This blog began as a way to build content and grow a following as a writer. Though I’m still mostly clueless about how to do that, I figured writing reviews is a good way to link my byline to a product people will search for. By reviewing arts that appeal to me, I can identify myself within the context of my tastes. But sifting through previous posts, I realized the reviews seem out of place here.
After a very short search I found BlogCritics.org, a massive site where bloggers publish short articles on politics, food, culture, arts, and other topics of interest. The styles of writing vary, but with such a glut of content there is something for everyone. Already they have published four of my reviews, one as I was write this post. I will continue to publish reviews there as well as the regular weekly installments here. You can find my own page on BlogCritics.org HERE.
Since this week’s post is less of an informal essay and more of an informal update, I’m re-posting the four reviews below (BlogCritics doesn’t mind). In the future I will likely post links to my BlogCritics reviews, or re-post them on a separate page here. Please feel free to comment about these decisions or the reviews themselves, as I always love to hear feedback and constructive criticism.
INTO THE ABYSS
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Into The Abyss on Blogcritics.
When looking for documentaries with depth and sophistication, Werner Herzog is in a class of his own. Recently released on Blu-ray, Into The Abyss is a gripping look at the death penalty, a triple homicide, and the lives of those involved. Straightforward by Herzog standards, it clearly and directly investigates the relationships people have with their societal context, but also, as the title implies, with their own souls.
He believes states should not execute people. But far from the partisan crusades we’re used to from documentary diva Michael Moore and kind, Herzog penetrates different layers of his topic without coloring the opinions of his subjects or putting himself into the limelight. Instead he asks questions quietly from off-screen, letting his subjects paint the portrait.
Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of murdering a fifty-year old woman, her son, and his friend over a car. DNA evidence puts them at the scene but they both deny guilt. The interview takes place eight days before Michael Perry’s execution by lethal injection. His childlike smile is likely to stick in anyone’s head for a long time. Burkett, meanwhile, received the lesser sentence of life in prison. This lenience was allegedly the result of testimony from Burkett’s father, himself a life-long criminal and by his own admission, no father at all.
Fans of Herzog will recognize his method. Subjects always finish their thoughts. The camera often rolls after they finish speaking revealing facial ticks, insecurities, and emotional composure – the spontaneous truth of the human face. Though occasionally uncomfortable, these moments are windows to internal realities. Simply sitting still and paying attention, Herzog brings us closer to the whole truth than most filmmakers.
Interviews with friends and family on both sides enrich the economical, moral, religious, and personal context, showing the environments that produced these crimes. Interviews with a minister to execution victims and a former law officer who carried out executions expand the emotional territory even further. Because they don’t know the victims, their accounts are not flavored with the anguish of personal loss and show the natural empathy of human beings in the face of government approved life-taking.
The cinematography is familiar; the camera is generally at head level, often handheld except during interviews, and like many Herzog’s films, give us the most human perspective on the subject as possible. He romanticizes nothing, but shoots respectfully and skillfully. The musical score by Mark De Gli Antoni is gorgeous, and sweeps through the film like an elegy for those passed, and those about to pass.
Unfortunately for the enthusiast, this Blu-ray release has nothing in the way of special features. Because there are no sweeping crane shots or computer effects one might be tempted to skip the Blu-ray edition altogether. But the clarity of HD (1080p with a 1.77:1 aspect ratio) reveals nuances in the faces and eyes that won’t come across as clearly in standard definition. The soundtrack is solid, though this is only distincly noticeable during the rich score. I was pleased with the technical aspects of this release, even if the only other thing on the disc is a trailer. Fortunately, those looking for more can find Herzog’s On Death Row, a series of videos with death row inmates available on YouTube.
Into The Abyss is a rock solid documentary that doesn’t shy away from it’s heavy subject matter, nor does it obsess. Master filmmaker Werner Herzog once again goes beyond the mundane facts to the internal truths of his topic. Special features or not, fans of honest filmmaking should be pleased with this release.
CAN: THE LOST TAPES
Article first published as Music Review: Can – The Lost Tapes on Blogcritics.
Ask the average person who the band Can is and you will likely get a confused face in return. But this essential krautrock group has influenced so many of our favorite contemporary artists, it’s hard to avoid their influence. From Radiohead to Q-Tip, Can continues to inspire innovators in music.
Completists and aficionados buzzed at the announcement of The Lost Tapes. But there is always trepidation when material is released so far after a band’s dissolution. Would that spark of sonic exploration be fresh, or are they releasing the dregs of their material as an afterthought or cash grab?
Filed down from about 50 hours of material, this three-CD box set is solid from start to finish. From the outset, Can explores the space of their studio with disciplined liberation. Layered tape hiss, amp hum, and found percussion break into rocking jazz fusion in the opening track “Millionenspiel“, and the pace is set. Over three hours of genre-defying experimentation captures the essence of the band beautifully.
Longtime fans of Can will feel right at home with this collection. Compiled over several years for a multitude of purposes, every track is classic Can. Moving from raucous psychedelia (“Graublau”), to gorgeous melody (“Obscura Primavera“), to freeform soundscapes (“Blind Mirror Surf”), to live renditions of favorites “Spoon“ and “One More Saturday Night” , this box set offers all the essential elements that define Can as a band.
New listeners should set their expectations aside. There are no musical formulas or clichés at work here, and few precedents. Can’s modus operandi is to push creative freedom without regard to specific forms or styles. Some of the songs are careful orchestrations, some are insane live jams, and some tracks are multi-faceted meditations on a particular space. But one thing that is consistent throughout The Lost Tapes, and all of Can’s oeuvre, is the spirit of exploration.
Fans of Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground or Portishead will recognize the beauty of Can’s strangeness. Themselves influenced by classical, free-jazz and anything avant-garde, Can blended styles into a new aesthetic while ushering in the age of electronic music. The Talking Heads, The Cars, The Orb, Brian Eno, Stereolab, and Tortoise all cite Can as influences. But far from feeling like a pastiche, The Lost Tapes has a continuity that can only be described by the simple, liberty-affirming declaration “Can”.
Forty years after the material was recorded, Can’s historical footprint continues to grow. “Drunk and Hot Girls” by Kanye West featuring Mos Def is a surprising (some might say inappropriate) sample of “Sing Swan Song” from Can’s Ege Bamyasi. Q-Tip’s “Manwomanboogie” is a funky sample of “Aspectacle” from a 1979 Can recording found on the compilation Cannibalism 2.
The quality and fidelity of The Lost Tapes is top notch. Meticulously preserved and beautifully digitized, these tapes are as clean and defect-free as Can’s album material. This is quite a feat considering the raw magnetic stock was forgotten about for decades. I only wish this box set was released on LP where the dynamic range and true inner space of the recordings could have been coaxed out of the vinyl medium.
Well priced, nicely packaged, and featuring liner notes from band leader Irmin Schmidt, The Lost Tapes three CD box set is a beautiful look into the creative process of a band whose primary focus was the creative process.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA
Article first published as Blu-Ray: Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Blogcritics.
Francis Ford Coppola’s iteration of the Hollywood classic Dracula is arguably the last old-school studio effects pictures ever made. Released in 2007, this Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray is a much-needed upgrade from the previous, bare-bones DVD release.
The story of Dracula appeared right alongside the birth of cinema, and Coppola took this coincidence as an opportunity to elegize old Hollywood. Shot on studio soundstages, Bram Stoker’s Dracula drenches the audience in an otherworldly nightmare where rats scurry across ceilings and Dracula’s malevolent presence is never far away. The epistolary nature of the novel is kept incredibly intact by the use of journal entries and letters, but also through the use of old cameras, telegraphy, and other post-Industrial Revolution technology.
This movie is not perfect. Coppola, already considered past his prime, seems to have romanticized the production itself instead of working with the actors to create a realistic Old London. Excluding Gary Oldman, the acting is the worst element of this film; Keanu Reeves gives a nearly unwatchable performance, Winona Ryder is stiff, and Sir Anthony Hopkins is at times downright ridiculous. Fortunately, Gary Oldman brings his signature chameleon-like mastery to every aspect of the iconic title role, from a furry bat-monster to the elegant, young Prince Vlad.
Though everyone knows the story of Dracula, this rendition goes far beyond previous versions of the movie. As the tagline “Love Never Dies” hints, we are not simply watching a horror movie, but a dark love story that ends in tragedy. James V. Hart’s script teases out Dracula’s damnation, bringing us to the realization that Dracula can never unite with his soulmate because society sees him as a monster. His suffering goes on lifetime after lifetime. When Dracula is finally defeated, our hearts are broken for him because his generations of agony go unfulfilled and history will remember him as a monster.
The opulent sets and costumes through every frame of this movie are highlighted nicely by the new 1080p HD transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio). The video isn’t as crisp as other films coming out around 1993, but I suspect the entire finished film was softened slightly in order to smooth out transitions between normal footage, double and triple exposures, and a plethora of special effects shots (all of which are spectacular in-camera effects with the exception of a few optical effects). Overall, the film looks great.
In addition to winning Oscars for make-up and costume, Bram Stoker’s Dracula won for Best Sound Effects Editing, and rightfully so. The audio mix is nicely balanced and used to punctuate the story by providing feeling. You won’t be blown away by the unexpected swells of bass that have come to pass for great sound mixes. But the sound will effectively enchant you into this dark, weird world.
This Blu-ray release has been given beautiful artwork that shows off the nuanced vision of the film. The picture on the cover might be one of the best movie posters in history. And while I am disappointed there is no full-colour booklet of images inside, the menus and interactive design are gorgeous.
It comes with over 30 minutes of deleted scenes, some in a degraded, unfinished quality. Many of these scenes were unquestionably nixed for the better, or condensed into other scenes, so don’t expect to find anything mind-blowing here.
Coppola’s audio commentary is enthusiastic and enjoyable, even if he does repeat himself and talk too much.
A making-of documentary and segment on the costumes are interesting, but are not as exciting as the documentary on the visual effects which gives a glimpse into how much unseen magic went into the production. Studios simply do not shoot films like this any more, and this extra gives insight on how the technologies of illusion have evolved over the years.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula on Blu-ray is the closest thing to a definitive edition on the market. Previously unseen special features, well-considered packaging, and a nice transfer will leave fans of the film happy and help those not so inclined to appreciate a more contemporary, experimental approach to a classic horror story.
I give the movie and the Blu-ray release 8.5/10. While I’m usually a stickler for marks as high as these, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my favorite love stories, and the most satisfying guilty pleasure in my media library, and this Blu-ray edition is the best one yet.
THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW
Article first published as TV Review: The Ricky Gervais Show on HBO on Blogcritics.
HBO has just aired the final episode of The Ricky Gervais Show season 3. Sadly, if we’re to believe Gervais’s Twitter feed, one of the funniest shows on television is at its end.
Based on the immensely popular podcast, first impressions of The Ricky Gervais Show were tempered by Gervais’s seemingly mean-spirited humor as host of the Golden Globes. And he pulls no punches on his obsession with co-star Karl Pilkington. During the show, Gervais and Stephen Merchant pry into Karl’s mind to explore his worldview, often calling him an idiot and pointing bad logic.
But Karl is more than just a punching bag for them; he is a close friend of Gervais and Merchant. They appreciate Karl’s simpler point of view (even if it is confused most times). The dynamic between Ricky’s cynicism, Stephen’s quiet mediation, and Karl’s wide-eyed wonder reflects a beautiful, triangulated expression of each of us. We all have these facets to our personality; our hearts agree with some of Karl’s musings, even when our brains reject them.
The cartoon treatment of the podcast brings out the innocence Gervais finds so fascinating in Karl. The characters are lovably-designed, and the animated flights into Karl’s imagination are a laugh-induced ab workout every episode. Despite the name-calling, we get a definite sense from the show that Ricky Gervais has a profound respect for his friend Karl that goes deeper than off-the-cuff insults. We get the sense that Gervais really does believe that life in Karl’s mind must be more fun.
The fun these friends share is never sentimentalized or drawn out. Ricky, Karl, and Stephen are who they are, and they don’t script anything. Though they set the stage with discussion topics, the humor is allowed to come out naturally and spontaneously, often with unexpected digressions and asides. It never seems forced, but like a living-room discussion you might have with your friends.
The conversational hilarity and storybook imagery fit into a nostalgic socket in our brains. The Ricky Gervais Show feels like an old friend we can talk to again and again without getting bored. Now that the show has run it’s course, let’s hope a complete box set is released with a ton of special features. Until then, we’ll have to be content with An Idiot Abroad, Derek, Life’s Too Short and Ricky Gervais…Obviously.