Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Arthur The King...

Some viewers may have found the recent Starz Network series Camelot (which just completed its first season) surprising because it used a fair amount of sex & violence in its retelling of the saga of a young King Arthur. But it's not the first version of the Arthurian legend to do so. 1981's Excalibur relates the often told story with an adult, sexual & violent tone. This visually stunning version of the story was directed by John Boorman (Deliverance). The film was co-written by Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg, based on the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory tale, Le Morte D'Arthur.

The movie relates the classic story of young Arthur (Nigel Terry), as he pulls the sword from the stone and with Merlin's help, becomes king. We see his marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) the start of his friendship with Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), and the founding of the Knights of The Round Table. All the high points of the legend are here: The Quest for The Holy Grail, Lancelot's affair with Guenevere, and the evil schemes of Arthur's half sister, Morgana, who wants to destroy Camelot.

It's all lushly filmed (on location in Ireland) by Boorman, with great cinematography by Alex Thomson. The effective score by Trevor Jones also makes use of classical music by Richard Wagner and Carl Orff. But it is a violent, R-rated version of the tale, and may not be for all tastes. In fact, when the film was originally in theaters, a PG-rated version of the movie was also released and later shown on some television stations, removing some of the more graphic violence and sex. The unedited, R-rated version is available on DVD & Blu-Ray.

The film is a bit over the top at times, but it all helps to serve the fantastical tone of the story. We've seen so many versions of this tale now (including the classic comedic take on the story, Monty Python & The Holy Grail) that the movie has lost a bit of its freshness. But it's still one of my favorite versions of the legend of Arthur. The cast features a gallery of stars to be in supporting roles, including Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and the excellent Helen Mirren as Morgana, Arthur's evil half sister. Nicol Williamson plays Merlin, and gets many of the film's best lines.

If you're viewing it on DVD or Blu-Ray, the audio commentary by director Boorman is well worth a listen, as you get to find out a lot of interesting facts about the production, including the fact that Nicol Williamson & Helen Mirren didn't get along, and Boorman used that feeling for the antagonism between their characters. I highly recommend Excalibur if you're a fan of fantasy films (and the Arthurian legend). 

Movie Quote of the Day:
Merlin (To Arthur): You brought me back. Your love brought me back. Back to where you are now. In the land of dreams. 
Arthur: Are you a dream, Merlin? 
Merlin: A dream to some.  A nightmare to others!

Arthur (Nigel Terry) and Merlin (Nicol Williamson) in Excalibur (1981)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

RIP, Big Man...

A break from regular posts to note the June 18 passing of Clarence Clemons, best known as the saxophonist for the E Street Band, due to complications from a stroke he suffered last Sunday. Here's the link to the New York Times obituary for this legendary figure of the rock era.

Of course, I'm a big fan of Clarence's work with Bruce & the rest of The E Street Band. But I'm also very fond of his solo stuff, including his excellent 1st solo album, Rescue (with the Red Bank Rockers), released in 1983. He recently played on several tracks for Lady Gaga on Born This Way, including "The Edge of Glory." We throw the word "legend" around too easily sometimes these days, but in this case, it fits the bill.

Below is a link to the video for "Woman's Got The Power" from Rescue:

Rest in peace, Big Man, you'll be missed. Thanks for the music.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A "Covers Gallery" Playlist

We often hear cover versions of popular songs via a variety of artists. Here are a dozen interesting, cool or just plain fun remakes. Feel free to add any of your own favorites in the comments section:

1. "Last Train To Clarksville" by Cassandra Wilson from New Moon Daughter. Jazz singer Wilson re-interprets The Monkees classic in a hip, funky style.
2. "Hit Me Baby One More Time" by Travis from the Turn single. Travis takes the Britney Spears hit and recasts it as a mournful ballad.
3. "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" by Freedy Johnston from Right Between the Promises. A faithful, poppy cover of the Edison Lighthouse song from 1970.
4. "Money" by The Beatles from With The Beatles. The Beatles recorded a bunch of covers on their early albums. John shreds his vocal cords belting out the Barrett Strong classic.
5. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by Santa Esmerelda from Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. A wild, ten minute disco version of the The Animals hit. Quentin Tarantino used this song on the soundtrack of Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003).
6. "You Know That I'm No Good" by Wanda Jackson from The Party Ain't Over. Jack White of The White Stripes produces rockabilly singer Jackson performing the Amy Winehouse hit.
7. "Your Own Special Way" by Steve Hackett from Watcher of the Skies: Genesis Revisited. Paul Carrack (Squeeze, Mike & The Mechanics) handles the vocals on this one. It's from an album of re-interpretations of songs that guitarist Hackett originally recorded with Genesis back in their progressive rock days.
8. "I Will Survive" by Cake from Fashion Nugget. Cake twists the Gloria Gaynor classic into a slowed down, darker direction.
9. "Smooth Criminal" by Alien Ant Farm from ANThology. The alternative rockers kick out the jams on this Michael Jackson cover.
10."Comfortably Numb" by Scissors Sisters from Scissors Sisters. A very different version of the Pink Floyd classic.
11. "The Man Who Sold The World" by Nirvana from Unplugged. Great live version of the David Bowie original.
12. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Aretha Franklin from 30 Greatest Hits.  Amazing version of the Simon and Garfunkel song by The Queen of Soul.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Here They Come....

The Monkees perform back in July 1986 on their 20th Anniversary Tour
 at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, CT: photo by Gilda Caserta

If there were any doubts about the staying power of their music, The Monkees dispelled them at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT as they launched into "I'm A Believer" to open the show last Friday night. The crowd (which seemed to include at least three generations of fans) enjoyed a 90 minute set from Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork, backed by a fantastic 8 piece band. Michael Nesmith, who only infrequently participates in these reunions, is sitting out this 45th Anniversary Tour, but was represented by performances of some songs closely associated with him including "Papa Gene's Blues" and "What Am I Doing Hangin' Round." In fact, all of the Monkees got to shine, as each took turns in the spotlight during the show.

