Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chickenfoot - CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

Earlier this decade, when the chances of reuniting with Van Halen seemed remote at best, Sammy Hagar put together a supergroup consisting of himself, former Van Halen bandmate Michael Anthony, and Neal Schon and Deen Castronovo from Journey. The group was called Planet Us and made a few appearances, even jamming with guitar legend Joe Satriani. Then, in 2004, the Van Halen reunion happened and Planet Us was put on the backburner. History tells us Hagar’s second go-around with Van Halen ended worse than the first one and he was back to being a solo artist. With Schon and Castronovo back with Journey full time, Hagar once again called upon Anthony and Satriani and, on drums, Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers — a friend of Hagar’s and frequent guest at his Cabo Wabo Cantina. The band wrote some songs and decided to go into the studio, but they needed a name. As a joke, the name Chickenfoot was thrown out with the intention of a “better” name being picked later. Well, Chickenfoot stuck and the supergroup has unleashed their self-titled debut on the world.

Any band with two former Van Halen members and Eddie Van Halen-disciple Satriani on guitar will naturally draw comparisons to them, and sure enough, there are some Van Halen-sounding cuts on the album. “Soap on a Rope” could easily fit on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge or Balance with its sleazy riff, big chorus, and innuendo-laden lyrics. “Runnin’ Out” has a bluesy groove not unlike “Finish What Ya Started,” while “Down the Drain” sounds like Roth-era VH, something the band often shied away from when Hagar fronted them.

It’s not all Van Halen imitation going on here. The opening cut, “Avenida Revolution” features a menacing Satriani riff and the driving rhythm section of Anthony and Smith. Smith’s funk chops are all over the disc and Anthony really gets to shine now that he is out of Eddie’s shadow (Anthony played little to no bass on the last several Van Halen releases) as the drum/bass breakdown on “Avenida Revolution” shows.

Other hard-driving cuts include “Get it Up” featuring blistering lead work from Satriani, and “Turnin’ Left” with a sinister funk groove and dark guitar work recalling George Lynch. While Hagar’s post-Van Halen records are fun, party albums, he is at his best when he has something to prove (as on 1997’s Marching to Mars). He sounds inspired to be working with world-class musicians again. Satriani has said in interviews that he always wanted to play in a band situation, but never found the right one. He may have with Chickenfoot, as his playing and tone are positively monstrous throughout.

Chickenfoot is the sound of four veteran musicians having fun together. There’s only one ballad and the band rocks hard through the other 10 tracks. They’ve certainly upped the ante, and one can’t imagine Eddie Van Halen not trying to top this album with his own rumored Van Halen record. Chickenfoot plans to tour and if the live shows are half as thunderous as the CD, fans will be in for a treat.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Valkyrie - Two Disc Special Edition DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

During his time in power during World War II, there were numerous failed attempts to take Adolf Hitler’s life. Among the most notable was Operation Valkyrie, led by German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the events of which are documented in the film Valkyrie.

Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, The Usual Suspects), Valkyrie stars Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg. The film starts out in German with subtitles, before morphing into English. The majority of the soldiers speak with a British, rather than German accent. For his part, Cruise speaks in his normal voice. While this caused some controversy, Singer was more concerned with the performances of his actors, and they delivered.

History tells us this assassination attempt, like all the others, failed, yet Valkyrie manages to be suspenseful. It’s easy to feel the tension running through the characters while wondering how or why they’d eventually fail. The movie begins with Stauffenberg stationed in northern Africa, where he was severely injured in an Allied attack, losing his right hand, two fingers from his left hand, and one of his eyes. Stauffenberg wants to avoid any further destruction of Germany and disapproves of Hitler’s methods so strongly he wants him dead, even if he has to do it himself.

After a failed attempt by Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) to kill Hitler via an explosive set in a whiskey bottle on an airplane, the conspirators recruit Stauffenberg to take over their mission. While at a secret meeting, Stauffenberg meets his fellow conspirators, including Dr Goerdeler (Kevin McNally) — the man who’d become chancellor of Germany if the plan worked and General Beck (Terrence Stamp), who’d be in charge of the military.

With Tresckow now assigned to the frontlines, Stauffenberg takes over the operation and suggests they implement Operation Valkyrie, a safeguard Hitler had put in place where the SS would take over should he be assassinated. Stauffenberg rewrites Valkyrie to exclude the SS and instead give power to the reserve army. As he is now General Fromm’s (Tom Wilkinson) chief of staff, Hitler trusts him. Hitler notices his injuries and declares Stauffenberg the ideal German soldier, signing the document without reading it, as he was sure the changes were adequate. David Bamber plays a creepy, if paranoid Hitler in the film.

The idea behind Operation Valkyrie was to plant a bomb in a strategy meeting, killing Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and the rest of Hitler’s inner circle. After confirmation of Hitler’s death, Valkyrie would go into effect and the SS and Nazis would be arrested and Germany would negotiate a cease-fire with the Allies. While we know this plot eventually failed, the film still does a good job in making the viewer believe that it just might work.

The DVD includes a number of bonus features, including commentary by Cruise, Singer, and Christopher McQuarrie; another commentary by McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander; “The Journey to Valkyrie;” and “The ‘Valkyrie’ Legacy,” a documentary of the event with archival footage.

Tom Cruise delivers an excellent performance, free of the over acting he is typically accused of. Valkyrie is a fine document of an important event in world history and worth a look.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The Criterion Collection - DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

How would life be if you were to age backwards? How could you sustain a normal relationship? These are among the questions pondered in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en), Button stars Brad Pitt as the title character, whose story is told in a series of flashbacks. The love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is in the hospital dying with her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormand) by her side. Daisy asks Caroline to read from Benjamin’s diary, which she had kept all these years. Daisy tells Caroline a story of a blind clockmaker who was working on a clock for Grand Central terminal in New York. After his only son died during World War I, he continued to work on the clock, finally revealing it with Theodore Roosevelt in attendance. What the unsuspecting crowd didn’t know, was that he designed the clock to go backward, so that the soldiers who lost their lives might have a chance to live again. Perhaps Benjamin was living proof his clock really worked?

The movie then cuts to New Orleans during World War I where Benjamin was born. His mother dies shortly after childbirth, but asks his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng) to make sure he has a place in the world. When he looks upon the baby, he is shocked to see he has the appearance of a man in his 80s even though he was a newborn baby. Distraught, he runs off with Benjamin, eventually leaving him on the steps of a retirement home where Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), despite the protests of her husband, takes him in. A doctor examines him and determines he doesn’t have long to live. Queenie, who is unable to have children, takes him in, as he is still one of God’s children.

While Benjamin was a child, he still looked elderly, yet often acted as a child would. He was about seven when he first met Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the people at the home. It was his first crush and she realized that even though he looked older, there was something about him that made him seem like a child. The pair instantly bonded.

As a teen, he sets off to sea to work on a tugboat, where he reveals to Captain Mike (Jared Harris) that he’s not as old as he looks and that he’s never been with a woman. After Captain Mike takes him to a brothel, Benjamin’s father spots him leaving and realizes it is his son. He takes him out for his first drink, never revealing who he is.

After returning home from another tour on the tugboat — this time to help with the war effort during World War II — Benjamin encounters an adult Daisy who is now a dancer in New York. She attempts to seduce him, but he declines, leaving Daisy crushed. A few years later, realizing his error, he goes to New York to see Daisy, only to find she now has a boyfriend. He later gets a message wired to him that Daisy, now in Paris, has been hit by a taxi and is in the hospital. He goes to visit her, but she sends him away, not wanting him to see her like that.

As the years go by, Benjamin’s appearance keeps getting younger and he now looks like a man in his 40s. He eventually reunites with Daisy and they have a child together. After a few years though, he tells Daisy he needs to leave before their child knows him as he wants her to have a father, not a playmate and that Daisy could not take care of both of them. Daisy initially misinterprets this for Benjamin no longer being attracted to her as she was aging while he was getting younger. It’s a heartbreaking scene as he clearly loves her, but wants what’s best for his child before he himself becomes one. Yet, what will happen to Benjamin in his final years?

In keeping with the Criterion Collection’s usual high standards, Button comes with a second disc loaded with extras. Among these is a three-hour documentary about the making of the film entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, trailers, and stills galleries. Disc one features a commentary from Fincher.

The central theme of the film is that nothing lasts forever and to grab your opportunity when you can. It is a well-acted story of two people who, regardless of what else was going on in their lives, never stopped loving each other.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Galaxy Quest: Deluxe Edition - DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

With the new Star Trek film in theaters, what better time than to re-release the DVD of the movie that lampooned it so well 10 years ago? Now in a deluxe edition, Galaxy Quest is back and better than ever.

