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Batman: Assault on Arkham is the Original Suicide Squad!

NOTE:  Now Playing Podcast and La La Land Records are giving away 5 copies of The Killing Joke limited CD Soundtrack. Follow @nowplayingpod on Twitter and retweet their pinned tweet to enter!
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Starting today, DC movies are committing Suicide.  

Sure, everyone knows Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman – the featured characters in last Spring’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But Killer Croc? Deadshot? Captain Boomerang? These are some lesser known characters–and the stars of the new movie Suicide Squad.

With an August release date and a story of criminals out to do good, it’s obvious DC is hoping to capture some of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy magic (and dollars). Outside of comic book die-hards these characters aren’t household names, but with this film DC hopes they will be.

So to prepare for this live action film, I watched another movie version of this tale:  DC’s 2014 animated direct-to-video Batman: Assault on Arkham.

 

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Like the live-action film, this cartoon tells of a “Suicide Squad” formed to infiltrate Arkham Asylum — Gotham City’s infamous sanitarium for the criminally insane.  Government official Amanda Waller calls together a team of seven criminals to covertly infiltrate the prison.  Batman foe The Riddler is imprisoned there, and he has a thumb drive that could expose Waller’s above-the-law operations.

The group she assembles consists of five lesser-known DC baddies: Captain Boomerang, King Shark, Killer Frost, Black Spider, and the hilariously named KGBeast.  For a little star power, the headliners are two more popular Batman enemies: Harley Quinn and Deadshot.

For full disclosure, I certainly hadn’t heard of most of the characters in this film.  When it comes to DC comics, if a character wasn’t featured in a live-action film or the ‘60s Batman TV show, odds are I don’t know them.  I have seen a handful of episodes of Batman: The Animated Series though, and I find great enjoyment in several of DC’s direct-to-video animated films.  

 

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I suspect those excited by seeing Captain Boomerang and KGBeast in action are already DC Comics readers and fans.  Those die-hards would excitedly pre-order a Suicide Squad animated film, because they know what that means.  Instead, for marketing, this movie is called Batman: Assault on Arkham but the Dark Knight is very much a supporting player in this tale.  This movie should have been called Suicide Squad, but wasn’t, I suspect, for two reasons.

First, invoking Arkham in the title shows this movie is set in the universe of the immensely successful Batman: Arkham video games.  In fact, the movie is a sequel to Arkham: Origins and takes place about two years before the original Arkham Asylum game.  

Second, giving Batman top billing appeals to more casual fans like me.  Without a heavy marketing campaign like the live-action film has, I would likely skip an animated movie called Suicide Squad.  Call it Batman and you have my interest.

If you don’t know these characters as I didn’t, it won’t be a barrier to your enjoyment.  These enslaved villains are introduced quickly with ‘70s style title cards announcing their names.  Before you know it, this motley crew is rounded up and told of their mission.  If they don’t comply, Waller will detonate explosives planted in their necks.

 

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Why are these specific people chosen?  Why use criminals instead of more traditional assassins?  The film glosses over the answers so we can get to the action!

Once the titular Assault begins, the fun never ends.  The plot is full of so many twists and turns I am hesitant to discuss them lest I rob you of the fun of discovery.  Suffice it to say the team’s objectives change every ten to fifteen minutes, and when Quinn’s former beau The Joker shows up, it all goes sideways.

The animation is rudimentary, and I sometimes had trouble distinguishing between Deadshot and Black Spider. Even though one is African-American and the other Caucasian, the coloring muted the skin tones.  Add to that identical facial hair, somewhat similar hairstyles, and my lack of familiarity with these characters, at times I found myself confused.

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Despite that, this hard PG-13 cartoon did the seemingly impossible–the action excited me.  This Squad isn’t afraid to kill some cops in brutal ways. In truth, I haven’t seen so many decapitations since David Cronenberg’s original Scanners!

Not only are nameless guards and cops taken out, but so are some characters from DC Comics.  The team is called a Suicide Squad and, surely enough, some of them don’t survive the mission.  This feeling that all the characters are at risk upped the suspense–no one feels safe in this cartoon.

If you know these characters, if you are steeped in the Arkham video game universe, I can only imagine your enjoyment is even greater than mine. I did, however, become giddy when Poison Ivy, Bane, Penguin, and other characters I actually knew, made minor appearances.

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Beyond violence, there is a PG level sex scene, and some “almost see it” nudity with the femme fatales Quinn and Frost.

What the film lacks in visuals, it makes up for in the score.  The music is omnipresent and sets a mood that the script and characterizations sometimes fail to do. But I found myself tapping my fingers throughout.

The voice acting is also well done.  Nearly all the actors, including Kevin Conroy (Batman), C.C.H. Pounder (Waller), and Jennifer Hale (Killer Frost), have played these characters for years. Their familiar performances were welcome.  Newcomers Greg Ellis (Captain Boomerang), Neal McDonough (Deadshot) and Giancarlo Esposito (Black Spider) also do very well.

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I did, however, truly miss Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin, the respective voices of The Joker and Harley Quinn since the ‘90s Batman: The Animated Series and several of the Batman: Arkham games.  Both had retired from the role (though Hamill reprised in this year’s Batman: The Killing Joke).  Troy Baker and Hynden Walch are fine in the roles, but I felt a lack of menace and chaos from both.

While Batman: Assault on Arkham is by no means a perfect movie, its manic action is a blast. The script does an admirable job of introducing the characters and the “Suicide Squad” concept. And, based on the trailers, I strongly suspect today’s live-action Suicide Squad took many beats from this animated version.

I give Assault on Arkham a solid Recommend.

Now Playing Podcast’s review of Suicide Squad will be released Tuesday, Aug 9th!

Buy Batman: Assault on Arkham now on Blu-Ray

Buy Batman: The Killing Joke now on Blu-Ray

Hear Now Playing Podcast’s entire Batman movie review series.

*Note: There are no plans for Now Playing Podcast to do podcast reviews of the direct-to-video DC Animated films. 

