Monday, August 31, 2009

"Yes, I know I Missed a Verse, Don't Worry"

ABOVE: Always loved this one. Hendrix grooving on Dylan at Monterey.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

RIP Edward Kennedy, 1932-2009

ABOVE: A bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass. (1969)

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Youth of Today Are Going To Be Alright

Today was my first day back teaching. I had all of my AP U.S. History classes today, so these students are a cut above the average. But still, I was proud. Almost cried, in fact. In my introductory powerpoint, on the title page, I had this picture...

I asked the class, "who is this?" "Jimi Hendrix" came the glorious chorus. "Where was the picture taken?" At least a handful in each class said "Woodstock." "How long ago was Woodstock?" At least half of each class answered "40 years ago." God bless the children.

P.S.: At least one student in each class could tell me about Altamont.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Daddy Dez

I think I'm allowed to announce this to the world now: Dez done got his wife knocked up. Today (or tomorrow) marks the end of the first trimester. So we are expecting the baby at the beginning of March.

I thought I was fairly immune to cutesy baby stuff, but it was quite cool going to my wife's sonogram appointment. Their little hearts beat so fast. The first time we went it looked like a little rodent. But at this last one it actually looked like a person with arms, toes, etc. And it was moving its arms and kicking. Very exciting.

We aren't supposed to know for sure for another two months, but the sonogram chick said she was pretty sure that it will be a girl.

OK, enough of the cheesy personal stuff. More posts about music and movies and politics are coming, I promise.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Summer's Almost Gone

I've been back at school this week for meetings and such, but on Monday the students return. This year I've got AP U.S. History, regular U.S. History and the Debate team. Looking forward to it. I've got my own room this year (vs. being a "floater" like I was last year, meaning traveling room to room for my classes). I've had fun decorating the new room. Amidst all the U.S. History-related photos and posters, I've got a big-ass Rolling Stones poster from Altamont right up front. Also a very large 'Godfather' poster strategically placed on the wall behind my chair and desk, just so they don't forget who's boss.

I always dig this rather obscure, melancholy Doors song at the end of each summer. (They seem to like melancholy summer songs, as evidenced by the even better "Indian Summer"). I was looking on YouTube for different versions, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that quite a few people like this tune. There are several very good covers done by forlorn dudes sitting in their bedrooms playing this on an acoustic guitar and so forth. But, the original usually does the trick for me at the end of each summer season...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some Mistakes Are Bigger Than Others

"We're all human, we all make mistakes." Yeah, but there are mistakes (I forgot to take the garbage out) and there are mistakes (running a dogfighting ring out of your house and relishing the torture of innocent creatures). Whenever a celebrity or politician commits some horrible act, you will always here the apologists utter that opening phrase. True, we are all human, and true that we all make mistakes, but most civilized human beings don't make the kind of "mistakes" that Michael Vick made. I guess that's why I get so frustrated whenever I hear that phrase. It is often used to sweep whatever was done under the rug without addressing the act in question. It comes across as equalizing all bad acts. Yes, I will forget to take out the garbage. Yes, I will be short with my wife on occasion. But no, I don't think I will ever drench a dog with water and then electrocute it.

I've been following the Michael Vick saga with disgust. I am an animal lover. But even if you aren't, I think most people can see why Michael Vick is such a degenerate human being. I wasn't going to post about it, but friends JMW and ANCIANT each wrote recent thought-provoking posts (here and here, respectively), and so I was inspired to chime in as well.

I don't buy the excuses Vick has proferred. "Well, it was in my culture growing up." You know, there is a fundamental human moral compass that exists regardless of background. Deriving pleasure from the brutal torture and mutilation of any feeling creature, be it canine, feline, human or whatever, is just plain disgusting. There is something fundamentally wrong with a person who would enjoy hanging creatures by their necks and electrocuting them. People make mistakes, sure, but this is no "mistake." This is morally reprehensible behavior.

"Vick served his time. Isn't that enough?" Serving his time entitles him to no longer be in prison. That's it. It should not entitle him to a multi-million dollar contract. I guess if Vick follows through on his promise to become an outspoken advocate against dogfighting and animal cruelty generally, some good can come of this. I will be interested to see if he is still interested in this advocacy a year from now after the furor has died down. Some things I just don't forgive. This is one of them. What do you think?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dez Reviews District 9

Now this is what smart sci-fi can be. In a summer that started with Transformers 2, at least we get to finish it off with District 9. The only big name associated with this inventive and taut sci-fi action thriller is producer Peter Jackson. But it is newcomers Neill Blomkamp (director) and lead actor Sharlto Copley (in a fantastic film acting debut) who deserve the kudos.

The story is fairly simple: a large space craft appeared on Earth and mysteriously parked itself above Johannesburg, South Africa. After finally breaching the hull, humans discover a weakened race of creatures whom they derisively call "prawns" due to their rather shrimp-like features. They are quickly herded up and forced to live in a segregated camp called District 9, where they are treated poorly, impoverished, hungry and resort to crime and violence to survive (and discover an obsession for cat food). But District 9 is a bit too close for comfort, so it is decided that the prawns will be moved to a new settlement further outside of Johannesburg. The somewhat overwhelmed Wikus (Copley) is put in charge of the operation. I don't want to give anything else away, so I'll stop there as far as the plot points go. District 9 is shot in a quick, documentary style that works very well.

