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Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (Release Date:7-22-2011)

        At long last, it arrives: The full-length, action-packed introduction to The Aveng... Oh wait, we're still not there... Credit Marvel Studios for their ambitious project: Bringing out all of their superheroes One by One with the intention to eventually bringing them all together in next Summer's The Avengers. A nifty plan, to be sure, but One that has distracted from the content of each of their movies since Iron Man 2. But at least we've finally arrived at the last precursor, as Captain America: The First Avenger stands as the studio's final character introduction before they step the whole thing up a notch.


        Even if you don't know the story of Captain America, the beats will be familiar to you: An earnest, hardworking youngster in 1940's America (Chris Evans' face on top of a shrimpy teen's body) wants nothing more than to serve his country in WW2. After attempting to enlist in the Army several times only to be rejected on account of his physical stature, Steve Rogers' (as he is so called) persistence finally pays off. He's taken into a secret program under the wing of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), with the intention of undergoing a procedure in order to become a super-soldier. The experiment works, and tiny little Steve is transformed into a hulk of a man, ready to defend his country against the likes of Hitler, and his especially evil assistant, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving).


        The hardworking youth with a heart of gold. The government sanctioned physical transformation. We've heard all of these stories before, but, luckily, Captain America is smart enough to recognize that fact. Instead of trying to be an edgy, envelope-pusher like The Dark Knight, CA plays into the hands of its familiarity, presenting itself as an 'ah-shucks,' actioneer with more in common with 80's, Spielbergian family adventure than today's blockbuster fare. It's a fun, rousing time, nearly stripped of all irony, and featuring likable, winsome performances by Evans, Tucci, Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Sebastian Stan, and beautiful Brit Hayley Atwell. Mediocre as its action sequences may be, CA is still a fun romp with genuine naivety and charm. I couldn't help but be a little insulted by the conclusion, which feels cut-off as a means of posturing next Summer's mega-sequel, but on the whole, Captain America drew the inner, 'gee-whiz!,' out of me, and that's a feat worth celebrating.


Grade: B

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Leftovers: July 2011

Leftover Album(s):
tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l
        You think the wonky capitalization of the project's name, and the awkward spacing of the album's title are strange; Wait to you actually hear what's on this thing. The solo-project of One Merrill Garbus, tUnE-yArDs has a sound that can prove a bit abrasive at first, but reveals itself to be deep, colorful, and intricate on multiple listens. w h o k i l l sounds as though Garbus and her backing band stuffed about Twelve musical genres into a blender, turned the thing onto full-blast, and stuck a microphone up to it. Yes, it's wacky stuff, but powerful and rousing as well, as on the punching, rolling Gangsta or the rat-tat-tat shuffle of Doorstep. Gerbus also happens to be armed with a miraculous voice, masculine and odd, but possessing limitless range and flair. Her lyrics, which often take on such sticky subjects as Violence, Nationalism, Sexuality, and Police Brutality, are a marvel as well, honest and stirring at every turn. It may take a few listens to realize, but w h o k i l l is One of the year's very best, and most undoubtably its craziest.
Washed Out: Life of Leisure EP and Within and Without
        Yeah, I know, I'm a little late on this One. Washed Out's Life of Leisure EP was released near the end of 2009, drumming up feverish anticipation for the full-length that was only just released this last month. In truth, that's right about how long I've been onboard the bandwagon, but I am now openly inviting anyone who likes nostalgic, fuzzy, 80's-leaning bedroom electro-pop to hop on along side me. The solo-project of Ernest Greene, Washed Out has an uncanny ability to make the world feel as though it's moving in slow-motion, a quality that the IFC original series Portlandia utilized to ideal effect in using LOL's Feel it All Around as the backing for its opening credits. In truth, I'm much more found of the EP than I am the also-impressive LP, its lack of production fueling its yesteryear vibes. Plus, there's simply nothing on WAW that can match the sheer sunshine of New Theory or You'll See It. I'm sure that when I fully sink my teeth into their newest, I will hold it in much the same place as I do the EP, so you might as well beat me to it. If you haven't already, check this guy out.
Leftover Movies
Terri
        Terri is One odd-duck of a movie, but not in the fashion that you might expect. Director Azazel Jacobs and Writer Patrick Dewitt have crafted a true original, a story about a misfit High Schooler that somehow miraculously manages to stand-out amidst the constant onslaught of similar genre offerings. Jacob Wysocki stars as the titular teen, an obese outsider who's taken to wearing pajamas to school everyday as an unstated pronouncement of his apathy. His home life isn't much better; His parents are no where to be found, and his caretaker, Uncle James (Creed Bratton), is slipping into dementia. Terri's sad, bullied existence catches the eye of Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), an unpredictable mess of an Assistant Principal and Guidance Counselor who sees a similar lost soul. I know how it all reads: A gifted but different teen finds a way to be happy with the help of an adult that sees him for who he truly is. But Terri is much more thorny than all of that, slipping into cliche a bare minimum number of times, moving at a glacial pace that would scare most teen audiences right out of the theater. What makes Terri special, besides the captivating, convincing performances given by everyone onboard, is that it's impossible to tell how seriously you're supposed to take it. The thing is purely tragedy and wholly Napoleon Dynamite at the exact same time, a stomach-churning mixture that's hard to believe until you see it. Some will walk out thinking it was a riot; Others will struggle to find a single laugh within it. The beauty of the movie is that neither answer is wrong.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Friends With Benefits (Release Date: 7-22-2011)

        Movies sometimes have a tendency to be released in bunches. Everyone always brings up the pair of Period Magician movies (The Illusionist and The Prestige) that both came out during 2006, as well as the 9/11 pictures (United 93 and World Trade Center) that did the same. My personal favorite is the slew of Pregnancy comedies that were released between 2007 and 2008 (In chronological order: Waitress, Knocked Up, Juno, and Baby Mama). But even so, the similarities between this last weekend's Friends With Benefits, and last January's No Strings Attached seem startlingly pronounced. Besides having the same central theme (can friends have sex and not become emotionally attached? Hollywood's answer: NEVER EVER EVER), the Two have a shared history with both Black Swan (NSA's Natalie Portman, FWB's Mila Kunis), and That 70's Show (NSA's Aston Kutcher, Kunis), AND No Strings Attached was originally named Friends With Benefits. How's that for casting a shadow?

        Sub out the aforementioned Kutcher, and sub in Justin Timberlake, who stars as Dylan, a graphic designer newly transplanted to New York City to work for GQ Magazine. Kunis plays Jamie, the head-hunter that not only brought Dylan to the job in the first place, but remains his only real friend in the area. After a late-night drunken romantic comedy viewing, the Two start to bemoan the cost of sex, and how commitment and feelings always tend to ruin something that should be a purely physical act. Believe it or not, they then head to the bedroom, and we count down the minutes until each predictable plot twist takes place.

        What's interesting about Friends With Benefits (and what sets it apart from No Strings Attached, for that matter) is that it has a handful of moments where it really hits a stride, and you start thinking it might be able to morph into something as scandalously fun as the title's description. Most notably, the chemistry between Timberlake and Kunis is leagues ahead of the Portman-Kutcher pairing, who both seemed a bit cold-blooded for the premise in the first place. The FWB duo is much better at playing off of each other, their conversations flowing naturally, managing to squeeze far more than their fair share of chuckles out of the movie's mostly eye-rollingly lame script (And that all goes without mentioning that a few of their under-sheets adventures are shot and played to tantalizing effect). Much like his work on last year's Easy A, Director Will Gluck sets the whole thing to a zippy, crisp pace, but with last year's effort, he had the benefit of a much stronger screenplay. I feel like there should be more to explain, but perhaps there really isn't: Friends With Benefits is exactly the movie that you expect it to be, pushed up by its charismatic leads and a few winning moments, and pulled down by an extended runtime, and an absolute avalanche of cliche and predictability. If you're looking for a movie to forget by tomorrow morning, this is your pick.

Grade: C

Friday, July 22, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (Release Date: 7-15-2011

        My sincerest apologies to the uninitiated, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 doesn’t care a lick about you. With almost 20 hours of Potter films under the series’ belt, Warner Brothers must know that if they haven’t won you over by now, they’re not going to. The new film, which stands as the final chapter in the Harry Potter saga, takes up right where Part I left off, and when I say right where, I mean every one of the story’s players is just wrapping up the scene that we ended on last Fall. If you’re fuzzy on what exactly Horcruxes are, how many have been destroyed, and the explicit purpose of the Deathly Hallows, you might want to brush up on your own time. This movie feels no need to coddle you.
        After the first four flicks (and books, for that matter) all adhered to a distinct structure, featuring both a true beginning and ending, the fifth entry to the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, opted instead to start building up to something. A turning point in the saga on both page and screen, this was also where British TV Director David Yates took the helm, directing the rest of the films from there on out. It’s not the blunder of Yates that has caused the last three Potter flicks to feel less momentous: That’s how the story is structured, leading up to the climax that is offered in this newest and last installment. Finally given his moment, Yates shows a virtuoso’s mastery of epic scale and meaningful moments, almost each and every single important event in the film hitting its mark perfectly.
I’ve always found Yates’ work in the series to be remarkably graceful, and nothing changes here: The effects all look great, and feel necessary to the events of the film, and the intimate, character-driven moments play with just as much elegant grandeur. The acting is fine all around, many series favorites giving one last turn before fading off into movie lore. And finally, at the exact right moment, it’s Daniel Radcliffe who most impresses, adding a bit of stubble and a whole lot of action hero bravado to his earnest and relatable hero. I’ve never been one to call him a bad actor in the past, but it’s evident from the start that the young thespian knows this is his moment. As always, Steve Kloves’ screenplay does an excellent job of summarizing the events of the book without denying the cinematic telling of its own life, but the cheesy moments that he’s been prone to include through-out the series do occasionally take away from the scope and scale of the movie. My complete, unbridled enthusiasm for the film is also damped by the fact that, given that the first half of this individual tale isn’t even attached to the movie, DHP2 is almost all climax, which can feel a bit lopsided. I’m not about to say that it doesn’t merit a non-stop finale of this sort; it totally does. I just can’t quite appreciate the movie as an individual chapter as much as many can. But, in truth, that’s almost beside the point when your dealing with dynamite entertainment like this.
        Good-bye, Harry. You’ve been a loyal friend. Through seven books and eight movies, the boy wizard has never let us down. Sure, some offerings in both series’ have been lesser than others, but J.K. Rowling’s tales never lacked purpose, never lacked a reason for existence, an incredible testament to the depth of the universe that she has created. Though Deathly Hallows Part 2 certainly stands as a triumph in its own right, I can’t really get excited about any one piece of the Potter puzzle without getting giddy about the whole of the thing. Some have and will call it the true prize of decade-running filmic adaptation, but I prefer to think of it simply as an exemplary section to sprawling story that has never once slipped below average, and has frequently exceeded it. Perhaps that holds me back from loving the final Potter quite the same way that many do, but I’m not about to tell you that it’s anything less than excellent. In fact, it’s thrilling, enthralling entertainment, and it wraps up a decade of Potter in outstanding fashion.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

25 Things within the World of Harry Potter that just DON'T MAKE SENSE!

        This last Friday, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was finally released, marking the end of the Boy Wizard's cinematic journey. Having read all of the books, seen all of the films, and having grown up as a member of Generation Potter, there are all sorts of things that I could write for the occasion. I could talk about how the series got a whole group of young people reading again, or how deeply the lexicon of the magical world has infiltrated popular culture. Better yet, I could rank each of the movies and books, or even discuss the jaw-dropping number of box office records the new film shattered over the weekend (biggest midnight showing ever, biggest single day ever, biggest domestic opening ever, biggest foreign opening ever, biggest world-wide opening ever). But I'm not going to do those things (save the mini-list you just read), and you know why? Because everyone's doing it!

        So, I'm going to celebrate the passing of Potter in my own way: by making fun of it! The following is a list of 25 things within the world of Harry Potter that simply don't add up. Feel free to leave a comment below disputing any of my claims, or, better yet, adding to the list. Enjoy:
1. What's up with broom sticks, anyways?
        Sure, us Muggles seem to be a bit more weary of our safety than your average wizard, but would anyone in their right mind really feel secure riding for miles on end at top speeds and sizable heights on something that doesn't even have handles, let alone seat belts? And what about the splinters? Wouldn't your hands get sweaty and slippery with only a small wooden cylinder to hold on to? On a different level, why do witches and wizards even know about brooms, anyways? Surely they have more graceful, effective methods of cleaning their dungeon floors. Most importantly, given how riding a bike feels after extended periods, wouldn't broom riding reeeeeeeeeeally be murder on your butt? Just sayin'...

2. Three unforgivable curses, one unbeatable
        For all of the curses and counter-curses that exist within J.K. Rowling's universe, wouldn't you think there would be more than one with the power to kill? Doesn't it get a little dull for Voldemort to use the same two words to wipe out every last person? Even us non-magical folk have figured out more than one way to rub someone out.

3. Why aren't Ron and Hermione the, 'Cool Kids,' at Hogwarts?
        As if being besties with The Chosen One isn't cool enough, Ron and Hermione save the lives of everyone in the school on a seemingly yearly basis. Why aren't these kids way, way, way more popular? Everyone treats Ron like a doofy, red-headed stepchild, and Hermione like a know-it-all bookworm. I don't know about your school, but where I grew up, saving the world on the regular would yield much greater rewards. Harry and Ron can't even find dates to the Yule Ball!?! In real life, they would be crawling with ladies. Hermione, on the other-hand, might prove too intimidating to go after. Ah, gender roles...

4. Is Lily Potter really the very first person to take the bullet for someone in the wizarding world?
        OK, so, Harry is the only person to ever survive the Avada Kedavra curse, and it was because his mother sacrificed her life out of love for him. That all checks out. But hasn't anyone tried that before? There are two incidences of half-bood genocide over the course of just 20 years, and not a single person in the Harry Potter universe has even tried taking the bullet for a loved one? What a selfish lot!

5. Quiddich: the worst sport of all time
        Leave it to the wizarding world to invent a game even worse than Soccer. Sure, Quiddich is fun, and exciting, and what not, but its scoring system is nothing short of moronic. Goals are worth 10 points, and catching the snitch is worth 150? Unless you're a seeker, why bother even trying? As long as you're not losing by a whopping 16 GOALS, you're golden. And don't bring up Krum catching it early at the world cup: Purposely losing a game is called quitting, not being honorable.

6. All that magic and you're still wearing glasses...
        Seriously, they can literally grow back entire skeletons in a night's time, and yet no one has figured out a spell or potion to cure poor eye-sight? Maybe it's just a fashion thing, but fixing Harry's vision should be as easy as swish and flick.

7. Who gives a rip about Jesus; we can do MAGIC!
        Witches and wizards can literally defy the most basic and essential tenant of physics by creating matter, and yet they still celebrate Christmas? Turning water into wine is probably a spell that you learn in your third year, and with the ghosts ever-lurking around castle corridors, I can't imagine conquering death seems all that cool, either. Maybe they only celebrate the Santa/Coca-Cola Christmas.

8. Have fun at Hogwarts, kids. We'll see you in the afterlife
        Another year, another threat to every living thing inside the walls of Hogwarts. How can all of these parents feel good about continuously placing their children's lives at risk? Do they not know what happens in the castle? Are there no parent-teacher meetings? The second I heard the words, 'giant, hostile, three-headed dog,' my off-spiring would be headed for Durmstrang.

9. Spring: A Wizard's most dangerous season
        Spring is a rough school season even in real life: You can almost feel the warm rays of summer on your back, and yet you have to focus on all of your final tests and most daunting projects. But that's nothing compared to the experiences of Harry, Ron and Hermione, who narrowly escape death as a seasonal occasion. Seriously, Harry's life is in danger at the end of literally every school year. I suppose the other two have it a bit easier, but almost meeting your demise during your 11th, 12th, 15th, and 17th springs is nothing to scoff at. As soon as winter starts thawing out, you'd better hide.

10. Dumbledore: wise and inspiring figure, poor talent evaluator
        Dumbledore might be one of the greatest wizards to ever live, but he couldn't differentiate a good teacher from a bad one if his life depended on it. Seriously, six different Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers in six years? That's a pretty rough track record, especially when one is a talentless fraud, another is a werewolf, and two are acting under the direction of the Dark Lord. Sure, he gets as pass on ministry-imposed Dolores Umbridge, but that doesn't make up for hiring a fake like Trelawney, or a leech like Slughorn. Seriously, Dumbledore: You need to do more extensive background checks.

11. Voldemort: powerful wizard, lousy strategist
        He may be the most feared wizard in the world, but Voldemort has a pronounced tendency to act first, and think second. Trust Draco Malfoy to kill Dumbledore: seriously? You're sending a 16-year-old to murder your biggest rival? I know you want to crush the Malfoy family into submission, but aren't there less important tasks to do it with? And if Voldy knows all about the prophecy and the date of birth that it singles out, why doesn't he make sure to kill Neville, just in case? Maybe that would be a good job for Draco! For such a leader of men, old Tom Riddle is pretty lousy at the crossing T's and dotting I's kinda stuff.

12. What a surprise: The Tri-Wizard Tournament killed someone!
        Sure, no one could have predicted that Cedric Diggory would be snuffed by Voldemort at the end of the final challenge, but you had to expect someone to bite the dust during this contest. 16-year-olds versus full-grown, fire-breathing dragons, and murderous merpeople? It's a miracle you didn't kill all of these kids! Count your blessing, and then lower your standards.

13. Breaking out of Azkaban is inexplicably time-consuming
        Not to hate on Sirius Black or anything, but what took you so long? If all it took was losing a bit of weight and slipping into dog form, couldn't he have just starved himself for a few months, and made a break for it straight-away? Also, is Sirius the first Animagus ever imprisoned at Azkaban? Seems unlikely, and yet those oh-so-powerful Dementors saw a dog running through the halls and didn't think twice about it.

14. That's no way to treat The Boy Who Lived!
        Not to be sacrilegious about it or anything, but isn't Harry something of a Christ-figure in the world he inhabits? Do you really think that the masses would side with a smarmy politician like Minister Fudge against the person responsible for returning order and peace to their world? Come on, Seamus, you'd be dead without this kid, he's saved the school twice already, and you're still not going to take him at his word? Tough crowd...

15. Where's the (magical) Beef?
        A bit silly, but if wizards have awesome candy and vaguely alcoholic drinks, why isn't there more wizard-specific food served at Hogwarts? Chicken legs and potatoes again? That's muggle-fodder. Let's get some hippogriph wings up in here!

16. Can we get a head-count?
        How many magical people are there in the world? Hogwarts seems to educate anywhere between 200 to 1,000 students at a time, depending on the filmic adaptation, and only two other schools are ever mentioned. Yet there's a fully-staffed political system, and even populous enough to make the Quiddich World Cup a multi-national event. Where are they all hiding, and don't they all need educations too?

17. Will someone give Bartie Crouch an Oscar already?
        I'm sure that Bartie Crouch did his fair share of homework before deciding to impersonate one of the most iconic wizards around for an entire year, but seriously, no one figured it out? His mannerisms and voice were sooo spot on that even those who had known Mad Eye Moody for years didn't think twice? That's a tough voice to impersonate, and even trickier body-language. Hats off to the mystical world's finest thespian.
18. The Weasleys: The most alluring family in all the land
        I'm known to admire a ginger girl or two, but there's something in those Weasley genes that seems to knock just about everyone off their feet. Much has been made about goofy old Ron landing a wip-smart, adventure-seeking babe like Hermione, but that's just the tip of the ice burg. Ginny ends up with the savior of the world, and big brother Bill bags Fleur Delacour, a woman whose beauty makes everyone around her go weak at the knees. Not bad for a bunch of copper-tops.

19. Sure, Harry, the Durselys will keep you safe!
        I understand that the Dursely's are Harry's legal guardians, but do you really think sending him back to the Muggle world is such a good idea? Voldemort has an easy enough time getting to the boy wizard as is. Somehow I don't think he would find the prospect of facing down Vernon and Petunia all that daunting.

20. I've heard of peaking early, but this is ridiculous!
        You know that kid who was really, really cool in high school, and then didn't end up amounting to much thereafter? That's everyone at Hogwarts. I'm sure that vanquishing evil a handful of times before you can even buy cigarettes might make grown-up life kind of boring, but do you really think that each and every single one of your buddies would end up marrying the person they were dating in prep-school? Even Voldemort, the most powerful wizard around, hid half his sole within the school, encased in various Hogwarts swag and merchandise. Get over it, dude.

21. Ministry of Magic=House of Cards
        I understand that the ministry was under some pretty extreme pressure, but would it really only take a few months to secretly over-throw an entire government? As late into the story as the end of the sixth book, the Ministry is still a no-no to all things Voldemort. A few months later, they've got a freakin' statue dedicated to Muggle abuse right outside the door. In the future, more amendments might help.

22. Those are some well-trained owls you have there
        When I see a large flock of birds flying above me, I look for cover. The kids at Hogwarts: they just finish their dinner. Seriously, no bird poops or even sheds wings as they deliver letters night after night? And what about Bird-Flu? How is this not a health code violation?

23. I may hate Half-Bloods, but deep down, I'm color-blind
        In a world just as preoccupied with establishing and prolonging prejudices based on heritage as we are, isn't it strange that no one cares about race? Especially little Draco, the perfect Aryan, who uses the term, 'Mud-Blood,' in every other sentence. Good news for Kingsley Shackbolt, I suppose.

24. It's Friday Night, Let's...
        It's alluded to at points, but it sure seems like the wizarding world is woefully lacking in the pop-culture department. Yeah, if I could do magic, I suppose summer blockbuster movies wouldn't be quite as cool, but what about music? How does one even listen to recorded music without electricity? Are the only people who are famous those who have actually accomplished something of meaning? Well, that kind of sounds quite nice, but still, what do people talk about/spend their free time on if not books (not textbooks), movies, and music?

25. It's like sword-fighting, only lame and non-sensical
        This seems to be the whipping-boy of the Harry Potter universe of late, and why not? What exactly is going on during a wand duel? Some of them seem to consist of actual spell-casting, but often, and especially the ones between Harry and Voldemort, they look like two people trying to pull a magnet off of something. Is the wand doing all the work for you? And how is it exactly that you win? Do you just have to want it more or something? I guess we'll never know...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Winnie the Pooh (Release Date: 7-15-2011)

        Feeling like it's been too long since you took a trip back in time with your favorite anthropomorphized stuffed toys? Disney is hoping that you do. Their first attempt to bring back the bear since 2005 (Pooh's Heffalump Movie) hasn't exactly been a ringing success so far, earning One dollar for every 21 grossed by Harry Potter this last weekend. It's a telling thing that Winnie the Pooh was the only mainstream movie willing to unveil itself on the same weekend as the boy wizard's climactic journey. Unlike the wands and witches epic, Disney's hand-drawn latest is gentle, unassuming, and modest. No wonder it couldn't find much of an audience.

        There's not much use in explaining the story to this One, as it meanders freely with the hopes and fears of its foolish and endearing characters. As a matter of fact, One can just about summarize the plot in Three easy steps: Eeyore (Bud Luckey) has misplaced his tale, Owl creates a misunderstanding that sets the whole group on edge, and poor old Pooh (Jim Cummings) just wants some honey. If that doesn't sound like enough to fill a full feature film runtime with... well, it's not... not even close, really. The feature is proceeded by a pretty adorable little animated short, then stuffed to the brim with musical numbers during its actual runtime, and even with all of that extra padding, the thing still calls it quits after a mere 69 minutes, making it far and away the shortest wide release of the year. I'm a big fan of movies that don't feel a need to spin their wheels, and by that standard, I deeply appreciate Pooh's extreme sense of brevity, though it likely might leave One feeling cheated for paying full price.

        Within Winnie the Pooh are Two battling natures: That of the Disney giant, and that of Pooh creator A.A. Milne. Milne's 100 Acre Woods was filled with self-serving characters and rampant botched exchanges of information, whereas Disney's contributions have always been the moral at the end, and a general feeling of canned goodwill. They're both here, and to the studio's credit, the heart of Milne's writings is definitely evident in the movie, especially in the dialogue. That being said, the mouse house can't help but lay it on a bit think from time to time, as in the case of the seemingly endless barrage of soul-crushingly cutesy songs performed by Zooey Deschanel laced through out the film. To be fair, it only feels like over-reaching because it doesn't need it. Winnie the Pooh is charming and winsome without having to beat you over the head with it, a light, breezy, and nostalgic afternoon at the flicks. Given the runtime, the parameters of the movie, and the abundance of loud (albeit possibly cute) small children you might have to contend with, I can't really recommend paying for it in theaters, but I'm sure it would make for a modest, warm, and wonderful hand-drawn animation addition to anyone's Netflix cue.

Grade (Seen for free, or on Netflix): B+
Grade (After coughing up $10+): C-

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Top Ten Movies of 2011 So Far, Part 2

**Notes: The following list is presented in alphabetical order. A longer, ordered Best Of list will be presented at the end of the year*


Jane Eyre
        Most of us already know the story of Jane Eyre, the 1847 Charlotte Brontë's classic in which a young girl takes a journey of self-discovery, leading her from a harsh boarding school upbringing to the shadowy corridors of Thornfield Hall, the home of the mysterious and alluring Mr. Rochester. It's a tricky thing, holding the attention of an audience who already knows the outcome of the story you're telling, but it's a task that Sophomore Director Cary Fukunaga and his team are more than up to. Under Fukunaga's watchful eye, all elements of craft are beautifully realized, from Adriano Goldman's stunning camera work, to the gorgeously melancholy score by Dario Marianelli. The acting is in fine form here as well, up-and-comers Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender taking up the lead roles, both exuding passion and thoughtfulness in One emotional veiled scene after another. But in the end, this is Fukunaga's party, and he invites in all of the gothic, sinister tones that the book itself contained. The perfect counter-argument to anyone who says that a remake can't be special and alive.


Limitless
        While I've liked Limitless from the first time I saw it, the movie has grown on me over the several months since its release. By no means is Neil Burger's anti(or is it pro?)-drug movie a perfect piece; It's screenplay can be clunky from time to time, and there are more than a few loop hole to poke fun at if you really want to. But despite its deficiencies, what sets Limitless apart is that its phenomenal entertainment, gripping, stylish, and unpredictable from beginning to end. In his first attempt to genuinely headline a movie, Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a struggling writer who stumbles across a pill with the power to increase the brain activity of its users Ten-Fold. But as with all too-good-to-be-true medications, this One comes with side-effects. Cooper turns out to be a hugely fun leading man, ladling out the charm and smarm as only he can do, his compelling performance grounding the movie's absurd proceedings. Burger has all kinds of fun with the premise, pulling out One wacky effect or stylistic flourish after another, and having nearly all of them hit their mark. Limitless is pretty much exactly what I hope for from Hollywood: An escapist page-turner with fine work both in front of and behind the camera, with style to spare.


Meek's Cutoff
        Like a certain other movie that I'll be discussing at the end of this article, Meek's Cutoff proves an insufferable viewing experience for both the impatient or those attached to closure, but its divisiveness is just what makes it special. Director Kelly Reichardt existentialist western (a genre that has somehow already produced Two movies this year (Rango)) stars Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and others as a band of lost travelers on the Oregon Trail who have both their faith and their allegiances tested in a number of unexpected ways. Shot in Reichardt's native Oregon, and in an old-school, boxy 1.37:1 ratio that neglects to cover the entire screen, Meek's Cutoff  is no less than miraculous when it comes to prompting a physical reaction: You can almost feel the dust fill your nostrils as you watch it, feel the parched tongue's of the movie's many dehydrated characters. It's the exact kind of movie that could be accused of having, 'nothing happen,' and if that doesn't sound like your thing, then I'm going to bet that its not. But those with the patience and endurance to take the trek with Reichardt and crew will be handsomely rewarded with picture-esque cinematography, wholly believable performances, and a handful of philosophical concepts that will rattle around in your head for days. No, this is not your Dad's Western, and thank god for that.


Midnight in Paris
        Before I launch back into the realm of movies enormous and daunting, let's take a moment to celebrate a movie that takes off relatively small bites, and chews them with confidence, exactness, and grace. His first genuinely sunny movie in ages, Woody Allen's newest stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in Paris. Finding himself disinterested in the activities of his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her pedantic friend (Michael Sheen), Gil sets out to walk the city streets One night, and finds himself magically transported into the 1920's, rubbing elbows with his literary idols like F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Earnest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). It's an intoxicating mix: Beautiful shots of Paris, a bevy of famous actor's playing legendary writers, and a plethora of cheap jokes related to classic literature. I can't help but think that an English major like myself might have more fun with this One, but Wilson's easy-going charm is undeniable, as is the warm feeling that seems to waft of off every frame in the film. It's a simple movie, requiring neither a bloated budget, nor lengthy bouts of exposition, but its charms are tried and true, and the moral that it finally arrives at is simple, beautiful, pure, and true. Long live the Woodman!


The Tree of Life
        The most polarizing movie of the year Twice-over, Terrance Malick's Fifth feature in his 38-year-old directing career is the literal definition of ambitious, attempting in its 138 minute runtime to explain... well... everything. Haggard and jaded, Jack (Sean Penn) looks back on the entire story-arch of his life, beginning with the big bang, continuing on through the evolution of life on the planet, the dinosaurs and their extinction, and finally ending up in a 1950's Texas suburb, where we watch Jack as a boy (Hunter McCracken) be raised by his warm, loving mother (Jessica Chastain), and his domineering, demanding father (Brad Pitt). Malick leaves just about everything up to interpretation, a fact that has led some to call it a euphoric masterpiece, and others to call it a boring, wrong-headed waste of time. There's not to much middle ground with this One, so I'd might as well pick a side and stick with it. I love The Tree of Life: its authentic performances, its unending fountain of visual beauty, and its endless mysteries, both slippery and profound. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Horrible Bosses (Release Date: 7-8-2011)

        The insufferably terrible boss. We've all had One. They undermine our efforts, refuse to notice our hard work, and are just plain a drag to operate under. I've had a few in my day, and while I dislike being hassled and chastised as much as the next guy, I've never encountered anything quite like the leaders of Horrible Bosses, and I have to predict that you haven't either. Three largely normal guys (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day) come into the office day in and day out only to be met by ferocious harassment. Bateman must contend with a manipulative, power-drunk Kevin Spacey, Sudeikis is saddled with an unfeeling coke-head in the form of Colin Farrell, and poor Day, who wants nothing more than to be loyal to his fiance, toils under a constant barrage of hyper-agressive come-ons by Jennifer Aniston. The friends are out of options: They hate their environment, but they're not about to go out and face the harsh economy. After thinking about it for about Two minutes and discovering no other options, the Three decide that the only logical thing to do is hatch a plan to kill their employers.

        It's a juicy set-up: A problem that nearly all of us have personal experience with, seen through the lens of both comedy and wish-fulfillment, played by some big-name stars. And while there's no denying that Horrible Bosses has it's moments, there are a few issues that I have with it that I simply cannot get over. The Three leads, obviously and intentionally dwarfed by their bosses in terms of star-power, are blatantly designed to be comparable to The Hangover's Wolfpack, Bateman taking up the nervous conscious originally given life by Ed Helms, Sudeikis slotting in as Bradley Cooper's reckless ladies man, and Day subbing in as the goofball in place of Zach Galifianakis. And that all goes without mentioning that Bosses' gross-out, what-will-they-do-next? sense of humor is perfectly in line with its predecessor. The leads aren't half bad in the parts, and there are occasions where their comedic chemistry really hits a stride, but the film's adherence to formula, not unlike The Hangover Part II, causes the whole thing to feel like diet-Hangover.

        Which is a shame, because the rest of the cast brings their A-game to some truly outlandish and over-the-top performances. Spacey is both great and exactly what you expected him to be, once again riffing on the evil corporate monster that he's played with through-out the years. Farrell makes a big impression in minimal screen time, a smarmy and deplorable lout who makes no bones about it. And Aniston manages to squeeze genuine laughs from a role that seems largely designed to get her in her underwear. Sure, there are charms to Horrible Bosses, Jamie Foxx's ridiculous supporting role among them, but for me anyways, the movie just doesn't quite come to life. There's a feeling of, 'been-there, done-that,' hovering over every frame of the thing, causing even the inspired moments feel cribbed from another movie altogether. I know many who have liked and will like this One more than I do, and more power to them. I want to like it, to give it a good write-up for the things that it did well, but in the end, I just didn't laugh as much as I was hoping.

Grade: C

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Top Ten Movies of 2011 So Far, Part 1

**Notes: The following list is presented in alphabetical order. A longer, ordered Best Of list will be presented at the end of the year*

Beginners
        The semi-autobiographical sophomore feature from writer/director Mike Mills is not only leaps and bounds ahead of his already-fun debut (Thumbsucker), but also stands as the most genuinely emotional film of the year so far. Ewan McGregor stars as Mills-stand-in Oliver, a 39-year-old who is grieving the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), a man who finally came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full and vibrant gay life. Still sifting through the implications of his father's late-life change-up, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a beautiful free spirit with similar commitment issues who might just be the perfect balm for Oliver's pain. Beginners is stuffed to the brim with little artistic flourishes, and it's a marvel to watch One after another come off perfectly, always personal, never forced or cloying. The performances all around are top notch, bringing you into the lives and plights of each of the Three leads. Beginners is a labor of love if ever there was One, crafted in impeccable and deeply felt form from first frame to last.

Bridesmaids
        Hands down the funniest movie of the year so far, Bridesmaids isn't exactly your standard Romantic Comedy. Kristen Wiig, who also shares writing duties, stars as Annie, a down-on-her-luck type with a lousy, unfeeling bedfellow (John Hamm), a dream job that just went under, and a pair of the strangest roommates ever. Into this storm enters the news that Annie's best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married, starting a war between Annie and Lillian's new buddy, the glamorous and breathy Helen (Rose Byrne), over who ought to plan the events leading up to the big day. Over the last several years, women have been regulated to the back seat in the comedy world, but the success of Bridesmaids will likely wake studio heads up to an important fact: People will open their wallets for female characters who actually sound like women when they speak. And if most of the things they say are completely hilarious and true, all the better.

The Double Hour
        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 tidy 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.

Hanna
        For pulse-pounding action and eye-popping visuals, Hanna is just about unbeatable. The titular hero (Saoirse Ronan) has never left the snowy woods where she lives and trains with her father (Eric Bana). The day finally comes when she's ready to enter the world and face her nemesis, government goon Marissa (Cate Blanchett), while learning the truth about her mysterious past. Those looking for a complex, meaningful plot and a satisfying conclusion might be left wanting, but if action is your forte, Hanna is the movie for you. Ronan is completely convincing as a deadly machine, and her tour across the world to ensure her freedom is full of subtle allusions to fairy tale rhetoric and jaw-dropping vistas. Throw in a throbbing and dominant score by The Chemical Brothers, and you have the most fun and exhilarating action picture of 2011 thus far.


Incendies
        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.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Top Ten Albums of 2011 So Far, Part 2

**Notes: The following list is presented in alphabetical order. A longer, ordered Best Of list will be presented at the end of the year**


James Blake---James Blake
        The perfect answer to anyone who would accuse electronic music of always being without heart, James Blake's self-titled first-try takes the bombast that people often associate Dub-Step and replaces it with space and subtlety. Blake, a 22-year-old Brit, has always had quite the buzz swirling around him, but his earlier, sample-heavy offerings like CMYK have always been easier for me to appreciate than enjoy. Imagine my surprise, then, when Blake's self-titled debut turned out to be one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums to come out for quite some time. The White boy has soul, the achingly true feeling of his vocal delivery bolstered by a variety of forms of auto-tune, soaring falsetto flying high above each track's minimal, hypnotizing beat. The album as a whole sounds something like if Bon Iver's Justin Vernon lent his vocals to the sparse, night-time instrumentation of The XX, all cycled through the lap-top beats of Thom Yorke's The Eraser. If that sounds like excessive praise, then you probably haven't heard the album yet. Pretty easily the best debut of 2011 thus far.


Panda Bear---Tomboy
          The world at large didn't go as crazy over this One as I did last April, but who needs them? I've got no problem sticking with my guns, especially when it concerns such a lush, imaginative, involving album as Tomboy. Like much of Animal Collective's catalogue, Tomboy makes a virtue out of its ability to immerse, echoing sounds bouncing off of psychedelic walls, intermixed with Noah Lennox's ever-warm and inviting croon. It's a disc that stays in the same sonic world from start to finish, but but manages to explore a plethora of different locations within it. If you don't believe me, check out the juxtaposition between the opening Two tracks: Opener You Can Count On Me has the warm glow and  feeling of being hugged by a long lost friend, whereas follow-up Tomboy is an utterly militant march with throbbing sounds and grinding guitars. As always, any Animal Collective output is going to be most enjoyed by those with a taste for the trippy, but there's simply no denying that peppy, heartening bound of Last Night at Jetty, or the sea-soaked affirmation of Surfer's Hymn. Yeah, I pretty much love this One from start to finish, and nobody is going to convince me otherwise.


Smith Westerns---Dye It Blonde
        One thing that the world of music can never get enough of is a killer guitar riff. How lucky we are, then, that Dye It Blonde can honestly claim to having One per track. Smith Westerns is a band that needs no abundance of explanation: They are a particularly great incarnation of a sound we're all familiar with. Their simple tunes are immediate and ridiculously catchy, a slimmer, less epic version of some classic rock bands like Zeppelin and Cream. Dye It Blonde literally waits less than Three second before launching into its first glorious axe-led melody, the whistle-ready guitar part for Weekend being matched in ear-worm readiness by just about everything that follows. If you like old fashioned rock and roll, be sure to give this a spin or Two.


TV on the Radio---Nine Types of Light
        Contrary to popular belief, growing old doesn't always have to mean becoming lame, a fact that TV on the Radio's newest can readily attest to. Sure, Nine Types of Light is noticeably less ambitious than any of the band's other albums, but it's quite possibly their most immediately accessible. The party starts right away with Second Song, a celebratory number complete with blaring horn section and dance-floor-ready pulse. From here, it's One killer track after another, championed by the earnest and surprisingly effecting love ballad Will Do. The band is showing its age, no doubt, but they're doing it with much more grace than your average rock outfit. Nine Types of Light doesn't just bode well for the future of TV on the Radio, it sounds great right now.


The Weeknd---House of Balloons
        If you take nothing else from this post, know this: If you like R&B music, this one is a must. Singer Abel Tesfaye's voice could readily be described as mind-blowing, seemingly unaware of any note too high or any wail too heartfelt. Underneath his stellar croon lurks beats dark, haunting, and yet surprisingly danceable. Be sure not to burn the album for your Mom; House of Balloons is purely Rated-R, full of sexual imagery and rampant drug use, but the twisted undertones of the music are part of what makes it so immediately singular. If R. Kelly upped and decided that he wanted Burial to do the beats on his next album, this would likely be the outcome, though it's hard to imagine that those two would dream of repurposing Two different Beach House tracks for their beats. What's better? This Nine-track collection is available for free download via the group's own webpage, http://the-weeknd.com/. If you're the type who likes a little creepiness with their baby-making music, you're not going to want to miss this.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Release Date: 6-29-2011)

        Like Autobots and Decepticons, people are either for the Transformers movies or against them, and there's not much use in trying to sway them. Critics can gripe all they want: The mega-budget, alien-robot explode-athon series is immune to complaints about story and character development, impervious to the rules and rhetoric that most movies must follow. Complain all you want about Michael Bay, his relentless quick-cuts, his objectification of women, or his 14-year-old's sense of humor: The guy can build spectacle unlike just about anyone else, and if you want to see what he's cooking up, you have to play by his rules. Make no mistake: Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a Transformers movie in every sense of the word, and if the first Two weren't your cup of tea, this One won't be either.

         The film opens with an extended flashback sequence, in which we learn that the very first mission to the moon was designed with an alternative goal: Investigating a mysterious alien craft that crash-landed on the rock. Flash forward to the present, where Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), once again dating a woman several divisions out of his league (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), searches for a job in downtown Chicago. He's busy moping through his days, wishing that he had a job that mattered more, when fate again calls on him, some mysterious Decepticon activity taking place that rounds up the whole gang (Optimus Prime, Josh Duhamel, Bumblebee, John Turturro, and a bunch of other characters we are supposed to care about). Soon, the Autobots are... oh, what the hell, THEY FIGHT A LOT!!!

        It says something about a film series when, "We were once a peaceful race of sentient mechanical beings," is the opening line to the best script in the trilogy, but Transformers is just such a franchise. In truth, the screenplay, penned by Ehren Kruger, is a slight upgrade over 2007's original, not to mention leaps and bounds ahead of the pages for 2009's Revenge of the Fallen. It has some interesting twists, moves at a confident pace, and makes sense at least 60% of the time, which is more than what I've come to expect from a Michael Bay movie. About 90 minutes of the film's mammoth 157 minute runtime are spent setting up a pretty decent story. It just so happens that the 67 minutes that follow are completely and totally disinterested in what came before them, as the battle again breaks down to an easy-to-understand showdown of good vs. evil. When it finally comes, it's hard not to feel like you've been wasting your time on what came before it, but what a showdown it is!

        I could list problems with Dark of the Moon all day: It's undoubtedly too long, Huntington-Whiteley is taken advantage of by the camera every Two minutes and given nothing to do in return, the jokes would be better suited for stand-up at a middle school talent show, and the plot is riddled with more holes than swiss cheese. But I, for One, really only wanted to see the movie so I could watch some gigantic alien robots throw down, and in this area, Dark of the Moon doesn't even dream of disappointing. The action sequences, aided by some pretty incredible 3-D effects, are among the best that CGI has ever offered, slightly scaled down in frequency from the non-stop action barrage of Revenge of the Fallen, gaining more meaning and ferocity by their (extremely, EXTREMELY relative) downsizing. And that's pretty much all that I have to say. It's not much of a review, but does a Transformers movie really need One? It's a good version of a known product, and if you were jonesing hard for another, 'good,' Transformers after the total suck-fest that was Revenge of the Fallen, then here you go. In what has been a relatively small-scale Summer season so far, its exciting and even kind of refreshing to see a movie as relentlessly epic and enormous as this One. It's dumb, it's too long, it's riddled with problems, and because I'm a sucker for giant alien robots, I kind of loved it. If you're the same way, then get thee to a theater!

Grade (Relative to other movies): B-
Grade (If you bought a ticket to a Transformers movie because you wanted to see some TRANSFORMERS!!!): A- 

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Top Ten Albums of 2011 So Far, Part 1

        **Notes: The following list is presented in alphabetical order. A longer, ordered Best Of list will be presented at the end of the year**


Bon Iver---Bon Iver
        Quite possibly my most anticipated disc coming into 2011, Bon Iver is anything but a disappointment. Transitioning from the One-Man-Show of debut disc For Emma, Forever Ago, frontman Justin Vernon managed to add an entire backing band and drastically bolster the band's sense of dynamic songwriting, all without sacrificing that painfully intimate feel that made us take notice in the first place. Just listen to the expansive, epic Calgary and Perth, Two numbers that beautifully, seamlessly transition from One section to another. But don't forget about either Holocene or Towers, smaller scale projects that boast of deep personal feeling and a sense of musical unpredictability. One of the year's most emotionally affecting albums, as well as One of its most beautiful, Bon Iver is a shimmering offering from a band who's only just getting started.

Cults---Cults
          Just a buzz-band coming into the year, the self-titled debut album from New York's Cults confirms them as an act to watch. There are plenty of talking points here: Madeline Follin's teen-pop wail, the 1950's era sound, Brian Oblivion's perfectly simplistic musical arrangements, and so on. What really matters about Cults, however, is that they are the makers of some of the most undeniably catchy stuff of the year. Lead single Go Outside, a sing-songy summer morsel, is just the beginning, as nearly every tune on the thing perfectly hits its ear-worm target. The Summer's most youthful, exuberant record despite sounding as though it was recorded years and years ago, Cults is a trip back in time that you'll want to take.

Death Cab For Cutie---Codes and Keys
        Unlike Bon Iver, this is an album that I would have never predicted would be on this list. After years of serving as a figure-head for indie-pop, dating/marrying movie stars, and musically mending broken emo hearts everywhere, Death Cab proved that they're still capable of the unexpected. Codes and Keys is jam packed with earnest and creative song-writing, made better with the use of not-as-obvious lyrics, an ocean of extra instrumentalists, and a wise willingness to digitally effect Ben Gibbard's occasionally too-cute voice. The results sound like the ever-growing, piano-led Some Boys, the stupidly catchy single You Are a Tourist, or the electro-surge of album climax St. Peter's Cathedral. Years and years into it, Gibbard and the boys prove that they can do a whole lot more than just repeat themselves, and the replay value of Codes and Keys stands as ample proof.


The Dodos---No Color
        After the lengthy, varied, and raw brilliance of their 2008 break-out record Visitor, The Dodos underwhelmed a lot of people with their glossy follow-up Time to Die. I've never been as down on it as a lot of people, but from the first moment of No Color, its clear that the band feels more in their element. The relentless percussion pound of lead-single/opening track Black Night says it all; The Dodos are back to playing loose, energy lofting off of their instruments as vocalist Meric Long's signature word-play and slippery melodies splash fun all over it. The disc has its bouncers (Sleep, Hunting Season), and its beauties (Companions, When Will You Go), but it's closer Don't Stop that strikes me as the band's best tune since Visitor, playful and urgent, exciting, and gorgeous in all the ways we've come to expect from the band. Sometimes, its better to be a little messy.

Fleet Foxes---Helplessness Blues
        Like Bon Iver, Helplessness Blues is a sophomore effort that somehow managed to stand up to truly mammoth expectations, building on what has already worked while staking out new musical ground. The record may be at a loss when it comes to having One undeniable champion of a song, but at 12 tracks and just under 50 minutes of rock-solid musicianship long, it's hard to really miss it. The tracks range from world-conquering (Grown Ocean, Sim Sala Bim), to bright and fun (Battery Kinzie, Lorelai) to small and intimate (Someone You'd Admire, Blue Spotted Tail), and that goes without mentioning the album-defining title-track. The harmonies that made the band famous are still intact, frontman Robin Pecknold somehow managing to improve on his already outstanding song-writing. The perfect album for a mid-July walk, Helplessness Blues is a must-have for just about everyone that magically sounds better when played outdoors. Such is the power of the Fleet Foxes.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Cars 2 (Release Date: 6-24-2011)

        For many people, myself included, Pixar is a promise. A promise that, no matter how many tired sequels and lame, sexist, and homophobic cash-grabs that Hollywood throws at us, there will always be a small little wonder, nestled right in the middle of the movie calander's most chaotic, bombastic period. They've given us next to no reason to doubt them, their first Eleven movies ranging from good (Cars and A Bug's Life) to remarkable (everything else). Each of their Eight films released since the Academy introduced the Best Animated Feature category at the 2001 Oscars has been nominated for the art form's top prize, taking home the trophy an astonishing Six times. In addition, only Two of those Eleven have been sequels (Toy Story's 2 and 3), an incredible rarity when one considers how prone kid-pic makers are to build on their past success stories. But all of that seems to be changing, the purity of the studio's image suddenly up in the air, and all fingers pointed at the cheap laughs of the Cars 2 trailer in a state of utter panic.

        Despite being a sequel, Cars 2 appears to want nothing to do with the movie that came before it, carving its own path from the very first shot. Sure, Lightning McQueen (Voiced by Owen Wilson) is again returning home from a successful racing tour to Radiator Springs, but he and his trusty, moronic friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) are soon on the road. The international racing circuit is calling McQueen's name, as speedy, sexy formula One car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) challenges him to a Three-race-series, taking place on the streets of Japan, Italy, and England. Amidst the world tour, Mater somehow gets swept up into a secret spy mission, being placed in One dangerous situation after another by the oblivious but otherwise sleek and classy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and his associate Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Car chases, action sequences, and a bevy of automobile-related puns soon follow.

        Rule number One of keeping your undisputed winning streak going: Don't cast Larry the Cable Guy as your lead character. In truth, his role as protagonist, which he quickly wrestles away from Wilson, is not the disaster some might expect. Instead of predictable bathroom humor and redneck jokes, we have semi-clever set-ups, like when the rusty Tow Truck mistakes Wasabi with Pistachio Ice Cream, a mishap that ends in a confused bout with an over-stimulating Tokyo bathroom. It's probably more clever than the things he might come up with on his own, but its noticeably below Pixar's lofty standards.  Their productions have always had a mesmerizing way of telling a story that operates on the same level for both kids and grown-ups. Here, we have the type of, 'This joke is for children, and this joke is for adults," segregation that you see in a Shrek movie. For a group of people who have always been proud and traditional story-tellers, the lack of emotional payoff, along with the numeral that comes after the name, make this one feel an awful lot like a cash grab.

        Thank god then that the animation is so immersive and dazzling at every single second that it's easy to forgive the short-comings of the plot. The opening sequence, in which McMissile invades and then escapes an enemy hide-out, could stand toe-to-toe with any action scene I've seen all year, its pacing and spacial reasoning matched only by the sheer brilliance of its craft. The film's 3D presentation is also inspired, placing you in the middle of some edge-of-your-seat espionage action, as well as some pulse-pounding races. Off the top of my head, I honestly can't think of a single computer animated cartoon that I would immediately claim is more handsome Cars 2, and even if its plot is pretty pedestrian stuff, the visual world of the film keep me entranced from start to finish.

        The short in front of the movie, which stars the Toy Story gang and suddenly allows its characters to talk, is a perfect companion for the movie. Both speak to a drastically, dishearteningly diminished sense of ambition on the part of the studio, but both are charming, fun, and might be considered real winners if they hadn't been released by a group whose work has been so completely peerless up to this point. It's an odd paradox that I can simultaneously call Cars 2 a disappointment and One of my favorite movies of the year so far, but I suppose that's where a reputation for near-perfection gets you. Here's to hoping that Pixar's next flick, Brave, reignites the passion for storytelling that has made the Disney associate the most consistently successful movie house in the world (averaging a whopping $602 Million Dollars per entry worldwide), but their newest is ample proof that even if they don't, it'll still be a total blast watch.

Grade: B+