Sunday, March 29, 2015

Short Takes: A Look at 3 Recent Releases

The Judge  (2014) – Robert Downey, Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a successful Chicago defense attorney who’s called back to his Indiana hometown to attend his mother’s funeral.  He reunites with his estranged father (Oscar nominee Robert Duvall) and his two brothers, played by Vincent D’Onofrio & Jeremy Strong. When their father is involved in a fatal hit & run accident, Hank defends him in the court case, despite their troubled relationship. As more facts about the case and his father’s health come to light, Hank must also deal with a former flame (played by Vera Farmiga) & also try to mend fences with his father & siblings, who he left behind to pursue his career. The film is well acted & Downey, Jr. & Duvall have some good scenes together, but the story is predictable, and none of the characters are particularly well developed. It’s worth a look for fans of the actors, but it’s ultimately not the strongest vehicle for its stars, though Duvall & Farmiga stand out in a talented cast that also includes Billy Bob Thornton & Dax Shepard. The Judge is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and on various online services. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBvK6ni97W8.

Whiplash (2014) – J.K. Simmons recently won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in this powerful drama from writer/director Damien Chazelle. Andrew Neiman (portrayed by Miles Teller) is a drummer & a student in the jazz program at the elite Shaffer Conservatory in New York. He crosses paths with conductor Terence Fletcher (an electrifying turn from Simmons) who inspires, pushes & terrifies his students in equal measure. Fletcher verbally abuses, taunts & rages at his musicians in order to bring out what he feels is their best work. Neiman is initially energized by Fletcher’s style, but ultimately clashes with his mercurial teacher, setting off a chain of events that will change both of their lives forever. This is essentially an intense, thrilling acting duet & battle of wills between Simmons & Teller's characters; both performers are simply amazing in their roles. Whiplash is very highly recommended: one of the best films of 2014, it’s now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and on various online services. Here’s a link to the movie’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d_jQycdQGo.

Dark Skies (2013) – Keri Russell & Josh Hamilton are featured in this thriller as Lacy & Daniel Barrett, the parents of a suburban family beset by strange occurrences & weird happenings. The younger of their two sons begins behaving oddly, several flocks of birds fly into their house, and both parents experience a loss of memory & time, where they cannot account for their behavior. From the film’s beginning, we’re expecting this to be a standard haunted house tale, but the forces that are terrorizing this family are far more extraterrestrial in nature. The movie makes an attempt to be a creepy, frightening tale of alien contact that offers something different, but ultimately fails, despite some good performances & a couple of effective scare scenes from director Scott Stewart. J.K. Simmons shows up late in the film as a UFO expert, and livens up things considerably, but this hybrid of the science-fiction & horror genres doesn’t give us enough of a new twist, and sharp viewers will see the ending coming a mile away. It’s an ok watch for fans of the genre, but not recommended. Dark Skies is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and on various online services. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9592F2RpRPo.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Queen of Soul Rules in Bridgeport

Aretha Franklin - photo by John V
Before Autotune, American Idol & The Voice there were the voices. The ones that rocked, moved & inspired us. The voices that, once heard, cannot be forgotten. The one & only Aretha Franklin still has such a voice. On Friday night at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, concertgoers were treated to a thrilling evening of music from the original diva. From the moment she took the stage, The Queen of Soul held court & thrilled the audience; she’s lost none of her sass, grit & soul. Performing hits from throughout her long career, Aretha held us spellbound with classics like “Think” & “Day Dreaming.”

Of course, everyone sang, danced, clapped & grooved along on every number, including the Carole King penned “(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman” and rousing versions of “Rolling in The Deep,” & “Midnight Train To Georgia,” from her latest CD, Aretha Sings The Great Diva Classics. And then there were the moments: Aretha sitting at the piano for stunning performances of the Ed Ames song “My Cup Runneth Over With Love,” (a personal favorite of hers) and a gospel revival, soul-filled reading of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that truly brought the house down. Aretha brought us to a spiritual high, and then took us higher.

There are a lot of good, even great performers & singers, and then there are the ones who take things to the next level. Aretha Franklin is truly at the pinnacle. Her soul & spirit truly inspired & impressed me. In addition to giving us a great show, she was gracious & sincere with the audience, and took time to thank her band, who were fantastic. They were an impressive group of musicians who helped power the show’s energy level. By the time we got to the classic “Respect” & a beautiful take on Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” at the close of the evening, The Queen of Soul had proved she still rules. If you have the chance to see Aretha on this tour, run; don’t walk to your local venue! Here's a link to a performance of "Rolling In The Deep & Ain't No Mountain High Enough" on Letterman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bl8iBkjnRdA.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Power Pop's Greatest Artists Rock On

I’ve often written about the power pop genre on this blog, and I want to recommend a fantastic book on the subject by the prolific author Ken Sharp. Mr. Sharp has previously written some fantastic books on Cheap Trick, Elvis, John Lennon and many other musical subjects. PLAY ON! Power Pop Heroes, Volume 1 may be his best yet. It’s a comprehensive work featuring in depth interviews with the architects of the genre, as well as later bands who were inspired by them. The first volume of this three part series features artists such as The Beatles, The Who, The Bee Gees, The Turtles, The Knickerbockers and many more. If you’re a fan, you’ll love these fascinating, incisive and revealing interviews.

