Sunday, May 25, 2014

This Spider Man Isn't So "Amazing"

Hollywood has cranked out remakes, reboots & sequels throughout its history. The ongoing popularity of superhero sagas & big budget action franchises ensures that the trend will continue as long as such films are successful. Several years ago, Sony/Columbia decided not to make a fourth Spider Man movie with Sam Raimi & star Tobey Maguire, and instead chose to reboot the franchise. Director Marc (500 Days of Summer) Webb’s The Amazing Spider Man, with Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, and Emma Stone as his girlfriend Gwen Stacy, was released in 2012. Even though three films with the character had already been made, the film retold Spider Man’s origin. The movie was similar in style to Marvel’s Ultimate Spider Man comic series, which had reimagined the classic storylines for a new generation of readers. The film was a success, largely due to Garfield & Stone’s chemistry, and a streamlined narrative that focused on a single villain: the Lizard, portrayed by Rhys Ifans, unlike 2007’s Spider Man 3 which had three villains, and an over-complicated storyline that rewrote Spider Man history.
 
Now the follow-up, The Amazing Spider Man 2 (also directed by Webb) has been released, but it’s a messy, over-plotted film that feels too much like an extended trailer for upcoming sequels & spinoffs. This time out, our hero faces two villains, Electro & The Green Goblin. Peter’s relationship with Gwen has gotten more serious, despite a promise to her late father (who learned Peter’s secret in the previous movie), that he would keep her safe by staying away from her. A battle with some bad guys causes Spider Man to cross paths with Max Dillon, a nerdy, put upon employee of OsCorp. Max idolizes Spidey, and when the web slinger saves his life, he thinks they’re pals. Peter also reunites with his childhood friend Harry Osborn, who has returned to town. Both men will affect Spider Man’s life before the story is over.

An accident at OsCorp causes Max to become Electro, a creature who is powered by electricial energy. After a confrontation with the police and Spider Man, he’s captured. Our hero is also having his ups & downs with Gwen; after deciding to honor his promise to her father, he splits with her, but later regrets his decision, and they re-kindle their romance. Harry reveals he's dying from a mysterious illness, and the only thing that can save him is Spider Man's blood. At the same time, our hero is also looking into the long ago disappearance and death of his parents. How does OsCorp & Harry's father tie into all this? And when Electro & a new villain, The Green Goblin, unite to take down Spider Man, what will be the cost for our hero?

While the film features good character development for Peter and a realistic relationship between he & Gwen, the superhero elements often feel out of sync. Much of the action takes place in the film’s final third, and when The Green Goblin is finally introduced, he’s not in the film long enough to make an impression on us as Spider Man’s greatest foe. As you’ve probably seen in the trailers & media coverage, the film portrays an iconic scene from Spider Man history, featuring the death of a famous character. This was a turning point in the comic series, and this powerful & emotional moment is squandered with a bad payoff. Instead of allowing Spider Man to deal with his grief, and let the moment linger a bit, we get a tacked on final scene featuring a cameo by a third villain, leaving the story open for the next film. As a lifelong Spider Man fan, that felt like a little bit of cheat to me. There are also hints of upcoming follow-ups; two sequels to this film, and two spinoff movies, featuring The Sinister Six and Venom, have already been announced.

It’s a shame the narrative is so unfocused because the movie wastes some of the best character moments in the series since Raimi’s Spider Man 2, as well as good performances by Garfield, Stone and Sally Field as Peter’s Aunt May. Things are a little different for the villains: Jamie Foxx’s Electro is never fully developed, and while Dane DeHaan is effective as Harry, he’s given too little to do as The Green Goblin. There are just too many plot elements to develop effectively: the Peter/Gwen arc, the search for the truth about Peter’s parents, the two villains and their stories, and scenes laying the groundwork for further films. This is a patchwork story, and it shows. It's truly a mystery why Sony/Columbia felt they had to entirely reboot the series after creative differences with Raimi, instead of just recasting the role and moving forward with a new creative team & further sequels. While there are good elements in the film, it just isn’t on a level with some of the other recent movies done by Marvel Studios & Disney. Sony/Columbia owns the rights to Spider Man, and their films are separate from the “shared universe” projects being produced by Marvel. The movie is worth a look for fans, but you can safely wait for the video release on this one. The film is currently in theaters in both 2D & 3D versions. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlM2CWNTQ84&feature=kp.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Early Elton Makes a "Connection" at FTC

Photo by Gilda Caserta
When I heard that Early Elton, three talented musicians who pay tribute to Elton John's tours with bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson from 1970-72, were returning to the Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One on May 16, I had to be there. I first saw this amazing group at the FTC last August, and instantly became a fan. Once again, they put on a fabulous show, playing the classic album Tumbleweed Connection in its entirety, as well as some other EJ favorites. “Tumbleweed” is something of a concept album about Americana & the Old West, featuring such iconic songs as “Amoreena” & “Country Comfort.” It’s a powerful record that ranks with Elton's best work. And Early Elton rocked the hell out of the house with their amazing performance.

