Friday, December 28, 2012

Drop A Quarter (or Two) Into A Very "Unorthodox Jukebox"

We know exactly what’s on Bruno Mars' mind as we listen to his second album, Unorthodox Jukebox (2012); it’s the same thing that was on Marvin Gayes' mind when he recorded Let’s Get It On (1973): the dual nature of love & sex. It’s not only the sweet, spiritual side of love he's after; it’s the physical, lustier side. The first couple of tracks leave little doubt:  a crooning paean to “Young Girls” who are always tempting him & then, on the driving, Police-like “Locked Out of Heaven,” he says: "your sex takes me to paradise.” Later, on the down & dirty “Gorilla,” Bruno wails about making love with his lady just like the title creature. The record is a bit of a change in direction for Mars. His excellent debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans (2010) was filled with catchy tunes like “Grenade” and “Just The Way You Are,” that celebrated the more innocent side of love & longing. This time he’s out to show us his funkier, down & dirty self.

Mars is a talented vocalist, writer-producer and artist who creates sounds that most pop artists would kill for; his talent for hook laden tunes and clever lyrics are still in evidence; especially on songs like the Michael Jackson style “Moonshine” and the Prince-ish funk of “Treasure.” There are hints of rock, reggae, hip-hop & retro soul throughout the album. On tracks like “Natalie” and “Money Make Her Smile,” he talks about gold-diggers who manage to steal his heart, and maybe even a bit of his cash. Not everything is on the darker side, however: “When I Was Your Man” and “If I Knew” are beautiful ballads that are set firmly in Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder territory. There’s an admirable variety to the musical styles here, as he sings about women, love, sex & money, and how they're all intertwined.

He's out to explore some wide-ranging, adventurous musical territory here, and he largely succeeds. This is a fun record and has excellent beats with R&B swagger & style to spare, though the focus on the carnal may put off some listeners. It’s worth repeated spins, and it manages to chart his growth as a performer. The producers include Mark Ronson (who worked with Amy Winehouse), Jeff Bhasker (who produced Fun’s “We Are Young”) and The Smeezingtons, a collective that includes the artist himself. The album is now available in stores and for online download. The Target edition of the album includes several bonus tracks, including an offbeat collaboration with Esperanza Spalding called “Old & Crazy,” that shows off Mars' lighter side. The 27-year old singer is definitely a talent to watch.

Here's a link to the video for "Locked Out Of Heaven" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-fA-gBCkj0 and the audio for "When I Was Your Man" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXaXKS7kofM

A Brief Note: John V's Eclectic Avenue will be back in 2013 with more reviews, reflections and observations; Thanks again for reading and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Have A Little Faith in Paloma's Impassioned "Fall To Grace"

I recently tuned in to Late Night with David Letterman to see his interview with Led Zeppelin. The classic rockers (as well as Dave himself) had just been celebrated at The Kennedy Center Honors. The group stopped by to discuss their experiences receiving the award. It was a great segment, but as I often do when I watch the show, I stuck around to check out the evening's musical guest. On this episode, it was British performer Paloma Faith, who sang “Picking Up The Pieces,” from her sophomore release Fall To Grace (2012). I enjoyed the song, and decided to check out the whole album. I wasn’t disappointed.

Ms. Faith is an old school songstress with a powerful voice & a great stage presence. Her sound is a mix of soul, pop & jazz. I hear echoes of Amy Winehouse & Aretha, with a dash of Lady Gaga & even a hint of 80s dance queen Taylor Dayne; Yes folks, I said Taylor Dayne. From the almost Jim Steinman-esque “Picking Up The Pieces” to the soul-laced anthem “Black & Blue,” this is an artist who’s not afraid to flaunt her flair for the theatrical and go over the top with her performances. She can move easily between the softer, more understated numbers like “Just Be,” to the dance floor workout “Freedom,” or the synth-driven “30 Minute Love Affair.” You might find that the the chamelon-like nature of the music suggests that Ms. Faith had a really cool dinner party with Madonna, Adele & Annie Lennox, and you wouldn't be far wrong.

