Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Alvin and the Chipmunks "Undeniable" CD Review

After a bit of a hiatus, The Chipmunks have returned in a big way. Last year saw the little guys finally make their way to the big screen for their movie debut. This was quickly followed by a return to the studio to record Undeniable. Teaming once again with longtime producer (and adopted father) Dave Seville, the Chipmunks have crafted another fine album, though it doesn’t quite live up to the high standard the group has set in the past.

Bands such as Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles have proven that sometimes tension and in-fighting between band members can lead to a better product. Some artists are at their best under intense conditions: the Chipmunks are no exception to this rule. It’s never been a secret that the boys (especially Alvin) don’t always see eye-to-eye with their father/producer, and sometimes that tension threatens to derail the entire recording process. Every project they’ve worked on together has nearly come to an explosive end and examples of this are typically left on the album. There’s always at least one track that features a typical Seville outburst.

Normally, that kind of intensity fuels the artistic fire in Alvin & the boys. It’s what drives them to create such classic albums as Chipmunk Punk, Urban Chipmunk and Let’s All Sing with the Chipmunks. On this album, however, it comes off a little flat. Sure, there’s more than a few good tracks on Undeniable, but one is left wondering if the tension between the band and their father/producer has taken the fire out of the group. The Chipmunks sound as though they’re just going through the motions on this one. The passion is gone and the album sounds fairly lackluster.

As I said, there are a few decent tracks. Their cover of Blink-182’s "All The Small Things" is actually superior to the original. “Ho Ho Ho” is a new holiday song that is destined to become a classic and their version of the Bob Marley classic “Three Little Birds” showcases the rhythmic rodent’s amazing ability to harmonize. I guess they’ve had 50 years to practice, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. As good as their covers may be, the band really shines on their original material such as the previously mentioned “Ho Ho Ho”, “Acceptance” and the title track, “Undeniable”. The Chipmunks have never been averse to adapting to different musical genres, and these three tracks fall a bit closer into the hip-hop/rap category, a realm in which the boys prove themselves to be very adept. The two Led Zeppelin covers (“Thank You”, “Rock and Roll”) however, are lackluster at best. The same can be said for their attempt at injecting some soul into Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin”. Seeing these songs listed on the packaging got me really excited, but hearing them just made me skip to the next song about halfway through. Children will probably enjoy these songs quite a bit, but longtime fans will find that the novelty wears off pretty quickly as they grind their teeth and wonder why they made this purchase.

When all is said and done, this is probably a fine album for kids who enjoyed the recent movie and want more Chipmunks product. Parents, however, will undoubtedly find it to be simply annoying. I don’t want to sound like some loser pining for his youth, but the fact is that the Chipmunks just aren’t as good as they used to be. You don’t win six Grammys by being a simple children’s act: there has to be some level of heart and talent there. Go back and listen to an old Chipmunks album. Sure, you’re not going to be blasting it at a party anytime soon, but they’re quite a bit of fun and well made. Undeniable lacks the skill and most of all lacks the heart of the old Chipmunks recordings. Nevertheless, this will probably make a good stocking stuffer and the few tracks that are good will make up for the bad.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Popeye Volume Three: 1941-1943 - DVD REVIEW

With the third volume in the Popeye series, Warner Home Video rounds out the rest of the black and white Popeye cartoons from the 1940’s. There’s 32 theatrical shorts featured on 2 discs as well as a gaggle of extra material. The cartoons on this disc cover the transition from Fleischer Studios to Famous Studios, as well as Popeye’s transition from civilian life to active duty with the United States Navy. It’s a must have for fans of the spinach eating sailor as well as classic animation buffs.

The first disc features a variety of mishaps and misadventures with Popeye constantly looking after his bumbling, alcoholic father as well as the infant Sweet Pea. Popeye’s nephews Pip-Eye, Pup-Eye, Poop-Eye and Peep-Eye even show up for one adventure. Why any parent would allow a man with such a violent nature to care for their children is beyond me, but I have to admit Popeye does seem to care for the little guys. He apparently even went so far as to take them all out to get matching anchor tattoos! Rounding out the regular cast is Popeye’s main squeeze, Olive Oyl and of course, Bluto, who is always trying to steal Olive away from Popeye, whether she likes it or not.

The second disc is pretty much filled with wartime cartoons, as Popeye re-enlisted with the Navy just a few months before the U.S. got involved in World War II. The cartoons are still very entertaining if you aren’t bothered by propaganda and are willing to overlook the astonishingly racist depictions of Japanese soldiers. Wow! I’ve seen a few wartime cartoons and I knew that racism was much more prevalent in those days, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw here. To call them non-politically correct would be like saying that Minnesota gets “a little chilly” in the wintertime. Nevertheless, they are a product of their time and should be viewed as such. Parents, just make sure you’re in the room with the kids if you allow them to watch these. You may want to explain a few things.

While large portions of the material contained on these discs harkens back to a very different time in America when men were men, women were objects and anyone who wasn’t white was the devil, the beauty of the animation can not be overlooked. These cartoons are classics, plain and simple, and they have been lovingly restored for this collection. I’ve seen a few old cartoons from this era on television or VHS, and they’ve never looked better than they do here. As I said earlier, they belong in the collection of any fan of the golden age of animation.

Speaking of the golden age of animation, there’s a variety of special features on these discs, including commentary by animation historians, directors and in some cases, the children of the folks who created these cartoons in the first place. There are also three documentaries focusing on Popeye and the roots of animation, as well as three Fleischer produced Out of the Inkwell shorts featuring Koko the Clown from the 1920’s! The documentaries are just as entertaining as the cartoons and they’re informative as well. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ultimate Classic Wrestling Presents... DVD Review

According to the cover, Ultimate Classic Wrestling Presents… gives fans a ringside seat for a collage of classic wrestling from arenas across the country. It’s a collectors set featuring ferocious battles between pro wrestling’s most famous and infamous stars, and it’s not for the faint of heart. What is actually delivered is over five hours of matches from the defunct United States Wrestling Association, the majority of which were filmed at the Sportatorium in Dallas, Texas in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I won’t deny that there’s a lot of great material on here, but the cover is just a bit deceiving.

Long-time wrestling fans will be familiar with this type of release. It’s basically a bunch of matches featuring superstars from the World Wrestling Federation or World Championship Wrestling before they made it to prime-time that seem to be thrown together by someone trying to make a quick buck. If you’re a fair-weather fan or someone who is accustomed to the glitz and glamour of Monday Night Raw, these matches might be a bit of a shock to your system. They appear to be filmed in a bingo hall with very small, very rural-looking crowds in attendance. There’s no pyro, no fireworks and no fancy camera angles. It’s wrestling the way it used to be, perhaps the way it was meant to be: Two men lacing boots and going toe-to-toe in the squared circle with a giant banner advertising Renegade Tobacco behind them. The human game of chess played out with a distinctive southern style. Or, if you prefer to look at it another way, its two guys in tights doing gymnastics. But at any rate, it ain’t fancy and it ain’t pretty.

As a dedicated fan of the sport of kings, I found Ultimate Classic Wrestling Presents… to be a worthwhile venture, as long as you know what you’re in for. The two-disc set boasts many superstars such as Steve Austin, Cactus Jack, Jerry Lawler, Jeff Jarrett, Dustin Rhodes and Mark Callous, aka The Undertaker. In addition to these six superstars, there are over twenty other wrestlers who are featured in matches or at the very least make brief appearances, most of whom fall under the designation of either “has-been” or “never-was”. But don’t take that to mean there isn’t a lot of talent on these two DVDs; there’s plenty of great entertainment for a reasonably low price. No one is mistaking any of these bouts as a match of the decade or even match of the year, but if you like wrestling, you oughtta like these discs.

If nothing else on Ultimate Classic Wrestling Presents… floats your boat, it is worth viewing for a rare look at The Undertaker before he entered the World Wrestling Federation. He is featured in several matches under the names “The Punisher” and “Mean” Mark Callous. I’ve been a fan of the ‘Taker for a long time now, and I’ve never seen any of this early footage. It was pretty exciting to see this legendary grappler as a young man, learning the ropes and perfecting his style. The same can be said for stars such as Steve Austin and Cactus Jack, though footage of the early days of their careers is much more readily available, and a lot of the footage offered here isn’t quite from the earliest stages of their careers, but somewhere in the middle.

If you’re a newcomer to the world of professional wrestling and you like the cartoonish style of the WWE, I probably wouldn’t recommend purchasing these DVDs. While there’s a lot of great talent featured, most new fans are looking for a slicker product more in line with what they see on Monday Night Raw. However, if you want to see real wrestling; or perhaps I should say rasslin’, with all the glitz and glamour stripped away, look no further. These guys aren’t falling back on expensive props or fireworks to tell their story, they are doing it through talent, athletic ability and ring psychology. It harkens back to an earlier time in the history of the sport and while it’s certainly not for everyone, dedicated fans of wrestling will probably enjoy it quite a bit.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan - DVD Review

Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan tells the story of the rise, fall and eventual rebirth of the Wu-Tang Clan, one of the most successful hip-hop groups in history. It follows them from their humble beginnings as kids in Staten Island watching kung-fu movies to the height of fame and power as rappers, record producers, actors and major motion picture composers.

The impact of the Wu-Tang Clan can not be overstated. The simple fact that the group had nine MCs is amazing in and of itself, to say nothing of their dominance of the industry, brought about by their unique deal with Loud Records which allowed each member of the group to sign with a different record label for their solo releases. From clothing stores to video games to nail polish, the Clan branched out into many different avenues of business, each one of them successful.

But success has its price, as this film documents. Internal struggles within the group and personal problems essentially dissolved the Clan. It seemed that their egos got the best of them as rivalries and feuds made enemies out of former friends. Struggles with personal demons led to the incarceration and eventual death of founding member Russell Jones aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Much of the film is dedicated to ODB’s problems and acts as something of a tribute to this often misunderstood but immensely talented individual.

The film features interviews with friends and family as well as never before seen performance footage from the early days in clubs to sell-out arena crowds. The impact of the group is underscored by this amazing footage. The crowds at these shows are so diverse: seemingly people of every color and culture loved the Wu-Tang Clan and at several times throughout the performances, it would seem that the crowd is the MC. They know every single word to every song. It’s almost like a rally or a revival meeting. There’s something almost religious about these events and the power comes through on film.

While Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan is probably the best documentary on the group I’ve ever seen, there’s a simple reason for that fact: it’s the only documentary on the group I’ve ever seen. The downfall of this film is that while it touches on nearly every important aspect of the group’s history, it never really gets in-depth. It glazes the surface of many events, but never really delves into any of them, with the exception of the death of ODB. There are lots of interviews with producers, relatives and friends, but the majority of the interviews with actual members of the Wu-Tang Clan are ones that have been seen before on MTV or BET and are several years old.

It’s not that the film isn’t informative, it simply isn’t informative enough. Not enough for me, at least. Don’t get me wrong, I’d definitely recommend this movie to any fan of the group, but I have to admit that I was left wanting more. The cover of the DVD package states that this is an authorized film, and part of me has to wonder if that is part of the problem. I got the feeling that because the director is a close friend to the Wu-Tang Clan, perhaps he did not delve as deeply or as intimately into certain matters as he could have. Not that I was looking for a tawdry history of the group, but I did feel like this film pulled its punches a bit. More information on the Wu-Tang Clan to be found on Wikipedia than in this movie. On the other hand, we live in such a tabloid culture these days, maybe it’s best to simply take a look at a group of artists and applaud them for what they’ve done rather than rake them over the coals and expose their darkest secrets.

This DVD includes extended versions of some of the interviews seen in the film as well as the music video for Protect Ya Neck, the debut single that started it all.