Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Three Short Takes: Malevolent Queens, Giant Robots & Invading Aliens

For our final 2014 post, here's a brief look at some recent video releases:

Maleficent – Stefan, a young boy, falls in love with Maleficent, a winged fairy. When the human world goes to war with the fairies, he chooses power & personal gain over his feelings for her. She vows revenge, which takes the form of a unique curse on Stefan’s (who is now king) daughter, Aurora. This dark twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty is a handsomely produced fantasy written by Linda Woolverton & directed by Robert Stromberg. The story focuses on the relationship between Maleficent & Aurora, and contrasts the fairy world with Stefan & Aurora’s human one. Are the fairies more just & humane than the humans? This clever tale frames Maleficent as not quite a hero, but something less than a villain. There are good performances by Angelina Jolie in the title role, and Elle Fanning as Aurora. Maleficent is well worth seeing for fantasy & adventure fans, and is now available on DVD, Blu-ray & on demand.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – The 4th entry in the Michael Bay directed series is a loud, overlong (it runs almost three hours) mess of a film that’s essentially a series of pointless car chases & explosions. There are obnoxious characters & a thin plot about an evil corporation trying to use Transformer technology to create their own super-robots. How did Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci & Kelsey Grammer end up in this movie? I’ve got nothing against fun, big budget popcorn flicks, but this is almost insultingly bad, and contemptuous of its audience.  There are filmmakers out there making better, smarter, more well crafted action films (like Captain America; The Winter Soldier or Edge of Tomorrow, see below) that are more deserving of your time.  Unless you’re a real fan of the franchise, skip this one; not recommended. Transformers: Age of Extinction is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray & on demand.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – This is an inventive, action-packed sci-fi film from director Doug (The Bourne Identity) Liman. When aliens invade Earth, our forces mount a huge D-Day like strike against the invaders. The general in charge of the operation orders Major William Gage (a public relations officer) to cover the attack. Gage has never seen combat. He objects to going, but is sent to the battle site anyway. During the fight, Gage (played by Tom Cruise) is killed. Or is he? Gage keeps waking up after the moment of his death, and finds he’s been sent back in time before the battle. How is this possible? And what does a tough female sergeant named Rita Vitraski (well played by Emily Blunt) know about all this? Can his odd power be used to save us? Will our heroes be able to stop the aliens before they wipe out humanity? Edge of Tomorrow is a well-made thriller with some great action sequences & cool effects. The film has a strong cast, headed by Cruise and Blunt, and featuring Bill Paxton & Brendan Gleeson. A very pleasant surprise, this one's recommended for action & science fiction fans. Edge of Tomorrow (also called Live. Die. Repeat. on its video release packaging, though the film’s actual title hasn’t been changed) is currently on DVD, Blu-ray & available on demand.

Here are links to the trailers for Maleficent, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-XO4XiRop0, Transformers; Age of Extinction, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbI980iUb78 and Edge of Tomorrow, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUmSVcttXnI.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Affair: A Charming Yuletide Tale

Robert Mitchum & Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair (1949)
Taking a little Christmas week break here at Eclectic Avenue: so here's a look back at last year's classic movie recommendation for the holidays! Happy Holidays to you & your families, loyal readers! Please keep visiting the blog in 2015!

When you think of holiday movie classics, several titles spring to mind: It’s A Wonderful LifeMiracle on 34th StreetWhite Christmas and several others. But there’s a Christmas film that you probably haven’t seen, which is also worth your time. It’s 1949’s Holiday Affair, with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. What’s that, you say? Perennial tough guy Mitchum and Leigh, future star of Hitchcock’s Psycho, starring in a feel good holiday story? That’s right, folks. It’s a delightful movie that should be added to your holiday viewing list. Reportedly, RKO studio boss Howard Hughes made Mitchum star in the film to clean up his image after he was busted for marijuana possession.

 Leigh plays Connie, who buys an expensive train set at Crowley’s department store, where Steve (Mitchum) works. She returns it the next day; he suspects she’s a comparison shopper for a rival store. Connie tells him she’s a widow who’s bringing up a child on her own, and needs the money her job provides her. Instead of turning her in, he gives her a refund. Unbeknownst to her, Steve gets fired for his good deed. Later, he forms a friendship with Connie’s son Timmy, and Steve vies with her boyfriend Carl for her affections. Will Connie end up with Carl, a steadfast (but kind of boring) lawyer, or Steve, who's more cool and seems to mesh well with both her and Timmy? The usual comic complications, misunderstandings and touching moments ensue in this funny, heartwarming film. It may not be as iconic or classic as It's A Wonderful Life, but it's an enjoyable Christmas tale.

