Thursday, December 13, 2007

‘Confessor’


Terry Goodkind’s “Confessor” accomplishes the rarest of feats in any narrative medium. As the 11th volume in his renowned Sword of Truth series of novels, this final installment not only brings the story to a satisfying close, it manages to exceed all reasonable expectations.

In preparation for the highly anticipated “Confessor,” I reread “Phantom,” the preceding novel in the series; I probably should have gone back to No. 1, too. One of the most amazing aspects of “Confessor” is the way Goodkind revisits and resolves elements that track all the way back through his world to “Wizard’s First Rule,” first published way back in 1994. I don’t know for sure if Goodkind knew his endpoint when he began this saga or if he just flowed and worked it out as he went; either way, the author’s ability to weave multiple plotlines together in “Confessor” without their connections coming off as forced is stunning. And what a spectacularly gratifying experience this book is, as nearly every character we’ve come to know and love through these novels gets a victory lap—including several we haven’t heard from in years.

If “Confessor” was simply a Sword of Truth family reunion, though, it wouldn’t work. No, with this volume Goodkind delivers some of the most intense passages of the entire series. Though it does drag a bit for about a hundred early pages, upon finishing the book it seems Goodkind was merely building tension to an almost unbearable level before letting it explode and explode and explode some more over the course of the novel’s second half. Several times at the end of a chapter I went back and reread what I’d just gone through, it’s that gripping. My heart pounded, my breath got a little tight, and I broke out into sweats as my eyes scoured the pages. Other times I broke into wide grins, laughed out loud, and even wanted to release an occasional cheer.

I’d like nothing better than to go on and on for hundreds or thousands of words about all the scenes and sections I loved, but that would certainly spoil the experience for others. What I can say, however, is that Goodkind—in true Richard fashion—remained true to himself with this novel, and nothing about “Confessor” besmirches the narrative and philosophical integrity he’s built over the course of 11 books. Not everyone will like the ending, but in this fan’s opinion, I can’t imagine the series concluding in a better way.

Now that the Sword of Truth has reached its conclusion, the true majesty and scope of Goodkind’s work can be fully appreciated. As a whole, these novels never floundered. Sure, different readers will have different entries that didn’t speak to them (mine is “Pillars of Creation”), and his writing is far from the most polished you’ll ever read, but Goodkind’s overall quality is unassailable. The fact that he was able to sustain such intensity over the course of so many thousands of pages is downright remarkable.

But that really comes back to the beginning, and the reason Goodkind became a writer in the first place: The story of Richard and Kahlan. Though he can be longwinded and repeats certain phrases too many times, Goodkind took his time in letting us get to know these two fabulous and singular characters, and this book is the ultimate payoff. Though Goodkind has hinted in the past at writing about Richard and Kahlan beyond the Sword of Truth series, “Confessor” ends so perfectly, I don’t know where he could go from here. I may not even want him to try.

The journey was exemplary. The conclusion is extraordinary. What a wonderful series of books.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Good Times, Bad Times: The Return of ‘Led Zeppelin’


The first time I heard Led Zeppelin, I was riding in my uncle’s 4Runner as we traveled through the foothills of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. It was summer 1993. I had just turned 14, just graduated from middle school—no longer a boy, not yet a man. When my cousin popped “Led Zeppelin IV” into the CD player and I heard Robert Plant’s opening howl on “Black Dog,” followed by that unmistakable guitar explosion, my life changed forever.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course. Looking back, though, more than 14 years later I understand how hearing Zeppelin for the first time was a personal watershed. I’m sure I brought some music with me on that two-week trip across the country, but I have absolutely no recollection of what it may have been. It must have been total crap, because that’s all I listened to at that time. I had no older sibling to tell me to listen to The Who’s “Tommy” with the lights off, so I was subjected to whatever my stupid friends thought was cool at the time—most likely some awful pop/hip-hop. Whatever it was, Zeppelin obliterated it with a double-neck guitar assault, and I never looked back.

When I returned home, I immediately bought three Zeppelin tapes (yes, tapes!): “Led Zeppelin I,” “Physical Graffiti,” and “Led Zeppelin IV.” Not a bad way to be baptized in rock and roll.

I listened to those cassettes incessantly that summer and fall, but it wasn’t until the night before Thanksgiving that I took my next leap. As was tradition, I was staying at another cousin’s house in preparation for Turkey Day; after everyone else had gone to bed, I went downstairs and found next to her CD player the original Led Zeppelin four-disc box set.

It was like opening a treasure chest.

I stayed up into the wee hours that night (morning, actually) exploring those four glorious CDs, freaking myself out as I read the insert booklet’s hints of pagan blood rituals and other devilish deeds. At that time, growing up under the artistically, intellectually, and spiritually stunted auspices of what would eventually become a corrupt church, I was in the process of being indoctrinated with the worst kind of pop-culture paranoia. I worried that listening to this music would literally condemn me to hell … or at least make God real, real mad at me.

But I couldn’t tear my ears away from it. Thinking back, “In My Time of Dying” stands out most from that Thanksgiving Eve night. It was an 11-minute epic of such power, ferocity, and beauty the likes of which I’d never heard before.

Other than my very first CD player, that box set was the only other thing I really wanted for Christmas that year. My cousin came through, and my full-flight journey into rock and roll was officially under way—if a bit late.

***

I still have those original four CDs, and I cannot believe they still work. I played them almost incessantly, even as Zeppelin led me to other bands in those early days of exploration, most notably Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Metallica, and Aerosmith. Zeppelin faded to the background over the years as I discovered more and more bands, but their music never truly left me. When I popped Disc 2 of that box set in my car just today, I could still sing along to every single word on all 15 tracks. And my goodness those songs are still so glorious.

Given that history, it might come as a surprise that I felt little excitement over the band’s reunion show last night in London. Don’t get me wrong: If someone had given me tickets and airfare, I’d have been there without question. But the reviewers can pant and genuflect all they want—that wasn’t Led Zeppelin that took the stage. It was simply Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and Jason Bonham, son of drummer John Bonham. No, Zeppelin died in 1980 with John in a puddle of his own vomit.

I won’t deny it was cool to see the three original members onstage together (via clips on YouTube), even if Page’s ghostly white hair is a bit unsettling. It’s just nearly not the same. I wasn’t even alive for Zeppelin’s heyday, but from everything I’ve seen and heard and read, there’s just no way it could be duplicated, no matter how many millions of fans and journalists would like to think such a thing possible.

This was certainly a special event, though, and I hope it stays that way. I don’t want a “reunion tour,” even though I’d probably break down and buy tickets anyway. They’ve resisted that juicy, money-laden red apple for nearly three decades, and it would be a pity to succumb to it now. It’s amazing that a group of such hedonistic, almost unthinkably indulgent men could hold themselves to such artistic integrity upon the death of their friend and bandmate—to immediately shut Led Zeppelin down for good and mean it—but they’ve conducted themselves quite well in these intervening years.

I much prefer what Plant and Page did in the 1990s with their re-imagining of the Zeppelin catalog through sitars and hurdy-gurdies. That was something fresh, something new, something that said “screw it” to people clamoring for cheap imitation and instead went in a completely different direction in a way that probably disappointed a good portion of Zep fans.

By going so far out, the duo’s return to more traditional, straightforward rock and roll with 1998’s “Walking to Clarksdale” was a natural next step. The album was just OK, but I saw them perform during that tour and it was fabulous. Most of the songs were culled from the old days, but it wasn’t forced or underwhelming because they weren’t trying to tour as the monster that is “LED ZEPPELIN”; instead, it just felt like two old friends who wanted to reconnect through a common bond. They played together for a summer, then went their separate ways. It was great.

Last night was great, too, for what it was: A fitting and special way for them to honor a former friend and mentor. Here’s hoping they can ignore the clamor—and the untold millions of potential dollars—and let their decades-long song of silence remain the same.

Here’s the setlist from London:

Good Times Bad Times
Ramble On
Black Dog
In My Time of Dying
For Your Life (first time played live—ever)
Trampled Under Foot
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
No Quarter
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Dazed and Confused
Stairway to Heaven
The Song Remains the Same
Misty Mountain Hop
Kashmir

First Encore:
Whole Lotta Love

Second Encore:
Rock and Roll


A few thoughts on the selection:

I can’t argue with a single choice here, but I’m a bit surprised that “Ramble On” appeared so early. Seems a bit of a momentum killer to me—too quiet of a song for that point in the set, with the crowd in what I can only imagine was a fever pitch.

Very cool that they pulled out “For Your Life”—adventurous right to the end, these guys.

The only thing more I could have hoped for was maybe a mini-acoustic set somewhere in the middle, like Page and Plant did in ’98. Something like “Going to California” into “That’s the Way” into “The Rain Song,” with “Ramble On” to follow and warm things back up.

On the other hand, it’s clear from this set they were in a mood to go out and just melt faces all over the place for two straight hours. I keep looking for a spot to jump in and say, “Wow, from [this song] to [this song] must have just been amazing,” but there’s really no good place to start such a sentence except at the beginning of the show.

So, “Wow, from ‘Good Times Bad Times’ to ‘Rock and Roll’ must have just been amazing.”

