Sunday, August 21, 2011

Slaughter 'stays for a while' with debut record

*Editor's Note: This story will appear in the September issue of ITZ Magazine. All opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

By Brandon K. Scott

There is no need to introduce Huntsville to John Slaughter, or vice versa -- even if he's just releasing his debut solo record.

The 30-year-old musician/singer/songwriter has been in town since 1999 when he enrolled in Sam Houston State University to study agriculture.

Around that time, Slaughter was already in the background of the Texas country music scene. When he was 16, Slaughter's mom would drive him from Conroe to Houston to perform with area Top 40 bands.

After some regional success with Riverwest, the group he joined while at SHSU, John started performing with his cousin Jody Booth - who co-wrote three songs on the debut record "Stay for a While" including my favorite "Don't Drink My Whiskey While I'm Gone."

"We've got a system down definitely," Slaughter said. "We go in and have an idea, we'll write it and get it knocked out."

By 2003, John was performing 150-200 dates a year with Roger Creager. He even co-wrote Creager's #1 hit "I Love Being Lonesome."

Yet Slaughter's creds as an individual artist had hardly been measured by anything, until now with the release of this record.

"Stay For a While" is indicative of John Slaughter -- ordinary country lover boy who sings songs that make other people want to sing along. This record could honky-tonk its way into any bar in Huntsville, and it undoubtedly will.

Slaughter sings success, failure, perseverance, love and even infedelity (again with my favorite "Don't Drink My Whiskey While I'm Gone").

"I kind of write when I feel inspired," he said. "I don't want to write just to write a song. I practice but I try to write from experience. Over the years I feel like I've become in tuned to the human condition.

"Whether it's on a bathroom wall or what somebody says at a bar or what I see somebody doing or if somebody just shouts something out weird, I tend to find inspiration."

And John wants to tell stories to people in different places.

The "Stay for a While" single, released Aug. 16, was mostly written at Slaughter's home before him and Jody finished the track. The lyrics speak to a lady in a bar who obviously isn't one of the bar-regular.

But the artist, however, attempts to keep her in the bar with his smooth talkin' and country western charm.

John talks about swinging on the old front porch and a picnic by the lake. It's basically the song that says all the right things to get the girl to really stay for a while.

"Hasn't Everyone" is the self inspirational song that acknowledges making mistakes but not letting it be the end of the world.

"And I know you won't quit that easily," quotes Slaughter as what his mother would say to him.

"Single Rose Kind of Girl" is one of four tracks on the record co-written by another Huntsville artist some of you may know as Cody Johnson.

In the song, John says "she's jealousy in another man's eyes" and that she says they're "rich in love." Deep down, every man wants a single rose kind of girl. Normally I wouldn't speak for every man, but I feel safe with that one.

"Pray for Rain" could easily be the best song on the record. It's already a popular tune, co-written by Slaughter and Cody Johnson, which Johnson has performed numerous times before. I haven't heard Slaughter perform it yet, but he sounds great on this record.

If you're from east Texas and a lifetime country music fan, you'll appreciate "Timbertown" which looks at rural life before stop signs turned into stoplights. It's tasteful, just like the album in its entirety.

But "Don't Drink My Whiskey While I'm Gone" is my favorite because it takes the ethos of "Stay For a While" and gives it a completely different perspective. While the majority of the record proves Slaughter to be a kind, thoughtful country boy, this song does that with a little attitude.

While Slaughter is often singing about love and affection, he disregards any funny business with Don't Drink My Whiskey. John mentions the fact that he's a performer who travels a lot to make a living.

While his woman may be at home sleeping with the pool boy or the neighbor, all Slaughter wants is for his whiskey to be left alone. He's essentially saying, "make love to my woman, even have a sip of my vodka or beer. But if you touch my whiskey there's going to be some serious issues."

It's damning and I love it.

"That's a little bit of tongue and cheek," John said. "People don't always talk about women cheating."

Slaughter's band can be spotted performing all across the Lone Star State, stretching the borders from McAllen to Lubbock. They'll also do shows outside of Texas - Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Kansas as well.

Still, Slaughter is just an ordinary guy with an extraordinary gift and "Stay for a While" is undoubtedly the wrapping.

Don't miss the Back to School Bash at The Jolly Fox on September 9, where John Slaughter performs and promises "to get it a little western" that night.

To keep up with tour dates visit "Like" his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter @johntslaughter.

Photos by Melissa Webb

Friday, May 13, 2011

'Bridesmaids,' one of the best comedies in years

Bridesmaids, the newest release from comedy juggernaut Apatow Productions, has been alternately described and marketed as The Hangover with girls, a chick flick guys can enjoy and a long-awaited raunchy comedy for women. It might be all of these things, but the reason Bridesmaids is a great comedy isn’t its ties to comic conventions, but its confidence to be itself.

Annie (Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the screenplay with fellow Groundling Annie Mumolo) is falling behind in life. Her dream cake business went under, she lives with a pair of annoying (but hilarious) roommates, she works in a jewelry store where she can’t seem to stop dropping reality bombs on happy couples, and she’s under a mountain of debt. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged, Annie sees it as an opportunity to celebrate something good in her life, but when she meets Lillian’s pushy, super-rich new friend Helen (Rose Byrne), planning the perfect bride experience for her best friend becomes a power struggle.

As Helen steadily gains influence over Lillian, Annie searches for a way to overcome, looking to fellow bridesmaids Megan (Melissa McCarthy), Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and Becca (Ellie Kemper) for help, spending more time with her caricature painting mother (the late Jill Clayburgh) and befriending a good-natured Irish highway patrolman (Chris O’Dowd).

What starts as an unambiguous rivalry comedy pitting Annie against Helen evolves into a kind of soul search picture that feels neither pretentious nor posed. Annie becomes less concerned about overcoming her fellow bridesmaid and more concerned about what’s happening to her and how she can fix it. It’s a welcome dose of true heart to a genre of films often missing an emotional core.

It’s a challenge to present such a touch-feely concept in a comedy setting anyway, but Bridesmaids makes it work. Director Paul Feig (a veteran of TV shows like The Office and Freaks and Geeks, both of which walk a similar line) masterfully balances relentless, often raunchy jokes with moments of genuine humanity. This comedy could have been all about an over-produced wedding or a bachelorette party gone horribly wrong. The fact that it isn’t, but it still manages to be funnier and better than any movie of that kind made in the last decade, makes it all the more charming.

It seems to be a universal truth that Kristen Wiig is funny, but Bridesmaids proves she’s a star. She carries the film, both as actress and writer, and manages to maintain a glowingly beautiful sense of being both a real woman and a really funny woman throughout, even in her character’s moments of absolute despair. Her supporting cast is each equally wonderful in their way, and made even more wonderful by their diversity. The stand-out, though, is McCarthy, who steals every scene she’s in (which won’t surprise any viewers of Gilmore Girls, where she regularly upstaged Lauren Graham).

All these ingredients (well, these and a cameo by a certain 80s pop group that will go unnamed for fear or spoiling it for you) add up to a comedy that’s rare in a world of mass-produced raunch. Unlike so many of the comedy films that have rolled out of the Hollywood machine in the past decade (many of them quite good in their own right), Bridesmaids takes the high road. It manages to pack in a truckload of dirty jokes and various and sundry gags - all of them well-placed and most of them gut-bustingly funny - while still giving a sense that it’s populated with real people, real problems and real love. It manages to fit perfectly into the comedy scene while standing distinctly outside of it in a new, maybe better, category. Bridesmaids is a rare gem, a comedy that made all the right moves and kept its heart in the right place.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'Thor,' an epic in two worlds

Hemsworth only wishes he were working on the railroad.