Mitchum proves he has a flair for light comedy; Leigh is charming as Connie. The supporting cast includes Gordon Gebert as Timmy, Wendell Corey as Carl and the one & only Harry Morgan as an understanding cop. Directed by Don Hartman, this is a wonderful, funny film that holds up well on repeat viewings. Sadly, it’s out of print on DVD, but its shown regularly on Turner Classic Movies during the holiday season. In fact, this would make a good double feature with other Christmas stories like 1945's Christmas in ConnecticutHere’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZDQWM8Hsx8.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Covers Gallery, Volume X: 1960s Edition

For our tenth collection of covers, let's take a look at some remakes by some iconic 1960s/70s bands

1.     Sugar on Sunday – The Clique - This late 60s Texas band scored a hit with this Tommy James song. You can find it on Sugar on Sunday: The Definitive Collection.

2.     Eve of Destruction – The Turtles were offered this song before Barry McGuire recorded his hit version, but their take on the tune was released after McGuire’s topped the charts. It’s on Happy Together: The Very Best of The Turtles.

3.     Summertime – The Gershwin classic as interpreted by The Zombies on their self-titled debut album. "And the livin' is easy...."

4.     Just One Look – The Hollies did a great job with this Doris Troy remake. It can be found on The Hollies’ Greatest Hits.

5.     I Don’t Mind – The Who re-doing a James Brown track? Yep, it happened on their album My Generation (1965).

6.     Summertime Blues – The Beach Boys covered the Eddie Cochran classic on 1963’s Surfin Safari; of course, The Who also did a memorable version of this song.

7.     Chains – George Harrison handled the lead vocals on The Beatles’ version of this Goffin-King classic, originally recorded by The Cookies. It's on 1963's Please Please Me.

8.     Dancing In The Street – The Kinks took on the Martha & The Vandellas classic on Kinda Kinks (1965).

9.     Chimes of Freedom – The Byrds covered several of Bob Dylan’s songs: this one's from the Mr. Tambourine Man LP, originally released in 1965.

10.  Speaking of The Byrds, their hit So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star? was remade by the British group The Move for their 1968 release Something Else from The Move.

11.  Route 66 – The Rolling Stones cover songwriter Bobby Troup’s often recorded classic (originally done by Nat King Cole) – on December’s Children (and Everybody’s) from 1965.

12.  Hello It’s Me by Todd Rundgren – Covering yourself? Mr. Rundgren originally recorded this song with his band Nazz in 1968, then re-recorded it for 1973 his solo album Something/Anything? and had a hit with the “new” version.

Bonus Track - And to end our list where we started: Did you know R.E.M.’s Superman from 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant is a cover? It was in released in 1969 by The Clique, who started our list. You can hear their original on Sugar on Sunday: The Definitive Collection.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Interstellar: Time, Space & Love

Can love cross the dimensions of space & time? That’s one of the central questions in director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), a thought-provoking science-fiction drama co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. In the near future, Earth’s society is crumbling due to a mysterious blight that’s causing crop failures & making the air unsafe to breathe. Our planet is dying. Cooper, a former NASA pilot, owns a farm that he works & lives on with his son Tom & daughter Murphy. A mysterious “ghost” is haunting Murphy’s room, and she believes it’s trying to communicate with her. The ghost’s messages lead Cooper & Murphy to a secret installation where a project that may save the human race is underway.

A NASA scientist named John Brand (Michael Caine) has already sent three astronauts through a mysterious wormhole to find habitable planets where humanity can relocate. Brand wants Cooper to lead a mission alongside his daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) to recover the data from the astronauts, so it can be decided which of the planets can sustain human life. Due to the  length of time it will take to get to the wormhole, travel through it, and back, many years will pass on Earth before the mission’s return. Cooper’s children will be older, and the world he as he knows it may no longer exist. What will the crew find on their journey? Are the original astronauts still alive? Can our heroes return in time to save humanity? Who led us to the wormhole, and why?

Nolan (best known for his trilogy of Batman films starring Christian Bale) is working on a huge canvas here; the movie covers a lot of ground. It’s really nice too see a big budget, non-franchise film of this type. This is a science-fiction tale that never loses sight of the human side of the story, much like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or Contact (1997). Cooper is racked with guilt over leaving his family behind, but made the decision to save both his family and the human race. The trade off is that he doesn’t get to see his children grow up. Others involved in the mission have made their own difficult choices, and must deal with their own consequences. The story isn’t just about journeys into space…it’s also about love & the journeys of the human heart. As Amelia says during the film “…Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space…”

This is an expansive, well-designed & beautifully filmed (by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema) movie. The effects are fantastic, and you really get the feeling you’re traveling in space and setting foot on other worlds. The cast are all excellent, with Matthew McConaughey doing a great job as Cooper, and Hathaway, Caine and Jessica Chastain (as the grown up Murphy) doing fine work as well. There’s some beautiful music by Hans Zimmer that's a little different than the usual score for this type of film. While the movie is a bit overlong at almost three hours, the story has some neat surprises and developments along the way. You definitely won’t get bored or disinterested. I’ve stayed away from giving a lot of details about the plot so you can enjoy the story as it unfolds.

