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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Leftovers: June 2011

Leftover Theatrical Releases:
The Double Hour (Limited Release Date: 4-15-2011)
        Sometimes, you have to dig a little deeper to get at the good stuff. This Italian import is a tough One to find, playing exclusively in art houses and big cities, but for all those with any opportunity, it's just about unmissable. Directed by rookie helmsman Giuseppe Capotondi, The Double Hour is yet another movie that's nearly impossible to summarize, given the fact that it completely reinvents itself about Five times during its hour and a half running time, but I'll at least try to clue you in. Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport) is a maid at a high-end hotel who sulks through her days without a smile. At a speed dating circuit, she meets Guido (Filippo Timi), an alluring and mysterious stranger whose straight talk and suave manner win her over immediately. We watch their courtship for about Twenty Minutes or so, and then the first major twist takes place, changing every aspect of the movie for the first of many times. I know, I know, that's not much story to recommend a movie on, but it's all I feel good about giving. The joy of The Double Hour is in how it is able to blindside its audience time and time again without ever sacrificing a coherent story. Both of the leads shine, the movie is subtly pleasing to the eyes and ears, and when its done, you won't know what hit you.

Leftover Albums:
Cults: Cults (Release Date: 6-7-2011)
        The debut disc of the year so far belongs to Cults, a Manhattan Two-Piece who makes just the kind of off-center cutesy-pop that actually works. Like last year's Sleigh Bells release Treats, Cults is New York based outfit built out of the musical craftsmanship of a boy (Brian Oblivion) and the juvenile sing-songy voice of a girl (Madeline Follin), though that's right around where the similarities end. Where SB's Alexis Krauss used her high-pitched, feathery croon to juxtapose against the general bombast of Derek E. Miller's backing music, Follin's voice rides on top of purely old-school, 50's leaning girl-pop instrumentation. Phil Spector's finger prints are all over the thing, influencing each track without ever taking over. Cults are an old but updated sound, something of a singular pitch in today's musical landscape, cranking out One sickeningly catchy tune (Go Outside) after another (Oh My God)... and another (You Know What I Mean), and another (Abducted)... and, well, you get the idea. Just go check it out.

Netflix Instant Watch Movie(s) of the Month:
Four Lions
        One of my very favorite movies of last year, Christopher Morris' pitch-black comedy is just as adept at coaxing a chuckle as it is a weary groan. Four Lions is a screwball comedy centered on the bumbling exploits of a group of five... wait for it... British Jihadists. If that doesn't sound like the movie for you, then I can't imagine that it is, but FL is endlessly provocative film-making, all wrapped up in the trappings of a laugher. The five men, One kind of smart (Riz Ahmed), the others varying degrees of stupid, all want to perform god's will by martyring themselves and taking some non-believers along with them. While it may be difficult to see how this all could be comedic from just reading about it, the movie is full of hilarious word-play and moral no-man's-lands that are enough to make your head spin. It's a film with the conviction to follow its thesis all the way to its natural conclusion, and one that doesn't mind humanizing those so often painted in a demonic light, even if it does so while poking fun at the perversity of their ambition. If you like your entertainment with an edge on it, you'd be wise to give this One a try.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bad Teacher (Release Date: 6-24-2011)

        There was a time, a time that now seems long, long ago, when Rated-R comedies were seen by studio heads as a risky endeavor. To be sure, they've been around and at least somewhat popular ever since the MPAA rating system was invented (Stripes, Porky's, The Jerk, and Beverly Hills Cop, just to name a few), but much of the 90's and early 2000's saw the vast majority of their high-grossing laughers land a PG-13 tag. Pin-pointing the origin of the genre's resurgence might prove difficult, but I for One always look back on Summer 2005, when Wedding Crashers and 40-Year-Old Virgin duked it out for comedy gold with all of America laughing and gasping along. Since then, the, 'Apatow Brand,' ballooned up into a prominent enterprise, One that has been losing steam by the day since, we'll say, 2008. And while many a movie with the infamous R-Rating collected boatloads during that period, it was The Hangover's head-spinning 277 Million Dollar domestic gross (against a production budget of 35 Mil) that proved undeniably that Seventeen-and-over features would have no trouble generating big, big cash if done right. Seriously, can you remember the last PG-13 comedy that didn't star Adam Sandler? I know I can't. The shockers have taken over the multiplex, each new film judged on its ability to surprise and take the genre to its natural extreme.

        If Bad Teacher strikes you as yet another big-screen raunch-fest, you're not far off. The film is the Third such offering of the Summer (Bridesmaids, and The Hangover Part II), with Three more (Horrible Bosses, Friends with Benefits, and The Change-Up) along the way. This One stars Cameron Diaz as the titular educator, Elizabeth Halsey, who wants nothing more than absolutely everything. Hard-boozing and entirely insensitive, Elizabeth routinely shows up to work with a throbbing hangover that she sleeps through as her students watch whatever movie she decides to play for them. She has Two missions in life: Earn enough money for a sizable pair of fake breasts, and use them to snag a man who will pay for her everything. Enter Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a new faculty member with twinkling eyes and an even shinier car. He soon catches the eye of another instructor, the eager, job-loving, and unbearably over-earnest Ms. Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Soon, Halsey and Squirrel are both in love and at war, and needless to say, all is fair.

        Diaz is a perfect fit for the role, a certain superficiality that she has always exuded finally put to perfect use. Not unlike Matthew Mcconaughey in this year's The Lincoln Lawyer, One can almost feel Diaz shake the cobwebs off from her earlier, brighter comedy career. Her commitment the the complete and utter awfulness of her character is never in doubt, even when the same can't be said of writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg. Their screenplay isn't really tame by anyone's standards: There are moments of the battle between Diaz and Punch that manage to drop my jaw, but the movie as a whole seems uncertain as to how far it wants to run with such a deplorable protagonist. Perhaps that's why Jason Segel is here, playing a charming every-man of a gym teacher, a part that would have been a pure eye-roller were it not for Segel's impeccable line deliveries.

        Bad Teacher is an actor's movie through and through, a variety of small roles being gamely performed by unfamiliar actors, Punch, school principle John Michael Higgins, and Diaz buddy/Mrs. Vance Refrigeration Phyllis Smith having an absolute blast with their parts. Only Timberlake really struggles, suffering from the misfortune of portraying a character that Stupnitsky and Eisenberg don't seem sure what to do with. It's the movie's crafters that come close to sinking the ship, a PG-13 versus R tug-of-war rearing its ugly head far to often in the shaky and uncertain hands of Director Jake Kasdan. Daiz frequently looks like an eager dog, throwing all of her weight forward against Kasdan's unforgiving leash. If she had it her way, my guess is that Bad Teacher would have been the gloriously guilty and sordid pleasure that it often hints at becoming. As is, it's a funny movie, navigating its way into hilarious territory not too infrequently, propped up a stellar cast who all seem like they're having a hell of a time. My guess is you will too.

Grade: B 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Handsome Furs: Sound Kapital (Release Date: 6-21-2011)

An image of the NSFW album cover is posted at the foot of the article.      

        Few musical acts have it either as tough or as easy as Handsome Furs. Just ask frontman Dan Boeckner. If it weren't for his other tuneful projects, co-headlining Wolf Parade being the most high-profile, Handsome Furs, the Two-man band that he splits with his wife, Alexei Perry, would not have received the immediate attention that it has. On the other hand, the outfit's offerings would likely be judged much less harshly were it not for Boeckner's pre-existing clout. Now on their Third LP, Sound Kapital, the Furs are coming closer and closer to maintaining a consistent identity, a fact emphasized by just about each and every single song on the album.

        We'll start with opener When I Get Back, a shimmering, dance-floor-ready slice of delicious electro-pop. Opening with Boeckner's signature croon/howl, the frontman's voice gives way to a feverishly catchy mechanical beat. Through about Three minutes, it sounds like a bold and perfectly rendered mission statement for the disc that is to follow... and then it lasts for about Two minutes more. The song's lack of brevity would be easier to stomach were it not for its utter aversion to sonic change. While the initial beat is good enough to never be fully squandered, it reveals its lack of depth by over-staying without remembering to mix it up. As it turns out, When I Get Back really is a perfect mission statement for Sound Kapital, an LP that time after time opens its tunes with something really special and fun before repeating it until a noticeable portion of the magic has been wrung out of the thing.

        Take the groove/shout of Bury Me Standing, or the pulse-raising pound of follow-up Memories of the Future. Both are far more than passable: They're really good songs that get stretched out to an uncomfortable size, restating ideas that were clear and bright enough to stick the first time without reiteration. The worst example of this comes in the form of closer No Feelings, which goes on for Seven minutes without ever establishing a good reason to be presented in long-form. Were Sound Kapital to be engineered in the fashion of a punk album, sporting a more expansive track list of Two to Three minute long tunes, this would likely be One of the most fun albums of the year. As is, its a mini-disc of Nine tunes, most of them good, some of them really good (the ironic 80's badass-ery of Damage, the steady, defiant trudge known as What About Us), and only one of them great (Serve the People, the disc's only real dynamic, shape-shifting tune).
        Not a single tune sips beneath sub-par, so the group's Third full-length is a long ways from failure, but hearing it flirt with something better so often just to waste its potential can be pretty frustrating. I would be lying to you if I said I don't miss the days of Wolf Parade, a band whose free-flowing jams seemed to better suit Boeckner's signature rasp than the pre-programmed, noticeably non-manual instrumentation of Handsome Furs. But what's done is done, and thank god the man opted for a project as interesting and fun as this one. I suppose I will count my blessings and cross my fingers that, next time around, Boeckner and Perry will bring the exact same level of beat-craft expertise, complete with editing room savvy that will make them great.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

YACHT: Shangri-La (Release Date: 6-21-2011)

        Have you been searching far and wide for that new new sound, something real trail-blazing, unique, and unfamiliar? YACHT might not be your best bet. The electro-leaning Two piece could be described with a number of positive words, but innovative isn't really be one of them. Since 2009's See Mystery Lights, the band has been signed on to DFA records, a label famously headed by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, among others. His band's influence on YACHT's newest, Shangri-La, is evident at just about every moment, and seeing as listening to Murphy's band can often feel like a game of, 'Name that Influence!' YACHT really doesn't sound like they're breaking new ground. No matter: A song that works is a song that works.

        A prime example of this crops up right out of the gate, as opener Utopia absolutely launches into itself, chugging full-seam ahead on legs made of speedy percussion, hyper-active bass, and exuberant chanting. It creates a mood and tone for the album, One that Track Two, the poignantly-named Dystopia nearly completely does away with, opting for a more electronic, down-tempo groove in which vocalist Claire L. Evans boldly proclaims, "The Earth, the Earth, the Earth is on Fire/We don't need no water/Let the motherf***** burn," over and over again. Again, not a particularly new sentiment (or sentence), but the juxtaposition of the first Two tunes is worthy of note: Shangri-La aspires to serve as a dance party in the face of the apocalypse, stuffed with end-of-days imagery, all sung/shouted over the disc's bouncy backing tracks.

        While I find the idea to be interesting and inspired, it would appear to me that such a grand concept album is a bit out of YACHT's reach. Take Holy Roller, a tune that rides a minimal bass beat as Evans' ruminates on a crumbling world, leading to a chorus of, "Don't you worry about god up above/We're gunna live life in love." Like much of Shangri-La's second half, it would be overly harsh to call the tune a failure, but it's not exactly a winner either, leaning too heavily on lyrics that aren't as rousing as they were seemingly intended to be, in turn forgetting to flesh out the instrumentals with interesting sounds. Much of the same could be said of Paradise Engineering, a song that sounds particularly like a lost LCD cut, and whose mock-motivational-speech lyrics would have benefitted tremendously from Murphy's less-authoritative phrasing.

        Once again, Shangri-La is not a bad listen: The Two openers really work for me, and the rest of the disc does sporadically, I Walked Alone and Tripped and Fell in Love both establishing solid grooves before over-staying their welcome, Beam Me Up sounding good but departing too early. I have yet to come to a final decision on closer and title-track Shangri-La, a sudden sing-a-long that lasts a good Five minutes and could readily be described as Soft Rock, but, boy, do I love hearing my home state of Oregon get shout-outs in songs! For a band whose sound is relatively indistinct, it's heartening to see YACHT attempt to take on some big ideas and concepts. Here's to hoping they can grow into them someday.

Grade: C-

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bon Iver: Bon Iver (Release Date: 6-22-2011)

        This One was never going to be easy. For Emma, Forever Ago, the debut album of Bon Iver, is a pretty rough disc to write a follow-up to for a variety of reasons. Since Emma, Bon Iver has shifted from being a One man project belonging to Justin Vernon into a whole band with expanded musical ambitions. Bon Iver's predecessor was also steeped in back history and lore (man alone in a cabin, writing songs with a broken heart, blood-letting with a guitar), the kind of romantic trappings that people don't easily let go of. Finally, Emma is simply an amazing record, One that tugs on heart strings at will, and has deeply endeared itself to many who have listened to it, myself included. Early hints at what direction the expanded line-up might take (Blood Bank EP, Dark Was the Night's Brackett, WI) proved alluring, but there's no denying that a sequel to a work that you really care about is just as frightening as it is exciting.

        What's clear about Bon Iver from the very start is a heightened sense of musical ambition. Where Emma tended to go straight to the heart with each and every song, the band's self-titled effort has a much greater sense of patience to it. Take lead single Calgary for example, which opts out of having any sort of chorus entirely, preferring to follow an elusive melodic path that sees it through the subtle synths of its opening to the electric guitar of its finale, and the symbol taps of its dying breaths. Calgary is an odd choice for a single, its unique structure preventing it from being either the ear-worm or the sing-a-long, but it's an ideal introduction to all that Bon Iver is: Beautiful, restrained, mysterious, emotive, and (suddenly) kind of subtle. The song, like the album as a whole, takes a few listens to warm up to, both because of the feverish devotion that many bear to its predecessor, and because the music is quite a bit more slippery this time around. The first time that I heard Calgary, I was left scratching my head; By now, it's among my favorites from 2011.

        But Calgary isn't even close to all that Bon Iver has to offer, as opener Perth can readily attest to. Though being strummed without a hint of grit, it's worthy of note that the first sound we hear on the album is electric guitar, smooth and thoughtful, soon surrounded by an uncharacteristically militant percussion part. Like Calgary, it's a song that is deeply interested in keeping the listener in the dark as to which direction it's headed, no real chorus ever manifesting, the instrumentation growing louder and more intense until, only half way through the song, Justin Vernon's band does something that Justin Vernon himself couldn't really do alone; They jam, free of their frontman's unique and angelic croon, and they sound great. There's a little taste of the fuzzier side of Post-Rock (Early Explosions in the Sky, Do Make Say Think) going on in the tune, which should sound just as strange as it reads, but it doesn't. Not for a moment.

        Minnesota, WI also spins a puzzling yarn, leaning heavily on the lower half of Vernon's register, almost courting comparisons to TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, One that he will later revisit, in even more pronounces fashion, on Hinnom, TX. For its first half, Minnesota sort of rumbles around behind a simple yet persuasive groove, blossoming out as the song moves forward with the help of a gentle strummed guitar, and some steady steel pedal. The thing rises and falls, giving way to the lullaby of Holocene, a tune that I foresee being a key transition piece for many listeners. While not as musically adventurous as many of its album mates, the tune boasts of the same acoustic guitar/tear-jerking voice pairing that made Emma such a hit, newly fitted with extended focus on percussion, pacing, and dynamics. It's a welcome return of a friend in new clothes, and even if Vernon isn't likely to release another disc in the vein of Emma at least for a good while, its heartening to know that the friend-who-understood-us-when-no-one-else-did will still be there sometime to hold us when emo tears are the only tears that will do.

        Towers is yet another real beauty, its sunny strum proving about twice as warm as the next thing Bon Iver has ever done, the love lyrics suddenly playful instead of devastated. Once again, building a real song from the ground up seems to be a focus here, eventually incorporating a surprisingly expansive brass section, only to completely pull the rug out from under the tune with a simple inclusion of a steady, slowed drum roll. Given the overwhelming accomplishment of the record's first Four songs, it's easy to understand how the next Two tracks, Michicant and the aforementioned Hinnom, TX, can feel a bit underwhelming The former maintains its down-tempo sway without much of the surprise that makes the rest of Bon Iver so exhilarating, the latter never coming to life in the same sense as the rest of the disc. It's not meant to be an insult: They're simply Two good songs that are surrounded by a plethora of great Ones, a fact again illuminated when the gorgeous, shimmering Wash. starts playing right after Himmon, TX, the beauty of its lightly played piano, paired with perfectly mournful violins and an ever-expanding sonic world, all but erasing the memory of the previous Two tunes.

        Bon Iver's most divise moment twice over comes at the very end, where the band plays closer Beth/Rest as if Phil Collins had suddenly taken the wheel. Riding a synth-soaked keyboard part that has no trouble bringing to mind soft-focus and leg warmers, the band steers this One straight into cheesy territory with reckless abandon, even throwing in the exact type of Sax solo that you would expect from a song this goofy. When I first heard it, I could hardly listen to it; By now, I'm all the way to kind of liking it. Who knows where another few weeks will get me? Follow-up or not, Bon Iver is an obvious triumph from the start, even if it does take a listen or Two to warm up to. I'm not the biggest fan of the middle section, and can occasionally find the lyrics to be a bit cumbersome and too self-conscious and aggressive coded (Look up the words to any song on the record besides Towers and try to tell me what they mean. Go ahead... just try), but that shouldn't take away from what an accomplishment this thing really is. Bon Iver might fall a bit short of the, 'one-of-the-best-albums-of-the-last-however-many-years,' tag that myself and others slap on Emma without a moment's hesitation, but that doesn't make it anything less than a stellar disc, filled to the brim with great tunes just waiting to be unwrapped, enjoyed, and maybe cried to.

Grade: A-

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Tree of Life (Limited Release Date: 5-27-2011)

        WARNING: The following people should NOT see The Tree of Life UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES:

People who can't stand non-plot-oriented movies, People who need closure, People who require a movie to have a sense of humor about itself, People who seek to keep their entertainment and their theology separated, People who are particularly adverse to pretentiousness, People for whom brevity or the lack there of is a deal breaker, People who find dialogue-free passages in movies to be dull, and, perhaps most of all, people to whom, 'weird,' and, 'trippy,' are dirty words. I say this not as a means of declaring one group of film-goers as superior to another; With the exception of a couple of items on the list, I find all of those movie-enjoyment-requirements to be pretty reasonable. The simple fact is that The Tree of Life is a movie tailor made to coax strong responses from its viewers, be they fervent love, or fiery hate.

        Now to the hardest part of this review: The summary. Not only is The Tree of Life a mind/time-bending, jump-cut-happy sort of movie, but it also strikes me as a film whose desired effect might be more deeply felt with a lack of pre-existing knowledge. I'll do my best: The Tree of Life is the story of a man (Sean Penn) battling with depression and existential doubt. The movie is the chronicle of his search for answers, reaching as far back as the creation of the cosmos and life itself, then honing all the way in on One family of Five. In a '50s Texas suburb, Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his Two brothers are raised in Two hugely conflicting manners, warmth, playfulness, and love being showered on them by their mother (Jessica Chastian) while their father (Brad Pitt) rules with a clenched jaw and an unwavering devotion to discipline and manners. We watch it all in only vaguely linear fashion, intermixed with rampant shots of symbolic trees and waterfalls. Oh, yeah, and Dinosaurs. If this doesn't really sound like your cup of tea, then I can promise you that it isn't.

        Like the movie itself, Writer/Director Terrance Malick has proved a divisive and elusive figure over the years. Releasing his first movie coming up on Four decades ago (1973's Badlands), Malick has managed to stay almost completely out of the public eye, thanks in large part to the fact that The Tree of Life is only his Fifth feature film in his lengthy career. His works always have a sweeping, dream-like feel to them, and each is an aesthetic marvel with beauty and surrealism splashed all over the screen. Not only does The Tree of Life not shy away from this, but it takes it head on, darting and swaying with dream-logic abounding. Master-class camera man Emmanuel Lubezki, in only his second movie since completely blowing the minds of everyone who saw Children of Men, shots the living hell out of the thing, just about every single second of Tree teeming with staggering beauty. Its all set to yet another stunning score by Alexandre Desplat, likely the hottest composer on the filmic scene today, having missed out on an Oscar nod only once in the last Five years (His nominations include The King's Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Queen). Throw in Pitt and Penn, and you have some pretty high-profile players trying to make Malick's vision come to life.

        And come to life it does; Complete, fully-realized, awe-inspiring, and infuriating life. The winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival (an honor not unlike Best Picture at the Oscars) despite receiving a hardy helping of boos at the end of its screening, The Tree of Life is undeniably accomplished, but whether you think its accomplished a masterpiece or a war crime is all up to the viewer. Its a powerful, provocative piece, difficult to discuss with anyone who has yet to see it, and even harder to stop thinking about upon its conclusion. There are things that I wish it did differently, but this is obviously the work of a singular, feverishly inspired film-maker, a man making strong, bold, purposeful choices, knowing exactly how to elicit a reaction. It is quite possibly the only movie that I've ever seen that I would readily describe as being about everything, and as such, Tree can over-reach upon occasion, an intense sense of grandeur and purpose lofting off of every frame, not a drop of self-awareness to be found. Turns out, if you want to explain it all, it's best to leave irony behind.

        If it's not completely obvious by now, I am of the mind that The Tree of Life is a classic in the making, a puzzle of profundity, stitched together by a Director whose mystery and pre-existing filmography will ensure that this one gets viewed and discussed for years to come. Comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey strike me as pretty fair: Both films send some viewers towards the exits in the first Fifteen minutes, while convincing others that they're hearing the voice of god. I'm pretty far over on the latter half of the argument, and even if I can't quite convince myself that Tree is a perfect movie, the intrigue of its philosophies and the power of its images have made it impossible for me to go a half hour without thinking about it since I first watched it. The Tree of Life is almost more an experience than a movie, concerned more with the gut feeling it creates than the linear story that it tells. It's a complete, absolute, and undeniable must-watch for anyone who considers themselves a true film enthusiast, all while being utter toxic waste for anyone who just wanted a good night at the movies. That's the power of its accomplishment: That Tree will almost exclusively be ranked a Zero or a Ten by all those who see it. In a 2011 that is slated to break the record for most sequels in a calendar year, I can't help but find the limitless nature of its ambition inspiring, and the degree to which this inspiration, whether wayward or heavenly, is fully realized is nothing short of a towering achievement.

Grade: A+/F

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beginners (Limited Release Date: 6-3-2011)

        Personal film projects, like most things that deal with matters near and dear, can go a variety of different ways. Though they're almost always interesting, autobiographical films can be subject self-agrandizing and inauthenticity. But when One goes right, the results can be absolutely electric and moving. Writer/Director Mike Mills took just such a risk in bringing Beginners to the screen, its central relationship having been pulled from his own experiences with his father.

        Shy and creative Oliver (Ewan McGregor, serving as a stand-in for Mills), is at a tough place in life. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has recently passed away at the hands of cancer, and though his departure has left Oliver feeling empty, it's what came before is demise that really shook him. A few short months after the death of Ollie's mother (Mary Page Keller), Hal announces to his son that he is gay, and that he plans to start seeking a lover and living an openly homosexual life-style... at the age of 75. Oliver is no homophobe; Within a short time, he's gamely supporting his father's life choices, but that doesn't stop him from being shaken by what Hal's admission means for his parents relationship, and, really, the way Hal has lived his whole life, and Oliver's whole view of love. After a short fling of burning brightly and exuberantly in his new lifestyle, Hal passes away, leaving Oliver to pick up the pieces just as he meets a girl (Mélanie Laurent) who might be the perfect balm for his pain.

        As anyone who has seen any of Mills' music videos or his 2005 debut feature Thumbsucker (Or any of his partner Miranda July's work, for that matter) can tell you that the man is high on style, a fact that he refuses to shy away from even in the face of such dire subject matter. The film is packed with artistic flourishes, such as collections of still photographs that help the audience contextualize the passing of time and Hal's ever-present obstacles, and a sickeningly adorable Jack Russell who is able to speak to Oliver through subtitles. Oliver and Anna's (Laurent) relationship could also be seen as too cute for its own good, stuffed with roller-skating, ironic graffiti, and a meet-cute for the ages. These are the things that have caused Beginners' detractors to take away from it, and they are the very things that have endeared the movie to me in a way that I seldom feel.

        Through the myriad of his risky decisions, Mills has managed to craft something both constantly entertaining and deeply, cuttingly personal. More than just keeping the wheels moving, the Director's artful choices allow the viewer to see the story through Oliver's/Mills' eyes, not only feeling his pain, but understanding the specific way in which he both feels and processes it himself. It's a tremendous, moving accomplishment, no small thanks to cinematographer Kasper Tuxen's exquisite lensing and the wonderful, emotive music of Roger Neill, Dave Palmer, and Brian Reitzell. Through in the expert use of flashbacks (technically all of Plummer's scenes), masterfully handled by editor Olivier Bugge Coutté, we see the contrasts between emotions, places, and times. Coming from the guy who did Thumbsucker, a fun and inspired but undeniably messy piece of work, its something of a miracle that Beginners feels so exacting, and... well... perfect.

        I expect that, sometime near the end of this year or the beginning of next, there will be a decent push for Plummer to receive his long-belated first Oscar for the part of Hal, and why not? The 81-year-old is positively bursting with glowing energy through-out the film, providing genuine pathos and believability to Hal's late-life explosion. But even with a performance so vivid and vivacious, Plummer has a difficult time standing out, as his co-stars are just as real and affecting. Laurent might be playing a pretty standard manic/artsy dream girl, but she handles it with easy, breezy, sexy aplomb that makes her both alluring and natural in every scene she's in. McGregor, on the other hand, spends most of the movie with his mopey face on, but his pain, quiet and sustained, can be felt at every moment, as well as the ever-prevasive feeling that a revelation is coming on, that something bright and beautiful might finally be right around the bend. Beginners is a warm, generous, beautiful, authentic, cathartic, and just plain terrific film, 2011's most complete work so far in a walk. The movie's tag phrase, 'This is what love feels like,' is no joke: In Beginners, I saw love, I felt love, and by the end, I was in love.

Grade: A

Monday, June 13, 2011

Super 8 (Release Date: 6-10-2011)

        His name might mean industry power and clout now, but believe it or not, there was a point when Steven Spielberg was just a kid on a ridiculous hot streak. There's never been a point in the man's career where you could readily say that Spielberg was losing it, but just take a look at how the guy came out of the gate: With just One previous feature under his belt (1974's The Sugarland Express), Steven made Four straight undeniable classics in a span of just Seven years (Jaws in '75, Close Encounters of the Third Kind in '77, Raiders of the Lost Ark in '81, and E.T. in '82) with only one semi-forgotten entry ('79's 1941) breaking up his jaw-dropping streak. With the help of George Lucas, Spielberg ushered in the type of big-budget film-making that we are constantly bombarded with today, but he did it with a style, grace, and (even back then) sense of nostalgia that has helped preserve the magic of his early entries even unto today. And now, from a producer's chair, and with the help of Director J.J. Abrams, he's trying to bring it back.

        Like all good old-school, Spielbergian romps, Super 8 sets lays its scene in a small suburban town with both an earnest and an eerie sense to it. This time, it's middle-of-nowhere Ohio, and we open by learning that Father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and preteen Son Joe (Joel Courtney) have just lost a Wife and a Mother respectively. Flash-forward Four months, and Joe's life goes on, as he busies himself by providing Lighting and Make-Up for a Zombie movie that his perfectly typical fast-talking, large-bodied, smart-but-pushy-and-with-a-side-of-comic-relief friend (Riley Griffiths) is directing. They soon enlist the acting abilities of Joe's big school crush, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), but just as things are starting to look up for poor Joe, the crew witnesses a horrifying Train Crash that they are lucky to survive, and soon enough, a multitude of strange occurrences are taking place all over town.

        Admittedly, I am not as attached to the early-Spielberg as this movie's target audience likely is, but there's no denying how fun the trip back in time is. From costuming to cinematography, Abrams does a bang-up job at standing in for the big guy, his movie boasting of the same feel of all of those flicks, but with more production value and the advantage of passing time. But that time spent perfecting aesthetics would be worthless if they were to slip up in either of the Two social worlds that Spielberg and his early 80's cronies were always so good at recreating: Rambunctious friend groups, and Melodramatic home lives. Good thing Abrams is all kind of on top of it, his scenes of familial unrest just as tear-jerkingly over-the-top as they should be, and the pack of young boys having such a fully developed chemistry with one another that it's easy to forget that they're acting. In both his script and his direction, Abrams proves wholly up to the task of a full-blooded Spielberg homage.

        It's a shame, in that case, that the Spielberg aspects of the film don't mesh better with the Abrams ones than they do. Abrams comes from a different era, a more fast-talking, quickly-moving one, and when he feels the need to step on the gas and pump up the sci-fi action, it is sadly at odds with everything that has come before it. About Forty minutes in, Super 8 completely had my number, but as soon as Abrams remembered that he is himself, a great deal of the magic started to diminish for me. I'm no Abrams hater: I thought that Star Trek (2009) was one of the most undeniable big-budget pleasures of the last several years, and the parts of Super 8 that really pop (and there are plenty) work mostly because of him. It's just that half of Super 8 comes from Thirty years ago, and the other half comes from today, and Abrams never even comes close to reconciling that disparity. Near the end, when all the secrets are revealed in ho-hum fashion, I was largely checked out from the movie, having been nurtured on sweet nostalgia only to be blasted by digital effects and crushing sound time and time again. But as much as I am tempted to, I need to not let that take away from the movie's truly inspired aspects, most specifically the opening act. A mixed bag to be sure, but a mix of soaring heights and disheartening lows.

Grade: B-

Friday, June 10, 2011

X-Men: First Class (Release Date: 6-3-2011)

        Who would have thought it would be X-Men? Though many might point to the 1978 Superman movie, Bryan Singer's X-Men could be more accurately viewed as the beginning of the Superhero movie onslaught that we are currently in the middle of. Opening in 2000, the film was met with strong reviews and even stronger Box Office numbers, paving the way for the first Spider-Man movie to break every opening weekend record known to man, not to mention spawning an even more successful sequel Three years later (X2: X-Men United). Since then, we've seen the hugely profitable and largely disliked X-Men: The Last Stand, One forgettable try to reboot a popular character (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and now X-Men: First Class, an attempt to take all of the characters back to their beginnings. With Five entries, the X-Men series is only one movie shy of the most dedicated to any costumed hero (Batman has Six), and is one up on Superman, and Two up on Spidey. So we know that people will turn out for X-Men-involving movies in droves, but after Two straight clunkers, what we're not so sure of is if they should.

        X-Men: First Class begins much the same way as the first X-Men film, with young Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, being dragged around a Nazi Concentration Camp before activating his powers through pain and frustration. Cut to baby Charles Xavier, living in an enormous mansion and apparently having already harnessed his powers by the time that he meets and befriends the child version of Raven, aka Mystique. They all grow, Lahnsherr into a tormented yet devilishly charming Michael Fassbender on a revenge mission, Xavier becoming a smooth talking, mutation and lady-crazy James McAvoy, and Raven into an eager and neurotic Jennifer Lawrence. The Two men become friends, and with the help of the government, locate and assemble a handful of other mutants for the purpose of stopping One Sebastian Shaw (a gaudily and deliciously evil Kevin Bacon), a man who we, 'learn,' was almost single-handedly responsible for the Cuban Missile Crisis, and who also happens to be in charge of a crew of mutants of his own.

        There's no denying that First Class is a better movie than either The Last Stand or Wolverine, but it's up to the individual to decide if that justifies the film's existence. Much has been made of the likeness to old James Bond movies that Director Matthew Vaughn has fashioned the film with, and while it absolutely energizes the on-goings in a mostly fun way, there are times when the visuals and stylings seem a bit confused as to what exactly they're trying to do. What's more, the screenplay, whose Four credited names would suggest a re-write or Two, is often sloppy and over-the-top, relying on quick montages to explain many more time-intensive events, and frequently leaning on unnatural dialogue. It would likely be a deal breaker if it weren't for the Two monumental performances at the film's center.

        McAvoy and Fassbender are both endlessly charming and watchable, genuinely believable as friends, geniuses, and the Two most powerful figureheads on the debate as to what the mutants ought to do next. They deliver what are probably Two of the Three finest performances dedicated to a superhero flick since The Dark Knight (can't forget Jackie Earle Haley in Watchmen), but as bold and brilliant as they are, it often feels like their casting is the only real artistic justification for creating a Fifth X-Men movie. I suppose there's some fun to be had with the integration of real-world events into the X-Men universe, but the last few X-Flicks had a bit of that as well. As a matter of fact, pretty much every flavor that First Class has to offer is One that we've already tasted. If you simply like X-Men or Superhero movies in general, there are much, much worse watches than this, and as the McAvoy and Fassbander show, the thing is not without its appeal. Much like the summer's addition to the Pirates series, it's not necessarily a bad movie, but rather a story, both visual and narrative, that I feel like I've simply seen enough times and am ready to put down. Can't wait for the sequel to the second prequel!

Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Midnight in Paris (Limited Release Date: 5-20-2011)

        When most people hit 75, little more is expected of them. By that time, a pretty sturdy majority have made all of the real accomplishments that they're going to make, and we cherish what they have done in their expansive existence. No such luck for Woody Allen. Midway through his Eighth decade of life (and Sixth making movies), Allen has become something of a punchline for people who would rather focus on his eyebrow-raising romances and lesser flicks than give the man his due. The fact is that the Woodsman has a track record that should prove laughable to no one: Since 1966, he's acted in 41 films, written 48, and directed 45, and, possibly most astonishing of all, since 1969, he's helmed a movie annually, failing to produce a product on only Four different occasions (2004, 1991, 1981, 1976). And if being prolific isn't enough for you, consider the man's 21 Oscar nominations: 14 writing, 6 directing, and One acting. And while we're at it, I might as well chip in that he's directed a grand total of 16 Oscar nominated performances, 6 of which went on to take home the trophy (which is a staggeringly high winning percentage). Sure, the guy puts out a clunker from time to time, but after such a long career with such an emphasis on production, can you really blame the guy? And for every couple duds, even Woody's detractors would be wise to note that he's got a real winner.

        In case you haven't already heard, or my flowery intro hasn't given it away, Midnight in Paris is just such a winner, serving simultaneously as a breath of fresh air and a warm return to familiar Allen territory. His newest stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, a screenwriter/Hollywood hack (his words, not mine) who deeply believes himself to have been born in the wrong era. Vacationing with his bride-to-be Inez (Rachel McAdams), Gil falls head over heels in love with the city of Paris, singing its praises as he recites the words of his most idolized Jazz-era artists. But when Inez starts continually wanting to spend time with an insufferably snobbish friend of her's (Michael Sheen), Pender takes to walking the city alone at night, a habit that somehow finds him stumbling into the exact 1920's Paris of his fantasy, rubbing elbows with each and every single one of his heros.

        As always, it's worth noting that Woody is a distinct flavor, and if you don't have the taste for it, you likely never will. But there's something distinctive about Paris that needs to be noted as somewhat unique among the man's catalogue: It's a genuinely happy movie. For its whole runtime, the flick is alternating between Two tones, Romance and Mirth, and if you're anything like me, those are Two pretty good feelings. Reminiscent of the opening montage of Manhattan, Paris begins with a series of still shots of the city, creating a tangible mood and place from the get go. Allen has always been great at describing the ambiance of a metropolis without words, and here his love of the city allows you to see it through Gil's enthusiastic, ecstatic eyes. The editing of the thing can feel a bit clunky of half-baked at times, but Cinematographers Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas have no problems activating the eye's sweet tooth, and if watching the movie doesn't make you want to catch the next flight to France, you might want to get yourself checked out.

        But enough about the Woodman and his fellows behind the scenes; The actors also really shine in this one. Wilson might be the best, 'Woody-Allen-Stand-In,' this side of Woody himself; He's goofy and charming and convincingly giddy about his discovery, a perfectly earnest and charismatic lead performance that manages to lend a little sunshine to the part of a stereotypical Woody leading man. The real-world sequences are filled with fine acting focused on showing the awfulness and self-centered nature of the average person (I told you it was a Woody movie), none so accomplished as the mind-numbing arrogance of Sheen's scholarly ass. What's more, the fantasy moments are even better, filled to the brim with cheap but true laughs, and featuring one brilliant caricature of a larger-than-life literary after another. To spoil who pops up would be to take away some of the movie's fun, but I feel compelled to note that Corey Stoll makes one hilarious Hemingway.

        Expecting Woody to break new ground at his age is simply unreasonable: When's the last time that you saw a person in their mid-70's reconsider anything? The guy is as stuck in his ways as he's always been and will always be, but, as it turns out, his ways can still prove light, slick, funny, and heartening. Midnight in Paris isn't exactly a movie to set the world on fire, and there's no doubt in my mind that my English degree helped me like it more than many will, but it's light, glowing entertainment that arrives at a surprisingly profound and welcome moral at the end. It's the work of a master in the twilight of his career, one that sees him smiling a genuine smile for the first time in years, and it left me grinning ear to ear.

Grade: A-

Monday, June 6, 2011

Battles: Gloss Drop (Release Date: 6-7-2011)

        A few years ago, I had the good fortune of seeing Battles play a show at Portland's Wonder Ballroom as a part of MFNW, and to this day it stands out to me as one of the best that I've ever bared witness to. The New York Four-Piece played all instrumental tunes, unless you really count the warped and looped voices that often float around their music. Instead, they focused on jamming furiously, no one ever taking the lead for too long, their chemistry simply electric. And that very electricity was what caused me extra sadness when Tyondai Braxton announced that he would be leaving the band, a forth of a mad musical science experiment gone wholly right. So while you could say that I've been looking forward to Gloss Drop, their sophomore release following the demented brilliance of their first record, Mirrored, I've also been dreading it, fearing that the singular group dynamic might be lost forever.

        And for a minute there, they almost trick you into thinking that it is. Opener Africastle begins with a lush, loop-heavy atmosphere, a calm and contented Battles, albeit still a weird one. Who are they kidding? Just before the Two minute mark, plowing, ponding drums absolutely blow the thing open. Another part proceeds this one, the song expanding into something twisted, unpredictable, and exciting, even if not every part is as good as the last. In other words, it's a Battles song. I have yet to really warm up to the following track, Gloss Drop's first single Ice Cream, as it sounds to me not unlike Magic Carpet Ride being shredded in a blender right before my very ears, but there's no denying its color or its energy. Who knows? It wouldn't be the first time that a song by this band has won me over after initially making me cock an eyebrow.

        What I will not have to grow into, however, is the rest of Gloss Drop's first half. Inchworm is playful and bouncy in a way that's damn difficult to nail without becoming either obnoxious or ingenuous, wiggling along happily for its Five minute life. Futura is a real ass-kicker, the lone guitar strums at its opening declaring business from the onset, percussion once again making the think pop right around the One minute mark. It's a welcome reminder that these guys don't always have to be grinning from ear to ear in order to put down a real track. One can almost feel the frenzy and see the eternal flashing numbers while listening to Wall Street, the most evocatively and perfectly named tune on the disc. My Machines lowers its head in much the same fashion as Futura (though at a speedier clip), while Dominican Fade spends its Two minutes as a fun, marimba-filled breeze.

        It's here, buried all the way down at Track Eight, that there finally comes a song that's a bit underwhelming. Sweetie & Shag is a fine enough tune, but it makes one critical mistake that Battles would be wise never to return to: it tethers itself to actual lyrics. It's not guest singer Kazu Makino's fault either; the band simply sounds weighed down by having to make space for discernible vocals, yet another sound to add to a mixture with quite a number of them. The same, 'take-'em-or-leave-'em,' feeling resides on the following Three tracks as well, Toddler serving as a less-than-necessary transition tune, Rolls Bayce failing to stand out as more than another Battles song, and White Electric simply trying too hard and becoming muddled because of it.

        Closer Sundome is another fun and blissful march into insanity, but its vocal samples lack much purpose, and there's little to justify its Eight minute runtime. Add it all up, and Gloss Drop is a disc that proves strangely adept at mixing the extraordinary with the mundane. It's hard for me to get as excited about it as I was with Mirrored, but there's no taking away from the fact that the first Half Hour of the thing really pops. What's more, Gloss Drop confirms that the spirit of that amazing band that I saw is still alive and well, and even if they didn't completely nail it this time around, there's still plenty of reason to celebrate: For right now, and for the future.

Grade: B

Friday, June 3, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 (Release Date: 5-26-2011)

        And so, the summer of sequels and reboots presses on. Summer 2011 is set to break the record for continuation films released in one season, and with Pirates of the Caribbean and The Hangover, you know we're just getting started. Alongside the Wolfpack sequel arrives Kung Fu Panda 2, a rare movie whose predecessor actually seemed to merit a part Two. Jack Black returns to voice Po, the titular panda, and while he still bumbles and makes food-themed jokes every Two minutes or so, he is now the Dragon Warrior, and has thus earned the respect and admiration of those around him. But Po's amazing new life is threatened when terrifying flashbacks (presented in interesting 2D animation bits) confuse his family linage, causing him to ask himself who he is and where he came from. What's more, the only one who seems to know the secrets of Po's past is Shen (Gary Oldman), an evil peacock bent on ruling all of China who might just have the firepower to see his dream become reality.

        In much the same fashion as something like Avatar or Transformers, the Kung Fu Panda movies are only minimally interested in plot, using it primarily as a springboard into some spectacular action sequences and dazzling animation. Of the Hour and Half that Panda occupies the screen for, at least an hour must be spent with things whirling, twisting, kicking and punching. It can feel a little excessive at times, but it's easier to swallow considering these are by far the best action sequences to hit the big screen so far this year, all presented in some truly effective 3D. The set pieces are brilliant, the moves of the combatants are fast yet readily observable, and you can almost feel the fuzz on the fighting animals. As a Forty-minute action short, KFP2 might have been a masterpiece.

        But, alas, the movie is as it is, and we trudge through the same sorts of abandonment and identity issues as any number of other kid's flicks. It's not bad stuff: The game voice cast includes the likes of Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, and Dustin Hoffman, and a few jokes really hit their mark. But there's a feeling, inescapable at any single point in the film, that the story doesn't really matter even to those involved, which probably isn't such a good sign. Still, when the panda is kickin' ass, this movie is kickin' ass, and that's a pretty sturdy majority of the time. It may feel slight, and highly disposable, but hey, you're in the summer of sequels now aren't you? Just take your amazing animal on animal kung fu action and be happy already!

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Leftovers: May 2011

Leftover Theatrical Releases:
Hesher (Limited Release Date: (5-13-2011):
        For the first time since I started writing a Leftovers post for each month, there are theatrical releases that I didn't get to tell you about that are worthy of note. What's more, there are a slew of them. We begin with Hesher, an American indie from first-time feature Director Spencer Susser. It's the story of a family of Three; a stoic, constantly bullied young boy (Devin Brochu), his pill-popping, layabout father (Rainn Wilson), and a steadfast, angelic grandmother (Piper Laurie), who all have their lives turned upside down when Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) starts squatting at their house. Hesher is a long, greasy-haired, foul-mouthed metal kid who loves to tell vulgar jokes, blow things up, and occasionally offer a twisted parable or Two. The culture clash that occurs between Hesher and the family is both hilarious and intriguing, Susser using Gordon-Levitt as heaven's most wayward guardian angel. It's a movie that takes many risks, including some odd casting choices (Natalie Portman as an average-Jane grocery store clerk?), and some outright cruel treatment of its protagonists. But even if Susser and his crew don't roll Seven every time, there's a real sense of vitality to the movie, and it's anyone's guess where the thing will end up right up until the last moments. Hesher is a daring movie that once more confirms the greatness of Gordon-Levitt, and marks the brave Susser as one to watch.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Limited Release Date: 3-2-2011)
        To be honest with you, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a difficult movie to discuss, but I'll give it a shot. The winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the Thai import is the story of a man struggling with cancer (Thanapat Saisaymar) slowly coming to terms with his mortality and demise with the help of various members of the spirit world. As seen through my American eyes, there's no getting around the fact that Uncle Boonmee is a strange sort of flick, filled with lengthy stretches passing without dialogue, humans morphing into monkey ghosts, and a catfish who wants nothing more than to make it with an older woman. But the final product is nothing short of hypnotizing, the minimal camera movement, seemingly all-natural lighting (or lack thereof), and the omni-present sounds of the surrounding forest gluing you to your seat. It's certainly not for those who like their movies wrapped in a pretty little bow, as I'm still not exactly sure what the movie was trying to say (there's no traditional narrative in the film to speak of), but the powerful grip that Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has on his audience is undeniable. Like a film by David Lynch or Gasper Noé, this one is all about watching a brilliantly talented film-maker flex his craftsmanship muscles, and his profound, loony version of the after-life continues to haunt and intrigue me even though today.

Incendies (Limited Release Date: 4-22-2011)
        One of the Five nominees for Best Foreign Language Feature at February's Academy Awards, this Canadian import is not, I repeat, NOT for the faint of heart. Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play Scorched, Incendies tells the story of a brother and sister in their mid-Thirties who, upon the passing of their mother, find out through her Will that they have a Father and a Brother that they knew nothing about. Leaving her disbelieving brother behind, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) travels to the Middle East to follow her mother's trail in hopes of finding her lost family, and we view her story interspersed with the horrifying escapades that her mother (Lubna Azabal) faced while dwelling in the region. Director Denis Villeneuve is the real deal: Under his watch, every aspect of the film is fully realized, from Sound Design, to Cinematography, to Performances. More than a story of the hardships of the Middle East, Incendies serves as a vital reminder of how awful the world can get when rage and revenge become one's driving forces, a message made stinging and real by the focus on character development over some sort of big picture, removed perspective. It's got enough jaw-droppingly awful things in it to last you though the Winter, but Incendies is also a complete triumph of craftsmanship and story-telling, one containing a few scenes that will likely stick with me until the day I die. If you don't mind having your day ruined, you ought not miss it.