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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Our Idiot Brother (Release Date: 8-26-2011)

        Paul Rudd is a rare kind of actor. One's appreciation of his screen presence has little to do with wether or not he's a, 'quality thespian,' or not The man has a type of charm that can't really be taught, and it allows him to hold the screen even when he seems to hardly be acting at all. A considerable amount of Rudd's appeal derives from the fact that he seems like a guy you'd love to hang out with, and before you take that as a slight, consider: Would you really say anything different about past greats like James Stewart or Cary Grant? With Our Idiot Brother, Rudd's charm is finally given a solo top-billing, and we get to see exactly how far his magnetism can take a flick.

        Rudd stars as Ned, an unbreakable optimist who, as the film opens, is tricked into selling marijuana to an officer in uniform, earning himself several months in prison. Upon his release, Ned finds out that his organic farm cohabitant/lover (Kathryn Hahn) has left him for another man (T.J. Miller), leaving him without a place to stay. From here, affable, clumsy Ned takes turns living with each member of his family, his doting mother (Shirley Knight), his career-obsessed sister (Elizabeth Banks), his shrunken house-wife sibling (Emily Mortimer), and his aloof, bi-sexual hipster sister (Zooey Deschanel). His wacky, well-intentioned antics have (surprise!) negative repercussions on all of their lives.

        As written by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz, and directed by Jesse Peretz, Our Idiot Brother never really presents itself as the uproarious knee-slapper that it's title and R-rating might suggest. There's a real laugh here and there, but more often than not, Brother is more prone to coaxing chuckles and contented smiles. Borrowing from an, 'Enlightened Idiot,' story arch as old as Chaplin and Capra, the film is warm and tickling, its occasional vulgarities, while often well-timed and executed, contrasting against the movie's good-natured sense of innocence.

        Your enjoyment of Our Idiot Brother will likely hinge on One factor, and One factor alone: How much you like Rudd in the role of Ned. Some will undoubtably find his relentless good attitude as grating as the characters in the movie do, but I personally couldn't help but be won over by his overwhelming positivity. In fact, his character even goes a ways towards making one forget about the film's other failures, such as its dependency on stock characters and a completely rushed and botched conclusion. There's really not too much else to say about this One: Either you like what Rudd's selling (and if you're a fan of his, this is a must see), or you don't. Simple as that.

Grade: B+

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lil Wayne: Tha Carter IV (Release Date: 8-29-2011)

        Unlike many controversial mainstream artists like Kanye West and Lady Gaga, the public's love and/or hate of Lil Wayne seems to come from the right place. Where Gaga's overwhelming (and potentially over-calculated) eccentricity and Kanye's massive ego prompt people to pick sides before hearing their music, the battle of Lil Wayne has always been about his art (which, considering his sizable criminal record, is interesting). There's no denying that the man has his finger on the pulse of what people like, his record label, 'Young Money,' employing about half of the radio's most popular artists, including Drake and Nicki Minaj. But for someone with as big of a name as he has, there's a certain tendency for Wayne to pump out generic, beat-heavy tracks that sell millions and remain primarily undistinguishable from other airwaves fare. Those who know him better know better, but the semi-uninitiated (myself included) struggle to grasp the man's range, an aspect of the his creative process that is at the forefront of his newest release, Tha Carter IV.

       As Rebirth, Wayne's 2010 turn-this-off-RIGHT-NOW attempt at rock 'n' roll, can readily attest, the MC isn't afraid over-reaching, an aspect most readily attested to by his frequent stabs at R&B. IV sure has plenty of them, How to Hate featuring an even-MORE-autotuned T-Pain interspersed with verses that Weezy practically seems to be sleeping through, Nightmares of the Bottom only boasting of the latter. We're talking, "You used to be the s***/But now you ain't s***, B****," style lazy rapping, Wayne leaning with all of his weight on some lamely profane lyrics, apparently believing that courting censorship is, in and of itself, edgy (which, of course, it is not). I'll hand Wayne that his views on women prove interesting because of their sense of confusion and perpetual contradiction, as lines include:
        "Now you're grown up/So fly, it's like a blessing/But you can't have a man look at you for five seconds/Without you feeling insecure." -How to Love
        "Had my heart broken by this woman named Tammy/But hoe's gunna be hoes, so I couldn't blame Tammy" -6 Foot 7 Foot

        "I spent the night in heaven/I Slept with an angel/And when we finished/I swear that p**** said, 'thank you... I go down south/Louisiana." -So Special

        And, finally, the album's opening line: "Man, f*** them b******/And them Hoes/And them n****s' p******/Camel toes." And you wonder why that One girl feels insecure...

        In my limited experience, Lil Wayne has yet to prove himself capable of consistently producing thought-provoking lyrics, but to say that the guy can't string together a clever line or Two would be a down-right lie. They pop out here and there, begging to be noticed, in the form of, "I pay these n***** with a reality check," "detrimental on any instrumental/I say you rappers' sweet/I pay the incidental," or, my personal favorite (referring to his Eight-month prison stay), "You n***** are gelatin, peanuts to an elephant/ I got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate." These lines, when paired with Wayne's occasionally feverish and insane flow, make for some great tunes, along with the disc's many cold, hard, street beats (though these instrumentals become hugely repetitive during the deluxe album's 18-track, 72-Minute runtime).

        A strangely complete summation of the disc's rap tracks can be found in the sequence of the first singles that preceded the LP. 6 Foot 7 Foot makes my jaw drop on a regular basis, it's beat so heavy and so catchy, Wayne's flow seemingly unstoppable until Cory Gunz comes in at the end to chip in One hell of a guest verse. It's far and away One of my favorite hip-hop songs of the year, and second single John, featuring a similarly weighty beat and just the right amount of Rick Ross (see: One verse), ain't half-bad either. Then there's the recently released She Will, wherein Weezy flows at mid-tempo and elicits mild interest over a gritty groove. It's not a poor song, but, like Drake's monotone hook, its complacences boarders on pleasantness, which I can't imagine is ever what Lil Wayne is aiming for. Finally, the most recent leak, It's Good, is impossible to pick out amidst the album's second half, all fury and familiarity underneath rhymes so insistent on their hardness that you start to question if some underlying insecurity issues exist. Much like this trajectory, Tha Carter IV is an album that becomes less and less interesting as it goes on, the opening trifecta of furious Blunt Blowin, maniacal Megaman, and pulse-pounding Six Foot Seven Foot proving absolutely electric, the middle section appearing pretty hit-and-miss, and the back third prompting listeners to revisit those first Three aforementioned songs. A mixed bag, to be sure, but there's gold in it.

Grade: B-

Friday, August 26, 2011

Red Hot Chili Peppers: I'm With You (Release Date: 8-30-2011)

        I'll never forget seeing Bob Dylan live. It was about Five years ago now, and the night previous, I had had the sublime pleasure of seeing a Sufjan Stevens show from the Illinoise tour. Stevens was in his late 20's at the time, experiencing what still stands as the prime of his career. Dylan, however, who played in front of a nearly-sold-out Memorial Colosseum in Portland, Oregon, was largely indecipherable. On more than a few occasions, the man almost seemed to be doing a parody of himself, and not once in the whole show did he so much as lay a finger on a guitar. At One point during the performance, my friend leaned over to me and whispered, "This is why rock stars die young."

        The Red Hot Chili Peppers released their first album in 1984. That's 27 years ago. It's certainly commendable that they've managed to stay relevant and popular for that long, but the strain of a band finally slowing down is just about undeniable. The former Tube Sock enthusiasts have waited Five years to follow up 2006's Stadium Arcadium, an album that itself ended a Four year gap (2002's By the Way). During the most recent hiatus, long-time guitarist John Frusciante finally vacated the band, opening his slot up to 31-year-old Josh Klinghoffer. And while losing a guitarist is always pretty bad news, the band could likely benefit from the infusion of some younger blood, considering the ages of Bassist Flea (48), Vocalist Anthony Kiedis (48), and Drummer Chad Smith (49).

        And while I feel quite certain that such a change-up might help out live shows, the band's newest album, I'm With You, is another story. It's not a particularly bad album; It is, rather, a disc in crisis. On One hand, the band is playing to all of their old, familiar strengths, lead-single The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie all funky bass grooves, and Kiedis' standard rat-tat-tat-tat lyrical cadence. Ethiopia and Look Around also follow this trajectory, but all of these tunes simply sound out-dated, not sonically up-to-the-minute enough to compel in a modern context, not aged enough to glisten with retro-sheen. Even the album cover and the unending 14-song track list already seem like relics of a forgotten era.

        On the other hand, the band's attempts at reaching for new ground, such as disco-infused opener Monarchy of Roses, or the positively putrid faux-lounge sing-a-long Even You, Brutus?, feel both under-developed and forced. As previously stated, there are some stand-out moments, but I cannot, in good conscious, offer you a single good reason to acquire this album if you already have Blood, Sex Sugar, Magik and Californiacation (and if you're reading this, I'm going to bet that you do). I'm With You is pretty much the exact album that you would expect the Red Hot Chili Peppers to make at the age of 50. I'd save my money.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Help (Release Date: 8-10-2011)

        Today is Wednesday, August 24th. The Help was released exactly Two weeks ago, which marks the biggest gap between a wide release date and my posting a review in the history of this site (not including Ones that I simply didn't see, of course). I relay this facinating news because I figure it's only fair to reveal my bias: I really, really, really didn't want to see The Help. The trailer promoted it as a feel-good true story, quite literally the most predictable of all genres, and when I caught sight of its weighty 146 minute runtime, I was pretty sure this One wouldn't be for me. Two weeks later, and The Help has become a sizable hit, opening at number Two at the box office before proceeding to swipe the top spot the next weekend. Oscar talk started stirring, and I finally gave in and just saw the thing.

        Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is the story of Two social circles that live side by side in mid-60's Jackson, Mississippi. The first is the, 'society ladies,' if you will, a group of backstabbers dressed in pastel and bright flower-print dresses. Skeeter (Emma Stone) has just returned from college to find that all of her old friends have started popping out babies. Her reluctance to follow suit raises eyebrows all around, most prominently from devilish Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). On the other side of this is the help, the colored women who practically raise their employers infants all by themselves, just to be treated like dirt in return. Recognizing this injustice, Skeeter sets out to essentially collect the memoirs of various house maids in the area, seeking to humanize women like the sassy Minny (Octavia Spencer), and the ever-suffering Aibileen (Viola Davis) in a completely unprecedented and illegal way.

        Sophomore Writer/Director Tate Taylor has got some chops: The Help manages to remain reasonably engaging throughout its mammoth runtime, and though Taylor isn't One for a whole lot of extra stylization, the movie's craft is consistently handsome and assured. The score by Thomas Newman is the same cheesy, contrived stuff as every TV anti-racism movie you've ever seen, but Taylor often (though not often enough) has the gumption to play important scenes without it. He's also good with his actors, a fact that is highlighted by the film's savvy casting, ever-credible Davis receiving more screen time than ever before, Stone proving a surprisingly effective dramatic actor. So, yeah, I suppose that I liked The Help more than I expected too, but don't get that mixed up with a recommendation just yet.

        The Help is a drama without a drop of warm blood in its veins. People are crying about lost sons and rampant mistreatment within the first Two minutes, before we've even seen a character's face, and such feel-bad-and-guilty-NOW style arm-twisting continues nonstop thereafter. The screenplay is chuck-full of mind-numbingly expository dialogue, flat, unchanging characters, and even it finds time to slip in a Magical Negro or Two ( Hilly Holbrook, for instance, never takes even a single break from being the worst person ever, just as Aibileen could be described as steadfast, stoic, and... yeah, that's about as much character development as anyone here gets. As I said earlier, I commend Taylor for knowing how to make a 146 minute long flick move well, but how much drama can you really squeeze out of a story where no One ever does anything unexpected, and you know the moral and eventual conclusion coming in, save minor details. I suppose The Help isn't a total mess: I'd watch it over The Blind Side any day of the week, but you can rest assured that I will be doing my best to avoid both.

Grade: C-

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fright Night (Release Date: 8-19-2011)

        Though the fact is seldom discussed, few mainstream actors are as polarizing as Colin Farrell. The thespian started out as a bad-boy and a heart-throb, a combination that seemed to intrigue American audiences less and less during a string of putrid career moves in the early-to-mid 2000's (Daredevil, Alexander, Miami Vice... I've got more if you need them). Farrell seems to have been making amends ever since, tying himself to highly touted directors (Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam, Peter Weir), and other well-regarded fare (Crazy Heart, In Bruges). More important than all of that, however, is Farrell's self-reinvention into One of Hollywood's premiere over-actors. Like Nicolas Cage or Ben Foster, Farrell often gives mediocre performances in standard material, but hand him a role like his deliriously villainous prison escapee in The Way Back, or his tool-of-an-employer in Horrible Bosses, and watch out!

        It makes perfect sense, then, to have given Farrell a try as the wildly over-the-top vampire-next-door in last weekend's remake of 1985's Fright Night. Anton Yelchin stars as Charley, a recovering nerd who is using his his new, smokin' hot girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and previously undiscovered sense of cool to distance himself from his old life, most especially former best-bud Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Ed is the first to notice that the kids around town have started going missing, but his proposal of a vampiric culprit, One named Jerry (Farrell) that just moved in next door to Charley, is met with scorn. Soon, however, Charley is no longer able to ignore the evidence, and something of a showdown develops between the scrawny high schooler and the 400-year-old undead.

        It's a pretty easy movie to summarize, a simple story that produces simple results. Much has been made about how Fright Night proves that horror remakes don't have to suck, but, with the great, big, hulking exception of last year's stunning Let Me In, it does seem to put a cap on just how good they can be. As helmed by stylistically-tame director Craig Gillespie, the movie is pretty standard stuff, forgettable the next morning with color-by-numbers scares, and a slew of characters that fail to make a lasting impression. Thank god then for Farrell, who gives what is simply, unbelievably, unquestionably One of the year's very best performances. His Jerry has a twitch or sound effect for just about every thought and situation imaginable, primarily neglecting to scare, but providing positively gut-busting physical comedy. His voice, his walk, his hair, his pauses in speech; Everything that Farrell does in the movie is made of comedic gold. To say that Farrell is the life of the party would be an understatement; If not for him, there would be no party, just a get together with not enough cold-cuts and no booze to speak of. He's the only real reason to see Fright Night, but, in all honesty, that might just be reason enough.

Grade: B-

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Future (Limited Release Date: 7-29-2011)/ The Devil's Double (Limited Release Date: 7-29-2011)

The Future

        Like Italian Modernist Director Michelangelo Antonioni, or 70's avant-garde rock band Can, Writer/Director/Performance Artist Miranda July has a name that means nothing to the vast majority of people, yet somehow means the world to a very specific sect. A recent New York Times article referred to her as, "culturally essential," and Roger Ebert called her first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, One of the very best films of the 2000's. That said, The Future, which marks only her second feature, is something of a big deal in the film world, and it's intriguing to see July use the movie to grapple with her simultaneous senses of fame and anonymity.

        The picture stars July and Hamish Linklater as a pair of frizzy-haired, California hipsters by the names of Sophie and Jason. The Two live in a state of perpetual arrested development, never saying anything important, unless that counts bemoaning their lack of importance. They decide to adopt a cat from a local shelter who is going through renal-failure, and are told that they have One month to wait. The news sets them in motion, wishing to accomplish all that there is to do before little Paw Paw (as the cat, who also narrates the film, is so named) arrives and effectively ends their younger years. Much has been made of July's penchant for including Natural Realism in her films, exemplified in this flick by a talking moon, a crawling shirt, and the aforementioned monologuing feline. 

        To be sure, they are often inspired, but considering her a pioneer of such tactics strikes me as a bit much when Magnolia Director Paul Thomas Anderson lives right down the street, not to mention Robert Altman's prophetic Short Cuts, or any number of films that employs similar senses of whimsey in the exact same city (Los Angeles). What I do deeply appreciate about The Future is its sense of humor, July's characters always speaking and behaving in wildly surreal fashion. I've read a number of reviews citing the film as a hugely insightful look into the mind of the self-agrandizing, self-defeating, over-privaliged American middle class. I can't quite go there, though I am not about to call it a pretentious mess either. I merely felt as though I had gleaned the film's meaning within its first 20 minutes, and though there were many interesting things to behold thereafter, humor and aesthetics among them, I simply don't see where people get off calling July a revolutionary.

Grade: B-

The Devil's Double

        There's no mistaking an actor-showcase when you see One. All of the other characters in the movie just sort of clear out, creating space for One performer to completely dominate both the story and the screen. The Devil's Double is just such a movie, handing the reins almost exclusively to Dominic Cooper. How have they managed to invest so much screen time in him, you ask? Well, that's because Cooper plays both of the Two leading characters. The film is loosely based on the true story of Latif Yahia (Cooper), an Iraqi who, in the mid-80's, was forced to serve as a body double for the dastardly prince Uday Hussein (also Cooper).

        The Devil's Double's first, and most egregious failure is mistaking the sentence above for an entire plot. No more than Five minutes of film have transpired before the proposal is made to Latif, and from there, the movie is comprised of Two scenes endlessly repeating: Latif lamenting his poor fortune and lashing out against his confinement, and Uday committing One harrowingly deplorable crime after another. Calling a film, 'One note,' is an often used, seldom meant expression, but The Devil's Double actually manages to merit such a description, so busy with replaying the same Two scenes that it neglects to develop a single other character, a failure most glaring in the instance of worthless-sex-object-mistaken-for-a-leading-lady Ludivine Sagnier.

        I blame hack Director Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day, Next, XXX:State of Union), who gaudily-stylizes every scene of the thing, and then has the gall to include archival footage in order to explain to the audience how, 'serious and real,' it all is. Poor Cooper, whose double performance is lost in the cluster of a lousy film, not to mention that a cadaver would have made a more compelling lead than his Latif (his over-acting as Uday is much more interesting). The Devil's Double is an endless list of gangster-movie cliches, enacted to minimal effect, played One after another for Two straight hours. I'm still glad it's over.

Grade: D

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Guard (Limited Release Date: 7-29-2011)/Throllhunter (Limited Release Date: 6-10-2011)

The Guard
        A funny thing happens when your movie's exact genre can be summarized in Three words fewer. Take for example, 'Horror Flick,' or, 'Inspirational True Story.' There are certain beats that can be expected in such a film, and while that fact can prove comforting, it puts a real ceiling on just how good your movie can be. The Guard is a, 'Buddy-Cop Movie,' through and through, which is already a pretty heavily populated genre, One difficult to make an impression in. It has plenty of things going for it; The unique location of Ireland, a leading man as wonderful and unique as Brendan Gleeson, and the always reliable Don Cheadle.

         Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is a man of questionable moral virtue, but a real knack for his job. He's not against swiping the occasional drug from a random criminal, but at the end of the day, he gets the job done. Into his tiny town comes a vicious murder, and with it, FBI agent Wendell Everett, a man as attached to withholding standard practice as Boyle is to destroying it. Gleeson is an inspired cast, playing a lovable dirty-old-man in a way that few could. He's easily the best thing that the movie has going for it, though cinematographer Larry Smith does render the film in all kinds of eye-popping colors. But The Guard can't escape what it is; Even in the hands of a first-time Director (John Michael McDonagh) and an, 'exotic,' setting, the thing is far too heavily cliched to make an impact. As always with foreign films, I recognize that much of the film's culturally-based humor and nuance likely went over my head, but I can only judge the movie for how I saw it. The Guard is comprised of a stand-out performance confined to a largely ordinary film.

Grade: B-

        The, 'Found-Footage,' phenomenon in the Horror genre is largely seen as an American innovation (at least here), but the rest of the world has more than gotten their feet wet. Take Spain, who's [Rec] (Later remade in America as Quarantine) was released One year before Cloverfield. That tradition carries on with Trollhunter, a Norwegian faux-true story about a band of young filmmakers (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, and Tomas Alf Larsen) following a reclusive mountain-man (Otto Jespersen) on his secret missions to -you guessed it- hunt trolls.

        Through every Norwegian film that I have ever been exposed to runs a deep sense of dry humor, and Trollhunter is certainly no different. Jespersen, a well-known comedian in his country, has all kinds of fun drolly reciting the various practices and rules about trolls, his jaded woodsman proving to be the film's best aspect. The trolls are big and goofy looking; Before they're seen, you could be forgiven for thinking the movie might try to scare you, but once the cat's out of the bag, it's all fun and games. There is, of course, nothing wrong with making a pure dry comedy with these kinds of strange trappings, but I can't help but see a missed opportunity in not trying to maintain the Horror angle after 15 minutes. As with The Guard, I have no doubt that my enjoyment would have been bolstered by cultural familiarity, but I know I've found other films from the area far more tickling than this. Despite an initial intensity, and some pretty strong One-liners, Trollhunter is (amazingly) something of a dull affair.

Grade: C+

Monday, August 15, 2011

30 Minutes or Less (Release Date: 8-12-2011)

        30 Minutes or Less represents, 'fly or die,' time for... well, a lot of people. It's star Jesse Eisenberg's first live-action performance since The Social Network, a movie that really put him on the map for a lot of people. Given that hype, and the still-favorably-viewed Zombieland, one would have to think of 30 as something of a test of his true Box Office draw. While we're on the subject, Director Ruben Fleischer, who made his feature debut with Zombieland, arrives on the set of 30 with hopes of avoiding the dreaded Sophomore slump. But that's not all: the film also signifies the first real, extended use of funny man Aziz Ansari in a film, as well as serving as a potential rebound for Danny McBride after the disaster that was Your Highness. For a low-key, mid-August comedy, a lot of people have a lot riding on this One.

        Eisenberg stars as Nick, a perma-stoned slacker who delivers pizzas while breaking as many traffic laws as possible. One night after a massive falling out with his best friend Chet (Ansari), Nick is kidnapped during a delivery by a couple of men in monkey masks. The crooks turn out to be a pair of morons, One more sadisticly stupid (McBride), the other more gently embodying idiocy (Nick Swardson). Their evil, master plan goes a little something like this: Hire an assassin (Michael Peña) to kill McBride's wealthy father (Fred Ward) with money that a poor, lowly pizza boy steals from a bank. And how will they force him, you ask? By strapping a bomb to him that only the bumbling perpetrators know how to deactivate. Nick reenlists the aid of Chet, and the Two have ten hours to get the money before the bomb blows.

        The first and most important thing to observe about 30 Minutes or Less is that its central conceit is several notches too fearsome to readily inspire comedy, especially when viewed as an vaguely true story (though the studio denies it, there's ample reason to compare the plot to the 2003 case of Brian Wells, which ended with the man being killed). The moments of Nick's initial capture simply cannot be viewed as pure comedy because Eisenberg (wisely) doesn't play it that way. He's genuinely terrified, and it gives the movie a weight that is both intriguing and off-puting. I'll certainly hand it to the movie that this nasty streak allows it to stand out against a season stuffed with R-Rated laughers, but I'm not too sure wether that's a good thing.

        In truth, I personally was never going to hate this movie. I've been a big fan of Eisenberg's ever since The Squid and the Whale, and I've been waiting to see Ansari on the big screen for what seems like forever. There are a handful of real laughs in the thing, and, clocking out at 82 minutes, you couldn't really accuse it of over-staying its welcome. So, yeah, I enjoyed myself while watching it, but I have to say that, deep down, I think of it as a pretty lousy flick. Besides the stomach-turning nature of its, 'hilarious,' plot, 30 Minutes or Less also has the misfortune of having ALL THREE of its leads be pretty One-note performers, Eisenberg's twitchy smart-ass, Ansari's bug-eyed shouter (your ear drums might ring after this One), and McBride's classic, 'worst person in the world.'

       While my personal affections allow me to forgive the former Two performers, I've grown completely exhausted with McBride's potty-mouthed, egotistical moron. Endless crassness is rarely clever, and McBride has been offering the the same stupid brand of it for years now. Between this and Your Highness, he's definitely my candidate of choice for this year's Razzie for Worst Actor. 30 Minutes or Less certainly had me laughing in moments, but it leaves the viewer feeling dirty afterwards, an avalanche of too-twisted humor, complete and utter objectification of women, and absolutely relentless negativity flowing freely from it. If that sounds like a fun time at the movies to you, then be my guest, but I can't help but think that the Four guys listed in the first paragraph had better get working on a better project soon, because this One is not going to cut it.

Grade: D+

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Throne (JAY Z & Kanye West): Watch the Throne (Digital Release Date: 8-8-2011/Physical Release Date: 8-12-2011)

        On Watch the Throne, the much-hyped LP by both Jay-Z AND Kanye West, the Two MCs make a couple of comparisons between their duo and other famous teams. On Gotta Have It, the pair band up to create the line, "Last party we had, they shut down Prive/Ain’t that where the Heat play?/Ni**as hate ballers these days/Ain’t that like LeBron James?/Ain’t that just like D-Wade?" Later, on Deluxe Edition track Illest Motherf**ker Alive (and yes, there will likely be many ***'s in this article), Hova declares, "Elvis has left the building/Now, I'm on the Beatles' ass/Ni**as said, 'Watch the Throne'/Yeah, it's like the Beatles' back." I bring up these Two lines because they paint a perfect picture of Watch the Throne, even if only One is accurate.

        Even in a genre prone to rampant self-agrandizing, Watch the Throne is pretty damn heavy on self-love. Those who search for humility and humanity can occasionally find it in tracks like New Day and Made In America, but a sturdy majority of the album is spent boasting about power, swagger, and (most especially) wealth. It's enough to make a listener wonder if the Two really had something to say when they set out to make the album, or if they just wanted to brag about how awesome being friends with the pair would be. My guess is the latter, but that, of course, does not make their work void. A good song is a good song, and WTT has a few of them.

        Opener No Church in the Wild starts the thing off on a remarkably dark note, a deep, black bass ever-marching in the background, synths picking the beat up for added effect. It's dirty and captivating, made that much better by up-and-comer Frank Ocean's smooth, catchy hook. Ni**as In Paris, hilarious as its name may be, has the type of cold, speedy, badass beat that's impossible to laugh at. Both songs, as well as a slew of others, make big impressions with fantastic West-produced backings, but the MCs themselves manage to slip by without notice. Ironically, it's the semi-disinteresting beat of Otis that gets adorned with the album's best flow. A few gems of lines stick out, a curious number subjected to the ranks of Deluxe Edition bonus tracks, but, taken as a whole, it's an underwhelming lyrical experience.

        Instead of a deep character study like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, WTT sees Yeezy take jabs at White America, give shout-outs to Chicago, offer a hugely unsolicited child-rearing perspective, and list brands and bed-mates by the dozen. In other words, he's walking on some heavily trodden ground, and while he's managed to make these subjects enticing and interesting in the past, his Watch the Throne verses often seem to lack ambition. The same could be said for Jay-Z, ever speaking of returning to the streets, his childhood, family values, just how hard he is, and just how fast his finger can reach that trigger. There are a number of verses to which this doesn't apply, but much of the album feels like B-Sides from discs we've already heard.

        But here's the thing: It's Jay-Z AND Kanye West!!! There are certain levels of grandeur to which One must submit, and I see this as One of them. Even if the lyrics are often lackluster, I would be a dirty, rotten liar if I told you that it wasn't incredibly fun to blast in your car. So, back to those comparisons: Jay-Z and Kanye think that they are on the level of the Beatles, and that misconception occasionally gets in the way of their work ethic, prompting them to tell too often and show too seldom. The comparison to the Miami Heat duo, however, is spot-on. Both are pairs of men with incredible talent that don't necessarily benefit from having each other around. And, just like the Heat, that awe-inspiring level of ability can carry them an impressive distance, but in the end, calling it Grade-A stuff is a stretch. Watch the Throne is an album packed with stunning beats, stadium-sized aura, and kinda-alright rhymes. I suppose we can't have it all.

Grade (Regular Album): B
Grade (Deluxe Edition): B+

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Summer 2011 Playlist

        Welcome to Hype Starts Here's newest feature: The seasonal playlist! Yeah, I know, it's awfully late to be doing One for Summer 2011, but we folks in the beautiful/wet state of Oregon have been getting rained on consistently all the way through the end of July, so my sunny season is really just starting. Despite the, '2011,' tag attached to this article, this playlist is not restricted by year, genre, or anything else. It's simply a list of songs that sound good when played together in the sunshine. This collection of songs clocks in at just under an Eighty minutes, making it the perfect fit for a mix CD (they still make those?), well suited (in my opinion) for long, mellow drives and boisterous parties alike. For best results, play in specified order, as opposed to shuffle. Here it is:

***Each title is a clickable link to its respective song on Youtube***

1. Excuses---The Morning Benders
        One of my top songs of all of 2010, Excuses is a big, warm hug of a song that makes One feel nostalgic and young at the same time. A beach-set ballad set afloat by Christopher Chu's miraculous croon, it's a big band tune with a wicked ability to put a smile on your face every time.

2. Age of Consent---New Order*
        An oldie but a goodie, New Order's bright and brilliant take on youthful defiance has aged better than just about anything from else the entire 80's. From its insanely catchy main guitar riff, to Bernard Sumner's sublimely juvenile vocal performance, to the fiery guitar solos that somehow still sound badass today, this is a Summer number for the ages.

3. Ffunny Ffrends---Unknown Mortal Orchestra
        From an established classic to a young upstart (with a painfully bad band name), Portland's own Unknown Mortal Orchestra has crafted One of this year's best songs in Ffunny Ffrends. A throw-back rendered as a low-fi stomp, the tune is an ear-worm if ever there was One, its laid-back, old-school vibe simply impossible to resist.

4. East Harlem---Beirut
        The lead single from Beirut's latest may not be as upbeat or energetic as the majority of this mix, but it's perfectly suited for the lazy days of Summer. Built on an flawless pairing of Zach Condon's incomparable voice and the musical backing's casual rumble, its an ideal tune for a mid-afternoon, laying-in-the-grass session.

5. Kids---Sleigh Bells
        From relaxing to riotous, there's little doubt that all those put blissfully to sleep by East Harlem will be blasted awake by Kids. Through use in movie trailers and MTV ads, Kids has become sneakily become the favorite song off of SB's incredible debut album, Treats, driven by a tenacious desire to blow out speakers and get the children dancing.

6. Fake Blues---Real Estate*
        Another foolproof song to chill out and drink a beer to, Fake Blues recalls the yesteryear, beach-hopping allusions of Excuses, but in a far less grand manner. It's central riff, echoing in an ever-inviting way, blends deliciously with its bellowing percussion, audible bliss resounding.

7. Gone---Kanye West featuring Consequence & Cam'ron
        Don't get me wrong: I'm pretty into Kanye's current stadium-rocking incarnation, but Gone might just still stand as my favorite song of his. Set to a soulful, slowly evolving beat built out of pianos and strings, the song runs for a solid Six minutes, all Three MCs delivering absolutely killer verses (Kanye with Two). Smaller than Ye's current fare, but no less addictive.

8. You Still Believe in Me---M. Ward
        In the same way that an album can greatly benefit from a well-placed instrumental track, it's my belief that most good playlists have at least One or Two wordless numbers. You Still Believe in Me fills the slot with nothing more than a subtle, gorgeous acoustic guitar, peacefully glowing through its contented, soothing Two and a half minutes of existence.

9. 12:51---The Strokes*
        The lead single from an album widely viewed as under-whelming, I've been completely in love with 12:51 since the first time that I heard it in mid-High School. It's not the ass-kicker that just about any song off of Is This It? proves to be, but the main guitar part absolutely screams Summer, as confident and warm as any riff in the band's catalogue, bolstered by a euphoric climactic Fifteen seconds.

10. Crazy For You---Best Coast
        A gloriously throwback to young, confused, stupid love, Crazy For You sounds like a tune from another time, ridiculously catchy without the smallest hint of complexity. A straight-forward blast of the clear-weather good times, the track gets in and out in under Two minutes, but it might just get stuck in your head for much longer.

11. Surfer's Hymn---Panda Bear
        Swirling, enveloping, and doused in sunlight: Yup, it's Panda Bear, alright. Tomboy's widest-smiling track Twice over, you can almost see the glittering ocean in Noah Lennox's bizarre electronic backing, his ever-delightful voice massaging eager eardrums.

12. Hysteric---Yeah Yeah Yeahs
        Despite their primary interest in the more punk-y side of rock, Yeah Yeah Yeahs' most iconic song remains Maps, and this little number, released Six years later, strikes me as a perfect revisitation. Smaller in scale than many of their songs, Hysteric is the musical equivalent of a lengthy, contented sigh, Karen O's voice gliding along through the song's gorgeous, shimmering instrumentals.

13. New Theory---Washed Out*
        Ever since I truly discovered Washed Out's much ballyhooed debut EP (which happened embarrassingly recently), I haven't been able to put the thing down, and New Theory is a big reason why. Ernest Greene's voice echoes indecipherably from every corner of the thing, the fuzzy (see washed out) electronica wrapping its comforting arms tightly around you for Three minutes of pure mirth.

14. All I Want---LCD Soundsystem
        One of my very favorite songs by One of my very favorite bands, All I Want loops a David Bowie guitar riff into jubilant infinity. James Murphy's self-depriciating lyrics run dazzlingly against the grain of the tunes shining instrumentals, somehow managing to provoke and comfort at the exact same time, the golden hues of mid-August lofting off of it at every turn.

15. Killa---tUnE-yArDs
        Killa may be the most immediate number on w h o k i l l's bizarro track list, but to call it conventional would be a fool's mistake. A delightful ditty of a guitar part leads us into Merrill Garbus' ridiculously singular voice, which seems to dart around through the song's many instrumental twists in turns in a way that is equal parts impressive and fun.

16. Laughing Gas---Neon Indian*
        The other instrumental tune on this playlist, Laughing Gas is a gleefully blurry take on mid-Summer mania, stuffed to the brim with strange effects and a head-bobbing pulse.

17. Start of Something---Voxtrot
        A largely forgotten indie outfit from a few years ago, Voxtrot may not have made the biggest impression on the world of music, but this song sure makes a big impression on me. Sounding like a forgotten Belle and Sebastian hit, Start of Something's smooth, playful sound harkens back to a distant era, somehow managing to sound immediate at the same time.

18. You Oughta Know---Das Racist*
        Another taste of good-times hip-hop, You Oughta Know's infectious beat has no problems setting bodies in motion, but it doesn't rest on its laurels there. MCs Heems and Kool A.D. are as clever and free-flowing as always, a number of lines rolling off of their tongues in ways both laugh-out-loud funny, and effortlessly smooth.
19. Jealous of Roses---Bibio
        A miniature number with Summer block party written all over it, Jealous of Roses is a masterfully scaled dose of old-school funky, at first glued to Stephen Wilkinson's heavily effected voice, eventually giving the song over to an jaw-dropping duel of guitar and bass solos.

20. Else---Built to Spill
         Else is what the end of a lively Summer day should sound like, custom designed to conjure contentment out of all those who listen to it. As if the wiggling guitar part of the chorus weren't enough, the thing wraps up with a small, precious bit of rocking out, drifting away into the warm evening air immediately thereafter.

21. Don't Stop---The Dodos*
        This article marks the Third time that I've gone out of my way to sing this song's praises since its mid-March release, and you shouldn't expect me to stop anytime soon. As with the best Dodos songs, Don't Stop allows Logan Kroeber's percussion to share center-stage with vocalist/guitarist Meric Long, and the result is a sonically full-bodied blast of Summer-time merriment, complete with Long's irresponsible, irresistible chorus shout of, "Don't Stop! Don't let your boss catch you!"
*=Band Pictured

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Release Date: 8-5-2011)

        Alright, first thing's first: Why make another Planet of the Apes movie, anyways? Sure, the original 1968 Charlton Heston vehicle still stands as something of a goofy classic in the minds of the masses, but up to this point it has proven an impossible task to wring a decent sequel out of the thing. The film has a near-countless selection of spin-offs, yet just about nobody could name a single One (myself included), the exception being the particularly loathed Tim Burton remake back in 2001. So why revisit this territory? Well, for One, familiarity often translates into box office dollars, but what strikes me as the clearest reason to brush off the mothballs is the ever-expanding capability of Motion Capture special effects. For the first time in the series' history, the apes on screen are not grown men and women dressed in embarrassing monkey suits, but more believable, fearsome Computer Generated counterparts.

        Rise of the Planet of the Apes wastes no time in delivering the Motion Capture goods, the film opening with a jungle chase scene between humans and primates. Needless to say, man wins out, and a handful of apes are shipped out of their natural habitat in order to be experimented on by Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist obsessed with finding the cure for his Alzheimer's-Disease-stricken father (John Lithgow). A break-through occurs, immediately followed by a disaster, and Rodman is left with only One baby chimp named Caesar (played from infancy to adulthood by Motion Capture genius Andy Serkis). Caesar grows into quite the ape, exceeding intelligence levels of human counterparts all the way through his first several years of life, but soon his smarts, as well as his genus, begin to pose problems for everyone involved.

        It's immediately apparent that Rise of the Planet of the Apes wants to be taken somewhat seriously, an agenda that is accomplishes with surprising ease. Though the movie peppers in small instances of action through-out its runtime, Rise is far more interested in its plot than most Summer Blockbusters. As written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the film takes its time in setting up a variety of different plot lines, possessing the intelligence and attention to resolve just about all of them. Throw in Director Rupert Wyatt's brisk, clean work, and you have literally the only big-budget actioneer this Summer who's set up is just as interesting as its climactic battle sequence.

        None of the human performers are especially worth mentioning: Franco is fine, Lithgow is over-acting a tad, and Frieda Pinto isn't acting at all. And while this sort of inattentiveness to performers is often the achilles heal of this sort of fare, Rise has a different reason for this deficiency altogether. It's Caesar who is the film's central character, not Rodman, and Serkis' performance is an emotive marvel. Above all else, Rise is about his experience with learning how the world works, evolving from gentle-housemate to brilliant revolutionary through provocative, nearly-silent film-making. His character arch is remarkably convincing and suitably epic, and by the film's end, you've learned to both love and fear him to the proper degree. I can't tell you that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a perfect movie: It succumbs to cheese on more than One occasion, its CGI occasionally distracts with artifice, and the ending feels abrupt and deflating (hello, sequel!). But I can tell you is that the film held my enraptured attention from start to finish, and that this is head-over-heals my favorite non-Harry Potter blockbuster of the season. I walked out of the theater with a big, doofy smile on my face, counting down the hours until I would get to see it again. Check it out.

Grade: A-

Friday, August 5, 2011

Beirut: The Rip Tide (Digital Release Date: 8-2-2011/Physical Release Date: 8-30-2011)

        Thank you, Beirut, for making this One easy on me. With the time that the band is saving me in reviewing their new album, The Rip Tide, I could do a variety of things: Clean my room, drink a beer, listen to The Rip Tide another time... the world is my oyster. I'm not really feeling the need to beat around the bush on the issue, because Beirut isn't either. Opening track A Candle's Flame introduces the disc with the sound of an accordion, shortly followed by a brass section and crisply repeating drum roll. Soon, frontman Zach Condon's signature croon, as vibrato-heavy as always, joins the fun, and it becomes readily evident that TRT is a Beirut album in the same sense that every Beirut album is a Beirut album. Maybe I should say Beirut album Two more times... Beirut album.

        In the name of full disclosure, I'm not as devoted to the band as some people are, so I admit there's a chance that I'm missing more subtle aspects to the band's growth. Santa Fe makes some fun use out of Casio-esque keyboards, but that doesn't strike me as so different from The Flying Club Cup's Nantes. Nor does the gentle, warming rumble of lead single East Harlem really break any new ground, but it doesn't have to. The song, much like each of its Eight album mates, is a gorgeous number that might really turn heads if we hadn't heard the same band doing the same thing for the last Five Plus years. The consistency of their tracks simply must be commended: Payne's Bay is stuffed with soaring harmonies, Goshen fills the piano ballad slot convincingly, and The Rip Tide is a sweeping, romantic number that might just serve as the album's best.

        I could tell you about the last Three tracks as well, but it's mostly just more of the same; winning tunes that sound perfectly familiar mid-first listen. And... well... yeah, that's about all that I have to say. The Rip Tide is both One of the year's most consistently enjoyable albums, and One of its least groundbreaking. If you're not a fan of the band's sound, there's virtually no chance that this is going to win you over, and if you are, I can just about promise you that you won't be disappointed. So, when I give my grade, I am essentially grading my liking of the band as a whole. If you would give their career up to this point a higher score, then you'll probably like their newest more as well. The Rip Tide is a really good, never great album from start to finish... now, onto room cleaning.

Grade: B

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (Release Date: 7-29-2011)

        On paper, Cowboys & Aliens sounds like One of the biggest draws of the Summer. It's a hybrid of a Western (a reemerging genre thanks to the likes of True Grit and Rango) and a Sci-Fi action spectacle (which are always popular). Its cast is the kind that drops jaws: The Two leads, Daniel, 'James Bond,' Craig and Harrison, 'Indiana Jones/Han Solo,' Ford, have enough badass star-power between them to light up the sky, not to mention the luminous Olivia Wilde as, 'the hot chick,' and a supporting cast that includes the likes of Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, and Adam Beach. Throw in Director Jon Favreau, best known for turning Iron Man into a total blast, and you've got quite the resume. It's the kind of line up that courts lofty expectations, and makes mediocre movies look like bad Ones.

        A man (Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert without any memory of who he is or where he came from. He enters the town of Absolution, a rough and tumble outfit of men governed by the surly, cruel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford), and his hellion of a son, Percy (Dano). The mysterious man, who we find out is named John Lonergan, is detained by Dolarhyde for a crime he cannot remember. Then, just as a proper story is beginning to establish itself, a throng of ariel attackers invade the city, kidnapping Percy and others with strange, lasso-like devises. Putting aside their differences, Lonergan, Dolarhyde, and a variety of townsfolk set out to rid Absolution of their assailents, and return the human detainees to safety.

        As the leads, Craig and Ford are... well... fine. They both do their part, both scowl and spit and shot in a way that befits their pattented personas. Yes, they're alright... and they're the best thing in the movie. Sure, Rockwell and Dano shine in their minor roles, but their bright spots are nothing in comparison to the way that Wilde drags the thing down. Same goes for Favreau, who made a wise decision in the first Iron Man to keep his action scenes to a minimum. In both Iron Man 2 and now Cowboys & Aliens, he's shown himself incapable of constructing involving scenes of mayhem, the final, action-packed hour of C&A proving to be quite a bore. The screenplay, penned by a plethora of scribes, lead by Star Trek/Transformers writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, is cliche, plodding, and unexciting. If you can't tell, I wasn't a big fan of Cowboys & Aliens: I found it to be illogical, coma-inducing, and woefully lacking in a basic sense of fun. My guess is that you'll feel the same.

Grade: D

Monday, August 1, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Release Date: 7-29-2011)

        My, oh, my, how the times have changed. A few short years ago, Summer laughers were all about Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and, most emblematically, Will Ferrell. They were stocked with randomness and gross-out gags, and though sexual allusion was already all the rage back then, no One could have forecasted the type of complete take-over that R-Rated comedies have enjoyed over the last few years. Since the start of May, there have literally only been Two PG-13 Rated Comedies launched into wide-release (Something Borrowed and Larry Crowne), garnering a collective 74 Million Dollars between them, decidedly less than Harry Potter made on its first day of release. What sets Crazy, Stupid, Love. apart from its brethren, however, is the fact that it hasn't been destined for failure from the start. Not only is the movie not treating has-beens as headliners (Sorry Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts... it's just true), but, after leading Dan in Real Life and Date Night to respectable grosses, CSL star Steve Carell seems to be the only man in Hollywood who still likes making this kind of fare. Add in a knock-out supporting cast, and you have Hollywood's best and only hope at re-establishing PG-13 Comedies as profitable enterprises.

        Carell stars as Cal Weaver, a devoted husband and father of Three who, as the movie opens, is being divorced by his High School sweetheart, Emily (Julianne Moore). Falling immediately into a pit of despair, Cal begins to spend his time at a local singles bar, sipping Vodka-Crans and shouting about his personal business for all to hear as though he's, 'that crazy guy from the bus stop.' Enter Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a real man's man with an unquenchable thirst for female bedfellows and GQ-style fashion. He offers to help Cal re-build his self-image, starting with wardrobe, and ending with self-defeating nature. Throw in the Weaver's exposition-loving, self-agrandizing son Robby (Jonah Bobo), the babysitter who serves as the apple of Robby's eye, and who happens to harbor a certain crush of her own (Analeigh Tipton), and, finally, the One girl that Jacob just can't seem to lead to bed (Emma Stone), and you've got One messy, intriguing, multi-generational cast.

        There are a number of things that I could and will say about Crazy, Stupid, Love., but above all else, it simply must be noted that the movie is waaay too long. Wrapping up just a hair short of the Two hour mark, CSL appears to find nothing wrong with revisiting what are essentially the same scenes over and over again, severely dulling their impact. I wouldn't be the least surprised if the movie could shave a whole 30 minutes and be the better for it. And while we're discussing the lesser aspects of the flick, I'd might as well also add that the thing is a surprisingly laugh-less affair, tickling often but only rarely earning an audible chuckle. Perhaps that's the penalty for not adhering to the modern cinematic edict that shock is the only effective way of earning a knee-slapper, but it is how it is. The film also slips into complete convention on a few occasions, but in a movie like this, I can't help but think that's par for the course.

        Alright, got that all out of the way. Now to the good parts: Directing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who's 2010 feature debut I Love You, Phillip Morris was a tonal mess that showed promise, display some real flare behind the camera. Far and away One of the more stylish mainstream releases of 2011 thus far, the pair make the gorgeous (and increasingly rare) decision to shot the movie on actual film (as opposed to digitally), giving it a rich, handsome, 70's reminiscent texture. The music, as provided by Christophe Beck and Nick Urata, matches this aesthetic, as do Andrew Dunn's clever camera movements. But the film's use of yesteryear visuals is more than just an exercise: Crazy, Stupid, Love. is like One of those olden flicks in the sense that it's willing to gamble with losing audience sympathy in order to tell the story it wants to. Certain relationships are damaged within the course of the film that will likely never fully recover, and the way that Ficarra and Requa slip small moments of absurdist humor into the movie's real-world trappings is inspired.

        As was the case with Phillip Morris, Ficarra's and Requa's greatest strength here is their rapport with their actors. Carell seems genuinely wounded, his misery only rarely played for laughs. His chemistry with Moore is natural and free-flowing, like you would imagine a married couple of 25 years to be. Gosling makes for quite the comic scoundrel, and his paring with Stone, both verbally and physically, is probably the best thing that the movie has going for it. Their most extended sequence together is the movie's most charming, immediate moment, and it's hard not to wish for more when it's over. Much like the title suggests, Crazy, Stupid, Love. is kind of a mess, a mess that has no pity for how tired butts get of sitting in theater chairs after a while, but it also can boast of charms aplenty, its odd spirit endearing it to me more than any other comedy this Summer not named Bridesmaids. Long live the PG-13 Comedy!

Grade: B