Here's what's up/Smash or trash.

This post involves maybe five minutes of forethought, and I hope it won't turn out to totally suck as a result. Guess we'll see.

Lately, I've been feeling like my internet routine is a drag on the things I want out of life. Well, just one thing--that I want to be a writer. And yes, I already AM a writer, but what I really mean is that I want to be a writer who does more with his writing than post it to a blogspot account once a week or so, trade a little bit of it once a year for about a dozen free CDs, and otherwise just carry it around in his backpack and never show it to anybody. I would really love to do it for a living, even if the living I earned from it reduced me to far more impoverished circumstances than the ones I already live in (and really, considering that I spent $75 on comic books today, I'm overstating the case where poverty is concerned). So I feel like something's gotta change. Things have been changing a little bit over the past week or so: I post on Twitter (here) but don't really read the people I'm following anymore, and I seem to have abandoned the message board on which I'm by far the most frequent poster. At least, I have over the past week or so, although I never planned to do such a thing and currently expect to get back to it at some point. But I'm still on the internet just as much--just doing different shit. Reading blog posts on my RSS feed, mostly. I'm also spending a significant amount of time texting back and forth with Eric about this comic book that he's writing, that he has decided to self-publish. I'm the editor, apparently. Not sure how I ended up with the position, but I'm not complaining--it's nice to help someone else get writing done, since it makes me feel more like I'm working on something that's actually good. I tend to think everything I write sucks--which I know is due to irrational perfectionism and self-esteem deficiency rather than any objective fact, but it's hard to separate from that mindset and evaluate my shit rationally. I wish I could do it.

God, I'm just rambling at this point, aren't I? This is the bloggiest thing I think I've posted on this blog ever. Sorry, guys.

I just came into a bunch of money recently, for reasons that aren't really important. But what I can tell you is that this money is going to allow me to purchase a new computer. I'm typing this right now on a 5 year old obsolete Dell desktop with 128 MB of RAM and 36 or so GB of hard drive space. It's all but useless on the internet, and once I get a new laptop (because that's what I'm getting, a laptop), I'll be taking this thing offline and moving it into my basement. There's a table down there, and it's going to become my offline workstation. Working on writing in the basement will probably be cold and a little uncomfortable, but the hope is that it will at least allow me to write instead of wasting my time on the internet all day. Meanwhile, my laptop will allow me to carry it to remote locations and use them as workstations as well. I can be "some faggot writing his novel on a laptop" (quote from "Generation Kill," referring to typical Starbucks clientele) at, uh, Panera Bread or wherever (I don't like Starbucks and I don't drink coffee anyway). My hope, my fervent hope, is that all of this will allow me to start churning out worthwhile verbiage like I did back when I was in high school and the world wide web didn't exist yet. Back then, when I killed boredom by getting onto the computer, it was to write. I want to get that back.

OK, that's what's going on in my life, as if you care. Now let's get to some of what you come here for: babble about music.

There was a time, maybe a year ago, when I was frequenting the sorts of message boards where people post full albums online for people to download. I was doing so much downloading from various places, both of stuff I was excited about and stuff I'd never heard of, that I filled up my 160 GB external hard drive with zip files of music I'd never heard. It wasn't until maybe two weeks ago that I finally decided to go through and unzip all of those files, so I could figure out what was on them and whether it was any good. A few of them were password protected, and I had to delete those, because who knows what the passwords might have been at this late date? But for the most part, they unzipped without a problem, and now, where I used to have 50 gigs of zip files, I've got 50 gigs of mp3s that I've never heard. I'm trying to give them all a fair listen, decide whether they're even worth keeping, but it's taking a while.

In order to speed things up at least a little tiny bit, tonight I'm going to do the "Smash or Trash" thing, so named because it was what one of the radio stations I listened to as a kid called their "let's see what the listeners think of this new song" feature. You know about that feature, right? You guys grew up listening to whatever station in your area called itself "The Home of Rock N' Roll" too, right? OK, I know you 30-somethings are feeling me, at least. You younger kids might be a little bit clueless. Whatever, who cares. Let's get to the music already. I've got 14 EPs queued up on my mp3 player, and we'll see how many I get to before I get bored of this shit.

First up, the Coconut Coolouts with their "Spin Around" b/w "Swim" 7 inch single. Immediately, I am a fan. "Spin Around" is some snotty midtempo garage, complete with that "da-da-da-dun!" type start-stop verse riffing that Jerry Lee Lewis used to excellent effect on the legendary "Great Balls Of Fire." This song doesn't sound like Jerry Lee Lewis, though; maybe more like The Sonics or something, though updated for modern sensibilities. By that, I mean that there's no piano or sax, just standard guitar-bass-drum-voice lineup. Things never get too fast, but nonetheless, the rhythmic propulsion of both songs is enough to keep you tapping your feet or even getting up to dance, if you're hyper enough (which I'm not--sorry to disappoint you).
Highlight: "Spin Around"

Next, Black Randy And The Metrosquad. I've been hearing about this epochal late 70s LA punk band for decades now, ever since I started being a total nerd about music and especially punk rock/hardcore music. This is the first chance I've ever gotten to hear them, though, and it's with their legendary single "I Slept In An Arcade." Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, or remembering the right details, but I had no idea that I should expect these songs to be driven by Farfisa-ish keyboards. Which they are, although there is also guitar on the record. The jaunty, catchy tunes here are fun and entertaining, but I have a feeling that they're more historical due to their role in the social evolution of punk rock than because they're true classics in the musical sense. "I Slept In An Arcade" is the sort of tune I can imagine putting on every now and then, while the B-side, an instrumental called "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose" (is this a 70s-era funk cover? James Brown? George Clinton, maybe?), is little more than a throwaway. Cool to hear, but it won't be making the heavy rotation around here.
Highlight: "I Slept In An Arcade"

Boris's "Statement" b/w "Floor Shaker" single is the exact sort of thing that I love the most from Boris. This Japanese stoner-noise band is capable of a lot of different stuff, but I'm happiest when their records concentrate on the heavy, fuzzy, biker-rock jams. "Statement" definitely fits that description, and I like it every bit as much as I like "Pink," title track and best song from my favorite Boris album. In fact, it was easy to say that "Pink" was my favorite Boris song before I heard "Statement," but I feel less confident in saying that now that I've heard "Statement." Given a few more plays, it could overtake "Pink." "Floor Shaker" is longer, more melodic, and has a dronier rhythmic quality than "Statement," making it less of a proto-metal fuzz jam and more like a bizarre cross between one of those and an 80s British guitar-heavy power-pop song. It's like Torche covering "Automatic" era Jesus and Mary Chain or something, which breaks my brain to imagine in the hypothetical but totally rocks my ass in the actual, especially when the big distortion overload kicks in for the last minute or so.
Highlight: both songs, really, but here's "Floor Shaker" because it's more musically interesting.

Time to shift gears with the CPC Gangbangs, a band whose single ("Teenage Crimewave" b/w "Blood On The Wall") I undoubtedly only downloaded because of their association with Fucked Up. I'm not sure what sort of association they actually have with Fucked Up, now that I think of it; I guess I just hear their names in the same places a lot. That's cool, though, because CPC Gangbangs appear to have at least some of the same goals as Fucked Up. This single is incredibly lo-fi, and therefore straddles the line between uptempo-but-not-actually-fast-per-se hardcore and snotty garage punk. I hear plenty of records like this that end up leaving a really bad impression on me, but this one is super-catchy, at least on the A-side, so overall I'm into it. The B-side being 3 times as long as the A-side is a strike against it, especially since the last third or so of it is post-actual-song noise babble, but the part of the song that's actually a song--the first four minutes or so--still rocks, so I'm not gonna hold the noise section against it too much.
Highlight: "Teenage Crimewave"

Hey hey, it's the Baby Shakes, with their "Tell Me Now" EP, featuring the title track on the A-side along with "Come On Babe," and "Baby It's You" on the B-side. Despite the reasonably generic titles, these are all originals, and they've got that same undistorted, catchy, girly poppiness that I think of when I think of Tiger Trap. The songs are written in a more 60s-pop vein than Tiger Trap's were--I think of that band as more indie-pop than anything else--and have a bit more distortion on the guitars than Tiger Trap generally did, but I get that same sweet, sugary pop confection-y feel from these three songs as I did from the Tiger Trap singles I played a lot when I was a teenager. For those of you who aren't really aware of Tiger Trap, whom I will admit are a bit of an obscure reference, think of The Fastbacks in their less caffeinated moments, more recent Mr. T Experience, or maybe even "Return To The Valley" era Go-Gos. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who can't find enjoyment in listening to full-on bubblegum of the sort purveyed by The Raspberries, but really, if you can't get into that shit at least every now and then, you've got no soul.
Highlight: "Baby It's You"

Let's do one more of these and then knock off, how about that? The self-titled EP by Needles features 6 songs instead of the 2 or 3 of all the other EPs thus far, and that's because it's angry, thrashy hardcore of the most frantic sort. These guys aren't hitting quite blast-beat tempos, but the drummer is hitting his snare as fast as he can without getting into that range, so these songs blow past at a rapid clip. In fact, the longest of them is still less than 90 seconds long. I don't always like stuff like this, especially with the whole 82 hardcore revival sound getting beaten to fucking death over the last five or so years, but I do like this a lot. I think it helps that Needles write riffs that don't bear all that obvious of a Black Flag influence (though there's still some), and that their singer is screaming so intensely that I can imagine his eyeballs bulging out of his face as he delivers his vocals. The shorter, faster tunes are the highlights here, but really, they're all pretty short, and they're all pretty fast, so this is generally a pretty great record.
Highlight: "Filling Holes"

Well hey, I didn't "trash" any of these! You guys are probably used to me liking pretty much anything I take time to write about, though, so hopefully that doesn't bum anyone out (haters). Don't worry, I'm sure that next time I do one of these (which I'm assuming will be in the relatively near future, although I'm generally unreliable where predicting what I'll write about at any given future time is concerned) there'll be something I don't dig all that much (maybe). Anyway, thanks for reading all the personal crap in this post (if you even did). Hope the 6 songs made up for it.

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Books I've read lately (big-time catchup edition).

I've decided to start posting book reviews individually, as I write them, just like what I'm doing with movie reviews now, but before I can, I have to post all the reviews I've written over the last month or two in order to get you caught up. Hopefully this huge post will make up for the fact that I haven't posted anything in almost a week.

Liar's Poker, by Michael Lewis
I originally became interested in reading this book after reading a New York Times article the author wrote earlier this year, dealing with the recent economic downturn. In the article, he mentioned this book, and how he'd written it at the time of the S&L-bailout-related economic dive. At the time (he said in the article), he'd thought that that stock market crash would end the era of greed and recklessness that had reigned on Wall Street during the 80s, and figured that he could come up with a good cautionary tale based on his insider's perspective, gained while working at a powerful bond trading company during that era. What he found (he continued) was that his book was seen more like a how-to manual, especially after the stock market quickly rebounded, and more people than ever desired to get into the Wall Street free-money business.

