened to carefully, could be construed to glorify the lives of ghetto drug dealers. In fact, it does the polar opposite. It chronicles the rise and fall of a kingpin (if only emotionally), and emerges as one of the best rock albums of all time. And well it should be considered as such—it took rap out of the ghetto, and established Jay-Z as a force with which to be reckoned.

The Classic Albums series DVD release of Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt doesn’t make any attempt to review the original album, nor does it try to romanticize or justify it. Instead, it delves into the thought processes that went into the making of the album. What emerges as a result is a documentary of how Shawn Carter shed his street hustler life to become Jay-Z, arguably the most important figure in contemporary hip-hop.

You always think of your first time as being your best time, which may be why Jay-Z chose Reasonable Doubt to be his contribution to the Classic Albums series. He certainly had his hustle down in those early days, since he was able to work with some major hip-hop producers, such as Clark Kent, Knowbody, Ski and Sean Kane. In interviews, they share how they created the sound of the album, and analyze how the contrast of satiny smooth orchestration and guttersnipe rhymes melded to advance the genre. Mary J. Blige and a sixteen year old Foxy Brown contributed vocals to the album, as well. Kanye West is also featured in concert snippets and interview segments.

There’s some live concert footage imbedded in the documentary, but it takes a back seat to the participants’ reminisces of how the streets of Brooklyn forged the theme of the album. The bonus features, however, include the original promo videos for “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, featuring Mary J. Blige’s haunting vocals, and “Ain’t No Nigga.” In which Foxy Brown plays a prominent role. The rest of the bonus features expand on the technical details of how the album was made.

Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt is unlikely to alter the preconceptions of those who profess to “hate all rap”, since they’re never going to watch it anyway. For those interested in the sociological and historical origins of gangsta rap, however, this is a must-see. Admittedly, this is a musical genre that has been corrupted to the point that it’s become a sad joke for the most part. When Reasonable Doubt was released in 1995, though, it made a statement about the consequences of the criminal life. If individual songs are taken out of context, it could be viewed as a glorification of brutality. But like Scarface (which inspired it in many ways), Reasonable Doubt ultimately was a grim cautionary tale. This DVD offers a number of insights into the story, and provides a reference point for the origins of a musical idiom.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dexter's Last Stand?
“Tonight’s the night, and it’s going to happen, again and again-- has to happen.”

That’s the innocuous way viewers were introduced to Dexter in its debut episode—a voiceover monologue that became the trademark device of the darkest storyline in the history of serial television. It wasn’t a conventional narration by any means—it advanced the plotline, of course, but it always drew us into the mind of Dexter, and forced us, against all our protestations, to actually like an undeniably demented serial killer. After all, he only killed really bad people who deserved to be chopped into little pieces and dumped in the ocean.

Season One was fraught with dark comic book humor and social satire—Dexter sent child murderers, coyotes and murderous nurses, among others, to their just desserts, and it all seemed a bit surreal. At the same time, it was catharsis—a part of us was Dexter, and those voiceovers were our voice. We knew exactly how Dexter felt, and we loved the thrill of seeing bad guys dispatched.

What goes around comes around, and in Dexter’s case, it’s happened in spades. Season Two began with Dexter unable to sleep, and his inner monologue telling us “I really need to kill . . . somebody.” It’s the first hint we have that Dexter is no superhero, that he is, in fact, a very disturbed killer. That’s been the focus of this season, with his inner voice sounding more desperate than bemused.

He’s had good reason to be nervous. Once his underwater dumpsite was discovered, and FBI Agent Lundy’s task force started closing in on the Bay Harbor Butcher, the series has taken on a much more tense tone. It still has its humorous moments, mostly courtesy Deb and Masuka, but those are fittingly overshadowed by the twisting cat and mouse plotline.

It all comes to a head tonight, in what promises to be one of the most explosive climaxes in recent memory. Doakes, having discovered Dexter’s secret, is still his captive. And it looks like Lila is about to uncover his secret as well, which would put a serious crimp in Dexter’s plan to frame Doakes as the killer. Of course, she has her own frame job going against Angel. For whatever nefarious reason, she’s framed him for rape against her. As Deb and Lundy discovered last week, she’s in the country illegally. Her secret may be even darker than Dexter’s. Obviously, if Dexter is to survive, both Doakes and Lila must be silenced. How that will be accomplished is the question.

In the meantime, Agent Lundy is closing in on the truth about the Bay Harbor Butcher. There are a number of enticing plot threads to be tied up, or severed, as the case may be. However it turns out, it won’t be expected. Nothing ever is when it comes to Dexter.

After tonight’s finale (airing 9PM EST), Showtime will be hosting an online event 10PM EST with video of the cast and crew discussing the shocking season finale, including a live fan chat.

And for the really diehard fan (pun most definitely intended) Showtime is sponsoring a Dexter Finale Sweepstakes for a chance to WIN A WALK ON ROLE in the next season of Dexter!

The second season of Dexter has been one surprising twist after another and tonight’s the night it all comes together. I’ll have a review of the episode later this week. In the meantime, I strongly suggest you do whatever you have to in order to see this finale.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

David Bowie as Elder Revolutionary
There was a time, mostly when I was in my teens and twenties, when I really believed that rock music could change our world, politically and culturally. It wasn’t naivete so much as it was a sense of wonder that fueled that belief. Those three chords, in all their permutations, shaped my adolescence, and became my evolving mantra. Whatever was happening in the world could somehow be translated into the music of Dylan or Lennon or Lou Reed or any number of other musicians—some that were embers in the wind, and others who continue to burn brightly even now.

I was always around music. My father taught me all he knew about country music and its relationship to our Irish roots, my mother waxed on and on about Elvis and American Bandstand, my grandmother fostered an appreciation of Sinatra and swing, and my aunts slipped me soul and Brit rock. As a result, commercial radio always seemed lacking to me. Maybe that’s part of the reason I didn’t play well with others as a child. I had my music and comic books and TV, and all was right with the world.

When I was sixteen, maybe seventeen, two almost concurrent events made it all begin to gel in my mind. I read Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions collection, and I saw one of those Columbia House ads, this one featuring an album called The Man who Sold the World, by some guy named David Bowie. Between the “inner space” of so-called New Wave science fiction and the oh-so-cool apocalyptic soundscapes of Bowie, my own worldview began to take shape. Bowie, like Ellison, inspired me to absorb every viewpoint I could find. Between the influence of the two, I found a common ground from which I could think, and more importantly, write. It goes without saying that Ellison and Bowie have left an indelible imprint on pop culture. And it’s equally obvious that while their output is not as prolific as it was during their fiery days of the seventies and eighties, they make whatever statements they make, count. It’s the price of being an Elder Statesman of one’s chosen genre.

David Bowie Box, as its nondescript title suggests, makes no apologies for Bowie’s less than hit-worthy output during the millennial transition Consider it more an inside nod to the utilitarian titles of his last five albums—Outside, Earthling, ‘hours. . .’, Heathen and Reality. The last ten or so years have found Bowie retrospective more than anything else, reconsidering his status as “rock royalty,” and pondering how preposterous it is that we came to this. Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Disco King and the Man Who Fell to Earth all came home to roost in this collection, albeit with mixed results.

After the debacle that was Tin Machine, followed by the relative dance floor success of Black Tie, White Noise, Bowie tried his hand at duplicating the cyberpunk world of William Gibson with Outside. Originally envisioned as the first part of a series of non-sequential narratives following the exploits of police detective Nathan Adler Outside reunited Bowie with his “Berlin Trilogy” (Low, Heroes, Lodger) collaborator Brian Eno. While many at the time thought Outside signaled a new direction for the ever-changing Bowie, the project never went beyond this effort. Even at that, it managed to put Bowie at the forefront of industrial dance floor music for a time. Disc Two is testament to that, laden as it is with remixes, most notably Trent Reznor’s alternative mix of “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.”

On 1997’s Earthling, Bowie expanded on the industrial-techno framework of Outside, imbedding it throughout with the “drums ‘n’ bass” mix wildly popular in London dance floors. It was his first self-produced album since Diamond Dogs, and it was something of a techno hit. But Bowie found himself overshadowed by the Nine Inch Nails remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” the “Dead Man Walking” version mixed by Moby, both featured on Disc Two. Bowie, however inadvertently, had found himself in the position of being source material for the next generation.

Bowie bade farewell to the end of the last millennium in 1999 with ‘hours…’ a transitional work that was steeped in introspection, as evidenced by “All the Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” After the experimentation that marked most of his work in the nineties, this album seemed almost like Bowie’s swan song, and in some ways, it was. With it, he severed his ties with Virgin Records, and ended his relationship with Reeves Gabrels, his guitarist and musical partner since the Tin Machine days. Disc Two veers away from techno remixes as well, concentrating more on mixes that were adapted to film soundtracks, or were paeans to the man himself.

