Friday, July 27, 2012

Welcome Back To "Fright Night"

One of my favorite B movies is Fright Night (1985) starring Chris Sarandon as a vampire who moves in next door to teenaged horror film fan Charlie Brewster. As Sarandon puts the bite on some new victims, Charlie (William Ragsdale) tries to convince everyone there’s a real life monster in town, with little success. He enlists the aid of reluctant TV horror film host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) to battle the evil bloodsucker, who has his eyes on Charlie’s girlfriend Amy. It’s a fun film, mixing scares & laughs in equal measure, with great performances from Sarandon & McDowall. The film became something of a cable TV & VHS staple during the 80s & 90s. A not as successful sequel, Fright Night, Part II was released in 1988.

Jump ahead to 2011: a remake was released, also titled Fright Night, starring Colin Farrell as the vampire, and Anton Yelchin (who was featured in 2009’s Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation) as Charlie. This time, instead of a TV horror host, Peter Vincent is a Criss Angel style magician played by David Tennant, best known as the tenth Doctor on the BBC’s Dr. Who. The wonderful Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) co-stars as Charlie’s Mom; English actress Imogen Poots plays Amy, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Kick-Ass) plays the ill-fated “Evil Ed.” Singer Lisa Loeb plays Ed's Mom, and there’s also a memorable cameo by a member of the original cast.

Farrell’s Jerry Dandridge is much creepier than Sarandon’s, and he brings a darker edge to the part. Tennant has great energy & comic style as Vincent, and Yelchin is effective as the beleaguered Charlie. The well-written script is by prolific television writer/producer Marti Noxon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Mad Men, Glee) and there are some nice visual nods & shout outs to the 1985 film, which was written & directed by Tom Holland. If you’re a fan, you’ll be pleased to see this version has respect for the original, but tells the story a bit differently. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars & The Real Girl) and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe give the film an interesting look. There are some cool shots in the movie, and the final confrontation between our intrepid heroes & the vampire is well-staged, exciting sequence.

There’s nothing new or earth shaking on display here, but this is a solid little film with some good twists. It’s an enjoyable thriller, mixing the old school & new with effective results. Fright Night (2011) is a safe bet for horror fans that like their scares laced with a bit of black humor. The film was released in 3-D, but I viewed the 2-D version, and it plays just fine in that dimension. It’s now available on Blu-Ray & DVD.

Here are links to the trailer for the 2011 version and just for fun, the 1985 original

Saturday, July 21, 2012

John Mayer's "Born & Raised": Moving Forward By Looking Back

John Mayer’s music has always spoken better for him than he does for himself. His often quoted, highly charged interviews and his sometimes tabloid ready public antics are often at odds with his well-received albums and great live shows. But after surgery to remove a granuloma near his vocal cords last year, a quieter, more adult Mayer seemed to emerge. His fifth studio album, the recently released Born & Raised, may be his best yet. This is a mature, introspective record by an artist who just keeps getting better with each release.

The music is firmly entrenched in the styles of the 70s, ranging from the singer-songwriter vibe of “Queen of California” to the smooth soul of  “Love is a Verb.” Mayer even recruits David Crosby & Graham Nash to sing backing vocals on the title track. The overall tone here is introspective, as on the reflective, semi-autobiographical “Shadow Days,” one of the best songs on the album. But there are some nice surprises like the funky “Something About Olivia,” the Celtic-sounding “Age of Worry,” and the folk-influenced "Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967" which wouldn’t sound out of place on a John Prine disc.

The excellent production & arrangements are by studio veteran Don Was, who’s done well-regarded work for Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and many others. The band, including Sean Hurley on bass, Aaron Sterling on drums & percussion and the legendary Chuck Leavell (who's toured and recorded with The Rolling Stones & The Allman Brothers Band) on keyboards, sound fantastic. They are tight and completely in sync with Mayer, whose guitar work here is outstanding. It’s refreshing to hear real music played by real musicians. This record sounds good. Mayer sounds really engaged in these songs, giving Born & Raised an authentic tone that’s missing from much of what passes for music these days. 

He takes the 70s sounds of California country rock, Laurel Canyon folk & sensual soul, mixes them together, and comes up with a fresh-sounding record that really grows on you. It’s an enjoyable listening experience. This fine collection of songs manages to move Mayer forward as he looks back on what has gone before. And anybody who name checks Neil Young and “After The Gold Rush,” as Mayer does here on “Queen of California,” is all right with me. Born & Raised is currently available on CD, and in various digital download formats. The iTunes edition of the album includes a bonus track, entitled "Fool To Love You."

