Friday, June 8, 2012

The Cynic Reviews: Prometheus

In 1979, Ridley Scott made what is, in my opinion, the greatest horror movie of all time, as well as one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time. But even in the hands of talented directors, the series went downhill after the first two masterful enstallments; the series never again reached those heights. Now, 33 years after that first classic, Ridley Scott takes back the helm to try to return to the franchise's glory days with Prometheus.

First off, I'm not going to go into detail about the plot, as I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone. The basic skeleton is that two scientists in the tail end of the 21st Century find a series of artifacts suggesting that mankind was visited by a race of people from a very distant star system, and that these people may have been our creators. And then shit gets real.

It's tough for any movie to live up to the hype and expectations heaped on Prometheus's lofty shoulders, and it's difficult to look past this hype and look at it as a standalone film (or as the ending would have you believe, a stadalone franchise), which is what Scott clearly wanted it to be. While much of this film's imagery informs what is seen in it, this is not a direct prequel to Alien. This works very much in its favor. It's tough making new scares when the audience knows where everything is going, so making a world where the iconic facehuggers and Xenomorphs are in early, primitive stages alongside very different, more advanced creatures helps keep things interesting. Still, it's impossible to not to compare it to Alien. Don't do this too much; it will make Prometheus seem much more disappointing than it really is. I started off doing this, and it made my opinion of the first twenty minutes or so sink. Once I forgot that, and just sat back to enjoy the ride, I liked the movie. A lot.

There's a lot to recommend Prometheus. Unsurprisingly for a Ridley Scott film, the movie looks fantastic. It's worth shelling over your nine bucks just to marvel at the scenery. It's beautiful, mysterious, unsettling, and terrifying all at once. While Alien was small and claustrophobic, it's clear the Scott made this film to be an epic, and it takes great advantage of that scope. I chose not to watch it in 3D, as I think that 3D is a dumb gimmick made by greedy executives to drive up ticket prices that needs to hurry up and die for a second time. But like all good movies, Prometheus is still great in two dimensions. Good sets and cinematography are still good sets and cinematography regardless of whether they're flying at your face. The acting is very good all across the board, but the show is stolen by Michael Fassbender as the android David 8. He's marvelous, and needs recognition come Oscar night. Seriously; he's that good. Not to anger any Bishop fanboys out there, but he's the best android the franchise has had since Ian Holm. The special effects are also top notch, though there was a bit of an over reliance on CGI. Still, it's some damn fine CGI.

But it's not perfect. The script sometimes fails Scott and his cast, with pieces of clunky dialogue that didn't need to be there. Some of the characters aren't well defined enough, most notably Charlize Theron, who tries her best despite being given next to nothing to work with. And much as I love Guy Pearce as an actor, they should have actually cast an elderly actor as the ancient CEO of Weyland Enterprises. Pearce, as always, does a fine job, but he's undone by laughable CGI aging. I hate to break it to Hollywood, but special effects aren't that good yet. There other things that let me down or made me scratch my head, but due to spoilers I won't talk about them here.

It's not Alien, which was flawless, nor is it James Cameron's sequel, which was very nearly flawless. Prometheus is far from perfect, but there's still a lot to recommend it. It may not be Alien, but it's still good enough to be worthy of its proximity to it. There's very clear sequel bait at the end, and I eagerly await that next installment, hoping it answers the many questions that Prometheus left. Still, it gives the audience a lot to talk about. Grade: B+

Sunday, February 12, 2012

the Top Five Best Albums of All Time

Before we start off, I must remind everyone here that this is all opinion. I may have strong opinions on music, but they're still opinions. I assume that there are a lot of you who don't share my taste in music. If you disagree, I would love to hear it, but please be respectful. Remember: You have the right to think that I'm off my rocker (I probably am), but bear in mind that I have the same right.

5. Summertime- Booker T. and the MGs (originally by George Gershwin)
It seems odd that, when picking the definitive version of one of the most frequently played jazz standards, I should pick a soul band. After all, luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Michael Brecker, and Charlie Parker have made brilliant recordings of this song. Needless to say, the completion here is tough. But despite Satchmo’s unmatched influence, despite Brecker’s awe-inspiring phrasing, and despite Parker’s unbelievably fast fingers (though this is one of his few slower pieces), the best version is probably the simplest.

It’s all in the feeling here- Booker T. Jones slows down the piece to almost half of its original tempo, letting each musician to really savor each note. As weird and crazy as this sounds, this cover actually feels like late summer; it feels sticky and too humid. The song’s about lazy summer days, and this instrumental rendition conveys that feel better than any lyrics ever could. No other version has accomplished this feat, and that makes Booker T.’s cover stick out among a vast sea of covers. He gave a jazz standard more soul than most R&B artists have ever been able to accomplish with their own material.

4. Hurt- Johnny Cash (originally by Nine Inch Nails)
Yeah, I know it’s overplayed. I know that everybody puts this song on their list of best covers. I know that you’re all tired of people saying that this is a good cover, but damn it, this is a hell of a cover. There’s no denying that.

See, Trent Reznor is one of those musicians whom I respect, but don’t really like all that much. He’s a pretty good composer and he uses harmonic and melodic ideas that most people in the fields of rock and pop shy away from, and I can appreciate that. But his music always seems so cold and detached and while I suppose is the point of his respective subgenre, it winds up harming the material in the long run. “Hurt” is a perfect example of that. While Reznor removes himself from any emotion, Cash makes things a little too personal, creating a much more powerful, multidimensional rendition of the material. Reznor’s original is freaky and disturbing, much as it ought to be, but Cash makes something that affects the listener on a much deeper level. And as overplayed as it is, the experience never diminishes, as Cash was an addict for many, many years. This is why he succeeds and every high school bass looking for the one song he can play to impress women with fails.

Plus, “Ring of Fire” is way more overplayed.

3. TIE: Georgia On My Mind- Ray Charles (originally by Hoagie Carmichael)/Try a Little Tenderness- Otis Redding (originally by the Ray Noble Orchestra)
These are together for two reasons: they both are in very similar veins, and I simply can’t choose between the two. If I only included one, I wouldn’t be able to put the other on here, and that’s not really fair.

What we have here are two 30’s jazz standards that were turned into soul classics so well that the notion that they’re both covers has been almost completely forgotten. I was very surprised to find that these weren’t the originals, considering that nobody will ever give a rat’s ass about any versions that aren’t by Ray Charles or Otis Redding respectively, and with good reason; just as the world with only ever associate “Giant Steps” with John Coltrane for one of the greatest solos ever improvised, Charles and Redding took throwaway novelty songs and made them mean something. They put significantly more feeling into the songs than the lyrics really justified, but that’s soul for you. Nobody has ever been able to top these guys, and nobody ever will.

2. With a Little Help from My Friends- Joe Cocker (originally by The Beatles)
One of my cousins called this the worst cover he’s ever heard. My cousin is insane.

Look, don’t think that means that I’m condoning Beatles covers. For the most part, only the Beatles can play the Beatles, because every time I hear a cover of one of their songs I think, “you know, Icould just be listening to the Beatles”. Sometimes goals are just too lofty to achieve.

Unless you’re Joe Cocker. He’s waded into these dangerous waters over and over again and kicks ass every single time. In fact, several of these covers have become classics in their own right, such as “Something”, “Come Together”, and this.

Let me put it like this: Think about the last time you heard a cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Was the cover based on the original or was it a big, soulful, brassy, ballad in ¾ time? It was the big, brassy one, wasn’t it? Almost every other version of this song is based almost verbatim on Cocker’s arrangement. And why not? Let’s face it; “With a Little Help from My Friends” was never the Beatles’ best song. They’ve written deeper stuff, as well as more interesting stuff. This song was a pop diddy; it was never the centerpiece of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s a very, very good song, but it suffered from blending in with the typical “60’s rock sound”. What made the Beatles great was their ability to break rules, not follow them. Cocker completely changed the piece, turning a harmless pop song into a loud, pleading soul-rock classic. The Beatles made a memorable song, but Cocker made it unforgettable.

1.Round Midnight- Miles Davis (originally by Thelonious Monk)
Originally, “With a Little Help from My Friends” was going to be number one. Then I remembered something: my favorite song is a cover of a piece by composer, pianist, and possessor of the world’s most badass name Thelonious Monk.

This was the first song I ever heard on vinyl, and I still have yet to hear anything nearly as beautiful. There have been many, many covers of this song by some of the greatest jazz musicians ever: Monk, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock, Maynard Ferguson, the list goes on. Hell, even Amy Winehouse recorded a pretty good version. Yet, no one has ever been able to top Miles Davis. The closest is a gorgeous version by Stan Getz, but even he couldn’t do what Davis’ quintet could do; not even with a full orchestra backing him. There’s just something about the way Miles plays the melody, something about the harmony and solo played by an up-and-coming John Coltrane on the tenor sax. It can’t just be Miles’ heavy use of the Harmon mute. Davis just had a way of playing that, try as many have, no other trumpeter has been able to duplicate. His phrasing is exquisite, Coltrane sticks through at all the right times, and the rhythm section is masterful. I may never be able to fully explain why this rendition makes me feel the way I do, but I can say what it is- pure bliss.