Wednesday, April 29, 2009

DVD Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008)

Written by T. Michael Testi


The Day The Earth Stood Still three-disk edition is the latest release of the 2008 version of the classic 1951 movie of the same name. This version comes with a copy of the original black and white, a copy of the 2008 remake, and a version that can be loaded to personal players and computers.

The basic story line of the 2008 version is the same as the original. A humanoid alien visitor named Klaatu comes to earth with a warning that he must give to all of the earth's leaders. The warning is that if we don't change, it could result in the earth the human race being eliminated. Much of the situation that occurred in the original version occurs in the remake, including Klaatu being shot, taken into custody, and escaping to move among the earthlings.

Beyond this, the representations of the two stories are drastically different. In fact this could be called a tale of two movies. The original classic is well done, has a great cast including Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, and Lock Martin. The storyline is well thought out and there is the right balance of acting, tension, and realism to make it believable. The quality of the video and the sound are re-mastered very well for a film more than 55 years old.

The 2008 version, which stars Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, John Cleese, and Jaden Smith, is not so good. I can't quite decide if it is meant to be a political statement, to sell products, or a vehicle to show how many special effects can be done in a single movie. One thing I can say is that it is a mess

First, the acting was substandard. To me Reeves is an actor who, in the right role like Matrix, or Speed, can be very good. In a bad role such as here, he is flat and uninspiring. It was to the point of it being painful to watch. Connelly is good, but her role as a scientist/step mother to an even more annoying child (more on this in a minute) is nothing near as good as Neal's role in the original. This has more to do with the role itself than Connelly's acting abilities.

Jaden Smith's character was downright horrible. He plays Connelly's stepson, who is constantly complaining, whining, and rude. His father was killed in the war, and this is clearly a political statement about George Bush's wars. They even go on to make the point that he wasn't a soldier but only a builder. The child is constantly doing things that causes everyone trouble. It was one of those roles that made me want to scream at the screen. He is nothing like the endearing child in the original.
Another problem I had concerns product placement. It seems like every five minutes there was an advertisement for a product like Apple, Honda, Coke and all sorts of logos. There is even a five minute segment filmed in a McDonalds. It was ridiculous.

Then there is the whole global warming thing. In the original, the reason for the aliens' visit was because we had atomic technology which could threaten to kill off humanity if left unchecked. In this remake, they come because we have created global warming? They claim that there are few planets that can support life and we are ruining this one. Hello! Does anyone not think that wiping three billion humans off the planet won't have some consequences to the ecosystem?

The final problem was with the special effects. It is obvious that the producer and director did not understand the original. Beyond the great story and acting, the reason the original worked so well was the combination of limited the special effects and the power of the story itself. Yes, the effects they had available in 1951 were limited, but they used just enough to drive the story. Here the special effects take control at the expense of the story. While some were done quite well, there were just too many and without purpose.

There are a lot of bonus features that come with the DVD set, including "Klaatu's Unseen Artifacts," "Build Your Own GORT," "Deleted Scenes," "Re-Imagining the Day," "Unleashing GORT," "Watching the Skies—In Search of Extraterrestrial Life," "The Day the Earth was  Green," and, "Audio Commentary by Writer David Scarpa."

Bottom line is that The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008) is a movie that I could not wait to end. Even if there had been no original with which to compare it, this would have been a bad movie. I can accept a movie, even if it is political, as long as it is entertaining. I can't if it is annoying, preachy, and it tries to take on a classic. The one redeeming quality of this edition is that you do get a copy of the original. If you look at the rest of the disks as bonus features, it makes it an acceptable deal. I give it two stars.


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Monday, April 27, 2009

Book Review: The Story Of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock, 2nd Edition by Susan Masino

Written by T. Michael Testi


With the release of their first album in eight years, there was bound to be a resurgence of interest in AC/DC and their 30-plus year history. In The Story Of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock , author Susan Masino updates her biography and documents the band's history which began in Sydney, Australia in the early 1970s all the way through the new Black Ice album, released October 2008.

While The Story Of AC/DC was first published in 2006, it has been updated to include what the band has been doing in the last three years. Masino first met the band during their first American tour in 1977. Over the years she has remained in contact with them and interviewed them many times.

The book begins with the story of the Young's, who were actually born in Scotland, and their move to Australia under the Assisted Passage Scheme of 1947 which, because of job scarcity, allowed them to move for a nominal fee. The book follows their rise first in Australia - and then the world.

First, what I liked about the book is that it is very well researched, and the author is very knowledgeable about the band. As with any good book on a topic like this, there much insight that is to be gained from its reading.

One of the things that I had previously known included the fact that Malcolm and Angus Young's older brother George first broke on to the music charts with "Friday on my Mind," which hit number 16 in the U.S. charts and number 6 in the U.K. What I didn't know was the impact it was to have on AC/DC.

Another is that Angus Young, the one in the school boy knickers' gyrating around the stage, is a teetotaler. He has never touched anything stronger than a cigarette. The book also includes background on how the whole schoolboy thing came about and some of the other colorful costumes that were tried before he settled on this one.

There are a lot of good tidbits about the band, the history, and other insights into one of the most popular hard rock bands of all time. There are also a lot of pictures of the band throughout this time and this version also comes with a CD that includes interviews with each member. This even includes the late Bon Scott, with the interview was done in 1977.

The main thing that I had a problem with in The Story Of AC/DC is that throughout there are what I call cut-outs. This is where the author inserts comments by using italics. This seems to break the flow of thought. I wish that she would have incorporated these pieces of information as part of the dialog of the general book. It sometimes seems that she is first fan, then biographer.

Outside of that, I found it to be a good read. The book covers pretty much every aspect of the band's history. I do think that you will get a good appreciation for the band and the fact that they had to work hard to get where they got to and even then, life dealt them blows that could have done in lesser bands. If you want to learn more about the life and times of AC/DC then The Story Of AC/DC: Let There Be Rock 2nd Edition is a good place to start.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Graphic Audio Review: The Green Lantern: Hero's Quest By Dennis O'Neil, Based On The Series From DC Comics

Written by T. Michael Testi

Before I start, The Green Lantern: Hero's Quest is somewhat of a controversial story because it chronicles a parallel universe take on The Green Lantern and his history. I am not going to discuss the take on the story, but rather the quality of the story itself.

In this universe, the Kyle Rayner is a lazy slacker. He is an underachiever who lives in the basement of a disgusting building, and barely has food to eat. He is a graphic designer who has little hope for the future. One night, while at a nightclub, he goes out into the alley for some fresh air and is confronted by a little blue being who gives him a Green Lantern ring, and from there his life is changed forever.

Different from the other JLA Graphic Audio books I have reviewed here in the past, The Green Lantern: Hero's Quest is told in first person. In fact, at first, the way the book starts was a little shocking.

As the story went on, I became more comfortable with the difference and once again I was treated to a Graphic Audio performance that really brings you into the story. The combination of sound effects and artistic vocal performances creates what Graphic Audio calls a “Movie in your Mind” and is truly what The Green Lantern: Hero's Quest is.

When the Justice League of America (JLA) learns of the existence of a new super hero, they are concerned, and so one day Superman shows up at Kyle's apartment to determine his intent. Kyle is then invited to come to the JLA satellite to meet the other super heroes and is eventually invited to work with the JLA on a trial basis and is given a special button for being summoned.

Kyle receives a call to come to the JLA satellite, and as soon as he arrives the satellite disappears. He is now called into question by Batman about the disappearance. He now must determine if he is willing to take on the challenge to be a hero. To do so, he must take it upon himself to find out the origins of The Green Lanterns, find out what happened to Earth's original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, and perhaps even save the universe.

As I said before this story is different from the others. While overall it is entertaining, it is a bit uneven and slow at times. But because it is character-driven, and is told from the first person point of view, you get real insight into the mind of Kyle Rayner. As the story goes on, you find that you are caught up and can't let go. Then of course there are the performances of the actors that give it that movie feel.

The quality of The Green Lantern: Hero's Quest and performance are the reason I will be coming back to Graphic Audio products. By using a whole cast — over 20 performers — you don't get one person trying to sound like many different voices, you get unique individual characters. It is this that makes it great.

You can also check out some of their other series as well. If you want you can listen to a sample, or purchase the GraphicAudio Book from their on-line Store. The story comes three ways: standard CD (the version I reviewed), MP3 CD, and downloadable WMA with digital rights management.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Graphic Audio Review - Wonder Woman - Mythos By Carol Lay, Based on the Series from DC Comics

When a honeymooning couple, diving near the Bermuda Triangle, find a strange island, the husband becomes strange. It is when the man discovers the male counterpart to Themyscria or Wonder Woman's Paradise Island that he becomes really distant. When the wife's oxegen supply becomes damaged, he sends her back while he continues to explore. When the wife returns back to their boat, the island is no longer there, and she cannot find her husband.

When Wonder Woman finds out about the missing man, she decides that a trip home to help in the search is exactly what is needed. But when she discovers that there is an island that mirrors her own Themyscria, containing only men instead, it sets in motion things that are beyond her control.

Once again I was treated to a Graphic Audio performance that really brings you into the story. The combination of sound effects and artistic vocal performances creates what Graphic Audio calls a "Movie in your Mind" and that is truly what Wonder Woman - Mythos is.

As always, the Justice League of America (JLA) is there to help when things get out of hand, but this time even Superman, Flash, and Green Lighting succumb to the powers of the all male island. When Superman is commanded to capture Wonder Woman, he has to do as he is commanded.

I really like this series of the JLA books. I like the fact that they spend some time developing the backgrounds of the characters of the Justice League. There is also a good balance between focusing on the Wonder Woman and still keeping the others of the JLA involved.

The story builds slowly and deliberately without feeling slow or paced. There is action from the beginning, but it is a natural build where everything is taken in steps. Soon you find that you are caught up and can't let go. Then, of course, there are the performances of the actors that give it that movie feel.

The quality of the story and performance are the reason that I will be coming back to Graphic Audio products. By using a whole cast, over 20 performers, you don't get one person trying to sound like many different voices; you get unique individual characters. It is this that makes it great.

You can also check out some of their other series as well. If you want you can listen to a sample, or purchase the GraphicAudio Book from their on-line Store. The story comes three ways; standard CD (the version I reviewed), MP3 CD and downloadable WMA with digital rights management.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Music Review: Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys - The Tiffany Transcriptions

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Written by T. Michael Testi

While Bob Wills had been playing music since he was a very young child in Texas, it wasn't until he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1934 that he formed "The Texas Playboys." It was here that they began broadcasting noontime shows over the 50,000 watt KVOO radio station. Their Monday through Friday shows became an institution in the area. They also played every Thursday and Saturday nights at Cain's Ballroom which was where the broadcasts where recorded at as well.

From 1935 to 1938 Wills refined his band, and their sound by adding musicians like steel guitar wizard Leon McAuliffe as well as horn, reed, and drum players to the mix. In 1940, they released "New San Antonio Rose" and it sold over a million records becoming the signature song of the Texas Playboys. Because they were a two-in-one unit; a small fiddle band, and a swinging big band, they could play a wide range of music from big band, western, swing, pop, and Dixieland.

After a brief stint in the Army, he moved the Texas Playboys to Hollywood and continued to refine the sound of the band. Because of the great depression, World War II, and the great dustbowl, they found a lot of fans from Oklahoma and Texas that had relocated and were an enormous draw in California. During this time Wills also began making more creative use of electric guitars.

The Tiffany Transcriptions

In 1944, Cliff Johnson, a staff announcer for Oakland's KLX radio station and someone who disliked anything country, was asked by management to "take one for the team." They wanted him to host a western show. After finding himself volunteered, he took on the moniker "Cactus Jack" and began playing what little country and western music that the station's library had.

It was at this time that a friend introduced him to Wills music. They lent him a cardboard box full of Wills records and when he began playing them, the station was deluged with requests. After listening to so much of this music, soon Johnson was hooked. Wills found out about Cactus Jack and soon the DJ was promoting Wills and the Playboys around the bay area.

In 1945 Wills, Cactus Jack, and businessman-songwriter Clifford Sundin founded Tiffany Music, Inc. to create a series of transcriptions; pre-packaged radio shows featuring Wills and his Texas Playboys. The goal was to sell these shows to subscribing stations who would present them with local advertisers. This steady series of programs would require the band to record scores of tunes, not just their hits, and bandstand repertoire, but entirely new songs, and at a record pace.

They revisited their old recordings, wrote new ones, covered tunes from other acts, and just make stuff up on the spot. Quite often they would record the session's right after a tour while they were playing at the top of their form. The Tiffany Transcriptions are these recordings that took place during 1946-47 and since they were recorded on 16 inch vinyl disks, the had more freedom to perform than they did on the more restricted 78 rpm singles that were tradition at the time.


The Tiffany Transcriptions is a box-set that contains 10-disks covering 150 songs. This is the first time that this collection has been put together as a set and it contains written testimonials from those that Wills music inspired. These include people like Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel and Ranger Doug from Riders in the Sky.

The Tiffany Transcriptions

As I said this is a 10 disk set and each disk is packaged in an individual sleeve that contains the album cover, liner notes from various individuals either about the sessions, or about how the sessions and Wills influenced them, and photos. There is also information on the sessions such as who was there, where and when it was recorded, and on the back is the listing of all of the songs. There is also a 16 page booklet with more information on the history of the sessions.

I was always a fan of the later generations of Western Swing such as Asleep at the Wheel, and while I had heard some of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, and liked what I had heard, I was not familiar with what I would now call the "true" sound of Bob Wills. After listing to The Tiffany Transcriptions I found that I absolutely loved this aspect of the music.

The quality of the recordings is very good considering the time and equipment that was available around in the mid-forties. They have that natural radio sound to them that makes them take on a nostalgic tone. Don't get me wrong, the recordings themselves are very clear and clean.

Because of the nature of the recordings and how they were performed, the songs themselves give off a "live" feel and are less restricted than their Columbia and MGM counterpart releases that Wills put out during this time. Most seem to agree that this sound reflects more of their live performances. I would agree that there is a lot of natural energy to these recordings.

If you like the music of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, if you like country music, western swing, big band, or old time music, you will absolutely love The Tiffany Transcriptions. Even if you don't like one or all of the above, I suspect, that like Cactus Jack, if you start listening to it, you will find yourself liking it. For this I have to give it five stars. Go get it!