Faith’s powerful vocals bring these songs alive with a depth of feeling that’s often missing from this type of pop record. These are tales of bruised and battered lovers, such as the moving “When You’re Gone” and the Winehouse-style “Let Me Down Easy.” The lyrics are passionate & raw, recalling broken hearts & souls, but giving the listener a sense of redemption, strength & rebirth. The artist worked with talented collaborators like Dan Wilson (co-writer of Adele’s Someone Like You) & film scorer David Arnold (veteran of several Bond films, Independence Day) so she could be sure the soundscapes of these well-produced songs had some color & emotion as well.

There are a group of talented neo-soul singers that originated from the UK making a splash these days (including Joss Stone, Duffy, the aforementioned Adele & the late Ms. Winehouse, to name a few) but Paloma Faith can hold her own. She counts classic soul singers like Etta James & Billie Holiday among her influences, and every track on the album exudes her love for this type of music. Ms. Faith succeeds in a variety of styles on this enjoyable record. It’s no surprise that the US edition of the album includes a passionate cover of the INXS classic “Never Tear Us Apart.” Some deluxe editions of the album also include acoustic versions of several tracks. Fall To Grace is now available in stores and for digital download from various sources.

Here are links to "Picking Up The Pieces" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ijel4Vcqd9g, the acoustic version of "Black & Blue" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV1x_ZzxUYg, and her cover of "Never Tear Us Apart" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCYtesyE7OA.

Next: Bruno Mars Returns With An "Unorthodox Jukebox"

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Theron & Oswalt Shine in the Darkly Comic "Young Adult"


In director Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (2011), Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is the ghostwriter of a popular series of YA novels. She’s recently divorced, and feels unfulfilled romantically and personally. Her book series is coming to an end after a long & successful run. She receives an invitation from Buddy Slade, an old high school flame, to his new baby’s shower. Mavis decides to head to her hometown and win him back. Despite the fact that he’s married and has a child, she convinces herself that everything that was wrong with her life happened after her relationship with Buddy (Patrick Wilson) ended.  After all, she was the queen of her high school; what could have gone so terribly wrong with her life?

When Mavis arrives, she reconnects with Matt Frehauf (Patton Oswalt), a classmate who was the victim of a horrific attack during their high school years. He’s been dealing with his own demons in the years since they graduated. The two lost souls befriend each other, and Matt tries to be a sort of conscience & sounding board for Mavis, but with little success. The two actors have excellent chemistry, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. As Mavis’s plan to steal Buddy away from his wife & baby moves forward, she continues to delude herself that it will actually work, and that he feels the same way. In fact, she becomes almost childishly deluded about Buddy returning her feelings for him.

The film reunites director Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the team behind Juno. This movie has some of the tart humor and sharp dialogue of that 2007 hit. But Juno’s darker tones were lightened with a little bit of heart; there’s a lot less of that here. The main problem is Theron’s character; she's unlikable, that you can’t relate to her. Her former beau is a nice guy, with a loving wife and a new baby. Who’s going to cheer for her to break that marriage up? As Mavis encounters other people from her past (who have a very different view of her than how she perceives herself) her self-delusion only seems to strengthen, along with her resolve to steal Buddy away from his family.

By the time we see some shadings to Mavis, it’s almost too late, though Theron hits it out of the park in a bravura scene toward the end of the film. It's so raw it becomes almost uncomfortable to watch. There’s also a telling scene between Mavis & her parents, and an odd encounter between Mavis & Matt’s sister Sandra that attempts to point toward some redemption for her. However, it ultimately seems to end up reinforcing our feelings about the character. And (without being too spoiler-y) there’s definitely a scene I wanted to see between Oswalt & Theron’s characters that just isn’t there. Cody’s script has some great lines & good moments, but I can’t help feeling that some of the bigger questions remain unresolved. There are some definite flaws amidst the good points in the story.

Reitman has worked wonders with tough material before, in Thank You For Smoking (2005) and Up in The Air (2009), and his direction is pretty solid here, but this movie just seems stuck in a very dark place. There’s some great acting here, especially from Theron & Oswalt, as two damaged people who can’t seem to escape their self-made prisons. I almost wished the movie had focused solely on their relationship. I’m not saying everything has to be wrapped up in a neat little bow, or that every ending has to be happy. I can enjoy a story with darker themes and no easy answers, but Young Adult left me feeling a bit unfulfilled. Judge for yourself; the movie is worth a look for some excellent performances and interesting writing, but it's not quite the comedy it's trailers & advertising indicated. The film is available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download.

