Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Note: I'm REALLY going to try to avoid major spoilers here, but if you want to go into this movie knowing absolutely nothing, you should probably stop reading now.

2015 has, for whatever reason, become the year of the Long-Awaited-Sequel-to-a-Flagging-But-Beloved-Franchise. This really could have been a bummer. As luck would have it, though, these sequels have by and large not only held their own, but have managed to be pretty great films in their own right.

The biggest of these, of course, is Star Wars: The Force Awakens — which could just have easily been called Star Wars: The Rescue of the Franchise. It's not the best; both Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed are, for my money, much better films (I'm holding onto my reviews of those for my end of the year list). 

But overall it's pretty damn successful. Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams had a pretty daunting task ahead of him — not only did he have to bring new energy and excitement to a nearly 40-year-old series, but he had to erase everyone's collective memory of the prequels in one fell swoop. He basically had to save Star Wars from itself ("itself" being George Lucas, of course). And, with The Force Awakens, he mostly does so.

I won't spend a lot of time on the setup, because at this point I think most everyone knows the broad outline. We pick up about thirty years after the Battle of Endor.  The Empire has broken up into what Abrams described as a banana republic-style successor called The First Order:

"That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again. What could be born of that? Could The First Order exist as a group that actually admired The Empire? Could the work of The Empire be seen as unfulfilled? And could Vader be a martyr?" — J.J. Abrams.

This is a pretty fantastic concept, rendering The First Order in some ways even scarier than the Empire because they're desperate. Unfortunately, Abrams doesn't quite do enough with that. It wasn't entirely clear to me that The First Order wasn't the Empire, and I don't know why the opposing force — led, of course, by Leia — is called "the Resistance" when they basically represent the existing government of the New Republic. But whatever. Moving on.

The film picks up on the desert planet of Jakku (it took me a little while to realize it wasn't Tatooine, which is entirely my fault because I was trying to put my jacket under my seat during the opening crawl), which — according to Wookieepedia (yep, that's a thing) — is where the last decisive battle of the previous war took place, and where the Empire was finally crushed for good. A hotshot Resistance pilot named Po Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) has been sent by Leia to recover... well, let's just say something Really Fucking Important. 

He hides this Really Fucking Important Thing in the body of his little droid friend, BB-8, just as a a legion of Stormtroopers descend — also looking for the Really Fucking Important Thing. A battle ensues, Po and BB-8 are separated, and one of the Stormtroopers, FN-2187 or "Finn" (John Boyega), is faced with a sudden crises of conscience.

BB-8 rolls off into the sandy wastes where he(?) meets a teenage scavenger of mysterious origin named Rey (Daisy Ridley). At first Rey wants nothing to do with the droid, but soon realizes that there's more to this little bleep-blooping metal beach ball than meets the eye.

I'll leave it there, other than to reiterate that, yes, most of the original gang at least makes an appearance. Han and Chewbacca get the most screen time, but all the old characters have at least a solid moment of fan service.

In general Abrams not only nails the tone of what makes the best entries in the franchise so special, but he's able to inject a genuinely fresh sensibility as well. Remarkably (after the debacle of the prequels) he gives us new characters that have the potential to be as indelibly iconic as the originals. Both Ridley and Boyega are fantastic. Finn has some of Han Solo's wit and swagger, but he's much more conflicted and unsure of himself, giving him a darker and more complicated edge that elicits some genuine audience sympathy. Rey has a bit of Luke's wide-eyed innocence, but she's much more hardy and self-sufficient than he was until at least Return of the Jedi, and she doesn't whine once. 

I'd seen and liked Boyega in 2011's Attack the Block, but Ridley was entirely new to me. I see online that some people are already dismissing her as a Keira Knightley clone, but that's really doing her a disservice. She and Boyega are both relative unknowns. But they bring real humanity to their characters, which is something that more than a few of the biggest actors in the world — Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, etc. — never could manage in the entire run of the prequels. 

The big revelation for me, though, is Adam Driver as chief villain Kylo Ren. I never much liked Driver before, (granted, I only really knew him from the few episodes of Girls I managed to sit through), but here he's absolutely chilling. The less said about Ren the better, but I'll posit that Driver has created a villain every bit as compelling as Darth Vader. We'll have to see what they do with him in the subsequent films, but I'm officially a fan now.  

None of this is to say that The Force Awakens is without its problems. As I said, I wish Abrams had done more to make The First Order feel distinct from the Empire. And frankly, as well made as the movie is (it's certainly more cinematic than anything in the series since The Empire Strikes Back), overall it's pretty predictable. Plotwise, it's basically a retread of A New Hope but with some of the roles mixed up and/or reversed. And for what it's worth, I saw the big "twist" coming about halfway through the second act. 

The most grievous misstep though — and I promise to tread lightly here — is what the movie does with the original characters. It's almost criminal how listlessly they're handled. I want to talk in vague terms here, but if you're looking forward to seeing the old sparks fly between Han and Leia... well, you're liable to be disappointed. 

The Force Awakens stands head and shoulders above the prequels, and I would say rivals A New Hope in the pantheon (I agree with everyone that Empire is the best, but I'm one of those weirdos who actually thinks Return of the Jedi is better than the first). I've never been a Star Wars fanboy to begin with, but this was the first movie in maybe twenty years to make me remember why people love this franchise so much. It revels in nostalgia but isn't a slave to it, and it opens the door to some exciting new possibilities moving forward. 

Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) will be taking over the franchise from Abrams for the next two films. I'm excited to see what he comes up with.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Someone's Watching Me! (1978)

In between his 1976 exploitation classic Assault on Precinct 13 and his 1978 horror megahit Halloween, John Carpenter made a TV movie starring Lauren Hutton for NBC. Unavailable on video for many, many years, Carpenter's fans came to refer to it as his "lost" film.

Someone's Watching Me! was finally released on DVD in the mid 2000s, and it's now available to stream on various online platforms (I finally caught it on Amazon). It would be a bit much to say the fans rejoiced, but there was certainly a renewed flurry of interest in the film, at least in certain corners of the Internet geek-o-sphere.

So I watched it last night. Final verdict? Overall, pretty good!

It may seem strange to imagine Carpenter doing a movie-of-the-week, but in an odd way the medium of late 70s network TV actually suited his talents pretty well. Due to Halloween's influence on the nascent slasher genre, Carpenter is often thought of as a gorehound. I've always found this strange — really, the only bloody movie from his early days is The Thing, and he didn't go full splatter until 1998's Vampires. Carpenter was always much more of a technical craftsman than his contemporaries (Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, etc.). The only one who really rivaled him in terms of sheer filmmaking ability was George A. Romero (David Cronenberg wouldn't hit his stride until the mid-late 1980s).

What Someone's Watching Me! manages to do is take the essence of what makes those early Carpenter films so great and distills them down to the bare essentials. Someone's Watching Me! is not much more than lean and efficient thriller, but as such it (mostly) succeeds marvelously.

Now I really don't want to oversell this thing. Someone's Watching Me! is definitely a TV movie, with all the inherent flaws you'd expect. It's not terribly original (it's sort of a reverse riff on Hitchcock's Rear Window, where a woman is terrorized by a stalker watching her from another apartment building). The conclusion leaves much to be desired. And it's pretty laughably dated in parts.

But Carpenter's talent is such that he was able to take as standard a potboiler setup you can imagine and infuse it with a very palpable sense of dread. I was surprised by how genuinely scary this movie is. In fact, up until the end I actually found it more unsettling than Halloween.

Hutton plays Leigh Michaels, a young live television director relocating from New York to Los Angeles to escape a collapsed relationship (because in the 1970s, apparently women couldn't just move for better career opportunities). She rents a swanky high-rise apartment in the aptly named Arkham Towers (even in a movie as fundamentally boilerplate as this, Carpenter couldn't resist a little Lovecraft reference), where she immediately starts receiving strange phone calls. The calls are followed by a letter from a company called "Excursions Limited" purporting to offer her an expenses-paid vacation. The only catch is she has to correctly identify the destination by a series of "gifts" to be delivered to her over the next several weeks.

Of course, Excursions Limited doesn't exist and the "gifts" are not as benign as they at first seem. Leigh finds herself psychologically under siege, ignored by the police and being driven mad by a mysterious psychopath who seems to know everything about her.

