Category Archives: Review

David Bowie’s BLACKSTAR

by SCOTT DENNIS PARKER

David Bowie BlackstarMuch has been made of the overt jazz vibe on David Bowie’s final album, BLACKSTAR. Some have all but called it a jazz record. It is, but, as with all of Bowie’s records, it’s not that simple. Nothing with Bowie ever was.

True, the jazz influences are much more overt than on other albums, but this is David Bowie. If he’s a chameleon of fashion and style, then he’s always been an amalgamation of musical styles. BLACKSTAR is merely the last example of a musical journey Bowie traversed since the beginning, or at least since his popularity allowed him the freedom to follow his own curious nature.

What made BLACKSTAR unique in the months leading up to its release was the musicians Bowie and producer Tony Visconti recruited. Long-time stalwarts like Mike Garson (piano), Gail Ann Dorsey (bass), or even Carlos Alomar (guitar) were not called. Bowie wanted to try something different. He wanted to bring a decidedly jazz quality to this new collection of songs. Much like Sting did back in 1985, Bowie wanted jazz musicians who could not only play rock music but also improvisers who would bring a jazz sensibility to the songs.

The first clue to what Bowie wanted was in the 2014 song, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” a new song added to a compilation that covered Bowie’s entire career to that point. For that song, Bowie worked with Maria Schneider, composer and leader of her own big band. “Sue” was a nearly ten-minute peek into another universe, one in which Bowie was a crooner for a big band and not a rock and roll singer. But make no mistake: Bowie is a rock star. He just plays in jazz’s playground.

The opening song on the new album is the title track. Its initial moments frankly conjured sound images from the electronica of LOW. A few minutes later, Donny McCaslin’s tenor saxophone seeps into the mix. Strings embellish a grand sweep of music, while McCaslin’s honking sax brings to mind John Coltrane. A strange thing happens halfway through the minor-key song: “Blackstar” changes completely. The opening lyrics–“Something happened on the day he died”–and major chord music signal a serious transition. This part pretty much sounds like an outtake from THE NEXT DAY, Bowie’s 2013 comeback album. Again, a few minutes later, the song shifts back to the original melody, giving “Blackstar” somewhat of a bookended quality.

“Lazarus” gets lots of attention both for the prescient lyrics and McCaslin’s moody tenor saxophone. Bowie knew he was dying and you can hear it, feel it at the start of the song. But amid the gloom of the song–and an artist staring mortality in the face–Bowie all but shouts back. “I’m not dead yet.” The swell of the music, the glorious crescendo of the music, with McCaslin’s sax souring over top, the song ends up becoming a fist-pumping rebuke of death.

For as much press BLACKSTAR has received for being a jazz album, “Girl Loves Me” is a nice reminder that Bowie is one of the greatest rock musicians. Very little jazz is evident in this song. Instead, Bowie and Visconti deliver a song that would be quite at home on THE NEXT DAY. In tone and vibe, “Girl Loves Me” draws from a wide variety of sources including OUTSIDE, THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA, and EARTHLING.

“Dollar Days,” the penultimate song on BLACKSTAR, immediately returns to the jazz realm. McCaslin’s muted tenor sax bubbles up in a moody blend of music that would be right at home in a black and white movie, late in the story when the hero is all alone. When Bowie starts singing, the song turns on a dime. Effervescent guitars jangle along in an utterly beautiful song. Bright, cheerful, with an underpinning of elder melancholy. His words again pierce the listener’s heart. Again, McCaslin’s tenor solo is a soaring counterpoint to Bowie’s own vocal delivery. If any of the first five tunes felt unfamiliar, “Dollar Days” is familiar territory, reminiscent of modern day gems like “Everyone Says Hi,” “Seven,” or “Days.” The song fades into an ethereal mix that feels like the musical equivalent of a soul rising to heaven.

David Bowie Lazarus

But Bowie has one last musical message to us. In fact, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” starts before “Dollar Days” is even over. Bowie’s voice is very “close” in the mix, especially in headphones. It gives the listener the distinct impression that he’s singing directly to each one of us. Which, of course, he is. The harmonica flourishes harken back to 1987’s “Never Let Me Down” while McCaslin’s sax does its own thing, almost as if the song belongs to it and Bowie is merely the guest singer. Death lances through the last words Bowie sang. They sting, but there’s joyous defiance in his voice and delivery. Yes, death will take me, Bowie seems to say, but I still possess the gifts God gave me and I’m going out on the top of my game. Fittingly, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” ends with a guitar flourish that at once would gracefully end a concert but also directly echo the guitar work on “Look Back in Anger” and “Heroes.” Guitar and strings and drums end triumphantly what is effectively David Bowie’s last will and testament.