I myself am still not sure if Wall Street's reckless, no-tomorrow practices are over. After all, while I feel that the current policy of bailing out certain institutions is fundamentally a good idea, the way it's being handled seems almost guaranteed to create more recklessness in companies who can continue to think that, if they fuck up, they can just get more free money from the government. That all being said, I fully expect those companies to be headed straight downwards in the coming years. With that in mind--and believe me, throughout my reading of "Liar's Poker", it was at the forefront of my mind--this book is a revealing look that uses readable terminology and a briskly flowing, engaging, and oftentimes hilarious writing style to turn what could easily be an incomprehensible tale of complicated economic matters into an eminently understandable account that will keep anyone entertained. And, I hasten to add, horrified. There's a lot of ridiculous, stupid, reckless shit going on in this book, and the fact that all of it really happened is downright frightening. After reading "Liar's Poker", you'll find yourself thinking of Wall Street traders as billionaire gamblers with nothing to go on but hunches and superstitions. You'll probably be right, too. After all, as Lewis points out on numerous occasions throughout this book, if you have enough money, you can cover up any mistakes. And at this point in history, 20 years after the conclusion of this narrative, there's no doubt in my mind that Wall Street traders are behaving several orders of magnitude more recklessly than they were during the 80s.

If you're scared about the state of our economy going forward and gallows humor is your thing, this book is a perfect read for you right now. You can laugh yourself sick at all the ridiculous bullshit that people at places like Merrill Lynch were (and no doubt still are) doing. If, on the other hand, you've got a weak stomach, you might want to give this one a miss. It will make you lose sleep.

Six Bad Things, by Charlie Huston
I've loved every other Charlie Huston book I've read so far (those being all four of the Joe Pitt novels, as well as the first of the Hank Thompson trilogy, of which "Six Bad Things" is the second), and I enjoyed this one too. However, I'd definitely have to rank it my least favorite Huston novel thus far. I think the main reason for that is that the main character started to lose my sympathy somewhat in this novel. In "Caught Stealing", Hank Thompson took a lot of abuse and dealt out a lot more. This is true in "Six Bad Things" as well, but some of the abuse he deals out seems less deserved and more gratuitous, and some of the bad events he suffers seem a bit less plausible and, again, more gratuitous. I understand that Huston is trying to push some crime-novel envelopes here, and he's to be credited for that, but I think he might push it a bit too far in this one. I'll still read the final book in the trilogy, "A Dangerous Man", but considering the fact that I enjoyed this one less as it went along, and the fact that I'm particularly unhappy with the ending of "Six Bad Things" and the position it left the main character in, I don't really expect too much. Right now, I'm a lot more excited to read Huston's latest, "The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death". I know that the Hank Thompson trilogy are the first three books Huston had published, so I'm hoping that their relatively lower quality is more due to the fact that they were written by a novice than anything else, and that the upward trend I've now observed running from the Hank Thompson to the Joe Pitt novels only continues from here. Guess we'll see.

Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days And Party Nights of The Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, by Jeff Pearlman
OK, first of all, as a Washington Redskins fan, I fucking hate the Dallas Cowboys. It's something I was raised to do, and they've given me plenty of excuses to maintain that policy in the 25 or so years that I've spent following professional football (I started when I was 5, and I'm 33 now; the missing years in there are the late 90s, when Norv Turner coached the Redskins and hope vanished from the lives of Redskins fans for years. I just couldn't stand to watch for a few years there). The Redskins have never been a star-driven team; instead, they're generally coached by people who believe in old-school smashmouth football, as best personified by Joe Gibbs, who coached the Redskins throughout my childhood and led them to three Super Bowl wins. Back in those days, the Cowboys were coached by aging Hall Of Famer Tom Landry, who'd started out as the defensive coach of the Giants back in the 50s. I hated him too, don't get me wrong, but I could at least respect him. That all changed when I was 13; filthy rich Texas oilman Jerry Jones purchased the Cowboys, fired Landry, and brought in ethically-challenged Miami Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson. This is the point at which Dallas really began to justify my hatred for them, and, not at all coincidentally, the starting point of this book.

Author Jeff Pearlman knows that he's latched onto a hell of a narrative here, and he tells the story in high style, detailing the heights of insanity and depths of debauchery that were the hallmark of the 90s Cowboys, even as they took over from the Redskins as the NFC East team most likely to win the Super Bowl in any given year (grumble grumble). Pearlman tells stories you've never heard before, about Troy Aikman battling with the Dallas media, Michael Irvin indulging in drugs and sex for hire, and most notoriously, about monstrous defensive lineman Charles Haley's propensity for indecent exposure, which is one of those truth is stranger than fiction things that's hard to believe for me even after reading so many corroborating quotes, both in this book and in articles about it. Pearlman's narrative is often humorous and ribald, and keeps this book far more entertaining than the most recent football-related book I read, "War As They Knew It". Where that book maintained a studied impartiality and a factual delivery of the history, Pearlman's narrative moves with the emotional tenor of each scene he describes, and keeps the reader emotionally invested in all of them. And I WAS emotionally invested. Even though I was horrified whenever I found myself sympathizing with the Cowboys as a team, I often felt compelled by the stories of individual players. Growing up, I felt a rival fan's instinctive rage and repulsion at the mention of players like Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith, but at various points while reading this book, I found myself concerned about them, and how their stories would turn out. All of them came off, in the end, as standup guys, even if some (Irvin) had quite a few personal demons to struggle with.

On the other hand, a couple of the biggest players in this story did not come off as standup guys. Jerry Jones has always seemed to me like a guy with more money than sense, at least where football is concerned, and "Boys Will Be Boys" makes it abundantly clear that Jones indeed values his ego above the success of his team as a whole. He doesn't know when to delegate, and has made a career out of drafting players that go bust in a hurry. Of course, Redskins owner Dan Snyder has problems of his own in this area--while he's not his own general manager, he does employ his best friend, Vinny Cerrato, in this position, which has largely the same results--but that being said, the Redskins still aren't nearly as likely to reach for high maintenance prima donna veterans that have been run off from other ball clubs due to behavioral problems as Jerry Jones is. There were stories in the book of him behaving this way with Deion Sanders and others that very closely parallel his more recent escapades with Terrell Owens and Adam "Pacman" Jones. Some things never change, I suppose. All of that having been said, Jerry Jones, to his credit, at least seems like a nice enough guy on a personal level. Jimmy Johnson comes off like a flaming asshole throughout this book. He may have been a good coach, and the record shows that he indeed was, especially considering the shape of the Dallas club that he took over in 1989, after a few years of Tom Landry's obvious decline. That said, he was such a poisonous figure in the team's makeup that he eventually got fired after winning the Super Bowl for the second straight year. That's how little he was liked by the end.

If I go on, this entry will become (even more of) a rant against the Dallas Cowboys, though, so I should probably just stop here. This is a great book. If you like football, you should read it. This is especially true because, regardless of what team you root for, you probably have a very strong opinion about the Cowboys. They're the New York Yankees of football, and for very good reason. Thankfully, they're also an incredibly entertaining team to read about, and it seems like no one could have told the story of their 90s-era rise and fall than Jeff Pearlman has done here. Don't miss this one.

The Last Quarry, by Max Allan Collins
After tremendously enjoying Collins's other Hard Case Crime contribution featuring his hitman character, Quarry, I just had to go back and check out this one as well. Weirdly enough, despite this being "The Last Quarry" and the other Quarry novel I read being "The First Quarry", this one was actually written first. It tells the story of a much older Quarry, who stumbles upon an old mob associate while living as a retired resort-keeper on the shores of a lake in Minnesota. This book is an expansion of two different short stories Collins wrote that starred Quarry, and this is reasonably easy to tell due to the somewhat episodic structure of the novel. It all hangs together well, though, and it's such a quick and engaging read that I finished the whole thing in a mere few hours. The way the plot will finally all come together at the end is tough to guess in advance, and I only even understood it as well as I did because I read Collins's afterword first. There are mild spoilers in said afterword, so don't do what I did if you don't want to give yourself a couple of crucial clues that will let you know what to look for. I'm kind of sorry I did so, myself. It didn't hurt my enjoyment of this book any, though, so in the end all was well.

And yet again, a Max Allan Collins novel turns out to be gold. Who knew that the first crime writer I ever discovered in my life (first with his Batman comics writing in the late 80s, when I was 11 years old, then with his novel "True Detective", which I found in the library when I was 13) would end up being one of my all-time favorites? But over a dozen novels later, Collins continues to deliver time and time again. His consistency is admirable and, from a reader's perspective, rewarding.

Halting State, by Charles Stross
This book is set up in a daunting manner. The narrative switches between three different points of view, and each of them is told in the second person, present tense. For example: "You check out your shoulder in the bathroom mirror. That's quite some bruise Mike landed on you at the club." Between the somewhat disorienting second-person approach and the constantly shifting viewpoints, "Halting State" can be a challenging book to engage with. This is leaving aside the rather technical nature of much of its narrative; the book tells the story of a software company that's had a bank robbery occur inside one of its most popular video games, which threatens to disrupt its imminent IPO and lose it assloads of money. One of the characters is the local cop inexplicably summoned to the scene of this virtual robbery, while the other two are working for the parent company of the robbed software company. Or something like that. There's a lot of technical jargon, about stocks, international relations, banking, video games, and hypothetical technologies that Stross is creating as he relates the narrative. Did I mention that this book takes place a decade from now, in a future that is, technologically speaking, borderline unrecognizable to a citizen of our current time? Well, it does. Having only read Stross's "Merchant Princes" series before now, I was unprepared for what he gets up to when he really lets his science-fictional side run wild.

That said, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Sure, there are technical elements that were discussed at points in the narrative that I didn't understand as I read them, but they were never central enough to the plot to confuse my understanding of the story as a whole. I do wish Stross was a bit better at explaining points like this, as, for example, Neal Stephenson is, but that's a minor quibble. Really, if you strip away the technological bells and whistles, as well as the scientific grounding of the novel's central conceit, what you have here is a fast-moving espionage novel. You've probably got to have at least somewhat of a geeky, sci-fi oriented mindset to enjoy this, so I don't exactly recommend passing it along to your great uncle who loves John Le Carre, but it's really not that different from his Le Carre novels for all that. What's more, I think it would make a great movie. It's fast-moving, features a complicated and engaging plot, and throws around plenty of big ideas to engage the geek in all of us. It's well worth checking out, and it only further cements my impression that pretty much any book by Charles Stross is worth picking up... even the ones that are slightly confusing at points.

Heartsick, by Chelsea Cain
This was an intense, brutal crime novel that also featured quite a bit of emotional depth. I was pretty impressed with the author's ability to explore the wounded psyches of the two main characters, detective Archie Sheridan and newspaper reporter Susan Ward, without making either of them seem insane or even hard to empathize with. The book focuses around the first case Archie Sheridan has taken on since spending four years heading the Beauty Killer task force, attempting to catch a serial killer in the Portland, Oregon area. Archie caught her, all right, but maybe it'd be truer to say that she caught him. Gretchen Lowell, The Beauty Killer, spent days torturing Archie, at one point killing him and then rescuscitating him, before finally calling 911 and surrendering him and herself to the authorities. [None of this is a spoiler--it is revealed in the first ten pages of the book.:] Now, after Archie has spent two years on disability leave, he's returned to the police force to attempt to track down another serial killer. He still has a pretty massive painkiller addiction, which seems less than healthy, but he is able to function, although he must get rides from his partner or call a cab whenever he needs to go somewhere. Susan Ward, a writer for the most prominent daily paper in Portland, has been assigned to write an ongoing series of feature stories on Archie. Her father died when she was still quite young, and now, she seems to have some self-esteem issues, which show up in her less than healthy love life. Very soon after the book begins, we know that both of our main characters have serious problems. From there, though, the plot mainly focuses on the serial killer that Archie is trying to catch, although it seems pretty likely that both Archie and Susan's issues will factor into the story by its end. Gretchen Lowell has a role to play as well, and while it wasn't very different from the Hannibal Lecter-ish role I expected her to play when the book began, Chelsea Cain's use of the character managed to differentiate itself enough from Thomas Harris's use of Hannibal Lecter to avoid seeming too derivative.