I just wonder if that amazement would wear out over the course of a grueling worldwide tour.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Deciphering 'The Golden Compass'


By this point you've probably heard something about "The Golden Compass," a new fantasy movie opening this Friday with an all-star cast headlined by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. The film is based on a novel of the same name by author Philip Pullman, and its generating a bit of controversy since Pullman, a self-proclaimed atheist, didn't even try to hide his attempt at discrediting and, if he's lucky, destroying Christianity.

Attacking Christ and those who believe in Him is nothing new, of course, especially in Hollywood. So that's why I was so glad to read Jeffrey Overstreet's piece on "Compass" over at ChristianityToday.com. It's one of the most intelligent, rational, sensible, and humble responses to such an issue I've ever read; it manages to slice Pullman's work to ribbons while giving the author his due respect and not resorting to rhetoric or histrionics. And while this article is focused on "Compass," Overstreet touches on other topics, too, most notably the nonsense responses of some to the Harry Potter franchise.

Overstreet's dissection is so good, in fact, it really could be about any piece of pop culture teeing up Christianity, because it speaks to both sides of a perpetually heated environment of strife.

I cannot recommend this story highly enough. It provides practical direction for Christians to follow in what can often feel like a world ablaze with hate.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

2007: My Favorite TV Series of the Year


About this time last year, I decided to blend my best-of TV and movie lists into one, since the “boob tube” has become such a strong competitor with major motion pictures. The trend certainly continued this year, and the TV I watched was so strong I decided to give it back its own category.

Here are the best series I watched in 2007:

1. “Lost”
May’s two-hour season finale of “Lost” was without question the best piece of filmed entertainment I saw all year, on television or in the movie theater. Not only that, it’s one of the single greatest episodes of TV I’ve ever seen. The closing scene has veritably haunted me throughout the latter part of the year; though I’ve only watched it twice, my thoughts often drift back to the last few seconds of the show, that’s what a mind-job of an episode it was (“episode” doesn’t even feel like the right word).

The second season of “Lost” was a wreck, and I just about gave up on it. But the show returned to form in fall 2006 with its mini-season of six episodes that effectively catapulted the momentum forward into 16 stellar episodes this past spring—every single one was good, and several were downright great. It all culminated in the season finale, but I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling things for those who may not have seen it (the Season 3 DVD set hits Dec. 11, and I’m trying to come up with reasons why I shouldn’t buy it).

The conclusion of Season 3 was so outstanding and turned the tables on the series so violently, my only fear is that the production team of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof won’t be able to handle the shape-shifting, time-altering, brain-teasing beast of a twist they unleashed in the closing seconds of this last ep. My hope, on the other hand, lies in their unprecedented commitment to end the show once and for all after three more 16-episode seasons. If they already have the endpoint in mind and know where the target is they have to hit and when, then maybe they have a shot at getting us there in one piece.

After this stunning season, I’ll certainly be there for every single step.

Favorite Episodes Other Than the Season Finale:
“The Brig”/“The Man Behind the Curtain”—These two ran back-to-back. In the first, Locke and Sawyer work out some Daddy issues; in the second, we get a look at Ben’s history.



2. “Arrested Development”
For about, oh, the past decade I thought no comedy could ever possibly come close to my love for “Seinfeld.” Well, this year “Arrested Development” sure made a run at it. I blame a combination of poor marketing by Fox (they should have played up the dry wit as much as the loony elements in the commercials) and tough timeslot competition (originally Sunday nights opposite “Alias”) for missing this show when it first aired, but I made up for lost time this summer on DVD. Certainly not since Larry David left “Seinfeld” has a show been better written than “AD,” and with such fully developed and iconic characters (Will Arnett’s G.O.B. is my favorite). This show packs more jokes and gut-busting laughs into 20 minutes than any I’ve ever seen—you have to watch each episode at least twice in hopes of even catching the majority of them. All three seasons are gold, Jerry, gold.

Favorite Episode: “The One Where They Build the House” (Season 2)—Tobias dresses as a Blue Man to spy on his wife, Lindsey. What else needs be said?



3. “Dexter”
It must take some twisted minds to make a serial killer seem sympathetic, but such is the case with this wonderfully gruesome and morally gray Showtime drama starring Michael C. Hall (“Six Feet Under”). Hall is Dexter, a charming and, yes, likeable serial killer whose foster father taught him to control and sate his bloodthirsty urges by living according to “The Code of Harry”—meaning, only attack and chop up bad people who’ve managed to avoid the law (Dexter works for the Miami Police Department as a blood-spatter specialist, no less!). This show gives you everything: Gripping drama, emotionally resonant characters, probing moral questions, heart-pounding suspense, mindbending mystery, and even a chuckle now and again. Certainly one of the best series on TV—if you can get past the sliced and diced bodies, of course.

Favorite Episode: “Shrink Wrap” (Season 1)—As a longtime “Sopranos” fan, maybe I’m just a sucker for therapy-themed shows (as you’ll also see in No. 4). This ep puts Dex on the couch to great effect. Plus, Lauren Velez’s work as Lt. Laguerta is absolutely outstanding. PLUS, the hour ends with a tremendous reveal about the Ice Truck Killer. Yes, it’s a killer episode.


4. “Bones”
I didn’t pick up on this delightful show (is that really the right term for a series about decayed skeletons?) until this fall, but it’s become an instant favorite. This stems primarily from the dynamic duo of co-stars Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz (Angel from “Buffy”), who admirably pick up the Mulder/Scully baton, albeit with a lighter mood. Deschanel plays the title character, otherwise known as Dr. Temperance Brennan, a brilliant and beautiful forensic anthropologist who specializes in, you guessed it, bones; Boreanaz is her FBI agent partner, Seeley Booth (what a great name!), who calls Bones in to solve crimes involving skeletal remains. Though Bones and Booth uncover a carcass-related mystery each week, it’s their crackling chemistry and lightning wit that make “Bones” more than just another “CSI” (Boreanaz says they improv together every weekend to hone their repartee). In true Fox “fair and balanced” fashion, the two investigators typically take up opposite sides of a given issue and debate the philosophy while working the puzzle. Bones, the atheist scientist, tends toward the humanist response, whereas Booth, a devout Catholic, comes from a more spiritual and—dare I say the evil word?—conservative perspective. The great thing about the show is that rarely does it make a judgment either way; the lead characters present their arguments to each other and, thus, the audience as well, and the writers deftly leave it up to us to decide who we agree with more. Who knew decaying corpses could be so entertaining? And, to top it all off: The show is set in D.C.!

Favorite Episode: “The Secret in the Soil” (Season 3)—Again, another shrink-themed installment. This one puts Bones and Booth in front of young Dr. Lance Sweets (dubbed “Sweets” for short, by Booth), and forces a revealing look at their relationship. A strong runner-up goes to the Halloween-themed episode, though—somebody needs to cast Deschanel in the Wonder Woman movie because she looks perfect in that outfit (see below)!




5. “The Office” (American version)
I was opposed to this show back when it debuted in 2005 because, as a big fan of the original British version, I simply wasn’t interested in a bad American knockoff. And that notion certainly wasn’t helped at all whenever I caught pieces of this “Office” over the past few years, because American star Steve Carell shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as the original “Office” star Ricky Gervais (even though, technically, I did just mention them in the same sentence). I was pressured into watching the American version by friends, though, and after giving it a fair shake (all of Season 2 on DVD and, concurrently, this fall’s start to Season 4), I definitely grew to like it and understand why so many others do, too. Make no mistake: I still cannot stand Carell’s Michael Scott, and he isn’t anywhere close to the same league as Gervais’ David Brent. Here’s the key difference: Gervais played Brent as smarmy and uncouth; Carell plays Scott as smarmy and just dumb. As every “Office” fan I’ve ever talked to has told me, I can now confirm: It’s the rest of the cast and the characters they play that make this “Office” worth watching—and downright addicting. Pam, Jim, Dwight, Stanley, Toby … every single person in that building is funny in their own way, and had me laughing uproariously this fall. Unfortunately, since Carell’s the big star, he gets the majority of the screen time. Here’s hoping he gets tired of slumming in TV and moves exclusively to feature films, because much like his character, this “Office” would keep right on tickin’ without him.

Favorite Episode: “The Injury” (Season 2)—Michael burns his foot in his George Foreman Grill, and Dwight goes to rescue him. Tears-down-the-cheeks hilarity ensues.



6. “Flight of the Conchords”
How can you resist Bret and Jemaine, otherwise known as Flight of the Conchords—New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo? These two lovable, doe-eyed morons delivered the best new comedy of the year, along with their even more clueless manager Murray (“New Zealand: Why not?”), and uber fan/stalker Mel. The key to the show is the contrast between Bret and Jemaine’s low-key, monotone real-life personalities and the extraordinary expressiveness they display during their inner monologue songs. “Business Time,” “Bowie’s in Space,” “What You’re In To” … every episode had at least one instant classic. So glad the show was picked up for another season.

