Monthly Archives: March 2015

It really is the ‘Best’

Bobo, Clara and Hedvig turn to punk rock to express their dissatisfaction with life in 1980s Sweden.

Bobo, Klara and Hedvig turn to punk rock to express their dissatisfaction with life in 1980s Sweden.

I saw We Are the Best! on a number of year-end 2014 lists, but always with qualifiers, the idea that “I like it” but “it’s not an awards film” permeating the chatter.

That’s a pretty good way to describe my experience with We Are the Best!. I loved the film. I thought often of Stand By Me. It’s that sort of coming of age film that many can identify with, raw, heartbreaking, funny and sometimes uncomfortable to watch, but always honest. I couldn’t imagine it as an Academy Award winner – it’s not a prestige pic – but that’s never been a problem for me.

Bobo and Klara, androgynous best friends fed up with their shallow classmates and crazy family situations, start a punk band. Neither can play an instrument, but that doesn’t stop them from writing their first song, Hate the Sport!, inspired by their loathing of their P.E. teacher. Eventually, Hedvig, a Christian girl who is a gifted classical guitar player, is sucked in to the band, and teaches Bobo and Clara a little bit about music. The rest is rock and roll history.

I found it worked for me on three fronts. First, We Are the Best! is just about being a tween/teen appalled at how ridiculous your family is. There are some great moments, particularly with Klara’s family, that really will inspire that “oh my God my family is such a fucking embarrassment” feeling that we’ve all known at one time or another. Second, I’ve played in a few bands and hung with some, and the randomness, lack of direction and tension that this trio go through rang true to me. Everyone has an agenda, and sometimes getting those agendas to mesh is messy. Finally, the boy-girl relationship trouble that almost divides the friends is heartbreaking and, for those of us who are bit past our teen years, entirely predictable.

I didn’t initially watch We Are the Best! with my 13-year-old daughter, because I didn’t know much about it and wanted to make sure it was appropriate. Now, I’m looking forward to showing it to her. Maybe she’ll start and punk band a write a song about how embarrassing her dad is. I can’t wait.

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03/25/14: Delta Spirit at The Vogue

I’ve been attending concerts since I was old enough to drive a car, and something happened at the Delta Spirit’s show at The Vogue in Indianapolis that I’d never seen before.

The final song involved crowd participation, clapping on the beat and singing “woo hoo” or some sort of simple call-response. The Delta Spirit ended the song and walked off, but the “whoo hoos” kept going, and the hand-clapping evolved into foot stomping, a thundering sound that filled the room. And it just kept going. The Delta Spirit crew, revved up by the crowd and on only the second date of their tour, returned in under two minutes and – rather than launch into the first song of their encore – went straight into a reprise of the song the crowd just wouldn’t let go of.

It was a terrific moment that capped one helluva rock show. Throughout the set, the Delta Spirit’s energy ruled all, and the crowd responded. I kept thinking of other great rock shows I’d seen, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kept coming to mind, both because the Delta Spirit play straight forward rock and roll and the way lead singer Matthew Vasquez played to those in attendance. The friend I attended with kept mentioning Kings of Leon, and I could see that, too. Delta Spirit may not have been playing to the kind of crowds those bands routinely perform before, but DS played like there were thousands watching.

I went in only knowing a little bit about the band. At the end, there was one thing I knew about the Delta Spirit for certain: I will be seeing them again live.

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Seeing ‘The Thing’ through my 10-year-old’s eyes

In "The Thing," as in life, it's what's on the inside that counts.

In “The Thing,” as in life, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Every once in a while, usually when my wife has other plans, we have a special event at my house: Dad’s Slightly Inappropriate Movie Night. My son, daughter and I have watched movies such as Aliens and Knights of Badassdom. It’s one of the rare times we’ll watch a scary, R-rated film, so it’s a treat and we get to have some fun.

Recently, when my wife and daughter were out, my 10-year-old son and I sat down to watch The Thing. Here are his responses to the John Carpenter horror classic.

* “Why is he a cowboy?” – When my son asked this, I thought it was pretty perceptive. The Thing follows some standard, old-school, cowboy movie tropes: A group of men in an isolated area, fighting a superior force, no possibility of help or escape. Kurt Russell embodies the old loner, loose cannon, shot-from-the-hip cowboy that movie fans have seen a million times, something my son likely didn’t pick up on despite the hat.

* “I like the music.” Before the film started, I did a bit of education. I explained who Carpenter was, what his place in horror history is. I also talked about Ennio Morricone, how he was famous for his movie scores, particularly for Westerns. Morricone does a nice job of not overdoing it, allowing the quiet, bleak setting to play its part while augmenting the tension, and my son – who has shown he’s particularly sensitive to music in movies in the past – responded to that.