With the release of Heathen in 2002, the Thin White Duke was redefined once again, this time as a culmination of all the themes and personae Bowie had explored throughout his career. If some of his work in the nineties suggested that he had fallen prey to Aging Rocker’s Syndrome, Heathen dispelled such assertions. His first album on his own ISO label (distributed by Sony Legacy) found him working once again with longtime producer Tony Visconti, who had worked on and off with Bowie since the early seventies. The resultant album was a work that found Bowie at last comfortable in his own skin, and was his highest charting work since Let’s Dance. The entire album exudes a confidence and power borne of acceptance of aging. In fact, it takes a second listen to realize that his versions of “I’ve been Waiting for You” (Neil Young), “Cactus” (the Pixies) and “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy) are covers. Disc Two features a Moby remix of “Sunday” and a 1979 outtake (deservedly so) of “Panic in Detroit.”

Reality followed in 2003, and continued the premises laid forth in Heathen, once again finding Bowie being Bowie, relishing his past while living in the present. Besides a diverse wealth of original material, it features Bowie’s take on Johnathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso”, and a haunting version of George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some.” The centerpiece of the work, though is the nearly eight minute song “Bring Me the Disco King,” a loopy lounge lizard piano and sax piece of subtle self-deprecation that also encapsulates the failed invincibility of the eighties. Disc Two features several nuggets, most notable being “Rebel Rebel” and updated versions of same, appropriately titled “Rebel Never Gets Old.”

In Bowie’s case, truer words were never spoken. While a mild heart attack in 2004 cut a world tour in support of Reality short, and may partially explain why he hasn’t released an album in the interim, it hasn’t kept him from the public eye. In 2006, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. And though he says he’s taking a break from performing and recording, he continues to show up for impromptu gigs with artists ranging from Alicia Keys to Arcade Fire. He’s even rumored to be working on a rock opera adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen. Even now, over thirty-five years since he launched his career, Bowie remains an enigma.

David Bowie Box offers an important, if sometimes overlooked, part of his overall portrait. At this stage in his career, Bowie wasn’t as interested in being a superstar as he was in sharing what he’d learned with a new generation of musical rebels. In the process, he achieved both. Just as Harlan Ellison became the spokesman for a generation of speculative fiction writers, Bowie was a prime mover in the evolution of rock music. The five albums represented here, along with the five bonus discs included, are testament to that. The albums stand on their own, inconsistent though they may seem on first listen. And the various remixes, outtakes and alternate versions may be a bit much to take in at once. Still, this ten disc set is a comprehensive history of Bowie’s continuing influence on the evolution of modern music. It only leaves us with one question: where will the Thin White Duke next take us?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Dexter's Dark Days
There was a time—mostly during Season One—when Dexter could do no wrong. He was a Merry Prankster of Mayhem, deftly darting between the pastel hues of a cartoon Miami by day, and its opaquely sinister washes by night. Sure, he was a serial killer, but he only killed really bad people the law couldn’t, or wouldn’t, touch. He was an Everyman, just getting through the complications of work and love by day, while dispensing deadly judge, jury and executioner justice by night. It was all implied—you never saw him actually dismember anybody, but you knew retribution had been served, and that the next morning would be bathed in watercolor sunlight. Dexter was a dark avenger, a whimsical comic book kind of guy who would go out of his way to bring doughnuts to his friends, while not giving a second thought to chopping evildoers into fish food. It was that comical dichotomy that made him so endearing.

Season Two has been no such picnic for either Dexter or the viewer. Even though it opened with promising Dexter inner monologue, “I really need to. . .kill somebody,” much of the season has found him confronting his demons within and without, while attempting to maintain his unflappable façade. Even before the first episode was over, treasure hunting divers inadvertently came across Dexter’s underwater dumping ground, prompting an FBI manhunt for the killer the press dubbed “the Bay Harbor Butcher.” It certainly doesn’t help that the Feds have assigned their superstar manhunter, Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine) to oversee the investigation. To complicate matters even more, Dexter’s adoptive sister, Deb, is in a May-December romantic relationship with the Zen-like Lundy.

On top of all that, Dexter’s blossoming relationship with Rita has apparently gone to hell, due in no small part to his dalliances with his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, Lila (Jaime Murray). She’s a perfect counterpoint to Dexter—where he’s cautious, she’s reckless, where he attempts to hide his true self, she wears her persona like a badge. For all her superficialities, though, there’s something very dark about her, and her motives may be even more twisted than Dexter’s.

Then there’s Doakes. He’s been a foil for Dexter from Day One, He’s been steadfastly pursuing Dexter since this season’s first episode. The question that arises is, why? It’s been established that Doakes has his own dark past, some of it having to do with his military Special Ops past, and he’s not above eliminating bad guys without benefit of due process. Now that Dexter has him imprisoned, Doakes might be a source of clues to Dexter’s origins.

Agent Lundy may be the most dangerous of them all, however. He’s too studied for his act to be real. For all his Eastern philosophy, he’s a predator, lying in wait for his prey to make a fatal misstep. He’s more feline than mantis, constantly throwing Dexter off track. Does he really believe Doakes is the Bay Harbor Butcher, or is that a mere ploy to flush out Dexter? Does he actually care for Deb, or is his relationship with her a ploy to bring the killer to justice?

There are only three episodes left in this season of Dexter. Since Showtime has already announced a third season, Dexter will obviously find a way to elude all the potential traps laid before him. In the meantime, the writers have laid out a scenario that leaves the viewer bewildered at best. It’s an ingenious mystery that twists serpentine through the darkest corridors of Dexter’s mind. He’s no longer a Merry Prankster—he’s more akin to a trapped animal. He’s perverted his much vaunted Harry’s code to make not getting caught his prime directive.

How it will all play out is anybody’s guess. Dexter the TV series parallels Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, but is by no means an adaptation. It’s safe to assume that somebody is not going to survive this season. I’m not going to even hazard a guess as to who dies.
The genius of Dexter is that it defies all guesses, and goes in totally unexpected tangents. Yeah, it’s twisted that we find ourselves empathizing with a character who’s gone beyond the sociopathic and teeters on the edge of all-out psychopathy. On the other hand, Dexter affords us a refuge from the realities of evil. It’s creepy to realize a monster slumbers in all of us, but it’s also liberating. If nothing else, Dexter shows it’s best to let sleeping monsters lie.

Dexter airs Sunday nights on Showtime, with repeats throughout the week. It is the best show on American television—bar none. It’s the only series I can think of that’s consistently compelling, and certainly the only series that keeps me guessing. If you have cable, but don’t have Showtime, you’re missing the only programs worth watching on a regular basis..

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Injecting Sound into Your Skull



Back in the day, I wasn’t a huge fan of headphones. No matter how people tried to convince me I couldn’t really appreciate Dark Side of the Moon until I heard it blasting directly into my lobes, I just couldn’t sit tethered to a stereo system. Consequently, my neighbors were treated to an ever-changing cornucopia of my musical tastes, probably to their betterment. In the meantime, I was blissfully surrounded in sound, courtesy of my Cerwin-Vega PA speakers.

Of course, that was before late night knocks on my door from the local constabulary warning me my neighbors didn’t necessarily share my musical affections. I went through a number of headphones as a result of those visits, and even begrudgingly learned to appreciate them. That was also before the tinny advent of earbuds and their greatest champion, the MP3 player. Maybe my ears are just shaped wrong, or perhaps I had a psychological aversion to audio q-tips in my lobes, but the buds never quite worked for me.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. Earbuds may offer a certain convenience in size, but they’re a throwback to the portable transistor radio—they simply don’t offer a full sound. Plus, they aren’t really designed for an active lifestyle. So it’s no wonder that a growing number of people have gone retro and embraced headphones as the way to enjoy their music on the go. Headphones designed specifically for MP3 players is a a growing market, and no company has embraced it more than Skullcandy. They offer a full array of headphones (and even earbuds) engineered with audio excellence in mind. They also look really cool, as headphones go, to give that certain street cred oomph.

Skullcandy takes it up a notch with the MFM Pro Mp3 Player Headphones. Endorsed by renowned snowboarder Marc Frank Montoya, these DJ- style phones also offer an integrated, detachable 1 gig MP3 player.

These are a first of their kind headphones, offering superior sound quality for the price (just around $200) and are also equipped with a detachable MP3 player/ recorder that works independently of the phones. I love the design and function of the MFM headphones, having lived with them for three months now.

There’s quite a bit to love about these headphones, as these specs will attest:

-Built-in detachable MP3 player with direct USB upload/download-DJ style headset with 90 degree swivel earcups
-Optional battery pack instantly turns the built-in 1 GIG MP3 into a portable MP3 player- -Plays MP3, WMA & DRM files
-1 GIG Flash memory for music or data-Built-in voice recorder, with voice activated recording (VAD) support-Deleting files is possible from the device-MP3 Player can be used as a mass storage device-USB v1.1-40mm power drivers-Auxiliary audio jack with detachable connection cable
-MP3 Player can be used as a mass storage device-Headphones can be used with other audio devices-MP3 player can be used with other headphones

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What sets these phones apart from anything else on the market is the integrated MP3 player. Slightly smaller than a Zippo lighter, it fits snugly into one earphone for use with the headphones. With a 1 GIG flash memory, it hardly competes with iPods, but that’s not its intent. The MFM headphones aren’t really designed for sedentary audiophiles—they take an active lifestyle for granted. The 1 GIG memory stores over an hour of music—plenty of space to serve as a soundtrack for a workout, or even a trip to the local grocer.

The MP3 player also functions as a voice-activated recorder when separated from the headphones. It’s good for “notes to self”, but doesn’t have the range to go beyond that. Still, it’s a nice touch.

The headphones themselves, equipped with 40mm power drivers, are very good at high and low frequencies, as might be expected in a package designed for the action-oriented. Bass thumps in your jaws when you wear these phones—I found Johnny Cash and Jay-Z particularly pleasing. More intricate music, particularly jazz, loses a bit in the mid-range, doesn’t fare quite as well, as some nuances are given up to bass and high end.

It’s a miniscule price to pay when you consider the advantages of the package as a whole. I’ve used the MFM headphones during runs, and have become addicted to them as my computer headphones, as well. If you’re looking for an all-purpose set of headphones, you’d be hard-pressed to surpass the MFM Pros.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Dexter and the Writers' Strike
Think of the writers’ strike as pennies from heaven. If nothing else, it’s spared us from the hype of the November sweeps. Consequently, there are no “very special episodes” of The Big Bang Theory or The Bionic Woman competing for our limited attention spans. On the downside, Deal or No Deal and Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? are suddenly elevated to requisite viewing status.

Truth to tell, it’s been a lackluster season thus far. Not one new series can be considered a hit, and returning series are either stumbling or retreading familiar ground. That’s understandable when you’re dealing with something like the CSI franchise, but Heroes can ill afford to get lazy after one season. The high hopes I had back in September are all but dashed at this point. I eagerly anticipated Cane, only to see it disintegrate into a terminally boring soap opera by its third episode. I liked the unlikely premise of Life, but it’s degenerating into a procedural crime drama.

As grim as all that may sound, there is a silver lining. Series that were largely overlooked or ignored have a shot at finding an audience. Pushing Daisies and Moonlight, for instance, have a cult following of sorts already, and with reruns across the board, they’re in a position to reach a wider audience. On the other hand, serial-based programs like Desperate Housewives and Journeyman don’t play well in reruns, and may fall by the wayside.

However it shakes out, network television has to rethink its strategies. It’s not going to be enough to rerun shows via the Internet for a few pennies more ad revenue. The networks are pinning a lot of their hopes on so-called “new media” without thinking through its implications. That’s the main bone of contention the Writer’s Guild has with producers now. It’s not that the writers (without whom there would be no series) are opposed to exploring new media—they merely want to be compensated fairly for work they’ve already produced.

Admittedly, the finished product on the small screen has been largely lacking this season, but much of that can be blamed on “the art by committee” mindset that’s always permeated Hollywood. After all the meetings and rewrites and more meetings, what’s eventually seen on the tube has little resemblance to the original script. It’s all about compromise and getting product before the consumer. If it doesn’t play well on mainstream networks, no matter--there’s always basic cable. And if the Sci-Fi Channel or USA can’t move it, the Internet is a tertiary market. It ain’t art. It’s a commodity. And you’d be well advised to remember that. The networks exist to sell advertising. Anything beyond that is happenstance.

If it’s any semblance of art you’re looking for, you’re going to have to turn to PBS, or shell out a few pesos for premium cable. It’s indisputable that HBO pioneered the concept of bringing high quality drama, unfettered by commercial interests, to television. After the conclusion of The Sopranos, however, the network has laid relatively low, with Entourage probably their biggest original draw at this point.

Showtime has wasted no time picking up the slack left by HBO. Four original series airing on Showtime—specifically, Dexter, Brotherhood, Weeds and Californication—not only offer a refuge from the mainstream networks’ mediocrity, they may signal a revolution in television storytelling. At their core, all four of these programs are rooted in the mainstay of television themes: the trials and tribulations of familial relationships. If, as Shakespeare said, there are only seven basic plots, then it’s ultimately up to the writer to spin those plots into innumerable variations.

The writers on these programs have done exactly that, taking that basic theme of family and propelling it into regions rarely explored in cinema, much less television. On the surface, Dexter may be about a vigilante serial killer on the surface, but on a deeper level, it’s more about balancing secrets with relationships. Brotherhood explores the workings of the Irish mob and political machinations, but it can’t escape its meddling mom core. Weeds is much more aligned to the plight of single mothers providing for their family than it is with dealing drugs. Conversely, Californication isn’t about a reprobate writer—it’s more concerned with a dispossessed father attempting to reconnect with his family.

Admittedly, these shows were unaffected by the writers’ strike, since they had wrapped season’s production beforehand. More importantly, though, they demonstrate there is no dearth of writing talent in Hollywood. And I’m by no means saying that everything on the TV screen should be geared to adults—Dora the Explorer is a case in point. By and large, however, network television, through no fault of the creative process, takes the path of least resistance. Rather than finance ventures that might challenge, or even educate the viewer, the studio execs continue down the timeworn path of the lowest common denominator. An engaging story is secondary—how well it will move product is paramount.
If Internet revenue will move product, the execs and producers reason, it bodes well for the industry, and adds another source of revenue that ensures television will flourish in the face of new media. After all, if the programs are already produced, there’s really no sound business reason to further compensate work for hire writers. It’s much more fiscally sound to put that unknown profit into corporate coffers.

That’s their reasoning, anyway. The fallacy is that were it not for the writers, they wouldn’t have product to tool around new media in the first place. But, they say on one hand, the Internet and downloads may only account for a tiny percentage of revenue. Privately, they’re predicting unbridled growth in its untapped potential. It’s revenue they don’t want to share with writers. Directors and producers have secured their deals in the face of all this, and writers are at the bottom of the food chain when considering film.

While it may be considered a director’s medium, one fact remains. Everything we see on the screen, whether it’s an action-packed thriller a yuppie- friendly comedy or a WWII documentary, began as a thought in a writer’s brain. Without writers sharing their thoughts, however outlandish or mundane they may be, we’d all be watching white noise.

With the exception of premium cable, I can’t escape the feeling I already am.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Two Jakes and the Trilogy that Never Was
It’s not absolutely necessary to have seen Chinatown to appreciate its sequel, The Two Jakes, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Originally designed as the second installment of a trilogy about the rise and fall of Los Angeles, The Two Jakes takes up where Chinatown left off, albeit some eleven years later.

Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) has prospered in the ensuing years since the events of Chinatown. He returned from WWII as something of a hero (though what he did isn’t specified), owns the building from which he does business, belongs to a country club, enjoys golf and has a more or less fiancée. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, though—he’s still a gumshoe at heart. And he’s not even remotely chagrined that his business largely hinges on marital philandering. By all appearances, he’s middle-age successful and happy.

In the best tradition of the noir detective, things for Jake Gittes are never what they appear to be. The years have been have been kind to him, but the past still haunts his subconscious. As the film opens, he’s cocky and cynical to a fault. He’s “the leper with the most fingers”, as he puts it. But when he finds himself embroiled in a divorce case that may have been a pretext for murder, he’s forced to realize the past is always lurking just over his shoulder.

Originally intended as the second part of a trilogy about the despoiling of Los Angeles, The Two Jakes never really achieves the murky atmosphere of Chinatown. Water rights were at the core of Chinatown, and darkness prevailed as its metaphor. In The Two Jakes, oil serves as the root of evil, and most of the film is shot in bright sunny hues. At the core of both films, though, is the nature of how the past is omnipresent. The orange groves in Chinatown are mowed under to make room for suburban developments in The Two Jakes. It’s a post-war America, so full of optimism for a future, it’s blindsided by its past.

Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) is a sympathetic foil for Gittes. Like Gittes, Berman has returned from the war scarred but optimistic in his hopes for the future. He may or may not have murdered his business partner, but his love for his wandering wife (Meg Tilley) is undeniable. She, of course, has her own dark past, inextricably linked to Gittes. It’s all the stuff of great noir, but Robert Towne’s script meanders too much to make it truly compelling. Admittedly, this film had a troubled gestation, and fell victim to numerous rewrites, some of which were done by Nicholson himself.