Great sci-fi generally serves as metaphor or allegory for the human condition, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out what Blomkamp and Jackson are getting at here. Setting it in South Africa, they are clearly addressing the apartheid past of the region (Blomkamp is South African) as well as complicated race relations generally. It is somewhat amusing how the presence of the alien race does unite the black and white of South Africa in a common hatred of the other. There is also plenty of commentary on all-powerful government agencies using contract paramilitary forces (read: Blackwater) to do their dirty work. Amidst the pissed off aliens, the mercenaries and military interests (one of the South African government's main purposes in keeping the prawns around is they want to learn how to use their powerful weapons), there are also bands of profiteering and brutal Nigerian gangs thrown into the complicated mix. During the operation, something goes horribly wrong for the hapless Wikus and he finds himself reluctantly allied with several revolutionary prawns searching for a way to escape to their home planet. While the aliens express decent intentions to Wikus, things unfold to where, in my mind, if they are successful it is just as likely that the prawns may plan to return with reinforcements to (justifiably) whoop some human butt.

ABOVE: Wikus (Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of "relocating" the prawns from District 9 to District 10

District 9 weaves all of the elements together wonderfully. Plenty of smart political metaphor, some witty and humorous moments, but also excellent sci-fi. In the second half especially, great action and thrills are aplenty as the plot twists and the tension mounts. A minor complaint I have is, in fact, that the second half moves into action movie territory and away from some of the thought provoking material in the first half. But the action is superbly done nonetheless. I appreciate that the ending is left quite open ended, and you can imagine several scenarios unfolding after the credits roll. Hopefully, plenty to play out in a sequel...

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 14, 2009

RIP Les Paul, 1915-2009

Most individuals fortunate enough to almost live for a century witness many historic changes. Few actually directly cause some of those changes. Guitar legend and innovator Les Paul was one of those people. His name may not be as immediately recognizable as such deceased guitar greats like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Duane Allman, but his legacy is no less important. Dare I say it may be more important than all of those men.

First as a player. Had Les Paul not been an inventor and just a guitar player, he would still be remembered as one of the greats. His bold use of trills, speed, quick licks and other techniques laid a template for later rock players. As Joe Satriani said in reaction to his death, "he was the original guitar hero." Paul's rapid fire, fluid lines graced many hit records. Between 1949-62, he earned 36 gold records. Many of the records were recorded with his wife at the time, Mary Ford.

ABOVE: Les Paul and Mary Ford. This clip combines his great playing with his technical innovations, as he explains and demonstrates his invention of multi-track recording.

But going beyond his playing, it is his innovations that make Paul one of the most important contributors to music in the 20th century. First, the guy invented the solid body electric guitar. No solid body electric guitar, no rock and roll as we know it. Period. The most popular guitar in history is the Gibson Les Paul guitar. Players from Jimmy Page to Slash swear by the Les Paul. It started out as a solid wood block, "the Log," with strings on it. It is only rivaled by the Fender Stratocaster in popularity amongst rock players.

ABOVE: The Who's Pete Townshend shreds on a Gibson Les Paul guitar

Secondly, Les Paul invented multitrack recording. This is one of the most common recording techniques nowadays. In his garage in the late 1940's, Les recorded the first record using multitrack technology. It seems simple in retrospect, but it was revolutionary at the time. Multitrack recording is where you record one track, and then play it back and overlay a second track on top of that, and so forth. In other words, you can sing a vocal line, and then record yourself singing harmony with yourself over that first track. You no longer needed to record "live" with all instruments and singers going simultaneously. You could do one instrument or voice at a time and then "build" the track from there. In addition, Paul is responsible for inventing delay and phasing effects on the guitar.

ABOVE: Even late in life, Les Paul loved to perform and tinker with technology. Here is Les having some fun with what he playfully calls the "Les Paulverizer." It is actually just showing how multitracking works, and the black box on the guitar is an empty box, a prop.

Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum summed it up best when he stated that "[Les Paul's] inventions created the infrastructure for the music and his playing style will ripple through generations. He was truly an architect of rock and roll."

RIP Les Paul.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Live History of Dez

My buddy "Walter Evans" (aka Kyle) put up an audacious list on Facebook yesterday. He listed the 50 artists he could most remember seeing in concert. Of course, I had to do my own, but I didn't restrict it to 50. I went for as long as I could remember. I stopped at about 75 (repeat shows didn't count, so even though I've seen Springsteen 6 times, that was still only one entry on the list). After I posted the list, I quickly remembered about 20 more. (Problem: I forgot some good opening acts). So, I would say an accurate count would be around 100 artists I've seen live. Some multiple times. Interesting fact: I've seen Jimmy Page and Robert Plant separately, but never together. Which got me thinking, what were my favorites? (I can't believe I've never listed this before). So, my Top 5 shows I've seen...