Interstellar will appeal to science-fiction fans, and those who love a good adventure story with a humanist bent. If you don’t lean towards the sentimental side of the street, this may not be your cup of tea. But if you do (and especially if you’re a parent) I think the film & its story will resonate with you. And if you've enjoyed some of Nolan's non-superhero work, like Inception (2010) & The Prestige (2006), you should like this movie as well. The film is currently finishing up its run in theaters, but I’m sure the home video & streaming release will be announced soon. Highly recommended. Here’s a link to the trailer for the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vxOhd4qlnA.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gone Girl: Love, Marriage & Murder

As director David Fincher’s Gone Girl opens, Nick Dunne returns home one morning to find his wife Amy missing. There are signs of a struggle in their home, and he reports her disappearance to the police. As the search for Amy goes on, what is initially thought to be a kidnapping becomes a possible murder investigation. The case garners a huge amount of media coverage because Amy’s childhood was the inspiration for a popular series of children’s books authored by her parents, the Amazing Amy series. Much of the attention focuses on Nick, whose odd behavior during the investigation suggests he may be a sociopath and quite possibly, a murderer. Only Nick’s sister Margo stands by him as the threads of his story, and his claims of innocence, start to unravel.

Detective Rhonda Boney (played by Kim Dickens of Sons of Anarchy) digs deeper into the case. She finds evidence that the Dunnes’ marriage may not have been as happy as it seemed on the surface. Flashbacks (and narration by Nick & Amy) detail the problems that the couple was dealing with, including financial troubles, infidelity and domestic disputes. A diary discovered by the police indicates Amy was afraid her husband was going to do her harm. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg in a story with more layers than a basket of onions, and more twists than a box of Twizzlers. The film will keep you guessing, and even when you figure out some of the plot, there’s still a surprise or two ahead.

Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel (scripted by the author) is a sharp thriller, with a great cast, led by Ben Affleck’s solid work as Nick and Rosamund Pike, who’s brilliant as Amy. There’s also a sterling supporting cast including Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, David Clennon and Carrie Coon as Margo. Fincher & his crew give the film a cold, noirish look that matches the story’s dark tones. The movie offers a somewhat cynical view of marriage & relationships; this is not a story of a good marriage, or a positive relationship. This is a tale with a somewhat cold & icy center. In the end, neither Nick nor Amy is a person we particularly like or root for, and we feel the most sympathy for Margo, and admire the savvy of Detective Boney, who knows there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

Some critics have described Gone Girl as an “anti-date” movie, and it certainly isn’t a romantic comedy, or life-affirming drama. But if you’re looking for an absorbing thriller with a good story & some memorable performances, the film is worth checking out. Fincher, who’s directed films as diverse as Seven, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, does another fine job here. Gone Girl is finishing up its run in theaters, but a home video release should be announced soon. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ym3LB0lOJ0o.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Covers Gallery, Volume IX: From The Partridge Family to Nick Lowe

It’s been a while since I’ve featured a playlist with some fun, offbeat & notable covers, so here’s volume IX of Covers Gallery:

1. I Woke Up in Love This Morning by Doug Powell – A Partridge Family tune re-done as a guitar oriented rocker? You bet, and it works very nicely. From the (sadly) out of print Not Lame Records compilation entitled Right To Chews: Bubblegum Classics Revisited.

2. Why Can’t This Be Love? by Gigolo Aunts - Speaking of re-imaginings, here’s a Van Halen tune done as a British Invasion style rocker, by New York’s own Gigolo Aunts. It’s from a 1997 tribute album called Everybody Wants Some (of Van Halen).

3. Freedom by The Davenports - The WHAM! hit becomes a power pop tune, courtesy of The Davenports. From this year’s excellent release, Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion, a collection of 80s British pop hits from the MTV era, covered by some of today’s best indie artists. The 2 disc set has a lot of great tracks, and is worth seeking out.

4. Love Is All Around - R.E.M. tackles The Troggs hit, with lead vocals by Mike Mills, on this live cover, from Unplugged 1991/2001 – The Complete Sessions.

5. It Never Rains In Southern California by Pete Yorn - Rocker Yorn covers Albert Hammond’s 70s AM radio staple, from the soundtrack to the 2003 film Stuck on You.

6. The Mighty Quinn by Merry Clayton - Well known backup singer Clayton, whose story was featured in the 2013 film, 20 Feet From Stardom, takes Bob Dylan’s song to church in this gospel-ized version. It’s from The Very Best of Merry Clayton.

