Sunday, June 24, 2012

Movie Time: Taxi Driver

I have never been a fan of Martin Scorsese’s work. Not that I hate it; I have just only ever seen 2 of his films, one of which is this one, the other film being Hugo. I respect the man for the influence he has had, but his works have never really interested me enough to actively seek them out. Hell, the only reason I saw Hugo was because my family decided to make a family-fun night out of watching the film. As such, I went into this film not knowing what to expect. All I knew is that it is considered important enough to be put in the National Film Registry and that there is a brutal shoot-out at the end. Still, I like to seek out and watch films that others consider good, so I decided to give this a go. When I finished the movie, I just sat there, shaken. This movie tapped into a part of my mind that I have not seen or even considered in a very long time. It is a very dark, very unnerving film, and I feel that I have walked away a different person than the one I was before I watched it.

Taxi Driver is the story of one Travis Bickle. He is an insomniac Vietnam vet who, of course, drives a tax for a living. The film follows Travis’s gradual mental deterioration over a period of weeks and chronicles his stilted, awkward interactions with a beautiful political campaign volunteer and an underage prostitute. The film ends with a climactic, brutal final shootout between the prostitute’s pimp, Travis, a bouncer, and one of the pimp’s henchmen. Once the smoke clears, three people lay dead and Travis himself lies near death, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.

Travis is trying out his Dirty Harry cosplay.

The film expertly builds to the finale, with the music giving the events of the film a sense of foreboding and dread. The viewer knows a storm is coming, even if they do now know what form it will take. The violence slowly builds as well, starting with discussions of violence and murder by various characters (fellow cabbies talk about another cab driver who was injured, a man Travis is driving discusses murdering his wife), slowly moving to an underage prostitute fighting with her pimp, to Travis shooting a man trying to rob a store, before eventually entering into the ultra-violent finale. The cinematography also adds to the tension, with multiple interesting shots that were far ahead of their time, the most memorable of which is a slow motion pan near the end of the film that emphasizes and gives the viewer time to reflect on the violence.

Still, not all will appreciate the film. The film progresses fairly slowly, which might bore some. The violence itself is not even close to being on the level of something like RoboCop; the shoot-out at the end is quick and brutal, and while it is very gory, it is not absurdly so. The film’s plot can be scattered, switching between one thread and the next, which might confuse some and anger others. Those wanting a traditional, “heroes journey” style plot structure will walk away disappointed as well. Travis’s character does not really “evolve” or even change; he ends at the same place he began and it still seems entirely possible that he will slip back into violence and madness. This is not really a bad thing; sometimes people just never change, not matter how much bad stuff happens to them, but it still might anger those who expect the film to end in a different place than where it began.

Hey, eyes on the road idiot! You want to get us all killed?

Even though the theme of violence is central to the film, it is not its focus; the focus lays squarely on Travis Bickle and his reactions to, and use of, violence. Robert de Niro does an excellent job as Travis, giving humanity and believability to a character that does a number of inhuman and hard to believe things. Travis himself touches a familiar cord. He is awkward and shy, but well meaning. Yet, he is also creepy, following around and spying on his romantic interest at her job and taking too much of an interest in the private lives of those he sees only briefly. He often clumsily tries to insert himself into the lives of others, whether they want him to or not. He fantasizes about others, building up all sorts of assumptions and fabrications about their lives inside his head. When he does try to talk to those he fantasizes about, he tries to talk to those people as if they were the fantasies, not the people he is actually talking too, and he does not take the time to learn who they really are.

For instance, in one scene, he is talking to the campaign volunteer right after the two have met. He makes all sort of strange assumptions about her feelings that he cannot possibly know: that she is lonely and in need of a friend, that she does not like a man she works with and is often seen talking with, that she only wants love, etc. She seems to think his assumptions are cute at first, but she slowly grows less comfortable around him and stops seeing him after he takes her to a pornographic film for a date, assuming that because she said she liked movies she would like all kinds of movies. Travis does not understand this, gets frustrated, and begins to stalk her, constantly calling her and sending her flowers. He eventually visits the office and confronts her. When he does, he gets violent and is thrown out. After that, he decides to devote himself to assassinating the political candidate she is volunteering for to get revenge on her for spurning him.

Travis encounters a member of the dangerous “Grease” gang.

These events lead into another key aspect of Travis’s character: he is vengeful and fetishes violence to an uncomfortably familiar degree. He is often found standing in front of his mirror, practicing acting tough and bad-ass, even going so far as to get a Mohawk at the end to look like a hard-ass. He fantasies about fighting random thugs who decide to provoke him into fighting street fights and getting into shoot-outs with gangsters. He even goes so far as to purchase multiple fire-arms in an attempt to feel powerful. Once he has them, he spends hours shooting them at a shooting range and practicing drawing them from the many holsters he has strapped to his body. He even designs a device that allows him to hide a gun in his coat sleeve, and then when he presses a button it instantly puts it in his hand, in the off chance that he will ever need to instantly draw his gun.

Travis and his reactions are supremely disconcerting and disturbing; not just because the man is obviously mentally unhinged, but because many of the things he does hit far too close to home. I know that I too have built up fantasy versions of other people in my head, and then when I interact with those people in real life, I try to interact with the fantasy version more often than the actual person. I too try to insert myself into the lives of others because of the misguided idea that I am somehow more qualified to help them than someone else. I too have fantasized about getting into awesome fights in the street and totally kicking the other guy’s ass. It makes me greatly relate to the character, which makes it all the more uncomfortable when the finale comes around. If it only took that little to push Travis Bickle to outright murder three people, what does that say for me? Could I too become a murderer that easily? What the hell is stopping me from becoming one, if that is the case? Is everyone capable of horrible violence? Does fetishizing violence by making it seem “cool” make it easier to be violent? We like to say to ourselves “we would never do that, not even if pushed”, but could we be perhaps being lying to ourselves? The film seems to offer no answers to these questions, instead putting them out there and leaving the viewer to ponder them once the film is over.

No Travis! Shooting people is for later in the movie!

Taxi Driver is one of the most disturbing and unnerving films I have seen in a while. It sets itself apart from all of the other “white guy snaps and kills a bunch of people” movies, like Death Wish, by focusing much more on the character of Travis and making sure he feels like a real, relatable human (albeit a slightly creepy one). The end result of this it that it makes the viewer more attached, connected, and invested in the character that when he finally cracks it forces the viewer to ask many uncomfortable questions of themselves and their feelings towards violence.  It is an expertly crafted film with a great score, great acting, and great cinematography. I highly recommend this film to anyone seeking a film about the nature of violence. It may not be fun and it is definitely not for everyone, but it is important and well worth anyone’s time.

Final Rating: Depression/10

Breakfastman is an amateur reviewer, student, and all around cool guy. Questions, comments, constructive criticisms, rants, rages, or just want to tell me my taste in music sucks? All forms of feedback are encouraged, so feel free. All images blatantly stolen from Google.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Breakfastman’s Music Madness: “Iron Maiden” and “Killers”, by Iron Maiden.

Because I rarely read music reviews and have little knowledge of music theory, I am going to do these reviews in my own… “special” style. Mainly, I am going to go over each album, writing a paragraph or two about each song and how it holds up both by itself and in the context of the album as a whole. I will then do a quick conclusions/wrap-up deal at the end. Okay? Okay.

One of my favorite bands of all time is the English heavy metal band, Iron Maiden. They were a key player in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) in the 70’s and early 80’s, they were one of the single greatest bands of the 80’s, they have a massive fanbase that spans multiple continents, and are, arguably, one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time. Their legacy is far reaching and much of their music is generally considered some of the best heavy metal one can find. Most fans tend to only listen to the run of Bruce Dickinson (the lead singer for most of the band’s albums) and tend to shun everything else. And while Dickinson’s run with the band is considered their highpoint, the band has had other singers, 2 of which contributed to studio albums. The first is Blaze Bayley, the singer who replaced Dickinson for two albums during the 90’s when Dickinson left to pursue other interests, and who is routinely ignored or shunned by fans (for good reason). The second is Paul di’Anno, the singer for the band’s first two albums, the eponymous debut “Iron Maiden” and its follow-up “Killers”. How do these albums stand up? Do they deserve a place alongside classics like “Piece of Mind” or “Powerslave”? Or should they be put alongside the band’s crappiest albums, like “No Prayer for the Dying” and “Virtual XI”?

Iron Maiden:

This is probably my favorite song on the entire album. As such, it is a very strong start to the album. The song is blisteringly fast, rushing along at a breakneck pace from start to finish. It only ever slows down for a second or two at a time and those times when it does are right before launching into more speedy riffs. The entire song feels like going on a roller coaster; starting out with a (relatively) slow build-up, then immediately launches into a blisteringly fast riff. These moments are repeated over and over during the song and are great fun to listen too.

Paul di’Anno has some good vocals here too, combining the rough sound of Brian Johnson with the deeper-pitched voice of David Lee Roth. The lyrics are not too shabby either. While the song has no real “meat”, so to speak (it provides no unique insights or statements; it is simply the sordid tale of a man stalking women through the streets), the lyrics are catchy and fun. The way that di’Anno elongates the end of a few key verses (in addition to the clever use of backing vocals on those same lyrics) also helps to make the song much more engaging. It sets those verses apart from the others and the subtle change in sound helps to attract the listener’s attention and draw them in. 

This is another solid song. It is fairly notable for the fact that it makes the jump from the heavy metal sound of Prowler to a more hard-rock sound, in the style of Bon Scott era AC/DC. The lyrics are solid, but nothing special. The chorus is quite catchy and memorable, and can become quite an ear-worm if one lets it. Nothing much else to say about this one. Solid, but nothing too special.

Remember Tomorrow:
Now, this is something entirely different. Avoiding the hard rock and heavy metal sound of the previous tracks, this song goes for a more prog-rock feel. The entire song lacks any choruses and has only 12 verses. It is also marked by a direct change of tone on every fourth verse, and switches into a fast guitar solo right in the middle. It really is a wholly unique sound compared to the rest of the songs. It actually does not feel like it would be out of place on a Yes or Led Zepplin album, which is good or bad, depending on one’s taste for progressive rock. It actually reminds me quite a bit of a later song by the band, Children of the Damned, what with tonal change; the long, protracted wails; the prog-e feel; and the guitar solo partway through the song. Not that that is a bad thing, since both have their merits.

The song also shows off di’Anno’s great range. He transitions from relatively normal, clean vocals to high pitched, prolonged wails very easily, cleanly, and smoothly. It is quite impressive and really adds to the enjoyment of the song.

Running Free:
This song marks a transition back to a more… traditional rock and metal sound. The entire song is carried by a strong central riff, with di’Anno’s vocals perfectly accentuating the guitar playing. His singing both merges seamlessly with, and enhances, the strong central riff, and it makes the song very enjoyable to listen too. 

Phantom of the Opera:
This is longest song on the entire album, clocking in at a solid 2 to 3 minutes longer than all of the others. It is also probably the most ambitious song on the album, featuring numerous tonal shifts, a complicated lyrical structure (with no choruses), multiple solos (sometimes one right after another), a lengthy instrumental section smack dab in the middle, and lyrics based on a classic piece of literature. Unfortunately, it does not all work. Di’Anno’s vocals really don’t work for this song (some lines sound forced and strained to fit the sound of the instrumentation) and the way he sings some lines makes them impossible to understand without a sheet of lyrics handy. Still, it is not all bad. The instrumental sections are fantastic, with a great interplay between the lead and rhythm guitar, the bass, and the drums. It also features some really strong riffs and solos. The song is worth listening too for those sections alone, and those who enjoy lengthy prog adaptions of classic lit (or just prog in general) might find this interesting.

This is Iron Maiden’s first instrumental and is still one of their strongest. There are a number of impressive, fun solos contained here and the instrumentation is top-notch. The interplay and transition between different solos sounds great and the song features a number of complicated pieces that are ear-shatteringly fast. What more is there to say? It is a fantastic instrumental, through and through.

Strange World:
This is a very different song compared to most of the previous. It is slower paced, features clean vocals, and feels much more contemplative and introspective. It does feature some solos, but these are much slower than previous. It sounds more like a classic Pink Floyd or The Who song than a classic Iron Maiden one. Nonetheless, it works and it works quite well. The vocals mesh well with the instrumentation, the solos are still interesting, each part transitions well into the other, and the lyrics paint an interesting picture of a Dunsany-style fantasy paradise.

Charlotte the Harlot:
This song is another solid addition to the album. It features a strong central beat and a catchy chorus, both of which make the song very enjoyable to listen to. Still, that does not mean the song is afraid to mix things up. Partway through the song things slow down and the entire thing takes on a slightly more tragic air, fitting of the lyrics. The song is basically about a man who is in love with a hooker that does not reciprocate his love. He is jealous of her clientele and wonders why she won’t pay attention to him. It is probably one of the more interesting concepts for a heartbreak song that I have heard and it works pretty well, all things told. 

Iron Maiden:
This is another more traditional song, and it does not really have that much going for it. The vocals are okay, but supremely uninteresting. The instrumentation is solid all around, but again, not particularly interesting. The lyrics don’t really do anything new or different. The entire song is just kind of bland. Not really bad, but not really good either. Just kind of boring when compared to all the other interesting, different songs on the album.

This album is a very solid hard-rock/heavy metal album. It features a number of good songs, a couple great songs, some great instrumentation, and solid vocals. Despite containing some boring songs, there is a lot to like on this album for fans of classic rock or metal. It is also interesting to see the roots of one of the most famous heavy metal bands in the world. I recommend checking it out.

Final Rating: B+/10


The Ides of March:
The second album starts off with a really short (as in less than 2 minutes) instrumental piece. It sounds nice and has that “galloping” sound Iron Maiden can do so well (and indeed, became known for on later albums), but it is nothing special. Still, it is decent and a solid start to the album.

Here is where things really start kicking. This song is short (around 3 minutes), but sweet. Di’Anno’s typically rough vocal style really shines here and he does a great job with the lyrics. He even gets to show off his range, with a well-placed yell in the middle of the song really showing how high he can get. The chorus is catchy as hell and really digs into one’s brain. The riff is strong and fast, and makes a subtle use of the “galloping” sound to draw the listener further into the song. All in all, it is a great song and serves as a good introduction to band’s new focus on a more pure heavy metal sound over the slightly prog-rock feel of the first album.

Murders in the Rue Morgue:
This song starts out slow, but slowly builds up over the course of a minute to a blisteringly fast riff that caries the song for the rest of its runtime. This song, like Phantom of the Opera, is based on a piece of classic lit. That is not to say it has a similar structure or feel to Phantom. In fact, it abandons the prog-rock feel of Phantom for a more traditional heavy metal, Judas Priest inspired sound. The song itself features a catchy chorus and fast instrumentation with strong vocals to match. Di’Anno belts out each verse incredibly fast. It actually bears resemblance to Steven Tyler’s vocals in Walk This Way, with both being sung at about the same speed. And, again as with Walk This Way, it is highly impressive and engaging to hear a singer sing that fast while still being able to pronounce every verse correctly and in tune with the music. Overall, a pretty strong song.

Another Life:
This is a relatively simple song. It only has 8 verses that are repeated multiple times throughout the song. What instrumental sections there are work, but are nothing too fancy. It is just a fairly nondescript, plain song. Nothing really that special.

Genghis Khan:
This is the second instrumental of the album and it is by far the stronger of the two. It has a nice beat, and the solos and riffs flow into each other nicely. What is especially nice is the aural soundscape in creates, especially in the later part of the song. The song starts out fine enough, with good solos and instrumentals creating a slow build-up throughout most of the song. Then suddenly near the end wailing guitars come in and totally change the tone of the entire song and it becomes significantly slower, but none less interesting. The progression of the music seems like saddling up one’s horse in a base camp than riding out across some blasted tundra, the rushing wind in one’s ears. It really is quite an interesting, underrated piece that needs to be heard more.

Innocent Exile:
To be perfectly honest, this is a fairly generic song. It once again talks about running from the law, a theme all too common in much of Iron Maiden’s early work. The instrumentation is okay, but extremely bland and uninteresting. Sure, it is not incompetent, but it is just so samey and boring when compared to every other song from the era that it becomes supremely uninteresting and, dare I say, bad. Or maybe just lazy, but that is still not a point in the song’s favor.

This is a great damn song. It really, really is. It has lovely instrumentation, allows di’Anno to stretch his vocals (especially in the beginning), it provides a strong central riff, and it has a great sense of style about it. The entire song is basically about a serial killer stalking and killing his victims. This song sounds dark, but the entire thing is played up so it is so over the top and ridiculous, it becomes hard not to like. Di’Anno just makes the killer of the song sound so damn crazy and gleeful that it appeals to that small part of our brain that enjoys crazy psychopathic killers. He just sounds like he is having so much fun that it is hard not to get some enjoyment from listening to the song. And there really is nothing wrong with that.

Prodigal Son:
This is a fairly slow song when compared to the rest of the album. While this is sometimes good (because it can spice up an album, adding a little bit of extra flavor), the song itself has to be at least interesting for that to work. Unfortunately, this does not have that going for it. The entire thing is really quite boring and provides nothing interesting to latch onto. The vocals are bland, the instrumentation is bland, and the lyrics are bland; the entire thing is just extremely forgettable. I have actually sat through this song multiple times without realizing I sat through it until something more interesting came up. It does not stay in my memory long enough to even realize I listened to it. If I go away for 5 minutes without thinking about it, I will completely forget what it sounds like. That does not happen with most other songs, even the ones I absolutely despise. Really, the entire is just a flavorless piece of nothing and holds no real value.

This is certainly an improvement over the horribly dull Prodigal Son, but it is not without its problems. Namely, it too is generic. The instrumentation is pretty decent and has a good pace, but still fairly generic when compared to more memorable pieces. Really, the best part of the song is the chorus. It has a great sound about it, sometimes dipping into wailing territory, but never too much as to be mistaken as black metal. Beyond that, there is nothing really memorable or interesting about this song that has not been done better in multiple other songs on the album.

Twilight Zone:
This is one of my favorite songs on the entire album. While it is quite short, there is still a lot to like packed into its 3 minute length. It has a great beat that integrates perfectly with the vocals. This actually has the side effect of making the beat much more noticeable and enjoyable. The song uses some subtle backing vocals in the chorus to make it sound slightly otherworldly, which goes perfectly with the lyrics. The lyrics themselves describe a tragic tale of longing, describing a ghost haunting his lover. He wants to be with them, but they cannot see or hear him, no matter how hard he tries. It is all well written and works very well with the instrumentation and di’Anno’s vocals, who helps to create creating an atmosphere of sadness and longing about the song with his perfectly timed wails.

I will say one thing: this song does do some interesting thing with tonal shifts. Not much else going for it, though. There are parts in the song where the tone switches briefly from fast and furious rock ‘n roll to a much slower, introspective sound. This usually occurs right after the chorus and creates an interesting disconnect between the end of the chorus and regular verses. Beyond that though, the song does not have much to offer at all. The instrumentation is boring, the vocals are boring, and the lyrics are boring. It is just really uninteresting (aside from the neat tonal) and a pretty disappointing end to the album.

“Killers” has a lot of great songs. Unfortunately, it also has a number of bland songs as well. The great songs are certainly worth a listen, it is neat to hear the bands progression between albums, and it is cool to see the start of some of the bands signature musical elements (like the aforementioned “galloping”). But, whether or not it is worth the bland songs that come with the good ones will be up to the listener. There really is a lot of blandness here and it drags the album down.  One might just be better off buying the good stuff off of iTunes and abandoning the rest.

Final Rating: PBJ sammich/10

Breakfastman is an amateur reviewer, student, and all around cool guy. Questions, comments, constructive criticisms, rants, rages, or just want to tell me my taste in music sucks? All forms of feedback are encouraged, so feel free. All images blatantly stolen from Google.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Not dead yet.

So yeah. Posting back on this site again. I hope to post more often and not abandon the site for months at a time, like I have been doing. Let's see how that works...