Monday, May 28, 2007

‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’

“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” is everything the critics say: It’s long, complicated, and sometimes hard to follow.
Oh, and it’s one thing they say it’s not: Terrific.
I don’t understand all the haranguing about how complex this movie is. Aren’t the people complaining the same critics who moan incessantly about how dumb summer movies typically are? Yes, as the third installment in the insanely successful “Pirates” trilogy, “At World’s End” has a lot of heavy lifting to do to wrap everything up. Usually this means long sequences of exposition (see “Spider-Man 3”), but “Pirates 3” bounces along with only rare moments of flagging intensity. What puts this movie over the top is its investment in characters. Much credit is due screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, because all the major players—and there are several—have their own arcs and depth.
Part of the problem with last year’s “Dead Man’s Chest” stemmed from the fact that it was basically just half a movie. The myriad plotlines established in that film are wrapped up here, and not in some ham-fisted, oh-crap-we’re-running-out-of-time way. Yes, this movie may be almost three hours long, but if that’s what it takes for this kind of storytelling, so be it. Everything starts to come together about halfway through “At World’s End,” and it’s great fun to see it all weave together. This should make “Dead Man’s Chest” more rewatchable than before.
And story aside, “At World’s End” is an absolute stunner when it comes to action and visuals. Where the second film focused more on mano y mano swordplay, the conclusion ramps back up on the epic seafaring battles from the first film, 2003’s “The Curse of the Black Pearl.” There is action throughout, but the final hour is a nonstop, eye-popping battle royale on the swirling open water.
Once again Johnny Depp anchors the entire show with his squirrelly Jack Sparrow, as brilliant, funny, and captivating as ever (yes, he’s back from the dead—did you really think he wouldn’t be?). The movie benefits, though, from the return of Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, Sparrow’s arch-enemy. The two must unite to face not just Davy Jones (played with continual quiet dignity by Bill Nighy), but the entire East India Trading Co. Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom, meanwhile, give their best performances of the series as star-crossed lovers Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner, and Keith Richards saunters onscreen for a fabulous cameo.
Depp says one of his goals in doing these popcorn flicks was an attempt to buck the system from the inside for a change. With “Pirates 3,” he comes as close as any one actor can with a big dumb action movie that actually does have a brain, charm, wit, humor, and heart. It’s not like he and director Gore Verbinski set out to make “Apocalypse Now”—but here they have their cake and eat it, too. Really, what other leading man in Hollywood could squeeze a trippy, lengthy hallucination sequence into a big-budget Disney flick—and make it work?
Remember, this franchise is based on an amusement park ride, not a Shakespeare play. The fact that it even exists is amazing. The fact that it doesn’t suck is admirable. The fact that it’s this good makes it a real summertime treasure.
Grade: A-
Oh, and one more thing: Stick around to the end of the credits. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

‘A Tale of Two Finales,’ or How, at the Last Minute, Jack Bauer Reared Up and Beat the Crap Out of Those Wimps from ‘Heroes’

***Insert Your Own Spoiler Warning Here***

Since the sixth season of “24” premiered in January opposite NBC’s freshman breakout hit “Heroes,” the two shows have been duking it out for fans and ratings the rest of the season. Why the respective networks would pit two shows against one another that so obviously draw from a similar audience pool I don’t understand, but “24” certainly lost the overall war—both in critical acclaim and popularity.
But at least Jack Bauer went out swinging.
As chronicled here and basically every other entertainment-related web site in the world, Day 6 of “24”—for the most part—sucked. “Heroes,” on the other hand, slowly unveiled what promised to be an excellent storyline, including a series of captivating episodes in January and February, just as “24” was starting to slide. It left off with a climactic confrontation between the main good-guy, Peter Petrelli, and main bad-guy, Sylar, with the latter holding the former in a literally head-splitting vice grip of death. “Heroes” had been perfectly paced up until this point, answering questions with enough frequency to stem frustration while at the same time investing valuable screen time in establishing and developing its wide array of characters.
Unfortunately, “Heroes” creator Tim Kring, a veteran of episodic television (most notably “Crossing Jordan”), apparently took on way more than he could handle with the monster hit he so painstakingly created. “Heroes” took a seven-week break in preparation for its stretch run that culminated in Monday night’s finale, “How to Stop an Exploding Man,” and the time away was not kind. Upon returning five weeks ago, it almost didn’t feel like the same show. Kring had established the ubiquitous “Save the cheerleader, save the world” tagline, but when it came to actually saving the world, he couldn’t quite figure out how to do it.
Instead, we were left with one big freight train of a plot barreling nearly out of control toward a conclusion, as “Heroes” rushed its way to a chunky, choppy, unwieldy final hour in which all its characters seemed to be slammed together by the flimsiest of threads—even for a comic-book style story. Almost every major character on the show, in fact, was reduced to little more than facilitating the plot, and the much-hyped battle between Peter and Sylar ended up being little more than a bar-fight tussle.
In one rather innovative touch, the final couple minutes of Monday’s episode actually began “Volume Two.” However, by the time Hiro found himself in 17th-century Japan, I was having trouble coming up with a reason to keep watching this show next season.

