DEATH WISH 3

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Yeah, 2 and 4 hit today, as well – and while they have their moments – Death Wish 3 is truly off the rails. Featuring more elderly-aimed fear mongering than a Republican election campaign, Death Wish 3 is a film conceived by Michael Winner seemingly to terrify olds. Granted – terrifying olds doesn’t take much – we’re born to the diaper, we die in the diaper – and our mental faculties are the same at both ends. What is endlessly amusing is not what is meant to frighten the enfeebled – young toughs, ruffians, riff-raff, rakehells, and/or brown people have been used to scare the bejeebers out of the aged since forever – but Winner seems to have assembled and outfitted his Rainbow Coalition of ne’er-do-wells by watching Breakin’ – this bunch looks more like an early ‘80s Dance Crew than a group of dangerous, thrill-killer psychos. And they don’t really comport themselves all that differently, either. Thrill to Bronson and his retirement-aged friends coming together as a community (in the most non-NYC NYC in the history of film – and that includes Rumble in the Bronx and Eyes Wide Shut) for a bit of bonding, a nice meal, and to improvise booby-traps and wield heavy weapons in order to take on the creeps and take back the night – which is probably something they had no right to do.

JAWS

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It’s an unassailable classic…so I’ll tell you it’s out today and everything you’ve read about the restoration is true. It looks unbelievably gorgeous. I’ll tell you that Shaw is amazing, and that Dreyfuss has never been more appealing. And then I don’t have to say anything else, on the grounds that it might incriminate me.

Dammit.

Here’s the thing – to me, it’s not very intense, it’s not much of an adventure (despite the odd batches of jaunty John Williams score trying to sell that to you), and it’s not even the best of The Beard (as far as I’m concerned, that would be Raiders of the Lost Ark). What it does have is an exceedingly phony-looking shark (that history tells us was very good at not working), and some willy-nilly gore. If you plopped a kid down in front of Jaws for the first time and said they were gonna’ be “so scared,” I can’t imagine they’d manage to stay awake. When I saw the thing when I was little, I thought it might be funny to make a fake fin and try to scare people. For my money, the best way to view Jaws is as a character drama with some Jack Londony man-against-nature/man-against-self sorta’ subtext.

Having said that, the Robert Shaw/Quint Indianapolis monologue is still electrifying and unsettling. Had Beardsley scuttled the Benchley beach-read bullshit and made that film…

…well, it would probably be technically proficient but pedestrian too.

THE RAID: REDEMPTION

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When I was a freshman in high school, my kid brother and a couple of his friends were being bullied by this bag of douche. I intervened – and we did the whole “we’re gonna’ fight after school in the park” thing.

By the end of the fracas, I couldn’t see out of one eye. My lip was split in two places, and I was bleeding from my scalp. But – as it’s often said – you should have seen the other guy.

At one point, I actually started scraping his face back and forth on a concrete basketball court. I bounced his head off the pavement six or so times. When he tried to choke me, I bit a chunk out of his arm. The whole time I was engaged in this nightmare, I was held upright by three things:

Adrenaline.
The fact that I was doing this for my brother and his friends.
The ideal that little guys need to be defended and bullies needed to be stopped.

I didn’t so much win the fight as it ended with both of us too ruined to continue. I walked my brother home, and the bully was carried to a nearby apartment complex, where his friends started knocking on doors until they found someone who would let them use a phone to call the kid’s parents to come and get him (I know this because the woman who answered her door was my friend’s mom, and when she saw the bloody bully she called my dad and told him I was “an animal”).

For my part, I went home and washed off the [mickeyrourke] mud and the blood [/mickeyrourke], then took my brother to see a movie. When we cut back through the park, people were still talking about the fight. They were astonished I was up and moving around. They said it was the most disgusting, depraved, violent thing they’d ever seen. I guess Jake and the Fatman was just a fluke.

When our film was over, I got up – felt immediately queasy and disoriented – and collapsed back into the seat. My limbs were leaden and I felt like I was going to pass out. I told my brother to call our dad and have him come get us. There was no way I could walk back home.

Why am I telling you any of this?

Because that’s EXACTLY HOW THE RAID MADE ME FEEL.

Gareth (Merentau) Evans has constructed a film so deliriously frenzied and brutal, that watching it is a total adrenaline rush – and when it’s over, you feel too mercilessly pummeled to continue with life. The filmmaker shoots physical combat with energy and clarity, allowing the action itself to tell the tale. And despite the low budget, Evans’ single location shoot allows him to light and dress the environs with a bit of style. There were elements of the film that reminded me a bit of Chan Wook-Park’s work in terms of color and texture, and at times it felt like this bunch of stunt-happy psychos were unleashed on the apartment complex from In the Mood for Love. It’s a good-looking flick filled with such astonishing action brutality that I actually felt drained by the time it was over – as though I had endured the punishment the characters had weathered. The only difference was that here, unlike reality – I couldn’t wait to do it again.

ROSETTA (CRITERION)

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This is a special film for me for a lot of reasons. It’s a compelling, heart-wrenching narrative created on a shoestring, it explores very specific cultural attitudes in a way that makes them universal, and it introduced me to one of the most gifted actresses alive. If Emilie Dequenne is known at all in the States, it’s for her performance as Marianne de Morangias in the classic Brotherhood of the Wolf. In that film, she’s adorable window-dressing and a damsel in distress. In Rosetta…she’s Rosetta.

Bright and vulnerable, desperate and determined, Rosetta is a girl searching for something no one seems to be looking for anymore – a modicum of dignity. For her, this is represented by gainful employment – which was, as it is now, not a very easy thing to come by. Go with her on her journey.

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS

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I love Wes Anderson. The stuff people consider his weakest is the stuff I adore. The Life Aquatic is one of my absolute favorite films, period. And Moonrise Kingdom sings a song of kinship to me. I should adore this film – and on a technical level, I do. It’s a truly great movie, and when he hits you with his oddly-timed comic quirk, Anderson kills.

But Tenenbaums is far too funereal for me – and in this gently mournful way I have a very hard time with. I can’t just pick it up and pop it in without walking away feeling really bad. To some degree, I think that might be why there are people who say that the film is Anderson’s best film – because it does lack his usual sense of whimsy and joy. Anderson has always seemed so non-judgemental of his characters, and it feel like he feels awful for this family of failures. As sad as Aquatic can be, there is this light to it – and maybe its in the decision to use Henry Selick’s odd and adorable creations to add magic to the film’s most somber moment that we’re able as an audience to transcend the pain. With Tenenbaums, I just don’t feel the joy. The Royal Tenenbaums hurts.

And I’ll buy it anyway.

SHAFT

I’M NOT GIVING YOU THE LINK. FIND IT YOURSELF, SHITTY.

Recently, I read that Shaft is the first “Blaxploitation” film to achieve commercial success. A statement like that is a perfect example of why I hate the internet so much – it’s a monumentally uninformed statement being passed off as fact to way too many people. Melvin Van Peebles kicked things off with Watermelon Man - in which a bigoted asshole wakes up black – and his insane Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, and then Cotton Comes to Harlem made crazy money for MGM. It could even be said that the In the Heat of the Night sequel They Call Me Mister Tibbs! has a salty attitude that plays as a precursor to Shaft. What Shaft did manage to do is prove beyond a doubt that the black audience was one to be catered to. In many ways, Shaft was possibly the best way to do so.

Shaft is often seen as a “black” hero – but what’s unique about the character (and Gordon Parks’ filmic take on him) is that you could seriously just swap Roundtree out with any gruff actor – a Lee Marvin, perhaps – and remove the “street” lingo (which isn’t at all present in writer Ernest Tidyman’s book, and which apparently upset him – he didn’t want to be known as the cheesy white guy who tried to fill his characters’ mouths with fakee “jive”)…and you’d basically have a straight-up detective story. The real lesson here was that you didn’t have to insultingly pander to black audiences. You could just tell universally-compelling stories featuring African-Americans.

That’s not exactly what studios and production entities learned

Still, Shaft is largely effective because it is so universally hardassed. John Shaft does not care about color – it doesn’t matter who or what you are; if you stand against him, you’re fucked. It’s a lesson for us all to learn.

Assassin’s Bullet
Breathless
Cradle 2 The Grave
Death Wish 2
Death Wish 3
Death Wish 4: The Crackdown
Dexter: The Sixth Season
Fallen
Father’s Day
Jaws
Kill List
Korczak
La Promesse (Criterion)
Les Vampires
The Life & Death of a Porno Gang
A Man Apart
Marriage Retreat
New Jack City
Oblivion Island: Haruka & The Magic Mirror
The Raid: Redemption
Romeo Must Die
Rosetta (Criterion)
The Royal Tenenbaums Criterion
Shaft
This Boy Can Fight Aliens
Titanic: 100 Years in 3D

VARIOUS ARTISTS – JUST TELL ME THAT YOU WANT ME (TRIBUTE TO FLEETWOOD MAC)

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One way you can tell this is a “serious” project, and not a quick cash-grab (like, say, the announcement of the latest Mac “comeback” tour), is the omission of many of the obvious hits (“Go Your Own Way,” “Over My Head,” “Don’t Stop,” to name a few). Given the relative unfamiliarity of much of the material to the casual fan, the album works particularly well as a showpiece for some promising new artists: Black Dub’s Trixie Whitley unleashes her amazingly soulful pipes on “Before the Beginning,” Bethany Cosentino’s take on “Rhiannon” is a nicely chipper response to Nicks’ sultry melancholy, and “Silver Springs” is pop perfection in the hands of Lykke Li. That’s not to dismiss the efforts of the better-known contributors: “Think About Me” is all sunny L.A. pop from New Pornographers, Marianne Faithfull’s “Angel” demonstrates her continued vocal power, while The Kills do a nicely nightmarish workup of “Dreams.” I’m surprised none of these folks took on “Hypnotized,” particularly in the wake of Bob Welch’s passing, and the album coulda used a nod to the band’s blues roots: while Billy Gibbons’s take on “Oh Well” is nicely down-and-dirty, it honestly can’t hold a candle to seeing Buckingham’s amazing solo take on that dual-guitar riff.

STEVE VAI – THE STORY OF LIGHT

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In a week when the big prog-rock news includes two new Billy Sherwood projects, including a Supertramp tribute as well as The Prog Collective (both albums featuring Wakeman, Wetton, Kaye, Hillage, and a small army of the usual suspects), serious fans of the busybusybusy shouldn’t overlook Vai’s latest… and more to the point, pop and rock fans in general might find this more to their taste than they’d expect. That’s partially due to the presence of singers/songwriters Aimee Mann and Beverly McClellan, who leaven the always-staggering musicianship with a few welcome touches of human warmth. Naturally, you get the full range of Vai’s abilities, dazzling on  stuff like “Weeping China Doll,””Racing The World” and the title song, gently lyrical on “Creamsicle Sunset” and “Mullach a’ tSi.” The album’s high point is the crunchy, effects-laden “John The Revelator,” driven by wailing vocals from McClellan, with samples from Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 recording. Somewhat less successful is its revved-up sequel “Book of the Seven Seals,” adapting the gospel standard into a glitzy anthem, with caffeinated choral vocals, that edges a bit too close to post-modern Broadway cheese for comfort.  More satisfyingly down to earth is his vocal duet with Mann on “No More Amsterdam,” and who can’t love a guy in this day and age who’s happy to wrap things up with something called “Sunshine Electric Raindrops”?

DR. LONNIE SMITH – THE HEALER

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It’s nice to see that the exploration of new ways of music distribution isn’t limited to up-and-coming bands: Smith is a jazz legend who faces the difficulty that confronts so many of his peers: he’s not named Marsalis, or Norah Jones, or Kenny G, so attracting major label interest for a new project is a tricky undertaking, at best. That being the bad news, the good news is that the idea of starting your own record label is becoming more and more practical in the age of digital delivery, and the master of the Hammond B3 puts that technology to good use on a sharp-sounding live date from last year’s Lamantin Jazz Festival, fronting a killer trio.  In fact, I’m not sure the high point of the album, for me, wasn’t making the acquaintance of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, who opens the proceedings (along with drummer Jamire Williams) with the eerie mysterioso of “Backtrack,” letting Smith ease into the song before the bandleader steps aside to let Kreisberg cut loose on an amazingly structured solo that builds slowly over the track’s 13+ minutes, never letting the tension ease until he and Smith drive it home. “Mellow Mood” is a more uptempo Latin groove than the title might suggest, and “Dapper Dan” showcases Smith’s bass-pedal chops, Williams falling in step, with more than a hint of the Second Line. The standard “Chelsea Bridge” is given a dark, contemplative reading, and the hummed, wordless vocals that Smith intones over the devotional “Pilgrimage,” against Kreisberg’s wailing guitar, take the album out on a note of gospel glory. The recording’s a touch on the scrappy side, but immediate and well inside the music.

OTHER NOTABLE 8.14 RELEASES:

2 Chainz – Based On A T.R.U. Story
Anvil – Anthology of Anvil  
Blackberry Smoke – Whippoorwill
Classic Crime – Phoenix
Jesse Davis – Live at Smalls
Dead Can Dance, Anastasis
The Faceless – Autotheism
Flatfoot 56 – Toil
In This Moment – Blood
Insane Clown Posse – Mighty Death Pop
Kottonmouth Kings – Mile High
Lynch Mob – Revolution
Charlie Mars – Blackberry Light
Mike Oldfield – Two Sides: The Very Best of Mike Oldfield  
Priscilla Paris – Love, Priscilla: Her 1960s Solo Recordings
Daniel Powter – Turn On The Lights
The Prog Collective – The Prog Collective
Bob Sanabria – Multiverse
Slightly Stoopid – Top Of The World
Texas Hippie Coalition – Peacemaker
Various Artists – Songs Of The Century – An All-Star Tribute To Supertramp
Julian Vaughn – Breakthrough
Robin & Linda Williams – These Old Dark Hills
Yellowcard – Southern Air

SLEEPING DOGS (PC, PS3, 360)

Hong Kong action films and video games should be a match made by a violent, two-gunned cupid. It wasn’t really possible during the genre’s heyday – but with current generation systems, the brutally fun action and fabulously soapy storylines that make HK action nerds squeal is not only possible – it’d all look really fucking pretty.

Except the few hits we’ve gotten haven’t exactly delivered on that promise. Stranglehold was fun, but it didn’t fully embrace the genre despite having it’s most famous creators attached. It’d be easy to make the argument that Shenmue II wore its ‘90s-era Hong Kong action influences on it’s sleeve – but it’d be harder to argue that it was in any way a good game.

I don’t know if Sleeping Dogs is going to buck the trend. It’s had a long history; it began its life as Black Lotus, and featured a female protagonist…then it transitioned into a game in the (assy) True Crime franchise that was quickly canceled outright…only to be picked up by Square Enix and prepped for release as True Dogs. That’s hardly a good sign – but hopefully it allowed for the time to give the title a little polish. What does excite me is how much the game looks to fully embrace that kind of Johnnie To-style dramatic insanity that is so prevalent in the best films out of Hong Kong. Hopefully that influence extends beyond dual-wielding pistols and slamming heads into wall furnishings – and into an excursion into the Triad vs Cops stories I worshiped as a kid.

DARKSIDERS II (PC, PS3, 360)

The first Darksiders was very iterative of Zelda. But considering it actually managed to do something new with the Zelda formula – something Zelda games haven’t done since Wind Waker – it was a blast to play. Darksiders II looks to be more of the same Zelda cloneness, but now with phat loots – which means it’s probably going to be a blast. If nothing else it’ll have numbers you can watch go up, which is what all the best video games are these days.

THE LAST STORY (Wii)

I feel like this game is riding the wave of Xenoblade greatness. Like Xenoblade, The Last Story is a late-cycle Wii RPG that almost didn’t make it stateside. Unlike Xenoblade, it’s entirely mediocore. Many people were interested simply because the game was headed by Final Fantasy mastermind Hironobu Sakaguchi…who hasn’t done anything truly noteworthy in the last decade.

Although I payed way too much to import this, I can’t bring myself to play more than two hours. The battle system is a sloppy, the characters are cliché-ridden messes, and the interface is like a blown-up SNES RPG.

Also – I have a hard time forgiving the guy for two games with ridiculously overly-dramatic statements for titles.

So now it ends…

FIN.