August 4, 2016 Posted by | Comic Books, Movies, Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Batman: Assault on Arkham is the Original Suicide Squad!

Review – Batman: The Killing Joke (Out today on Blu-Ray!)

NOTE:  Now Playing Podcast and La La Land Records are giving away 5 copies of The Killing Joke limited CD Soundtrack. Follow @nowplayingpod on Twitter and retweet their pinned tweet to enter!

 

I would love to see [The Killing Joke] depicted in animation style with Mark Hamill coming back, cuz I’m hearing Mark Hamill’s voice the whole time I’m reading the Joker’s lines anyway.

But can you imagine the surreality if you had one of these direct-to-DVD DC Comics where you have Barbara Gordon shot and raped and then, let’s cut to a musical number? That’s Star Wars Holiday Special level weird.Arnie Carvalho on Books & Nachos review of The Killing Joke graphic novel.  June 11, 2012

 

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The animated movie adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke is every bit as disturbing and entertaining as Alan Moore’s original graphic novel.

DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation have been pushing the envelope with direct-to-video superhero movies. Violent deaths, sex scenes, and a peppering of profanity can be seen in several cartoon films, including Batman: Assault on Arkham, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman vs Robin.  

Given this teen-audience aim, I hoped for The Killing Joke to get adapted since first reading it in 2012. I was excited when the project was announced, and nearly ecstatic that it would be shown in theaters for two nights by Fathom Events*. This seemed to raise the bar — would this be a Batman animated film on par with Nolan and Burton’s live-action movies?

The answer is “no”.  But it’s close.

The final 40 minutes of The Killing Joke ranks among the best I’ve seen on screen–big screen or small.  But it takes a while to get there.  Writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s 48-page graphic novel is too short for feature-length. To pump this movie to 76 minutes (still 4 minutes shy of the Screen Actors Guild definition of a film) producer Bruce Timm and writer Brian Azzarello padded the script with a 30-minute first act. This is a separate story entirely from The Killing Joke. The Joker is nowhere to be seen, and Commissioner Gordon only appears briefly.

 

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The film’s first dialogue is Batgirl breaking the fourth wall, saying, “I realize this is probably not how you thought the story would start, not with a big shiny moon or a city that could look stunning in spite of itself.  Or me.”

She’s right.

Batgirl, also known as Barbara Gordon, is the star of this first act. Tara Strong returned to voice this character who she’s portrayed since 1997.  The story is of Batgirl’s pursuit of sociopathic gangster Paris Franz, who is obsessed with the spandex-wearing crimefighter. He wants to date, or rape, her–and he doesn’t seem to care which it is.

But Batgirl is infatuated with someone else–Batman.  Interludes show Barbara working in the library and discussing the emotionally distant man she desires. Batman, on the other hand, shows only a professional interest in his younger trainee, which lends their relationship almost a 50 Shades of Gray quality. She desperately wants him to love her–he only wants the violence.

The result is truly a romantic drama painting Barbara Gordon as a lonely, pining librarian. Are we supposed to cheer when Batgirl finally pins Batman and plants a kiss on his lips, bedding The Bat? I truly don’t know.

 

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I do find this story reductive. Batgirl can kick ass but here she’s defined only by her desire for love. Batman refusing to return her calls after their one night stand is trite soap-opera melodrama.

Yet I understand why Timm and Azzarello put this in the movie. Yes, they needed to extend the running time, but this also gives Barbara Gordon context.  It can be presumed readers of The Killing Joke know her heroic history as Batgirl, but a movie audience needs to be shown. Also, Moore has been accused of misogyny for what happens to Barbara in his story — she is barely featured other than to be tortured. This fleshes out her character.

Her monologue continues: “I wanted you to know that before the horror began, before it all came crashing down, there was a time when capes and cowls and fighting crime was really exciting.”  The filmmakers needed to make her a hero to deepen her character, and to make what happens later all the more tragic.

The end result feels like Watchmen-lite.  Batgirl and Batman shagging reminded me of Silk Spectre and Nite Owl. They are turned on by the fight, and the costumes. Yet this lacks Moore’s subtlety or postmodern commentary.  It is simply a cartoon relationship.

 

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30 minutes into this film, Batgirl’s role is diminished.  Batman enters Arkham Asylum to talk to The Joker, and Moore and Bolland’s Killing Joke begins.

This second half of The Killing Joke movie is a direct, almost line-for-line recreation of the graphic novel. Moore is uncredited as he dislikes movies based on his comics, but the spirit and words from his graphic novel are displayed large on the screen. Many fans are ardent enthusiasts of Moore’s works and here, like in the 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen, it seems the source material is treated to reverential to alter.  It seems there is a paralysis of creativity, a fear of changing Moore’s words.

This extends also to Bolland’s art style. The on-screen Batman and Joker look radically different than in previous cartoons…and identical to Bolland’s graphic novel designs. This sticks out as many of the minor characters, including Barbara Gordon and the Joker’s circus freak gang, are drawn in a style much more in line with Timm’s previous works like Batman: The Animated Series.  The Joker flachbacks are also colored like the original comic.

 

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In animation, using a computer to create smooth motion between two still images is called “tweening”.  This movie almost feels like they scanned in Bolland’s pages and Moore’s script and “tweened” them to create a film.  

The voice actors range in quality.  While Kevin Conroy has portrayed Batman since the beginning of Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, his portrayal is rather flat. Never do I hear a Batman on the verge of homicide.

However, Mark Hamill shines as The Joker.  Hamill famously retired from this role after the acclaimed video game Batman: Arkham Knight. In a pre-movie featurette Hamill mocks himself for saying that, and explains the promise of doing Moore’s classic story enticed him back.  

He is absolutely amazing.  His vocal intonations drip with evil menace. He even performs an atonal, amoral musical number “I Go Looney” — finally giving music to Moore’s words. And he does it with aplomb.  He shines as much as Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger in this role. So close to the release of Suicide Squad, this sets a high bar for Jared Leto, as many Bat-fans will have Hamill fresh in their minds.