The real action Monday night, it turns out, was over on “24,” which rebounded rather nicely in its last two hours of Day 6.
A few weeks back, “24” producer/writer Howard Gordon—in a refreshing admission of guilt—acknowledged complaints about this season are legitimate, and promised a “reinvention” for next year. That certainly was music to most fans’ ears, but I was still concerned: The myriad strained plotlines of Day 6 had so fouled up the show, I hoped the writers would completely cut the cord on this season. I didn’t want a traditional cliffhanger, because I feared any significant loose ends needing to be dealt with in Day 7 would act like a cancer that would eat its way through the show and, ultimately, kill it prematurely.
Thankfully, I got my wish (basically).
Looking back, I still don’t know exactly how they did it in just two hours, but the “24” production team managed to kill Jack’s dad, capture Jack’s former captor/torturer, recover a nuclear component, and curtail World War III. Oh, and give Chloe a baby (big mistake). And it was pretty compelling—if there’s one thing the team never forgot this season, it was how to stage exciting action sequences.
On top of that, they also made room for Kiefer Sutherland to deliver one of his best scenes in the history of the series. In the final act of hour 24, Jack slipped into the home of former Secretary of Defense James Heller (played by one of “24’s” all-time greats, William Devane) in search of Heller’s daughter, Audrey, who Jack loves “with all his heart.” Finally, Jack was able to unleash a portion of the pent-up rage he’s been carrying for years spent sacrificing for a government who has taken nearly every opportunity to throw its loyal special agent to the wolves. Yet, in true “24” excellence, the show didn’t allow Jack complete immunity. Heller came right back at Jack, correctly asserting that Agent Bauer will never be able fully “retire,” and thus Audrey will never really be out of harm’s way. Jack, to his credit, really and truly heard Heller’s plea/command, and said his final farewell to his near-comatose beloved.
That sound you heard was the last cord splitting.
We left Jack standing out on Heller’s seaside balcony, presumably pondering what in the world he’s going to do now. The writers are probably wondering the same thing, but at least they set up a relatively blank canvas for next season (the only holdover I’d like to see is the fabulous Peter MacNicol as Tom Lennox, who after a sluggish start became the go-to guy of the day’s second half).
Monday’s “24” finale certainly wasn’t good enough to wash away the stigma of Day 6. Only a supreme effort next year will return this series anywhere close to its Emmy-winning form, but one subpar season is acceptable in the long run, providing the show recovers. I’m certainly willing to give this group the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned it.
Tim Kring’s heroes, on the other hand, have not.

Friday, May 18, 2007

‘Pearl Jam’: One Year Gone

A year ago, I posted my review of Pearl Jam’s self-titled eighth studio album, otherwise known as “Avocado.” At the end of that opus, I asked a handful of questions that could only be answered with time. Now that a year has passed, I thought I’d go back and respond to those ruminations, because my love for this album has not diminished at all with time.
I’ll take the unanswered questions in reverse order:

1. “Will it fade into mediocrity with time like ‘Riot Act’”?
This is probably the easiest. In a word: No. A year later, I can still put this CD in at any time and enjoy it almost as much as the first time I heard it. Some of the songs may have dimmed slightly now that the flush of new Pearl Jam is gone (I’m thinking specifically of “Comatose” and “Marker in the Sand”), but others gained strength (“Parachutes” and “Worldwide Suicide”) with repeated listens and context. Overall “Avocado” stands firm on the quality of its songs. “Riot Act” does not.

2. “Will its uptempo rockers still get the blood flowing like ‘Vitalogy’”?
Absolutely. As a group, the opening stretch from “Life Wasted” to “Marker” remains as good a five-song run as the band has ever recorded. My recommendation: Go find a live version of “Life Wasted” that includes Mike McCready’s scorching song-closing solo that was criminally faded out on the album.