Some highlights of Friday’s show: a barn-burning version of “Burn Down The Mission” a rollicking, audience on their feet jam with “Take Me To The Pilot,” and a passionate rendering of "Levon." A couple of my personal favorites, “Can I Put You On?” (the 11-17-70 version) and “Where To Now, St. Peter?” were fantastic, and there were wonderful takes on "Border Song," “My Father’s Gun,” “Bad Side Of The Moon,” and Jeff’s intense solo version of “Talking Old Soldiers.” By the time they reached the double barreled encore of “Grey Seal” and “Tiny Dancer,” it was clear the band could have played twice as long, and we would have stayed right there with them! 

You may know John Conte (bass, vocals), Rich Pagano (drums, vocals) and Jeff Kazee (keyboards, vocals) who have played with bands like Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and The Fab Faux. But these Early Elton Trio shows are nothing short of astounding. The group surpassed my expectations; they’re extremely talented rockers who play with emotion, conviction and enthusiasm. They love this music as much as we do; they’re fans, too, and it shows. The incredible vocals & playing by Jeff, John & Rich make their concerts wonderful experiences. This is classic rock & roll played & sung by outstanding musicians, the way it was meant to be! As I reported earlier, this was my second time seeing them, and it sure won’t be the last! Rock on, Early Elton!

The blogger with the band: Photo by Gilda Caserta

In closing, I have to report I got to meet the guys after the show, and they’re very cool. In fact, I reviewed their concert the first time I saw them in 2013 (follow the link here: http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2013/08/early-elton-rocks-at-ftcs-stage-one.html) and they were kind enough to mention it on their Facebook page at the time. If you get a chance to see one of their shows, don’t pass it up! Here are links to Early Elton performing “Amoreena” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZFSOuv3sUA and “Where To Now, St. Peter & My Father’s Gun” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knqNFcsv-ws and to their website:http://www.earlyeltontrio.com.

Photo by John V
FTC Set List from 5-16-14
Set 1: "Tumbleweed Connection" album
Ballad of a Well-Known Gun
Come Down in Time
Country Comfort
Son of Your Father
My Father's Gun
Where to Now, St. Peter?
Love Song
Amoreena
Talking Old Soldiers
Burn Down the Mission

Set 2: Favorites
Bad Side of the Moon
Border Song
Can I Put You On?
Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters
Levon
Take Me To The Pilot

Encore:
Grey Seal
Tiny Dancer

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Milius: Portrait of a Zen Anarchist

The ‘film school” generation of the 60s & 70s gave us such writer-directors as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola & John Milius. Who's John Milius, you ask? You may not know his name, but you’re certainly familiar with some of the films he’s worked on as a writer, director or both: Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan The Barbarian (1982), Red Dawn (1984) & later, the HBO series, Rome (2005). Now a new documentary entitled Milius (2013) covers the life & career of this talented, sometimes controversial filmmaker. Milius came to prominence as a screenwriter in the early to mid 1970s. He worked on films like 1971’s Dirty Harry (he did an uncredited rewrite of the script, and came up with the famous “Do you feel lucky, punk?” speech) and writing the screenplays for the 1972 Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson, (for which he received a record payday at the time) and the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (1973).

Milius quickly became one of the most in demand writers in Hollywood. Interestingly enough, at a time when the movie business & the country as a whole was in the midst of a more liberal stance politically, he was very conservative, but was still able to be a success. He wrote & directed the old-fashioned adventure film, The Wind & The Lion (1975) starring Sean Connery, Candice Bergen & Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt, one of Milius' personal heroes. He also wrote the famous monologue about the USS Indianapolis that Robert Shaw performs in Jaws (1975), as a favor to his friend Spielberg. Then he co-wrote the screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a project that he, Lucas & Coppola had talked about since film school. The documentary covers the genesis and production of the celebrated Vietnam war epic (and Milius' contributions to it) in great detail.