One thing that's been noted quite a bit in discussions of this book is the graphic nature of the violence within it. The violence that we see occurring, as well as its bloody aftermath, is often described in near-clinical detail. That's not to say that it reads like a medical textbook--oh, not at all. Instead, the descriptions of violent acts, and of beaten, mutilated corpses, which occur on multiple occasions throughout the book, are shocking in a visceral sense. The effects of the violence, the physical damage that is inflicted on some of these characters, is intense enough that I would go so far as to warn those with weak stomachs away from this book. I'm not usually that bothered by the gross parts of even the most brutal crime and horror novels, but I've encountered some exceptions in my time, and this is definitely one of them. Proceed with caution.

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Now that I've finally read this book, I can see why it's considered a classic. Margaret Atwood's tale of a (somewhat) post-apocalyptic future in which religious conservatives have overtaken the United States of America and established a dictatorship based around a rigid caste system for women not only presents a potential future that is as terrifying as it is fascinating, it does so in beautiful language, with strong storytelling and stunningly well-defined, multi-dimensional characters. This book would probably be a classic simply because of its subject matter, and could have been elevated to its current regard even if written with much sparer, more workmanlike prose. However, the thing that makes it truly great is what a great writer Margaret Atwood is. I was reading this book for a book club, and finished it before the discussion with only hours to spare, but nonetheless, I sometimes could not help but linger over a particular sentence or paragraph that stood out to me. And make no mistake, many of them did.

This book has a lot to offer, on multiple levels, and none of that should be neglected. But if you come for the social commentary, you will most likely stay for the excellent writing on display. Don't miss this one.

Money For Nothing, by Donald E. Westlake
The recent death of crime fiction pioneer Donald Westlake has been a clear reminder to me that I haven't read nearly enough of his stuff. This is a lot of why I picked up "Money For Nothing," just to begin familiarizing myself more thoroughly with his work. It was such an awesome book, though, that I ended up having more fun doing so than I ever could have foreseen.

"Money For Nothing" begins with a young man named Josh Redmont, who begins receiving $1000 checks in the mail every month apropos of nothing. He's not destitute, but he's definitely still making a small enough amount of money to be strongly tempted by the not-insignificant monthly sum. When he deposits the first one and it clears, he's sort of nervous, unsure of whether someone will eventually correct what he assumes is an error, and demand their money back. But after seven years of getting the checks, he's long since grown used to them, and now deposits and spends them without a second thought. In the interim, he's acquired a young wife, Eve, and the two of them have a two-year old son, Jeremy. Therefore, Josh is totally unprepared when a man from a former Soviet country shows up and informs him that he, a sleeper agent, has now been activated, and needs to start performing certain small tasks for his employers as payback for all the money he's been getting over the years. Josh plays it cool while in the presence of this man, Levrin, but immediately sets out to locate the man who Levrin names as having initially recruited him, Mr. Nimrin. When Josh locates Mr. Nimrin, he learns that his checks were originally part of a moneymaking scheme on Mr. Nimrin's part, that the scheme was disrupted 7 years ago by Nimrin's arrest, and that if Josh gives Levrin any clue that he's not actually a sleeper agent, he and his family, along with Nimrin himself, will surely be killed.

This all happens in the first 20 to 30 pages, and this book is a nonstop wild ride from this point on. Josh is in over his head, and realizes this from the first, but nonetheless decides that he's going to get himself and his family out of this situation, which he sees as leading to certain doom sooner or later. Plus, he doesn't like that he's acting against the interests of his own country. But it quickly becomes apparent that getting out of the situation is going to be even harder than it initially seems, and Josh is off on a frantic, nonstop effort that is considerably complicated by the appearance of other sleeper agents, both faked ones "recruited" by Mr. Nimrin and real ones connected with Levrin and his crew. There are points in this novel at which the madcap action starts seeming quite humorous, which was no doubt intentional on Westlake's part, and is a nice counterpoint to the work of his with which I'm much more familiar, his dark crime novels written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. For a long time, I considered the Stark writings the more interesting and important part of Westlake's work, but I think that idea might be due for a reevaluation. If "Money For Nothing" is any indication, the books under his own name, while quite different in tone, are every bit as entertaining.



Movie Diary: The Naked City (1948)

I actually saw this movie on Monday night, so it's taken me a few days to get around to writing about it. These things happen, I guess. I haven't seen any movies since then, so hopefully it's still relatively fresh in my mind.

Since "The Naked City" is a black and white crime film from 1948, directed by Jules Dassin, I wasn't really sure whether to expect a pre-WWII straight up crime film a la "Public Enemy" or a noir film along the lines of "Pickup On South Street." Turns out that, although there are elements of both styles in "The Naked City," it is ultimately not part of either genre classification. Instead, "The Naked City" is the beginning of something else, which seemed mostly to take hold in the American crime television of the 50s, rather than its movies: the verite crime drama. "The Naked City" is narrated by Mark Hellinger, who provides a solemn, tough-sounding voiceover that emphasizes the fact that the entire film was shot on location in New York, rather than on studio back lots. The plot of the film follows two NYC homicide detectives, longtime veteran Danny Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his younger partner Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) in their investigative attempts to solve a murder.

Now, not only is the plot and structure of "The Naked City" not at all groundbreaking to today's viewer, it probably seems more than a little cliche. That said, for the time, this movie was a lot closer to the truth of police work and homicide investigations than anything else being produced concurrently. Muldoon and Halloran are given red-herring tips, receive false confessions from the mentally ill, and do a whole lot of boring, tedious legwork before starting to fit the pieces of the puzzle into place. It's entertaining to watch them do all of this, despite its no doubt tedious nature were it shown in real time, because we viewers are only brought in when something interesting happens--a suspect is interrogated, police chase a fugitive through crowded night-time streets, some sort of gun battle occurs, that sort of thing. At first, the things Muldoon and Halloran are stumbling over mostly seem to have nothing to do with the initial murder they're solving, but of course, in the end they prove to lead right back to that murder through some unlikely back channels. And, of course, the whole thing ends with an insane shootout on top of the Williamsburg Bridge.

I didn't think "The Naked City" was a classic or anything, but as post-WWII crime movies go, it was quite enjoyable. I especially like watching any movie with period footage of New York City, and it had quite a bit of that. I have no idea if the late 50s television show with the same name, which was based on this movie, or any of its similar contemporaries, such as "Dragnet," were any good, but the movie itself is well worth checking out.



Movie Diary, 2/15.

So apparently Showtime Beyond has added "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein" to their current rotation. You better believe I DVRed the shit out of that. I watched it last night. It both was and was not what I expected.

First of all, let me just say--what a bizarre movie. I expected no less, and my initial expectations of an art film disguised as a horror film were definitely met. What surprised me was just how lavishly produced the whole thing was. Being a product of Warhol's Factory, I expected it to be made on the cheap and thrown together loosely, but it wasn't at all. Of course, Andy Warhol had about as much to do with making the actual movie as he did with the production of the first Velvet Underground LP, but it was written and directed by Paul Morrissey, so I guess I was expecting something like "Flesh" (in fact, the version of the movie that I saw was actually titled "Flesh For Frankenstein"). Instead, I got a seemingly lavish production that reminded me of Roger Corman's 60s-era Poe pictures crossed with some of the more ornate Italian horror films of the same era. The score consists of ornate classical flourishes, and the setting and scenery is all old, vaguely decaying castles and rolling emerald countrysides. But then the actual storyline is perverse and decadent. Baron von Frankenstein lives in a castle with his wife, who is also his sister, and their two children. The children are creepy as hell; the opening scene of the movie shows the two of them, a boy and a girl, both seemingly around 10 years old, going through elaborate preparations in a well-stocked dungeon full of sharp objects and instruments of torture, the culmination of which is the decapitation of a doll. Both children are completely silent throughout this scene and through almost the entire movie. The girl has no actual lines, only a couple of wordless screams, and as I remember, the boy only ever says "No, papa" a couple of times. Baron von Frankenstein (played by Udo Kier, with a scenery-masticating fervor that makes William Shatner seem restrained) is already well into his preparations to create his zombies, both male and female, when the movie begins. He just needs a head for his male zombie (this is the word that he uses throughout the film), and he's obsessed with finding one that has a perfect Serbian nose ("nasum"). Meanwhile, Joe Dallesandro, the only American in the film (who is completely unable to summon up the overdone German accents in which the rest of the cast speaks their dialogue, instead giving us a barely-disguised Noo Yawk dialect that makes him sound like a refugee from a Martin Scorsese movie), plays a sex-obsessed local farmboy who is trying to convince his best friend not to become a monk by dragging him to a whorehouse. Von Frankenstein and his creepy assistant, Otto, stake out the whorehouse, seeking the head of a horny dude to complete their male zombie, whom they're hoping will have wild and constant sex with the female zombie in order to create a race of zombies that will do von Frankenstein's bidding (yes, the plot to this movie is ridiculous). Von Frankenstein, assuming that both Dallesandro and his monastically-minded friend are equally sex-crazed, decides to take the friend's head, thereby ensuring that he won't get what he wants from his male zombie. Meanwhile, his wife/sister, who is frustrated that her husband/brother won't sleep with her anymore now that they have children, and who has busted Joe Dallesandro fucking a peasant girl once already, hires Dallesandro to be her new houseboy as a pretense to have constant sex with him. Dallesandro is therefore in the house when von Frankenstein reveals the zombies he's created, one of which bears the head of his now-dead friend.

OK, a bunch of other stuff happens, and you can probably predict at least some elements of the ending, though really, a lot of the plot choices are so bizarre that you'd have to see them to believe them. But in the end, plot is not the point of this movie. Nor is any sort of horror. Instead, this movie is all about being bizarre, artsy, and super super gory. The sorts of disembowelments that occur are like something out of a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie, though if anything I'd say that Morrissey and company are more successful in making them seem real. There's one scene, in which Kier, as von Frankenstein, is cutting open the female zombie (Dalila Di Lazzaro) in order to make adjustments to her internal organs, that did an incredible job of convincing me that Kier was up to his elbows in Di Lazzaro's guts. I'm still not sure how they faked it. The best part of that scene, though, was that von Frankenstein proceeded to mount the operating table and simulate sex with the female zombie's open surgical incision. His assistant, Otto, being just as perverse as von Frankenstein himself, got way too turned on by the whole thing, and then later managed to disembowel multiple female characters on his own. At the end of the scene, von Frankenstein turned to him and said, "To know life, Otto, you must fuck death. In the gallbladder."

This was one of several points where this movie pushed things over the line from ridiculously dramatic B-grade horror into laughable absurdity. Everyone in the movie plays the entire thing totally straight from beginning to end, so I have no idea how seriously I'm intended to take it, but based on at least a few different moments of the movie, I found myself wondering whether the whole thing wasn't some huge inside joke perpetrated by Andy Warhol, or at least by Paul Morrissey, on the entire B movie industry. I'm sure plenty of the people who went to see this movie at the time loved it for its ridiculous amounts of gore and gratuitous skin (you can even see Joe Dallesandro's cock for about 15 seconds in one scene, which surprised the hell out of me). But I can't help but wonder whether there isn't another level on which this movie was intended to be taken, one that reveals itself for viewers willing to analyze it deeply enough.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking a low-budget B movie. Sure wouldn't be the first time.