Favorite Episode: “Mugged,” which featured Bret and Jemaine in their gangsta rap personalities, “Rhymenoceros” and “Hiphopopotamus,” whose rhymes are bottomless …



7. “Entourage”
“Entourage” may have leaned a bit too far toward the drama and away from the yuks, but the series gets massive credit for delivering, on the whole, entertainment of the highest quality for five straight months—a marathon in HBO’s world. Jeremy Piven remains the No. 1 reason to watch this show, but this year it got back to examining the underbelly deals of Hollywood. What I love about “Entourage,” other than the sparkling (if profane) dialogue, is the education it provides. My brother and I talk about this all the time: Watching this show, you come away feeling like you know a lot more about the business. And its writing staff continues to live right on the cutting edge of current trends and hot-button issues; just days after featuring a weed “doctor” in an episode, for example, a real-life huckster of the same ilk got busted in California. And in 2009, Javier Bardem will star in “Killing Pablo,” about, yep, Pablo Escobar, whom Vinny Chase portrays in the fictional biopic “Medellin.”

Favorite Episodes: Since “Entourage”—in HBO’s insane math—actually gave us two seasons this year, I gotta include two episodes. First, Season 4 premiere “Welcome to the Jungle” was a revelation in half-hour comedy filmmaking, as it took us on-set documentary-style for the production of “Medellin” (and provided one of the best Johnny Drama scenes ever). Second, “The WeHo Ho,” where Ari has to cover for Lloyd (the best secondary character on TV. Period.) so the loyal assistant can get out of trouble with his boyfriend and come back to work.


8. “The Sopranos”
After a disappointing 2006 run, the legendary HBO mob drama did return to form this year—for a while, anyway.

Favorite Episode: “Remember When,” Uncle Junior’s coup de grace.


AND THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF 2007 ARE …

1. “24”
No surprise here. Despite a few moments of grace here and there (the fight near the end of the season between Jack and the big bad terrorist was one of the best action scene of the series), this show experienced a rather stunning fall after 2006’s Emmy-winning Day 5. Day 7 isn’t off to a great start, either, what with multiple rewrites, Keifer Sutherland’s DUI arrest/jail time, and now postponed production due to the Writers Guild strike. I’m starting to think Jack Bauer isn’t the only one cursed.

Worst Episode: Wow, so many to choose from. I’ll go with the fourth episode of the season, “9:00-10:00 AM,” because the end of this installment is where the whole season started to go wrong. Up to this point, things were pretty good, what with Jack back from the clutches of the Chinese and dealing with the ramifications of his captivity and torture. But toward the end ***SPOILER ALERT*** Jack kills fellow CTU agent Curtis Manning, a choice that also proved fatal for the writers this season. Too many likeable characters were killed in too quick a time (going back to Day 5), leaving a huge vacuum in the show’s empathy quotient and too much screen time for weak members of the series (I’m looking right at you Morris!). And then to top it all off, the freakin’ nuclear bomb goes off in Valencia. This was WAY too early for such a dramatic event, and it established a plot hole so massive, not even the fantasy world of “24” could overcome it: There just wasn’t enough fallout after the bomb. For the most part, life in “24’s” California went on as if nuclear bombs go off all the time. Yes, this episode was the first step into Day 6’s abyss.


2. “Heroes”
I never fell head-over-heels for “Heroes” (it was always a bit too self-aware of its own mythology) but it was one of my favorite shows of 2006. Everything was going all right this year, too, right up until the final three episodes. Creator Tim Kring probably should have just stopped with the excellent time-warp-to-the-future episode “Five Years Gone,” because the show plummeted after that.

Worst Episode: “How to Stop an Exploding Man,” the Season 1 finale. So, so, so awful on every conceivable level. This episode was so bad, I immediately gave up on the series the second the credits started rolling, and haven’t watched it since. Good thing, too, since Kring gave Entertainment Weekly an exclusive interview a few weeks back frankly admitting how much Season 2 has sucked. Points for honesty, but nowhere near enough to bring me back.


3. “The Sopranos”
The finale sucked, plain and simple. Reiterating thoughts brought up by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m not one who needs everything tied up in a nice, tidy bow. But there are ways to do no resolution (see the series finale of “Deadwood,” for example) … and then there’s cutting to a black screen in the middle of a scene. It was cheap, gimmicky, and a deliberate F-you from David Chase. Which I guess shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Worst Episode: “Kennedy and Heidi” not only featured the stupid and unsatisfying death of my favorite “Sopranos” character, but it also provided the series’ last infamous Tony dream sequence. You either like these or you don’t. I do not.


4. “PTI”
The budding TV fame and success of co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon has not been good for this duo. With a year of “Monday Night Football” under his belt, Kornheiser is even more of an insufferable arrogant snob than ever—it used to be funny, now it’s just annoying. Wilbon’s on TV more and more now, too, which has relegated him to little more than talking-head status alongside his longtime buddy—the likes of which they’ve both abhorred and decried for years. When “PTI” first came on the air six years ago, both of these guys were still working regularly as columnists for The Washington Post; there were out there, down in the trenches. Now Kornheiser doesn’t write at all, and Wilbon only occasionally as they get sucked deeper and deeper into the ESPN bubble. Losing what little touch with reality they may have had working in the Post newsroom on a regular basis hasn’t been good for either of them and their groundbreaking sports debate show. Don’t get me wrong: I still watch it, but they’re both so full of themselves now, “PTI” has lost its singular humor, charm, and edge (they both suck up to everybody now, and Wilbon only gets animated about issues that don’t matter). Now I look forward to the days when the Miami Herald’s Dan le Betard subs for one of them, because he still gets it.


5. “Football Night in America”
I absolutely hate this show. It was in Week 1 of this season, I think, when I looked at the screen and realized there isn’t a single person on this Sunday-night recap show that I don’t despise, especially with the additions of the insufferable Keith Olbermann (who may actually be the Worst Person in the World) and Tiki Barber. All I want on Sunday nights is HIGHLIGHTS—and a lot of them. Since the NFL banned ESPN from running the infinitely superior “NFL Prime Time,” now all I get on NBC is 30 seconds of footage and 3 minutes of talking heads for each game. “Football Night in America” needs more actual football, because its current version is horrendous.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

'No Country for Old Men'


Your reaction to the Coen brothers’ latest movie, “No Country for Old Men,” will probably depend on what type of movie watcher you are.

If you’re the type that watches primarily for aesthetic reasons, you’ll absolutely love this film. The Coens have delivered a work that’s beautifully done in all the major categories: acting, directing, writing, and cinematography. Most critics fall into this first group, of course, which is why “No Country” has received such high praise; they watch so, so many movies, anything that’s made this well will always strike a chord, no matter if it’s missing little things like resolution or satisfactory conclusion (that actually helps get good reviews—the weirder the better, typically).

See, those last two are what your average moviegoer wants, and they’ll find none of it in “No Country for Old Men.” It’s impossible to tell why without spoiling the story, but I’ll just say that this movie does an exceedingly good job of building tension to an almost unbearable level, and then that tension is released off screen. It’s a complete letdown that leaves the remainder of Act 3 a complete wandering mess.

As a viewer, I’m somewhere between the above two categories. For the first two-thirds of this movie, I was in awe of how well it was done and excited to be seeing another good Western this fall (albeit a modern version) where even the sounds of footfalls in the dirt feel significant. Every major character is portrayed with quiet, flawless precision by a roster of actors that could legitimately earn multiple Oscar nods: Tommy Lee Jones has never looked more weatherworn than he does here as a small-town Texas sheriff; Josh Brolin (you remember him, the older brother from “The Goonies”?) is pitch-perfect as a Vietnam vet taking a desperate shot at the brass ring when a drug deal goes bad and leaves $2 million up for grabs; Javier Bardem (pictured above) is magnetic and terrifying as the mercenary hired to hunt down Brolin; and Woody Harrelson saunters onscreen for a casually cool cameo not to be missed.

But all this pristinely captured sound and fury ends up signifying nothing. I get what the Coens are trying to say—that this is a brutal, violent world that beats you down the older you get, and that brutal violence can come from anywhere, especially when you’re not looking for it. That message isn’t strong enough, though, to make up for an ending so unsatisfying it probably makes David Chase jealous.

Grade: B-

Friday, November 23, 2007

2007: My 25 Songs of the Year

Once again, in honor of Black Friday I give you 25 songs that made a big impact on me this past year—everything listed here comes highly recommended, obviously. Keep in mind, these didn’t necessarily come out in 2007. I’m frequently behind the times (sometimes by several decades); elsewhere, old favorites were made new again for various reasons. And for the first time, this year I also name my favorite albums, rather than just songs. Without further ado …

CO-ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
“Icky Thump,” The White Stripes/“Raising Sand,” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Based on my review for “Icky Thump,” it’s not hard to see why this album has been at the top of my list for the latter half of this year. It was untouchable, I thought, but that was before Plant and Krauss unveiled their heavenly concoction of covers just last month. “Raising Sand” isn’t the type of album I usually go head over heels for—it’s a little mellow and quiet for my tastes. I loved it instantly, though, because their voices fit together so well; the more I’ve listened to it, the better it’s become.

So thinking “Raising Sand” was my new 2007 top dog, I went back and gave “Icky Thump” another spin just to be sure. Well, after shelving the Stripes’ latest masterpiece for a couple months, the album came roaring back to life—maybe with even more strength. One thing I find interesting and appealing about both of these records is that they actually get stronger the further you get into them; there’s no easy track to skip, no good place to stop, and in a rare twist their B sides are as strong or stronger than the A sides. Once I push play, I’m almost compelled to listen all the way through each.