5. At Number 5, there is a 5-way tie. Shut up, it's my list, I can do what I want. In 5th place are:

Jeff Beck (Austin, some small club, 2001 I think: I went alone, front row to watch the greatest electric guitar player outside of Hendrix ever);

Dire Straits (Houston, Astroworld, 1984: my first ever concert, went with my sister, lots of marijuana smoke around us, Dire Straits at their peak);

Peter Gabriel (Houston, The Summit, 1992, with Johannes and Angelo: Always a favorite artist of mine, Gabriel gave a very theatrical show, 8th row);

The Police (Houston, Toyota Center, 2008, with Mrs. Dez: A favorite band of mine who broke up in 1986 and therefore I was resigned that I would never get to see them live. Their surprising 2008 reunion tour rectified that, and they did not disappoint, they sounded better than ever); and

Stevie Ray Vaughan (Houston, Astrodome parking lot, 1989, with Mark, Walter, Johannes, ANCIANT, Bryan and others, at the front of the stage: I was fortunate enough to see SRV live about 5 times before his death. This was the Miller Lite Festival, we saw The Who later that night in the Astrodome, but SRV was playing in the hot Houston summer sun in the parking lot during the day. The fire department had to hose down the crowd. I believe I remember ANCIANT passing out from the heat, really. Maybe I'm wrong. SRV rocked hard in the Houston heat.)

4. U2, Houston, The Summit, October 1988
U2 on The Joshua Tree tour? When those opening, chiming arpeggios from Edge on "Where The Streets Have No Name" opened the show? 'Nuff said. Went with my sister.

3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Houston, Jones Hall, 1989
You never know what to expect at a Neil show. Depends on his mood and what he feels like playing. I went to this with Dre and Johannes. I've seen Neil quite a few times, but this was the first time. He was touring for This Note's For You, a big band blues record (one of his many odd 80's excursions). In the Houston newspaper before the show the article specifically warned not to expect any of the old favorites. Neil was only playing blues numbers on this tour. Well, right before the show he fired his band and called up Crazy Horse to finish the tour with him. So it turned out to be a Neil's Greatest Hits show, as well as some great rarely played gems. He did a 45 minute solo acoustic set, then came out with Crazy Horse. The perfect Neil show. Not going to play the old favorites? He did "Cinnamon Girl," "Down By the River," "Mr. Soul," "Heart of Gold," "Old Man" etc. etc. I guarantee you he read the newspaper article and played this stuff just to be contrary. Add a little "For the Turnstiles"? He was also previewing a bunch of new songs from his forthcoming record Freedom. Lucky for me, Freedom is one of Neil's best records of his career. So we got to hear a handful of awesome new tunes to boot. Speaking of hearing. This was the loudest show I ever saw. My ears rang for days after. Neil's popularity was also kind of low at this point, so Jones Hall is a theater sized place. We were in about the 5th row.

2. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Dallas, Texas Stadium, Summer 1985
Bruce on the Born in the USA tour? Untouchable. Images from this show are so vivid in my mind. It was not just a show. This was an Event. A football stadium full of fans, there was such a great vibe in the whole place. And Bruce delivered his usual 3 and 1/2 hour party.

1. Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Houston, Rockefellers, Summer 1992
I've seen Bela many times since this first show, but none have come close. It was a matter of timing and expectations. Bela and Co. were touring for their second record, and their first two records were definitely their best. This was also the best line-up of the band, before Howard Levy left. Also, Walter Evans, Johannes and I (and I think Johannes' Dad was with us too) went to this show with zero expectations. It was summer, we were bored, we decided to catch this banjo wunderkind and his band because we had nothing better to do. We left converted believers. Many goosebump moments. Victor Wooten demonstrated a whole new level of bass playing that we did not think possible. I still remember the moment it clicked, it was halfway into the first song, "Frontiers." The first half of the song is abstract jazz noodling. Moderately interesting. But then the song locks into a funky groove worthy of James Brown. I still remember when they locked into that groove; Johannes, Walter and I all exchanged surprised glances. This was not what we expected. From then on the show was amazing. And the whole band were super cool after the show, hanging out, shaking hands, chatting with the fans.

Other memorable moments (and not necessarily for the music):

* My sister pouring a drink down some obnoxious dude's pants at Tom Petty;
* Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck on a double bill in 1989, playing together on the same stage during the encore;
* Eric Clapton, 5th row. Obnoxious stoned dude behind us lecturing that drugs are bad as Clapton played "Cocaine" (evidently weed is fine.) Same show, walking around the parking lot for an hour looking for our car;
* CSN the first time was awesome. The second time they were terrible. They were great again with Neil;
* Meeting Stephen Stills after we saw his show at Laurie Auditorium at Trinity U;
* Dancing like a fool at Duran Duran;
* John Mellencamp gave one of the better shows I've ever seen the first time I saw him. The second time was one of the worst shows ever;
* Santana: I went with Willis and Eric. In the parking lot, a big dude parked next to us, asked us to wait before we got out of our car, pulled out a catheter tube and pissed all over the concrete next to our car, said "thanks" and left. Eric then dropped my cassette tape in the puddle of urine and picked it up and asked me if I still wanted it;
* Tenacious D was freakin' funny;
* Watching the Fabulous Thunderbirds play "Tuff Enuff" and "Wrap It Up" with my band in high school. We covered those songs. We all realized that we played them better than the T-Birds did at that show. That was cool;
* Seeing The Who;
* Watching Omar of Omar & the Howlers bend his guitar neck instead of using the whammy bar;
* Buddy Miles in Aspen;
* Traveling with Walter Evans on a whim to Dallas to see Bela & the Flecktones. We knew he was playing outdoors in downtown Fort Worth, so we drove around in a cab until we saw a crowd of people. Then we went back to the airport, slept in the terminal and ate Twinkies for dinner;
* Lyle Lovett in San Antonio at the Majestic Theater;
* Going to see The Allman Brothers Band and being disappointed that Dickey Betts was not playing with them because as Gregg Allman informed the audience, "brother Dickey's in jail. We hope he gets out soon";
* Stanley Jordan at Rockefellers;
* Albert Collins at Rockefellers where he had a super long guitar chord and went out of the club and played his guitar solo in the street outside of the club and the patrons followed him out on to the street;
* The Tragically Hip at Fitzgerald's and Gordon Downie's stream of consciousness lyrics in "Long Time Running";
* Strength in Numbers in Telluride; and
* Tom Jones in Vegas.