Anatomy of a Mix, #1.

This is the first in what will probably be a regular series. I have lots of music that I love at any one time and want to talk about on here, but I often have trouble finding the time to sit down and write an entire blog entry about each one. As you guys have no doubt realized, if I sit down to write about one record, I invariably come up with 3,000 words or something. If I tried to write that much about every record I heard and loved, I'd never have the time and energy to do anything else. That said, there's a lot of stuff that I never end up talking about on here that I want to give space to, so I'm hoping that posting track-by-track writeups of mix CDs can fill that void a little bit. I make lots of mix CDs for myself, at least one every couple of weeks or so, and those are going to be the ones I'm usually writing about here, but this one is actually for my friend Kevin, and therefore takes a slightly different form than usual, as you'll see.

1. Sample from "Wild Guitar" (1962)--I wrote recently about seeing the movie "Wild Guitar," a ridiculous B-movie from the early 60s that was the first directorial effort of Ray Dennis Steckler, best known for "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies," a movie I am almost sure appeared on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" at some point. Well, in addition to Ray Dennis Steckler, "Wild Guitar" also featured Arch Hall Jr., a teenaged rock n' roller who was mercilessly pimped out by his father, and who is probably most (in)famous for appearing in the movie "Eegah," another MST3K entry. There's a compilation out there called "Wild Guitar," which collects a lot of Arch's early 60s recordings, and since most of them are only preserved as music that he recorded for films he appeared in, "Wild Guitar" contains not only songs but short instrumental pieces and even samples from Arch Hall Jr's movies. This is one such sample, and it's six seconds of Ray Dennis Steckler, in his role in "Wild Guitar" as the shady toughguy "Steak," saying, "Kid, this is uh... Daisy. She's gonna teach you how to swing!" I figured it was a good way to start the mix.

2. Fast Cars - The Kids Just Wanna Dance--This song was the A-side of a power pop single from 1979 by Manchester's Fast Cars. Apparently there's an album available by them now called "Coming... Ready Or Not," but it's a mixed bag of original 1979-1980 era singles and demos and recent re-recordings by a reformed version of the band. I didn't get this track from there, though, so I'm not sure if that CD contains this version of "The Kids Just Wanna Dance" or not. This version is from the original single, and was uploaded to a message board I used to post on a couple of years ago. I only listened to it recently, though, while trying to finally catch up on the backlog of music I've downloaded but never listened to. It's a pretty great song, as power pop goes. Because of the time frame and music scene it was released as a part of, some of the online discussion of it refers to it as a punk single, and while I think it counts more as power-pop than anything else, I'll still give it credit as a great slice of DIY energy.

3. Greg Summerlin - Shine On Where You Want--From his album "All Done In Good Time," which is apparently pretty obscure. I had to hunt for it for quite a while before locating it. Originally, I just had this song, again, because someone uploaded it to a message board. I thought it was a great catchy indie rock tune, and while I really liked the entire album when I finally located it, I still think this is the best song on it. It's sad, actually, how rarely I come across good indie rock like this anymore. I feel like a lot of bands that are now associated with indie rock play such light, mellow pop music that I can't see what's really "rock" about it anymore. Sure, there are songs by bands like The Shins, The Decemberists, and The Wrens that I like, but I have trouble listening to most of their entire albums, because I just get bored. In contrast, "Shine On Where You Want" has plenty of rock to it, even if it is an overtly pop song with obviously catchy melodies. This is the kind of thing I want from indie rock. More, please.

4. Rosita - Santa Poca's Dream--Rosita was a short-lived offshoot of the late 90s Britpop band Kenickie, who didn't even last long enough to record a full-length. I missed that entire scene--too busy listening to chaotic hardcore--but in recent years have gone back and discovered some really great pop gems hidden within the whole Britpop morass. Not all of it works for me, and in fact, I feel like Rosita's predecessor, Kenickie, were inconsistent at best, but this song is great fun. It's got a great mix of acoustic and distorted electric guitars, a catchy, upbeat verse that gets me pogoing around my room, and a great chorus that highlights the singer's awesome high-pitched voice. It's not too far from "Simpatico" era Velocity Girl, though the fact that Rosita actually are a bunch of British kids instead of just wishing they were couldn't be more obvious.

5. M83 - Graveyard Girl--I've been hearing about this band for a while, and people speak particularly highly of their first album, "Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts," but I never bothered to listen to their music until they released their most recent album, "Saturdays = Youth," and everyone familiar with them started to refer to it as their shoegaze album. Now, as much as I hate the "shoegaze" genre classification, I do love a lot of the bands that are considered part of it, so I was intrigued to hear such a term being tossed around. Well, once I heard the album, I didn't really think that the term applied, but I still liked it quite a bit. "Saturdays = Youth" is a pretty even mix of more ambient tracks and tunes that sound like synth-heavy 80s New Wave. "Graveyard Girl" probably goes farthest in the direction of 80s New Wave, and I told someone on a message board that it sounded to me like New Order on downers. That's not a bad comparison for something I tossed off with 5 seconds' thought, but it's not the whole story. The more melancholy melodies here are probably a little too dark for New Order, but I nonetheless think they are poppy enough that they could have been a hit song in 1985 or whenever. The lyrics, though, take this song out of that realm, focusing as they do on a teenaged goth girl who just wants to escape from her ordinary suburban life to go live (or maybe die) in the graveyard. Towards the end of the song, there's a moment where the music goes quiet, moves into the background, and the male voice of the singer is replaced by the graveyard girl herself, speaking directly to us. "I'm gonna jump the walls and run," she says. "I wonder if they'll miss me? I won't miss them. The cemetery is my home. I want to be a part of it." She talks about wanting to be like the gravestones, "wise and silent," then ends her speech by saying, "I'm 15 years old and I feel it's already too late to live. Don't you?" I would probably see this as just another vaguely downbeat but overall catchy pop song if it weren't for that line, but it reaches right out of the speakers and grabs my attention every time I hear it. How many times in my life have I had a thought like that? Too many, I'm sure.

6. Sample from Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father"--There've been these audio clips floating around on the internet lately, taken from Barack Obama's reading of the audio version of his first memoir. They're all lines spoken by his high school friend Ray, and they're all full of very colorful language. I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds it incredibly amusing to hear the president deliver lines like "You ain't my bitch, nigga. Buy your own damn fries." That's why this is on here.

7. Parts And Labor - Brighter Days--Another band I just discovered when sorting through the backlog of stuff I've downloaded and never listened to. This song is from their album "Mapmaker," which is about a year and a half old at this point. "Brighter Days" serves well as an introduction for everything I like about Parts and Labor. Their songs are driving and catchy, fueled by interplay between rocking guitar and more melodically oriented keyboard lines. The real power in the songs, though, is delivered by their drummer, who plays frantically, never willing to just sit back and play a simple beat when he can fill each riff with speedy fills and rhythmic variations that add unexpected textures to the songs. For example, he ends "Brighter Days" by playing a blast beat under the last few bars of the final verse. It's an unorthodox choice, one of many he makes on the album, but it works, adding a new layer to a song that would have still been interesting and enjoyable even with unadventurous beat choices. Since recording "Mapmaker," Parts And Labor have apparently lost their drummer, and I'm not at all sure they'll be able to live up to the standard he set. If the new drummer isn't just as adventurous as the guy who played on "Mapmaker," I have a feeling I'll be disappointed by their upcoming material.

8. Railhed - Sell My Revolution--For the longest time, the only song I could locate by early Jade Tree Records band Railhed was on the "Food Not Bombs Benefit" compilation LP, which also included Swing Kids, Indian Summer, and Current. Recently, I located a digital copy of their LP, "Tarantella," and while it's halfway decent throughout, it just doesn't measure up to "End Song," from the "Food Not Bombs Benefit" LP. "Sell My Revolution" is the best song on the album, and even it isn't quite up to that level. I really just put it on here because I know Kevin had the "Food Not Bombs Benefit" LP back when we were teenagers, and like me, he never heard anything else by Railhed. He'll probably enjoy hearing this song, even if he doesn't think it's that great. And I mean, it's still pretty good. If it were terrible, I wouldn't have put it on here at all.

9. Motorpsycho - 's Numbness--I've written about Motorpsycho here before, about how much I loved their 2008 album, "Little Lucid Moments." Since discovering that record, though, I've delved into Motorpsycho's back catalog, and found quite a few more excellent songs and albums buried back there. I wouldn't say that any of their albums other than "Black Hole/Blank Canvas," the double disc that immediately preceded "Little Lucid Moments," really live up to the standard set by that album, but I do like quite a bit of what I've found in their back catalog, and it's way easier to pick some of the highlights from earlier albums to put on mix CDs rather than picking one of the 12-to-21 minute songs from "Little Lucid Moments." This track is from their 1995 LP "Blissard," and while it's definitely the best song on there, as earlier Motorpsycho albums go, that one is one of the better ones. "'s Numbness" in particular does a good job of capturing that Superdrag-ish power-pop sound that shows up on their better, more recent material.

10. The Measure [SA] - Hit the Ground Running--I only ever heard this song because it was on their split with Off With Their Heads, but I ended up liking this song better than anything Off With Their Heads put on that EP. Unfortunately, I haven't found any other songs by The Measure [SA] that live up to the standard set by this track, either on this split or on their full-length, "Historical Fiction." They've got some other good tracks, but at this point, this one is kind of a fluke. I can only hope that it's a sign of improvement to come, though. One of my favorite things about it is that the vocals are handled by Lauren rather than Fid. Her brash vocals have elements of twang and of snarl, which mix together well to create the impression that she's singing this song, about looking for a place in a dead-end world of crappy jobs and out of touch politicians, from both a frustrated and a vaguely amused position. The quiet opening verse, driven by handclaps, sets up an energetic and upbeat chorus that is the best thing about this song, except maybe for the part where she sings the lyric, "Because a god I don't believe in hates me." Who hasn't been there? This song is one of the most recent releases by The Measure [SA], so I'm looking forward to others of this caliber in the future.

11. Juliana Hatfield - Perfection--This song was supposed to be on Juliana's fourth major label LP, "God's Foot," but instead, that album never came out. Her label shelved it, saying that it was too dark in tone, and released her from her contract. She's rerecorded a few songs from this album for later independent LPs, but "Perfection" is not one of those, so this version comes from a rather crappy-sounding bootleg of "God's Foot" that I found floating around on the internet. I can see why the label felt this album had a dark tone, including as it does both this song and one called "Can't Kill Myself," but of course, knowing what I know about Juliana Hatfield, I would never in a million years sign her to my label if I was worried that she might write really depressing songs. Come on now, that's kind of what she does. Personally, I'm way more than OK with that. Take "Perfection," for example, since we're talking about it. The chorus to this song about trying to find happiness in relationships reminds me of something I myself sometimes think: "Do I want too much? Would perfection be enough? If it came to me, would it be what I really need?" I don't know. Sometimes I think I'm too fucked up and broken, where relationships are concerned, to ever have a happy one. Sometimes I think that even if I were given something that really made me happy, I'd overthink it or panic about it until I managed to fuck it up. Who knows? But yeah, add this one to the long list of Juliana Hatfield songs I relate to. And also love.