So how to pick between two albums with no weaknesses? Easy: Don’t choose, just enjoy.

Runners-up
“Is Is,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs/“Sink or Swim,” The Gaslight Anthem

I’ve written about both of these, too, so not much need to rehash here. “Sink or Swim” was without question my Summer 2007 record—perfect for playing at high volumes during late-night drives.

SONG OF THE YEAR
“Keep the Car Running,” Arcade Fire (from 2007’s “Neon Bible”)

I knew this was gonna be the one from the first time I heard it (and basically said as much in my review). It stops me dead in my tracks every time it comes on. It’s ethereal, gorgeous, rollicking, ramshackle, mesmerizing … and those a capella breaks just kill me. It immediately reminded me of Springsteen, so it was nice to have that notion confirmed last month when Bruce and the E Street Band covered the song live in concert. What better endorsement could there possibly be for this wonderful piece? I just love everything about it.

Runners-up
Eddie Vedder covers, well, everybody: “Hard Sun”/“Love Reign O’er Me”/“All Along the Watchtower”

It was quite an “off” year for Mr. Vedder, unleashing three of the best vocal performances of his career. Just one of these songs would have been enough to satisfy this Pearl Jam fan a year after the band’s triumphal self-titled effort of 2006. But Vedder outdid himself in 2007. As I wrote in January, I feel some of his best work is done on other people’s original material, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he made these three epic tours de force wholly his own. Even still, I was shocked each time at how good these three cuts are. His voice certainly has changed over the years, but if this is where it’s heading, I’m absolutely and totally fine with it. Go listen to “Hard Sun” through a good pair of headphones to hear what I’m talking about.

THE OTHER 21
“All the Way,” Gasoline Heart (from 2006’s “You Know What You Are”)

My favorite track from an album I let sit around for too long before discovering how excellent it is. Lots of good tracks here, but “All the Way” summarizes the Tom Petty/Pearl Jam/Foo Fighters vibe Gasoline Heart embodies.

“Business Time,” Flight of the Conchords (from 2007’s “The Distant Future” EP)
Winner of the 2007 Pleasant Surprise Award for television, Flight of the Conchords had me cracking up all summer. This is one of several songs from the new HBO TV show that achieved instant cult-classic status, led by Jemaine, my preferred Conchord: “You know when I’m down to just my socks what time it is … it’s business time!” Makes me laugh every time.

“Days,” the Kinks (from 1968)
How did I go my whole life before this year without listening to the Kinks? I don’t know how it happened, but I’m glad to have corrected the error in 2007. For anyone who thinks there’s nothing more to this band than “You Really Got Me,” I encourage you to pick up the 2002 two-disc “The Ultimate Collection.” “Days” just jumped out at me the first time I listened through that comp. It’s a powerful, bittersweet eulogy from lead singer Ray Davies.

“Extreme Ways,” Moby (from 2002’s “18”)
Otherwise known as “The Jason Bourne Theme.” Need I say more? Could’ve put this killer track on my 2004 list, too. The Bourne movies are some of my all-time faves, and the chiming, high-pitched intro to this song is indelibly linked to them. It’s one of those tracks (like “Woke Up This Morning”) you’d think was written specifically for the soundtrack but actually wasn’t. Take these lines, for instance, sung by Moby with just the right note of strain and desperation in his voice:

I’ve seen so much in so many places
So many heartaches, so many faces
So many dirty things
You couldn’t believe


If that doesn’t sum up Jason Bourne, nothing does.

“Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” Jay-Z (from 2001’s “The Blueprint”)
From the first moment this song came pounding out of the theater speakers during the trailer for “American Gangster,” I was hooked. As is typically the case with Jay-Z, though, this cut succeeds despite his rather mediocre lyrics—his powerful voice and persona speak more than his actual words. The heart of this track is the fabulous wall-of-sound production work by Kanye West, building off a sample of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s original R&B beauty (from which Jay-Z took the song’s title). A track like this makes it easy to see why West would soon take over the hip-hop world. It’s a broad, mythically virtuoso studio performance, and it was an inspired choice for the film’s trailer.

“Icky Thump,” The White Stripes (from 2007’s “Icky Thump”)
There are several songs on the Stripes’ return to form I actually like more than the album’s eponymous opening track (“A Martyr for My Love for You” or “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” to name a couple), but “Icky Thump” was the track that had the most impact. After 2005’s scattershot “Get Behind Me Satan,” “Thump” proved Jack White hadn’t forgotten about his electric guitar and that he was still willing and able to call down the hammer of the gods. The only thing that hampers this song is White’s illegal immigration chatter; other than that, it’s an absolute monster, and a new iconic track for the band.

“Jesus,” Brand New (from 2006’s “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me”)
Covered this one in my review from earlier this year, but I’ll just reiterate how much I love the hypnotic guitar part on this change-of-pace track from Brand New’s best album yet. Jesse Lacey’s introspective, spiritual lyrics take this one over the top.

“Meet Me in the City,” The Black Keys (from 2006’s “Chulahoma” EP)
This charming, mellow groove introduced me to The Black Keys, one of my new favorite bands (again, how I missed them for the past several years, I don’t know). I recommend not only all of “Chulahoma,” but also the harder-driving “Rubber Factory” from 2004 and as well as 2003’s “thickfreakness.” Can’t say enough good things about this band.

“Middle of the Road,” The Pretenders (from 1984’s “Learning to Crawl”)
Another how-could-I-miss-them band I finally got around to this year. “Middle of the Road” stood out for me among the band’s many hits.

“Muzzle,” The Smashing Pumpkins (from 1995’s “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”)

I basically covered everything needs be said about the Pumpkins in my July review/post about “Zeitgeist.” “Muzzle,” with its gorgeous and soaring melody, is hands-down my favorite SP song, and it was nice to go back and listen to it so much this past year. It’s 3 minutes and 44 seconds of Pumpkins perfection.

“My Love for You Is Real,” Ryan Adams (from 2007’s “Follow the Lights” EP)
For the past several months, I’ve been debating about which song from Ryan Adams’ 2007 full-length “Easy Tiger” to put on this list. Eventually I just settled on all of the first three tracks on the disc, because they went so well together. And then “My Love for You” came along and essentially summarized the goodness that is that trio into one gorgeous ballad. Quandary solved.

“My Moon My Man,” Feist (from 2007’s “The Reminder”)
Sure “1 2 3 4” got all the pub, but this is my favorite track off Leslie Feist’s breakthrough album. One of the things I love about her is the little catch she has in her silky voice; that quirk is on full display here. If “The Reminder” had a few more energetic numbers like this, it would have been one of my favorite albums of the year.

“Please Read the Letter,” Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (from 2007’s “Raising Sand”)
Amazing what a fresh treatment and the addition of Alison Krauss’ voice and violin can do for a song. This lover’s lament didn’t exactly jump off the disc when Plant originally recorded it nearly a decade ago with fellow Led Zeppelin alum Jimmy Page. This version, however, is a showstopper in an album full of them. Plant’s collaboration with Krauss has obviously reinvigorated the leonine rock icon; he sounds as good as ever on this track. Simply beautiful, and hopefully there’s more where this came from.

“Sealings,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack)
“Spider-Man 3” the movie may have been a bit disappointing, but the soundtrack produced two of my favorite songs of the year. First up is this swirling gem from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was quite a year for the YYYs, as I could have put basically any of the five cuts from their “Is Is” EP on here, too. “Sealings” gets the nod because I really like how the song moves through different acts, from the murky opening minute to the incendiary first verse/chorus, to the “woooooooo” bridge, and back again. One of the New York trio’s best.

“Signal Fire,” Snow Patrol (from 2007’s “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack)
A fitting follow-up to the Irish quintet’s 2006 breakthrough smash “Chasing Cars,” “Signal Fire” deals in the same arena-ready rock/ballad style. It actually may shade a bit too far in that direction for my taste, but I’ll still take it because I love the orchestration and pounding drums. Much like Dashboard Confessional’s “Vindicated” from “Spider-Man 2,” “Signal Fire” captures the mood of the movie superbly.

“Terry’s Song,” Bruce Springsteen (from 2007’s “Magic”)
There really isn’t a bad song on “Magic,” but this intended throwaway (it’s not even on the tracklist) actually stands out above the rest. Sounding like the best song Neil Young never wrote for “Harvest,” “Terry’s Song” is the most honest moment on “Magic,” an album that wastes a ferocious and red-hot E Street Band on forced political messages. This quiet, powerful eulogy showcases Springsteen at his relatable, everyman best.

“The State of Massachusetts,” Dropkick Murphys (from 2007’s “The Meanest Times”)
Pretty much covered this song in my review. When the Murphys are on fire like this, they’re tough to beat. Another track to play at maximum volume, and one of my all-time favorites from this bunch of Boston rabble-rousers. A fitting sequel to 2005’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” without rehashing what made that song great. “State” gets my blood boiling in all the right ways.

“We Came to Dance,” Gaslight Anthem (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)
Comparisons to Springsteen’s “Jungleland” shouldn’t be thrown around casually, and I’m not doing so here when I say “We Came to Dance” reminds me of the Boss’ classic. “Dance” doesn’t sound like “Jungleland” really in the slightest, but it carries the same gesture and intent; it shares the same headspace, the same tone of last-chance desperation and hope. A brilliant song, one of several on “Sink or Swim.”