Galaxy Quest tells the story of the cast of the television show of the same name. It is now 20 years since the show was cancelled and the actors have fallen on hard times, making appearances at Galaxy Quest conventions and opening electronics stores in full costume. The actors are at each other’s throats and especially resent Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen essentially playing William Shatner) for his ego and nonchalant attitude.

Nesmith’s opinion of himself changes though when he overhears some fans badmouthing him while he is in a bathroom stall. The fans are unaware he is there, but their message hits home and Nesmith ends up going on a drinking binge.

It is then that Nesmith is visited by a group of aliens known as Thermians and beamed aboard their ship. They have mistaken transmissions of the Galaxy Quest television show to be historical documents of life on Earth and patterned their entire culture after it. Nesmith initially thinks the Thermians are actors and that he was filming a scene for them. Once they beam him down, he realizes they really were aliens.

Back on Earth, Nesmith manages to convince the cast to join him on the mission. They are skeptical of any of it being real, but need the work and decide to go along. They are beamed aboard the ship and unwittingly sucked into a war with Thermian nemesis General Sarris (Robin Sachs).

Allen leads a crack cast including Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, and Enrico Colantoni that seems to be enjoying themselves. It is this enthusiasm that helps make Galaxy Quest a lighthearted tribute to Star Trek. It pokes fun, but does so lovingly — not in a mean-spirited way.

The DVD has a number of special features, including: “Historical Documents: The Story of Galaxy Quest” — a documentary about the making of the film; “Never Give Up. Never Surrender: The Intrepid Crew of the NSEA Protector”; “By Grabthar’s Hammer, What Amazing Effects”; “Alien School: Creating the Thermian Race”; “Sigourney Weaver Raps,” which has to be seen to be believed; three deleted scenes; and a host of other extras.

For fans of the sci-fi genre, Galaxy Quest offers feel-good fun with actors who are into their roles 100 percent. Think of it as the This is Spinal Tap for sci-fi geeks. Never give up. Never surrender.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Frank Sinatra - Live at the Meadowlands CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

At 70 years old, most singers are long retired — or should be — which makes Frank Sinatra’s inspired performance on Live at the Meadowlands all the more impressive. Recorded in East Rutherford, NJ at the Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands Sports Complex on March 14, 1986, the album is a triumphant homecoming gig for ‘Ol Blue Eyes.

Backed by a crack band including long-time pianist (and at this show, orchestra conductor) Bill Miller, guitarist Tony Mottola, bassist Don Baldini, and drummer Irv Cottler, Sinatra thrills the crowd with nearly 50 years of his recorded history.

Appropriately enough, the show begins with “Without a Song,” which Sinatra describes as one of the songs that got him started in his days with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. The crowd is enthusiastic; Sinatra seems energized by them and happy they came out on what was a rainy night. Next, Sinatra delivers a spirited performance on “Where or When,” a song he describes as “belonging to you and me and every audience and myself.”

Sinatra reflects on his age in “It Was a Very Good Year,” saying “Holy jeez, seventeen,” and “Change Partners” features an up-tempo arrangement unlike the studio version. On “The Gal That Got Away,” Sinatra comments about how it was “brought to life by the great Judy Garland originally,” crediting the performers and arrangers who worked on these songs as he often did.

Frank playfully teases a female member of the audience, saying “yeah, I know what you want to hear, baby” before charging into the late-period classic, the “Theme From New York, New York.” After a beautiful “Moonlight in Vermont,” Sinatra offers a smooth version of the then recent “L.A. is My Lady” from the album of the same name.

In an album filled with great moments, perhaps the greatest is on ”the daddy of saloon songs,” “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” backed by the great Bill Miller on piano. Another L.A. is My Lady track, “Mack the Knife,” closes the show in the same exciting fashion as it opened.

As the original concert ran over 90 minutes — longer than what will fit on a single CD — three songs were cut from the performance. Those songs are: “The Best is Yet to Come,” “April in Paris,” and “It’s All Right With Me.” While it would be nice to have the full show, the performance, packaging, and sound quality on this Concord Records release are top-notch and make Live at the Meadowlands a must-own CD for any Sinatra fan.