Thursday, January 31, 2008

Iron Maiden, Dickinson take to the air

What can't Bruce Dickinson do? Published author, former world class fencer, successful solo musician, lead singer of the greatest heavy metal band of all time--Iron Maiden--and, oh yeah, licensed pilot.

Dickinson is actually flying Maiden around the world on its 2008 World Tour, stepping behind the controls of the band's very own Boeing 757. Check out the paint job on this baby:

Seriously, what's next for this guy? Can world domination be far behind?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Shawshank Redemption: Cinematic perfection

Part 9 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.


Movies just don't get any better than 1994's The Shawshank Redemption. To call this a feel-good film is a gross misunderstatement: When I watch it, I'm reminded of why life is worth living, and that hope remains, no matter the depths in which you may find your spirit. It's a profound affirmation of life.

The plot is a simple one: Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) is serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. While in prison he befriends an old convict (Red, played by the incomparable Morgan Freeman), also serving life for murder, albeit one that he did commit.

But The Shawshank Redemption is much deeper than a mere prison film, or a buddy movie. It's a film about hope and redemption, hardly surprising given the film's title. But it's not just about the obvious, easy-to-spot redemption of Dufresne, who escapes from Shawshank Prison and takes down the corrupt prison warden on his way out. It's more so about the redemption of two souls--Dufresne and Red. This element is what makes Shawshank, in my opinion, a truly great film.

Dufresne may be innocent of the crime of which he is accused, but he is also a "cold fish," as his fellow inmates call him, an opaque, distant soul whose unfeeling demeanor casts him in a bad light with the judge and jury, and lands him in prison. At the movie's outset he remains distant, uncommunicative, and reclusive. He theorizes (probably correctly) that this flaw is what drove his wife into another man's arms, and the situation that resulted in her death: "My wife used to say I'm a hard man to know, a closed book. She complained about it all the time...I loved her, I just didn't know how to show it, that's all. I killed her Red--I didn't pull the trigger, but I drove her away. That's why she died, because of me, who I am."

Red on the other hand is guilty of committing a senseless crime as a youth. But while he's served his time and is a worthy candidate for parole, he's not truly ready for release because, until he meets and befriends Dufresne, he doesn't appreciate what life has to offer. His appeals before the parole board twice in the film are hollow and unconvincing, and result in rejection. He is, in short, without hope, an old, institutionalized man who feels his only purpose is to go on living on the inside, swapping contraband for cigarettes.

It's noteworthy that Red, always cool and in control, only loses his calm once: When Andy brings up the subject of hope: "You need it so you don't forget that there's places in the world that aren't made out of stone--there's something inside you that they can't get to that's yours. Hope," says Andy.

"Let me tell you something friend--hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It's got no use on the inside. You better get used to the idea," Red replies.

It's amazing to watch how both men bloom and grow in one another's company as the film progresses, even in the midst of the hell of Shawshank. The prison is depicted as a vision of the underworld in the opening sequence, with the new convicts ("fresh fish") stripped naked, deloused with burning powder, and marched into dark, isolated cells where other inmates bet on who will break first. Guards beat prisoners mercilessly, even to death at times. Presiding over this hell is warden Norton, who, much like Satan, thinks himself God, but is corrupt and evil at the core.

In the end, both men face a simple choice (as told beautifully by Dufresne in the film's iconic line): It comes down to a simple choice, Red: Get busy living, or get busy dying. Confronted with the choice of suicide at the end of a rope, or taking a terrible risk for the chance at salvation, Andy chooses the latter, and his escape from Shawshank is a thing of cinematic beauty. He crawls through 500 yards of foul-filled sewer pipe (an apt metaphor for life, perhaps) before he escapes, throwing his arms up to heaven in praise.

Red's redemption is more subtle but just as powerful. With his mind and soul opened by Andy's example, his third appeal before the parole board is painfully honest, heartfelt, and successful: "There's not a day that goes by that I don't feel regret--I look back at the way I was then, a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him, I want to try and talk some sense into him, tell him the way things are, but I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left. I've got to live with that."

