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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Leftovers: March 2011

Leftover Albums
Das Racist: Shut Up, Dude
        Sure, this mix tape came out almost a year ago, and doesn't really have much to do with the month of March, but it's been blaring out of my car speakers more often than not of late. It's not like I've never listened to Das Racist; Their follow-up, Sit Down, Man, ranked pretty high on my Best of 2010 list. What I didn't realize, however, is that Shut Up is at least as good as these guys' next effort, if not better. Dueling MC's Kool A.D. and Heems both flow in ways playful, clever and seemingly unstoppable, all over the top of refreshingly minimal beats that reveal their brilliance on repeated listens. Rainbow in the Dark stands as a great example, the boys having far too much flowing on to waste any time on a repetitive hook, synths shifting in the background for one of the greatest driving songs imaginable. No matter how many times I've listened to the two DR discs of 2010, some new and hilarious lyric bubbles up to the surface, causing me to look like a crazy person as I walk around giggling to myself. Other highlights include You Oughta Know and Nutmeg, but just about everything here is more or less essential. And to think that this is the album that contains Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell...

Cloud Nothings: Turning On
        This recommendation comes complete with a semi-embarrassing, hopefully-not-just-boring story. A week or two ago, I attended Toro y Moi show in Portland, and subsequently made my mind to do a bit of research as to what their openers sounded like. It took me all of two listens, and I became hooked on Turning On, a garage-rock album that actually fits its description. Landing somewhere between early and minimal Modest Mouse and the super fuzzed-out sounds that Wavves was existing in before their latest disc, Cloud Nothings might not be the most musically refined or mature band, but they certainly know how to rock out and craft one heck of a catchy song. So, yeah, back to what I'm blushing about: When I finally got a chance to see them play in person, they hardly played any songs that I was familiar with, which resulted in me realizing that I had gotten a hold of some older album of their's (I know, kill me now, right?). Anyways, I've since listened to their newest, self-titled LP, and I don't want to discount it just yet, but so far I'm partial to the rowdy, sloppy, boisterous version of the band found on the first disc. Judge for yourself, just give these guys a try.

The Weeknd: House of Balloons 
        The Weeknd doesn't really sound like the kind of artist that I would listen to, and to be honest, I'm still not completely sure that they are, but I do know this: If you like R&B music, this one is a must. Singer Abel Tesfaye's voice could readily be described as mind-blowing, seemingly unaware of any note too high, or any wail too heartfelt. Underneath his stellar croon lurks beats dark, haunting, and yet surprisingly danceable. Be sure not to burn the album for your Mom; House of Balloons is purely Rated-R, full of sexual imagery and rampant drug use, but the twisted undertones of the music are part of what makes it so immediately singular. If R. Kelly upped and decided that he wanted Burial to do the beats on his next album, this would likely be the outcome, though it's hard to imagine that those two would dream of repurposing two different Beach House tracks for their beats. If you're the type who likes a little creepiness with their baby-making music, you're not going to want to miss this.

Netflix Instant Watch Movie(s) of the Month:
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans
        Those who have never had the extreme pleasure of watching Nicolas Cage go absolutely crazy are really missing out. There are a good number of movies where you could witness it: Wild At Heart, Raising Arizona, and (to some strange degree) Leaving Las Vegas stand out as a few good examples. But perhaps the best incarnation of looney Nic is featured in his performance as Terence McDonagh, the cop-gone-bad at the center of Werner Herzog's Police Drama/Pitch-Black comedy The Bad Lieutenant. A family is brutally slain in their own home, and McDonagh, already nursing a hunch, a limp, and an insatiable dope-nose, sets out to find the killers by any means necessary. There are any number of things that one could say about The Bad Lieutenant, but only a prophet would call it predictable, as Herzog keeps his viewers deeply steeped in both the unknown and the absurd. Knowing just how seriously to take the movie is about impossible, but as the thing gets more and more gleefully bonkers as its runtime continues, such concerns fall by the wayside. Even those that can't get behind the wacky twists and turns of this one, or Nicolas Cage's unmistakably way-over-the-top performance, would have to admit that they've never seen anything quite like The Bad Lieutenant, and for that accomplishment, among others, this one gets my recommendation.

Kicking and Screaming:
        No, not the Will Ferrell (of course not the Will Ferrell one. Throw me a bone here!), and yes, this is actually a good movie. Contrary to popular belief, Writer/Director Noah Baumbach was, in fact, making movies before his 2005 breakthrough The Squid and the Whale. Like that movie, Kicking and Screaming is stuffed to the brim with unlikable characters that do shameful things, but just as with tSatW, their actions and personalities ring true, and speak to insecurities that we all face. Grover (Josh Hamilton) has just watched his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d'Abo) jet off to Prague in the wake of their college graduation, leaving him alone with a handful of his closest guy friends. Obviously, I felt the hankering to re-watch this movie due to the stage of life that I'm in presently, but KaS speaks to the big-picture confusion that we all face, and it does so with humor and empathy to spare. The group of guys speak in the same rapid-fire short-hand that all extremely close buddies tend to gravitate towards, and the witty remarks and references are just about endless. The movie is now up to the ripe old age of sixteen years, which means that it has mid-90's written all over it, but don't most 80's and early 90's movies show their age? This is a clever, insightful, and honest portrait of a period of life that the movies don't often cover, and an early testament to the powers of Baumbach.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Peter Bjorn and John: Gimme Some (Release Date: 3-29-2011)

