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Monday, May 30, 2011

Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys (Release Date: 5-31-2011)

        Most bands, indie bands especially, don't have a shelf life of Thirteen years and Seven albums. By that time, side projects, reduced ambition, and the ever-changing music scene have done away with just about every group. Who could have guessed that Death Cab for Cutie would be the last man standing? Musician after musician saw their career rust with time, and yet Ben Gibbard and the boys are still here, and they're still just as polarizing a force as always. On one hand, only a real snob wouldn't admit that the band has at least a dozen real winning tunes, but then again, only the oblivious have resisted the temptation to roll their eyes at Gibbard's angsty/sad-sack delivery and ever wobbling voice. Despite having been here all along, Death Cab is one of those rare bands who seems to have something to prove on each new record that they make, and Codes and Keys is no exception.

        The band's first single off of the album, You Are a Tourist, seemed to boldly point in a new direction. Between the echoing vocals, upbeat pacing, and playful, whistle-ready guitar part, the band hadn't sounded so sunny and catchy since Sound of Settling, but that song was only a morsel. Tourist is a more expensive number, bringing in new instruments and turning up the heat on the backside of the song's nearly Five minute runtime. It was a sign of good things to come, and if album opener Home is a Fire doesn't quite live up to the smile-cracking, stuck-in-your-head pop mastery of Tourist, it nonetheless shows a group interested in expanding their boundaries. Once again set at a speedy clip, Fire is a mellow tune that rushes through itself, seemingly intended more as an introduction to the album's sonic world than a real attention-grabber. In the song, we hear the subtle changes that will be reflected all through-out Codes and Keys: The suddenly caffinated tempo, Gibbard's new-found willingness the alter his voice, and a light sprinkling of electronic sounds.

        These changes prove both evident and inspired time and time again, Some Boys cashing in on all of them, turning your standard, 'boys-are-stupid-and-insensative-accept-for-me,' lyrics into something really catchy and fun. As with the best songs in the Death Cab catalogue, Boys is a builder, starting only with Gibbard's voice, skittering symbol taps, and a throbbing bass, evolving into a swirling, multi-colored break-down in just over Three minutes. Follow-up Doors Unlocked and Open is a bigger stretch still: The song builds on a bassy/badass guitar and drums foot-race, neglecting to even invite Gibbard to the party until a Minute and a half has passed. Even when he arrives, his voice is auto-tuned into something nearly indecipherable, the mysterious, ghostly quality of it matching perfectly with the subtle but spit-fire instrumentation. The song never really comes to climax, but it doesn't need to: It's a zippy and dirty tune with moments that wouldn't be wholly out of place on an LCD Soundsystem disc. Death Cab looks good in their new clothes.

        As good as it is at times, Codes and Keys isn't quite a song-by-song triumph. The second half of the album sees them reverting to many of their more familiar, less exciting attributes. Underneath the Sycamore is just the kind of song that gives Death Cab detractors their gas: Overly-emotional for no apparent reason, predictable at every turn, and with Gibbard's voice and words precious at every moment. It's surely the album's lowest point, but to call the Six minute plus, black-tears instrumental number Unobstructed Views a whole lot more than passable might be stretching it. Same goes for both Monday Morning and Portable Television, which are in the spirit of Codes and Keys other bold, game-changing tracks, but somehow lack their fire and ingenuity. Even still, I only count one song on an Eleven track disc that's anywhere near below average. This time out, even when they sound familiar, as on the violin-led swooner of a title track Codes and Keys, they manage to come off as inspired.

        It takes all the way up to the penultimate track for You Are a Tourist to be challenged for the mantle of, 'Codes and Key's best song,' but there's no mistaking a rousing finale like St. Peter's Cathedral when you hear it. After a whole record of hearing Gibbard's over-earnestness being wisely kept in check through the use of auto-tune and other machines, hearing his natural croon, only one repeating electronic sound as a backing, is suddenly as affecting as it was when we were all first introduced to it. But it's not alone for long, and soon Gibbard's role is reduced to waywardly repeating, "There's nothing passed this," over and over again as the tune's electro-pulse picks up, gaining speed and charging straight into a surprisingly gritty (if still not all that gritty) electric guitar finish. Having already shown off their pyrotechnics, the band scales back for its final ditty, Stay Young, Go Dancing, the shortest and most light-hearted number on the disc, full of ridiculously gushing sentiment and lyrics designed exclusively to pry the, 'aww,' out of their listeners.

        But like almost the entirely of Codes and Keys, it works because it's delivered by a band in the most advanced stage of pop music craft, one with enough vitality and energy, after all these years, to introduce new sounds and textures to their music, all while paying attention to album flow and pristine production. I never thought I'd forgive Gibbard for taking Zooey away from me, but here I am, singing the praises of him and his band once again. Codes and Keys is a Death Cab for Cutie album, let there be no doubt, but it's also a deliberate and clearly conscious effort to focus in on their better attributes, all while minimizing their less flattering ones. Frankly, for a band that has been both lauded and trashed as much as these guys have over the years, it's a pretty inspiring effort. I didn't expect to be saying this any more than you anticipated reading it, but from where I sit, Codes and Keys is one of the best albums of the year, and you don't even need to be crying one single tear in order to think so.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Hangover Part II (Release Date: 5-26-2011)

        The Hangover Part II was destined for a critical drubbing from the start. Incase you're not the type to keep up with what critics are saying, the Wolfpack's newest adventure in drunken debauchery has been met with some less-than-stellar reviews. And while many writers have bemoaned it for being less laugh-out-loud hilarious than the first film, that's no where near their primary complaint. I've read it described as a number of things: A carbon copy, more of a remake than a sequel, the most profitable game of mad-libs ever played, and so on. Point is, it's an awful lot like the first one.

        The fact that The Hangover Part II shares identical DNA with The Hangover is... well... a fact. We once again open with a credit-inclusive montage of our eventual location (Bangkok), similarly set to some dreary tune. This time around, it's Stu (Ed Helms) who's getting married, and we see him interact with his besties Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) in real-world settings before being reintroduced to Alan (Zach Galifianakis), infantile, insane, and still living under his parents' roof. Then the boys are off to Thailand, and despite Stu's protests, the Four of them, with Stu's brother-in-law-to-be, head to the beach for just one beer (just one beer!) a couple nights before the big ceremony. But one beer isn't really how the Wolfpack rolls, and we once again rejoin them in a crumby, trashed hotel, sans both their memory of the previous night, and Stu's impending family. Let the most absurd and crude detective game ever conceived RESUME!!!

        One thing that can easily and immediately be said about The Hangover Part II is that it won't be recruiting any new fans. The humor and tone of the first one has been carefully transplanted into the new installment, albeit with a slightly darker tint. If you were charmed by the cast the first time, Cooper's wannabe hot-shot badass, Helm's endearing straight-man, and Galifianakis' broad and twisted gag, they play along just as nicely here. Director Todd Phillips retains his status as the mainstream comedy helmsman most interested in aesthetics, his Bangkok grimy and teeming with colors and life. What's better, he's still got a firm grasp on the pace of the thing, letting his leads dominate the funny instead of drowning them in background music and minor characters.

        But no matter how much praise one could throw at the thing, The Hangover Part II has an undeniably, 'been-there, done-that,' feel to it. I for one didn't really need them to reinvent the wheel on a Hangover sequel (and also think that the Carbon-Copy tag is kind of an overstatement), but the sameness of Part II takes away from the, 'event-movie,' feeling that we were all hoping for. Rather than a product that only comes around every couple years, needing to be cherished each time out, the movie feels like yet another episode of a show that you know and love, and that's saying something considering it's only the series' first sequel. But know and love are the opportune words here, and if you were hoping for another sordid escapade, and don't mind feeling a little deja vú, The Hangover Part II ain't a half bad night at the flicks.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Morning Jacket: Circuital (Release Date: 5-31-2011)

        After Four straight stellar CDs, each one better than the last, something went horribly awry in the My Morning Jacket camp. Way, way back in Summer '08, after weeks of anticipation and listening to It Still Moves and Z on endless repeat, I finally got my mitts on Evil Urges, and it was literally one of the most deflating musical experiences of my life. Sure, the band still took risks on the level of Z, but said risks were generally ill-advised (Highly Suspicious), and balancing them out was one snoozer of a predicable Alt-Country song after another (I'm Amazed, Sec Walkin, and so on). It was enough to make you wonder if these guys had lost their edge for good, a question that has remained unanswered up until now, all the pressure in the world on Circuital to prove whether Evil Urges was a mis-step or a turning of the tides.

        If Circuital's opening number is to be believed, it's actually a little bit of both. Riding a darkly tinted keyboard part on top of a slow building, down tempo grind, Victory Dance shows the risk-ready side of the band to be alive and well. Too bad the song isn't... well... very good. Like the openers on the newest discs from Yeasayer and Bright Eyes, it's a tune that goes a ways to express the intentions of the album that it opens, but it's not really a song that you would actively chose to listen to. Like turning on a light switch, the follow-up (and first single off of the album (and title track)) Circuital is a much sunnier track, despite the steady, eerie rumble that introduces the tune. By the time Two minutes have passed, the tune is all Summer, a blissful acoustic guitar serving as lead instrument, Circuital adding in and taking out parts as its Seven minutes float along on the same basic melody. It's a nice song, but it's also a nice song, great for happy-times background music, but no where near as ear-catching or hungry as previous MMJ extended tracks like Run Thru or Dondante. What's worse: It might be the best song on the album.

        The Day is Coming is pretty good, and so is the gentle ballad Wonderful (The Way I Feel), but pretty good seems to be the height of the band's ambitions this time out. Where Evil Urges saw the band face-plant, Circuital simply feels forgettable, not a musical crime by any means, but a difficult disc to celebrate. I found myself completely unable to keep track of song names while listening, and found that I often had other songs stuck in my head immediately after listening. Not once does the ass-kicking, Four-hour-long-show-playing band that we've all come to know and love appear. In their place is a group more than apt at making 3-4 minute ditties that ebb and flow exactly as you expect them to, a band that has swapped out lyrics like, "And all that ever mattered/Will someday turn back to batter/Like a Joke," for ones like, "I'm goin' where the living is easy/And the people are kind/A new state of mind."

        If that doesn't speak to some reduced ambitions, I don't know what does. Those hoping for even one new killer MMJ electric guitar solo would be wise to curb their ambitions. With Two albums worth of evidence, it appears that My Morning Jacket's days of being one of the best bands out there have come to a close. It's a pretty crushing blow, a pain that the passable Circuital serves as little balm for. I'll always relish my old CDs of theirs, but I can't help but think that I'll be all done listening to Circuital in Five, Four, Three, Two, One...

