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Monthly Archives: August 2013


Ten Words or Less Review – A 30 year origin story.

In a fair world you could look up Death on and you’d see the following kind of discograhpy.  A pioneering original album in which the Hackney Brothers from Detroit (David, Bobby and Dannis) help define the roots of punk rock just a step ahead of the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones.  It’s more dynamic follow up is quickly bestowed classic status and followed by a third album which is equally impressive but suffers just a touch from following on the heels of the second.  The fourth album is good but the band is starting to strain for ideas.  The fifth album changes stylistic gears as the 70’s close out and the casual fans fall away but the die hard fans think it’s an underrated listening experience.  The sixth album takes 4 years to materialize because someone in the band has a serious drug problem and infighting reigns.  The seventh album is a disaster in which only two of the brothers play on all the songs while the third brother/lead singer with drug issues barely warbles over a few tunes.  The band then breaks up for 18 years, forgettable and useless solo albums multiply, and only through age and maturity do they come back together to reclaim a piece of the music history they rightfully own.  It’s not an uncommon story in the music business, cliched really, but for Death, it was a common tale never meant to be.  They were black, they played rock music only white people thrived on and they called themselves Death.  Everyone in a position to decide things hated the name.

A Band Called Death chronicles the sad history of Detroit’s first, and only?, African-American punk rock outfit.  Death tried for years to be heard by the public at large.  False starts and a refusal to change the name resulted in lost opportunities and the band going nowhere.   30 years later a few select music nerds slowly built up the legend of the band and then in coincidences beyond strange, a son of one of the original band members came to find his father and uncles lost work had caught onto the underground listening scene of San Francisco.  Almost overnight, aside from those 30 years, Death became the defacto unknown band every music lover had to know.  Their master tapes were assembled into a complete, albeit short, album.  At just 7 songs and 25 minutes it’s barely a complete record but none the less, it’s unlikely and strange existence now places it in the pantheon of great punk records.

A Band Called Death isn’t any kind if master class documentary but it’s made well and isn’t too shabby around the edges.  The story it chronicles is fascinating to take in and punk fans, and fans of off beat stories in general, should find no end of curiosity within its 90 minute run time.  David Hackney can now stand as one of the lost musical visionaries whose ship never came in, though he knew time would find his music.  His insistence that his brother keep the Death master tapes is the kind of forward thinking often mistaken for wishful thinking.  It was also a last wish as David would die of lung cancer shortly after insisting on this.

Punk rock fans and documentary lovers owe it to themselves to catch A Band Called Death.  Maybe you won’t run out and buy an LP of their long lost works, even though you should.  Their music was innovative and fierce and there was far too little of it to listen to.  



Ten Word or Less Review – World War Zzzzzzzz

Brad Pitt spends the majority of this film running to catch helicopters and airplanes.  It’s amazing what Hollywood can spend $190 million on.  Max Brooks’ book, an acclaimed oral history of the zombie apocalypse told from the perspective of dozens of characters, gets its title adapted and not much else. The multitude of stories and personalities he created have been hacked down to a threadbare narrative in which Brad Pitt tries to solve the riddle of the zombie attack which is taking over the world.  At least Director Marc Foster can be given some small amount of credit for keeping things moving.  WWZ has a merciful sense of quick pacing most movies this summer couldn’t be bothered with.  But you get the feeling that things move so fast to disguise the simple fact that there’s almost no story to follow or invest in.  And the PG-13 rating means that everything has been scrubbed and sanitized to a fault.  The much troubled production, complete with release delays and a newly shot finale act, isn’t any kind of epic foul up, it’s just another movie with a lot of people running in circles for very little purpose. Ho hum.


Ten Word or Less Review – Big ideas and exploding people.

Director Neill Blomkamp is establishing himself up as a politically charged sci-fi guy, but he needs to think a lot harder before attempting more movies like Elysium.  Much like his first movie District 9, Elysium is ripe with political hot topics.  With his new film Blomkamp wants to address issues such as out of control upper class privilege, immigration, ineffective medical care and abusive political control.  But by the time the credits role he’s said nothing useful about any of those things other than that they do indeed exist.  This is what passes for insight in modern movie making.  Exactly like District 9 Blomkamp throws his ideas out the window after an hour or so and becomes preoccupied with making people go kablooey all over the screen.  After two films it’s clearly a fetish with him.  Maybe he played with explosives to much as a kid.

As a weekend action movie Elysium is passable.  It has very commendable special effects and the first half of the movie is engrossing and well constructed.  There is an inescapable sensation though that Blomkamp’s scenario as a whole hasn’t been totally thought out.  What exactly is the plan for people who escape to Elysium, the great haven for the rich floating in Earth orbit?  Some of the satirical bits are pretty sharp and star Matt Damon fits right into heightened chase escapades like this.  But as the plot escalates more inconsistencies creep into things and the general attitude of action movie nonsense takes over.  The whole exploding people thing again.  The film culminates in an ending which is somehow upbeat but completely divorced from any logic the movie has spent more than enough time establishing.  In short, the world is still a total environmental and economic disaster and billions of people live in filth and poverty but they’ll have some fancy medical robots to help them out.  That makes everything okay?  Blomkamp seems to think so.


Ten Word or Less Review – God might forgive this crap.  Maybe.

This is what happens when you let a talented guy make whatever the fuck he wants without question.  Sometimes it’s as if filmmakers with unique perspective and genuine skill, when left unchecked, will set out to make a film guaranteed to be loathed and hated by the audience who has elevated them to their respected position.  After Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese made the New York, New York, a wretched musical drama that had Robert DeNiro looking like he wanted punch Liza Minnelli in the face for three hours.  Steven Spielberg followed up Close Encounters with 1941, a film that ran on the assumption that lots of noise was funny.  In all fairness neither guy likely had audience alienation in mind with their respective efforts.  But I’m not sure about Nicholas Winding Refn.  He isn’t in the same rarefied class of those filmmakers but his last effort, Drive, was instantly granted cult status among film nerds.  With it’s smooth groove soundtrack and hip vibe of McQueen styled machoism, Drive became an instant part of modern film worship over night and many assumed Refn was a new golden boy.  So it was with extreme enthusiasm that people anticipated Only God Forgives and it was with muted glee that Refn looks to have spit blood into the face of his audience.   Only God Forgives is a fiasco of overindulged bullshit that no one could make with any other purpose other than to test the patience and morals the poor assholes watching.

For Only God Forgives, Refn sets his sights on the neon hive of perversion and illicitness that is Bangkok.  He drops Gosling into his misguided story about revenge and parenting gone awry as a lure for the audience.   Gosling character has a scumbag of a brother who kills a 16 year old prostitute, though he really was hoping to kill a 14 year old.  Even in Bangkok you can’t get everything all the time.  No one told Refn that no one wants to watch a revenge tale established around the demise of someone we’re happy to see dead.  The quixotic and cold-hearted police investigator in charge of the crime lets the dead girl’s father beat the brother to death with a club.  Then to amend that act of retribution, the investigator cuts off the father’s arm.  Don’t complain about J-Town cops so much people.  Then Gosling’s Lady Macbeth of a mother shows up.  She’s played by Kristin Scott Thomas and if they still used actual film she’d literally be trying to remove it from the camera and eat it with her bare hands, shoveling mouthfuls into her makeup caked face.  Her schemes at vengeance, which ensnare her surviving son, are thwarted by the coldly psychopathic Bangkok policeman.  He comes across like a Bangkok bred Terminator with a sword strapped to his back, though oddly enough we never notice it there.  It appears almost at will like some kind of disappearing/reappearing third arm.  Dispassionately dispatching one person and then another and another and another, Only God Forgives follows this guy as he dolls out death with a blank stare on his face.  When it’s over most of the cast is dead or missing a limb and then karaoke is sung.  The End.

Forgives plays like a 90 minute psychopathic fever dream.  Refn shoots every scene in over-saturated, neon colors which practically bleed off the screen.  It’s supposed to be hypnotic and beautiful but it mostly just gives you a headache.  The film has so much amped up red that after a while I started to pray for the onset of color blindness.  Refn’s thread bare story is told with heavy-handed symbolism and stoic gestures at every turn.  It’s biggest issue, among many, is that it’s intensely one note in nature.  The dreamscape atmosphere never subsides for a minute, eventually becoming mundane.  Even David Lynch knew to break up the odd with a grounded scene at one turn or another.  What’s here is a droning and dull story punctuated by fits of bloodletting and murder.  And poor Gosling gets drug down into it willingly.

Gosling is playing a white piece of paper posing as a person.  His mother calls him a drug dealer but we never see him actually deal drugs.  He hangs out in a boxing arena but he’s not a fighter.  Or at least not a good one.  What he is is a hollow statue.  I can understand Gosling’s desire to take a break from acting after a film such as this.  His character has been written as nothing more than an empty vessel to signify impotence and inaction in the wake of twisted maternal issues.  The wave of admiring man crushes and female desires he inspired in Drive have been amputated completely.  Gosling’s character frequently visits an attractive Bangkok call girl that he passively watches but never lays a finger on.  He seems to work in the fight field but when he goes toe to toe with psycho cop he gets his ass whupped.  His venomous mother degrades his existence and he sits there like a wide-eyed, unresponsive lump of unchanneled tension.  His dialogue is sparse and his facial expression a constant, locked in void.  Refn looks to have directed him to be as remote and emotionless as possible at every moment, creating not a character, but a shell that absorbs physical and emotional abuse.  It’s a stunning piece of non-performance.  Scott Thomas is the only other performer to note.  She says outlandish and gross statements meant to provoke shock, basically flirting with turning into Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.  Hers is a disingenuous performance right down to her bad blonde locks.  It’s attention grabbing to be sure but it’s also ridiculous and silly.

The worst thing about Only God Forgives is that, despite everything I’ve said about it, there isn’t much special in how bad it is.  It’s unabashedly lousy, dumb and boring but at the end of the day it’s just a crummy art house flick that no one will remember for long.  I doubt even Refn and Gosling are going to strive to recall things about this one at the end of their day.  The only thing really special about it is that everyone went in expecting a lot and what we got for our expectations was a lot of neon lights, severed arms and blood.  And one more reason to hate karaoke.  I won’t write off Refn though.  After New York, New York Scorsese made Raging Bull.  In the wake of 1941 Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Ark.  If someone tells Refn that there’s no future in bloody, neon soaked nihilism, there may be hope for him yet.

Only God Forgives