As the film ends we're left with a beautifully uplifting ending, two friends embracing on the warm sand by the blue waters of the Pacific. The colors here are achingly beautiful after two-plus hours of gray prison walls. It makes you feel like anything is possible. And that is why I love this film.

Remember Red--hope is a good thing, and good things never die.

It's worth noting that, as most people know, The Shawshank Redemption is based on a novella by master of horror Stephen King. I highly recommend that story as well (you can find it in Different Seasons). It's one of King's best.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Del Toro chosen to direct The Hobbit

Buzz around the internet, including this story from the Hollywood Reporter, appears to put Guillermo Del Toro in as the chosen director for the The Hobbit.

I haven't seen any of Del Toro's films, which include Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, Blade 2, and The Devil's Backbone. But I've heard lots of good things about him and Pan's Labyrinth in particular, so I'm hoping for the best.

Friday, January 25, 2008

...and the Blade Runner bashing continues

Just when I thought the Blade Runner bashing was over, along comes another smug review of its new "Final Cut" release, courtesy of the Slate Web site. Critic Stephen Metcalf accuses the film of not only possessing a light script, weak characters, and pretension--a trio of old, tired saws--but also takes some mean-spirited shots at the fans who have come to its defense. Writes Metcalf:

The mystery of Blade Runner is not that early audiences were so put off by it, but that a quasi-sacred halo has come to surround it, a force field so powerful as to apparently render nuanced critical judgment impossible.

Well, as a card-carrying member of the "cult," let me take a moment to repudiate Metcalf's review.

Metcalf's review is well-written and in some cases, quite correct. Blade Runner has certainly benefitted over the years from "ancillary distribution" on VHS and DVD, which gave ample opportunity to rehabilitate its image. I also had to chuckle at his accurate mocking of the (too) many workprints of BR floating around on video, and the pedantic discussions that spring up around the Web over why one version sucks/rules/is superior to another/is antithetical to Ridley Scott's "vision." I too find these discussions tiresome.

But Metcalf too lightly brushes over the damage inflicted by the 1982 Theatrical Cut, which dumbed down Scott's intended film, added a laughable voice-over, and removed the darkness of the ending and the Deckard-as-replicant subtext. Writes Metcalf:

Over the years, the idea of a Blade Runner wholly unfucked up by the suits has become a kind of holy mythopoeia that accompanies the film everywhere, as cherished as the idea of a childhood wholly unfucked up by parents...

Well, the hard and cold truth is that the "suits" did fuck up Blade Runner in 1982. But just because its been catalogued and rehashed ad nauseum does not make it any less true.

Metcalf later adds that the critics that panned Blade Runner in 1982 were right all along:

But for all of its supposed transmutations along the way to this, "The Final Cut," it is still vulnerable to the same criticisms originally applied to it. The movie is a transfixing multisensory turn-on from beginning to end. But because its story is underplotted and its characters almost totally opaque, the weight of the film falls to its sumptuous visual palette—its abiding strength—and to its quasi-Nietzschean theology—its abiding weakness.

In other words, Blade Runner is all visuals and no soul, a victim of "underplotting" and poorly-drawn characters. I guess a car chase could have livened things up, or perhaps Ridley Scott could have given Deckard a wife and set up a nice, juicy, love triangle when Rachel enters the picture. Because that would have made the film so much better. As for the Nietzsche influence, I see this as a strength, not a weakness.

Metcalf also says, A movie that is about what it's like to be mortal should not include the line "What is it like to be mortal?" but Blade Runner comes perilously close.

I don't even know how to respond to this last criticism, only to say that Metcalf must not have been watching too closely. The very reason Blade Runner is accused of being "underplotted" and "slow" is because its precisely not a film about action. Even as it asks, "what makes us human," it spends most of its two hours trying to answer the question, and in my opinion succeeds on a more profound level than most films seeking to do the same. I don't know why he labels such examination "turgid," only that I detect a whiff of elitism in the review.

