Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

By John Ruberry

A little over a week ago Black Knight, a six-episode dystopian series set in Korea, began streaming on Netflix. 

It’s 2071, decades earlier a comet struck Earth. The Korean peninsula is now a dunes-covered desert, only one percent of the population survived the disaster. Earth’s atmosphere is poisonous. Most of landmass of Earth is underwater,

The government is a corporatist dictatorship. The corporation is the Cheonmyeong Group, led by Chairman Ryu (Nam Kyung-eub), but run by his evil son, Ryu Seok (Song Seung-heon). The Republic of Korea–presumably North Korea and the Kim family didn’t survive the blast–is led by a president (Jin Kyung), but Ryu Seok is really in charge. He’s a Rahm Emanuel-style “Never let a crisis go to waste” type. 

That tiny population is divided into four groups, castes really, and the top group is the Core, which consists of the Cheonmyeong Group and the top tier of the government, and a couple of middle classes, General and Special. But the majority of the survivors are classified as refugees, who for the most part scrape out a miserable survival in the ruins of the former city of Seoul.

The Core of course enjoy a luxurious existence. 

All but the refugees have coveted QR codes tattooed on a hand that allows them entrance into restricted areas–and to purchase desperately needed supplies, especially oxygen.

Is there a way out from the misery for the refugees? Yes, the legit path is to become a deliveryman, a truck driver for the Cheonmyeong Group, transporting those vital supplies. Think of Mad Max in The Road Warrior driving a semitrailer as the wheeled army of Humongous follows him around the Wasteland, only for a post-apocalypse Korean Amazon. The greatest of these deliverymen is 5-8 (Kim Woo-bin). In the post-apocalyptic Korea, deliveryman eschew their birthnames in exchange for the numbered district they service. By the way, there are some female deliverymen.

The other way for the refugees to escape their bleak lives is the criminal path–becoming Hunters. Once again, think of the mobile gangs of the Mad Max franchise. These Black Nights fire back–and 5-8 even electrocutes a pair of them who make the mistake of climbing onto his truck. 

Yoon Sa-wol (Kang You-seok) is a mischievous refugee teen who idolizes 5-8–he even plays a 5-8 computer game–and he and dreams of becoming a deliveryman. Sa-wol is illegally living with two sisters, one of them is Major Jung Seol (Esom). The sisters, I believe, are classified as Special, one notch down from Core.

Sa-wol is an orphan–so yes, he’s yet another “chosen one,” along the lines of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Frodo Baggins.

Predictably, the paths of 5-8, Seol, and Sa-wol cross. 5-8 has learned that he has much more to offer Korea than being a deliveryman, even one who is already a folk hero.

Black Knight is an enjoyable Netflix diversion. There is of course an abundance of action but also some subtle humor. For instance, 5-8, despite breathing poisoned air, still smokes cigarettes. 

More direct humor is offered by Sa-wol’s pals, with the unusual names of Dummy (Jung Eun-seong), Dumb-Dumb (Lee Sang-jin), and Useless (Lee Joo-seung), who live with a clever mechanic and inventor, Grandpa (Kim Eui-sung).

But if you are looking for a romantic storyline, look elsewhere. There are no love stories in Black Knight.

If you are a connoisseur of compelling cinematography and sharp CGI, then you’ll love Black Knight

And if you drive a delivery truck for UPS, a grocer, and especially Amazon, then let your imagination run wild and dream away as you watch, and presumably love, this series. 

Black Knight is rated TV-MA by Netflix for violence and smoking. It is available for viewing in Korean with subtitles, in English, and several other languages. I watched it in Korean.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

The Kinks are celebrating the 60th anniversary of their founding. In March, the legendary band released a two-CD compilation, The Journey – Part 1 (1964-1975), which is a great place to acquaint yourself with these wonderful performers. 

To further immerse yourself with the Kinks, I have determined what I believe are their ten-best albums. 

By the way, what is one test to ascertain if someone is intelligent? Well, if a person is a Kinks fan, then you found smart guy or gal.

The Kinks were founded in 1963 in Muswell Hill in North London. The heart of the band are the Davies (pronounced Davis) brothers, Ray, the principal songwriter, lead vocalist, and rhythm guitarist, and Dave, lead guitarist, and occasional songwriter, who sometimes sings lead. Mick Avory is the drummer.

The band broke up in the 1990s, Avory departed the band in 1984. Over the years the Kinks, first a quartet then a quintet, had a series of bassists and keyboardists. Although they haven’t toured or recorded since then, the Davies brothers reformed the Kinks in 2018, Avory is included as a member.

Last summer, at Skokie’s Backlot Bash, an annual event held near my home north of Chicago–the festival coincidentally honors another English phenomenon–Charlie Chaplin–local band Tribotosaurus put on a Kinks show. In his introductory remarks, the band’s lead singer remarked, “The Kinks are the forgotten band of the British Invasion.” Quite true.

Early Kinks tours were tumultuous affairs as they fought each other and anyone else in their way. “At the height of our success in the 1960s,” the narrator in Ray’s solo song ‘Invaders’ explained, “the Kinks were banned from touring the USA for four years, when we did return, we toured the USA relentlessly, tour after tour. Year after year. To win back what we’d lost.”

Who was behind that ban? The American Federation of Musicians. And those years spanned from 1965-1969, musically they were transformational years when rock was transformed from being pop music into an art form.

Here is one account about why the ban occurred, but there are many others.

While what became into the holy trilogy of British rock–the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who–looked outward musically, Ray and the Kinks turned introspective during their ban from America. For inspiration, they turned to the British music hall songs they learned from the parents. Music hall, the UK version of vaudeville, also describes a style of music. Famous music hall tunes that you probably have heard include, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag,” and “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am.” Hermans Hermits scored a hit with the last one in 1965. 

That sounds horrible for the Kinks, right? 

Wrong. The Kinks’ best work was recorded during their “lost period” in America. Only two Kinks singles charted in the United States from 1967-1969, and they peaked deep in the bottom half of Billboards’ Hot 100. But the hits kept coming in Britain and elsewhere. 

The Kinks have been cursed with bad luck– and some of those wounds were self-inflicted. In their last album with new material, the mostly-live album To The Bone, Ray looked back in his introduction to their song, “I’m Not Like Everyone Else.” Of that composition he said, “It kind of sums up what we’re all about, the Kinks, because everyone expects us to do wonderful things, and we mess it all up, usually.”

The Kinks’ bad luck even extended to that Tributosaurus gig in Skokie. The band pumped out four great classic Kinks songs, but then a Caddyshack-level thunderstorm struck, which forced the rest of the show, as well as the final night of the Backlot Bash, to be cancelled. 

Even if the Kinks’ career consisted of one song, “You Really Got Me,” their international hit from 1964, their place in rock and roll history would be secure. That power cord classic inspired four rock genres, heavy metal, hard rock, punk rock, and new wave.

But there is so much more to the Kinks.

Let the countdown begin. 

Not before, that is, a big shout out to the USA-only compilation The Kink Kronikles. That collection not only does a great job covering the Kinks’ “lost years” in America, but it contains such wondrous non-album singles such as “Wonderboy,” “Autumn Almanac,” and “Days.” Those singles, however, often appear on extended versions of some of these albums you’ll soon learn about.

But I’m reviewing the original releases.

10) Give the People What They Want (1981): There are some strong tracks here, particularly “Destroyer,” where Ray rips off himself with an homage to the Kinks’ earlier hit, “All Day and All of the Night.” The Kinks were firmly ensconced in the arena rock phrase of their career when this collection was released, and “Around the Dial” captures that era in just under five minutes. On the other hand, the best track here, “Better Things,” reaches back to that “lost period.” The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, with whom Ray had a romantic relationship at the time, contributes background vocals on four songs.

9) Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975): Beginning in the early 1970s the Kinks recorded a series of concept albums. During supporting tours, these efforts were presented as low-budget stage shows. The last such Kinks “musical” offers a huge helping of 1950s-styles rock, along with a look back at the Kinks power-chord early days. But it betrays Kinks bad luck too. The “rock and roll revival,” rocks first nostalgia movement, which was partially inspired by the Beatles White Album, had run its course by 1975. Power chord music would bounce back in the late 1970s. Wrong place, wrong time. “The Hard Way” would have been a hit in 1979, the same year the Knack scored a number one smash with “My Sharona.” Ironically, the next year the Knack covered “The Hard Way.” Other strong tunes here include “Education,” “No More Looking Back,” and “Jack the Idiot Dunce.”

8) Sleepwalker (1977): The Kinks’ first non-thematic album in nearly a decade, Sleepwalker was a mainstream effort that proved that the band could still rock as well as anyone else. The title track, “Juke Box Music,” “Life on the Road,” and “Life Goes On” are the best tracks.

7) The Kink Kontroversy (1965): In the mid-1970s, Van Morrison recorded an album titled A Period of Transition. That would be fitting moniker for this collection, the Kinks’ third album. “Till the End of the Day” was their last power chord hit. Very early in their career the Kinks recorded many blues rock songs, and there are some on this offering, the best of which here is “Gotta Get the First Plane Home.” Another shining moment, “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” is sung from the perspective of a middle-aged man, but written by Ray, who was 21 at the time. It foreshadows future greatness.

6) Muswell Hillbillies (1971): We’ll hear about the predecessor to this collection, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One soon, but that album brought the Kinks back to prominence and a well-deserved place, albeit briefly, at the head table of rock’s elite. You remember Ray’s remark about the Kinks–that “everyone expects us to do wonderful things, and we mess it all up, usually.” Not that Muswell Hillbillies is bad. Far from it. But the “Lola” album was mostly a hard rock effort, and the Kinks certainly confused its new American fan base with Muswell’s country rock and music hall flavor. Besides the title tune, “20th Centry Man,” “Oklahoma USA,” and “Have a Cuppa Tea” are standouts.

5) Face to Face (1966): Ray emerged as a first-rate storyteller here. While not a concept album, a minor narrative can be found on Face to Face with “A House in the Country,” “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale,” and “Sunny Afternoon,” the Kinks last American hit until 1970. “Holiday in Waikiki” was composed during the Kinks’ disastrous 1965 tour. And had Buddy Holly not taken that fateful airplane flight in 1959 in Iowa, he may have been writing songs like “I’ll Remember” in 1966.

4) Something Else by the Kinks (1967): This is the Kinks most-music hall album. “Harry Rag” might be the most typical of this collection, as “Harry Rag” is old British slang for a cigarette and it’s a sing-a-long tune, and many music hall tunes were written with audience participation in mind. Dave sings lead in a Ray/Dave composition, “Death of a Clown.” But “Waterloo Sunset,” a smash hit just about everywhere except in America, is the best song here, and arguably the Kinks’ greatest recording.

3) Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970): In the United States, other than “You Really Got Me,” the sorta-title track “Lola,”which is about a strange encounter with what we now call a transgendered woman, is the Kinks best-known song. It was an international hit–and a second single from this album, “Apeman,” also did well as a single. A Dave tune, “Strangers,” is an eerie song about friendship that is one of the Kinks most covered works. This album is yet another band “mess up,” because there was never Part Two. Oh, I nearly forgot, “Get Back in Line” tells the story of worker who a capricious union boss refuses to hire. Yes, it’s a musical punch at the American Federation of Musicians.

2) Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969): It wasn’t their fault, but here’s another Kinks “mess up,” albeit a brilliant one. Arthur is the soundtrack for a television movie, but that film was never made, although it’s not the fault of the Davies et al. This wondrous collection starts off with the rollicking “Victoria,” the band’s hardest rocker since 1965. “Shangri-La,” a sprawling epic, looks, not so fondly, at the British class system. “Some Mother’s Son” ranks with the best anti-war songs ever written.

And number 1 is:

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968): Released the same day as the Beatles White Album, VGPS, another music hall-inspired gem, has Ray telling stories about a sleepy English village. Like the central character of his “Autumn Almanac,” in regard to the title track, it’s difficult to fathom if Ray is celebrating, presumably at least, the little old ladies who are members of the Village Green Preservation Society, or mocking them, as he sings, “God save little shops, china cups and virginity.” Don’t forget, we’re in 1968 here. “Do You Remember Walter” looks at the inevitable disappointment when childhood dreams don’t match up with adult reality. The mellotron driven “Phenomenal Cat” is about a legendary, in the imagination of “idiot boys,” flying feline, who, after traveling the world, decides the best life him is to live in a tree and pursue obesity. While “Animal Farm,” which has nothing to do with the George Orwell novel, views rural life more fondly.

There is no rock album quite like VGPS. XTC’s masterpiece, “Skylarking,” thematically comes close.

If you don’t like my choices, well, that’s why we have a comments section here.

And finally, God save the Kinks.

John Ruberry has seen the Kinks twice in concert, both times in Champaign, Illinois. He usually blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Last Friday, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Van Morrison released his 44th studio album, the exuberant Moving on Skiffle

What is skiffle? Well, the first time I heard of it was in was in an unusual place–maybe not for an American–in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. Before joining the band that would become the heavy metal act Spinal Tap, David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) was a member of a skiffle group.

Wonderful observation, you might be saying, but once again, what is skiffle? In the late 1920s, it developed as an offshoot of jug music, a genre of the American South and performed mainly by African Americans. The original skiffle was a bit country, a bit folk, and a bit delta blues. Then skiffle died once the Great Depression hit. 

Only it didn’t completely perish. 

Like a sprout from an errant wildflower seed, skiffle surprisingly blossomed again a couple of decades later in Great Britan. The UK’s biggest skiffle star was a Scotsman, Lonnie Donegan. Another skiffle performer, Chris Barber, a British aficionado of New Orleans style jazz, often recorded with Donegan

Growing up in 1950s Belfast, Morrsion was one of many UK youths listening to skiffle on the radio. Soon Morrison joined a skiffle band, but by the mid-1960s he was fronting Them, a blues-rock act best known for “Gloria,” before going solo in 1967. Well, you probably know the rest of his story.

Just as skiffle quickly reemerged in Britain, it all but vanished as a popular music phenomenon in the early 1960s. Only its disappearance wasn’t mysterious. The tsunami of the Beat Groups–known as the British Invasion in the United States–which included Them, was the culprit. 

The Belfast Cowboy maintained his love for skiffle thru the decades. Morrison recorded a live album with Donegan and Barber, The Skiffle Sessions – Live in Belfast 1998.

For Moving on Skiffle, Morrison issues a double album of additional classic skiffle songs–there are no repeats from the live collection.

Morrison, who turns 78 this summer, has been newsworthy of late because of his fervent opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns.

In 2021, Morrison released Latest Record Project, Volume 1, a double album. Many of the tracks, including “Stop Bitching, Do Something” and “Why Are You on Facebook?” pushed back on government and Big Tech power. Last year, on What’s It Gonna Take?Van the Man more directly challenged the lockdowns and creeping totalitarianism, in such tracks as “Dangerous,” which was in response to comments made by Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, about Morrison’s anti-lockdown stance. Swann has since sued Van the Man, Morrison has counter-sued

On what will likely be remembered as his”COVID albums,” Morrison penned all of the tracks. Moving on Skiffle is a covers collection.

Morrison, who is not a doctor or a scientist, has been proven, in my firm opinion at least, to be correct that lockdowns would not be an effective defense against COVID-19. The harm of lockdowns, such as an overall increase in mental illness and declining school test scores, is apparent.

Yes, COVID, along with pre-exisiting conditions, killed millions, despite lockdowns, masking, and vaccine mandates. But Florida, which didn’t pursue an aggressive lockdown and masking policy, didn’t see a higher COVID death rate compared to lockdown states like New York.

Moving back to Moving on Skiffle, this sparkling collection stays away from politics, except for the strongest track on the collection, “Gov Don’t Allow,” a reworking of the 1920s folk standard “Momma Don’t Allow,” with new lyrics authored by Morrison.

“Gov don’t allow any freedom of speech in here,” he sings, “but I think it’s going overreach–gov don’t allow any freedom of speech in here.”

Now that I have politics out of the way, let’s discuss the rest of Moving on Skiffle.

Other highlights of this ninety-minute collection include another musical reworking, “This Little Light of Mine” becomes “This Loving Light of Mine,” where Morrison adds “Amen” verses. “Gypsy Davy” has a Celtic feel, and there are two Hank Williams songs, “Cold Cold Heart” and “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry.” 

Overall, the collection has a Creedence Clearwater Revival flavor, partly because of the inclusion of Lead Belly’s “Cotton Fields,” which CCR covered on Willy and the Poor Boys. Their hit from that album, “Down on the Corner” has a classic has a jug band feel. 

If you are a Van and Man enthusiast from way back, you’ll adore the final cut on Moving on Skiffle, “Green Rocky Road,” a nine-minute-long track that echoes Morrison stream-of-consciousness gems such as “And The Healing Has Begun” and “Listen to the Lion.”

Skiffle has many definitions. So if you’d prefer you can define Morrison’s latest work possibly as an Americana collection, albeit one with gospel music overtones. 

Oh, I nearly forgot. As with all Van Morrison albums, the singing here, including the work of the backup vocalists, as well as the musicianship–down to the washboard–are spectacular. 

Moving on Skiffle can be downloaded from iTunes or purchased at Van

Related post:

As Van Morrison turns 77, here are his ten best albums

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Late October arrived with what I thought would be a pleasant surprise, a new Netflix horror and suspense series, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Del Toro, known for the superb art direction in his films, is an Academy Award winner for directing The Shape of Water, that film contains a controversial scene which we’ll discuss shortly.

There are eight episodes, set either in the early 20th century or the latter part of the century. Oh, for balance, there’s one set around 1950. All but one of them are based on short stories, two of them by del Torro, and two by H.P. Lovecraft, a horror and fantasy writer, the bulk of his work was published in the 1920s and 1930s.

First the good. The acting is superb and not surprisingly, so is the art direction and cinematography. The bad–well, the stories aren’t very good, and in what is becoming common with Netflix, the episodes are too long, each one of Cabinet of Curiosities‘ segments could be trimmed by anywhere from ten to twenty minutes. The episodes run from 38 minutes to slightly more than an hour. And like many Netflix original series, funding doesn’t seem to be an issue. That was not the situation with the low-budget horror movies that I grew up with and enjoyed, such as Vincent Price’s American International Picture films. Netflix needs to focus on the basics of entertainment, not the frills.

Del Toro, just as Rod Serling did with The Twilight Zone, introduces each episode. The titular character of Alfred Hitchcock Presents performed the same duty, and there is a Game of Thrones-style cabinet animation device as the opening credits run. Del Toro doesn’t direct any of the episodes.

But Cabinet of Curiosities, rather than emulating The Twilight Zone, harkens back to Steven Spielberg’s mid-1980s NBC anthology series, Amazing Stories. It should have been called “Stories,” because that heavily hyped series was anything but “amazing.” The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were rebooted around this time, both fell flat. As the saying goes, if Hollywood ever had an original idea, it would die of loneliness.

I’ll briefly sum up each Cabinet of Curiosities entry, in the order of their release. If you are running out of time with my post, or if you are running out of patience, I have this message. Just two of the eight episodes are worth viewing, “Pickman’s Model” and “The Murmuring.”

Lot 36: Nick Appleton (Tim Blake Nelson) is a bitter Vietnam veteran who is physically and emotionally damaged from that war. This entry is set just as the First Gulf War is breaking out. Appleton, who makes his living by buying abandoned storage units, is a racist who listens to conservative talk radio. The implied message of course is that everyone who listens to what liberals call “right-wing radio” is a bigot. But everyone I know who listens to conservative talkers do so because they are tired of government overreach and they don’t like high taxes, among other things. Appleton purchases a storage unit owned by a Nazi who recently died. Get it? American bigot, Nazi, white supremacy. I’m stupefied that the director of this bit didn’t dye Nelson’s hair bright orange here. “Lot 36” is based on a del Toro short story. I hated this segment.

Graveyard Rats: And this episode is based on what? Okay, the answer to that question is easy. Masson (David Hewlett) is a formerly well-to-do man who is now struggling along as a graverobber in a town known for the macabre, Salem, Massachusetts. There’s plenty of plot build-up here, as is the case with much of Cabinet of Curiosities, but little payoff.

The Autopsy: Minor spoiler alert: Just as with surgeries, autopsies are never solo projects. F. Murray Abraham, who never gives a bad performance, portrays a dying coroner, Dr. Carl Withers, who is investigating a mysterious accident at a Pennsylvania coal mine. Again, the set-up doesn’t match the ending of this episode. Watching the autopsies got me wondering. Why weren’t twenty minutes of this segment sliced off?

There is also an age-restricted YouTube video available here.

The Outside: Set in the late 1970s, as was “The Autopsy,” Stacey (Kate Micucci) is an unattractive and socially awkward bank teller surrounded by pretty but shallow female co-workers. Her hobby is taxidermy. Stacey’s life is altered as she becomes enamored with commercials touting a facial cream; the ads are subtle parodies of the faith healers who were often found on late night television at the time. Some of the facial cream comes to life. There is an erotic scene, an homage to Amphibian Man getting it on with a woman in The Shape of Water, in “The Outside.” I hated this episode too.

Pickman’s Model: Although this offering is extremely disturbing, “Pickman’s Model” worked for me. Will Thurber (Ben Barnes) is a wealthy art student at a Boston area college. All is well for him–until he sees the nightmarish paintings and sketches of Richard Pickman (Crispin Glover). A well-known lesson from the life of Vincent Van Gogh is that the boundaries between creativity and insanity are narrow. Oh, one little correction. Pickman tells Thurber that one of his ancestors was burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials. In fact, all of the executed accused witches in Salem were hanged, save one who refused to enter a plea. He was pressed to death.

Dreams in the Witch House: After his twin sister dies, a now-middle-aged Walter Gilman (Rupert Grint) is attempting to reconnect with her by way of spiritualists. There is a kissing scene with Gilman and a witch–she has been burnt to a crisp. Eww. There’s a lot of other weirdness here too. And while for the most part it is visually striking, “Dreams in the Witch House,” plot-wise, is vacant. As with “Pickman’s Model,” this segment is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story.

The Viewing: An eccentric wealthy man, Lionel Lassiter (Peter Weller), invites five seemingly unconnected celebrities to his mansion to view a mysterious object. To place them all on the same mental plane, they snort high-grade cocaine. And while there is a lot of action, it’s impossible to ascertain what it all adds up to. Nothing, is what I think. At nearly an hour in length, there is plenty of time for the scriptwriters to present their message. But they don’t. Perhaps the writers were on drugs when the produced the script. This piece was too boring for me to despise.

The Murmuring: Two married ornithologists, Nancy (Essie Davis) and Edgar Bradley (Andrew Lincoln), are devastated by a tragedy. They travel to a remote Canadian island to study the murmurations, that is, the cloud-like flocks of a wading bird species, the dunlin. But the crumbling old house they are staying in offers them plenty of distractions from their work. As a nature lover, I particularly enjoyed this entry–and I could easily see it fitting in as an episode of the original Twilight Zone. Not so with the other seven segments. “The Murmuring” is the other episode based on a del Toro short story.

Each entry is a stand-alone, you can watch one of them, two of them, or all of them. If you choose the last option–you’ve been warned.

Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is rated TV-MA for violence, disturbing themes, nudity, drug use, vivisection, and gore.

John Ruberry regularly blogs Marathon Pundit.