 

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While Joker’s song may not have you humming along, its chaotic sound is perfect for the scene. Yet I was more impressed by the film’s score (revealed in a post-film featurette to be fully orchestrated).  The music is bombastic and deep and may be my favorite Bat-score since Danny Elfman’s originals.  The score, including “I Go Looney” is available on a limited edition CD from La La Land Records.

Twin Peaks star Ray Wise voices Commissioner Gordon. His first time performing this role, his participation seems a bit of typecasting. He is best known for playing the grieving father of Laura Palmer in that ‘90s ABC series. Here he is again a father in despair over the violence Joker does to his daughter Barbara.  His performance is mostly relegated to wails and moans while his character is dragged around naked on a leash.  For this, Wise is suitably adequate.

 

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Yet for the implied nudity and violence, and for its R rating, The Killing Joke is remarkably mild. A sex scene ends with a glimpse of a bra. Someone is shot and covered in blood, but their clothes aren’t even torn. There is some cursing, but they never even use the single F-word allowed in PG-13 films, let alone a tirade of profanity R ratings have.  

I believe the rating is more a publicity stunt than a reflection of the film’s content.  I’ve seen far worse violence and language in live-action PG-13 films. Yet this R rating tells adult fans “this is for you” and, perhaps intentionally, prevents younger fans from getting in.  An R rating is a rule enforced by theaters, whereas PG-13 is a guideline for parents.  The Killing Joke doesn’t earn an R rating, but it is best if it keeps out kids aged 8 or under.

All told, if fans of Moore’s graphic novel can make it through the Batgirl Romance story they should be pleased with the final 40 minutes of The Killing Joke. It is a violent and trippy Batman tale, just like the source material.

Recommend
Batman: The Killing Joke is out now on video-on-demand.

The Blu-Ray and DVD will be released Aug 2, 2016

Hear Now Playing Podcast’s entire Batman movie review series.

*Note: There are no plans for Now Playing Podcast to cover the direct-to-video DC Animated films.

Had this film been given a legitimate theatrical release it would have been reviewed, but Fathom Events regularly shows operas and television in theaters.  To cover this means to go back and cover several Star Trek: The Next Generation television episodes as they were previously shown by Fathom as well.

August 2, 2016 Posted by | Comic Books, Movies, Music, Reviews | 2 Comments

Soundtracks on Vinyl: The Hateful Eight

One of the draws to collect vinyl releases of movie scores and soundtracks is the large artwork for the film that accompanies it. These entries will review the vinyl record release of a film score/soundtrack from the music to the artwork, as well as the film…

The Movie

The Hateful Eight is a western about a bounty hunter played by Kurt Russell en route to deliver a wanted fugitive played by Jennifer Jason Leigh to the law when they take refuge in a log cabin during a snowstorm in Wyoming. The two are joined by six other strangers looking for sanctuary from the blizzard. But as the night proceeds, it becomes clear that some of the strangers have secretly planted themselves there to free the female criminal. A tense standoff proceeds as identities are discovered and the body count rises.

A big deal was made over the Ultra Panavision 70 ultra-widescreen format director Quentin Tarantino used to film The Hateful Eight. No small part of that hype was due to Tarantino himself doing a very limited 70mm roadshow screening of the film with extra footage.  However, the film underperformed at $55-million (U.S. box office) after his previous two films, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, brought in over $100-million each domestically.

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April 29, 2016 Posted by | Movies, Music, Now Playing Podcast | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Soundtracks on Vinyl: The Hateful Eight

Soundtracks on Vinyl: You’re Next

One of the draws to collect vinyl releases of movie scores and soundtracks is the large artwork for the film that accompanies it. These entries will review the vinyl record release of a film score/soundtrack from the music to the artwork, as well as the film…

The Movie

You’re Next tells the story of a well-to-do family getting together in their home in the woods for a reunion. However, none of them seem very excited to see each other. Their ambivalence soon turns to terror and fear as a gang dawning animals masks invades the home and starts killing off members of the family. But the intruders meet resistance when one guest displays a special set of skills for fighting back.

I’m not one for slashers, but the striking posters for the film caught my attention. Each poster featured the close up of one of the intruders in a plastic animal mask (the lamb mask always stuck out to me) with You’re Next written out as painted in blood. Even the title had a simplicity that immediately expressed the mood of the film (it’s appeal similar to the title of Simon Pegg’s fake Grindhouse trailer for Don’t).

Image inside gatefold sleeve.

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February 26, 2016 Posted by | Movies, Music, Now Playing Podcast | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Soundtracks on Vinyl: You’re Next

The 40 Year-Old-Critic: Requiem for a Dream (2000)

requiem-for-a-dream-posterIn The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.

See a list of all reviews

Have you ever seen a film that you instantly loved, but never wanted to see again? That was my reaction to seeing Requiem for a Dream in 2000.

I was drawn in by director Darren Aronofsky. I had seen his first film, the black-and-white techno thriller Pi, and was enthralled. The use of music, the sophisticated themes, the weird camera angles, the ideas of patterns in everything in life, the repeated sequences that formed a pattern in a movie itself about patterns; all of it left me entranced. I instantly knew Aronofsky was a talent to watch.

I anxiously awaited Requiem’s release, my excitement growing as I read high praise coming out of its screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Being a small film ($4.5M budget) with a very non-commercial NC-17 rating, I knew Requiem would not get a wide release. Sure enough, the picture opened on just 93 screens.

Like a character in an Aronofsky film, I was obsessed with seeing this movie. As such I made plans to visit my Now Playing Podcast co-host Stuart in Chicago, and there we would go see Requiem together.

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Burstyn and Leto share a rare scene together in Requiem for a Dream.

Based on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr., the film follows nine months in the lives of Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) and his mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn). Despite the familial relation, the two characters rarely interact; their stories run parallel as we follow their hopes and falls. Starting in “Summer” and ending in “Winter”, the falling temperatures also represent the decline in the characters’ fortunes.

Harry is a heroin addict. He and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) have hit bottom so many times that stealing Sara’s television to pawn for drug money has become routine. After one theft, followed by a good high at the beginning of the film, Tyrone starts to show ambition –rather than just shooting up, the friends decide to resell some of their drugs to double their money. They have career aspirations of someday dealing a full pound of pure heroin that would set them up for a long time and allow Tyrone to move out of his bad neighborhood.

They start their plan — taking regular pauses to shoot up — and things start to go well. Harry even earns enough money to try to make amends with his mother, and buys her a new, modern television.

In addition to Harry’s burgeoning career as a drug dealer, he is madly in love with girlfriend and fellow junkie, Marion (Jennifer Connelly). The two dream of using their drug money to open a clothing store, allowing Marion to escape her controlling parents. With his money and his girl, things look great for Harry.

Sara, meanwhile, is also finding success. When the film begins she is an elderly widow living alone in an apartment, with little to do but watch self-help television shows. One day her fortune changes with a single phone call: she has been selected to be on her favorite game show. Sara is beyond excited, but also nervous about appearing on national television. A neighbor helps her dye her hair, with unfortunate results. She’s even more distressed after finding out the red dress she wants to wear on the show — one her late husband loved — no longer fits.

Sara starts popping the pills faster and faster to fit in that red dress.

Sara starts popping the pills faster and faster to fit in that red dress.

After attempts at crash dieting prove unsuccessful, Sara visits a doctor and begins taking a heavy dose of diet pills. The amphetamines have severe side effects — Sara starts to grind her teeth and can’t sit still — but she loses 25 pounds and feels great. Her looming television appearance has made her the superstar among the retirees in her apartment building and she’s soaking it up.

When Harry brings his mother the new television he instantly knows Sara is tweaking on uppers. He tries to get her to stop, but she is too excited for the game show; even though her obsessive checking the mail for information about her appearance has yielded no results.

If you haven’t seen Requiem for a Dream, if you’ve only read the description above, you might think this is an ugly movie about despicable people. A heroin addict who steals from his own mother? A lonely old woman obsessed with television? A junkie aspiring to become a dealer? In so many movies these characters would be the villains, or at least the antagonists. But Aronofsky is a deft storyteller, and slowly he makes us care for each person on the screen.

Every character is given a touching moment. For Harry and Marion, it’s them lying in bed expressing their affection for each other. They don’t just say “I love you” — rather Harry uses the trite expression, “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” She responds, telling him she’s heard that a lot, but adds that when Harry tells her it truly has meaning.

An example of the subtle split-screen work in Requiem

An example of the subtle split-screen work in Requiem

More than words, we see that scene through the points of view of both characters via split-screen, allowing for close-ups of Leto and Connelly. This unique approach drives home multiple points: a) they’re together, yet not, b) it’s the first sign that something will come between them, and c) the close-up shots convey intimacy, not isolation.

Then the shots get more inventive. We see Harry talk on one side of the screen, and on the other we see his hand caressing Marion, his thumb brushing over her lips, her palm. Then we see her close-up, and her hands on him. It’s not a sex scene, but this communion between two characters shows their relationship in a much more intimate setting. After only two minutes you want these kids to make it, yet their addiction hangs like a storm cloud.

The same goes for Harry and his mother. While he starts by stealing her television, causing Sara to lock herself in a closet away from her son, he still tries to assure her that everything will be okay. Later in “Summer” we see Harry and Marion on the beach, the man verbalizing how much he loves and cares for his mother and how, now that he has money, he wants to make right every wrong he’s done. It’s a deft turn, but thanks to Leto’s performance and earnest language, Aronofsky has made this thieving drug abuser actually seem noble and good.

Harry and Tyrone take in some TV.

Harry and Tyrone take in some TV.

Tyrone is given the least background of the four, an odd choice considering he is the lead drug dealer. His girlfriend is never named, and his backstory is limited to a bit about honoring his dead mother. Still, Wayans gives a career-best performance in a rare, non-comedic role for the Scary Movie actor. Much of this is due to Aronofsky’s editing — one needs only to watch the deleted scenes on the DVD to realize Wayans tried multiple approaches to Tyrone, including a full-on Jar Jar Binks impersonation.

As shown on screen, Tyrone is the least developed character, yet still a likable personality thanks to the heart Wayans puts into the role.

It’s actually astounding that Requiem makes drug dealing seem like a bright, hopeful career path.

As for Sara, this character may not be one you hate, but one you pity. A virtual shut-in with a television obsession, it is again the script and the actress that makes Sara sympathetic instead of just pathetic. When Harry comes to tell his mother about the new television he asks why she cares so much about the game show appearance.

She responds at first by pointing out to Harry the reverential treatment she has been getting from the other biddies in her building:

“I’m somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they’ll all like me. I’ll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember?”

Then after a pause, an even sadder truth comes out — this television show is all she has to live for.

“It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right. What have I got, Harry? Why should I even make the bed or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I’m alone. Your father’s gone. You’re gone. I’ve got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I’m lonely. I’m old.”

Sara hallucinates a visit to her favorite TV show, hosted by Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald in a memorable minor role).

Sara hallucinates a visit to her favorite TV show, hosted by Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald in a memorable minor role).

The obvious answer is right there: Harry could pay more attention to his mother. What she really needs isn’t another television, it’s human connection. But while Harry is desperately trying to be a good son he’s exacerbating his mother’s issue by allowing her to submerge deeper into television, versus helping her to escape it. Despite seeing his mother’s obvious bad reaction to the uppers, this is the last time Harry sees her.

Even with the obvious, unspoken truth of the scene, the monologue could have fallen flat if not for Burstyn’s amazing performance. She jitters while she plays the scene, expressing her agitation from the pills, with a nervousness at being so honest with anyone. She says the lines with a smile, but the sadness comes through in the delivery. Burstyn deserves every accolade she was given for this performance.

Finally, the mood is lightened with humor. When Harry and Tyrone steal the television it’s a joy watching them wheel it past all of Sara’s neighbors, who are more concerned with soaking up the afternoon sun than they are the obvious and strange theft. The characters laugh, joke, and keep the film from becoming too morose.

