Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My Amazon DVD Reviews: "Abrupt Decision"

Puppy Love
5 Out of 5 Stars

Denis is having a rotten week. He just lost his job of 11 years. His relationship is gone stale, and rocky. His Mother, a sweet and overbearing woman, is seriously ill. With all the turmoil going on around him, what does Mom suggest? "Get a dog." But when Dennis goes to the pound and can't decide which dog he wants, the one he finally chooses is gone when he goes back. When he finds out why, Dennis decides exactly what his modern mid-life crisis needs.

He makes his "Abrupt Decision" (the fifth feature from filmmaker Paul Bright) when he realizes that his creative collapse mirrors that of the dogs' dangerous lives. With some inspiration from his Mom (Cynthia Schiebel) and the reluctant support of his partner, Milosz (David LaDuca), Denis (Steve Callahan) decides that saving the lives of animals and educating people on their care is his way into a meaningful second act. You know how the saying goes, if you don't want to be upstaged in a movie, stay away from children and dogs? Despite the superb job by Steve and David, the pups are "Abrupt Decision's" scene stealers. But beware. Even with the cute pooches running amuck, this is a very emotionally striking movie.

In the new economy, where men like Denis can find their lives upended and discover that your expertise vaporized after 50 (along with a funny montage of a degenerating series of interviews -  featuring me), there are many among us who will relate to the impact of "Abrupt Decision's" story. As Denis struggles to find the right decisions in matters of utmost importance, you may put down the doggy treats and reach for the hankies. I'll certainly say that the film is a must-see for pet-lovers, but it also carries an intimate, personal life story.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Tom Morello, The Nightwatchman "World Wide Rebel Songs"

Tom Morello Turns up The Heat
4 Out of 5 Stars
In his guise as The Nightwatchman, Tom Morello's first two albums were low key visceral affairs, heir apparent to Joe Strummer and Pete Seger protest folkies. Sometime in the last couple of years, he realized that his powerful guitar playing was not antithetical two his new music, and he began work on a new set of songs. Events of 2010 put even more urgency into his writing; Morello was one of the first musicians to take a stand with Wisconsin's Union Members when that state's Governor tried to crush the Wisconsin Unions. It's the place he debuted, on a snowy, cold Wisconsin street, "Union Town."

If you think political rock is a passe genre, then "World Wide Rebel Songs" will probably make you mad. Yet, in a world where tightly controlled radio-playlists won't play anything that rocks the corporate boat, Morello is coming on swinging. "Politics, apocalypse, start to look the same/The price of my redemption will mean the end of living" he barks (with Ben Harper on "Save The Hammer for The Man"), as if the world of conservative politics and rightwing religion were all too happy to get to the same end result. The pun is all but unavoidable in that Morello is raging against the machine on almost every track. "Speak and Make Lightning," he calls out. This time, with his guitar and a full band attack, "World Wide Rebel Songs" lift Morello to his best solo CD and a fighting fit of an album.


January Sucked. Back to Zero, Again.

As per my post on January 9th, I was offered a job that I thought might finally turn my situation from 2011 around. Unfortunately, things have been miserable since. I'd started the new job as an administrative assistant at a 5 Doctor medical clinic. It was a hectic and fast paced, stressful environment, and I thought I was doing OK. I was supposed to be learning the tasks of a pregnant female staffer before she left for maternity leave. She promptly had her baby boy three weeks early and well before I fully had the routines down. At the end of the 13th day, I was informed I was not picking up the procedures of the office and was asked to resign. I have to admit, the stress of the place was literally giving me panic attacks. So here we are again, The end of January and I am right back in the same place I was a year ago this time.

The computer class I'd been taking since October is over now, and I did awful in it. I just could not absorb the amount of advanced technical information that was being thrown at me, and ultimately will probably not be able to use anything the course had to offer. Had I been better informed, I would have angled for a more beginners oriented course, but this is the class the grant landed me in. I will put in more effort at picking up the specifics here at home (I have until May to use the test certification scripts to see if I pass or not), but my guess is I won’t be able to master it.

What I really must thank everyone here for, and the brightest point of an otherwise wretched month, was the wonderful outpouring of help concerning Sophie Cat, covering over a third of the bills. She will still need her weekly shots - and as you can see by the picture of her shaved tummy, a trip to the vet warrants me serious "I'm going to poop on your pillow, you know that, don't you?" looks. The vet gave me a little trick; as soon as I get her home, Sophie gets a fresh can of cat food. Works like a charm. The first time I got her home, she made a bee-line to the space behind the sofa. But as soon as she heard the can-pop, she was right by her food dish.

My book selling annual trip to MAL was profitable enough that I was able to pay off the remainder of the bill soon after. Plus an extra special howdy to Cliff Clockner - we finally met! Another good thing about MAL? My table was next to these guys.

There was also a house concert featuring my old friend James Lee Stanely, along with Cliff Eberhardt. They are out promoting their collaborative tribute to The Doors, called "All Wood and Doors." (With surviving members of The Doors contributing.) It was my first time hearing Cliff live, and he's pretty easy on the eyes. James' voice is high and smooth, Cliff's is gruff and bluesy. As a duo, they harmonize beautifully. Having known James Lee since the mid 80's, it's always a pleasure to see him live. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Foster The People "Torches"

Foster the Hooks
3 Out Of 5 Stars

The debut by Foster The People rides mainly ion the skills of lead singer/songwriter Mark Foster, who has found the way to homogenize the sound of indie and dance for his "Torches." He's got a knack for ear-worm choruses, already made unavoidable by the all-summer-long pervasiveness of "Pumped Up Kicks," and "Don't Stop." The music has an effervescence to it, which is interesting if you consider that "Kicks" is a song about a shooting spree.

