Saturday, June 23, 2012

Rock of Ages

What defines good music is so personal and subjective.  So much is based upon what we listened to as youngsters.  I grew up in the 80’s.  I started high school in 1980 and graduated college in 1989.  I think the greatest music was produced in that decade.  In those ten years, my tastes evolved from Country Western, to pop music, and finally, to good old Rock and Roll.  I ended up loving what we called at the time Heavy Metal.  Now it is termed derogatorily as the Hair Bands.

While I am not a fan of musicals, I have been anticipating the film Rock of Ages for several months now.  Even the trailers gave me goose bumps.  Despite the poor box office showing in its opening week, I was excited to go today.  I was rewarded with a clever, whimsical celebration of the music and culture of the 1980’s.

I am of the opinion that music in general has been in a creative coma since about 1994.  That isn’t to say there hasn’t been some exceptional, original acts in the past two decades.  There certainly has been some terrific music made in the past several years – just not very much.  The stodgy editors at Rolling Stone magazine seem to think very little great music has been produced since about 1977, according to their recent, ridiculous list of the top 500 albums of all time.

People seem embarrassed by their love of 80’s music.  They seem to not want to admit they ever listened to the radio or bought a record.  I just don’t get this attitude.  Some of the biggest selling records all time were made in that era.  For years, MTV (when they still actually showed videos all day) had a daily program where they counted down top 10 most requested videos of the day.  For years, that list was consistently filled with Heavy Metal bands, or if you prefer, Hair Bands.  In the last six years of so of that decade, rock and roll ruled.  Then, of course, the quality did a nose dive and it became more about the image than the music, and the writing was on the wall. 

Rock and roll answered back to all of the glam, color, and hair of the 1980’s with the grungy look and sound of Alternative Rock in the early 90’s.  After four or five years of incredible, creative, destructive music and behavior, rock and roll just kind of faded away and has been on life support ever since.  It’s like rock and roll still hasn’t recovered from the death of Kurt Cobain.  Sure, there have been many, many rock stars who have died young and tragically over the past sixty years but Cobain’s death seems to have been the final straw. 

I also think the musicianship and song writing of the 80’s is vastly underrated.  There were no “singer, song writer” types like in the two previous music generations.  There were not great causes or cultural changes to rally around.  It was about looks and excess but sometimes the quality is overlooked.  There is no decade that has produced more terrific sing along songs; songs that make everyone who hears them feel good - the type of music you want to turn up when it comes on the radio.  Even though there were some talentless hacks that were in famous bands and acts in the 80’s, there were also plenty of incredible musicians.

Enough of my pontificating.  Let’s get to the actual film.  I had a blast.  I was the weird guy tapping his toes and singing along with every single song.  That was the music I loved.  I knew the words to every tune.  The two lead characters, played adequately by Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, were likeable and believable.  I must say though, that Catherine Zeta-Jones stole every scene she was in, portraying a Tipper Gore-type harridan.  The always stellar Paul Giamatti was appropriately sleazy as the self serving talent agent.  Additionally, Tom Cruise was surprisingly believable as the over-the-top, self centered, quirky rock and roll god.  Cruise acquitted himself quite well vocally.  Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand provided the humor, and in the process, forever changed how I will remember REO Speedwagon’s classic “Can’t Fight This Feeling”( I think I even spotted Kevin Cronin in a crowd scene).  The ever sexy Malin Ackerman, the brilliant Bryan Cranston, and the vocally versatile Mary J. Blige fill out a deep and talented cast. 

The story was a parody on a popular 80’s theme and the music was absolutely stellar.  I am astounded the reaction to this film hasn’t been more positive.  It is a titillating smorgasbord for the music lover of any generation.  As a parody, it cannot be taken too seriously.  As someone who grew up in the 80’s and read Circus magazine (much less stuffy than Rolling Stone) religiously, the story was based on a real theme of the decade but it really is just about the music and the rock culture.  Do yourself a favor.  Go see this film.  Show Hollywood that we get it and we get tired of the same old crap week in and week out.  Treat yourself!

I also want to take this opportunity to thank those who follow my blogs, read my opinions, and give their support.  I have not been writing quite as much over the past month but I still have over 4000 hits since I first started posting sixteen months ago.  I will try to do a better job getting more posts up.  Please be patient with me and keep reading.  Thanks for all your support.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fond Reflections on Friends

Friends debuted in the fall of 1994, nearly eighteen years ago.  Eighteen years – that’s pretty hard to believe, isn’t it?  It just can’t have been that long since Ross, Chandler, Joey, Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe entered our living rooms and our hearts.

I have been watching the show from the beginning on DVD.  What a great innovation it was to put our television favorites on DVD so we could enjoy them years later.  What is even better is when the re-watching is so much fun.  Friends is still holding up well after all these years.  I still laugh at the antics and I find myself anticipating the future episodes and storylines.  One would think knowing what is going to happen would damper the enthusiasm of watching this show multiple times.   That just isn’t the case for me.  I find that I am eagerly waiting for the great things to come yet still reveling in each episode.

Seldom has television had the stars align so perfectly for a program.  Everything worked.  The cast was brilliant and had incredible chemistry right from the beginning.  The writing was terrific and allowed each actor to grown into the unique quirkiness of their individual characters.  The dialogue was never strained or forced.  When things didn’t work, like Marcel the monkey (my least favorite storyline of the whole ten year run) in the first season, the writers quickly realized the error of their ways and fixed the situation.  The powers that ran the show also did a great job with their big name stunt casting (a NBC staple in their heyday).  Superstars like Julia Roberts, Tom Selleck, Brad Pitt, and Bruce Willis were among featured guest stars.  This show even had a near perfect theme song in the Rembrandt’s “I’ll Be There for You.” 

Of course, the cast all became stars with varied degrees of success outside of Friends.  David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, Coutrney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow are all still working.  In hindsight, sometimes it is hard to believe David Schwimmer was the first star of the show.  There is an old story that when their contract negotiations first came up, the powers were willing to pay Schwimmer more than his co-stars.  Schwimmer, in a very unselfish and farsighted move, insisted his cast mates all be paid the same and they negotiated as a group.  This probably gave us at least two more seasons than we may have enjoyed otherwise.  This eventually gave the group of six the power in the end. 

I am almost finished with the second season.  It is about midway through this season that the show really hits its genius stride with incredibly creativity and hilarious plot lines and the rest is history.  The show is funny, touching, and charming.  The characters really become our friends and we as viewers come to care for these people in a way that shouldn’t be considered totally sane.  I just don’t know if we will ever see a television program that will ever capture our collective hearts in quite the same way. 

If you ever get the chance, revisit Friends.  Time and distance (from the characters) have not tarnished this gem in any way.  If you loved the show the first time around, these Friends will still be there for you.

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

I have no idea how many incarnations of the fairy tale featuring Snow White there are in literature, television, and film.  Some are modern takes of the old story, some offer an old setting for the old tale, and some like ABC’s Once Upon a Time serve up an intriguing combination of both.  Snow White and the Huntsman is definitely an expanded adaptation of the old medieval tale.

This version may be the darkest portrayal yet.  There is nothing cute or cuddly here.  It is dark and brooding with very little comic relief.  The filmmakers take the familiar characters and events of other beloved versions and fleshes those characters and events out.  Evil Queen, the dwarfs, and the huntsman are much, much more than animated caricatures.  These characters in particular are given soul and depth. 

Charlize Theron really played Ravenna the Evil Queen to the hilt, her taunt face flashing back and forth from a stunning beauty to an aging crone as she sucks the youth and vitality out of the people that stumble into her path and her dark soul blackens the landscape.  There is no humor in Theron’s Ravenna, only dark, selfish evil and she makes you believe.  Chris Hemsworth (Thor and The Avengers) is subtly scarred and haunted as the Huntsman and further advances his hero persona.  I have a feeling we will be seeing Hemsworth more and more in the future.

Ironically, the biggest void in the film was from the title character and our leading lady, Snow White.  Kristen Stewart was her normal morose heroine that she has perfected as Bella.  She seems to be stuck in that brooding, unsmiling, dolorous rut and I have seen little from her that tells me she can play anything else.  Only toward the end, when she donned the shiny armor, did she breathe much life into the all important role of Snow White.  If all director Rupert Sanders was shooting for was a dark, lifeless version of the lead character, then his casting choice of Stewart was perfect.  She certainly fit into the mood of the film well enough.  I just didn’t see any depth there.

All in all, though, I enjoyed this haunting adaptation.  Most of the characters were much more realistic and fleshed out than past versions.  My whole family liked the film and it was appropriate for most audiences over ten years old.  There were some dark and disturbing scenes that might upset more sensitive younger viewers but there was little graphic violence.  The movie as a whole was pretty good, with only a slight downgrade for Snow herself.

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