Here's a link to the film's trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ar_-v7dEEoo. A special shout out to the movie for prominently using one of my favorite power pop tunes, "The Concept" by Teenage Fanclub, and there are some other great music choices in the film. An additional trivia note; screenwriter Cody is a huge fan of the well-remembered YA series Sweet Valley High and is trying to get a film version of the those books off the ground; that's likely the reason for Theron's occupation in the film.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Argo: A Riveting Thriller From Director/Star Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck has already proven himself as a director with Gone Baby Gone (2007), and The Town (2010), two well-received crime dramas. Argo (2012), his third time behind the camera, has recently been released, and it’s another winner. The film tells the fact-based story of a CIA operative who helped six U.S. diplomats escape from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. After the fall of the Shah & the rise of militant factions within the country, the US embassy’s staff is taken prisoner. A group of diplomats manage to evade capture, and hide out at the home of the Canadian ambassador. As our government negotiates for the release of the embassy’s hostages, the CIA tries to come up with a plan to get these 6 escapees out of the country safely.

A CIA agent and expert in ex-filtration (Affleck) comes up with a unique plan; he can fly to Iran and pretend to be scouting locations for a Canadian science-fiction film. He’ll get the diplomats out as part of his film crew, complete with fake identities and passports. The movie follows the creation & initiation of the plan, and parallels it with the situation in Iran and the threats faced by the diplomats & the larger group of hostages at the embassy. Iranian rebels are searching for any people who may have escaped , and factions within the CIA & our own government begin to doubt the validity of this daring idea. They're worried that if the plan is discovered, it might affect the negotiations for the release of the embassy hostages.
Some of the diplomats don’t entirely trust Affleck's CIA agent, and feel they can’t learn their cover identities well enough to evade questioning or capture. But he’s determined to get these people home. As the date of the escape nears, things get more intense within Iran; the US even thinks about cancelling the entire operation. Even though you already know the ending, this is a top-notch thriller. It’s a suspenseful ride, filled with great moments and excellent performances. As with many fact-based movies, some of the real-life events are combined or compressed, but this is still a powerful story, and because many of us were alive at the time these events took place, it resonates on a deeper level.

Affleck and his crew get the looks and the details right, mixing in real footage from the era to give the story authenticity. He wanted to make sure the project looked and felt real; the movie was shot on film, and the image was blown up to give it a grainy, 1970s look. The director and his crew were inspired by the style of movies like The Parallax View & All The President’s Men. Even the Warner Brothers logo used to open the film is the one used in films from that era.  The cast is peppered with familiar faces and top-notch character actors, including Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman, who portrays real-life makeup master John Chambers (an Oscar winner for the original Planet of The Apes), who assists with making the Hollywood side of the “fake” project feel real.

The film was produced by Affleck, George Clooney & Grant Heslov; the taut screenplay is by Chris Terrio, based on The Master of Disguise by Antonio Mendez & The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman. Argo is an exciting, tense ride that’s all the more amazing because it really happened; Affleck and his cast & crew have done an excellent job showing us the story behind this mission (the details of the operation were declassified by President Clinton in 1997), and giving us some insight into how the government and intelligence agencies operate in a time of crisis. Ben Affleck is proving himself to be a filmmaker to watch. Argo is currently finishing up its run in theaters, and should be released on video in the near future.

Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9a15ELZmnI

A brief personal note: This week marks my 100th post at Eclectic Avenue. It's been a lot of fun to share my thoughts & reviews with you since I began doing this in April 2011. I want to thank all the readers from around the world who've taken a look at the site and indulged me as a I ramble on about movies, music & books. Thanks for your support!

