From the Archive — Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man-3

I thought about dusting this review off a couple months back, during a weekend when a certain feature starring Tom Hardy became an unlikely smash hit. But then I realized the word “Venom” doesn’t appear anywhere in the few hundred words. That was perhaps a kindness to Topher Grace, or maybe just a tacit acknowledgment that director Sam Raimi didn’t really want the bulky marauder in his movie, a problem he recently noted was essentially insurmountable. So, there was really no point using this review to accompany the release of Venom. It was no real hardship. We now live in a universe that delivers a new Spider-Man movie approximately every six months, so I knew there’s be another opportunity. This review was originally written for and posted in my former online home.

For two films, Sam Raimi was a super-hero.

The director who inaugurated the Spider-man film franchise came to it equally accomplished in high art (A Simple Plan) and low genius (Evil Dead 2). Raimi achieved something wonderful that resided squarely in between those two extremes in adapting the amazing fantasy of milquetoast Peter Parker transformed into a web-slinging wisecracker who saves New York City from marauding goblins and metal-armed megalomaniacs. Bustling with energy, color and heart, Raimi’s first two films came closer than any other film to capturing the zippy appeal of four-color adventures of the utterly improbable. It helps that Spider-man is the epitome of the wish-fulfillment that gives super-heroes their resonant subtextual appeal: the bullied weakling who’s secretly a strong and dexterous daredevil, saving the prettiest girl in school. With that rich core, Raimi made a first film of uncommon urgency and a follow-up that maintained the drive while stripped away the shortcomings of its predecessor.

The third time is charmless. It may seem that Raimi has incorporated too many elements with villains old and not-as-old added to the mix (although, that “not-as-old” villain has still been around for about twenty years, a realization that had me reeling a tad) while still making room to have movieland’s Harry Osborn follow in the purple footprints of his printed predecessor. With classic supporting characters Gwen Stacy and her police officer father also debuting, the threat is clearly there for pure overload, but that’s not where the endeavor stumbles. It’s not overly busy, it’s just flat. It’s hard to think of another film with so much plot and yet feels like there’s very little actually going on.

The story itself is full of plot holes and strains credibility with its heavy reliance on coincidence. The attempts to explore Peter Parker’s darker instincts — fueled by municipal adoration and ego, and exacerbated by a sentient alien tar that contributes to a costume change — are marred by poorly crafted comedic digressions and muddled purpose. Raimi’s playing with ideas, but he has no real point to make with this side trip. The danger of the parasitic substance never comes across. Like many of the details, it’s just there. There’s nothing meaningful or memorable; it’s just filling space and killing time.

As opposed to the first two installments, Spider-man 3 suffers from a pronounced lack of humanity. The earlier films had ample FX house eye candy, but they also had the splendid schism of Peter’s joyous freedom and burdensome guilt in his super-hero role. His fearful longing for Mary Jane was as critical as the expertly crafted action sequences. Raimi still knows how to construct airborne battles with ingenuity and audaciousness, but his sure touch for the people populating the adventure is plainly gone. In its place is trumped-up conflict, hackneyed motivation and platitudes masquerading as wisdom (poor Rosemary Harris has to suffer through playing Aunt May as nothing more than a clucking dispenser of arduous advice).

This is hardly the first film franchise to fall apart when it gets to its third outing, but I had been a true believer in Sam Raimi’s eternal ability to shepherd the wall-crawler’s onscreen adventures, which makes it all the harder to see him spin a spectacular failure.

One for Friday — The Go-Betweens, “Was There Anything I Could Do?”

go betweens

Thirty years ago, in the autumn of 1988, the Go-Betweens released the album 16 Lovers Lane. It’s probably overstating it to proclaim the record the Go-Betweens’ version of Rumours, but there are some distinct similarities. There was a lot of tumult within the band, including shifting relationship drama. Some of the discombobulation was self-created, including a return to the band’s Australian homeland after operating with London as their home base for most of their recording career. The album was more sharply produced that its predecessors, and principal songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster felt they’d carried the various new efforts from conception to completion with greater effectiveness than ever before. It was also probably the band’s best-selling album to that point.

Of course, 16 Lovers Lane has sold about 40 million fewer copies than Rumours, so the comparison can only go so far. At college radio, though, 16 Lovers Lane was a major hit. It is exactly the sort of album that is ideal when working through a playlist, mostly because every track is a gleaming wonder. Most of them are between three and four minutes and strike with pure pop perfection from the opening notes. I played everything off this records, but the chugging strum of “Was There Anything I Could Do?” hit a particular sweet spot for me. I knew college rock could be noisy or deliberately unpolished. The Go-Betweens taught me it could also be slick, smart, and highly accomplished.

Listen or download —> The Go-Betweens, “Was There Anything I Could Do?”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that 16 Lovers Lane is currently out of print, at least as a physical item that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. I’m sharing this track with that understanding, but also as an encouragement to go out and buy some music. Anything from the Go-Betweens is a grand addition to a record collection. Although I feel I am operating under the legal principle of fair use, I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Playing Catch-Up — Diary of a Country Priest; Pacific Rim: Uprising; The Rider

diary

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951). A feat of cinematic austerity, this French drama follows a youthful man of the cloth (Claude Laydu) as he struggles presiding over a rural parish populated by congregants who dismiss him or even treat him with outright hostility. There are no jolts to the film and precious little that can be termed action, even under the most generous dramaturgical interpretation of the word. It is awash in mood and muted emotion, though, and the film insinuates itself with its existential ache. Diary of a Country Priest is constructed with a purposeful distance that prevents it from being fully engaging, but it’s a fascinating artifact of a very different time in global cinema, when visual authors were routinely defining the parameters of the form.

 

uprising

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Steven S. DeKnight, 2018). A retain a significant affection for Guillermo del Toro’s original toy box upending that yielded combative entanglements of giant robots and roaring monsters. Even when I was most in thrall to its bombastic charms, I never really thought that what the universe needed was more Pacific Rim. It’s a stroke of luck to ensnare crackling lighting in glass one time. Trying to set up a bottling line is a fool’s business plan, which Pacific Rim: Uprising soundly proves. The plot particulars are negligible and largely treated as such by first-time director Steven  S. DeKnight, who also worked on the script. John Boyega stars as a reluctant hero who steps into the fray, mentoring a robotics prodigy teenager (Cailee Spaeny). Any human interaction or character development is mere Styrofoam peanuts around the supposed prize of more rock-em-sock-em action sequences. DeKnight lacks del Toro’s combination of effusive spirit and grand visual invention, making the resulting film nothing more than joyless clamor.

 

rider

The Rider (Chloé Zhao, 2018). Drawn from the biographies of the actors she cast in it, writer-director’s Chloé Zhao’s depiction of life on the fraying social landscape of the American West has a resonant power. At the center is Brady Jandreau (Brady Blackburn), a rodeo rider recovering from a brutal head injury. He’s warned that returning to his former life could exacerbate the damage to his brain, but Brady doesn’t have a great fallback plan. His whole life — his whole identity — is built around a connection to horses. Concentrating on small encounters, Zhao renders the story with sensitivity and a laudable lack of pathos. The film doesn’t press for pity, nor invite judgment. With lovely images and intimate attention to the way emotional devastation can leave deeper scars than physical wounds, Zhao crafts a work of moving truthfulness. The Rider is exquisite.

Laughing Matters — Saturday Night Live, “Colon Blow”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Due to an earlier social media exchange, this particular vintage Saturday Night Live sketch has been on my mind all day. Since I don’t have time to write much else tonight, let this serve as my humble means of expunging it.

Never forget that any list of the greatest cast members of NBC’s venerable weekend late night comedy show must begin with Phil Hartman to be legitimate.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #812 to #809

china fire

812. China Crisis, Working with Fire and Steel (1983)

It is probably a fair measure of the rather arch sensibility of the band China Crisis that the subtitle of their sophomore album is Possible Pop Songs Volume Two. In any reasonable evaluation of Working with Fire and Steel, the album in question, there’s not much mystery about whether or not these are pop songs. They shine and swoon and eagerly cavort, reveling in the emerging studio artistry options of the day. The album is produced by Mike Howlett, but his time as a member of prog rock oddballs Gong doesn’t divert the individual cuts much from the sonic path already broken by chief creators Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon. These are pop offerings straight from a heaven decorated in a futuristic minimalism aesthetic.

The band’s methodology was basically working. “Wishful Thinking,” the album’s biggest hit, was the first and only China Crisis single to cross into the U.K. Top 10. The track is gentle and charming in its lovelorn elegance, a template they comfortably revisit without becoming overly beholden to it. The title cut is skittering disco, and “Animals in Jungles” contorts itself with a swinging verve. The band sounds like a less amped-up Howard Jones on “When the Piper Calls” (“I found a silent dream/ And held it for a day/ But just like water/ I let it slip away”), which makes it both on point for the era and atypically relaxed and confident.