Carpenter uses this pretty standard setup as a hook upon which to hang a surprisingly effective little thriller. A devotee of both Howard Hawkes and Alfred Hitchcock, one thing Carpenter has always been better at than any of the other low-budget horror practitioners of that period is classic suspense technique, and an intuitive grasp of what not to show. Specifically, at his best he is an absolute genius at how to use depth and the edges of the frame to suggest threats just outside of our field of vision (he truly mastered this with Halloween later the same year). And no one can stretch a beat right up to its breaking point like he can. For all its 70s TV goofiness, Someone's Watching Me! is startlingly cinematic. Little things,like a quick dolly move to a wrapped package or a subtle rack focus to a ringing telephone create a real sense of mounting anxiety that builds steadily throughout.

Another thing Carpenter often doesn't get enough credit for is his skill as a writer (I think it's no accident that the quality of his work diminished the less involved with the scripts he became). He's great at structuring a story and finding unique little details that set his work apart from his hackier genre competitors. This is true of Someone's Watching Me! as well; while the setup is familiar, the way the plot unfolds holds some real surprises. In particular, the "Excursions Limited" motif is a great, original, and unsettling hook. The idea of an anonymous "company" exacting a personal vendetta on someone is uniquely disturbing in our capitalist, Kafka-inflected society. Carpenter's use of the concept here reminded me a little of Bentley Little's better horror novels and Stephen King's short story "Quitters Inc." My only complaint is that he could have done more with it.

Carpenter also can be pretty great at character. Halloween — his biggest hit — is actually not a great example, but just listen to the sharp crackle of his dialogue in later films like Escape From New York and, especially, The Thing (he was always at his best when writing for Kurt Russell). Again, Someone's Watching Me! is unexpectedly sophisticated in this regard, and Hutton's performance as Leigh is really pretty engaging. She's a heroine not quite like any I've seen before: alternately tough, polished, silly, vulnerable, and charmingly awkward (she constantly chatters to herself and drops obscure jokes that no one else seems to get). Leigh could very easily have been a standard victim archetype, but Carpenter's script and Hutton's take on her infuses her with some real personality and charisma.

Carpenter's future wife Adrienne Barbeau is also fun in a supporting role as Leigh's friend and co-worker. Unfortunately the other characters don't fare quite as well. Grainger Hines shows up as a predictably lecherous co-worker (this is the 70s, where workplace sexual harassment could still be played mostly as comic relief) and David Birney is pretty underserved as the requisite, milquetoast love interest. But Hutton (and, to a lesser degree, Barbeau) bring enough to the party to make the film memorable.

As good as it is given all the limitations, Someone's Watching Me! is still really only mid-level Carpenter — better than much of his late-period work, but in the end nowhere near as exciting as early masterpieces like Escape, Halloween, The Thing, and The Fog. It probably lands somewhere right around Christine/Assault territory. I might have been willing to place it higher in the canon (I actually find the filmmaking in parts more interesting than what you see in Halloween) but for the truly godawful ending. The movie really falls apart in the last ten to fifteen minutes, when everything that had been interesting about it is tossed aside in favor of a by-the-numbers conclusion that's as lackluster as it is unmotivated. And the final reveal of who the stalker is redefines the entire concept of "lame."

So, no, it's not a masterpiece. But Someone's Watching Me! is definitely worth a look, particularly if you're a Carpenter fan and want to see him begin to perfect the techniques that would serve him so well later in his career.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Truth (2015)

I've been meaning to write reviews of The Martian, Sicario, and Goodnight Mommy for weeks now. All of those are much better and more interesting films than Truth, and each deserves attention in its own right. I'll get to them. But I just saw Truth, written and directed by Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and as I'm sitting here it's making my blood boil.

On a purely cinematic level, there's really nothing wrong with Truth, and indeed as I was watching it I was basically caught up in its mix of political thriller and melodrama. The ostensibly-behind-the-scenes story of the infamous CBS Killian documents scandal at "60 Minutes" that brought down producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and legendary anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) is more than watchable. It's often gripping, and is even quite moving in parts. It starts off kind of stiff and fakey (the scene where Mapes is being "interviewed" by her seven-year-old son really should have been left on the cutting room floor), but it quickly picks up steam once the central narrative kicks into gear. It's thrilling to see Mapes and her team (including Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, and Elizabeth Moss) put the story together, and more so to watch the story then fall apart.

It wasn't until after I left the theater and really thought about it that the movie started to get under my skin. It's like a competently made gourmet dish that tastes good while you're eating it but gives you the rankest gas on the car ride home.

I don't talk about it much (or even really think about it anymore, frankly), but I was a journalism major in college and very much wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I graduated right at the end of the 90s, when the Internet started taking its toll and newspapers started conspicuously slashing budgets and selling out their credibility for more advertising bucks and deeper political connections. I saw this happen even at the small-town paper where I worked, and it quickly left a sour taste in my mouth.

But for four or five years there, I was quite serious about it. I was one of the many, many teenagers who heard the story of Woodward and Bernstein and thought "I want to do that." I studied the history and internalized the code of ethics that makes objective news reporting one of the most important pillars of a functioning democracy. And that respect — even reverence — for the profession has stuck with me. It's what made the whole "Rathergate" scandal (as this controversy came to be known) so hard to take when it went down.

Let's face some hard facts here. CBS, Mapes, and Rather fucked up. They fucked up big. They had a pre-existing narrative they wanted to tell (that President George W. Bush had not only used his family connections to get out of Vietnam, but that he hadn't even lived up to the bare minimum of his duties in the Texas Air National Guard) and — under pressure to deliver the report before 2004 elections — made a series of grievous, frankly unforgivable errors in bringing the story to air. The documents that served as the linchpin of their story were not properly vetted and, while never definitively proven to be forgeries, should never have been used. They then spent weeks digging their heels in as the story imploded, going to absurd lengths to defend it before finally throwing in the towel.

The most maddening thing about the scandal to me (as a liberal) is that the substance of the story is very likely true. But CBS's epically shitty reporting became the story, and Bush sailed right on into a second disastrous term.

Now, more than 10 years later, Vanderbilt has adapted Mapes's memoir and brought forth a piece of cinematic apologia as stunning in its disingenuousness as any major motion picture I've ever seen. Both Redford and Blanchett are very, very good in this film, and I have no reason to question the earnestness of their portrayals. But their considerable talents have been put to use in a way I find truly nefarious, in a film that simply doesn't deserve them.

Truth would have us believe that Mapes is the victim here. It glosses over the many, many mistakes she made as a journalist and then, when she is challenged on those mistakes, presents the challengers as a bunch of mean, chauvinistic bullies looking for any excuse to bring this principled woman down. It presents the mistakes as almost unavoidable, but spends so little time on the bad decisions that lead to those mistakes as to have us believe they didn't happen at all. It presents Rathergate as something that happened to Mapes and Rather, not something they brought upon themselves. Blanchett is given an Oscar-baity speech at the end where she gets to rail against the system that has put her career on the line, and the way the scene is staged and the music swells triumphantly, we're very clearly meant not to question her. When someone finally does, he's literally shot as if he's a Bond villain. They should have just given him a white cat to malevolently stroke and been done with it.

It's true that Mapes was a celebrated news producer whose work brought to light some very important pieces of news, the most important of which was the Abu Ghraib scandal (a story for which she won a Peabody after being fired from CBS). I did not want or expect this movie to be a hit job. But by trying to tell her side of the story, it overcorrects so wildly that it only reinforces the negative image she has been saddled with for the last decade. There was a way to tell this story — dramatically, honestly — as the human tragedy it was without vilifying her any further. That's the movie I wanted to see.

I love movies about reporters and wish there were more of them. But this is not one I'd recommend.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Everest (2015)

I'm going to try not to have too many spoilers in this review. But I will be referring to the true story here and there, so I'll probably end up giving a few things away.

After watching the trailer for the new film Everest and seeing the tagline "NEVER LET GO," you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is just another one of those rousing man-conquers-nature, triumphs-over-adversity movies like Alive or Apollo 13

But if you have even a passing recollection of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster upon which this story is based, you'll know enough to suspect that's not going to be the case. Man didn't conquer shit in 1996, and there wasn't a lot of triumph to go around — unless you count losing only your nose and both of your hands to frostbite as a triumph.

I've read Into Thin AirJon Krakauer's first-person account of the disaster, a couple times, and it's one of the most harrowing non-fiction books I've ever encountered. Everest isn't based on his book (in fact, Krakauer is pretty pissed about how he was portrayed), but from what I remember of the story it seems to be a pretty accurate retelling, even if a lot of the edges have been smoothed over and spackled under a layer of Hollywood gloss. 

But even with its faults, it's a pretty riveting film.