John

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Skyfall" Celebrates The Essence of Bond

Daniel Craig & Judi Dench in Skyfall
The James Bond movies have been going strong for 50 years now. The series has had its ups downs over the years, and fans continually debate their favorite Bond actor or what entry is the series' best. But few would argue that when Daniel Craig took over the role in 2006's Casino Royale, he helped to reinvigorate the series, and came closer to author Ian Fleming's conception of Bond more than any actor since Sean Connery, or perhaps the criminally underrated Timothy Dalton. Casino Royale set a new high water mark for the franchise. Craig’s follow-up film, Quantum of Solace (2008) was not quite as well-received, though it still had some good moments. Now Craig’s third turn in the role, Skyfall (2012), has arrived, and it’s one of the best Bond movies in recent years. Please note the following review contains some mild spoilers, if you haven’t seen the film.

As the film opens, we’re treated to a classic style 007 chase sequence, as Bond and another agent (Naomie Harris) trail an assassin in Turkey. M (Judi Dench) is monitoring the action remotely; the killer they’re chasing has a disk containing some very sensitive information. Bond catches up with the man, and as they struggle on top of a moving train, the second agent trains a gun on them from a distance. M orders the agent to take the shot; because it’s more important to secure the information the man is carrying than worry about Bond’s life. The shooter misses; Bond gets wounded, and falls into the water below; cue the opening credits and an excellent, old school sounding 007 title track from Adele.

Of course, that’s only the beginning of the story. With Bond presumed dead, and the top-secret information lost, M is under fire (and under investigation) from the British government. Meanwhile Silva, the mysterious villain behind the theft of the disk begins a very personal attack on M and MI6. Bond returns (was there any doubt?) but is shaken by his experience, and not quite the man he was before; he’s got some mixed emotions about what M did, but still feels a sense of loyalty to her. Bond is sent after the shadowy Silva (Javier Bardem), but does M know more than she’s telling about this man? What is Silva’s connection to M? And what is his endgame? Before the story is over, both M & Bond will have to face some very personal demons, and reflect on the choices they’ve made in their lives.

The film examines the relationship between Bond & M in a much deeper way than we’ve seen before in the series. It’s an almost parental connection, though there are more layers to their story, and Silva’s origin factors into things as well. In both Casino Royale and to a lesser degree, in Quantum of Solace, the filmmakers started to get beneath Bond’s skin, and show what makes a man like 007 tick. The films are almost an unofficial trilogy, with Skyfall concluding the story of where Bond has been, and offering us a hint of where the character may be going. The acting is top notch; Dench, Craig and Bardem are all excellent in their roles; in fact, I think this is Craig's and Dench's best work in the series. There are also good supporting performances from Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw as Q, a character returning to the franchise for the first time since the end of the Pierce Brosnan era.

There are all the usual things we’ve come to expect from a Bond outing; exotic locales, exciting action sequences, beautiful women, showdowns with the villain of the piece, and even a bit of sly humor. Since the movie is being released during the 50th anniversary year of the series, there are some great visual references to past films, and an appearance by an iconic vehicle that fans will surely recognize. The direction by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) is superb; in fact, it’s the first time an Oscar-winning director has helmed a Bond film. There’s great cinematography by Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, A Beautiful Mind), and a good score by Thomas Newman (The Green Mile, Erin Brokovich), both of whom have previously worked with Mendes. The script by Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and series newcomer John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis) is sharp & well written, with some excellent dialogue, especially in the scenes between Bond & M, and their exchanges with Silva.

Skyfall not only pays homage to what makes the 007 films great, but lays the groundwork for the future; in a way, it distills all the best elements of Bond’s past and present into one package, and it's both the end of one story, and the beginning of a new journey for 007. It’s not only a good Bond movie, it’s a well made film on any level. This is the best of Craig's three outings in the role, and it's certainly one of the finest films in the series. The movie will have extra resonance (and some nice surprises) for you if you’re a longtime James Bond fan. But Skyfall is solid entertainment that should also appeal to those who appreciate intelligent, well-crafted action fare. Bond is definitely back, and it doesn't look like he'll be leaving us anytime soon. Here's a link to the film's trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kw1UVovByw.