For two days in January 2016, the world marveled at this stunning album from one of the all-time greats. And then Bowie died, and the album took on additional quality and meaning. Bowie’s death will always overshadow any listening of this album. That fact is inescapable and, indeed, is part of the music’s DNA. But you can listen to this work of musical art on its own and marvel at the sheer genius that was David Bowie.

The former Ziggy Stardust, the former Thin White Duke, the former Aladdin Sane made some magnificent albums throughout his 40+ year career. Some critics might’ve considered his best days behind him when, in 2004, health concerns cancelled the Reality Tour and Bowie went into a ten-year seclusion. BLACKSTAR was proof that conceit was wrong. It is a stellar album that can honestly stand alongside ZIGGY STARDUST, HUNKY DORY, LOW, “HEROES,” or HEATHEN.


Scott Dennis Parker lives and works in his native Houston, Texas. He is the Saturday columnist at DoSomeDamage.com. He is the founder of Quadrant Fiction Studio, an independent publisher that specializes in stories that will amaze, excite, and, most importantly, entertain you.

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Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar

by DAVID CRANMER

The Doctor with Davros

Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Hettie MacDonald

How can Clara Oswald (Jenna Louise Coleman) be so gullible? The Master/Missy (Michelle Gomez) has already tied her upside down for no apparent good reason, well, other than being a sociopath freak. Then she’s handcuffed by The Master to be bait for the Daleks. So when Clara freely climbs into an empty dalek body-armor where she becomes just another emotionless machine from outward appearances, I’m thinking maybe it’s Ms. Oswald’s time to go the way of her predecessors. These scenes are watchable thanks to Michelle Gomez who is a one-woman tango, but the sheer foolishness of The Impossible Girl’s character (that I’ve admired in the past) is disheartening.

That subplot is balanced with The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) squaring off with the century’s old villain, Davros (Julian Bleach), creator of the daleks. The Time Lord is trapped without his sonic screwdriver or TARDIS inside Davros’s lair. An emotional verbal clash ensues that’s routine at first until it’s quite apparent that Davros is actually dying and seems to be extending an olive branch to The Doctor. They even share a laugh! Davros asks to see The Doctor’s face with his own eyes—eyes that had been fused shut eons ago. He then opens them pleading, “I need to know before the end … am I a good man?” Bleach is so damn convincing under tons of make-up and plays nicely off Capaldi. Hopefully both will be remembered along with Ms. Gomez when awards season rolls around.

It’s been said that Doctor Who is about a guy flying around in a blue box. Yes, but at the heart is a humanity that The Doctor exemplifies in “The Witch’s Familiar” as he desperately seeks the energy for Davros to see one last sunrise and correct his mistake of abandoning the young Davros. Of course, fans will be guessing up to the end whether this is all a trick of Davros or The Master.

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Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice

by DAVID CRANMER

Doctor Who Hand MinesDoctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice
Written by Stephen Moffat
Directed by Hettie MacDonald

On a distant planet a soldier notices and goes to assist a terrified young boy running through a battlefield. Unfortunately they have wandered into a sea of creepy hands slowly protruding from the ground. Each hand has an eye on its palm looking for another victim to devour. The boy watches as the soldier is grabbed by his ankle and swallowed underground. A second chance for the kid comes in the form of The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) who describes himself as “Just a passerby. I was looking for a bookstore.” He tosses the kid his sonic screwdriver to communicate better and insists though it’s a 1 in a 1000 chance of survival that “you forget the 1000 and you concentrate on the 1.” But then the boy’s odds further deteriorate when he reveals his name to be, Davros (creator of the Daleks—one of The Doctor’s oldest and most despised enemies).

The Daleks are a very tired and monotonous storyline but Davros himself is not and the main theme of “The Magician’s Apprentice” is an engaging one, “Davros made the Daleks but who made Davros?” The episode ends with the pacifist Doctor, training a Dalek weapon on the young Davros, facing that philosophical stumper: if you had the opportunity to go back in time and kill Hitler when he was an innocent baby to prevent the Holocaust, could you?

Kudos as always to Michelle Gomez who steals every scene as the latest incarnation of the Master. But I would like to see less of UNIT and the corny ‘Earth being held hostage’ storylines. Been down that cliché-worn road a bit too much thanks not only to Who but also the James Bond series. And the planes being frozen in the sky were simply unconvincing.

All in all, “The Magician’s Apprentice” was a strong start for season nine of Doctor Who and expectations run high on how it will be concluded in “The Witches Familiar.”

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The Stranger by Albert Camus

Originally posted by Heath Lowrance at Psycho Noir, February 24, 2010.

You probably know the basic story: Mersault, a Frenchman living in French Algiers, commits a murder for no immediately discernable reason, stands trial, and is confronted by a world which sees things considerably different than he does. The Stranger a short, simple story, fast-moving and engaging. But of course there is much more to it than that.

The Stranger by Albert CamusMersault is notable for his strangely detached personality. He feels emotions just like anyone else, but he’s usually only capable of registering them on an intellectual level. For him, there is only the moment that he lives in, and the very immediate future. He doesn’t understand regret. He doesn’t understand the need of other people to inject false meaning into the universe. And he doesn’t understand that he is different than them. It’s this last that plagues him during his trial, when he finds himself unable and unwilling to pretend, to play-act grief at his mother’s funeral for instance or to create a plausible reason why he shot his victim three more times after he’d already killed him. These things, Mersault tells us, are entirely pointless. He is not a bad man—he’s just incapable of seeing the world for anything other than what it is, and, like a visitor from another planet, he can only view the false pieties and surface-y emotions of those around him with a curious, clinical detachment.

On one level, you could argue (as the prosecution in the novel does) that Mersault is a sort of sociopathic monster, incapable of real love or kindness. But it’s not really true—he does feel those things, and does take pleasure from making someone else happy (he agrees to marry Marie because he knows it will please her, he expresses sympathy to Salamano when his dog disappears, he writes a letter for Raymond) but the satisfaction he derives is temporary and inconsequential.

I was in my twenties the first time I read The Stranger. I read it again about ten years later. And now, another ten years on, I just read it again. The book has a strangely cumulative effect; I find more and more to appreciate in it the older I get. Albert Camus denied being an existentialist, but The Stranger is certainly an existentialist work, and some readers find it dark or depressing—I think those readers miss the point. To me, the ending is almost uplifting (granted, in a strangely impersonal way) in it’s acknowledgement of the “gentle indifference of the universe”, and the realization that the only meaning that exists is the meaning you have given things.

“To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.”


Heath Lowrance is the author of HAWTHORNE: TALES OF A WEIRDER WEST, CITY OF HERETICS, THE BASTARD HAND, FIGHT CARD: “Bluff City Brawler” (as Jack Tunney) and DIG TEN GRAVES. His work has appeared at Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, Chi-Zine, Pulp Metal, The Nautilus Engine, and others. He has been a movie theater manager, a tour guide at Sun Studio, a singer in a punk band, and a regular donor of blood for money. He lives in Lansing, Michigan.

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Some Thoughts On SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE In The Wake OF MAN OF STEEL

Originally posted by Jake Hinkson at The Night Editor, June 20, 2013.

 

Man-of-Steel_Cavill

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel

I saw MAN OF STEEL the other day, and I liked it. I didn’t love it, as some people seem to. And I didn’t hate it, as an equal amount of people seem to. It hit me right down the middle–I liked it more than GREEN LANTERN or THOR but not as much as CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER or THE DARK KNIGHT.

It did put me in the mind to rewatch Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, a movie I loved as a child but haven’t watched in a while.

Superman_Reeve

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Here are some observations from my viewing last night [Note, I’m assuming readers will have seen both films]:

1. SUPERMAN was probably the last charming superhero movie. Despite the grandeur of the opening Krypton scenes and the big action set pieces later on, the spirit of the thing is gentle and fun. It takes its source material seriously (at times, too seriously–Exhibit A: Marlon Brando’s plagiarism of John 3:16), but overall it’s got a light touch. It is, in a word, charming.

2. It owes a great deal of its charm to Christopher Reeve. He’s beautiful here–part sly comedian, part stalwart hero. What’s interesting, though, is the way Reeve occupies a delightful middle ground between those two poles most of the time. His Superman has a sense of humor, a wit that appreciates the absurdity of his situation–both in and out of his cape. Contrast this with, say, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and you’ll see the difference. Downey’s Stark has charisma–as an actor, Downey exudes charisma like a pheromone–which is what makes the Iron Man movies so much fun. But charisma is different than charm. Tony Stark is a playboy, a badass, a jester who stands aloof from the world and mocks its absurdities. Reeve’s Clark Kent is a gentle spirit–he winks rather than sneers. One approach is not innately better than the other, but it is evidence that we live in a harder climate superhero-wise. I can’t think of the last charming performance in a superhero role.

3. Henry Cavil is playing a different character than Reeve. His Clark Kent is more neurotic, harder around the edges, less of a boy scout. He’s closer to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne than Reeve’s Clark Kent.

4. The Krypton in SUPERMAN is a really original idea for an alien planet. I don’t know enough to say whether or not it adheres to the Krypton of the comic books pre-John Byrne (Byrne’s 1980s run on Superman is really all I know of the books), but it doesn’t look like anything else in the movies. The block-ice surface of the planet, the giant dome, the weird crystal technology–it all stays fresh. The Krypton in MAN OF STEEL, in contrast, looks a lot like a planet that would have been in one of the STAR WARS prequels.

5. The first ten minutes or so of MAN OF STEEL are, all on their own, pretty bad. A lot of exposition, a lot of derivative sets, and a lot of action that’s standard action movie fisticuffs. And Michael Shannon screams a lot. In short, it’s a lot.

6. SUPERMAN has Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Superman’s adoptive parents. (Two film noir icons, btw.) Both are excellent and create, in just a couple of brief scenes, the sense of middle-American groundness that Clark takes with him the rest of the movie. Brando got paid a heap of cash to play Jor-El, but less of him is more. (The expanded director’s cut of the film has way too much Brando. It starts to feel like he’s popping up just to justify his huge payday rather than to serve any story purpose.) Glenn Ford, on the other hand, is in the movie for about five minutes and has more emotional impact.

7. In MAN OF STEEL, Kevin Costner pretty much does to Russell Crowe what Ford did to Brando. Then again, maybe I’m just more partial to Kansas farmers than Kryptonian scientists. That’s a distinct possibility.

8. Margot Kidder gets criticized by certain folks because she’s not hot enough to be Lois Lane. Which misses the point. She’s spunky and quirky–like a girl reporter in a 30s newspaper movie. Another actress might have disappeared in that role. Kidder gives it a nice screwball twist. [Amy Adams in MAN OF STEEL is good in a more conventionally written role. She plays the role straight, and the filmmakers make the brilliantly simple choice to have Lois discover Clark is Supes before he even attempts the whole Clark Kent charade. Doing this deftly sidesteps one of the biggest obstacles in accepting their romance.)

9. Gene Hackman pretty much invented the way you play a super villain. Part funny, part scary. Everyone from Jack Nicholson to Tom Hiddleston owes him a debt. [Michael Shannon’s Zod gets better as MAN OF STEEL goes on, mostly because he gets to stop and take the occasional breath. The opening scenes have him at full pitch–and Shannon hits a high pitch–but the actor is better when he ramps up to fury. He’s the master of the slow burn that explodes in rage. I love Michael Shannon. He’s one of my favorite actors and he does a good job with this role, but as a character Zod is pretty much a one dimensional would-be dictator. I hope that in the sequel we get a character with a little more nuance.]

10. The debate over MAN OF STEEL’s ending is overblown. Yes, Superman isn’t a killer, but he’s a warrior and sometimes people die. Remember that Zod dies in SUPERMAN II as well. Though, just to be clear, in MAN OF STEEL I don’t know why Superman didn’t either sweep Zod’s legs or throw up his hand to block Zod’s heat vision. [Wow. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.] For that matter, here’s one last word on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE: when Lois dies at the end and Superman turns back time to save her (never been sure exactly how he did that, by the way) wouldn’t he also have turned back everything else? Wouldn’t some of the people he saved in the previous scenes now perish? That ending never made any damn sense.


Jake Hinkson is the author of the novel HELL ON CHURCH STREET and the novellas THE POSTHUMOUS MAN and SAINT HOMICIDE. He’s also a regular contributor to Macmillan’s websites CRIMINAL ELEMENT and TOR, as well as the film journal NOIR CITY (the flagship publication of the Film Noir Foundation).

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Netting a Knight: Nabokov’s First English Novel

Ron Scheer reviews The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) by Vladimir Nabokov.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir NabokovThe risk of talking about anything by Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977) is the opportunity it offers to reveal one’s ignorance. Nabokov was born into a wealthy St. Petersburg family that was later driven from Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution. I’m willing to bet he knew more languages than everybody reading this and English better than anyone.

A man of cosmopolitan sensibilities and some learning, at home among the boulevards and cafés of Paris, he had maybe only one interest that may be said to be even remotely related to my own as a writer about western and frontier fiction. The year 1956 found him in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, hunting butterflies.

Nabokov is one of those few writers (like Dickens, Hemingway, and Shakespeare) who have a style of storytelling named after them. Look up “Nabokovian,” and you find frequent use of the word “playful,” not just in the use of language and literary forms, but in the way he has fun with your expectations.

His first novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is (or pretends to be) a literary detective story. Its narrator tells of his attempt to uncover the final years of Sebastian Knight, a respected novelist who is by chance his half-brother. I say “pretends to be,” because the narrative is knee-deep in ironies. There is much for a serious reader to take seriously, but with Nabokov, you never can be sure when he is pulling your leg.

Let’s say we give it a serious reading. The novel concerns itself with the phenomenon of celebrity and authors whose loyal readers want to know the intimate details of their lives. In the absence of that intimacy, they presume to find autobiographical self-disclosure in the pages of the author’s fiction. Think of the fuss over the reclusive J. D. Salinger, the fans who stalked him, and the recent documentary project digging up reminiscences from former friends and lovers, all of it an effort to find the “real” person behind the man’s published work.

Such is the case in Nabokov’s novel as his narrator, like a private detective, attempts to piece together the scattered clues he finds of his now-dead half-brother’s private life. The mystery grows as he becomes more obsessed with it, even while what he uncovers turns out to be of little more value than cheap gossip.

Like the mystery surrounding Salinger, there seems to be a lover at the heart of it. And the narrator’s story becomes one of his tireless efforts to determine the elusive identity of a married woman who may or may not have had an affair with Knight in his last years. The irony is that when we finally meet the woman, she illuminates nothing about the author or his fiction.

Nabokov is saying (to me at least) that the search for an author’s “real life” outside of their work is not just a hopeless task. It is meaningless. In the case of Sebastian Knight, we learn that the life of a brilliant writer can be as shabbily ordinary as anyone else’s. What an author writes has a life of its own and is arguably more real than the personality, character, or life experience of the person who created it.

The real life to be found in Nabokov’s novel is in fact that of its narrator, a nameless man, with writerly aspirations of his own. We learn that he once held an unspecified job for a company in Marseille, where he disliked his work and was disliked in turn by his boss. He is an earnest fan worshipping at a shrine of his own making, whose biographical tribute to his half-brother seems little more at times than a sad hope to illuminate himself with reflected glory.

He elevates Sebastian Knight to a level far above others, claiming for him powers of perception so highly developed that no one can hope to meet him on any common ground. No one, that is, but the narrator. Viewing an artist’s portrait of Sebastian, he notes that it’s a picture of a reflection in a pool. It is Sebastian as Narcissus gazing upon himself with the adoration no one else deserves because there is no one with sensibilities sufficiently refined to fully appreciate him.

From the start, you are free to suspect you are in the hands of an unreliable narrator, and to the end, it’s hard to know what’s playfully ironic and what’s not, which I’d argue is Nabokov’s intention. Sebastian Knight remains an elusive figure. The more the narrator discovers about him, the more urgent becomes his need for a final revelation, which he hopes in the last pages to get from the lips of the dying man himself, who lies in a hospital bed somewhere outside Paris. Here Nabokov ramps up the suspense by sending the narrator by slow-moving train and cab to his half-brother’s bedside, encountering all manner of obstacles along the way.

This final sequence is inspired by cinematic melodrama, chase scenes, and races against the clock. It sets up both the narrator and the reader for a blissfully recounted epiphany that is cathartic and soul satisfying for the narrator, while—to me at least—illusory and deeply ironic for the reader. Like I said, with Nabokov, you can’t be sure when he’s pulling your leg. For anyone who knows Lolita and Nabokov’s other fiction, this first novel is full of entertaining surprises and conundrums, worthy of an enormously gifted writer who, among other things in his “real life,” collected butterflies in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana.

Nabokov’s work has been collected in an excellent multi-volume annotated edition by Viking.

Ron Scheer reviews frontier fiction and westerns at his blog, Buddies in the Saddle. He’s gathered these reviews in a two-volume set titled How the West Was Written, the first of which was recently published by BEAT to a PULP. A retired teacher, he holds degrees from UCLA and has taught most recently in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He and his wife Lynda currently reside in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.

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