3. “Will its more experimental moments still sound good a decade later like ‘No Code’”?
Okay, so this one technically is still unanswerable, but I’ll refer again to the lilting “Parachutes” as a song that’s improved in the interim, while the intro to “Severed Hand,” the multi-tracked vocal on “Unemployable,” and the structure of “Inside Job” remain as thrilling as ever.

4. “Will it prove to have the perfect trifecta of ‘Given to Fly,’ ‘Do the Evolution,’ and ‘In Hiding’ like ‘Yield’”?
Unfortunately, no. Those three songs really are perfection in triplicate and remain in my “Pearl Jam Top 10.” “Life Wasted” is the only song off “Avocado” to crack that difficult list, but were I to extend the criteria to, say, 25, “Pearl Jam” would be well represented—“Severed Hand,” “Unemployable,” “Come Back,” and “Inside Job” would all make the cut. Which leads to my final question …

5. “Where will ‘Pearl Jam’ rank in the group’s deep catalog”?
This is certainly the toughest question, largely because ranking Pearl Jam’s albums is nearly impossible (other than “Riot Act” landing soundly at the bottom of the list) due to my emotional connection to each of them. As a whole, though, I now rank “Avocado” at the top of the list. On a track-by-track basis it may not have as many “classics” as previous efforts, but top to bottom, front to back, it's stronger and flows better than any other record in the repertoire. There are no weak entries (even “Army Reserve” has grown on me somewhat), and the collective feeling of satisfaction from this album is unmatched by any of the other seven. When I need a burst of energy to meet a deadline, or company on a road trip, or just 50 minutes of great music, “Avocado” fits the bill. If Pearl Jam never recorded another album, this record would be a fitting and fulfilling conclusion to a fantastic career.

So, that said, it’s time to do the impossible: Here’s how PJ’s albums shake out on my list, along with my 10 favorite songs:

No Code
Riot Act

SONGS (in no particular order, and subject to change at any time)
Do the Evolution
Given to Fly
Hard to Imagine
In Hiding
Life Wasted

Come Back
In My Tree
Inside Job
Long Road
Not For You
Off He Goes
Present Tense
Severed Hand
Spin the Black Circle

Sunday, May 06, 2007

‘Spider-Man 3’