Next time: Ben Affleck's "Argo"

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Baker’s Dozen of Soulful Tunes

      1.     Old Songs – Betty Wright & The Roots sing about the virtues of old school soul (and love) on this track from their recent album/collaboration, Betty Wright: The Movie (2011).
      2.     Finally Falling - White soul singer Mayer Hawthorne gets into his Motown groove on this tune from his sophomore disc, How Do You Do (2011).
      3.     Sugarfoot – Black Joe Lewis & The Honey Bears do their best James Brown on this song from Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! (2009).
      4.     Love That Girl - Raphael Saadiq channels equal parts Eddie Kendricks (of The Temptations) and Curtis Mayfield on this number from the excellent The Way I See It (2008).
      5.     Concrete Blues - The Revelations featuring Tre Williams mix R&B & the blues on this title track from their 2011 album, with a touch of the sound of Bobby “Blue” Bland.
      6.     One of Those Days  - Felix Cavaliere (lead singer of The Rascals) and Steve Cropper (famed guitarist for Stax Records & The Blues Brothers) turn up the funk on this track from their album, Nudge It Up a Notch (2008).
      7.     Tighter – Haunting soul ballad from Fitz & The Tantrums’ debut album, Pickin Up The Pieces (2010).
      8.     Longer & Stronger – Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. Great song from the recent B-sides & rarities collection, Soul Time! (2011).
      9.     Stoned Love – After the departure of Diana Ross, the Jean Terrell led version of the group had a hit with this one; from the album New Ways But Love Stays (1970).
      10.  Shake - Phat Phunktion grooves it up on this tune from Soul Juice (2005).
      11.  Little Bit of Feel Good – British soulster Jamie Lidell gives in to his inner blue-eyed soul shouter on this number from Jim (2008).
      12. You & Me – Obscure soul gem from Penny & The Quarters, used to great effect in the film Blue Valentine (2010), and featured on the soundtrack album.
Bonus Track: Tell Mama – Etta James from The Essential Etta James. The one & only Etta.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Black & Blu" is a Melting Pot of Rock, Soul & The Blues...


Gary Clark, Jr. is a blues guitarist based in Austin, Texas. He’s played with many legends of rock, blues and soul, including the Dave Matthews Band, Buddy Guy and Alicia Keys. While he’s released a couple of albums on his own independent Hotwire Unlimited label, the recently released Black & Blu (2012) from Warner Brothers, is his major label debut. It’s an enjoyable, stylistically diverse album that showcases Clark’s excellent vocals and gritty guitar work. This is a record that’s steeped in soul, blues & rock, and there’s even a bit of hip-hop thrown into the mix.

Tracks like “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” and “When My Train Pulls In” have a more traditional blues sound, but then there are songs such as the R&B flavored “Please Come Home” and the 80s rock feel of “You Saved Me.” There’s also a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” that segues into “If You Love Me Like You Say,” a song from bluesman Little Johnnie Taylor; the pairing works exceptionally well; it’s one of the best tracks on the album. In fact, there isn’t a bad track on the disc, though the diversity of the music may surprise & even frustrate some listeners looking for a more blues based record. The 28-year-old Clark shows he can be a master of many styles, and he’s comfortable working in a variety of musical genres.

The genre hopping continues with the distortion-laden, almost metal-like “Numb” and “Ain’t Messin 'Round,” which recalls 60s soul. The title track pays homage to the socially conscious 70s work of artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder; and “Glitter Ain’t Gold” is a collision of rock & soul, sort of a Lenny Kravitz meets Prince jam. The playing by Clark and his band is revelatory, and it’s got a live feel; it doesn't sound manufactured. The production by Rob Cavallo (who’s worked with Green Day) and Mike Elizondo (who's produced discs for Dr Dre & Fiona Apple) gives the songs room to breathe; this isn’t an over-produced record.

The album is available in stores, and online at various digital download sites. Some digital versions (including the iTunes Deluxe edition) include a couple of worthwhile bonus tracks: “Breakdown” and “Soul.” If you’re a fan of any of the styles or genres discussed in this review, or if you've read about & heard Gary Clark, Jr’s work before, Black & Blu is worth your time. This is mature, well written & performed music by an artist who respects the styles of the past, but moves forward with his own musical footprint. Clark is a talent to watch, and I look forward to his next release.

Here are links to the video for "Ain't Messin 'Round" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyFFuEY_S6Q and a live performance of "Please Come Home" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZ5koSEtN7s

Next: A country rock journey with Dillard & Clark

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Dark Carnival comes to town...


The final recommendation in my Halloween themed posts this month is a classic novel by master fantasist Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes, originally published in 1962. I’ve always been a fan of the late Mr. Bradbury’s fantastic, evocative writing; this is my favorite among his many wonderful works. The novel is the story of two 13 year-old friends, Will Halloway & Jim Nightshade, who live in Green Town, Illinois. One fall evening, they meet a strange lightning rod salesman who says a storm is coming to town. Others in the area also say they feel something in the air.

The boys learn a carnival is arriving in Green Town and are excited, but Will’s father, Charles, who’s the town librarian, has some misgivings about it. The friends stay up late, and watch Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show being set up. As they & the townspeople explore the show, it becomes apparent that there is more going on than they thought at first. Residents are being tempted with visions of their deepest desires, and some people disappear, or show up changed by their experience. For instance, the boys’ teacher appears to have transformed from an older spinster into a young girl. Jim is especially fascinated by the carnival and it’s owner, the mysterious & devilish Mr. Dark, who wants Jim to ride the carousel....but why?

As the story progresses, Will’s Dad has to get past his own fears & desires, and rescue the boys from Mr. Dark and the carnival’s other eerie denizens, including the Dust Witch & The Skeleton. This is a wonderful novel, with beautiful prose, great characters & some truly creepy, scary passages. As he did in many of his other works, Bradbury manages to paint a masterful picture of a small town we’d all like to live in, which is threatened by supernatural forces. While temptation exists, good is stronger than evil, and love & light can triumph over the darkness in the end. Will & Jim are changed by their experience, but as they move closer to the adult world, they'll always remember the lessons Charles teaches them.

The novel actually started out as a 1948 short story called "The Black Ferris." It was originally planned as a movie to be directed by the author's friend, Gene Kelly. When financing for the project couldn't be obtained, Bradbury turned his screen treatment of the story into a novel. The book was later adapted into a film by Disney in 1983, starring Jason Robards as Will’s father and Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark. Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents), it’s a decent version of the story with some good performances, but the novel is far superior. The movie is currently available on DVD. Over the years, authors like Stephen King & Neil Gaiman have sung the praises of this excellent book. My brief review can’t do it justice; I’ve re-visited it many times since I first read it as a kid, and I enjoy it even more each time. This isn’t just a book for Halloween: you can read it anytime, and I’m sure you’ll be brought under its spell by the power of one of our greatest writers. Something Wicked This Way Comes is very highly recommended, as are any of Ray Bradbury’s other fine works.

“The father hesitated only a moment. He felt the vague pain in his chest. If I run, he thought, what will happen? Is Death important? No. Everything that happens before Death is what counts. And we’ve done fine tonight. Even Death can’t spoil it.” – Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)

Here’s a link to the trailer for the film version of the novel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up7KHbJTmoo

Next: Gary Clark, Jr.'s rocking the blues, with a little soul...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Enter This "Cabin," If You Dare....

Horror fans have seen this setup before; a group of friends heads to a remote area to hang out, party & engage in a little pre-martial sex. Then strange things start to happen, and people start dying in grisly fashion, stalked by a seemingly indestructible, supernatural killer. Is this Evil Dead (1981)? Friday the 13th (1980)? No, it’s The Cabin In The Woods (2012), a clever homage to the genre from co-writers Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Avengers). This time, the story has a different angle; as the teens prepare for their trip, they are being observed on video screens by mysterious people. These watchers are able to manipulate events & the environment around the teens, and their job seems to be to kill them off; but for what purpose?

The script by director Goddard and co-producer Whedon both honors & subverts the conventions of several sub-categories of horror (slasher movies, zombie films, and even tales of cursed & haunted places) in enjoyable fashion. Our main characters represent all the stereotypes we’ve come expect in stories like this: the jock (Chris Hemsworth of Thor), the hot blonde (Anna Hutchison), the nice kids (Jesse Williams & Kristen Connolly) and even the stoner (Fran Kranz from Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse). As frightening events start to take place and the characters are being murdered one by one, the mysterious observers celebrate as each death occurs. Something bigger is happening here, but will any of our heroes stay alive to figure out all the answers?