7. Better Things by Fountains of Wayne. A Kinks cover from the guys who brought you “Stacy’s Mom” and a host of other clever power pop tunes. This track is from the 2002 disc This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies & The Kinks.

8. The Boy From Ipanema by Diana Krall - Jazz icon Krall takes the Astrud Gilberto classic, gender switches it and makes it her own in this version from the 2009 album Quiet Nights.

9. Cruel To Be Kind by Kurt Baker from Got It Covered Faithful rendering of the Nick Lowe hit from Baker, who’s one of the best rockers working in today’s power pop genre.

10. Late For The Sky by Joan Osborne - Ms. Osborne’s beautifully done reading of the Jackson Browne classic is on the 2014 tribute album Looking Into You: A Tribute To Jackson Browne.

11. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! by Yngwie Malmsteen - Pop goes heavy metal on the celebrated guitarist's awesome take on an ABBA tune. It's on his collection The Best of 90-99.

12. Sorrow - David Bowie's excellent version of a song originally recorded by The McCoys can be found on his 1973 covers album, Pin Ups.

Bonus Track - Get Down by Marykate O’Neil - As we end another Covers Gallery selection, we close with another track from the Right To Chews: Bubblegum Classics Revisited collection, as O’Neil rocks out on this version of the Gilbert O’Sullivan hit.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fleetwood Mac Goes "On With The Show"

Photo by John V
Earlier this year, when Christine McVie announced she was coming out of retirement to rejoin Fleetwood Mac for a tour, it wasn’t just fans of the group who were ecstatic. Her band mates were thrilled as well. This was fully evident during the group’s concert at Hartford’s XL Center Saturday night. From the moment they hit the stage, the group sounded tight & focused, and their joy at playing together was evident in every song. The evening kicked off with the Rumours track, “The Chain,” and it was followed by a two & a half hour journey through classic hits & fan favorites, along with some comments & stories from the band. Songs like “Dreams” and “Rhiannon” garnered loud & enthusiastic responses from the crowd. The whole band looked energized & seemed to be having a grand time, with their classic 70s lineup back in full swing & fine form.

Fleetwood Mac has an interesting history, and the band’s internal relationships & personal struggles have always bled thru into their music.  Songs like “Dreams” & “Go Your Own Way” weren’t just huge radio hits back in the day, they were messages between the band members, in this case Buckingham & Nicks.  But none of that mattered on Saturday, as the group powered thru amazing versions of classics like “Gypsy” and “Secondhand News.” Having Christine McVie back in the mix allowed the band to expand their set list to include such well-remembered tracks as “You Make Loving Fun” and “Over My Head.” Her voice sounded wonderful, and has lost none of its beautiful lilt & pleasing tones. Stevie Nicks sounded strong as well, and was as ethereal as ever; she did a fantastic version of “Gold Dust Woman.” And there were Nicks-style twirls & spins during the show.

Photo by John V
What you tend to forget about this band, which is known for having so many hits in their repertoire, is that they are excellent musicians. Lindsey Buckingham absolutely blazed on guitar, and was the VIP of the show, in my opinion. He even got to do a brief acoustic set, performing “Big Love” solo, then accompanying Nicks on a beautiful version of “Landslide,” after which she remained on stage and helped him out with “Never Going Back Again.” John McVie’s bass playing was rock solid, and Mick Fleetwood was his typical wild-man self on drums. It was also nice that the band took time to tell a few stories between songs, and to say how thankful they were to have Christine back in the fold.

These songs have the power to bring back memories & put a smile on your face, and even the later hits like “Little Lies” and “Seven Wonders” sounded fantastic. By the time the well-paced evening ended with “Go Your Own Way,” it had already been an outstanding show. Then the band returned for not one, but two encores, the first a three song mini-set that ended with Nick’s emotional version of “Silver Springs.” And the show still wasn’t over. A piano was rolled out, and Christine McVie began a beautiful version of “Songbird” which started out as a solo tune. But as the song went on, the rest of the band joined her onstage to conclude the evening. If you get a chance to see the group, I highly recommended checking them out as the On With The Show Tour continues into 2015. It was a wonderful night, filled with music, memories and the promise that as Mick Fleetwood said, “The Mac is most definitely back!”

Set List:
The Chain
You Make Loving Fun
Secondhand News
I Know I’m Not Wrong
Sisters of the Moon
Say You Love Me
Seven Wonders
Big Love Acoustic: Lindsey
Landslide Acoustic: Stevie & Lindsey
Never Going Back Again: Acoustic: Lindsey & Stevie
Over My Head
Little Lies
Gold Dust Woman
I’m So Afraid
Go Your Own Way

Encore 1:
World Turning
Don’t Stop
Silver Springs

Encore 2: