Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hurt's so good....

Sometimes a cinema outing turns into exquisite agony. I'm talking about thrillers that make you chew on all 10 fingernails like corn on the cob and hold your breath like a free diver during entire scenes. "The Hurt Locker" is one such film. From the get go, this real-as-it gets drama about a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq made me want to curl into a fetal position in my seat.

The film returns us to 2004. The US army may have occupied Baghdad, but these wardens are more like prisoners. Whenever these strangers in a strange land step outside the Green Zone, they're targets for insurgents. We follow three members of the Army's Explosive Ordinance Disposal squad as they defuse booby traps, trip wires, and even suicide bombers. To disarm each explosive, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) gets kitted in gear more cumbersome than that of an astronaut. Sometimes, this particular adrenaline junkie ditches the suit altogether. "If I'm going to die, I gonna die comfortable," James rationalizes at one point. His two spotters, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), are exasperated by the Sargeant's reckless disregard for protocol and procedure, putting them at risk as they agitatedly scan their surroundings for hidden snipers.

"The Hurt Locker" pivots around a central question: What kind of men willingly go to work in a minefield? Sanborn, for instance, is a battle-hardened soldier who is more level-headed under fire than his subordinate, Owen. But when he asks James, "Do you think I'm ready for the suit?," the answer is an unequivocal "no." We later find out that he's correct in his assessment.

"The Hurt Locker" is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, an action specialist whose breakout film, "Near Dark" (1987) was a vampire horror set in a Western. (Its most memorable scene finds the vampires holed up in a saloon, desperately trying to avoid deadly shafts of sunlight pouring in through bulletholes in the walls.) Then, "Point Break" -- which seemingly shows up somewhere on cable TV at least once a day -- positioned Bigelow as a go-to action director. But shortly after Bigelow's divorce from James Cameron, the director's "Strange Days," a sci-fi thriller set on the eve of the new millennium, tanked at the box office and received tepid reviews. Five years later, her follow-up movie, "The Weight of Water," barely eked out a DVD release even though it starred Sean Penn. Bigelow's career sunk deeper with "K19: The Widowmaker," a submarine movie memorable only for Harrison Ford's ill-advised attempt at a Russian accent. Since then, the director hasn't troubled the update clerks on imdb very often.

"The Hurt Locker" should change all that. It's Bigelow's best movie and also one of the best-reviewed films of the year. An Oscar nomination for Best Picture seems to be already in the bag. Bigelow's knack for staging an action sequence has never been put to better use. The bomb-defusing sequences are so intense that your arm-pits will sweat like a brick of semtex plastic explosive. Between the big set pieces, Bigelow convincingly depicts the sociological makeup of the male-dominated regiment. Two scenes -- one of drunken roughhousing inside the barracks and another when the trio are pinned down by hillside snipers -- show the audience how these soldiers relieve stress, express emotion, jostle for position, and establish mutual trust.

Alas, this indie -- still barely in cinemas -- has only scraped $12 million to date. The LA Times points out that it's done well for a low-budget film, but its box office is hardly equivalent to what a piss-poor Jennifer Aniston romcom makes in one weekend. Put it down to Iraq-movie fatigue. Viewers want escapism at the movie theater rather than something that resembles a Frontline documentary report.

Thing is, this isn't your typical missive on the Iraq War. It isn't a political film and the filmmakers aren't interested in using the film as a forum to debate whether the invasion of Iraq was justified. The script by Mark Boal -- who also wrote the excellent "In the Valley of Elah" -- matter of factly depicts the pressure cooker environment of war and its mental and physical toil on soldiers. But it's never heavy handed and it doesn't come across as a message movie.

The acting of the lead trio is excellent, particularly Renner in a break-out role. He has the intensity of a young Russell Crowe gilded with an innate likability. Bigelow's casting of largely unknown actors heightens the reality of the film. One feels as if one is watching actual soldiers rather than a familiar Hollywood face in uniform. Unfortunately, the one weakness of the film is that occasionally there's a cameo by a familiar face -- Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Guy Pearce, and Evageline Lily -- and it momentarily reminds you that you're watching a movie. Not for long, though, as the riveting action soon pulls you back in.

