MONKEY REVIEW: Death Race

August 31, 2008

I first saw Death Race 2000, regarded by some as one of the best B-movies ever made, at a drive-in way back when in the mid-70’s, and subsequently saw it whole or in part numerous more times on cable over the years. Death Race 2000 was a Roger Corman production, directed by Paul Bartel and starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, set in a dystopian future (well, the future in 1975, anyway) where a cross country race takes place annually in which the drivers get points for running over citizens unlucky enough to get in their way. That it was satirizing the American obsession with violent entertainment flew right over my head on initial viewings, and instead I saw a very odd movie with cartoonish violence, bizarre characters and even more bizarre cars. There was also a lot of nudity, but of course I covered my eyes during those parts. There’s a plot point worth mentioning where the US government blames the French for things going wrong, which seems pretty contemporary now, and a lot of the political satire in general still seems spot on. The remake, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien Vs. Predator) and co-produced by Corman, leaves out the satire for the most part and has repackaged it as a sort of killer American Gladiators set in a prison called Terminal Island. No one gets points for running over anyone, and instead the drivers try to kill each other. The changes pretty much remove everything that was interesting about the original and what ends up on the screen is your standard action picture, nothing more, nothing less, and certainly nothing special. Jason Statham and Tyrese Gibson ably fill in for Carradine and Stallone, and Joan Allen shows up as an evil warden. Statham always makes for an entertaining screen presence, which is why I decided to see Death Race, against my better instincts, but I would advise Statham fans to just wait for Transporter 3, due out in November. All others would do better to seek out the original, which is a lot more fun in all respects than this remake.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

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Chemical Chords, the new album from UK based band Stereolab, is in a lot of ways business as usual for the band, as the fourteen tracks featured here mostly reflect their trademark sound, a eccentric fusion of electronica, 60’s French pop, lounge, rock and artful experimentation. After nine studio albums, they could probably do this sort of thing in their sleep, though that’s not to say that Chemical Chords is a lazy work, as while it may sound familiar to longtime fans, there are also plenty of inspired moments, “Neon Beanbag,” “Three Women,” “Silver Sands,” Self Portrait With “Electric Brain” and the title track among them. I wouldn’t say Stereolab has broken much new ground with Chemical Chords, but it does find them in very fine form, and that’s all right by me.

http://www.myspace.com/stereolab

Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Babylon A.D., based on a highly regarded science fiction novel by French writer Maurice Dantec, arrives on American shores with a fairly toxic reputation, forwarded by no less than the director himself. To say that Babylon A.D. is a simplification of its source material is an understatement, so let me just say that what’s ended up on the screen is a handsomely produced science fiction chase movie, well directed and well acted for the most part. The problem, and what a big problem it is, is that it pretty much makes no sense. It’s the sort of movie where you wait for someone, anyone, to pull everything together and explain what exactly has been going on for the past hour and a half or so, but no, no such explanation is forthcoming. There’s a lot of running around, a lot of shooting and people getting beat up, several big explosions, and a few car chases, but when the credits roll, you’re left to wonder what it was all about, because the movie isn’t about to tell you. It’s got a solid cast, headed by Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh and Mélanie Thierry, and they keep it watchable, but all their efforts can’t overcome a screenplay that just goes nowhere.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

philjacksonSome years ago now, the NCAA took action against the use of racist Native American sports team mascots. The University of North Dakota has resisted change, however, and has tried to hold on to their Fightin’ Sioux mascot, despite the lack of official support from surrounding tribal communities. NBA coach Phil Jackson, an UND alumnus, lately took an opportunity to speak out against the mascot:

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — NBA coach Phil Jackson accepted an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, and asked the school to think hard about its Fighting Sioux nickname.

In his 20-minute speech during Monday’s ceremony, Jackson did not specifically say UND should do away with the nickname, but he asked officials to ponder what could be gained by keeping it.

Jackson said he had been asked by his Lakota friends to speak out against the nickname. He said UND has a chance to embrace change.

Under a settlement reached last fall with the NCAA, UND has three years to win the approval of North Dakota’s Sioux tribes if it wants to continue using the name without sanctions. The NCAA considers the name hostile and abusive, but school officials dispute that. – Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

Thank you, Phil Jackson!

With her new album, How To Walk Away, Boston based singer/songwriter Juliana Hatfield enters into Aimee Mann territory with a set of lushly, some might even say slickly produced pop songs. Hatfield worked with producer Andy Chase (Ivy, Brookline, Paco) for this one, and I mostly liked the results. Though I missed Hatfield’s gritty guitar playing, her voice and her prickly, cynical and frequently sardonic lyrics (“Just In Lust,” case in point) transplant nicely to Chase’s pop mold. (One notable exception to the pop proceedings on the album is “Now I’m Gone,” recorded and improvised in a single take by Juliana playing her guitar.) The songs are primarily about the end of relationships, presented not as tragic or mournful, but rather in the cold light of day and regarded with an often brutal realism. Though I definitely like rock Juliana more than pop Juliana, I will admit, it’s still Juliana either way, and I think this is a good change of pace for her. If you are a longtime Hatfield fan, just know that you’re in for a full on pop album, and I think you’ll enjoy How To Walk Away, perhaps more and more as you replay it. Standout cuts: “Shining On,” “This Lonely Love (featuring Richard Butler),” “So Alone” and “Such A Beautiful Girl (featuring Matthew Caws).”

http://www.myspace.com/julianahatfield

The Verve – Forth

August 26, 2008

For those worried that the Verve’s first album in eleven years, Forth, is either a cash-in or a futile attempt to recapture past glories, fear not, this collection of ten songs is neither of those. Instead, Forth is a work that can easily stand alongside the best of their work in the 90’s. Picking up where they left off on 1997’s Urban Hymns, Forth immediately draws you in with the cool, soulful neo-psychedelia of “Sit and Wonder,” with forceful lead singer Richard Ashcroft sounding as good as he ever has. The band is working on a large canvas here, combining psychedelia with Britpop and straight ahead rock and roll, frequently allowing themselves to jam out a bit, as on the eight minute plus “Noise Epic,” one of the highlights of the album. At least half the album is taken up by tracks that push past the six or seven minute mark, though this can hardly said to be a record given to meandering. Instead, it’s thrilling, edgy work, with not a wasted minute to be heard. Definitely recommended for longtime Verve fans, but Forth will make a lot of top ten lists at the end of the year no matter how familiar listeners may be with their past records. Standout cuts: “Sit and Wonder,” “Love is Noise,” “Valium Skies” and “Appalachian Springs.”

http://www.myspace.com/theverve

“You were looking in the wrong place.”

Director Alex Proyas followed up his moody, heavily atmospheric and richly imaginative film debut The Crow with another moody, heavily atmospheric, richly imaginative film called Dark City, about a man who wakes in a city where it is perpetually night with no memory of who he is, though he quickly finds he is being pursued by police for a series of gruesome murders. He is also being pursued by the Strangers, led by Mr. Hand in a memorable performance by Richard O’Brien. Though it tread on much the same ground as The Matrix, released a year later, Dark City was nowhere near as successful as that film, nor was it even as successful as Proyas’ own The Crow. It did have some champions, Roger Ebert among them, who hailed Dark City as the best film of 1998. Ten years later, Proyas has released his own cut of Dark City, and unlike a lot of other so-called director’s cuts, which too often tend to be self-indulgent or flat out pointless, the changes made here have enriched it, and indeed made this the definitive version of this movie. If you are one of the few who saw Dark City during its original theatrical run, or else have seen since on DVD, I highly recommend seeing this directors cut. If you haven’t seen it, you will be watching one of the all time best science fiction films, and certainly one of the most stunning to behold. Obviously, some of the grandeur and beauty of the imagery, inspired chiefly by German Expressionism and film noir, will be diminished somewhat on a smaller screen, but it still retains much of its visual power. The changes Proyas made to the film are immediately apparent at the outset: The opening voiceover narration of Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland, in one of his most unusual and effective performances) is gone, along with some footage that has been moved to later in the movie, thus preserving the initial mystery of the plot, allowing viewers to discover what’s really going on in Dark City along with its central character, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell). I’ve read that some viewers actually turn down the narration in the original cut, as the narration immediately gives so much of the movie away. The narration was not a directorial decision, however, but one enforced upon Proyas by New Line Cinema. Other changes include more scenes including William Hurt’s detective character, Frank Bumstead, elevating what seemed more of a glorified cameo in the original cut to a major role. Some of the special effects have been subtlely modified as well. Some critics have accused of Dark City as emphasizing style over substance, but this is just wrong. It is a movie about individuality and control, anxiety about the nature and purpose of human lives, and finally, about the nature of that thing we called the human soul. Proyas’ directorial style, which presents the story with the intensity of a fever dream, serves but does not overwhelm these weighty themes. Clearly, I admire this film quite a lot, and I was happy to discover Proyas had improved with this new cut what was already a great movie in my mind. If you are a fan of this movie, you should see this version as well, and if you have never seen it, this is the only version you need watch, Dark City as it was originally meant to be seen.

MONKEY RATING: ZERO MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

The Walkmen – You And Me

August 22, 2008

“…my heart’s in the strangest place…”

You And Me, the new album from New York based band the Walkmen is a pretty low key affair, which isn’t really a criticism, but this isn’t exactly the album you want to listen to to get that party started right. It is, however, maybe the perfect end of summer album: It’s moody, romantic, hopeful, ambivalent and melancholy, with just a touch of nostalgia and regret woven in. Musically, it often sounds like Bob Dylan backed by the Doors, with some Tom Waits and Harry Nilsson thrown in for good measure. I liked the first half of the album better than the second half, which tends a plod a bit, but in general, this is a pretty worthy effort, and will probably grow on some with repeated listens. Standout cuts: “Donde Esta La Playa,” “On The Water,” “In The New Year” and “Red Moon.”

http://www.myspace.com/thewalkmen

I’ve been experiencing a personal Glen Campbell music renaissance that’s been ongoing for several months now. I’m not so much a fan of his “Rhinestone Cowboy” days, but rather earlier on, in the 60’s, when he released such great songs as “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” Those songs were lushly produced tracks that frequently augmented Campbell’s rich and textured country-style vocals with a full string section. For his first release with Capital Records in 15 years, Campbell brings that style to bear on 10 tracks, covers of songs by a diverse set of bands, on an album called Meet Glen Campbell. I had no idea this was even in the works, so it was a delight to come across it. He covers tracks by John Lennon, the Velvet Underground, Foo Fighters and U2, among others. My favorite songs include “Sing” (Travis), “Walls” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), “Sadly Beautiful” (the Replacements) and “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” (Green Day), the last being the first single. Not all the songs work as well as those four, but neither are there any out and out duds. It’s maybe not the revelatory, emotionally wrenching kind of work that Johnny Cash produced with the help of Rick Rubin some years back, but Meet Glen Campbell is entertaining and supremely worthwhile in its own right, and proof positive that Campbell’s voice is as dynamic and utterly distinctive as ever.

http://www.myspace.com/glencampbell

I had some adjusting to do when I first listened to the second album by Los Angeles based the Ettes, as the 60’s inspired garage band sound from their debut, Shake The Dust, was still mostly there, but lead singer Coco’s vocals had a different character this time out. Her singing, which had a grittiness and earthiness to it that was also reflected in the lyrics (see “Dirty” off the first album as an example), sounded a lot more poppy this time out, a lot less raw, more Leslie Gore than Nancy Sinatra. The 11 songs collected on Look At Life Again Soon retain the same catchy, short and sweet approach, but they sound less, well, dangerous on this album, and it’s not a change I necessarily welcomed. That said, the fusion of 60’s bubblegum pop with garage rock works well enough that I eventually warmed up to the new sound, especially on tracks like “I Get Mine,” “Marathon,” “Crown Of Age” and “Pay Up.” I’m certainly not opposed to bands I like striking out in new directions, but I’m hoping to see more of the gritty, raw Ettes I was initially sold on next time out.

http://www.myspace.com/theettes