During the 80s, Milius worked on bringing Robert E. Howard’s Conan character to the screen in Conan The Barbarian, and wrote & directed the original Red Dawn, about a Russian military takeover of the US, and a group of teenagers who rebel against the invaders. The film covers a lot of ground talking about these two movies, and the political controversy that was sparked by Red Dawn during its original release. During this period, Milius (and the entertainment business in general) were being heavily criticized for the overly violent content of films. And while Milius had famous friends & colleagues like Lucas, Coppola & Spielberg, his over the top personality often rubbed studio executives the wrong way, causing some of his projects to be derailed or cancelled. The self-proclaimed "zen anarchist" could sometimes be his own worst enemy.

The documentary is a well-rounded portrait of Milius, and features great interviews with Lucas, Spielberg & Coppola. There are also comments from Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone & Milius’ children, as well as current filmmakers like Bryan (X-Men) Singer & Kurt (Sons of Anarchy) Sutter, who've been inspired by him. The Lucas & Spielberg sequences are some of the most engrossing parts of the film. While they often give interviews about their current projects, it’s fascinating to see them really open up about their friendship & collaborations with Milius, and tell stories about their early days working together in the 70s. Milius really is the kind of larger than life persona that you don’t see in today’s Hollywood, and even the studio executives he knocked heads & battled with admit they admire his talent.

The latter part of the film goes into some health struggles Milius has suffered after having a stroke a couple of years ago, which is why he’s largely seen in archival footage. He’s working to get better, and is hoping to get a long in development project about Genghis Khan produced. This is an absorbing portrait of a man who’s given us a lot of iconic movie moments. It’s a must see for fans of 70s & 80s cinema. Milius, which was directed by Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, is being shown on the EPIX cable channel and is available for digital viewing on Netflix. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrjuO5LLNEQ.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ray LaMontagne's Psychedelic Pop Album? Give "Supernova" A Listen

Ray LaMontagne has garnered a considerable (and loyal) following since releasing his debut album, 2004’s Trouble. Both critics & fans have responded to his songs, with their intense lyrics & passionate vocals. His songs can range from the moody, powerful “Jolene,” (from Trouble) to the Van Morrison-esque “You Are The Best Thing,” and the country rave up “Henry Nearly Killed Me,” both from 2008’s Gossip in the Grain. He bounces from folk to soul, blues and back through to rock. LaMontagne's music has a deep emotional core, and fans have responded strongly to his work. His last album, 2010's God Willin' & The Creek Don’t Rise, netted him a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Now he’s back with a new disc entitled Supernova. The album will very likely surprise some of his most ardent fans. This is a more upbeat, pop oriented record than he’s released before. The disc is heavily influenced by the sounds of 60s & 70s pop, rock & folk. And it’s…fun. Not a word you’d usually use to describe LaMontgane’s music, as good as it is.

The title track is a bouncy, upbeat number (with handclaps!) that wouldn’t sound out of place on 70s AM radio. “Lavender,” and “Smashing” dip into psychedelia; there are hints of The Beatles, The Zombies and even Pink Floyd on these tracks. Of course, there are a couple of tunes that evoke the traditional LaMontgane vibe, like “Airwaves” and the powerful “Pick Up a Gun” but even those songs have some interesting and vibrant sonic layers that enrich their sound. Part of the credit goes to producer Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys), and some new band members, who help LaMontagne sound looser and more relaxed on record than he has previously. In fact the electric, bluesy, “She’s The One” would fit comfortably on a Black Keys album. And then there’s the singer-songwriter-ish “Ojai,” (which I think channels Glen Campbell) and the country rock sounds of the album closer “Drive-In Movies.”

I think this release will garner the singer a lot of new fans, but may divide some of the old ones; those seeking the deeply intense Lamontagne of previous albums are in for a surprise. For this listener, Supernova really feels like an extension of what he has accomplished so far. It pays homage to his influences, but brings LaMontagne into a different place with his music. He could have done another dark, soul-baring record, but he ventures into a new, but no less interesting direction. This is a great album that bears repeat listens. I look forward to seeing these songs performed live when he tours this summer. Supernova is now available in stores and for digital download. Here’s a link to Ray performing the title track on David Letterman’s show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4AgBwQyGq4.