* “You don’t know who the monster is.” – The movie really scared him, as his request to sleep on the floor in our room that night showed. The idea that you never knew if the person you were talking to was the person you were talking to or a monster ready to consume you and take over shook him. He’d never really been exposed to something like that. Big, scary monsters coming at you as you run or fight, that he understands. But a monster you can’t even be sure is there, that was new. Later, when my wife and daughter returned, I asked him how we could be sure it was them and not aliens? He mulled it over, almost as if he was ready to take blood samples … just to make sure.

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What to make of Godard’s New Wave sci-fi classic ‘Alphaville’

Journalist Ivan Johnson aka secret agent Lemmy Caution "hides" and watches a fellow agent make love to a seductress third class.

Journalist Ivan Johnson – aka secret agent Lemmy Caution – “hides” and watches a fellow agent make love to a seductress third class.

Alphaville is a strange flick. On the one hand, writer/director Jean-Luc Godard plumbs the depths of questions about individuality, spirituality, love and the struggle between humanity and technology in a rapidly evolving world. On the other hand, there are times the film is so awkward that it’s almost difficult to watch (although, to be fair, Godard made three movies that year and four the previous year, so time and budget were likely the culprits behind troublesome moments, rather than his ability as a visual storyteller).

That said, the end product is undeniably alluring. Godard’s Alphaville is a place without laughter or love, virtually no music, no passion beyond base sexual needs, a world where constantly redacted dictionaries are bibles and E-mc² is liturgy. In one scene, those who violate the tight, emotional bonds – by laughing, crying, even just caring – are forced to “walk the plank,” up to the edge of diving board, and then shot as they scream their last words in defense of their acts of humanity. As the lifeless bodies hit the water, beautiful young women in matching swimming attire dive in and perform synchronized swimming moves as they retrieve the dead bodies. Crowds watch and cheer as the swimmers perform. It is simultaneously absurd and prescient, a mocking of those who cry out for death and cheer as the blood begins to flow. Humanity is constantly denigrated and tamped down, all for the betterment of the logical society of Alphaville.

What I found most interesting was just how much the science fiction that followed Alphaville mimicked so much of its dystopian future. For example:

* The Matrix – In Alphaville, the supercomputer Alpha 60 controls all. It monitors all communications, calls forth its own “agents” to suppress any who would break out of the rigid system it provides. The world we see is the mask; the real action happens behind the scenes with Alpha 60 and its programmers.

* Blade Runner – Rick Dekard and secret agent Lemmy Caution are cut from the same film noir cloth. Neither understands what they’ve stepped into; both are determined to finish the job.

* Brave New World – Alphaville is a land of sex without love, pills that keep you content. Both Aldous Huxely’s and Godard’s worlds deny any true love or passion, making sex as rote and necessary as having lunch or dropping a deuce.

* 2001: A Space Odyssey – Alpha 60 is HAL. Both understand that the body counts don’t matter, it is the end result, the desired goal, that is most important.

* Divergent – You don’t fit into the pre-determined roles set up by society? In the Divergent series, you are cast out. In Alphaville, you’re lured to a theater and gassed as you enjoy the show.

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Getting a kick out of ‘Wick’

You kicked my ass. You stole my car. You killed my dog. And now you will pay.

You kicked my ass. You stole my car. You killed my dog. And you did all of that right after my wife died. So I am in a colossally shitty mood. And now you will pay.

Are we experiencing a Keanu renaissance?

I have yet to see Man of Tai Chi, but between 47 Ronin and John Wick, I’ve been having a ball watch Reeves get his groove back. I wouldn’t argue that Ronin or Wick are great movies, but both are solid and Reeves is in his element.

Reeves isn’t an emoter. He can’t let it all hang out like Al Pacino or Nicholas Cage. It’s not how he works. He’s best reeled in, like Takeshi Kitano. One of Kitano’s finest works, Fireworks, is such because of how he limits his emotions externally. His character, Yoshitaka, has nothing left to give emotionally, spent after dealing with his wife’s poor health and problems on the job. He becomes nothing but action, his every movement in the now, his every thought about just handling the task before him. Reeves’ Wick is very similar, the death of his wife having sucked everything out of him. After Russian thugs, led by Isoef Tarasov (Alfie Allen of Game of Thrones), steal Wick’s badass Mustang, kill his dog and beat him senseless, Reeves doesn’t weep, scream, fall apart. There is nothing left for him but action, closure. And for the man known as “The Boogeyman” – not because he is the Boogeyman, but because he’s the man you send “to kill the Boogeyman” – that means blood, death and revenge.