Here's a link to the video for "Shadow Days."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Real Steel" Is Solid Entertainment

Real Steel (2011) is old fashioned, over the top, and predictable – and I enjoyed every minute of it. Our story takes place in the near future, where robots have replaced human fighters in the ring. The sport is more popular than ever, and there are a lot of underground fights with older model robots. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a former fighter, now down on his luck. He takes whatever gigs his old robot can get. Shortly after the machine is destroyed in a showdown with a bull, Charlie learns his ex-girlfriend has died, and he has a son named Max. His ex-girlfriend’s family is willing to adopt the boy, and Charlie doesn’t want to be a Dad.

Through some well-worn plot twists, Charlie and Max end up together as he searches for a new fighter. They find an old sparring robot that’s literally on the junk heap, and turn him into a success. The robot, named Atom, has a shadow boxing function that allows Charlie to "train" him. Atom eventually gets a chance to fight against a souped up, Transformer-like champion named Zeus. It’s Rocky vs. Apollo Creed, sci-fi style, as Charlie tries to find redemption, forge a relationship with his son, and mend fences with his old friend/love interest Bailey, played by Evangeline Lilly of Lost fame. Jackman does a nice job in his role, torn between being a success & earning big money, and doing right by Max, who’s well played by Dakota Goyo.

There’s nothing ground-breaking in the screenplay by John Gatins, from a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (which is loosely based on a Richard Matheson short story called “Steel”), but this is a fun, fast-moving film with a good cast and nice direction by Shawn Levy (Night At The Museum, Date Night). The movie has a big heart & an emotional center to go along with its action & special effects. Motion capture technology was used for the robot fight scenes, and it’s very effective. Famed boxer Sugar Ray Leonard was the film’s technical advisor for the boxing scenes, and helped train Jackman for the movie.

The film’s portrayal of the robot-boxing world is very believable, with the fighters using WWE-like intro music, and having product placement deals and corporate sponsors. The special effects are very well done, and nicely integrated into the film, without being a distraction. The feel good finale tugs at every heartstring & emotion you have, and you’ll be cheering by the time the movie reaches its climax. There are lots of lesser films out there that aspire to be enjoyable on a popcorn level that aren’t even watchable. Real Steel is an entertaining, well-told story that’s worth a rental on movie night. The film is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD & in various digital download formats.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Soul of Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka was hand picked by Adele to open shows on her European tour last year, and after listening to his album Home Again (2012), it’s easy to see why. He has an ethereal voice that floats in and out of the beautiful, yet spare arrangements on the record. He’s been compared to artists like Van Morrison, Otis Redding and Bill Withers, and the disc has a wonderfully retro feel to it. His expressive, mature performances belie the fact that he's only 25. He really communicates his feelings in his performances. Kiwanuka is a sincere, talented artist whose music isn't just a "product." He deservedly won the BBC’s “Sound of 2012” music industry poll back in January.

The opening track, “Tell Me a Tale,” is firmly entrenched in Morrison territory, with strings, flute and horns rising behind Kiwanuka’s soulful voice. The sprightly “I’ll Get Along,” also recalls Van The Man. “I’m Getting Ready” features a yearning vocal and Kiwanuka’s gentle acoustic guitar. “Bones” has more of a gospel feel, while several other tunes have touches of country & jazz. Well produced by Paul Butler (a member of the UK rock band The Bees) this is an excellent debut. Every track is imbued with feeling & the songs have insightful lyrics & true depth. One of the most emotional performances on the album is the ballad “Rest” which recalls not only the sound of Redding, but also 70s soul icon Al Green.

If you’re a fan of the performers mentioned above, you should enjoy Home Again. Kiwanuka successfully mixes his style with those of his influences and comes up with a laid back, appealing sound of his own.  You might think you’re listening to a lost classic from the 70s as you move through the disc. This is the kind of album that would sound fantastic on vinyl, spinning around on your vintage turntable. It will be interesting to see where he goes musically on his next project. Home Again is a solid, inspiring journey through the soul & sound of an artist who I'm sure will be thrilling us with more great work in the future.

Here are links to performances of "I'm Getting Ready," and "Tell Me A Tale"