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Monday, April 30, 2012

Netflix Instant Watch Picks For May 2012

A Few of Hype Starts Here's Favorite Flicks of the Last Couple Years Edition

Everything Must Go
        After watching 2006's romantic dramedy Stranger Than Fiction, one could be forgiven for expecting Will Ferrell's career to take a slightly different path. Straight-faced, wounded, and wholly believable, it seemed to mark a Jim Carrey-esque change in focus for the comedian. Then came Blades of Glory, then Semi-Pro, then Step Brothers, then Land of the Lost, then... you get the idea. I'm not the only one I've heard complaining about Ferrell's reluctance to return to the dramatic side of things, but I am among the very few who's actually seen it again in last year's woefully under-appreciated Everything Must Go. Ferrell stars as Nick Halsey, a successful career man plagued with alcoholism who, on one fateful day, loses his job, wife, car, and access to his home. Halsey defiantly takes up residence in his front lawn, a move that catches the eye of his new neighbor (Rebecca Hall) and a local youth (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of the late Notorious B.I.G.). Everything isn't exactly an exciting movie; It lacks the crazed energy of Ferrell's pure comedies, as well as the meta/fantastical bend of Stranger. It's a subtle character study of a man in crisis, one that uses its characters and situations in surprising, fitting ways, and most importantly, it boasts a really great performance from its leading man. Not great as in, 'Good for Farrell doing drama,' but great as in, 'I would have slotted him over half of last year's Best Actor candidates.' Don't believe me? Take a look for yourself.

        Everything Must Go is a movie about hardship, and how experiencing it can be a freeing, and eventually gratifying experience. In Melancholia, the world WILL CRUSH YOU... LITERALLY. Lars von Trier's essay on depression and its many angles is a positively stunning, head-spinning testament to the power of cinema, though it might be best reserved for the emotionally stable. Kristen Dunst, in a performance that will completely reconfigure everything you ever thought you knew about Kristen Dunst, plays Justine, a bride who wears a head full of torment. The film opens with her wedding, an event that begins with awkward charm before completely unraveling at the seams. In steps Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine's Type-A sister, who cares for her wallowing sibling while her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) becomes fascinated by Melancholia, a newly-discovered planet that might just be on a collision course towards earth. Yes, I know it all sounds crazy, but von Trier somehow finds a way to stitch the whole thing together perfectly, the sci-fi-ish elements never clashing with the film's weighty emotional core, only enhancing them. Much of this is due to the career turn here from Dunst, who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival before the film was snubbed altogether by the Academy. Don't listen to those fogies. Melancholia might not be an easy watch, but it's a towering achievement.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
        Yeah, yeah, I know, now's not the season for this one, but when I saw it on the Recently Added list, I just couldn't help myself. This Finnish import is simply one of the wildest, funniest, creepiest, craziest throwbacks of the last several years, and no time of year should be deprived of its cockamamie brilliance. In the snow-covered, facial-hair-shrouded land of Finland, a mining company drills too deep, and accidentally unearths the impossibly evil creature known as... Santa Clause. A young lad from the surrounding area (Onni Tommila) comes to learn that evil is afoot, and when no one will believe him, its up to our pint-sized hero to save the day. Exports isn't the B-Movie throw-away that it sounds like on paper. It tries (and succeeds) to frighten more often than its goofy premise would suggest, and its comedy bits are delivered in a dead pan fashion that is light-years removed from similar sounding American spoofs. In truth, the movie might owe more to 80's Spielberg than silly satire, presenting itself with a straight-face, sending a young protagonist on a perilous, coming-of-age journey. The maniacal plot summary isn't even the draw here, it's just the cherry on top of one delicious Sunday.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Leftovers: April 2012

Leftover Music:
51---KOOL A.D.
        Like Manna from heaven, so arrives KOOL A.D.'s second mix tape of 2012, 51. For those keeping track, I'm a big, big fan of Das Racist, the Hip-Hop duo/trio (does a hype-man count as a member?) to which A.D. belongs, but it's been a rough road for the boys of late. 2011 saw their proper debut, Relax, received an enormous critical shrug, and while Heems' 2012 tape, Nehru Jackets, proved a solid effort, KOOL's accompanying collection, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, was an auto-tuned, tuneless mess. Perhaps aware that his legion of fans would rather hear him flow than do whatever you'd say he's doing Drinkard, the man known as Victor Vazquez dropped 51 just this last Tuesday, less than four months removed from his previous miss-step. As someone who feared that Drinkard was a sign of things to come, 51 sounds like candy to the ears, trading in the bombastic production that the whole group has favored of late for sunny, West-Coast Lo-Fi. Don't believe me? Check out that smile-inducing Supremes sample on No, or the slow-down jam Arrested Development, fully equip with one of the funniest film-director references I've ever heard. The whole thing was clearly put together in a short and very recent period of time: There's a reference to an episode of South Park that aired April 4th, as well as a shout-out to Jack White's debut album with which 51 shares a release date. This tight timing robs the 22-track mix of some consistency, but when KOOL gets it started, there's no denying him.

Habits & Contradictions---Schoolboy Q
        While I've had H&C for the better part of 2012, I wasn't quite ready to recommend it until just now. The knock against it? Well, let's just call it junk food. Q's raps are almost always glaringly profane, and even more frequently devoid of any real consequence. The guy can certainly flow, but sometimes gets caught up in yelling single phrases for entire back halves of tracks. So why recommend it at all? Because, as of this writing, I'm hopelessly addicted to the thing. The beats here are just plain extraordinary, from the cold, dense, foreboding Nightmare of Figg St., to a shockingly natural sample of Portland's own Menomena on There He Go. Schoolboy is not without his shining moments on top of these stunning beats: Hands on the Wheel sees him trading ferocious verses with A$AP Rocky, while minimal opener Sacrilegious clears out space for the MC to take over. That said, one listen to Druggy Wit Hoes Again clarifies why we're really here: For one thunderous, party-ready beat after another.

On Second Thought...
The OF Tape Vol. 2---Odd Future
        If it's not obvious already, April has been a Hip-Hop heavy month in my head phones, which has allowed me to revisit Odd Future's March release. My initial review was positive, but it lacked the extensive exposure that time has permitted. Vol. 2 has grown on me tremendously, thanks in large part to a greater appreciation for the varied contributions and styles of its many MC's. Mike G, for example, only gets one feature on the whole disc, but he makes the most of it with badass gem Green Forest. Domo Genesis isn't forced into the same economy, his flow more distinct and confident with each listen, no track proving this more than the positively scintillating Doms. Then there's Hcad, and Sam (Is Dead), and... you get the idea. Father time has changed my opinion, something that happens not infrequently, and might just spawn a consistent feature in the monthly Leftovers section. Either way, I've come to realize that Vol. 2 deserves more credit than I initially gave it, and today, I remedy that mistake.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Jack White: Blunderbuss (Release Date: 4-24-2012)

        Jack White is a man with a past. The male half of The White Stripes is now 36 years old, right around 78 in Rock Star years, and any musical decisions that he makes in the present come pre-packaged with reminders of the past. Wether you're a Stripes enthusiast, or a proponent of one of White's many side projects (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, etc.), the man is simply one of (if not the) most unmistakable voices in Rock over the last decade plus. At this point, he's going to have a tough time surprising anyone.

        Blunderbuss is smart enough to realize this, and while it doesn't exactly play by all of the guys' pre-existing rules, it certainly doesn't sound like a stretch for him, either. White appears less interested in sound than in the past; The White Stripes were a loud band, and The Dead Weather was/is/? even louder. It's not hard to see why such a talented song writer would turn the volume down from 11. Take opener Missing Pieces, which grooves along playfully before unleashing twin guitar and keyboard solos, both scintillating despite a relative lack of sound. It doesn't boast of the immediacy of certain Stripes classics, but bests many of them in terms of sonic depth and clarity. The rest of Blunderbuss largely follows suit.

        The less assaultive vibe of the disc's whole does have a primary defector. Sixteen Saltines could easily slot into just about any Stripes album; As a matter of fact, it already did, in the form of Elephant's The Hardest Button to Button. Self plagiarism is nothing new to White, who would probably prefer that you not listen to Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground and There's No Room For You Here in immediate succession, so that's something of a moot point. What's strange is that he decided to dust off that old progression on an album that's more in favor Southern, Rang-Timey stylings, as opposed to Saltines forceful crunch (pun intended). The second half of the album, in particular, has a Honkey Tonk swagger that feels no need to rush, or crank up the decibels. Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy proves that White can write a real ear-worm without so much as touching an electric guitar, and none of the three following tracks could exactly be called a rager. These are busier, more complicated compositions than we're used to from White; Credit to whoever was savvy enough to realize that depth, in this context, is far more important than power.

        It's a bit difficult to envision White releasing another classic album that could sit beside his Stripes efforts as an equal. We know too many of his tricks by now: Never again will it be a surprise when that gritty guitar solo is hiding just around the corner, or when Jack sings cryptically about his hatred for women before featuring female vocals on every other track. No one should be held to the standards to which White will likely be up against for the rest of his recording days, but that doesn't make him any less of a great song writer. Blunderbuss sees old Jack trying out a few new tricks, gingerly tipping his toe into the water, discovering what this whole, 'solo career,' business is all about. Its a rock-solid listen, front to back, but more than that, it bodes well for the future. White doesn't need to reinvent himself for anyone, he only has to keep making terrific music. Mission accomplished.

Grade: B+

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (Release Date: 4-13-2012)

        Stop me when you've heard this one before: Five normal (albeit, reeeeeeally old looking for their age) High Schoolers set off for a weekend getaway. Despite the fact that they're a pre-existing social circle, the youths all seem to perfectly fit into opposing stereotypes. There's the Jock (Chris Hemsworth), the Floozy (Anna Hutchison), the Stoner (Fran Kranz), the Heady Nice Guy (Jesse Williams), and, of course, the Virgin who serves as our protagonist (Kristen Connolly). Though their vacation starts as a jovial, sexually-charged affair, certain members of the group start to grow weary of their stomping grounds, the titular cabin. Yes, ladies and gents: You've just stepped into a horror flick, but The Cabin in the Woods might not be the exact movie you thought it would be. As a matter of fact, it's not even the same movie that writer/director Drew Goddard likely thought it was.

        It certainly isn't a true horror flick, that's for damn sure. Through prat-falls, soundtrack gimmickry, and a few cryptic cut-aways, The Cabin in the Woods reveals itself to be a farcical affair within its opening moments. Sure, things still pop out, and the requisite amount of blood is still spilt, but all of that seems sort of beside the point. As do the actors, for that matter, all relatively unknown, and here given character arches that ensure they remain unknown. No, The Cabin in the Woods is more focused on you, the viewer, and what you're used to in a movie, what you're comfortable with. It goes to great lengths to discuss this, piling on one meta-flick layer on top of another, and pulling of a pretty damn well-executed bait-and-switch at its finish. There's a good chance that Cabin is the most clever film of 2012 thus far, and while that might make it inherently brilliant in the eyes of some, I'll go ahead and take the stance that said shrewdness is actually the film's achilles' heel.

        Goddard's movie tries to prompt comparison to the horror flicks that it lovingly riffs on, but it's been beaten to the punch too many times for this to take place. Meta-Horror is nothing new to American audiences, who've recently seen a rag list, including Tucker & Dale vs Evil, Drag Me to Hell, and Scream 4. Cabin might be the headiest of the troupe, but in pursuit of proving its college-paper-like thesis, it forgets to provoke laughter, scares, or any real form of care. I understand that making fun of what's on screen will inherently detract from character sympathy, but there's no one on screen worth caring about at all. That's the problem of telling your audience exactly what's going to happen; Even if you're doing it to prove a point, the crowd still knows precisely what's about to go down. Some will point to the climactic twist as the film's true deviation from form, but the fact that a twist is coming is evident from a mile out. Even if you don't know what it is explicitly, doesn't anticipating a, 'gotchya!' kind of, you know, destroy the whole point of having a, 'gotchya!'? Cabin isn't a bad movie, per say. It has some fun artistic flourishes, and, like I said, it's smart stuff with an appropriately bonkers finale. But its attempts at scares feel so apathetic, its humor so phoned-in, and its actual plot so disinteresting, that no amount of smarty-pants genre-skewering can quite save it. It may be brilliant, it's just not that fun.

Grade: C+

Monday, April 16, 2012

Moonface: With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery (Release Date: 4-17-2012)

        Is there anyone on today's music scene with a more restless passion to create than Spencer Krug? I'd think not. Maybe even hope not. Since the 34-Year-Old Canadian weirdo first appeared on the scene in 2002, Krug has been involved in an astonishing 21 musical releases. This output is spread out between six different acts (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Moonface, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, and Fifths of Seven), 16 of the entries into his canon so far taking place during the stretch of 2005-2010, making for an annual average of two and two thirds LPs, EPs, Singles, and whatever else during that period. But, whatever you do, don't take Krug's moderately reduced offerings over the last couple of years as a sign of decreasing energy, or ambition. Last year, the mad-man unveiled his solo debut LP, a collection of only five lengthy tunes composed entirely out of Krug's voice and various organ sounds, appropriately named Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped. His 2012 effort is no less head-turning: A joint album with Finnish Prog Rock band Siinai.

        Though Krug has often been a star player in the past, Moonface sees him in complete control of his product, which means writing more songs per release than the man is likely used to. His last two releases point clearly to this fact; The aforementioned Organ Music was preceded by a one-song, 20-minute long EP entitled Dreamland EP: Marimba and Shit-Drums. While Krug has proven masterful at fleshing out simple structures into sprawling epics, spreading his muse over 10 tracks seems to exhaust him, both in terms of song composition, and his patented odd-ball lyricism. Everything here is down-tempo, the slowly unfurling title track foretelling of the disc's steady pace. As a matter of fact, fleet of foot numbers like Shitty City and Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips almost jump out at you from nowhere, flying in the face of a surprisingly mellow track list. Admittedly, I've always been, and will likely continue to be a big Krug fan, so even the negative things that I bring up about any of his releases must be qualified, but there's no ignoring how HB can slip into the background far easier than the work of this singular artist usually does. I'll still be the first guy in line for his next release, but this shouldn't be mistaken for the cream of Krug's crop.

Grade: B-

Friday, April 13, 2012

Silent House (Limited Release Date: 3-9-2012)

        A movie’s plot isn’t always its primary story. Avatar, for instance, tells a tale of environmental preservation, and bravery under fire... but is that what you remember it for? The actual narrative at hand, the thing that people engaged with, and were excited by, isn’t about tall blue aliens, but technological innovation, and where movie magic can take us today. Silent House plays a similar card; While there’s certainly a story arch on hand, the movie-under-the-movie is all about technique. The film consists of one single, unbroken take, a camera filming an hour and a half’s worth of commotion without ever cutting away. There’s a plot, sure, but it’s the single take/real time style choices who are to thank for putting curious butts in seats.

        As if entirely too aware of this, Co-Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau obsess over visual details, while more or less throwing narrative spesificity out the window. Elizabeth Olsen, alternating between natural and broken in much the same fashion as her Martha Marcy May Marlene performance, is the easy stand-out of a cast that feels largely directionless. The thespians essentially blow through a plethora of Haunted House movie cliches, including an ending that absolutely falls apart at the seams. Who cares? Silent House is more of an experiment than a proper film, and even if the story is tells is pretty underwhelming, the visual composition of the thing is nothing short of breath-taking. Yeah, it wears off after a while, and probably isn’t really enough to justify the creation of an entire feature, but its sure one curious little novelty. Wether that’s worth the price of admission is all in the eye of the beholder.

Grade: B-

Monday, April 9, 2012

M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion (Release Date: 4-10-2012)

        Where to now for Matt Ward? The 38-year-old Portland native has already enjoyed quite the prolific career: A Wasteland Companion represents his eighth release under his solo moniker, M. Ward, a figure even more impressive when his various side projects are taken into account. He's a simple, soulful type, and while his music has never exactly tried to reinvent the wheel, a sonic split has occurred in his sound over the years. Earlier M. Ward entries, such as Transfiguration of Vincent, were filled with lovely, sleepy acoustic ditties, Ward's voice sort of lofting around in the mid-ground. Then came the high production values of Post-War, which saw the man expand his arsenal without over-halling it. Then there's the She & Him phase, his Zooey Deschanel-headlined side project that focuses on the cutest, old-timiest music imaginable. All three are the same man, making music within the same basic universe, but their distinct styles make each new entry into his canon a mystery.

        A Wasteland Companion has arranged an interesting game plan to combat this issue: Throw all those style together, and see what happens. At first, as the gentle, twinkling notes of Clean Slate suggest we're in for a throwback, Ward's voice no more than mist. Then comes Primitive Girl, immediately erasing this notion with fun, bouncing piano chords, and a readily hummable chorus. We're no further in than track four when Deschanel herself shows up, ushering in the She & Him style on the appropriately named Sweetheart. This devil-may-care approach costs the album a sense of purpose, but it also makes for a pretty interesting ride. While the disc's second half settles largely into the relaxing trappings of his earlier work, the album's grab-bag vibe ensures that it's a good deal more memorable than his last solo effort, Hold Time. Again, the guy's not reinventing the wheel here, just crafting comfy, homey tunes.

Grade: B

Friday, April 6, 2012

Leftovers: March 2012

Leftover Music:
Silent Hour / Golden Mile EP---Daniel Rossen
        Some voices just can't hide. Daniel Rossen, a cardinal member of Grizzly Bear, as well as the figure-head of Department of Eagles, isn't able to keep his muse quiet for too long. That's why, despite the fact that GB is presently amid studio sessions for a follow-up to 2009's Veckatimest, Rossen still found time to release this little 5-track wonder. Recording under his very own name for the first time, Rossen's signature slippery vocals, and expansive song structures are intact. The EP could almost slip seamlessly into the catalogue of either of Rossen's bands, but its minimalist production sets it apart. Grizzly would have undoubtably dressed spooky Saint Nothing in extra effects, and Department might have tacked on more sonic shifts to the sure-footed Up On High. This is a lovely collection that shows a very familiar song-writer trying out a few tricks, reminding us of just how irreplaceable he is.
Open Up Your Heart---The Men
        I'll just come out with it: I'm a pretty big softy as far as music is concerned. Gone are the days of my life when louder bands were simply better bands, causing genres like Noise Rock, Metal, and Punk to appear largely untouchable to me. 2012 seems focused on making me eat my words, Cloud Nothings having already released a Punk album that hit me just right, and here come The Men, winning another one for the genre. Last year's LP, Leave Home, left me a bit cold, but Open Up Your Heart is too red-hot to ever do such a thing. It positively rips into its opener, Turn it Around, and almost doesn't let up from then out. And this isn't all just heavy-hitting, mind you: Oscillation sounds like the sunny side of heyday New Order, while Candy is a country-tinged take on the Rolling Stones' mellow swagger. This is rock in a way that we hardly ever see it anymore; Gritty, affectionate, varied, freed from the reigns of obsessive studio adjustments, and all kinds of great.

        So, how does this sound to you: A 41-track (?!?) Hip-Hop album, all beats by Portishead alums Geoff Barrow and Stuart Matthews, almost each and every tune featuring a different, undiscovered MC. I know, right? My jaw just about dropped off of my face when I found this the other day, and the contents did not disappoint. Over a party-ready span of an Hour and ten minutes, Quakers shoots you all over the map of modern Hip-Hop, flipping madly from bouncy, funky fun (Smoke feat. Jonwayne), to stomping, militant marches (War Drums Ft. Phat Kat & Guilty Simpson). My favorite thus far is Fitta Happier Ft. Guilty Simpson & MED, a tune that features a positively monstrous sample of Radiohead's The National Anthem, possibly the best rap sample of the band that I've ever heard (which, surprisingly, is kind of saying something). If you really love Hip-Hop, you should have this one on your computer by the end of the day. Clock's a-tickin'!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Netflix Instant Watch Picks for April 2012

 If You Think This Generation is Down on Itself, Check out the 70's! Edition

A Clockwork Orange
        For those who have yet to experience it, A Clockwork Orange isn't exactly the kind of movie that you watch in the middle of a sunny day. It's a deeply disturbing film, nearly stomach-turning even, but its craft and its messages are among the strongest that I personally have ever seen. One of the great Stanley Kubrick's most important and iconic films, Clockwork stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex, the leader of a pack of youthful thugs in a futuristic Britain. After countless nights of terrorizing his hometown, Alex is finally captured by the authorities, quickly becoming a sort of test subject for a government who wants to root out these kinds of horrid, beastly actions. Strung together in Kubrick's standardly hypnotic manner, Clockwork is an enormous undertaking, complete with a world and culture all is own, and an ethical ambiguity that will have people talking until there are no more people to talk. If you haven't seen this yet, it's time to suck it up, and get to it.

        Now a-days, it seems like every other movie that comes out is positively littered with 70's references. Chinatown, ironically, is one of their most often cited, despite being a throwback itself. Roman Polanski's classic harkens back to the seedy Noirs of the 40's, owing much of its swagger and success to Jack Nicholson's sensational performance. He stars as J.J. Gittes, a private detective with quite the chip on his shoulder. He's hired to solve a simple mystery of adultery, a case that eventually snowballs into something much, much bigger. Directed with Polanski's signature sense of subtle flair, and benefitting from excellent side performances from Faye Dunaway and John Huston, Chinatown is an impossibly dark, cool, and delectable creation, and if you've admired the likes of Tarantino and Winding Refn for aping styles of the past, you owe yourself to see this flick.

Dirty Harry
        Clint Eastwood might be kind of old and crusty by now, his sentimentalism getting the better of his releases more often than not, but, man, was he a badass in his day! Besides the, 'Man with No Name,' Harry Callahan is easily old Clint's most recognizable character. A tough-as-nails, no-heed-for-rules Law Officer in San Francisco, Callahan is placed on a case of a kidnapped girl, her chances of survival lessening with each passing moment. Director Don Siegel turns up the heat from start to finish, engaging audiences in his police procedural with focus and mastery. But this is really Eastwood's show, a man who, at the height of is acting career, might not have been the most emotive, but was a dominating presence to be reckoned with. Don't let the likes of J. Edgar and Hereafter distract from what's in front of you: Eastwood was the tough-around-the-edges, collected-until-he-needs-to-be action star that many have tried to recreate, but none have succeeded with that same spark.