Finally, Metcalf makes the tragic mistake of revealing that his wife "laughed" at Roy Batty's death scene. A word to critics who resort to anecdotal evidence ("hey, lots of people I know laughed at Blade Runner. Therefore, it sucks!") to make their point: No one cares. It's a shallow tactic and ultimately proves nothing. I expected better from Slate.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Dungeons and Dragons dilemma

An interesting difference of opinion--and gaming styles--recently cropped up during our regular Dungeons and Dragons game. The scenario involved an interesting quandary about player versus player-character decisions, and revealed a simple truth about role-playing games in general: That sometimes, there is no right answer.

To provide a little background: The island nation of Aflitan had just declared war on the island of Ilsardia, whom our party (or at least three of us) have sworn oaths to protect. Our party was hurrying to stop an all-out attack that we thought was about to occur on the peaceful village of Hommlet. It was now early evening, and the attack was to come sometime before daybreak.

En route, my PC (an elven ranger) noticed a single set of tracks leading away from Hommlet--a strange finding, given the snowy conditions, the time of day, and the general unsafe conditions of the road. We reasoned that it may have been an Aflitanian spy off to deliver a signal for the attack. But opinions were divided: should we make all haste to Hommlet, or follow the tracks and investigate? Ultimately, we decided to violate one of the oldest and most sacred rules of the game ("Never split the party!") and break into two groups: Tristan and Shem, our human fighter and halfling thief, respectively, would press on at all speed to reach Hommlet and warn the populace. I would follow the tracks with our cleric and wizard.

Our progess following the tracks was slow and Tristan and Shem reached Hommlet first. Naturally, the worst scenario occured--an attack had already begun. Hearing yells of pain and the clash of steel on steel--and witnessing a Hommlet defender pass his spear clean through an attacker, only to have it strike back, seemingly unfazed (undead?)--Tristan and Shem drew their swords and charged into the fray.

So was this the appropriate action? One of our players who controls the wizard PC (Cyrus) argued vehemently against it, and with good reason. When attacking piecemeal, a party is much more vulnerable. In D&D, as in real life, there's strength in numbers. Each PC has a role in combat, with bow users and spell-slingers providing long range support for the toe-to-toe fighters. Shem and Tristan also deprived themselves of entering the battle powered up with valuable "buff" spells, like haste and bless, that our wizard and cleric could have conferred.

Secondly, no one likes to sit and watch from the sidelines. Presumably when we next meet, I and the wizard and cleric players will to have to wait and watch a couple rounds of tense, exciting combat as we rush back toward Hommlet.

In summary, these are all good reasons for irritance. But Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing aren't that simple, and there's another side to the story to consider.

In role-playing games (as is evident by both their name, and their nature), the player assumes a role--that of his or her character. The degree to which we imbue ourselves into these roles varies from player to player. This level of player immersion typically falls into one of three camps:
  1. Players who actually adopt voices and accents and "become" their character as much as possible.
  2. Players who play out how they believe their character would act in a given circumstance, based on their character's alignment (i.e., good, evil, neutral), personality, history, and other factors.
  3. Players who consider their character to be an abstraction, and play their PC as an extension of themselves. In other words, I, Brian Murphy, am also Arden the Ranger, and Arden has the same beliefs and exhibits the same behavior that I would in a given situation.
Personally, I tend to hew closest to option no. 2. I'm not one for mimicking voices and mannerisms, but I like to think and act as Arden would act, even if it means that I might make a less than tactically-sound decision. I get a kick out of stepping outside myself. But there's also something to be said for option 3: D&D can be enjoyed as a fun game, in and of itself. There's a host of tactical decisions to make, resources to keep track of, experience points to be gained, etc.

In summary, Tristan was "right" for rushing into his combat, as it was a heroic, selfless action and villagers lives were in peril. And Cyrus' player was right, as Tristan's decision was not tactically sound, and may cost us in the end. Suffice to say that there's many ways to play and enjoy role-playing games, and none are inherently better than the other.

In the end, it's all a matter of style and opinion. Can you say the same for Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit? Hardly. And that's why for me, role-playing games are a great hobby and remain a constant source of entertainment and fascination.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Wasteland: Post-Lord of the Rings fantasy film landscape is looking pretty bleak

From the time The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring hit the theatres in 2001, until The Return of the King finally exited the big screen and made its way to home video in 2004, I was in fantasy film heaven. Long the subject of scorn and derision--and with duds like The Beastmaster and Conan the Destroyer, deservedly so--the fantasy film genre had finally broken through to respectability. From its box office mastery (grossing over a billion dollars, all three films combined) to its crowning achievement, an Academy award for best picture, The Lord of the Rings was overwhelming proof that fantasy can be a critical and commercial success on the silver screen when done right.

When the curtain went down on Return of the King, I was saddened at the thought of a holiday season without a Rings installment to look forward to, but my spirits were lightened considerably at the thought of what was to come. I and many other more savvy film enthusiasts predicted that LOTR's mightly splash would start a tidal wave of fantasy films that would capture the public's imagination. Inspired by Peter Jackson's example, I thought that a new group of directors would pick up the torch and produce similiarly awesome adaptions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy, and other fantasy classics.

Well, four years on the wave has certainly struck, but--and forgive the hyperbole--its delivered mostly raw sewage on our shores.

How bad is the post-LOTR fantasy film landscape? Here's a few examples:

I wanted a big budget, live-action Dragonlance, and instead we got this "adaptation", whose dusted-off 1980's-style animation looks not unlike a failed Saturday morning cartoon pilot that got beaten out by the likes of Thundercats and GI-Joe.

I hoped and prayed for the heir apparent to Excalibur, still the best Arthurian film against which all others, past and present, will be judged, but instead I got King Arthur, an awful, arrogant ("The Untold True Story That Inspired the Legend"), Guinevere-as-Xena, faux-Arthurian mess. After watching it, I wanted those two hours of my life back.

I ached for a big and bold swords-and-sandals film, but instead I got Troy , which featured flat, emotionless acting, an unengaging storyline, and battles with the same spectacle but none of the heart of the LOTR films.

While I haven't seen The Dark is Rising, Eragon, The Golden Compass, or the newest fantasy film, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, all the reviews I've read about these pictures range from medicore (Compass), to poor (Eragon), to outright atrocities on celluloid (Dark and In the Name of the King).

The biggest mistake that I've seen from this recent spate of sub-par fantasy films is exemplified by 300. This film features battles, battles, and more battles, broken up by angry, yelling men and/or flat, emotionless acting. It's as though Zack Snyder and other recent fantasy directors watched LOTR and got such hard-ons from Minas Tirith and Helm's Deep that they forgot all of the quiet moments that made LOTR so great. I love hacking, bloodletting, and bombastic, troop-rousing battle speeches too, folks, but there's more to good fantasy than CGI combat and pretentious dialogue.

So is the all the news grim? No, fortunately. I'm glad to say that there have been some rays of light in the darkness: I was quite pleased with the first installment of the Chronciles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, which I thought was very well-done, enjoyable by both adults and children. The early glimpses I've seen of Prince Caspian leave me with high hopes for that film as well. I've also heard some good things about the recent 3-D Beowulf. And while I'm not a fan of Harry Potter, I've heard that the films are reasonably faithful and quite watchable adaptations.

But overall, I'm frankly quite bitter at the current state of fantasy celluloid. I'm angrier still that the great opportunity afforded by The Lord of the Rings--a window in which the big studios loosened their purse strings and financed the big budgets necessary to do justice to high fantasy--has been llargely squandered. Earning back that respect and erasing the damage may take years, I fear.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The end of the world as we know it: And I feel fine

Yesterday I simultaneously finished two books about the apocalypse, albeit from two very different causes: World War Z, by Max Brooks, a tale about a massive zombie infestation that threatens to overwhelm the world; and The Children of Men, by P.D. James, a story that takes place in 2021, 25 years after the last child on earth is born with the world's infertile population left to age and die.

Both books are very different, and not just in their subject matter: World War Z is much more action-oriented, a series of powerful narratives told through multiple characters' eyes in a series of flashbacks, while The Children of Men is written from the viewpoint of Theo Faron, a 50 year-old Oxford professor, and is a slower-moving character portait. They do share one likeness in that both contain strong political commentary.

What I liked about the books
First of all, I'm a huge sucker for books and movies about the apocalypse. It's not the violence and chaos in and of itself that I find interesting, it's watching people's reactions in extremis. Wiser men have said that true character is revealed in times of crisis, and The Children of Men and World War Z certainly deliver the calamity and the truth born from it.

I cannot recommend World War Z highly enough if you love zombies, warfare, or simply action-packed page turners. I'm not a particularly fast reader, but I was absolutely unable to put it down and burned through its 350-odd pages in three days. While the zombie plague is deliberately left unexplained--it starts in the heart of China, half-hinted as the result of some undescribed industrial waste--Brooks manages to paint a very convincing picture of how the plague quickly spreads and threatens to overwhelm all of humanity. Brooks has done his research on politics, military tactics and technology, combat fatigue, climate conditions, and the result feels like history, an event that really happened (or, chillingly, will happen).

Here's some highlights: The Great Panic, the initial outbreak of suffocating fear and rout that sent millions or billions to their deaths on traffic-choked highways; The Battle of Yonkers, which pits a large ground force of U.S. Marines, tanks, helicopters, and jets against a horde of more than a million zombies pouring out of New York; a voluntary quarantine of all of Israel to prevent the spread of the hordes; a limited nuclear exchange between the suspicious countries of Pakistan and India; hordes of zombies emerging from the oceans, attacking in massive, unexpected beach invasions; zombies attacking across the Russian steppes, slaughtering thousands before freezing in the winter (and thawing and re-animating in the spring), and much, much more. I was horrified, entertained, and best of all, convinced by the events in this book, which was deliberately written as a series of memoirs. in fact, World War Z reads much like the very well-done war documentaries of Ken Burns.

Whereas George Romero's classic Dead films (Night, Dawn, and Day of the Dead) were brilliant social commentaries that focused on portrayals of small groups and individuals struggling for survival, Brooks takes the 10,000-foot view, casting his gaze on countries and nations, examining their weaknesses, flaws, and ultimately the strength that makes them able to regroup and survive. Despite its horror, gore, and destruction, World War Z is a refreshing change from the often too-nihilistic zombie genre.

The Children of Men, while far less visceral, asks the larger questions: What gives mankind meaning, does God exist, and how can we cope with our own stark mortality? At the outset of the book Theo is living a life that should sound very familiar to 21st century man: Protected, pampered, insulated by his profession, his comfortable home, his refined tastes in books, food, music, and wine. But there's a black hole waiting at the end of it all: Oblivion.

James brings mankind's ever-present fear of mortality into stark relief by removing the universal hope that our children will carry on our works, our stories, our history, and our culture after we die. Bereft of that hope, we're left with meaningless trappings and empty existence.

Like World War Z, the cause of the blight--worldwide infertility--is left unexplained, but while James does not delve into the scientific root causes, she describes its chilling consequences in convincing fashion. To quell the widespread crime caused by crumbling societies, the British government institutes a tight-fisted, near dictatorial rule, run by prime minister Xan, who is actually Theo's cousin and childhood friend. Immigrants are turned away at the borders and criminals and dissidents are shipped off to the Isle of Man, while the aged take their own lives in government-sponsored mass suicides called a Quietus.

The story builds slowly but kicks into high gear when Theo falls in with a small band of young rebels battling against the government's atrocities.

What I disliked about the books
World War Z was great all the way through. Although there were no fully fleshed-out, truly memorable characters, it was told using dozens of post-war "interviews," so development wasn't possible (or intended). I found Brooks' portrayals of some of the cultures to be a bit stereotyped (particularly the katana-wielding Japanese survivors), and it's no surprise that the strongest and truest sections were his portrayals of the crisis in the U.S.

Overall rating: **** stars out of five.

The Children of Men had a few flaws as well. I found the whole Xan-Theo relationship to be forced, and their final face-off was heavily telegraphed. In fact, I think the film of the same name, though shallower and much more violent (often needlessly so), improved on the book by cutting out the tiring backstory, dropping Xan and focusing on Theo and the rebels.

Overall rating: **** stars out of five.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Getting nostalgic for old school Dungeons and Dragons

While surfing the boards today at, a Web site devoted to role-playing games, I came across this ultra-cool link.

Click through, check out these fine old-school miniatures by Otherworld, and if you're of a certain shared background, I guarantee that you'll experience an intense bout of nostalgia. I did, as I was immediately (and pleasantly) assaulted with a flood of memories about first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

For those who haven't been following the game's progress, D&D is currently on version 3.5, and by the summer a fourth edition is due for release. Like 2.0, 3.0, and 3.5 before it, fourth edition promises sleeker rules, more options, and more "fun" than ever before. On most days I find talk of new rules and new versions of D&D a good thing, as it represents progression, a refinement of a rules-system that has brought me great pleasure since I started playing circa 1982 or so.

But not today. These old miniatures brought back the countless hours I spent with the old first edition books, aging tomes like the Players Handbook (the one with the gem-eyed, fire-lit, leering idol on the cover, above), and the Dungeon Master's Guide (the one with the three adventurers battling a towering, muscular, red-skinned efreet on the cover, with the fabled City of Brass floating over a flame-swept sea of oil on the back, below).

Role-playing games were simpler back then. Certainly there were rules (and first edition AD&D had its share of them, often byzantine and difficult to find in a pinch due to poor organization in the books), but when we didn't know a rule and couldn't be bothered to look it up, we simply made it up on the spot. Sure, we had impossibly high-level characters and ran "monty haul" campaigns in which +5 holy avengers and Axes of the Dwarvish Lords were scattered across the land, but it was fun.

If this sounds like nostalgia talking, you're right. The games I play now are better, more focused, and more immersive. But I believe that it's more than just fond, hazy memories of childhood coloring my perceptions. Even though later iterations of the game are arguably better--cleaner written, with more coherent rules, and more options that allow for more character customization--first edition AD&D has it all over the later editions in one crucial aspect--flavor. The old books were far more evocative of adventure, of mystery, and of danger. Version 3.0/3.5, despite its superior rules, simply can't compete in this regard.

Here's an example. From the 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide, page 7, "Style of play:"

The DM provides the adventure and the world. The players and the DM work together to create the game as a whole. However, it's your responsibility to guide the way the game is played. The best way to accomplish this is by learning what the players want and figuring out what you want as well.

Ho-hum. Essentially all the 3.5 rules are written like this: Dry, text-booky, highly accurate but devoid of color. Compare and contrast with the AD&D first edition Players Handbook, p. 109, "Successful adventures", written by the incomparable Gary Gygax:

Characters with stories related about their exploits--be they cleverly wrought gains or narrow escapes--bring a sense of pride and accomplishment to their players, and each new success adds to the luster and fame thus engendered. The DM will likewise revel in telling of such exploits...just as surely as he or she will not enjoy stories which constantly relate the poor play of his or her group! Some characters will meet their doom, some will eventually retire in favor of a new character of a different class and/or alignment; but playing well is a reward unto itself, and old characters are often remembered with a fondness and pride as well. If you believe that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a game worth playing, you will certainly find it doubly so if you play well.

If that doesn't make you want to grab a torch, a sword, a 10-foot pole, and head into the underdark, I don't know what will.

If you need further proof of first edition's greatness, go back to that link up above and click on that troll miniature. That menacing, hollow-eyed visage is--and always will be--Dungeons and Dragons to me.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

My top five heavy metal albums

Following are my top five favorite heavy metal albums, and the reasons why. These are in no particular order.

One of these days I'll get to writing an obnoxious screed as to why I think metal is one of the great, underappreciated genres of music, and the subject of much unfair scorn and criticism, but not today.

On to the best:

1. Somewhere in Time, Iron Maiden. Blasphemy, you say? What with a catalogue that includes classic albums like Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and Powerslave? Yes, I retort. While hardly a fan favorite (or seemingly a band favorite--Maiden seems to avoid this album like the plague in concert), Somewhere in Time is consistently great all the way through. It has an otherworldly sound and a feel that makes me think of Blade Runner and instantly transports me back to high school (with all its high and low points). There was a time when I wore through two Somewhere in Time cassette tapes from too many listens. There's just something about this album that resonates deeply with me. Maybe it's the whole package--the mesmerizing cover, the distinct guitar synths, Bruce Dickinson at his peak as a singer, the band at its creative peak--I don't know. In the end, I love it because it exemplifies that metal can be a lot more than just loud and fast, and can aspire to art.