The style of the interviews is informal & accessible, and you’ll feel like you’re sitting in the room with Ken & his subjects, hearing great (and in some cases, no holds barred) stories from members of The Beach Boys, The Left Banke, The Byrds & The Small Faces. The interviews also include comments from the geniuses behind the scenes, like producers George Martin & John Fry and songwriters Tony Asher & Graham Gouldman, among others. In addition, there’s track-by-track analysis of such classic albums as Pet Sounds, There Are But Four Small Faces, and Nazz, as well as other influential & fondly remembered songs by the featured artists. It’s a treasure trove of information, and even if you know your rock & pop history, I guarantee you’ll learn some new things about these artists after reading these in depth profiles.

The bad news is that PLAY ON! Power Pop Heroes, Volume 1 is currently out of print, though a reprint of the first volume is hopefully coming soon. You may be able to find a used copy online, but I can’t make any promises. The good news is that Volume 2 of the series is coming out soon, and you can pre-order a copy here: http://popgeek.highwire.com/products?search=play+on. This second book in the series will feature artists like The Flamin’ Groovies, Cheap Trick & The Babys, and will be a whopping 765 pages. I suggest ordering this book now, if you're a fan of the genre. If you pre-order before March 31, there are some cool digital bonuses included. A third volume that completes the series will follow later this year.

This is one of the best and most enjoyable books on power pop and rock & roll history I've ever read. I highly recommend checking out the PLAY ON! series, and while you’re at it, look for some of Ken’s other great books, including his history of the early days of KISS, Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975), which he co-authored with Paul Stanley & Gene Simmons. By the way, Ken's a musician himself with several fine albums to his credit, as well as a diehard music fan, so he knows both sides of the world he's writing about in these excellent books. If you’re a rock music aficionado, you won't regret checking out the work of the talented Mr. Sharp.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Retro TV Movie: "Gargoyles" in Flight

Most genre fans have fond memories of their first childhood viewing of certain films or TV shows. One of the films I fondly remember is a 1972 made for TV movie called Gargoyles. It was shown regularly on late night television and “Creature Feature” shows throughout the 1970s. Cornel Wilde stars as Dr. Mercer Boley, an anthropologist traveling through the Southwest with his daughter, Diana. At a roadside tourist shop, Uncle Willie (Woody Chambliss) shows them the skeleton of a large winged animal. As Willie tells them some stories about strange beasts and Indian rituals, the trio suddenly hears odd noises. Then someone or something attacks the building. Willie is killed, but Mercer & Diana escape. As they drive away, a monster with claws attacks their car. Perhaps the gargoyles of legend aren't just a tall tale after all. Will anyone believe their fantastic story?

Cornel Wilde, Jennifer Salt & Woody Chambliss
The devilish creatures continue to plague our heroes. Their leader (well-played by Bernie Casey) eventually kidnaps Diana. He wants her to teach him about humanity. It turns out the gargoyles have been hidden from mankind for ages. Every 600 years they spawn, and their numbers increase. They're waiting for the right moment to emerge and rule mankind. The leader’s mate is none too happy he’s brought an attractive human captive to their lair, and Diana’s stay in gargoyle-land may be short lived. Meanwhile, Dr. Boley rounds up a posse that includes cops and a group of local bikers (who the police had initially blamed for the attack on him) to rescue Diana. Can they stop these demonic beings from taking over the world? 

The cast of familiar faces includes former movie star Wilde, Grayson Hall of Dark Shadows fame, a young Scott Glenn as the leader of the bikers and Jennifer Salt as Diana. Salt also appeared in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Brian DePalma’s thriller Sisters (1973). She later retired from acting and is now a writer-producer, most recently for FX’s American Horror Story. The late Stan Winston, who later worked on such films as Aliens, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, created the Emmy-winning special effects. The film was directed by Bill L. Norton and was written by Stephen and Elinor Karpf. This is classic TV horror at its entertaining, popcorn movie best. You've got pre-CGI monsters in suits, B movie situations and stock characters, as well as a cool musical score that evokes its era. It may be a bit cheesy by today’s standards, but it’s a lot of fun. Oh, and Ms. Salt looks mighty cute in that halter top. Gargoyles is available for purchase on DVD. Here’s a link to a video with some music from the film’s score accompanied by clips from the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDi_U5kiUwA.