In the wake of the record-smashing opening weekend for “Spider-Man 3,” it will be interesting to see if the wall-crawler’s financial web is strong enough to bring the band back together again for one more go-round.
If a fourth-quel does occur, that would actually be a shame in one sense, because the flaws in “Spider-Man 3” all stem from writer/director Sam Raimi’s seeming attempt to get all his big ideas down on film before momentum finally washed the Spider out.
Throughout the production process and pre-release media campaign for the third installment in this elite blockbuster franchise, much of the hype has centered on “will this be the last one?”—at least as presently constituted with Tobey Maguire donning the red-and-blue (and sometimes black) tights and Raimi at the helm of what some say was the most expensive film ever made. Even though everyone involved in these movies has made a gazillion dollars—the original “Spider-Man” opened in 2002 with a then-record $114 million and went on to gross more than $400 million domestically, while the 2004 sequel finished at $373 million—it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where they all just get sick of it. These productions are just a tad more complicated and grueling to film than, say, “Wonder Boys.”
With the anvil of collective artistic burnout hanging over his head, “Spider-Man 3” feels like Raimi tried to jam two movies into one; the individual parts are excellent, but together they become somewhat ponderous. Back when Topher Grace (Eric from “That ’70’s Show”) was cast as Peter’s arch-rival Eddie Brock/Venom, the original plot rumors implied his character would merely be introduced in this film while Peter handled some other baddie, leaving the classic Spidey-Venom clash for No. 4. If those rumors aren’t true, fine, but it sure seems like Raimi had to shoehorn Venom into No. 3 just to make sure he actually got the comic-book icon onscreen.
There are four—count ’em FOUR—major storylines running through “Spider-Man 3”: Peter’s ongoing romance with Mary Jane (played pitch-perfect once again by Kirsten Dunst) and the tension his time-intensive crime-stopping hijinx puts on their relationship; Peter/Spidey’s ongoing feud with best friend and son of the dead-since-No. 1 Green Goblin, Harry Osborn (played once again by James Franco, who stepped up big time this round with his best performance by far); Spidey vs. The Sandman (featuring a pleasantly surprising grounded turn by Thomas Haden Church) which also holds implications for plot threads tracing back to No. 1; and Spidey vs. The Symbiote vs. Eddie Brock/Venom (in other words, the totally-wicked fight we’ve all been waiting for). Whew, I’m tired just typing all that. And, yes, it’s a whole lot to squeeze into one movie, even one that runs nearly two and a half hours.
To their credit, Raimi and co-writers Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent weave all of these plots together rather well, as Peter’s motivations throughout the film bounce from one thread to another with absolute sincerity. It still comes off as somewhat choppy and workmanlike, though, because there’s just too stinkin’ much going on. All these necessary plot points lead to a serious amount of exposition to get all this heavy story-lifting accomplished. On first impression, there is way too much dialogue in this movie (an unusual complaint for a summer blockbuster, I know).
For my money, “Spider-Man 2” is the best comic-book adaptation of all time and one of the best action/adventure movies ever. It set the template for “Batman Begins” and every superhero movie to come (every one worth anything, anyway) by focusing more on Peter Parker than his high-flying alter ego. “Spider-Man 2” struck the perfect balance between real human drama and out-of-this-world heroics, and demonstrated how the former fueled the latter. Unfortunately, “Spider-Man 3” actually goes too far in Peter’s direction; I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but there simply isn’t enough Spider-Man in this movie.
Because, wow, when the web-slinger is unleashed in all his glory, it’s absolutely electricfying. We’ve become so drunk on special-effects laden action in the post-“Matrix” era (see “X-Men 3”), I didn’t think it was possible to really and truly make my jaw drop anymore. But EVERY SINGLE ACTION SCENE in “Spider-Man 3” is a home run. From Peter’s initial sans-costume mid-air fight with Harry (which everyone by now has seen on TV or the Internet) to the no-holds-barred climactic battle royale, Raimi and cinematographer Bill Pope never miss with eye-popping, mind-blowing, make-you-say-“Whoa!” action. Spider-Man pulls some maneuvers in this film that leave the choreography from the first two in the dust. All this breathtaking swingin’-and-clobberin’ is worth the price of admission on its own—you need to see this movie on a big screen. The special effects are once again improved, too, as there isn’t one scene that didn’t look absolutely genuine (just wait ’til you get your first good looks at Sandman and Venom!).
Raimi also injects some of his own off-the-wall humor into the third segment, too, which provides some lighter moments in what is overall a rather dark film. As has become tradition, J.K. Simmons steals every scene as gruff Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, and there are several laugh-out-loud moments when Peter starts getting his inner “cool” on (a geek is a geek is a geek, even if he does have a supersuit from outer space). Every other major actor carries their weight well—Maguire was obviously born to play this role and seems to relish getting to play around in Spidey’s dark side for a while.
So from a technical standpoint, “Spider-Man 3” is a flawless exercise in big-budget filmmaking and sets the summer movie season off with a great start—if “Pirates 3,” et al can run with this baton, we should be in for a pretty good few months. It’s just too bad that as a devoted Spidey fanboy, Raimi couldn’t bring his personal Spider-Man saga—and now undoubtedly the best set of superhero movies of all time, despite its minor flaws—to the perfectly fulfilling conclusion he so obviously desired and envisioned. Like Peter Parker grasping for the engagement ring dangling just beyond his outstretched hand, this is a woulda-shoulda-coulda near-miss masterpiece.
Grade: B+

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Arctic Monkeys, 'Favourite Worst Nightmare'

After a lengthy hiatus, I'm back reviewing records for RELEVANT. You can find my Arctic Monkeys write-up here. It's definitely an "A" album.
In the next several weeks I'm scheduled to cover new stuff by Wilco (they're streaming the entire album, "Sky Blue Sky," over at the official site, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to hold out for one more week until it hits stores May 15—I'm a no-leaks guy, in general, even if it is straight from the source—first impressions are very important, especially for highly-anticipated albums, and I don't want my first impression of this one to be through a computer), The White Stripes (wow, lead single/title track "Icky Thump" sounds like a welcome return to form), and The Smashing Pumpkins (I'm just hoping it doesn't suck).
Also, don't forget Ryan Adams has a new CD coming out soon (early June, I think), and the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs track "Sealings," which was just released as part of the "Spider-Man 3" soundtrack, is stellar—as good as anything on "Show Your Bones," and that's saying something. Definitely worth the 99 cents at iTunes, as is the new Snow Patrol cut that kicks off the soundtrack, "Signal Fire." Man, those guys are great.
Oh, and one thing I forgot to mention in my Arcade Fire review from a while back: This band goes great with Terry Goodkind novels. Don't know why, but it just works.