Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Smashing Pumpkins, 'Zeitgeist'

My review of the new album from the “Smashing Pumpkins” is now up here at RELEVANT. It’s a shame the first thing I’ve ever written about this band had to be so unflattering (“Zeitgeist” earns a “C” at best), because this piece certainly doesn’t summarize how I feel about the group as a whole. In an effort to set the record straight …

I never listened to the Pumpkins in their heyday. As seems to always be the case with me and bands I end up loving, I came to them late. This pattern in my musical life stems from being an oldest child, I think—I never had somebody like Patrick Fugit’s sister in “Almost Famous” to set me straight at a young age, so I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. When most people my age were listening to Billy Corgan’s band, I was just discovering The Beatles.
Anyway, I liked the Pumpkins songs I heard on the radio (it seems odd to think of listening to FM now) and the videos played on a seemingly continuous loop on MTV certainly were interesting, but none of it ever got me over the hump to actually buy one of their albums. That didn’t occur until 1999, which just happens to be the year I met my future wife, who just happens to love the Pumpkins. You can do the math: 20-year-old boy wants to talk to girl; boy finds out girl loves Smashing Pumpkins; boy almost immediately buys a Smashing Pumpkins album so he has something to talk about with girl; boy not only likes what he hears, but starts to see the Smashing Pumpkins through the eyes of girl; boy falls in love—with band and girl.
But as I said, I was late to the party. The following year—before I even had a chance to purchase all of their albums—the Pumpkins released “MACHINA: The Machines of God” (which I really liked), went out on tour, and broke up. We (that would be me and the girl) saw them twice in 2000, and that’s what cemented my affection for the band. The first show was on April 18, at Purdue, and it was great. Relatively small venue, excellent seats dead-center in the first row of the balcony, cool setlist, and I even got to shake Corgan’s hand afterward (he was, surprisingly, quite affable, making sure to shake hands with and/or sign autographs for all of the hundred or so people who hung around behind the venue after the show).
Later that year, though, Corgan called it quits and announced the band would play two “farewell” shows in Chicago on Nov. 29 and Dec. 2 at the United Center and the Metro (a small club), respectively. Somehow, miraculously, I pulled a pair of tickets to the UC show—they were almost at the roof of the building, but at least they were right alongside the stage. And, really, I didn’t care because the show sold out literally in like five minutes, so I was just thrilled to be allowed in the building.
That night the Pumpkins played one of the best concerts I have ever attended. It started with a six-song acoustic set, then Corgan dashed offstage, changed from an all-white outfit to an all-black getup, and let loose with guitars blazing for the remainder of the night. The final tally ended up about three hours long, two main sets and three encores, and 27 songs. That show, along with the Pearl Jam set from less than two months earlier that still stands to this day as the top live music experience of my life, cemented Chicago as my second musical home and made me a Pumpkins fan for life.
The odd thing is, because that show meant essentially the end of the band, it was hard to keep the fire burning. After the glow of that night wore off in a few months, I moved on to other things; that happens, I guess, in the aftermath of a dissolved band. But because I knew them for so short a time, I never quite got to that obsessive, buy-everything-they’ve-ever-recorded-and-listen-to-them-all-the-time fever pitch I’ve had with so many other groups. In fact, until this past weekend, I’m ashamed to admit I’d never actually listened to the Pumpkins’ renowned debut album, “Gish,” all the way through.
So that brings me back around to the original point of this little missive. I wish Corgan had left well enough alone and not called “Zeitgeist” a “Pumpkins” album, because it doesn’t really feel like one at all. But one good thing has come of it: Preparing to write the aforementioned review forced me to go back and listen to the band again for the first time in a long while, and it reminded me of how great they were, how much I loved (and still love) their music, and the role their songs played in my life. There’s a lot to be said for that, and nothing Corgan does now is going to taint it or take it away. I only hope he comes to his senses and either invites James back into the band, or drops the Pumpkins moniker once again. Or, at the least, get back to writing the type of songs that made everybody love his music in the first place.
With that in mind, here are my 10 favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs, in order:

1. Muzzle, from 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
2. Mayonaise, from 1993’s Siamese Dream
3. Drown, from 1992’s Singles soundtrack
4. Stand Inside Your Love, from 2000’s MACHINA
5. Untitled, from 2001’s Rotten Apples greatest hits collection
6. The Everlasting Gaze, from 2000’s MACHINA
7. Landslide, from 1994’s Pisces Iscariot (Fleetwood Mac cover)
8. Ava Adore, from 1998’s Adore
9. Frail and Bedazzled, from 1994’s Pisces Iscariot
10. Blew Away, from 1994’s Pisces Iscariot

Monday, July 16, 2007

The White Stripes, 'Icky Thump'

You can find my review of the new White Stripes album, "Icky Thump," over here at It's an "A."

‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

For any who may be disappointed with the 2007 crop of summer movies, I give you … “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” not just the best movie of the season, but the best of this franchise, as well.
The fifth installment of author J.K. Rowling’s magical (in more ways than one) seven-part series, “Phoenix” covers the darkest subject matter yet, which makes it ideal for a more adult audience. This is the first film in the franchise that someone could walk in off the street without having seen/read any of the previous chapters and still really enjoy. The movie, obviously with a lot of help from the source material, has it all: Action, adventure, wit, charm, humor, emotion. It’s the story of a boy who finally embraces his talents and his destiny, and in so doing takes his first step into manhood. For the first time, the now 15-year-old Harry doesn’t stumble through challenges using his previous concoction of raw power, big heart, and seemingly blind luck; in “Phoenix” he takes command not only of his own skills, but helps his young classmates harness theirs, too. After watching this kid suffer under the weight of being “The Boy Who Lived” for four years, it’s thrilling and emotionally rewarding to finally see him believe in himself.
“Phoenix” is helmed by relative newcomer David Yates, a 44-year-old Englishman with a mix of TV and film work in his background, and none of it anything most people have ever seen. Thus this film marks a rather stunning big-budget debut, especially considering he trimmed Rowling’s longest novel into the franchise’s shortest movie (“Phoenix” clocks in at a relatively short 2:18). I have nothing to offer most of you out there in the way of changes from the source material, however, as I choose to see the movies first and then read the books later. From my perspective, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (“Contact”) did a masterful job with his condensed version; the plot moves well and all elements are explained to satisfaction. For someone who didn’t know what was coming, the dynamic story moved along with no sluggishness whatsoever.
And, wow, am I glad I didn’t know what was in store. Rowling has provided some great climaxes in this series, especially in the previous two chapters, but “Phoenix” certainly boasts the best yet. Gates translates the written word into a visual tour de force that I would put up against any of the special-effects-laden cinematic clashes of the past decade.
I could barely get through the first two “Potter” movies, but looking back I must give Christopher Columbus, who directed those installments, a great deal of credit for handling the most important job of them all: casting this crew. I cannot imagine anyone at this point other than Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron) in the lead roles; all three continue to just get better with each movie. The supporting cast is equally superb, especially Alan Rickman as the not-so-sinister-anymore Professor Snape. Gary Oldman, a true chameleon, continues his excellent work as Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black (can you believe this is the same guy who played James Gordon in “Batman Begins”?). And Imelda Staunton steals every scene as buttoned-up professor-turned-Hogwarts-dictator Dolores Umbridge.
I really can’t say enough good things about this movie. It’s utterly captivating, exciting, infuriating (in all the right ways, especially its commentary on government-run education), uplifting, heartwarming, and tear-inducing. It’s the first movie I’ve seen this summer that I wanted to get right back in line and watch again.
And, for what it’s worth, I saw it with two people who HAVE read the books (and whose opinions I respect), and they loved it just as much as me.
Grade: A

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Never send a Bay to do a man’s job.
Seriously: How does director Michael Bay keep getting such high-profile gigs? There is so much to love about his latest movie, “Transformers,” until the end when he can’t help but blow everything up the way he has in every other movie he’s made. Maybe it’s fitting, though, that a story about toys was made by a guy who treats filmmaking like playing with them.
I know not to take “Transformers” too seriously. I know it’s just a summer action pic. But I can’t help but wonder what could have been had ANYONE but Michael Bay been at the helm. Because this flick is pretty stinkin’ good for the first, oh, hour and a half. Credit screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, two “Alias” alums, for elevating the story beyond just big robots bashing one another.
And wow, speaking of those robots, it’s the Transformers themselves who save this movie. They are, in a word, awesome. My hat’s off to George Lucas’ special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, for turning ’80s cartoon icons into 21st century visions of wonder. They are something to behold, especially when transforming from vehicle to robot while on the move. The Transformers make this venture worth watching.
But then Bay obviously steps in and leaves his “mark,” meaning a nonsensical conclusion featuring explosion after explosion after explosion, all of them lacking anything close to a point. Throw in a few cheesy lines of dialogue and—wrap! There’s a way to do spectacle with class—think Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, or Sam Raimi—where the action has an ebb and flow and, shockingly, moments of quiet. Bay heeds none of this; he’s like a monkey throwing his own crap at the screen. He basically wastes the evil character Megatron, and what should have been an epic fight between the Decepticon leader and noble Optimus Prime barely registers amongst the chaos.
That’s just the last half-hour or so, though. The rest of the movie is good enough to make it worthwhile, especially to see Prime and his fellow Autobots in all their gleaming metal glory. It’s just a shame these beloved characters were entrusted to such a clod who certainly has nothing more to offer than meets the eye.
Grade: B-

