Sunday, July 23, 2006

'Lebowski' Mash-ups

Cut and paste these links to see how a few devious (yet genius) minds put classic dialogue from "The Big Lebowski" to good use:


"Teenage Mutant Ninja Lebowskis"

"My Little Lebowski"

"The Big Wazowski"

Pearl Jam, "Lebowski"

And here's an abridged version of the movie

Just remember: This is "The Big Lebowski" we're talking about, so under 17 not admitted without parent or guardian. You have been warned.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’

It's disgusting how many critics have fallen all over themselves coming up with “clever” ways to slam “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” What, exactly, were they expecting?
Take Lisa Schwarzbaum from Entertainment Weekly, just for kicks: In the first paragraph—nay, first sentence of her review, she comes right out and says how much she hated “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” from three years ago (not failing to mention, of course, how she went oh so against the “popular” critical grain, isn’t she special).
Well, Lisa, my question is simple: Why on earth did you see the second one? Were you hoping for, I don’t know, “Hamlet”? “Gone With the Wind,” perhaps?
No, “Dead Man’s Chest” is not a landmark piece of filmmaking. It may not even be as good as its predecessor. But it’s certainly a fun two and a half hours at the movie theater, worth the price of admission if for nothing else than another peek at Johnny Depp’s inscrutable Capt. Jack Sparrow.
See, this is what happens in the world of pop culture: Everyone wants to be the first to hail something as the second coming, then be the first to rip said second coming to shreds as soon as it becomes popular, all in the name of hipness, indie cred, whatever.
If you liked “The Curse of the Black Pearl” (and if you didn’t, there’s something wrong with you), then you’ll certainly enjoy “Dead Man’s Chest.” It suffers somewhat initially from lacking the surprise factor of Depp’s seminal performance, but thankfully he has the good sense not to dawdle on past success. He takes Sparrow in a new direction this time around—still funny as all get-out, certainly, but we get to see a bit more human side of Cap’n Jack.
The other primary characters are much better this time around. Orlando Bloom, on the run from the law again as pirate-in-training Will Turner, gets to revel in a less tidy, more aggressive performance. Same can be said for the radiant Keira Knightley, whose Elizabeth goes from so much window dressing in “Black Pearl” to flat-out swashbuckler in “Dead Man’s Chest.” And then there’s Davy Jones, played with shiver-me-timbers menace by Bill Nighy under untold layers of makeup and special effects (nice job FINALLY by Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic); his beard of octopus tentacles is unbelievable to watch.
The story of “Dead Man’s Chest” is a little tough to follow at times, but part of the problem, I assume, is this is only half a movie; the third “Pirates” is due next summer and the two presumably will add up to one five-hour whole (a la “Kill Bill”). Essentially, Jones has come calling for repayment of a debt owed him by Sparrow. Meanwhile, Turner must find the good captain and bring back his compass that doesn’t point north in order to keep his and Miss Swann’s heads out of the noose. Adventures ensue, and there are plenty of tremendous scenes that I won’t spoil here.
But this is all secondary to one man: Jack Sparrow. It can’t be overestimated what Depp has achieved with this role, an icon that relates on all levels and to all generations. Capt. Sparrow has made as big of a cultural impact as any character in recent memory—after all, it’s not every summer a gold-toothed miscreant knocks Superman out cold. All of a sudden, everybody wants to be a pirate.
The plot in “Dead Man’s Chest” is much bigger than “Black Pearl” and nowhere near as whimsical, in turn affecting Depp’s interpretation of Sparrow. Jack goes from the pursuer to the prey, which naturally puts a damper on his mood and cuts down on the jovial fun from the first film. However, this probably proves a good thing because nobody likes reruns, and Depp has too much integrity to ape himself.
“Dead Man’s Chest” is impossible to fully appreciate until we’ve seen the final installment, but there’s certainly plenty to love about this movie. It’s a sequel with enough depth to keep your brain engaged, a summer blockbuster with enough innovative action to keep your eyes bulging out of your head. And, most important, it provides a serviceable backdrop for inarguably one of cinema’s all-time greatest characters.
Grade: B+

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Dashboard Confessional, 'Dusk and Summer'

I'm proud to report RELEVANT magazine's online edition has added me to its roster of music critics. My first review, Dashboard Confessional's "Dusk and Summer," is now up at RELEVANT doesn't give grades, but I'd say the new album is in the B/B- range.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Catching Up: Capsule Music Reviews, Spring/Summer 2006