It’s one of John Wick‘s greatest strengths, that clarity. When Wick finally fights his way through the Russian mob to get to Iosef, there is no long-winded diatribe, no confessions, no torture. Wick came to kill Iosef, so he does, quickly and without thought. Iosef is not worthy of Wick’s grief. He is a dangerous, vile pest to be crushed and tossed out with the trash.

Had it ended there, John Wick is a top-grade action flick. The humor related to the return/non-return of Wick to the hired killer game is dry and hilarious. The various players we meet all add something interesting to the mix, with solid performance by Wilhem DaFoe and Adrianne Palicki. Wick is also, as far as I know, is the only practitioner of gun-fu I’ve ever seen. Wick – in contrast to our old pal Neo – isn’t a great hand-to-hand fighter. But he’s a frigging Picasso with a firearm. So he’ll engage in some fisticuffs, but only to slow the attack, change the angle so that he can finish bad dudes with a gunshot to the head. Lots and lots of gunshots to heads. It’s a unique fighting style, one of the best features of Wick.

Unfortunately, John Wick didn’t end there. The final act gets dragged out, a few loose ends are dealt with unsurprisingly and Iosef’s gang leader father gets deeper into the mix until his anti-climactic final fist fight with our hero.

Don’t take this as a lack of endorsement of the entire film. If you’re an action fan, I’d recommend it. And if you heart Keanu, it’s well worth the time.

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‘100’ may be trying to get ‘Lost’

Grounded sky dwellers Clarke and Octavia, either running into trouble or running from it.

Grounded sky dwellers Clarke and Octavia, either running into trouble or running from it.

Spoilers ahead. You were warned.

I’ve been pretty impressed with the CW’s The 100. I started watching it with my (then) tween daughter, who is a big fan of all things Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. And while in its own post-apocalyptic way The 100 is part of that youth genre, the writers and other minds behind the show have done a nice job of establishing unique situations and strong characters. The three-way war between sky folk, grounders and the mountain people was masterful, a situation made more interesting by the personal relationships and political machinations that each side has tried to manipulate in their favor.

Clarke has become the most interesting character. Yes, she’s the lead, the daughter of the only doctor among the sky people, a conscience at times when the youthful, shrinking group of 100 needed her to be, particularly in the first season. But the second season has seen a dramatic change in her role. As she has ascended to leadership, she is the one who now must make the tough decisions. She can’t just stand on the sidelines and critique. Now, the blood is on her hands when things go wrong, when battles must be fought, when conflicts must be settled. The change becomes apparent at mid-season when her love interest, Finn, is surrendered for the mass murder of unarmed grounders. It is a political decision to hand him over. It smooths the path for unity between grounders and sky people, as well as their military alliance against the mountain folk. Finn will be tortured, slowly, in gruesome manners for his crime. Clarke approaches him, hugs him to say goodbye, then stabs him in the gut, sealing her bargain with the grounders with blood without allowing Finn’s death to be dragged out over days. It’s a hard call, but the mark of leadership.

I could go on and on about the positives regarding character development, factions and more. It’s all praise that is deserving. But I’m worried that the good times may be over, and that has paused my adoration.

At the end of season two, Jaha – who was the leader among the sky people while in space, but has become a Quixotic character in his search for civilization – has found what he believes to be is the fabled City of Light, of which we have heard a lot about, but not much of substance. Things are clean, solar-powered, food and drink are around. But Jaha finds a settler, a digital image of a human who we were warned might be the person who started the nukes flying that sent our plucky heroes’ ancestors to space in the first place. This digital being seems determined to start the radiation parade all over again. ostensibly with the help of Jaha.

There was something about it that just screamed … Lost. To this point, there’s been no mystical element to the proceedings. To be sure, there’s been plenty of weird to go around, but all explainable. But this moment that closed Season Two felt like the smoke monsters, talking to dead people, ancient temples, a plane full of carcasses on the bottom of the ocean. I sincerely hope that this will lead somewhere rewarding, don’t get me wrong.

But my Spidey Sense is tingling. And as we all know, that never ended well for Peter Parker.

To be continued …

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Everything is crazy in ‘Hell’

Early in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Shizue, the wife of yakuza boss Muto and mother of rising star Mitsuko, is attacked while preparing dinner in her home by four gunmen. Moments later, three of the gunmen are bleeding out, and Shizue is chasing the fourth through the streets with a kitchen knife. She catches him on a catwalk above a street and stabs him repeatedly, blood spraying all over the poor souls walking below. Later, Muto faces the police and asks what his wife, who was attacked in her home and defending herself, was to be charged with.

“Excessive self defense.”