12. Visqueen - Zirconium Gun--This is one I've loved for quite a while. Visqueen is a power-pop band from Seattle, started by guitarist/singer Rachel Flotard and former Fastbacks bassist Kim Warnick. Warnick was what got me to check them out, but I ended up liking Visqueen a little bit more than I liked the Fastbacks, since they were able to easily resolve the problem the Fastbacks had with consistency. This is the best Visqueen song I know, from their first LP, "King Me," but unlike the Fastbacks, who would write pop classics like "Whenever I'm Walking" and "Gone To The Moon" but fill the albums they were on with mediocre tracks, Visqueen's albums are generally awesome all the way through. Kim Warnick isn't even in the band anymore, in fact, but I certainly plan to check out their third album when it's released (which will supposedly happen this year). Awesome distorted-guitar pop songs are my shit.

13. Be Your Own Pet - Bicycle, Bicycle, You Are My Bicycle--I believe I've written about Be Your Own Pet on here before, but for those who missed it, they're a band of teenaged Nashville punks who got a major label record contract due to a member's father being a big-time record label executive. I'm not sure that major label exposure was really the right way for these guys to go, since they were really just a bunch of snotty punk kids, but anything that worked to bring singer Jemina Pearl into my life is A-OK with me. The best part of this song is when, coming out of the bridge into the final verse, she says, "Have fun, but be safe with it," then immediately contradicts herself: "Just kidding, FUCK SHIT UP!" The real shame here is that a lot of other punk rockers and hardcore kids who might have loved this band probably skipped out on listening to them because of their major label connections. But what self-respecting punk rocker wouldn't love a song about riding bikes and fucking shit up? Especially one that sounds like later, better-songwriting era Bikini Kill crossed with Deep Wound? Answer: none of them.

14. Sample from Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father"--"Now, you know that guy ain't shit. Sorry-ass muthafucka got nothing on me. Right? Nothing." Awesome.

15. Kings Go Forth - One Day--Heard this song, the B-side of this band's first single, on a funnyordie.com video called "High Five Inauguration" in which Jake Szymanski and Bob Turton run around giving prominent Democrats (and even a few Republicans, presumably ones with a sense of humor) high fives. There are some really random people in the video too, such as former Cosby kid Raven-Symone. I laughed my ass off the first time I saw it, but I also kept thinking, "What is this super-awesome funky song on the soundtrack?" Fortunately for me, the video's credits included one for the song, and I was able to track this thing down. It's incredibly infectious, and sounds like something that should have come out in 1973, but instead it's a current single, one that makes me want to keep an eye out for future releases by Milwaukee's Kings Go Forth. You should too.

16. Obits - One Cross Apiece--This is the A-side of the first single by Rick Froberg's new post-Hot Snakes band. Apparently, when Hot Snakes split up, he started this band, while guitarist John Reis and bassist Gar Haywood started The Night Marchers. Now, based on my experience with Hot Snakes, Drive Like Jehu, Pitchfork, Rocket From The Crypt, and The Sultans, I've always found that John Reis and Rick Froberg together make great bands (Jehu, Hot Snakes, Pitchfork), but Reis without Froberg generally equals subpar music (RFTC, Sultans). I wasn't sure how this equation would apply to Obits, since for the first time it was Froberg without Reis, but this song assured me that I needn't have worried. It's along the rock n' roll lines of Hot Snakes rather than the guitar-obliteration of Drive Like Jehu, but that works for me, especially since this song still features the excellent songwriting capability that Froberg's always seemed to have. Now, it never really gets wailing the way Jehu and Hot Snakes used to, and Froberg's vocals are calm throughout, so it's not quite what I've come to expect from his projects, but the bottom line is that this is a great song, catchy and rocking in exactly the measures that I wanted it to be. Interestingly enough, my initial listens to The Night Marchers have also found that band to be pretty great, so maybe I will actually end up liking a Reis-without-Froberg band too. There's a first time for everything, I suppose.

17. The Litter - Feeling--This track is from their third album, "Emerge," the one on which they switched from a pretty great garage-rock style that produced one of the all-time Nuggets/Pebbles classics, "Action Woman," to a more proto-metal sound, as was fitting for the changing times. I've always really dug that album in general and this song in particular, with its uptempo, driving feel. It's really not even that different from what The Litter did on their first two albums, and while the cleaner production and the choice to include a drum solo on side two of the album may have made them seem like they were switching scenes and following the trend, I really just see it as a natural evolution in their sound. And this song is a pretty great example of that.

18. Randy Alvey and Green Fuz - Green Fuz--Recent investigations into the "Songs The Cramps Taught Us" comps have led me to rediscover this ridiculous slice of horribly recorded garage-psych noise, another pillar of the more lo-fi-oriented Pebbles series. The Cramps covered this track on "Psychedelic Jungle," their second album, and I gotta figure that they were guessing at least a little bit on what notes and chords to play, because there's almost no way to tell what anyone in the band is playing even when the singer isn't singing. The vocals are mixed so far forward that, when the singer is singing, the band just sounds like a vague rumble in the background. For all that, this is a pretty fun tune, which no doubt is what led the Cramps to cover it in the first place. Supposedly there's distortion on the guitar, but it sounds more muffled than anything else. The chord sequences the guitarist is playing are pretty catchy, though. Really, this song is probably better known as a novelty than anything else, and you've probably gotta be a major garage rock nerd to appreciate it, but I am one of those, and I love it.

19. The Phantom - Love Me--This 1958 rockabilly single is 90 seconds of insane howling by an Elvis Presley acolyte named Jerry Lott, who went by The Phantom and wore a mask when he performed. This is another one the Cramps covered, on "Bad Music For Bad People," and this is one of the few times (another being their cover of "The Crusher" by The Novas) when I feel like the Cramps created a subdued version of the more intense original. From the scream that begins the song to the gasping pleas of "Love me... love me..." that end it, this single is pure madness, and was one of the most impressive things on the generally excellent "Loud Fast And Out Of Control" box set, which I first encountered a few years ago. As a 50s version of the Nuggets set, it does pretty well, but there are only a few moments of craziness approaching the far-out insanity on the Nuggets box sets. This is one of them.

20. Angry Angles - She's Dead--This relatively short-lived Jay Reatard project, featuring his then-girlfriend Alix Brown on bass and sometimes vocals, was the last band he had before becoming a solo artist. There are, in fact, live recordings of Angry Angles playing songs that later appeared on Jay Reatard's solo album, "Blood Visions." One is forced to assume that Jay's romantic split with Alix Brown is what prompted the end of Angry Angles, and it's a shame, because their few EPs showcase a tougher, more energetic sound than the one that typically shows up on Jay's solo stuff. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love the Rough Trade noise-pop sound of the Matador Singles LP, and I would hate for those records not to have been released, but it would just be cool if Angry Angles had continued to exist long enough to make a few more records, or had stuck around as an occasional side project. This is my favorite of their songs, from the "Crowds" EP.

21. Sample from Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father"--"Man, I'm not going to anymore of these bullshit parties." Me neither, Mr. President. Fuck that.

22. The Warriors - Slings And Arrows--Back in the early 90s, when Earth Crisis was dominating the hardcore scene with their mosh-part-uber-alles sound, I fucking hated it. I thought it was an enforcement of boredom and lack of talent upon the sound of the scene, creating a style of music that was like the most club-oriented techno, in that it only sounded good if you were dancing to it. I think my disgust with that early 90s sound was a big contributing factor in my diving headfirst into the chaotic hardcore scene, and for that I feel lucky. That said, in recent years, there's been some moshier stuff that I've heard that has really done it for me, and none moreso than The Warriors. This song, the first track on their first LP, "War Is Hell," is straight up mosh riffs throughout, but it seems like Earth Crisis's suppression of talent through one-chord breakdowns only worked for a little while, because The Warriors spew out catchy riffs galore, filling them with several chords apiece, and overlaying them with reasonably complicated guitar leads. Furthermore, their vocalist has a great tone, screaming with the sound of real anger and frustration pouring from his throat. It's almost enough to make me want to revisit those Earth Crisis albums and make sure I didn't miss something. Almost.

23. Will Haven - Veg--This song, from the first Will Haven EP, is one I wrote about in detail mere weeks ago. I don't really want to retread such recently covered ground, but I will say that I thought this song did a great job of bridging the gap between the brutal mosh of the Warriors and the more chaotic freakout of Medic.

24. Medic - La Grippe--This song is from their vinyl-only split EP with Triac, which is why it doesn't sound the best (though certainly not as bad as that Juliana Hatfield track earlier, or, for that matter, the Measure [SA] track that immediately preceded it--not that any of you are hearing most of these tracks, so I don't know why I'm even telling you). Despite whatever sound limitations might be present, nothing can stop Medic from churning out a cyclone of heavy, violent riffage, which switches back and forth between pounding mosh riffs and much more hectic fast parts. Medic write the kind of riffs that would make you think that their songs could only sustain 90 or so seconds of length apiece. Many of their songs are three and four minutes long, though, and the way they're able to sustain interest over this length is by wringing dynamic shifts and surprising permutations from their riffs to an extent that you'd never expect from even the most chaotic of hardcore bands. Their gift for writing such interesting and excellent songs makes it all the more depressing that they only stayed together long enough to release two EPs and a split.

25. Bound - Cain Rose Up--This song is from a 1993 compilation EP called "Soundtrack To The Revolution." My old roommate owned one of the 500 copies of this EP that were ever pressed, and despite the fact that this EP now changes hands for obscene amounts of money on Ebay due to the Converge song it contained, the song I always loved the most from it was this one. Bound were a Massachusetts group that later evolved into Hatchetface, a band whose LP, "Vol. II," was noticeably inferior to this song (and, from what I hear, to the EP this band released under the name Bound, which I've unfortunately never been able to find). Inbetween the recording of this song and the recording of the LP, Bound/Hatchetface moved from concentrating more on chaos and brutality to focusing on fast, straight-ahead hardcore. The LP they released sounded like 1982 era stuff, and was decent as far as that goes, but couldn't touch the craziness they generate on this track. Screeching vocals and a heavy, pounding verse riff give way to a blasting, ranting chorus, only to drop into a midtempo bridge and then finally back into another brutal verse before ending after only 90 seconds or so. As chaotic hardcore tracks go, this shit is pure genius. I only wish I could find more material recorded by this incarnation of this band.

26. Ganglion - In The Walls--This song is from Ganglion's second EP, "Astride The Loathsome Night," which was released on both LP and CD. I only ever found mp3 copies of the songs, helpfully hosted on Ganglion's website, apparently to compensate for pressing errors with the CD. Maybe I shouldn't have downloaded them, but I did; I'd heard too much good stuff about their music to skip out on a chance to hear it. Boy, is this stuff great. Apparently the LP had H.P. Lovecraft's face silkscreened onto the cover, which makes sense in light of the album's title, and also explains the lyrics to this song, which appear to be based on his short story "The Rats In The Walls." Ganglion mix black-metal howling vocals with clean, intricate guitar and bass lines and complex, technical drumming, for something that harks back to the mid-90s chaotic hardcore age while at the same time featuring almost none of the predominant qualities of that scene. I don't know why I feel like this band would have fit in well with the great bands of that era, such as Born Against, Heroin, Universal Order Of Armageddon, and Antioch Arrow, but I can't help but feel like I'm right. The hectic, stop-start verses, the noisy, bizarre vocals, the riffing that's totally off but somehow incredibly catchy... this stuff is awesome. That's true regardless of what genre or era you consider it part of.

27. Orange 9mm - Suspect--Having seen this band in 1995 with Sick Of It All and 108, and having written them off at the time as boring midtempo rapcore, I was really surprised recently when this song came up on my Ipod's shuffle function and I loved it. Obviously, I was at least considering reevaluating Orange 9mm, or they wouldn't have been on my Ipod at all, but I certainly didn't expect to come to a different conclusion about them now than I did 13 years ago. Imagine my surprise, discovering as I did that they weren't really rapcore at all. Instead, Orange 9mm have much the same sort of heavy yet emotional midtempo groove as Quicksand. Vocalist Chaka Malik doesn't have the singing chops that Quicksand's Walter Schreifels had, which might explain why, in a live venue with bad sound, I thought he was rapping. I was wrong, though--he's singing, or doing the best at it that he can. Orange 9mm are hardly an overlooked classic; the fact is that, if you've heard Quicksand, they don't have too much new to offer. That said, they do what they do quite well, and this song in particular is a shining example of what they were capable of.

28. The Fall Of Troy - Chapter V: The Walls Bled Lust--Having written about "Ghostship," aka "The Phantom On The Horizon," very recently, I don't feel the need to say much about this song. I do, however, want to point out that its ridiculous, brutal 7/8 mosh ending is the perfect way to end a mix CD. I'm not all that sure that I picked the best version of this song, since the original version on "The Ghostship Demos" had a more abrupt ending, rather than trickling lightly out over a minute after the mosh part ended, but in the end, it was the version I picked because it's the one I'm listening to more often right now, having intimately familiarized myself with the "Ghostship Demos" version years ago.

OK, I've been working on this blog entry for three hours. So much for avoiding a huge torrent of verbiage. At least I got to write five thousand words about two dozen bands instead of just one. Hah.



Movie Diary, 2/13.

I've decided to start posting the movie diary entries individually, as I write them. Collecting the posts from their various locations on my computer and the internet is always kind of a pain in the ass by the time I get around to doing it, and it results in huge infodump posts that probably get skipped by at least some of you. If I post them individually, not only will I have more posts, it will keep them to a reasonable length. Well, some of them. Not really this one, but some of them.

So uh, I finally saw "Gosford Park" the night before last. I say "finally" because I originally intended to watch it about a week before that. I had seen that it was coming on one of the cable networks and DVR-ed it, only to find, when I sat down to watch it, that the accents were nigh-impenetrable for me. Most of the characters (and the actors who played them) were British, and a few were Scottish, so no matter how many times I rewound and relistened to a line, and no matter how high I turned up the volume on my TV, I was just not getting about 25% of the dialogue. There's a lot of dialogue in this movie, too, and I could tell that I was going to miss something crucially important if I tried to push on through the entire film. So I deleted it from my DVR, bumped it to the top of my Netflix queue, and finally got a chance to watch it the night before last. The subtitles, it turned out, were absolutely essential. I'd guess that I was reading the dialogue, rather than hearing and understanding it, between 40% and 50% of the time. If I'd gone to see this movie in a theatre back when it was first released, I probably would have torn my hair out in frustration. But hey, all's well that ends well, right?

I am happy to report that, once I was able to understand this movie, I enjoyed it very much. It's a period drama that takes place at a country estate in England in the 1930s, directed by Robert Altman and featuring the acting talents of such luminaries as Clive Owen, Bob Balaban, Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, and uhhh, Ryan Phillippe. Among many others. There are somewhere around three dozen important characters in this movie--it takes "ensemble picture" to a whole new level. It's about two and a half hours long, and I swear, I wasn't sure who everyone was and what their relationships to each other were until at least an hour into the movie. It doesn't help that the story is just as much about the activities of the servants belowstairs as it is about the rich nobles and socialites abovestairs. Any advertising about this movie will tell you that a murder takes place during the gathering that frames the movie, and that's true, but the sad thing is that the murder takes place over halfway through the movie, and it's kind of a bummer that you are even aware it's going to happen, because the movie is constructed in a way that could easily trick you into thinking it's just a detailed study of the relations between people of different classes and economic strata. That's more what it's about than the murder, in fact, and it's a fascinating example of such a thing. I think I would have enjoyed it as much even if it didn't have the murder to act as a lynchpin for the overarching plot. In one of the special features on the DVD, Robert Altman talks about how he didn't consider the movie so much as a "whodunit" as a documentation of the fact that it was done. In fact, and this is sorta kinda a spoiler (though not completely), so skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid such a thing: we, the viewers, eventually learn who committed the murder, but most of the characters, including the detectives brought in to solve the crime, don't know the solution by the end of the movie, and seem like they probably never will. It's only the servants who know the whole truth of the situation.

Altman said in the DVD special feature that his main goal was to tell the story from the point of view of the servants, which it seemed like Agatha Christie and people like her never did, and he succeeds in doing this, as well as in making clear what the behind the scenes activities of the servants are like. However, there's plenty of interesting activity and below the surface intrigue where the rich socialites in the story are concerned as well, and in the end, the activities of both groups of people are of equal interest. This is quite a long movie, but I never found myself getting bored or wanting it to hurry up and end. In fact, I was captivated throughout, and I highly recommend this movie.



Movie Diary, 1/8-2/11.


Last night I saw "Pitch Black". I knew this was a Vin Diesel sci-fi thriller from early in his career, perhaps even the movie that broke him, but I never thought much about it until reading an enthusiastic endorsement of it in sci-fi novelist John Scalzi's movie column at amctv.com. He was actually talking about sequels, and how the high budget sequel "Chronicles Of Riddick" had been a failure because it got rid of every successful element of its low-budget predecessor "Pitch Black". The stuff he said about "Pitch Black" made me think that I might be blowing it by not having seen it already, so I checked it out. I ended up really liking it! It is indeed a low-budget sci-fi horror movie, though nowhere near, say, "Primer" on the low-budget scale. Probably more like mid-range budget, a la "Firefly". And it's kind of grim, considering the unnatural light that most of the movie takes place in, and considering the freaky monsters that end up making it imperative that our crash-landed survivors of a spacecraft wreck get the hell off this planet and fast. Then there's Richard Riddick, Vin Diesel's character, a psychopathic murderer with a somewhat charming exterior who is sort of like a bodybuilder version of Hannibal Lecter. He's had surgery done to his eyeballs so that he can see in the dark, which ends up being the crucial thing that's going to save the rest of the survivors when it gets dark and the monsters come out.

This is hardly a classic moment in the annals of cinema, but if you like sci-fi horror, if you thought Ridley Scott's "Alien" was a badass movie, you really can't go wrong here. What I thought was pretty depressing, though, was the way the director takes this total attitude in all of the special features like "Pitch Black" was just a dry run for the far more impressive and important "Chronicles Of Riddick". He's all talking about how the Riddick character was introduced in "Pitch Black" like that's the only thing the movie has to offer. It's obvious that he thought "Chronicles of Riddick" would succeed on a larger order of magnitude than did "Pitch Black", and that he was doing this DVD feature work expecting people to be looking back at "Pitch Black" as a scrappy little movie that started it all, rather than a good movie that was followed by a much more expensive franchise-killing shitty one. The hubris just bleeds through the TV screen. I regretted that I'd ever checked out any of the bonus features within 30 seconds of beginning the first one.

But whatever, the movie itself is still good.


So I saw two movies over the weekend, and I need to write about them now before I see two more tomorrow and the ones from the weekend become impossibly remote in my mind.

Saturday night: "The Blue Dahlia". As a Raymond Chandler fan, I've been meaning to see this for years. It's his only original screenplay from his Hollywood years (though he also adapted Patricia Highsmith's "Strangers On A Train" [seen it, it's excellent] and James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity" [haven't seen it, hear it's excellent] for the screen. Oh, and IMDB wishes me to know that he also adapted Rachel Field's "And Now Tomorrow" for the screen--never heard of it--and that he wrote an episode of "77 Sunset Strip", of all things. Anyway), so since I've read all of his books, it was the last bit of his writing that I had never encountered. When I discoverd that it was coming on TCM over the weekend, I DVRed it with alacrity. I was not disappointed, either. It had that "I'm making this up as I go along" quality that marks all classic Chandler work, with random characters appearing and making connections to other characters and, in so doing, weaving a thick and tangled web of extraneous plot threads that spend most of the movie seeming to have nothing to do with each other. With about half an hour left in the film, I found myself thinking "I can't wait until this starts making sense to me." I've read a few Chandler stories that never did start making sense, and I was afraid that this one would turn out that way, but fortunately, it didn't. Instead, an event that occurred 15 minutes before the end of the movie brought the entire plot into sharp focus, then threw multiple false murder suspects at you before finally revealing a solution that made perfect sense but that I'd never have suspected. I'd say that "The Blue Dahlia" is one of Chandler's best plotting efforts, in fact. I'd rate it equal to his best novels, by which I mean "The Long Goodbye" and "The Big Sleep". "The Blue Dahlia" doesn't have the noirish feel that I'd have expected of a Chandler writing, which might have to do with the direction by George Marshall (whom I've otherwise never heard of... should I have? Chris? Hannah?), but that fact really had no impact on how good it was. I really dug it.

And by the way, no, you get no plot description beyond the super-vague stuff I already put in. It's almost impossible to talk about this movie's plot without spoiling significant portions of it. You should just go into it blind if you want the maximum effect.

Sunday night: "Waitress". I heard a whole bunch about this movie right when it came out, I suppose partly because writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelly was murdered right after finishing it. Which is definitely a sad thing, especially considering how much I liked her movie. From what I can tell, it's the only major movie she ever made, too, which makes it even more depressing. I tried not to think about that whole thing while watching the movie, and I ended up having no trouble losing myself in it and enjoying it, but it's still a really sad thing that I'm probably never going to be able to separate from my impressions of "Waitress" as a movie.

That said, it's a really good movie. It revolves around a cafe in a small southern town, where Jenna (Keri Russell), Becky (Cheryl Hines), and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) work. This cafe bases the food it serves almost entirely around pies, and Jenna has a huge talent for coming up with original and interesting new pies. In fact, at a bunch of more introsepctive moments in the movie, she starts thinking up pies based on what's happening in her life and how she feels about it. I liked this technique a lot--thought it was a really nice way of depicting the character's inner thought processes without being too blatant about it. Anyway, the movie is about how Jenna hates her husband, the truly onerous Earl (Jeremy Sisto), and plans to save up a bunch of money, win a pie-baking contest happening a few counties over, and leave Earl to finally live the life she wants. Throwing a monkeywrench into this entire plan is the fact that she's inadvertently gotten pregnant. Meanwhile, Dawn goes out on a bad date with a guy named Ogie, who starts showing up at the cafe to pester her into going on further dates with him, while Becky starts having an affair with Cal, the kitchen manager. Joe, the cafe's owner (Andy Griffith, who is fucking awesome, if you can believe that), comes in every day to eat pie and harass Jenna about her life choices, though deep down you can tell he actually likes her. So, it seems, does her obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion).

This could have been a convoluted-plot movie, and I realize now upon reflection that there is a lot going on in it, plotwise, but because of the way Adrienne Shelly constructs the whole thing, it comes out more of a slow, sweet, character-driven movie, one that allows the viewer to understand the feelings and motivations of everyone involved. Even characters like Earl, Jenna's awful husband, don't always come off completely badly (though Earl comes off pretty horrible at least 90% of the time). One very subtle theme of the film, which I would imagine could be missed completely by some viewers, is the lack of choice in the lives of the working poor, especially when they're women. Jenna's attempts to put up with Earl long enough to scrape up enough money to leave him for good are heartbreaking to watch. I don't want to spoil the ending, so I'll just say that there is some sort of resolution coming for all of the characters eventually, but a lot of the greatness of this movie is not in watching a plot come to resolution but just watching the day to day interactions of these people, and getting to know them as characters. I like it when movies are more about people than plots, and I liked this movie quite a bit. It's just sad to think that there won't be any more from Adrienne Shelly. Would that that wasn't the case.