Jason Clarke plays Rob Hall, an Everest guide from New Zealand whose company Adventure Consultants was one of several expeditions stranded on the south face of the mountain during a blistering storm on the night of May 10, 1996. Hall's friendly rival was Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal, oddly underused here), whose Mountain Madness team was also caught in the "Death Zone" (a third expedition, comprised of a group of Tibetan police officers, was trapped on the north face and isn't mentioned in the film). A few of the people in Hall's group were Texan doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), Seattle mail man Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), and Japanese businesswoman Yasuko Namba  (Naoko Mori). 

And, of course, there was journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly), whose employer, Outside magazine, had been paid by Hall to document the excursion and (hopefully) bring some good press to his company. It didn't really work out that way.

Everest, for its first half, is a pretty able if not terribly impressive adventure film. There are some good performances. Clarke is the standout, but Hawkes and Emily Watson (as Adventure Consultants base camp manager Helen Wilton) are also quite good. Gyllenhaal is fine, but he doesn't have a lot to do. I expected there to be more focus on Kelly, but maybe that's because I'm mostly familiar with Krakauer's account. He's also underused, but has a few nice moments here and there. 

Director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, 2 Guns) doesn't overload us too early with the sort of majestic/terrifying vista shots we saw jammed into the trailer. The focus is (rightly) on the characters, which would be great except none of them are terribly interesting. Hall — a professional mountaineer profiting (perhaps against his better judgment) off a bunch of rich wannabes — is the most developed. Clarke paints a portrait of a decent, well-meaning guy who's so able at what he does that maybe it doesn't occur to him he might screw up.

For about an hour, we do get some nice (if a bit clichéd) triumph-over-adversity stuff, and we get a few little glimpses into the family lives of Hall and Weathers (Brolin is ostensibly the second lead, but frankly I can't say he brought a whole lot to the table here). The trek up the mountain certainly feels triumphant, but we get a few little shadings of what's to come: logjams on the way up, an uneasy partnership between Hall and Fischer (whose Sherpas inexplicably seem to hate each other), rumblings about bad weather on the way.

Things go sideways as the groups reach the top, and Hall — wanting to see his buddy Hansen, who tried and failed to summit the year before, succeed — makes an understandable but tragic mistake.

It's in the second half that the film really comes alive (sorry about the unintended mordent irony there). When disaster strikes, Kormákur throws us right into it. It's stunning (and likely pretty true to life) how quickly things fall apart when there's literally no margin of error for survival. A few minor mistakes and miscommunications early on lead to an alarming descent into chaos. The film necessarily skips over some details (if you want more, read Krakauer's book), but it captures the sudden and inexorable sense of doom as the situation goes rapidly from problematic to absolutely dire.

Kormákur also heaps in a few heavy shovelfuls of rank emotional manipulation, but I don't fault him for it. He's got a highly developed, almost Spielbergian sense of how to play an audience's fear and empathy for maximum effect. And Clarke quietly delivers a performance of such crushing tragic weight that you don't notice the incredible feat of it until the movie is over. The final shot of the movie will haunt me for awhile.

Everest isn't a great movie. It doesn't quite reconcile the disparate tones of its first and second halves, and too many of the characters are underdeveloped (likely unavoidable with the size of this cast). But overall it's a damn effective one, and worth seeing while it's in theaters.

I didn't see it in 3D, and for that I'm glad. I'm not sure I could have hung with it when shit gets dark.

My Top 10 Best Pink Floyd Songs

This is one of those posts born solely out of boredom and an intense desire to procrastinate. There are so many other things I really should be doing right now, but whatever. Pink Floyd has been my favorite band basically since I developed a concept of what a band is. I'm probably one of the few dudes of my generation who can accurately say I've been a Floyd superfan for thirty years.

So, from least to most, here are my top 10 favorite Pink Floyd songs of all time. These are the desert island tracks I couldn't live without.

And before anyone yells at me: no, I'm not including anything from the Syd Barrett era. I appreciate Barrett, find that part of the band's story fascinating, and do enjoy some of the music (particularly "Astronomy Domine" and "Bike"). But for you Syd hipsters out there, let me ask you this: do you really think that music holds up the way, say,  Dark Side and Wish You Were Here do? Would you be at all interested in any of it if not for the drama of Barrett's collapse?

If you say "yes" to either of those questions, I name you LIAR.

10. "Dogs of War," A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)

This choice will annoy a lot of people, because the general consensus is that A Momentary Lapse of Reason is the first Floyd "sellout" album, coming as it did after resident angry genius Roger Waters's acrimonious departure a few years earlier. I don't necessarily disagree (although I tend to be more forgiving of David Gilmour-era Floyd than most).

But this is one of those songs that caught me at just the right time (I was nine years old) and stuck with me in a big way. That ominous martial quality of the synthesizers (I was already into real dark shit, even at that age), Gilmour's strained rocker's rasp (deployed much more effectively on "Money"), the way it explodes into something approaching gospel and then swerves into one of those epiphanic saxophone solos that inspires little kids to pick up the sax and plunk their way through "Mary Had a Little Lamb" at their first school recital (as it did for this little kid, at least)... to nine-year-old me, this was rock music happening at a register I didn't know was possible.

In fact, now that I think about it, this is the Floyd song that had the most direct impact on the trajectory of my life. If I hadn't heard this song, I probably never would have wanted to learn the saxophone. Which, in turn, means I never would have ended up in the high school marching band and met my best friends (hey, Doug, Dan, and Karl). And I likely never would have gone to college in Alamosa, CO (went there for marching band, too), never would have become a college radio DJ, never would have moved to Pueblo for the summer (1998), which means I never would have met the girl who inspired me to write Dead Billy, and so on...


Of course, adult me can listen to "Dogs of War" and recognize that it doesn't approach anywhere near the heights the band reached at its peak. But it was my "first" favorite Floyd song, so it needs to be on this list.

9. "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" Ummagumma (1969)

Floyd from an entirely different era, when they were just beginning to be identified with that popular if meaningless term "prog rock."

It's always amused me how Pink Floyd continually gets lumped in with prog noodlers like Rush and Yes. The only similarity, as far as I can see, is their tendency toward long, abstract instrumentals (like this one). But listen to "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" after, say, Rush's "The Trees" or Yes's "Close to the Edge" and try to tell me that they're working in anywhere near the same genre.

Pink Floyd were always murkier, more cynical, much less concerned with virtuosity and psychedelia and much more concerned with exploring concepts like insanity and death. To me, they've always felt more of a piece with musicians like the Velvet Underground, Philip Glass, John Cage, and even weirdo poets like Tom Waits. They were mining the dark side long before it was cool to do so.

8. "Fearless" Meddle (1971)

Meddle is one of my least favorite Floyd albums. It's an interesting artifact, documenting their transition out of the schizophrenic music of their early years into the smooth, dark, oblong cohesiveness of the Dark Side - The Wall era (1973-1980). But as an album, it's a little bit of a lot of things but not really much of anything.

"Fearless," though — this is just a masterful song, and it showcases a side of Floyd hardly seen up to that point. It's just a great 70s rock and roll song, straightforward and to the point, infused with a deep sense of melancholy wrapped around a delicious acoustic melody. It's something that could have been penned by The Eagles, if The Eagles had anywhere near the depth of Pink Floyd. It's one of those songs that always makes my heart skip a beat.

7. "Pigs: Three Different Ones" Animals (1977)

The record that came out the year I was born. I love that Floyd's answer to punk rock was to create an album where one of the shortest songs (this one) clocks in at over eleven minutes. But their gloomy riff on Orwell's Animal Farm is just as ferocious and blistering as anything The Sex Pistols or The Clash were doing at the time.

To my ears, Animals is Floyd's bitterest album (minus the shrill and nearly unlistenable The Final Cut), and one of their most underrated. "Pigs: Three Different Ones" was Roger Waters at his most sneering — but it was sneering with a purpose. Johnny Rotten could have learned a few things from this aging "dinosaur" if he'd ever bothered to listen.

Waters had one more great album in him (The Wall) before the anger that drove his creativity began to feed on itself.

6. "Brain Damage/Eclipse" The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

This two-song suite is, to me, the flip side of something like "Pigs: Three Different Ones." It's dark and it's got that Roger Waters snarl — but it's also oddly, nihilistically joyful. You listen to this song and you can just imagine Waters sailing off the edge of existence with a big, shit-eating grin on his face. And you can almost imagine sailing off right along with him.

5. "If" Atom Heart Mother (1970)

This is a pretty obscure track, sandwiched between the epic and orchestral (and nearly 25-minute)  "Atom Heart Mother Suite" and Rick Wright's much more bombastic "Summer '68" (both strong contenders for this list).