And this great list doesn't even include Pearl Jam, Springsteen, Dashboard, Cash, and Petty. Oh, it's been a VERY good year already:

• “Decemberunderground,” AFI—It’s been three years since AFI (A Fire Inside) released their breakthrough smash “Sing the Sorrow,” and, apparently, success hasn’t really changed the California quartet. This follow-up is a strange mixture of regression and progression for a band that prides itself on continually evolving. Some entries, such as “Kill Caustic,” dip back into frontman Davey Havok’s hardcore roots more than the previous record. In other places, such as the infectious lead single “Miss Murder,” the band pushes further along on its journey toward electronica and industrial beats. And then there’s “Summer Shudder” and “Love Like Winter,” two pop/rock gems so catchy and smooth, they’re like boy band songs with street cred. Overall, “Decemberunderground” is an excellent listen and stands up well against its seminal predecessor, though this is about as hardcore as I’m willing to go. Grade: A-

• “The Gold Record,” The Bouncing Souls—About to enter their third decade, this well-traveled New Jersey quartet may finally get the credit they deserve with an extremely accessible album chock-full of great songs. “The Gold Record” is pure pop/punk genius from start to finish, shedding the Souls’ thrashing double-kick drum cadences (a form of punk I simply cannot stand) for more traditional singalong melodies and rousing anthems such as “So Jersey,” “Sounds of the City,” and “For All the Unheard”—to name just a few. Ironically, the only song here to use the aforementioned double-kick is also the most inspired cut on the record: The story behind “Letter from Iraq” runs deep but, essentially, the lyrics are culled from a letter written by a soldier serving overseas obviously disabused with the notion of “truth, justice, and the American way.” The group formed a strong bond with the serviceman after meeting him in Germany and, rather than try to summarize his sentiments in their own words, the Souls simply merged lines from one of his letters into a cohesive three-minute protest song. I don’t agree with the sentiment, but the Souls’ approach is brilliant and, pardon me, sets the gold standard in the current overflowing crop of anti-war chaff throughout the music industry (are you paying attention, Mr. Vedder?). I certainly don’t qualify as a “true believer,” but “The Gold Record” made a definite fan out of me. Grade: A

• “Broken Boy Soldiers,” The Raconteurs—What, exactly, was everyone expecting from this album? Despite Jack White’s protestations to the contrary, the Raconteurs are nonetheless, hello, a SIDE PROJECT. And as side projects go, this effort is stellar in that it doesn’t really seem like one, after all. “Soldiers” is not the guitar extravaganza I was hoping for based on “Steady As She Goes” and “Store Bought Bones” (and White’s freedom from the strict rules he established for The White Stripes), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. White’s old-school ethos mix effortlessly with co-founder/frontman Brendan Benson’s pop/rock sensibilities to the point where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The results are, in general, surprisingly eclectic, from the aforementioned Zeppelin-esque “Bones” to the haunting rootsy title track to the synth-tweaked “Intimate Secretary” to the (and this IS a shocker) Wilco-esque “Together.” In fact, the only lackluster entry on the record doesn’t come until the ninth track with the plodding and dull Benson-fronted “Call It a Day,” a song just itching to let loose that, unfortunately, remains confined. Thankfully, White brings “Soldiers” home with the aptly titled “Blue Veins,” a wicked rhythm and blues finale that leaves you wanting more. One thing’s for sure: This is a whole lot better than “Get Behind Me Satan.” Grade: A-

• “Eyes Open,” Snow Patrol—While more polished, straightforward, and certainly more radio-friendly than 2004’s “Final Straw,” this new collection from the British quintet is nearly as good and seems to finally have broken through in the States—an occurrence long overdue. Frontman Gary Lightbody gives Chris Martin everything he can handle with tunes that are warmer and more accessible than anything Coldplay have to offer. And certainly don’t judge all of “Eyes Open” off the crooning, orchestral slow build of lead single “Chasing Cars”—there’s plenty of U2-style rock to go around, especially stellar cuts “Hands Open” and “It’s Beginning to Get to Me,” balanced by the group’s vaunted indie stylings on tracks such as “Shut Your Eyes” and the bell-tinged “You Could Be Happy.” If you like “Chasing Cars,” go buy this record—it’s not as good as “Final Straw,” but it doesn’t disappoint, either. Grade: B+

