Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Spiderman 3" (2007) Sam Raimi

The central premise of Sam Raimi’s epic Spiderman 3 concerns the alien symbiote that crashes to earth and affixes itself to Tobey Maguire’s nerdy Peter Parker. This black goo influences Peter and he turns into “evil-Spidey”, illustrated in the film by a black suit and an emo fringe. Thus, the superhero is transformed, caught between his sweet, geektastic nobility and his newfound swagger, all eyeliner and hip-thrusts.

In somewhat the same way, I myself face an internal struggle when it comes to my feelings about Spidey 3. My purist self insists that it’s badly made, overlong and cheesy, while my snarky side tells me that it’s pure fun escapism. There’s no doubt that I was thoroughly entertained by most of this film (though at times I began to drift) but the snobbish side of me refuses to call it a Great Film.

My main problem is the sheer bulk of the film. In 2 ½ hours we have to grapple with three supervillians, the symbiote, Peter’s relationships with Mary Jane and Gwen Stacey and the tying up of any loose ends from the first two. Being a Spiderman movie, we have to have shots of our friendly neighbourhood you-know-what zooming through New York, a Stan Lee cameo and emotional pathos. Being a Sam Raimi movie, we need Bruce Campbell. Being the third and (most likely) final film with these actors, we need it to exceed all our expectations, thrill, amaze and move us. I’m not entirely sure it accomplished all this, but it certainly tried.

The three villains are all interesting in their own way. The Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church) has the best visuals and acting, but his story is a little sentimental even for a Spiderman film. Venom’s graphics are great, but Sam Raimi’s well-publicised dislike of the character means that he’s shoehorned in at the last minute and doesn’t get to do much (although Topher Grace makes a convincing Peter Parker negative). Harry Osborne (the wonderful James Franco) dons his father’s suit to create the best baddie; a proper backstory, likeable character and convincing acting make his scenes some of the standout moments. However, do we really need the three of them? The culmative battle scene with the four is impressive, but not worth the struggle it takes getting there, plodding through their various storylines with not enough time to fully explore any.

The alien symbiote is a strange beast, transforming our hero not into Evil Spiderman as much as Fall Out Spider-Boy. The scene in which he struts down the high street in full-on Saturday Night Fever mode is too bizarre for words. I would have much preferred a darker Spiderman. They could have easily have thrown the emo-stylin’s onto the dvd special features, but in a packed cinema the general air was that of utter bemusement.

At the screening I attended, the scenes that got the best receptions were the two humourous interludes. The first starred one of my favourite characters, editor of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, who got a chance to hark back to 1940’s screwball comedies for more screen time than ever before. The second scene involved Peter, M.J., a wedding ring and a hilarious French waiter, played by scene-stealer Bruce Campbell. Stan Lee’s cameo elected murmurs of approval from the audience as well, while I heard that at some screenings (although not, unfortunately, mine) the audience actually applauded Peter Parker for punching Mary-Jane. If Kirsten Dunst was a good actress, I’d care.

Following the magnificent Spiderman 2, this film is a definite step-down. Leave your sky-high expectations at the door, cheer at Bruce Campbell and enjoy the campiness of it all – just be thankful they didn’t hire Brett Ratner.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Love is a Mix Tape" by Rob Sheffield

This post is long overdue, but as it's the weekend I thought I may as well write it up.

Catherine loves this book!

There are some books that grab you from the first glance, a startling opening sentence, paragraph or chapter. Books that from the moment you begin to read them, you know you are going to love. "Love is a Mix Tape" is one such book. From the opening paragraph, I was hooked.

"The playback: late night, Brooklyn, a pot of coffee, and a chair by the window. I'm listening to a mixtape from 1993. Nobody can hear it but me. The neighbors are asleep. The skater kids who sit on my front steps, drink beer and blast Polish hip-hop - they're gone for the night. The diner next door is closed, but the air is still full of borscht and kielbasa.

This is where I live now. A different town, a different apartment, a different year.

