Saturday, December 31, 2011

“Dragon Tattoo”: Rooney Mara rocks

When it was announced that David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network) was going to direct an American adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, fans of the bestselling thriller were holding their collective breath. After all, the entire trilogy of novels by Stieg Larsson had already been turned into very successful movies in Sweden, with Noomi Rapace giving a star-making performance in the title role. The films were released briefly to theaters in the U.S., but gained a large following on video. There was some doubt if another version of the story needed to be told. Larsson fans needn’t have worried. Fincher’s film is a moody, well-acted thriller.

Daniel Craig (the screen’s current 007) stars as Mikael Blomkvist, a writer/publisher who has just lost a libel case. He is summoned by industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who asks him to solve the decades old disappearance and possible murder of his niece. As Mikael weaves through the strands of family history, he finds some disturbing facts buried beneath the surface. At the same time, Lisbeth Salander, a punkish hacker who is a ward of the state (and has a violent past) is dealing with the loss of her kindly guardian, who has suffered a stroke. A brutish lawyer named Nils Bjurman becomes her new guardian/advisor. When he abuses & attacks her, Lisbeth exacts a horrible revenge. Eventually, Blomkvist’s & Salander’s paths cross, and old secrets & hidden truths are revealed.

In one of the year’s best performances, Rooney Mara fully embodies Salander. It’s an astonishing piece of acting, as amazing & revelatory in its own way as Rapace’s take on the character in the Swedish films. Mara conveys much of Lisbeth’s pain, anger and emotional turmoil with her expressive face, and sometimes with little or no dialogue. Craig is solid as Blomkvist, and familiar faces such as Joely Richardson, Robin Wright and Stellan Skarsgard round out the supporting cast. 

Fincher’s direction is assured and powerful. He was absolutely the right choice for this material, having previously directed the films Se7en and Fight Club. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth's excellent work defines the cool, icy look of the film, as does Trent Reznor’s score. They both enrich the stark atmosphere of the story. The film completely evokes the world of Larsson's novels, and is stylish, electric and often unsettling. In some ways, it's a closer adaptation than the Swedish version, though there are some minor changes to the ending of the novel, which work fairly well in the context of the film.

If you’re looking for a powerful mystery that goes down some chilling roads, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is worth seeing. But, be warned: If you’re not familiar with the book, this is a dark tale, with some disturbing scenes and imagery. The violence isn’t glorified, but this film fully earns its R rating. If you're a fan of the novels, or even the Swedish film adaptation, this version is recommended viewing, especially for Rooney Mara’s incredible performance; she rocks.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!





Wishing A Very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah & Happy New Year to all who have read posts on my blog this year; Thanks to all for your support! Here's a holiday playlist:



1. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love

2. Santa Claus is Coming To Town by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
3. What Christmas Means to Me by Stevie Wonder
4. Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band
5. Donde Esta Santa Claus? by Guster
6. Christmas Wish by NRBQ
7. The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole
8. White Christmas by Bing Crosby
9. Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let It Snow! by Dean Martin
10. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland
11. Santa Claus is Back in Town by Elvis Presley
12. Little Drummer Boy by Joan Jett
13. Merry Christmas Baby by Charles Brown
14. Run Rudolph Run by Chuck Berry
15. Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid
16. Elf’s Lament by Barenaked Ladies
17. Step Into Christmas by Elton John
18. This Christmas by Donny Hathaway
19. Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms
20. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee
21. Sleigh Ride by Ella Fitzgerald
22. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer by Gene Autry
23. Christmastime Is Here by Vince Guaraldi Trio
24. I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake
25. Christmas is The Time To Say I Love You by Billy Squier
26. Christmas at CBGB’s by The Baghdaddios
27. Please Come Home For Christmas by The Eagles
28. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by John Mellencamp
29. Baby It’s Cold Outside by Norah Jones & Willie Nelson
30. Fairytale of New York by The Pogues wth Kirsty MacColl


Bonus Tracks: The Chanukah Song by Adam Sandler 
                       Same Old Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Super" isn't heroic

Super (2010) is a dark, depressing film that never quite gets its tone right. Rainn Wilson (The Office) stars as Frank, a regular guy married to Sarah, a former addict (Liv Tyler). He considers himself blessed to have her in his life, and loves her deeply. When Kate suddenly leaves him for a drug dealer named Jacques, Frank decides to become a superhero and “rescue” her. He starts by taking his anger over the situation out on petty criminals. Frank is aided by Libby (Ellen Page, Juno), who works in a comic book store. She eventually becomes his sidekick. As his quest to save Sarah continues, he becomes even more violent, with tragic results.

Unlike Kick Ass (2010), which has some similar themes, the story, characters and style here don’t mesh. The dark tone is unrelenting, and the violence in the film is ugly; it’s almost too realistic. The characters are under-developed, and not especially likable. Page’s character in particular is off-putting, and it’s tough to empathize with her. And how can we sympathize with Frank when he mercilessly beats on a guy who cuts ahead of him in a line (with a wrench, no less)? When the story ends, we don't feel the same sense of redemption as Frank. By trying to be “real,” the film loses the fantastical tone that energizes most superhero movies. The movie can't have it both ways, and it suffers as result.