The band’s future was also contained in these tracks, if only because “Papua,” one of the more politically minded tracks on the album, caught the ear of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker. Before long, he sought out China Crisis and offered to produce their next album, highly buffed Flaunt the Imperfection.

 

 

living dead soundtrack

811. Return of the Living Dead soundtrack (1985)

Released in 1985, Return of the Living Dead was part of the long legacy of George Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead. As with most lucrative tributaries from Romero’s original creation, the filmmaker saw no personal financial reward from it. Instead, it was John Russo, co-screenwriter of the earlier film, who orchestrated this bleakly comic romp with zombies. After Romero and Russo acrimoniously parted ways, it was the latter who retained the movie rights to the “Living Dead” branding. Russo tapped out a novel and script adaptation called Return of the Living Dead, eventually giving it to Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon to revise. When original director Tobe Hooper dropped out of the project, O’Bannon stepped in to make his feature directorial debut.

Enigma Records picked up the rights to the film’s soundtrack, and the task of getting a lineup of appropriate artists and songs was given to producers Steve Pross and Bill Hein. Pross, in particular, was deeply knowledgable about punk rock and was an equally devoted fan of horror movies. Given the ripe tomfoolery animating the film — and the presence of dyed hair, generously pierced punk rockers among the cast of characters — assembling a group of especially playful practitioners of one of the more bludgeoning forms of rock ‘n’ roll made perfect sense. Any album that included Lux Interior intoning, “Ah, my favorite brain soup/ Cream of nowhere” (on the Cramps’ selection “Surfin’ Dead”) is doing the greater populace a service simply by existing.

Other highlights on the album included 45 Grave’s snarling “Party Time,” Roky Erickson’s wonderfully weird and dramatic “Burn the Flames,” and the Damned blitzing the ballroom with “Dead Beat Dance.” Then the album makes a genre change so pronounced, it goes past changing lanes to careening over the median to race off in the opposite direction. The soundtrack closes with two synth-driven songs by SSQ, including the post-apocalyptic disco track “Tonight (We’ll Love Until We Die)” (“Rising from your earth bed/ It lingers in the air/ A smell gone sweetly rancid/ I know that you are near”). It likely created annoyance for devoted punk record buyers who otherwise hurled their stud-adorned first skyward through the duration of the disc. For college radio, though, it was just another reason to return to this unlikely soundtrack while it edged through the new music rotation.

 

 

truth playground

810. The Truth, Playground (1985)

The Truth formed in the U.K. in the early nineteen-nineties, after guitarist and vocalist Dennis Greaves finished his initial tenure with the band Nine Below Zero. Greaves teamed with Mick Lister, who also wielded the guitar and sang, and the two moved collaborators in an out of the lineup and they released a small batch of singles on the way to their full-length debut, Playground.

The album is a splendid piece of smartly crafted pop, moving enticing between slightly varied styles, merging old and new elements to come up with songs that are wholly unique with a tinge of the familiar. Sometimes, those echoes are of the music that was happening more or less concurrently. “Spread a Little Sunshine” has a through line that sounds like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” played on the wrong speed, and “Exception of Love” is not all that far removed from a Wham song. There’s a Joe Jackson vibe on “I’m in Tune,” and the big blast of sound of the title cut suggests Julian Cope fronting the E Street Band.

The album is broad enough in its construction that the specific comparisons can only fill in so much. The retro-tinged seduction on “It’s a Miracle” or the galvanizing, punching drum sound on “You Play with My Emotions” tell their own tales of the Truth’s creativity. The material holds so much promise, but the band was relatively short-lived. They released two more albums to precipitously diminishing interest. The band closed up shop before the eighties ended. A reunion, of course, followed.

 

 

adam charming

809. Adam and the Ants, Prince Charming (1981)

Officially the third album billed to Adam and the Ants, there was little doubt that Prince Charming largely belonged to the similarly monikered fellow at the front of the group. Success on the U.S. charts was still proving elusive, but Ant was routinely taking his group to the upper reaches of the U.K. equivalent. He enjoyed three straight Top 10 hits across the end of 1980, and the music press focused its fascination squarely on him. Prince Charming took it up yet another level.

The album’s first two singles — “Stand and Deliver” and the title cut — both topped the U.K. chart, in the process cementing Ant’s musical persona: theatrical, confident, mischievous, and just a touch bawdy. His was a kingly seduction, relentless and utterly disinterested in nuance. Prince Charming was released within the first three months of MTV’s existence. Ant’s timing couldn’t have been better.

Unlike some of the other albums released at the time with a similar sound, Prince Charming lacks the infectious sense of crafty inspiration that lends a certain timelessness, or at least endurance. “Ant Rap” has a clumsy goofiness, “Five Guns West” is a dull pastiche, and “S.E.X.” is like a discard from a nineteen-seventies movie satire taking aim at rock ‘n’ roll excess. Despite declarations of his own perfectionist streaks, Ant often seemed to be putting on an act, sometimes bordering on a reflexive subversion of form the likes of Andy Kaufman at his most indulgent.

Whether or not Ant’s impulses were sound, he was devoted to them and fully prepared to claim them as solely his own. Prince Charming was the last record that billed Adam as backed by Ants. After this, he was on his own.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — Friends

friends1994tvga

On the occasion of Netflix sending about seventeen boxcars crammed with small bills in the direction of WarnerMedia to keep streaming rights to Friends, this was my attempt a few years ago at writing about the bygone hit sitcom, as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series at my former digital home. This, I must note, was a precarious task for me, since any assertions I made faced the sure scrutiny of a true expert. I don’t remember what she though of this brief consideration. In truth, I’m a little afraid to ask.

1994: Friends debuts

I was about a year out of college when the TV series Friends made its debut, making me a twenty-something just beginning to figure out my place in the world and leaning on my closest compatriots when things got too challenging and confusing. And that’s exactly what I saw when I looked at this show. Maybe I was projecting a little bit. After all, about half the characters were toiling in occupations that implied a certain amount of settled stature — upscale chef, paleontologist, indeterminate business executive — and they were all subsisting with few indications of strife. They lived in the safest, smallest version of New York City imaginable. It looked more like the clean-scrubbed capital city I lived in than any iteration of the biggest metropolis in the nation I’d ever seen on screen before. They drank coffee and traded jokes and wondered about how their romantic prospects might pan out. Add in a little more beer and a tendency to spend weekend nights watching They Live and it could have been my clan.

As I recall, one of the most common complaints when the show premiered and started racing up to the top of the ratings was that the characters didn’t talk like real people, as if the gag machines on other sitcoms were somehow the height of verisimilitude. Thing was, at the height of their verbal one-upmanship, the characters in Friends sounded exactly like my friends. The happy irony, offbeat absurdism, media savvy, and collegial jabs were the grammar of our banter. Some of the push back against the tone and tenor of Friends was the commonplace animosity my generation voiced anytime a piece of entertainment was said to represent our norms and behaviorsFriends got reflexively dumped into that category for a time, but in short order it transcended that to become a sitcom institution, maybe the last of its kind.

There have been other hit shows since, of course, and even other comedies that captured attention, but I think Friends arguably represents the last gasp of hip, appointment television, the sort of thing that NBC could accurately label “Must See TV.” The show didn’t exactly have an edge to lose, but it certainly got more comfortable in the manner of all long-running shows, playing on the most familiar elements of the characters and their tried and true situations rather than springing the unexpected on the audience. It was reliable, warm, dependable. It was there for us. And we were there for it, too.

One for Friday — A House, “Call Me Blue”

a house

Thirty years ago, in the autumn of 1988, Irish band A House released their debut album, On Our Big Fat Merry-Go-Round. Formed in Dublin, largely by old school chums, A House had enough success in their local environs — including some self-released singles — to be invited to record a session with legendary radio host John Peel. Around that time, the band was signed to Blanco y Negro, making them labelmates with Everything But the Girl and the Jesus and Mary Chain. A House seemed poised for enormous success, and nothing promised it more than the blistering, brilliant single “Call Me Blue.”

“Call Me Blue” explodes from its first moment, racing on a treadmill at its highest setting with the control panel smashed to oblivion. Dave Couse’s vocals do the requisite Irish soaring and keening on the chorus, but a lot of the cut’s appeal comes from his comparatively relaxed delivery of the lyrics, irony slathered on like sugary icing (“What a great world we all live in/ Even better, what a time to be here”). And the whole thing is wrapped up just over the two minute mark. It’s bliss.

College radio made “Call Me Blue” a healthy hit in its rarefied territory in the fall and winter of 1988, but nothing further from the band really clicked. They were fairly prolific in the years that immediately followed. A House released a total of five studio albums, finishing with No More Apologies, in 1996.

Listen or download —> A House, “Call Me Blue”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that On Our Big Fat Merry-Go-Round is out of print, at least as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensate both the proprietor of said shop and the original artist. If I can be bought, go do so. It is the sort of purchase that will not inspired regret. Definitely buy something from the record store as soon as possible. They’re counting on your holiday dollars. Although I believe sharing this song in this space constitutes fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove it from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)