Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dez Reviews Avatar, 2009

I'm a little late in my review, I know. But I just got around to seeing this last night. Word of advice: see it in 3-D, preferably on the IMAX. It makes all the difference. So, do you want the good or the bad first? Let's start with the good.

This is the most visually stunning film I've ever seen. Whereas George Lucas' alien worlds looked exactly like what they were: cold, computer-animation creations, James Cameron has created a beautiful, exciting and exhilerating alien world. From floating "islands" in the sky to fearsome, pteradactyl-like creatures who rule the sky, Cameron has created an unforgettable sci-fi landscape.

And the 3-D? Wow. We've come a long way since the last theatrical 3-D film I saw, Jaws 3-D. The 3-D effects are seemless, and really put you in this world. Things aren't simply thrown from the screen at you because the movie is in 3-D. Instead, the effects are used with purpose to enhance your overall experience of the moon.

Also, some of the performances are good. Sam Worthington, in the lead as the disabled marine hero, Jake Scully, plays his part well. The story is fairly stock sci-fi: we have discovered an alien moon brimming with life. A valuable mineral is discovered on the moon. The big, bad Corporation wants the mineral. An indigenous people who are as one with the natural world will either need to be relocated or destroyed to get to the mineral, humorously named unobtanium. All kinds of deadly creatures roam the moon, so we have cleverly created avatars. In essence, you are put to sleep in a chamber, and with your mind you control an alter-ego who is made to look like one of the indigenous peoples, the Na'vi. We get a classic battle between the scientists (led by a saucy Sigourney Weaver), who want to study the planet and make peace with the Na'vi; and the military types who want to kick Na'vi ass. Jake is stuck in the middle. Much of the film entails Jake, through his avatar, becoming a part of the Na'vi tribe. At first to infiltrate, but he of course genuinely become one of them and decides to help them defend their homeland. It is the long sequence where Jake learns about the tribe and explores the planet that is really the heart of the film and also features the most stunning visuals.

ABOVE: Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) teaches Jake's avatar (Sam Worthington) the ways of the Na'vi

Which leads us to the downside of this $250-300 million dollar epic, the most expensive film ever made. The story is so predictable. We've seen this many times, it is Dances With Wolves in space. A native-American revenge fantasy. Heavy handed environmental and anti-war (read: Iraq and Afghanistan) messages pummel us over the head throughout the film. White Man is sent to infiltrate the natives. He learns their ways and feels more connected to them than his own people. Female lead is annoyed by him but forced to train him in native ways. Fall in love. Bad White Men come. Natives feel betrayed by Dances With...I mean Jake. But only with Jake's help do they succeed. (Mildly insulting, by the way, that only with a rogue White Man's help could they hope to succeed against other invading White Men. I say White Man of course, because the Na'vi are so clearly supposed to be Native Americans.)

By the way, I feel no guilt with "spoiling" the plot for you. You know how this is going to end 15 minutes into the film. If you don't, you have not seen many movies or you're an idiot. In fact, as I sat watching during the first third, I mapped out the entire plot in my head and went down my mental checklist as each thing happened as I knew it would. And being James Cameron, he even borrowed from his own movies. Brightly colored, glowing, benign, mysterious, floating alien things that somehow contain the wisdom of the ages? Saw that in his The Abyss. Finale with a huge battle and a human is in an enhanced robotic skeleton giving him superhuman strength so he can fight an alien? Yep. Saw that in Aliens. Bloodthirsty military controlled by a greedy Corporation trying to exploit an alien race, but there are some soldiers with hearts of gold who foil the plans? Also saw that in Aliens. (although, in Aliens, the aliens were pretty evil too.)

So, we are left with a stunning visual triumph that could change how movies are made and a fairly pedestrian, recycled story. Still see it, though. But make sure it is 3-D and on the IMAX.

Visually: ***** out of *****
Story: **1/2 out of *****
Overall: **** out of *****

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dez's Top 13 Beatles Songs That Weren't Hits

Why 13? I got the list cut down to 13 and couldn't take any more off, so instead of a top 10, it is top 13. Radio and history narrow down a band's catalogue to the greatest hits that you hear over and over again. But I find it rewarding to visit (or revisit) those songs that for whatever reason did not get released as a single or did not somehow make it into regular rotation on classic rock radio or get used in a beer commercial. With a great band like the Beatles, the deep cuts are often as interesting or great as the hits. Now, I do not subscribe to the philosophy, as stated by my friend Jim, that there is no such thing as a bad Beatles song. (See "Hello Goodbye", "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", "Wild Honey Pie", "I Me Mine", etc.) Nobody's infallible, not even the Fab Four. So, here are my favorite 13 Beatles songs that were not hits. If you want a fresh look at the most familiar of bands, make this list into a playlist. It will be a fresher ride that listening to "Hey Jude" for the 1,128th time. Listed in chronological order...

"Things We Said Today" from A Hard Day's Night, 1964: One of many earlier McCartney pop gems.

"Yes It Is" released as a b-side in 1965: Gorgeous, and probably the best example of their three-way harmonies.

"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" from Help!, 1965: Lennon tries to be Dylan.

"If I Needed Someone" from Rubber Soul, 1965: The Beatles influenced their contemporaries, sure. But what is often overlooked is that they were also influenced by the music of the day as well. Here, George Harrison does his best Byrds impression.

"Good Day Sunshine" from Revolver, 1966: The Revolver record is their best. While they all shine, I find myself most impressed by McCartney during this time period. His set of pop gems on Revolver are so, so great.

"Tomorrow Never Knows" from Revolver, 1966: One of the opening salvos of psychedelia.

"Only a Northern Song" from Yellow Submarine, 1967: George Harrison didn't even think much of this one, but I've always thought it had a great groove.

"Happiness Is a Warm Gun" from The Beatles (White Album), 1968: Created from three disparate song fragments, this disjointed Lennon masterpiece makes for a fascinating 2:45. Lennon said that he got the song title from an article in a gun magazine that he saw.

"Rocky Raccoon" from The Beatles (White Album), 1968: Often McCartney's goofy little story-songs are annoying (especially during his solo career), but this one works and is charming.

"Helter Skelter" from The Beatles (White Album), 1968: Evidence that McCartney can rock as hard as Lennon. ("Julia" from the same record provides evidence that Lennon could write songs as pretty as McCartney could. The stereotypes aren't always correct.)

"Don't Let Me Down" b-side, 1969: Should have been on Let It Be.

"I've Got a Feeling" from Let It Be, 1969: Although tensions were at an all time high, this song shows that Lennon and McCartney could still work together. Created from a song fragment of Lennon's and a song fragment of McCarney's to create a whole (like the more celebrated "A Day in the Life.") Had a great experience last weekend playing this on Beatles Rockband at my friend Paul's place. I was taking McCartney's part and Paul and Jim were singing the Lennon parts. Blasting through a killer stereo system, man, we sounded awesome! That was fun. That is probably the coolest part of Beatles Rockband, the three-way harmony singing that you can do. It is difficult!

"You Never Give Me Your Money" from Abbey Road, 1969: McCartney and producer George Martin really own Abbey Road.

What are some of your favorite non-hit Beatles tunes?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas For Lawyers

(NOTE: Got this in an e-mail from a fellow lawyer.)

Whereas, on or about the night prior to Christmas, there did occur at a certain improved piece of real property (hereinafter "the House") a general lack of stirring by all creatures therein, including, but not limited to a mouse.

A variety of foot apparel, e.g. stocking, socks, etc., had been affixed by and around the chimney in said House in the hope and/or belief that St. Nick a/k/a/ St. Nicholas a/k/a/ Santa Claus (hereinafter "Claus") would arrive at sometime thereafter.

The minor residents, i.e. the children, of the aforementioned House, were located in their individual beds and were engaged in nocturnal hallucinations, i.e. dreams, wherein vision of confectionery treats, including, but not limited to, candies, nuts and/or sugar plums, did dance, cavort and otherwise appear in said dreams.

Whereupon the party of the first part (sometimes hereinafter referred to as "I"), being the joint-owner in fee simple of the House with the parts of the second part (hereinafter "Mamma"), and said Mamma had retired for a sustained period of sleep. (At such time, the parties were clad in various forms of headgear, e.g. kerchief and cap.)

Suddenly, and without prior notice or warning, there did occur upon the unimproved real property adjacent and appurtent to said House, i.e. the lawn, a certain disruption of unknown nature, cause and/or circumstance. The party of the first part did immediately rush to a window in the House to investigate the cause of such disturbance.

At that time, the party of the first part did observe, with some degree of wonder and/or disbelief, a miniature sleigh (hereinafter the "Vehicle") being pulled and/or drawn very rapidly through the air by approximately eight (8) reindeer. The driver of the Vehicle appeared to be and in fact was, the previously referenced Claus.

Said Claus was providing specific direction, instruction and guidance to the approximately eight (8) reindeer and specifically identified the animal co-conspirators by name: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen (hereinafter the "Deer"). (Upon information and belief, it is further asserted that an additional co-conspirator named Rudolph may have been involved.)
The party of the first part witnessed Claus, the Vehicle and the Deer intentionally and willfully trespass upon the roofs of several residences located adjacent to and in the vicinity of the House, and noted that the Vehicle was heavily laden with packages, toys and other items of unknown origin or nature. Suddenly, without prior invitation or permission, either express or implied, the Vehicle arrived at the House, and Claus entered said House via the chimney.

Said Claus was clad in a red fur suit, which was partially covered with residue from the chimney, and he carried a large sack containing a portion of the aforementioned packages, toys, and other unknown items. He was smoking what appeared to be tobacco in a small pipe in blatant violation of local ordinances and health regulations.

Claus did not speak, but immediately began to fill the stocking of the minor children, which hung adjacent to the chimney, with toys and other small gifts. (Said items did not, however, constitute "gifts" to said minor pursuant to the applicable provisions of the U.S. Tax Code.) Upon completion of such task, Claus touched the side of his nose and flew, rose and/or ascended up the chimney of the House to the roof where the Vehicle and Deer waited and/or served as "lookouts." Claus immediately departed for an unknown destination.

However, prior to the departure of the Vehicle, Deer and Claus from said House, the party of the first part did hear Claus state and/or exclaim: "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!" Or words to that effect.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cold War Love

"Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win." - Gen. Thomas Power, SAC Commander, late 1950's

"Then you had better make sure that they are a man and a woman." - William Kaufmann, civilian government official, in response

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Class of 2010

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2010: ABBA, Genesis, Jimmy Cliff, The Hollies and The Stooges. Inducted as Non-Performers are industry giant David Geffen and songwriters Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry, Jesse Stone, Mort Shuman and Otis Blackwell.

ABOVE: Iggy Pop and his Stooges finally made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after seven previous nominations

I have no complaints at all with this year’s inductees. Recall there was a list of 12 nominees, and the 500 voters of the Hall of Fame chose their 5 inductees from that list of nominated 12. It would have been fun to have KISS inducted, but the battle was already partially won by having them finally nominated by the famously anti-KISS Nominating Committee. Red Hot Chili Peppers are deserving, but I am glad they did not make it on their first ballot. There are still plenty of deserving earlier artists, so the Peppers will get their day in the spotlight down the road.


I’m not an ABBA fan, but they were a hit machine in the 70’s. The Hollies are somewhat minor, but they had a ton of hits in England during the late 60’s. I like them well enough, and really dig a handful of their songs, especially the Graham Nash gems “King Midas in Reverse” and “Carrie-Ann,” and the super groovy later hit “Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress).” To be honest, I think they got in due to heavy lobbying from Little Stevie Van Zandt and Elvis Costello, both longtime Hollies boosters, as well Graham Nash’s general good standing in the music community. Since Crosby (Byrds, CSN), Stills (Buffalo Springfield, CSN) and Young (Buffalo Springfield, solo) have all been inducted twice, it makes sense to even it all out by giving Nash his second induction by honoring his early band. Jimmy Cliff is great, and it is nice to get another reggae star in there beside just Bob Marley. The Stooges are a crucial band, and we can’t blame the Nominating Committee for waiting so long on them. They have been nominated seven times previously, tying Black Sabbath for having been nominated the most times before finally getting voted in. 8th time’s a charm.

