Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Movie Roundup

A quick summary of movies I've seen in the last few months and what I think of 'em:

Taken: I liked this more than I thought I would. Doesn't do anything new, but it does it all well. I was surprised by the intensity it reached for being PG-13, though I know that rating is pretty effing vague. Some poignancy lent to the 'upset' scenes for Neeson because I watched it just after his wife died.

Up: A joy. I highly recommend this movie. Managed to have more heartfelt emotion in a few-minute sequence than any five live-action dramas put together. Almost felt more for the adults than the kids, but a lot of Pixar stuff comes off that way.

Monsters vs Aliens: Amusing, but mostly a throwaway unless you are a huge fan of B movies of the 50's, where some of the humor resonates. I am, so it was enjoyable. Otherwise, The Incredibles hits most of the same notes but better.

Star Trek: Although I am not a Trekker, I am a really big fan of Classic Trek, the original series. Huge. So this film had me praying to movie Jesus that it would be good (like LOTR was) and not shitty (like almost any other TV-based adaptation). I am bearing in mind that other Star Trek films have been made, some of them decent... but those usually had the original cast in them. I was very pleasantly surprised. A lot of my relief probably stems from the overused, but here very necessary time-travel gimmick. I'm looking forward to more from this franchise. Thank you, movie Jesus.

Watchmen: Huge fan of the comic. Really surprised at negative reviews that said it was too much like the comic. And even more surprised that I felt a little like that myself. I LIKED the movie. A lot. BUT. Apart from a necessarily-altered/simplified ending and some slight updates to the costumes, this movie is EXACTLY like the comic. For maybe the first time ever, I've wanted to see a bit of the director's vision seep through... but in this case his vision was to hew right down the line to Alan Moore's story. See my previous Alan Moore post too. He should absolutely drop the dickishness over THIS movie. It is as much of his story as could fit into a really long film. Movie Jesus did his job too well.

Terminator Salvation: Got exactly what I'd hoped for and expected. Good movie, and again kind of intense for a PG-13, if you compare it to Nancy Drew or the Harry Potter movies. I really must write up an entry about the ambiguity of this rating. Director McG really brought his own style, that will not be everyone's cup of tea. He hit all the notes, answered a few questions, and then injected a cool new twist to everyone's understanding of the SkyNet chronology.

Angels and Demons: Okay. I'm kind of a book snob. I'm such a book snob in some ways that I think (ssshhhh) JRR Tolkein is a mediocre writer. That also means I don't think Dan Brown is a good writer at all. I read Angels and Demons followed by The Da Vinci Code because the collective fan-consciousness of America made me do it. I didn't like either book, but I thought Angels and Demons the better. Same could be said for the movies. I didn't like either REALLY, but I thought this one superior. Props go to Ron Howard for daring the subject matter yet again, for portraying the catholic church more sympathetically than anyone might've expected, and for doing whatever it took to get the filming done, including completely CG-faking the interiors the vatican wouldn't let him use.

Gran Torino: I want Clint Eastwood as my grandpa.

Valkyrie: Oddly lightweight considering the subject matter. As usual, difficult to accept Tom Cruise in an odd role. He's okay in it, doesn't do anything wrong, but like Al Pacino, or even Will Smith, his public persona colors, if not overshadows his roles. I actually don't like myself for even thinking that way. Every actor deserves a chance to take on something different or challenging. No one really cares in this case, except Tom because all of America goes to his films, but have written him off as a egomaniac nutjob.


Holy shit. Kimchee belches are really fucking foul.
And I am talking about my own. I can hardly stand to be around myself.

Napalm Death, Dazzle Me

Genre music releases seem to come out cyclically. I couldn’t tell you exactly what that cycle is, but we seem to be back ‘in’ one after the first several months of this year being very dry… at least for the heavier more subversive stuff. Thank goodness for itunes, though. Much as I hate Apple’s customer service (I’ve had nightmare ipod repair stories), living in a cultural wasteland as I do, I don’t have a brick-and-mortar corner record store to go dig up older music to round out my collection while waiting for new releases. But with itunes I can poke around and almost always find something worth getting.
In any case the dry spell ended a month or two ago, and in the last week or so I picked up six CDs all worth the money. I want to ‘blog specifically about Napalm Death’s Time Waits For No Slave, But in my inimitable style I’m going to wax pedantic with history and observation before I actually the probably-important-only-to-me point.

‘Napalm Death are utterly badass’. That descriptor doesn’t come that easily from me. I’ve been into heavy music for a long, LONG time. I’m something of an old dude. Throughout its history metal has progressively gotten heavier. As with any art form with legs, the repeat audience wants more. More of everything. In the same way that horror movies have gotten more graphic since the good ol’ days of Universal’s dominance pre-WW2, or literature has pushed the bounds of good taste (and social criticism) since the breathy days of Wuthering Heights, heavy music has pushed onto the next frontier and the next with each passing year. There is also a sort of endpost that tends to be reached where the art form doesn’t go any further and all that seems to happen is that a lot of the other artists just catch up to the pioneer who took it there in the first place. I’m really generalizing. Obviously in any creative sphere there are artists who work in ‘traditional’ spaces or keep to the old(er) ways.

With heavy music, the subgenres of grindcore, black metal, noise/drone (the metal version), and mathcore came into existence years ago, but there’s never been anything created since then that has really been more extreme. There are just a lot more bands doing it now in proportion to metal as a whole. There’s only so fast you can play, only so guttural you can make your vocals, only so dense a wall of sound, and only so disjointed you can make your song structures. The signature sound of each of these styles is practically unlistenable to an untrained, mainstream pair of ears, but the best bands or musicians in each of these styles have learned that you need to mix in tempo changes, and references to other styles to keep the music interesting, i.e. Dillinger Escape Plan puts jazzy interludes into some of their craziest, most angular songs or Immortal having a thrash-based middle eight breaking up a hyperblasting number. It makes for a more dynamic, ‘cooler’ listening experience if you give the listener something of a rest, making the return to the ‘intense parts’ almost cathartic. This need to breathe and change is also one of the reasons why grindcore songs, arguably the most extreme music form, tend to be so short. Many of the tunes just blur by in a minute or two.

Back in the day, when I was growing up and banging my head, I would, like many fans, move onto the next heavier or more extreme thing when it came out. In hindsight, there really wasn’t anything literally heavier than Black Sabbath’s albums Master of Reality and Sabotage until Metallica (and the other thrash bands) came along. Venom, before thrash, was heavy in its way, but they also were just plain sucky. Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth opened a floodgate. Forget the Hetfield of now, and go back and listen to Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. Those are harsh, barked vocals, and rhythm playing far faster than almost any mainstream release of the day. And it took some getting used to. I liked Metallica from the get-go, but it was largely for the music… which was just an extreme extension of what I was already listening to. The vocals were quite unlike metal up to that point. But they caught on. With me and the rest of the heavy music fanbase.

Nowadays Metallica’s early albums are good, but almost quaint sounding. The roots of the most extreme metal styles are almost all there, but the speed, vocal violence, and production punch have all gone through the roof in the years following. Thrash, as the style has come to be known (through a number of name changes I’m not interested in going into for this post), was a fusion of punk sensibility, political bent, and speed with metal’s attitude and musicianship. Thrash is still considered, along with the basic genres death metal and black metal, to be one of the ‘extreme metal’ forms.
Grindcore, like thrash, has roots in punk, specifically hardcore. While it developed in a different way, grind has so much in common musically with death metal that it has been absorbed by it for the purposes of discussion, marketing, etc. Parallel evolution in a sense, grindcore is pretty much considered the most extreme version of death metal, though its lyrical content still hews to the political and social commentary of its punk and hardcore lineage.
When it was first starting to hit the metal venues (and record store merch racks) I had no interest in grindcore. I even saw Napalm Death, considered amongst the masters and originators of the style, in concert and was decidedly unimpressed… I’m not sure whether they actually had a good show because my ears were not up to the task of deciphering the style. It was just, as it would be to 99.9% of the population, a blur of speedy noise. But gradually, as the years have gone by, driven by acclaim by critics, a desire to push boundaries, and awesome album covers, I’ve grown accustomed to and even appreciate the more extreme forms of metal. This may seem odd to today’s extreme metalhead, who has grown up on Opeth, Lamb of God, or Dimmu Borgir, to name three bands who can be found in any popular music store, and that all play music far harder than anything I could’ve bought when I was a teen.
So I’ve been buying grindcore albums for awhile now. Not tons of ‘em, mind you. It isn’t a style that incorporates a lot of variety. But I have a few bands I go to for a guaranteed good listen when I’m in the mood for utter metal extremity.

But perhaps because of my bad experience in concert all those years ago I never put Napalm Death into the buying list. Which is retarded really. Even bands I’ve always liked have had live performances that pale next to their studio albums. I read a review (in Terrorizer I think) that was just jizzing about Napalm Death’s latest. And something about that review made my conscious brain rebel against the dislike of Napalm Death that had been imprinted on my cerebral cortex. I read a few other columns and everyone and their grandmother was all about this album. In fact, apparently the last few Napalm Death albums had represented some return to form for the band (not one I was aware of, shunning their work), and the latest was the greatest.

So I bit. In the years following that ill-fated show, I’d purchased albums by Nasum, Gadget, Cephalic Carnage… all grind staples. I was ready to reacquaint with whatever blastbeats and throat-shredding Barney Greenway and ND was ready to throw, but the album exceeded my expectations. Most of the better grindcore bands have incorporated a somewhat modern development mentioned above, the incorporation of ,dynamics, into the songs. This could be speed or tempo changes, or incorporation of another style (something the critics usually call ‘groove’). In the case of this particular album, the dynamic injected is thrash. Which is actually cool and very resonant with me, since the thrash heyday is when I first heard Napalm Death. Almost every song on the album either cuts the grindcore blasting liberally with thrash sections or is completely a thrash song but with grind aspects. AND Barney’s got a lot of different vocal deliveries going on too. Most of it is still harsh, but there’s a lot of variety. The whole thing just smacks of veterans who know exactly what they are doing, and I don’t mean that in the phoned-in performance sense. I mean it all clicks together and they make it sound easy. I’ll point a finger particularly at Barney’s vocals and the drumming. Grindcore drummers have one of the most punishing jobs in all of music. Like drummers for black metal and death metal bands, they need to be machines. But this guy, again, makes it seem easy. Within the grind style, the songs go so fast that it is hard to discern a lot of musical creativity. Skill yes. It takes a lot of skill, and stamina, to play what they play. But creativity in the ‘jazz drumfill’ sense doesn’t really get all that apparent in grindcore. It may be partially due to the thrash bits, but the drumming on this album is definitely a clinic for wannabe extreme metal drummers.

I’m not saying this album is going to make someone a fan of grindcore, or as some people might qualify this thing, death metal (its on the less extreme end of grindcore). But what a great listen if you are already attuned to extreme music. I would challenge anyone not to bang their head when the tempo changes hit in this CD. I’m over my Napalm Death embargo.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Smoking in Hell

On a recent trip stateside I had the pleasure of visiting a real honest-to-goodness tobacconist. That might be a ‘so what’ moment to most others, but you have to understand what a barren wasteland I live in culturally, and that includes a lot of things typical Americans take for granted, including a lot of common basic shopping outlets. I’m an occasional cigar smoker. I don’t like cigarettes, though I can tolerate the smoke just fine. The chance to indulge this vice really only comes ‘round during the four month stretch of warm weather we get here. Can’t smoke ‘em indoors, and winter is just too brutal for smoking something that can last you upwards of an hour or more (if smoked slowly/properly). So summer it is. A very short summer.

If you visit the stores that carry cigars here you will find scant selection, questionable humidification, and incredibly high prices… sometimes triple the costs you can get a stick for in the states or over mail order, even with shipping figured in. So I have some stuff in storage in North Caroline where I made a trip to try to get things organized, and while I was there I got to visit some malls and stores the like of which my current town of residence doesn’t supply. Having lived in the Baltimore area for years this sort of consumer super-overload wasn’t unfamiliar, just hadn’t been around it for awhile… ‘civilisation’ as I often call it.

So I looked around this clean, shmancy cigar store, overwhelmed by the selection and the low costs and ended up buying only one because I needed to rethink my strategy; at these prices I should be purchasing a box of twenty-five or more and I didn’t have space for that in my return luggage.

So upon return I looked up the website for the store I was in, but the website wasn’t up to the impression left by the shop. It was mostly trying to sell the store’s special brands and I’m particular to some global marks. One online retailer, a huge popular one, just had incredibly high shipping rates to Alaska. The point of ordering the cigars online is not just to get ones I can’t get here… which frankly, is just about every cigar of quality… but to also NOT spend the money I’d have to here. Finally (and sure I’ll plug ‘em) Famous Smokes in Pennsylvania turned up and they will ship via the post office for nominal rates.

I just wanted a basic go-to smoke. Nothing super-fancy, and it needed to be medium-bodied/strength, since I was only getting one box to start… and that might be all I’d manage to get through this summer since I don’t smoke ‘em every day. I’d never know when an opportunity to light up would present itself and a really heavy full-bodied cigar is just not appropriate all the time. Basic doesn’t mean crap though. I had some experience with different brands and I understand cigar terminology, sizing, and all that, so I decided on a box of (Dominican) Partagas Almirantes. Medium to large-ish cigar with decent width (ring gauge) so it’d be a cool smoke, last a decent while, but not so big it’d be obnoxious-looking in casual company. Natural wrapper. I’m familiar with these, though from quite awhile ago.

The trick to great cigar experiences is not to rush anything. Light ‘em slow, smoke ‘em slow. Lighting them so you toast the end as opposed to charring the shit out of it is the first step. Then don’t huff the motherfucker like its an oxygen mask. One puff every minute or so… a slow puff. With no significant inhaling.

So I get this box in the mail that worked out to only $4.60 a cigar after shipping and everything, and these things are just the best cigars I’ve smoked in a long time. I handed some out to people at work—and showed them the right way to light and smoke them, and you’d think I was giving away cards for free blow jobs. After two weeks, I’ve only got half my box left, but they were so cheap I don’t even care.

Understand. Cigars are a luxury item. When I say cheap, I don’t mean ‘comparable to cigarettes’. Good cigars are expensive but you can’t equate them on a smoke-for-smoke basis with cigarettes because the two have completely different roles. Cigars are not habitual for most smokers. They are more like the occasional glass of good scotch. Not the beer you drink almost every day.
I’m sure I’ll be hitting that smoke shop up again pretty soon, though. Paying one-third for your smokes finds you looking for opportunities to smoke more often!