"Gran Torino" is excellent. It continues in the sort of dark realist vein that has been his style for a long time, and tells the story of an old man who still lives in a Detroit neighborhood that all the other white people left a long time ago. His wife has just died, his kids are wondering if they'll need to put him in an assisted-living facility, and he sees both his kids and their children, his grandchildren, as spoiled brats he can't relate to. Despite the fact that his neighborhood has become a ghetto, he refuses to leave. He hates the Hmong (ethnicity native to the mountains of Southeast Asia) family who lives next door to him, calling them "gooks", "zipperheads" and other racial slurs throughout. After intervening in a dispute between one of the family's sons and a local Hmong gang headed by one of their cousins--which he does for his own selfish reasons--he becomes an unwilling hero to the families in the neighborhood. Throughout, he remains typical Clint--hardass bad motherfucker who carries a gun--only older, and um, more racist. Which makes it hard to feel sympathy with him at first, though I started to later on. I don't really want to say what happens after that, though I'm sure that any of you who have seen previews know that it involves intensifying tension between Clint and the Hmong gang. It didn't go in the direction I expected, which was nice, to see that the movie wasn't as predictable as I'd expected. Clint Eastwood manages to simultaneously play the sort of character he's famous for and subvert the standard elements of that sort of character. At first he does it by being openly racist and making it harder to root for him, but later on he does so in other ways that are equally unexpected--especially the way he handles the ending. Again, not getting into specifics, but you may be surprised. I was, and pleasantly so. This isn't the best movie Clint's ever acted in, nor the best movie he's ever directed. But it's up there. Not as good as "Unforgiven", but on a level with "Mystic River". And Clint's not the only awesome actor/character in the film--the teenage kids who live next door to him are pretty great in their own right. This movie is well worth seeing.

Right after I saw "Gran Torino", I saw "The Wrestler". God bless torrented screener copies, all saving me $20 and stuff. I personally thought "The Wrestler" was just as good as "Gran Torino", that Mickey Rourke was stellar in it, and that Darren Aronofsky easily surpassed the, um, kinda overrated "Requiem For A Dream" with this movie. I confess that, as someone who grew up loving wrestling and who has, in recent years, followed it pretty closely, especially on the more underground levels, I had some personal reasons for loving this film that other people may not relate to. First of all, I've got friends who are small-time wrestlers, so I've seen some of what the less lucrative regional wrestling circuit is like, and I really appreciated how true to life the film's depiction of it was. I also appreciated the fact that real wrestlers and real regional feds were used in the movie; the hardcore match in the movie, with all the barbed wire and stapleguns and stuff, featured Rourke wrestling real-life hardcore wrestler the Necro Butcher at a CZW event, Combat Zone Wrestling being the Philadelphia-based real-life heirs to the original ECW's hardcore stylings. I was particularly impressed with the way Aronofsky directed the wrestling scenes. I've seen plenty of footage of hardcore matches over the years, some of which were a bit much for me (the ECW barbed-wire match between Sabu and Terry Funk comes immediately to mind), but none of them ever grossed me out the way some of the scenes of Rourke's match with Necro Butcher did. The way Aronofsky gets up close and captures the details of the carnage outstrips anything I've ever seen on a DVD released by ECW or whoever, and the aftermath in the locker room, watching trainers remove staples and chunks of barbed wire from Mickey Rourke's back, was intense. It didn't so much make me want to barf, though, as it did bring home the kind of punishment these guys go through, often for very little compensation, just because they love it. That's why Mickey Rourke's character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is still in the wrestling business despite the fact that he's getting older, can barely make ends meet, and is starting to suffer the physical consequences of the strain he's put on his body for all these years. What this movie really manages to bring home to the viewer, in a way that hopefully transcends wrestling fandom and can reach anyone, is what it is that keeps a guy like Randy the Ram going year after year, despite the steady decline of his career. It's obvious that this is the only thing in his life that really makes him feel worthwhile, like he's doing something that matters. The problem that is the true focus of this movie is just how empty the rest of his life is. When he uses a tiny chunk of razorblade to surreptitiously cut himself during a match at the beginning of the movie (a common practice referred to as blading), the only person in his life that expresses any concern at the sight of the cut on his face is the stripper he regularly gets lapdances from (Marisa Tomei, who, like Rourke, shows acting chops beyond anything you'd expect of her). His attempts to convince the stripper, Cassidy (not her real name), to engage in a real relationship with him outside her stripper job are awkward, as are his attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, who is awesome as always). I think Aronofsky, Rourke, and co. did the right thing by avoiding easy resolutions to the various depressing elements of Randy the Ram's life. This is not a story that deserves a sacrifice of bleak realism for an implausible happy ending. Also, the wrestling stuff I mentioned, use of real-life Jersey-area regional wrestling promotions (in addition to CZW, the excellent Ring Of Honor federation has a prominent role), might be cool to a nerd like me, but it's really just background. If I were describing this movie to a wrestling nerd, I'd probably tell them that it's a fictional counterpart to the documentary "Behind The Mat", but I think this movie has a broader appeal than "Behind The Mat" did. This isn't so much the story of a wrestler as it's the story of a man who is getting older without really ever achieving his original goals. That kind of thing happens to a lot of people, and I think, I hope, plenty of people will be able to understand and relate to it. I sure did, perhaps to an uncomfortable extent.

Oh, here's one interesting detail--I kept thinking that the guitar riffs that made up the film's score were snatches of Godspeed You Black Emperor songs. At the end of the movie, I discovered that the score was composed and performed by Slash. Who knew?


Last night, I watched "End Of The Century", that documentary about The Ramones. It was well put together and an entertaining story. Of course, there aren't as many interview clips with Joey as with Dee Dee and Johnny, since Joey had died by the time they started making the movie, but they do a good job of presenting all sides of the story, from the points of view of all of the members (even Richie and C.J.) as well as interviewing plenty of other people who were involved in the story. Legs McNeil, Joey's brother Mickey Leigh, Joe Strummer, and a whole bunch of others all provided some pretty good insight. I don't know how appealing it would be to someone who doesn't find the Ramones interesting and enjoyable, but it's definitely not something I would describe as "for fans only", as the story of their formation and existence as a band is pretty interesting even when considered independently of their music. At least, I found it to be. That said, I think the Ramones are pretty good, so I'm not sure how good a judge I am of such things. But yeah, I liked it, and would recommend it to others.


The night before last I saw Eddie Murphy's second concert movie, "Raw". My friend Brandon and I have discussed this movie a bunch of times in the recent past, and he told me it wasn't as good as "Delirious", specifically because it has a huge stretch of rampant misogyny in the middle that he swore took up about half of the movie. I last saw it in 1994 or so, so I didn't remember that, but when I saw it was on Comedy Central the other night, I figured I'd watch it and see what I thought. Well, Brandon was right--the first 10 minutes were funny, and then the entire rest of the first hour was just Eddie Murphy ranting about how women only wanted money, and about how all men cheat and get away with it, and a few other relationship-related things, all of which were just, um, not funny. Seriously, I didn't laugh for like 45 minutes. What a bummer. Thankfully, he took an abrupt left turn about an hour into the movie and started talking about his mom making homemade hamburgers, which has always been one of my favorite Eddie Murphy bits of all time, so suddenly I was laughing my ass off the way I want to when I put on an Eddie Murphy concert movie. The rest of it was really good too, including the standard Eddie Murphy standup bit in which he imitates his drunk father (the bit in "Delirious" with his father drunk at the cookout is another of my favorites of all time), but Brandon's right--the lengthy overtly-misogynist stretch towards the beginning of the movie drags it down. Overall, it's really not that good.

Oh, and let me post something else, which I almost forgot about. Apparently TCM shows silent movies on Sunday nights as a regular thing. I happened upon this knowledge by accident but will be keeping an eye out for the fare they have on offer in future. Anyway, I caught an 11-minute short film from 1920 called "Manhatta" on there the other night. It was pretty awesome: shot in the late teens in Manhattan by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, two noteworthy still photographers of the time, it's just a lot of footage of various areas of Manhattan. A lot of it is shot from high places, some of which made me think "How the hell did they get that high?" It doesn't seem to be aerial footage, especially considering my knowledge of the state of aeronautics in 1920 or thereabouts, so I gotta figure they were up in some of the first skyscrapers, hanging out on the roof of the Empire State Building and stuff. Anyway, the really neat thing for me was just looking at what Manhattan looked like 90 (!) years ago, watching people walk around amongst trolley cars, early automobiles, and even horse-drawn carriages. Watching trains on elevated lines running through the Lower East Side or wherever. It was awesome. I'd love to see someone go back to the same places now and do a shot-for-shot remake, just to see how different it would all look. I'm not sure such a thing would even be possible, though. Anyway, for those of you who live in NYC or just like cities, it's worth tracking down just to get a look at some history, moving picture style.


Last night I watched "The Savages", a movie in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play two fortyish siblings whose father has to be placed into a nursing home. It's the kind of movie that is way more about the characters than any sort of ongoing plot, a real slice-of-life sort of thing that takes place over a long period of time. Linney and Hoffman are both awesome actors, so no surprise, their performances are top-shelf. The movie is the sort that some people would find pointlessly depressing, and I recognize that. I wouldn't recommend this one to everyone. However, for those of you who find the idea of dark character studies with occasional black humor entertaining, as I do, you really should check this one out. It's good stuff. It was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, whom I'd never heard of before but who apparently also wrote and directed "The Slums Of Beverly Hills", another movie I really liked. Oh, and Chris from the Wire was in it too, and he had an African accent. So yeah, good stuff.


I watched Ray Dennis Steckler's first movie, "Wild Guitar", from 1962, this morning. It was posted on WFMU's Beware Of The Blog not too long ago, and I actually watched the Google video during downtime at work. It was pretty crappy on the whole, a dumb B-movie with ludicrous overacting and a hackneyed, facile plot, but it was entertaining for three reasons: 1) Arch Hall Jr. wasn't actually too bad at playing bluesy rockabilly (which is not to say that his songs in the movie were awesome, just decent), 2) Ray Dennis Steckler, acting under the name Cash Flagg, was actually really good in his role as the thug henchman, Steak, and 3) there were some sincerely weird directorial choices made, and it was worth waiting around for these moments to show up. Of course, it wasn't as weird as his later stuff obviously is (based on what I've read about it), and for the most part there was no room for any directorial fuckery, just straight-ahead stupid B-movie boilerplate, but when those moments happened, they were pretty entertaining. I guess I'm glad I watched it for no other reason than that I can say I've seen a Ray Dennis Steckler movie. That said, I don't feel like I'll really get the full Steckler experience until I see "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies".


I saw "No Country For Old Men" last night. Thought it was awesome. Like a crime novel happening in the middle of a western. Better yet, the plot was completely unpredictable. I did not foresee the fate of our hero, for one thing. Also, I gotta say, I think the conservatives who pick up on Tommy Lee Jones's speech about how the whole world's going to hell in a handbasket miss the point of the movie. When Sheriff Bell goes to visit his, uh, uncle? at the end of the movie, and his uncle says something like "The problem you've got ain't new. This country is hard on people." THAT's the point. If anything is.

Oh, and Javier Bardem as Chigurh was everything I expected and more. That dude is incredible.


