Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Beatles - A Hard Day's Night (album and film)

I'm pretty sure I watched the movie before I bought the album, as I have memories of renting the film and it having a promo of sorts in front of the film that played the song "I'll Cry Instead." It was new to me at the time and I'm pretty sure that it combined with what I saw guaranteed I would also buy the album. So I guess I should go in the order that I first experienced these?

When the Beatles popularity become so huge it had its own name, it was logical that they would inevitably appear in film. Elvis had proved to be just as popular a movie star as a singer, even if most of those films aren't very good. But the Beatles had watched those films and loved them, so they wanted to try it for themselves. For their first film, they decided to create a sort of fictionalized account of what their life was like, and for four completely inexperienced actors that was a wise choice. It was also very wise of them to have screenwriter Alun Owen actually follow the Beatles around and get to know them before he wrote it. As such, we get a story that is equal parts fiction and real, because while the situations are made up, this is largely how the Beatles themselves would act in the situation. And of course there are plenty of musical breaks thrown in as well.

It's both a musical and a comedy, two genres that were often combined in the early days of film. But while some Marx Brothers films have me scratching my head with their random music breaks, the combination makes perfect sense here. The Beatles have an amazing charm that makes them naturally funny, and of course they're fantastic musicians. The movie is basically one of the easiest ways for a person to see why they were so popular.

While about half of the music sequences are set up to look like live performances or rehearsals, we also get some pre-cursors to the modern music video, with scenes like the spontaneous singing on the train or the Beatles running in the field. The musical score is also based on Beatles songs, arranged by George Martin himself.

But while I love the songs I have to say I'm partial to the comedy sequences. The scene of them pestering the old man on the train seems like something right out of a Marx Brothers film. Their various solo scenes are fantastic. I also think the ongoing teasing John gives their manager is adorable. A lot of credit gets given to Ringo for his big solo moment, but I think I prefer the subtle humor and commentary of George's scene in the modeling agency or the fun word play with John and the woman in the hallway. Paul had his own solo scene but it was cut from the movie, apparently mostly for pacing reasons.

I believe the addition of Paul's grandfather was probably put there both to give them an antagonist and also someone to help built a plot around more complex then "the Beatles give a live performance on television." But while you certainly could ask yourself why a band member's relative would be tagging along, he actually fits in pretty well with the cast, and is just plain funny. Apparently the reason they continually refer to him as "clean" is a joke based on the character he was playing in a sitcom on television at that time, but not knowing that particular in joke has never stopped me from enjoying the film before now.

While the long musical sequences might make it hard for a non-Beatles fan to enjoy, I think this holds up as a great film and not just a vanity picture.

This album is not a soundtrack in the way that we normally think of them today, because while it does include all the songs included in the film, it also contains additional ones.  I imagine if this film was made today, they would have slapped in some of those instrumental arrangements George Martin did and then kept the other songs for another release.

"A Hard Day's Night" - Is there a better way to start an album, song, or even film for that matter?  That one harsh cord is all you need before you dive right into the song.  It's distinctive and amazing.  The rest of the song is also strong and just great pop music.  I imagine most people know by now that the name is taken from one of Ringo's malapropisms.  They feature so prominently in Beatles songs and albums that I'm surprised he never took a chance at trying to create a song based off them himself.

"I Should Have Known Better" - I have a hard time separating this song from the adorable scene in the film of them playing cards together on the train.  There's nothing uniquely special about this one compared to a lot of the others they wrote around this time, but it makes me smile because that scene just seems so natural and fun.

"If I Fell" - Back in the day when my devotion was at its strongest and I loved John more than anyone else on this earth, I adored this song and listened to it repeatedly.  Being a little older and wiser, I can't help but find the lyrics problematic.  He's not being romantic at all, he just wants to make the other girl jealous.  I still love the song, but I can't help but shake my head at the words.

"I'm Happy Just to Dance with You" - George has once again left the song writing to John and Paul and so they give him a song that to me doesn't really fit his personality at all.  I sometimes have to remind myself that he's the one that sings it, just because it's so very a Lennon McCartney song.  But I do think his vocals give it a sweet and almost melancholy sound that they wouldn't have provided.

"And I Love Her" - ... hm?  What?  Oh, I'm sure you do, Paul.  Excuse me while I drift back off to sleep.

"Tell Me Why" - So on Please Please Me we had "Ask Me Why" and not we're telling instead.  That's kind of lazy, isn't it?  Anyway, it's a good song, though there isn't much to it.

"Can't Buy Me Love" - I appreciate the sentiments behind this one.  It's also of course incredibly catchy and I really don't have to tell you a thing about it because you already know.

"Any Time at All"  - That snare hit is another strong opening and works great as the intro to the chorus to.  Overall just a good song.  Sometimes its hard to say something distinctive beyond "I like it!"

"I'll Cry Instead" - This one has a bit of a country feel to it, which seems fitting for the lyrics as well. As I said, this was the song that made me want to buy this album sooner rather than later.  I feel like this song predates "If I Fell" chronologically in a break up.  He sings this and when he's slightly read to move on, he sings that one.

"Things We Said Today" - Since I can be really harsh on Paul, I should also give him credit when he deserves it, and I think this is a great melancholy our-relationship-is-dying kind of song.  He's as good at these as he is at the overly sappy stuff, and this song is a prime example of that.

"When I Get Home" - This song starts off sounding sweet and then it gets to the line "I've got no business being here with you this way" and you just want to smack the hell out of him, don't you?  Beyond that it's repetitive and really the only thing I like is that he actually uses the phrase "till the cows come home" which is such a kid's phrase, isn't it?

"You Can't Do That" - Oh John, you big damn hypocrite.  Surely this had to be intentional, right?  They put these two songs back to back for crying out loud!  As someone who understands jealousy I can understand the feelings behind this song, even if I don't endorse all the words.  I also can't help but admit that the music and arrangement makes it pretty catchy.  This is another one of those that I like despite its lyrics.

"I'll Be Back"  This one is kind of the lyrical opposite of "Not a Second Time."   But there's something about its sad tone that really appeals to me.  The change in the middle is also nice.   There's a great failed take of this on the Anthology.  It's nice to hear people who make a living out of singing screw up sometimes, because it makes me feel a little better when I hit a bad note.  The sadness of this song doesn't exactly make for a great end to an album though.  It's like ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

Overall just a really good album from start to finish.  There's one or two weak ones, sure, but its definitely I could put on and sing along with the whole way through without skipping.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Beatles - With the Beatles

This may be the first Beatles album I ever bought past the Anthology discs.  I want to say that my boyfriend at the time got Please Please Me and I bought this one, and we listened to them both together.  My parents also just got me a decal based on this cover that is currently on my laptop.

  1. "It Won't Be Long" - Just an all around great pop song with that "yeah!" callback on the chorus.  The first time I ever heard this song, it was a cover version on an album called Shared Vision.  I can't remember who sang it and the Amazon description doesn't say.  But for whatever reason that album's existence just popped into my head again, so I'm sharing it with you.
  2. "All I've Got to Do" - I'm not as much a fan of this song, and I think it has a lot to do with the minimal instrumentation.  The vocals are great, but having the drums dominate the recording just doesn't work for me at all.
  3. "All My Loving" - Another classic, and another overly sweet Paul song.  For whatever reason it doesn't bother me as much on this one.  Maybe it's just repetition that means I barely think about what the words are saying anymore.  Or maybe the strong harmonies mean I don't care.
  4. "Don't Bother Me" - It's George's first song, and it's pretty good.  Having to share space with a powerhouse writing duo like Lennon/McCartney is pretty much guaranteed to make you pale by comparison, especially when you're first starting out writing.  But for a first effort this is really good.
  5. "Little Child" - I think I forgot about this song until I heard it again because it's the kind of a song that has similarities to others but nothing to really claim as its own.  The harmonica is back and the theme is dancing and there are better Beatles songs that contain both.
  6. "Till There Was You" - The first cover that appears on the album, originally from The Music Man but this is styled after the way Peggy Lee sang it.  I think it suits Paul's voice and style really well and I enjoy it.
  7. "Please Mr. Postman" - Another cover, and one that I don't really like.  It's not a bad song in and of itself, but it gets stuck in my head and I just want it to go away.  So I suppose it fulfills its job as an earworm, it just does it a little too well.
  8. "Roll Over Beethoven" - The covers just keep on coming!  This is a Chuck Berry song, and I'll tell you right now that I greatly prefer every Beatles cover of Chuck Berry over his own versions.  His versions just tend to be a little too slow and repetitive for me.
  9. "Hold Me Tight" - This is one of their older songs that I actually do like quite a bit but find myself rarely ever listening to.  I have no reason why.  It's pretty typical for the rest of the album so I guess it's easy for it to get lost, but it is good enough to stand on its own. 
  10. "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" - Another cover where I really prefer this version to the original, though the original is also good.  There's just something about the way John sings this one that really tugs at my heart strings.  It's sad and sweet and soulful all at the same time and I just love it.
  11. "I Wanna Be Your Man" - Written by Lennon/McCartney, donated to The Rolling Stones as a single that was released a few weeks before this version by Ringo.  I doubt I will surprise you in saying that I prefer this version.  It's not a great song by any means, as it barely has any words to it and I've never been a fan of songs that just repeat two or three phrases over and over.  But it's good for what it is.
  12. "Devil in Her Heart" - A cover originally done by The Donays, another female group.  The gender pronoun has been changed, obviously.  It's okay, but it's also a little boring.  It feels like pretty generic mid-60s pop, which it is. 
  13. "Not a Second Time" - Another one of my favorites.  It's hard to describe why, other than that I really just love the sound of it.  The lyrics are also pretty good.  It's always nice to hear a pop song where the person is standing up for themselves rather than just being a fool for love.
  14. "Money (That's What I Want)" - Another solid cover performed by John.  It's interesting that this has similarities with "Twist and Shout" and both were chosen to end their respective albums. In the liner notes of Anthology 1, the critic claims John inserted the line "I want to be free" but if you listen to the original Barrett Strong version you tell me if he's saying that or something like "I mean green" toward the end.  It's pretty hard to make out.

Overall this is a much stronger album than Please Please Me, but still very much full of those cover songs that dominated the time period.  At least most of them are stronger ones.  I would recommend the album to anyone who enjoys their early work, as a lot of the non-singles here would probably be new to the casual fan but are good enough to add to your playlists for repeated listens.

My review of Hard Day's Night will be up later this week!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Friday, March 15, 2013

Castle Rock Cash In - Children of the Corn 8

It's the last one of the series! Can you believe it? Everyone give Noel a big hand for surviving these and pumping out so many of these videos in a row. It's not easy!
Previous entries in the Children of the Corn series can be viewed with this link.

If you want to read or hear more from Noel, check his blog, his podcast, the Super Saturday Short Lived Showcase or The Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Beatles - Please Please Me

That's right, I'm going to start going through The Beatles albums in order.

Please Please Me is actually the last of The Beatles albums I ever purchased. I didn't purchase it until quite late, when they did the 2009 remastered versions.  Why did it take me so long?  Well, let's go track by track and you'll probably see why:

  1. "I Saw Her Standing There" - You're probably already singing along in your head the second you read that title.  I know I am.  It's hard not to, with that wonderful poppy driving beat and the three part harmonies.  This song is a perfect example of what made them so popular and well liked.
  2. "Misery" - and they follow it up with a song that's a bit slower.  I think I can understand why this one isn't as well remembered, but it also shows that even from the beginning they were interested in doing things a bit different.  The guitar is country and the piano sounds like something straight out of a musical.  While John does some interesting vocal sounds toward the very end, it's otherwise not a particularly memorable song.
  3. "Anna (Go to Him)" - Our first cover, here because reportedly John really loved the song.  It allows him to do his own special version of soulful vocals, creating a sound that makes you think his throat is being torn apart, probably because it is.  While the song isn't terrible, John's done better versions of those vocals and overall it's really just a mediocre sad love song.
  4. "Chains" - Our first song with George on vocals, and it's another cover.  The three part vocals on the chorus feel slightly out of sync with each other, and I'm not sure that was intentional. The song itself isn't too great.
  5. "Boys" - And now it's time for Ringo to do his cover.  Probably the most interesting thing is that this was obviously a song originally written for a female lead, specifically The Shirelles, but they didn't let that stop them from covering it.  It's probably the strongest of the covers so far, as it has their energy and George gets to do a guitar solo on it.  I dare say even Ringo haters can enjoy this one.
  6. "Ask Me Why" - Back to original songs for a bit, and this one is slower than even "Misery."  It's a fairly standard sounding song for the time period, with a strong influence from doo wop groups.  It's not bad, but it's also kind of forgettable.  I appreciate this song more for the call back it gets later in their career, but I'll tell you about that when we come to it.
  7.  "Please Please Me" - The harmonica makes its first appearance! It's also their first number one, as I said before.  And it's well deserved.  This is quintessential early Beatles and everything they did right.
  8. "Love Me Do" - Their first single.  There's a version of this song on The Beatles Anthology that features a very nervous sounding Paul McCartney singing on the chorus because he's just been informed he's going to be doing it alone while John plays the harmonica.  This is another song that nearly everyone knows, so I find it hard to comment.  You've probably already made up your own mind about songs like this, after all.
  9. "P.S I Love You" - I wonder if other people listen to this song and know immediately that this is a song that Paul primarily wrote.  It's got that sappy sweet quality that usually signifies it's him.  The fact that he's singing lead is also a clue.  Like a lot of Paul songs, I don't dislike it, but it just seems to exist in some universe where everything is always perfectly lovely and wonderful, and since I don't live in that world I don't enjoy these songs as much.  I'm not enough of a romantic for that.
  10. "Baby It's You" Another cover originally done by The Shirelles, this time sung by John.  The "sha la la la la" makes it easy to sing along to, but otherwise it's not particularly special.
  11. "Do You Want to Know a Secret" - While sung by George, it's still a Lennon McCartney song, as George wasn't quite ready to write his own yet.  I find this one gets stuck in my head a lot, and is just plain fun to sing in its simplicity.
  12. "A Taste of Honey" - Another cover, apparently from a Broadway play.  I have to be honest and say I really don't like this one.  It's too slow, it's uninteresting, and it doesn't grab me in any way.
  13. "There's a Place" - This one has a lot of similarities to "Please Please Me" musically but just isn't quite as interesting vocally.  Not bad, but not exactly a stand out hit.  It feels exactly like what it is - album filler.
  14. "Twist and Shout" - This is definitely one of those songs where I don't think most people even realize this was a cover for them.  I knew it was an Isley Brothers cover, but in doing research I was surprised to discover it was actually originally called "Shake It Up, Baby" and recorded by a band called The Top Notes.  The Top Notes version is pretty different, and it's safe to say The Beatles were largely trying to copy what the Isley Brother did with the song.  The addition of the guitar is really what makes the Beatles version so distinctive, along with John's vocals.  While he's largely singing it in the same way, the fact that it wasn't entirely in his range meant he was screaming his way through, creating that fantastic throat ripping sound I mentioned earlier.  It's odd to think that such a sound would be pleasing, but I can't possibly deny that it is to me.