A giant video screen to the rear of the stage projected clips from the Emmy-winning 1966-68 NBC TV series, which added to the fun. The band (whose members were originally selected via auditions, and which was created specifically for the series) was a cross between The Beatles & The Marx Brothers, as they got into comic hijinks and performed songs. As Jones joked during the show: "I got to fall in love twice an episode." They had about a dozen Top 40 hits in their heyday, and even outsold The Beatles & The Rolling Stones in 1967. Top songwriters such as Neil Diamond, Carole King and Harry Nilsson contributed songs for the group to record. Initially, studio musicians played on many of the tracks while the group performed vocals, but by their 3rd album, Headquarters, the quartet had assumed more control of their music after a battle with producers. The group initially broke up in 1970, but has reunited on and off ever since for tours and new recordings, in various configurations.

The setlist mixed the hits with some lesser know cuts, and the band energetically played such songs as "I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone," "Valleri," "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," and even "Porpoise Song" from the group's 1968 film, Head. But when the group performed the classic "Last Train To Clarksville" about halfway through the show the crowd really flew to their feet, and started dancing and singing along. The musicians truly seemed to enjoy playing with the group, and were outstanding as well. Not only were they backing up the band, they were a part of it, and very well integrated into the show. Tork, in particular, really seemed to enjoy jamming with them.

By the time the group returned to the stage for the encore to perform "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Listen To The Band" the cries of I love you, Davy! had died down a bit, and Micky's joking farewell of "Good Night, Chicago!" was met with laughter and applause. It was a splendid show, and the guys seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience. This 45th Anniversary Tour started June 3, and winds up later in July. Hopefully, the guys are "coming to your town," and if they are, don't hesitate to check out the show.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A "Super" Movie....

Super 8 is the new film from writer-director J.J. Abrams (the 2009 Star Trek reboot, Lost) and producer Steven Speilberg. Set in 1979, the plot details the adventures of a some young friends who are filming a Super 8 horror film when a freight train derails nearby, and something escapes the wreck. The group, led by Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney, who's excellent) tries to figure out what's happening as a series of mysterious events plague the town. To say too much more about the plot would spoil the fun of this enjoyable movie.

All the touches of the Spileberg-ian coming of age story are here. Joe is mourning the loss of his Mom, and his Dad, well played by Kyle Chandler, can't relate to him. The girl Joe has a crush on, Alice (Elle Fanning) is being raised by her Dad, who seems to have a secret of his own. The cast of young actors is uniformly excellent. There are a lot of visual references to Spielberg's films, and the period details are perfect, right down to the decor of the monster movie-loving kids' rooms, and the appropriately John Williams-esque score by Michael Giacchino.

This film is a love letter not only to the kinds of movies Steven Spielberg gave us in the 70s & 80s (Close Encounters, ET, The Goonies) but the science-fiction and horror films that filmmakers like Spielberg & Abrams grew up watching. If you know anything about Spielberg's youth, you know he grew up making Super 8 movies like the one depicted in the film, and Abrams did the same thing when he was growing up in Los Angeles. It's a nice example of kismet that informs the movie with another level of heart.

Like the best films of Spielberg and his contemporaries, Super 8 takes time to let us get to know & like these characters as the story unfolds. It's one of the best movies of the year, and I look forward to seeing it again.

Reviewer's Note: Make sure to stay during the credits for an additional scene.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Whoever Holds This Hammer..."

Thor is the Kenneth Branagh directed adaptation of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby superhero comic about the adventures of the title character, the son of Odin, King of Asgard. Thor is exiled to Earth by his father (Anthony Hopkins), after his arrogance destroys a fragile truce with the enemies of Asgard, the evil Frost Giants. Thor ends up in New Mexico, where scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), attempts to help him, as some amusing fish out of water hijinks ensue. Thor attempts to recover the magic hammer, Mjolnir, which Odin has also sent to Earth, protected with a spell that allows only a warrior worthy of its power to retrieve it. Thor wants to return to Asgard, and set things right, but Jane and her colleagues think he's crazy (at first).

Meanwhile, back in Asgard, Thor's manipulative brother Loki (played to evil perfection by Tom Hiddleston) is up to no good, and plots to ascend the throne. Mix in the secret government organization S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is investigating the strange crash of Mjolnir on Earth), some cool cameos & nods to comic readers, and you have an entertaining summer movie. It might not be quite up to the quality of the first Iron Man film, but it's good fun. Branagh (Henry V, Dead Again) does a fine job juggling scenes in otherworldly Asgard with the scenes on Earth, and keeps the action zipping along nicely. The cast does a great job (Chris Hemsworth is good in the title role), and you even get to see Rene Russo in a small role as Thor's mom.

And if you're a fan of the comics, it's all here: The Warriors Three, The Rainbow Bridge, Heimdall the Gatekeeper, etc. If you do go to see it, make sure to stay to the end as there's a little bonus scene after the credits roll. Marvel is doing a fine job tying all its films together into a  shared universe (with Captain America: The First Avenger coming later this summer, and The Avengers next year), which is just what Stan Lee & company did in the original comics in the 1960s. But even if you're not a comic fan, and enjoy a good summer popcorn flick, it's a fun movie.

Movie Quote of the Day:
"Whoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor." Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor (2011).

Reviewer's Note: While you can see the film theatrically in 3-D, I saw the 2-D version, and it was perfectly fine.