The combination of the amazing director, actors, and screenplay prevent this story from feeling trite or ugly. When “Summer” ends I was rooting for all four characters to achieve their dreams.

But if that was the summer, soon must come the fall, literally and metaphorically.

For Sara, this comes from her body building up a resistance to the amphetamines. She no longer gets her high from the pills, and though her red dress nearly fits, she needs to continue losing weight. When the doctor won’t up the dosage she self-medicates, taking multiple pills at once.

For Harry, Marion, and Tyrone, their downfall begins when a drug war breaks out in the city. Supplies of heroin have dried up — they can’t get any more to sell, and they can’t get any more to take. Their relationships are stressed, especially by Marion, who seems to suffer the worst withdrawal and blames Harry for her inability to shoot up.

By the time the film gets to “Winter” the movie is no longer a dark comedy. Each character becomes more desperate, and their ends are each so awful that Requiem for a Dream practically becomes a horror film. Yet none of it would work had we not cared for the characters — we would have applauded horrible people getting their just desserts. That I love these people and don’t want to see their ruination is the result of successful, manipulative storytelling of the best possible sort. Aronofsky made me like them, then pulled the rug out from under them — he did the same to us in the audience.

When I left the theater I was shaken and sad. The ending was depressing, but it was just; and I realized that. I felt as mournful as I would for a friend who’d gone down a bad road. This movie was hard — hard to watch, hard on its characters, and hard on the audience. I left the theater knowing I loved every frame of this film but also thinking it was such an emotional trial that I never wanted to watch it again.

I did though, many times. Beyond just great storytelling, Requiem for a Dream is a visual masterpiece that I — after some time passed — wanted to revisit to fully take in.

Aronofsky’s second feature brought back so many of the things I’d enjoyed in Pi, especially the inventive, experimental camerawork. Now, more than a decade later in a time when GoPro cameras are strapped to everyone’s heads, you see the genius in Aronofsky’s self-proclamed “Schnoz cam” — strapping the camera to an actor so the person always stays in the center of the frame while the background and scenery move around them. First used in Pi and then in Requiem, this gave the feeling of a character surrounded by a world out of control — a sign of madness, or a visual representation of vertigo. When sped up film footage is added to the effect, you see that Aronofsky created an entirely new way to deliver the same emotion as the old Hitchcockian “push and pull” change of depth.

Sara finally fit in her red dress, but at what cost?

Sara finally fit in her red dress, but at what cost?

One of the things that impressed me about Pi was its unique visual style. Despite being very low budget, the use of superimposed images, quick cutting, and repetition was hypnotic. That is also on full display in Requiem. Every time the characters get high, be it by snorting, shooting up, or popping pills, a ritual is performed. The film cuts to a montage that lasts only seconds but shows the actions, and the characters. A lighter is lit, drugs boil, a syringe fills, blood courses through veins, pupils dilate. It all happens so fast that it’s virtually subliminal, yet it tells us everything we need to know. As the film becomes more desperate the montages are even faster, showing us people stuck in a cycle of self-destruction.

Aronofsky also isn’t afraid to get surreal. In the depths of psychosis Sara sees cupcakes floating in the air, her favorite self-help TV personality appears in her living room, interlaced at her television’s 480 lines of resolution. At one point her refrigerator even opens a gaping maw to eat her. These types of shots could undermine the mood but, as done here, they just enhance it.

In addition to the camerawork, enough credit simply cannot be given to composer Clint Mansell. I had the CD from Pi, his first film score, on an endless loop in my car; the electronic techno score was perfect for that film about a computer programmer, but I never would have thought the composer could hit the emotional resonance he did when he reteamed with Aronofsky for Requiem.

As this was a low-budget film, the score was performed by just four people: The Kronos Quartet. Still, with just violins, a viola, and a cello this score permeates nearly every frame of the movie. The low, sonorous tones of the cello dominate and make even the happy scenes foreboding. It’s a gorgeous composition that feels so classical it’s impossible to believe it was written in the 21st century; it feels like the work of Edvard Grieg, or one of Beethoven’s darker works.

The score has such an emotional resonance that it has been the breakout star of Requiem for  a Dream; even if you’ve not seen this film I guarantee you’ve heard the score’s climactic movement, “Lux Aeterna.” Just two years later, in 2002, my jaw hit the floor when the trailer for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was scored to an orchestral version of “Lux Aeterna” — the assemblage of instruments and a faster tempo giving the song a more epic feel than the Quartet did alone (This orchestral version is available for digital purchase at Amazon).

In the years since, “Lux Aeterna” has been a go-to track for movie trailers, including Zathura, I Am Legend, Sunshine, The Da Vinci Code and, unlikely as it may seem, it was even used in Barbie doll ads!

Combined, every element of this film comes together as smoothly as one of Harry’s heroin montages. More, the performances, cinematography, and soundtrack all underscore the film’s thesis — summed up in the title — about the lengths to which people go to try and achieve their dreams. No matter what your dream, be it to be a TV star, a clothing shop owner, a screenwriter, or a podcaster, it’s a plight to which everyone can relate.

Aronofsky finally achieved mainstream success and acclaim with 2008’s The Wrestler, and then went on to even greater success with 2010’s Black Swan. I consider that unfortunate. While I like both of those films, the director has never achieved a more perfect theatrical representation of obsession than he did with Requiem for a Dream. And though I’ve yet to see this year’s Noah, my feeling is Requiem is Aronofsky’s best film to date.

Even if I do have to steel myself every time I rewatch it.

Tomorrow — 2001!

Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys.  You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec    

August 30, 2014 Posted by | 40-Year-Old Critic, Movies, Music, Now Playing Podcast, Podcasts, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

40 Year-Old-Critic: The Doors (1991)

doorsIn The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.

