Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dez Reviews 'Spectre' (2015)

With the release of the 24th James Bond film in what has become the longest running franchise in movie history, there is plenty of lore and tradition for fans to savor. In fact, so many aspects of the Bond films have become ingrained in our collective film consciousness (such as Roger Ebert's favorite, the Talking Villain, in which the egomanaical villain has Bond completely at his mercy and all he needs to do is kill him, but he instead reveals his entire plan of world domination, Bond escapes, and then foils the nefarious plot). Sam Mendes's second Bond feature gives true fans of the series plenty of subtle nostalgia. For the true Bond aficianados, references to previous Bond films are everywhere 'Spectre,' some clever and some not so much. Just going over it in my head right now, I saw specific references that I could identify to about a dozen earlier Bond films. The problem here is that the Craig era has successfully opened the Bond formula up a bit, so to see this slide back into formula is a little disappointing.

Daniel Craig's Bond era has (with the exception of 'Quantum of Solace') been a success. Part of that success has been a return to a grittier Bond with plenty of angst. What is interesting about 'Spectre' is how traditional it is. There is still grit and angst, but Mendes pays tribute to previous Bond films throughout, and even allows a little humor back into the franchise. (Just a little, we aren't talking Roger Moore slapstick here). Out of the four Craig Bond films, this one feels the most like Bond, with the familiar rhythms and plot. That is part of the charm and part of the problem.

They were going to have trouble regardless following up the hugely successful 'Skyfall'. Javier Bardem's Silva was so flamboyant and fresh, how do you top that? SPOILER ALERT: Go back to the villain of all Bond villains, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (complete with white cat). A Bond film is only as good as its villain. Christoph Waltz's Blofeld certainly oozes menace, although here (as in every Bond film featuring Blofeld), his motivations and ultimate endgame never really makes complete sense. But Blofeld here does not pop like Silva did. Another problem here is the lengths the plot goes to try and connect the previous three Craig films to this one, making it all one big foiled Blofeld plot. And then the somewhat ridiculous personal connection created between Bond and Blofeld. Hint to Bond filmmakers: the more mysterious and shadowy Blofeld is, usually the better. There was too much sharing here, turning Blofeld's obsession with Bond into a mere family squabble. Blofeld has died many times in Bond films, at least here they don't kill him off. They merely arrest him.

And I thought I would enjoy Ralph Fiennes as M more than I did. I kind of missed Judi Dench.

It is nice to see Craig loosening up a bit with the character. In the previous films he has been so serious that he was at times in danger of being one dimensional. In assessing the Craig era thus far (and I would guess he will do one more before hanging up is Walther PPK, since he has publicly expressed fatigue with the character and his contract has one more film on it), I still think 'Casino Royale' was his best one. This is definitely better than 'Quantum of Solace.' I did not think 'Skyfall' was as great as many others did, and I actually like this one more than many critics do. It has a melancholy to it that I like, where Bond's past is catching up with him. The title 'Spectre' of course refers to Blofeld's terrorist organization, but the title also can reference the spectors of Bond's past weighing heavily upon him. And it is beautiful to look at, really liked the filming of the opening Mexico City sequence. I would put it at the same level as 'Skyfall' for me personally, but I also see where most people prefer 'Skyfall' to it. Between 'Skyfall' and 'Spectre,' we are certainly learning more about Bond's background and life than we ever did before. Don't know if that is a good thing or not.

*** out of *****

Monday, November 16, 2015

Dez Reviews Neil Young's BLUENOTE CAFE (live) (1988/2015)

After a period of relative inactivity on his Archives front, Neil Young has finally put out another Performance Series release, and this is one that has garnered semi-legendary status amongst Neil collectors over the years. It is also one of particular personal interest to me. I’ve written several times of the life changing first Neil Young show I attended in 1988. He had just dumped his band The Bluenotes and reconvened Crazy Horse, and I caught the incendiary Crazy Horse show in Houston. That was a big part of making me the fan I am today. It was so sudden that the newspaper article in the paper discussing the upcoming show was still talking about The Bluenotes. With the release of Bluenote Café, I can now hear what I was actually supposed to hear on that tour. (By the way, not as life changing as what I was fortunate enough to hear, but I can say it still would have been a fantastic show.)

Young’s record This Note’s For You was the last of the wildly erratic, genre-jumping 80’s period before he did his career reset with Freedom in 1989. TNFY was actually one of the better 80’s records he put out, this one focused on horn-driven, big band city blues. There were some weaknesses on the record, though, including a really thin production sound and some relatively tepid performances. For many years after Neil talked about the shows sounding much better than the studio record, and in fact Bluenote Café was set for release as a live follow-up to TNFY until Neil shelved it and made one of his many sudden career turns.

Now I see what Neil was talking about. This is what this material was really meant to sound like. Typically, Neil is stubbornly in the present here, hardly ever looking back. Seven of TNFY’s ten tracks are here, all uniformly far superior to their studio counterparts, as well as a whopping ten then-unreleased tracks. He only digs deep into his back catalogue during the encore, with a joyous take of the Buffalo Springfield chestnut “On the Way Home” (which makes sense, since the original version also featured horns) and an epic, 20-minute “Tonight’s the Night.” The unreleased tracks were mostly written around the time of TNFY, so they are in the same style and vein.

The sound is thick and deep (making up for the thin sounding studio record), the horn section blazes and Neil generously gives time to horn solos throughout, as well as playing some outstanding guitar, a fantastic blues style that is still unquestionably Neil Young. The tones he gets on his guitars are especially great, a large bluesy sound that he rarely uses. As it is one of Neil’s genre exercises, the double live record is also very cohesive. A time capsule of this brief flirtation with horn-driven blues (just like every tour from the 80’s would likewise be its own enclosed world. I’d love to get a release from the Trans tour).

There are quite a few highlights. The unreleased “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me” features a canyon deep bass groove and blaring horns, along with some top notch Neil guitar. The closest thing Neil had to a hit in the 80’s (and one of his better, underrated songs), “This Note’s For You” is lengthened and full of energy. “Twilight” (the other highlight from TNFY) is even more haunting here than on the studio record, with Neil’s guitar screeches sounding like howls in the night. “Ordinary People” (described by Neil himself as “’Cortez the Killer’ with horns”) is given a much better (and shorter) run through than the interminable version that later appeared on Chrome Dreams II. The aforementioned “On the Way Home” and “Tonight’s the Night” are also great, and a rewarding return to the familiar after a show of obscurities.

The key track, though, is “Crime in the City.” Neil fans know this tune as it appeared in a much more subdued version on Freedom, and was also played live throughout the 90’s, appearing on the live album Weld. But here, I think, is the definitive version. It is given a hard-driving beat, and Neil wails on the guitar breaks. I also think it may be the key to the transition between Bluenotes and Freedom. Crucially, this is the only tune not to feature any of the horns. It is a gritty drums-bass-guitar rocker featuring some of Neil’s best post-70’s lyrical imagery, and you can hear him getting off on this performance more than maybe anything else on the record. I think he was already starting to look ahead to Freedom.

That being said, this is still a fantastic live document that finally does justice to the Bluenotes period and band. (Interesting – Neil was sued by R&B legend Harold Melvin, since Melvin’s group had also been called The Bluenotes. This is why later pressings of TNFY is just credited to Neil Young vs. Neil Young & The Bluenotes, and this record is credited to “Neil Young & Bluenote Café,” although on the tracks he refers to “The Bluenotes” throughout).

Now we are just awaiting the long promised second Archives box set which Neil has been teasing for years. The one covering the mid to late 70’s, including the Neil Holy Grail that Neil swears will be included, Time Fades Away II. Let’s get on this, Neil.

**** out of *****