“Excessive” pretty much sums up Shion Sono’s mad-cap gangster-war-film-within-a-film flick Why Don’t You Play in Hell?. Why use tablespoons of blood when you can use buckets? Hell, why use buckets when you can spurt it by the truckload? Nothing is underplayed, nothing is subtle, nothing is quiet. Guns, swords, screaming, fighting, bleeding, Fuck Bombers, razor-blade kisses, lopped off limbs and toothpaste jingles. Sono, the writer and director, plays everything as if it is a big moment.

Not what you typically find when you return home from a long day at school, right?

Not what you typically find when you return home from a long day at school, right?

Surprisingly, it works. All of this freaking madness feeds off itself, whether it’s the guerrilla film-making crew Fuck Bombers standing in the middle of a full-on yakuza war, recording the violence in its entirety, or a young Mitsuko sliding across the floor of her home, the entirety of the space covered in inch-deep blood. There are moments of Disney tween-like sincerity, blood spraying as if being shot out of a firehose and anime-influenced goofy humor, sometimes all three in a matter of 30 seconds.

As with all truly entertaining cinema, it starts with a good story. After Shizue’s “excessive” defense of her home and person, she is sent to jail for 10 years. A decade later, she’s about to get out, and she dreams of watching her daughter’s star turn, the lead in a movie that is almost finished filming. Muto plays along, knowing that his daughter is on the run, the movie has moved on with a new star and that this dream will never be fulfilled. Until … Muto manages to get connected to the Fuck Bombers, who not only know they can make the movie in the minimal time frame allowed, but are ready and excited to get started. As a matter of fact, since Muto is preparing to engage another yakuza gang, led by the zany Ikegami, director Hirata suggests they make it a gangster film and shoot the confrontation. Even more, Hirata engages Ikegami’s gang so that set-up shots can be taken before the battle begins that will help with continuity.

Messed up, right? Sono just keeps raising the bar the whole movie, going wilder and wickeder at every turn. If big, loud, bloody, stupid and Kung Fu Hustle-level absurdity isn’t your thing, move along. But if all of that sounds appealing, jump on board and take the ride with Why Can’t You Play in Hell?.

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Double shot of Locke Lamora isn’t enough

20130906162408!Locke_Lamora“I can’t wait to have words with the Gray King when this shit is all finished. There’s a few things I want to ask him. Philosophical questions. Like, ‘How does it feel to be dangled out a window by a rope tied around your balls, motherfucker?’ ” Locke Lamora, The Lies of Locke Lamora

I’ve previously written about a conversation with a pal, who, after I said I had some issues with Game of Thrones (while enjoying it overall), went on a rant about the quality of fantasy tomes for adult readers. After he spewed forth his wrath against the genre in general, he then pointed me toward Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series and said, “Read this.”

So I did. The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastard series, is a combination of Ocean’s 11-esque heist movie and Game of Thrones level violence. The backstabbing is metaphorical, literal and frequent. Lamora and his gang of confidence men violate the peace between the old money of the city of Camorr and its criminal underworld, going after the elite targets while generally being rewarded for their efforts. Until the Grey King shows up and it all goes to shit. The twists are marvelous, the characters are many and varied, the world that Lynch has created is broad, unique and detailed. I can’t recommend the Lies of Locke Lamora enough.

887877Book two of the Gentleman Bastard series, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is … effective. Some of the fun of the first book is gone, as Locke has lost too much to continue to be nothing but a light-hearted rogue. But some of what we lose in Locke is just as much about the story as the evolution of character, a tale which takes Locke out of the con too frequently. It isn’t that Lamora’s time on the high seas isn’t rewarding, but what gives these books their vitality is the thrill of the crime. Don’t get me wrong: Red Seas Under Red Skies is still a great read. But my hope is as I delve deeper into this series, Lynch is able to find the fun a bit more. With the dark ending of the second book, however, that may be difficult to do.

But I have faith in Locke, Jean, Scott Lynch and the Crooked Warden. So bring on book three and whatever violence, chicanery and humor it holds.

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That’s My Jam #17: Too $hort, ‘The Ghetto’

You wouldn’t expect the man who once titled an album Cocktales to drop one of the most mindful gangsta tracks of all time, especially without uttering a single curse word in the entirety of the cut. Yet Too $hort did exactly that in 1990, copping the title and sample from Donny Hathaway’s classic soul jam to create a rap anthem worthy of both Public Enemy and the Notorious B.I.G. When classic rappers’ names get dropped, too often $hort Dogg is forgotten. But Too $hort was one of the original O.G.’s in the hip-hop game, and one of the few still standing. While he never really stuck with the higher-minded hip-hop lyrics, The Ghetto is a reminder of what he is capable of behind the mic.

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