See a list of all reviews

The critic awoke before dawn.  He put his boots on.  He chose a film from the ancient gallery and he walked on down the hall…

Believe it or not, I love the concept of film biographies, or biopics as they’re sometimes called. The world is full of colorful people with stories more strange and interesting than any fiction a Hollywood scribe can concoct. To learn a bit about a popular or historical figure, while also hopefully being entertained, seems like a win-win.

I realize this may be a shock to those who have heard my comments on the Now Playing Podcast review of The Aviator where I heaped my disdain on the overwrought, self-important Martin Scorsese-directed Howard Hughes biopic.

Therein lies the dichotomy: while I like the idea of a biopic, the execution is often lacking. A life cannot be compressed into a single film, so shortcuts are made to improve the narrative; and often the films come with this feeling that the director was saddled with the burden of making something to honor the subject.

Still, while they are the exception and not the rule, there are some biopics I completely love. Examples include: The Social Network’s profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Fire in Silicon Valley (the TNT TV movie about the rise of Microsoft and Apple), and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which feels like a martial arts film while profiling the star of that genre.

Of all of those, though, no biopic has had the impact on me that came with Oliver Stone’s The Doors.

It was by chance that I saw The Doors. My interest in a biography film is directly proportional to my interest in the subject. I don’t care about Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, so I didn’t see Finding Neverland; I’m not a fan of Liberace so I didn’t seek out Behind the Candelabra.

The-Doors-Val-Kilmer

From movement to posture to body shape, Kilmer became Morrison for The Doors.

In my teen years, not only wasn’t I a fan of The Doors, I barely knew them. I was more familiar with the Echo and the Bunnymen cover of People are Strange featured in The Lost Boys than I was any given Doors song.

Nor was I especially a fan of Stone’s (though this review series may give the opposite impression, as I already profiled Wall Street, and one more Stone film will appear before this series ends). After Wall Street I had seen Born on the Fourth of July and found it interesting, and I actually saw JFK before The Doors due to more interest in the subject. But JFK ended up becoming one of those biopics — like The Aviator — for which I have no tolerance.

I saw The Doors due to utter boredom. I was home from college for a weekend with no plans, so, as I was wont to do, I went to the video store with no agenda. A Saturday night, the new releases gone, I eventually came upon this film’s VHS box and saw Val Kilmer staring out at me, his hair and shirt aflame.

Kilmer was an actor I’d greatly enjoyed. Real Genius remains, to this day, one of my favorite 80s comedies, in large part due to the actor’s fun, yet emotional role as young laser scientist Chris Knight. In addition, Kilmer had given strong performances in Top Gun, Top Secret!, and Willow. I wanted to see what the actor could do if given a more serious role, and I had read nothing but praise for his portrayal of singer Jim Morrison.

I mostly knew co-star Kyle MacLachlan from Twin Peaks when I first saw The Doors.  His character of Ray Manzarek, Doors' keyboardist, is lost in this film; despite the title this movie is all about Morrison.

I mostly knew co-star Kyle MacLachlan from Twin Peaks when I first saw The Doors. His character of Ray Manzarek, Doors’ keyboardist, is lost in this film; despite the title this movie is all about Morrison.

I took the videocassette home, with no clue what to expect. I knew nothing of Morrison’s life or his band. I certainly didn’t expect to see visions of Native American spirit guides, trippy sexual satanic rituals, and Morrison receiving oral sex in the recording studio while singing. While there were silent parts, it felt like Morrison’s life was completely scored to his own music — and it fit perfectly.

I had never done acid or eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms, but after watching The Doors I felt as if I had done both. Even on my small television I lost myself in this story. The editing, the score, the dreamlike quality that inhabits almost every frame, made me feel I had experienced the film, not watched it.  The Doors took their name from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, and I felt mine had been opened through this biopic.

I ejected the tape feeling as if I had communed with Morrison, as he had on screen with the Native American.

When Crazy met Sally

When Crazy met Sally

Much of the credit for that must be given to Kilmer. Everything I had read, all the accolades heaped upon the actor, did not begin to do justice to this transformative performance. Despite watching the movie for him, by twenty minutes into the film I recognized that the actor had become lost to the role.

Part of it was a physical transformation — Kilmer losing weight to make himself as wiry as Morrison was in classic photos. More than just adjusting his body mass, though, Kilmer moved with a swagger I’ve not seen him have before or since. When he sang the songs he wasn’t just passable but exceptional. Somehow he captured the mystical authority that was Morrison’s trademark.

On my first watching of The Doors I didn’t realize how accurate Kilmer’s portrayal was; I knew nothing of Morrison and thus had no basis to which I could compare. What I did know, though, was that Kilmer had transcended the performances I had seen before and transformed into someone else for two-and-a-half hours.

Kilmer’s Morrison was sexy, cool, confident, cruel, drunk, stoned… he was magical. He was The Lizard King, he could do anything.

I had never desired to own a Doors record before this movie, but after delighting in this film I became obsessed. The very next day I went to the used music shop (where I was a regular) and bought some Doors CD’s that I listened to hundreds of times.

More, I wanted to find out the rest of Morrison’s story. The film showcased the high points but I needed to know more; about his supposed bastard child, about the satanic rituals he undertook, about his tumultuous relationship with girlfriend Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan, lost in Kilmer’s shadow). This being the pre-Internet era, I had to go to a bookstore, and within a week I had bought Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman’s biography No One Here Gets Out Alive.

This was not a short-term obsession. In the years since I’ve reread that book several times, as well as the autobiographies Riders on the Storm: My Life with Jim Morrison and The Doors by drummer John Densmore and Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors by keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and several other books along the way. I even bought a CD of a strange audio interview Morrison gave in his later years, and have listened to it religiously, looking for more insight into the man who hooked me on screen.

tumblr_l31k4qJs4F1qaseldo1_1280

Kilmer perfectly recreates an iconic photo of Morrison.

Through those years of research I came to admire Stone’s work even more. It is impossible to sum up one man’s life in a single film, but Stone had come damn close. Though the surviving Doors disagree, my own readings show that Stone was mostly factual. With any real-life scenario there are different accounts of what happened, and even among the band there are disagreements about what in the film is fiction.