“What More Can I Say,” Danger Mouse (from 2004’s “The Grey Album”)
Yes, I’m surprised there are two Jay-Z songs on my list this year (much less even one), but once again this track is more about the production than Jigga himself. After the disappointment of the ridiculously overhyped “LOVE” remixing of The Beatles from last year, I went back to this true mash-up of The Fab Four’s “White Album” with Jay-Z’s “Black Album” from producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse (one half of Gnarls Barkley). I could have picked any of about six songs to include on this list, that’s how good “The Grey Album” is; I went with “What More Can I Say” because it works off my favorite track from “The White Album,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” of course.

“Wolf Like Me,” TV on the Radio (from 2006’s “Return to Cookie Mountain”)
One of the best-reviewed albums of last year just happened to come out at the same time as Johnny Cash’s “American V,” a record that dominated my musical life in 2006. Combine that poor timing with the fact that “Cookie Mountain” takes a few listens to sink in, and this disc unfortunately got pushed aside. I picked it back up early this year and “Wolf Like Me” was my gateway to an excellent album that refuses to be pigeonholed in any one genre. This song is a visceral powerhouse that virtually demands playback at an intolerably high volume.

“You Are My Face,” Wilco (from 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky”)
Wilco’s first release in three years wasn't quite what I was hoping for, but I think it laid a solid foundation for what Jeff Tweedy believes will be a stable lineup for the future (that would be nice). Picking a song from that album came down to two: “You Are My Face” and “Impossible Germany”; “Face” gets the edge for its majestic movement between whispery verses and Pink Floyd-style crashing choruses.

And while I’m at it …

MY 25 FAVORITE BANDS/MUSICIANS OF THE MOMENT (in alphabetical order and subject to change in another moment)
AFI
Ryan Adams
Arcade Fire
The Black Keys
The Bouncing Souls
Brand New
Johnny Cash
Danger Mouse
Dashboard Confessional (though I admit they’re basically done—the new album isn’t much)
Dropkick Murphys
Flogging Molly (new album in the spring—hooray!)
The Gaslight Anthem
Gasoline Heart
Alison Krauss
PJ Harvey (though the new album is quite disappointing—I’m afraid her best days are behind her)
Pearl Jam
Tom Petty
Robert Plant
Silversun Pickups
Snow Patrol
Bruce Springsteen
U2
The White Stripes
Wilco
Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Monday, November 19, 2007

‘American Gangster’


Since seeing this movie last weekend, I’ve been through one of the toughest work weeks of my life. Thus, I’m a little worse for wear and severely lacking in the eloquence this fabulous film deserves.

So let me just say this is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are absolutely phenomenal; both play their characters down a bit, an excellent choice in a genre that lends itself to excess (it would have been easy for Washington to go into “Scarface” territory). Director Ridley Scott takes his time in letting his epic’s deep and complicated storylines play out. This movie never rushes, and yet it never drags, even at 157 minutes long.

“American Gangster” doesn’t make the crime life look sexy, nor does it lionize law enforcement officers. Both sides of the drug war are treated fairly and with depth. Oh, and the music is fabulous.

It’s a shame this film comes on the heels of last year’s Oscar-winning “The Departed,” because “Gangster” is actually better but probably won’t get the recognition it deserves due to stupid Academy politics.

Grade: A

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, ‘Follow the Lights’—and Other EPs I Love


Ryan Adams’ latest release is satisfying and frustrating for the same reason: If a few of the songs found here had made their way onto “Easy Tiger,” the prolific singer/songwriter’s full-length release from June, that album may have ranked as one of his best efforts.

I have no idea why the mercurial Adams decided to leave both “Follow the Lights” and especially the sublime “My Love for You Is Real” off “Tiger,” but these songs alone make this seven-track EP more than worth the five bucks it costs. The latter is a splendid straightforward love song Adams has been carrying around in his big bag of gems for the better part of a decade; it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorites. A song written during the “Gold” period (I'm pretty sure, anyway), “My Love for You” is definitely reminiscent of that point in his career with its focused, polished, yet still adventurous vibe. It starts out quietly, growing in passion and intensity as more instruments join the fray for an extended electric/acoustic jam. The track would have fit in so nicely with the fabulous opening trio from “Easy Tiger,” but thus is the give-and-take of loving this man’s music—you never get exactly what you want when you want it.

This new EP also features a killer country version of Alice in Chains’ “Down in a Hole,” which Adams has been trotting out to rave reviews while on tour this year. A man very publicly recovering from substance abuse, Adams makes this song wholly his own, and his version holds its own against anything he’s ever recorded. This is an absolute must for any AIC fan—or Adams fan, for that matter. “Hole” is coupled with another cover, Willie Nelson’s “Blue Hotel,” which hails from the country legend’s “Songbird,” an album produced by Adams last year.

The remaining three songs are reworkings of Adams’ own songs, and they achieve varying levels of success. “This Is It” is the lead track off 2003’s “Rock N Roll,” Adams’ ill-fated attempt at gutter rock. This version is far superior, proving once again how valuable the Cardinals are to Adams as a backbone to his music.

This EP only fails with its final two entries. First up is a stripped-down approach to “If I Am a Stranger,” one of the best tracks off 2005’s “Cold Roses.” The song is so good it’ll play well no matter how Adams records it and the slightly altered arrangement here is fine, but I don’t really see the point of including it. Same goes for the barely-discernible differences in the re-arranged “Dear John” (from 2005’s “Jacksonville City Nights”), which closes the EP. These two tracks are fine, I guess, but for a guy who writes songs like breathing, I find it odd he wouldn’t dig up a couple more new tracks for an official release. These last two kill the momentum of the disc and end an otherwise excellent EP with a bit of a whimper.

Grade: B+

***

Between this post over at Fuel/Friends and the strength of new EPs from Adams and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I’ve been thinking a lot about the format recently. Know what I’ve discovered? I love them, despite myself.

I’ve always thought of EPs as lesser releases, wishing the band would have just pushed on for a full album of new material. Plus, it kinda annoyed me to listen to them on a practical level; they’re over so quickly it was barely worth putting them in the CD player. But with the advent of the iPod, where it’s so easy to jump from album to album, the EP has undergone a reawakening in my musical rotation. It surprised me to find on further contemplation how much I love some of those in my collection, and how high they rank in the catalogs of some of my favorite artists. Here’s a list of some of my favorites:

“Chulahoma,” The Black Keys (2006)—You’d be hard-pressed to find a better collection of six guitar-driven, brawny blues tracks than those included on the latest release from this excellent two-piece band. Someone sent me “Meet Me in the City,” the third song off this EP, on a mix CD and I was hooked instantly. If The White Stripes are Led Zeppelin, then the Keys are Stevie Ray Vaughn—a bit mellower and more down-to-earth, but enthralling all the same. Also recommended (and equally excellent): 2004’s “Rubber Factory.”

“So Impossible,” Dashboard Confessional (2001)—A concept album in four songs, this release vividly describes all the nervous and exciting stages of newfound love—from the silent pining of “For You to Notice,” to the this-might-just-work hope of the title track, to the pre-date jitters of “Remember to Breathe,” to the triumphant glee of “Hands Down.” This is my favorite D/C release.

“Recently,” Dave Matthews Band (1994)—Five songs of perfection, “Recently” is DMB at their best. Every cut—recorded live—is a band classic played with incendiary fervor. Revisiting this disc now (also my favorite of their entire catalog), it’s easy to remember why this was one of my favorite groups for a long period of my life. They’ve fallen a long way in the intervening years, but the “Recently” EP remains untainted in its greatness.

“Merkinball,” Pearl Jam w/Neil Young (1995)—One of the most powerful one-two punches in Pearl Jam’s catalog, the two songs found here—“I Got Shit” and “Long Road”—deliver on the tantalizing promise of PJ’s work with their godfather, Neil Young, that wasn’t quite fulfilled with “Mirrorball,” Young Neil’s full-length from earlier that year that featured PJ as the backing band. These are without question two of Pearl Jam’s best songs, and I feel their work with Young set a new course for the band that resulted in two stellar follow-up albums, “No Code” and “Yield.” There’s a reason why these songs continue to pop up with regularity at shows more than a decade later: “Merkinball” is essential Pearl Jam listening.

“7,” U2 (2002)—This Target exclusive came completely out of nowhere but delivered some choice cuts from U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” period. First and foremost is the alternate version of “Walk On,” which features the “Hallelujah” outro chorus—one of my favorite moments of U2’s entire catalog. Also included here is an alternate—and far, far superior—acoustic version of “Stuck in a Moment,” stripped of all the studio cheese found on the official release two years prior. “Summer Rain” is a fun b-side, and “Always” showed us what “Beautiful Day” evolved from. I also love the inclusion of the “Elevation (Influx Remix),” since the band used this as its walk-on music for the 2001 tour of the same name. This EP is probably forgotten by now to most of the U2 community, but I still return to it regularly.

“Wide Awake in America,” U2 (1985)—An albeit abridged companion piece of the “Unforgettable Fire” tour, the two b-sides on this quickie are actually rather forgettable. It’s the two live cuts that make this disc essential: the always thrilling “A Sort of Homecoming,” and a version of “Bad” that I remember reading somewhere described as the defining recording of this classic song.

“Is Is,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2007)—Not much to add here from what I wrote last month. This is definitely one of my favorite discs of 2007, and maybe even better than the band’s last full-length, 2006’s “Show Your Bones.” As soon as it finishes, I just want to listen to it again. And again. And again.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, ‘Raising Sand’


Let me say right off the top I don’t have the musical history or dexterity to decompress in detail the brilliance that is “Raising Sand,” an inspired album of covers from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. If you’d like a song-by-song breakdown, I refer you to the excellent review from All Music Guide.

What I can give you is my personal reaction to this album, which is something along the lines of perfect bliss. When I first heard about this effort several months ago I was caught off guard by the randomness of it. But after the initial shock wore off, the fervent anticipation kicked in. “Raising Sand” doesn’t disappoint; if anything, it exceeds my lofty expectations.

Plant and Krauss possess two of my favorite voices in all of music. The former baptized me in rock and roll as a child; the first time I heard his call to arms on "Black Dog" was, quite literally, a life-changing event. I didn’t come across Krauss until hearing her on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, but I’ve been in love with her heavenly pipes ever since.

On “Raising Sand,” these two icons blend perfectly. The album is, on the whole, a quiet affair, but not in that whispery indie way that I abhor. Instead, it sounds like the gentle meeting of two like-minded musicians who are trying, unselfishly, to make room for one another, feeling their way as they go. Their respective powers aren’t diminished; they simply don’t feel the need to call down the hammer of the gods to prove their mettle. That power is bubbling just below the surface, though, and the restraint and intimacy of these recordings is what gives “Raising Sand” its core strength. On several cuts one singer serves as the primary vocalist while the other drifts in and out of the frame, filling in the gaps with complementary goodness.

My favorite song on the album is “Please Read the Letter,” a throwaway from Plant’s 1998 collaboration with Jimmy Page, “Walking to Clarksdale.” Slowing the tempo, stripping away the electric guitar bombast of that earlier treatment, and adding Krauss’ voice and sterling violin transforms this piece into a sweeping acoustic masterpiece.

But, really, there’s no wrong turn on “Raising Sand,” where every song is a standout for its own reasons. I’ll recommend Krauss’ haunting lead on “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”; the bluesy, Zeppelin-esque “Nothin’,” where Plant’s voice meets Krauss’ violin in some otherworldly realm; and “Your Long Journey,” a hymnal and more traditional duet. The album is peaceful yet exciting, instantly accessible yet challenging. It rewards multiple listens, and is without question one of the best releases of this or any other year.

Grade: A+

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Assassination of The Smashing Pumpkins by the Coward Billy Corgan


Last week, I received an e-mail promoting The Smashing Pumpkins' latest "release," a re-issue of "Zeitgeist," which came out only three months ago. You may recall from my RELEVANT review that the original "Zeitgeist" itself was issued in five different formats through separate retailers, each disc holding one "exclusive" track each. It was a horrendous money-grab to try and milk die-hard fans for more album sales.

This is even worse. The new re-issue collects a couple of those exclusive tracks, plus adds one more unreleased song and throws in a DVD documentary (as if I want to learn more about this cheapened "reunion")—all exclusively at Buy More, er, I mean Best Buy. I cannot believe how far Corgan has fallen in less than a decade. Remember, in 2000 this same man released the band's then-final album, "MACHINA II," for FREE to select fans with his blessing to distribute it—again, for FREE—throughout the Internet. Now in his vainglorious return, he's bilking those same fans for all they're worth. I bought one copy of "Zeitgeist" (the one from Target), listened to it enough times only to give a fair review, and haven't touched it since. The album sucks, and I'm glad I haven't plunked down any more dough to see this bastardized version of a once great band on tour—Corgan doesn't deserve any more of my money.

Contrast this Pumpkins fiasco with Wilco, one of the most fan-friendly bands on the planet. Wilco is re-releasing its latest album, "Sky Blue Sky," in Europe with an extra EP of live and studio cuts that weren't on the original. But here's the thing: If you've already bought the CD (which, of course, I have), all you have to do is stick it in your computer, go to Wilco's web site, and you can download the EP for FREE. (They did the exact same thing with 2004's "A Ghost Is Born.")

Not only that, but on the most recent leg of Wilco's North American tour, they actually allowed fans to send in song requests via the Internet, then did their best to play some of those requests at their shows. Of course they still stuck with their basic set for the "SBS" tour, but if you check out the recent setlists over at WilcoBase, it's plain to see they honored several of those entries. Tweedy said now that the band finally has settled into a stable lineup, this has been a great way to force his relatively new bandmates to go back and learn some of Wilco's older material; and, of course, there's the added benefit of interacting with the audience.

I know making records is a business, and I'm certainly not one of those DIY maniacs. The term "sellout" is so overused, it's basically meaningless at this point. But you couldn't find two clearer examples here of how to treat your fans with respect, or how to screw them out of every last penny. Not surprisingly, the band that gets it right time and time again is still artistically viable; the band that didn't is nothing more than a rehashed shadow of its former greatness treading on past successes.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sign of the Apocalypse No. 2

Russell Freakin' Crowe is in the "Monday Night Football" booth. Right now. And he's already corrected Mike "The ESPN Toad" Tirico on a mistake. And they're talking about … rugby.

This is surreal. And ridiculous. He looks just the right mixture of mild irritation/boredom, and is dripping with just the right amount of condescension.

I love this guy. I cannot WAIT for "American Gangster."

Sign of the Apocalypse No. 1

Never thought I'd see the day, but my boy Tobin is now a member of the blogosphere. Check out "Eric's random thoughts" (mostly about sports, so far) over at http://erocstrat.blogspot.com.
Congrats, Tobey-Wan Kenobi. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Hives: Live at the Black Cat, 10.17.07


The Hives’ hyped reputation as live performers is well earned, as they proved Wednesday night with a nuclear set at the Black Cat in D.C.

The Swedish quintet is touring this fall with Maroon 5, an unlikely pairing that serves as an attempt to spread its version of dance punk rock to the pop-loving masses. Not content to sit on their laurels in between shows, however, at certain cities during this run the Hives are doing their own thing at small clubs like the Black Cat, a venue that seemed barely able to contain the band’s manic power.

Well, really, it couldn’t. Aptly named frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist was all over the stage during his band’s blistering 70-minute set, frequently hanging from a well-used metal pipe above the stage; at one point near the end of the show he went back and stood on the drum kit, his head up between the ceiling’s rafters.

Almqvist is a sight to behold on stage, dressed like his bandmates in a matching black suit. He never stops moving, whether he’s leaning into the crowd, spinning the microphone a la Roger Daltrey, or delivering jump kicks to punctuate his band’s fiery tempos. He also maintained a constant chatter between songs, playing on he and his band’s charming egomania—“Yes, it is true. We are here in person,” he quipped early in the show. “You can touch me if you like.”

I wasn’t taking notes so I unfortunately can’t offer up an official setlist, but I know the Hives blew threw most of the songs you’d expect and want from their catalog: “Main Offender,” “A.K.A. I-D-I-O-T,” “Walk Idiot Walk,” “Die, All Right!”, “Supply and Demand,” and, of course, “Hate to Say I Told You So,” their breakthrough hit from 2000’s “Veni Vidi Vicious.” A 70-minute show might seem a little short, but considering this band’s albums barely crack half an hour, they were able to power through quite a bit of material in such a short time. That included a few choice cuts from the forthcoming “The Black and White Album” (it’s already out overseas but doesn’t hit Stateside until next month). From the sound of things Wednesday night, this should be another excellent collection.

The biggest thing I took away from this week’s show, though, is how much pure joy and fun the Hives seem to be having onstage, and how much of that translates to the audience. The frenetic music is upbeat, Almqvist is undeniably charismatic, and you get the feeling they’re perfectly comfortable playing to 1,000 people in a little club or 20,000 at a big arena. Set ’em up, and the Hives will knock ’em down. I was wearing a huge grin most of the night, because this band attacks with everything they’re worth; you’d have to work really hard not to have a good time at their gig. What more can you ask from a rock and roll band?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Magic’


Jon Landau is a liar.

In the runup to the release of Bruce Springsteen’s latest record, “Magic,” the Boss’ longtime manager, collaborator, and friend claimed the album isn’t dominated by politics. That’s frankly and utterly untrue: “Magic” is actually the most overtly political and partisan album of Springsteen’s long and storied career.

It’s not surprising that Landau would employ such a strategery. It’s his job to make sure Springsteen makes money, and he knows this album is going to alienate a large chunk of its potential customers. The blatant partisanship on display throughout goes a long way toward negating the feel-good vibes associated with the reassembly of the vaunted E Street Band (this is the first Springsteen release to feature his beloved mates since 2002’s “The Rising”).

But it’s also ironic, disingenuous, and downright hypocritical that Springsteen’s advocate and spokesman would shade the truth about an album accusing politicians of doing that very same thing. The CD’s title track isn’t referring to anything ethereal or otherworldly; Springsteen’s focus is the method behind the trick—deception, illusion, misinformation. One look at Bruce’s scowling, grizzled visage on the front cover should tell you this record isn’t about having fun.

The majority of “Magic’s” 11 tracks touch on Springsteen’s feelings about the current state of the union in one way or another, informed seemingly chapter and verse from the tired, standard liberal talking points of the day. “Gypsy Biker” tells the story of family and town dealing with the returning corpse of a solider in a “fools parade,” on whose blood “speculators made their money.” The supposed loss of freedoms in the name of homeland security crops up throughout the record, most blatantly during “Long Walk Home.” “Livin’ in the Future,” meanwhile, references Springsteen’s participation in the 2004 Vote for Change tour, where “I opened up my heart to you/it got all damaged and undone/My ship Liberty sailed away on/a bloody red horizon.” And after all that effort, he still “woke up Election Day/skies gunpowder and shades of gray” and had to suffer the indignity of watching President Bush “come walkin’ through town/Your boot heels clickin’/Like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ ’round.”

The aforementioned “Magic,” sung from the perspective of, presumably, President Bush, warns:

I got a shiny saw blade
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While you’re smiling ear to ear
And the freedom that you sought’s
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees

(On a side note: It continues to mystify me how the president’s critics believe he’s a moron and a master deceiver and manipulator all at the same time.)


And then there’s “Last to Die,” a piece of utter propaganda whose oft-repeated chorus blares: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake.” This phrase sticks out like a sore thumb; for a man who accuses the president of trading on the emotions of 9/11 and the blood of our fighting men, how is Springsteen’s use of wounded and dead soldiers to make a point any different? A line like this is beneath the Boss.

The one place he gets it right is finale “Devil’s Arcade,” a sympathetic, heart-stopping story of a wounded veteran back home with his beloved after surviving the horrors of battle. It begins with a subdued organ, then violin, and continues adding pieces of the E Street Band until building to a thrilling climax. We’re left with the soldier wanting to feel nothing but the beating of his lover’s heart—and all the while Mighty Max Weinberg’s drums hammer and thunder away to close the record.

That’s the real shame about this album. Landau was right-on about one thing: The E Street Band is absolutely on fire, sounding even better than it did on “The Rising.” There are bits and pieces of just about every phase of Springsteen’s 35-year career represented here: The Clarence Clemons-driven “Livin’ in the Future” is a distant cousin of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”; “Magic” is a quiet acoustic number of spellbinding power reminiscent of the best moments of “Nebraska” or “Ghost of Tom Joad”; “Radio Nowhere” is one of the meanest, hardest-rocking songs Springsteen’s ever written; “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is a pure pop masterpiece; “Gypsy Biker” and “Long Walk Home” are simply gorgeous, expansive rock songs on every conceivable level—in other words, what Springsteen does best.

As a whole, the album is most like his 1984 pop/rock smash “Born in the U.S.A.”—without the cheesy synthesizers. These new songs rarely stretch past four minutes, and—learning a valuable lesson from the overlong “Rising”—“Magic” powers along and breezes by in 45 minutes. And I don’t know what kind of magic producer Brendan O’Brien pulled off in the studio, but Springsteen’s voice hasn’t sounded this steady and clear in two decades.

But I just can’t get past the lyrics. I don’t care how much you hate George W. Bush (I’m certainly not a fan, even though I held my nose and voted for him last time around), you and I aren’t from the same planet if you can absorb blatantly political songs into your soul. If someone had written a similar record 10 years ago bashing Bill Clinton, I certainly couldn’t see myself still listening to those songs. These tracks are all great for riding in the car—when the words are more difficult to make out—but Springsteen’s naked intent casts a pall over much of this record that is too hard to get through.

My favorite song on the entire album doesn’t even appear on the track list. “Magic’s” 12th and final entry is simply named “Terry’s Song,” a basic piano/guitar/harmonica tribute to another longtime Springsteen collaborator, Terry Magovern. Sounding like it’s straight off Neil Young’s 1972 classic “Harvest,” this beautiful and haunting eulogy will stop you cold with its honest emotion and love—no point to make, other than honoring a friend.

The “Magic” sessions were so prolific for Springsteen, there’s talk of a whole other album’s worth of material left over that didn’t fit the mold and mood of this release—there’s even chatter we could hear these songs as early as next spring. My hope is that Springsteen said all he wanted to about the president and the war on this record, and the remaining songs are on his brilliant down-to-earth level. Because “Magic” truly is a fabulous listen if you can tune out the partisanship. I would relish hearing more of where these songs came from.

Grade: B+

***On a related note: The Springsteen community is abuzz this week with the news that Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the husband-and-wife team that founded Arcade Fire, joined Springsteen for two songs during Sunday’s set in Ottawa, Canada (the Fire are from Canada, you see). In the encore, the Boss brought them onstage for the long-lost “State Trooper” and then covered the Fire’s “Keep the Car Running.” The latter is not only my favorite Arcade Fire song (it hails from this year’s “Neon Bible”), but maybe the best song I’ve heard all year. It’s fitting, too, because Springsteen was the first influence I thought of when I heard the song for the first time. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see the Fire live yet, but from everything I’ve read and heard, Springsteen could do a whole lot worse in the pass-the-torch category. I’ve only found a rough recording of the “Running” performance so far, but the E Street Band powering this anthem still gave me chills. Here’s hoping there’s a good tape about to surface somewhere.***

Sunday, October 14, 2007

New Blog: Riding the Metro

This weekend I launched a new, more traditional blog. I dubbed it "Down With the Freaks and the Ghouls" (bonus points for whomever knows where that line comes from), and you can find it at ridingthemetro.blogspot.com.

The new site is pretty self-explanatory, but basically it's going to be a personal record of the insane things I see riding Washington, D.C.'s subway system every day. The first few posts up there are just things I remember from the past few days—I meant to start doing this years ago and the idea never came to fruition for some reason. But it's just too much good material to leave unwritten. The goal is to update it on a daily basis, as soon as I get home from work.

You're in my world now, Grandma.

‘Heroes Die,’ by Matthew Stover

I recently finished reading “Heroes Die,” an excellent sci-fi/fantasy novel by Matthew Stover. I don’t post much about books around here, but this work is so fascinating, it requires a mention.

Stover wrote one of my favorite Star Wars novels, 2002’s “Traitor,” a crucial entry in the sprawling “New Jedi Order” series. “Traitor” stands out among the morass of SW fiction because it’s so different from all the others, eschewing straightforward storytelling for more nonlinear, challenging, and thought-provoking prose; nothing about it wrapped up into the typical nice, neat bundle by the end. And even though it remains Stover’s only entry in the post-“Return of the Jedi” Star Wars Expanded Universe, “Traitor” nonetheless irrevocably changed the tone of the NJO and continues to affect the current (albeit middling) “Legacy of the Force” series some five years later.

“Traitor” was also a big deal for Stover as an author, as it effectively put him on the sci-fi/fantasy literary map. Although his first novel, “Iron Dawn,” was published in 1997, “Heroes Die” is his only work still in print (more’s the pity).

“Heroes Die” is a heady brew of gut-clenching action, social and political commentary, and romance. Here's a description to make your head spin: The novel is a combination of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series, and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy. It’s set in a not-too-distant future, presumably after some cataclysmic event has forever altered global society (keep in mind, this was written in 1995, pre-9/11). To get away from the horrors of daily life, where a good number of Earth’s population are little more than slaves, citizens turn to entertainment, and technology has advanced to the point where they can virtually live through created characters’ lives. Here’s the catch: What the characters go through isn’t make-believe. When they’re out on Adventure and get stabbed, they really do get stabbed. No stunt doubles, collapsing blades, and fake blood here.

The Actors’ Adventures occur on Overworld, a planet in an alternate universe that’s straight out of a medieval fantasy novel. Like Goodkind’s “Truth” series, this is a violent world ruled by an all-powerful godlike figure who, though ruthless as a Hitler, believes he’s doing the work of a god for the benefit of his people. And like Gibson’s use of “flipping” into a virtual realm, the Actors in Stover’s novel are actually physically transported to this Overworld and dropped into the middle of strenuous situations; while they engage in their Adventures, the folks back home see and feel everything as though they’re riding right behind the Actors’ eyes.

The fabulous main character is an Actor named Hari Michaelson, whose Overworld persona Caine is a legendary knife-wielding assassin in the mold of Jason Bourne. In “Heroes Die,” Stover pits Michaelson/Caine against the powers-that-be in both worlds; as he struggles to save his wife’s life from the sword-and-sorcery of Overworld, he must simultaneously navigate the politics of Earth and, somehow, try to not get dead on either side.

Don’t expect to gain any moral insight from “Heroes Die,” because Stover makes it quite clear in a Q&A included in the back of the most recent paperback edition that he believes morality is nothing more than a social construct, there is no God, yada, yada, yada (oh, and Republicans are the source of all evil in this country—what a shock). But his novel works on both the visceral and the intellectual level. In the way that Gibson predicted cyberspace and virtual reality 25 years ago, in “Heroes Die,” Stover effectively predicted how reality television would make the horrible misfortunes of a few entertaining for millions. This novel also hints at the astounding emergence of online role-playing games, where some participants seem to feel more comfortable in a simulated nether-world than in their own skin. The future of entertainment Stover paints here doesn’t really seem that far off, and that’s a disturbing notion.

