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Friday, April 29, 2011

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Release Date: 5-3-2011)

        In all seriousness, I fully expect a massive overhaul of radio music in the next several years. With internet buzz yielding so many musical treasures, I can't help but think it's only going to become harder to keep good music down, and even more difficult to prop bad music up. Perhaps you think I'm being optimistic, and maybe I am, but consider just how different the broadcasted tunes of the 90's were from present day. They started with hard-hitting, grungy rock, and ended with uninspired, derivative snoozers. When the power-chorders started to lose their luster, the MCs took over, and still sit atop the throne today. But as long as every-other song is an auto-tune-stuffed mess, I can't help but think their number might be coming up soon, especially with indie-music's ever-increasing popularity. Last year, Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire each saw their albums reach number one on the Billboard charts, their fantastic discs realizing the promise of the three albums that the two bands had previously released without quite as much spotlight on them (two for AF, one for VW). This year will see a few bands in similar situations, starting this Tuesday with Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, the follow-up to their now canonical debut, Fleet Foxes, and first bid for real, lasting stardom.

        Despite their seemingly information-age free love of yesteryear imagery and pastural allusions, the band is not the least oblivious to their growing notoriety. While listening to Fleet Foxes was like hearing someone recite a long-forgotten tale, Helplessness Blues, as it's name would suggest, is quite a bit more world-weary. You hear this right out of the gate, as the spring-time channeling guitar strums of Montezuma lead into front-man Robin Pecknold's opening remark, "So now I am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?/Oh, how could I dream of/such a self-less and true love?/Could I wash my hands of/just looking out for me?" Right away we have more of Pecknold than their whole first disc contained, his words forming a mediation between the band's old-timey sounds, and the concerns that the man is presently saddled with. It's quite the tight-rope to walk, but it's one that Pecknold and company know just how to navigate, simultaneously declaring HB as both modern and classic in composition.

        Another thing becomes clear by the end of Montezuma; The band knows that they don't have to go big to impress. Where Fleet Foxes opener Sun It Rises built steadily to a guitar-driven grand finale, Montezuma never spikes in any real way. What might have seemed anti-climactic in less sure hands is lent an air of complete confidence, as if the band is well aware of just how good the song is already, and doesn't feel the need to tamper. Same goes for follow-up Bedouin Dress, another sunny harmonizer (from them? No Way!) which favors a whistle-ready, ear-worm of a fiddle part over any sort of bombastic conclusion. Where most band's consider getting bigger as their ticket to the big time, Helplessness Blues sees Fleet Foxes as meticulous craftsmen, as interested in not wasting as they are in impressing. Need evidence? Just check out Battery Kinzie, a tune whose warm rumble has little to no trouble in drawing out a contented grin on a listener's face, doing so in under three minutes, without any of the second-half heroics of Ragged Wood or Blue Ridge Mountains. It's a more simple musical incarnation of the group, coming to life just as their lyrics and concerns become more complex.

        There was a hint that this was coming way back when the band released the album's first single, the title-track Helplessness Blues. Though the song is presented in two parts, each is composed of some pretty simple stuff, the sturdy strum of the first half giving way to the spacious slow-down of the second. Once again, it's Pecknold's lyrics where the real complication lies, declaring his modern-day disillusionment in the opening stanza, "I was raised up believing/I was somehow unique/Like a snowflake/distinct among snowflakes/unique in each way you can see/And now after some thinking/I'd say I'd rather be/a functioning cog in some great machinery/Serving something beyond me/But I don't, I don't know what that will be/I'll get back to you someday soon/You will see."It's an awfully existential claim coming from a guy who names songs after mountain ranges more often than not, but the truth is that Pecknold is simply growing as a lyricist, able to put more of himself into each new song without ever crossing over into cloying territory. Pair that with his innate understanding of what words and rhymes will sound best when played off of each other ("The borrower's debt is the only regret of my youth," "In my dream, I could hardly contain it/All my life I will wait to attain it"), and you have the most well-written album of the year so far.

        Or maybe just the best album of 2011, period. It's awfully hard to think of anything that has held a candle to it so far, the band's sky-scrapping, four-part harmonies still every bit as elating as they were the first time around, still the most captivating vocalists in today's musical landscape. On first listen or two, one could be disappointed by the lack of any real single-ready, bread-winning track, but when your album literally only has one song that's anything less than great (The Shrine/An Argument, and even that tune has an absolutely stunning mid-section), stand-outs start to feel unnecessary. Instead, we're handed an album featuring many facets of a sound that is now defined: A Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young harkening number (The Plains/Bitter Dancer), a couple stripped-down, lovely ditties (Someone You'd Admire and Blue Spotted Tail), and one breezy, May getaway after another (Lorelai and Grown Ocean, among others). Those looking for the more mythological group presented by Fleet Foxes might be disappointed at first, but a few listens makes clear the album's impossibly high level of quality. It's no mistake that Helplessness Blues is being released just as the summer starts to roll around: It's an incredible outdoor listen, as warm, peaceful and assured as the season itself. So go out and get this album as soon as you can, or your friend who was just bumping Rihanna's newest might just beat you to it. They're going to be big; just watch.

Grade: A

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Meek's Cutoff (Limited Release Date: 4-8-2011)

        I have a long standing opinion that the very worst movie is that which does not entertain. It's an opinion that ruffles a few feathers, mainly because it allows me to rank an occasional complete mess over something that is more polished, but easier to fall asleep to. But entertain is a loaded word, and sometimes more fast-paced products have no where near the intrigue of something more methodical in nature. But where my own philosophy manages to trip even me up is in the case if movies that make a point of displaying boredom and/or suffering (and their effects) by enacting them upon their audience. Over the last several years, i've witnessed no movie better to discuss in this vein than Meek's Cutoff.

        Bruce Greenwood plays the titular Stephen Meek, a guide who has been hired by three married couples to lead an Oregon Trail expedition in 1845. Despite Meek's claims of getting ever-closer to their destination, the group begins to lose faith in their eccentric, big-talking tour guide, and the despair of being lost in a desert wasteland begins to set in on them. Leading the dissention is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), whose steely, stoic exterior thinly veils an ocean of contemplation. She and the other girls have no choice but put their trust in the collection of four men (Will Patton, Paul Dano, Neal Huff, and Greenwood) who hardly involve them in decision making at all. But when a sudden twist occurs in their journey, everyone must decide where their alliances lie.

        If you're the type that decries movies for being too languid in pace, you can literally just stop reading this right now. Meek's Cutoff's pace is glacial at its fastest, as Director Kelly Reichardt and Writer Jonathan Raymond do everything in their power to make you feel the boredom and isolation of the wagon train. With its largely uneventful plot, Meek's is just the kind of artfully-made movie that the less patient will dismiss as being boring, and never consider again. The mind tends to wander during the course of the movie, but in some strange way, that's almost fitting. Even when quiet stretches (and their are many, including a gorgeous opening sequence) send one's thoughts in random directions, the aesthetic of the movie is ever dominant. One can almost feel the dust in their nostrils, or the frustration of never actually knowing your degree of progress. While not exactly a rollicking good time at the flicks, the slow-motion trudge of Meek's Cutoff proves wholly effective in prying a physical reaction from its viewers, which is a pretty damn impressive feat.

        Though the movie is often too focused on its purely observational stance to develop characters with much depth, the actors on hand give performances that stick. The husband and wife chemistry between Patton and Williams is perfectly observed, as is Williams' general sense of stead-fast autonomy and determination. But it's Greenwood who really steals the picture, complete with showy, gravely accent and enormous, mountain-man beard. I understand that facial goes a long way in disguising an actor's identity, but Greenwood here is among the most unrecognizable that I've seen an actor in years, as invisible as Heath Ledger was in The Dark Knight, if not more so. 

        Though working in the industry for many years, this is Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt's first feature film, and it shows about zero percent of the time. Boldly shot in a 1.37:1 frame (a box with rounded corners that only occupies a slight majority of a present day movie screen, a la early films from the 20's-40's), Blauvelt's observation of endless, desolate plains is as beautiful as it is agonizing, and his use of light and the lack there of is nothing short of masterful. The score, written by Jeff Grace, harkens back to the screw-turning numbers of the similarly set There Will Be Blood, and just as in that movie, it's a constant reminder that there's more eeriness afoot than the minimal words of its characters would suggest. Meek's Cutoff is deeply steeped in analogy and philosophy, but to muddy the knowing ambiguity of the film with my own perceptions would be all wrong. What one sees in this tale of the lostness of yesteryear travelers is clearly meant to be up to the individual to decide, the boldest move in a movie full of them. I'm still working through the movie myself, and wouldn't be the least surprised if my final opinion of it turns out to be decidedly different than the one I've arrived at presently. Regardless, Meek's Cutoff is a fascinating watch whose implications will rattle around in your head for weeks to come. That is if you have the patience to take the journey.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Super (Limited Release Date: 4-1-2011)

        For some strange reason, it seems that odd duck, genre specific movies sometimes come out in groups. Back in 2006, the movie world was treated to two magician-centric period dramas within months of one another (The Illusionist and The Prestige). Between 2007 and 2008, there was a string of four (FOUR?!?!) pregnancy-themed comedies (Waitress, Knocked Up, Juno, and Baby Mama). What else was a strange coincidence in 2008? Try two mall cop comedies (Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report). Movies take far too long to make for each of these flicks to just be copying their predecessor. Besides, all similarities between Waitress and Knocked Up, or Paul Blart and Observe and Report, are only on a superficial, surface level. The same could be said for the current string of regular-guy-becomes-a-superhero movies. Depending on how you see it, the initiator of this trend could be Batman Begins, or even its much more popular sequel The Dark Knight. Keeping with the dark natured drama theme, 2009 brought us Watchmen, but what's perhaps more to the point is the collection of comedy-leaning flicks the sub-genre has produced of late. Last year, it was Kick-Ass and the virtually unattended Defendor, and here comes Super, the newest twisted take on what goes on in the mind of a mere mortal who dawns a costume to roams the streets at night.

        In his first starring roll since 2008's mega-flop The Rocker, Rainn Wilson plays Frank D'Arbo, a cook at a local cafe with a lot on his mind. In a pre-credits opening backstory, we learn that D'Arbo has essentially been miserable since birth, abused by family and peers alike for his awkward looks and personality. Despite these faults, D'Arbo has somehow managed to marry the beautiful Sarah (Liv Tyler), a fact that he essentially observes as being his existence's lone redeeming quality. But when she disappears with a beyond-smarmy drug-dealer (Kevin Bacon), Frank decides (through methods that I would never want to spoil) that he must become the costumed crime fighter Crimson Bolt. Dressed in the single ugliest superhero costume ever conceived, and armed with only a pipe-wrench, D'Arbo sets to the streets to warm up for his real bad-guy-busting adventure.

        After ducking out into TV after the poor performance of his hilarious, gross-out alien slug invasion  comedy Slither, James Gunn returns to the feature-film directing chair with a flick that seems intent on upping the ante of everything he's done before it. While Kick-Ass and Watchmen were both rated-R for good reason, their vulgarity pales in comparison to Super, a movie that seems to take pride in the fact that it covers all four inappropriate bases (language, sexuality, violence, and drug use) within its opening few minutes, not one left on the table before the opening credits roll. Some of this hard-hard R stuff really works, the majority of the film's awesomely off-putting moments occurring when Ellen Page enters the movie as Crimson Bolt's side-kick, Boltie. But it's just as often that the movie's explicit nature seems forced and smug, occasionally rubbing the audience's nose in ultra-violence as if to say, 'see, see, this is what violence really looks like.' I get the joke/message, and it's not an in-valuble one; It's just one that I've seen explained in far more graceful and clever fashion in the past, not to mention being tarnished by the tonally confusing comicbook-style word-bubbles that occasionally accompany it.

        While Gunn's screenplay can be kind of spotty here and there, his rapport with actors is in fine form. While Tyler doesn't have much to do besides act extremely drugged out, Bacon's baddie is deliciously over-the-top, all twitchy, mean-spirited, and gold-tooth sporting. As previously alluded, Page is stellar in the movie, used as the cast's lone connection to the ADD, mile-a-minute speakers that arrived a generation after them. And then there's poor Wilson, here giving us a twisted, damaged and ever-compelling maniac, and still being mistaken for The Office's Dwight Schrute. Unfortunately, Super is likely the final, damning proof that Wilson's face and voice will forever be likened with that iconic television character, though the deranged sympathy and disgust that he can pull from the audience at alternating turns is more than worth mention. It's the most inspired I've seen the guy since his famed sitcom's early days, and maybe even better. Super is a movie with some OK ideas, some good laughs, and some great performances. While its unlikely to make a house-hold name of either Gunn or Wilson, it's a worthy addition to a strange, ever-growing sub-genre. Just don't be surprised if you're feeling a bit queasy on your walk out of the theater.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Explosions in the Sky: Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (Release Date: 4-26-2011)

        As long as I've known what the words, 'Post-Rock,' meant while seated together, Explosions in the Sky has been the figurehead of the genre. I'm fully aware that they are neither the first nor the last of their kind, but they were my first real exposure to the kind of long-playing instrumental rock that they and their genre contemporaries trade in, and remain my favorite example (Sorry, Mogwai fans). Their languid song structures and attention to detail have always ensured that each of their build-ups is just as captivating and gorgeous as the eventual climax. Whoever tapped them for the Friday Night Lights movie soundtrack was really on to something; This is cinematic music at its most effecting.

        The Texas four-piece has let up on next to none of their dramatic grandeur on their latest disc, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, as their hearts still rest on their sleeves in often stunning fashion. Human Qualities, for instance, builds on a playful, nostalgic little rumble for over three minutes before its bass-drum led calm-before-the-storm. When the tune finally explodes, it's as cathartic and rapturous as always, crashing symbols and once twinkling guitars suddenly set to fiery bouts of passion. It's not music for those who need instant gratification; All but one of the album's six tracks is over seven minutes long, and tunes like Qualities wait up to 80% of their runtime before really reaching their climax. In other words, it's an Explosions in the Sky album.

        And therein lies the rub: While Take Care will serve as an undeniably good listen for those who like the band and their style of music, it's extraordinarily familiar at every turn. While Explosions has never been a band with a very wide range, past efforts have managed to distinguish themselves in one way or another. Their first proper studio release, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, was a far dirtier version of the sound that they now inhabit, opener Greet Death ripe with the kind of extra-distorted guitar sound that the band now primarily shies away from. Follow-Up The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place stretched out song structures, and focused more closely on beautiful melodies than the chaotic conclusions that they foretold. Finally, their last full-length, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, navigated the distance between the two on its way to being its own unique entity. Even their EP (The Rescue) and their collection of leftovers (How Strange, Innocence, recorded before Those Who Tell the Truth), had a sound world that, while clearly belonging to Explosions in the Sky, could rightfully be called their own. No such claim could be made of Take Care, Take Care, Take Care.

        Opening number Last Known Surroundings is epic and life-affirming, and had I never heard The Birth and the Death of Day, perhaps it would move me as much as the actual notes themselves should. But I have heard that song, and while Surroundings is a good tune in its own right, it lacks the sparkle of new inspiration that its predecessor has in spades. The same could be said for the romantic slow-build of Postcard From 1952, which would sound like quite an accomplishment if I hadn't already heard them do the same thing to astonishing emotional effect in the form of Your Hand in Mind. I understand that it's kind of faint praise, but that's all that I can really give Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. Like the newest releases from the aforementioned Mogwai and even Radiohead, the newest Explosions album is a good record that perfectly exemplifies how hard it is for a band whose been great for a long period of time to continue to shine and surprise. If you've never heard an Explosions album before, get ready to have your socks knocked off. Even if you have, this one is more than worthy of a few spins, it's just kind of hard to get excited about.

Grade: B

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Conspirator (Release Date: 4-15-2011)

        Congratulations! You’ve made it to a point in your career where your name really means something. So... now what? It’s a question that has plagued many an artist in the past, a tendency that shows no signs of slowing. Scorsese=Gangster Movie. Eastwood=Intimate Drama. The list goes on and on. It’s no wonder why people like Robert Redford, who find their names connoting quality and meaning, decide not to make movies quite as often as your average film-maker. Any movie by Robert Redford becomes more than just that; It’s a Robert Redford movie. So after the critical drubbing of his last political-posturing-by-way-of-a-movie Lions for Lambs, the man took what I only can imagine was a well-needed break. But now he’s back with The Conspirator, another flick that makes no buts about earnestly asking an audience to take a hard look at a current issue, and take a stand. In other words, it’s a Robert Redford movie.

        The Conspirator stars James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, whom we first meet as a a soldier in the Northern Army during civil war time. After the battle is over, Aiken returns home to pursue a budding career as a lawyer, his best friend from the war (Justin Long) and his sweetheart (Alexis Bledel) still at his side. But Aiken’s run of good luck reaches its end when President Lincoln is suddenly assassinated, and Aiken’s boss and associate Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) appoints him to the defense of a Ms. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a keeper of a boarding house suspected of contributing to the conspiracy to take Honest Abe’s life. Beyond begrudging at first, Aiken takes the case, but as more is revealed to him, his hard, northern heart begins to soften.

        The average American (myself previously included) knows this much; John Wilks Booth killed Abraham Lincoln, end of story. The Conspirator get points for observing a critical piece of American history that has been largely glossed over by text books and time, but The Conspirator’s aspirations are more far-reaching than a mere history lesson. Much of the movie is focused on just how stacked the deck was against Surratt from the start, the Union’s War Committee assigned to the case rather than a jury, all with an emphasis on delivering expedient justice to a wounded America. If the words, ‘Patriot Act,’ don’t immediately come to mind when you read this, then I would have to imagine that you call the bottom of a rock home, or at the very least haven’t seen the movie in question. The stance that the constitution should be observed regardless of circumstance strikes me as an agreeable one, but after being constantly force-feed political positions for over two hours, it’s kind of tough not to gag. Redford’s heart is, by my estimation, in the right place, but the political messages of The Conspirator have all the subtlety of a Looney Tunes episode.

        The actors don’t fair much better, McAvoy giving a semi-inspired performance that manages to far outshine the rest. Wright is steeped in full-on Virgin Mary symbolism, nearly always hooded, with rosary, and appearing to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. Such an over-the-top character/performance likely has more to do with script and direction than actor, but that doesn’t make her ever-lasting torment any less cartoonish. Long and Bledel are in way over their heads, their lack of accents and olden-time mannerisms completely obliterating any credibility in as far as time and place are concerned. Even Wilkinson, whom I’ve never before seen give a poor performance, only sports an accent in every other scene, which proves both confusing and distracting.

        The art direction is also somewhat wayward, though not as lost as the thespians. Cameras and costumes alternate between attempted realism and striking stylization, never fully failing nor flying in either stance. The Conspirator is the kind of movie that many will see and rave about because it tells an unfamiliar story in a certain political climate. But no matter how much you love this film, The Conspirator loves itself more, its pride-filled grandstanding not once exiting the frame. I suppose you should bare affection towards your own work, but The Conspirator goes a step beyond that: It’s smug, self-satisfied, blunt, and, worst of all, not terribly engaging. Ask me to sign a petition to ensure civil liberty during times of war, and I’m there. Ask me to sit through The Conspirator again... not so much.

Grade: D+

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sidney Lumet: The Best Director You've Never Heard Of

        Eleven days ago, the film world was dealt a devastating blow in the passing of Sidney Lumet. To be sure, the, "Best Director You've Never Heard Of," tag that I'm posting this under is untrue for many people, but when the scope of the man's accomplishment is considered, one would have to think Lumet (pronounced Loo-Met) has every reason to be a house-hold name. One of the first Directors whose work I really gravitated towards when I started getting more seriously interested in movies, the news of Lumet's death has filled me with great sadness, but is also now providing me with an excuse to speak at length about one of my favorite film-makers. I'm no where near as qualified as some, having only seen six of his films, but I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss the pieces that I have witnessed, and also speak a bit about his various accomplishments and importance in the world of cinema. Here we go:

12 Angry Men (1957)
        Though Lumet had been working in television for some time before, 12 Angry Men marks his feature debut as a helms-man, and is widely considered one of the greatest first-movies ever made. Henry Fonda stars as Juror #8, one of the movie's titular 12 who are tasked with deciding whether a young man is guilty of murder, and the lone member who's not wholly convinced of the boy's guilt. Set almost entirely in a deliberation room, 12 Angry Men is an early look at Lumet's mastery of filming in tight spaces, neither his plot nor his visuals ever becoming dull despite never changing locations. The movie could genuinely be described as inspirational, a term that has been re-appropriated in our modern world to mean cheesy, predictable, and often founded on White Guilt. 12 Angry Men is none of these things: It's the simple, stripped down story of one man who believes that everyone deserves a chance, and does everything in his power to ensure that the accused gets one. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, 12 Angry Men would go home empty handed on Oscar night (Losing each award to the similarly sensational The Bridge on the River Kwai), but people took notice then, and still have yet to forget. The film currently sits at #6 on Internet Movie Data Base's Top 250 movies of all-time as voted by users, a whopping twenty two slots ahead of the next highest-rated, English-language movie from the 1950's (Rear Window).

Serpico (1973)
        If you're tired of the one-cop-against-the-world cropping up in every movie, Sidney Lumet's right around the first person you should blame. Serpico is the earliest example of this that I've seen, wherein Al Pacino stars as the movie's namesake, an honest NYC cop who goes under-cover and catches the baddies only to realize that his fellow officers are no less corrupt than the crooks he sets to capturing. Released one year after The Godfather and the same year as Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (the first of his movies to delve into the world of crime and corruption that would eventually make him famous), Serpico sits at the forefront of the 70's fascination with the seedy under-bellies of big cities, not to mention inspiring a spin-off TV show back when that wasn't just common. Pacino earned only his second Oscar nomination for the role, and first in a leading roll, though the film would lose that award, along with its other bid, Best Adapted Screenplay.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
        Returning to the world of tight spaces that made him famous, Dog Day Afternoon again stars Pacino as real-life small-time bank robber Sonny Wortzik. After a hiccup or two disrupts their plans, Sonny and his partner Sal (John Cazale) find themselves surrounded by police officers, and engage in a stand-off that lasts all day, a media frenzy revealing things about the crooks' past all the while. Presently my second favorite Lumet movie, DDA is tense and sweat inducing, but it also boasts of style, humor, and an incredible amount of empathy for its lead characters. The movie would gather six Academy Award nominations, winning just one (Best Original Screenplay), but the way that the movie has stood the test of time says far more than a few 70's voters ever could. Pacino's performance is widely considered to not only be one of his greatest achievements, but also stands as a mainstay on every Best Performances Ever list that you will ever come across (Just try Googling one that doesn't name it, I dare you). The frequency of its appearances on said countdowns is only matched by the likes of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and (most importantly) Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. What's more, writing about the movie provides me with a perfect platform to rattle off my favorite movie statistic of all time: DDA stands as Cazale's fourth feature film appearance, and though he would only get to be in one more before his untimely death at the age of 42, each of the five movies that have his name in the credits received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. How's that for choosing your roles?

Network (1976)
        My favorite work in the Lumet canon, and not to mention one of the best movies from the greatest decade that American Cinema has yet to see, I can say without the least bit of hyperbole that Network is far and away the most prophetic movie I've ever seen. Set in the world of 1970's television, Peter Finch stars as Howard Beale, a long-time anchor man who starts to lose it in his old age. When his un-scriped ramblings about a decaying world garner a huge spike in viewership, power-driven career woman Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) over-halls the whole network in his image, opting for shocking, minimally scripted programming while the other stations stick with standard fare. The reflections of both The Daily Show and Reality TV as a whole are clear to see, as the movie is mind-blowingly perceptive of the impending change in how people would soon prefer their media. The movie would grab an massive ten Oscar nominations, including an astounding five acting nods, including three victories (Finch, Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight for Supporting Actress... and yes, that means it only lost in one acting category). Much like Pacino's Serpico performance, scribe Paddy Chayefsky's script is right at the summit of every Best Screenplays Ever list that the internet can dream up, its pseudo-dystopia clearly inspiring any number of time-and-place critics that came afterwards.

The Verdict (1982)
        This influential courtroom drama stars Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, a hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck lawyer who takes on a negligence case against a hospital who's beyond equip to fight him in court. A character study more so than a morality tale, Lumet transposes his grainy 70's style to a new decade in order to show the motivations and demons behind Galvin's every move. While not the ground-breaker than many of his early works still stand as, The Verdict is supremely well acted, expertly constructed, and gripping and unpredictable to the very end. Newman is so good at playing past his prime that I set to wondering if this had been his last nominated performance. Turns out the guy had three more in him, winning his first acting Oscar only a year after receiving one for lifetime achievement.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead... (2007)
        Yes, you read that right: At the ripe old age of 84, Lumet directed his last movie, exactly fifty years after he helmed his first. But while most directors at that age tend to look for more quiet and/or uplifting stories to tell, BtDKYD is nothing of the sort. Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as a couple of struggling brothers who decide to rob their parents' jewelry store for some extra cash. Things go awry, and their father (Albert Finney) and mutual squeeze (Marisa Tomei) get caught in the crossfire. Chuck-full of violence, swearing, and a slew of age-defying, eye-popping, and just plain super-smokin' nude scenes featuring Tomei, it's about the last think that you'd expect a human in their ninth decade of life to be interested in, but his vitality is all over the thing. As searingly intense as it is morally ambiguous, The Devil is ample proof that Lumet would never let a silly thing like age effect his directorial choices, or the kinetic, electric feeling of his work.

        As I said earlier, I am no where near as qualified to speak on Mr. Lumet as I wish that I was, but the head-spinning prolificness of the man makes it nearly impossible to be a genuine expert. Not counting his television or documentary work, Lumet directed a grand total of forty-three movies during his fifty year career. This absurd level of productivity is said to bring down the overall quality of his filmography, keeping him off the short list of best 70's directors where he so clearly belongs. Stacking Lumet's best movies right next to those of Scorsese, Coppola, and Kubrick reveals a shockingly slight discrepancy, if any at all. Though the only Oscar that Lumet himself ever took home was for Lifetime Achievement, the man guided four performers to statuettes, and more importantly, directed a staggering total of eighteen nominated performances. If you're looking to study up (and obviously, I'd say you should), twelve of his films are available on Netflix instant watch as of this posting, including each film listed above beside 12 Angry Men and Serpico. So next time you're thinking about the film-making greats (or looking for a classic to catch up on), don't forget Lumet. The film world never will.

Scream 4 (Release Date: 4-15-2011)

        In a world riddled with sequel after sequel, Scream 4 actually stands as something slightly unique. Scream 3 was released back in 2000, the gap between the two being far greater than that of most sequels, but not nearly as long as many long-belated forth entries (Indiana Jones, Star Wars, etc.). The unfamiliar gap between the movies sees Scream 4 walking a tight-rope strung up between genuine sequel and reboot. And while most film series struggle through three chapters, let alone four, the horror genre seems to be a bit of an outlier. Four movies might be kind of a lot, but it's nothing compared to seven (Saw), nine (A Nightmare on Elm Street), ten (Halloween), or twelve (Friday the 13th). In other words, Scream 4 deserves its existence; It's an interesting property at an intriguing point in time, and by genre standards, its a far cry from done to death. Now all it needs to do is be good.

        The same eleven years that have transpired in real life since Scream 3 have passed in the lives of Sidney, Dewey, and Gail. The later two (David Arquette and Courteney Cox, respectively) are now happily married, Dewey the Woodsboro Chief-of-Police, Gail the author of a famous series of books about the Ghostface murders. Sidney (Neve Campbell) has become an author as well, and as the movie opens, she is rounding out the promotional tour for her new self-help novel in the small town that started it all. Unfortunately for Sidney, she is the only person in the universe that isn't aware of the fact that her coming to Woodsboro necessitates that some new sicko dawn the mask, and this time is no different. A string of brutal stabbings is set into motion, and it's up to Dewey and Gail to stop the sleigher before he finally gets to Sidney and the unsuspecting high schoolers in the area (Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere, among others).

        Without spoiling too much, Scream 4 begins with an extended sequence that wholly and completely obliterates any notion that the movie doesn't know exactly what it is. The notions of repetition, overkill, torture porn vs. suspense scares, and filmic and/or sequel rules are all put out into the open, no holds barred. The Scream series has always been pretty meta, commenting on exactly what it is smack dab in the middle of its runtime, but the latest entry sees this tendency to new heights that one might not have thought possible. On one hand, this lends it with a particularly accomplished B-movie feel, serving as a steady safe-guard against the rolling of eyes. On the other, it just about eliminates any sense of fear or dread through-out the movie. This is not so much a critic as an observation; the movie doesn't really even try to scare its viewers, which is a shame. The best moments of the original series were all about messing with expectations, hiding wether each new scene was designed to elicit laughs or shouts until the last possible moment. This one functions almost exclusively in the realms of comedy and parody.

        There's real no point in discussing the performances of the original three members of the cast. If you've seen any of the originals, you know exactly how their characters act and react, and nothing at all has changed (and if you haven't seen the originals, you would be wise to avoid Scream 4's avalanche of self-reference). The movie's teens, lambs to the slaughter as always, also give familiar turns, Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin stepping into the kids-who-describe-the-rules-of-horror-movies roles with little effort, Panettiere playing spoiled, horny high schooler with the greatest of ease. When the more dramatic/defining moments come to pass, Roberts flounders more than the rest, but for a movie of its type, Scream 4 boasts of an ensemble found in campy paradise.

        What makes Scream 4 a somewhat difficult movie to review is the fact that, outside of its increased levels of humor and self-awareness, it's a movie that we've all seen already. While many sequels and reboots tend to re-trace the steps of their predecessors, S4 often borders on being a remake of the original, individual scenes and characters directly lifted from one movie to another, the story arch hitting each and every single one of the same beats. The comedic aspects make it seem like a take-down more often than not, and one wonders if there isn't a little bit of frustration behind the film's endless pleas that we understand Scream 4 as a trivial thing, and consequently treat it as such. Trust me, you won't have any trouble obliging. Perhaps more so in the case of this movie than any other that I have reviewed before it, my recommendation all comes down to your desires. If you're pining for another ride on the Scream machine, you won't be disappointed. If you're wavering, I'd save my money.

Grade: C+

Rio (Release Date: 4-15-2011)

        In the beginning, there was Pixar. Releasing Toy Story way back in 1996, the studio giant foresaw a massive shift towards computer animation, with most studios needing a while to catch up. The second collective to properly brand themselves was Dreamworks, a company who crafted a much different type of feature than Pixar, but whose brand was equally recognizable. The two have essentially battled it out for box office superiority ever since, but they would both be wise to look over their shoulder. Having knocked both of their first two features out of the box office park (Despicable Me and Hop), Illumination Entertainment, working with Universal, looks to be a real player. But the true unsung hero is Blue Sky Animation (Fox), whose Ice Age series has been an enormous success world wide, all while Robots and Horton Hears a Who! were no money-making slouches themselves. And here they are again with Rio, the studio's first non-Ice Age movie since the 3D take-over in kid-pics.

        Blu is a nervous, muttering blue macaw voiced by Jesse Eisenberg (go figure!?!). After being captured as a little hatchling by poachers in what is most assuredly the most adorable/heartbreaking animated scene involving a small, tropical bird ever created, Blu ends up in the care of Linda (Leslie Mann). She raises him, and the two become constant companions. This is until bird researcher TĂșlio (Rodrigo Santoro) shows up with some striking news: Blu is the last male of his kind, and if the species is to survive, he and Linda have to go to Rio de Janeiro, where the last known female (Anne Hathaway) is being held. But from the moment that the two first meet, nothing goes as planned, and soon an adventure is afoot in the streets of the city.

        While often sticking to the familiar beats of today's kid movies, Rio does set itself apart by including a few musical numbers, a la 90's Disney. But unlike your average animated musical, all of the tunes have a little bit of Latin rhythm thrown in to spice things up. The movie opens with its most authentic tune, but soon introduces birds voiced by Jamie Foxx and, and it's all only undertones from there. I like the effort to introduce different musical flavors, but it's a bit vexing to watch them so clearly only go half the way with it. What the movie does commit to, however, is its vibrant color scheme, which shies away from over-stylization because it wisely realizes that the forests and streets of Rio de Janeiro are eye-candy enough. I would struggle to refer to the animation particularly inspired, as voices sometimes feel strangely disconnected from their on-screen counter-parts, but the bright hues of the birds and the city make the thing ever-pleasant to behold.

        The voice actors are fine; Eisenberg and Hathaway pretty much do what you would have expected them to do, Jemaine Clement offers a fairly inspired turn, but no one really stands out too much one way or the other. The same could be said for... well... just about everything in Rio. The story is familiar but watchable enough, the tunes don't grate, and the images occasionally earn a smile. It's unoffensive cinema at its most unoffensive, predictable as your order at your favorite restaurant, and for the most part, it passes its hour-and-forty-minutes in a nice, polite manner. But even as Rio must be called something of a modest success, you have to wonder why Blue Sky still isn't trying to set themselves apart after all of these years. If talking-animal, computer-animated kids-pics are your thing, there's no reason to shy away from Rio. You just might not remember it all that well tomorrow morning.

Grade: B-

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hanna (Release Date: 4-8-2011)

        Even way back when when he only picked five movies instead of ten, Oscar has always had a tendency to select one divisive Best Picture nominee per year. I suppose no one movie truly filled in the slot this last year, but The Blind Side and The Reader served as bold, attention-grabbing choices the two years previous, folks wildly disagreeing as to their relevance and quality. Though not on the same level of opposition as either of those movies, the inclusion of Joe Wright's Atonement the year before also caused many to cry foul. While the beauty of the thing (cinematography, score, etc.) is largely undebatable, so is the notion of melodrama that runs through the movie's veins, prompting many to dismiss it as Oscar Bait as opposed to a truly heart-flet film. So goes the wrap on Wright, who's proven fully capable of massaging the eyes and ears, but might have a bit of work cut out for him where the heart is concerned. After his largely missed follow-up The Soloist, Wright returns with his first buzzed-about flick since he guided Atonement to a Best Picture nomination.

        His latest, Hanna, is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) who has lived her entire life alone in an unspecified snowy woodlands with only her father (Eric Bana) for company. Under his tutelage, Hanna has learned to survive in the harsh terrain, hunting, killing, and preparing her meals, accurately firing bullets and arrows with equal aplomb. Having trained her whole life, Hanna declares to her father that she is ready to enter the civilized world, but in order to do this, she'll have to get passed Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a cunning and cruel government agent who harbors a secret to which the titular teen is still oblivious. With the push of a button, an action-packed, globe-trotting string of events is set in motion that will forever determine the fate of the young assassin.

        One thing is for sure from the first shot of Hanna to the very last: Wright has lost absolutely none of his aesthetic touch. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that some of the movie's global aspirations exist only so that Wright and camera man Alwin H. Kuchler can concoct a stunning, varied visual display, but it doesn't matter too much. The entirety of the movie is simply astounding to look at, frozen tundras, blindingly orange deserts, moroccan camp grounds, and german theme parks all rendered in vivid and surreal fashion, utterly transportive in nature. Also like Atonement, who only had the Best Original Score statuette to cling to at the end of Oscar night, Hanna boasts of a high-energy, pulsating, movie-defining score by The Chemical Brothers. Your previous thoughts on the band are unlikely to matter; the music here simply wills you into submission, cranking up the volume and intensity to sublime levels whenever an action scene is set to occur.

        And occur they do. Quite frequently, in fact, and though Hanna could be rightfully accused of being a bit excessive in its sheer number of such scenes, no such debate could be had about their quality. It's funny coming from a guy whose first two features were Pride and Prejudice and the aforementioned Atonement, but Hanna contains any number of fist-fights and shoot-outs that could make the likes of Michael Bay green with envy. Largely shot in single takes by roaming, tracking cameras, the mono-y-mono take-downs featured here are simply the most compelling, engrossingly, and wisely composed since the Bourne movies, a comparison that many have jumped on already. And while the two share a sense of kinetic combat, Hanna strikes me as skewing much closer to any number of over-the-top, stylized, techno-scored European action thrillers. It strays away from the realism of the Paul Greengrass/Matt Damon films and towards the brightly colored mania of something like Run, Lola, Run or The Professional.

        If it's not kind of clear by now, Hanna isn't really a movie that's about its performances, making its handful of great ones that much more to brag about. Blanchett, an actress who's wrongly viewed as being ever-serious, gets her best chance to ham it up since she played the drugged-out version of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, cloaking her villainy in a smooth southern drawl. The supporting cast is also full of riches, Olivia Williams and Jessica Barden portraying a consciously free-spirited mother and her fast-talking, boy-crazy daughter, Tom Hollander contributing a deliciously evil sidekick for Blanchett. Bana is probably the weak link here, but that's more a product of the blandness of his character in the face of a refreshingly female-centric piece than any fault of his. In a completely predictable turn of events, Ronan once again proves herself to be among the best young actors around, up to the physical qualifications of the role at every turn, captivating the audience without ever raising her voice. Many can train their way up to being a solid and credible actor, but far fewer can claim to that mysterious and innate thing they call, 'screen presence.' Ronan has it in heaps.

        Despite the wholly different tone and content of Hanna, Wright is almost assured to be subject to some of the same criticisms that followed Atonement. While the general composition of the movie is readily admirable, its emotional content has once again taken something of a back seat. But don't let the naysayers trick you into missing out on this one: Hanna was the best two hours that I've spent in a movie theater in months, exhilarating and compelling from start to finish. Part action thriller, part fairy-tale retelling, and part coming-of-age story, its remarkable how tightly structured and composed such a mash-up of influences has become. Critics be damned: I liked Wright back in 2006, and I like him now. His movies might not make tears fall the same way as The King's Speech, but they're a hell of a lot more fun to watch, and if Hanna doesn't raise your blood-pressure, you should probably see a doctor.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Arthur (Release Date: 4-8-2011)

        Who is this Russell Brand guy, anyways? It seems like only yesterday I had never heard of the scrawny, over-enunciating, seldom bathed Brit, and already he's something of a household name. But whose choice was that? Unlike other rising stars of comedy in the last few years like Seth Rogen and Zach Galifianakis, Brand doesn't actually appear to have that much of a following stateside, his biggest hits, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and last summer's spin-off Get Him to the Greek, each only just inching past sixty million dollars domestic. Sure, the recent Hop, in which Brand lends his voice to an animated rendition of the Easter Bunny's son, is technically his highest grossing feature, but is that something you really want to brag about? This kind of thing is seen all the time in the music industry, but seldom at the flicks: The big-wigs in some far away office building deciding what we like for us, rather than taking our cues and following suit. The Hollywood machine grinds on, and here he is yet again, starring in the 2011 update of Arthur, whether you wanted it or not.

        Brand occupies the titular role, an heir to a multi-billion dollar company who also happens to be a boy trapped in a man's body. A spend thrift if ever there was one, and a drunkard to top them all, Arthur is without match when it comes to attracting press, and his straight-laced, CEO mother (Geraldine James) has had enough. Fearing for her company, she offers Arthur an ultimatum: marry type-A business lady Susan (Jennifer Garner), or lose his inheritance. Not about to throw away his cash just yet, Arthur agrees, but as he goes through the motions of the wedding preparation, he meets and falls for a kindred spirit, train station tour guide Naomi (Greta Gerwig). The two strike up a not-so-secret relationship, Arthur attempting to diffuse the situation between swigs of vodka and whisky.

        Arthur is the debut feature from TV guy Jason Winer, and for the most part, one can hardly tell. The movie is essentially a romantic comedy, and as such, Winer moves it along at a nice pace, a few bubbly pop-songs and shots of glowing faces proving that he at least knows the motions. He's a subtle but promising craftsman, and though nothing about the movie's production really stands out, it's a smooth product that goes down easy. Of course, it never hurts to have this kind of cast. Besides the players listed above, Arthur also boasts of a warm and empathetic turn by Helen Mirren, and an enjoyably over-the-top Nick Nolte. Add to this Gerwig, an actress well-versed in single-handedly elevating the quality of her movies, who's breezy/sexy/charming/natural dream girl goes a long ways towards justifying some of Arthur's more foolish actions.

        But herein lies the rub: neither Arthur nor the actor behind him are particularly likable (though he is undeniably suited for the role). The movie's namesake is endlessly irresponsible, seeming to only care about himself, his money, and his ability to remain intoxicated. It should not be denied that he has a certain degree of charm, and his chemistry with Gerwig is spot-on, but the rampant abuse of his privileges, whether in the form of maniacal spending habits in the face of a depression, or his blatant abuse of Mirren's energy and patience, make him difficult to cheer on. But this Arthur wasn't ever really aiming to set the word on fire anyways. Flawed as it may be, Arthur still makes for a pleasant enough trip to the movies, enjoyable while you're there, and forgotten the moment you leave, which seems to have been the goal of its creators all along. It might not be the loftiest aspiration, but as far as passing a couple hours is concerned, one could do much worse.

Grade: B-

Monday, April 11, 2011

Your Highness (Release Date: 4-8-2011)

        People love to explain perplexing things in irrational ways. Why else would knocking on wood be such a well-known custom? Is there any real logic in believing that having traded away Babe Ruth way-back-when damned the Red Sox to decades of futility? It's much easier to make up some elaborate excuse for why something golden has gone awry, and people are already doing just that in the case of Natalie Portman's post-oscar slump. In the months since we met the deranged, obsessive and infantile Nina Sayers, Portman's name has been listed above No Strings Attached, a completely mediocre/forgettable/disposable (if not exactly deplorable) rom-com, and The Other Woman, a melodramatic piece that few have heard of, and fewer have seen. Your Highness marks her third attempt to bring something decent to the silver screen since her big break-through, and with disgraced Oscar host James Franco at her side, one has to like her odds.

        Despite being the biggest names above the marquee, neither Portman nor Franco serve as the protagonist. That billing belongs to Danny McBride, who stars as Thadeous, a lay-about, pot smoking brut of a prince in a generic medieval setting. While Thadeous sets his sights on absolutely nothing, his brother Fabious (Franco) roams the countryside, conquering and do-gooding wherever he hears the call. As the movie opens, Fabious has just returned with his newly rescued bride-to-be, the beautiful and completely oblivious Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). But just as the two are to wed, a merciless wizard (Justin Theroux) storms the ceremony and kidnaps Belladonna, prompting Fabious and a reluctant Thadeous to give chase. Along the way, they encounter Portman's standard tough-girl, and the three get their quest on, rauncey-comedy style.

        The ingredients here are sublime: Director David Gordon Green gave his last stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, a loose, improvised feel that really defined the movie. Writers McBride and Ben Best have had their undeniable moments as the primary scribes on TV's Eastbound and Down. The cast is talented, funny, and impossibly kind on the eyes. As it turns out, however, next to nothing in Your Highness is functional at all. Sure, the first ten minutes are able to tickle a funny-bone or two, the mixture of knowingly awful british accents and f-bombs saddled alongside archaic speak proving passable for a short stretch. But that's it: jokes intentionally stupid or limitlessly crass appear to be the only two that McBride and Best were aware of when they wrote the screenplay, the unfathomable laziness of which has Razzie written all over it. As an SNL sketch, this might have been funny before sagging a bit before they wrapped it up. Now just imagine how that expands over an entire feature-length film.

        Here's what's good about Your Highness: Gordon Green and camera man Tim Orr are apt at creating appealing visuals, moments of the crew's journey providing passable eye-candy. Speaking of which, Portman, Franco, and Deschanel are all ten-out-of-ten gorgeous, and looking at their pretty faces can sometimes make one forget just how lousy the product that they're hawking is. But the virtually laugh-less crowded auditorium that I saw this one in said it all. If you were wondering why the ad campaign was so insistent and showing you the shot of Portman in a thong, it's because that second-long moment is, purely objectively, at least seven-times better than anything else that transpires during the movie's runtime. It's understandable wanting to see this one despite its critical abandonment, but if you value the paper in your wallet or the brain cells in your head, I implore to choose a different movie. Even Mars Needs Moms would prove a FAR better choice, and yes, that is speaking from experience. I understand that Your Highness was trying for the so-bad-its-good designation, but in each and every single one of its efforts, it proves a far greater imitator than satirist. A funny thing happens when you try to make a bad movie: You succeed.

Grade: D-

Friday, April 8, 2011

Panda Bear: Tomboy (Release Date: 4-12-2011)

        I don't really know how to put this, but Panda Bear is Kind of a big deal. After over a decade on the scene as Animal Collective's most well known member, PB, aka Noah Lennox, has really seen his career take off in the last few years. While his band has always had a fair amount of buzz swirling around them, their streak of four straight instantly essential discs (Sung Tongs [2004], Feels [2005], Strawberry Jam [2007], and Merriweather Post Pavilion [2009]) has steered them to the top tier of the independent music world. But what really sets Panda Bear apart is the fact the he's also leading a phenomenal solo career, and he's doing it during his band's prime as opposed to afterwards. Person Pitch, his last individual effort, has garnered right around as much fame and affection as any of his full band's efforts, and it was released right in the middle of the four-piece's winning streak (2007). For a guy whose career has seemingly always been fairly experimental, the works of Lennox have become a surprisingly consistent enterprise, each time staking out a slightly new sonic territory without ever ceasing to sound like himself. If you were going to bet on Tomboy as being where his hit streak ended... well, I'd reconsider your options.

        Tomboy kicks off with You Can Count On Me, a modest but glowing little number that calls to memory Person Pitch's closing track, Ponytail. Unlike any other song of his that comes to mind, YCCOM opens with just Lennox's voice, echoing and layered over itself into oblivion. Given his tendency towards odd and interesting sounds and sonics, it's been easy to forget just how golden Lennox's singing is in the past, but no such statement could be made about Tomboy. YCCOM's opening moments turn out to be a mission statement of sorts, as the disc that follows utilizes Lennox's croon in just about every corner of every song, whether as a lead singer or as another element in the ever-swirling mix. The looping, enveloping backing isn't far behind, wrapping around the ears in the same warm way as Person Pitch, but this time constructed out of instruments just as often as samples. It's a tune that sounds endlessly expansive and infinite in the span of just 2:40, yet another ripe bit of foreshadowing for what is to follow.

        The title track is next, hypnotizing and far darker than any other song on the album. Given the three singles and one leaked track that preceded the record, songs one through seven have already met the ears of anyone who avidly followed the lead-up to Tomboy. In the months anticipating the record's release, however, each tune has undergone a good deal of extra production, the result of which is never so obvious or effective as on track two. The song has an almost militant march to it, and while the original version already had no problem working its listener into spaced-out submission, the album version of Tomboy adds another guitar part, as well as a variety of other samples, that bring its thunderous procession to the next level. Slow Motion, another track that pre-dates the album's release by quite a ways, goes a bit heavy on said extra samples near the beginning, but ends up benefitting from the extra production in a similarly engulfing manner.

        There's not much point in doing a track-by-track rundown of Tomboy for a couple of reasons. First of all, the entire eleven track playlist takes place in the same sonic landscape, so trying to find new ways to describe how one simply gets immersed in the thing would be exhausting. Secondly, if I opted to write about every song I harbored a particular affection for, I might end up being here for a while. It's a truly mind-boggling trick that Lennox has pulled here: ensuring that every track fits the exact thematics of the album while somehow ensuring that each stands out as its own special piece of the puzzle. Like many AC discs, picking a favorite tune here is nearly impossible, and I expect everyone who hears it to pick differently, as just about all are ripe for selection. Surfer's Hymn, the chime-driven beach-bum hum is sure to be a favorite option, its heavy sampling of waves crashing against the shore, as paired with Lennox's Brian Wilson-esque swoon, creating a smiling summer escape.

        My two personal favorite so far are probably Last Night At Jetty and Alsation Darn. The former introduces itself with a punching, distant kick drum right before adding a contentedly sublime guitar riff, eventually wrapping that same shimmering voice around them. The latter, on the other hand, is a much more straight-faced affair, a suddenly urgent tune in the middle of Tomboy's blissful trip-out. Every element of the song, from pulse-like beat to heavily layered vocals, sounds stretched and warped, Lennox repeating over and over again his promise that, "I won't let it slide/No, I won't let it slip by." Much like the title track, AD breaks from its tension on a few occasions, but the contrast only makes the darker and/or more serious moments that much more intense. LNAT and AD are followed by Drone and Scheherezade respectively, both functioning as transitional pieces, and while this distinction will likely prevent them from, 'favorite track,' status, they both work wonders for the flow of the album, proving just as entrancing as anything else here.

        Believe it or not, the last three tracks on the disc, Friendship Bracelet, Benfica, and (especially) Afterburner, are also head-spinningly good, but I'd might as well let you discover them for yourself. If one was really looking to find a fault in Tomboy, it's that none of the individual tracks bares the mark of an instant classic like, say, My Girls or Bros, but with consistency like this, there's not much need to look for an individual tune to emerge as leader of the pack. As always, Panda Bear isn't for everyone, and if trippy and/or psychedelic aren't words that you like getting too close to your music, Tomboy probably isn't for you. But my god is it for me, and if you've made an effort to read this whole article, my guess is that it's for you as well. Tomboy is hands down my favorite album from the first three and a half months of 2011, and if that makes me more of a Lennox fanboy than a real critic of any sort, so be it. I'll love what I'll love, thank you very much, and I've got a funny feeling that I'm not going to be alone in my affections.

Grade: A

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Insidious (Release Date: 4-1-2011)

        There's something fundamentally wrong with advertising a movie as being from the makers of Saw and Paranormal Activity. They might be the two true horror-movie titans of the last several years, but the differences between them speak to one of the biggest genre shifts currently taking place in film. For the past several years, makers of fright-flicks have been content to pile on the gore, neglecting classic scary movie beats in favor of piles of body parts. As late in the series as Saw V, the Jigsaw killer could be counted on to pull some real dollars, especially in the world-wide box office. But then came Paranormal Activity, riding a massive wave of buzz, and benefitting from an awfully brilliant marketing strategy. It arrived right around the same time as Saw VI did two Octobers ago, and made nearly four times as much. But thinking of it as a mere passing of the torch is short sighted: There's a fundamental disconnect between the two movies that goes far beyond mere brand names. PA comes from the school of less-is-more, creating fear with the things it doesn't show, and favoring tone and ambience over out-right shock. If we are to believe the implications of Paranormal Activity 2's opening weekend numbers, which rank fifth all-time for October openings, putting it several slots ahead of the Saw saga's best unveiling, people have tired a bit of severed limb,s and have returned to favoring creaking stairs.

        Even James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the Director and Writer (Respectively) behind the first Saw movie, seem to be observing this shift, as is evidenced by their PG-13 rated, largely un-bloodied new film, Insidious. The movie stars Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson as Renai and Josh Lambert, a perfectly average couple and parents of three who have just moved into a new home. While Josh spends long days at work, Renai stays home to practice her music, and take care of the couple's infant. As the days pass, however, she begins to get a funny feeling about the house. A number of puzzling occurrences transpire, prompting Renai to fear for the safety of herself and her children, all while Josh simply can't be bothered to believe in such none-sense.

        If this plot summary sounds familiar... well, it is. The TV spots for the movie give away much more than I just did above, and its a telling fact: The makers know they're coloring inside the lines here, and they don't mind admitting it, instantly likening Insidious to any number of previous horror successes. The movie is even said to be a tribute to director Wan's favorite movie, Poltergeist, and if that allusion escapes you as you watch it, my guess is you don't have eyes. Insidious is also completely unabashed to visit just about every single plot point and twist from the first two PA movies, which were themselves largely the same movie. So when I tell you to expect nothing new from Insidious, what I mean to say is that you will literally not see a single (not one single) thing that you haven't seen before while watching this one.

        But here's the rub; for the slight majority of its runtime, it works like a charm. In the means of full-disclosure, I've been pretty throughly freaked-out by both PA movies, so if you're the type that can call those movies' bluffs, then there might not be much for you here. But if you're like me (i.e. wussy/easily scared) the first hour or so is a haunted house ride to be relished, with none of the gore of the Saw movies. It's ripe with disturbing imagery, directors of photography PA. Credit David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti employing endless and languid tracking shots to build up a sense of dread that's palpable from the moment the movie begins. Many of the scares are predictable, a loud noise or sudden movement coming just when you'd expect, but as with the best horror movies, that doesn't stop you from jumping half way out of your seat. The first hour also benefits from Byrne's being alone in the house, which means maximal scares and minimal dialogue, seemingly always the torn in the side of movies like this. But just when you think this one has played it straight all the way to the bank, the next section of the movie occurs.

        To be sure, there's enough residual fright left over from the first half to make you jump a time or two during the second act, but the movie really falls apart at the seams. It's frustrating to see it come so close to resounding success, but that's before you remember that the second half face-plant is essentially the preferred road of the horror genre. This one strikes me as particularly jarring, throwing away all subtlety for rampant and stupid bouts of over-explaination, increasingly violent and obvious sequences, and a surreal twist at the end that flirts with working before falling in line with the rest of the back half. But there's no need to kick a dead horse: you get the idea. If you like your scares set in the eerie stillness of the domestic scene, and can still be had by a few cheap scares, this one is right up your alley. Just don't expect too much past the hour mark.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Source Code (Release Date: 4-1-2011)

        It might not have been the most high-profile directorial debut of the last few years, but Duncan Jones sure saw an awful lot of love for his freshman feature Moon. While the movie hardly made a blip on the national scene, it has since acquired a dedicated cult following, many blown away by Sam Rockwell's solo performance, and the film's palpable tone. So while Jones' first feature didn't cause his name to be tossed around the same way that, say, Neill Blomkamp's was after District 9, it has since garnered just as much respect and admiration, if not more. The feverish anticipation to see what he would do next ended this week when Source Code arrived in theaters, catapulting its director out of the art house, and into the multiplex.

        Source Code is the story of Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soldier who is going through a bit of an identity crisis. Trapped in a darkened metal pod with only hazy memories of what has happened to him recently, Stevens is instructed, via computer monitor, and by some vaguely official looking officer by the name of Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), that he is to find a bomb on a train. And suddenly, he's there, sitting next to a complete stranger named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who addresses him by a different name, and much familiarity. Flustered and confused, Stevens sets out to find the bomb, only to be blown away in a mere eight minutes, subsequently waking up in that same metal pod, repeating the same sequence over and over again.

        If it isn't painfully clear by the wording of my synopsis, it is my opinion that the less one knows or truly understands about Source Code going in, the better. Much of the movie is a guessing game of sorts, as both the audience and Gyllenhaal attempt to make sense of what's happening to them. Fret not: It's not a particularly confusing movie, at least not until its final moments, and its mysteries make it compulsively watchable as opposed to knotted and confounding. This one is a real page-turner of a flick, engaging for just about every moment that it's on screen, quite the accomplishment when you consider that at least half of the movie is a variation on the same scene. Credit for this goes to a lot of different people, so let's just get the list going.

       It's surprising coming from the guy who went to such painstaking lengths to make his viewers truly feel the loneliness and boredom of his protagonist in Moon, but Source Code is nothing if not fleet of foot. Jones's direction is crisp and fast-moving, ever-remaining brisk enough to paper over an occasional plot-hole or two. The story, rendered in screenplay form by Ben Ripley, makes the most of its intriguing conceit, giving just enough clues to the audience at just the right times. The over-familiarity of the train scenes makes for some comic moments, and credit ought to go to Jones for recognizing that fact, and running with it. Then there's Gyllenhaal, who seems to become more effortlessly charismatic with each movie. To be honest, I'm not even sure where to rank him on a scale of modern actors, but in terms of screen heroism that's easy and fun to follow and root for, he's just about unbeatable.

        Good as it may be, Source Code is not without faults: Monaghan doesn't have a whole lot to do besides look perpetually confused by Gyllenhaal's actions, and in the role of the mad scientist, Jeffrey Wright is all kinds of over-the-top. As alluded to earlier, the flick also has a real dud of an ending, throwing away some good will at the last possible second. To be fair to the movie, one has to pick up a pretty good running speed to suffer such a face-plant, and Source Code is a sprinter in every sense of the word. Occasional ruminations on identity and technology come to the surface, but for the most part, this one is pure fluff, but just about the best of its kind. The clear winner of Spring 2011's Philip K. Dick-ish adaptation showdown (The Adjustment Bureau serving as its fallen opponent), Source Code has enough adrenaline, dark comedy, momentum, and mystery to transport its audience far away from their darkened cinema seats, and the last time I checked, that's exactly what popcorn film-making was designed to do.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light (Release Date: 4-12-2011)

        Being a great artist has its advantages. Don't roll your eyes; it's not just fame and fortune that we're talking about here. Rather than having to endlessly hone one's craft in the hopes of one day being noticed, great artists are allowed, encouraged even, to test the boundaries of their talents, pushing out past what we have come to expect from them. The esteem of greatness has also allowed an artist or two to get away with choices that would have doomed lesser creators in the eyes of a mass audience. Let's illustrate: If you heard the line "Now our lives are changing fast/Hope that something pure can last," on the newest Good Charlotte album, it might just trigger a gag reflex, but instead, the rhyme contributes (in poignant and glorious fashion) to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, the Grammy-Winning Album of the Year. Some artists just have, "it," an invaluable commodity that can turn the cheesy into the earnest, and the cloying into the pure by virtue of simply being a superior model. In case I haven't spelled it out enough already, TV on the Radio have, "it," and they have it in spades.

        The band's newest album, Nine Types of Light, puts this form of good will up to the test repeatedly, coming out unscathed just about every time. The opening tune, Second Song, is a perfect example, beginning with Tunde Adebimpe's seemingly off-center voice, and concluding with enough exuberant trumpet blowing to make the new Lady Gaga single seem stoic by comparison. It's a tune that, like much of the band's catalogue, has every reason to fail, but instead passes with flying colors, its disco-skewing celebration just about impossible to refuse. As if sensing what their listeners expect and throwing a curve ball just for the fun of it, Keep Your Heart actually decides to take it down a notch, at times flirting with country-music territory. It's not one of the disc's better numbers, but its placement upfront foreshadows the many detours and surprises found over the next forty minutes of music.

        On the whole, NToL's first half is decidedly slower and more romantic than its second, the fury and fun of No Future Shock serving as the only real exception to this rule. You rides on the wings of an impossibly catchy guitar riff, but also manages to move away from it without hardly missing a beat, Adebimpe's oft-used falsetto soaring through the lush instrumentation of the song's chorus. Killer Crane is a love ballad in every sense of the word, slowly coming to life with the help of simple piano chords, and delicate guitar strumming. It doesn't quite earn its six-plus-minute runtime, but hearing the banjo-fueled sections that first pop out a bit before the midway point is like seeing the sun come out after a day of rain. It's a great example of NToL's determination to add instruments unfamiliar to the TV on the Radio discography, and one of the record's most beautiful moments.

        The aforementioned lighter and more lovey-dovey half of the album concludes with Will Do, Nine Types of Light's first single and most emblematic track, first constructing a tense but beautiful ambience out of xylophone notes and a simple, pounding drum pattern. Always aiming to surprise, TotR almost immediately turns the darkened sky of the song's first few seconds into yet another completely earnest love song, but this one is special. The opening line goes, "It might be impractical to seek out a new romance/We won't know that actual if we never take the chance," a rhyme so simple and over-earnest that I honestly believe I could have written it when I was fourteen. But Adebimpe's lyrics have never been about getting nit-picky. His words work because he truly means them, and Will Do might just be the greatest testament of this to date. Axe-Man Kyp Malone has a little to do with it too, his subtle, stellar guitar part really pulling the song together, especially at its chorus. Like all good love tunes, Will Do goes out with a bang, violins humming amorously behind Adebimpe's endless assertion to his love that, "Anytime will do/No choice of words will break me from this rule." As good as NToL is, Will Do towers above the rest of the album, and will likely stand as one of 2011's most generous offerings to the ears.

        Once again seeking to capitalize of tonal juxtaposition, Will Do is followed by New Cannonball Run, a groovy little ditty with playful, skittering percussion. It's an ironic testament to the album's accomplished nature that Cannonball is a pretty forgettable track, sandwiched between the spit-fire pulse of Repetition and that other song that I kind of like. As if completely forgetting who they were a mere two songs ago, the conclusion of Repetition almost flies off the handle, the instrumental chaos ramping up to the point of explosion before scaling it down and sticking the landing. Follow-up Forgotten is no less tense, though it operates at a fraction of the speed. If you can find a more epic sounding, whistling-centric bridge in a song than this one... well, you won't, so I'll just leave that offer blank.

        Album closer Caffeinated Consciousness also pounds away with all of its might, but for once actually ends up on the wrong side of the, "almost tacky," line. No matter: By then, this one already has its victory all wrapped up. What perhaps stands as NToL's most out-standing accomplishment is that it confirms the band's new(ish) sound and nearly ensures more sensational offerings in years to come. TV on the Radio stands as one of the few bands able to dumb down their experimentalism without losing any steam, the icy, distant (albeit completely brilliant) band behind Return to Cookie Mountain no where to be found here. That was a band that you had to get used to. Nine Types of Light, like their previous album Dear Science, is for everyone, the chameleonic qualities of Adebimpe's voice and sonic elasticity of his band inviting everyone to the party. You're going to want to RSVP to this one.

Grade: A-