It's also deceptively gentle for a Roger Waters song. He doesn't sneer or shout, but rather sings in a delicate and tremulous whisper, accompanied mostly by nothing but an acoustic guitar, a few spacey Gilmour flourishes, and a bit of color from Wright's piano (drummer Nick Mason tosses in a few beats towards the end).

It's the type of song you put on a yoga mix. But this is still Roger Waters, and he can't entirely keep away from the macabre. That's what turns this song from something innocuously pleasant into a bonafide work of mad Waters genius. Lyrics like "if I go insane, please don't stick your wires in my brain" float by almost without you noticing them.

4. "Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5)" Wish You Were Here (1975)

I almost wanted to leave this off the list because it's so fucking obvious. The only surprise, maybe, is that I didn't put it at number one.

But this is one of those rare 70s rock classics that is truly as great as everyone says it is. It sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, and it's the perfect symbiosis of all Floyd's disparate parts working perfectly together in absolute, clockwork harmony. Rick Wright's synthesizer has never been more haunting, and Gilmour manages to ring more emotion out of those four famous guitar notes than Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page do in an entire solo.

And it's probably Waters' crowning lyrical achievement, an ode to a fallen friend (Syd Barrett) that manages to both honor and skewer its subject in equal measure:

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for faraway laughter; come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr,
and shine!

You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision, rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions; come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, 
and shine!

This is just a beautiful song — maybe the most beautiful in rock-and-roll history. That's not opinion; it's verifiable fact.

3. "Nobody Home" The Wall (1979)

I know I just said that "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" is Roger Waters' standout lyrical achievement, but if that's true then The Wall's "Nobody Home" has to be a very close second. I think it's no coincidence that it's also about Syd Barrett; Waters was always at his best when he was reflecting back on his past and the fate of his former bandmate and friend.

"Dogs of War" was my first favorite Pink Floyd song. But A Momentary Lapse of Reason wasn't the first Floyd album that got its hooks into me. My brother had left a vinyl copy of The Wall in my parents' record cabinet. I don't remember how old I was the first time I listened to it, but I couldn't have been more than seven. I had been captivated by that stark black-and-white cover since as long as I can remember, and I can still recall the feelings of both utter hopelessness and transcendent joy that flooded into my young brain on that first spin.

I didn't get it at all, but something in this record spoke to me at an extremely impressionable age. And when I look at my own creative work, I see The Wall's dark influence all over it. To me this is and will always be the Pink Floyd record, the ultimate monument to all of Roger Waters' bleakest obsessions: madness, death, war, and rage. He has never been better, before or since.

2. "Hey You" The Wall (1979)

There's no Floyd song I find more haunting — and relatable — than this one. No piece of music has better captured that feeling of desperate, drowning loneliness. I don't even want to say how many hours I spent sitting alone in my bedroom in the dark, listening to this track over and over and over again. Even now, if I catch it in the right (or wrong) mood, it'll put me close to tears.

1. "The Trial" The Wall (1979)

The Wall's penultimate song and undisputed climax, "The Trial" is like the nuttiest Gilbert & Sullivan song you could imagine. It's a near perfect piece of theatre and a sublime work of black comedy, with Roger Waters playing the many roles with all the panache of a trained Broadway actor. No song in the English language gives me more joy than this.

I'm generally not a huge fan of The Wall movie (1982), but Gerald Scarfe's animation during this segment is an undisputed highlight. Watch the video above and marvel. Scarfe's depiction of the Judge as a giant, bleating asshole never fails to crack me up.

Honorable Mentions:
"One of These Days" Meddle
"Astronomy Domine" Piper at the Gates of Dawn
"Mother" The Wall
"The Great Gig in the Sky" The Dark Side of the Moon
"On the Turning Away" Momentary Lapse of Reason
"Waiting for the Worms" The Wall
"Welcome to the Machine" Wish You Were Here
"Sheep" Animals
"One of My Turns" The Wall
"Time" The Dark Side of the Moon
"Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" A Saucerful of Secrets
"Comfortably Numb" The Wall
"In the Flesh" The Wall
"Summer '68" Atom Heart Mother
"The Nile Song" The More Soundtrack
"Free Four" Obscured by Clouds
"Bike" Piper at the Gates of Dawn
"Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" Ummagumma
"Atom Heart Mother Suite" Atom Heart Mother
"Wish You Were Here" Wish You Were Here

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Black Mass (2015)

There are some spoilers in here. Nothing major — and nothing you wouldn't know from reading the newspaper accounts of the story. But be warned.

Scott Cooper's Black Mass is not only the movie I've been anticipating the most this year, but one of the top five movies I've been most dying to see for the last decade or so. I became obsessed with the whole James "Whitey" Bulger story back around 2004 when I was living in Boston and I stumbled on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob.

That book (the basis for Cooper's film) is still considered by many to be the definitive text on Bulger's Winter Hill Gang, which terrorized Boston from the mid 1970s through the early 1990s. Lehr and O'Neill, both Boston Globe reporters, followed it up in 2013 with Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss after Whitey was finally caught hiding out in Santa Monica, California.

Bulger — a fugitive for many years and second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's most wanted list — wasn't really in the mass consciousness at the time (he would enter it again just a couple years later after Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in The Departed was reported to have been based on him). The story was entirely new to me. As a small-town kid from the lower Rockies, Boston already seemed pretty exotic to me; add in a fugitive, murderous gangster and I was hooked. I read everything I could on the subject, even Howie Carr's terrible The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century. I even met one of Bulger's main associates, Kevin Weeks (played with brooding menace by Jesse Plemmons in the new movie), in an encounter at a book signing at the Boston University book store that I found a little terrifying and that he probably doesn't remember at all.

I closely tracked the development of this movie from the start, and when they announced Johnny Depp as Bulger, I was cautiously optimistic; sure, he's been having a little too much fun at the Pirates of the Caribbean/Willy Wonka/Dark Shadows costume party for quite a long time now... but he did brilliantly portray FBI agent Joe Pistone in one of my all time favorite gangster movies, Donnie Brasco (1997). If he could tap back into that, maybe it would work.

I started to allow myself to get just a little excited when I saw the pictures of him in full Bulger regalia. The resemblance is pretty impressive:

And of course, there was that great first trailer.

So after all that, what's my verdict?

Meh. Pretty good, I guess.

Black Mass is a decent Hollywood gangster movie, ably told but fairly anonymous, nowhere near as great as a Donnie Brasco or Goodfellas but better than garbage like 2012's The Iceman. It's probably about on the level of something like Ben Affleck's The Town (2010) or Gone Baby Gone (2007). Maybe a little less interesting.

I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a Bulger expert — and I certainly wasn't there for anything depicted in the movie — but I have read a lot about the case, from many different sources, so I know more about the true events than your average moviegoer. I can say that Black Mass gets many of the events pretty close to right in a very abbreviated, Cliff's Notes sort of way that I expected (I've always thought this story would have been best served as an HBO limit series like David Simon's Show Me A Hero). Right up until the end, that is, when they kind of just start making shit up. But okay, this is Hollywood. I'm not expecting exact fidelity to the truth — although I've never been able to understand why you'd invent stuff when the true story is far more interesting and cinematic.

I don't want to belabor this, but there are few details the movie got wrong that I want to mention for posterity. Minor spoilers ahead:

• Bulger's son actually died several years before the events of the movie. I'm not even sure why they included it, because the time wasted on that storyline took away from much needed development elsewhere.
• The film is oddly hands-off in the way it treats Bulger accomplice Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth portray him almost sympathetically as Bulger's reluctant subordinate. In fact Bulger and Flemmi were partners, and by many accounts Flemmi is a full-on psychopath who was as bad as Bulger, if not worse (he's currently serving a life sentence for 10 murders). Cochrane is a hell of an actor and he does everything he can with this underwritten role, but it's not enough.
• The movie suggests that it was Bulger who convinced Flemmi to join him as a top echelon informant with the FBI, when in fact Flemmi had been an informant since 1965 — about a decade before his partner.
• The film is also very careful in how it portrays Bulger's younger brother, Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who just happened to be the president of the Massachusetts State Senate while Bulger was dominating the streets of Southie. Billy is hardly a presence in the film, and Cumberbatch plays him pretty close to the vest. It's been an open question for a long time how much Billy Bulger knew about his brother's activities and whether or not he helped him or covered for him in any way. Billy is still alive and (mostly) respected in Massachusetts, and I would guess that the studio didn't want to risk a lawsuit by suggesting anything that it couldn't prove.

