Friday, October 29, 2010

REVIEW: Bad Religion - Irving Plaza 10/27/10

This past week, I re-started my New York City concert-going experience with a band whom I had been meaning to see for several years, but for some reason, always had other plans interfere. I'm not a hard core Bad Religion fan by any stretch. In fact there are only two albums of theirs from which I've downloaded 5 or more songs. But I do think their music has a great energy and their lyrics are thoughtful and original...even if I don't necessarily know what they're singing about. So I figured they would put on a great live show.

This was the 3rd of 3 dates they were playing at Irving Plaza as part of their 30th anniversary tour. Each night was supposed to represent an approximately ten-year segment of time. I chose to attend the last one, since I'm a little more familiar with their more recent work, and this show was highlighting the Bad Religion albums from 2000-present, including the just released The Dissent of Man

The unfortunate thing about many shows today, is that the run times are getting shorter and shorter as the ticket prices go higher and higher. Of course, in punk rock, many of the songs clock in at under 3:00, giving the bands even less incentive to do a longer set. When you can cram 27 songs into a 1:20 set, why not? I just think that the artists should be giving the audiences more bang for their buck. Also unfortunate in this instance, the better of the two opening acts, Off With Their Heads, played first, with me missing most of their set. The Aggrolites, a soul-funk/reggae outfit (not my cup of tea at all), came on next, which led to me going downstairs to watch the World Series on a TV near the food vendor until it was time for the main act.

In any case, my favorite Bad Religion album is their 2002 effort, The Process of Belief. And indeed, they started the show off with three consecutive tracks from TPoB. They weren't my favorites from that CD, though, and there was something about the way the set started off...something with the sound...the drums overshadowing the vocals...I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Whatever it was, my first thought was, I was going to be disappointed by this show. However, over the next 9 songs or so, things really picked up. Included in this segment were three especially strong tracks off of 2004's The Empire Strikes First - "Sinister Rouge,""Let Them Eat War" and "Los Angeles is Burning." The crowd (other than me) were apparently all die-hard BR fans; they knew every word to every song. This was a welcome contrast to many concerts I've been to recently where the entire audience was talking through the duration of the show. The energy level was high. Unfortunately, so was the temperature in the venue. It was ridiculously hot and muggy INSIDE, something only exacerbated by the packed house of fans. I was sweating my proverbial ya-ya's off. Lead singer, Greg Graffin, even noted the jungle-like conditions at one point between songs, remarking, "I'm sweating like a whore in church up here." And then, referring to the celebration of their 2000-era works, he added, "Because, of course, there was no air conditioning back in the early 2000's, and we're trying to make this experience as authentic as possible!" That got a good chuckle from the sweltering crowd.

Back to the set list: As the second half of the show ensued, they played several songs with which I was not familiar, but which were strong selections all the same. In particular,"Social Suicide" from the previously-mentioned The Empire Strikes First, "Dearly Beloved" from 2007's New Maps of Hell, and especially "Don't Sell Me Short," the lone selection from their 2000 album The New America, were all really rousing live performances. They also finally blistered through two much better selections from my mentioned favorite The Process of Belief - "The Defense" and "Epiphany."

After a couple decent new tracks, the band "cheated" a bit by finishing the main set with two non-2000-era songs - 1994's "Infected" and from the previous year, Recipe For Hate's "American Jesus." That set closer was a great surprise for me, as I think "American Jesus," Bad Religion's rant on Americans' attitudes toward the rest of the world, might be one of the best punk rock songs ever written. The opening and central guitar lick is very simple, but is one of those rock riffs that is unmistakable, and gets your blood rushing.

For the encore, I was sure I knew the two songs that were coming: minor rock radio hit "Sorrow" from The Process of Belief, and, one of my favorite songs ever - by anyone - "New America," the single and title track from The New America. I was half right. They played three songs in closing: "Along the Way," a track off one of their 1980's-era EP's, my correct guess "Sorrow" and, as a nod to the longtime fans, "Fuck Armageddon...This is Hell," a really lackluster choice off of their 1982 debut LP, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? In my opinion, a pretty blah set closer. I was stunned that they didn't play "New America." For anyone who read my blog posts detailing my Top 210 Songs of the 2000's, that one came in at #3. Given the current political climate, and the critical mid-term elections occurring next week, it would have been extremely timely, despite having been written more than a decade earlier.

So, in all, I was pretty disappointed with the absence of a few standout tracks from The Process of Belief

Opening Acts: B-
Venue temperature: D
Band performance: B+
Energy level: A
Audience involvement: A+
Set list: B
Set length: C
Cost: C

Sunday, October 10, 2010


As a stand-alone film, I suppose Matt Reeves' remake of the Sweden's Lat Den Ratte Komma In (Let the Right One In), itself an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel, is a worthwhile cinematic venture. In other words, if you haven't read the source novel or seen the Swedish film, you might enjoy Let Me In. Having seen Tomas Alfredson's attempt at adapting Lindqvist's story though, I am captive to the realization that Reeves' and the rest of the American crew missed a golden opportunity. Plainly speaking, the Hollywood redo added absolutely nothing to what was, in my estimation, a good but not great film. All the movie snobs start whining and turning up their noses as soon as they learn that a U.S. filmmaker is going to dare attempt an adaptation of an overseas film product. However, if there is room for improvement, then why not? That should be the rule with all remakes...they should only be considered when the story can be lifted to a higher level...or at least masterfully updated for a new era in time. Reeves' project does neither. Of course, it seems that most people think more highly of Alfredson's preceding film than I did, but I can only build off of my own opinions.

The main themes of the original film (and presumably the novel, which I have not yet read) are loneliness, desperation, feeling like an outcast, the notorious effects of bullying, the formation of unlikely companionship, unattainable love, and the like - all worthwhile segments of life to explore. The story centers around a downtrodden and fearful pre-adolescent boy (Oskar in the Swedish telling, Owen in the retread), who is being tormented at school, and is caught in emotional quicksand at home as he's bounced between two inept parents in the midst of a divorce (in the Swedish film, his father is an alcoholic, in the U.S. film, his mother is, and we don't see the father, though it is hinted that he is at the least, a deadbeat jerk). A cute girl, appearing to be around his age, moves into his housing complex with a man one would assume was her father. After an initial reluctance on the part of the girl (the first film's Eli, now christened Abby), the two lonely kids form an endearing friendship. After dropping cryptic hints to Owen, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road), throughout the first quarter of the film about how different she is, Abby inadvertently reveals her secret (not so secret if you've already heard about the story)...she is actually a hauntingly old vampire who has been trapped in the body of a 12-year-old girl for eternity, and consequently, she needs human blood to survive. The man with whom she lives, played here by Richard Jenkins, is not her father, but somewhat of a servant who commits heinous murders on Abby's behalf in order to provide the much-needed sanguinary nutrition.

From my own viewings of the films, combined with reading several reviews of both, I can determine that the audience is to buy into the idea that Owen is so distraught with his own life, that he would rather befriend, and in effect, give himself over to, a murderous, otherworldly creature, rather than continue on with his miserable existence. In parallel, Abby is perhaps deeply regretful of the eternal enslavement she's fallen victim to, and the hideous actions it requires her to take. I think my main problems with both the Swedish and American film versions, stem from the fact that I simply wasn't sold on either of these scenarios. Owen's predilection for all things violent (something that was much more readily apparent in the Swedish film), and vulnerability to succumb to Abby's barbaric charm, are just not justified by what we see of  his life before. I think the American film should have taken the time to create a much more unbearable existence for Owen; one that would have made it more believable for him to end up in the situation in which he does. Likewise, Abby, as played by Chloe Grace Moretz (500 Days of Summer, Kick Ass), doesn't seem remorseful in the least; not of what she has had her father figure do at her behest, nor of her own killings, nor of the empty fate she is intent on bestowing upon her new-found friend. It's therefore, utterly unclear with whom we're supposed to be sympathizing in this whole, unsettling universe. Do we root for the lonely, yet murderous bloodsucker? Do we root for the weakling human outcast who doesn't seem fazed by unprovoked serial homicide? Or, do we root for society to catch up with them and put a stop to the killing spree...sure to otherwise continue for centuries to come. A daunting choice, indeed. The Swedish film does not do an adequate job in setting up the Oskar/Eli relationship, and likewise, Let Me In also fails to build off of its predecessor and make the Owen/Abby saga believable.

I am assuming that the characters are much more well-developed in the novel, and perhaps, that might make the reader's emotional involvement more clear-cut. I will likely do something I've never done before - read a novel after having seen not one, but two film adaptations. I've never even read a book after having seen one film adaptation, so it should be interesting to see how much my knowledge of the story will enhance or detract from the literary experience.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

REVIEW: The Social Network

Just a warning...there are spoilers in this review, so if you are planning on seeing The Social Network, you might want to just read the intro synopsis paragraph and skip the rest.

Critics everywhere seem to be having "filmgasms" over this true-ish account of the creation of, and lawsuits surrounding, the social networking site, Facebook. I definitely found the moviegoing experience entertaining, and it's one of the better films of 2010, however, I think my overall impression falls a little short of the adoration being heaped upon The Social Network. Director, David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President, TV's The West Wing) take what, in real life, was most likely a relatively bland and unaffecting series of events, and transform it into a compelling story of a socially awkward intellect, who, quite ironically, created one of the most intrinsically social environments the world has ever seen. The performances, for the most part, were pretty solid, particularly Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. The dialogue was very sharp, adding some comic relief, and again, making this a tellable story. There was something about the experience that left me feeling as if the dramatic component fell somewhat flat. Although there were individual  moments of palpable tension amongst the characters, I never got that subtle chill down my back or that "oh shit" feeling that the best dramatic films have a way of stirring up. That, for me, leaves the final grade as a B+...somewhat short of greatness, but still a very worthwhile all-around film. Also, as a fun side note, there is one scene in which Mark Zuckerberg is seen wearing an "Ardsley Athletics" t-shirt. This is of absolutely no consequence to anyone, except for the microscopic sliver of the U.S. population who reside in, or have resided in, the small-town burb of Ardsley, NY. As a graduate of Ardsley High School, it was just cool to see that on screen, as I am sure it is the only time Ardsley has been, or will be, immortalized in film. Unless, of course, another product of the Ardsley school system ever accomplishes something cinema-worthy.

Here's a breakdown of what went right and what went wrong with The Social Network:

DIALOGUE - Aaron Sorkin is probably best known for creating the long-running TV series The West Wing. He was also the scribe behind one of the best films of all-time, A Few Good Men, and another very good film from the 90's, The American President. He also created a great, but short-lived TV dramedy, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which unbelievably only lasted one season. This guy is a more than accomplished writer. His dialogue in The Social Network is really what drives the film. It's through Sorkin's words that the audience gets insight into the ineptitude of the central character, Mark Zuckerberg, to adequately communicate with other human beings. He feels in his most natural state when his fingers are doing the "talking" - on a computer keyboard. This is, of course, if we are to accurate the entire content of the movie as accurate. The on-screen incarnation of Zuckerberg has no clue how to effectively establish a relationship with a girl, for instance, but he needs relatively few words to systematically tear down those who oppose him and his efforts regarding Facebook. The main victims of these terse tongue-lashings are the attorneys for the Winklevoss twins, who claim Zuckerberg derived the idea for Facebook by stealing their concept for a Harvard-based social networking site, and Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg's former friend, who was pushed out as CFO and significant stakeholder of Facebook. So, who doesn't like to see attorneys get their comeuppance?

JESSE EISENBERG - Not exactly award-worthy, but a very assured portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as the character was written. He's very believable as the awkward nerd genius, who becomes, as indicated by the title of the book on which the film was based, an "accidental billionaire."

MAX MINGHELLA - The son of the late, Oscar-winning director, Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain); he portrays Divya Narendra, a business partner of the aforementioned Winklevoss brothers. This was not a prominently featured character, but Minghella steals the scenes he's in, briskly conveying Narendra's incredulity at standing idly by while Zuckerberg usurped the idea for The Harvard Connection social networking site.

ANDREW GARFIELD - In playing one of Mark Zuckerberg's only friends, Eduardo Saverin, Garfield gives what is probably the most accomplished performance in The Social Network. I didn't really feel bad for the Winklevoss brothers; they didn't really do anything that I could ascertain, to warrant credit for the launching and subsequent success of Facebook (at least as events were depicted in the film). However, Saverin, in Garfield's hands, becomes the most sympathetic character in this whole ordeal. He forked over the seed money that allowed Zuckerberg to accumulate the Internet bandwidth necessary to launch the early incarnation of Facebook. He subsequently poured additional capital into a bank account as the Facebook phenomenon spread. And the thanks he got for all his early personal and financial support - he was purportedly tricked into signing documents that relieved him of his significant financial stake in the company, as well as his title of CFO. Saverin's pain, anger, helplessness, and sense of betrayal are all central to the core of the story, and Garfield hits all the right emotional notes.

DIRECTING - David FincherSe7en and Panic Room well enough, but wasn't so sold on Zodiac, which was probably his most critically acclaimed film until now. And Benjamin Button was, quite simply, a bore. I'm eager to see what he does with the Hollywood adaptation of the Swedish supersmash literary "Millennium Trilogy," otherwise known as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. With The Social Network, I've already divulged my main gripe regarding the level of drama. For me, this was most evident in two scenes. One, was when Eduardo Saverin finds out that he's signed away his financial stake in Facebook and title of CFO. A particular directing convention is employed here, and it's one that I happen to hate. Here, you see Saverin and some other character, most likely a company lawyer of some kind, conversing in a small conference room at the new Facebook offices. The camera pans back so the audience is on the other side of the glass wall, and you see the characters' lips moving, but you can no longer hear what's being said. This is just a pet peeve of mine, but I detest when directors do this in film. To me, it completely interrupts the emotional momentum. Another example of Fincher losing his grip on the tension, comes in the very last scene of the film. Marilyn Delpy, one of the associates on the legal team representing Mark Zuckerberg, is left alone in the room with Zuckerberg. She attempts to convince him of why he's going to have no choice but to agree to settle the two lawsuits out of court. In my estimation, this should be a bone-chilling realization for Zuckerberg, who up until then, had been quite cavalier in his attitude toward the entire proceeding. As the screen overlay in the next few moments tells us, the Winklevoss brothers and partner Narendra received a cool $65 million in their settlement. This must have been a bitter pill for Zuckerberg to swallow. Rashida Jones, as Delpy, takes a more cutesy, flirty stance in explaining the situation to Zuckerberg. Kind of anti-climactic.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE - I'm sure pretty much everyone will disagree with me on this count, since people seem to drool over everything this guy does. The audience was to believe that Mark Zuckerberg was completely and utterly mesmerized by Napster co-founder, Sean Parker; that he was that enigmatic of a personality that Zuckerberg mindlessly pushed his best friend aside in order to follow the advice of his new found business mentor. This was supposed to be an unabashed man crush from the very first meeting. I just didn't buy Timberlake as someone emanating those electric vibes. Maybe it's because I personally just don't get the whole Timberlake phenomenon, and I was projecting that onto his performance here. Maybe it's because when I see him, I think of his SNL sketches. Who knows? I just wasn't sold on this particular bit of casting.

And that's pretty much it :-)