As much as I loved this maelstrom of a novel, I can’t wholly endorse it to everyone because in his attempt to go through the looking glass, Stover uses a mix of first- and third-person narration that forces his readers to actually become the viewers that are so abhorrently portrayed in the book. The action is so intense and thrilling, you can see why millions would want to view it, even as you cringe away from it; Stover has studied several different forms of martial arts, so his depiction of hand-to-hand combat is spot-on brilliant (one fight actually brings to mind the astounding scene in the hotel room from “The Bourne Ultimatum”). “Heroes Die” is incredibly violent, and features a couple characters in particular that are so vile, it’s hard to read through their passages—I almost put this book down for good a few different times.

“Heroes Die” is most certainly NC-17. The brutality and degradation are similar to that of Goodkind, only in Goodkind’s world the darkness is always balanced by light and nobility; in Overworld, there are only dark and darker shades of black, where the best you can cling to is the anti-hero code Caine lives by.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Eddie Goes Solo, the Murphys Come Roaring Back, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs Continue to Impress


‘Into the Wild,’ Eddie Vedder

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: “Into the Wild” is not an Eddie Vedder solo album. It is most definitely a soundtrack—a very good soundtrack—but not an album. It’s more like a solo EP, with a few really good songs and a few more really good ideas for songs that were never finished.
While there are 11 tracks listed on the back of the CD, four of the cuts don’t even hit the two-minute mark, and of those only two have lyrics. I love the wide-open vibe of opener "Setting Forth" and the banjo work on its follow-up, "No Ceiling," but both of these just sort of … stop. Abruptly. This happens, apparently, because Vedder wrote this music for specific points in a film with very specific purposes; it’s not like he delivered a batch of songs inspired by “Into the Wild” and then let director Sean Penn edit them and weave them into a score. From what I understand, it seems Vedder watched pieces of the film Penn needed music for then molded these tunes around those frames.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the marketing machine from pitching “Into the Wild” as a “solo album,” a point backed by the leaked single “Hard Sun,” which is a brilliant five-minute epic. For anyone expecting more of the same—forget it. Because of the hype, my expectations were way too high, leaving my initial reaction to the CD somewhere between frustration and disappointment.
Fast-forward two weeks and much of that chagrin has melted away as I’ve gotten used to what “Into the Wild” is, rather than what it isn’t (taking the CD in the car with me a couple times certainly helped). When “Hard Sun” hit the Internet several weeks ago, its naked, raw, powerful beauty knocked me back a step, a feeling that certainly hasn’t diminished in the interim. This is without question one of Vedder’s best vocal performances on record in any format; the first verse/chorus still gives me chills, with his voice settling into an absolutely perfect groove of previously unheard depth and worldweary richness. And then later when the electric guitar kicks in and he layers a wavering moan on top of it … wowowowow.
Vedder’s voice is in top form throughout “Into the Wild,” in fact, and it is the No. 1 reason that makes this, er, album a worthwhile addition to his body of work; his delivery throughout brings mostly mediocre songs up several notches. This is most notable on “Society,” another cover, whose rather terrible lyrics are nearly forgotten in the wake of Vedder’s “Ghost of Tom Joad”-style interpretation.
Other standouts include “Far Behind,” a galloping acoustic rocker that stands as the only song here I could picture Vedder performing with Pearl Jam. “Rise,” meanwhile, marks his best work on the ukulele to date; I haven’t really liked any of his previous uke songs, but this one is downright gorgeous. “Guaranteed” closes the set on a graceful note with just Vedder picking on an acoustic guitar as he explores every nook and cranny of his range.
I haven’t seen “Into the Wild” yet, so I’m sure some of the shorter cuts will sound better after they’re put in context. But even without the movie, Vedder’s work here is a sign of good things to come—it gives me hope for what he’s capable of when Pearl Jam finally runs its course (not that I want that to happen any time soon, mind you). It’s not the pure solo effort I was hoping for, but his voice reaches out and virtually demands listening through a good pair of headphones.
Grade: B+


‘The Meanest Times,’ Dropkick Murphys

The Dropkick Murphys’ new album opens with a school bell ringing and children screaming in delight at their release. It’s an apt metaphor for this Celtic-influenced punk band from Boston, because their albums are nothing if not pure, freewheeling fun.
This is the Murphys’ follow-up to 2005’s “The Warrior’s Code,” whose classic “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” was used to such great effect in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” When I first heard the band was releasing a new album this fall, my first thought was: Can they possibly do anything to top that? The answer is, well, no, but they come darn close with “The State of Massachusetts,” the best song on this 15-track set. With its bouncy mandolin-led melody and dueling vocals from Al Barr and Ken Casey, “Massachusetts” is four minutes of pure energy (despite its rather melancholy subject matter).
Even though “Meanest Times” isn’t quite as exhilarating as its excellent predecessor, there are plenty of highlights here, including “Fairmount Hill,” “Flannigan’s Ball,” and the Irish-folk-on-steroids of “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya” (the track most reminiscent of fellow Celtic punkers Flogging Molly). The Murphys don’t really change their winning bagpipes-and-blasting-guitars formula from album to album (or from track to track, really), but it’s refreshing to let them get your blood pumping anew every couple years.
Grade: B+


‘Is Is,’ Yeah Yeah Yeahs

With this five-song EP (released this summer), the fiery New York trio provide a perfect mix of the thrashy, trashy garage punk of 2003’s “Fever to Tell” and the art-punk glory of last year’s “Show Your Bones.” Every song on this release is an absolute gem, perfectly mixing the contrasting styles of band’s two previous albums into one glorious whole.
“Rockers to Swallow” opens the set with the staccato interplay of drummer Brian Chase and one of rock’s most underrated guitar virtuosos, Nick Zinner, who plays the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ The Edge to lead singer Karen O’s Bono. “Swallow” leads into the shimmering “Down Boy,” one of the best songs in the band’s quickly deepening catalog.
Middle track “Kiss Kiss” is a thrill ride in 2 minutes 45 seconds, merely serving to whet the appetite for the stomping fury of “Isis.” Karen then opens final track “10X10” with a lilting intro before making way for a roiling brew that does Led Zeppelin proud.
“Is Is” will be one of the best 17-minute stretches of rock music you’re likely to hear all year—or any year, for that matter. Combine this quintet with the equally stellar epic “Sealings” from the “Spider-Man 3” soundtrack, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are having one heck of an “off” year.
Grade: A

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

‘3:10 to Yuma’


“3:10 to Yuma” is just about everything you could hope for in a movie.
It’s a throwback Western of the best kind, without any of the “modernization” or “reinvention” or any of the other buzzwords Hollywood likes to throw around. And, most importantly, it’s apparently one of the rare dramas this fall not steeped in political statements.
It’s simply the story of two men trying to make the best of the bad cards they’ve been dealt by a hard, cruel world. Dan Evans (Christian Bale)—a Civil War veteran, rancher, husband, and father of two boys—went the way of the straight and narrow, working his small tract of Arizona farmland for all he’s worth (which, apparently, isn’t much). And then there’s Ben Wade (Russell Crowe): A gunslinging robber of stage coaches and killer of men whose wit is just as fast as his draw. In short: A legendary outlaw.
The movie pits these two archetypes against one another in a struggle for freedom—Wade fighting the quite real manacles of the law, Evans fighting for financial independence. See, it’s Evans’ job to get Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma so the latter can rejoin his fellow cons in prison. If Evans succeeds, he’ll be paid a handsome sum that will ease his financial woes and give his beloved family a big boost toward a better life. The only thing standing between him and that train, of course, is Wade’s gang, a half dozen of the most dangerous and deadly animals in the West.
The best part about this movie is its two leading men. I can think of no better marquee actors working today than Crowe and Bale; both utterly disappear into their characters, a rare ability for stars of their stature. The great thing about “Yuma” is that the two are on screen together almost the entire time, and the way they work off each other is something to behold. I hope there are more projects involving Crowe and Bale in the future—for once the rambunctious Aussie may have met his match.
“3:10 to Yuma” hit theaters almost 50 years to the day of the original 1957 film, which was based on a story by legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard. This masterful update is directed by James Mangold, who is on some kinda roll after 2005’s spectacular Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line.” Like he showed in that film, Mangold knows how to get out of the way and let his actors work. His direction in “Yuma” is simple yet elegant, with sweeping scenescapes that establish the film’s dusty, wide-open feel without trying too hard. He and screenwriter Michael Brandt strike just the right balance between gunfights and character development. There’s plenty of action to keep you on the edge of your seat, but the movie unfolds at a perfect pace allowing multiple revelations about its characters. Evans and Wade certainly don’t end this movie in the same place they started—and I’m not talking about all the Southwestern terrain they cover on horseback.
I don’t really have any objections to speak of with this film, other than maybe the lead characters dodge a few too many bullets to be believed (but, hey, this is a Western, after all). My only other “problem” with it isn’t really a problem at all as much as an unfulfilled expectation, as “Yuma” never quite hit that extra gear the way I hoped it would—it didn’t bewitch me body and soul, to quote one of my favorite films of the past couple years.
Still, I can’t recommend “3:10 to Yuma” highly enough, especially for anyone longing for a good ol’ fashioned Western. This is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.
Grade: A-