Sunday, June 24, 2007

Music: Light at the End of the World

• Erasure's Light shines unevenly on the veteran synth duo's 13th album.

Genres: Electronic, pop, synthpop
Released: May 22, 2007
Verdict: &&&1/2

I've never thought of any Erasure album as front-loaded — and there's a hefty stack of Erasure albums after all these years — but along comes Light at the End of the World, which takes off like a rocket to the moon but rather fizzles out in the second half. The first three cuts, singles "Sunday Girl" and "I Could Fall in Love with You" plus "Sucker for Love," sound as ABBA-ed up and musically energetic as the boys have in years, with nifty bleeps and sweeping hooks in all the right places. "Sucker," described by Vince Clarke as "up-tempo electro-gospel," ought to be a single (and not only to cement my front-loaded argument). The gentler "Storm in a Teacup," about Andy Bell's mother's alcoholism, is next, gliding by on perfectly moody synths. Erasure's pop craftsmanship doesn't pack up and leave after that track, but the rest is a bit too repetitively mid-tempo and less distinct than the opening quartet; there's no "Imagination," "Sometimes" or "Spiraling" lurking in the second half. One inspired moment in the latter half is "Glass Angel," which bears the fingerprints of Clarke's ambient work. It's worth springing for the limited edition's two bonus tracks, which are arguably better than about half the tracks on Light, a worthy successor to 2005's Nightbird but a less consistent effort than that latter-day creative peak.

•• Update 7/11 •• Upon further listening, the album's second half has grown on me, and I've bumped up the verdict by a half medal. I still strongly believe it's front-loaded, however, and I've taken to re-sequencing it to provide more balance between those first three stompers and the abundance of mid-tempo tracks. Here's how I have it (with the limited edition tracks included): Be My Baby / I Don't Know Why / Sunday Girl / Fly Away / I Could Fall in Love with You / Golden Heart / Sucker for Love / How My Eyes Adore You / Storm in a Teacup / Darlene / When a Lover Leaves You / Glass Angel

Saturday, June 23, 2007

DVD: The Abandoned

• This little-seen horror film should remain that way.

Genre: Bad horror films
Director: Nacho Cerda
Release date: June 19, 2007
Cast: Anastasia Hille, Karel Roden, Valentin Ganev, Carlos Reig-Plaza
Verdict: &

I'm pining for a horror film that doesn't rely on booming bass to scare me in lieu of actual frightening cinema. And it's not just because I'm an apartment dweller with a subwoofer that must be turned down during these films lest I get evicted — it's that it has become such a predictable crutch for these empty films. The best that can be said about The Abandoned — the most visible of the eight films that made up the "After Dark Horrorfest" — is it benefits visually from its remote Russian setting. Anastasia Hille, doing a Marg Helgenberger sort of thing, finds that she has inherited her late mother's decrepit old home in the middle of Russian nowhere. She travels there and runs into an alleged twin brother with whom she spends much of the movie attempting to avoid a couple of zombie replicas of themselves and reliving past horrific family events. It's so numbingly uneventful that I found myself wondering if there was a functioning toilet in this old dump and if Marie (that's the lead character) found a stash of wine and cheese to enjoy between hours spent running from one empty room to another. In the end, Marie finds the past is best left buried, as is this movie. // DVD notes // For the truly perverse among you, there's a making-of featurette.

Monday, June 18, 2007

DVD: The Messengers

• They're trying to tell you not to watch this movie.

Genre: Bad horror films
Director: Danny Pang, Oxide Pang
DVD released: June 5, 2007
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, John Corbett, Penelope Ann Miller, Evan Turner, William B. Davis, Dustin Milligan
Verdict: &1/2

The Pang brothers (sounds like a bad Gong Show act, doesn't it?) have one well-regarded Asian horror film on their resumes — The Eye — but you wouldn't know it from watching The Messengers, a standard modern shocker which feels like a pastiche of a thousand horror films that have come before: In one room of this old farmhouse, there's a stubborn stain on the wall, a la Dark Water (I'd call it a "menacing stain," but there's really nothing creepy about it); John Corbett (the radio announcer from Northern Exposure) gets pecked by crows, a la The Birds; the receptive children are saddled with disbelieving parents, a la An American Haunting; the decrepit old house is haunted by a terrible event, a la The Grudge; and something crawls on the ceiling (take your pick, but I'll go with The Exorcist III). To top it all off, as Dylan McDermott plays farmer, in walks The Smoking Man (William B. Davis) from The X-Files, reaching into his jacket pocket to pull out what the viewer can only expect to be a Morley cigarette but turns out to be a wad of papers — an offer to purchase the property (take it and run, people!). It's no fault of the wonderful William B. Davis, really, that his appearance pulls the viewer completely out of the moment (if anyone was actually in it). The Messengers has one flash of inspiration, and that is in setting — this old, cursed farm, where Dylan McDermott plants a field of fiery yellow sunflowers, is pleasing to the eye. The family, financially strapped because of an auto accident that left the toddler of the bunch unable to speak, has run away from hard times in Chicago and staked their financial future on a single crop. Come to think of it, that makes about as much sense as this movie, whose relentless use of bone-rattling booms from your subwoofer are a sure sign there's nothing else in it that will make you jump. // DVD notes // This stinker gets no less than seven featurettes; there's also commentary by cast and filmmakers.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

DVD: The Wicker Man (1974)

• The original Wicker Man is a mind-bender not to be missed.

Genre: Horror, thriller, mystery
Director: Robin Hardy
DVD released: Dec. 19, 2006
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt
Run time: 1:28 (theatrical), 1:39 (extended cut)
Verdict: &&&1/2

The Wicker Man was made by British horror fans who admired the Hammer films of the time but craved something thematically more substantial, and who could blame them? Set on the mysterious island of Summerisle, where a pagan colony exists largely independent of the outside world, The Wicker Man really doesn't feel at all like a horror film, the category into which it is usually lumped. It's more of a whacked-out, slow-burn thriller that pays off big time with a jaw-dropping, last-minute shocker — a twist on par with that of The Sixth Sense that causes you to reflect with admiration on all that came before. Summoned to the island to investigate a report of a missing young girl is stiff Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward of The Equalizer fame), whose fervent Christianity collides with the sexed-up local rituals. A hint of something amiss is always bubbling just beneath the surface as he carries out his inquiries, gleaning half-truths from the mysterious, free-spirited islanders. Among them is no less than Hammer horror vet Christopher Lee, who turns in an understated performance as the pagan patriarch, Lord Summerisle. Modern audiences may be stymied by the movie's often glacial pace and some truly awful folk music that dominates the soundtrack, but The Wicker Man is an absolute must for anyone who appreciates a beautifully constructed mind game. The 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage, though flawed, is faithful to the concept and was unjustly maligned by critics. It's interesting to note some of the differences between the two, such as the remake's stripping away of the Christian versus pagan element. // DVD notes // This two-disc set includes the theatrical version and the extended version with an additional 11 minutes of material. The theatrical cut has a Dolby Surround 5.1 soundtrack, but it's only mono for the extended cut, which has some noticeable variation in picture quality. A new commentary track features all the principals, and a solid featurette, "The Wicker Man Enigma," explores the movie's troubled release after the studio changed hands, as well as the loss of the original master and other enlightening bits. An attractive slipcover adds a little class to the standard snap case.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

DVD: The Covenant

• Make a pact with yourself not to see it.

Genre: Horror
Director: Renny Harlin
DVD released: Jan. 2, 2007
Cast: Steven Strait, Sebastian Stan, Taylor Kitsch, Laura Ramsey, Toby Hemingway, Chace Crawford
Verdict: &

Where was I when this hit DVD back in January? In a word, uninterested, as it had the scent of a stinker. But the video store was all out of The Messengers this weekend and, given a choice between this and a gorefest like Turistas, it was an easy decision. (I knew better than to try to sell my co-viewer on something highbrow like Notes on a Scandal.) While this seemed more appealing than the gorefest, however, the cleverest thing about this singularly awful movie is that the title, intentionally or not, contains the word "coven," as in witches. The protagonists are a quartet of brothers — modern day warlocks by night and students by day at a snooty prep school where the girls' dormitory apparently has no light bulbs, judging from the eternally dark scenes. Conflict arises when the long-lost fifth brother, hungry for greater power, appears for the purpose of taking vengeance for getting the short end of the stick, or some such. The boys "ascend" to greater power upon their 18th birthday, and he intends to force one to surrender his power to him. If we could avoid the lame dialog and stiff delivery, the boys might all do just as well to surrender at the outset. But the warlocks put up a fight that draws to exactly the conclusion one expects in a movie that feels at every turn as if it is calculated to appeal to 15-year-old boys, but I would hope that even they feel insulted. Apart from a couple of decent visual effects — that bit shown in the trailer where the car explodes into pieces and then reforms and another with glass exploding into pieces that hover — there is literally nothing positive to say about this movie, except that it is not another remake and has the courtesy to end at a little more than 90 minutes. // DVD notes // Extras are a featurette and commentary with director Harlin.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Random tracks: Battlestar's end, Jericho's resurrection, etc.

Battlestar Galactica's end
Say it ain't so: The numbing Lost gets to drag on for three more seasons while TV's best show, Battlestar Galactica, will end with season four, which is set to begin in early 2008 — so said the series' producers last week. During season three, they simply felt the story was nearing its natural end, they said. I can understand not wanting to go the X-Files route, but four seasons and less than 100 episodes? Damn you. At least this fall we get a bonus made-for-SCI FI movie, Razor, before season four's 22 episodes. Razor will reportedly go back in time to deal with events aboard the Pegasus.

Jericho resurrected
In a highly unusual move, CBS responded to a fan outcry over the cancellation of Jericho by un-nuking the show, which had suffered from a mid-season hiatus, much as Lost did. CBS has ordered a whopping seven episodes for next season, giving fans a brief window in which to prove their love in ratings. It's a reasonably entertaining show, but why can't this happen to a truly brilliant viewing experience such as Kidnapped? All the Jericho episodes can be viewed for free here.

Kyle XY gets a second season
That show about the boy with no bellybutton (portrayed by Matt Dallas) is getting a second season beginning Monday (June 11) on ABC Family, and he'll apparently be joined by a bellybutton-less grrrl this season. ABC will also air episodes on Fridays. For my money, the other ABC Fam original, Three Moons Over Milford, which was canceled after an eight-episode run, had the edge on this marginally interesting sci-fi diversion.

DRM-free tracks and that guy from the Beatles on iTunes
I don't even want to know what it would cost to upgrade my iTunes library from the locked DRM files to the new, higher-quality offerings, which cost 30 cents more per track and can be used on any device, not just the iPod. A positive step for Apple, no doubt, but 99 cents per track felt so right. An upgrade to iTunes 7.2 is required to use the new files. In another coup for Apple, the Paul McCartney library has just been added to the store. Not a big "Macca" fan here, but I immediately downloaded "Hope of Deliverance," a breezy gem from his 1993 album Off the Ground that had stuck with me through the years, even though I heard it only a few times on the radio.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

DVD: Black X-Mas (Black Christmas) [2006]

• A slasher rehash goes well south on the remake bandwagon.

Genre: Horror, slasher
Director: Glen Morgan
DVD released: April 3, 2007
Cast: Katie Cassidy, Lacey Chabert, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michelle Trachtenberg, Oliver Hudson, Andrea Martin
Verdict: &1/2

As an introductory disclaimer, it should be noted that I haven't seen the original 1974 Black Christmas (aka Stranger in the House and Silent Night, Evil Night), a prototypical slasher flick in the Halloween vein. On the other hand, relatively few people have seen this remake, which crept silently into theaters at Christmas and swiftly exited with little notice. The movie sets the slasher motif at a sorority house during Christmas break with a handful of girls/victims staying behind with the house mother rather than heading home like their sensible sorority sisters did. Screaming young girls are, of course, choice victims for this flavor of horror, and the holiday theme opens the door to some interesting imagery. As the victims are picked off one by one, some tedious back-story details the origin of the attic-dwelling killer. The problem here is that what may have been shocking in 1974 is merely more of the same uninspired horror in the mid-2000s; the best thing the remake has going for it is the juxtaposition of dread with happy, shiny Christmas decor. It seems at best utterly empty, an exercise in futility and a rather obvious jumping-on-the-bandwagon remake. Director Glen Morgan did far, far superior work penning some of the best episodes of The X-Files; he also directed a better movie, Final Destination. Notable cast selections include Lacy Chabert (Party of Five) as one of the girls and Oliver Hudson (Rules of Engagement) as a doomed boyfriend. Bob Clark, director of the original, had a bizarrely diverse filmography including Porky's, Turk 182 and, remarkably, A Christmas Story, which never fails to send me scurrying for the remote control. Clark tragically died, along with his son, in an auto crash in California in April. // DVD notes // It's available "exclusively at Blockbuster," which explains why I couldn't find it at my usual rental joint, which, unlike Blockbuster, always has everything. The disc includes four brief deleted scenes plus three others in expanded, alternate and international form. Of the three alternate endings, two are quite different from the final cut, and the understated approach of the first was not a bad idea. Only true masochists will want to delve into the two featurettes.