2. Heaven and Hell, Black Sabbath. I know Ozzy Osbourne will forever be identified as the one and only lead singer of Black Sabbath, and I'm not saying that assumption is wrong. But for my money, the Ronnie James Dio-fronted Heaven and Hell is Sabbath's best. Neon Knights and Children of the Sea never fail to transport me into a land of dragons and kings, while Die Young, though depressing, is brilliant. The title track is among the finest examples of the soaring heights of greatness metal can reach. Operatic and epic, it ranks alongside Maiden's Hallowed be thy Name in this regard. And Tony Iommi is my personal favorite metal guitarist, with a unique style and a sound that more technically gifted players (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, etc.) can't touch.

3. Screaming for Vengeance, Judas Priest. I hemmed and hawed over a couple of Priest albums before setting on Screaming, which wins out by a nose due to The Hellion/Electric Eye (best metal album lead-in, ever), and hits like Riding on the Wind, Bloodstone, and of course, You've Got Another Thing Coming. Nobody could sing like Halford at his best.

4. Operation Mindcrime, Queensryche. It's a cliche' to call this the best heavy metal concept album ever, but that's exactly what it is--and arguably its the best concept album across all genres of music (though Pink Floyd's The Wall is perhaps superior). While I don't find the story of Mary and Doctor X quite as compelling as I did as a teen, there's no denying that Mindcrime is a brilliant piece of writing. And it's every bit as good musically--Chris DeGarmo's guitar work and Geoff Tate's soaring vocals are artistically perfect. In 1988, nobody could touch Queensryche. This album reminded me of George Orwell's 1984 set to music, and absolutely blew me away.

5. Master of Puppets, Metallica. Metallica was at its high water mark on Master of Puppets (1986), hitting the right note at the peak of their considerable talent. 1984's Ride the Lightning is another extremely good album, though a bit rawer and less artistic. And Justice For All (1988) marked Metallica's creative peak, but I find it though a bit less compelling and more repetitive than Master. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Can Metallica ever again write a lyric like, Mirror stares back hard, kill is such a friendly word, seems the only way, for reaching out again, and be able to pull it off with conviction? No way--there's simply too much (sewer) water over the dam. It's a shame to see how the mighty have fallen.

Honorable mentions: Defenders of the Faith, Judas Priest; Holy Diver, Dio; Nightfall in Middle Earth and Live (2003), Blind Guardian; and every Iron Maiden album ever made (except for the Blaze Bayley era, No Prayer for the Dying, and Fear of the Dark).

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

American Gods, a review

Warning--some spoilers ahead

****1/2 stars out of five

Part fantasy, part literature, part meditation on religion, part travelogue, part commentary on American culture, part murder mystery, part character study, Neil Gaiman's American Gods contains so many disparate elements that it is nearly indefinable; yet it is undeniably brilliant and nearly succeeds in pulling off all of its grand ambitions.

American Gods is first and foremost the story of a man named Shadow, who at the book's outset is just about to exit prison following a three-year sentence for assault. Shadow's world is soon rocked when he finds out that his wife is dead, killed in a car accident only days prior to his release. Flying home, he is approached by a large, bearded, one-eyed man named Wednesday, who turns out to be none other than Odin the All-Father, chief god of the Norse pantheon (props to those who know the derivation of Wednesday=Woden=Odin's Day). Wednesday hires Shadow to be his assistant in what we soon find to be a coming great war--a Ragnarok, if you will--between the old, dying, mostly forgotten gods of dozens of ancient cultures--Egypt, Japan, India, etc.--and the new "American Gods" of wealth, technology, television, sex, and more.