How about you? What are some of the most memorable shows you've seen?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

RIP John Hughes, 1950-2009

Wow, I just wrap up my Top 50 movies list, and a generation-defining director dies. John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club appeared at #41 on my list, by the way. But I could have also seriously considered Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science or Planes, Trains & Automobiles, all of which he both wrote and directed. He also wrote National Lampoon’s Vacation, Pretty In Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Mr. Mom and Home Alone. I mean, just look at that list. What would have 80’s youth cinema been without John Hughes? He practically defined teenage life in popular culture in the 80’s. The phrase “John Hughes movie” has come to define an entire genre of moviemaking.

Now, none of these pictures was Citizen Kane, but Hughes struck a true chord with moviegoers in the 80’s that is rare. His films were full of life, humor and emotion. In John Hughes-world, the kids were always smarter than the adults, and they were also more sensitive and understanding. As opposed to being exasperated with “kids these days,” the coming-of-age drama/comedies of John Hughes seemed to say that as screwed-up as these kids are, the world is in far better hands with this new generation than in the hands of the old.

It is true that Hughes lost his touch after the 80’s, writing and directing mostly crap, and in the last decade he pretty much disappeared from the scene altogether. But no matter, Hughes’ legacy is secure. “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…”

Dez's Favorite Film of All Time

Thanks for reading about and (some of you) discussing my Top 50 Movies. I encourage all of you to make your own lists, they are fun to put together and often inspire good conversation and hopefully encourage others to check out some movies they may have missed. Before discussing my #1 film of all time, here are some interesting statistics from my list.

Decades: It appears that I love 80’s movies, with 16 choices being from that decade. That makes sense in that I was coming of age in that decade, and so those movies tend to hit you on a gut level. In a close second was the 1970’s with 12 flicks (not surprising, a golden age for daring movie making). The 60’s had 8, the 90’s had 7, the 2000’s had 4, the 30’s and 50’s had two each, and there was one pick from the 40’s.

Judging from my Top 50, it appears I like Harrison Ford (4) and Al Pacino movies (4). Accurate on Pacino, but I don’t think Ford is all that talented. He just happened to be in some generation defining stuff. He was an important part of those movies, though, I’ll give him that. As far as directors, Francis Ford Coppola appears the most with three movies. Honestly, I think I prefer Scorsese, Kubrick, Weir and Leone if we are looking at each of their entire filmographies. But Coppola was great when he was on. He made some crap too, though.

This isn’t completely scientific and there is some crossover, but generally speaking I had 12 dramas, 7 comedies, 7 action films, 5 crime movies, four each of musical, sci-fi and horror, three each of documentaries and war films and two westerns.

And the winner is...

1. Jaws (1975), dir. Steven Spielberg

No surprise here, just look at the title of this blog. I have probably seen Jaws 17,283 times. I know every line, every scene. I know its rhythms, its ebbs and flows, its beats. Let’s get two negatives out of the way first. Jaws was the first “summer blockbuster,” and it fundamentally changed the film industry. Before Jaws, summer was seen as a dead season, the last time of year studios wanted to release their big ticket flicks. So, we have Jaws to thank for endless summer months of Transformers and super hero movies. Secondly, it was so effective in scaring audiences that it has had a negative impact on the sharks’ chances of long term survival. Sharks were obviously hunted and feared before 1975, but Jaws had the unintended consequence of villainizing an entire species. Shark attacks actually account for very few annual deaths. Peter Benchley, the author of the Jaws novel on which the film was loosely based, later became a fierce advocate for shark protection and regretted writing the novel (although his bank account certainly didn’t suffer). Benchley spent much of his later years trying to undo the damage done by his novel and the subsequent film. Sharks are a crucial link in the ocean’s delicate chain and are magnificent and beautiful creatures, and if we lose that link in the chain an entire oceanographic biosystem may collapse. End of sermon.

We can’t blame the film itself for either the evil of the summer blockbuster season or endangering sharks. Jaws was simply meant to be a thriller movie. And what a thriller it was. Rob Hill, one of the authors of the great book ‘501 Must-See Movies,’ calls Jaws “one of few films that can be described as absolutely perfect in every way,” and that “a better horror-thriller will probably never be made.” Amen, brother.