While there are undeniably some classics on here, there's also some rather mediocre ones as well.  The abundance of covers was pretty common for the time period, but in this day and age we're far more interested in hearing their original work.  Most of the classics are available through other means, like live versions on The Beatles Anthology 1 or in a collection like The Beatles 1.  Of course these days you can also download the songs individually through iTunes.If nothing else, I don't think this is a good starting point for someone who wants to hear more Beatles songs.  Start with a later album, and if you're really thirsting for more later on, you can always come back to this one.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Neverending Story

Like many children of the 80s I saw the film The Neverending Story as a kid, along with its sequel.  But it wasn't until I was an adult that I finally read the book.  It was one of the most exciting readings I've ever experienced.  Not just because I was reading about Bastian and Atreyu and Falkor in a way that, while similar to the films I knew, included additional adventures and lands to explore, but because the book is downright meta.  The plot of The Neverending Story revolves around a boy named Bastian who doesn't fit in well at school or really anywhere within the real world.  But he loves stories, and when he spies a book named The Neverending Story in a book shop, he steals it and runs away to his school's attic to read it.  Halfway through the book, he begins to realize that the hero Atreyu is searching for to save Fantastica is himself.  Of course, we knew that from the beginning, because why else would we be told this story within a story?  But what's even better, is that once Bastian is inside Fantastica, there are multiple mentions of you, the reader!  I wish so much that I could have read this as a kid, because I probably would have believed that I could get into this world as well.  Fortunately I've always held on to some aspects of my childhood, so even as an adult this was so exciting.  I don't think I've ever seen a breaking of the fourth wall that works so well before, except maybe in the video game Earthbound.  

The other really great thing that keeps popping up is that we get the tease of a minor character's story, but then the book will stop and say "But that is another story and will be told another time."  It really gives you the feel that this book could never end.  It would also probably make a really great fiction writing workbook, for you to try to finish all those stories yourself.

Given the nature of the book, it switches direction after that halfway point.  In the first half we're mostly following Atreyu and Falkor, and then in the second half they take a back seat while we follow Bastian.  The problem is that Bastian's not really that likeable.  It's intentional, of course, because he has a lot to learn and he comes out better for it by the end, but I really couldn't stand him acting like such a brat in places.  This is also the half of the book that will feel largely new to those of who have only seen the movies, because while the second film took some characters and situations from the book, it twisted them around quite a bit.  So I found the second half a little more tolerable on my first read because I was seeing something new, but since then it gets a little more difficult to slug through.

The first movie is a classic for a reason. The effects are amazing for the time period, and despite featuring nothing but these strange characters and child actors, it's a great film. It also works as a pretty good adaptation of the first half of the book, with only minor things left out. And the name of the land is changed to Fantasia instead of Fantastica for whatever reason.  Something like Ygramul, a creature made of thousands of insects, would have been very difficult to create accurately in the 80s. 

They even did a good job of trying to give you that meta moment by having the childlike empress say that others are watching Bastian's story right now.  But I've heard that Ende was so upset with the adaptation that he wanted the title removed from the story. I'm guessing he was upset with the fact that the movie abruptly ends at the halfway point. Clearly Bastian's journey inside Fantastica was very important to him. I can understand why a brief "Bastian made a lot more wishes and had a great many more adventures" would bother him if so, even if it's followed up with "But that's another story." They really should have added "that will be told another time" and set it up for the sequel, but I guess they weren't so sure. It's not like today where we tend to automatically build movies expecting the sequels to be released. 

When the sequel did come around, they changed things, as I said. Even before the plot, we've got different actors for Bastian, his father, and Atreyu. Kenny Morrison does a terrible job of replacing Noah Hathaway, though the others are at least on par with acting ability.  But I remember this being really confusing to me as a kid.  Was this supposed to be the same character?  His father was different, he looked dramatically different, he was still scared of joining the swim team and riding horses.  So how could this be the same kid?  I have a feeling that it is confusing things like these that have led them to try to adapt children's books at a much quicker pace now than they used to.