Whedon has commented in interviews that part of the reason he & Goddard wrote the film was as a reaction to the fact that the so-called “torture porn” films (Hostel, Saw, etc.) seemed to have taken over the horror world, and they wanted to revitalize the genre. Well, they succeeded. The dialogue is witty & clever; and if you liked Whedon’s work on the Buffy & Angel TV series, you’ll smile at the ultimate reason for the chaos & weird events. There are also good performances by the main cast, as well as the actors playing the watchers, including Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Richard Jenkins & Amy Acker, a veteran of a few previous Whedon projects. And there’s a great (though perhaps not too surprising) cameo at the film’s conclusion.

Goddard & his crew do an outstanding job; cinematographer Peter Deming & editor Lisa Lessek have clearly done their homework; this looks & feels like a horror film. There are some wonderful scenes & set pieces, including a wonderfully creepy encounter in the cabin’s cellar.  The Cabin In The Woods is dark, twisty fun; if you’re a horror fan, you’ll love seeing the sly references to other films, and the way that the script plays with your expectations of this classic genre. It’s recommended as part of your scary viewing for Halloween this year. The film is available on DVD, Blu-ray and for digital download. Check out The Cabin In The Woods, but don’t linger too long….

Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ENUBUdFswM

Next time: The spooky goings-on conclude with a look at a classic novel from Ray Bradbury

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"They're coming for me now, and then they'll come for you..."


Last week I wrote about City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel), suggesting it as part of your Halloween film festival. This time out, I’ll offer a different kind of scary tale; House on Haunted Hill, a fun & spooky fright fest from 1959. Produced & Directed by William Castle, the movie stars Vincent Price as a millionaire who invites five people to spend the night at a supposedly haunted house. He hands out fun party favors like handguns that are stored in little coffins! If you survive the night, you get $10,000. All of the attendees need the money he's offering for one reason or another. One of them is the house’s owner, Watson Pritchard, who warns everyone that there are angry spirits in the house, and that they shouldn’t stay if they want to live. In addition to Price, the cast includes veteran character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. as Pritchard and Richard Long (of TV’s The Big Valley & Nanny & The Professor), as another guest.

Director Castle was well known as a flamboyant showman who used unique gimmicks to sell his films. During screenings of The Tingler (1959), there were vibrators installed under the seats that induced shocks when the title creature was seen; for 13 Ghosts (1960), patrons used special ghost viewers to see (or remove) the spirits on screen. In this film’s theatrical showings, a skeleton seemed to float right out of the film at the audience in a process called Emergo. These ideas worked like a charm for Castle, who had a lot of financial success with his films, which were aimed primarily at teenagers. His autobiography was called Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare The Pants Off America.

House on Haunted Hill is truly the kind of B film they don’t make anymore. A haunted mansion that features ghosts, blood dripping from the ceiling, secret rooms, skeletons in the basement, and heads with no bodies are all part of the scares & shocks. There may even be a non supernatural reason for some of the weird goings on in the house....could our host know more than he's telling? Price is at his smooth, witty best and gets most of the film’s best lines, though Cook gets to deliver a few, like "Only the ghosts in this house are happy we're here" and the film’s memorable closing bit, seen as the headline for this review. This is a matinee movie for the ten year old in all of us; it sounds kind of old fashioned and goofy in the age of the Internet, but it’s great fun.

The film was remade in gorier fashion in 1999 with Geoffrey Rush, but that version can’t hold a candle to the original. The movie is available in various DVD editions (including a colorized version) and for digital download as well. So warm up the popcorn, and settle in for some silly, scary fun. And here’s another piece of suggested viewing: The 1993 Joe Dante (Gremlins) film Matinee is about a B movie producer (John Goodman) who premieres one of his monster films in a small Florida town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Goodman's character is an affectionate homage to Castle; Matinee is also worth a look, especially for fans of 50s & 60s sci-fi, horror & fantasy films.

Here’s a link to the films’ trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFtLw4lbgP8

Next time: The Halloween terror continues as we visit The Cabin In The Woods (2012)