Friday, October 15, 2010

DVD Review: The Darjeeling Limited - The Criterion Collection

“How can a train be lost? It’s on rails.” — Jack Whitman

This brilliant non sequitur is as effective as any in describing the peculiar world of The Darjeeling Limited (2007). On the most mundane level, Wes Anderson’s fourth film concerns a train trip through India taken by three brothers. Their journey on the decidedly nondescript Darjeeling Limited passenger line becomes much more than a simple trek through the desert though. In fact, it goes way beyond the spiritual quest oldest brother Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) had hoped for.

The metaphorical voyage the three Whitman brothers find themselves on is nothing more, or less than that of life itself. It had been a year since all three last saw each other. The occasion was their father’s funeral. As rough as that was, mother Patricia Whitman (Anjelica Huston) managed to stick the familial knife in a little deeper by skipping the service altogether. She moved to India and became a nun.

Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) and Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) agree to join Francis mainly out of curiosity. All three appear to be in their late-twenties to early-thirties, and based on the accoutrements they travel with, seem well-off. The film, which was scripted by Anderson, Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola, often pauses to focus on little epiphanies, such as Jack’s “lost train” comment. The grand insight, as banal as it may be, remains elusive to the end though.

With the goal of taking his younger brothers on a spiritual journey through India, culminating in a surprise reunion with Patricia, Francis’ intentions are noble. The one thing that blocks his path is the one thing he cannot see: himself. Francis wants this to be a perfect experience, accordingly he uses the tools that have worked for him in the past. He brings along an assistant, a meticulously thorough assistant no less. The men are issued laminated itinerary cards each morning regarding arrivals, departures, sightseeing, and every other possible activity they might engage in.

Needless to say, enlightenment is fleeting at best for the trio. What happens instead is real life. As funny, stupid, willful, lusty, and dangerous as ever, the most salient discovery the Whitman brothers make is that they cannot escape themselves.

One of the many elements that make The Darjeeling Limited a modern classic is the humor. This is by far the funniest film Anderson has made. Adrien Brody slotted in with Anderson alumni Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman better than anyone could have hoped. Their casual onscreen familiarity makes the wild situations they keep finding themselves in all the more believable.

This new Criterion Collection release of The Darjeeling Limited allows the option of viewing the short "Hotel Chevalier" with the main feature, or separately. The 12-minute "Hotel Chevalier" is a completely separate entity from Darjeeling, yet it functions as something of a microcosm of the longer film. I found it rewarding to view the short as Part One of the film, the way Anderson recommends.

Becoming a part of The Criterion Collection is an honor rarely bestowed on newer films. Wes Anderson’s extensive participation in the bonus selections of The Darjeeling Limited reflect his interest in making this the definitive edition. The second DVD of the set is full of extras, and at first glance looks impressive. As it turns out, a great deal of this material is going to be pretty inconsequential to the average viewer. There were a couple of items I found interesting however.

The centerpiece is a forty-minute documentary on the making of the film by Barry Braverman. I had high hopes for this, but it turned out to be little more than long shots of the various locations that were being filmed. Very little dialog as well. Calling this a documentary on the making of the film is pushing it a bit.

The twenty-minute discussion with James Ivory about the music used in Darjeeling, and in the Merchant Ivory productions was entertaining and very informative. The same holds true for the twelve-minute Darjeeling essay by Matt Zoller Seitz. As he discusses the film, and breaks down various scenes as they occur, a number of details emerge more fully. I felt that this was a very illuminating addition, and one well worth watching. The other bonus I recommend is Wes Anderson’s American Express commercial. Apparently it was filmed on the set, and is one of the best ones I have seen, as far as these things go.

The remaining features include a couple of humorous deleted scenes, audition tapes, an awards list, stills gallery, sketches from Roman Coppola, and the diary of Waris Wolodarsky, who appeared as the train’s steward. The ten page booklet has a lengthy essay by Richard Brady.

The Darjeeling Limited is a fascinating, provocative, and hilarious film. Not to mention a beautiful one, with stunning backdrops of the Indian desert and ancient architecture informing most of the scenes. It also rewards multiple viewings, and with that in mind I highly recommend this new Criterion Collection edition.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Darjeeling Limited - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Various Artists - We Wish You A Metal X-Mas & A Headbanging New Year

Take a good look at Santa Claus and you will see his dirty little secret. The dude is an old-school metal head. Just like Robert Plant, he’s trying to hide it, but all the tell-tale signs are there. Long white hair? Check. Monsterous ZZ Top-style beard? Yup. Beer gut? You betcha. And most tellingly of all, is he wearing the exact same clothes as the last time you saw him? Jackpot! Why it took the metal community so long to recognize a fellow traveler is beyond me, but the situation has been rectified with the new We Wish You A Metal X-Mas & A Headbanging New Year collection.

This two-disc, 16-song collection of Christmas classics gone metal is about as various as various-artist compilations get. Rather than choosing a bunch of different bands to submit their versions of the tunes, the producers took things a step further. With one exception, none of the line-ups on this set have ever previously recorded together. You may find that a couple of the individual musicians have played together before, but not the group as a whole.

In most cases, it is the signature vocals that define each cut. There is no mistaking Lemmy’s sandpaper growl on “Run Rudolph Run,” for example. And Chuck Billy from Testament shreds his vocal cords in trademark thrash style during the aptly chosen “Silent Night.” Even Hard-Hearted Alice (Cooper) joins the fun with “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”

I was pretty happy to discover that the late, and truly great Ronnie James Dio was included. On “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,“ we not only get Dio, but the guitar of Tony Iommi as well. The group is rounded out with a couple of old friends and former Dio bandmembers, Rudy Sarzo on bass, and Simon Wright on the drums. The presence of Dio and Iommi is too powerful to sound like anything other than Heaven And Hell, making it something of an exception to the rule. For me, this track alone makes the collection a must.

There are plenty of other highlights as well. Another memorable grouping goes the classic power-trio route. On the aforementioned “Run Rudolph Run” Lemmy is joined by ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on guitar, along with the guy who used to drum for Nirvana, Dave Grohl. Probably the funniest (or saddest) combination finds former Ratt-man Steven Pearcy teamed with professional Sunset Strip gargoyle Tracii Guns on “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.”

While there are plenty of egg-nog-sipping Christmas songs present, there is only one headbanging New Year’s one. But it is a great choice, and could be set on auto-repeat for hours if need be. We’re talking about the one and only Girlschool, who lay into “Auld Lang Syne” with a vengeance.

The executive producer is Wendy Dio, and there is information in the liner notes about the “Ronnie James Dio Stand Up And Shout Cancer Fund.” It does not say whether the proceeds of this collection will go to the fund or not, but my guess is that at least some of them will.

Turn the volume up to eleven for We Wish You A Metal X-Mas’ screaming guitars and louder-than-God vocals. That too old to rock ’n roll, too young to die Santa dude will appreciate it, even if your neighbors won’t.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Wish You A Metal X-Mas & A Headbanging New Year on Blogcritics.

The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers Airs On PBS

Henry Kissinger called Daniel Ellsberg “The most dangerous man in America,” when the Pentagon Papers were leaked. It may have been more accurate to have called him “The most dangerous man to Richard Nixon’s presidency.” While the Pentagon Papers themselves were a big story, the leaking of them led directly to the series of events that ultimately brought down Nixon’s presidency.

In June, 1971 The New York Times first published the official documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. When this occurred, Nixon was absolutely furious. He vowed that nothing like that would ever happen again, and formed a special White House strike-team called the “Plumbers.”

Their job was to make all the leaks go away, by whatever means necessary. The first stop for them was the office of Mr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, to search for dirt to smear him with. They then moved on to a D.C. hotel called The Watergate. When the break-ins, and subsequent cover-ups were discovered, Richard Nixon became the only sitting President to ever resign from office.

The excellent two-hour film The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) details this incredible story from beginning. to end. Ellsberg was certainly no threat to the nation when he began his career with the Pentagon. He was a Harvard graduate who had worked at the think-tank Rand Corporation as a consultant to the Department Of Defense for years. When he actually joined the DOD he reported to the top dog, Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamera.

Ellsberg spent two years in Saigon as a State Department bureaucrat, to see the war first-hand. He then returned to Rand and was put to work on a top-secret project of McNamera’s called “U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam 1945-1968.” This report is what was eventually leaked to the press as the Pentagon Papers. The study indicates that U.S. involvement in Vietnam stretched all the way back to the Truman-era. Every president since had maintained the disastrous course, despite mounting evidence that the war was unwinnable.

Ellsberg was brought to trial in 1973 for espionage, and faced a twenty-year prison term if convicted.. But the Nixon administration shot themselves in the foot with the plumbers' activities before the trial even began. When their actions were revealed in court, the judge dismissed all charges.

Daniel and his wife Patricia continue to work towards ending war throughout the world to this day. The story of their courtship provides an interesting backdrop for his gradual awakening to the horrors of what was occurring in Southeast Asia at the time. When Patricia first met him, she could not get past the fact that he worked in the Pentagon, the heart and soul of evil to her. Later, after Ellsberg had read the documents and was radicalized, their paths crossed again. This time around they married.

This is an outstanding documentary of a pivotal moment in American history. So good in fact, that it was nominated for an Academy Award this year. While The Most Dangerous Man In America did not ultimately take home the statue, it is the very model of what a flawless historical documentary should look like. The PBS POV series' airing will conclude the 23rd season of POV, America’s longest running independent documentary series. It is a telecast that should not be missed.

Article first published as The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers Airs On PBS on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Ugly Americans Volume One

Comedy Central’s latest triumph is the thoroughly bizarre animated half-hour series Ugly Americans. The familiar routine of modern life becomes a little warped when vampires, zombies and werewolves attempt to join the melting pot of American society. The Ugly Americans Volume One DVD contains all seven episodes of the first season, and some interesting bonus material as well.

The show is set in the New York of some alternate reality, a place where creatures of all kinds freely roam the streets. Most seem to be waiting for word on their citizenship status. One of the things that cracks me up about this show is how utterly ordinary the spooks and scary monsters act. It is as if they really are cowed by the pencil-pushing government bureaucrats they have to deal with.

An idealistic young social worker named Mark Lilly takes an interest in the new arrivals, and becomes their chief advocate. He is also sleeping with his immediate supervisor, Miss Callie Maggotbone. Callie is somewhat unpredictable, to say the least. This may have something to do with the fact that Lucifer is her father.

All of the supernatural creatures and extra-terrestrials are trying desperately to fit in, but something always seems to happen. One of the funniest incidents was the discovery of “Mad Larry Disease,” a virus that turns people into Larry King. There is a moment in this episode that so perfectly mirrors some of the ridiculous things we hear on the news, that I just burst out laughing. The talking heads are explaining what to do to avoid Mad Larry Disease, and one of them pleads to the camera, “Under no circumstances should you ever share a needle with Larry King.”

Another memorable scene occurred when Mark was introduced to Callie’s father. This took place in a very fancy restaurant located in Hell, naturally. The polite dinner chat soon turned into a heated debate about the best ways to screw over other people. When Mark’s opinion was solicited, he piped up with “You could show them some compassion.” The entire restaurant went silent, as Callie’s Dad stared a hole right through Mark. The best part was when Satan uttered the immortal words, “Do you realize where you are, young man? You’re in Hell!”

By slightly tweaking situations that we accept as common, everyday occurrences, Ugly Americans shows just how twisted our vision of “normal” can be. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Dr. Strangelove, the funniest moments in the show are the ones that are played completely straight. Officials reacting “by the book” to situations that are positively ludicrous make me laugh every time.

In the extras department, I found the most interesting to be the five short “webisodes,“ which were made to promote the original half-hour shows. There are also a couple of stills collections, “Art Gallery,” and a pretty funny one called “Facebook Photos.” Chapters titled “Sneak Peak Art,” and “Sneak Peak Clips” round out the bonus elements. These segments show portions of unfinished episodes as they slowly come together in the lengthy production process.

There is also a booklet titled “A Field Guide To Ugly Americans.” It is a send-up of those mind-numbing government handbooks we have all come to detest.. This one is much more interesting, and features articles like “How To Assist A Zombie With Flesh Cravings,” and “How To Handle A Wizard Labor Dispute.”

In addition to the DVD debut of Ugly Americans, this week also marks the beginning of the show’s second season on Comedy Central. With all this action, October is shaping up to be a great month — both for scary monsters, and for super creeps.

Article first published as DVD Review: Ugly Americans Volume One on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Mushroomhead - Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children

Now in their seventeenth year together, Mushroomhead have proven time and again that their name was well chosen. Like the hardy fungi of their moniker, this is a band who have shown a remarkable ability to adapt and thrive in the most unfriendly conditions imaginable. At shows around Cleveland in the early nineties, the group was originally formed by guys who were moonlighting from their regular gigs. The masks and costumes, not to mention the music, was all a part of the experimental nature of the project.

A few years later, Slipknot appeared with a very similar approach and style, and broke through immediately. It looked like Mushroomhead had jumped on the Slipknot bandwagon to those who were unfamiliar with their history. A feud inevitably erupted between fans of the two groups, which has only recently been resolved. Add the numerous line-up changes, troubles with record labels and the difficulties inherent in releasing material themselves, and you have all the reasons in the world for a group to just call it quits.

Not Mushroomhead though. Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children is their eighth full-length release, and their second on Megaforce. Much like their previous effort for the label, titled Savior Sorrow (2006), these alt-metal pioneers focus more on the metal than the alt-. Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children is full of huge guitars, bombastic riffs, and throat-shredding vocals.

Upon first listen, the album appears to be just a big, ugly slab of chaos. It is only later, after a couple of spins, that the twelve cuts reveal themselves to be well thought out chapters of a decidedly menacing take on the world. Opening track “Come On” is aggro in the extreme. Over a brutal, proto speed-metal riff, they chant “Come on, do you really wanna fuck with me…tonight” as a challenge nobody in their right mind would take them up on.

“Burn The Bridge” is Mushroomhead in full thrash mode. The power chords are relentless, giving way only to the slightly less intense chorus, followed by yet another round of bludgeoning riffage. “Darker Days” is what the band would sound like if they abandoned all of the other elements they like to use, and just went straight metal. The guitar solo screams, ala Kerry King, and the vocals match the music perfectly.

Although Beautiful Stories leans in a much more metal direction than ever before, there is still a lot of creative fun to be had. Mushroomhead are just too curious to abandon those aspects. “Holes In The Void” may be the most radical example, with sampled effects sprinkled throughout, and a coda reminiscent of the loops Pink Floyd used in “Dogs.”

The album was originally to be titled after one of its strongest songs, “Slaughterhouse Road.” It is what Mushroomhead have always done best, combining their brand of heavy rock with other, less obvious influences. In “Slaughterhouse Road,” the “secret ingredient” sounds a lot like Soundgarden during their Badmotorfinger-era. I think Kim Thayill would be proud to know his singular guitar style still has its share of admirers, all these years later.

I have seen numerous online posts regarding the “new” Mushroomhead versus the “old,” and a lot of people don’t like the new direction. Granted there is less experimentation going on than previously, but Beautiful Stories should win them a lot of new fans, in addition to those who have stuck around. On this album they have finally found an excellent balance between the alternative and metal in their music. As a longtime listener, I think Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children is as good, and maybe even better than anything they have done previously. It is definitely a record worth checking out, for metal fans old and nu.

Article first published as Music Review: Mushroomhead - Beautiful Songs For Ugly Children on Blogcritics.

Music DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Leonard Cohen's Lonesome Heroes

Leonard Cohen is a musician of rare depth and sentiment. The Canadian singer-songwriter has developed a huge cult following over the course of his career, which now spans five decades. Concurrent with his ever-growing stature as a master of his craft, Cohen has been the recipient of scores of accolades. So it is a little surprising that the new DVD Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes is the first to explore the host of influences that have shaped the man’s music over the years.

Cohen’s early interests were literary, rather than musical. He was 22 when his first published book of poetry appeared in 1956. His poetry collections were joined by two novels in the early 1960s, and his future as a writer seemed assured. Then in 1967, Cohen moved to New York to pursue a career as a folk singer-songwriter. When Judy Collins included Cohen’s “Suzanne” on her In My Life album, the attention it received launched his career.

As the narrator mentions, getting to the bottom of Leonard Cohen’s influences can be a tricky matter. He wears none of them on his sleeve, as others often do. And his style is uniquely his own. You have to go fairly deep into his lyrics, and know a lot about where he has been to locate them. As the DVD’s title indicates, a great many of them are the classic outsiders, or lonesome heroes in a polite society.

Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca was probably Cohen’s first major inspiration. His dramatic life, lyrical poetry, and tragic end combined to create a compelling story, one that young Cohen found irresistible. While many of his early heroes seem fairly obvious in retrospect, such as the Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg Beat-triumvirate, others are more elusive.

Hank Williams Sr, is one that I never would have guessed. Evidently Leonard Cohen was a big fan of country music as a youth. Even then, he must have recognized something particularly haunting about Hank, because he managed to incorporate aspects of the man into his own songwriter later on. The same holds true for Ray Charles, not so much in the songs themselves, but in the arrangements, and most especially the female back-up vocals he uses so often these days.

There is a wealth of clips from various sources contained on the DVD, which really make it come to life. The vast majority of them came from old film and newsreel stock, so the quality is not the best. But the historical importance of these clips more than makes up for their occasional poor condition.

Leonard Cohen’s Lonesome Heroes is almost the definitive title in the category of “For Serious Fans Only” music documentaries. For non-fans, I imagine the 110 minute program would not hold much interest. There is some great early Greenwich Village footage included though, featuring such contemporaries as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs that may appeal to a wider audience.

The DVD extras boil down to a seven minute feature with Judy Collins titled “Collins On Cohen” and some biographical text about the other contributors. As an unabashed Leonard Cohen fan, I found Lonesome Heroes to be an intriguing take on his life and career. There is a lot of information here that is presented fairly quickly at times, so I will very likely be watching it again.

I understand that Lonesome Heroes may be a little dry for some, especially those who are unfamiliar with Cohen's music. Having said that though, this is one of the best music documentaries I have seen all year.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Leonard Cohen's Lonesome Heroes on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Testament - The Formation Of Damnation (Deluxe Tour Edition)

When a band has been together in one form or another for over 25 years, they are often referred to as “survivors.” In the case of Bay Area thrash legends Testament, that term is literally true. Members of the band have battled cancer, a brain tumor, addictions, and lineup changes galore. Somehow, through all of this they managed to record their first album of new material in nine years, The Formation Of Damnation.

Originally released in late 2008, Formation was immediately recognized as one of the group’s finest efforts. It placed high on many critics' Top Ten lists, and led to the band being invited to play on a couple of very high profile tours. Testament spent much of 2009 opening for the revived Judas Priest, and in 2010 joined the American Carnage tour with Slayer and Megadeth.

To capitalize on all the attention Testament has received from these shows, their label has issued a Deluxe Tour Edition of The Formation Of Damnation. Although I am not usually a big fan of these type of things, I think this one is worthwhile. It’s only a couple of bucks more than the regular version, and you get some pretty cool live stuff on the bonus disc.

Of course, the original 11-track The Formation Of Damnation CD is front and center, with the extensive lyric sheet/booklet intact. It comes housed in a new black slipcase that folds out to reveal a second disc inside.

The bonus disc is actually a DVD, and it has four tracks. Three were recorded live at the former Alcatraz prison and originally were shown as part of the weekly "52/52" ("52 Bands/52 Weeks") promotional campaign on MTV. The fourth is the video for “More Than Meets The Eye,” one of Formation’s best cuts.

The three live songs were well-chosen representations of Testament’s first run of glory in the late eighties. They perform “The New Order,” “Practice What You Preach,” and “Souls Of Black” with a vengeance. It is a nice taste of the power this group wields live, and the hometown Bay Area crowd eats it up.

The Formation Of Damnation is a great record for a number of reasons, and one that anyone who likes thrash should have. If you already own it, I don’t know if the second disc warrants buying the whole thing all over again, although there are superfans out there who definitely will. For anyone who does not already have it though, this Deluxe Tour Edition is definitely the way to go.

Article first published as Music Review: Testament - The Formation Of Damnation (Deluxe Tour Edition) on Blogcritics.