Grade: C-

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Release Date: 5-20-2011)

        Three entries. Over 2.5 billion dollars worldwide. Millions of devoted fans. One good movie. It's a strange thing, the repeated, jaw-dropping success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Sure, it's strange that it's based on a theme park ride, and it fits in a sea-faring linage of movies that was more popular a good many decades ago, but that's not all. What catches my eye most about the continuing success of Captain Jack and his mates is the fact that the average movie goer doesn't even really like any of the films besides the first one. And yet here he is once more, trying yet again to rekindle the ramshackle mania and fun of Curse of the Black Pearl.

        As was the case when we last saw him, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is on a quest to drink the water of the fountain of youth. While looking for shipmates, he runs into Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a feisty, foxy piratess with whom Jack shares some romantic history. The Two join forces, but soon find themselves aboard the ship of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), the one pirate who all pirates fear. But the Three are not alone in their quest: The Spanish already have a healthy head-start, and the ever-tricky Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), now under the safety of the British Empire, is on the hunt as well.

        It's funny that, after the Two previous Pirates sequels were bemoaned for their abundance of characters and subplots, screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio remain steadfast in their belief that more is more. I could explain, but let's exemplify. The process of gaining eternal life from Fountain of Youth goes like this: a) Two specific Silver Goblets must be found, b) a teardrop from a mermaid must be acquired, c) both goblets must be filled with water from the Fountain of Youth, d) the tear drop is placed in one goblet, which is to be consumed by the one gaining eternal life, while the other is drank by someone giving up their remaining years to the other goblet-drinker. Got that? Alright, now it's time to keep track of about Ten important characters, always spread around at no fewer than Three separate locations until the movie's conclusion. To the movie's credit, it's not too terribly hard to follow, but it's also undeniably over-stuffed, spending much of its sizable runtime (Two Hours and Sixteen Minutes) on characters and situations that garner little interest.

        Then there's Depp, whose Jack Sparrow will never be anything less than fun to hang out with, but whose character is starting to feel a bit overly familiar. He's supported by a solid cast, Cruz gamely filling in for Kiera Knightly in the eye-candy spot, Sam Claflin occupying Orlando Bloom's romantic lead, albeit in a greatly (and mercifully) reduced role, and Rush doing more of the same. The injection of new director Rob Marshall (the Three previous films were all directed by Gore Verbinski) does next to nothing to shake things up, unless you count the glaring worsening of the action sequences. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is exactly what you thought it would be: Certainly no more, but also no less. It's passable entertainment, bolstered by Depp's charisma and relish for the role, and hindered by excessive sub-plots and considerable length. If I could describe it in one word, it would be, "eh," and... yeah... that's about it.

Grade: C

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bridesmaids (Release Date: 5-13-2011)

        Quick: Name the Five funniest movies you've ever seen.

        Alright, got 'em? OK, now how many of those movies star women? How many even have woman in a central, comedic role? How often is that women Jane Lynch? Now, before I start losing people by being labeling myself a sexist pig, I ought to clarify that this doesn't make women not funny, not by a long shot. The fact that women have gotten a rough shake as far as funny flicks has more to do with (in my opinion) an industry that is dominated by men, and (much more importantly) the fact that there aren't enough women out their writing comedies. As if it isn't difficult enough to navigate the laughing landscape, women, more often than not, have to do it with a voice that simply doesn't sound like them. Thank god for Kristen Wiig, the long time Saturday Night Live standout who serves as both scribe and star in the new movie Bridesmaids, all in hopes of righting the ship of female funnies.

        Annie (Wiig) is going through a rough patch. She lives in a dinky apartment with Two of the world's strangest roommates, has a love-life that begins and ends with a bummer of a bed fellow (John Hamm) who's not the least bit interested in commitment, and she just watched the bakery that she opened up, her dream job, go down due to money problems. Into such a harsh climate enters the news that Annie's longtime best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) has just gotten engaged. In addition to planning the pre-wedding festivities, Annie is also thrust into Lillian's social circle, which includes a variety of characters, but none so offensive to the bride's bestie than Helen (Rose Byrne), a beautiful and nauseatingly high-class woman whose laugh might as well be made out of fairy dust. And so, the battle for Lillian's affections begins.

        Much of Bridesmaids advertising campaign has been focused on the involvement of Producer Judd Apatow, relating the movie to his particular comedic sensibilities (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad), which is something of a strange likening. While Bridesmaids suffers no shortage of sex jokes and gross-out mania, it's certainly not as far over on that end as people usually associate Apatow as being. It also boasts of an inverse likeness to his other efforts: Where some of his other films have been accused of having shallow and underdeveloped female characters, Bridesmaids doesn't seem to think much of the male gender. The whole film contains only Two men with any more than, say, Ten lines, even making sure that the actual groom in question (Tim Heidecker) only appears in Two scenes, uttering a quantity of words that could be counted on one's fingers. And that's just fine: It's their turn by now, isn't it?

