Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Power Pop Flashback: Tinted Windows

What do you get when you combine Adam Schlesinger, bassist & songwriter for Fountains of Wayne, Taylor Hanson, lead singer & keyboardist for Hanson, James Iha, former guitarist for Smashing Pumpkins, and the one & only Bun E. Carlos, drummer for Cheap Trick? A little band called Tinted Windows. Their self–titled album, a rocking blast of power pop tunes, should have been a much bigger hit. Schlesinger & Hanson had already begun to write some music together when they brought in Iha, and later, Carlos to form the supergroup in 2009. The idea was to have some fun & make a guitar driven rock & roll record that has some great pop sounds as well.

The opening track, “Kind of a Girl” has propulsive guitars that would sound right at home on a Smashing Pumpkins record. In fact, there are hints of all four members own bands here: “Nothing to Me” could be a Cheap Trick outtake & the Iha penned ballad “Back With You” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hanson album. Songs like “Dead Serious” & “Doncha Wanna” have hook filled choruses that truly get stuck in your head, much like Schlesinger’s work with Fountains of Wayne. And try not to rock out & sing along with “Messing With My Head” & “Can’t Get A Read On You.”

The smooth production by Iha & Schlesinger gives the songs the perfect power pop sheen. Fans of 70s & 80s rock, pop & New Wave will think they’ve dug up a lost record from those eras. What’s interesting is that despite the presence of Hanson (who provides lead vocals), there are no keyboards on the disc; just Iha’s guitar, Schlesinger’s bass & Carlo’s drums & percussion. Everyone sounds great, and their enthusiasm comes through in the music. They clearly loved working on this project. From The Beatles to The Raspberries to The Cars, there's a virtual encyclopedia of power pop influences on display here. And while the lyrics here don't match the cleverness of Schlesinger's work with Fountains of Wayne, the songs concern the rock & roll basics; love, girls & cars. What more could you ask for on a straight ahead power pop/rock album?

The group was a side project for the artists, and resulted in a brief tour after the record’s release in 2009. Here's hoping they decide to work together again; Taylor Hanson has hinted in interviews that it's a possibility, though nothing has been officially announced. This record was almost criminally ignored by the public upon its release in 2009, and deserves a listen. If you’re a fan of any of the individual members or a power pop aficionado, I recommend checking out this underrated album. In fact, if you really like the disc, seek out a couple of tunes that didn’t make it onto the official release: “New Cassette,” which is an iTunes bonus track, and “The Dirt,” which is an extra song on the Japanese edition; both are fantastic songs in their own right. Here are links to "Kind Of A Girl," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjTSXcGhRoI, “Messing With My Head” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndwtfOHg2Kc and “The Dirt,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-Caw3muvRA.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Darkman: Raimi’s Other Superhero Film

Sam Raimi is probably best known to superhero fans as the director of three Spider Man films starring Tobey Maguire, or to horror fans for helming the two Evil Dead movies. But there’s another film on his resume that combined elements of both genres, and it retains a cult following to this day. That movie is 1990’s Darkman. In the wake of Tim Burton’s successful take on Batman in 1989, studios were looking to produce more comic book based tales. Raimi had long wanted to direct a superhero film, and had unsuccessfully tried to secure the rights to Batman or The Shadow. He came up with a story that mixed elements of both of those heroes with a touch of classic horror stories like The Phantom of the Opera, Franenstein, and The Mummy, and nods to the crime & thriller genres as well.
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, Taken) is developing a new type of synthetic skin that he hopes will aid burn victims. His girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand, Fargo) is investigating corruption & bribery linked to a construction project. One night, a mobster named Robert G. Durant breaks into Westlake’s home/lab looking for incriminating documents in Julie's possession. He & his henchmen kill Westlake’s assistant, and destroy the lab in an explosion. But Westlake doesn’t die, though he is horribly scarred & burned. He uses his synthetic skin to masquerade as members of Durant’s gang, and exacts revenge on the men who destroyed his life; but can he reveal himself to Julie (who believes he’s dead) in his present form? Can she still love him now that he’s a monster? And what does becoming "Darkman" do to his fragile psyche?

The fast paced story combines elements of the superhero genre, crime dramas, and the Universal horror films of the 30s & 40s. Neeson is excellent as the tormented Westlake, and Larry Drake (then best known for his work on L.A. Law as Benny) almost steals the show as the evil Durant. As with all of Raimi’s films, the movie is visually dazzling, aided by Bill Pope’s cool, kinetic cinematography. You can see the roots of the style, look & offbeat humor Raimi developed & brought to later projects such as the Spider Man movies and 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful taking shape in this film. The inventive (pre-CGI) makeup effects by Tony Gardner give the character of Darkman a unique look, and add to the success of the movie. There's also a fantastic score by the talented Danny Elfman.

Darkman will probably be most enjoyed by genre fans who like the films and stories that inspired Raimi to write & develop the project. The movie is a fun, over the top tale with action, humor & a touch of pathos. It’s certainly one of the better superhero stories that came out after Batman (1989), when the studios were scrambling to capitalize on that hit film. If you're looking for a live action movie that captures the essence of a comic book, look no further. And for those who thought Neeson's tenure as an action hero started with Taken, you're in for a pleasant surprise.  Darkman doesn’t try to be any more than what it is: a B-movie that mixes the comic book, pulp & horror genres to spin an entertaining tale. The film led to two direct-to-video sequels in 1995 & 1996, but Neeson did not return for the follow-ups. The original movie has recently been re-released in a nifty Blu-ray special edition that includes new interviews with Neeson, McDormand & Drake, an audio commentary by director of photography Pope, and various featurettes. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L58rdhCfDIU.

Trivia note: Look fast at the film's conclusion for a cameo by frequent Raimi collaborator Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Burn Notice).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Memory, Magic & Loss in "The Ocean at the End of the Lane"

Neil Gaiman has proven himself a master of fantasy with stunning, ambitious works such as Stardust (1999), The Graveyard Book (2008) and American Gods (2001), as well as the long running comic book saga of The Sandman (1989-1996). Now, he takes us on a journey of memory, lost love & magic in The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013). The story concerns a man (who is never named) who returns to his hometown for a funeral. He’s been away from home a long time. While there, he remembers a friend named Lettie, who had told him things like the pond behind her house was really an ocean. He stops to visit her home, and encounters a member of her family. He recalls a magical adventure they shared during his childhood.

Thus begins a wonderful tale of good versus evil, told through the eyes of the narrator, as he relates what happened when he was a seven year old. As a child, he had lost himself in books & marvelous tales of magic & wonder. He suddenly found himself in the middle of an adventure right out of one of his beloved stories, as an evil force tried to break through into our world, and only Lettie & her family stood against it. Our narrator learned some hard truths about the adult world, as well as the mystical one where Lettie’s family originates. In a way, they become his surrogate family during the wondrous events of the story. And though his eyes are opened to a larger world of possibility, this adventure truly signals the end of his innocence.

Gaiman spins a fantastical tale that has moments of awe, beauty & wonder. It's truly a memory piece, shot through with beauty, joy, fear, sadness & love. He deftly captures the essence & emotion of the young heroes of the novel, and we see things through their eyes. The story is tinged with a hint of melancholy, as the narrator thinks back on these events, and realizes there are some moments that you don’t get back, but which affect you for the rest of your life. I don’t want to say too much about the plot or story, as the joy of reading this book is discovering its unique pleasures for yourself. If you’re a Gaiman fan, you’ll find much to enjoy in this novel. But if you’re new to the author’s world, and enjoy well written tales of fantasy, with a powerful emotional center, I highly recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It's a book that will stay with you long after you finish it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"One, Two, Freddy's Coming For You......"

The Nightmare on Elm Street films have been very profitable for New Line Cinema. Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Kruger has made the character one of the most iconic in modern horror. Now, a documentary recently released on Blu-ray covers the entire history of the franchise. Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010) is a comprehensive look at the movies, from the original entry in 1984 thru 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason. The film runs four hours, and is an exhaustive look at the making of the series. There are in-depth interviews with almost everyone involved with the Elm Street films, including stars Englund & Heather Langenkamp, writer-director Wes Craven, as well as a host of other actors, writers, directors, producers, and make-up and special effects artists.

Executive produced and narrated by Langenkamp, the film begins with a brief history of New Line Cinema’s origins as a company, and then moves on to the conception and production of the first film, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Each movie is given it’s own “making of” segment and there are behind the scenes videos from the sets of the films, as well as photos, clips and production drawings. There’s even some coverage of the short lived TV series, Freddy’s Nightmares. The stories told by the cast and crew members are fascinating, and if you’re a fan, you’ll really enjoy this documentary. There’s a refreshing amount of candor about the quality of some of the entries in the series, and a frank discussion regarding the tension between creator Craven (who never wanted to do a sequel, much less start a franchise) and New Line executive Bob Shaye.
The better films in the series stood out from the other “slasher” movies because Freddy was a character that got at you through your dreams, a place where you couldn’t truly escape his power. His original motive for killing the children of Elm Street was getting revenge for his own death. Freddy had been a child murderer (softened from his original portrayal as a child molester), who was killed by the parents in an act of vigilante justice. Craven discusses what inspired him to write the original story, and there’s a lot of information regarding how the character and concept was changed, updated and refined over the course of the sequels. Various cast and crew members also discuss the thematic subtexts (some intentional, some unintentional) of the various films in the Elm Street saga.
One of the best films in the series, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), took the story in an entirely different direction. It featured the actors playing themselves as filming begins on a new Elm Street movie; they are threatened by Freddy, who is portrayed an evil force that seeks to invade the real world and cause mayhem and death. Englund cites this entry as his favorite. The cast and crew also talk about Johnny Depp’s and Patricia Arquette’s pre-stardom appearances in the series. Also included is an interview with the heavy metal band Dokken, who provided the theme for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987); the MTV-era music video for the song included a cameo by Englund. All in all, this is probably everything you ever wanted to know about the Elm Street series, and more.
While this informative film may not appeal to casual viewers due to its length, it is a thorough look at how genre projects are produced, released and marketed to the public. It even makes reference to the fact that Peter Jackson, the man behind the Lord of the Rings films, made an unused story pitch for one of the sequels. It's also noted that without the financial success of the Elm Street franchise, New Line may not have been able to produce the Lord of the Rings movies! Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010) was originally released on DVD, and is now available on Blu-ray. Both versions include extensive additional interviews and featurettes as extras. Here’s a link to the trailer for the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js_hu0iPyM8 and Dokken's music video for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDveKxl7Ohs.