I haven't seen Cooper's earlier work (been meaning to catch up with Crazy Heart for forever), but I think he did a solid job here, and with a decent amount of style. Overall the movie is well paced. And many of the performances are quite good — in particular David Harbour, who plays corrupt FBI agent John Connolly's (Joel Edgerton) equally compromised boss John Morris. I wish he'd had a stronger presence in the film, because Morris had the most human (and subtly tragic) arc of anyone involved in the case. But the movie does offer a piece of information I had never heard before (or somehow missed), and I wonder if it's true; it suggests that it was Morris, on deep background, who approached Lehr and O'Neill in the first place as a whistleblower.

My favorite performance, Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as US attorney Fred Wyshak, comes pretty late in the game. But it's a breath of fresh air as, according to the movie, Wyshak was the one guy willing to step up and call everyone on the bullshit they'd allowed to drop over the years. It's a much-needed muscular and no-nonsense performance that shows up at just the right time.

The two central performances, however, are pretty problematic. Edgerton's take on Connolly — who, as a Bulger's FBI handler, abetted Bulger's murderous rise and is now serving time for murder — seems off to me. Connolly was certainly an arrogant, blustery dude, but in the film he might as well have been walking around with a sign around his neck reading "CORRUPT FBI ASSHOLE!! ARREST ME NOW!!" I just can't believe Connolly could have been as blatant — and, frankly, as stupid — about his corruption as is portrayed in the film. Edgerton's dialogue is mostly reduced to various bromides about his "loyalty" to Southie and the brothers Bulger, who were "very good to him" as a child. And, for some reason, that's good enough for his FBI superiors and for the US attorneys, even though boss Charles MaGuire (Kevin Bacon) knows almost from the start that the deal with Bulger stinks. We're given to understand that the FBI was so desperate to bring down the Italian Mafia of Boston's North End that they were willing to tolerate Connolly's obvious transgressions. There's a lot of truth to that, but the two-hour running time doesn't allow for the type of development needed to make it really make sense within the film.

And Depp... well, I guess he hasn't left the costume party just yet. In his hands, Bulger is an entirely exterior creature who seems to operate on exactly one level: a sort of demonic, murderous lechery that smacks of caricature. There's one scene in particular between Bulger and Connolly's wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson, in one of the film's other unheralded small performances), that's meant to be terrifying but instead comes off almost laughable. They didn't allow Depp a mustache with which to twirl, so instead he uses Bulger's leather jacket like a greasy black snake's skin to telegraph the depth of his evil (that jacket, by the way, comes from exactly one photo of Bulger, pictured above. Most other shots I've seen of him show that he pretty much dressed like a regular guy most of the time).

Literally every moment Depp has onscreen — even an early one where he's playing gin rummy with his elderly mother — positively oozes with slime. It works great in the scene everyone knows from the trailer, the one where Bulger presses Morris about his steak marinade. But over the course of an entire movie, it comes pretty close to eye rolling. It's like one of Depp's performances from a Tim Burton movie was just dropped whole into an entirely different film.

In the end I didn't hate the movie (which I feared), and as I was watching it I mostly enjoyed it. It's worth catching if you've got an evening free, but it's not one you need to rush out for.

But is this the definitive take and final word on James "Whitey" Bulger? I sure hope not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Visit (2015)

I guess I don't really need to go too deep into the conversation about how M. Night Shyamalan's movies have been terrible for the last decade or so. They have been, in sometimes stunning fashion, and we all know it.  So let's just move on, ok?

And I'm not going to go so far as all the critics claiming that his new film, The Visit, is a return to form. This isn't on the level of The Sixth Sense... or even Signs, probably. A few critics are going nuts for it because Shyamalan's last five or so movies have been so godawful that the bar has been lowered basically to ground level.

But, for what it is, The Visit is pretty damn good.

Might it be that Shyamalan has finally been humbled after all the vitriol that has been thrown at him since roughly The Village (2004)? I'm guessing that's part of it. But there's another player in the game here, and I think its influence on the film — a sort of retro found-footage movie about two kids sent off to visit a pair of maniacal grandparents they've never met before — needs to be acknowledged.

That other player, of course, is Blumhouse Productions. The company basically owes its existence to the Paranormal Activity franchise, and is best known for producing generally unimpressive but successful horror movies like Sinister (2012), The Purge (2013), and the moderately more artful Insidious series. They made their bid for an Oscar last year with Whiplash, which managed to be more intense and horrifying than anything else they've produced.

It's a bit odd to imagine Blumhouse teaming up with Shyamalan, and I'd love to know the inside story of how this came together. I'm guessing a significant part of it is the fact that there aren't a lot of other companies willing to work with the director anymore, and Blumhouse knew they could probably get him cheap.

But somehow this collaboration becomes more than the sum of its parts, bringing out the best of each other without indulging in the worst. For his part, Shyamalan's most turgid instincts seem to have been somewhat mitigated by the lean-and-mean, straight-to-the-point Blumhouse ethos. The Visit falls pretty squarely between the Paranormal Activity found-footage thing and the slightly more elevated sensibility of Insidious, and the constraints don't allow him to go up his own ass the way he's been prone to do.

The constraints suit him well. He's still got enough storytelling spark and visual flare to class up the joint a bit, and in The Visit he managed to conjure up a few of the most startling and genuinely upsetting horror images I've seen in a while.

I don't want to oversell it; there's nothing particularly mind blowing here, and the movie doesn't have anywhere near the energy or originality of recent movies like It Follows and The Babadook. But by and large it all works, and some of what he delivers is truly scary.

It's also legitimately funny, which I didn't expect. Shyamalan has shown a moderate ability with humor in the past (particularly in Signs), but he manages to really nail it here. The two young leads, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, are saddled with the sort of cutesy precocious kid roles that normally make me want to claw my eyes out. But these kids can act, and they have a genuine sibling chemistry between them. DeJonge takes Rebecca, the older of a two and an aspiring filmmaker, and makes her pretensions charming rather than grating. And Oxenbould's Tyler, an aspiring rapper (yep, that's right), is often laugh-out-loud hilarious. But when it's time for them to be scared and deliver the horror-movie goods, they do. Oxenbould's is the showier performance, but he manages to spin Tyler's manic energy into a genuine ferocity toward the end that is more than a little frightening and definitely unexpected.

But the real stars of the show here are Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan as "Pop-Pop" and "Nana." They deliver the sort of tour-de-force genre performances that deserve Oscar consideration but never get it. At first you're charmed by them, then you're sort of laughing at them, then you're a little uncomfortable around them... and then you're absolutely terrified.

I kind of hope this Shyamalan/Blumhouse partnership continues. It's too early to call this a comeback, but I can say for the first time in years I'm actually excited to see his next movie.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Streaming Review — One False Move (1992)

"One False Move" is one of those odd little movies I've been hearing about for years but haven't ever  taken the time to sit down and watch.

I remember the moderate buzz surrounding it way back when. It came out in the year or so after "Reservoir Dogs," so the whole neo-noir indie thing of that time was just getting started. Directed by an actor and relative nobody named Carl Franklin (a nobody in the sense that he's worked mostly under the radar; in truth, he's done some pretty solid work both behind and in front of the camera) and written by and co-starring a complete nobody named Billy Bob Thornton, "One False Move" was basically a B-movie intended for the direct-to-video bin at your local video store. It wasn't until critics like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel took up the cause that it finally got a small theatrical release (Siskel named it his movie of the year)

In the years since, it's grown into a minor cult artifact, largely because of the stratospheric rise not long after of its writer and star (Thornton would go on to make his breakout "Sling Blade" just a few years later).

It's one of those movies I think about watching every so often and then quickly forget. But it came up while prepping a new script I'm due to start soon, I decided to finally sit down and watch it.

Final verdict: pretty good. It's no masterpiece, but it's a more-than-solid slice of rural noir, and definitely worth a look.

The film mostly centers on a dual, criss-crossing narrative that follows a gang of murderous robbers and drug pushers comprised of the volatile and violent Ray Malcolm (Thornton), his slightly more sensible lover Fantasia (Cynda Williams, who was Thornton's real-life girlfriend at the time), and the coolly psychopathic Pluto (Michael Beach, who should be recognizable to modern audiences as T.O. Cross on "Sons of Anarchy"), and two L.A. cops (Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) who team up with a small-town sheriff (Bill Paxton) in hopes of intercepting the gang upon their arrival in Ray and Fantasia's home town of Star City, Arkansas.

In many ways this is all pretty standard fair. What makes the movie hum are the performances and Thornton's solid, if not wholly original, screenplay. Everyone is good here (Beach, in particular, plays Pluto with just the right mixture of brute menace and cool intelligence), but Paxton steals the show as Dale "Hurricane" Dixon, a small-town cop with big-time dreams. We know from the start that his inexperience, exuberance, and overall lack of intellectual rigor are likely to get him (and maybe a lot of other people) killed. Imagine if George W. Bush was a small-town sheriff about to go up against a gang of cold-blooded murderers.

But lest you think this is simply another Hollywood movie condescending to and fetishizing the rural south, remember that Thornton himself is not so different from Hurricane Dixon. He grew up in this world, and he knows it as more than a bag of clichés. When we meet Dale and first experience Star City, we're taking it all in through the eyes of the jaded and arrogant big-city cops, and Thornton's sly trick is to make the condescension theirs, not the movie's. He fakes us out by putting us into their subjectivity, then pulls the rug out from under us by dumping us right into Dale's. Dale is suddenly more complex, heartfelt, flawed — but inherently noble — than we previously imagined.

Thornton is also pretty great as Ray. It's the type of role we've become accustomed to seeing him in, but it's handy to remind ourselves that, at the time, nobody knew who the fuck he was. Yet he manages to dominate the screen like a seasoned veteran.

The ultimate confrontation between all these forces is powerfully presented, but overall pretty predictable. Nothing here really gives us anything we haven't seen before or since. "One False Move" may be one of the first of those 90s rural noirs, but it's far from the best (that honor goes to either John Dahl's 1993 film "Red Rock West" or Sam Raimi's 1998 film "A Simple Plan" — the latter of which not-so-coincidentally stars both Thornton and Paxton).

Still, this is a movie that's a lot better than in it should be, and that's due to the talent involved. Franklin, for his part, directs the film ably and with just enough style to elevate this beyond other direct-to-video fare from that era. He's not showy, but he shows a solid command over the form.

This is a good movie. If you haven't seen it, you should give it a shot.

Book Review — "Finders Keepers" by Stephen King

Mild spoilers below

Last year, when I wrote about Stephen King's "Revival," I expressed my cautiously optimistic hope that King was maybe finally pulling out of what felt to me like a decade-plus slump. The quality of his work has been trending sharply upward since 2010's "Full Dark No Stars," and I voiced the opinion that "Revival" was as close to classic King as anything he had produced in a long, long time. 

I'm going to be a douchebag and quote myself real quick:

"I'm not going to make any grand pronouncements about a 'comeback or (ahem) a revival here. We'll have to see if King can sustain this newfound focus with whatever he comes up with next. But, in the meantime, I'm just so grateful to have once again had the exhilarating experience with a new King book that I used to expect as a matter of course."

I've read "Revival" again in the months since this review, and for me it's skating ever closer to earning that classic label. I'm still not quite ready to go there, though.

But I have no such reservations with his latest book, "Finders Keepers." The exhilaration I felt when I read "Revival" is there, but positively squared this time. This is King's best novel — by a wide, wide margin — since his early/middle period ended with 1987's "Misery."

He's had a couple books that have come sort of close in the years since. 1996's "Desperation" comes to mind, as does his fourth Dark Tower novel, 1997's "Wizard and Glass." I personally have a deep fondness for 2003's "From a Buick 8," even if nobody else really does. But nothing (except for "Revival," "Full Dark..." and maybe "11/22/63") has felt like a truly towering achievement since "Misery."

Until now.

"Finders Keepers" is second in a trilogy of crime novels, directly influenced by writers like John D. McDonald (an oft-referenced King favorite). "Mr. Mercedes" was the first in the series but, like with "Star Wars" and "The Godfather: Part 2," it's really the second installment that's the defining masterpiece.

"Mr. Mercedes" was good, but it had its problems. The best things about it are the lead character, retired police detective Bill Hodges, and a truly frightening villain, Brady Hartsfield. The spine of the story is solid, but King wanders outside of its confines and stumbles into areas that challenge our suspension of disbelief. The biggest problems come when King has the elderly and corpulent Hodges enter with startling ease into a passionate love affair with a beautiful, much younger woman ("Revival" kind of has the same Woody Allen-esque old-man wish-fulfillment problem, but you sort of buy it more there since the main character, Jamie Morton, is a rode-hard bad-boy rocker and not a fat ex-cop who starts the book mostly sitting around eating Cheetohs and watching game shows).  These issues only compound when Hodges joins forces with two other would-be detectives — Holly, a middle-aged woman with Aspergers, and Jerome, Hodges's genius teenage neighbor — to stop Brady in his murderous tracks. Jerome and Holly are, like Hodges, pretty great characters on their own, but you just don't quite believe the meet-cute way they all come together.

The third major problem with "Mr. Mercedes" is its overall lackluster conclusion. King had dipped his toes into the hard-boiled world before (most masterfully with his 1985 short story "Dolan's Cadillac," which you can find anthologized in his 1993 short-story collection "Nightmares and Dreamscapes"), but never at novel-length. He's working undeveloped muscles with "Mr. Mercedes," and you can sort of feel him straining toward the end. None of these problems are fatal, but — Edgar award notwithstanding — they knock the book down a peg from "great" to merely "pretty good."

You feel none of that strain in "Finders Keepers" (well, maybe a little when Jerome conveniently shows up again to help out about halfway through). This story takes place four years later, and Hodges and Holly are a team now. Even if their original coming together strained credibility, here King has the advantage of picking up with them after their friendly if not always comfortable rapport has been firmly established.

But fundamentally "Finders Keepers" isn't even really about them. Hodges and Holly don't really join the main action until about halfway through, and they spend most of the rest of the book playing catch-up. The real main characters are a kid named Pete Saubers and a hardened old parolee named Morris Bellamy.

Bellamy is King's most compelling human monster since Annie Wilkes in "Misery." And that might be because, like Annie, Bellamy is an obsessed fan who turns against a famous author. I'm sure that's a subject that hits King right in all the feels.

The author in question is a reclusive genius named John Rothstein. After publishing a trilogy of novels about the life of a wayward youth named Jimmy Gold, Rothstein packs it in and retires to a New Hampshire farmhouse, never to be heard from again. But rumors abound; word on the street is that he never stopped writing.

Rothstein is an obvious riff on J.D. Salinger, but there's also some John Updike and Philip Roth in there. His "Runner" trilogy (comprised of "The Runner," "The Runner Sees Action" and "The Runner Slows Down") seems like a nod to Updike's "Rabbit" novels. And while Rothstein's Jimmy Gold character has a lot of Holden Caulfield in him — he's even got his own catch phrase, "shit don't mean shit" — he's also a clear analogue to Roth's Nathan Zuckerman alter-ego.

"Finders Keepers" opens with an 80-year-old Rothstein being rudely awakened by a trio of home invaders. The year is 1978, and Rothstein hasn't published anything in nearly two decades. Two of the masked men are clearly after Rothstein's money, but the third — Bellamy — wants something else. Bellamy is the criminal-minded estranged son of a respected English professor, and he sees himself as something of a literary sophisticate. In particular, he's imprinted himself deeply onto Jimmy Gold, in the way Mark David Chapman imprinted onto Caulfield and — indeed — Annie Wilkes imprinted onto Misery Chastain.

Bellamy is enraged by where Rothstein left Jimmy — a middle-aged man with a paunch, who has given up his anti-social and existential rebellion for a wife, a kid, a house in the suburbs, and a job in advertising. To Bellamy's distorted world view, not only did Jimmy sell out, but Rothstein made him sell out. To Bellamy, Jimmy is more real than any living breathing human, including the man who created him. Rothstein barely rates as a person and, to Bellamy, he must be punished.

So Bellamy kills him, much to the shock and dismay of his accomplices (this isn't a spoiler, by the way; it happens in the first chapter and the info is on the dust jacket). The gang runs off with $20,000 in cash and over a hundred hand-written notebooks taken from Rothstein's safe. Bellamy hopes and prays that Rothstein redeemed his beloved Jimmy somewhere in those notebooks, and a quick glance suggests to him that this might in fact be the case.

But before Bellamy can read the notebooks, he runs to his hometown in northern Ohio — the same unnamed city where "Mr. Mercedes" took place — and has an unpleasant encounter with an old friend, a wannabe book dealer named Andy Halliday. Halliday was the one who first proposed robbing Rothstein, but now that the deed is done he wants no part of the scheme and leaves Bellamy to fend for himself. In a rage, Bellamy hides the notebooks in a trunk and then finds himself locked up for more than three decades for a completely unrelated crime committed while he was blackout drunk.

Bellamy's narrative interweaves with that of Pete's, whose dad was one of the victims of Brady Hartsfield, the Mercedes Killer. Tom Saubers was a good husband and father, but now gravely injured and jobless during the Great Recession he's turning into a bitter, mean drunk. Reduced to a single income and choking on hospital bills, the Saubers family is coming apart.

It's in this moment of desperation that thirteen-year-old Pete stumbles on a strange trunk buried in the woods behind his house. Inside, he finds $20,000 in cash and stacks of lovingly preserved notebooks.

Pete uses the money to surreptitiously help his family. He also reads the notebooks and becomes as obsessed with John Rothstein and Jimmy Gold as Bellamy. But when the money runs out a couple years later, Pete decides to approach a shady book dealer with designs on selling the notebooks for a hefty profit. The book dealer just happens to be Andy Halliday.

You can probably sort of guess where the story is going from here, particularly after Bellamy is granted an unexpected parole. He's as obsessed with finding out what happened to Jimmy Gold as he was in 1978, and he wants his notebooks back.

To say much more would risk giving too much away. By the time Hodges, Holly and Jerome are brought into the story (Pete's little sister just happens to be BFFs with Jerome's sister Barbara), things are well on their way to a disastrous collision.

"Finders Keepers" is a remarkably assured crime/suspense novel from a guy who is admittedly more comfortable with the narrative conveniences of supernatural horror. But he's been working out since "Mr. Mercedes," and it shows. As I said in my earlier review, "Revival" was, for me, King's scariest book in broader, cosmic sense since "Pet Sematary." That's still the case. But "Finders Keepers" is his most sharply suspenseful in that grubbily human, tightening-of-the-screws way since at least "Misery"... possibly even "Cujo." It's the sort of book where you find yourself yelling at characters not to go into that room, answer that phone, or open this door. When one character makes a choice of almost jaw-dropping stupidity, I literally screamed in horror.

Beyond being a solid suspense yarn, "Finders Keepers" is also a pretty compelling rumination on the writer's relationship to his/her fans and the fans' relationship to the writer's characters. As fascinating a villain as Annie Wilkes is, "Misery" keeps us locked within writer Paul Sheldon's subjectivity and Annie herself remains pretty opaque. Here, King lets us go inside both Bellamy's diseased mind and Pete's marginally saner one. King shows that he understands the fan's perspective, and he asks some real questions about who has the ultimate right the characters, the writer or the reader. As another George R.R. Martin fan steadily working myself into a rage over the long-delayed release of "The Winds of Winter," it's a question I wrestle with every time some asshole posts a "Game of Thrones" spoiler on Facebook.

King's only real misstep here is in his characterization of Andy Halliday. Halliday is fat, pretentious, slimy, mincing, and gay, and he feels like an uncomfortable callback to the sort of "sissy" characters Hollywood used to feed us in movies like "The Maltese Falcon" and "Laura." If he'd been a character in an old movie, he would have undoubtedly been played by Peter Lorre. Andy's sexuality isn't a major part of the story and it's mostly used to show Bellamy's intense, prison-bred homophobia. But it's unnecessary and annoying and a reminder that, as progressive as he is, King is of a different (and slightly clueless) generation.

That dissonant note aside, "Finders Keepers" cracks right along and moves steadily toward a conclusion that, unlike the one he gave us in "Mr. Mercedes," feels like the perfect explosive culmination of what had come before. Interestingly, in setting up the third volume of the trilogy ("End of Watch," coming some time next year), he threads in hints of his familiar supernatural horror. I have mixed feelings about that — this trilogy so clearly takes place in a different universe from the rest of his work (a point made by a reference to the "Shawshank Redemption" soundtrack, which Holly professes to be among her favorites but more importantly firmly establishes King's other output as a work of fiction in this trilogy's world). I'd kind of like him to stick to the hard-boiled approach in the last book.

But what he's hinting at promises to be... well, pretty fucking awesome. I've got my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My life with Faith No More, plus "Sol Invictus" (2015)

It occurs to me now that when I wrote my half earnest, half tongue-in-cheek defense of nü metal a few months back, I somehow neglected to mention Faith No More. Which is ridiculous, because Faith No More was not only my favorite band in high school, but their megahit album The Real Thing (1989) was — in its own way,  along with Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking (1988) — nü metal's  foundation.

But I don't really want to go down that road. I'd much rather talk about what FNM meant to me.

I must have been 16 or 17 when I discovered them, and the effect on me was seismic. The only comparable events were the first time I listen to Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (as a preteen) and the first time I read Stephen King (in middle school). It is not an understatement to say that the first time I listened to Angel Dust (1992) was a life-changing/life-defining moment.

I'd only really gotten into the whole 90s heavy music thing a year or so previous. Before that I had been aware of the whole grunge revolution in a distant, sort of abstract way, and I did have some vague notion that the pop-cultural landscape had shifted mightily in the few years since I would go over to my friend's house in the late 80s to watch Poison and Europe and Motley Crüe prance around the screen. After that I basically ignored what was happening in popular music altogether after about 1990, digging deep into a Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin/Beatles/Jimi Hendrix obsession (peppered here and there with The Clash, David Bowie, and -- oddly enough -- my dad's Jim Croce collection).

All that lasted up until 1994, when my parents finally broke down and got cable. More out of curiosity than anything else, I clicked over to the semi-exotic wonderland of MTV to see what was going on. The first thing that happened was that I was exposed to the double mindfuck of Stone Temple Pilot's "Vasoline" and Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" playing back to back. My eyes lit on fire. Green Day's "Basket Case" came next (meh), followed by Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" (what?!?) and Pantera's "This Love" (fuck YES!).

The culture had DEFINITELY changed right under me while I wasn't paying attention. What's more, it felt like it had somehow come around to me and my dark, weirdo sensibilities in a way I couldn't quite wrap my head around. If my memory's correct, I stared at that TV screen for hours, enraptured by a steady cascade of Nirvana ("Heart Shaped Box"), Rollins Band ("Liar"), Alice In Chains ("I Stay Away"), White Zombie ("Welcome to Planet Motherfucker"), Sepultura ("Refuse/Resist"), Ministry ("Just One Fix"), Pearl Jam ("Jeremy"), etc. Sure, there was plenty of Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men in there, too, but between all the pop songs and gangsta rap videos (which I would come to appreciate more years later), it was like David Lynch had come in and taken over the network.

I was hooked. But unfortunately I had some catching up to do and I didn't quite know where to start. So there commenced a, now that I think about it, remarkably short and inconstant parade of faux-identities over the course of less than a year. I graduated out of grunge pretty quickly and dug deep into metal (I'd always loved Metallica, but now there was Pantera, Sepultura, Biohazard, and even Danzig to reckon with). But the chest-thumping machismo and the comic-book lyrics didn't much appeal, so I took a hard right turn into the swampier waters of techno and industrial. That was an identity I desperately craved, but I couldn't bring myself to admit to either my friends or myself that, beyond a few bands (primarily NIN, KMFDM, and Ministry) and a smattering of individual songs (Skinny Puppy's "Worlock," Front 242's "Headhunter"), I just didn't get it.

So I tried punk (aside from The Dead Kennedys, most of that wouldn't stick until later) and then  dipped my toes into the sort of meathead goth thing that was also happening around that time (Type O Negative maybe being the nadir of that, and Tool being its undeniable apex).

It wasn't until I stumbled on Korn toward the end of that busy year (I already talked this in the nü metal post) that I started to find something that felt like it was speaking to me... not the me I was trying to be.

And it was through Korn that I finally found my way to Faith No More.

My best friend Doug was already an advocate (he had The Real Thing), but I remembered the "From Out of Nowhere" video and wasn't really interested until I read an article (probably in Metal Hammer or something) that mentioned how Jonathan Davis's favorite band was Faith No More.  I couldn't quite draw a line in my head between "Epic" and "Faget," but I was intrigued. My impression of FNM at the time was that they were sort of a heavier version of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, or maybe a smarter version of Ugly Kid Joe. Beyond that, I just had no reference point for them.

So when I stumbled on Angel Dust in the cut-out bin at the local record store, I naively thought to myself, "eh, it's five bucks, give it a shot." Little could I sense the earthquake that was about to hit.

I have come to love The Real Thing in its own right, but it was Angel Dust that blew the doors off for me. The demented pop-metal of "Land of Sunshine" was the first thing to come blasting out of my speakers, and it immediately rewired something in my brain. This was followed by the demented post-thrash of "Caffeine," the demented funk of "Midlife Crisis," the pure circus dementia of "RV," and on and on and on. "Demented," of course, being the operative word.

First off, who the fuck was this Mike Patton guy? In an era where rock vocalists were still all trying to be Kurt Cobain, this guy was Pavarotti. But the moment I felt like I had a handle on him as a vocalist, he'd veer way off. On one level he was a classic, full-throated melodic metal singer of the old Geoff Tate school, but then he'd start barking out hip-hop refrains before slipping on an Elvis croon and then blasting into death metal squeals, roars and bellows that would make Chris Barnes proud.

The rest of the band was just as all-over-the place, and the weird alchemy created an album that  on-the-surface should have been pretty accessible but was in reality as disconcertingly eccentric as anything ever released by a major label.

It was the eccentricity that grabbed me and wouldn't let me go. These guys weren't following a trend. They weren't trying to be cool, and they definitely weren't trying to be tough guys. They were chasing the rabbit of their muse right up their own assholes... and somehow managing to catch hold of it. The album was weird, silly, poppy, and at times deeply disturbing.

This felt like me. More than Korn, or NIN, or Pantera, or any of the other bands that had preceeded. It was that odd juxtaposition of goofiness against no-holds-barred aggression, pop against genuine weirdness. Faith No More spoke to that stew inside me like no other band had before them.

The follow-up, 1995's King for a Day...Fool for a Lifetime sharply divided both critics and fans, but I loved it from the start. Along with Floyd (who, as different as they are, had always been similarly devoted to their own bizarro vision), Faith No More became my favorite band. Like Floyd, they were endlessly adventurous, creatively restless, always willing to spin away from the stuff they knew worked in favor of music that would constantly challenge both the fans and themselves. 

The writing was kind of on the wall, though, with 1997's Album of the Year. Some of it ("Stripsearch," "Ashes to Ashes," "Naked in Front of the Computer") was as solid as anything they had done before. But much of the album as a whole felt listless and unfocused. Whereas in the past their constant genre shifting had been exhilarating, on Album it grew wearying. The mojo was off somehow.

I managed to catch them live at the Ogden Theater in Denver in late 1997, and it was a nearly religious experience for me... in no small part because I supposed it would never happen again. And, sure enough, it was only weeks later that the official announcement came. Faith No More were done. The reason given? "Puffy (drummer Mike Bordin) did it."

I offer this rather long preamble for the simple fact that I'm trying to come to terms with my own feelings about Faith No More's current reunion and their first new album in eighteen years, Sol Invictus. It's been more than two decades since I first sunk my teeth into this band as a rather naive and impressionable teenager. Now I'm a pretty jaded, set-in-my-ways dude staring middle age right in its stupid face. It seems almost inevitable that the album would let me down.

But here's the thing — it didn't. The record has been available to stream in full for a couple days now (through a pre-release stream on Soundcloud and with a "first listen" link on NPR), and I've already plowed through it eight or nine times. And I LOVE IT.

What I'm having a hard time figuring out is whether I love it because of simple nostalgia or whether it really is as fantastic as it seems to me right now to be. I saw FNM again at The Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles about a month ago, and I left the theater almost giddy with excitement. It was like they had dumped me right back into the brain of 20-year-old me and simply picked up where they had left off.

Is that what's happening here? Am I just trying to relive or recapture something long gone?

I don't think so.

Sol Invictus starts on a surprisingly soft downbeat, with a bit of melancholy piano from keyboardist Roddy Bottum that quickly gives away to Bordin's martial drum beat. Patton's voice drifts in on top of it, and I settled in for what I thought would be more of that lounge-lizard croon he likes to muck around with from time to time. But for the first time he sounds more like Leonard Cohen to me than Frank Sinatra, and there's a raspy thread of menace that I found a little startling. Faith No More have always been bonkers, but they've never been particularly threatening. 

That's the thing Sol Invictus has that no other FNM-album before quite managed — a genuine undercurrent of barely subdued menace. Even King For a Day... — their heaviest album by quite some distance — feels more jaunty and excitable than truly dark. It's not in any one thing about Sol Invictus, but rather in the sum of everything. These guys aren't fucking around anymore.

Patton and bassist Billy Gould have both stated in interviews that this is their "gothic" album — as inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees as it is by their more expected punk and metal influences — and on a first listen I could definitely hear it. It's not an obvious thing, and if they hadn't said anything I'm not sure I'd have made that connection at all. The goth and post-punk elements are definitely there, but they've gone through the Faith No More shredder and have come out the other side just as dissassembled as any music genre they've tackled in the past.

The songwriting is uniformly sharp, in some ways minimalist. The genre hopping is there, but the focus is kept pretty tight and the leaps from one style to the next seem less schizophrenic and more calculated than they have in the past. For one thing, the changes tend to happen more within the songs, rather than between them (this was also true of Album of the Year). This is both a positive and a negative in some ways. Part of the charm of the earlier albums was how all over the place and unpredictable they were. A bit of that is lost here, but I don't miss it as much as I would have expected. For one, I'm not a kid anymore. For another, neither are they. It's hard to imagine a bunch of 50-year-olds replicating the madcap, uncontrolled-chaos of Angel Dust and King for a Day, and I think it's to their credit that they don't try.

But this record is as bonkers as their earlier ones, and to me it's bonkers in a way that seems a bit more honest. Whereas in the past FNM consciously strove to be as bizarre as they could within the relative confines of outer edges of the mainstream, now it really sounds as if they just don't give a shit (the fact that they're releasing the album on Patton's Ipecac label probably has something to do with that). The very self-conscious theatrical affect that always characterized them seems largely stripped away. They have exactly nothing to prove to anyone. They made the album they wanted to make. It's a remarkably morose affair in some ways, but it somehow never slips into the turgid (which Album does for me on a few of the later tracks). For maybe the first time, they sound like they're actually enjoying playing together.

Gould produced this album on his own, and it has a much crisper, less expansive sound than I'm accustomed to. In the past, even at their most raucous FNM always pushed toward the epic. Here they yield that in favor of a rawer sound, coupled with an almost surgical precision that makes the chaos inherent in their songwriting more pointed than I would have guessed. In the past, it always felt like they were thrashing out at the world at large. This time, it feels like they're coming after me.

It's no small thing that this is the only FNM album where I find that I like every single song. This isn't true even of Angel Dust, which sports two songs ("Kindergarten" and "A Small Victory") that I actively dislike. On Sol Invictus, even the weaker tracks — "Superhero," "Sunny Side Up" — are still really damn good.

The other edge of that sword, though, is that at its heights it never quite matches the best of either Angel Dust or King for a Day. There isn't a song on Sol Invictus that thrills me like Angel Dust's hip-hop/opera-metal magnum opus "Everything's Ruined" or King for a Day's gloriously lunatic "Cuckoo for Caca."

But there are a couple tracks that come surprisingly close. The throbbing, tightly wound thunder of "Separation Anxiety" is as strong as anything off Album of the Year, and the slow-build metal shrieker "Cone of Shame" is indeed far more powerful than anything that record had to offer. Part of what makes this song so startling is the oddly broken quality of Patton's vocals in the loud parts. He's always had the ability to switch on a dime from a croon to a scream, but here he genuinely sounds like he's been gargling glass in preparation. I'm not sure what the difference is, but it sounds like the shrieks are coming from somewhere deep in the pit of him in a way they never really have before. There's always been an distancing affect to his bellowing that is completely done away with here. When he shrieks "I'd like to peel your skin off so I can see what you really think!" and "you're only happy when you're pissing me off!" you believe that he means what he's saying.

The albums three best tracks are "Motherfucker," "Rise of the Fall" and "Matador" ("Black Friday" is pretty great, too). "Motherfucker" reminds me a lot of "Midlife Crisis," but the repeated "hello motherfucker!" in the chorus makes it way more fun to sing along with in the car. "Rise of the Fall" has some of the wackadoodle carnival energy that typified Patton's other legendary band Mr. Bungle, but it's contained and distilled down into a recognizable, almost pop-inflected song here.

"Matador" is the album's true instant classic, and it's in this penultimate track that the influence of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division seems most prevalent to me. It starts with a simple, minimalist guitar beneath Patton's ethereal vocals. Eventually, Bottum's piano and Bordin's drums join the swirl, gently adding flourishes and cascades of melody as Patton and guitarist John Hudson (truly coming into his own for the first time on this album) slowly increase the volume and tighten the screws. But it's not until Gould's galloping base crashes in halfway through that the true scope of the song reveals itself. Finally, FNM open the doors and let the air out, shooting for those epic heights they'd hit so many times before. They don't quite make it — not the way they did with "Everything's Ruined," "Land of Sunshine," "Ashes to Ashes," "King for a Day," and so many others.

But, for a bunch of guys who haven't recorded an album together in nearly two decades, they come impressively close.