• “Louder Now,” Taking Back Sunday—It’s tough to follow a career-defining album such as TBS released in 2004 with the spectacular “Where You Want to Be.” “Louder Now” is the New York hardcore band’s first album on a major label, and some of the rough edges have been sanded off in favor of a cleaner, slightly more polished sound—and that’s not a good thing. Still, TBS nevertheless provide another strong set of muscular hard-rocking screamalong anthems on their third album. If “Louder Now” is not quite as good as “Where You Want to Be,” that’s okay—nothing could be. Grade: B+

• “Show Your Bones,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs—A strong contender for Album of the Year honors, the NYC trio’s sophomore album is almost nothing like their trashy, messy debut—and that’s a great thing. “Fever to Tell,” released in 2003 at the back end of the “garage rock” revival (whatever) was okay for what it was—a slapdash batch of dirty, guitar-heavy rockers—but didn’t come close to living up to the hype. “Bones,” on the other hand, is a masterpiece, a giant leap in songcraft that expands on the promise shown in “Maps,” the big hit from “Fever.” Opener and lead single “Gold Lion” is captivating as it adds new layers on every verse and chorus, finally exploding in the final minute. “Lion” is a sign of much to come, as there isn’t a bad song to be found on this album that steps out of the garage and into the light of genre-defying and –bending music—punk, classic rock, pop, even a little dance and country, it’s all here. All hail lead singer Karen O, whose ethereal voice will now hopefully carry the flag recently rescinded by Sleater-Kinney (may they rest in peace). Grade: A

Saturday, July 01, 2006

'Superman Returns'

Yes, Supes, we’ve all missed you.
Perfectly cast, perfectly written, and, most important, perfectly realized, “Superman Returns” is the quintessential summer blockbuster, an eye-blasting film nevertheless not so high on action that it forgets its soul.
Director Bryan Singer one-ups even his two spectacular “X-Men” movies with what must be considered one of the genre’s best adaptations of all time. He dedicates this film to Christopher Reeve, and I can’t imagine the late movie icon who so famously took on the title role from 1978-87 wouldn’t endorse this heartfelt homage. It’s clear right from the zoom-in opening credits—complete with John Williams’ original theme music—that Singer knows his history and truly loves this character. His “X”-scribes, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, make some gutsy choices with the plot, but Superman is definitely back in all his red, yellow, and blue glory—tights, cape, and all.
Newcomer Brandon Routh proves, much like Reeve, to be a diamond in the rough as Superman, who returns to earth after a five-year absence while searching for remains of his home world, Krypton. In that time, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has given birth to a son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu, in his first role), and is now engaged to Richard White (James Marsden, otherwise known as Cyclops from the “X-Men” films (don’t worry, he’s MUCH better here)), related to Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (Frank Langella).
So, needless to say, ol’ Clark Kent has a bit of catching up to do now that he’s back zooming around Metropolis. Not to mention his nemesis, Lex Luthor, is out of jail (thanks to a legal loophole) and plotting, again, to take over the world. The greatest villain in all of comic book lore is played to the nines in “Returns” by Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, his best role—and performance—in years. Where Gene Hackman envisioned Luthor as a wisecracking aw-shucks megalomaniac in the original “Superman,” Spacey goes all out in a preferable version of the sadistic villain, chewing up the scenery along the way.
The primary criticism I’ve read of this film is Singer has somehow “lost the fun” of the original Reeve incarnation. I beg to differ. The special effects in “Superman Returns” are so stunning, this time you really will believe a man can fly. In the nearly three decades since “Superman,” you’d think we’d seen it all when it comes to high-wire thrills, yet Singer somehow still manages to blow your hair back throughout his movie’s two and a half hours. The first time Clark blasts off to save Lois from certain doom, goosebumps run from head to toe.
Even more important than the stunning visuals, though, is Singer’s now tried-and-true ability to find the hearts in even the most outlandish characters (blue-painted and tattooed Nightcrawler from “X2,” for example). The idea of a love triangle between Superman, Lois, and her fiancĂ© isn’t exactly a whimsical comic book fantasy, but it allows the Man of Steel’s character to shine in a way Reeve’s never did. Luthor’s destructive antics almost play second fiddle to the story of how Superman finds his way back into a world radically different from the one he left. Routh may not be having as much “fun” as his predecessor, but Kal-El has never felt more human.
And in a world that feels like it’s ripping apart at the seams, the idea of such a relatable Superman actually put a little lump in my throat. Wouldn’t it be incredible if some blue blur could scream down from the heavens and make all the pain go away?
Well, for the 154 minutes of “Superman Returns,” he actually does.
Grade: A