Where The Two Jakes falls short is in Nicholson’s direction. As good as he is as an actor, Nicholson is only pedestrian as a director. He has a problem with separating Nicholson the actor from Nicholson the director. As a result, every shot favors Nicholson the narcissist. While he nods to Polanski’s Chinatown, it’s impossible to forget that this emerges as a Jack Nicholson vehicle. Nicholson hints at that in the DVD’s only special feature, a featurette entitled “Jack on Jakes.”

To be sure, The Two Jakes is a flawed film. Considering it was conceived as a bridge in a trilogy that never happened, however, it remains a minor treasure in the evolution of neo noir. The plot is convoluted, disjointed and only hints at the evils it attempts to purvey. Nonetheless, beneath its watercolor landscape, it manages to convey the taut coil of the emerging cynicism of America as portrayed by Los Angeles.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Remembering a Blues Great
Every kid growing up in Texas who ever picked up a guitar wanted to play the blues at one time or another. You can hear it in any music that’s ever come out of Texas, whether it’s rock and roll, country and western, or even mainstream pop. Give a Texan a guitar, and strings are going to bend. Playing the blues and making the blues come alive are two different things, however. Stevie Ray Vaughan, in a recording career that barely spanned seven years, reimagined electric blues, and transformed the genre forever.

While most press links Stevie Ray Vaughan to Austin, he had a huge following in Dallas long before his major label debut in 1983. I used to see him and Double Trouble at a tiny venue called St. Christopher’s. It was a pool hall/bar that also booked bands. It didn’t have a stage to speak of—just a corner of the club for the band to play. To call it “intimate” would be charitable—it was the definition of a dive, and I mean that in the most convivial way possible. It was the kind of place that didn’t enforce capacity codes efficiently, but it did have a helluva jukebox. It was always crowded and hot, and when Stevie Ray and Double Trouble played, it was a lot hotter.

You can get a rough idea, albeit a bit cleaned up, as to what St. Christopher’s was like on the “Love Struck Baby” video, which introduces the DVD release of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: Pride and Joy. Originally released shortly after Vaughan’s untimely death in 1990, Pride and Joy was a collection of the six videos released to promote the albums Texas Flood, Couldn’t Stand the Weather and Crossfire. In its original version, it also included a live version of “I’m Leaving You (Commit a Crime)” and a sorta “live” performance of “Superstition.” (The audio from the latter was from a live performance, but the video was staged.)

Technically, the DVD version of Pride and Joy is a reissue of the 1990 release, but only in the narrowest of definitions. This new release not only expands the original’s half-hour length to over 70 minutes, but benefits from remixed stereo and 5.1 Dolby audio enhancements. Besides being crystalline both in audio and video, the DVD also has a clearer sense of Vaughan’s historical significance. Now at seventeen tracks, the DVD is more a chronicle of his too-short career than the ragtag collection of MTV promo clips that the original was.

Those clips are still there, of course, and they still hold up musically, if somewhat dated visually. They date from the days when MTV actually promoted music via video, and still have a certain nostalgic charm about them. Despite their mini-movie style, and even though they hardly showcased the intricacies of his style, it’s a fact they helped promote Vaughan’s abilities to a wider audience. Three previously unreleased performances from MTV’s Unplugged series rectify that. On “Rude Mood,” “Pride and Joy” and “Testify,” Vaughan channels all his flash into a 12-string acoustic, with results every bit as electrifying as his signature Stratocaster performances.

The DVD also includes posthumously released promo videos from the album The Vaughan Brothers, the album Vaughan was working on with his brother Jimmie Vaughan shortly before the helicopter crash that took Stevie Ray’s life. Most haunting, though, is the inclusion of his instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” Besides being a haunting rendition of the tune, it’s a visual montage of great guitarists, most, but not all of whom have passed. There’s a fleeting instant depicting Stevie Ray Vaughan performing.

A talent like Stevie Ray Vaughan comes along only once every couple of generations—and that’s if we’re lucky. The sting of irony is that those talents invariably seem to leave us too quickly. Pride and Joy falls short of being a definitive chronicle of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life. It focuses more on his videos, which were, as the industry demands, oriented to wide audiences. Still, it offers moments of insight into his short life. And it’s all done with his beloved Stratocasters as the main star.

I think he would have wanted it that way.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

In Praise of the Short Film
Film, when you break it down to its most basic, is a shorthand narrative for life. It captures moments never before seen, never to be seen again. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tintype from the 19th century, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster, film records that one moment, real or imagined, destined to be seared into our brains forever. Once it’s stored there, it joins our memories of sound, scent, touch, even taste, to create something unique to each individual. Ask three different people what a film’s about, and odds are you’ll get at least two different opinions. Ask the filmmaker, and you’re likely to get a completely different take. But sit the filmmaker down with one or two audience members, and you’ll end up with some sort of zeitgeist about the film’s real meaning.

Ideally, a film, not unlike a novel, should reflect the filmmaker’s viewpoint while making a universal statement about the human condition. It’s not a perfect world, though, and filmmaking is a largely collaborative effort. Feature films very rarely bear more than a passing resemblance to the writer’s, much less the director’s, original vision. It goes through too many hands for it to be otherwise.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s what makes cinema a unique art form. Still, to understand film, and the motivations of the filmmaker, it’s important to see works stripped of commercial expectations, to see ambitions and views on the screen for exposure to an audience beyond their basements. And that’s one reason the short film is the unsung backbone of the entire film community. It’s in the short film that any aspirations to art within the medium are readily apparent. Because they’re usually made on shoestring budgets, short films are often technically innovative. Above all else, though, the short film represents the filmmaker’s most creative efforts, unhampered by commercial expectations or studio bottom lines.

Cinema16: European Short Films, as its title suggests, is a compilation of sixteen short films from European filmmakers. Actually, Cinema16 compilations have been around in Europe since 2003, but were only available in Region 2 PAL formats, and thus incompatible with the American NTSC format. This volume is the “Special USA Edition,” and is sort of a “best of” of the UK releases “European Short Films” and “British Short Films”, and also includes material not seen on those releases.

It’s an extensive two-disc collection running over three hours that includes cult classics, first efforts, art films and international award winners, all held together by a universal thread of naïve dedication to craft. Beyond that, all sixteen of these little films ring of honesty rarely seen in mainstream productions. Individually, they speak in dialects ranging from satire to earnestness, from whimsical exuberance to bleak stoicism, but they all speak in some way to the human condition.

“The Man without a Head,” by Argentine director Juan Solanas, is the opening film in this collection, and sets the tone for what follows. It’s a parable about the faceless in society, told with humor and style. Andrea Arnold’s “Wasp” takes a decidedly more somber look at that theme with its tale of a single mother of four trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair. Both films have won numerous awards.

Cinema16 offers more than recent shorts, though. Ridley Scott’s first film, “Boy and Bicycle,” finished in 1958, and starring his brother Tony, is represented here. Although it’s a bit tedious, it offers early glimpses of the techniques the Scott brothers would employ in their films that later catapulted them to fame. “Doodlebug,” a three minute student film by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) is an amusing little piece that, according to Nolan, taught him what not to do.

Animation is showcased here, also. Czech surrealist Jan Swankmejer’s 1971 classic “Jabberwocky” is a particularly notable inclusion, given his influence on a number of filmmakers, such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. His influence is felt in 2005’s “Rabbit,” by Run Wrake, a dreamlike fantasy about lost innocence, composed mostly with clip art from a second hand bookstore children’s book. Less obvious, but equally surreal is the Austrian “Copy Shop,” by Virgil Widrich, a wildly imaginative live-action, stop motion hybrid about a copy shop employee who copies himself until he eventually populates the whole world.

The films represented on the Cinema16 collection range in length from three minutes to 23 minutes, and all hit their mark with a precision rarely seen in mainstream film. The economics of independent filmmaking dictate such an approach. As a result, every frame, every word of dialogue propels the story. Nothing is wasted.

Outside of an available audio commentary on all but three of the sixteen films, there are no extras on Cinema16. I t doesn’t need any. It’s a celebration of the medium of film, told as it should be told—visually. For those looking for something with more substance than the Hollywood Hit of the Week, it’s essential viewing. Vastly entertaining, Cinema16 should be required viewing for anybody on either side of the Big Pond who claims to be a student of film technique.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Of Streaming Audio and Fighting Foo
There’s something to be said for audio streams. In the eighties, record labels promoted new album releases with lavish bios printed on heavy stock paper, replete with 8 X 10 glossies and fan lapel buttons. They even sent critics picture discs on occasion. Sometimes, we were even treated to margarita parties and backstage passes.. We loved all that attention, probably a little too much. All the perks and extras made us feel way too special, and diverted our attention away from the core reason any of us there were there in the first place—our devotion to music.

