Archive for March, 2014

Whether you know it or not, Harold Ramis has bettered your life. With his passing earlier this week, I felt most saddened to hear person after person say “Harold who?” when I shared or discussed the news. These same people brightened quickly, before their faces dropped upon realizing the great loss as I listed titles from Harold Ramis’ career. His filmography is impressive. Even more impressive is the number of truly funny, talented people Ramis pushed forward into more name-worthy careers. But even this is to Ramis’ credit. He was a gentleman. He was a true comedian. And although the material was his, the jokes forming in his unique curly-headed brain, he always gave the best laughs to another man. Take Bill Murray, for example. Look at Stripes, Ghostbusters and its sequel, Groundhog Day, even Meatballs and Caddyshack. Lord, I don’t know the whole story between those two. Who knows the truth behind any story starring Bill Murray? But behind all those classic Bill Murray deliveries was a Harold Ramis script. The truth is that Harold Ramis knew comedy. He knew what was funny and who was funny. And he stepped to the side, into the alcove far too often, to let another voice deliver his material. Harold Ramis was one of the good guys. A fellow with a perpetual smile. A unique talent. An unfortunately stoic snot-balled voice. A man with a beloved fan-base of millions, many of whom never knew his name. God bless Harold Ramis for the laughter he shared, the brilliance he challenged, the humility he personified. And God bless his people.

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Transgender_Dysphoria_Blues_cover_artAlright, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the first Against Me! album to feature vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Tom Gables performing as Laura Jane Grace. Yes, Tom is a chick now. Yes, Tom’s journey to become Laura Jane is explicitly addressed on this record (check opening two tracks and the closer). No, that is not why this record is a front-runner for my favorite rock record of 2014.

If “controversy” alone determined the value of rock-n-roll, Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz would be topping Lorde’s Pure Heroine, which would be topping the new Beyonce porn-package, which would be topping this new Against Me! But we’re adults here (sort of), so we should be enjoying the music for the music. And, in the Transgender case, I only needed one play through the snare-snappy, rolling-riffs, angry Tom Petty-esque opening title track – “You want them to notice / The ragged ends of your summer dress / You want them to see you / Like they see every other girl / They just see a faggot / Hold their breath not to catch the sick” – to lay my dollars down. I’ve had it in constant rotation since it’s late January release.

Controversy and autobiographical journeys aside, this is good rock-n-roll. This is roll the damn windows down and let this record spin three times to Austin on a fine day rock-n-roll. This is curious, questioning, angry, fist and stiletto hells rock-n-roll. And it’s solid cover to cover.

Confession: I’ve never been a die-hard Against Me! fan. I left all that sweaty band-sticker-on-my-dashboard love to my buddy Pepe. But this record took me back through Against Me!’s discography, through records that felt familiar but still relatively fresh, and the experience won me over fully.

Transgender is a culmination record, capturing several different sounds Against Me! has charted and, at times, perfected. You like the The Eternal Cowboy and In Search of a Former Clarity brass-knuckle, bar-room, steel-toed era, you’ve got tracks like “Drinking With The Jocks” and “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ” and “Unconditional Love”. You prefer the poppy, high-hat dance-ability of New Wave, you’ve got the title track and “True Trans Soul Rebel” and “Paralytic States”. You fancy the stripped down arena rock of White Crosses, you’ve got “FuckMyLife666” and “Dead Friend” and “Two Coffins.” Here’s a ten track retrospective album, picking up various licks and sounds from a fluctuating career.

But the clincher track here for me, the one that pulls the entire AM! canon together and simultaneously pushes it forward, capturing Laura Jane’s grittiest angst, is the closing “Black Me Out”. Opening with a simple strum, Laura Jane chimes in calmly before the entire track erupts – “I wanna piss on the walls of your house / I wanna chop those brass rings / Off your fat fucking fingers / As if you were a king-maker / As if, as if, as if black me out”.  The message here being that we haven’t heard the end or the even best from Laura Jane Grace, yet. There’s more clattering about in that shifting soul. Great. Bring it on. I’m already pining for the next Against Me! release.

Girls-Against-Boys-2012-Movie-PosterPerhaps it’s tempting to lean on exploitative visuals to tell certain stories or explore particular ideas. For instance, I Spit On Your Grave is now a three film “franchise”, featuring the Meir Zarchi original (1978) and two modern retellings / reimaginings. These films are known for pushing the boundaries of cinematic acceptability over the edge into blatant exploitation. The film-makers justify the exploitative imagery by pointing to the themes of the films: how else could / should the story of a woman’s violation and need for vengeance be told except explicitly? And shouldn’t the cinematic portrayal of the woman’s violation be just as explicit and vile as her cinematic acts of vengeance? Isn’t cathartic cinema valuable? And how dare the audience shy away from merely seeing such a violation when so many women actually experience similar atrocities?

Yeah, I don’t know about all that. All I know is that I’ve seen all three I Spit On Your Grave films, and I walked away from each one feeling that justice and awareness and communication weighed far less than amplified shock value in the filmmaker’s process. I could be wrong, but these films felt more pornographic – in their treatment of both violation and vengeance – than honestly cathartic.

Girls Against Boys, despite its dramatic title and provocative poster, does not rely on exploitation to explore similar issues of violation and vengeance. It’s more akin to films like Teeth and American Mary, working more in visual subtlety, relying more on the strength of the narrative and the precision of good performances, which is a far-cry from simply being “tasteful” in dealing with a delicate situation.

Girls Against Boys tells the story of Shae (Danielle Panabaker) who befriends Lu (Nicole LaLiberte) shortly after a nasty break-up and immediately before falling victim to a new possible love interest. Shae reaches out to family and friends for support, but no one proves available except Lu. And if hell truly hath no fury like a woman scorned, Lu gladly saddles up alongside Shae as fury personified. The girls quickly become a Thelma and Louise pair hell-bent on vengeance, but inevitably the vengeance reaches farther than anticipated.

On the surface (and by mere appearance), Girls Against Boys looks like a simple bad-girl-with-a-gun B-grade sleeper, but there’s some real heart to the telling of Shae’s story. Kudos to writer / director Austin Chick for rising above the possible trenches of genre trappings and avoiding simple exploitation maneuvers. He’s created, instead, a unique character study of a young woman caught a painfully dichotomous mindset. Not to mention, I never imagined the nonchalant enjoyment of Captain Crunch could be so creepy. Girls Against Boys gets a solid 3.5 geisha blades out of 5. Here’s proof again that the viewer’s imagination and sympathies are far more vicious than any camera’s eye.