Sunday, January 31, 2010

In the Theater: 'Book of Eli'

What made Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, and Mila Kunis sign up for The Book of Eli? They are quality actors. Granted, it is not the absolute worst movie any of the three have done (Kunis was in American Psycho II after all). Maybe it looked better on paper.

The Book of Eli wants to be a good movie, but the writing falls through about half of the way into the film. The forced plot twists at the end do nothing to save it, even if one of them makes you want to watch the movie again (yes, sadly).

What you have is another post-apocalyptic film that takes cliche plot lines from different movies to tie them together into one. It doesn't work.

In it, Eli (Denzel! Denzel!) is on his way, by foot no less, to the west coast many years after a nuclear war (they tell us that early, don't fear). Civilization has been destroyed, and there are but few remnants left of what life was like before the war. If you're read The Road, seen its movie counterpart, or have vague memories of the Mad Max movies, you already know all the bad shit that can go down after disasters as big as this happen to Earth. It's the same thing here except that Eli has a book that people want, especially the bad people like Oldman's character Carnegie. Somehow or another Solara (Kunis) gets involved. Who cares?

Even though it's another post-apocalyptic movie, it's still horribly unrealistic, especially for a movie with a large budget: take a look at the "rocks" when Eli is shown by Solara where Carnegie gets the water that he sells in his bar.

The plot twists, if you could really call them that, at the end do nothing but make the movie longer and a little more dumb. The acting is decent enough, but by the time you deal with everything else that's bad, it's too little, too late.

Look, if you loved The Postman, by all means, rent this movie when it is on DVD and waste a Sunday. Otherwise, get Mad Max.

1 and ½ stars (out of 5)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Missing: Tuscaloosa Music Scene

“Play them songs!” The man with a beer in his hand, boots on his feet and rhythm in his step yells out from the dance floor in front of the stage.

It’s a wonderful sight – to see a person so in love with the music invading their ears, to see someone so in tune with their senses and so carefree with their inhibitions that they recognize a damn good thing when it comes strutting out an amplifier and smacks them straight upside their head.

Unfortunately, it’s a sight we don’t get to see much here in Tuscaloosa. Instead, we get fist pumps to Def Leppard and drunken crooning about Josie’s distant vacation. Our town has been invaded by, taken over, and raped & pillaged by the cover band – and we don’t seem to have put up much of a fight.

It’s an infestation and an epidemic. One aided by complacency, apathy and ignorance. It’s a damn problem, and it needs to be fixed.

But how?

There was a time that Tuscaloosa wasn’t afraid to cultivate a music scene, one that had character, personality and passion. When The Strip was still alive, before The Booth and Cheap Shots became victims to the University’s greed. Used to be, seeing the name of a good band on a marquee wasn’t a special occasion – it was a privilege to live in a town that birthed so many of them.

So where did it all go? What went wrong?

Well, there are multiple contributing factors. For one, as mentioned above, many classic music venues around town are dead and gone. No longer does The Booth hold its classic spot on the corner of The Strip (instead it has a new, incredibly illogical, smaller, cramped location in the heart of downtown construction). No more do bands rock The Chukker until twilight.

Two, there just aren't as many original bands as there used to be. For whatever reason, they just left. Maybe the creativity in Tuscaloosa has been drained by some cosmic force. Maybe they all just left for greener pastures (Athens, Austin, Nashville, etc.). It's unexplainable, but it happened. True, there are still some bands around -- and a few that are amazing. But it just isn't the same as it used to be.

Finally, the town became too accepting of the ongoing changes. Yes, there are a significant number of people who care about the local music scene, who want things to change, who know this town could be so much better. But, by and large, the general population just doesn't care about what's going on onstage. They want to hear songs they know, and don't give a damn if they hear the same songs every night.

But things can change. We can bring the music back to Tuscaloosa. We can make this town a musical force to be reckoned with.

How you ask?

Obviously, it would be nice for some fresh venues to emerge as new rock establishments. Venues that give prime slots (Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights) to original bands. A bar built specifically for music would kill in this town. Yes, there are some suitable venues around here. But there aren't enough.

However, more than anything, we need to change. We need to pack out bars for our local bands. We need to spread the word about the great music that does exist in Tuscaloosa. We need to start form new bands, and start a new generation of Tuscaloosa music.

Basically, we need to play them songs.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In the Theater: 'The Road'

In case you couldn't tell from the trailer above, The Road is not for the weak-hearted.

Based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, The Road is the dramatic story of a man and his son's journey in a post-apocalyptic world that is as frightening a movie as any that has actually been labeled horror. Simple things that we take for granted, like eating and having clean water to drink, are only part of their struggle on their walk to a southern coast in an America that viewers will recognize only by the deteriorated roads, burned landscapes, and dilapidated houses. When the world will not bear fruit of any sort, the people that are left alive will turn to unthinkable ways to survive.

Fans of the novel should rejoice. John Hillcoat (director of the very interesting movie The Proposition) sticks as close to McCarthy's vision as what is probably possible with one exception. And just like in the novel, it is never really clear how the world ended up in such a cataclysmic state; however, the movie, like the novel, sticks to the basic themes of love and survival (and the question of which comes first).

Though there aren't many actors throughout the film, none of them disappoint. In fact, every actor that has a major role, with the exception of one or two, is well known and has been featured in many parts in movies and on television. I won't spoil any surprises, but know that each of them are even more believable as they've been anywhere else.

The stars of the movie adaptation are Viggo Mortensen and the young Kodi Smit-McPhee. Smit-McPhee is absolutely amazing in his role as the unnamed boy. Mortensen, too, is stunning. This is as good as acting and directing get. They waste not a scene.

While I rave about the director and actors' work, it's also as important to note that the cinematography is just as amazing - the land around them is almost as important of a character as well, and some scenes are horrifying simply because the imagery of McCarthy's novel could not have been better captured. This is a change you can envision actually happening to our own world if things were to change for the utmost worse (ahem). Apparently, they used almost no CGI effects, either. This is impressive film making.

Quite frankly, the film is almost unbearable to watch in that it is so terrifying; as a viewer, you never feel comfortable, happy, or satisfied, which has nothing to do with the movie being bad at any point. Even during the brisk moments of peacefulness, you simply know it won't last. I imagine that parents would find this movie particularly haunting.

It's probably best summarized by a stray character in the movie, who when asked if he ever thinks of suicide, responds, "In a world like this, who can afford such luxuries?"

The Road is a grim, raw look at love in its most simple form. We may not yet know what it is like to live in a world where finding the bare essentials of life are our daily struggle, but we do know the feeling of love. The Road shows us exactly what love can and cannot do. Go see it.

4 ½ stars (out of 5)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

In Print: 'Shake the Devil Off'

The murder-suicide of Zack and Addie is as haunting as it is bizarre.

What you know is that Zack murdered Addie; he dismembered her, storing parts of her body in the stove, on the oven, and in the refrigerator. What he also did was create one of the most gruesome crimes ever for the city of New Orleans.

What you don’t know is why he did it.

In Shake the Devil Off, Ethan Brown chronicles the story of Zack and Addie, perhaps the very symbols of post-Katrina New Orleans. It is a murder-suicide that seems straight from fiction, but their story is sadly true.

Normally, I do not read what some consider to be “true crime” novels, and I don’t really consider this one to be one out of that genre. It just doesn’t read like that. Sure, there are the details and facts leading up to Addie’s murder and Zack’s suicide; however, Brown takes the second half of the novel to try to tackle the tough issues, making the story of Zack and Addie more about the fall of New Orleans itself and the nation that let it down in the aftermath of the hurricane. This is a story of America, not just one of its cities or two of its citizens (with Zack even being a former solider).

Brown does the hardest thing for an author who documents such an atrocity: he makes you feel like an insider looking out rather than the other way around. And while he gives the needed details of everyone’s life involved in the story of Zack and Addie, he never bogs down or bores. It is a fast-paced book, and though it is at times painful, it is still an engrossing read.

This book would have to be considered a must read for anyone who lives in the city of New Orleans or loves it. Brown gives you a vivid feel for the city even if you’ve never been, and he takes you through one of its worst moments that doesn’t seem to have ended.

3 ½ stars (out of 5)

Monday, January 11, 2010

In the Theater: 'Youth in Revolt'

Surrounded by sexually active (and, at times, trashy) adults and peers, sixteen-year-old Nick Twisp finds that his virginity is losing its luster, if it ever had any. With the bad luck of a funny last name (try saying it aloud) and the help of sexually ignorant friends, Nick attempts a plan to get carnally and spatially closer to Sheeni, whom he believes to be the love of his young life. Nick’s story really takes an enlivening turn when he invents Francois Dillinger, his mustached, cigarette-puffing alter ego (also played by Cera) that is the funniest part of the movie.

This is truly a Michael Cera movie, even more so than Superbad, and he does a good job of carrying it, especially as Francois. You can probably imagine his character of Nick—it’s been a similar persona that he’s used since the days of Arrested Development. The movie is great when it also lets the minor roles shine. A few even steal a little of the movie from Cera—take Zach Galifianakis briefly showing up as Nick’s mother’s boyfriend or Fred Willard as Nick’s neighbor.

It is a funny movie, but no more so than when Francois arrives. The scene involving his father’s car had me laughing out loud. However, it would have been nice to see a few of the other characters even more involved at times. The script is especially sharp and entertaining to follow. (For instance, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to write “God’s Perfect Asshole” on things.) The script is so full of dry humor that sometimes it feels like it never lets up on it. When the director does allow the characters to finally play the roles in a more serious tone, it is quick and unemotional.

In the end, it’s a really funny, entertaining film that is never lewd but does occasionally enjoy its R rating. I bet the book is even better.

2 ½ stars (out of 5)