While I’m not knocking the excesses of the eighties (outside of the fact that I’m left with a buttload of promo nonsense, the significance of the moment escaping me 25 years later), I rather like the audio streams the labels often send me now. I know I’m in a bit of a minority among my contemporaries, but the notion that we need a physical object to remind us of the importance the music makes to us strikes me as daft.

Downloaded audio streams force us to focus purely on the music. That’s a good thing, I think. It divorces our opinion from extraneous factors like graphics, microscopic liner notes and lyric sheets, and allows us to concentrate purely on the music. The latest release from Foo Fighters, Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, is a case in point. I had a graphic of the album art—a bomb presumably descending on a target, and the music—nothing else—no liner notes, no lyric sheet, nothing but the music. In other words, it came as a rock critic’s worst nightmare. It’s like flying blind in a snowstorm in the middle night—no press release reference points to guide me, no fan and pan feedback, nothing but the music and me, mano y mano.

Touted as a more “mature” effort, Echoes reunites Dave Grohl and company with Gil Norton, who produced 1988’s The Color and the Shape, arguably the Foos’ best album. In the decade since that album, the Foo Fighters, or at least, Grohl, managed to stay in the fringes of the spotlight. Even though his band was content to play stadiums and festivals, Grohl worked the talk show circuit to the point I could envision him as Letterman’s successor somewhere down the line. Musically, though, Foo Fighters were doing little beyond last year’s fizzled live acoustic album Skin and Bones.

I was really looking forward to Echoes. I was anticipating a triumphant return to rock and roll. Barring that, I was hoping for a reenergized band. I was expecting. . .something more/

I’ve listened to this album several times, hoping it would grow on me. I’ve scrambled the tracks, played it full blast through Skullcandy headphones, tried it out for ambience, tweaked the balance—in short, tried everything the streaming audio offered. No matter what I tried, it still came out the same—there was nothing here I haven’t heard before.

It’s not that it’s a bad album. Even at its worst, Echoes still rocks more than much of the schlock on the radio. But that’s also the problem with it. It sounds as if it were tailored to stand out in a classic rock radio format. There’s nothing adventurous here—it goes from stadium rock standard fare to acoustic romance to bar band crowd pleasers. Like most of Foo Fighters’ work, it plays to an audience torn between Cheap Trick and Nirvana, filling a low end niche in classic rock.

Echoes isn’t terrible. But it could have been better.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dexter, the Dark Defender
Dexter’s had a rough time of it lately. Most of Season Two thus far has focused on his inner turmoils—understandable, since his secret world is in danger of imploding at any moment. In four episodes, he’s had to deal with performance anxiety (unable to kill, or make love to Rita), the watery dumping grounds of his past prey being discovered, fess up to an addiction problem and deal with feelings he denied all through Season One. On top of all this, he has a bloodhound FBI agent (Keith Carradine) who may or may not be hot on his trail.

It’s enough to stress out even the most seasoned vigilante serial killer.

It’s also enough to make even the most dedicated follower of Dexter realize the Season One was a prelude to the essence of the series. No longer is Dexter the objective outsider ridding society of insidious forces who’ve slipped through the flaws of the justice system. This season, Dexter emerges fully realized, replete with the common baggage we all carry. His personal life has moved into a new sphere, and it’s not leaving much time for his dark hobby. After all, balancing a healthy relationship with a widowed mother against a predilection for vivisection requires fortitude.

In episode five, “The Dark Defender,” Dexter is conflicted on several fronts. Rita’s mom (Jo Beth Williams) is convinced Dexter, because he’s attending Addicts Anonymous meetings, is not the right man for her little girl. Rita reacts, as adult daughters with meddling moms often do, by telling mom to shape up or ship out. After all, Dexter is nothing like recently deceased Paul, who abused her incessantly. Dexter is the antithesis of her past relationships, a good influence on not only her, but the kids as well. That’s one way of looking at it, but since neither Rita nor Mom knows about Dexter’s moonlighting activities, it’s understandable.

That’s the least of Dexter’s problems, though. FBI agent Lundy appears to be getting closer to cracking the case of the “Bay Harbor Butcher,” as the press has dubbed the killer who dumped body parts in the ocean. The fact that Lundy is teaming with Deb may be a double-edged sword, however. She wants to find the killer as a way of vindicating herself from the Ice truck Killer, but her involvement in the case does afford Dexter wiggle room in throwing off the investigation.

Then there’s the matter of Dexter’s growing involvement with his AA sponsor, the mysterious, alluring Lila. And therein lays the thread that starts to tie this season into a coherent story on its own. Lila may be Dexter’s savior, or she may be the instrument of his destruction. In this episode, we find that one of the killers of Dexter’s mother is still alive, having ratted on his cohorts and entering a witness protection program. At Lila’s urging (as part of his steps to recovery), Dexter and Lila travel to Naples, FL to confront the killer. What results is Dexter not only confronting the demon, but wrestling with his own demons as well.

To add fuel to the increasingly complex Dexter opus are the side stories. There’s the matter of Doakes, who, despite his upright stance, is not above acting as judge, jury and executioner when situations so prevail. Then, there’s the always evolving machinations of Lt. Maria Guerta, who’s always plotting to further her career. Agent Lundy, despite his Zen-like manner, is hiding something about his past. Deb, understandably, is confronting her own traumas, and perhaps overcompensating to in her personal quest for redemption. In the thick of all this, only Rita and the kids seem innocent, and even that’s debatable.

As complicated as Dexter has become, it’s managed to maintain its razor-sharp sense of humor. When I first wrote about Dexter over a year ago, I said the “character of Dexter is much more aligned to pulp vigilantes like the Shadow than psychos like Ted Bundy.” It’s a point I think the show strived for from the outset. In “The Dark Defender,” it’s made abundantly clear. It’s a sidebar to the plot, but while investigating the murder of a would-be graphic novel author, Dexter discovers the victim was working on a new character called The Dark Defender, inspired by the exploits of the Bay Harbor Butcher.

While it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot, the Dark Defender sequence adds another layer to the already complicated psyche of Dexter. In his heart of hearts, Dexter has always seen himself as something of a superhero, disposing of, as he does, the trash left at the edge of the carpet. The Dark Defender character may become another intrinsic facet of Dexter’s psyche, a counterbalance to his Dark Passenger. Already, Showtime has added a serialized comic strip of the Dark Defender to its Dexter site. It’s rather nicely done, chronicling some of Dexter’s sprees from the point of view of his new alter ego.

is almost halfway through its second season run. How it will all play out is anybody’s guess, since it doesn’t follow the same plot patterns of the novels on which it’s based. One certainty is that however you think it will end, odds are you’re wrong. And that’s the beauty of Dexter. In a season of mostly dreary series, Dexter remains the most daring show on television.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bloodsucking Cinema : A Vampire Primer of Sorts
The vampire is perhaps the most enduring creature of the horror genre. Immortal, soulless, sexually ambiguous, unfettered by any social or moral codes, the vampire represents the dark edges of the collective consciousness. Bloodsucking Cinema, premiering on cable network Starz tonight, traces the origins and evolution of the vampire as a cinematic icon.

From the genre’s origins with the silent classic Nosferatu to contemporary-videogames-as-film like Bloodrayne, this special races through the sub-genres of the vampire movie. It doesn’t go into a great deal of depth, but it does have its entertaining moments. Cheech Marin provides a lot of those in his recounting of the physical horrors of the contact lenses he had to wear during From Dusk til Dawn (“like sticking staples in my eyeballs”).

Bloodsucking Cinema is full of those kind of anecdotes, with appearances by actors and directors of contemporary vampire movies offering little tidbits about the making of their particular films.Whether its Joel Schumacher droning on about how The Lost Boys reinvented the vampire movie, or Jon Landis gleefully explaining why his Innocent Blood was a uniquely sexual twist on the myth, the special has no shortage of auteurs promoting their past glories, real or imagined.

Where the special is at its best is in following the circuitous routes the vampire movie has taken through the decades. The German Expressionism of Nosferatu was the cornerstone of the genre, but it was Todd Browning’s 1931 Dracula that lay the foundation for all vampire movies to come. Oddly, that film also gave birth to the Mexican vampire offshoot of the genre, the influence of which is more pronounced in more recent films. Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk til Dawn and John Carpenter’s Vampires would most likely have never existed without the influence of the vampiro movies.

Bloodsucking Cinema touches on all the variations of the vampire movie—western, noir, comedy, superhero and so on, but never serves up any meat to its thesis. Still, as a primer to the vampire’s dark charms and enduring influence on the horror genre. It’s more promo-mentary than documentary, which is really what it was designed to be.
It’s the lead-in to Starz’ “Fear Fest,” a Halloween weekend marathon of horror titles.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Next. Please.
Speculative fiction writer Philip K. Dick was the mad genius of the genre, pioneering the concept of “inner space” as a storytelling device. The mind was his alien planet, and it was often more unsettling than the environs usually associated with science fiction. It’s no wonder that he’s become a cause celebre since his death in 1982, due in no small part to the success of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it managed to more or less translate his challenges to rigid concepts of reality, and remains one of the greatest films of all time.

The good news is that Blade Runner introduced Dick’s works to a potentially wider audience. The bad news is that subsequent films based on his work usually have little to do with the source material. Next is a case in point. Purportedly based on Dick’s short story “The Golden Man,” Next is actually a poorly conceived action thriller that has absolutely nothing to do with Dick’s original story. That’s not entirely true—in both versions, the protagonist is named Cris, and in both versions, Cris has precognitive powers, but that’s it. Well, there is that mater of golden skin. In the story Cris has golden skin that gives him the ability to seduce others of the opposite sex, and in the movie, Cris (Nicholas Cage) wears a cheap yellow leather jacket, which may explain why Liz (Jessica Biel) is inexplicably drawn to him.

In Next, Nicholas Cage portrays Cris Johnson who, under the stage name of Frank Cadillac, uses his ability to see two minutes into the future (but only where it directly affects him) to do a low rent magic act and supplement his income with low stakes gambling. But he’s haunted by visions of a woman (Jessica Biel) who, for some unexplained reason enables him to see further into the future, but only where it concerns the two of them. So far, so good. Romantic tales have been structured around lesser premises. Still, it raises questions of plausibility.

Plausibility isn’t a major concern of this movie, however. A Russian nuclear device has gone missing, and the FBI has no other way to track it down except to abduct Cris and force him to use his abilities to recover the device before it falls into the wrong hands. The wrong hands in this case are a group of Eurotrash terrorists with no discernible motive or affiliation. It’s not the sort of plot that makes for analysis. In fact, it’s not the sort of plot that holds itself up for anything resembling logic. That would only get in the way of the action.
As an action flick, Next isn’t too bad, in a videogame sort of way. Actually, it’s structured much like a videogame, with every plot development serving to get the protagonist to the next level of play. As a result, romance falls by the wayside, along with international intrigue, lame attempts at social commentary and essentially everything else that has to do with life as we know it. As a trade-off, we’re treated to Rube Goldberg-style landslides, replete with water tanks, SUVs, boulders and sundry debris cascading upon the heroes. We also get an iron-jawed Julianne Moore in an embarrassing action figure performance as the single-minded FBI agent. We get exlosions, bad guys shot from sniper precipices—hell, we even get a nuclear explosion.

What we don’t get is logic, or even an apology for all the whys the movie never addresses. Instead, we find at the end that the entire “plot” of the movie was just another possible outcome. It’s a cheat to be sure, but not surprising. Considering Next went through at least three complete rewrites and various script doctors, it’s a wonder it made it to the screen at all.

As a standard DVD, Next is an alright purchase. The video quality is excellent and the Dolby 5.1 sound is separated seamlessly. The special features are pretty standard fare, consisting of behind the scenes promo films, a feature on the CGI SFX and a pointless interview with Jessica Biel.

There’s nothing really memorable about Next. Like Cris, we see it all coming long before it happens.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Viva Laughlin is Worth a Gamble
Let’s get this facetious comparison out of the way up front. Viva Laughlin is nothing like the ill-fated and poorly titled Cop Rock from a few years ago. Viva Laughlin brings a smile to my face. Cop Rock, even at its best two moments, only made me cringe.

That said, forget about all the “mystery drama with music” hype surrounding Viva Laughlin. To appreciate this series, you’re going to have to suspend disbelief just a wee bit and accept it as the lark it is.
Loosely adapted from the BBC series Viva Blackpool, Viva Laughlin chronicles the adventures of Ripley Holden (Lloyd Owen) and his quest to open a casino in Laughlin, Nevada. Things are going swimmingly until his business partner suddenly withdraws funding, forcing Holden to turn to his arch-rival Nicky Fontana (Hugh Jackman) for help. Matters are further complicated when Holden’s business partner turns up murdered, leaving him as a prime suspect. That Holden has some sort of past with the dead man’s widow, Bunny (Melanie Griffith) doesn’t help Holden.

Meanwhile, Holden’s home life is a bit thorny. His wife Natalie (Madchen Amick) craves a more stable life and a bit more attention. His daughter Cheyenne, all of eighteen, is dating her 42-year old college professor. Son Jack wants to help his father fulfill his dream, even at personal cost. Throw in the obligatory handsome detective (Eric Winter) investigating the murder, and who finds himself attracted to Natalie, add Fontana’s slithery point man Marcus (DB Woodside) and you have all the necessary ingredients for an old-fashioned potboiler.

Admittedly, all of this has been done before, and it’s not the stuff of compelling drama. But that’s not the goal of Viva Laughlin. What the producers (one of whom is Jackman) are doing here is utilizing the time-worn plot devices of basic noir, turning them inside out and sending them to us with a nod and a wink to musical comedy. That’s not to say the series is a musical by any means, but the characters do, at key plot points, tend to sing along, karaoke style, with the background soundtrack. Ripley has a fondness for “Viva Las Vegas” as he makes his financing rounds. The Fontana character is introduced to the strains of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

As strange as it sounds, it’s these little musical moments that make the pilot work. Sure, they border on the hokey, unless, that is, you view them as the absent-minded wanderings of the characters’ thoughts as they go about their business. The musical numbers represent the fantasial workings of the mind when viewed in that context, and actually serve to drive the otherwise thin storyline.

Whether American audiences are willing to accept a series that veers from conventional storytelling to take stylistic risks remains to be seen. Already, some circles are dismissing Viva Laughlin as the worst of the new seasons’ crop. (Those people have not attempted to sit through an episode of Cave Men.) Whether Viva Laughlin can integrate music into the storyline without it becoming forced or stale also remains to be seen.

Either way, Viva Laughlin (airing tonight on CBS, 10 PM, ET/PT, before beginning its regular run Sunday) is worth a look. It’s a fun pilot, painted in comic book colors that call up the winner takes it spirit of Nevada.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Language Bernie Worrell Made
“Genius” is one of the most overused terms on the planet. It’s one of those superlatives writers fall back on to pad faulty arguments about everything and everyone from the latest household cleanser to the newest album by rock stars past their prime. Swifters might be a clever tool for apartment dwellers, but they’re hardly ingenious. A tasty riff on a pop song might move you momentarily, but it’s unlikely to alter the course of civilization, “You Really Got Me” notwithstanding.

Real genius is a little more elusive. It’s made up of moments so inspired, so indefinable, that it’s almost imperceptible at its birth. That’s why it takes us years, decades, even centuries to recognize true genius. Genius is something stentorian, lurking everywhere, a parasite from beyond infecting only a few along the way. So subtle is its presence that those inflicted with it are blissfully unaware of it coursing through their being.

Bernie Worrell is one of those beings. At first glance, he’s an unassuming man in his early sixties, the sort of guy you’d hardly give more than a cordial nod were you to pass him on the street. But you’d notice a certain aura about him, as if you’d known him from somewhere.

And you’d be right. His name may have escaped you, but if you’ve turned on a radio in the last thirty years, you’re familiar with him. A founding member of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, the man who was instrumental in transforming Talking Heads from an uptight white quartet to a world-class funk ensemble, Bernie Worrell is the invisible genius behind modern music.

Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth documents Worrell’s significance in shaping modern pop music. A classically trained child prodigy, Worrell wrote his first concerto at age eight. He had been studying Mozart, Ravel and Bach since the age of four, joined the Washington Symphony Orchestra by the time he was ten and studied at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. He was primed for a career as a classical pianist.

Genius, as it is wont to do with those it inflicts, sent Worrell on a different path, urging him to take the piano to a different sphere, to invent a new language for the keyboard. He found his voice in the clavinet and minimoog, and began laying down the rudiments of the new language in the early days of Parliament-Funkadelic with songs like “Flashlight,” and introduced it full-blown to mainstream audiences with Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” He’s since become one of the most sampled musicians in hip-hop, and is credited in some circles as being responsible for Dr. Dre’s sound. He’s worked with some of the most prominent musicians in pop music, and has shaped almost every electronic sound heard in pop music over the past four decades.

For all his contributions, though, Worrell lives in relative obscurity, a situation with which he doesn’t seem completely uncomfortable. For Worrell, it’s all about the sounds he makes, ever-shifting, always evolving. It’s as if he’s beyond words, articulating instead through the voice of his music. It’s left to those who know and love him to speak on his behalf in Stranger

At 39 minutes, Stranger is more a tribute to Bernie Worrell than anything else. While it does include some vintage P-Funk and Talking Heads footage, it could hardly be categorized as a concert film. And since it takes a soundbite approach to telling its story, it can’t really be classified as a documentary, either. Yet, it emerges as a story, sometimes upbeat, sometimes bittersweet that needs to be told.

Featuring shotgun-style interviews with Talking Heads David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, P-Funk maestros George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes and producer Bill Laswell, among others, a portrait of Bernie Worrell takes shape, nebulous though it is. We begin to see him as a man less concerned with notoriety and fortune than with the mere joy inherent in creation. He is yet another artist who, despite his undeniable influence, has reaped few of the monetary rewards his contemporaries have seen.

If there’s a downside to Stranger, it’s that many of the interviewees worry overmuch that he will die in obscurity, like a nineteenth century impressionist, unrecognized until years after his demise. There’s not much danger of that, though. Bonus material on the DVD, particularly clips from Worrell’s Improviczario sessions illustrate he is as vibrant and innovative as he ever was.

For director Philip Di Fiore, Stranger was obviously a labor of love. Wisely choosing to let musicians who have worked with Worrell through the years propel the story, he’s managed to create a portrait of a man who is too reticent to talk about himself. For those of us who have admired Worrell through his music over the years, it’s an emotional experience. For Worrell and the demon genius—well, they’re busy working on new lexicons. Genius will do that to a guy.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

We Are All Dexter

Now that I’ve had a chance to sample quite a bit of the Fall Season, I have to admit it’s a better than average crop. Crime dramas particularly are breaking away from procedural formula, if only in baby steps. NBC’s Life, ABC’s Pushing Daisies and even CBS’s Moonlight put new wrinkles in the tried and true face of the detective show. Of course, cable paved the way for the new wave of cops, with programs like Monk and The Shield.

As good as these series are, none of them compare with Showtime’s Dexter in terms of chutzpah and originality. The notion of a serial killer who only targets murderers beyond the reach of the law was something unheard of in broadcast television. The fact that he works as a blood splatter expert in the Miami Dade Police Department’s Forensics Division made it all the more enticing. That it was injected with dark humor and compelling characterizations made it irresistible in its first season.

Season Two had a lot of weight to carry if it was to have any chance of not falling into a sophomore rut. In my review of the new season’s first episode, I wasn’t totally convinced the second season was going to be able to maintain the audacity of the first season. Dexter (Michael C. Hall), still in a fugue over having to put his brother down in order to save his adopted sister, looked as if he had lost his mojo. He spared one target and let another one escape. On top of that, his underwater burial ground was discovered. Things didn’t look good for Dexter.

My fears were groundless.

Advance screeners of the first four episodes prove that, if anything, Dexter is even better this go round. Motivations that were only hinted at in the first season are exploited to more fully realized plot devices that carry us more into the universe of Dexter himself, but the worlds of those who surround him. His girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) has evolved from her battered past to emerge as a confident woman who’s resolved to control her life. His sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) is struggling with her own demons, wrestling with her ordeal with the Ice Truck Killer while maintaining her day to day duties on the police force. Doakes (Erik King) has his own agendas as he tails Dexter relentlessly, even as he conceals his own dark past. Lt. Guerta (Lauren Velez) continues to work both sides of the political fence to her own ambitions. Angel Batista (David Zayas) butchers Zen philosophy and Masuka (C. S. Lee) takes misogyny to new levels. Batista and Masuka, played for laughs, may prove to be Dexter’s greatest threat as he weaves through the machinations of bureaucracy and relationships to quell the thirst of his “dark passenger.” His Dark Passenger, of course, is the need that forces him to kill. All Rita knows is he has an addiction (thinking it’s drugs) and forces him to enroll in a treatment program.

Two new characters, Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine) and Lila (Jaime Murray), are poised to complicate Dexter’s life even more. Agent Lundy is the FBI’s top manhunter, sent to Miami after Dexter’s underwater dumping ground was discovered, to ferret out the identity of the killer, dubbed by the press as the “Bay Harbor Butcher.” Lila is Dexter’s NA sponsor, and appears to be in some ways as dark, if not darker, than Dexter himself.
As complicated as all this is, none of it deters Dexter from issuing his own personal brand of justice, as per Harry’s Code. Dexter has matured, but he hasn’t mellowed. He trades in his Taurus for a minivan for purely practical reasons—his relationship with Rita and the kids has grown deeper and he’s thinking in terms of family. Of course, the abundant cargo space and tinted rear side windows also serve his other purposes well.

Unlike last season, Season Two delves into the repercussions of the past. We see Dexter’s prey had families, too, and can’t help but see them as victims in their own right, if only for a moment. His targets were murderers to be sure, and were hardly sympathetic. Still, their disappearances, more than their deaths, caused pain to those they left behind. Since we see all this from Dexter’s point of view, we feel a momentary twinge of guilt.

It doesn’t last long at all.

A huge part of the genius of Dexter is that it forces us to look at ourselves. Intellectually we know that one does not dismember people and dump them in the ocean, regardless of their crimes. Emotionally, however, we see murderers go unpunished, sometimes even thrive after the fact. While very few of us would go to the extremes that Dexter employs, even fewer of us can deny the catharsis we feel when Dexter does his dastardly deeds. It’s escapism at its very best.

Bottom line, we’re all Dexter.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Dexter's Back. He's not Having a Good Day.
The first season of Dexter introduced us to a series unlike anything ever done before. It was dark in a smug sort of way, almost always witty and, let’s face it—funny. Dexter was like a fratboy prankster, inviting us along as he pulled his latest prank. Of course, his pranks inevitably ended up with some deserving soul being dismembered, but that was okay. After all, every one of his victims were vicious killers in their own right, and we felt a certain glee when Dexter sent them to their just rewards. In that first season, grisly details were implied about Dexter’s inclinations, but never explored for what they really were.

The subplots helped make Dexter work in the first season. The failed machinations of Lt. Guerta, the almost paranoiac obsessions of Sgt. Doakes, the familial bonds and the precarious relationships all meshed to make Dexter fascinating and engaging. Above all else, it tapped into our primordial retribution instinct and kept it all light and airy. It wasn’t until its final episodes that the first season of Dexter looked at the consequences of such escapades.

“It’s Alive” opens Season Two, and takes place five and a half weeks after Dexter had to “put down” his long-lost brother Rudy aka the Ice Truck Killer. It’s a trying time for Dexter. Doakes, convinced that Dexter is not the carefree blood splatter expert he appears to be, is shadowing him constantly. To throw Doakes off, Dexter has resorted to filling his nights bowling with some of the guys from the force, whose shirts ironically enough, are emblazoned with the motto “Bowl ‘til You Bleed.”

When he finally does get a chance to pursue his more morbid hobby (this time with a blind voodoo priest whose poisoned at least three people), he freezes, and eventually lets the priest live. Clearly, Dexter is having performance issues. And it’s not just a sudden aversion to killing. He’s blocked, and he has no idea why. When a naked Rita attempts to seduce him with quickie sex, he can’t perform in that arena either.

It could be in part due to sis Deb, recovering from the horror of dating Rudy, rooming with him now. Or perhaps he’s been unable to find a worthy challenge after dispensing with Rudy. If that’s the case, he finds a worthy opponent in Little Chino, a mountain of a man who’s a gang enforcer that appears to be untouchable—witnesses to his murders have a habit of disappearing. When Dexter gets his chance to rid the world of Little Chino, things go terribly awry.

Part of it may have to do with his blossoming relationship with Rita. Besides his intimacy issues, there’s the matter of his setting her ex-, Paul up for life in prison. That issue is resolved in this episode, but it only serves to set the stage for troubles down the line for Dexter and Rita.

To compound Dexter’s problems, sea-diving treasure hunters working off the coast of Florida inadvertently discover Dexter’s “burial ground” in the undersea ravine. Thirty bags (and counting) of dismembered bodies in heavy duty plastic bags tend to make the news, after all. Deb sees the discovery as a way for her to find some closure, and reinvent herself as a detective. Dexter, on the other hand, feels a weight dragging him deeper into an abyss from which there may be no escape.

If “It’s Alive” is any indication, Dexter’s second season looks to delve deeper into the psyches of its characters. It certainly sets up a number of plot complexities, some spilling over from the first season, and new devices that offer a myriad of new developments. This being Dexter, expect the unexpected. To get caught up to the ceremonies, view this episode here. New episodes air on Showtime Sundays @ 10PM EST/PT.

