Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Music: Anniemal • Annie

Genre: Pop, dance, electropop
Released: June 7, 2005
Verdict: &&&

Who is this Annie, looking all pixyish and playful on the cover of her cleverly titled Anniemal CD? Thanks to iTunes, I snagged her remarkable single "Me Plus One" as a free download last year. Channeling early Human League tracks like "Love Action" and "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" while dizzying the listener with layer upon layer of intoxicating melodies, "Me Plus One" packs more pop punch than half the songs currently on the Hot 100 combined. I recently acquired the full CD, which is quite good, even if it's not brimming with songs of that caliber. I can't help thinking that album opener "Chewing Gum," with the sly kiss-off, "Oh no, oh no / You've got it all wrong / You think you're chocolate / When you're chewing gum," would have become a huge hit with a bit of exposure. There's a glistening pop sheen on everything here, and nothing feels like obvious filler. In the latter half, Anniemal does grow a bit tiresome, and "Happy Without You" is almost grating. But that's followed by the second-best cut, "Greatest Hit," which was first released in 1999 and brilliantly samples the early Madonna track "Everybody." Pop fans should hunt this Anniemal, an under-the-radar gem that deserved to have a hit single.

Monday, May 29, 2006

DVD: Anchor Bay resurrects Cemetery Man (1994)

Genre: Horror-comedy, existential, '90s
AKA: Dellamorte, Dellamore
Release date: June 13, 2006
Director: Michele Soavi
Cast: Rupert Everett and some other folks

Fans of zombie flicks and Rupert Everett (and fans of both simultaneously, if that's possible) take note: Anchor Bay is giving the DVD treatment to the somewhat obscure 1994 quasi-horror film Cemetery Man, which bears no resemblance at all to latter day zombie movies like Land of the Dead and 28 Days Later. This offbeat tale is played more for laughs and light existentialism than scares as cemetery watchman Francesco Dellamorte (Everett, pre-My Best Friend's Wedding and Shakespeare in Love) contends with "returners" – recently buried people who arise from the grave and show up at the caretaker's door. In one scene, he sits casually chatting on the phone, blasting several in a row with a gun as they appear in his doorway. Others are put away with a swift ax chop to the skull. Absurd moments abound, such as when his imbecile assistant, Gnaghi, has a romance with a disembodied head. A love interest comes into play for Dellamorte, as well, and there are sex scenes exposing much of Everett and considerably more of his lover (I think my retinas were burned). Dellamorte is left contemplating questions of love, life and death as the movie careens toward a non-Hollywood climax. This was the last film directed by Soavi, who was known for exploring traditional Italian horror themes. It's best enjoyed by non-blockbuster minded viewers and with a stiff drink at hand. // DVD notes // Resist the temptation to skip the pre-feature previews: The DVD cleverly features trailers for several retro horror flicks, such as 1982's hospital thriller Visiting Hours, starring William Shatner, Michael Ironside and Lee Grant. It's great campy fun. The movie is presented in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a featurette in which Soavi and costar Anna Falchi, among others, are interviewed.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Music: Playing the Angel • Depeche Mode

Genre: Synthpop
Released: Oct. 17, 2005
Verdict: &&1/2

Gloom, despair and agony … No, it's not a Hee-Haw tribute but the latest black celebration from Depeche Mode, peppered with cheerful song titles like "Suffer Well," "A Pain That I'm Used to" and "Damaged People." More than a few critics have called this the best DM album since the creative and commercial peak of 1990's Violator, but I think we're all just feeling maybe a tad too eager to relive that album after getting burned by some of the disappointments that followed, aren't we? Musically, the greatest similarity between the two albums is the standout track and lead single "Precious," which hearkens to the smooth, delicately beautiful synth soundscape of "Enjoy the Silence." It's the hookiest of the songs here, and I love the subtle sonar-like sound purring throughout the track. Despite the cacophonous noise that launches the album opener, "A Pain That I'm Used to," it emerges as one of the better songs, which isn't saying much. Playing the Angel is a better album than 1997's Ultra, but most of it isn't half as memorable as Violator's weaker tracks. I'll stick with Songs of Faith and Devotion as my late-period DM album of choice.

Friday, May 26, 2006

TV: Stephen King's Desperation

Genre: Horror
Logistics: Aired Tuesday on ABC while everyone except me was watching the American Karaoke final; a DVD release will follow
Cast: Tom Skerritt, Steven Weber, Annabeth Gish, Ron Perlman, Henry Thomas
Verdict: &&

After all these years, TV proves once again it has learned nothing in adapting Stephen King novels for the small screen, resorting to tired shots of a roomful of spiders and snakes and insulting "ooh the car won't start and he's coming to get me" tricks. (King himself apparently doesn't get it, either, referring to Desperation on his web site as "probably the best TV movie to be made from my work.") This is particularly disappointing since the story comes from about the last time that I found King truly exciting – when Desperation and The Regulators were simultaneously released in 1996 as companion piece novels, and because the first half of the movie, the story of an evil presence called Tak in Desperation, Nevada, is good King fun. Early in the movie, Ron Perlman has a blast hamming it up as the larger-than-life police officer finding reasons to haul well-meaning highway travelers into his remote jail. Led by a boy of strong faith, the group tries to defeat the vengeful entity, which was unleashed from a nearby mine. This all works much better in the novel than on TV, and, by the last third of this overly long affair, there's too much silliness going on to care how it ends. Let's hope for better results from TNT's Stephen King anthology series, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, premiering July 12.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

TV on DVD: V - The Complete Series (1984-85)

Genre: Sci-fi
DVD released: July 27, 2004
Cast: Marc Singer, Jane Badler, Robert Englund, Faye Grant, Michael Ironside, Jeff Yagher
Verdict: && for general audiences, &&& with '80s/geek factor

Without the image of the reptilian aliens dangling mice in the air and lowering them almost sensuously into their mouths, V probably never would have made it past the first mini-series. For its time, the devouring of mice whole was a morbidly compelling gross-out moment. Then, there was the peeling away of the human skin to reveal the vile creatures underneath, unmasking the evil we always suspected to be lurking within authority figures (never mind that they're wearing hideous jumpsuits that appear to be leftovers from the set of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century). This short-lived TV series, which followed two successful miniseries – the first quite good, the second not so much – is, for the most part, goofy sci-fi fun for viewers willing to overlook some truly awful special effects and A-Team-caliber action scenes. The most enjoyable stretch is episodes two through six, in which we witness the development of the alien-human hybrid Starchild; a virtual-reality style ruse designed to milk information from resistance leader Mike Donovan; the conversion of Donovan's son into a member of the Visitor Youth Corps; and an over-the-top episode in which Visitors gather at a conference to salivate as humans are transformed into food. The cast does the best with what it has, particularly Jane Badler as conniving alien queen Diana. By the series' midpoint, however, it's quite clear that the writers had run out of ideas, and the handwriting is leaping off the wall and slapping you in the face by the later episode in which half the cast is killed or sent away and the tighter opening title sequence is replaced by an incredibly long, aimless one – possibly to fill time? Watch V not for compelling space drama or allegory but for Diana's Dynasty-worthy catfights with big-haired alien nemesis Lydia (June Chadwick), and there's fun to be had.

// DVD notes // 19 episodes on three double-sided discs with Dolby Digital mono audio. Zilch extras. C'mon, would nobody talk about how Marc Singer's pants got tighter in every episode?

// Other TV on DVD // Battlestar Galactica Season 1The Twilight Zone (1985-86)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Music: Last six iTunes downloads

Quick takes on the latest additions to my iTunes library
Current song count: 1,744 • 5.2 days

The Mummer's Dance (Single Version) • Loreena McKennitt // "Loreena who?" you say, but this 1997 hit single was a breath of fresh air with McKennitt's lilting Celtic melodies layered atop electronic instrumentation and a catchy groove.

Ooh La La • Goldfrapp // Why, when U.S. radio stoops to play dance music these days, does it have to be crap like Cascada's "Everytime We Touch" or DHT's empty take on Roxette's "Listen to Your Heart" rather than a fresh track such as this?

Munich • Editors // Critics are drawing comparisons to Joy Division, a band I admittedly don't know well. What I do know is that refrain of "People are fragile things, you should know by now / You'll speak when you're spoken to" is already lodged deep in my skull.

Sorry (PSB Maxi-Mix Edit) • Madonna // Radio should apologize for ignoring the best Madonna single in years from the best Madonna album in years.

Speed of Sound • Coldplay // If this is an obvious attempt to rewrite "Clocks," I'm willing to forgive. I'm a sucker for that dreamy, urgent, ethereal sound they do so well, and I'll happily fork over 99 cents each to download the next dozen rewrites if they're as good as this.

Send Me An Angel (1989 Radio Edit) • Real Life // This overlooked synthpop gem is probably one of the least-known songs to have the unusual distinction of cracking the Billboard top 30 twice – first in its original 1984 version and then in the 1989 remix. Often mistaken for a Pet Shop Boys track, its melody and angelic background vocal are unshakable once they sink in. iTunes now offers a slew of mixes, but the '89 radio edit is the only one you need.

Previous installments // JanuaryDecember

Sunday, May 14, 2006

DVD: Mysterious Skin

Genre: Drama
DVD released: Oct. 25, 2005
Director: Gregg Araki
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg
Verdict: &&&&

Not a movie for anyone who has delicate sensibilities or is offended by sexual themes, Mysterious Skin reveals Third Rock from the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a tremendous dramatic actor while brilliantly blending the notion of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse with elements of contemporary alien abduction mythology, such as nosebleeds, missing time, and visions of tall, shadowy figures. As young boys, Neil (Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Corbet) shared a common disturbing experience as members of the same little league baseball team. Ten years later, Neil is a cold-hearted street hustler, and Brian is a slightly dorky young man who is obsessed with the idea that he was abducted by aliens. As their stories unfold separately, Brian is drawn closer to the truth and, finally, Neil, who helps him connect to a past experience even more horrifying than he imagined. There's a searing realism here that will particularly resonate with certain audiences. // DVD notes // Rather surprisingly has a dts soundtrack, but I can't recall any use of the surround channels.

Monday, May 08, 2006

TV: Sizing up Survivor's final four

Who would have thought, way back during that first or second episode when Shane confessed to the camera with all the neurotic drama he could muster that he quit smoking as he embarked on Survivor, that he would come within a heartbeat of the final four? Nicotine withdrawal, combined with his acid tongue, seemed a recipe for a quick demise. In retrospect, it's good that didn't happen: His psycho fits provided some much needed drama this season. Another surprise: This season's final two isn't shaping up to be a case of choosing the lesser of two evils. Here's my prediction for sole survivor, from least likely to most likely:

Terry // Odds: Almost less than zero // If someone is going to dominate the competition, you hope for a Colby, who at least had some degree of grace and modesty. "Captain America's" cocky, up-yours attitude toward the end has rightly burned bridges. If he slides into the final two – at this point, it would almost be surprising if he doesn't – his opponent will be a shoo-in, although he may get a few "well, he sure played hard" votes.

Danielle // Odds: Fifty-fifty // She has made virtually no impression; I couldn't tell you one distinguishing thing about her or one drama in which she played a part. In other words, she may be bland, but she may under-the-radar her way into a million bucks.

Aras // Odds: Sixty-forty // Aras unimpressed me early on with some of his New-Agey babble, but he emerged as a strong player who was also capable of remaining a friend to most.

Cirie // Odds: Excellent // She won't get Shane's vote after her uncharacteristically aggressive maneuvering of his demise in the last episode, but she mastered "under the radar" and has few to no enemies on the jury. I liked her from the first episode when the alpha males had her on the chopping block as dead weight, and her sassy commentary was among the best to be seen this season. Her wit and endearing personality will certainly work to her advantage. Cirie's victory will be sweet to everyone who knows he or she would have been on that chopping block, too.

The finale fills CBS' primetime slate this Sunday.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Movies: Horror's summer breeze

Hollywood hasn't given me much in the way of chills to get excited about since Dark Water and The Skeleton Key way back last summer. The purveyors of scares can keep all those violent Hostels and Saw sequels – I prefer my scares without bodily mutilation. Slither just almost lured me to the theater, but it seemed a tad cheesy, as much as I hate to use that word. I'll wait for the DVD to find out if it's really this generation's Tremors.

Looks like this dry spell is about to get doused, though, with four potentially memorable fright flicks coming out in the next several months. Here's what has me pumped:

An American Haunting // May 5 // Official site // The melting candles trailer doesn't completely sell me on this one, but it does appear that this one, "based on the terrifying true story," will at least have a sense of style. Its trump card is Sissy Spacek in a leading role, with Donald Sutherland along for the ride, too. Spacek's presence, though brief, helped elevate The Ring Two and will likely do the same here.

The Omen // June 6 // Official site // The teaser trailer is effectively creepy: Damian sits swinging in the distance, causing an ominous, monotonous creaking as the camera approaches from behind, moving past a scary dog and stylized set pieces. Bonus points for the 6/6/6 release date. What doesn't excite me about this movie is the fact that I flat out disliked the original. On the other hand, this one has no less than Mia Farrow in the cast. For movies of a certain stature, you can't pass up the remakes, even if you know they'll probably stink up the joint (e.g., The Amityville Horror), and this is one of them.

Pulse // July 14 // Clever official site // Pulse is yet another J-horror remake, this time with a story involving technology. The original movie gained some Ring-like praise, which raises my expectations. Let's just hope the cleverness is preserved rather than dumbed down for our blockbuster-lovin' audiences.

Lady in the Water // July 21 // Teaser trailer // All of America cries, "Please let it be better than The Village!" M. Night Shyamalan's last outing wasn't a bad movie at all, but its little secret couldn't live up to the expectations bred by his master-of-the-twist reputation. Here, in a story billed as a fairytale and bedtime story, we have a plot involving a mermaid-like something (Bryce Dallas Howard, also a Village player) living in the swimming pool of an apartment complex. There must be more to it than that, eh? I can't wait to find out, though I get distinctly more of a Village than a Sixth Sense vibe from the teaser.