This is one of the movies that so effectively plunges you into its world that it's best seen in darkened cinema. It won't have nearly the same effect on DVD, so catch it while you can. You'll thank me afterward -- But only after your heart rate has stabilized.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The revenge of vigilante films

Everyone, at some point, has felt the impulse to exact revenge. Let me share my own revenge fantasy with you. As a teen, I went to a very prim and proper private school where I did not fit in. Unlike the other kids, I didn't come from a super wealthy family (a generous benefactor paid for my education) and I didn't fit into any of the established cliques. I also resented the formal pretentiousness of the institution itself. How pretentious? Here's an example: At year-end assembly, the students had to sing the official school song in Latin even though none of us had the slightest idea what the words meant, or what it signified.

And so I used to daydream of my revenge on the entire school. It went like this: During the year-end assembly in which parents assembled to watch their kids receive awards as well as talent showcases, I imagined myself taking to the stage with an electric guitar. I'd start off playing a very tasteful ballad that would lull the onlookers into a fall sense of security and then, suddenly, tear into a face-melting, speed-shredding solo at maximum volume that would have parents and teachers alike gawking in shock. A little like the high school prom scene in "Back to the Future" when Michael J. Fox breaks into a Van Halen-esque guitar solo. (Click the video of Steve Vai's "Tender Surrender," above, for my perfect guitar solo for the occasion.)

(My grandfather, who died before I was born, had an even better idea. As a school boy at Sedbergh -- the ultra-prestigious private school in England -- he filled the pipes of the school's organ with confetti so that it snowed during the final assembly.)

I can laugh at my little revenge fantasy, because it's quite benign. But lately I've been noticing about how prevalent revenge is in popular culture. Take "Law Abiding Citizen," the new movie starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler (the most over-exposed movie star of 2009), for example. Butler plays a man who goes on a rampage after his family is killed. According to EW's Owen Gleiberman, Butler's character "kidnaps one of the perpetrators, straps him down to a torture table, and saws off his limbs (and other things)."

It's one of several recent revenge flicks, including "Wolverine," "Inglorious Basterds," "Taken," and Mel Gibson's imminent "Edge of Darkness." Vigilante movies have long been popular, from "Death Wish" to "Payback" to "Rambo" to "Man on Fire" to "Oldboy" to "Kill Bill." But I find vigilante movies fundamentally boring. The formula goes like this: Happy family is disrupted by senseless crime. Survivor arms himself with multiple guns, knives, hand grenades -- like Arnold in "Commando"-- and then spends the rest of the movie working his way up a foodchain of lowly henchmen until a final face-off with the mastermind/perpetrator, who meets a gruesome fate. Cue sunrise. Roll credits. Yawn.

Such movies are a cathartic outlet for viewers' revenge fantasies. But revenge is a deadly impulse, one that clouds rational thought. (A broad desire for revenge after Sept. 11 bolstered the Bush administration's attack on Iraq, for instance.) I wish more films explored the corruption and consequences of revenge, like Todd Fields' "In the Bedroom" and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" and "Gran Torino."

Still, my high school self can applaud at least one Hollywood revenge flick: "Revenge of the Nerds."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fessing up to a guilty pleasure

There's one album I cannot get enough of at the moment: Chickenfoot.

Gotta admit that this super group -- comprised of Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Joe Satriani and Chad Smith -- is a guilty pleasure that isn't helped by the band's choice of name. My main interest in the record is Joe Satriani, who is one of my three fave guitarists of all time. I also like The Red Hot Chili Peppers and occasionally I'll bust out my two-disc Van Halen "best of."

Chickenfoot is very much a big, dumb, rawk record. The kind you aren't supposed to make anymore. It's also fun and kicks ass.

While the album isn't perfect -- I could have done without the mawkish ballad -- it runs circles around all the Van Hagar albums. Oddly enough, many songs are reminiscent of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen.

The record has more than its fair share of killer riffs and hooky choruses such as “Sexy Little Thing,” “Oh Yeah,” and “Runnin’ Out.” Yep, songs about cars 'n' girls. (An attempt at political commentary on the opening track, "Avenida Revolution," doesn't say very much at all.)

“Turnin’ Left” is another highlight. (It’s not, as the title might suggest, a song about Arlen Specter's career.) It ends with Hagar's voice doing a call and response with Satriani's guitar, matching it's every squeal and shriek.

The album's centerpiece, "Get It Up," is a shoo-in for the 2009 Award for "Most Kick Ass Rock Song." It has a guitar riff that powerful enough to create antimatter and Chad Smith's drum fills are inhuman. This album, produced by Glyn Johns (Led Zep and others) captures the sheer power and swing of Smith's drumming better than any of the Red Hot Chili Pepper albums. The dude may look like Will Ferrell, but he's truly one of the greatest drummers in rock.