That is what makes "Torches" both promising, interesting and frustrating. Mark sings in a Bee Gees helium voice, which keeps the music buzzy and floaty. There isn't much by way of depth, but there's loads of tart candy to be had. The opening of "Helana Beat" had me thinking Donna Summer and popped up on my I-Pod's random play. There's no way to deny it, "Foster The People" are a solid pop band that is currently rolling in some hipster cred. The question is going to be if they can lift themselves to the pop creativity of, say, Adam Levine/Maroon 5 or if "Pumped Up Kicks" is this year's MGMT and "Kids."


Friday, January 27, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Barenaked Ladies "Hits From Yesterday and The Day Before"

Barenaked Reissue
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Ten years after their first "Greatest Hits" CD, Barenaked Ladies release another one. The difference is minimal; the 14 songs here replicate nice of the original's track list, which contained 19 songs. Only four songs are new to the line-up, and only one, the TV Theme to "Big Bang Theory" is previously unreleased. That leaves an awful lot of material to quibble over, and the fact that "Maybe You Should Drive" is totally ignored as an album and their earliest hit, "Be My Yoko Ono" is left off are serious miscalculations. The packaging is also barenaked. No liner notes, album listings, significant art, nada. Just a folding paper-sleeve with a torn-up collage of album artwork, track listing and writer/publisher credits. Pretty skimpy.

That said, BNL have always been masterful popcrafters. Their melodic chops, tight harmonies and whimsical sense of humor always made them stand out, even if "One Week" became such an annoying presence on the radio that you wanted to slap 'em. Both Steven Page or Ed Robertson could have carried any band as singular songwriters, together they turned out clever song after clever song without falling into the trap of self-parody. The pop conventions would reference other genres (the backwards guitar in "Pinch Me," the pseudo rap of "One Week") while maintaining the band's identity. There are few bands in the past couple of decades to blend their influences so ingeniously, at their best, frankly, BNL rivaled 10cc or XTC. Maybe a bit less whimsical than XTC or as arty as 10cc, Barenaked Ladies managed to create a run of singles that most pop bands would sell their passports for. "Hits From Yesterday & The Day Before" pretty much shortchanges the group, but BNL still is a worthy listen.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Amazon Reviews: Crhis Isaak "Beyond The Sun"

I'll Follow The Sun
3 Out Of 5 Stars
Early in Chris Isaak's career, there was a common critical dig that Chris was a slavish Elvis impersonator with a jones for Roy Orbison heartache. His videos for "Dancin'" and "Blue Hotel" did little to dispel that notion, despite that his second album had already shown Chris to be an astoundingly good singer and rapidly coming into his own as a songwriter. "Wicked Game," which out-Orbisoned Roy finally pushed the comparisons aside and made Chris a star. But he never shed that love of the Sun Sound, which followed his albums as he delivered them over the last three decades.

It's on "Beyond The Sun" that Chris pays homage to his old 45's. A chance comment by Sam Phillips that he was a fan of Chris' musical style and sincerity made Chris decide to gather his band, bone up on those classic Sun Studio 45's and make a trip to Memphis to record them on their home turf. I went for the double disc edition as a long-time fan and, while not disappointing, feel a bit awkward at rating the set higher than 3 stars. If you're going to dig into classics from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, or Jerry Lee Lewis, you have to wonder if Chris wanted to claim them for himself or just make a record of tributes? "I Can't Help Falling In Love" (Presley) is such a stunning recreation that you could easily fool friends into thinking it's the King himself. Johnny Cash isn't quite the same, but Chris takes "Ring of Fire" and does little to change the song from the sound of its original single.

Lesser known material fares better. Songs like "Dixie Fried" (Carl Perkins) or "So Long I'm Gone" (Warren Smith) help to balance the familiarity factor. Chris also chips in an original titled "Lovely Loretta," a cool bit of Memphis swing. Michelle Branch shows off her chops with a duet on "My Happiness" (Presley), a highlight on the set. All across "Beyond The Sun," Isaac delivers convincing performances and shows his reverence for the material. It's thoroughly enjoyable, just don't expect transcendence.


Friday, January 20, 2012

My Amazon DVD Reviews: "The Devil's Double"

Dance With The Devil 
3 Out Of 5 Stars

Uday Saddam Hussein was the sadistic son of Saddam Hussein, and of Saddam's two sons, the craziest. Uday decides that, like his father, he needs a body double to protect himself from those who'd like to kill him. Soldier and former classmate of Uday, Latif Yahia, is picked for the job. When Latif initially declines, it is made more than clear that the offer is not a request. It's a life or death choice.

Based in the true story of Latif, "The Devil's Double" is a tale of what unchecked wealth, greed and sexual avarice can happen when the safety mechanisms are taken away. Uday had a taste for fast cars and young women, and he discarded them equally when he tired of them. Latif finds that even those close to Uday are wary and cautious of Saddam's son's appetites and savage behavior. The longer Latif remains ensnared by a man who announces at one point, "God doesn't give me anything, I take what I want," the more he falls into desperation. Which means that if Uday wants to watch videos of the men he's tortured and killed (graphically included in the film), he will and everyone around him will uneasily tolerate it. Latif knows he could be part of the next random cruelty...and likely will, eventually.

The most amazing thing about "The Devil's Double," aside from the bizarreness of the true story, is Dominic Cooper who plays Latif and Uday. Latif is troubled and fighting the person he's been forced to become, Uday is a raging id without conscious. Cooper digs into both roles with so much verve that it's tough to discern he is really playing both roles. Cooper heads up an international cast that includes Philip Quast in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Saddam (and Saddam's double) and French actress Ludivine Sagnier as Sarrab, a troubled woman also caught between Uday and Latif. It's powerful and disturbing movie, and not easily forgotten.