They also add in more characters, most notably Nimbly, who is incredibly annoying. Given how long these scenes drag in the book, I'm not entirely bothered by the changes made in the film. In the book, Bastian losing his memories is just a simple side effect of using the AURYN.  Making it a device of Xayide works well and makes the Childlike Empress look a little less cruel in this version. Granted, in the book she is simply meant to be morally ambiguous, but you have to admit there is something rather cruel about not warning humans ahead of time that too many wishes will turn them into empty headed idiots. So here the villain is to blame and it's simpler. I also really like the fact that Bastian's father reads the story. In the book Bastian simply wishes his father well again, but to have him actually involved in the story really aids to heal him and builds a better bond between the two of them so I'm all for it. Overall, I really enjoy both movies. The creature designs and the sets and costumes are gorgeous. They're over the top, but that fits the setting perfectly. They're perfect kids films, and with the exception of Nimbly, they're still amusing to watch as an adult.

They technically made this film series into a trilogy with The Neverending Story III.  I have no memory of this movie from the time period it was released, despite the fact that at 13 I would have still been in the target age group for it.  It makes me wonder if it just plain bombed and didn't last long enough for me to notice.  The cast was changed yet again. I think it is because a different studio took over, but given that this was only made four years later, you would think they could have at least tried to bring back some of the same people.  The creatures were done by Jim Henson's creature shop, which is nice, but also means they look very different than what we saw in the previous films.   A very young Jack Black plays the lead bully in this film, and I have to admit, I kind of enjoy him more as a bully than I do in a lot of his comedic roles. His over the top nature just fits better here.   

There's no more story elements left from the original book, so we're getting a new story with the same characters.  Except it contradicts the previous sequel by giving Bastian's father no memory of The Neverending Story.    In my opinion they really should have picked a new main character rather than reusing Bastian.  Given the nature of the book, there's absolutely no reason why we couldn't have a new protagonist.  Let Bastian's story be over and give someone else a turn.  Because if three movies in Bastian is still being bullied and having problems with his father, than he isn't learning anything from his experiences.

While it's nice that this is the first time we get to see The Old Man of Wandering Mountain in the film series, that's about the only good thing.  (And you can tell no one else likes this movie either, by the fact that that image of the back of his head is the only one I could find online.) The creatures of Fantasia get brought to the real world.  It was silly enough when Falkor was there in the last moments of the first movie, but to actually send a whole group of them there is much worse.  Not to mention that the book specifically states that creatures from Fantastica are transformed into dreams and lies when they try to cross into our world.

There was also an animated series that very loosely adapted the book into new stories.  The main thing I will give the cartoon is that it shows Atreyu with his proper green skin as it is described in the book.  They also attempted to adapt some of the stories from the book that never made it to film, like the tears of sadness and the disappearance of the purple buffalo.  But they were also changed around and too dumbed down for an adult to enjoy them.  Their version of Bark Troll is particularly annoying.  I was only able to watch the first few episodes via Netflix, and honestly I'm just not interested enough to see any more.  It's possible this may be more enjoyable for kids, and if you'd like your kids to try it you can find both seasons available on DVD and through Amazon streaming.

Tales from the Neverending Story is the name of the short lived television show/mini-series.  It once again moved things around into its own format rather than straight up adapting the novel.  I can tell by my Netflix ratings that I had rented this some time ago, and I gave it three stars.  For me that generally means I found it tolerable but wasn't wowed by it either.  I wanted to watch at least a little bit of it again to refresh my memory, but Netflix's disc rental service is a shadow of what it used to be.  Not only is the first disc of the series no longer available at all, but the second disc was marked long wait and I have the feeling it is sitting on someone's coffee table forgotten.  There's a few clips that people have uploaded to Youtube, but no full episodes, which is a shame. Amazon will lie to you and claim you can purchase episodes of the series, but if you look closely it's really just the animated series.  If anyone has some memories of this show and its quality, please let us know in the comments.

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