Joe Satriani is one of my fave guitarists and I own all his albums. Satch gets to show off his astonishing technique -- he has finger speed that a court stenographer would envy -- but his great talent has always been exploring the fourth dimension of guitar and all its textures. He has good feel, too. This is more of a fun rock record, so it's not as ambient or cerebral as Satriani's solo stuff. It's more straightforward. Nevertheless, Satriani's guitarwork on this record is blistering. (Listen to this, Eddie....)

I've never been a big fan of Sammy Hagar, but I'm astonished that his voice is able to effortlessly run on high octaves at age 61.

Michael Anthony's backing vocals were Van Halen's secret weapon and they're put to great use here. He's also a great partner in rhythm for Smith. The bottom end on this album outstrips that of any of the Van Halen albums. I've been blasting this album in the car ever since summer.

I also caught the band's August gig here in LA., which felt like being strapped to the front grill of Jeff Gordon's NASCAR. A pure rush with a thrill of danger. The sheer explosion of sound and energy was unbelievable. Smith was all mad-hatter glee with a constant grin. Phenomenal drum fills followed by him flipping his sticks into the air and catching them like a street-corner juggler. He must have tossed out 30 drumsticks into the audience over the course of the show and he not only looks like Will Ferrell but also cracks jokes to the audience between songs.

Satriani -- whom Hagar has nicknamed "Smoke" for his guitar prowess -- does stuff on the guitar that I've never seen anyone do on an axe. I've never seen someone who can stretch his fingers across as many frets as Satch did and he broke the landspeed record early and often. What's so great about Chickenfoot is that Satriani gets to breathe more than usual. At his solo gigs, his guitar is the voice as so he often overplays but here he could sit play and play a groove and then step forward for a molten solo.

For the encore, a gold disc was presented to Hagar for the Chickenfoot's sales. Chad Smith says Hagar is the only guy to have been a member of four bands with gold sales for an album. Soon after, Hagar sat at the edge of the stage and played some insane lap-steel guitar on "Bad Motor Scooter." Then British guitar phenom Davy Knowles, who was the first act, came on for a dazzling guitar duel with Satriani. It all ended with a cover version of The Who's "My Generation" (earlier, the band launched into "Immigrant Song" at the end of "Get It Up") and then Smith went all Keith Moon by trashing his kit, smashing it to pieces, hurling the bass drum across the stage, and jamming the cymbal stand into another drum.

Now that's rock 'n' roll.

Neil Finn's global supergroup

Talk about a fun assignment: I recently spent a half day in a recording studio interviewing Neil Finn for FILTER magazine (download a PDF version here and visit page 10).

Finn, one of my longtime music heroes, was in town promoting an album by the world's greatest supergroup, "7 Worlds Collide" project. Last December, the songwriter took a break from writing the new Crowded House album to invite the likes of Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway from Radiohead, Johnny Marr, Wilco, Lisa Germano, KT Tunstall, Liam Finn, and Soul Coughing's Sebastian Steinberg to spend three weeks in New Zealand collaborating on an album of new songs.

The resulting album, "7 Worlds Collide -- The Sun Came Out," is tremendous. As Pitchfork and others have noted, the album might have benefited from some editing but a good many of the 24 tracks are splendid. (My personal favorite is "Learn to Crawl." O’Brien and Marr worked with Finn and his eldest son, Liam on the song, whose ecosystem of finger-picked acoustic guitars gives way to what sounds like a man crying for help from the bottom of a mental well.)

During a break from recording a few songs for radio sessions in the very studio where Fleetwood Mac recorded “Tusk” (no remnants of white powder remain in the beautiful teak room), I chatted with Neil for about a half hour. Our conversation ranged from New Zealand's recent rugby losses, to Neil's current playlist (Phoenix Foundation and Fleet Foxes), to how the ill-advised release of a 1991 single called "Chocolate Cake" led to a decline in fortunes for Crowded House in America even as their classic third record, "Woodface," broke them in the UK and elsewhere.

Here's a few interview excerpts that I didn't include in the piece.

When I asked the songwriter about the delightful song, "Little By Little," that he cowrote with his wife, Sharon, he responded:

“We just started having these jams. We did last year because the boys went away from home and we had all this time on our hands. I’m playing drums, she’s playing bass and we’re about as good as each other. This was the first one that came to fruition. There’s something about the
way that we approach it that brings out a totally different song somehow.” “It is kind of romantic. It’s also just getting down and having a bit of fun. When your kids leave home, you’re not prepared for that. It takes a little getting used to. Even though they don’t take a lot of looking after when they’re home, you get the dynamic that builds up around the whole family being there. All of a sudden you have to relearn how to coexist and how to have fun with each other. It was a fun discovery that we could play these jams.”

