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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.18
229 used & new from $0.02

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two severed thumbs up, April 14, 2007
If, like me, you had spent your life thinking that zombies and great fiction were an odd combination at best and mutually exclusive at worst, Max Brooks's World War Z should be about as big a wake-up call as a bite on the arm from an undead killing machine itself. All the rave reviews this book has generated are more than legit--it's as instant a classic as, dare I say, Night of the Living Dead must have been back in 1968. Writing with incredible flair and a touch of dark humor, Brooks takes a seemingly silly and unoriginal premise--an assault on humanity by an incalculable number of reanimated corpses--and puts a new spin on it, in the process creating a narrative so absorbing that my first act upon finishing this book was to go back to the beginning and start reading it again. An obvious comparison is to George A. Romero's legendary living dead films, and indeed Brooks does seem to take his "rules" for zombie behavior and physiology from Romero, but Brooks turns out to have a gripping style and knack for language all his own. Brooks follows the world's war against the undead from the first outbreaks in China, to the Great Panic that saw the breakdown of the entire established order that the world took for granted, to the eventual and incredibly costly turning of the tide as mankind regrouped and went on the offensive. Brooks actually manages to create a zombie-plagued world that seems frighteningly real, with no aspect of the war against the undead (aka "Zack") ignored, be it epidemiological, physchological, strategic, or technological. With pinpoint accuracy and insight, Brooks captures how the very humanity of the living became their greatest liability, as people's rashness and panic in the face of an intractable, fearless enemy causes as much death and destruction as the walking dead themselves. This being a book about a worldwide zombie holocaust, there are af course some descriptions of open warfare and the occasional bit of gore (can't deny the zombie enthusiasts *everything*), but at its heart World War Z is a classic piece of apocalyptic writing, and an astonishingly detailed and comprehensive one at that. Brooks has clearly done his homework here, placing the zombie outbreak squarely in the context of the real world circa 2007, with the U.S. just coming out of a damaging and unpopular war, China taking steps toward becoming a superpower while still hampered by a blatantly repressive government, and Russia as mired in chaos and corruption as ever. Naturally, the conditions in these countries all color their responses to the outbreak, which helps give the book much of its surprisingly realistic feel. The oral history format was a stroke of genius, allowing Brooks to address the subject with the sort of breadth and worldwide perspective that no movie could provide while giving even the seemingly driest discussions of logistics or geopolitics a personal, experiential feel. Still, it's when Brooks gets into first-hand accounts from surivors of the Great Panic and its aftermath, those who faced down the enemy personally and lived to tell about it, that World War Z truly emerges as a can't-put-it-down-unless-absolutely-necessary kind of read. The survivors tell stories of courage, sacrifice, horror and survival that manage to be as affecting as anything you'd read in a similar history of a "conventional" war--an Indian engineer who recounts a legendary general's heroism at the height of the panic; a U.S. pilot whose narrow escape from a crash in the swamps of Louisiana turns into a harrowing, violent run for her life; and a blinded Hiroshima survivor who rediscovers meaning in his life while fighting off legions of the undead in the mountains of Japan all contribute to Brooks's creation of a dystopian future that still allowed some moments of light to creep in. The dark side of human nature is, of course, covered as well--cannibalism, profiteering, governmental perfidy, and the bizarre story of "Quislings," uninfected humans whose response to the fight-or-die predicament thrust upon them by the outbreak was to simulate the symptoms of infection as best they could, right down to the biting. Overall, Brooks leaves no base uncovered, making World War Z the perfect experience for those who want a look behind the blood-and-guts focus that so often marks even good zombie movies. Definitely worth a read, and probably a re-read as well.

Neon Bible
Neon Bible
Price: $9.99
73 used & new from $3.25

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Yeah, it's good, April 6, 2007
This review is from: Neon Bible (Audio CD)
While I didn't go quite as nuts for the Arcade Fire's debut Funeral as some did, there was little question that it was a powerful, emotive offering that established the band (or collective, whatever) as a unique presence in an indie rock world too often glutted with knockoffs. That album's everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach, highlighted by driving rhythms, mammoth swells of orchestration, and of course the frequently wild wail of vocalist Win Butler all added up to musical anomaly that was lumped into the "indie" category mainly because it didn't fit any other ones. Sure, there were a few less-inspired tracks, as well as a couple that bordered on wussy, but the potential shown on Funeral was obvious, and it's a potential that's very much fulfilled on the band's second full-length, this year's Neon Bible. With Butler soundly signicantly more assured this time out, Neon Bible serves up a string of transcendent cacaphonies and plantive meditations, all of them at least good and several brilliant.

Right from the start, with the opening sonic headrush of the propulsive Black Mirror and the righteous, swinging Keep the Car Running, it's apparent that Neon Bible is only going to up the ante on its predecessor in terms of both ambition and focus. Funeral was highly notable for the way it managed to combine so many disparate influences and so much seemingly mutually exclusive instrumentation, and while Neon Bible certainly continues in that vein it's impossible not to notice how much the band has refined its songwriting, to say nothing of the way the album's rawer, more cavernous production enhances its already considerable emotional directness. Some songs build inexorably toward their big payoffs, while on others it comes seemingly out of nowhere, but the band shows a remarkable aptitude at making you wait for it. Just check out the accordian-backed Intervention, which steadily moves from a minimal beginning to an all-out, head-banging climax, with a succession of additional instruments joining the fray along the way in a manner that would make Godspeed You!Black Emperor proud; or The Well and the Lighthouse, which inverts Intervention's approach by racing out of the blocks at top speed before capsizing into a slower, harder-hitting version of its own first half. The title track is a hushed, almost childlike meditation, while the Rambling, user-friendly anthem (Antichrist Television Blues) makes Butler's repeated proclamations of "I don't wanna work in a building downtown" into a Springsteen-esque mantra.

So, to conclude: I like this album. If you liked the first one, you should like this one too, probably more. In what's been a good year for music so far, with several excellent new releases, Neon Bible should still end up standing out.

Orphans [Fold-out Digipak with 24-page booklet]
Orphans [Fold-out Digipak with 24-page booklet]
Price: $28.56
75 used & new from $9.48

24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's Tom Waits, and therefore excellent, April 6, 2007
Nobody does grizzled and world-weary quite like Tom Waits, and coming off 2004's incredible Real Gone, the mammoth three-disc collection Orphans is yet more proof of his bizarre genius. Even putting aside the abundance of great music it contains, it is, if nothing else, a fitting tribute to Waits's persistently uncommercial, marketing-be-damned approach to his music. Comprised of a whopping 54 songs (both Waits originals and covers) and clocking in at about three hours, Orphans is vintage Waits from beginning to end-unvarnished, unconventional, and uncompromising. Given the enormous amount of variety to be found here, everyone's going to have their personal favorites, but whichever tracks one prefers there's no denying that Orphans makes the perfect testament to Waits's endless creativity, stinging wit and gritty, PhD-in-life sensibility.

Waits has long been a a man of many personas-demented carnival barker, old testament prophet, Jesus freak, depression-era bluesman-and even more than his more traditional albums Orphans shows off his chameleonic nature to the fullest extent. With its ample available space, Orphans allows Waits to induldge in genre exercises ranging from rockabilly (Lie To Me); to baroque pop (Little Drop of Poison); to swamp blues (Buzz Fledderjohn); to gospel (Lord I've been changed) without ever sounding like just an imitator of his varied influences. That said, Waits is still at his best when he dwells in a musical territory all his own, be it noisy, free-form experimentation or more reflective, sparsely instrumented balladry.

Each disc brings with its own unique feel, with the first one feeling the most like a proper Waits album in the vein of such all-encompassing classics as Rain Dogs and Bone Machine. Waits gets his classic-rock fix taken are of early with the scorching Low Down, whose big, brash guitar riffs wouldn't sound out of place in the '60's. The clamorous percussion and dizzying time signatures of Fish in the Jailhouse should please fans of Waits's more eccentric side, or just those like this writer who crave something abrasive and weird. Providing a sharp contrast to these tunes, but still very much in line with Waits's overall approach, are the downcast resignation of the bluesy, guitar-driven Road to Piece (a seven-minute examination of the conflict in Israel) and the closing lament of Rains on Me.

The ballad-heavy second disc, while occasionally a tad forgettable, is still home to some of the most brilliant material of Waits's career. The triumphant Take Care of All of My Children is driven by a stirring, martial drum beat, while the following Down There by the Train manages to expertly combine sadness, regret, and hope through Waits's singularly poetic lyrical imagery ("There's no eye for an eye/There's no tooth for a tooth/I saw Judas Iscariot carryin' John Wilkes Booth"-brilliant). In somewhat of a curveball for Waits, Never Let Go is inspiring and poignant in its straightforward message of devotion. There's also a great, booze-sodden lament in Goodnight Irene, which finds Waits's nicotine-stained voice at its most raw and unhinged.

The third disc is a nod to every side of the schizophrenic last two decades of Waits's career, with unstructured noise explorations (the mutant jazz-blues-rock workout Heigh Ho is hard-edged and ominous even for Waits) to a slew of spoken-word pieces to some more tender ballads. Waits starts off the disc by breaking out his classic rasp on the delightfully malevolent What Keeps Mankind Alive, and backs himself up with some inspired vocal beat-boxing on the Spidey's Wild Ride and King Kong. The latter track is especially interesting, with Waits's pained wail augmented by some ear-piercing guitar squeals and a subterranean bass line as he declaims the tragic story of, well, King Kong, with all the gravity of a character delivering the closing monologue of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Wincing the Night Away
Wincing the Night Away
Price: $12.99
115 used & new from $0.01

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's good, March 17, 2007
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Wincing the Night Away (Audio CD)
The indie-rock scene has long been as full of copycats and one-trick ponies as the mainstream (or close to it, anyway), but over the course of their still-brief career the Shins have always managed to stand out as a force for innovation. Along with The Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, and Modest Mouse, they stand at the forefront of cadre of indie bands that have managed to move on to commercial success with little to no help from radio, and deservedly so, as they've consistently managed to find a sound that's catchy without pandering and intelligent without any undue intellectual pretensions. The Shins have always relied as heavily on unpredictable, meandering song structures and off-kilter arrangements as on James Mercer's sunny melodies and enjoyably dorky vocals, and it's as winning a combination here as it was on their classic debut Oh Inverted World! and its even better successor Chutes Too Narrow. Like the first two albums, Wincing the Night Away does take a few listens to get into, probably even more so in this case as the band's sound comes to rely increasingly on detail, but at the same time the Shins' sound has become more inviting since they arrived back in 2001: the big, chiming guitars that sort of float along over the rumble of the bass, with the occasional keyboard accent drifting in and out of the mix, all signal a level of mass appeal that few would've seen coming five years ago.

Right from the start, it's obvious that the Shins weren't slacking off during their three-and-a-half-year layoff since the previous album, as the opener Sleeping Lessons establishes their continued vitality quickly, starting off all dreamy and minimal and lulling the listener into a false sense of calm before the tempo makes a sharp increase and some whiplash riffage kicks in about halfway through. The Shins' well of unpredictable, endlessly listenable indie-pop tunes also hasn't come close to running dry yet: lead single Phantom Limb is a sprawling, expansive epic (by this band's standards anyway) whose hooks keep biting down just when it seems ready to run out of steam, while Australia and Turn on Me are both cut from a similarly shambolic, multilayered and instantly memorable cloth. There are, naturally, some variations on the theme as well, which is where the Shins really put some distance between themselves and the pack. In the hands of a lesser band, the combination of cutting riffs, lilting melodies, and languid talk-singing that makes up Sea Legs would sound like a mess, but the Shins manage to combine these seemingly mismatched elements into an infectious, head-bobbing classic. The album's darkest, hardest-edged song, Spilt Needles, is driven forward by some propulsive drumbeats and icy synth work that wouldn't sound out of place on an old Cure album. The amorphous Black Wave is another interesting tune that sees the band ever-so-slightly expanding their comfort zone, a drumless piece that relies heavily on gently strummed guitars and eerie atmospherics.

The album doesn't end particularly well--Girl Sailor is a little fey for my tastes, and the closing A Comet Appears doesn't do too much--but the bulk of what precedes the last two tracks builds up so much goodwill it's hard to find fault. Fans can debate endlessly about whether this is the Shins' best album, but that's really beside the point. What Wincing the Night Away indisputably is is another step forward for a band that's obviously determined to expand its sonic pallette, even if only by increments. At the very least, if you were a fan of the band's first two albums, you'll probably find it next to impossible not to like this one.

You're a Woman, I'm a Machine
You're a Woman, I'm a Machine
Price: $10.99
54 used & new from $0.96

35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I don't need this album, but I want it, March 14, 2007
Here's a quick look at You're a Woman, I'm a Machine by the numbers:

Power ballads: None

Whining: None

Lyrics about feelings: None

Acoustic guitars: None

Guitars, period: None

Socially redeeming value: none

Pretentiousness: None

Percentage of this album's running time that makes me bang my head, tap my foot, or even make me attempt something bearing a passing resemblance to dancing: 100

With a breakdown like that, it's easy to see why Death From Above 1979 were able to lend a brief injection of vitality to the too-often dull and self-important world of rock. There may not be any guitars on this album, but the atomic riffs and screeching feedback of Jesse F. Keeler's bass and the relentlessly frenetic drum patterns of Sebastian Granger intertwine to create some of the most infectious, memorable, and downright enjoyable music released so far this decade, regardless of genre. Sure, every song sounds basically the same, with some faster and thrashier and some slower and more pummeling, but at 11 tracks covering about thiry minutes You're a Woman, I'm a Machine isn't around long enough to wear out its welcome. From opening to closing, Death From Above's debut full-length (and apparently their valedictory as well) is populated exclusively with sweaty, swaggering, libidinous tunes, topped by suggestive lyrics delivered in styles ranging from falsetto crooning to fearsome, confrontational shouts.

One could, if one were so inclined, go ahead and analyze the individual songs on this album, but that would miss the point. This is not an album to be analyzed; it's an album to be felt, enjoyed, experienced, and remembered; an album whose songs will bounce around in your head for days after hearing it and bring a grin to your face; an album that even had my wife banging her head upon hearing it. It's a reminder to the sorry likes of Nickelback and Staind that rock music can, even should, be fun, not an excuse for mopey whining about feelings and relationships. And even beyond all that, it's just a good time, something that's too rarely had for everybody. You could do a lot worse than to put away your complaint rock and give this album a spin.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 29, 2007 3:35 PM PDT

Oz: Season 3
Oz: Season 3
DVD ~ J.k. Simmons
Offered by Two Thumbs Up
Price: $23.98
26 used & new from $14.71

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Oz makes the leap, March 14, 2007
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Oz: Season 3 (DVD)
After a somewhat disappointing second season, Oz came back with a vengeance for its third go-round, finally making good on the promise of its excellent first season. The show does, as usual, contain its share of implausibilities (although not to the extent that the fourth season does), but its insight into people and the institutions they create, along with its odd mix of realism and sensationalism, more than make up for any gaps in credibility. Its murderer's row of a cast is in fine form once again, even with characters frequently coming and going, and the volatility of the characters and storytelling is, as usual, cranked to the max. The show's disturbing violence gained it a good deal of notoriety, and this season does feature some truly imaginative (and imaginatively filmed) murders, but the killings, maimings, and beatings are just one manifestation of its pedal-to-the-metal intensity and visceral impact.

Its intimate, pressure-cooker setting gives Oz an ideal platform for developing characters and constantly shifting interpersonal dynamics, and this season sees the further development of several lingering plotlines from the first two seasons, along with plenty of new shocks to be found. Essentially, Oz examines prison life from three perspectives-the groups that dominate life among the inmates, the unfortunate few who have to find a way to survive without the protection of a prominent organization, and the staff who have to try to keep a lid on everything-and all three end up getting plenty of attention this season. Fontana has said that Oz was intended to be a microcosm of the world at large, and this season certainly fulfills that goal, partly with its frequent and savage outbreaks of violence, but more in its penetrating examination of the varied and contradictory sides of human nature. Above all else, it's the self-contained universe Oz establishes that makes it such an addictive show-an environment where violence, greed, and racism are nothing less than survival mechanisms and anything even resembling a virtue can be turned into a weakness. In Oz, even a prison boxing tournament designed to provide the inmates with a release turns into the focus of endless intrigue and division, not to mention murder.

The third season's main focus, especially in its last few episodes, is on the mounting racial divisions in Oz, which are handled in a surprisingly organic manner, with a series of seemingly unrelated incidents serving to divide the inmates almost completely by skin tone. Naturally, the race-based tensions are exploited by the show's leading villains: Nigerian-born drug lord Simon Adebisi and Nazi hatemonger Vern Schillinger, both of whom belong in the hall of fame for memorably evil TV characters. Played in career-making fashion by Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje, who's as physically imposing as Shaq and a much better actor, Adebisi is a smirking, menacing presence, the sort of magnetic villain you can't help but enjoy watching even as his machinations reach new levels of deceit and depravity. For his part, the glowering, sadistic Schillinger always manages to couch his actions in the rhetoric of rightneousness, but he seems less concerned with improving the fortunes of the white race than with brutalizing and terrorizing any fellow inmates he sees fit, regardless of color. That said, J.K. Simmons always manages to make Schillinger believable and even occasionally human, never more so than when his son gets sent to Emerald City and quickly finds himself in over his head.

Now, since I'm not quite out of things to say, here are a few bullet points regarding this season:

-The second season established a set of fractured relationships among the inmates, but they're really developed to their fullest extent in the third season. Sometimes the show's plotlines can admittedly veer a bit into soap-opera territory, but in the most compelling character arcs-the ongoing comingling of love, distrust, and violence between Beecher and Keller; Ryan O'Reilly's stewardship of his brain-damaged brother, which walks a fine line between protection and exploitation; and of course the severed bond between Schillinger and his son-there's a rawness to the emotions of those involved that few shows can match.

-It's on this season that Kareem Said becomes a pantheon TV character, right up there with the likes of Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey. Said was a fierce, galvanizing figure from the show's beginning, and as the third season progresses it reveals more of the internal conflicts and unshakable convictions that end up costing him dearly even among the other Muslims. Eammon Walker really gets inside Said's character this season, lending him new levels of complexity with practically every facial expression and line of dialogue, turning Said into a figure who's unflinchingly principled but far from bloodless or unrelatable.

-In spite of all the betrayal, murder, and everything else, it's not all doom and gloom in Oz. As in real life, there is the occasional tender moment, such as elderly lifer Rebadow finally getting to meet his grandson, and loads of offbeat humor, especially with the introduction of children's TV host and inmate lust object Miss Sally. Plus there's the ongoing saga of creepy death-row inmate Shirley Bellinger, which adds little to the show but does take some interesting twists towards season's end.

And yeah, that's pretty much it. If you liked the first two seasons of Oz, the third season offers everything that was good about them and plenty more. All fans of fierce, intelligent TV owe it a look.

Crank (Widescreen Edition)
Crank (Widescreen Edition)
DVD ~ Jason Statham
Price: $7.11
221 used & new from $0.01

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Whoa..., March 10, 2007
This review is from: Crank (Widescreen Edition) (DVD)
In my time on this Earth I've seen lots of action movies of pretty much every stripe, but none have been as flat-out bizarre and jokey as Crank, and few have even come close. Written and directed by the team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (which is apparently comprised of a drug-addled escaped mental patient and an 11-year-old video-game addict with ADD), and starring Jason Statham as a much less upright version of the guy he played in the Transporter movies, Crank is a roller-coaster ride of nearly nonstop action and twisted humor, with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek from beginning to end. Reliant on an almost stream-of-consciousness flow of imagery including frequent shots of its protagonist's eratically-beating heart and random, inexplicable subtitles of dialogue spoken in English, the movie's manic direction only enhances its anything-goes mentality. This is the sort of movie that will have even the most jaded action-flick viewer avidly watching just to see what sort of twisted happening will come next.

The plot, to the extent that one actually exists, centers around the improbably named Chev Chelios (Statham), an LA hitman who wakes up one morning to find that a rival has poisoned him in his sleep with some "synthetic Chinese s***" that will stop his flow of adrenalin until he's no more. Naturally, this news throws Chev's life into a state of heavy disarray, forcing him to spend the rest of the movie motoring around the city trying to exact revenge on his malefactor and save the life of his attractive but less-than-brilliant girlfriend (Amy Smart, delivering a performance that's either excellent or terrible, I can't decide which). Along the way, pretty much every taboo of the Parents Television Council crowd is indulged in recklessly--be it drug use, sex, casual racism, nudity, or gratuitously graphic violence--making Crank one of the most enjoyably offensive movies to come out since Trey Parker and Matt Stone so memorably brought South Park to the big screen almost a decade ago.

I doubt rather strongly that anything depicted in this movie would ever actually happen, but then that's beside the point: it's really just an excuse for a series of outrageous set pieces indulging in (you guessed it) drug use, sex, casual racism, nudity, and gratuitiously graphic violence. Fortunately, the filmmakers weren't short of inspiration for this movie, at least not when it comes to assaulting the audience with unforgettably ridiculous and frequently tasteless imagery. To give away specifics would be to ruin the enjoyment, but suffice to say several scenes from this movie have remained seared into my retinas since my initial viewing a few weeks ago, and the same will likely be the case for you. So, to sum up, while Crank is in no way anything even resembling a cinematic masterpiece, a certain corner of the film-viewing public (a corner which apparently includes this reviewer) will certainly find its ultra-politically incorrect, taste-and-coherence-be-damned approach amusing, if not much else.

The Crane Wife
The Crane Wife
Price: $7.37
107 used & new from $1.69

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Weird, but nice. 4.5 stars, February 11, 2007
This review is from: The Crane Wife (Audio CD)
I haven't heard any of the Decemberists' previous albums all the way through, so I'm not prepared to debate how The Crane Wife stacks up to any of them. What I can say, though, is that this is one enjoyably bizarre and quirky listen. These guys didn't leave anything on the field for their major-label debut--this is about as ambitious an album as you'll hear from a band with corporate backing. The band draws from an expansive range of seemingly disparate influences and incorporate all kinds of non-rock instrumentation (just check out the liner notes and see who plays what), and though not everything works equally well the overall result never fails to be distinctive or interesting. I've heard very few bands that could bring together so many different elements and make them all fit together into catchy, highly accessible songs. Their eclectic approach and occasionally daunting song lengths will probably prevent these guys from ever attaining "Indie Band Everybody Likes" status like the Shins, but it should be just the thing for those seeking something outside the indie-music norm.

For the most part, the album sees relatively straightforward, foot-tapping pop tunes splitting time with more spacious, epic balladry, all of it highlighted by Colin Meloy's emotive brogue and intricate arrangements underlain by the rock-solid drumming of John Moen. The highly poetic lyrics, which often seem taken from an anthology of 19th-century Irish literature, deal heavily with themes of love, loss, and misfortune, but with none of the triteness or sap that so frequently accompany such subjects.

Probably the best example of the band's musical mission is the second track, The Island-Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel The Drowning, which actually manages to be as long and sprawling as its name suggests, with a twelve-minute running time that sees it move from infectious folk-rock to aggressive guitar riffage to a hard-charging, synth-backed climax that wouldn't sound out of place on a Yes album. The album's other centerpiece, the Crane Wife 1 & 2, similarly builds from a quiet beginning to a stirring midtempo gallop about halfway through, though it sort of runs out of steam in its slowed-down second half.

The rest of the album doesn't take aim at anything quite so grandiose as the two longest pieces but that's not to say The Crane Wife doesn't have plenty of other worthy material to offer. Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then) is a disarmingly pretty duet that sees Meloy's vocals intertwining with the more ethereal voice of Laura Veirs, while the electronics-heavy The Perfect Crime boasts jagged, danceable rhythms worthy of The Talking Heads. And you've got to admire any band that would follow the dense, chugging metal of When the War Came with the spare, horn-accented folk of the eerily melancholy Shankill Butchers. And The Crane Wife 3 and Sons and Daughters bookend the album with the band's own brand of swinging baroque-pop goodness, providing an excellent introduction and summation to an album you should find hard not to like despite (or perhaps because of) its idiosyncratic sound.

Oz: Season 1
Oz: Season 1
DVD ~ Ernie Hudson
Offered by Shopville USA
Price: $28.84
24 used & new from $7.01

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Should've gotten to this one earlier..., February 4, 2007
This review is from: Oz: Season 1 (DVD)
The Wire may be the best show to ever hit HBO (or any network, for that matter), but it wasn't the network's first gritty, violent hour-long drama to examine the relationship between individuals and institutions. Back in the late 1990's there was Oz, a fierce, operatic prison drama that helped pave the way for The Sopranos, The Shield, The Wire, and a whole slew of other shows that once would've been considered too challenging for TV. In many ways, Oz is a soap opera made for and by guys along the lines of The Sopranos and Rescue Me, but with deep layers of highly relevant social commentary to accompany its explosive (if at times not too plausible) theatrics. This was HBO's first hour-long drama, and as such the production values and direction aren't quite up to the standards set by some of the channel's later shows, but thankfully the writing and characterization set the bar much higher. And if you're watching this show, chances are that's your main concern anyway.

The heart of Oz lies in Emerald City, an experimental unit of Oswald Maximum-Security Penitentiary (hence the show's name) designed to prepare inmates for life on the outside, or at least improve their lives on the inside. Emerald City is run by unit administrator Tim McManus (memorably played by Terry Kinney), a well-meaning, educated liberal who tries to combat his own demons while injecting some civilization into the general atavism that surrounds him. Along with tough-minded warden Leo Glynn (the always reliable Ernie Hudson), and a determined prison chaplain (B.D. Wong) and psychologist/drug counselor/nun (Rita Moreno), McManus is charged with keeping the powder keg he presides over from exploding, a job made even more difficult by the meddling of an imperious Republican governor who wants to eliminate what few vestiges of freedom the inmates do enjoy.

Of course, Oz being a prison show, it's the interactions and infighting among the prisoners that's going to provide the main attraction, and it doesn't disappoint in this regard. If this show is any indication, the guys who warned against factions in the Federalist Papers were dead-on. Emerald City is a hotbed of rampaging tensions and Machiavellian maneuverings, with frequent beatings and murders thrown in for good measure, among exactly the types of groups you'd expect to find in a prison wing-the gangstas (led by the cartoonishly vicious and menacing Simon Adebisi); the Mafia crew of shrewd capo Nino Schiabetta; the Nazis, with cruel hate machine Vern Schillinger in charge; and the looming wild card of the Muslims, whom celebrity activist and prison newcomer Kareem Said quickly organizes in his ongoing quest to overturn the American system that he despises. Throw in a few free agents (cocky Irish rogue Ryan O'Reilly; frightened ex-lawyer Tobias Beecher; cold-blooded biker Scott Ross; psycho killer Donald Groves) to shake things up, and all the elements are in place for a pressure-cooker atmosphere unlike anything else on TV. The characters cover a pretty broad range--some deeply flawed but at least a little sympathetic (Schiabetta, Latino gangster Miguel Alvarez); some enjoyably twisted (O'Reilly, Schillinger); some so evil they scarcely qualify as human (Adebisi and Ross); some just plain crazy (Groves), but all have their distinct personalities. Even McManus and Said, who at least initially appear to be the most principled of the main characters, are prone to bouts of nearly insufferable self-righteousness and moralism. The acting is almost uniformly top-notch throughout, which helps drive home the complexity and moral ambiguity of the writing even further.

With the exception of the flashbacks to the crimes that landed its various prisoners in Oz in the first place, the camera rarely leaves the prison and never goes outside, which only serves to emphasize the claustrophobic effect of its environment. Most of the episodes have some sort of common theme running through them, be it love and sex, capital punishment, drug use, or death and dying, all accompanied by the philosophical, poetic narration of inmate and recovered crack addict Augustus Hill. Any show that has a wheelchair-bound cop killer providing commentary on each episode is bound to be offputting to some, but it's just such risks that make Oz so compelling to watch. Ultimately, Oz is about lives lived on the edge, whether among the prisoners or the staff, and it doesn't soft-pedal the results of making the wrong decisions, but it's not afraid to bring out the humanity of even its most demented characters (well, most of them anyway).

After a mediocre first episode hampered by its excessive focus on cliched mafia type Dino Ortolani (whose exit is the most memorable thing about him), Oz shifts quickly into overdrive and doesn't stop, culminating in the brutal riot that brings the season to an end and sets the stage for the events to follow in season two. The show has so many plots and characters that some are bound to feel underdeveloped in an eight-hour season, with some characters seemingly going through a whole series worth of plot lines over the course of a few episodes. That said, even if the plot development on Oz can occasionally feel a bit fragmentary and hard to believe, its sheer kinetic energy is more than enough to cover up any rough spots. And there are even better developments to come in season two, so anyone who sees promise in this season is highly encouraged to keep watching.

Game Theory
Game Theory
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Voted unlikely to succeed, 'cause my class was full of naysayers, cheaters and thieves", February 3, 2007
This review is from: Game Theory (Audio CD)
Over the past decade or so The Roots have staked out a pretty nice niche as one of the few hip-hop acts with significant appeal to non-fans of the genre, and Game Theory certainly won't disappoint fans of past efforts. Once again striking a near-perfect balance of energy, creativity, and intelligence, Game Theory continues with the progressive-minded, R&B/ soul influenced approach that made 2002's Phrenology a classic, but the aggression level has seemingly been upped a few notches this time around. After a brief intro, the album declares its intentions immediately with the disaffected manifesto of False Media, a shot fired right across the bow of mainstream American society. From there, Game Theory continues in the same vein, specializing in angry, gloomy tales of urban decay, led by the furious raps of Black Thought and the driving, polyrhythmic drumwork of ?uestlove.

Game Theory is at its best when it's at its most confrontational and intense, which makes it somewhat of a letdown when the album settles into a series of more laid-back, R&B oriented tracks in its final third. That said, the seven tracks after the intro pack about as much brilliance into a twenty-minute stretch as you're going to find, as they're everything most mainstream hip-hop isn't--intricate, clever, and brutally honest. Be it the frenetic time signatures and ultra-anthemic chorus of the hard-charging Here I Come, the clanging, hard-edged beats of the ominous In the Music, or the fast-paced, headbanging fury of the title track (my pick for song of the year), the best moments of Game Theory are among the most memorable of 2006 in any genre. Much of Game Theory is the sound of people who have faced the kind of adversity that's brought down numerous others, and are still here to talk about it. It's just too bad that in a musical climate where suburban children of privilege can be taken seriously for whining about their feelings, there aren't more people willing to listen.

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