        To be perfectly honest, I'm getting pretty sick of writing intro after intro about one band after another trying to live up to a past success. In this month alone, I've covered new discs by Lupe Fiasco, The Dodos, The Strokes, and Bibio, all artists who recorded their new album under the weight and shadow of some previous accomplishment. Thank God for next week, which will cover new works from both Panda Bear and TV on the Radio, two artists whose numerous successes have ensured that no single LP or song will ever swallow up their career. The same cannot be said of Peter Bjorn and John, the Brit-Poppers behind 2006's summer smash-hit single Young Folks (cue the whistling). Somehow that catchy single failed to elicit much excitement for the album that contained it, a tough break considering Young Folks was only the tip of the catchy, gorgeous, and fun ice burg that was Writer's Block. Now five years removed from their almost-break-through, an instrumental album and a total dud in 2009's Living Thing passing the intermittent years, the trio returns for another try at stardom.

        If ever an opening number gave one hope that a band might return to form, it's Gimme Some's track uno, Tomorrow Has to Wait. A single guitar note ushers us in before pounding drums and distant chants make it clear that this one is headed for epic territory. The intro doesn't lie, as the chorus opens up and balloons into something enormous. It's the kind of jumbo-sized ear-worm that would get tiring if it was all the album had to offer, but as an opener, THtW shows the lofty and poppy aspirations that these boys are working with, and it looks good on them. It's far and away the grandest and most golden tune on the album, but the sing-a-long fun is far from over.

        Follow-up Dig a Little Deeper could be viewed as a bit of a cheese-fest, but it's hard to be too against something that you simply can't help but sing along with, especially when said tune comes equipped with a killer-fun bongo bridge. Rounding out the first act of Gimme Some is Second Chance, the album's first single and first journey into a darker sort of sound. The song is more pounding than it is bouncy, vocals suddenly stuck in a monotone pitch, giving the whole thing a gloomier, more intense feel. But as anyone who heard Writer's Block knows, these guys are true pop craftsmen, and the more over-cast tint becomes them almost as much as their cheerier tunes. Three tracks deep, Gimme Some is looking like a triumph, even if a slightly modest one in the face of their best material.

        Then comes the middle section, which isn't so much bad as it is seemingly uninspired. Both Eyes and Breaker Breaker are enjoyable, hummable little ditties in their own right, the latter skewing much faster and punkier than we've come to expect from these guys, but neither sticks in your head for long after you've heard them. Perhaps even more so than the club-friendly jams that mainstream radio usually deals in, Peter Bjorn and John trade in a style of music where in your song is only as good as the hours that it bounces around in your listeners' heads afterwards. The aforementioned tracks, as well as May Seem Macabre, are certainly nothing that require the speedy use of the skip button, but none of them create that kind of must-listen-to-this-NOW urgency that good Pop music is all about. To make matters worse, they're followed by a trio of tunes which rank as the disc's bottom three. (Don't Let Them) Cool Off uses voice manipulation to a remarkably bland end, Black Book goes down the same pseudo-Punk Rock alley as Breaker Breaker, but with much less merry-making results, and Down Like Me is just a plain snoozer.

        And then, just as quickly as it fell apart, the three-piece puts it back together for Gimme Some's final two tracks. Lies is zippy and chaotic, all while staying perfectly under control. The song is fiery, rambunctious, and jovial all at once, making it seem like the perfect closer before you get a load of the ticking time bomb that is I Know You Don't Love Me. At 5:38, the tune weighs in nearly a whole minute longer than GS's second lengthiest track, but it's also the only one that really makes you wait for it, building on the wings of a tight, hyper-kinetic weaving of drums and bass. Two minutes pass before the song opens up into chorus chants of its own name, the build-up paying off in spades. Tension isn't really something that PB&J really specialize in, but you wouldn't know it hearing this one, powered through its lengthy mid-section by a guitar solo that is as snarling and fierce as these guys get (which really isn't that snarling or fierce, I guess, but it sounds good). It's quite the irony that I more or less declared these guys dead after an album entitled Living Thing, but Gimme Some puts those fears to rest. It might not be Writer's Block exactly, but it gamely suggests that these guys might some day return to those heights, and on a few occasions, it actually sees them all the way there.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bibio: Mind Bokeh (Release Date: 3-29-2011)

        In just about every profession that I can think of involving any degree of fame, early success isn't necessarily a good thing. Having one's name in the spotlight from the get-go insures that someone will always be watching, so you'd better have more than just beginners' luck. Stephen Wilkinson, better known by his moniker Bibio, must know the feeling. His major label debut, Ambivalence Avenue, was one of the best albums of 2009, full of groovy, retro-tinged jams saddled right along side trippy, chilled-out beats, not to mention the stunning Lovers Carvings. But two years have past now, and so it's time for Wilkinson to strap up and have another go at it, but this time, he'll have an audience no matter what. How's that for a blessing and a curse?

        At first, the differences between Ambivalence Avenue and Mind Bokeh couldn't be more pronounced. Where AA opened with it's title track, a warm and inviting layering of Wilkinson's smooth, fuzzed-out voice, MB opts for something much darker and less inviting in Excuses. The song takes over two minutes to fully form before Wilkinson's voice gets involved, bubbling into existence in a way that reminds of Avey Tare's Down There. It's an intriguing exercise in both darkness and patience for a guy who usually doesn't visit those kinds of places, but only the last minute or so could really be called exciting. While decidedly sunnier than the opener, follow-up track Prententious also floats around in an eerie manner for a minute before the comforting vocals of the chorus arrive, and even then, it's awfully down tempo. On many occasions through out the album, MB almost sounds like Bibio in slow motion.

        But Stephen Wilkinson is no dummy: He knows that he makes killer summer-time jams, and he returns to that strength as early as track three, Anything New, which bounds along on a heavy bass beat and any number of slippery synths. It pairs well with Wake Up!, which calls back to the bedroom electro-pop of some of his best, most emotionally rich songs. And while it's all a great listen, there's an overwhelming feeling in the early goings of Mind Bokeh that dreams of matching Avenue might have proved too lofty. An apt illustration comes in the form of Light Sleep, which is funky, groovy, and fun, but when matched right up against the immediately comparable Jealous Of Roses, it begins to sound like a drag. The emphasis on fun simply seems far less prominent this time around. Even the tracks that could stand right beside Wilkinson's best, like the fiery and fast-paced Take Off Your Shirt, could hardly be described as jubilant.

        Mind Bokeh, like Ambivalence Avenue, only operates on two levels: good and great. While Bibio's new disc spends a considerable amount more time in the former category, it's certainly not without a visit or two to the other. K is For Kelson is, without question, the album's most blissful tune, and likely its best. Bells and triangles dance around in the background of Wilkinson's heavily manipulated voice, aided by breezy guitar and synth parts, and at 3:29, it's one of the only songs on the album that doesn't overstay its welcome. The other songs on the album's back half are much more content to go without vocals than what came before them, and even when one does feature them, as in the case of More Excuses, they often only stick around for half the track. The shift is more or less reflective of the change-up that Ambivalence Avenue also makes at its mid-section, the quality of both second acts more or less foretold by the first. It's too bad that I can't muster up more enthusiasm for Mind Bokeh, which is without a doubt an above average album. I guess that's just the weight of expectations.

Grade: B-

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sucker Punch (Release Date: 3-25-2011)

        Like him or not, Zach Snyder is kind of a big deal. The action director has been called a great many things, but I can't imagine too many have accused him of having no style, even if that style is pretty gaudy. With just four movies under his belt, Snyder's name already carries as heavy of connotations as Judd Apatow or Robert Rodriguez. There's no question that the man's career is heavily influenced by the video game age, and as trivial as that might make him sound, it does put him at the forefront of a some pretty big shifts in the filmic scene. Hate on his tendency to put action and aesthetic over story and acting all you want: He might just be onto something that could stick.

        The trailers and TV spots for his latest flick, Sucker Punch, did just about everything in their power to make the film look exactly like a, "Zack Snyder Movie." Crazy color pallets, slow-motion action, surreal special effects, smokin' hot ladies, and lots and lots of empty bullet shells. It comes as a surprise then that Sucker Punch actually has a pretty intriguing concept at its center. Spitefully thrown into a mental ward by her vengeful father, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) immediately finds herself in a cut-throat world. Her best hope for survival is befriending her fellow inmates, and doing everything possible to stay on the good side of one particularly sinister warden (Oscar Isaac) who prostitutes the girls for his own fortune. Seeking any sort of solace from the nightmare she now calls life, Baby Doll finds that her vivid imagination is transportive enough to distract from everything around her, not to mention giving her an idea of how she and the girls might just be able to escape. With the help of Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), Baby Doll sets out to beat the system, and break out of her hellish existence.

        Stylistically, this one is already old hat for Snyder. The audio of the first fifteen minutes or so is more filled with song lyrics than it is actual dialogue, and one once again gets the feeling that, just as with 300, the man is playing to his strengths with visuals and montages as a means of distracting from his film's writing. It's a good trick, one that makes the aforementioned stretch of time some of the best stuff in the movie, even as it is powered by a string of putrid cover songs, the most offense among them a cover of The Pixies' Where is My Mind? that I refuse to waste my time looking up the artist behind. Though framed and imagined in the same vein of his other efforts, Sucker Punch makes for Snyder's first real use of the color gray, the rainy-day misery of the ward conveyed in dull, muted tones. Even with bad acting (because did you really expect anyone to give a good performance in this one?), the ward scenes prove effective for their commitment to melodrama and a sort of new-age gothic. It's not the kind of stuff that you can take too seriously, but it's overly dramatic and over-the-top in just the right way.

        The film's many actions sequences are also over-the-top, only this time it's in just the wrong way. Appearing more like an excuse than an inspired choice, Baby Doll's imagination is where the film wedges all of its fire-breathing dragons and giant samurai, as she and the gang battle a completely new, unrelated foe each time that she slips into imagination land. It's enough of a stretch to accept that what this super pale, super frail twenty-year-old would have fantasies that involve killing countless things with the help of four other scantly clad ladies, but the sequences simply aren't fun to watch. Their fast-paced sense of wizz-bang action clashes jarringly with the monotone pallet and slow-motion movements of the ward. I found myself squinting through many of these scenes, as though someone had just flipped the lights on after a night of sleep. Even if your eyes can handle these violent change-ups, each of the action set-ups results in more or less the same thing: A mission that has nothing at all to do with anything else in the movie is provided by a ridiculous Scott Glenn, the girls all go out and shoot automatics until your ears hurt, and then something blows up. For a guy who made his name on action, one would have to hope for more.

        I would imagine that these sequences, and their commitment to displaying every last nerdy wet-dream that they can think of (babes, robots, flame-throwers...) are what landed this one such a bad grade from most critics, but the honest truth is that I had fun watching Sucker Punch. Sure, the movie is a mess, and spends extended stretches being almost difficult to watch, but the glamorously emo tone strikes me as Twilight gone right, all of the emotional over-indulgances of the film proving more fun than either grating or affecting. The movie actually has some pretty big ideas in its head, and even if the way that it communicates them often sounds like the ramblings of a fifteen-year-old's diary, its both interesting and heartening to see them try to take it in that direction. Similarly inspired but ill-fated is the movie's deplorable view of men, painting each male as demonic in a way that would prove interesting were the entire film not so obviously courting to the same perversions of the characters it decides to chide. Like I said, it's a mess, but it's a mess with style to spare, and with the exception of its action sequences, a mess that's kinda-sorta unique. I might be damning it with faint praise, but it's really as simple as this: I liked Sucker Punch more than it probably deserved to be liked, and I've got a funny feeling that most people who see it will walk out with the same impression.

Grade: C+

Friday, March 25, 2011

Paul (Release Date: 3-18-2011)

        Lazy has always struck me as a strange word to use in the description of a movie. It takes about a bajillion people to make one (Hollywood productions, anyways), not to mention an amount of time that is usually measured in years, and a budget that is often tabulated in millions. And yet, moments like the dancing/emo scene in Spider-Man 3 still make their way to the big screen, making one wonder who, if anyone, is proof-reading some of these scripts. To be fair, there's an awfully thin line between faking laziness and actually becoming it, and it's a line that the three stars of Paul, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and (especially) Seth Rogen, tend to be able to locate.

        Paul follows the wacky exploits of Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost), a couple of British über nerds who have finally fulfilled a life-long dream of coming to America to witness the glory that is Comic Con. In addition to attending the gathering, the two have planned out a nation-spanning road trip to visit the locations of all of the country's most famous UFO sightings. Mid-jaunt, however, the two run into Paul, a grey-green, bulb-headed little man from outer-space voiced by Rogen. Claiming to a desperate urgency that he refuses to explain, Paul implores Graeme to take him with them, and the three set out on just the type of road-trip you'd expect from a couple of Trekkies and Seth Rogen.

         It's important to note that I say Rogen as opposed to an alien, because neither the movie's screenplay nor the man himself do anything at all to distinguish Paul from the standard Rogen arch-type. It's quite possibly the last stop before Rogen finds himself on the same career plateau as Michael Cera, desperately trying to convince a fan base that he is capable of playing more than just himself. I'm generally a Rogen fan, and the screenplay is loaded with several justifications for the martian's crass actions, but the slew of penis-jokes and joint-smoking feel both overly familiar and jarringly detached from Paul's visual on-screen incarnation. The motion-capture effects are fairly impressive considering the type of movie they're being utilized in, but no amount of technology could make Paul feel like anything other than Rogen's stand-in.

        Modern comedy wise, it's difficult to imagine a more gifted cast. Besides Pegg, Frost, and Rogen, we have on hand Kristen Wiig, Jason Batemen, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio (the creeper from Superbad), and, in more minor roles, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Blythe Danner, and Sigourney Weaver. It's the definition of an embarrassment of wealth, and Director Greg Mottola doesn't seem quite sure what to do with it. In the past, the helms-man has shown an outstanding ability to balance big performances with bit parts (Superbad and Adventureland), but here, he seems swallowed up in all of the comics he's splitting time between. By the movie's end, Pegg and Frost hardly seem like the main characters anymore, and even if this is intentional (the two wrote the script themselves), it doesn't help a movie that already feels kind of off-balance. Mottola also lacks the visual wit of Pegg and Frost's previous director, Edgar Wright, and though he's got a fair amount of subtle charms of his own, its impossible to not pine for distinctive energy and verve of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

        Before I give this one a bad grade, it's important to note that I was likely on the outside of a few inside jokes. As with all Pegg and Frost flicks, this one goes heavy on the reference, and there's a lot to be said for the movie appealing to a less casual Sci-Fi fan than myself. But references are only funny when well-handled, and I don't feel compelled to give this one a leg-up grade-wise just because it's able to name-check about fifty movies that only your one weird friend has seen. With the whole adding up to shockingly less than the sum of the parts, Paul is an affair so mirthless that it won't even let its two CLEARLY gay protagonists just love on each other. That would have been an inspired choice in a movie that, as is, doesn't have one to it's name. With a cast like this one, Paul was never going to be a completely void movie experience, but that's about all that you can say for it.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer (Release Date: 3-18-2011)

        As far as genuine movie stars go, Matthew McConaughey doesn't really have the world's largest fan-base, and it's not hard to see why. Tropic Thunder withstanding, the man has been in one bad movie after another over the last few years, including, but not limited to, The Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past, Fool's Gold, and Failure to Launch. There's no question that the guy likes to cut a paycheck, but the staggering lack of quality in his resume of late makes one question who exactly is paying him. Perhaps recognizing the fact that he hasn't even tried to make a real movie in quite some time, McConaughey side-steps his standard shirtless charmer character for something at least a little bit meatier. But the question remains: Does he still really have what it takes to sit at the grown-ups table acting-wise?

        McConaughey, ever-pouring on the devilish charm, stars as Mick Haller, a brilliant lawyer who's far more concerned with feeding his wallet than preserving the peace. As the movie's title would suggest, Haller spends a good deal of his time riding around in the back of a Lincoln Town Car, arriving at destinations all over town, sometimes even making his deals while seated in the back. Into this lavish life-style enters Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a thirty-two-year-old heir to a swelling piggy bank, and the primary suspect in the savage beating of a Miss Reggie Campo (Margarita Levieva). Haller sets out to prove the innocence of his client, and a great many airport-novel-style twists ensue.

        Director Brad Furman's sophomore effort is not without slickness and style, but his intense focus on constantly switching up the visual pallet of the movie makes the flick feel like the product of seven different film-makers. Hand-held, washed-out, zippy tracking shots, strobed-out and stylized flash backs: It's easy to get the feeling that Furman and his fellow craftsman didn't have faith in the story to be interesting enough in and of itself. Similarly jarring is the sheer amount that we see of the Lincoln. As if the name of the movie weren't off-putting enough, Furman and company make sure that you have the Lincoln logo emblazoned in you mind by the time that this one is over.

        The most problematic aspect of Furman's focus is the fact that it seems to ignore the electric performance at the movie's center. My list of positive experiences with McConaughey had been thus far limited to his few scenes in Dazed and Confused, but the fun that he's having here is enough to erase a life-time of poor career choices (or maybe, like, three movies or so... Let's be real) It's not the kind of performance that wins Oscars, but it's here that McConaughey puts to good use the boundless bad-boy charisma that he's (allegedly) always had. Think of his Haller as Tony Stark with a law degree, a comparison that only gains steam when one thinks of just how far McConaughey could get if he decided to keep his smartest-guy-in-the-room, shit-eating-grin persona around for a while.

        It's too bad, then, that McConaughey seems to be the only actor who brought his A-game. To be frank, I'm one of Phillippe's biggest detractors, so if you like the guy, you might feel differently about his performance here. For my money, it's ample proof that the thespian is just about the most vanhilla actor out there, boring even when handed the movie's second juciest part. Speaking of confirming previously held opinions: Marisa Tomei needs a new agent, stat! The talented actress finds herself once again being completely under-used, her presence in the movie existing only to yet again confirm that, yes, she still does look that good. The screenplay, as penned by John Romano, is chuck-full of eye-roll inducing moments that recall any number of CBS programs, but the story itself is twisty and fun, holding your attention even after it slips off the deep end in the final fifteen minutes. 

        So, here's what we have working against this one: A bum screenplay, rampant product placement, confused aesthetic, a few minor performances, and a burn-out of a finale. Yeah, it sounds like a terrible movie to me too, but it's not, a fact that The Lincoln Lawyer owes a thousand thanks to both McConaughey, and the source novel's page-turning qualities. I don't think I was quite aware of how damaged most of the flick's ingredients were until I had to write it all out, and in some strange way, I suppose that's a testament to how captivating the movie's mystery really is. Neither a must see nor a disaster, The Lincoln Lawyer is a crime drama for people who either really love the genre, or don't care about forking over ten bucks for something unremarkable and fleeting. Here's to hoping that McConaughey finds more roles like this one in the future, and, with any luck, in better movies.

Grade: C

Monday, March 21, 2011

Limitless (Release Date: 3-18-2011)

        Nothing stokes the interest and imagination of American movie-goers so much as super-powers. Sure, we all like the gratuitous explosions and 3-D that come along with them, but there's something to be said for a particular national fixation on being bigger and better, more powerful, and more distinct. Maybe it has something to do with 'The American Dream,' but let's not get into that, shall we? Suffice to say, it's become increasingly difficult to find a unique take on super-human abilities, and that's just what Limitless sets out to be.   

        Bradley Cooper, in his first real starring vehicle, plays Eddie Morra, the down-on-his-luck type that actors always grow out their hair and don't shave in order to play. He's unemployed, unmotivated, and un-loved, as his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) leaves him in the movie's opening moments. But just as things hit rock bottom, Eddie stumbles into NZT, a 'pharmaceutical' that allows its users to access the entirety of their brains. Suddenly having a leg up on the competition, Eddie starts to seize the day in just about every fashion imaginable, but with such boundless abilities come unexpected consequences.

        Limitless is a mash-up of a lot of different things: A cautionary tale, a drug movie, a thriller, and a clear riff on Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void. Sure, the two aren't exactly cut out of the same cloth story-wise, but anyone who would deny that Limitless borrows some of Noé's visuals (especially in the case of the opening credits) is simply being stubborn. It's a clever idea, introducing the movie-going public to feverishly-paced, neon-lit trip-out of Void's visuals without plunging into the movie's NC-17 territory, and while Director Neil Burger doesn't have the chops to craft something as mind-blowing as Noé, you can at least enjoy his movie as you watch it. Think of it as a trip gone right.

        Probably the most surprising thing about Limitless is just how much fun Cooper is to watch. He's still not as likable a screen presence as many of his contemporaries, but neither is Eddie Morra, and Cooper's got a surprisingly firm grip on what exactly makes him tick. It's a strong performance, but more importantly, it proves that Cooper is a guy that you want to spend a couple of hours with, which is honestly something that I didn't know until the movie started.

        There are any number of less flattering things that I could point out about the flick: The screenplay is full of blunt and inhuman dialogue, including some rough moments of Bradley Cooper voice-over, and it makes more than its fair share of odd choices, especially during the maniacal closing moments. I could keep going, but what's far more important than picking apart Limitless bit by bit is recognizing it as an absolute blast to watch. Armed with every lens, technique, and liberty known to man, cinematographer Jo Willems turns the movie into a drugged-out, trance-inducing visual treat, aided by the soundtrack's propulsive techno numbers and a couple of well-placed Black Keys songs.

        Burger is a name to remember. His 2006 effort, The Illusionist, displayed the very same things that Limitless now confirms: Even with a bum screenplay, Burger can make a movie crackle with energy, and he knows a thing or two about filling the screen with beautiful images. Five years later, he's stepped up his game with actors as well, drawing strong performances from Abbie Cornish, Anna Friel, and (for seemingly the first time in years) Robert De Niro. Limitless is the kind of hyper-stylized (kinda-sorta) message movie that I could see early High Schoolers across the nation declaring a masterpiece. It's not, but it sure is a fun ride while you're on it, unpredictable and insane, with enough adrenaline and pizazz to hold your attention from first frame to last.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Strokes: Angles (Release Date: 3-22-2011)

        Where do you go after you've reached the top? It's a question that not many have to answer, seeing as not too many people ever do something that's truly worthy of an A+, and fewer still do it on their first try. It's a question that has haunted The Strokes ever since the release of Is This It? a whole ten years ago. As if you don't already know, the disc was/is about as close to perfect as things really get, ratcheting up both fame and expectations for a band who's senior-most members were the ripe old age of 23 at the time. Up until know, they've only released two subsequent albums: 2003's Room on Fire (largely viewed as being unambitious, and too similar to Is This It?) and 2006's First Impressions of Earth (largely viewed as too experimental and adventerous). The two records perfectly illustrate both the rock and the hard place that the band is stuck between, leaving little wonder as to why these boys would have waited a whole five years to give it another go around.

        The first single from their new disc, Under Cover of Darkness, gave their rabid fan base every reason to think that Angles would be an album by The Strokes as we first knew them, happily burning through catchy rock numbers in some distant garage. That intentional lack of sonic quality that defined Is This It? is apparent from the moment that the tune's bouncy drums and guitars come crashing in. The song serves as another example of the insurmountable odds these guys are up against. Catchy and retro in the vein of their very best, Darkness might sound like a milestone were it played by another band. I, for one, was so busy looking for The Strokes to blow me away , I almost missed the fact that they were doing just that. In case I haven't over-stated it enough, it's one of the very best songs to be released in the young 2011.

        As it turns out, however, Darkness only proved somewhat prophetic of what Angles actually sounds like. While less inclined towards the whole-sale experimentation of Earth, the band is still in the process of staking out new musical territory, something made especially clear by the reggae/80's infused opening minute of first track Machu Pichu. The crunchy guitars that follow thereafter almost make one forget about the new decade that these boys are pulling from, that is until track Three, Two Kinds of Happiness, goes down a similar road. Unlike Machu Pichu, which reveals itself to be a pretty familiar Strokes incarnation, each verse of Happiness sounds like a forgotten Clash track, with vocalist Julian Casablancas' chorus wailings going further into Bono territory than originally seemed possible. Besides both mimicking an era that The Strokes have largely ignored up to this point, the two tracks find commonality in the fact that they both boast of stellar guitar work, dual axe-men Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. using playful verses to play off of explosive choruses. Other fine examples include Taken for a Fool and Life is Simple in the Moonlight.

        For four of the five songs that make up Angles' first half (You're So Right withstanding), it sounds like The Strokes might have another triumph on their hands; sadly, this does not last. Much has been made of the terrible recording session that produced the disc, with various band-members vying for more control, a myriad of differing ideas about what the album should sound like, and the near absence of Casablancas, who was working on his solo debut, Phrazes for the Young. The first half of the album does a good job of disguising this struggle, but Angles' home-stretch puts the studio strife on display. Take tracks seven through nine: Call Me Back is built of little more than a single electric guitar, and Casablancas' ever-stoic voice, a noble experiment that none the less shows how boring the band can be when they stray too far from their formula. Next up is Gratisfaction, a bouncy little number that fails (albeit narrowly) to channel the genuine devil-may-care bliss of their biggest hits. As if purposely trying to throw the listener for a loop, the following Metabolism stands as a dark and snarling tune that's far gloomier than I, for one, care to hear a Strokes song enacted. None of these tracks are bad, per say, but they speak to the immense thematic confusion that the band was dealing with when working on the record.

        It wouldn't make sense for The Strokes to come out with a better album than Is This It?. Their sound isn't one that leaves a whole lot of wiggle room, and in emerging as a fully-realized music outfit on their first go-around, the band didn't really leave themselves many places to go. That being said, Angles is a far, far cry from a failure, and for the first half, it's a success, and a soaring one at that. The Strokes will always be subject to some level of scorn; they were too rapturously received upon initial impact, and have proven too musically limited to silence the haters. But The Strokes were never about reinventing the wheel. These guys have catchy, energetic, smile-inducing, classic rock-and-roll composition in their DNA, and when they stay true to that part of themselves, they're awfully hard to speak ill of. Stop waiting for The Strokes to, 'return to form,': Your inflated expectations alone are enough to ensure that it'll never happen. Just keep an open ear, and an open mind, and there's plenty to love about Angles.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Dodos: No Color (Release Date: 3-15-2011)

        Nothing confounds a critic so much as a favorite. There's no getting around the fact that we all have a few. Some artists just speak to you on a gut level, making them seem better than, in all likelihood, they actually are. No one is immune to the feeling. Everyone, serious critics included, can name off a creator (or creators, for than matter) who simply have their number, and there's not a whole lot of use in denying it. With all of that said, I now set out to impartially judge the newest offering from one of my very favorite bands, The Dodos.

        Visiter, the duo's 2008 release, still strikes me as one of the most criminally over-looked releases of the last several years. Weighing in at fourteen tracks and just narrowly under an hour in length, that album was stuffed to the brim with rampant creativity, and limitless hooks. By comparison, their 2009 effort, Time to Die, feels a bit slight, nine tracks and forty-five minutes long, with many of the group's eccentricities scaled down, though not as absent as many have suggested. Anyone who would call No Color a rebound of sorts probably didn't give Die enough of a chance before shelving it for good, but there's no question that the band's fan base was desiring something a little more weird and wild this time. 

        The album opens up with lead single Black Night, a tune that instantly displays the band's preternatural abilities in the fields of rhythm and melody. As if in direct response to those who were put-off by his reduced importance in Time to Die, percussionist Logan Kroeber takes center-stage as the song begins, pounding away on his drums with furious militance. By comparison, frontman Meric Long's guitar part almost sounds meek, but the way that he playfully fits his lyrics into the song's almost non-existant sonic cracks is a joy to behold. It's all Dodos per usual, instantly and uncontrollably catchy, building and building before stopping right in its tracks, getting to work on follow-up track Going Under before you even know what hit you.

        Going Under, along with the subsequent Good, is both blessed and cursed with one of the band's signature moves: The mid-song transition. Long and Kroeber have always been fans of squeezing multiple sections into one track's runtime, a tendency that gives their music a spontaneous, unpredictable allure, but also makes it difficult to readily distinguish one track from another. Shifting from the verses' gentle gallop, to the swooning romance of the chorus, and finally the thunderous intensity of the song's second half, there's no questioning the fact that Going Under is made out of good parts; just how well those various parts play along together is another discussion entirely. Visiter's fourteen tracks permitted the boys to fit in all of their ideas without ever feeling crammed. I suppose that there are worse things to fall victim to than having an abundance good material, but it does leave a few songs here feeling a bit faceless.

        Since Time to Die, The Dodos have under-gone a few changes. Departed are short-time members Joe Haener and Keaton Snyder, as well as indie super-producer Phil Ek. Newly arriving is tour-mate and vocalist Neko Case, an addition that proves about one-forth as influential one might expect. Her most prominent moments are right in the album's center, serving as one half of the lovely harmonies that carry both Sleep and Don't Try to Hide It. The rest of the disc uses her vocals like most bands use their bassist: An extra little sound only discernible through close listening, and a trained ear. Consider it a lesson learned; having strayed away from what made them successful in the past, Long and Kroeber now know to split the spotlight equally between each other, and not let anyone else effect their sound too drastically. Case is a wonderful component of the songs in which she contributes, largely due to the fact that she's never offered the opportunity to over-power them.

        Simply put, the song-crafting formula that The Dodos have created is a thing of wonder, as it allows both of the band's members that play as though the attention is all on them. Both Long and Kroeber are extraordinary at their respective instruments, a fact readily attested to by their whole discography, and bolstered by the fact that the two play together as though they came from the same womb. How else could Long's speedy string-picking and Kroeber's rat-a-tat drumming on album closer Don't Stop, combine to make a thing of such intricate beauty? Same goes for the half-rock, half-ballad, fully-realized When Will You Go, and the playful shuffle of Hunting Season. With a sound so enveloping and distinct, I can't imagine The Dodos ever releasing a sub-par LP, and this one is no exception. As speedy and addictive as it is studied and gorgeous, No Color is another rock-solid addition to The Dodos' canon, and though it's likely to be saddled with unflattering comparisons (even by me) to the knock-out that is Visiter, only a scrooge could deny that this is some really, really good stuff.

Grade: B+

Monday, March 14, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (Release Date: 3-11-2011)

        Los Angeles has a pretty tough time on the big screen. Whether it be Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, the city that spawns just about every movie career out there is constantly rewarded by being leveled, invaded, and generally dominated by everything that a blood-thirsty director can dream up. With Hollywood pummeling the world with Aliens/Monsters/Disasters on the regular, it seems a bit curious that the destruction is so concentrated between two cities (New York and L.A.). But here we are again, a little less than a year removed from Skyline's irrefutable failure, watching the martians have their way with the city of angles.

         Having finally had it with the wear and tear of Marine life, Staff Sargent Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) has filed the papers, and requested his release. Unfortunately for him, Los Angeles finds itself in trouble on the very day of his retirement, and he is thrown into action to assist in the evacuation of Los Angeles in the face of an impending meteor threat. Within moments of meeting the men with whom he will serve, Nantz and the boys discover that their foe might just be animate, and hostile at that. Confused and frightened expressions on their faces, the boys are flown in via helicopter, and forced to fight an enemy they never could have anticipated.

        The first step in making this sort of widespread disaster movie is figuring out how to distinguish yourself, and Battle: Los Angeles has a pretty interesting solution. Unlike every other Alien Invasion flick known to man, B:LA is a war movie first, skimping on the sightings of other-worldly visitors in favor of intense, on-the-ground action sequences. I won't be the first or the last to compare its line-of-fire visuals and style to Black Hawk Down, confusion and hand-held camera footage running amuck at every opportunity. Director Jonathan Liebesman knows just how create these scenes, about an hour and a half of the movie's two hour runtime being devoted to expertly staged segments of war mania, all believably rendered on the urban streets of Los Angeles.

        That's what the movie does right, and seeing as this accomplishment makes up the vast majority of the film, I feel compelled to give Battle: Los Angeles at least a somewhat favorable grade. What's holding me back from giving it a higher one is... well, everything else. To say that the movie is riddled with cliches would be like calling nachos cheesy. Writer Christopher Bertolini has somehow found a way to fit each and every single war movie touchstone into just one feature-length film. You wanted about seven rousing, mid-battle speeches? You've got 'em. Hankering for a father desperate to save his son (Michael Peña)? This is your flick! Kinda bummed about not seeing anyone enter the line of fire while his wife is pregnant back at home for a little while? Break your dry spell right here! I would suggest a drinking game inspired by every moment that B:LA drums up another cliche, but I'm not really looking to have any alcohol poisoning related deaths on my hands.

        The acting is fine, I guess, not that it really matters when such eye-rolling material is coming out of their mouths. Eckhart proves a serviceable hero, Ne-Yo doesn't embarrass himself in his transition from pop to film star, and Michelle Rodriguez plays the only character she knows, this time with quite a bit more clothing. Battle: Los Angeles plays like a mash-up of any number of movies that you've already seen (Cloverfield, District 9, War of the Worlds) with a a whole lot of Marine Recruiting Commercial thrown in for good measure. As a fan of both the big and the spectacular, I found myself enjoying it while it was on the screen, though a more disposable movie would be hard to find. 

Grade: C+

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rango (Release Date: 3-4-2011)

        I'm sure there was a time when this wasn't the case, but for as long as I can remember, family-oriented entertainment has always strived to appeal to adults and children alike. It's a difficult task, as the two groups are clearly on different mental wave-lengths, and Pixar remains the only American animation studio who knows how to create stories that immediately apply to both demographics. Others are more apt to hand plot, morals, and visuals to kids, while throwing in a joke or two that only their guardians can understand. It's an uneasy mix that often leaves movies feeling a bit off-balance, but it's a problem that Rango knows just how to solve: Make your kid's movie exclusively for adults!

        Johnny Depp stars as the titular chameleon who finds himself marooned in the middle of the Nevada desert. With the help of a sagely armadillo (Alfred Molina), he finds the town of Dirt, a lawless western location populated exclusively by animals who all tout a relentless verbiage that wouldn't be the least out of place in the Coen Brothers' True Grit. The gruff and tough towns-people have a real problem on their hands: Their weekly water supply has come to a halt, and their existing store is dwindling quickly. Seeing an opportunity to finally define himself, the chameleon takes on the name Rango, and swears to bring water back to Dirt, having no idea of the troubles that await him.

        Rango could be described as a lot of things: Meta-Movie, Existentialist Quest, Western Homage, among others. One thing that it absolutely cannot be described as, however, is a kid's movie (Because if there's one thing I know about kid's movies, it's that they don't feature Hunter S. Thompson, even if he is animated). If the frequent use of unfamiliar language and relentless references to movies released decades ago weren't enough, Rango has just enough violence and frightening imagery to do the trick. In the last few years, movies like Coraline and Where the Wild Things Are have prompted people to ask when exactly a kid's movie just ups and stops being what it's called. In Rango, we finally have an answer, and though I can't help but be a bit disappointed in the marketing team for how many faces of youthful bewilderment they just sent into theater parking lots, it sure makes for an interesting viewing experience for all those above five feet in height.

        There are no bones to be made about the fact that Rango is a beautifully animated movie, straddling the line between Motion-Capture and traditional animation to create a visual pallet all to its own. Director Gore Verbinski, who has a knack for helming successful movies for which his name is not remembered (The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy, The Ring, the under-rated The Weather Man) will likely have his credit stolen again here by Depp's voice, but it's not for lack of effort. His ability to create mad-cap energy without needing to floor the gas petal is at work once again, rendering the proceedings with all of the singularity and oddity that one hopes for. His impressive knack for action-scenes also shines through despite the change in mediums, shoot-'em-ups aplenty proving visually compelling, and excitement inducing.

        Depp might still have a little ways to go as far as voice-acting is concerned, but there's no doubt that he's at least trying to create a character other than himself, an effort that most celebrity voice-work can't honestly claim to. He doesn't have the most to work with plot-wise, as Rango is far more interested in its visuals and its citations of cinematic classics (a huge portion of its basic storyline is cribbed from Chinatown, for crying out loud. Has your eight-year-old seen Chinatown?) than it is with molding a compelling tale. This general disinterest with connecting dot A to dot B can lead a viewer's mind to wander on more than one occasion, but when you're staring up at this type of visual candy, not to mention Hans Zimmer's killer Spaghetti Western score, it's hard to be too disappointed. Like most movies that are experimental in nature, Rango is pretty uneven and under-developed, but it's status as a fun watch is nearly unquestionable, and those with a sturdy background in film history will get a kick out of it. Just make sure to call a babysitter before you see it.

Grade: B-