Jaws grabbed a hold of me from an early age. I first saw it when I was young enough to be completely drawn into film images, where the line between what was happening on the screen and reality was not completely drawn yet in my mind. I must have driven my parents crazy, because I wanted Jaws on the TV all the time. I knew all the characters as if they were friends of mine. One of the reasons I named this blog Gonna Need a Bigger Boat is because it is my Dad’s favorite line from the movie. I remember watching it with him when I was little, and he would actually rewind the video tape two or three times just to hear Roy Scheider utter that famous line.

What makes it so great? Well, as much as I like to view myself as an artsy fartsy sophisticated moviegoer, I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Steven Spielberg is an absolute master of mass entertainment, and when he’s good he has me completely on board. He is godlike in his ability to craft escapist entertainment (look at #6 as well). Part of it is also a case of making lemonade out of lemons. Or, a very expensive lemon named Bruce. “Bruce” is the name given by the production team to the mechanical shark (“Bruce” was the first name of Spielberg’s lawyer). Bruce did not work about 80% of the time during filming. Therefore, out of necessity, Spielberg kept the shark offscreen most of the time. Other versions of this story claim that Spielberg planned it all on purpose for suspense, but he admits that most of the time he hid the shark out of necessity because the damn thing never worked. Hence, you have suspense and frights built up to rival Hitchcock. As Hitchcock himself once said, “if you have a bomb under the table and it goes off, that’s surprise. If you have a bomb under the table and it doesn’t go off, that’s suspense.” Well, Spielberg was forced to keep Bruce under the table for most of the film, and he was smart enough to have his bomb go off only sparingly.

ABOVE: Three men vs. the shark. (L-R) Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfus do battle against a mechanical shark and a Universal Studios anxious about delays and overrun budgets

The first half of the movie is great, but it is the second hour or so that is the most exciting stretch in movie history. Once Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and Quint (Robert Shaw) head out to hunt the killer shark on Quint’s creaky boat, Spielberg shows his true mastery of suspense and action. You have three archetype characters in these three men. Quint is the man with experience and the skills. He is the master shark bounty hunter, the modernday Ahab who becomes obsessed with his target. They try Quint’s way first. It does not work. Then Hooper is the scientist. He has the science and technology. Hooper serves the purpose of giving the viewer scary facts and information throughout the film, such as “what we’re dealing with here is a perfect engine. An eating machine.” Hooper’s fancy technology does not work either. It is Scheider’s Brody, the Everyman, the guy out on the boat who is afraid of the water, that finally prevails. Brody is us. It is affirmation of the spirit and ingenuity of the human mind when normal people are thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

All of this aside, you can watch Jaws as simply a film that has stood the test of almost 35 years and is as exciting today as the day it was released.

ABOVE: It is a scene like this one that makes Jaws a better movie than your average summer blockbuster. This speech was written by the actor giving it, Robert Shaw as Quint. Shaw was actually an accomplished playwright as well as actor, and Shaw took it upon himself to write this monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II. This is so good. While it is not quite historically accurate, it is still a mesmerizing tale.

I Didn't Do It

Apologies to anyone who viewed the pornographic photo that miraculously appeared in place of my film still I had posted from Dr. Strangelove. The Dr. Strangelove picture was there for days, but when I looked at the post this morning, this other photo was in its place. I hope it was something embedded in the picture vs. someone hacking into the blog site, but I will keep my eyes open on older posts for the next couple of days to see if it happens again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Tron Legacy

It didn't make my Top 50 list, but Tron was definitely in the running. Love that movie. While I would normally be quite wary of a sequel to such a sci-fi milestone (it still looks good), I've got to say the trailer for Tron Legacy (out in 2010) has me interested. In the spirit of our recent trailer discussions, this one is great. Count me as "intrigued." (I apologize that the right side of the clip is cut off).

Dez's Fave 50 Flicks, #'s 5-2 and Honorable Mentions

The (almost) end of the road. Today I will give you #'s 5-2 and also some Honorable Mentions and tomorrow will be the grand finale.

5. The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) (1981) (Australia), dir. George Miller
I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic films. Don’t know why, I guess I just enjoy the survivor aspect of it all. I’m also a fan of early Mel Gibson. While The Bounty and this are the only Gibson films to appear in my Top 50, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously and even Lethal Weapon were also considered. Most Americans missed the original, excellent Australian hit Mad Max, so when its sequel rolled around, it was renamed The Road Warrior for American release and was viewed by many as a stand alone film. At any rate, Gibson’s Max (a “shell of a man” who lost his family in the first film) is now the ultimate bad-ass loner. It is after the world has been engulfed in nuclear apocalypse, and rogue gangs roam the highways in search of what little gasoline there is left, which now is worth more than gold. Max comes across a besieged group of survivors trying to protect their gasoline from the gangs led by the frightening Humongus. Max slowly, and inevitably, finds his humanity as he begins to help these people in their fight for survival. This is really a classic Western plot with cars instead of horses. But plot, schmlot. We’re here for the action, and TRW delivers it in spades. The extended climactic action sequence at the end of the film is the best action sequence in history. Period. A dazzling and thrilling highway battle that was filmed with real cars and real stuntmen; there is no CGI here, folks. It makes a difference. Trust me. Watch this sequence and then watch any action sequence in today’s blockbusters. You can still tell the difference between digital computer magic created by some geek in a studio office vs. flesh, asphalt, blood and gasoline. I’ll take the latter any day.

ABOVE: Don't screw with Road Warrior-era Mel...

BELOW: But also don't screw with The Humongus

4. The Godfather (1972), dir. Francis Ford Coppola
As Dre pointed out when I picked the sequel at #16, I used to actually prefer the sequel over the original. But now I feel that the original film holds together better and has an overall greater emotional impact. In reality, the first and second film should be viewed as a single piece anyway (and the third should be forgotten). It is hard to say anything new on this one, other than to agree with the frequent critical observation that it is so effective because it is as much a film about family and loyalty as it is about organized crime. “Leave the gun. Take the canoli.”

ABOVE: Here's Slash and Guns 'n Roses playing the 'Godfather Theme'

3. The Right Stuff (1983), dir. Phillip Kaufman
The word “hero” is thrown around pretty recklessly these days. If there was ever an appropriate time to use the word “hero,” it was in reference to the seven Mercury astronauts. These men were the pioneers of the space race, the first Americans to take those initial bold steps into space that a decade later culminated in our Apollo moon landings. This film was somewhat of a failure when it was released, but in hindsight many critics view it as one of the best of its decade. Based on the book by Tom Wolfe, the film follows the astronauts, scientists and engineers of NASA in the first years of the space race. It is far from a by-the-numbers historical flick, though. There is a wit and edge that permeates the entire picture (which, as Roger Ebert surmises, is perhaps part of the reason it was not an initial hit). These are heroes, alright, but not the infallible idols that the PR efforts of NASA portrayed them to be. The fights, competition, egos and near disasters are all laid bare, along with some very funny sequences. The ensemble cast is top notch, especially Ed Harris (as straightlaced John Glenn), Dennis Quaid (egotistical Gordo Cooper), Fred Ward (tragic Gus Grissom) and Scott Glen (all around bad-ass Alan Sheppard). As Wolfe does in the book, Kaufman wisely bookends and contrasts the astronauts who made the program (but necessarily had to compromise and play the game somewhat) with the truly untamable test pilot whom even the Mercury 7 acknowledged was the greatest pilot ever: Chuck Yeager (played wonderfully by Sam Sheppard). Yeager didn’t make the cut because he lacked a college education. It is a wonderful scene near the end when Gordo Cooper, the most egotistical of the Seven and apt to declare himself the greatest test pilot who ever existed, was asked a softball question by a reporter: “Gordo, who was the greatest pilot you ever saw?” There are a couple of fabulous seconds where Dennis Quaid’s expression goes to a far away place and he starts to talk about Yeager, but then he snaps to and gives his favorite “you’re lookin’ at him” answer. The only negative, although it is effective in the film, is the treatment of the Grissom incident where his hatch blew prematurely in the ocean and the capsule was lost and Grissom almost drowned. The film hints heavily that it was due to Grissom panicing, but most experts now believe it was purely a malfunction in the capsule. Grissom was viewed by many as the most capable astronaut of the whole bunch. (He later died in the tragic Apollo 1 launch pad fire). That complaint aside, TRS is irreverent and reverent at the same time, fun, exciting, patriotic without being simplistic and brilliantly paced. You hardly notice that three hours have gone by.

ABOVE: Here is the first great ten minutes of the movie, as Chuck Yeagar breaks the sound barrier. It has been edited, you see the very beginning and then it skips 4 or 5 minutes to the morning of the flight. You get the feel of it, though. Yeagar is played by Sam Sheppard, and his buddy Ridley (and the narrator) is played by Band drummer Levon Helm.

2. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) (Italy), dir. Sergio Leone
While Once Upon a Time in the West (#44 on this list) might be more artistically accomplished, TGTBATU is a hell of a lot more fun. Leone and Clint Eastwood had been creating a new kind of Western antihero in the previous two pictures of this loose trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. They finally accomplished everything that they wanted to accomplish in the third epic installment. Eastwood is “The Good,” but only in relative terms when compared to The Bad (a sadistic Lee Van Cleef) and The Ugly (Eli Wallach as Tuco). As cool as Eastwood is (and there is none cooler than Clint is here), it is Wallach’s performance as the shifty, fast talking Tuco that really gives life to this film. The plot unfolds lazily, but you don’t really mind, because everything else is wonderful to watch. Leone’s visual style is on full display here. There is a fun introductory sequence where Eastwood and Wallach have an ingenious scam going; Clint turns Wallach in for a reward, then busts him back out, they split the reward, and then do it all over again with ever escalating bounties on Wallach’s head. The actual plot centers around a cache of gold, but each of the three protagonists have only a piece of the necessary information as to its whereabouts. Through a series of shifting alliances and double crosses, they know they need each other to find the gold, but none of them intends to share it once it is found. But with Leone, it is all about the journey, not necessarily the plot itself. The film takes place with the Civil War as its backdrop, and Leone uses some powerful Civil War scenes to comment on the escalating Vietnam conflict. Of course the final three way duel in the cemetery is the stuff of cinema legend. Brilliantly filmed, with patented Leone close-ups of eyes, hands on the guns, sweat on the brow and then a blaze of action. Ennio Morricone’s groundbreaking music adds a whole other layer of greatness to the film.

Next time (probably tomorrow), I will reveal my favorite movie of all time. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but hopefully I can give a good overview/explanation of the film. What follows is a short list of movies that almost made the Top 50 cut. If I were making the list on a different day, perhaps some of these would have knocked #’s 50-40 off, so they are relevant to the discussion. They are (by genre):

Horror: 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead (original), Dracula (original), Evil Dead II, Halloween, King Kong (original), Near Dark, The Shining, Tremors
Sci-Fi: 2001: a Space Odyssey, Aliens, The Black Hole, Forbidden Planet, Tron
Western: For a Few Dollars More, Tombstone, The Wild Bunch, Dances With Wolves
War: Breaker Morant, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gallipoli, Glory, Patton, The Pianist, Three Kings
Action: Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Goldfinger, On her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Man Who Would Be King, The Towering Inferno
Drama: 12 Angry Men, Cinema Paradiso, Almost Famous, A Clockwork Orange, Gods and Monsters, Hud, Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raging Bull, Sexy Beast, Taxi Driver, The Ten Commandments, The Year of Living Dangerously, Zodiac
Comedy: The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Airplane!, Bottle Rocket, Groundhog Day, High Fidelity, Midnight Run, My Cousin Vinny, Pleasantville, The Princess Bride, Running Scared (1986 film), Summer School, There’s Something About Mary

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dez's Top 50 Movies, #'s 10-6

We are into the heavy hitters now. Desert island stuff for me, immovable as the rock of Gibraltar. By the way, I'm a little disappointed that my readers had no thoughts/picks for the Worst Movie post from a couple of days ago. Oh well.

10. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (1964), dir. Stanley Kubrick
Every film of Kubrick’s is worth viewing. A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and 2001 were all in serious consideration for my list, but Dr. Strangelove is by far my favorite of this distinctive directors’ works. This was only a couple of years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so a black comedy about nuclear holocaust had quite an impact in 1964. What is funny (and scary) about the film is that the wacky characters are so self-involved, yet they hold the world’s future in their hands. And they drop the ball spectacularly. The performances are truly great. Sterling Hayden’s insane Gen. Jack D. Ripper (afraid that the Russians are trying to steal his “precious bodily fluids”: “I do not avoid women, Mandrake. But I do deny them my essence”), George C. Scott’s bellicose and childish Gen. Buck Turdgison (“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10, 20 million casualties, depending on the breaks”) and the astounding Peter Sellers (in three roles: the lone sane military man British Wing Commander Mandrake, the meek President Muffley and the ex-Nazi but still fascist mad scientist Dr. Strangelove) are all iconic film characters. Political satire has never been this sharp.

9. This Is Spinal Tap (1984), dir. Rob Reiner
Most serious music fans know this “mockumentary” by heart. For those of you who don’t know, director Rob Reiner and comedians Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer joined forces and created this fictitious washed-up metal band, Spinal Tap. The four of them largely improvised this fake documentary following the Tap on their U.S. comeback tour. Every second of this film is funny, but it is more than that. These guys are clearly big music fans, and while they are brutal in their lampooning of the rock and roll life on the road, you can tell that they also love the ridiculousness of it all. They make fun of these guys, but they love them all the same. Incredibly witty satire of the music industry abounds, it is one of those films that must be viewed multiple times to catch it all. What are seemingly meaningless asides turn out to be some of the funniest lines of the film. This Is Spinal Tap became the template for Guest’s later mockumentaries Best in Show, Waiting For Guffman and others, but it was never done better than here.

ABOVE: A compilation of some Spinal Tap moments, by no means all of the best, but some good ones

8. Fandango (1985), dir. Kevin Reynolds
This largely forgotten coming of age film is a sentimental favorite. My friend Johannes is a fellow fan and is the one who first turned me on to it. My friendships with certain high school and college friends still mean a great deal to me, and this film is the best film I’ve ever seen that addresses the unique male bonding that occurs during the time period which Kevin Costner’s character refers to as “the privileges of youth.” Very funny but also often poignant, this is the best work of both Costner and Judd Nelson’s careers. It is the simple story of five college buddies from the University of Texas who take one last road trip together before graduating and moving on to the real world (it takes place in the early 70’s, so for some the real world means a trip to Vietnam). Their epic journey takes them all over West and South Texas and into Mexico, and along the way there are many adventures, misadventures and surprisingly meaningful conversations. I don’t really know why, but for me, one of the most effecting scenes I’ve ever seen is the very last shot of Costner sitting alone on a cliff overlooking a Mexican border town (the site of their last adventure), solemnly toasting his absent friends as Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” plays on the soundtrack. Love it.

7. From Russia With Love (1963), dir. Terence Young
It is no secret that I’m a huge James Bond fan, so I decided I needed to pick my favorite Bond flick for this list. I guess I could have gone with Goldfinger (the critical consensus pick as the quintessential classic Bond picture) or maybe even the recent franchise-reviving Casino Royale, but I always go back to the second film as my favorite. It was not yet a formula, so Bond could still genuinely surprise. And this was Sean Connery at his peak; his Bond was dangerous and seductive at the same time. No other Bond actor has been able to balance both aspects of the character so credibly. This is also one of the better plots, there is no maniac villain trying to take over the world. It is a simple Cold War thriller plot hatched by the Soviets (or actually SPECTRE, masquerading as the Soviets) aimed at destroying Bond by taking advantage of Bond’s dual weaknesses, his ego and his lust for beautiful women. This is also one of the few Bond films where the supporting cast is as memorable as Bond himself, especially the vicious Soviet assassin Red Grant (Robert Shaw) and Pedro Armendariz’s Karem Bey. Bey is an older Turkish agent who acts as a sort of father figure to Bond. Bey still has a taste for the ladies, so it is easy to imagine that Bey was probably much like Bond in his earlier days. Armendariz was dying of cancer as he filmed his part, so there is a poignancy to the scenes where Bey reminisces with Bond about the old days. The brutal fight scene between Bond and Grant on the Orient Express is to this day one of the most thrilling scenes of hand to hand combat ever filmed.

ABOVE: Over at ASWOBA JMW wrote an interesting post on movie trailers. Here is a good one for From Russia With Love. Is there anyone cooler than Connery's Bond?

6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), dir. Steven Spielberg
I think that ROTLA is the greatest pure adventure film ever made. It is thrilling and charming from beginning to end, and Indiana Jones is a part that Harrison Ford really made his own. Rarely has a supposed action hero gotten caught by his enemies and been on the receiving end of so many ass-kickings. But again, that is part of Ford’s charm as Indiana Jones. He is far from invincible, rather often a frustrated punching bag. Creators George Lucas and Spielberg (you see, when Lucas can just come up with ideas but he is not writing dialogue or directing, he is brilliant) wanted to pay homage to the Saturday morning adventure serials that they grew up loving, and they succeeded wonderfully. Forget about the terrible sequels that followed, ROTLA stands alone as the peak of great adventure filmmaking. Fun trivia: the classic and hilarious scene where Jones is face to face with the big bad dude who is wielding the giant sword and spinning it around like a bad-ass, and Jones wearily pulls his gun and shoots the guy? That was improvised on the spot by Ford. In the script, there was what you would expect, a flashy extended fight scene. But evidently Ford had the runs and really needed to get to a restroom, so he just pulled the gun and shot as a joke to cut the filming of the scene. Spielberg loved it so much he decided to change the scene, BELOW.

Monday, August 3, 2009

StarburyTV update: Just Taste the Happy Ones

Starbury is still at it on his internet streaming, a week later. His viewership is down, though. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, click here for the first post. He just had some pretty piano music playing and was preaching. I liked this quote: "When the tears flow down, taste the tears. But just taste the happy ones. God bless you." Amen, brother.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Worst Movie Ever?

It is appropriate as the revelation of Dez's Top 10 Movies approaches to take a moment to ponder not the best, but the worst. So much effort, money, blood, sweat and tears go into moviemaking, that the phenomenally bad movie holds a special fascination. Like passing an accident on the side of the highway, we are forced to stop and watch. How else to explain the various bad movie film festivals that are held around the country? How else to explain the sold out midnight showings of the notorious The Room that are currently so popular in L.A.?

There are several good sources to research bad movies. IMd has a "Bottom 100" list. The popular Golden Raspberry Awards is another. Critics like Roger Ebert have written gleeful books about bad movies, such as Ebert's entertaining 'Your Movie Sucks,' a collection of Ebert's harshest pans. The website Rotten Tomatoes is also an invaluable resource.

So, what is the worst film ever made? It depends on what criteria you use. Some movies are bad, but in a very entertaining way. Therefore, are they really bad? I would put the infamous Ed Wood crapterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space in that category (a film often cited as the worst ever). Wood's Plan 9 (and in fact, all of his movies) and the equally infamous West Texas monstrosity Manos: The Hands of Fate fall into that low budget category that are bad but fun to watch due to their obvious incompetence.

ABOVE: Vampyra and Tor Johnson were two thespian giants who appeared in Plan 9 From Outer Space. It was also Bela Lugosi's final film. Lugosi died after filming a couple of scenes, but Ed Wood was a man not to be deterred. He simply hired his wife's chiropractor (holding a cape over his face) to stand in for Lugosi for the rest of the film. No matter that the stand-in was several feet taller than Lugosi and balding. Those type of details mattered little to Wood, which is one reason his films are so much fun to watch.

Then there are the bad sequels. Caddyshack II, anyone? Jaws IV: The Revenge is often considered to be the worst sequel ever made. There are the quickies put out with little intention of being great. American Idol spin-off From Justin To Kelly comes to mind. Bad, but it doesn't really attempt to be much more than a showcase for two recent Idol winners.

For me, there is a worse type of bad movie. There is the film that has all the resources needed to be a quality product. It is the type of film that takes itself seriously, and is not bad in a fun kind of way to watch. The type of film that makes you get physically angry as you watch it. My pick for the worst ever? Never has so much goodwill been squandered so completely than by George Lucas when he released the steaming pile of dung entitled Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999. I would watch Plan 9 From Outer Space or Manos: The Hands of Fate 30 times in a row before sitting through Lucas' monstrosity again.

"Meesa the most annoying character ever created."

How about you, dear readers. What are the worst movies you've ever seen?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

In the Street

One of the greatest bands ever was Big Star. Their heyday was in the early 70's, but they have since gotten back together to record and tour on occasion. Here is a clip from the mid-1990's, featuring the enigmatic Alex Chilton singing and playing guitar and Jody Stephens on drums. The two dudes from The Posies have filled out on the other guitar and bass since the early 1990's (original member Chris Bell died in the late 70's and Andy Hummel is retired).