I saw "Shadow Of The Vampire" last night. For those who don't know, this is a movie about F.W. Murnau making the film "Nosferatu", but "Shadow of the Vampire" posits that Max Schreck, who played the vampire, was a real vampire. It's a pretty neat concept, and with John Malkovich playing driven, brilliant, but extremely difficult Murnau to the hilt while Willem Dafoe exudes creepy menace at all times as Schreck, there's some good scenery-chewing acting going on too. The movie is really big on atmosphere, and has some great Wiemar-Germany decadence at the beginning, as well as some interesting, sometimes hallucinatory, atmosphere later on, once the cast and crew have arrived in rural Slovakia, where the majority of the film is being shot. I felt like the movie kind of fell apart at the end; in its effort to create a dramatic climax, it overplayed its hand and got a bit silly. But that didn't take away from the enjoyment I got out of the first hour and 15 minutes or so. Really, this movie is about atmosphere above all, and it has that in spades. Not for everyone, but if you think you'd find this sort of thing appealing, it's definitely worth a look.


Let me talk about "Wattstax" first, then.

I saw it in three sittings, the first half late Thursday night, then another half hour or so Friday afternoon right before work, finally finishing it on Friday night. I was expecting it to be a pretty kickass concert film, but it wasn't what I expected, and I didn't like it as much as I thought I would. First of all, about 2/3 of the movie is just random interviews, mostly with people who were living in Watts at the time the movie was filmed (1973). There was some slight mention of the Watts riots of 1965, but mostly the interviews were loosely themed discussions of random social issues. And uh, I wasn't too into most of them. Some highlights were provided in the form of occasional minute-long monologues by Richard Pryor, who didn't really focus on any particular issue and typically just ranted and told jokes. I also liked Jesse Jackson's big "I Am Somebody" crowd-participation bit at the beginning of the movie. But a lot of the interviews with non-famous people showcased viewpoints that I found kind of backwards. Especially bad was any discussion of sexual relations. I know feminism was starting to take off at this point in the social history of the United States, but you couldn't prove it by "Wattstax." For one thing, a lot of the men had some pretty intensely chauvinist things to say. More disappointingly, some of the women seemed pretty actively complicit in the chauvinist attitudes presented by the men. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that men cheated and couldn't be stopped from doing so, the discussion of which was juxtaposed with a performance of "If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don't Want To Be Right," by Luther Ingram, a song from the point of view of a married man with children who is in love with someone that's not his wife. That sorta weirded me out. So did some of the directorial choices, by which I mean that I haven't seen this many lingering shots of women's asses since watching Michael Bay's "Bad Boys II" last year.

Now, having said all of this, I did enjoy many of the musical performances, particularly those of The Staple Singers, The Bar-Kays, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, and Isaac Hayes. One thing that was weird for me, though, was how halfhearted the film was about identifying performers. A lot of times I had to guess at who I was seeing play, because there was nothing in the movie that told me. No spoken intros, no title cards, nothing. Later on in the movie, when the bigger names came out, they were more clearly identified, but this was kind of ironic since it's not like I need a title card to tell me who Isaac Hayes is. It was the performers I was least likely to recognize who were least likely to be identified. But then again, considering how little of the film was actually focused on the musical performances, I suppose I wasn't intended by the filmmakers to even be concerned most of the time with who was playing. This might also be why many of the performances only featured pieces of songs.

One other thing that was weird for me about this movie was that there seemed to be a real separatist attitude inherent in all aspects, from the attitudes of the people on the street being interviewed to the overwhelmingly black attendance of the festival to the de-emphasis by the film crew of the white members of the musical acts and the crew who put on the show. If you paid close attention, you could tell that there were white people there, but the film went out of its way never to focus on any of them. I think I saw one shot that included a white person who wasn't nearly hidden in the background, and it was about three seconds long and probably only occurred because it was of several white people who were, at the moment they were shown, taking a lead role in the musical performance being filmed. I'm sure there are some people out there who'd have a problem with me, a white person, being bothered by a movie filmed about a music festival in a black community de-emphasizing the role and presence of any white people in the production, and I guess that's as may be. But I was reminded of a comment made in a documentary I saw recently about the history of Stax Records. I don't remember who said it, but one of the musicians who had a big role in the early years of the label talked about how, in the early years, the label had been focused on bringing people of different races together, assuming that everyone had something to contribute, which had been symbolized by the mixed-race lineup of Booker T. and the MGs. Later on, the person said, the focus went away from diversity in racial makeup to an all-black experience that was more typified by the label's makeup during the Isaac Hayes years. I could really see that in "Wattstax," and honestly, it kinda weirded me out.

I guess it's a decent film from the purely documentary perspective, as it did a good job of capturing both Watts and Stax Records as they existed at the time. But I can't say that I was all that stoked to see the state of both Watts and Stax Records in 1973. Maybe that's fucked up, but it's how I felt.


"The Bridge"--this is a documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge and the people who commit suicide by jumping off of it. In 2004, the filmmakers set up multiple cameras focused on the bridge and by doing so, captured on film 24 different suicides and a whole bunch of other attempts. The movie consists of interviews with various people who were close to the people who committed suicide, mixed with actual footage of the suicides. I definitely had some thoughts while watching the film about the ethics of filming someone committing suicide without doing anything to try and stop them, and I also found myself thinking about how weird and upsetting it was that a lot of people seemed to walk right past these people committing suicide and didn't even notice, let alone do anything about it. But, of course, that's not entirely true. There was one point in the movie where they interviewed a guy from Pittsburgh who had been visiting the bridge and was walking along it taking pictures when a girl standing near him climbed the rail and started walking along the outer ledge to jump. The guy reached over the rail, grabbed her by the collar of her jacket, and pulled her back over the rail and onto the bridge. It made me feel a little bit better to see that part of the movie. Another really interesting part was an interview with a guy who had jumped off the bridge in 2004 and survived. He explained how he'd realized as soon as he'd done it that he didn't really want to die, and what he did in order to keep himself alive. It turned out that, among other things, what had saved him was a seal that saw him floating in the water and swam around him in such a way as to keep him afloat until the Coast Guard boats got there. This kind of blew my mind, because even though the guy was convinced that this was divine intervention, I'm not someone who looks at the world that way, and my thought was, "What led a seal to see this guy in obvious trouble and do what it could to help him?" It's not something I'd expect from an animal, necessarily.

There were a lot of interesting details in this movie, actually, but the main focus of it was on friends of the people who'd committed suicide, giving us an impression of what those people had been like when they were alive, and what had driven them to that act. It was interesting and informative but also, at least for me, pretty hard to watch. As someone who spends about 10% of my life feeling suicidal, I could relate to the experiences of a lot of these people, but in watching their friends and loved ones talk about them, it seemed really clear to me that they'd been appreciated, and that other people had really wanted to help them if they could. I could see the kinds of things in those people's lives that I myself am never able to see when I'm feeling at my lowest. It really brought home to me an idea that I often ignore or dispute in my mind--that there are a lot of people in my life who'd be devastated if I committed suicide. At the same time that this movie was incredibly affecting for me, and brought me to tears at multiple points, it was also kind of life-affirming, because it reminded me that there are always reasons to stay alive, even when you feel at your worst.

"Brazil"--saw this with Eric and Jojo, neither of whom had seen it before. I had been pretty underwhelmed by it in my initial viewing, but ended up enjoying it a bit more on the second time through, just because I was prepared for it to be as absurd as it was, and didn't go into it, as I originally had, expecting serious social commentary. Sure, there is some social commentary in the movie, no doubt, but it's easier to appreciate when you accept the movie on its own ridiculous terms and just settle in for a film that's mostly absurd. That being said, I ended up falling asleep for about 20 minutes towards the end of the movie. I'm as much for free and unfettered expression as anyone, and I'm glad Terry Gilliam got to make the lengthy version of this film that was true to his vision. But good grief, it is too long. And ultimately, no matter how silly it is at many points, it's really depressing. Even upon second viewing, this is still a film that I respect a great deal more than I enjoy.

"Super High Me"--This movie was made by comedian Doug Benson and some people who know him. It presents itself as a marijuana version of "Super Size Me", with Benson spending a month getting high constantly and using this narrative as a way to talk about the effects of marijuana and its current legal status in the US as well as a few other legitimate marijuana related socio-political issues. And to be fair, that's sorta kinda what it does. But mostly, this is a movie in which people, mostly Doug Benson, make assloads of jokes, mostly about marijuana. Doug actually spends a month before the month in which he gets high all the time not getting high at all, in order to provide a constrast to his month of constant stonedness, and that part of the movie is pretty funny, for sure. But once he starts smoking weed constantly, the movie gets fucking hilarious. I will admit that it's possible that I only enjoyed this movie so much because I hang out with stoners almost exclusively, and therefore am pretty attuned to the stoner viewpoint on life, but at least to me it seemed like a hilarious movie. I sure wouldn't expect it to make any grandiose political statements, although, to be fair, the parts of the movie that are about the struggles of medical marijuana shops in California to operate despite interference from the federal government were at least somewhat politically-oriented. Mostly, though, it's a silly movie full of pot jokes. And as a silly movie full of pot jokes, I rate it a success. Watch this if you want to laugh at a bunch of stoner hijinx, not if you're looking for a serious documentary about marijuana.

"Chasing Ghosts: Beyond The Arcade"--This was another documentary that covered similar territory to that of "The King Of Kong." It tracked down a lot of the people who were involved in the Life magazine photoshoot at Twin Galaxies arcade in 1982, the original crew of video gamers who had the highest scores back then. Steve Wiebe, "King Of Kong"'s hero, is not in this film for the reason that he wasn't involved in gaming back in the early 80s, but his antagonist, Billy Mitchell, is here. Despite being focused on far less than he was in "King Of Kong," Mitchell still manages to come off like a jerk, which I'm even more strongly convinced now that he is. Other characters from "King Of Kong," such as Walter Day, Steve Sanders, and "Mr. Awesome" Roy Shildt, also show up in "Chasing Ghosts," and some of them are given a good bit more screen time than they were in "King Of Kong." Rather than having a dramatic narrative the way that film did, "Chasing Ghosts" is just a documentation of the lives of a lot of those original video gamers as they are now. It takes an objective tone as a movie, but I couldn't help but be reminded of "Trekkies," another movie that takes an objective tone towards its subjects but still manages to highlight a lot of more laughable aspects of the people its documenting. Of course, there were also some sad elements of the movie. Seeing where Todd Rogers is these days, and hearing what's been happening to him in the intervening 25 years since the Twin Galaxies photoshoot was really quite depressing. And then there are other guys in the movie who seem to be doing great, like Leo Daniels, who is, to all appearances, some kind of gambler pimp with a fully functioning casino in his apartment. And then there's Roy Shildt, aka "Mr. Awesome," Who comes off like a total nutcase but is at least sincere and enjoyable to watch. On the whole, this was a fun movie to see, and while some of that is at the expense of those being documented in it, it's also hard not to like a lot of them. Except for Billy Mitchell, that is. What a douche.

"Sand And Sorrow"--this is a heartwrenching documentary about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. As someone who has heard the name thrown around a lot over the past several years, I learned from this movie that I was actually quite ignorant to the situation in Darfur. It gave me a good education about the history of the conflict and the severity of the problem in that area now. One thing that was interesting about the film was that Barack Obama appeared in it, back when he was still a senator and not running for president yet, and he was working to make the United States response to Darfur a more active and positive one than had come from the Bush administration. I'm not really sure how that's going to change now that he's president, but it gives me hope. In fact, I sent an email through the Whitehouse.gov contact form about the subject after watching the movie, but I haven't gotten a response back yet. I guess we'll see what they have to say.