“I remember standing in front of Glenn Kotche for ‘Little by Little’ with Sharon and her on the bass. That was such a thrill to have her playing and directing him how to play, because he’d never heard the song before. He did a fantastic rhythm track without even hearing the song.”

Neil also talked about how Johnny Marr collaborated with his eldest son, Liam:

“Johnny went and played some guitar on Liam’s track, ‘Red Win Bottle,’ before he really had the vocal melody worked out. His guitar idea in the chorus helped Liam spark the eventual melody.”

“Liam now is 25 years old and he’s been making albums for years. He’s got his own wisdom and experience. But we’re certainly interested in what each other is doing.”

I asked Neil if his youngest son, Elroy (who has a great song called "The Cobbler" on the record) is likely to follow the career path of his dad and older brother.

“This is a great experience for him. Everything we’re doing at the moment is a first for him. He’s learning about the nuts and bolts of performing. As my mother said, he’s probably doomed. He may go off and be a musician but he might do something different. He hasn’t completely decided. He has many talents.”

Finn also mentioned that the next Crowded House album will be out early next year:

“It’s a more cohesive record. More band-oriented record. It has quite a good energy to it. I think it’s quite a strong bunch of material. We worked it out live.”

I asked him if he ever tires of playing the band's two most popular songs, "Don’t Dream It’s Over" and "Weather of You":

“I certainly don’t tire of ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’ ‘Weather of You’ I played a hell of lot when we were in England. I’m very grateful for the fact that these songs become part of the fabric of the time and people have a strong attachment to them. It’s a bit odd to resent a song which created so much goodwill for you. The least you can do is try and play it with feeling and passion every time.”

My final question: If Flight of the Conchords are New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk group, where does Crowded House rank?

“I don’t know that we’re regarded as a folk novelty act, though there’s been times…”

A full house for Sunny Day Real Estate

I missed out on seeing Sunny Day Real Estate first time around. An archetypal emo band who, in many ways, were heavier and far more emotionally raw than their more famous Seattle peers, Nirvana, the quartet imploded while recording their second album. The split was so acrimonious that SDRE didn't even stick around to name their second album, which has since been nicknamed "the pink album" (for its cover art) or "LP2."

The band's seminal debut, "Diary," and "LP2" have just been reissued with worthy bonus tracks and sleeve notes (my review of the pair of albums is in the current issue of FILTER.)

When Dave Grohl put Foo Fighters on hiatus so that he could form "Then Crooked Vultures," bassist Nate Mendel seized the opportunity to reconvene the original SDRE lineup for a tour. For most of the sold out crowd at the Fonda Theater, last night's show felt like a family reunion. Loudest crowd I've heard in a while and the anticipation of seeing these guys back together boiled over into mass pogoing and head banging.

They opened with the heady rush of "Friday" and "7." Whoosh! The band was so tight. So Loud. So HEAVY. The dual guitars of Dan Hoerner and Jeremy Enigk were thrilling, especially on the cut-glass riffing of "J'Nuh". William Goldsmith hits the skins harder than Mohammed Ali threw punches and I could feel Mendel's basslines course beneath my feet like seismic activity. Jeremy, the enigkmatic frontman, looks older than any of the other guys in the band even though he's the youngest. He clearly a quiet guy, but hasn't lost his primal scream.

Hoerner, the extrovert in the group, looked like he was having the time of his life and couldn't stop grinning. "This is a dream come true," he said at one point.

The only flaw of the night was a train wreck during "Grendel" when he played what sounded like a detuned guitar and had to switch instruments mid way through. Sunny Day Real Estate even played a new song (which didn't make much of an impression, to be honest) even though they downplayed the idea of creating new music in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. After the song, someone in the crowd asked about a new album, Hoerner responded, "we're working on it."

Highlight of the night was "In Circles" with the band firing on every cylinder in response to the effusive crowd during the encore break. As I noted in my album review, this Real Estate has only appreciated in value over the years.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Who is this man?

Who is this man, and why is he dressed like a futuristic jewel thief?

You can find the answer in this profile story I just wrote for the Innovation section of The Christian Science Monitor magazine. (Hint: He's the biggest action star you've never heard of, though you'll soon be able to watch his work in James Cameron's "Avatar.")