The attempts at mixing humor with the story’s darker & more violent moments don’t work. Are we supposed to laugh at the comic book style captions (similar to the 60s Batman TV show) that pop up during the carnage filled finale? The film can’t seem to decide if it’s a straight vigilante tale like Death Wish or a more traditional superhero movie. Unlike films by directors like Quentin Tarantino & Sergio Leone, the balance between the violence & humor isn't as well handled. It’s a shame, because Writer-Director James Gunn has an interesting visual style, and there are a few good satirical moments, including Nathan Fillon as a Bible-inspired superhero who’s idolized by Frank. Had the film’s elements been combined more solidly, Super could have been a minor gem. The film is currently available on DVD & Blu-ray.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Is The Cosmic Plan For Your Life?

What would you do if you found out there was a mysterious “plan” for your life, but you didn't agree with what fate had in store for you? That’s the premise of the intriguing thriller The Adjustment Bureau (2011). David Norris (Matt Damon) is a popular congressman running for a Senate seat in New York. He ends up losing the race, and must give a concession speech. While preparing for the speech, he meets a carefree woman (who's crashed a wedding in the same building) and is captivated by her. She gives him the strength to go out and give an honest speech that helps him move ahead in the world, despite his loss in the race.

Some time later, a man named Harry Mitchell (who has been following David) is given an assignment: Make sure David spills coffee on himself on the way to work. But Harry misses his opportunity. David boards a bus, and runs into Elise (Emily Blunt), the woman he met earlier. The two strike up a conversation, and she gives David her phone number. He’s excited by the prospect of seeing her again, and heads off to his job, eager to tell his co-worker (and former campaign manager) about his meeting with her.

When David arrives at his office, everyone appears to be frozen in place. A mysterious team of people is walking around, wielding weird devices. He’s chased by the group, and taken to a warehouse. A man named Richardson (John Slattery of Mad Men) explains that he is deviating from “The Plan” and the team (including Harry) is here to set things back on track. The group is called “The Adjustment Bureau.”

They appear to be normal men in business suits and hats, but their job is to make sure people’s lives stay on the proper path, set out by “The Chairman.” They are to be able to predict events, and seem to have power over space & time. Richardson tells David he is not destined to be with Elise, and a different path is set out for both of them. They try to keep them apart, but David fights to make his own choices & control his own destiny. And Harry, who had been assigned to watch David, starts to doubt his role in the plan, and may hold the key to the couples' escape.

The movie raises some interesting questions. Is it better for man to have free will, or should we follow a cosmic “plan?” Are these “adjusters” angels, and is “The Chairman” God? This intelligent, well-written film lets the audience come up with its own answers. Damon & Blunt are well cast as the lovers fighting fate, and Terence Stamp (yep, General Zod from Superman II) is excellent as Thompson, another member of “The Bureau” brought in to deal with the issues David is causing by deviating from the plan. Thompson believes that if man has free will, it can only lead to disaster, as it has in the past, when we were allowed to control our own destinies.

Written & Directed by George Nolfi, the movie is based on a short story by the late Philip K. Dick. The celebrated science-fiction writer’s stories have also served as the basis for movies like Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and Minority Report (2002). It’s a thinking person’s thriller, and a neat mix of science fiction, romance and action. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking change of pace, The Adjustment Bureau is a good choice. The film is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Book Lover's Devilish Journey...


In The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, rare book ‘finder” Lucas Corso is hired to authenticate a lost chapter of the Alexandre Dumas classic, The Three Musketeers. This leads him on a journey to find two copies of a rare book called “The Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows.” The book supposedly can be used to contact the devil himself. Corso becomes embroiled in a chase for this unearthly tome, as various allies & enemies try to either aid him or hinder his progress.

Perez-Reverte’s novel features many in-jokes for bibliophiles and lovers of classic literature. Chapter sub-headings include quotes from famous fictional characters, including Poe’s famous detective, Arsene Lupin. As Corso tracks down the book, many pages features drawings, quotes & clues that aid Corso in his search.  We find out information as Corso does, along the way. Much of the trivia & in jokes revolves around The Three Musketeers, as characters & situations reflect those in the famous adventure novel. The novel has elegant settings & interesting characters, including obsessive book dealers, forgers, devil worshippers and a mysterious girl whose origin (and motive for helping Corso) is unclear.

The most well drawn character is Corso himself. He is a lover of books, but has been corrupted by the nature of his work. We get inside his head, and understand how he thinks. He’s been an unscrupulous man, and, as the search goes on, he starts to doubt if he’s taken the right path. The plot keeps you intrigued as the search for the book goes on, with trips to Spain & Portugal along the way, colorfully rendered by the author. The book is a treat for mystery fans that like working out all the angles of a puzzling story. Portions of the novel were turned into the movie The Ninth Gate (1999), starring Johnny Depp, but significant changes were made to the story for the screen adaptation. The Club Dumas is an intriguing book, and fans of literary mysteries will enjoy Perez-Reverte’s thinking man’s thriller.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jason Segel Meets "The Muppets"

The Muppets are back, and Jason Segel’s got them. The gang’s last appearance on screen was in 1999’s Muppets From Space. Enter Muppet fan Segel & co-writer Nicholas Stoller, who went to Disney in 2008 with an idea for a new Muppet film. Segel wanted to do justice to the characters, and make an old school Muppet movie; well, he got his wish. The Muppets (2011) is lighthearted fun in the classic Muppet tradition, with laughs, songs, star cameos, and of course, the Muppet characters we all know & love.