This mixtape is just another piece of useless junk that Renee left behind. A category that I guess tonight includes me."

The maudlin tone, the hint of doomed romance, the music and the New York setting; this book knows all the right buttons to press to make me fall in love with it, and fall I swiftly did, reading it in one sitting during the last midterm (told you this post was overdue).

Rob Sheffield is a music journo who has written for Rolling Stone and various other publications. He is the type of person who lives his life immersed in music, from his childhood playing Beatles records with his dad, to his adult life, in which he has made a living out of it. It has informed his decisions, his friends, his social status and his lovelife.

Rob met his soulmate, Renee, in a bar in Virginia. They bonded over their shared love of the band Big Star and got talking. In time, they fell deeply in love, moved in together and got married. He was a shy Irish-American nerd, she was a loud Southern girl with a flamboyant style of dress, but the love they had is something so sweet, so pure, so true that it breaks your heart as you read on, and discover that Renee died in 1997. With this memoir, Sheffield chronicles his life before, after and especially during his time with her, documenting each chapter of his life with a mix tape - selections of songs that he listened to that now conjure back memories, some harsh, some sad, some funny, some sweet.

Reading this book, I was listening to Sleater-Kinney. I remember it quite clearly, because I went over to my shelves to especially look for Dig Me Out. At one point in the book, the song "One More Hour" is written about, "the saddest Sleater Kinney song ever", in relation to Renee's funeral. I hadn't listened to the band in a long time, but this book helped me to rediscover them. There are numerous references to bands and singers throughout the memoir, some of whom I'd heard of, some who I already loved and some who I hadn't a clue about. As well as the story of one man's love for his wife, "Love is a Mix Tape" is a first hand account of the American indie scene in the early 90s. The growth of grunge, Pavement, the rise of Nirvana and Kurt's death; these are all touched upon, and it is a pleasure to read about the time period in such an approachable style.

Somewhat astonishingly, Sheffield never descends into sickening self-pity. Yes, his young wife died suddenly, but he manages to handle the sad chapters with good grace and bittersweet humour. Many places of the story had me crying, but there are laughs to be had and by the end of it I felt utterly satisfied. Throughout the course of it's short 220 pages, I became fast friends of Rob and Renee and the life they built around music.

Finally, my own personal "No real connection but they're all songs I'm digging on this Friday playlist"

1. Laura Nyro, "Time and Love"
2. The Bird and the Bee, "Fucking Boyfriend"
3. Regina Spektor, "Hotel Song"
4. Sleater Kinney, "Combat Rock"
5. Tori Amos, "Muhummad My Friend"
6. Rufus Wainwright, "Poses"
7. Fiona Apple, "Extraodinary Machine"
8. Girl Talk, "Bounce That"
9. Joanna Newsom, "Inflammatory Writ" (SHE'S ON JOOLS HOLLAND TONGHT!!!)
10. Justin Trousersnake, "What Goes Around"

Happy weekend, y'all.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Tori Amos - "American Doll Posse"

Tori Amos has done cathartic singer-songwriter, dabbled in dance and rave, pioneered the use of piano in modern pop music and constructed an intricate road-trip album. With a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas regarding religion, and a couple of life changing experiences to purge from (including a rape and a few miscarriages), over the years she has always been an intriuging, if not always coherant performer. Unfortunately for her legion of rabid fans, marriage and motherhood dimmed her fire and The Beekeeper was the epitome of bad MOR music– overly long, sentimental and cringeworthy. Panned by critics and fans alike, Tori retreated for a few years to write and record a completely different album. It’s unclear if the abysmal reviews for The Beekeeper bothered her, or if she even noticed them. Tori Amos seems to exist in her own little world, a fact which sometimes lends itself to completely brilliant, insane music, and at other times to painfully introspective dross.

With American Doll Posse, Tori raided a cheap wigs store and created five different personas. Pip, Clyde, Isabel, Tori and Santa all have their own wardrobes, aesthetics, blogs and songs; yet the concept doesn’t get in the way of the music. It’s there to explore if you feel the need, but I suspect many will eschew the concept altogether and focus primarily on the songs. ADP is a mainstream album and there’s no doubt in my mind that Bouncing Off Clouds will become a huge hit, but it’s still livelier, bitcher, rockier and funnier than her previous effort.

After the short opener Yo George fades away, the jaunty Big Wheel grabs the bull by the horns. It’s a big singalong stomper of a tune, with enough sarcasm dripping off her tongue to drive relief into the heart of every jaded fan everywhere. The middle section, where she chants “I am a MILF, don’t you forget” may cause some to cringe inwardly, but the sentiment is plain – She’s baaaack.

On Teenage Hustling, she’s channelling some inner drag queen. It’s a glam-rock influenced, glittering march in which Tori bares her teeth at those who rejected her last album for being too safe. Listen to the bitter slur of her voice as she snarls “Me and my teenage hustling/I’ve been working it since I’z fourteen” and remember that she has been doing this since she was fourteen. Tori knows she messed up, but she also knows that she can do better, and screw those who forget that this bitch can really rock. After Big Wheel, this was the first song I truly loved and spent the entirity of Monday’s schoolday wishing I was at home listening to it. Tori is playing at Oxegen in the summer, but I haven’t got tickets and I wouldn’t particularly want to see her live at a festival anyway, but hearing this song live would be an experience and a half, I’m sure.

Body and Soul is another stand-out, a scuzzy PJ Harvey-tinged monster, with some old-style Tori religious lyrics (“Come and kneel with me, body and soul/Sweet Communion”). Beauty Of Speed sounds like old Tori, where the piano is allowed to breathe easy. She sound revitalised, electrically charged, ready to start afresh.

Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes features some of my favourite all-time lyrics, and ADP has no aspirations to beat this. The lyrics are middling in quality, but there’s nothing as truly awful as “Driving in my Saab/All the way to Iiiireeeland”.

Thankfully, the political bent is less dense than initial reports would lead you to believe. While the lyrics of Dark Side of the Sun (“So how many young men have to lay down/Their life and their love of their woman/For some sick promise of heaven”) come across as vaguely clumsy, the song itself contains enough subtle shifts in texture to reward the patient listener, and Yo George is musically pretty enough to render slightly dated phrases like “Where have we gone wrong America?/Mr. Lincoln we can’t seem to find you anywhere” delicate when paired with her lilting Bosendorfer. The politics scan better when her views aren’t shoved in the listener’s face, such as the circular Father’s Son, which sounds similar to material from Scarlet’s Walk.

On first listen, I dismissed Digital Ghost as cheesy. Time and patience have altered my view radically, it’s currently my favourite song on the album. Placed after three extremely catchy songs in a row (Big Wheel/Bouncing Off Clouds/Teenage Hustling) the opening piano bars and gentle percussion are a quiet reprieve, before gradually building up momentum. The chord changes and vocal pattern when she sings “If somehow I could reach you” are a sly wink to what is coming up, a raised-fist, swaying ballad anthem in which her piano and the electric guitar play seemlessly against one another, neither overshadowing the other. The gutteral line “Your heart only beats 1s and 0s” is probably my favourite single moment of the album.

The album’s biggest failing is it’s length. 23 tracks, even with a couple of very short ones, is far too long for even the most die-hard Toriphile. The sequencing seems a little off, too – while the first five songs are amongst my favourite, the middle section drags and the wonderful Smokey Joe (which for me, conjures up the same insomniac, Edward Hopper imagery that her Purple People does) is in danger of being lost, placed at the 22nd spot. It’s a veritable mystery why something like Posse Bonus is here at all, it’s clearly either a b-side or dvd material. Poppy little tunes like Programmable Soda and Velvet Revolution are fun enough to warrant a few listens, but do tend to drag out proceedings.

I’m interested in what she’ll do next. Personally, I would pay somebody to hire her a decent editor and force her to craft a 12-song piano album with no concept in sight, but then who knows what she’ll churn out. Listening to ADP, I’m more hopeful than ever before.