Wednesday, August 16, 2006

AFI- Decemberundeground

What does a nice little farm girl like me have to do with a bunch a tattooed punks like them?

When I was 13 years old, sitting in my bedroom overlooking a hay field and crying because without a doubt, nobody, nobody would ever understand me, I could have really used these guys. If they’d been doing their thing in 1984, I’d have been all over them. I’d have wallpapered my room with them, and woken up and gone to sleep with them, and written their memorized lyrics all over my History binder.

Truth is, they kind of were around back then, only they were called Echo and the Rockets Cure, and I did like them, but they weren’t heavy enough. I didn’t know from heavy back then. I hadn’t found the heavy that would satisfy me. Instead, I wrote the lyrics for Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time all over my English binder. Not heavy but undeniably a classic. (Cyndi was somebody who may have understood me, or at least accepted me.)

So, while I come off like just another obnxiously perky pickup truck driving housewife (wha?) I have a pretty serious dark side. I wanted to die when I was twelve and have fought if off ever since. I laugh deeply and love everything ridiculous, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that my darkness allows my brightness to shine.

My dark streak will always be there.
These guys get that.

Decemberunderground was released on 06/06/06 -- ooh how devilish-- and I bought it in mid July. This means we’ve been spinning the disc regularly since then. I’ve had lots of time to absorb it and it has very efficiently seeped into me.

The Jethro-Jetta Test: Passed! Part of his approval rested on a fun little game that I like to call, “Who Mixed This?” We got into track 3, the first single, “Miss Murder” and within seconds Jethro declared that this sounded like a Lord-Alge mix. This game continued for the duration of the CD and the better part of the highway trip. Yes, half of the songs are mixed by Chris Lord-Alge, the rest by Producer Jerry Finn.

It was a wobbly pass though. Those Lord-Alge mixes are harshly bright- better sounding on the radio, says Jethro- and actually distort the stereo in our little Jetta.

He was willing to overlook this though, because he claims that it is “haaavy” which is good. Other descriptive words included “Interesting” and “unexpected”. He also noted that the vocalist has an overbearing lisp. But he got over it because the guy screams like no other and it’s “really f**kin cool.” He got away with the swear because the tunes were really loud and the kids couldn’t hear.

The dining room test: Not bad. It’s a pass. Not exactly pleasant dining music...but the kids like it.

The BS filter: If the 12 and 10 year old kids dig it, it’s relatively bull free. However, as a parent, I can’t help but be disturbed by the death-suicide-genocide-despair-bit my lip- imagery in the lyrics. But then a former suicidal twelve year old, maybe I can understand it. These guys feel this way too...and they’re still alive.

The downstairs stereo surround sound test: I can’t help but think that most of this would work very well in an extemely slick high budget movie about a superhero who lives in darkness and works in the cover of night and has a tortured soul who can’t be loved.

Also, I would love to hear this band live and see how the recreate what they've recorded. I have a feeling they'd be punishing. The kick drum sounds in some tracks are killer.

This is one sharp sounding record. Really harsh. It will tear your head off. I wouldn’t expect anything else for a record like this.

The whistle while you work test Highly motivating. There may be some pretty damn gloomy subjects to deal with, but if there’s one thing AFI is really good at, it’s the shout along background vocal choruses. Even if you can’t understand the words, there are plenty of opportunities to do the WHOA OH OH!

The packaging is gorgeous. All in black and white photography, it’s elegant and chilly. Lyrics are written out in paragraphs rather than in the usual boring stanzas. Jethro had one complaint: the producer and engineer should have been credited on the back cover of the disc. Okay. I know where he’s coming from.

The songwriting on this record is so solid. I will warn you right now, these songs are infectious. These are earworms. Good luck getting it out of your head. Good luck resisting singing along to this stuff. Just try to hold still and not dance or at the least, do the nod and tap while you listen to this one. The first single, "Miss Murder," is just the beginning. "Kill Caustic" has taken a spot on my Favourite list. "Summer Shudder," "Love Like Winter," and "The Missing Frame" are addictively catchy.

These guys are solid players, and it shows, but the programming and keyboards take more of a role this time around. Die hard punk fans from way back will probably not like this. There are, if I can dare to say this, some touches of synthy new wave in here.

One of the band’s strengths is the unexpected. How can you find yourself jigging along to songs with lyrics like, "So now you'll love these screams, what's left of me. Love these screams like I do." It's insane. There are chord changes that most of us wouldn’t think of, and time changes that leave you feeling rather face smacked. And it’s good.

They're also very dramatic. Just look at the drama. Feel it! Taste it! Hear the drama! "Kiss and Control" features a spoken word tirade including "We'll burn like stars. We'll burn as we fall." I don't get to do that in real life. My favourite song on this album is called "Kill Caustic" and has the refrain, "Love these screams like I do. Don't speak my name!" I laugh maniacally as I scream along.

Vocalist Davey Havok is pretty special. He wears more make up than I do, and I have never waxed my eyebrows. He’s not my type, but I find him fascinating. I once read another critic- a real one- describe his vocals as “Kite in a rainstorm” and I love that. It’s accurate. But he’s not just a singer capable of a yelp as much as a low menacing whisper. He possesses the best throat shredding scream out there. It is bloodcurdling!

He has the most magnificent right arm tattooed with scenes from the Nightmare Before Christmas. The Tim Burton fixation I totally understand. He strikes me as a person who can’t quite live in the world the way it’s been set up, and doesn’t expect to be understood for it. I get that too.

While other rock stars glower and glare- which is essential rock star behaviour- Davey Havok lifts his chin and gazes down at us knowingly. He just knows.

(I must add that when I yanked this photo off of Images, the jpg was titled "Davey Cute." I think that's hilarious. I just do.)

I respect art, and effort, and this guy is a hell of a frontman. He sings in about four different voices, not including his range of hellacious screams. Listening to him do his thing can be a beautifully cathartic experience.

Davey feels my pain so that I don’t have to.
Or, I feel his pain.
Or, we feel the pain together.

After a spin of an AFI record, with all of its colourless imagery and misery and yelping and crashing and screaming...I just feel all good inside.

Decemberunderground is that special album that manages to weld together catchy tunes and heaviness. I would have to say, at the risk of pissing off those music fans for whom “pop” is a bad word, that this is, at its core, a pop album. However, it is the Heaviest Scariest pop album ever made.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Libertine

“My name is John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, and I do not want you to like me.”

This is how we meet the title character of this film. He addresses us face to face, dimly lit, wineglass in hand. “You will not like me.”

In an unnervingly direct opening monologue, Johnny Depp makes it perfectly clear what kind of character we’re dealing with here. There isn’t much sentimental romanticism in this movie. It will make you flinch and squirm. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

Seventeenth century England is portrayed in all of its muddy, manure caked, misty glory.

One of the first things that struck me about this film is the lighting. It fools you into thinking that it’s not just set in that time period, but is in this era, with this yellow flickering light. (I stuck around for the special features, and yes, it was shot in England and Wales, and lit predominantly by candles. It’s authentic.)

The film has a grainy look to it that gives a perfectly gritty feeling. When contrasted with all the beautiful elaborate clothes, it forces us to think of the dirty side of the wealthy and priviledged among the nobility. Most of it was shot with cameras balanced on the shoulder instead of on a dolly, which makes us see the whole thing in a slightly drunken viewpoint...very appropriate.

It’s all set off with lots of background noise (often distracting but jarringly realistic) and some very jaunty music.

Based in history, the story tells us that King Charles II has been restored to the throne and ushered in an age of renewed interest in art, culture, and science, along with lots of drunken orgies.

Oh what fun for men in long curly wigs and high boots, and women in boob-boosting bodices!

Unfortunately there have also been plagues and fires and political unrest, making the King worried enough to bring back his old friend John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, whom he had banished only a few months before for writing a naughty poem about him. Rochester is brilliant. Perverted, rude and brilliant. The King wants him to be his Shakespeare and write eloquent speeches for him. He knows damn well that Rochester is compelled to destroy or mock everything he touches. He takes the chance.

But “Johnny” as he is known to his cronies- yes, Johnny plays a guy called Johnny- really only wants to hang around in the theatre. The theatre is his drug. This is the only place where he enjoys life.

He takes on a struggling actress named Lizzy Barry and wagers his friends that he can turn her into the most celebrated actress in London. Oh, and also, he makes a mockery of the King in a play commissioned to glorify him to the French ambassador, gets sent away again, and begins rotting to death of various venereal and alcoholic diseases while masquerading as a healer.

Smashing stuff, isn’t it?

I would like to say that I enjoyed this movie but it isn’t meant to be enjoyed...I was both repulsed and fascinated by it. I think it’s stunning. It’s a dirty movie, from the mud, to the naked writhing bodies in the park, to the four letter words. I may have learned a few new ones.

Rochester's eloquently dirty poetry is featured throughout. I have to tell you that there are so many great lines in this movie that it will make your head spin. Some of the dialogue is witty and sharp and funny. Some of it is downright beautiful. Pay attention.

It wouldn’t be quite so impressive without the actors involved in it.

Now I know what you’re all saying, (Pirate) that I’d love Johnny Depp no matter what and that if he read my grocery list I’d rave about it. Well, yeah. Especially.

If you’ve ever doubted this guy’s ability, this role will convince you.

Right from his prologue he is mesmerizing. Intense, haughty, intelligent, and threatening. His accent is perfect. His voice is a low smooth growl. He’s coiled and unpredictable.

I will warn you right now: if you love Johnny for his looks, either don’t watch the Libertine at all, or shut it off after the lewd performance of his play, because he’s not kidding that you won’t like him. He starts off gorgeous, and I do mean gorgeous. Depp the man is aging well, and Rochester is handsome but well worn. With his bedraggled hair and jaded squint, he’s got that Love Me If You Dare look. He is stunning.

But he does not stay that way! I’ve never seen him uglier and it works. He literally rots in front of us. (Sadly, I couldn't find any pictures of his amazing decrepitude.) Some of the most gutsy, visceral performances I’ve seen from him happen here. He's incredible.

Take his speech in the House of Lords: Nothing like a guy powdering his dripping face and hobbling around on crutches to get a point across. (And I wish so much that I could find a picture of that!)

John Malkovich, another one of my favourites, is perfection as Charles II. He’s got the incredibly uppity drawl of royalty and the easy intensity of power. In an earlier stage production, Malkovich played Rochester, but I think he’s perfect as the King who could be mistaken for careless but has the whole thing under control.

The women hold their own against these two men.

Rosamund Pike is steely and elegant as Rochester’s suffering but devoted wife, the aristocratic heiress Elizabeth Malet. He loves her enough to stay married to her but she represents all that traps him: domestic life, rules, the country. (He hates the country. There are no theatres.) He seems compelled uncontrollably to insult and mentally abuse her. She struggles to maintain her composure and dignity.

Samantha Morton is excellent as Lizzy Barry.
She’s pleasant looking but not cookie-cutter-pretty; she’s interesting to look at and fascinating to watch. Her character is the only one in the story who can be anywhere near a match to the impossible Rochester. I think the only time this film comes close to getting soft is in Rochester's confessions to Lizzy...but she never lets the whole scene dissolve into a horrible tear-jerking romance.

Let’s not forget Kelly Reilly as Jane the bluntly dirty talking whore.

Jack Davenport, who I’m becoming more and more enamoured of, has a small role as an actor who has a hard time stomaching Rochester’s “art” (and who also is a runner up to Alan Rickman in the best voice department.)

Don’t miss out on Richard Coyle as Rochester’s servant, Alcock. Get it? All cock? How appropriate.

A young British beauty by the name of Rupert Friend surfaces too, as the young Billy Downs, who is warned of impending doom by Rochester. Before Billy meets his doom though, there's a little scene with the two men looking lovingly into each other’s eyes.

I've known guys like Rochester who were so bored because of their own unbearable intelligence that they had to be unbelievably rude just to get free of the sameness of life; those whose talent is overshadowed by their own tortured soul.

Laurence Dunmore, after a seven year struggle to get this picture made, has achieved a beautiful and disturbing film. From what I've read, the Real Critics didn't like it much, and it didn't exactly burn up the box office. It’s a shame that so few people went to see it. Especially since there are a few Oscar worthy performances here. (Three have been nominated. Come on already.)

I highly recommend that you shake a tail feather down to the video store and get a look at it because it’s worth it. It deserves it.