Odin and Shadow take to the backroads of the U.S. to enlist the old gods to their cause, and soon run afoul of the new gods and their hired guns. After a run-in with the assassins, Shadow goes underground to hide in an (too) idyllic town named Lakeside, a place with a dark secret--Shadow finds that a child has disappeared each year for the last 100 or more years, victims of a hungry, dark god who demands sacrifice. This is the mystery piece of the story.

In the end, we learn that Shadow is part of an elaborate scheme (manufactured by Odin) to get the old gods to join Odin's cause and start the war. Odin hopes for a great slaughter in the battle of new and old gods, a great blood-letting that will deliver the sacrifice he needs to regain his lost power. I won't spoil any more, only to say that Yggdrasil, the world tree, plays a role as Shadow becomes part of legend.

American Gods is an amazing book. Gaiman writes brilliantly about the nature of religion ("a vantage point from which man examines his life"), about death, and about what it means to live and find meaning. The portentously named Shadow is just that--a shadow of a man, a drifter and not a doer, who is representative (and perhaps an allegory) of 21st century man. Without religion or foundation, we drift like pale shadows, seeking answers and firm ground, but find none--especially not in the harsh, new "gods" of technology and flesh and violence, avatars that blaze with great brightness but burn out with equal rapidity.

My only complaint with American Gods is that Gaiman's scope at times feels too broad, and I was left with some questions and some loose ends that weren't adequately tied up. But it's a book that demands re-reading and one that I heartily recommend.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Immersed in Blade Runner

I've spent the last hour or so immersed in the four-disc collector's edition of Blade Runner, released this December complete with director Ridley Scott's definitive cut of the film, plus a megaton of extras.

The four-disc set comes with an attractive fold-out package, with nice scans from the film on the packaging. Each of the four discs is painted with black and white images of one of the four major characters from the film, including Deckard, Rachel, Pris, and (of course) Roy Batty.

Needless to say I'm in geek heaven right now. There's so much to watch here, including the following:
  • Disc 1, which contains the final cut, as well as three separate commentaries: One by Scott; one by Executive Producer/Screenwriter Hampton Fancher, Screenwriter David Peoples, Producer Michael Deeley, and Production Executive Katherine Haber; and a third by several art and production folks.
  • Disc 2, which contains Dangerous Days, a documentary of the making of Blade Runner, including outtakes, deleted scenes, and all new interviews.
  • Disc 3, which contains three complete versions of the film, including the U.S. theatrical cut, the international theatrical cut, and the 1992 director's cut. Each has its own introduction by Scott.
  • Disc 4, which contains an "enhancement archive," more than a dozen segments chronicling aspects of production and other features.

As I'm typing I'm watching the final cut with the Fancher/Peoples/Deeley/Haber commentary turned on. This interests me the most as the thing I like best about Blade Runner is its exquisite script (though its rich visuals are of course amazing, especially completely restored and on a remastered DVD). Listening to these four chat about the film some 25 years after its initial release is fascinating. For example, here's their take about why Blade Runner fared so poorly at the box office on its release:

(Deeley): One of the reasons was timing misjudgement. The picture should not have been released in the summer. It was being treated as a big expensive picture for it wanted a summer audience, but it wasn't the standard summer fare. We knew that we were following E.T. by 4 or 5 weeks, but we figured that E.T. would have done its job with the audience by then, and that audiences would have been willing to move on to something much harder, much tougher. Well, that was completely wrong. E.T. just went on and on and on, and we were out of tune with that moment in the market. I think if it had been released as a Christmas picture, it might even have done as well at the Oscars as it perhaps should have done.

(Haber): Apart from anything else, the cinematography, the production design, the visual effects, sound, everything, was overlooked by the academy, which was insane.

(Deeley): It is insane, but it's our fault for releasing it then. You'll remember on Deer Hunter, the decision was made to release it in December, so it came as near to nomination time as possible. And it was still fresh in the voters' minds. This (Blade Runner) had been forgotten. Everyone agrees that it is remarkable in terms of texture. But it was just bad timing. And I have to attribute that bad timing to a desire to recover the cost of the picture as soon as possible, because we had gone over budget, there was more money to recover, and there was not much patience with this. Which was a mistake.

Damn you E.T.!