Category Archives: Movie Reviews

‘Urgh! A Music War’ DVD feature review (Orlando Weekly)

It’s been a long time coming, but nearly 30 years after it was released to theaters, Urgh! A Music War is again available for purchase. For music fans of a certain age – especially those who have suffered from years of squinting at grainy VHS dubs and bootleg DVDs – its purchase is mandatory; Urgh! is the ultimate document of the post-punk movement known as “the New Wave” (not to be confused with the later, poppier genre generality of new wave).

Thanks to a pioneering initiative at Warner Bros. Pictures called the Warner Archive, in which films with limited retail appeal are sold on a duplicated-to-order basis, that purchase is just a few clicks away. Although Urgh! can’t be picked up at your local music shop or on Amazon, the archive’s online store (http://www.wbshop.com) offers a direct-to-your-door deal that gets you a DVD-R pressing of the movie made from reasonably clean prints for $20. And it’s official, which means that, hopefully, some of the 30-plus artists featured on the movie will see some of that money.

Urgh! was briefly sold in the ’80s on VHS tape and laserdisc, but neither of those versions stayed in print for long. It’s important to remember that, in the early and mid-’80s, home video libraries weren’t nearly as common as they are now; most videotapes were sold to video stores for rentals, while laserdiscs, though beloved by cinephiles, were never broadly embraced by the general public. So videos frequently fell out of print quickly after their first run. In the case of Urgh!, it probably didn’t help that the USA Network’s excellent Night Flight program seemed to play the film and various clips frequently, thus negating the need for anyone to actually purchase a high-priced former rental tape or track down the hard-to-find laserdisc.

In the 28 years that have passed since Urgh! was originally released, the film has taken on a legendary reputation, due to its content and its rarity. The relative ease with which the music was licensed for the original production was a natural facet of the late-’70s music business; nobody was considering cross-collateralization, digital download residuals or multiplatform hybridization. Producer Miles Copeland (founder of IRS Records, brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland) presented all of the artists with a fairly straightforward contract that permitted the use of their music and performances in Urgh!’s theatrical presentations and television broadcasts, and allowed for the initial home video versions as well as a double-LP soundtrack – which, sadly, remains out of print. Everything after those initial permissions would require every single artist – all 34 of them – to sign off on any new versions; thus, no CD of the soundtrack and, until now, no DVD of the movie. How Warner Archives got around those contracts is a mystery, but the fact that Urgh! is only available as a bespoke DVD – rather than in a full retail version – is probably reflective of the acres of red tape that have accumulated around it.

All those licensing issues, and all those memories of tracking down nth-generation copies, fades immediately upon popping in the Warner Archives DVD. The film itself hasn’t undergone any remastering process, but the print used for the transfer is suitably crisp, and the difference between this version and the unauthorized versions that have been traded for years is simply remarkable. More importantly, the Dolby stereo audio track provides a powerful and dynamic reproduction of the music.

Of course, the music is the entire point of Urgh! Filmed – not on video, but on film – at a multitude of concerts in various venues around the world in 1980, Urgh! features live performances from ’80s crossover stars Joan Jett, the Police, Devo, the Go-Go’s, Gary Numan (doing “Down in the Park” on an overwhelming stage setup) and Wall of Voodoo – all captured at the moment just before MTV made everyone tired of them. Beyond those marquee names, though, are the stars of the post-punk underground – Echo & the Bunnymen, the Cramps, Magazine, XTC (yes, live), Dead Kennedys, Surf Punks, Oingo Boingo, Chelsea (snarling through “I’m on Fire”), Pere Ubu, Gang of Four. Combine those well-known names with excellent, now-footnoted acts like the Members, Toyah Willcox, Skafish and Athletico Spizz 80 and the variety of music on display here – punk, post-punk, power pop, electro-pop, reggae, quirky new wave, a touch of postmodern weirdness and even spoken word – is simply staggering. There’s not a single performance on Urgh! that’s less than impressive: The Cramps’ blistering take on “Tear It Up,” Echo’s fiery, angsty version of “The Puppet,” Klaus Nomi’s legendarily operatic “Total Eclipse” and the Police’s taut and terrific runthrough of “So Lonely” are essential watching.

While some viewers might complain that the Warner Archives version doesn’t allow skipping right to those moments (you can only skip through in 10-minute intervals, not by indexed, single-song chapters), watching Urgh! straight through is how the film has been experienced for most of its 28-year history. If you could go straight to 999 playing “Homicide,” you’d end up skipping past the Alley Cats doing “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore,” and you would probably never even bother watching the masked men of Invisible Sex play their cardboard guitars on “Valium.” (Worth noting: The fifth chapter skip takes you right to the beginning of the Dead Kennedys’ “Bleed for Me,” which, with its segue into Steel Pulse’s “Ku Klux Klan,” is a highlight of the film.)

While this was probably a money-saving (or licensing) consideration, it actually helps preserve the dizzying effect the original had on audiences. And to those who try to make the argument that new wave was the purview of well-coiffed, telegenic pretty boys who couldn’t play their instruments, I highly recommend buying this DVD and preparing for a two-hour lesson in just how great this period in music was.

First appeared Oct. 22, 2009 in Orlando Weekly.

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‘Loins of Punjab Presents …’ movie review (Orlando Weekly)

(3 out of 5)

Peppered with in-jokes – most at the expense of the very community packing these festivals, South Asians making their homes in the U.S. – this film’s audience is limited. The conceit: Loins of Punjab is a desi-founded pork loin company in New Jersey that hits upon the idea of a singing competition for South Asians as a promotional vehicle. Thus, we find stereotypes doing their best Bollywood in a New Jersey hotel. Director Manish Acharya has plenty of fun with those stereotypes, skewering them as deftly as a pork shank being prepped for a kebab. There’s a low-budget vibe to Loins and some of Acharya’s actors are clearly amateur, but buoyant performances by the likes of Jameel Khan, as the event’s super-slick promoter, help elevate the entire affair.

Appeared Sept. 30, 2009 as part of Orlando Weekly‘s coverage of the 2009 South Asian Film Festival.

‘The Taking of Pelham 123’ movie review (Orlando Weekly)

Man, inflation is a bitch. Back in 1974, when the original, Joseph Sargent–directed The Taking of Pelham One Two Three came out, the subway hijackers only wanted a million bucks for their trouble. That’s not good enough for the bad guy played by John Travolta in this remake; no, his ransom is in the $100 million range.

Of course, that’s not the only difference between these two films; the 35 years that have passed since the original – a taut and fast-paced thriller that’s long been a favorite among action-movie snobs – have done much to redraw the requirements of what an action flick has to deliver. And from a title sequence that juxtaposes an incongruous (and somewhat dated) Jay-Z track over a jarringly edited and over-effected bit of visual character exposition through an opening half-hour brimming with quick cuts and pointless profanity, it seems that Pelham ’09 is going to be the kind of ham-fisted and brain-numbing stuff that studios think audiences crave.

However, director Tony Scott (True Romance, Enemy of the State) manages to downshift Pelham into an engaging, if not particularly subtle, character-driven flick. Denzel Washington plays the unfortunate dispatcher who happens to field the first communications from Travolta after the subway train has been hijacked. Obviously, the increasingly entangled back-and-forth between the two is what keeps the film moving, but as additional characters drop in – James Gandolfini as the couldn’t-really-give-a-shit mayor, John Turturro as the ineffective police negotiator – the repartee between Washington’s accidental hero and Travolta’s cold-blooded kook of a bad guy amasses more and more meaning.

Subtextual criticisms are lobbed at everything from bureaucratic inefficiencies to the news media, and some of the more grandiose attempts at “statement” fall laughably short, but watching Washington’s character develop throughout the process is more interesting than wondering exactly what’s gonna happen to the hostages. Still, at its heart, Pelham is an action flick, and Scott jams in gunplay, car crashes and plenty of other action tropes to keep the audience engaged in the fate of the subway car passengers.

Unfortunately, once their fate is decided, there’s a full half-hour of film left to go, as we watch the characters resolve themselves from the day’s events. Despite how moderately interested the viewer may have become in the lives of the dispatcher and the hostage-taker, those 30 minutes are a dull bit of post-climax drain-circling that ultimately unravels much of the good work Scott has done in the film’s middle portion.

That middle portion is where the 1974 film’s character is felt, as dialogue, dramatic tension, flashes of dark humor and a few well-crafted action scenes combine for something that feels just a notch or two above yesterday’s standard action-movie fare. Although diehard fans of the original should stay far, far away from it, the new Pelham provides a level of engagement – at least in that middle bit – that puts it a notch or two above today’s standard action-movie fare.

First appeared June 11, 2009 in Orlando Weekly.

‘Angels & Demons’ movie review (Orlando Weekly)

(1.5 out of 5)

You know how distracting and annoying it is when you’re at a movie and people just won’t stop talking? In the case of Angels & Demons, it’s the actors who seem incapable of keeping their mouths shut for more than half a beat. While nobody has accused author Dan Brown yet of crafting a piece of efficient (or even acceptable) literature, at least when you’re reading the books these adaptations are based on, you can skim through the boring bits or re-read the confusing ones.

In director Ron Howard’s cinematic interpretation of Angels & Demons – the sequel to The Da Vinci Code that, oddly, was written and takes place before The Da Vinci Code – there are no such literary luxuries. Instead, Howard and screenwriters David Koepp (Spider-Man) and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) jam every bit of exposition they can into the mouths of Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor and the other stars of the film. And oh, what expositional dialogue it is. From metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and superficial “secret” histories of the Catholic Church to the scurrilous motivations of the Illuminati and ridiculous explanations of matter/antimatter – yes, Angels & Demons is the only movie you’ll see this summer that takes place both at the Vatican and at the Large Hadron Collider – the script leaves absolutely nothing to the viewer’s imagination.

The result is a movie that amounts to little more than an exceptionally goofy and incredibly long episode of Numb3rs. Hanks again plays Robert Langdon, the faithless Harvard symbologist whose life’s work involves cracking the codes of the Church’s cult-like origins. Langdon is beckoned to the Vatican after four cardinals are abducted and a bomb threat is received as part of an Illuminati plot to wipe the church (and the Church) off the face of the earth. Only Langdon, it seems, has the requisite knowledge of the Church’s history to get to the bottom of things and, in tandem with an antimatter scientist played by Ayelet Zurer – did I not mention that the bomb is an antimatter-powered bomb? – he sets about doing just that.

Thankfully, the bad guys have provided an exact description of where the kidnapped cardinals and the bomb are located, and Langdon parses the clues so quickly that, really, he only needs an iPhone with Google Earth to put an end to the chase. But that would have resulted in a half-hour movie. Instead, Howard draws out Angels & Demons to an interminable two and a half hours of talking, talking, talking, with occasional bits of will-he-make-it-in-time action interspersed to give the film something resembling a pulse.

Unfortunately, that pulse resides in ultra-thin, utterly forgettable characters. Despite the occasional (and obvious) good-guy/bad-guy switch-up, most of them are used primarily as archetypal vehicles. It’s almost impressive how many empty words flow from the characters’ mouths, and by the time Angels & Demons finally winds down, it will have had the same effect on your consciousness as an antimatter bomb.

First appeared in Orlando Weekly, May 14, 2009.

‘The End of America’ DVD review (Orlando Weekly)

“Fascism” was a term bandied about frequently and casually in reference to the reign of George W. Bush. Usually, it was brandished in service of a logically deficient but emotionally charged argument by someone ill-equipped to succinctly document the numerous power-grabs and rights-reductions that took place over the past eight years. While the term itself is inherently inflammatory – and often employed simply for that antagonistic characteristic – it’s one that carries a precise meaning.

In her 2007 book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Naomi Wolf neatly laid out the 10 steps nations take on their way to becoming fascist states, and then went on to eloquently and clearly describe how the United States under George W. Bush had checked off every box on that list:

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy. (see: Islamic terrorism)

2. Create a gulag. (Gitmo)

3. Develop a thug caste. (Republican poll workers, Halliburton, Department of Homeland Security)

4. Set up an internal surveillance system. (wiretapping)

5. Harass citizens groups. (the Defense Department’s Counterintelligence Field Activity monitoring anti-war and other activist organizations)

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release. (TSA’s “terrorist watch list”)

7. Target key individuals. (Valerie Plame)

8. Control the press. (Greg Palast, al-Jazeera, Dan Rather)

9. Dissent equals treason. (Dixie Chicks, preventive detention of “enemy combatants”)

10. Suspend the rule of law. (the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act of 2007, which gave the president the ability to utilize state militias in any way – and in any state – he sees fit, as long as there’s a “national emergency” declared, of course, by the president)

While Wolf’s thesis wasn’t that the United States had suddenly turned into Mussolini’s Italy, her point was that it could. All that flag-waving and loyalty that so many folks saw as pure patriotism could, posited Wolf, easily transform into collectivist nationalism. An entire free nation could decide that the interests of the state, as defined by its head, were more important than their own. Scarier still was that an entire sublegal framework had been established that would easily allow such a renovation in the event of another catastrophe.

Attempting to transform this kind of polemic into an engaging piece of cinema might seem the height of folly. However, filmmakers Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern (who were also responsible for The Trials of Darryl Hunt and the shocking Darfur documentary The Devil Came on Horseback) are more than up to the task. Wisely, they crafted a film version of The End of America that let Naomi Wolf do most of the talking; the meat of the film comes from Wolf delivering a lecture enumerating the 10 points. Interspersed with a clutch of interviews with everyone from generals and intelligence officers to peaceniks and the occasional incidental casualty of Bush’s policies, the film is incredibly engaging.

Wolf’s delivery helps give the subject matter real clarity and context; instead of coming off like a left-wing nutball, she cogently and directly addresses what she sees as a very real threat to the American way of life, but frames it in the context of civil rights and historical truths, rather than simply as a bomb-throwing bit of “Bush sucks.” While some – OK, most – people breathed a heavy sigh of relief when that green helicopter carried Dubya away from D.C. for the final time, many of the policies he implemented are still in place. It’s up to the citizenry to ensure that our new president diligently undoes as much of it as possible. This film is a brisk reminder that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

First appeared Feb. 12, 2009 in Orlando Weekly.

‘A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich’ DVD review

Alice Childress took it upon herself to write the screenplay for the 1978 cinematic adaptation of her 1973 young adult novel, and it’s easy to understand why. That book, of course, inculcated thousands of white, suburban high schoolers with the notion that their urban black peers were doomed to lives of drug-addicted ghetto-dwelling; despite the best efforts of well-meaning lit teachers, the book’s astonishingly judgment-free look at the trials of smart-ass Benjie could easily be mistaken for tacit approval of his teenage junk habit. Of course, it wasn’t, although it could be said that Childress’ use of nuance and subtle character-building — not to mention her lack of an appropriately uplifting resolution — may have easily gone over the heads of many in her intended audience. No such nuance was employed in the film version. Benjie clearly is painted as a victim of circumstance here, the oppressive and poverty-stricken setting of early ’70s Harlem beating him into submission as the earnest but quixotic efforts of his mom (Cicely Tyson) and stepdad (Paul Winfield) barely keeping the young man afloat. As in the book, the most provocative character here is the Black Power-spouting teacher Nigeria Greene (Glynn Turman). Although Ben Nelson’s flat and linear direction doesn’t do justice to the refined morality of Childress’ streamlined screenplay, the power of the story and some notable performances keep Herofrom turning into an afterschool special.

First appeared Feb. 18, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

‘Taxi Blues’ DVD review (Detroit Metrotimes)

 

Although it’s just now seeing its first DVD release, Taxi Blues was, at the time of its 1990 cinematic release, something of a revelation. As Russia was emerging from the thaw of the Cold War, Western audiences grew increasingly interested in how the global political situation was playing out on the ground in cities like Moscow. Taxi Blues gave those audiences a close-up look at exactly that. Shlykov, a gruff and hardworking taxi driver, gets shafted on a fare by Lyosha, a struggling and shiftless Jewish saxophone player. Shlykov chases Lyosha down; of course, the two assume the worst about one another; of course, stereotypes and prejudices are overcome and the two become friends. After that, however, director Pavel Lungin pushes the film into some interesting territory, revealing the daily struggles encountered by workaday folk in this newly opened society, most notably the disorientation Shlykov experiences in his adjustment to a post-Soviet Russia; it’s very nearly heartbreaking when Lyosha gets a jazz gig in America and Shlykov is left with just his taxi. There’s a certain syrupy melodrama here, but Lungin avoids tugging obvious heartstrings. While the film’s visuals (and musical numbers) look quite dated at this point, it’s easy to understand why Taxi Bluesearned Lungin the Best Director award at Cannes in 1990; it’s harder to comprehend why it’s taken so long to arrive on DVD.

 

First appeared Jan. 29, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.