        The fact is, Bridesmaids hardly needs any testosterone: It's pretty damn funny as is. Weighing in right around Two hours, Bridesmaids is far longer than any movie of its type should ever be, and it's a testament to the laugh-a-minute type fun being had here that one never really feels the need to check their watch. Every actor in the supporting cast brings their A-game, but I suppose it's easier to do when you're dealing with a script as funny as this one. Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo have squeezed comedic gold out of a topic that the movies had seemingly wrung dry of creative potential (Weddings), writing vivid characters and placing them in one hilarious situation after another. But the true star here is Wiig, absolutely knocking her first starring role out of the park, coaxing one laugh after another without ever breaking character, and looking damn good while she does it. It seems pretty impossible for a women to make it in Hollywood as just a comedy star, as I can't name a single female who can presently make such a claim (think about that), but if anyone stands a chance, it's Wiig. Bridesmaids is hands down the funniest movie that 2011 has yet to offer, and it makes a brilliant case for more Hollywood comedies to star women who sound like women. I'm not sure if I'm calling it progressive, or an important step, or anything like that. All I know for sure is that you should see it.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Everything Must Go (Limited Release Date: 5-13-2011)

        Raise your hand if you though Will Ferrell's career was going to change gears in the wake of Stranger Than Fiction? I sure did. After such silly hits as Old School, Anchorman, and Talladega Nights, it did seem a bit early for such a successful comedian to be making the Jim Carrey/Robin Williams leap over to more serious fare, but there he was, stoic and captivating in Marc Forster's pleasantly twisted Dramedy fable. With Two other nearly unseen examples of his dramatic abilities already behind him (Winter Passing and Melinda and Melinda), he seemed set to move on to something new. Then came Blades of Glory. And Semi-Pro. And Step Brothers. And Land of the Lost. I don't mean to trash on these movies, but after glimpsing Ferrell's varied talents, it was hard not to feel a bit short changed by seeing him recycle the same character over and over again. But, praise the Lord, the scowly version of Ferrell is back, once again stepping away from his laugh-a-minute norm in order to portray a real man going through a cartoonish crisis.

        Nick Halsey (Ferrell) is having the worst day of his life. As the movie opens, we watch him being relieved of his job by some snarky kid behind a big, gaudy desk. After swinging by the local Mart to pick up a Six-Pack of Pabst, Nick returns home to find all of his possessions strewn across his lawn, all the locks to his house changed, and a note on the front door notifying him that his Wife has left for good. Unable to devise of a better solution, Halsey decides to take up residency in his lawn, sleeping in his recliner and rummaging through his belongings. Some of the locals start to take notice, including his newly moved-in neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), and a subdued youth who seemingly has nothing better to do than observe Halsey's various exploits (Christopher Jordan Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G.'s kid... no, for real!... cool, right?). A sort of social micro-cosm develops, as Nick tries to figure out how to start putting his life back together.

        Everything Must Go is the feature debut of Writer/Director Dan Rush, but you wouldn't know it from watching. Given the largely impractical premise, based on a Raymond Carver short story entitled Why Don't You Dance?, Rush plays the whole thing with a remarkably straight face, seldom giving in to cheap laughs or cheap sentiments. The pain that Nick feels is never funny; it's real and stinging, brought home by Rush's script's wealth of character development, as well as its reluctance to give easy answers. Impressive as his subtlety and attention to detail might be, Rush nevertheless drops the ball in a few areas. Despite a running time of 96 minutes, the movie feels over-long, at times appearing to uncomfortably stretch itself out in order to be of reasonable feature length. The score, as composed by David Torn, is not only over-baring, but it's featured in nearly every scene of the movie, cheating the flick out of receiving all of the emotional gratification that it deserves.

        But where Rush really shows his skills is in the performances of his actors. Stephen Root, Laura Dern, and Michael Peña all drop in and create vivid characters with hardly any screen time, the believability of the minor players really grounding the movie. Hall is lovely and breezy as always, and some of her encounters with Ferrell are genuinely stirring. Wallace also serves as an extremely pleasant surprise, his deadpan delivery resulting in many if the movie's funnier moments without every blurring the line between character and caricature. But this is truly Ferrell's show; The comedian is in nearly every scene, never anything less than completely believable as a man going though one hell of an existential crisis. As always, it's a bit hard to take him seriously at first, given what his face and voice have come to connote, but it's not long before you realize that the hurt all rings true, and it cuts as deep or deeper than any actor giving a similarly depressed performance could have shown. Everything Must Go proves a worthy showcase for both Ferrell's dramatic chops and Rush's directorial chops, and it seems to point the actor's career in a new direction. Let's just hope we don't have to wait another Five years to see this side of him again.

Grade: B+

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Beaver (Limited Release Date: 5-6-2011)

        Where were you when you first heard about The Beaver, do you remember? I can recall my initial exposure clear as day: I was sitting in a theater, watching the trailer before whatever movie it was I was seeing that day, jaw dropped and eyes bugging out in the darkness. It's one of those movies whose central concept simply demands to be discussed, it's pure and head-spinning sense of oddity demanding one's attention. If the bizarre story wasn't enough, The Beaver also stars one of the least likable famous people on the planet (Mel Gibson), and even he can't be oblivious to the unsettling analogy that the movie is making to his seeming decline into madness. I can't really say that there was any point when I was particularly excited to see the movie, and yet its wholly unfamiliar trappings had me counting down to the day when I could lay eyes on such a uniquely strange piece.

        As previously stated, Mel Gibson stars as Walter Black, a former family man and Toy Company Executive who has fallen into a deep and domineering state of depression. His company is seeing one profit decline after another, his wife (Jodie Foster, also serving as Director here) seems to mostly avoid him, his son (Anton Yelchin) hates him so much that he jots down each similarity between the Two so that he can systematically change those attributes of himself, and he spends most of his days asleep in his bed. But on one fateful night, Walter notices a ratty beaver hand-puppet in a dumpster and, inexplicably, decides to remove it from the trash receptacle and place it on his had. Next thing we know, a TV has fallen on Black's head, and he wakes from being knocked unconscious to a pep talk of sorts, delivered from his mouth, but apparently spoken through the beaver (Don't ask questions, just accept). It becomes clear that this is all that his family and co-workers could have ever wanted, because they all adjust to Black speaking exclusively through the puppet in lightning speed, the beaver making him both more popular and successful than he had been in years.

        One thing that you have to hand The Beaver is that it has no qualms about letting its freak flag fly. It's a feat that one simply must observe as impressive that the film only proceeds to get stranger than the synopsis that I just laid out, Director Foster and Screenwriter Kyle Killen putting every last creepy aspect of the story on display. This might be kind of a spoiler, but I really want everyone to know, even those who have no intention to see the movie, that there is in fact a Beaver-involved sex scene, not to mention a man-versus-hand showdown that harkens back the a pivotal scene of Evil Dead 2. I'm not usually big on spoilers, but I feel alright about this one because... well... I don't really want you to see The Beaver.

        Sure, it's got more courage than all your favorite movies stacked on top of one another, but it's an uncomfortable watch from start to finish, and one that plays like some sort of deranged plea for you, the audience, to give old Jew/Women/World hating Mel one last try. Sure there are some nice scenes of budding romance between Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence, but even they are marred with false-ringing dialogue, uneven acting, and one head-scratching plot twist after another. In a way, I kind of wish that I had liked The Beaver, it being so true to itself through and through. To bad the self in question is one that I truly don't really want anything to do with.

Grade: D

Friday, May 13, 2011

Thor (Release Date: 5-6-2011)

        Thor is kind of a tough sell. Yes, it cost millions of dollars to make and totally looks the part, and yes, it's a Marvel Studios Production, which people tend to rally around. But this is Thor we're talking about. It's the first real challenge in Marvel's attempt to weave together a heap of different super-flicks right before next summer's The Avengers, where the whole lot will play a part. It's true that the first Iron Man was also tasked with familiarizing the audience with a new hero, but the one had a billionaire-turned-hero story arch that people were already comfortable with because of Batman, let alone containing Robert Downey Jr.'s career-defining performance. Thor, on the other hand, isn't even human; he's the Norse God of Thunder, who speaks in Shakespearian pronouncements, and has the look of a slightly less ironic Hulk Hogan. Oh yes, it's nerd fodder for sure, and yet here it is, mega-budget and all, trying its best to appeal to the masses, and pave the way for the studio's next silly super hero movie, this July's Captain America: The First Avenger.

        So here's what they're up against marketing-wise, also known as the plot: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lives in the realm of the gods known as Asgard. Here, he is the son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and a powerful warrior, much loved by his people. But on the day that Thor is to be crowned the new king of Asgard, a break-in occurs in a specially guarded chamber that drives Thor to madness and revenge. Fearing his son's blood-lust, Odin strips Thor of his powers, and banishes him down to boring old earth, where he is discovered by a conveniently babe-i
sh astrophysicist named Jane (Natalie Portman). Thor proceeds to make a fool out of himself, declaring his majesty while rambling on about godly things of which no one has heard, let alone are able to pronounce. And so begins Thor's journey to humility, and hopefully back to Asgard, where his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) sets his eyes on the throne.

        As though Thor weren't a strange enough property to begin with, the studio placed the flick in the hands of Shakespeare geek Kenneth Branagh, an eyebrow-raising choice to helm an action flick, but it works like a charm. Nearly all of the scenes in Asgard are chuck-full of gaudy, olden dialogue, and its hard to imagine any film-maker more capable of straddling the line between parody and sincerity. Much like the first Two Spider-Man's, Thor is never afraid to admit its silliness, but doesn't rub your nose in it unless the time is right. The fact that Thor occasionally nods to its own absurdity makes the more straight-faced moments easier to bare. In fact, I found myself often favoring the Asgard segments, their visual majesty coming startlingly close to that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (calm down, Shire-geeks, I'm not saying it quite gets there), glittering cosmos ever-present in the background of their golden surroundings. What's more, Branagh is no spend-thrift in the action department, his scenes of computer-generated battle being 'shot' and edited with tremendous momentum and kinetic energy, though the sound department did go a bit over-board with the eardrum-assailing audio.

        As much success as Thor has over-coming its many filmic and thematic obstacles, it tends to wiff it when it comes to more common-place elements. The romance between Thor and Jane is all kinds of contrived, the two gravitating towards each other in a fashion that makes little sense with either of their characters, and gives the audience zero reason to sympathize with them as a couple. Much like Iron Man, the ending feels rushed, leaving a few plot-holes here and there that might only exist as a means of furthering the mystery of The Avengers. It's about as rare a complaint as I ever have for a movie, but I actually think Thor could have stood to be a little longer, as that would have provided more time to make its titular hero's escapades on Earth more meaningful, his love more justified, and the inevitable final battle more climactic. But in the end, I really have to hand it to Thor: it's a kind of goofy-movie-that-could, entertaining and exciting from beginning to end. When the summer movie season is over, I expect this to be one of the flicks I look back on most fondly.

Grade: B   

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Okkervil River: I Am Very Far (Release Date: 5-10-2011)

        Simply put, Okkervil River is one of those bands with a very specific, pin-pointable sound. Alternating between down-tempo, folk-rocky ballads, and their faster-paced, shout-inducing counterparts, OR would appear to be a band with a limited, albeit perfected, number of tricks up their sleeve. Their newest disc, I Am Very Far, strikes me as nearly irrefutable evidence of this fact, opening with it's most distinguishable track (The simple, steady, thumping The Valley), and proceeds to become more and more familiar from there. Even tracks that appear to be trying something new for these guys, such as the vaguely disco-leaning Piratess, feel exceedingly, "Been there, done that."

        What makes this disc more gratingly familiar than the rest of their catalogue? Well, for one, frontman Will Sheff's voice only has as much range as the music that surrounds it, opting between slow, moaning misery and megaphone desperate yearning. His lyrics, while clever as always, have begun to strike me as being negative for negativity's sake, exemplified by mid-album number We Need a Myth, in which he once again feels the need to observe that folks need to lie to themselves to remain happy ("We need a myth/Guess what we're after is just this," "In a myth/I'll hear the voice of a friend," yada, yada, yada...). Not so much offensive, listing to the words Sheff sings has begun to feel like listening to that friend of yours who can find misery in absolutely everything, and needs you to talk him or her up daily.

        By my count, the production here is likely the biggest culprit. Never before has the band sounded so crisp, filled-out, and exacting, but these are all words that go against their strongest suits. Their up-tempo jams are too polite to feel truly exciting, Rider coming off as a slight and predictable version of the rapid-fire rock out of earlier albums, like Black Sheep Boy's Black. On the flip side, the more mournful, time-taking tracks are stripped of their earnestness and immediacy by the focus on production value. Perhaps, in some ways, Hanging From a Hit is technically a superior song to Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You Know's Red, but the later song simply feels much more honest and direct. Lastly, I Am Very Far proves something that I've always been extremely curious about; Yes, an album can in fact be too long, because listening to IAVF in One sitting has been nearly impossible for me, not because each song is bad or anything, but because one song bleeds passively into the next, and the Eleven tracks last an endless Fifty-One minutes, nearly Ten minutes longer than their next largest disc. It feels weird tearing a band who I've always liked, especially when their newest isn't unlistenable by anyone's definition, but one thing has become clear to me in a very short amount of time: While I can't speak for you, and true Okkervil River fans might feel differently, I Am Very Far is most certainly not for me.

Grade: D+

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Antlers: Burst Apart (Release Date: 5-10-2011)

        If you haven't heard Hospice, The Antlers heartbreaking 2009 full-band debut, then consider this a call to action. The disc is the truest and rarest of marvels: A lyrical and musical blood-letting ripe with feeling and authenticity. Frontman Peter Silberman spins a seemingly chronological yarn about a sick young girl that's filled to the brim with anxiety, tonal shifts, hospital imagery, and blistering self-blame. It's a disc that's been unfairly over-looked, one that deserves to sit right next to Arcade Fire's Funeral and Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago as one of the most earnest and emotive of the last several years. And while Hospice might not be as readily name-checked as those other Two, it too has turned its fair share of heads. And now we have Burst Apart, the follow-up to a CD for which there can be no sequel.

        Hospice is a pretty intense listening experience, and one can only imagine what it took to create it. That being said, it seemed only logical that Burst Apart would scale down the despair by a noticeable margin, but that doesn't keep opener I Don't Want Love from catching you off-guard. There's something in the tune, in it's slowed-down guitar strum and simple, sure-footed drum beat, that we've never heard from Silberman before: it's called sunshine, if only a ray or Two. The chilly atmospherics of the band will surely never change, supported by Silberman's arid falsetto and searingly honest lyrics, but listening to the group without worrying about Silberman hurting himself is finally possible here. Even his trademark declarations of parasitic love ("You want to climb up the stairs/I want to push you back down/But I let you inside/So you can push me around") are delivered with more peace, tempered by glittering chimes and light symbol touches to help them go down nice and easy. It's a bold play emotionally, but bolder still musically, as I Don't Want Love is simply composed in a much different manner than anything that's come before it.

        The same could be said of follow-up track French Exit, which contains a sort of bass-driven bounce that eventually gives way to an under-water keyboard of the chorus. Much like its predecessor, it's a song that's kind of hopeful in spite of itself, lyrics vaguely unsettled but music oddly inviting. The last minute or so, in which all of the individual pieces of the song are brought together at one instance, is both subtle and sublime. Burst Apart finally returns to the darkness on its third tune and first single, Parentheses, but even here, it's much different than before. Where just about any song on Hospice found its gloom in ways that could conjure up tears, this tune's particular color of black is far more fearful. Silberman, whose falsetto has never been more stunning than on this track, just about convinces you that he's a ghost, floating eerily through percussion-heavy ambiance, floating and guiding the song to the surprisingly dirty guitar part that the song calls a chorus. Three songs in, and Burst Apart is nothing short of wonderful.

        It's a shame, then, that the rest of BA never quite returns to the glory of its opening act, but that's not to say that there aren't plenty more riches to be found. No Widows would sound far more at home on Hospice than any other track here, its echoing, electronica-tinged feel balancing with the devastated howling of much of their former disc. Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out receives its primary melody in the form of Banjo strums, a first for them that I am aware of, but it sounds good. I suppose that's just the problem with much of Burst Apart: There's a whole lot of good on the album, but not all that much great. All Ten tracks are serviceable in their own right, but until BA reaches its brilliant bummed-out waltz of a closer (Putting the Dog to Sleep), it's easy to let your mind wander away from its safe melodies. Judging any Antlers' album against Hospice is largely non-sensical: That disc was a once-in-a-career type achievement that one would imagine was only possible because of Silberman's beyond damaged emotional state. For his sake, I hope they never do make Hospice again, and even if Burst Apart isn't the break-out classic that its forefather was, its a wise step in a new, (slightly) happier direction with moments that absolutely shine.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fast Five (Release Date: 4-29-2011)

        Every once in a while, there is a movie that comes along that is genuinely, 'critic-proof.' It doesn't happen as often as you'd think; with the exception of kid's movies, a flick generally has to be the recipient of some decent write-ups in order to really take in too much cash. But every-so-often, a movie like Transformers:Revenge of the Fallen slips past film's toughest crowd on its way to a huge hunk of cash. It would be easy to say that this is just people being stupid, but it's more than that. In order to see a lousy movie to the top, a studio must advertise it in such a way that people are so sure what they're getting with the purchase of a ticket, they don't feel the need to look up what anyone said about it. It's not an easy place to reach, which is what makes The Fast and the Furious movies that much more impressive for having located it so exactly.

        It comes as a bit of a surprise then that Fast Five does slightly stray from the street-car racing formula of its forbearers. As was the case with Fast & Furious, the series' fourth entry that jump-started what was thought to be a dead franchise, the stars of the original film, Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, are back to lead the way. As the movie opens, Diesel's Dominic Toretto is being sentenced and carted off to prison. Walker's Brian O'Conner, along with his lover and Toretto's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), bust him out within three minutes of the film's opening, and after swiping some sexy cars from a gaggle face-less baddies, they're off to Rio de Janeiro to hide out. Here, they recruit what I'm imagining is the entire supporting cast from the first four entries (forgive me for my non-encyclepedic knowledge of this film series) to pull off one last job against a local drug lord. As if the con weren't enough to deal with, the gang also has a ruthless secret agent on their tail, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Car-racing, fist-fights, bikinis, and limitless gunfire ensue.

        It takes a very special movie to make Paul Walker look like the best actor on screen, but Fast Five is up to the task. In fact, it's gung-ho about fulfilling just about every B-movie touchstone in the book, and one has to give it credit for being so self-aware. The audience that I saw the movie in was in on the joke, erupting into laughter and/or applause whenever the boys emerged unscathed from yet another certain-death situation. The Rock is in especially fine form, his character so completely and utterly indistinguishable from his normative persona that giving him a name seems completely beside the point. If Universal was to offer a five dollar bill to anyone who could remember his character's name upon exiting the theater, they wouldn't be out a dime. His hamminess is the best hamminess in the flick, not that Vin Diesel's isn't a welcome second. As a matter of fact, Fast Five is the best-worst acted movie I've seen in a long time, and yes, that is a compliment.

         In the end, however, Fast Five falls victim to the short-coming that most purposely dunder-headed movies bump up against: It's not smart enough to hold an audience's attention. Sure, the action sequences are sometimes inspired, but they're no where near high enough up in the mix, accounting for only about half of the movie's runtime, leaving the rest to scenes of woefully uninspired drama. Transitioning the racing series into a heist franchise would seem like a clever move, but the scenes in which they plan the big break-in play as if they were written by an eight-year-old, which is hilarious and awesome for the first few minutes, then dreadfully boring thereafter. Like just about everyone else, I too am susceptible to the charms of scantly clad women, fast cars, and rampant, purposeless, consequence-free destruction, but that doesn't make the other stuff any easier to sit through. If ever a movie deserved a shrug as its primary description, it would be Fast Five, but I have to imagine that if you have any interest in seeing it, hearing that probably won't dissuade you.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

In a Better World (Limited Release Date: 4-1-2011)

        If there's one thing that Oscar really loves, it's throwing a curveball with his pick for Best Foreign Language Feature. At the 2010 show, every last dime of smart money was on either The White Ribbon or A Prophet, but when the announcement finally arrived (SURPRISE!!!), it was The Secret in Their Eyes that walked away with the statue. Just the year before, American favorite Let the Right One In couldn't even muster a nomination, and the two favorites, The Class and Waltz with Bashir, ended up watching the unseen and now long-forgotten Departures take home the gold. When factoring in other foreign heavy-weights of the last few years including The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (mysteriously not nominated) and Pan's Labyrinth (losing to The Lives of Others), one starts to get the impression that Oscar just likes to see the looks on our faces. But this last Oscars was different, when the Academy finally matched up with the Golden Globes and picked acclaimed Director Susanne Bier's In a Better World, making it the first selection in years to have been legitimately expected.

        Like the globe-trotting, humanity-examining works of Alejandro González Iñárritu or Stephen Gaghan, Better World is a film unfolding in multiple locals, and involving a whole web of people. First of all, there's Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a hardworking Swedish doctor toiling away in a Sudanese refugee camp. Back home, he has an estranged wife (Trine Dyrholm) and, more importantly (plot-wise), a timid son Elias (Markus Rygaard) who is the victim of the kind of brutal bullying that you only find in the movies. Just as Elias seems completely unable to protect himself, a new boy named Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) joins the school. Not about to put up with Elias' treatment, Christian takes the meek boy under his wing, showing him the ways of retaliation. It should come as no surprise that such a wounded young soul has a heart-breaking backstory, Christian's mother having died of cancer before the film starts, his relationship with his father (Ulrich Thomsen) strained at best. And so the dominos are set up, and we watch as Bier knocks them all down.

        If you've seen one movie where the world is spanned and the shit hits the fan, then you've pretty much seen them all, and In a Better World stands as a perfect confirmation of this fact. The parallels between the horrifying violence of the Sudan and the bullying and retaliation of Denmark's privileged youths isn't lost on the audience for even a moment. It's right around as straight-faced as movies really get, laughs and smiles kept to the utmost minimum. It's easy to give such a movie a pass, one in which lessons are learned, new parts of the world are seen, and horrible war-time atrocities are committed and lingered on as if to tell you, "Yes, this really does happen." Throw in the standard shot of impoverished yet beaming black children running after a moving car, and you've pretty much checked all your boxes. Some have and will call it inspired and moving: I call it predictable and trite.

        So, yeah, the story in In a Better World... not so much, which is a shame, because it's pretty accomplished in just about every other area. Beautifully shot on often hand-held digital cameras, Bier's team really makes the most of the movie's various locations. Editors Pernille Bech Christensen and Morten Egholm are no slouches either, throwing in jump-cuts, fades, and just about every other trick in the book, all without ever feeling overly-experimental. The acting is also nothing short of superb, Jøhnk Nielsen perfectly straddling the line between young victim and malicious plotter, Persbrandt lending some real depth to the part of the unfailing angel, a simple-minded role that a lesser actor would have been showered with eye-rolls for attempting. Best of all, the thing really moves, keeping the audience engaged from first scene to last even when the tale's soap opera elements become almost unbearable. It's a strange thing to arrive at fondness for a movie whose plot you find almost wholly unappealing, but In a Better World pulled just such a trick on me, and I'm not the least bit above giving credit where credit is due.

Grade: B-

Monday, May 2, 2011

Leftovers: April 2011

Leftover Album(s):
The Antlers: Uprooted and In the Attic of the Universe
        To be quite honest with you, up until a month ago or so, I was convinced that The Antlers' 2009 masterwork Hospice was their debut album. In my feverish anticipation of their upcoming LP Burst Apart (Release Date: 5-10-2011), I decided to do a bit of research and found these two tidy, glimmering discs in their back-catalog. While released under the same band name as 2009's break-through, Uprooted and Attic were both written, recorded and released as solo projects of now-front-man Peter Silberman, and while his lone ranger stuff might not yank on heart strings quite as savagely as Hospice, his brilliant song-craft is on display everywhere. As of this writing, I've been more engrossed by Attic, recorded one year after Uprooted (2007 and 2006, respectively), which shares Hospice's affection for allowing songs to slowly bubble into existence before exploding into an emotional punch in the gut. Opener In the Attic does just this, as do any number of tunes on both discs, but what's perhaps even more interesting is hearing Silberman have some semblance of fun, as heard on the bouncy The Universe is Going to Catch You or Uprooted's twang-stuffed closer I'm Hibernating. Stripped down and under-produced, these two albums stand as brilliant evidence that Hospice was anything but a one-off, and foresee a great follow-up with Burst Apart, as well as standing as superb art in their own right.

Netfix Instant Watch Movie(s) of the Month:
The Virgin Suicides
        Yes, I know, I'm a little late on this one, but I finally got around to seeing The Virgin Suicides for the first time a few weeks ago, and, well, I'm here to confirm the hype. Sophia Coppola has proven herself an inventive film-maker with each new piece I've seen, but in this, her debut feature, she shies away from the languid camera movements and suffocatinging stillness that defined both Lost in Translation and Somewhere in favor of evoking 1970's suburbia through the lens of a fevered dream. Ronald and Sara Lisbon (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) will do anything to keep their five beautiful daughters out of the grubby paws of the local school boys, including locking them up and forming ever-more unflattering restrictions on their collective dress code. But the incredible, alluring, head-turning quality of the girls remains stead-fast, and Coppola's greatest achievement here is communicating and translating that power and aura to the audience. There's Edward Lachman's killer camera work, which perfectly recreates the vibe and feel of era-appropriate cinema, not to mention creative editing tricks, Air's hypnotic score, and the obsessive iconography of Kirsten Dunst's face. Even if you don't agree with the eventual moral conclusions that Suicides comes to, there's simply no denying the film's spell, one it casts on viewers from first moment to last.

The Works of Sidney Lumet, Specifically Dog Day Afternoon and Network

      In case there is any confusion, this is what belaboring a point looks like. Earlier this month, one of the greatest American film-makers to ever live passed away, and I can't help but feel that not enough people noticed. In a way, that seems fitting, as time has been unkind to Lumet, history forgetting that he has just as much to do with the pioneering of the crime genre as Coppola or Scorsese. Since I've already discussed both of these movies at length in my article Sidney Lumet: The Best Director You've Never Heard of, I don't feel the need to ramble on about them further here, but I will take this opportunity to point out, once again, that both are available instantly through Netflix. These are gems in every sense of the word: steady and creative direction, brilliant writing, and knock-out performances. If you fancy yourself as any shade of, 'movie buff,' and you haven't seen both of these movies, you've got some catching up to do. I'd get on that... like, right now.