Thor, the herald to sound the coming of 2011’s summer movie season, is the kind of shamelessly overblown epic that you should have shameless fun watching. It’s a flick that walks a line between science fiction and fantasy, between hero’s journey and God’s burden, and manages to maintain the best of both worlds.

It’s a fitting way to tell the story, because Thor is also set in two worlds. The journey begins as the titular hero (Chris Hemsworth) is exiled from the realm of Asgard (where the Norse Gods reign) by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor foolishly and cockily dealt with the malicious Frost Giants, and his action led to war. He pays the price by being stripped of his godly powers, including his legendary hammer Mjolnir, and cast down into the desert of New Mexico, where his frustration grows as he begins the search for his hammer and way back to the realm of gods.

By chance, foxy stargazer Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her two assistant (Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) happen to be looking up at the sky when Thor falls to Earth. As they get to know him, and his ambition to reclaim what’s his, Jane begins to feel that there might be something else to the universe.

What begins as a kind of comedy of manners as Thor adjust to life in the human world soon becomes a struggle to reclaim not only his powers, but his realm, as Thor begins to learn there’s much more to being a leader than strength. It sound like an overly big, overly corny concept for a blockbuster to tackle, and in a way it is, but Thor and its bombastic, superhero backdrop is the perfect venue to watch a hero rise.

Director Kenneth Branagh, known more for his work with Shakespeare than superheroes, erases almost any doubt that he’s a capable of a big action adventure flick. He has an over-reliance on crooked camera angles to keep things visually interesting, but other than that he keeps every sequence tight, brisk and brimming with visual wonder (but not the kind of visual wonder that merits extra money for 3D; remember that). He also knows exactly how to turn an arrogant, hammer wielding god into a hero among men, and even when the film’s blockbuster sense of humor might get in the way, Branagh (with the help of a story by Thor comics writer J. Michael Straczynski and a screenplay by Ashley Mill, Zack Stentz and Don Payne) never loses the epic threads that run through this story.

Even with Branagh’s measured direction, Thor could have been the kind of film the degenerated into farce were it not for a strong cast to hold it up. Portman and Hemsworth aren’t exactly electric in their chemistry, but they, along with Dennings and Skarsgard, manage to juggle the flick’s many and often rapid-fire jokes with a sense of the gravity of what’s going on around them. Adding to the excellence are Hopkins and English actor Tom Hiddleston, who is a wonderfully cool but still slippery version of Thor’s trickster brother Loki. Thor could be the kind of movie that’s nothing but wise cracks, or it could be the kind of movie that’s filled with melodramatic angst. Thankfully, it’s a movie that contains both wise cracks and melodramatic angst, and another cast might not have made it work.

Thor is not a masterpiece, or a deeply moving piece of fantasy cinema, or an acclaimed attempt to humanize a hero. It’s a big, bold, thrill ride with plenty of laughs, explosions and danger, and it’s all the more admirable because it never pretends to be anything else. It’s a welcome addition to the Marvel Comics cinematic canon, made all the more welcome by a carefully placed titled at the end of the credits: “Thor will return in The Avengers.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

'Game of Thrones' Episode 1: "Winter is Coming"

Sean Bean offers up a prayer to the God of Big-Ass Swords

Game of Thrones might be the most ambitious project HBO has ever undertaken. It’s a sprawling, detailed glimpse into a fantasy world where summers and winters can last for years, where dragons once roamed, and where ancient families still plot and scheme for crowns. Adapted from the bestselling epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and featuring a huge cast, stunning visuals and loads of medieval brutality, Game of Thrones debuts this Sunday with the promise of becoming your new TV addiction.

“Winter is Coming,” the series’ debut episode, opens on a 700-foot-tall wall of ice that guards the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros’ northern border. Three men, members of an ancient order that mans the wall, are venturing out into the wilderness beyond to scout, but what they find is something far more sinister than they ever imagined.

Meanwhile, in the northern country of Winterfell, life goes on for the Stark family, the long-serving lords of the northern portions of Westeros. Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), the patriarch, is preparing for the arrival of his king, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), who will offer him a job that he does not want to take, and set in motion a chain of events that will change the kingdoms forever.

Everyone in the world of  Game of Thrones, from the king’s wife Cersei (Lena Headey), to her brothers Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) to Eddard’s bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington), has their own agenda. And to make matters worse, across the sea the last remnants of an ancient Westeros dynasty, led by Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) and his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) are plotting their vengeance on those that deposed their father years before.

It’s a complex tale, but in the hands of executive producers and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss it’s told almost effortlessly. Everything is carefully and precisely revealed at the right time, and every character is given their own methods, their own obsessions and their own treacherous flaws. It’s an adaptation that manages to remain faithful to Martin’s novels while still creating something new, something just discovered and teeming with fresh energy.

The energy is carried over in the show’s visual style. Pilot director Tim Van Patten (a veteran of HBO shows like The Sopranos) sets the tone with a muted color palette and elegant camerawork that lets the show’s impressive sets and visual effects speak for themselves.

The cast, led by stellar performances by Bean and Dinklage, is what really keeps you coming back to the land of Westeros. Not everyone is famous, but what they lack in name recognition they make up for in genuine, gritty, truly stirring presence, from the lowliest man at arms to the king’s own Master of Spies.

The very idea that anyone was even able to adapt this material – a work in progress of more than 20 years and thousands of pages – to the small screen is a true achievement in itself, but completing something with this level of quality is more than an achievement; it’s a miracle. It may be a fantasy, but Game of Thrones is also one of the most brutally honest show on television, and one of the most brilliant.

Friday, March 18, 2011

'Paul,' the alien you can get high with

Simon Pegg and Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) on a bad trip.

There’s a constant danger that a film like Paul could end up one long inside joke, filled with obscure sci-fi references and nerd shout-outs with no real connection to anyone who isn’t a massive geek. It goes without saying that Paul is a flick by geeks, for geeks, but it also packs enough heart and energy to win over anyone with a taste for the odd, or even just a dirty sense of humor.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the team that brought you Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) star as Graeme and Clive, a pair of English nerds who flew into America for the annual San Diego ComicCon and then opted for an RV tour of America’s most noteworthy UFO-related sites. After a pit-stop at the Little A’Le’Inn (a real place) in Nevada, the pair encounters a car crash on a lonely road. It’s there that they meet Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a little grey alien on the run from a government facility.

After the initial shock of finally meeting an actual alien after years of nerdy speculation, Graeme and Clive chat with Paul, who reveals that his spaceship crashed in Wyoming in the 1940s and he’s been hanging around ever since, informing the government on alien life and even influencing more than a few aspects of American culture (Agent Mulder was his idea). But now he’s used up his intellectual and scientific currency, and the Powers That Be want to keep him quiet. So, with a cold Man in Black (Jason Bateman) and his two hapless subordinates (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) hot on their trail, the threesome set off on a cross-country adventure to get Paul back to his home in the sky. Along the way, they meet a Bible-thumping RV park manager (Kristen Wiig), her crazy father (John Carroll Lynch) and a host of other helpers and obstacles as an adventure full of cursing, car chases and cosmic fates unfolds.

It’s easy to dismiss what’s going on here as a foul-mouthed, grown up version of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. If you said that’s what Paul is, you wouldn’t be wrong, but you would be wrong to dismiss the film because of what it owes to classic alien visitor films. Wrapped up in “Paul” are E.T.Close Encounters of the Third KindAliensThe X-Files and all those fun old flying saucer cheeseball flicks from the 50s. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Pegg and Frost, celebrated nerds in their own right, celebrate even the most clichéd parts of the characters and story they’ve created, because after all, Paul is a love letter to all the “visitors from beyond” flicks of yore, and in that respect it works marvelously.

It also becomes very hard to fault Pegg and Frost for making a film based almost entirely on other films when you take into account how funny Paul is. The pair made their names as in over their heads zombie battlers in Shaun of the Dead, and they do just as well as in over their heads alien companions. It might be a formula, but it’s not worn out yet.

Pegg and Frost know how to do what they do better than anyone, but Paul is their first truly Americanized film, and it's set apart by a bevy of American comic actors joining the act. Bateman, one of the great straight men of modern comedy, delights in the villainy of his character. Hader and Truglio are brilliantly bumbling, and Wiig is her typically effortless self.

What it all comes down to is that there’s nothing to complain about here. Mixed reviews for this film are mystifying. There’s no doubt that a good portion of what’s in Paul is derivative, but it’s also well done, reverent and a flat-out blast to watch.

Matt’s Call: If you’re a sci-fi geek, you’ll love it. But even if you’re not, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Breaking Down the Madness of March

ITZ Sports Correspondent Brandon Scott offers his take as the NCAA Tournament kicks into high gear this week.

I wish everyone would stop telling me how badly the NCAA Tournament is going to suck. About how watered down the talent pool is and the lack of star-power hovering over the brackets.
You know why experts are down-playing the parity and glamour in this year’s tournament? It’s because somewhere along the way, they stopped paying attention.
Just so this piece doesn’t seem so agitated, I’m going to get the star-power discussion out of the way now.
Melvin Johnson III
It started yesterday with UTSA’s Devin Gibson and Melvin Johnson III showing off in the play-in game against Alabama State. Of course it was Johnson who took over the first half with 25 points and cemented his own ESPN highlight. Most college basketball fans had no idea who this 165-pound sophomore was before this morning, because they more than likely paid the game no attention on TruTv. But I watched UTSA take down a more talent Sam Houston State squad in the Southland Conference Tournament and Melvin Johnson III was a dude I knew could play a while ago. Kudos to Alabama State for upping his star-power, though.

There’s a set of stars in every division of the bracket. Here we’ll name one from each and let the debate begin on why I named the wrong guy. This will prove my point of the widely overlooked talent that’s lurking.
East – Jared Sullinger Ohio St. Didn’t overlook Harrison Barnes of UNC or Isaih Thomas from Washington, but Sullinger is a 290 pound load who just turned 19 a week ago and is leading the number one overall team in the tournament. That’s star power if I’ve ever seen such.
Southwest – The Morris Bros. Kansas. And there’s two of them. Markieff Morris is the bigger one, while Marcus Morris is probably the better one. But Kansas goes as far as these twin juniors from the east coast take them. The Morris’ are just as entertaining as Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison in 2003 – just saying.
West – Kemba Walker UConn. In my March Madness piece printed in this month’s magazine, I mentioned Nolan Smith was my pick for Player of the Year. He’s been incredible, but I’m singing a different tune these days. With Kemba Walker’s performance in the Big East Tournament, leading the Huskies to a title victory with five wins in five days averaging better than 25 points per contest, he’s easily the biggest performer on this side of the bracket (possibly the biggest star in the tournament). But if Kyrie Irving is even a shell of himself in his anticipated return to the Duke backcourt, I could be singing yet another tune by the end of the week.
Southeast – Jacob Pullen Kansas St. He’s been sick and Pullen’s teammates say his mom is hanging around babying him. This baby has a mean beard and some serious game. While a nice chunk of his season was disappointing, no question that Pullen plays for the big moment. His magnetism reminds me a lot of Mateen Cleaves with Michigan St in 2000 and Kansas St, under Pullen’s leadership, has a good chance of having the same type of fortune this season.
I consider my bracket to be a safe one, but it’s not all chalk. In the East I have Syracuse taking down North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Others might pick North Carolina as a favorite to upset number one seed Ohio St in the Elite Eight. But that’s just if they get that far. 'Cuse won six straight Big East games before losing to UConn (my pick to win it all) in the conference tournament championship game. I think Syracuse better conditioned for big games, playing in college basketball’s strongest league.
I’ve got Louisville beating Kansas for no real good reason, other than my idea that if anyone’s going to beat them, it’ll be one of the Big East teams. That’s the pick I’m ok with being wrong about.
I don’t have any huge upsets in the West but experts like ESPN’s Pat Forde believe Oakland could really knock off Texas. I’ll beg to differ. After seeing the Longhorns run away with a money game against SHSU, I’ve been convinced on their potential ever since. That’s the popular spoiler pick, but I say Texas will beat Oakland by at least 15 points.
Then in the Southeast division I see #10 Michigan St upsetting #2 Florida in the second round, as well as #6 St. John’s over #3 BYU. These are matches up that are much closer than the seedings let on.
With everything mentioned here as well as everything not, there’s plenty of suspense to gravitate towards. So what are these experts talking about, really?
Ohio State
Notre Dame
St. John’s

*UConn takes down Notre Dame for the national championship in a shootout between two stars – Kemba Walker and Ben Hansborough. Enjoy!
Think you know better than Brandon? Comment with your picks!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New on DVD: 'The Fighter' goes all 10 rounds

"Marky Mark" Wahlberg and Christian "Ginger Jesus" Bale in "The Fighter."

Some films get under your skin before you even know it.

They sneak up on you, make you think that you’re not going to care and then hit you with the truth: you cared all along, it just took a few key developments to make you realize it.

The Fighter, the new film from I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell, is one such film. Much of its runtime is devoted to explorations of poverty, drug abuse and general misery, but it all builds to soaring scenes of hope and triumph, and all those minutes of darkness were well worth the wait.

Based on the true story of a pair of boxer brothers in Massachusetts town in the early 90s, The Fighter of the title is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling boxer trying to break his losing streak while working his day job as a road paver. His trainer, mentor and resident upstager is his brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer still trying to relive his glory days and disappearing for days at a time to hang out in a crack house.

As the film opens, a documentary film crew is following Dicky around, chronicling his boxing career and his efforts to make a comeback even as he tries to train his brother for the big time. What he doesn’t know, what no one in the family knows, is that the documentary being shot is about crack addiction, not boxing.

As Micky struggles to succeed even as his brother’s absence and bad decisions sabotage his career, he also must juggle his domineering mother (Melissa Leo) and his new girlfriend, bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), who is in a fight of her own to get Micky past his family’s hang-ups and into the realm of real boxing glory.
Much of the film, at least the first half, is often incredibly hard to watch. The filmmaking is top notch. Russell packs strong visuals and intense scenes together in a rapid fire cocktail of powerful cinema, but the fact that it is so powerful, so convincing, means a long ride of drug use, family tension, poverty, depression, pain and failure that’s real enough that it almost hurts to look at.

It’s almost a theatrical ordeal, and as a result it might seem unenjoyable. But where Russell and his cast and crew succeed is in portraying the turnaround, the high moments, the crescendos of bright glory. When the inspirational portion of this inspirational true story kicks in, it really kicks in, and the fact that the first two acts were so hard to watch makes it all the more satisfying.

The performances are almost all top notch. Wahlberg gives a solid performance as Micky, and Amy Adams, known for her sweetie romcom fare, shows off her chops in a grittier role. The real champion of the film, though, is Bale, who lost a good deal of weight for the part. It’s not just the fact that he’s skinny, though. It’s the look in his eyes, his nervous energy, his nonstop squirrelly shaking and yammering that make Dicky so convincing, and so tragic. It’s a daring, powerful performance, and he steals every scene.

The Fighter is a film that never lets up, that pummels you first with despair, then with unrelenting hope. It’s a film about struggles, about not just one fighter but a whole town of them. Some of it might be a cliché, and it’ll never be Raging Bull (the best boxing film EVER), but rarely has a film about a working class hero been done so well.

Matt’s Call: Definitely one of the best films of the year, made even better because it’s hard to make an original film about a boxer any more.