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


The geniuses at Pixar have built their company’s reputation on many hallmarks, but perhaps the most important is their ability to take us into other worlds. Over the past 12 years we’ve gone under the sea, under the earth, and into the toy box. We’ve explored realms run by monsters and saved by superheroes, and we’ve seen our beautiful country through the eyes of cars. And now … rats?
Believe me when I tell you: The studio’s latest near-masterpiece, “Ratatouille,” is the ballsiest endeavor its ever attempted.
In an industry driven to tears and fears by the bottom line, it’s amazing an idea for a movie about nature’s ugly little scavengers was even discussed, much less made, and much less by two companies—Disney and Pixar—whose stock and trade is cute. But only the guys at Pixar (did I mention they’re geniuses?) could pull something like this off. In “Ratatouille,” writer/director Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) accomplishes the impossible—he makes us care about rats.
First and foremost, this movie is flat-out hilarious. It takes a little bit to really get going (pacing is a problem throughout), but once little Remy the rat makes his way to Paris and meets up with fellow (although human) garbage boy Linguini, things really start cooking. Linguini yearns to be a chef, but finds himself in the unfortunate circumstance of having no talent; Remy, on the other hand, also yearns to be a chef but finds himself in the unfortunate circumstance of being, well, a rat. Rat and food—they don’t exactly go together like peas and carrots.
As you’ve no doubt seen from the trailer, Remy and Linguini work out a system whereby the rodent communicates his culinary commands by pulling on Linguini’s hair. But this certainly isn’t one of those times when the best scenes are used in the preview. Far from it. The training montage is rib-popping funny, as is any time the rats are discovered (think of that scene in “Little Mermaid” where Sebastian the crab is discovered in the kitchen, only even funnier).
“Ratatouille” is Pixar’s eighth full-length film, and as has become tradition the studio improves its craft with each outing. The scenery in last year’s “Cars” was stunning, but “Ratatouille” is even better, especially in the backgrounds—there are times when you’ll swear these animated characters have been superimposed on the real Paris. “Camera”-work is also spectacular, as Bird effectively switches between rat and human perspectives; it feels like you’re the one sitting on Linguini’s head.
This is without question Pixar’s most adult-oriented film. It deals with themes of deceit, ego, loyalty, the work-vs.-family dynamic, and even children out of wedlock, just to name a few. There is plenty of slapstick humor to keep the kiddies entertained, but there are also long sections without a whole lot of yuks—fine for adults, but kids might wander off. It feels a shade long at 110 minutes, as Linguini and Remy have one too many falling outs/reconciliations.
Still, “Ratatouille” ends on such a high note and with a series of unexpected twists, I can certainly understand the rumors of nationwide applause after screenings. Nobody makes movies of more consistent quality than Pixar, and Bird in particular seems to be the studio’s master chef.
Grade: A-

Other movies I’ve seen so far this summer:

“Ocean’s Thirteen”
You certainly can’t say George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh & Co. don’t learn from their mistakes. After the mish-mash train wreck that was 2004’s “Ocean’s Twelve,” the crew of lovable scoundrels returned this summer with a back-to-basics approach with “Ocean’s Thirteen” that made the 2001 original (itself a remake) such a charmer.
The boys are (thankfully) back in Vegas this time around with more revenge on their minds, as they’re out to ruin a new venture by casino mogul Willie Bank (a slimy little man played winningly by Al Pacino in a very un-Pacino sniveling performance), who screwed over the crew’s mentor, Reuben. After going through the motions in the predecessor, Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and all the rest are back on their games here. Damon is especially good, playing up the visual comedy of his enlarged prosthetic nose (the Nose plays!).
By its very nature a sequel in this series will suffer because we already know how clever and cool this crew is and don’t get the pleasure of discovery as we did in “Eleven.” But a streamlined script and—what’s this?—a bit of a heart, makes “Thirteen” a winner.
Grade: B+

“Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”

I guess the best thing I can say about this superhero flick is that it was better than I thought it would be.
With this sequel, director Tim Story (“Barbershop”) and writers Don Payne and Mark Frost went for a comic book movie for the whole family, which is refreshing in a way. It’s nice to see superheroes who actually enjoy their powers, as opposed to the tortured souls who populate basically every other comic book adaptation since 1989’s “Batman.” This tone leads to some witty banter between the Human Torch (Chris Evans, who could pass for Chris O’Donnell’s brother) and The Thing (a fun turn by Michael Chiklis), but doesn’t leave much room for a gripping story (the movie hustles along in just 92 minutes).
The Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) is undeniably cool, and I could be convinced to go see a spinoff featuring just him, which is probably in the works. But he’s balanced by the utter lack of chemistry between Jessica Alba’s Invisible Woman and Ioan Gruffudd’s Mr. Fantastic, whose scenes fall utterly flat throughout.
Still, for those after a whimsical, blow-’em-up adventure fueled by superpowers, “Rise of the Silver Surfer” adequately fits the bill.
Grade: C