Gary (Segel) lives in Smalltown, USA with his brother Walter (the newest Muppet, created especially for the movie). They’ve grown up loving The Muppets, and are big fans of their shows & movies. When Gary decides to take his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on a trip to California, Walter wants to go along, so he can see The Muppet Studios. But when they arrive, the studio is in dilapidated condition, and the Muppets are no longer together. During the tour, Walter overhears Statler & Waldorf (the hecklers from the TV series) talking with oil magnate Tex Richman, who wants to acquire the land where the studio is located. Unless The Muppets can come up with the 10 million dollars needed to save the studio, the land will go to Richman, who has plans of his own for the property.

In the best “let’s put on a show” tradition, it’s up to Walter, Gary & Mary to help the gang get back together, and put on a telethon to raise the money to save the theater. Along the way, we get re-acquainted with Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear & the whole gang. The slightly off kilter humor that appealed to both adults & kids during the The Muppet Show’s original run from 1976-81 is in evidence here, as are some clever songs & parodies (you’ll never think of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the same way again). Bret McKenzie of the musical comedy duo Flight of The Conchords wrote the original songs for the film. Segel, Adams and The Muppets enthusiastically perform them, along with a reprise of the classic “The Rainbow Connection.” Oh, and The Muppet chickens get to sing Cee-Lo's "Forget You."

Of course, there are also the cameos, from the likes of Alan Arkin, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, and many others (look fast for Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters). And it wouldn’t be a Muppet movie without some zany humor & bad jokes, a few tugs at the heartstrings, and some lessons learned by all. Jason Segel & Amy Adams look like they’re having the time of their lives, and Chris Cooper is appropriately nasty as Tex Richman, the villainous oilman. In this age of fast paced & video game based movies, The Muppets is a refreshingly retro film, well directed by James Bobin with a sense of joy & sheer delight that is infectious.

The Muppets really is one of the best films of the year. It succeeds at being exactly what you want: an engaging, funny, heartfelt Muppet story that can be enjoyed by children of all ages. It’s a movie made with love by people who really care about & appreciate these classic characters. They’ve really done right by them, and I think the late Jim Henson would be proud. One final note; make sure to get to the theatre on time, as the film is preceded by a new Toy Story short from Pixar, that pokes sly fun at the “fast food toy” trend. It’s a really great night at the movies.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Love & Other Drugs: A Good Movie Struggling For Identity

Director Edward Zwick’s Love & Other Drugs (2011) is an interesting movie, an adult love story that has more depth than most of the romantic comedies we see from Hollywood these days. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, who becomes a pharmaceutical sales rep for Pfizer in the mid 90s. Jamie is a smooth talker and a ladies man, and he uses these skills to charm doctor’s assistants into letting him talk to their bosses. He tries to convince them to prescribe Zoloft instead of Prozac, so he can meet his sales goals and get a prime gig in Chicago. On one of his excursions he meets a patient named Maggie, who is suffering from early onset Parkinson’s.

The two have a one-night stand, and initially, neither partner is eager to pursue a relationship. Jamie has never been able to commit, and Maggie doesn’t think anyone can either see past her illness, or deal with the issues associated with it. Meanwhile, a new drug called Viagra is developed, and Jamie becomes a great success selling it. As he develops deeper feelings for Maggie, Jamie tries to show her his feelings are genuine. Maggie tries to come to terms with her feelings about her illness, and finds some empathy and kindred spirits while attending a medical convention with Jamie.

Gyllenhall is good as Jamie, a guy who’s coasted by most of his life on good lucks & charisma, who now has to deal with a real relationship for the first time in his life. Hathaway is excellent as Maggie; she gives a three dimensional portrait of a person struggling with an illness, and the perceptions society has about ‘sick’ people. The script is co-written by director Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz & Charles Randolph. Zwick & Herskovitz were the co-creators of TV’s Thirtysomething (1987-1991), and their writing here has the same strengths (such as strong dialogue & realistic situations) that were the hallmark of that series. An additional note: while the movie is based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy, the love story portrayed in the film is nowhere to be found in the book. However, the details of how the pharmaceutical industry trains its salespeople, and markets its products, add another interesting facet to the story.

Sadly, the movie is saddled with a pointless subplot about Jamie’s well to do brother, who moves in with him after being kicked out by his wife. Essentially, the character allows the movie to indulge in the crude humor and silliness that are more at home in recent films like Bad Teacher or Hall Pass. There’s nothing wrong with that type of comedy, but it has no place in this film, and it hurts the rhythm of the main story. You feel like you’re watching two movies, and the hybrid just doesn’t gel. The movie is still worth a look for the performances of Gyllenhaal & Hathaway, and the fine supporting cast, including such familiar faces as Hank Azaria & Oliver Platt. Director Zwick also makes good use of music in the film, using songs of the period from groups like the Spin Doctors & Fatboy Slim.  But the movie's struggle to balance its two sides ultimately makes it a near miss. The film is now available on Blu-Ray & DVD.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Darkness Inside Us All

Stephen King has long been acknowledged as a master of horror fiction, but what makes his tales resonate with readers is that you can identify with his characters. They are often ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances; some are good, some evil, but King gets inside their heads in a way few authors do. Some critics may vilify him as an author of popcorn fiction, but I think that description sells his best work short. In Full Dark, No Stars, his 2010 collection of short fiction, we get four novella length tales, as well as a bonus short story in the paperback edition. Here’s a brief rundown of the stories:

1922: The opening tale finds a farmer contemplating the murder of his wife, over their disagreement about selling some land. How he accomplishes the murder, with the help of his son, is a scene worthy of some of King’s best short fiction. And what follows is a Poe-style tale of conscience, guilt and terror that could only come from King’s pen. There are some truly chilling scenes in this dark tale.

Big Driver: A mystery writer avenges a brutal attack in this dark tale. Some interesting interior monologues, and a likable main character distinguish this story that asks: how far is too far to go when you decide upon seeking revenge?

Fair Extension: This story is perhaps the closest in style to King’s earlier short fiction, as a cancer-stricken man with bad luck makes a deal with a devilish figure to extend his life, and bring himself some good fortune.  But there is a cost to making that deal, and the man must decide if he’s willing to have success at someone else’s cost.

A Good Marriage: A happily married woman discovers a dark secret about her husband in this story. Do you really know the person that sleeps beside you at night? And what would you do if you found out your spouse had another side you never knew about?  This is an intriguing story that answers that question.

Following a brief Afterword by King, the paperback edition features a bonus short story titled Under The Weather: Just why has Brad’s wife been ill for so long? And why hasn’t anyone seen her? This short tale will give you the answer.

The characters in these stories are all well drawn; some are likable, some are not. But as you read you find yourself wondering if you would make the same choices these people do, given the same circumstances. We may all be just a step away from opening that dark door inside our own souls. It’s to King’s credit that he continues to write compelling fiction that has gone far beyond the “horror” label. If you’re looking for a book that will draw you in, and have you turning the pages all night, Full Dark, No Stars is a worthy addition to your library.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Night Stalker: Classic Kolchak

Science fiction, fantasy & horror aficionados all have their favorite films & television shows, and will discuss their merits and weaknesses for hours. During the 60s & 70s, many TV movies with “fantastic” themes were produced. You might remember films like Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark, Duel, Gargoyles, Salem’s Lot, and one of my favorites, The Night Stalker. Originally aired in 1972, the movie was produced by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Trilogy of Terror) and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. It stars Darren McGavin as down & out reporter Carl Kolchak, who is covering a series of murders in Las Vegas by a serial killer who seems to think he’s a vampire. Or is there more to the story? As Kolchak investigates the murders, he begins to suspect that the killer might actually be a vampire. Of course, the police don’t believe him, and Kolchak follows the killer’s trail, leading to a memorable confrontation. Barry Atwater is chilling as the vampiric Janos Skorzeny, infusing the role with menace and terror without a word of dialogue.

McGavin is excellent as the rumpled, acerbic Kolchak, who also narrates the story. His humorous confrontations with his editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), and the various cops & city officials, are witty and well played. In fact, the mix of horror & humor on display here should be quite recognizable to fans of later films in the genre. The film was written by Richard Matheson, based on a then unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. Matheson also wrote some classic episodes of the original Twilight Zone series, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and many science-fiction & fantasy novels, such as the original I Am LegendWhen the film first aired, it garnered a remarkable audience: a 33.2 rating and a 54 share, becoming the highest rated telefilm up to that point, a record it held for some time afterward. The success of the movie led to a 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler, written by Matheson and produced & directed by Curtis. Kolchak faced another killer, this time in Seattle, an immortal menace portrayed by Richard Anderson, who's best remembered as Steve Austin's boss Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man.

During the 1974-75 season, ABC produced a weekly version entitled Kolchak: The Night Stalker, one of the scariest shows on TV at the time. It featured the intrepid reporter battling demons, mummies, werewolves, and other supernatural beings. I remember watching and being excited to see what creature of the night Kolchak would battle every week. I enjoyed the creepy atmosphere of the show, the humor, and most of all, McGavin as the cynical but determined reporter who never gave up. In battling the monsters, he also had to contend with the authorities, who either didn't believe him, or covered up the true facts. Many familiar faces, including Tom Skerritt, Cathy Lee Crosby, James Gregory, Keenan Wynn and Tom Bosley appeared on the series. The writers included David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, and Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale, the co-writers of Back To The Future. While the show only lasted one season, it has since become a cult classic, and is cited by Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, as a specific influence on that series. In fact, Carter wanted McGavin to portray an older Kolchak on the show, but for various reasons, it never came to pass. McGavin did appear in a couple of episodes as Arthur Dales, an older FBI agent who was “the father of the X-Files.”

Sadly, the original TV movies are now out of print (I own the double feature disc of The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler released by MGM a few years back) but the complete series is available for purchase on DVD. A short-lived remake of the show, starring Stuart Townsend, was produced in 2005 that had none of the flavor of the original. The character has also appeared in some prose fiction & graphic novels from Moonstone Press. Johnny Depp (who is currently starring as vampire Barnabas Collins in Tim Burton’s remake of Dark Shadows) has reportedly purchased the rights to the character, and plans a big-screen update. We’ll see where & when Carl Kolchak next faces off against the forces of darkness. Here's a link to a promo for the original TV movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hedpWMsppE.

From The Night Stalker (1972) :
Kolchak : (regarding the story he's just told): Judge for yourself its believability, and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn't happen here.

From The Night Strangler (1973)Kolchak's opening narration: This is the story behind the most incredible series of murders to ever occur in the city of Seattle, Washington. You never read about them in your local newspapers or heard about them on your local radio or television station. Why? Because the facts were watered down, torn apart, and reassembled... in a word, falsified. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Rite: Faith, Religion & The Nature of Evil


The Rite (2011) directed by Mikael Hafstrom seems to be a story about demonic possession and a typical horror film in the “exorcist” genre. But there’s more going on beneath the surface of this interesting drama.  Colin O’Donoghue stars as Michael Kovak, a young Catholic who works as a mortician in his father’s business. He feels something is missing in his life (and his faith), so he enters the seminary. He doesn’t find the answers he’s seeking as he studies for the priesthood. After his ordination, he writes a letter of resignation to his superior, stating his intent to leave the priesthood.

But Father Matthew (nicely played by Toby Jones) talks him out of leaving; he feels Michael is truly called to be a priest. He asks that Michael consider going to Rome and taking a course on exorcism before making his final decision. The church is making an effort to train more exorcists, as incidences of alleged demonic possession are on the rise. Michael agrees and heads to Rome. He takes the class, taught by a Father Xavier, who, seeing the conflict within Michael, sends him to speak with his friend Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a renowned exorcist. He wants Michael to see there is real evil in the world.

Father Lucas has Michael sit in on an exorcism he performs (in a chilling scene), and even though Michael still has his doubts about the veracity of what he sees, he continues to visit with Father Lucas, until his faith is tested in ways he doesn’t expect. Hopkins, as usual, is excellent as the priest/exorcist, who has some belief issues of his own. Alice Braga is solid in a supporting role as a reporter who is also taking the class, and becomes involved with Michael’s search for faith & redemption. Rutger Hauer shines in a small role as Michael’s father.

When The Rite came out in winter 2011, it was marketed & sold as a horror film, playing up the more supernatural elements of the story, But this is really a film about faith, belief & redemption; though it does have horror-themed elements, they’re not played for the sensational, and are an integral part of the story. That’s not to say there aren’t some scary scenes here for fans of the genre; but this is a solid, well-acted (especially by Hopkins) film, that tells a thoughtful story about faith, redemption & how our own doubts can open the door to our darker natures. The movie is based on the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio, which tells the real life story of Father Gary Thomas, the model for the Michael Kovak character. It’s worth a look, whether you’re looking for a scary rental for Halloween, or a nicely done film about the nature of faith.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Seattle's Pearl Jam At "20"

Brief thoughts on a recent documentary celebrating Pearl Jam's 20th Anniversary:

Pearl Jam Twenty – This absorbing story of the Seattle-based rockers traces the history of the band from its beginnings in the roots of the grunge scene to its’ multiplatinum success in the 90s and beyond. It's directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire), a former rock journalist, who wrote for Rolling Stone in his younger days. The movie gets to the heart of the band’s creative process, and their desire to keep making meaningful music and stay true to their alternative roots while becoming successful. It's a fascinating study of the band.

There’s a treasure trove of performance clips from the group’s beginnings through the present day, as well as incisive interviews with the band’s members, and fellow Seattle rocker Chris Cornell. The movie doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects, including the death of grunge icon Kurt Cobain in 1994, and the group’s boycott of, and court battle against, concert promoters Ticketmaster. But ultimately, this is a story of a band that enjoys making music together, and continues to find themselves creatively energized by one another. Pearl Jam Twenty was originally shown on PBS’ American Masters, and it is also available DVD & Blu-Ray. Here's a link to the film's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEm5gwxRaKU.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Leaves of Grass: An Effective, Offbeat Drama


What if your past came back to haunt you in the present? The 2009 drama Leaves of Grass offers one answer to that question. Bill Kincaid (Norton) is a philosophy professor at Brown University; he’s been successful in the world of academia, and is being courted by Harvard to create a philosophy curriculum within their law school. A phone call from home changes everything. Bill is told his twin brother Brady has been killed. Bill hasn’t been home in years and left his old life behind to start over.

Bill heads home to Tulsa, but discovers Brady (also played by Norton) isn’t dead. He’s hatching a plan to break free of his allegiance to a drug distributor, and start over with his pregnant girlfriend. Brady’s a pot grower, who makes some of the most potent weed in the state. He needs Bill to pose as him as part of his plot to outwit the drug dealer. Bill refuses at first, but is drawn into the plan, and also has to deal with his own demons, and his memories of the family he left behind.

Norton is excellent in the dual role, as the strait-laced Bill, and the free-spirited Brady. He expertly conveys Bill’s reluctance to deal with his old life; the mixed emotions he feels for his brother, and his buried feelings of resentment towards his mother (a nice supporting turn by Susan Sarandon).  As Brady, he shows how the brother who stayed home feels about his sibling, who left his family behind, and never looked back.

The story goes in directions you don’t expect, with moments of drama & pathos mixed with some unexpected black comedy. The fine supporting cast includes Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss and Tim Blake Nelson (who also wrote & directed the film). A soundtrack of Southern style rock & folk is a nice touch that adds flavor to the movie. This is a unique film, a little different from the usual Hollywood product. The closest comparison would be the films of The Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing). If you’re a fan of intelligent dramas that are a little off center, then I recommend you give Leaves of Grass a try.

Monday, October 3, 2011

From R.E.M. to Prince and Beyond...Another Playlist from the Eclectic Avenue Jukebox

As fall begins, here's another random "baker's dozen" playlist to plug into your music device of choice:

1. Call Me Rose by Bruce Cockburn. A quirky, satirical tune from the Canadian folk rocker, about Richard Nixon being reincarnated as.....a girl from the projects?! Great lyrics and nice guitar work from Cockburn on this excellent song, which is featured on his 2011 release, Small Source of Comfort.

2. She Walks In So Many Ways by The Jayhawks from Mockingbird Time. The original lineup of the band returns for their first album since 1995, and they haven't lost their knack for making tuneful country-flavored rock.

3. What You Don't Know About The Girl by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. from Solid State Warrior. Manning was a member of the late, lamented band Jellyfish. On this cut from Manning's 2006 solo album, it sounds like the Partridge Family sent Laurie on a double date with Roger, fellow rocker Matthew Sweet & Karen Carpenter, and they came up with this cool, retro style song.

4. Near Wild Heaven by R.E.M. After 31 years, the seminal Georgia based alterna-rockers recently announced they're calling it quits.  Here's a fantastic song from their classic 1991 album, Out of Time. Thanks for all the music, guys. You'll be missed.

5. Crazy Water by Was (Not Was) from Boo! The soul/funk/rap/rockers groove out on this old fashioned r&b shouter, with vocals by "Sweet Pea" Atkinson. Check out some of their other fine albums, including Born To Laugh At Tornadoes (1983) or What Up, Dog? (1988).

6. Sittin' Pretty by Brendan Benson. Perhaps best known as a member of Jack White's side project The Raconteurs, Benson rocks on this offbeat number from his 1996 debut, One Mississippi.

7. Crimson & Clover by Prince from LOtUS FLOW3RPrince covers Tommy James & The Shondells, and puts his own stamp on this classic song.

8. It Doesn't Matter by The Orange Humble Band from Assorted CreamsA power pop gem from this group, featuring Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, Daryl Mather of The Someloves and famed indie rock producer Mitch Easter. The whole album is excellent and worth a listen, especially if you're a fan of the power pop genre.

9.  You & Your Sister by Chris Bell from I Am The Cosmos. From the late Big Star member's posthumous solo release: a beautiful, emotional, gentle love song. Sadly, we lost Chris in 1978, and this album wasn't released until 1992.

10.  Knowing Me, Knowing You by The Wondermints from The Wonderful World of The Wondermints. This group, best known for backing Brian Wilson on a couple of albums and tours, gives the Abba classic a rock edge on this cool cover.

11.  That's The Way God Planned It by Billy Preston from That's The Way God Planned It. A gospel influenced tune from Preston, who played with everyone from The Beatles & The Rolling Stones to Ray Charles, and had a successful solo career of his own, with hits like "Will It Go Round in Circles."

12. I Can't Be Without You by Lenny Kravitz. A lover's plea that builds in intensity & emotion as the song goes on; from Lenny's latest album, Black & White In America.

13. Something To Fall Back On by Todd Rundgren. From the 1985 album A Cappella; a unique release from Todd, as every sound on the album was the product of the artist's voice, via some overdubs and sampling. A great song from a talented artist who doesn't always get the respect he deserves.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bruce Cockburn: Songs & Stories at FTC

Bruce Cockburn, a highly-regarded Canadian folk rocker & singer-songwriter, has been making great music since his first album was released in 1970. He’s well known for his emotional lyrics, covering subject matter from the spiritual & emotional to the political. His songs have been covered by a diverse group of artists including Barenaked Ladies, Judy Collins, Jimmy Buffett and Ani DiFranco, and his fans include Jackson Browne & Emmylou Harris. Thursday night he made a stop in CT at The Fairfield Theatre Company on his Solo Acoustic tour. It was a magnetic, emotional performance of songs such as Last Night of The World, Child of The Wind, and Lovers in a Dangerous Time.

Cockburn also featured a sampling of tunes from his latest album Small Source of Comfort, including “Call Me Rose,” about Richard Nixon reincarnated as a girl in the projects. He has a loyal, passionate legion of fans. There was a spirited audience sing along on “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” his only US top 40 hit. Cockburn is also a great guitarist; he performed some excellent instrumental pieces during the show.

He told some stories about the origins of the songs performed during the evening. Cockburn is well known for his political & humanitarian activism. Bruce was visiting Afghanistan when the bodies of two Canadian servicemen killed in action were sent home. The artist was present when the plane returning their bodies took off, and said it was a very moving experience, so he was inspired to write the touching, elegiac “Each One Lost.”

Even if you don’t know much about the man & his music, if you appreciate excellent lyrics, emotional performances and some fantastic guitar work, I suggest you head out to see Bruce on this tour, and check out some of his music on CD. The collection Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere: Singles 1979-2002, is a great starting point, as is the aforementioned, excellent new album, Small Source of Comfort.

An additional note: The wonderful thing about seeing artists perform at these smaller performance spaces is that you're often given the opportunity to meet them after the concert, which doesn't generally happen at the larger venues. Bruce very kindly took time out to meet fans & sign CDs after the show. He was a friendly guy, and very appreciative of his fans. A nice way to end a wonderful evening of music.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Fab Faux: Live At The Klein

The music of The Beatles continues to inspire us more than forty years after their break up in 1970. There are many tribute bands that perform the songs of the group, but one of the best is The Fab Faux, a group of diverse musicians who have worked with many of the top names in the music industry. Founded in 1998 by Will Lee, longtime bassist for The Late Show with David Letterman’s house band, the group is dedicated to giving amazing performances of The Beatles’ music, playing many songs the group never got to perform on stage during their existence, as they essentially ceased performing live in 1966.  The Fab Faux has performed all over the world, with artists as diverse as Joan Osborne, Trey Anastasio (Phish), and Denny Laine (Wings). They celebrated their 10th anniversary in 2008 with a sold out show at Radio City Music Hall.

On Saturday, September 10, the group appeared at The Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport, CT. The concert was simply fantastic. This is no mere “cover band.” These talented musicians play these songs because they love them, and want to share that love with the audience.  Their passion for this music shines through every note. Energetic performances of songs like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Strawberry Fields Forever, Day Tripper and A Hard Day’s Night” were part of the first set, which spanned The Beatles’ entire catalog. Accompanied by the talented Hogshead Horns and Creme Tangerine Strings, the band had the crowd cheering and singing along throughout the night. Many of these songs are part of our musical DNA, and you can't help but enjoy yourself (or recall some musically charged memories of your own) when you hear them.

After a brief intermission, the group returned to play the classic album Abbey Road in its entirety, and in sequence.  It was a knockout performance. The artistry, sheer talent & enthusiasm of this band shone through as they tore into such classics as “Come Together, Something & Here Comes The Sun” and the complex medley that climaxes the original album. All of the members trade off on vocals (and sometimes instruments), making for an eclectic, entertaining evening. I could write kudos and accolades about every performance, every solo, and every vocal, but I’d be going on & on for pages. The encore consisted of “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “All You Need Is Love,” (a dedication by the band to those we lost on 9/11, and a call for peace in the world), and it was a fitting climax to a wonderful evening. If you weren’t a fan when you entered The Klein, you certainly left as one. If you are a fan of The Beatles’ music, and enjoy seeing a wonderful evening of great music, I heartily recommend checking out this group. The Fab Faux carries on the legacy of the greatest band of all time in excellent fashion.


Note: To learn more about the band, or see a schedule of performances, I suggest visiting their website at: http://www.thefabfaux.com/. There are also a number of links to their performances on You Tube, including this one, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRnrbOcjyZY. The photos above are not intended to infringe on any copyright.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Triumph of a Rock & Roll Survivor


The first thing you notice (or hear) is the voice. Floating out into the audience, on songs like “Baby, I Love You.” It may have deepened a bit over the years, but it still sounds wonderful. Then, you hear Ronnie Spector’s story, in her own words, and you appreciate her journey & perseverance on a whole new level. On Friday, September 9, the audience was treated to a heartfelt, emotional performance, as Ronnie Spector brought her one-woman show Beyond The Beehive to The Kate in Old Saybrook.

Ronnie tells her life story in words, pictures & songs, accompanied by an excellent backing group. We hear about her younger days growing up as Veronica Bennett, a multiracial child in New York; her father was Irish and her mother was Cherokee Indian and African-American. Ronnie’s lifelong love of music leads her to form a group with her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley.  Later known as The Ronettes, the group performs around New York City, including gigs as dancers & backup singers at the famed Peppermint Lounge.

Once Phil Spector enters her life, The Ronettes find fame with classic hits like “Be My Baby” and tour England with The Beatles & The Rolling Stones. Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” style production combined with Ronnie's wonderful voice, leads to many chart successes for the group. And Phil Spector has hits with other acts, including The Crystals & The Righteous Brothers. But there was a dark side to Spector’s personality, and his possessiveness of Ronnie (they married in 1968), lead to her becoming a virtual prisoner in his mansion. Barred from performing or even leaving the house, and subject to mental & physical abuse, she finally left Spector in 1973. But he would still cast a dark cloud over her life in years to come, as she relates during the show.

Ronnie details the highs & lows of her life with frankness, humor & a touch of sadness. The stories are amazing; encounters with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and a young Sonny & Cher (who also worked for Phil Spector), among others. Ronnie’s voice & style inspired a generation of rockers, and many of them wrote songs for her, and produced sessions for her, including Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Joey Ramone & Billy Joel. As she makes her long climb back to the top, you can’t help but be inspired by her story.

Along with the stories, words & pictures are the songs: “The Best Part of Breakin’ Up, Walking in the Rain, I Can Hear Music, Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” and of course “Be My Baby.” Powerful, expressive performances of songs that everyone in the rock & roll generation remembers.  And Ronnie’s story isn’t over. It’s a story of triumph over adversity and the things life can throw at you. Beyond The Beehive isn’t just a show: It’s the testament of a true rock & roll survivor.  It’s well worth seeing, and if the show (or Ronnie doing a regular concert appearance) comes to your area, you owe to yourself to check out this amazing woman; she’s a true legend, and an unforgettable performer.

Note: Ronnie’s latest album “Last of The Rock Stars,” was released in 2009, and features guest appearances by Keith Richards, members of The Raconteurs and Patti Smith, and it’s also worth checking out. Full disclosure: This reviewer got to meet her (briefly) and she's a warm, genuine person who really cares about her fans.







Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Another Random Playlist...

As we hit the mid-point in the first full week of September, here's another "Baker's Dozen" playlist from the Eclectic Avenue iTunes jukebox...

1.         Galveston by Glen Campbell from All The Best. The soaring production and Campbell’s plaintive vocals imbue Jimmy Webb’s lyrics with pathos, as the song tells the story of a soldier who is thinking of his love while he’s away at war. The recent announcement that Campbell is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, (and releasing one last album and doing one more tour) adds an extra level of poignancy to his music.

2.         September Gurls by The Bangles from Different Light. The group who brought us “Walk Like An Egyptian” faithfully cover Alex Chilton’s classic from his days with Big Star. Bassist Michael Steele admirably handles the lead vocals on this one.

3.         I Hope That Something Better Comes Along by Matt Nathanson. Folk rocker Nathanson covers this tune from 1979's The Muppet Movie on the new The Green Album tribute disc, which has a host of alternative rockers covering Muppet songs from their films and the classic TV show.

4.         Say Goodbye to Hollywood by Ronnie Spector (with the E Street Band). Produced by E Street’s Little Steven, girl group icon Spector takes Billy Joel’s song and makes it her own. (Reportedly, Joel actually wrote the song with Ronnie in mind). Originally released as a single, it can be found as a bonus track on the album Dangerous.

5.         One Night Stand by Lemon from Changing Into Me. Lemon brings back 80s style soul with this stylish tune, which has a retro sound but combines it with a modern sensibility.

6.         Love’s A Mystery (I Don’t Understand) from Remote Control by The Tubes. The Tubes (and producer Todd Rundgren) combine forces on this ballad and mix The Tubes’ sound with a dash of Rundgren’s side project, Utopia. Great song from an underrated album.

7.         Somehow by Joss Stone. British soul singer Stone brings a tough, funky feel to this track from her new disc LP1, produced by former Eurythmic Dave Stewart. Both artists are also working with Mick Jagger on his side project, Superheavy.

8.         Mamacita by The Grass Roots from Anthology 1965-75. Also recorded by Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & The Raiders, this poppy, Latin infused song was the last chart hit for the late Rob Grill’s band. One of those songs that gets stuck in your head after you hear it.

9.         It’s All Too Much by Journey from Look Into the Future. The pre-Steve Perry, Gregg Rolie fronted version of the band takes on this Beatles tune from Yellow Submarine.

10.       Collide by Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow from Born Free. The duo follow up their earlier ballad Picture with a country-tinged paen to broken hearts & last chances at love.

11.      Jealous Again by The Black Crowes. The Crowes do a solid acoustic version of their earlier hit from the recent “unplugged” style disc Croweology.

12.      Someone Like You by Adele from 21. Beautiful, heartbreaking ballad from her album, 21. The singer recently performed an amazing live version of this song on the MTV Music Awards. Perhaps the best song on an outstanding album.

13.      No Anchovies, Please by The J. Geils Band. Quirky & funny spoken word track from the Love Stinks album.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A View From Heaven....


Today's review concerns The Lovely Bones, a novel by Alice Sebold, first published in 2002. It is set in the early 1970s in Norristown, PA. The book is narrated by teenager Susie Salmon, who, as the novel opens, is murdered on the way home from school one night. Her spirit watches from Heaven as her family tries to cope with the loss. Susie's Heaven is not the white clouded, angelic haven we expect, but a place very personal to her. In many ways, it appears to be a way station to the "next level." 

Susie's family consists of her parents, Abigail & Jack, and two younger siblings, her sister Lindsey and brother Buckley. Abigail's mother Lynn comes to live with the family and help them as they deal with the aftermath of Susie's disappearance. We know she is dead, but the family goes through an agonizing period where she is believed to be missing, but no proof of her death can be found. The investigation continues as we (& Susie) observe the family, their neighbors and even Susie's killer. The grief and pain of their situation deepens, as everyone deals with the loss in their own way.

Susie watches all this from above, telling the story and interspersing it with her own memories of growing up as part of the Salmon family. Sebold's prose & descriptions are first rate, and the characterizations are excellent. Even supporting characters are well-defined, including Ray Singh (a boy who had feelings for Susie) and Ruth Connors, another teen who feels Susie's presence in a unique way. As fate & circumstances draw the characters together & apart, Susie & her family both come to their own peace regarding her fate. What's nice about the novel is that it's got a spiritual tone without being overtly religious. It's a unique story told from a different perspective, and is a great read. 

The novel was made into a film in 2009 by director Peter Jackson (the Lord of The Rings films, King Kong) and stars Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci and Saorise Ronan (in a fine performance) as Susie. It's a visually interesting & well-acted adaptation of the novel. In either medium, The Lovely Bones is a compelling, emotional story of how grief & loss can ultimately lead to faith & hope for the future.