Expect a rollercoaster ride.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Latest L.A. Vampire

It would be easy to dismiss Moonlight as yet another vampire trying to get along in the modern world TV series. It’s already being compared, sight unseen, to Angel. Actually, Moonlight’s themes are more closely aligned to the Beauty and the Beast mythos, with a touch of pre-noir private eye thrown in for luck.
True, Mick St. John (Alex O’Loughlin) is a vampire by circumstance and a private investigator by lifestyle choice. And, yeah, he’s a do-gooder by nature, defying the conventions of vampirism to help the living. He even eschews fresh blood, opting instead for “retail” blood, which he procures from a mortal dealer named Guillermo (Jacob Vargas) who works in the LA County morgue. (How Guillermo knows St. John’s secret isn’t revealed in the pilot episode.)
What we do know is that Mick St. John is eternally 30 years old, thanks to being bitten 60 years ago by his bride, Coraline, who apparently didn’t think the fact she was a vampire was something they should have discussed before getting married. Maybe thinking it might save their troubled marriage, Coraline, in 1982, found a mortal child who could become their “daughter.” That didn’t set well with Mick, so he saved the child and torched the wife.
The child, Beth Turner (Sophia Miles) is grown now, and is an Internet investigative reporter (they have those?). Of course, she’s blonde, ambitious and quick on her feet, even though she works for a tabloid website. When a series of vampire-style murders plague L.A., Mick finds himself suddenly reconnected with Beth. Mick has been assigned by vampire czar Josef Konstantin (Jason Dohring) to get to the bottom of this, and Beth, self-proclaimed media whore that she is, wants that perfect headline.
It sounds very campy, and it is — there are the obligatory shots of the brooding hero, perched on a nighttime rooftop, long black coat lapping about him. There’s also a fair amount of satire. Josef, the 600-year-old vampire, comes off more like a playboy CEO than an evil lord of the undead. In the vampire underworld of Los Angeles, it’s all about business and living the good life. Moonlight manages to make the vampire clichés work — in fact, it turns them on their ear.
It’s all very silly, but it’s just clever enough for a Friday night at home. With the popular chick flick inanities of Ghost Whisperer as a lead-in, Moonlight may have a chance to develop its storyline.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Are there really Rules for Renegades?
If you say nothing else about Christine Comaford-Lynch, you have to admit she’s got moxie. She must have. How else do you explain how she’s gone from model to monk to multimillionaire? Her book, Rules for Renegades: How to Make More Money, Rock Your Career, and Revel in Your Individuality, recounts her unlikely rise and offers simple advice as to how to thrive on your own terms.
According to Rules for Renegades, the secrets to an abundant life of riches can be broken down into ten simple rules:
Rule 1: Everything’s an Illusion, So Pick One That’s Empowering
Rule 2: An MBA is Optional, A GSD is Essential
Rule 3: Problems + Pain = Profit
Rule 4: Build Power Instead of Borrowing It
Rule 5: Rock Rejection and Finesse Failure
Rule 6: Learn to Love Networking
Rule 7: Only You Can Lead Your Life
Rule 8: Work Your Money Mojo
Rule 9: Resign as General Manager of the Universe
Rule 10: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There
It all sounds very empowering on the surface, if a little too cut and dried. Indeed, much of the book reads like a motivational speaker’s notes. Still, Comaford-Lynch’s enthusiasm is infectious, and she backs up her “rules” with solid advice for realizing one’s dreams. Self-empowerment is at the core of her message. There’s nothing particularly new about that, but this book has a different take on it. The author begins with the tenet that if reality is made up of illusions, the best course of action is to build a reality around empowerment. She doesn’t dismiss the value of education, but insists that in the real world, the ability to Get Stuff Done pulls more weight.
She knows whereof she speaks, and unabashedly shares her own triumphs and failures .throughout Rules for Renegades. The anecdotes are really what make the book entertaining, in fact. Particularly amusing is the recounting of her failed attempt to start a company called American Geisha - until she realized what such a venture would actually entail. Comaford-Lynch probably shares more information than she needs to when she reminisces about dalliances with Bill Gates and Larry Ellison, though in context, they’re more life lessons than gossip.
More irreverent than incisive, Rules for Renegades is a light read that’s both entertaining and informative. While some of the advice (like post-it notes affirmations on the bathroom mirror) are a little hokey, the underlying theme still rings true. All in all, this is a valuable resource for anybody tempted to start a business. It’s not a panacea, but it does serve as a compass for the would-be entrepreneur.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Stars with Guitars (finally!)
It’s not often that three good albums are released on the same day. As much as such an event fills me with hope about the future of pop music, it’s also a bit frustrating. I want to give all three their due, and the only way I can do that is to combine them all in one omnibus of a review. It’s not ideal, I’ll admit, but at least it gets the word out that there really is good music out there.
You’re not going to find a lot of shake-your-booty pop here—in fact, you’re not going to find any. What you are going to find is evidence that music is far from its last throes.
And guess what? It still revolves around the guitar.
KT Tunstall: Drastic Fantastic
Considering the runaway success of her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, it’s not surprising that KT Tunstall views stardom as sort of a comic book existence—minus the super powers, of course. It’s not a lifestyle for the faint of heart. If a comic book lifestyle needs a comic book title, you could have a worse title than Drastic Fantastic. And certainly from the album’s packaging, with KT posed like a rock Valkyrie, brandishing a major axe of a guitar, you’d imagine she plans to kick some major ass here.
Well, not exactly.
On this sophomore outing, Tunstall tries on a number of alter egos, from radio-friendly popster to bluesy torcher, but by and large she attacks the material cautiously. Songs like “Little Favours” and “If Only” were designed with radio in mind, channeling equal parts of Chrissie Hynde and Sheryl Crowe at their poppiest. It isn’t until the single cut “Hold On” that Tunstall finds a skin in which she’s comfortable. It’s a somewhat raucous stomp reminiscent of “Black Dog and the Cherry Tree,” and its refrain of “the world will turn if you’re ready or not” tinges it with appropriate angst.
It’s on the more introspective acoustic tracks that Drastic Fantastic is at it most compelling. “Beauty of Uncertainty” and “Someday Soon” are haunting tracks that allow Tunstall to unveil her vocal range, which can stretch from a bluesy rasp to an angelic whisper, often in the same song.
While the album stumbles in places, Drastic Fantastic stands shoulders above the pabulum that passes for pop music today. KT Tunstall has tried on several comic book identities here, but ultimately emerges triumphant.
Eddie Vedder: Into the Wild
Eddie Vedder’s been fronting Pearl Jam for 17 years—hell, for all intents, he’s been Pearl Jam all that time, at least as far as publicity was concerned. It took the coaxing of his buddy Sean Penn to convince Vedder to finally release a solo album, though. Penn’s latest film, Into the Wild, chronicles the ill-fated odyssey of Christopher McCandless, who chunked his worldly possessions to live in the wilds of Alaska.
Vedder's soundtrack album is imbued throughout with an appropriate sense of romantic solitude and desolation. Even though the 11 songs are designed to propel the film’s narrative, they sound as if they were wrenched from Vedder’s own longings. His morose baritone drenches the tracks with a profound sense of world weariness, even as the lyrics struggle with the quest for inner peace.
Vedder’s Into the Wild soundtrack nicely complements the themes of the film. More, it establishes Vedder as a solo artist capable of stretching beyond the confines of rock. These tunes are short and to the point, most lasting only a couple of minutes or less. Even at that, they stand on their own, without histrionics or other such trappings. It’s folksy and acoustic, and speaks to man’s relationship with the American wilderness. As such, it quietly reaches into our collective wanderlust, and pulls out something universal.
Mark Knopfler: Kill to Get Crimson
That Mark Knopfler has a new release should come as no surprise. Since officially disbanding Dire Straits in 1995, his output has been phenomenal, what with scoring films, producing other artists, live events and various collaborations, not to mention four albums released under his name. Killing for Crimson, his fifth solo effort, finds Knopfler in a jovial mood, for the most part.
On a casual listen, Killing to Get Crimson is deceptively understated—a pleasant stroll through a sunny Sunday afternoon. Indeed, the inclusion of accordionist Ian Lowthian and fiddler Ian McCusker on several tracks enhance the largely pastoral feel of the album. But it’s Knopfler’s knack for wry storytelling, punctuated by his finger style guitar that draw the listener into his world.
This is a work that demands repeated listening, if for no other reason than to fully appreciate the delicate nuances of Knopfler’s guitar work. It’s a study in contrast, as he veers from the country flavors of “True Love Will Never Fade” to the more ominous Dire Straits sound of “Punish the Monkey.” Even at its most subtle, the album is full of delights, from Knopfler’s relishes “Hawaiian noises” to Appalachian-inspired riffs to bass-heavy melodic runs.Kill to Get Crimson is the latest evidence of Knopfler’s remarkable talents as a guitarist and songwriter. Like a deep wine, it's music to be sipped and savored.