ABOVE: The Hollies are semi-deserving of their induction

ABOVE: I was pleasantly surprised that Jimmy Cliff made it

Inducting Genesis goes a long way in rectifying the criminal absence of prog-rock in the Hall. Members of the Nominating Committee, many of them part of Jann Wenner and Jon Landau’s cliques, are notorious prog-haters. Pink Floyd are the only band in the Hall that could be categorized as prog, but they aren’t really prog. So honoring Genesis is a good start. (the band Yes is one of the most glaring omissions in the Hall so far, but the band who gave us the notorious Tales From Topographical Oceans will probably not get by the Rockhall gatekeepers any time soon). For my money, Genesis during the early 70’s produced the best prog-rock ever recorded. Progressive-rock does not get any better than the trilogy of albums Foxtrot (1972), Selling England By the Pound (1973) and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974). That was all during the Peter Gabriel-era of the band. And as dismissive as many fans are of the post-Gabriel (and post-Steve Hackett) Genesis material (which actually comprises about 2/3rds of their career), they made respectable prog-rock in the late 70’s and then made the unlikely transition in the 80’s to pop superstars as a trio. So, congratulations to Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Steve Hackett. Long overdue, my friends.

ABOVE: Congrats to Genesis for breaking through the Prog-Rock barrier

The ceremony will be held in March and will be televised on Fuse TV. For those of you interested, Time/Life has put out a 3-DVD set and a more comprehensive 9-DVD set (guess which one I bought?) featuring great performances and induction speeches from the ceremonies from the first 25 years of the Rockhall’s existence. Some of my favorite moments on the DVDs are the rehearsal footage added as bonus features on each disc. If you love rock and roll and its history, this is essential stuff.

Also included on one of the DVD’s is Mike Love’s drunken blitzkrieg of an acceptance speech during the induction of The Beach Boys, where he manages to trash as many music greats as he can within a five minute, fascinating rant. What is fun to watch is George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Mick Jagger all sitting stone-faced in the audience as Love tries to explain why The Beach Boys were a better band than the Beatles or Stones, as there is uncomfortable laughter in the hall. He even goes so far as to challenge Jagger to get up on stage and try and perform as great as he does. A musical duel, if you will. All the more funny because Mike Love sucks. The Beach Boys were great because of Brian Wilson, and it was Love who was primarily responsible for trying to quash the recording sessions of Pet Sounds, Wilson’s masterpiece. Anyway, these are the things that make the ceremonies worth watching every year. (Oh, and Jeff Beck telling the rest of The Yardbirds, including Clapton and Page, “f*** you guys for kicking me out of the band” during their acceptance).

Monday, December 14, 2009

We Are A Nielson Family

I have waited for this moment all of my life. My wife and I have been chosen to be one of the mysterious and all power Nielson's Families. As most of you surely know, Nielson's tracks TV viewing habits of a random sampling of American families around the country. Networks cancel or renew TV shows based on Nielson's ratings. I knew it was a good deal from the get-go when I opened the Nielson's package and there were two whole dollars in cash in the package. That's right. We get paid to watch TV and then tell them what we are watching.

They picked a good family, because we watch a lot of TV. So, what will they find? We watch a lot of cable dramas because they are better. The "Dexter" Season 4 finale last night, for instance? Quite great. I thought John Lithgow was outstanding on "Dexter" this season. ("Dexter" is a Showtime show). On the other hand, "Californication" tanked this season. Seasons 1 and 2 were lots of fun, but this last season that mecifully ended last night was horrible. Can't wait for the next season of "Big Love" on HBO in the Spring. "Nurse Jackie" was good on Showtime as well.

ABOVE: John Lithgow and Michael C. Hall play "competing" serial killers in the great 4th season of "Dexter"

"Modern Family" is the best new comedy this season. Wonderful, and it is the heir to the cult favorite but ratings killed "Arrested Development." We keep our reality viewing down to Bravo's "Top Chef" and the old warhorse "Survivor." Best season ever of "Survivor," by the way. Go Russell! Looking forward to the fun "Chuck" starting back up in January. And I will do everything in my considerable power as a NIELSON FAMILY to save the great "Friday Night Lights."

ABOVE: "Modern Family" is the funniest show on network TV

My wife enjoys many of the sci-fi-tinged shows like "Fringe," "Doll House," etc. Both of those are quality, for what they are. Unfortunately, she also enjoys the two worst shows on television: the insipid "Brothers and Sisters" and "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off "Private Practice" (which is so bad that it makes "Grey's Anatomy" look like Shakespeare). Normally I would use my immense power as a NIELSON FAMILY to do my best to cancel those two blights on modern culture, but my wife will unfortunately rate our household as one that watches them.

ABOVE: I hope that Russell wins "Survivor" this season. This Houston oil man supposedly made over $1 million last year, but told his fellow Survivors that he was a struggling fireman/survivor of Hurricane Katrina (where he, as he tearfully lied, lost his dog in the floods). Russell decided on his first night to empty everyone's canteens and burn their socks in the fire as they slept. He has found three immunity idols so far with no clues given to him. He has made this season lots of fun to watch.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cat Power

I don't usually go for these cutesy animal pics, but as a cat lover, this one made me chuckle.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Brush With the Sort of Famous...

My students were working on a project in my AP U.S. History class the other day, and as is often the case, I had my iPod playing while they worked (U.S. History is not the only history I teach my students). I believe I had some Allman Brothers on tap while they wrote me something about Reconstruction. Southern theme, so it worked.

One of my students asked me out of the blue whether I had ever heard of Sam the Sham. Being well versed in rock history, I of course immediately responded "Woolly Bully!" Turns out that Sam Samudio (aka Sam the Sham) is this kid's great uncle or something. "Woolly Bully" is one of the all time great 60's garage party tunes, and Samudio is one of the first great latino rockers. I immediately grilled my student on everything he could tell me about his uncle Sam, and it turns out the guy has a fascinating story. I'm going to ask my student to get in touch with Sam for me and set up some interviews. There is a book here. I'm serious.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dez Reviews The Kinks Choral Collection, Ray Davies 2009

This is either a great idea or a terrible one. Anyone who has followed the musical loves of Dez knows that I worship at the altar of The Kinks. I have posted at length many times regarding The Kinks here at GNABB.

Kinks leader Ray Davies has decided to revisit some Kinks classics with a full choir behind him. Ray is generally not one to rely on his past triumphs (his most recent solo album from last year, Working Man's Cafe, was excellent). So when he does revisit the Kinks past, he usually tries to put a different twist on it. It is an interesting set-up. Ray plays with a traditional rock band, but the Crouch End Festival Chorus backs him as if it were a Sunday afternoon in church.

If you are familiar with The Kinks discography, you are probably thinking what I was thinking when I first heard about this release. This will work really well if he picks the right tunes. It will be awful if he picks the wrong ones. Ray's songwriting often has a wistful, nostalgic, particulaly English quality to it. It is those songs which would work the best. With two exceptions, every tune he reworks comes from his 1960's period (the exceptions being "Celluloid Heroes" and the title track to Working Man's Cafe, which actually works wonderfully with the older Kinks material).

"You Really Got Me" and "All Day And All of the Night" are as terrible as you might expect in this setting (are these jokes?), while "Waterloo Sunset" is as gorgeous as you would hope. There are several places where Ray and the Chorus really step out and take some chances with once familiar material. The melancholy "See My Friends" is given a haunting, a capella treatment that is quite compelling. The material that really lends itself well to the Chorus are Ray's ruminations on English culture, such as "Victoria" and the six song suite from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society that closes the record. In fact, given the nature of the brilliant Preservation Society concept album, one wonders why Ray didn't just rework that entire album in a choral arrangement and then augment it with a couple of other thematically related gems here like "Waterloo Sunset." That would have been perfect. At any rate, the six song suite is brilliantly done, especially "Village Green" and "Village Green Preservation Society."

ABOVE: There's no video, but here is the audio of the lovely "Days."

The songs of Ray Davies are some of the finest in pop music. It is a pleasure to hear them in almost any context. Although the record has some embarassing missteps ("You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" really need to remain in the gritty garage in which they were born to keep their potency), most of these tunes benefit from the formal, choral treatment, especially the more delicate mid to late 60's-era tunes that Ray wisely focuses on for most of the record. None of these versions will make you want to forget the originals, mind you, but they are different and interesting enough to give us a nice twist on the Kinks legacy. And as a whole, the record has a tight cohesiveness in mood to it.

**** out of *****

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Charles Strikes Again

Charles Barkley on the Miami Heat: "Dwayne Wade is Michael Jackson playing with a bunch of Tito Jacksons."