Thursday, September 08, 2011

DirecTV adds AMC-HD, finally

Early this year I switched from cable to satellite because I got a new HDTV, and Comcast's HD lineup is almost nonexistent in my hamlet. SD is fine on SD televisions, but it stinks on an HD set; I avoid it if possible. I tried Dish first, but the installer said there was no line of sight, so I ended up going with DirecTV. And the one sinking feeling I had about that came when I realized AMC was not offered in HD.

That's changing tomorrow morning  (Friday, Sept. 9), as AMC-HD launches on DirecTV. I'm stoked for two leading reasons:

One >> The annual marathon of Halloween movies lasting a week or two, 24 hours a day (minus infomercials, probably). This is good fun and excellent background fodder around Halloween. And if I decide to watch Jeepers Creepers 2 or Corridors of Blood, they'll look crisp and lovely.

Two >> The return of The Walking Dead, which is set for Oct. 16. Tired as the zombie subgenre is, this series works beautifully because it's character driven in a very Stephen King-miniseries kind of way. I'd love to see AMC continue to move in this direction and become the de facto horror network of choice.

Now, if only Direct would add BBC America, IFC, GSN, E!, Reelz, etc. in HD …

30-Day Song Challenge: A song you can dance to (day 9)

Banjos and fiddles set to a Eurodance beat — brilliant! I remember hearing Rednex' take on the traditional song "Cotton Eye Joe" (or "Cotton-Eyed Joe") on the radio a few times back in '95 alongside mid-90s chestnuts like Nicki French's dance cover of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." It's all executed with a wink and a nod, but some snooty folks who apparently don't like to have fun have seen fit to include this one on some worst songs lists (what is the point of such an exercise, other than to denigrate?). A couple of years ago I was taking photos at a summer festival in Iuka, Miss., and came across a local square dance group performing to this song, which I found a tad surprising and surreal.

30-Day Song Challenge: A song you know all the words to (day 8)

I could only think of one, and it might be a little bit of a cheat: "The Samurai in Autumn" by the Pet Shop Boys. I do, indeed, know all of the lyrics, which are thus:

It's not as easy as it was
Or as difficult as it could be
For the Samurai in autumn

And no more than that in this largely instrumental track. Certainly not difficult to remember, and I have always imagined that the lines are about the boys themselves in their late career period, when only the diehards care anymore (although, knowing Neil Tennant, it probably has to do with an historical figure).

I've always found this to be the highlight of their Release album (2002), which turned off the hardcore synthpop crowd with its "rock" aspirations. This peppy yet moody dance number, plopped midway through amongst dense, boring guitar slogs like "Birthday Boy" and "Love Is a Catastrophe," feels like PSB doing what they ought to be doing; it even evokes the brilliant experimental vibe of Relentless.

Monday, September 05, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge: A song that reminds you of a certain event (day 7)

Sean Kingston's "Fire Burning" was ubiquitous on the radio in the summer of 2009. I'm not his target audience, but this synthy, RedOne-produced jam is breezy fun. It became tied in my mind to shopping excursions for and the eventual purchase of a new car that summer after driving a 1989 Pontiac well beyond its reasonable years of use. Kingston set the dancefloor on fire as I drove to the dealership; while I did my test drive; and when I eventually drove home in a sexy new car. What I don't like is the lyrical use of "shawty;" it's time for that one to be retired.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Season of the Witch

1.5 out of 5

Despite a lot of bad reviews, I approached this Nicolas Cage vehicle with an open mind, because it's a horror movie and I have previously come to the defense of his similarly maligned The Wicker Man. The plot finds Cage and Ron Perlman, a pair of medieval swashbucklers, charged with transporting an alleged witchy woman on a long journey to meet her judgement. This is preceded by a series of battle sequences that show Cage and Perlman tiring of their bloody adventures while engaging in supremely hammy dialogue about things like who's buying the drinks tonight. The movie fails to do much with its villain; a sequence in which Cage's entourage tries to get her carriage across a decaying bridge is more entertaining than anything she conjures up. There's also a twist in play here, and it's not uninteresting, but it is the most blatantly obvious twist I've ever seen. I'm not one of those types who's always bragging that I had it figured out in the first 30 minutes, but I pretty much saw it coming right away. The movie climaxes with an action-filled throwdown, but the best I can say for all of this is that some of the scenes look terrific in 1080p. Note that the movie has no connection to George Romero's 1976 movie of the same name or Halloween III: Season of the Witch from 1982.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge: A song that reminds you of somewhere (day 6)

I've always loved music and I often marvel at how certain songs become attached to a random moment or place in time — even the mundane moments that have no reason to be memorable. Today's tune, Robert Plant's "I Believe" (which could also fit day 14 — a song some might be surprised that I love), is one of those songs. Whenever I hear its plaintive melodies, I always remember a specific moment when I heard it on the radio in 1993. I was driving home from college (Ole Miss) at the end of a semester after taking my last exam, packing up and hitting the road to Corinth. I was on the twisty snake known as Mississippi Highway 30, somewhere in the edge of or a little east of the Holly Springs National Forest, where the two-lane highway bobs and weaves amongst kudzu-covered northeast Mississippi hills. And the image that's attached is the setting sun beaming through the trees as Plant elegizes his lost son, who died as a young child. "I Believe" has a hypnotic, dreamy quality that sticks with the soul, and the pain that birthed this beauty is evident:

Big fire, on top of the hill
A worthless gesture, and last farewell
Tears from your Mother, from the pits of her soul
Look at your Father, see his blood run cold
Like the wind, you are free
Just a whisper, I hear you, so talk to me

Monday, August 29, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge: An obscure song that you love (day 5)

(Note: I'm asking readers to indulge me today as I'm exercising some editorial discretion and replacing "a song that reminds you of someone" with today's alternate category of my choosing.)

The production triumvirate of Stock, Aitken & Waterman was responsible for some pop gems and some awful music in the late '80s. One of their happy accidents was Carol Hitchcock, who got no further than the release of a single, "Get Ready," in 1987. The song hit #56 in the UK and, best I can tell, missed the Billboard Hot 100 entirely. That's a shame, because it's a cracking cover of the Motown classic, with SAW in top form and Hitchcock, whose bald look unfortunately became the most notable thing about her in terms of pop history, pulling off a competent vocal performance. But what I'd like to call your attention to is the single's B-side, Hitchcock's take on "More Than Words Can Say," a SAW ballad that had already appeared on Mel & Kim's SAW-produced album and that would also go on to be butchered by Hazell Dean as her B-side to "Love Pains." The Mel & Kim version sounds like a weak Rick Astley album cut — in other words, chintzy. Judging by the few comments on the YouTube video below, however, I may be in the minority in believing Hitchcock pulled off the definitive version of this track, thanks to a convincing vocal and a rare moment of restraint on the part of SAW, who approach the ballad with a delicate touch, playing up the guitar riffs and setting aside the dance track. This effective song could have been something in the right time and place — I can easily imagine an established chanteuse like Laura Branigan singing it and Casey Kasem counting it down.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge: A song that makes you sad (day 4)

Alanis Morrissette regained my attention in a big way with 2008's Flavors of Entanglement, which was partly inspired by the end of a relationship. This wrenching ballad, which serves as a companion piece to the equally brilliant single "Not As We," mourns the moment that Alanis has to lay down her torch for the one she loves. What really gets me is how it memorializes love in the small details, the things that she will remember when she is alone and that will cause a tear to slip down her cheek:

I miss your smell and your style
And your pure abiding way
Miss your approach to life
And your body in my bed
Miss your take on anything
And the music you would play

It admittedly has Morrissette's perhaps overly familiar lyrical structure involving a list of things, but I think it's one of her finest moments as a songwriter.

Monday, August 22, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge: A song that makes you happy (day 3)

There are songs you like, and then there are songs that make you feel something. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "(Forever) Live and Die," a #19 hit in 1986, has always been one of those for me. And despite lyrics about "why you make me want to cry," it does give me a happy feeling, because there's just something powerfully evocative in that lovely synth and brass production (props to Stephen Hague) and those ascending vocal harmonies. The feeling it evokes is also tinged with nostalgia, although the only thing it really reminds me of is standing at the door waiting for the school bus while the song played on VH1 in the background. I didn't own the song until many years later when I got an OMD compilation; I had no idea what the name of the song was, in fact, although the tune had stuck with me through the years. I particularly like the dreamy, lilting intro, and the brassy instrumental bridge. It all somehow combines to feel like a perfect autumn day spent on a carnival ride, holding hands with the one you love.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge: Your least favorite song (day 2)

As with choosing a favorite, there are so many possibilities, and I strongly considered Warrant's "Cherry Pie" and Nickelback's "Photograph" before settling on "One Sweet Day," Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's record-holder for most weeks at number one (16) on the Billboard Hot 100. Given the song's earnest sentiment, this may seem cold, but I truly hated this inescapable, overwrought treacle from the first time I heard it. My animosity towards it also reflects my loathing of that time in mid-90s radio, when R&B had taken over and every chart-topper seemed to be there for 10 weeks or more; it was as if radio decided we would only listen to about 40 songs per year. I have equal loathing for Boys II Men's "I'll Make Love to You" and "End of the Road." Before I'm accused of being a hater, it should be noted that both artists have songs that I do like, and Mariah hovers just outside the top 50 on my artist chart.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

30-Day Song Challenge: Your favorite song (day 1)

Seriously, how do you pick just one? I could spend a year whittling it down to a short list of possibilities. So, I've chosen one of the standout songs, "Alive," from my favorite album of last year, Goldfrapp's Head First. It's a little more sunny and positive than the typical 'frapp tune, and it's arguably the best example of the album's brilliant melding of synthy '80s pop sounds into their modern, elegant dance music. The cheeky video complements the upbeat vibe with an odd mix of vampires, zombies and '80s workout video; you wouldn't be surprised to see Olivia Newton John suddenly pop out, dressed in the spandex from her "Physical" video.

With this post, I'm kicking off the 30-Day Song Challenge, which has been a popular Facebook meme. I'm rarely on Facebook, so I didn't stumble across it until checking out Daft Monk's blog, where he's just wrapped up the challenge. Check out his answers for a good read. I'm already well intrigued by how these deceptively simple categories make you stop and consider the music that defines you. One caveat for my list — I do plan to swap out a handful of the categories for something I think is more interesting; there are a few of them for which I simply don't have an answer.


2.5 out of 5

The extent to which this movie got generally favorable reviews suggests that our collective craving for a thoughtful, frightening movie has gone unsatiated of late. Competently and stylishly executed, Insidious certainly is better than the typical horror abomination of the week such as Darkness Falls, which I had the misfortune of watching on satellite a few nights ago, but it doesn't earn a spot on the top shelf, either. The trailer gave away the movie's best line — "It's not the house that's haunted" — and this plot centering on a troubled child is definitely not staking out original territory. In fact, I couldn't help thinking of Poltergeist, given that both have a child trapped in another realm, a paranormal investigation team that comes in to assist, and a rescue attempt by one of the parents. It doesn't help that we have a villian that looks like a Sith lord lost from the set of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; with Saw director James Wan at the helm, it isn't surprising that subtletly gets lost. The best part of the movie is the fairly brief appearance of the paranormal investigators led by Lin Shaye, who brings a certain gravitas, even if she is no Tangina. A couple of bumbling and bickering assistants provide some comic relief, but, by this point, the movie is trending more silly than unsettling.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Erasure's forthcoming album art

I've long been a fan of Erasure's sleeve art as well as their music, with some rare exceptions, such as the uninspired, cheap-looking artwork for the Other People's Songs campaign. It got a big dodgy again for the last album, Light at the End of the World; I remember someone commenting that it looked like a Zale's jewelry circular. And now, the artwork for Tomorrow's World, which looks like a fairy's heart exploded butterflies, is leaving me cold. Based on sculpture by Kate MacDowell, it looks like something that would be on the cover of a 12-year-old girl's diary. I'm not feeling it, but at least buzz is good for the Frankmusic-produced album.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The folly of Netflix streaming

For a company that has gotten things so right most of the time, Netflix's new price hike seems punitive and incredibly boneheaded. Customers will now pay the price, literally, for the company's misguided placing of all its eggs in the streaming basket as the studios demand higher and higher fees for streaming rights.

I'll be switching to the $7.99 DVD-only plan with Blu-Ray. Streaming plus DVD plus Blu-Ray is no longer a deal after two price increases within the space of months.

And it's not that I'm a streaming naysayer. I got a Roku late last year, thinking that I'd love it. I have enjoyed it from time to time, but the streaming selection is notoriously mediocre, and there's the larger problem of picture quality. I have a cable broadband connection, but I almost never get an HD stream. I've invested in a quality home theater, and I don't care to watch VHS or less quality on my new HDTV. I think many people agree with me, whether it's because of broadband issues or the desire to have top-notch picture quality. Netflix has made a surprisingly large miscalculation in its attempt to jettison the DVD side of its business.

It may be a few months down the road, but I predict Netlix backs off the new pricing and cuts the fees to some middle ground.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

GSN brings Lingo back from the grave

Verdict: 3.0 out of 5

No love for Chuck Woolery? Such is the state of game shows in the 2010s, an era in which game show hosts get by not on their polished presentation skills but on their resumes as comedians or C-list personalities. Classic-era host Chuck Woolery helmed GSN's 2002-2007 revival of Lingo, a relatively obscure format that had a single syndicated season in the late 1980s, and it is somewhat surprisingly back (given that GSN seems to think tawdry relationship shows is now its bread and butter) in a slightly tweaked version now helmed by "blue-collar comedian" Bill Engvall. Illogical a pick as the new host may be, he has brought some appreciable deadpan wit to the format, a combination of word game and Bingo in which teams try to guess five-letter words to earn the right to draw a couple of balls which can help them score a Lingo on a numbered field set up like a Bingo card. Adding insult to Woolery's exit is that the show has now added a clue for each word in a style ripped from NBC's Scrabble, hosted by Woolery for the duration of its exceptionally enjoyable run of 1,300-plus episodes from 1984 to 1990 and again briefly in 1993. While the new, genreric rock music theme is another dubious move, GSN deserves kudos for making some overdue changes — correct guesses and Lingos now earn cash rather than points for the winning team, and the cable network has finally made the obvious move of including prize balls amongst the drawing lot, as well as a wild ball that, when selected, can be used to fill any open slot on the Lingo card. I'd also suggest a progressive jackpot ball — those side elements can break the monotony of a highly repetitive format (think Super Password's always-fun Cash Word). GSN has remade Lingo's end game in a way that boringly excises the Bingo element; the teams just try to breeze through five words in 90 seconds to collect $100,000 — an awful lot of loot for a simple, if compelling, word game. And, unfortunately, the game has stripped away a level of Woolery-era  class by wallowing in inuendo. It needs "enema" as one of its five-letter words (I'm not making that up) as much as it needs Big Money Syndrome.

Lingo airs at 7 p.m. (Central) weekdays on GSN

Sunday, June 05, 2011

First impressions: Lady Gaga's Born This Way

I'm still getting to know Born This Way, but here are some initial impressions of some of this Event Album's tracks (using the special edition):

Born This Way // While I don't agree with the lazy comparisons to Madonna's "Express Yourself," the lead single didn't particularly excite me. Not to say I don't like it — it has grown on me and I especially admire the positivity — but it feels a bit overcooked, and, in the long run, I don't think it's a song I'll revisit often. I actually prefer the earthy Country Road Version to the hyper album and single mix.

Government Hooker // Gaga has said she's awfully fond of this one, but I'm inclined to skip it.

Judas // Insistent, addictive and deserving of better than its chart performance thus far. If we could fix the first half of the bridge, it would be Gaga/RedOne perfection and possibly a bigger radio hit.

Scheibe // Annoying; a likely skip.

Bad Kids / Fashion of His Love // I'm finding I like the latter stretch of the album better, starting with these two.

Highway Unicorn (Road to Love) // Apart from "Judas," this is the one that really grabs me right out of the gate … if I had to choose one favorite at the moment, this is it. That "we can be strong / we can be strong" refrain really digs in.

Yoü and I // This rock-ish, Queen-assisted ballad feels like a future hit, even if it's easy to imagine Shania Twain doing it on her Come on Over album (hello, Mutt Lange! Didn't expect to see you here!). I would have flipped its position with "The Edge of Glory" and made this the album closer.

Granted, the special edition throws in several extra tracks, but can we agree that the album is too long? Chopping three or four tracks could make this a better listen … think of how powerful The Fame Monster is in its brevity. Some free advice: With no single really asserting itself after "Born This Way," I'd make a big push for "Yoü and I."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review: The Rite

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

Exorcism flick The Rite may lack spewed pea soup, but it does have Anthony Hopkins doing his thing, and doing it well. It seems to have become fashionable to trash the bulk of his latter day output, but I'm content to feast on these morsels in anticipation of the next pleasant surprise, such as the excellent thriller Fracture. Somewhat similar in tone to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, directed by Mikael Håfström, who helmed the so-so adaptation of Stephen King's 1408, is one of those movies that easily sets itself apart from the baser majority of horror films while, at the same time, failing to ever be truly compelling. It's set in Rome with Hopkins as a veteran exorcist who's given an apprentice of sorts — an American seminary student (Colin O'Donoghue) who is coming down with a bout of atheism. The church has decreed more exorcists are needed, and the student's mentor decides a tour of duty with the exorcist will cure what ails him. The movie offers two exorcisms, the first centering on several sequences with a young girl who contorts and gets fiesty, and the second serving as a twisty curveball in the movie's closing stretch and the ultimate test of the student's doubt. Neither takes us anywhere we haven't been before, but it pushes some of the right buttons over the course of its too-long 120-plus minutes, and Hopkins, as always, is worthy of our faith.

The Rite is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD and pay per view.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cheap Gaga

I had no doubt Lady Gaga's new album Born This Way would pop out a little early, but seeing Amazon pimp it for 99 cents since around midnight is a surprise. It's an obvious pick for deal of the day, which is sometimes as low as $1.99, but this redefines "loss leader." It's probably a smart move by Amazon, which is looking to goose its share of digital music sales, since this will likely be the biggest album release of the year, and the gimmick price will lure sales and a flurry of blog posts.

A quick look over at iTunes reveals they're having none of this madness, with the regular edition going for $11.99 and the special for $15.99, with a bonus remix of "Judas" by Thomas Gold available (hope it's better than all the other ones — sorry, Hurts and Goldfrapp).

I'm wondering: Would it be silly to buy the regular edition for 99 cents and then individually download the missing special edition tracks? Yeah, it probably would. Looks like I'll be going with the special edition on Amazon for $12.99.

Monday, February 21, 2011

MTV's Skins

I'm all for MTV giving this a go, but these are my impressions:

• It feels like taking a four-and-a-half star movie from two years ago and reenacting it with lesser actors for no good reason and with embarassing results. (In a similar vein, Let Me In takes a five-star movie from a couple years ago and reenacts it … but with excellent results.)

• The removal of a straightforward equivalent of the Maxxie character feels like pandering to American male tastes in the worst possible way.

• Watch the BBC original and forget this mess.