Film

The Front Page: Three on DVD

As the end of 2006 rolls around, studios are spiking the usual Tuesday DVD release schedule with several high profile releases. Here are three of the summer's biggest - if not necessarily best - angling for your attention in the next two weeks:

Superman Returns

In the lexicon of comic book movies, it’s not as good as Sam Raimi’s Spidey series and both Burton and Nolan’s Batman can rest comfortably in their place along the cinematic superhero hall of fame. But Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is good – damn good. It’s just not great. As a matter of fact, it misses greatness by a margin measured in just a few filmic fractions. Yet these flaws are still large enough to occasionally sidetrack what is, for the most part, a faithful fulfillment of the decades long struggle to bring the Man of Steel back to the screen. Like Hulk, which tended to take itself too seriously for its own good, this latest incarnation of the speeding bullet/bird-plane personage repeatedly dances around decent ideas without ever landing smack dab in the center of them. In addition, Bryan Singer still doesn’t impress me as a director with a future outside a certain style of film (more on this in a moment). However, it is safe to say that with this highly entertaining experience, our undeniable icon to truth, justice and the American way is back with a viable vengeance.

Certainly, Singer makes his mistakes. Using the original films as a guide was an idea goofier than bringing dinosaurs back from the dead, and the constant referencing of those mid-70s blockbusters bogs down the narrative. Several times during the film, one finds themselves wondering what the rumored re-imaginings of the man and his material (Kevin Smith, Brett Ratner, McG, Tim Burton, JJ Abrams) could have come up with. Certainly something more original than giving Superman a son could have been considered for the reintroduction of this classic comic character. While bringing back Lex Luthor worked out well (Kevin Spacey adds a slimy, sinister edge to the role that Gene Hackman failed to find) and the nods to the first film’s origin story are sensational, Returns often feels like the middle act in an already running series. In fact, Singer and his screenwriters spend so much time on those touchy feely parts of the plot (the whole romantic angle with Lois’s new love interest is unexceptional) that they lose a lot of their movie’s direction and drive. Along with the dumb decision to cast Kate Bosworth as the Pulitzer Prize winning (!?!?) journalist (she is simply out of her league here), the emotional side of Superman slows down the spectacle.

What does work, though, are the reasons that movies are made. The airplane sequence is brilliantly realized, a terrific tour de force for the F/X crews as well as a brazen bright spot in Singer’s otherwise sedentary style. Unlike Spielberg or Jackson, this director seems to slack off the minute the main action scenes are over. The sections where Superman saves Metropolis are superb, as is the final confrontation with Luthor. But all the stuff inside the Daily Planet, all the material between Lois and her lover, just sits there without any strength or cinematic sizzle. They seem like rest stops between set pieces. In addition, Singer needed a stronger editorial hand in shaping this story. We meander into time-consuming tangents quite frequently, left with dangling elements (the whole Pulitzer business, the cannibal dog) that never really pay off. Still, the center is solid with Brandon Routh owning the role of Clark Kent/Superman. Though a questionable choice at first, he is incredibly magnetic onscreen, capable of delivering the many sides of the Man of Steel with grace, genuineness, and more than a little wit. This is indeed a very funny film, with lots of clever repartee between characters. Thankfully, the humor doesn’t overpower the heroics, as we are definitely left wanting more – more Routh, more feats of derring-do, more Superman.

Perhaps this is the best way to judge a blockbuster; determining if there’s material worth a second (or third, or fourth) look. The answer is an emphatic “yes”. The Fortress of Solitude sequence is atmospheric and compelling, while Luthor’s ultimate plan is realized in brilliant bit map authenticity. The CGI is never intrusive, the cityscapes of Metropolis are spectacular and Superman’s flying capabilities come across smoother and more valid than in any other super hero movie. It will be interesting to see where the sequel takes us. Like Burton’s first Batman, there are a lot of obvious safeguards in place here, studio-mandated moments that keep the film feeling frequently hemmed in and overly controlled. Perhaps, if it’s successful enough, Warners will turn Singer loose, letting him deliver a definitive take on the subject of Superman without all the nods to fanboy mandates and test audience tendencies. Ranking right up there with the summer’s other entertainment highlights, Superman Returns is one comic book movie that gets it more or less right.

Pirates of the Carribean

There is more of everything in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie: more spectacle; more exotic locales; more convoluted story contrivances. Anyone who thought the first film was teeming with plot and particulars will find their narrative tolerances tweaked toward overload by this sensational sequel. Between the introduction of two new villains, the addition of a new “quest” and the held-over elements from the first good-natured go round, there’s nary a moment of breathing room in this wonderfully effective popcorn entertainment. Granted, the POTC movies aren’t out to make grand statements about loyalty, the sea, or the shrinking sense of the world. Instead, they merely want to amuse, to provide 150 minutes of escapist fun in their swordplay, slapstick, and sensational special effects. George Lucas and his dire digital space operas be damned – Gore Verbinski and his capable cast of eye candy actors are on course to deliver the landlubber version of what the Star Wars series originally promised it would be.

After the living dead skeletal pirates of the first film, Dead Man’s Chest had its wildly imaginative work cut out for it. After all, those undead outlaws were incredibly inventive and handled with stellar CGI flare. Amazingly enough, the sequel delivers, rendering head horror Davy Jones and his scallywag band of buccaneers as remarkable combinations of sea creatures and humans. From half-man hammerheads to cutthroats with crustaceans crafted to their faces, the overall look of the movie’s fiends is simply remarkable. Jones himself is a squid-festooned dandy with huge lobster claws and an excess of tentacles that makes Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa look like a minor league monster by comparison. Equally unsettling is Naomie Harris as voodoo priestess Tia Dalma. Eyes accented with harrowing contacts, and smiling through a mouth of vile, blackened teeth, her otherworldly turn is terrific. In fact, all the actors acquit themselves admirably, expanding on their original roles to add subtle shading to what are, basically, creative cartoon characters.

Aside from the spectacle, Johnny Depp deserves a great deal of credit for turning Capt. Jack Sparrow into a fully rounded rascal. In the first film, the accent and demeanor mask a truly conflicted individual. Now, with an entire performance under his belt, Depp loosens up, making Jack a scoundrel as lost in his sea-faring situation as Jones or Barboosa. It will be interesting to see where he takes Sparrow in the final film, tentatively entitled At World’s End. There is so much this incredible actor can do with this dapper delight that every scene becomes a breathless anticipation of something special. And, as always, Depp doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s safe to say that this long time industry eccentric has probably found the breakout series that will change the very scope of his future career. Unlike Ewan McGregor, or the horrid Hayden Christensen from Lucas’s lamentable sequels, Depp’s Sparrow will be seen as a stepping stone, not an infamous coffin nail, in his bankable big screen persona. Even as he continues to choose daring, difficult films, newfound fans will support him. Sparrow is that kind of indelible icon.

Additional praise must also go to Gore Verbinski, proving that he has a directorial mantle similar to that of Peter Jackson’s – at least when it comes to handling the multi-faceted epic. Juggling several different storylines at once, Verbinski always seems to find the linking material to keep us engaged and intrigued. He is also becoming an expert at big canvas set piece action. The opening escape from a cannibal island is amazing, and the finale, featuring a huge rotating water wheel and a full fledged onslaught by Davy Jones’ beasties is unbelievable in its scale and effectiveness. There are dozens of equally memorable moments strewn throughout – the arrival of the Flying Dutchman, as well as an equally unbelievable dive into the briny deep – and the computer-generated Kraken instills fear and foreboding with its vividly rendered CGI size. It’s rare today when a movie can make people immediately want to see it again. Dead Man’s Chest demands multiple viewings. It’s truly one of the season’s cinematic highlights.

Miami Vice

Miami Vice is an expressionist crime drama. Writer/director Michael Mann purposely moves a million light years away from the fashion and artifice of his infamous ‘80s zeitgeist to deliver a movie with many of its details missing. This is not necessarily a bad thing – as a visualist, he is more than capable of allowing his images to paint in the particulars. But when you are working from a premise that involves undercover drug deals, back stabbing middlemen, random white supremacists, and the mingling of personal and professional feelings, little things like never properly introducing the rest of the Vice squadron do come back to haunt you – especially when you are relying on them to bolster much of the last act’s action. Beautiful to look at and difficult to embrace, this is a movie of moments, not of overall narrative force. The brand new versions of Crockett and Tubbs are acceptable – Foxx is all super serious, while Farrell puts on his oiliest wise ass persona. They may be nothing more than icons in a film loaded with such symbolic cues, but we gladly accept their ‘by the book’ bravado and believe them as the ‘70s throwback super cops that they are – nothing more or less.

Once again employing the fascinating film/digital aesthetic that he used in Collateral, Mann’s version of Vice is like Heat without the interesting middle act. That previous look at life on both sides of the law had Al Pacino, Val Kilmer and Robert De Niro to bolster its occasional lapses. Our leads here are flashy fluff compared to that titanic trio. Still, Mann manages to make it work – sort of. The nightclub set up, which is never explained in relationship to the rest of the film, gets us started with an atmospheric bang. Suggesting more than showing, the first few deaths are designed to peak our interest (a pair of legs in a pool of blood, a spray of gore along a busy Broward county highway) while the last 45 minutes offers the kind of suspense ridden double crossing denouement we’ve come to expect from the genre. Even the grue is cranked up a couple of notches as limbs are blown off and heads become riddled with holes as bullets blaze in an expertly helmed firefight. Thankfully, these surrounding elements are strong enough to save the sloppy, unexceptional center. Gong Li, trying out her English (and not always succeeding), is an attractive love interest for Crockett, but she’s not very engaging. We want more than steely business sense and the ability to make cow eyes at decidedly unctuous Farrell. When they’re together onscreen, the result is sluggishness, not sparks.

During these dull interludes, Mann really pours on the visual poetry. There are several sensational sequences where a lone speedboat blazes toward a seemingly endless horizon. We are also entranced by an amazing aerial shot of a gorgeous South American waterfall, which reveals itself as part of a high ranking cartel overlord’s backyard. It’s not difficult to get swept up in the epic elements of Miami Vice, since Mann lingers on them, hoping that they help us understand the vastness of the international drug trade. But this means something has to suffer, and in this case, it’s the characters. There is honestly not a single three dimensional personality in the entire picture. Foxx is so stodgily even-keeled that when a fellow officer is mortally wounded, his sudden concern seems completely out of place. Farrell also turns up the mixed emotion waterworks when he has to make one of those clichéd sacrifices that all lawmen in his cinematic position are required to do. Yet neither scene connects with us. Even with aspects of life and death at play, we are sadly detached from the personal side of this story.

In fact, Miami Vice is much more interesting in its approach to the crime thriller than in its desire to dig deep into the world of illegal drugs. The unbelievable influx of technology – cell phones, GPS, laptops, tracking devices - makes for an initially disorienting experience. When an FBI official asks Crockett how they can discuss such delicate issues over an open, non-secure line, he bluntly blurts back "this is how I got the information, so let’s deal with it." Indeed, the ready access to information worldwide makes the undercover element all the more intriguing. With smugglers able to immediately access your (phony) dossier from anywhere on the planet, Crockett and Tubbs always seem moments away from being discovered. Yet even this can’t make the movie a kinetic actioner or a simmering neo-noir. Instead, Michael Mann appears to be retrofitting the routine of cop dramas past into a sci-fi space of rap video level luxury and post-modern machismo. While it may occasionally have you thinking of another South Florida cinematic spree featuring a Cuban exile, a mountain of coke, his sister complex and a mega-weapon known as his “li’l friend”, Miami Vice is no Scarface. It’s more serious, and less sensational. Too bad it’s not as entertaining.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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