Friday, July 15, 2011

The Angel-A-Thon: Season 3

In “Angel” Season 3, the vampire-detective show manages to get even darker, if that’s possible. You could measure the torment and angst on screen in some of these episodes by the gallon. Yet at the same time, this is the season “Angel” really gels and the characters form a real “family” of outcasts and freaks – which makes it all the more painful when bad things keep happening to them.
 
This season Angel Investigations continue to grow – the nervous Fred joins the team, while Gunn and the demon Lorne both also become full-time cast members. Fred’s a strange addition at first, and I felt Amy Acker overplays the whole “na├»ve country girl with an accent” schtick. But she becomes an enjoyable cast member, although I couldn't ever buy into the idea that her and Gunn would have a relationship – they never make a plausible couple.  I also really loved the changes Wesley went through this year, completing the transformation from tweedy geek in his early “Buffy” appearances into a grim, haunted and authoritative figure. (Alexis Denisof proves himself a pretty solid actor this season.)
 
But the big ongoing story this season is the tale of Darla, Angel’s evil ex, and her pregnancy and the surprise child she delivers.  It’s a great tragic soap opera storyline, complete with a resurrected ancient foe of Angel’s, Holtz. Holtz, wonderfully played by Keith Szarabajka, was a vampire hunter 200 years ago whose entire family was slaughtered by the evil Angelus. Brought back to life to continue his hunt for Angel, Holtz is a fascinating character – seething with righteous rage over Angel’s past deeds. The whole Darla/Holtz plot comes to a great conclusion as Angel’s son is born – then through one of those magic/timey-wimey things, ends up a few episodes later as a scowling Pete from “Mad Men.” The grown Connor and his fractious relationship with his father give “Angel” another surge of energy as the third season comes to a close.

This season is the best yet, as it tangles fatherhood, guilt, love, and vengeance into one boiling mass of emotions and twists. I’d have to say this year is when the spinoff becomes as good as the parent show “Buffy” was at its peak. It’s a tribute to the skill of the actors and writers that the show doesn’t drown in its own bleak plotlines. Just enough humour and action are used to break up the gloomy bits.
 
Best episode: There’s several great ones this year, but I have to go with “Sleep Tight,” about as tense an episode “Angel” has produced, with Angel’s baby son becoming a football passed between a variety of players. Wesley’s betrayal of the team is startling, but what’s even more gripping is how horribly his behaviour damages the bond between the friends of Angel Investigations – the easy camaraderie between the gang is broken, and the fallout from this episode lingers through the rest of this season and into Season 4. The shocking finale of this episode, where Angel loses Connor and Holtz, seemingly forever, is a gut-blow to the viewer. (Runner-up status to the season finale "Tomorrow" which has a great cliff-hanger ending -- one character sinking into the sea, one ascending to higher realms.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Movies I Have Never Seen Part 5: 'Easy Rider'

Grab your helmet and here we go again with another long-delayed installment of famed movies I've finally gotten around to seeing or the first time....

Why it’s famous: “We blew it, man.” If you were making a time capsule of 1960s counterculture, “Easy Rider” would have to be at the top of the pile. The tale of two hippie pals aimlessly motorcycling across America, it’s a landmark movie – a slap in the face of complacent middle America culture, it opens with the leads snorting cocaine at a drug deal. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are ‘Captain America’ and Billy, antiheroes living the footloose dream. Along the way they pick up a drunken lawyer (Jack Nicholson in his breakthrough role) and dive deep into the heart of Americana.

What I thought: This is another one of those movies that you can kind of feel like you have seen even if you haven't -- it seeped into the popular consciousness long ago, and actually sitting down and watching "Easy Rider" for the first time in 2011 is -- well, kind of a trip, as the characters might say. It's darker than you might imagine. “Easy Rider” caught the zeitgeist in 1969 as hippie freedom clashes with rural America, and director, the late Dennis Hopper, wonderfully catches that sense of possibility and nightmare lurking on the wide open road.

Even the wall-to-wall rock soundtrack was pretty groundbreaking -- Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe owe Hopper a lot of their style. Using Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" is a huge cliche by now, but when it revs up over the opening credits, you still feel a visceral kick as audiences must have done back in '69.

Yet while "Easy Rider" is full of great imagery (nothing says "freedom" quite like two bikes roaring down a desert highway), as a movie it sputters a bit. Fonda and Hopper have a great time -- developing the personalities they'd basically explore for the rest of their careers, Fonda laconic and mellow yet authoritative, Hopper manic and frenzied. Yet the first half-hour or so of "Easy Rider" is often slow and unfocused, with some really irritating "flashy" scene cutting editing.

But then Jack Nicholson bounds into the movie about halfway through and hugely lifts the game – it’s a star-making turn in every sense of the word. Drawling in a Louisiana accent, and less over-the-top than he'd become as an actor, his George Benson is the voice of the audience in this film, both gently mocking the hippie travelers and yet longing to trip out with them. But for Jack's character it all ends horribly badly. It's a short performance - just 25 minutes or so - but Nicholson etches himself firmly in your mind and has most of the movie's best lines: "They'll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em."

And that to me is what surprises most about "Easy Rider" -- while I had often imagined it to be some free-love paean to the sixties, it's really a movie that shows how that image was never true. I was struck by the scenes at a remote hippie commune where the people are trying to live off the land and failing -- one long pan shows the faces of these dreamers at dinner, dazed, confused and strung-out looking, beaten down by the impossibility of trying to "get back to nature". It's hardly a positive advertisement for the lifestyle. Few people really seem to be enjoying their so-called "freedom." The visceral hatred that "townies" show to the traveling bikers is startling, savage, and yet very believable coming at the end of a turbulent decade. "Easy Rider" may show us a lot of freedom, but in the end it shows us the price it usually demands.

Worth Seeing: Yes, as long as you know going in you’re going to get a time capsule of 1969 Americana. The themes of “Easy Rider” are still relevant today once you get past the groovy dated bits, man, and while I wish I could say 40 years on America has become a far more tolerant country, there’s still work to be done.

Grade: B+
 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Nik's Unheralded Albums #6: Julian Lennon, "Mr. Jordan."

I do feel bad for the children of rock stars. Never mind all the lunacy involved around growing up being Keith Richards Jr or whomever, but then there’s the impossible expectations that come if you decide to follow in their footsteps. The music world is littered with Frank Sinatra Juniors, Jakob Dylans and so forth.

One kind-of-success was John Lennon’s oldest son Julian Lennon. He had a few minor hits back in the mid-1980s, then sank from sight. His first two albums were what I'd call perfectly pleasant pop -- with their biggest attraction Julian's startling similarity to his late father's voice. But only so much can be done with nostalgia, so Julian Lennon never quite rose above one-hit wonder status with his single "Too Late For Goodbyes."
 
Yet Lennon Jr. continued plugging away, and surprised with his third album, 1989's "Mr. Jordan," a more sonically adventurous little gem – the kind of pop that’s often called “Beatles-esque” which here at least can be traced partly to genetics. I’d say it’s the highlight of Julian’s brief recording career, with a self-assurance that his earlier work lacked.  The mellow singer-songwriter vibe has been replaced by a grittier, more experimental sound that really works well.

The very first track of "Mr. Jordan" announces that we're moving on from John Lennon to David Bowie as an influence, with Julian boasting a deeper, sturdier singing voice than before, more willing to expand his range. "Now You're In Heaven" pulses with a strong beat and crunchy guitar riffs, sounding like a lost single from Bowie's "Lodger." "Open Your Eyes" bounces along on a very '80s Human League keyboard line, mashed together with a dash of "Tomorrow Never Knows" swirl. "Angillette" is a sweeping ballad that does echo "Mind Games"-era Lennon, but is tinted with Julian's own distinctive ache. With "Get Up," Lennon reaches further back into rock history with a loose-limbed rockabilly pastiche. Everything-and-the-kitchen sink album closer "I Want You To Know" is a psychedelic romp that piles on the soundscapes (at one point Lennon sounds like he's singing while marching underwater). "Mr. Jordan" is a magpie of an album, with Julian trying on a variety of musical hats, some of which fit better than others. His willingness to experiment is bracing and he sounds far more free than he did in his earlier work. But after a couple more albums, that was it for Julian's music endeavors.
 
Lennon seems to have given up the music biz, and I can’t say I blame him – it rarely turns out well for pop kids. But over his brief heyday he delivered some material that moved well out of his father's shadow. (The music of his half-brother Sean, whose own hipster-ish solo records got a bit of hype in the 1990s, has aged far less well to me.) While Julian Lennon can't ever hope to entirely get past that formidable father figure, "Mr. Jordan" shows he had a voice of his own.

"Now You're In Heaven" video: