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Friday, September 30, 2011

Feist: Metals (Release Date: 10-4-2011)

        It's easy to lose Feist amidst the shuffle of indie standouts blowing up into the mainstream. She hasn't had an album top the charts yet like Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire, and she doesn't belong to the much-ballyhooed folksy-revivalism of Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver. As a matter of fact, you could be forgiven for sleeping on Leslie Feist's solo career for the simple fact that she beat all of her gentle-hearted contemporaries to the point. Way, way back in 2007, her Third solo album, The Reminder, was blowing up all over the place, its main hit, 1234, reaching all the way up to number Eight on the charts, an accomplishment that none of the Four aforementioned artists have even come close to. Not only that, but The Reminder was showered with awards, including Four Grammy nominations, and it bares the singular distinction of being itunes' most downloaded album of the year 2007. When you line up all of the outstanding credentials that The Reminder can lay claim to, it's easy to see why the woman in charge may have opted to wait a few years before getting back up on the horse.

        What's obvious about Metals, from first track to last, is that Feist is a ridged adherent to the old idiom, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Lead single Why Don't You Ever Go There alluded to this truth in early August, Feist's breathy, layered chants leading the way into the woman's ever-emotive voice, hovering above a subtle piano, and contented percussion. It's a catchy little number and an earworm to boot, but there's a real lack of ambition in the thing. Coming from a woman who's career started in the no-holds-barred, invite-all-your-friends world of Broken Social Scene, only to evolve into a less complicated but no less orchestrated solo career, it's pretty disheartening to hear. Worse yet, from where I sit, it's the best thing that Metals has to offer.

        People have always accused Feist's music of being a bit too, 'Dinner-Party-Friendly,' for its own good, but those detractors fail to remember the insane levels of shimmering, beautiful catchiness that individual Reminder tracks had in spades. Behind 1234 came the surprisingly dark-tinted My Man, My Moon, the heart-string-tugging of I Feel It All, and the gooey, sing-a-long goodness of Brandy Alexander. Metals is a pleasant listen from start to finish, but the individual tracks simply don't pop. Opener The Bad In Each Other is clearly trying to, but its efforts come off as stained. Same goes for The Circle Married the Line, a track that builds towards a string-laden climax, but it just doesn't possess the cathartic intonations that many The Reminder tunes did. The songs that don't fall victim to this type of over-zealousness come off a bit on the boring side, Bittersweet Melodies and Caught a Long Wind nearly lulling their listeners to sleep. Feist's art is a subtle One, and because of that, Metals might be something of a grower, so I feel wrong writing it off right away. As is, however, I find a sacred few of the individual songs manage to make a unique, whistle-ready impressions on me, a complaint that I wouldn't dream of putting on The Reminder in a million years. That album was a stunning example of what, 'Dinner Party Music,' could really be: Metals is just, 'Dinner Party Music.'

Grade: C

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Leftovers: September 2011

Leftover Movies:
Attack the Block:
        The following statement is made without any hesitation or reservations whatsoever, a comment made in complete confidence: Attack the Block is the most fun that I've had at the movies this year, and it's not even close. The British Action/Comedy/Sci-Fi mash-up represents the Directorial debut of Scribe/Helmsman Joe Cornish, and based on this evidence, the man is here to stay. Set in the slums of south Britain, ATB stars a group of Five teenaged hood-rats, led by the stoic, powerful Moses (John Boyega). On One crazy night, their town is invaded by a slew of extra-terrestirails, part-wolf/part-bear/wholly-terrifying and vicious, and the pack takes to defending their block (essentially a massive apartment complex), from the beastly intruders with whatever weapons they can find. Part Independence Day, part Die Hard, and part Boyz n the Hood, part Grindhouse/Blaxploitation flick, Attack the Block benefits from producer Edgar Wright's signature wink and nudge, but Cornish's style is a lot more straight-forward. Relying on hilarious interplay between his leads more than any of Wright's wacky and hilarious editing gimmicks, ATB manages to work fully as both an action movie and a comedy, an accomplishment that Wright has yet to add to his mantle. Throw in just a dash of social, racial commentary, and you've got a dizzying, gut-busting mash-up that crams about 20 different genres into heavenly minutes, then gets out while it's still ahead. It's a masterpiece of silliness, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Leftover Music:
The Field: Looping State of Mind
        Producer Axel Willner wasn't joking when he named his newest LP Looping State of Mind: The disc is a mere Seven tracks long, each unfolding over no less than Seven and a half minutes, continuously visiting familiar sound regions and repeating melodies into oblivion all sans lyrics. If that doesn't sound like you're cup of tea, then I'd advise you to steer clear altogether. LSOM likely won't bring in any new fans to its long-form, trance-enducing style of instrumental music, but that doesn't mean that its not a wonder to behold for those with the taste for this sort of thing. Each song on the album seems to float around in the air, slowly unfolding, expanding in ways both subtle and profound. One song blurs effortlessly into the next, and for once, you get the feeling that the artist behind the music meant to do just that. Sure, the title track has a bit more bounce than the rest, and Burned Out is perhaps a bit sunnier, but Looping State of Mind was clearly intended to be played in its entirety each time, and that's not a rule I plan on breaking soon.

Various Artists: Newermind and Stroked
        This year represents a Ten-year anniversary for Two of the most canonical rock and roll albums of the last many, many years, and to celebrate, both SPIN magazine and Stereogum have given us free tribute albums in honor of the occasion. SPIN's contribution comes in the form of Newermind, wherein a collection of artists ranging from The Meat Puppets to Titus Andronicus to Surfer Blood run down each and every track from Nirvana's now-20-years-old classic Nevermind. It's a dingy trip into the past with some newer favorites. On a much glossier subject, Stereogum rounded up the likes of Peter Bjorn and John, The Morning Benders, and even Heems of Das Racist to remake the Strokes' decade-old debut LP Is This It? Highlights include Frankie Rose's straightforward take on Soma, and Owen Pallet's blissfully orchestral touch-up of Hard to Explain. Oh, yeah, and did I mention that they were BOTH FREE?!?! Check 'em out right here, and right here. You can thank me later.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Moneyball (Release Date: 9-23-2011)

        I walked into Moneyball expecting The Social Network-lite. My advice to you: Don't do that. Moneyball does represent only the second feature film outing of TSN scribe Aaron Sorkin, yet again clearing out scenes of excessive action in favor of lengthy stretches of spell-binding dialogue. Again, there is terrific character development, a product of stellar writing and impressive acting. Yes, the Two films share much of the same DNA, but The Social Network just so happens to be One of the best movies to grace the silver screen in many moons, and simply expecting Moneyball to replicate such success was a foolish wanting on my part. Comparing the Two does Moneyball no favors, so if you promise not to do it, then I too will knock it off in Five... Four... Three... Two... One...

        Moneyball is based on the real-life story of rogue Baseball General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), and the revelatory means that he employed to steer the team into the playoffs in the early 2000's. After losing in the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees, the Oakland Athletics, unable to compete with bigger markets payroll-wise, lose Three of their very best players (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen) to free agency. Realizing that, without the deep pockets of other organizations, losing players in this fashion is likely to continue, Beane sets out to develop a new method for evaluating talent. He meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a 20-something Harvard grad who claims that an entirely new system for assessing value, One based almost entirely on lesser-known statistics, would allow his team to build a contender even on a smaller budget. The Two set out to mold a winner, ruffling the feathers of everyone from club manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to an endless parade of columnists and commentators.

        As its ad campaign has made perfectly clear, Moneyball is all about Brad Pitt, spending nearly every-waking moment with his Billy Beane, and shaping him as the true hero in a story that clearly has several. It's not hard to see why: Pitt is magnetic in the role despite being relatively un-showy, his candid speech and ever-ginning swagger masking nearly tangible feelings of disappointment and media fear. Pitt has given us great many wonderfully over-the-top performances, but Moneyball represents the high water mark in his career as a player of the everyman. Hill also shines, trading in his normative rage for an equally tickling quiet, surprisingly believable as a timid brainiac.

        The elements of Moneyball's craft are all in order as well: Director Bennett Miller (Capote) handles the proceedings with a subtle grace, and Wally Pfister, fresh off his Oscar win for Inception, films the whole thing in handsome, rustic tones. No, there's not much that's exactly wrong with Moneyball, but the movie cannot help but feel like an extra-valient attempt to translate a story that doesn't really work on screen. Unlike the best dialogue-heavy flicks, the endless conversations that make up the vast, vast majority of Moneyball's runtime blur into One another, each taking place in relatively similar locations and consisting of nearly identical topics.

        Where That Other Movie paced Sorkin's writings at a dizzying, elating speed, Miller sets the mind-bogling verbiage to a glacial clip, the movie's Two-plus hour runtime evident even during enjoyable stretches. Simply put, it's a movie about One of the world's most slow-moving sports, stuffed to the brim with conversation, mostly about statistics, wherein even Pitt's character jokes that not all that much is at stake. There are a lot of things to like about Moneyball, a handful in fact, but none of them can mask the fact that this is not a very titillating story to see represented visually. Kudos to all involved; This is likely right around the best film that you could wring out of this story, but those championing it as a potential Best Picture candidate are, to my mind, getting a bit ahead of themselves.

Grade: B

Friday, September 23, 2011

Drive (Release Date: 9-16-2011)

        Alright, everybody: Open up those ears and eyes, and behold the name Nicolas Winding Refn, because it's a name that you might just be hearing a lot of in the coming years. The Danish director, who's films (The Pusher Trilogy, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising among them) have received little to no attention or distribution in the U.S., is an auteur if ever there was One, his fingerprints littered all over every movie he ever touches. There's some of Scorsese's youthful rage in there, some of Lynch's bad-trip impulses, and even a dash of Malick's signature star-gazing. It's an odd mix, but not One that you're likely to mix up with any other director working today, a description which also proves perfectly apt at describing his big American introduction, Drive.

        Ryan Gosling, who hand-picked Refn to helm the film, stars as a nameless stunt driver who walks through life with a steely, stoic gaze, and a toothpick ever-hanging from his mouth. His days include working as a mechanic in the garage of his mentor/employer Shannon (Bryan Cranston), his nights sometimes being occupied by moonlighting as a getaway driver. Into this high-octaine existence enters Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor of Gosling's in his apartment complex who strikes up a gooey and wide-eyed romance with the driver before her husband (Oscar Issac) returns from jail. His reentrance into Irene's life is not without problems, some of them involving a few particularly shady-seeming individuals (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks), and it is soon up to Gosling and Gosling alone to save Irene and her adorable child (Kaden Leos) from a grisly fate.

        Everything that helped Refn get to where his is today is contained within Drive: An old-school aesthetic, startling injections of hyper-violence, a leading man just as likely to seduce as destroy, and about a million nods to other moments in film history. It's a rush, and those uninitiated to Refn's style are likely to be thrown for a loop, but I suppose there's no point in hiding that fact that I could have hoped for more out of Refn's big American coming-out party. Unlike both Bronson (set in a sordid prison system) and Valhalla Rising (which lays its scene with some absurdly barbaric vikings), Drive's horrifically brutal killings seem hugely out of place in modern Los Angeles. I understand that they serve as a commentary of some sort of Gosling's inner animal, but when everyone destroys their opponents in the same gory fashion, it's hard not to feel like Refn simply couldn't help himself. There's no question that the man is exacting, so it's hard not to wonder why he would knowingly allow his out-bursts of violence to go from shocking and raw to over-done and comical.

        As previously stated, the guy has no qualms with wearing his influences on his sleeve, but in the case of Drive, the pile-up becomes a bit exhausting. Besides each name listed in the introductory paragraph, the film also bares obvious allegiances to Michael Mann, Werner Herzog, John Hughes, and Quentin Tarantino (who's something of an endless allusion himself), not to mention movies like Bullitt, The French Connection, and maybe even a scene cribbed straight out of Fellini's La Strada (That One might be unintentional, but I can dream, can't I?). I also cannot be made to understand why the movie isn't just set in the 80's, seeing as its soundtrack, opening credits, character wardrobes, and general vibes are all directly lifted from that era. Oh, and something else about Drive: For the most part, it's totally awesome.

        Refn's camera, as operated by Newton Thomas Sigel, is compelling and picturesque at every turn, providing visual insights and eye-candy from first frame to last. The cast is uniformly strong, each actor hamming it up just as much as the story calls for. Gosling, though on screen for almost the entirety of the film, is often only a passive participant in conversation, but his exterior hints at a plethora of thoughts brewing, and his and Mulligan's chemistry is top-notch. As the name suggests, Drive contains a few scenes of motor mayhem that drip with intensity, making it impossible not to wish for more. There are a variety of complaints that I could make against Drive, but the only reason I'm making them in the first place is because the movie captivated me enough to stay on my mind. Let there be no doubt; Refn has better movies in him, but for now, we'd might as well just enjoy Drive's intensely off-beat ride.

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blink-182: Neighborhoods (Release Date: 9-27-2011)

        Oh, how Blink-182 takes me back. As corny as it sounds on the surface, the band served an important role in the development of my musical fandom, and I certainly don't think I'm alone in that regard. Neither radio music (All the Small Things withstanding) nor family friendly, Blink's discs were often acquired out of the CD burners of whichever of your friends had the most lax parents, hidden safely from your own guardians thereafter. Sure, their juvenile curses seem harmless now, but there was a time, a youngish-teenage years time, when their relentlessly childish world view really hit a nerve, and when seeking out their music was a rebellious and (vaguely) individualistic act. Yes, that's a lot of importance to place on a band that will undoubtedly be stuck in high-school-mode from here unto infinity, but the point is that, no matter how silly their music has always been, Blink-182 seems to strike a gigglingly nostalgic chord for myself and many of my peers.

        The band's last album, a 2003 Self-Titled effort, was a surprisingly mature and varied effort, but even then, there was a sense that Mark, Tom and Travis were getting a bit old to be crafting this kind of music. The Three have been bouncing around various similar-sounding projects ever since, so it makes sense that they might as well just come back home, but at ages ranging from 35-39, their angst-ier days are a bit behind them. Lead single Up All Night can't help but point this out, compensating for youthful mania with walls of power chords. Tom DeLonge, certainly the more iconic of the band's Two vocalists but never my favorite, is the worse for ware, even if his voice sounds mostly the same. Something about hearing a 35-year-old sing in his particular pitch is a bit off-putting. And yet, after all of that, the song still manages to be something of an earworm. Welcome to Neighborhoods.

        Neighborhoods is 14 tracks long, clocking in at just under 50 minutes, and not a single sound on the disc is unfamiliar to the band's catalogue. As a matter of fact, most of the songs just blur together anyways, a mega-sugary pop/punk mixture with occasional highlights popping up in the form of After Midnight's chorus, This is Home's obvious Cure vibes, and thoughts of that girl you had a crush on in 8th grade. It's all listenable, and plenty of it is unnervingly catchy. To say that the new Blink-182 LP is a retread would be a lie: The album is a carbon-copy, perfectly designed to slot into the rest of their discography and play anonymously on shuffle. Do I enjoy listening to Neighborhoods? Yeah, I think so, in an ironic, blast-from-the-past kind of way. Is it a good album? Oh, god, no. It's dumb fun; Let's just leave it at that.

Grade: C

Monday, September 19, 2011

Wilco: The Whole Love (Release Date: 9-27-2011)

        Over the 18-year duration of their musical career, Wilco has, to my mind, seen Three distinct incarnations. Wilco 1.0 starts at the band's genesis, and lasts up until the start of the late 90's. They played fun little folk/pop/rock songs that with lyrics like, "When we're walking/The sun will shine/On that hill/Where we used to climb/I'll look in your eyes/And you'll be mine." They occasionally hinted at something bigger, but mostly, they were just for kicks. Wilco 2.0 seemingly came out of nowhere, but thank god for them. From 1999-2004, the band delivered Three masterclass LPs (Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and A Ghost is Born), exemplified by a hugely expanded sonic world, and some mind-numbingly terrific song writing by frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their tunes were both expansive and subtle, inviting but often mysterious, with lyrics like, "All I could be/Is a busy sea/Of spinning wheels/And hands that feel/For stones to throw/And feet that run/But come back home." Presently, the world lays claim to Wilco 3.0.

        Wilco 3.0 isn't a bad band, per say. Neither Sky Blue Sky nor Wilco (The Album) were bad albums either, and had they been made by someone else, I honestly have no idea what my opinion of them would be. Coming from Wilco, a band who has seen such elating and delirious heights, they seemed a little... dad-rocky. Granted, the band is getting a bit older (Tweedy turned 44 in August), and it's awfully unrealistic to expect a hot streak like their's to keep going. How many amazing songs can One band really write, anyways?

        As if directly answering the questions of such naysayers like myself, Wilco's newest, The Whole Love, opens with Art of Almost, a song that uproots just about every single notion of what Wilco 3.0 can do. The number unfolds with sparse loops of drums and piano, Tweedy's voice joining the echoing soundscape soon after. The tune grooves along like this, adding and subtracting every sound from accompanying piano to an audio-clip that sounds stolen straight out of Panda Bear's Tomboy (in a good way). After strings and bass lines swell to the point of bursting, just about every sound clears out for guitarist Nels Cline, who solos like a man possessed from there on out. Clocking in at over Seven minutes, Art of Almost could readily be accused of over-indulgence, but I find it's go-for-broke approach inspiring and, well, pretty damn amazing. I haven't been as blown away by a tune of their's since Ghost came out Seven years ago.

        First single I Might doesn't aim to set the world on fire the way that Art of Almost does, but it doesn't need to. Its humming acoustic guitar and hyper-catchy organ part more than do the trick, the tune's bouncy ambience perfectly off-set by Tweedy's repeated declaration, "It's alright/You won't set the kids on fire/Oh, but I might." Two tracks into The Whole Love, I pretty much couldn't believe my ears. On track Three, Sunloathe, I suddenly could. Yet again, not a bad song, calling to mind some of the Beatles' chamber-poppier moments, but it doesn't excite or dazzle the way that the first Two tracks do. As it turns out, neither of these forms is emblematic of the rest of the disc. The fluctuation between the Two is.

        While Art of Almost strikes me as the undeniable champion of the disc, there are a variety of others songs here that impress far beyond what a cynical jerk like me had come to expect from the band. Dawned on Me is a genuine foot-stomper, fleshed out with instruments and harmonies aplenty that take it to extremes both sunny and grand. Born Alone, despite its depressing name and lyrics, is another warm ditty, One that takes plenty of time to rock out with Cline's stellar axe-work. Slower tracks, like Open Mind and Capital City fare less well, the group's folksy drawl simply less compelling than their excitable, more heavily-orchestrated numbers. The true exception to this rule only arrives at the end, as 12-minute closer One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend) rumbles along contentedly, soothing and gorgeous in its sway. Despite some flashes of real brilliance, The Whole Love suffers from too many dry-spells to be confused with hay-day Wilco, but there's little doubt in my mind that this is their most satisfying release since Ghost. Call it Wilco 2.5, or maybe just listen.

Grade: B

Friday, September 16, 2011

Contagion (Release Date: 9-9-2011)

        Americans are obsessed with the notion of apocalypse. Hordes of movies are dedicated to it each and every year, wether our downfall be a natural disaster, zombie epidemic, or extra-terrestrial invasion. It would be easy enough to write this off as an artistic indulgence were it not for the concept's prevalence in all of our daily lives. News reports warn of economic doomsdays, the rules of sanitary safety are constantly re-written, and internet articles slather blame and shame on anyone with a name you can recognize. It's this hourly avalanche of fear mongering and loaded words that makes us the scared people that we are, and Contagion is a movie set on putting that that all on display.

        The film is a globe-trotting yarn about the sudden spread of a viral infection, witnessed on scales both microscopic and massive. We open with business/family woman Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning home from a trip to Hong Kong with a pretty nasty cold. Turns out, it's a bit worse than a case of the sniffles, as Beth dies within Three days of contracting the unknown virus, leaving her husband (Matt Damon) baffled and alone. The big wigs are on it right away, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling in Epidemic Intelligence Service officer Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), as Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization toils away in far-off China. There's also a muck-raking, rumor-spreading blogger (Jude Law), a kindly but nosy janitor (John Hawkes), any number of scientists working on a cure (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle, and a puzzlingly and distractingly cast Demetri Martin among them), and about a bajillion other characters.

        To say that Contagion is a big movie would be the ultimate understatement. What it's doing in September, removed from both awards season glory and (perhaps more fittingly) large-scale Summer entertainment is beyond me. Director/Producer/Cinematographer(!?) Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to large casts with impressive names (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven and its sequels) but even by his standards, this seems like quite the project. There are literally no fewer than 30 characters who play an important role in the film, and it is the remarkable accomplishment of Soderbergh's direction and Scott Z. Burns' script that you end up genuinely caring about almost all of them. Unfolding in a slow, methodical manner, the flick is made weighty and terrifying because of its commitment to realism. It shows the outbreak, the reaction to the outbreak, and the reaction to that reaction, and at every step, it rings true.

        There's little need to discuss the acting here, as it is so uniformly strong that no one really stands out. Every time I near the conclusion that the finest performance belongs to Damon, I flash back to a scene of Law's deliciously over-the-top turn, Winslet's sturdy determination, or even young Anna Jacoby-Heron as Damon's strong-willed and loyal daughter, and am forced to bite my tongue. Contagion is a fascinating film, One that manages to warn about the dangers of fear while it simultaneously scares the day-lights out of you. It's this devilish contradiction that gives the movie its traction, along with superb craft on each and every level. I was all in with it until the last 20 minutes or so, and while the film's conclusion does strike me as something of a let down, what came before it simply cannot be denied. Contagion is electric entertainment that stokes the imagination, capable of the rare feat of deeply effecting the way you experience the world for at least several hours after viewing. See this movie, and then wash your hands afterwards.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Warrior (Release Date: 9-9-2011)

        Stop me if you've heard this One before: Two brothers, One a child prodigy with hugely self-destructive tendencies, the other more subdued, and almost always regulated to underdog status. The Two both compete in a sporting event of One sort or another, as rock songs and familial bonding add drama and life lessons to the dynamic. This description perfectly befits Warrior, Director Gavin O'Conner's take on Mixed Martial Arts, and modern American unrest, but it also fits last year's The Fighter like a glove, as well as a litany of other big screen efforts. As The Fighter amply proved, you don't have to reinvent the genre wheel in order to come out with a big winner, but it does put something of a target on your back. If you've already seen Five other movies just like Warrior, why bother?

        Subbing in for manic, deranged Christian Bale is tortured, emotionally stunted Tom Hardy, who, as the film opens, returns home from a tour in Iraq to berate his recovering alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). Scenes of him restarting his life are interspersed with ones that check in on big brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a High School Physics teacher who moonlights as an MMA fighter to help pay the increasingly daunting bills. A pill-popping, whisky-swigging war vet, and an everyman on the verge of foreclosure: These are the hard lives of true Americans, and this movie isn't even about to let you forget that, ramming their hardship down your throat from start to finish. At least an hour and a half of the movie's hulking 140 minute runtime is dedicated to these stories, especially that of the damaged bond between Nolte and his sons, stuffing the entirety of the climactic, 16-entrant tournament into the film's final third.

        But what fights they are! Those who are repulsed by this seemingly barbaric style of fighting won't find much to enjoy here; The battles are all shot right up close, the sweat and pain pouring out onto the audience. I'm not a big UFC fan (nor am I particularly opposed), but even to me, it's readily apparent that these scenes are the best thing the movie has going for it. Hardy gives One hell of a performance, the unique sense of animal magnetism that made his titular Bronson performance so mesmerizing again in effect here, but the screenplay short-changes him with minimal character development and rampant cliche. Edgerton doesn't fare so well, his body and demeanor seemingly out of place in the violence-filled world of the film from the start. Sure, it's fun to hear Nolte's hardly audible, world-weary rasp, but no amount of yucking for the camera can help Warrior from simply seeming like another movie to add to its genre. It's action scenes are among the very most gripping and intense of the year, and the film confirms, once again, that Hardy has some BIG things coming his way (Bane, anyone?), but everything else here is standard issue.

Grade: B-

Monday, September 12, 2011

Das Racist: Relax (Release Date: 9-13-2011)

        Not a whole lot of promising musical careers start out with joke songs, but Das Racist was never exactly your typical act in the first place. For some reason that remains largely unknown to me, Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell was a pretty big internet sensation, endless repetition of the same few words proving hilarious to many. But repetition quickly turned out to be something that Das Racist wasn't much interested in, as their joyous, goofy, brilliant, 17-track, hour-plus long mixtape Shut Up, Dude readily affirmed. The group's Two MCs, Heems (Himanshu Suri) and Kool A.D. (Victor Vazquez) just so happened to each be in possession of distinctive, fully-formed rapping styles, Heems' aggressive, boisterous enthusiasm pairing perfectly with Kool A.D.'s half-asleep tongue-twisters. Their sheen was not to be diminished when, just Six months later, the duo dropped another mixtape, Sit Down, Man, an even larger (20 Tracks), crazier, and more accomplished collection that was downloaded 40,000 times within its first week of existence. Now, finally, we get our mitts on DR's first-ever proper LP, Relax.

        When lead single Michael Jackson dropped a bit over a month ago, it seemed like the band might be due for a change-up. Unlike the varied and bouncy beats of their mixtapes, the tune featured absolutely pounding instrumentals, filling up every last corner with sound. Perhaps even more noticeable was Heems' new-found growl, his flow taking on a whole new sound, One gritty and gravely. After an abrasive first listen or Two, it's clear to see that Heems' new flow befits the track's bombastic sound, but lazy-old Kool A.D. can sound like he's struggling to keep his head above water in all of the furry. Now we have the whole album, and, as it turns out, Michael Jackson only vaguely informs the disc as a whole.

        As a matter of fact, opener and title track Relax starts the thing off in the exact opposite direction, Vazquez's stream-of-consciousness spewings adorned only by minimal percussion. After a digital-baby-voice chorus reminds us to relax over and over again, Suri gets in on the fun, his voice nearly snarl-free, perhaps recognizing that such a beat wouldn't merit such beastly boasts. Like many songs on the LP, Relax ends in a flurry of odd sounds that somewhat betray the song that came before them, but finding something negative to say about the first half of the tune is much, much more difficult.

        So the relentless mania of Michael Jackson immediately proves to not be pervasive, but that song's new found focus on clearer, more expensive sounding production is echoed through-out Relax, most especially on the disc's first half. Brand New Dance is catchy and all, but its over-stuffed sonics never allow Heems and Kool A.D. to do what they do best, which is just pure flowing wordplay. Middle of the Cake is perhaps a tad more rap-oriented, but its spends an absolutely exhaustive amount of its runtime on a so-so hook, another accusation that could readily be leveled against the CD as a whole.

         In my eyes, Relax only starts to really make good on Das Racist's other-worldly potential on Shut Up, Man, but there are riches aplenty thereafter. Race, always a prominent theme in the rappings of the pair (Suri is of Indian descent, Vazquez both Afro-Cuban and Italian), is addressed in the group's standard playful, witty way when Heem's declares, "They say I act White/But sound Black/But act Black/But sound White/But what's my sound bite supposed to sound like?/I think I sound aight/I think I sound tight." As exemplified here, much of Das Racist's appeal rests in the fact that they bring humor and odd-ball energy to a genre often prone to chest-pounding and self-seriousness. Quoting any of their rhymes is almost superfluous: Lines of idiotic, pop culture and society-skewing brilliance show up by the dozen on every release they've ever come out with, and Relax  is nowhere near an exception to this rule.

        Picking up where Shut Up, Man left off, follow up Happy Rappy is minimal in backing and maximal in slippery loose-association free-styling. Punjabi Song uses a vocal sample of Indian singer Bikram Singh to brilliant effect, again toying with how we've come to contextualize and compartmentalize hip-hop. This is, of course, a band whose last release referenced Grizzly Bear and Pee-Wee Herman within mere seconds, here receiving production from such indie-pop luminaries as Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), and Anand Wilder (Yeasayer). If there are genre walls that still need knocking down, Das Racist is there with a hammer, coaxing laughter and badassery out of American Capitalism, Chicken Sandwiches, and botched pronunciations of John Carpenter in equal measure. If it's not wholly clear by now, I'm a big, big fan of these guys, and while I'm not sure that I find Relax to be the crown jewel of their collection, it's certainly worth more than a few very loud listens.  Their releases have a pronounced tendency to grow on their listeners, far too much word play flying around to be gleaned right away, which is why I find it extremely likely that my already-positive review might grow to be even more ringing as time passes. If you like hip hop, I'd advise you to get your paws on this one asap.

Grade: B+

Friday, September 9, 2011

Neon Indian: Era Extraña (Release Date: 9-13-2011)

        It seems like right around now, all of the leaders of the often name-dropped, 'chillwave,' movement are due for their sophomore albums. The upstart genre has seen a series of releases in the last few years or so, but 2011 seems to be a banner year for the stuff. This 365 has already seen a second major release from Toro y Moi, Washed Out, and The War on Drugs. This week, it's Neon Indian, whose debut release, Psychic Chasms, helped popularize the woozy, fuzzy, computerized genre.

        By the initial sounds of it, you would think that the pet project of Alan Palomo had another hit on their hands. After the digital age freak-out of the seconds-long opening, 'instrumental,' track, Era Extraña bursts open into the lush sounds of early single Polish Girl. A bouncy little keyboard part leads the way, never straying as layers and walls of sound are added and subtracted, Palomo's ever-hazy voice misting over the tune. The affect is a marvelous piece of pop bliss, an ear worm on first lesson, and its because of that immediacy that the song's 4:24 runtime seems exhaustive in length. As can often be a stumbling block for the genre, the lack of song evolution here drags down the initial impact of what should be a stellar song, holding it back to merely very good.

        As it turns out, Polish Girl is largely not emblematic of the disc as a whole, but that's not exactly a good thing. Many of the album's tracks play like a redux of what we already heard on Psychic Chasms, Fallout replicating the slow-mo space-out 6669 (I don't know if you know) to diminished effect, Future Sick (while One of the LP's finest tunes) sounding like Deadbeat Summer sans single potential. Unfortunately, it would appear that the band is better served by retracing their steps than making bold new ones, as the instantly forgettable guitar cruncher Blindside Kiss, and poppier than pop Hex Girlfriend can readily attest. Sure, the production value of Palomo's project has risen over the last few years, but that doesn't matter much if the man turns out to be a One trick pony. It's easy to forget that Psychic Chasms was itself a pretty inconsistent album with a variety of high points, and Era Extraña just has fewer of them. Not a bad listen by any stretch, but One that slips comfortably into the background after the first few minutes of Polish Girl are over.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Netflix Instant Watch Picks for September 2011

Before They Were Big Edition
Louie: Season One
        To call FX's hilarious show Louie an updated version of Seinfeld would prove both extremely accurate, and somewhat short-sighted. Like the famed sitcom, the brainchild of comedian Louie C.K. alternates between the surreal and mundane moments of real life, with interspersed bits of stand-up comedy intermixed. And while I'm not about to argue that Louie is the funnier of the Two programs, it makes up for it with a heightened sense of artisanship and pathos. Aforementioned C.K. Produces, Writes, Edits, Directs, and Stars in this fictionalized account of his own life, wherein a newly divorced Dad must raise Two young daughters while keeping his depression at bay, and getting through the insanity of day-to-day life. It's a show that not only understands the feeling of being in an emotional rut, but also sees the humor in it, many of the scenes proving both uproarious and tragic at the same time. Better yet,  the construction of the show is fascinating, from the varied and unpredictable camera work of Paul Koestler, to C.K.'s own bold and often belly-ache-inducing choices in the editing room. I've heard the Season Two is even better, so do like I did, and get caught up with this show before you're too far behind.

Let Me In
        The ultimate surprise in last year's crop of flicks, Let Me In accomplished the unthinkable in successfully remaking the very recent (2009) and very good Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In. Now set in 1980's New Mexico, Let Me In is the story of Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a scrawny young boy who is mercilessly picked on at school, only to come home to a mother who's too busy to look him in the eye. Into his apartment complex moves Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young girl with a strange and alluring air that catches Owen's attention from the get-go, but it's not long before he discovers that his new friend isn't all that she seems. Those expecting this Americanized version of the story to water down the more uncomfortable aspects of the story should be warned: This isn't your Twilight-style vampiric love story. What makes Let Me In so great is that it steals every last thing that Let the Right One In did right, and then fashions that with a plethora of bold, stunning moves of its own. In honoring the messy emotions and desires of its pre-teen leads, be they sexual, violent, or vengeful, the film is able to concoct a strangely endearing romance while simultaneously creeping under your skin in an absolutely insidious way. Director Matt Reeves, who, in my eyes, didn't receive his due credit for his work on Cloverfield, paces the whole thing at a slow, steady, dread-inducing clip, while the sublimely beautiful work composer Michael Giacchino and cinematographer Greig Fraser provide enough emotion to match the considerable terror of the thing. The acting is also uniformly strong, the vulnerable and damaged performance of Smit-McPhee particularly inspiring. Few movies have ever left my stomach in knots like this One did, its oddly moving concoction climbing all the way up to number Six on my Best Movies of 2010 list, slotting ahead of such Best Picture Nominated heavy-weights as Black Swan, Winter's Bone, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3 and The King's Speech. Call me crazy, but just do it after you've checked this One out.

        Despite the fact that he's about One step away from being a household name on the level of someone like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, many have still not heard of Christopher Nolan's directorial debut, and even fewer have seen it. Made on what is readily apparent as a shoe-string budget, Following stars Jeremy Theobald as a young man with a peculiar affinity for following people through their every day lives. This practice leads him into an odd sort of friendship with Cobb (Alex Haw), another deviant with a disturbed practice or Two of his own, the bond resulting in a variety of unpredictable occurrences. Shot in grainy black-and-white and acted by a cast of complete no-names, Following is a new-age noir, this time starring freaks instead of ladies men. As always, Nolan excels at raising the pressure through-out the film, delivering perfectly on the boiling point of his unforeseeable climax. Weighing in at a meager 70 minutes (or under half as long as either The Dark Knight or Inception), Following isn't about to make you forget Nolan's weightier triumphs of late, but it's a hell of a ride when you're on it, and a fun peak into the younger years of One of today's most high-profile film-makers.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Leftovers: August 2011

Leftover Albums:
Moonface: Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped
        In case this fact has somehow escaped you, I harbor a pretty big bias in favor of all things Wolf Parade. That being said, I'm almost always interested in the projects of co-frontmen Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, but I also can't help but pine for the days in which they would rock as One (WP is on indefinite Hiatus). This disposition likely prevented me from enjoying this June's Sound Kapital, the new disc by Boeckner-led outfit Handsome Furs, as much as the next guy, but it has done nothing at all to diminish my affections towards Krug's solo debut under the alias Moonface. The album title listed above is entirely true: Krug had initially planned to record an album of nothing but looped Vibraphone, but finally decided the concept would be better served with organ sounds. The lack of other instruments does make for a smaller sonic world to play in, but Krug populates each song with a swirling, enveloping beat, nearly hypnotizing you mid-listen. The album is only Five tracks long, none shorter than Seven Minutes, but Organ Music still manages to feel like a full musical meal, the bright and shimmering Fast Peter, and the zombie-disco of Shit-Hawk in the Snow proving particular highlights. There's little doubt that this is a One-off: That I am aware of, no one has tried to craft a disc exclusively out of looping this particular instrument before, and I can't really imagine Krug making a habit out of it. Organ Music is as strange and singular as it is inviting and fun, and you should give it a listen today.

The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient
        You've heard this style of music before: A vaguely hazy sound lent to apathetic singing and gorgeous and casual guitar playing. Washed Out already released such a disc earlier this year, with Neon Indian's new set fast approaching (my review will be up this Friday), and here arrives the deliciously fuzzy debut LP of The War on Drugs, entitled Slave Ambient. As the name might suggest, there's little to no edge on the thing, not ideal for a house party, but perfect for a late-summer porch sit. Frontman Adam Granduciel sounds more than a little like 2011-breakout-artist Kurt Vile, a musician whose music I've always wanted to hear with a backing band. The War on Drugs provides me with just that (not to mention a hefty helping of Tom Petty-vibes) on tunes like trance/bliss inducing opener Best Night, and the echo-laden, percussion-heavy Come to the City. One of the most accomplished first full-lengths of the year.

Leftover Movies:
Life in a Day
        I don't review documentaries on this site, and I likely never will. I apologize if that makes me seem short-sighted, but I simply view them as a completely different art form, One with which I have minimal experience, and am thus an unfit judge. But I suppose it wouldn't exactly hurt me to point a good One out every once in a while, and Life in a Day marks just such an occasion. Comprised entirely of amateur footage submitted to Youtube on July 24th, 2010, Life is as beautiful, hilarious, terrifying, and awe-inspiring as an hour-and-a-half summation of the human experience should be. Being sure to frame the project from a global perspective, Director Kevin McDonald includes clips from all over the world, encompassing moments as elating as sky-diving, as stirring as a no-holds-barred clip of a cattle-gun in use, and as mundane as a young man's first shave. I walked out of this movie feeling vivacious and alive, and you will too.

        This year has already seen a variety of Independent Film triumphs, as well as a bold and assured directorial debut or Two, but Bellflower stands out as the flick most emblematic of the audacity of the micro-budget American Indie. Somehow strung together on a budget of just $17,000 (or .0001888% of Conan the Barbarian's 90 Million, if you will) Bellflower is the debut feature of Writer/Director/Producer/Star Evan Glodell, and it makes quite the impression. The story follows the life of Woodrow (Glodell), a Twenty-something who spends his days building flame-throwers and making Mad Max references with his BFF Aiden (Tyler Dawson). Into his perpetual state of youth stumbles Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a free spirit for whom Woodrow falls for immediately. To the surprise of no one, things don't work out perfectly, and Bellflower makes a mid-movie detour from endearing romance to deranged grief. Shot on custom-designed cameras built by Glodell himself, Bellflower is rendered in a yellow-y soft-focus that brings both the nostalgic and hallucinatory elements of the film to the forefront. The movie is nothing if not daring, making One bold and divisive move after another, but there's never a doubt that it is the work of a true talent with a belly full of fiery ambition. Though not at all for the easily-shaken, Bellflower is the announcement of Glodell as a talent to be reckoned with, not to mention a great movie in and of itself.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Release Date: 8-26-2011)

        Alright everybody, we've made it through the season of Superheroes, sequels, rampant special effects, sequels, remakes, and more sequels. Congratulations! Oh, your reward? Well... How about a late-August/Early September parade of Horror flicks?!?! What started with Final Destination 5, and continued on with Fright Night, now carries on with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, the new Guillermo del Toro-Produced scare fest. The movie lays its scene in an old, menacing mansion, where young Sally (Bailee Madison) is forced to move after her mother ditches her with oblivious dad (Guy Pierce). Already throughly displeased about the move, Sally begins to hear voices and bumps in the night, but the only One who will believe her is her father's new flame (Katie Holmes).

        There are a lot of cliches at work within Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a fact that never prevented this year's earlier Insidious from coaxing a scream or Two. But this time, the screenplay relies too heavily on the idiocy of its protagonists to move the plot along, which I understand is a stand-by method of the genre, but it still detracts for me. The eventual culprit at work within the movie is also a bit underwhelming when you finally get to see it/them for any sustained period of time, Thank god for Oliver Stapleton, who's cinematography is easily the best thing about the flick, employing darkness for contrast, and about a million different camera angles. Outside of his work, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is just another horror movie, with occasional scares, and occasional eye-rolling. Welcome to September...

Grade: C