In the end, as with all biographies, some characters were combined or cut out, but it seems that Stone’s film did not indulge in the over-fictionalization and emotional shortcuts that are the hallmark of the genre. Even good biopics, like Dragon, rely on this crutch more than The Doors appears to have.

But beyond facts, Stone created a film that wasn’t about Jim Morrison, it was about being Jim Morrison. You didn’t need to see his every aspect so much as understand his point of view, and that is captured perfectly on film. Despite the seriousness of the subject, and contracts with Courson’s family and the remaining Doors, Stone kept the film light, fun, and trippy. He even avoided his JFK downfall — he never indulged a conspiracy theory over Morrison’s mysterious death in a bathtub. Several books propagate urban legend that Morrison’s death was faked, that Mr. Mojo Risin’ (an anagram of Morrison’s name) was living somewhere in Africa, and some day the world would witness the return of The Lizard King. That is subject material that seems tailor-made for Stone, but he does not follow the impulse. The result is a biopic that works as a movie, and a film that entertains as it educates.

Yes, while I only see most biopics due to an interest in the subject matter, this one was the total opposite — the biography film made me an uber-fan of the subject!

To this day The Doors is a film I watch regularly. It has stood the test of time better than its lead actor or its director. It has become iconic in my own mind, and when I envision Morrison in my head I’m never sure if I’m seeing Kilmer or Jim.

In the end, it doesn’t matter — for in this film they were one in the same.

Tomorrow — 1992!

 

Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys.  You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec    

August 21, 2014 Posted by | 40-Year-Old Critic, Movies, Music, Now Playing Podcast, Podcasts, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

40 Year-Old-Critic: Howard the Duck (1986)

howard-the-duck-movie-poster

In The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.

See a list of all reviews

In 1986 I was obsessed with, and repulsed by, one film.

It starred a creature not entirely human, nor entirely animal.

The creature wanted to mate with its frizzy-haired, yet attractive, female co-star.

The film also featured a teleportation plot and a once-gentle scientist that slowly transforms into a beast.

That film was David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, and even its trailers scared the bejesus out of me. Those trailers ran before nearly every movie I watched. I was 11 years old, but still needed to leave the theater when I’d see The Fly approaching.

I was afraid. I was very afraid.

If I was writing this retrospective before 2011, this article would have focused on that film and how it pushed my adolescent boundaries into new territories.

But now I am going to write about Howard the Duck.

This is what I see in the ink blot...

This is what I see in the ink blot…

Or, more accurately, I’m going to write about talking about Howard the Duck. I think I’ve said everything I needed to say about the notorious 1986 bomb three years ago when I reviewed it — alongside co-hosts Stuart and Jakob — for Now Playing Podcast. I discussed seeing the film in theaters, reading the novelization (which I reviewed as well, on the Marvelicious Toys podcast), and even seeing the Dark Overlord in a Rorschach Test. After more than two hours discussing Howard the Duck, what more could I have to say?

Plenty, it turns out. It was a complete accident, but Howard the Duck changed my life.

As I discussed on that show, I’d always had a kitschy fascination with George Lucas’ follow-up to Return of the Jedi. I knew people hated it, but didn’t understand why. It followed the Ghostbusters formula to a T: creatures from another plane come to Earth, wacky scientists try to determine the cause, and hilarity ensues. It even ends with one of the main characters transforming into an evil beast and the fate of the world determined by an animated laser battle between the heroes and giant, evil creatures.

"They let kids watch this film????"

“They let kids watch this film????”

I loved Ghostbusters, and I loved Howard the Duck even more — as Sigourney Weaver’s Dana never wore anything close to the slinky, sexy outfit that perfectly framed Lea Thompson’s Beverly.

Though it had been 25 years, I was excited by the chance to review Howard the Duck for Now Playing Podcast. Our movie review show was coming up on its 4th anniversary and it had always been a way for me to discuss films for which I had passion. Whether I loved a film or hated it, if I felt something then I wanted to talk about it.

Around this time the show was also finally starting to find some success. Our early, short-form reviews had downloads that measured in the teens. With our Friday the 13th Retrospective Series — something I envisioned as a quick one-off — downloads jumped from the teens to the thousands.

We continued to work hard and over the years our audience started to find us. We were still a small fish in a large sea, but we had grown from a dwarf puffer to at least a catfish.

This film was no vehicle for an intelligent, sensitive duck.

This film was no vehicle for an intelligent, sensitive duck.

The success of our 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street series emboldened me, and, that same year, Iron Man 2 inspired me. After seeing Iron Man, War Machine, Nick Fury, and Black Widow share the screen I could not contain my excitement for The Avengers. So I pitched to Stuart and Jakob the biggest retrospective series ever: all of the Marvel movies, in order, starting with Howard the Duck.

There was quite a bit of negotiation, wrangling, and reordering of movies; but between May 2010 and March 2011 we came to an accord and the Now Playing Marvel Movie Retrospective began.

It was our biggest series, or biggest gamble, and it all hinged on Howard.

Perhaps it was the buildup, but that show always seemed special. We were coming off the Philip K Dick Retrospective Series, which had been pushed to Spring 2011 after The Adjustment Bureau’s release date changed. Downloads were low on the Dick series and there were some production issues. By the time we hit The Adjustment Bureau morale behind-the-scenes was low.

darkoverlordAll of that changed with Howard. To my memory, that was the first Now Playing review that, in its raw audio, went more than three hours. Over the course of two years I had allowed Now Playing’s runtime to grow, but only one show had ever gone more than 2 hours: the 2010 review of the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake.

I spent about 80 hours editing our Howard the Duck review, trying to hold to the editor’s axiom of “kill your darlings.” But I just couldn’t do it.

Even during my 11th pass on the Howard the Duck review I was still laughing out loud at the jokes.

Before I even finished the edit I knew that show was something special. I just prayed it would find an audience.

It did.

Maybe it was the press releases I had sent, maybe it was the social media promotion, but for the first time, Now Playing Podcast broke through iTunes’ Top 10 TV/Film audio podcast rankings. It took a few days after the show was released, but we had done it!

That spot increased our visibility, and the downloads multiplied exponentially. To go from the unsuccessful Dick series to the top of the iTunes charts was just incredible. Howard the Duck became iTunes’ 5th most downloaded episode in the aforementioned category.

Howard had a theatrical come-back this year, but this mangy fowl is NOT my Howard!

Howard had a theatrical come-back this year, but this mangy fowl is NOT my Howard!  The costume in 1986 looked better than this.

The success was so astounding I actually hesitated before releasing the next show. I knew our Man-Thing podcast was also pretty funny, but the newest show is always the most downloaded. Downloads of Howard were sure to decrease.

Still, we had a schedule, and so Man-Thing went out on time, and became iTunes’ No. 1 most downloaded TV/Film audio podcast. The following week we reviewed Kick-Ass and it grabbed the No. 1 slot, pushing Man-Thing into second place.

Stuart, Jakob, and I were stunned. It was unbelievable to look at the iTunes rankings and see Man-Thing at the top. I have since joked that more people listened to our review of Man-Thing than actually saw that damn film.

One thing we all agreed on — it was Howard the Duck that launched those shows to the top. Howard was a special show, combining serious film criticism with a terrific dose of humor, making fun of ourselves as well as the film, and we knew that was why listeners kept coming back to our show.

Now Playing has had its ups and downs since then. Some shows and retrospectives click more with audiences than others, and some shows I am more proud of than others. Still, it was with Howard the Duck that all the pieces fell into place and listeners responded.

For those reasons I will always love that duck.

I have stated at least twice on the podcast that I wish I could turn that “Red Arrow” grade for Howard into a “Green Arrow” on our site. I realize the film has its flaws — I still believe the second act drags — but I enjoy it anyway. I gave Howard  the review I did not because I didn’t like the movie, but because I didn’t think others would find the same enjoyment. After all, our end rating is always a “recommendation” and not a “thumbs up.” When I give the “Green Arrow” I’m not saying, “I like this movie,” I’m saying, “I think you will like this movie.”

Well, I knew back then that I liked Howard the Duck in spite of the flaws.

That fondness has grown as, through Now Playing, I’ve become closely associated with that “fowl” creature. Stuart and Jakob were with me in the review, but I was Howard’s champion (and the one that saw the Dark Overlord in a Rorschach test). Over the past three years that special relationship with this childhood guilty pleasure has grown.

Original face casts of Jeffrey Jones used by the make-up department.  They now adorn my wall.

Original face casts of Jeffrey Jones used by the make-up department. They now adorn my wall.

I started collecting a few trinkets from the Howard the Duck film — the old trading cards, a candy cigar, a mini duck head that once held sugar treats. Then I got the Bowen statue, the Toy Biz figure. Finally, this year, I took the plunge — one of the Industrial Light and Magic creature shop workers was selling several Howard the Duck production pieces.

On my desk, a foot from me as I write, is a glass egg that Lucasfilm gave to crew and press back in 1986. Inside that egg is a single duck feather. The Howard the Duck logo on the front makes me smile, not because of that 1986 film about a duck trapped in a world he never made, but because of the podcast that I made that found its place in the world.

Tomorrow — 1987!

Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys.  You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec

August 16, 2014 Posted by | 40-Year-Old Critic, Comic Books, Marvelicious Toys, Movies, Music, Now Playing Podcast, Podcasts, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 40 Year-Old-Critic: Howard the Duck (1986)

Duran Duran Rocks Chicago

When I found out Duran Duran was touring in support of their new CD, I returned to my fangirl roots and literally squealed with delight.  Duran Duran was coming to Chicago! I roped my husband into going along, regaling him with useless Duran Duran trivia.Opening for Duran Duran was the Neon Trees.  I can’t decide if I was disappointed or respected them for not wearing a stitch of neon clothing.  A lot of their songs sounded similar but I think that is a hazard of being a relatively unknown opening band.  Their music sounded like retro pop – they would have fit in well during the New Wave explosion in the 80’s.  It’s hard to judge an opening band on one show alone.  I didn’t hate them but I’m not running out to buy their CD.

After a brief intermission, it was time for my childhood fantasies to be played out.  I had no idea what to expect.  Previous concerts by 80’s bands have been let downs.  Given that I paid higher than average for the ticket and that they were still selling out shows, I felt there was only a slight chance at disappointment.  By the time they finished their first song, Before The Rain, any doubts I had were gone. These guys were good.  They played well and they sounded great.

The set list was a mixture of their well known hits like A View To A Kill, The Reflex, Careless Memories, and some newer songs such as All You Need Is Now.   Throughout the years, they have kept the same sound – something to be said for a band that formed in 1978.  New songs blended in perfectly with their classics.

The first song to really get the crowd going was View To A Kill.  That song seriously rocked live.  While Duran Duran’s original guitarist Andy Taylor no longer tours with the band, his current replacement Dom Brown filled the vacancy well.  He played every note like it was his own.  After this point, the concert only got better.  The Reflex was played to an astounding sing a long as was Hungry Like The Wolf.

Simon LeBon really knows how to work a crowd.  He was engaging and all eyes were on him.   Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor appeared to be mostly behind the scenes.  I think the only time I saw both of them look engaged with the audience was when Simon announced the band individually. They looked serious, but not like they were having a bad time.  The clear cut stage leaders are John Taylor and Simon.  Both worked the crowd and spent time on both sides of the stage appeasing fans.

Their stage was not the elaborate sets of the 80’s.  This was simple, with three video screens, lots of lights and four weird video screen faces.  We might have been too close for the full effect but the video screen faces made Simon look like Terrance Stamp in Superman 2.

All in all, Duran Duran’s music, as well as themselves, have held up well in the thirty-something years since they formed.  Their music is solid and they play one hell of a live show.

Watch Duran Duran perform Notorious

October 25, 2011 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment