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Monday, May 28, 2012

Netflix Instant Watch Picks for June 2012

Hopefully You've Already Seen This, But If You Haven't, Get On It! Edition

Breakfast at Tiffany's
        Modern day Hollywood might do everything in its power to convince us otherwise, but there really, actually, is such a thing as a good Romantic Comedy. Don't believe me? Well, then you've probably never gotten around to seeing Breakfast at Tiffany's, a tinsel-town repurposing of Truman Capote's tonally different novella that stands as its own wonderful piece of art. A struggling writer (George Peppard) moves into an apartment and meets a curious neighbor named Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), a vivacious, mischievous woman with a mysterious past. The two strike up a quirky friendship, as Golightly leads the scribe into her crazed, over-populated life. Like its source novel, the film adaptation as stiffed with terrific characters, and razor-sharp wit, all impeccably lensed. It's a modest, charming effort, one who's goofy graces have helped it stand the test of time. If the movies still have the power to melt your heart, it's about time you saw this.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
        There's a reason that this movie, released just eight years ago, is slotted in an article next to canonical efforts from '61 and '67: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of those rare films that was truly a classic upon release. So many of the flick's images are already iconic, and its deep emotional core still resonates just as strongly today as it did in 2004, if not more so. The film stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as a pair of unlikely lovers who, in duel moments of romantic devastation, decide to take part in a futuristic procedure that allows an individual to be erased from one's memory. The movie is a thoughtful, and emotional look at what we as humans go through for love, among the absolute best of its kind since Annie Hall. Besides its enormous heart, Sunshine is a visual delight, an intriguing sci-fi-ish puzzle, and a pretty great joke-teller to boot. I'm sure you've already heard all this, and there's a tremendous chance you've already seen the movie, as I'm not exactly the first to sing its praises. If you haven't though, it's about time that you checked out one of only a handful of films that could rightfully be called a modern classic.

The Graduate
        The, 'Best Actor of the 60s/70s,' discussion rarely includes Dustin Hoffman, but it certainly should. While tough guys like De Niro, Pacino, and Nicholson were making man's-man classics for decades at a time, Hoffman was throwing himself into hugely divergent films. He might not be the man behind Travis Bickle or Michael Corleone, but the range shown between Midnight Cowboy, All the President's Men, and Marathon Man is remarkable. Still, my favorite flick of old Dusty's remains his big break, The Graduate. Hoffman stars as Benjamin Braddock, a recent college grad with a chronic case of the, 'what now?'s. He lazily falls into an affair with a friend of his parents, the glamourous and cold Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), drowning in apathy until he finally finds something worth caring about, and goes for it. The Graduate is one of the most motivational movies I've ever seen, partially because it doesn't lie to its audience about effort, consequences, and integrity. It's also one of the most visually expressive movies of an absurdly expressive era, netting Mike Nichols an Oscar for Best Director. The perfect movie to wake you up from a lull in your life, The Graduate is one of the greatest films ever made about young adulthood, and deserves to be seen by every measure.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Leftovers: May 2012

Leftover Movies:
        Attention all readers: This is a call to action. Well, first it's an admission. In anticipation of Ridley Scott's upcoming sci-fi epic Prometheus, I decided that it was time to finally sit down, and watch Alien for the first time. Do not, I repeat, Do Not repeat my mistake of waiting so long. Ridley Scott's 1979 classic spawned a grand total of five sequels, and while I haven't caught up to all of them yet, I find it hard to believe that any of them contain the sheer technical mastery, palpable atmosphere, or visual flair of the original. Because I am a member of the world, I was aware of many of Alien's devilish twists coming in, but in case you aren't, I'll spare details. Suffice to say, a mining space craft in a distant future responds to a distress call on a desolate planet, and a variety of shocking, pulse-pounding occurrences ensue. Alien benefits from being filmed on expansive, glorious sets, and being stripped-down to only the bare essentials. It's a slow-moving chiller, one that bores its way under you skin long before any of its iconically frightening scenes come to pass. Simply put, I can't get the movie out of my mind, Scott's space-set horror serving as the most powerful cinematic experience I've enjoyed/squirmed through in quite a while. Those who've already seen Alien a bajillion times, my apologies for wasting your time stating the obvious, but this has become an important issue for me. No more excuses: If you haven't seen Alien, you need to get on that.

On Second Thought...
        So, last month I introduced the On Second Thought... section of Leftovers, wherein I look back, and make adjustments to previous reviews with the aid of glorious hindsight. Last month, I was giving Odd Future's The OF Mixtape Vol. 2 more props than I originally had, but this month, I guess I'm feeling grouchy. When I first saw 50/50 last fall, I was taken by its positive outlook, surprising humor, and wonderful lead turn from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I gave the film an A-, but when I watched it a second time several months later, I was so much less enchanted that I declined to include it in my Top 40 Movies of 2011. On second viewing, 50/50's contrivances bubble-up to the surface in an almost startling manner, starting with the cardboard-cutout characters that populate much of the movie, to the tacked-on romance between Levitt and Anna Kendrick. There are charming, heartening moments on hand here, but they're outnumbered by a made-for-TV vibe that ultimately kills the picture. Maybe I'll fall back in love on third watch someday, but my most recent viewing was not a positive one.

Das Racist: Relax
        Another output that I initially rated highly before allowing it to slide all the way off of HSH's Top 50 Albums of 2011. Das Racist's debut LP was something of a disappointment upon arrival, but its shortcomings only become even more glaring with time. Trust me, I love Das Racist, probably more than they deserve, if we're being honest, but there's no excusing the lack of straight-up flowing on this disc. Far too much of Relax is spent with Heems and Kool A.D. mumbling repeated, non-sensical hooks, or clearing out for bombastic, messy beats. Whenever these two find space amidst the wreckage to throw down a few rhymes, it feels like they're about to get back on track, but it's only a false promise. Worst of all, after their all-killer-no-filler mixtape Sit Down, Man, Relax is woefully light on memorable tunes, passing in a loud, smeary 50 minutes before you ask yourself what happened to one of today's hottest hip-hop artists.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Battleship (Release Date: 5-18-2012)

        How... how did this happen? That was the main question I had before walking into Battleship, my primary puzzler as I watched it, and now my greatest quandary as I write this review. How did anyone ever think that dropping over 200 million dollars on a (quasi)boardgame-to-film adaptation was a smart plan? How did enough fat cats sign on to make it happen? Is there a higher-up over at Universal who always harbored a lingering suspicion that the famed naval tactics game of his youth would be bettered with the inclusion of aliens, and decided to make this his pet project? Did Rihanna's agent really think this would launch her film career? Does she have the same agent as Taylor Kitsch, who's now managed to slot his wanna-be star into the lead role of both 2012's biggest flops (John Carter being the other)? So many questions, so little time. But I know what you're all here for, so I'll just get to it: The plot summary

        The U.S. Government is stupid. We know this, because at the beginning of every movie released between May and August, they bait alien invasions by trying to initiate contact with other worlds (even you, The Avengers... tisk, tisk). We also know this because a nervous wise-cracker, who's clearly designed after some sort of positive/negative Jewish stereotype, whispers so to his friend. He suggests that, should we be successful, history might repeat itself, with our space-buddies playing Columbus, and us poor Earth-dwellers filling in for the natives. This, unless I am mistaken, is the same analogy made at the beginning of 2010's Skyline trailer (Update: Confirmed), a movie from which no piece of art should ever, EVER be taking its cues. Sounds like a rough start to the flick, right? Oh, you haven't heard nothin' yet. Enter, "Character Development."

        Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a rebel without a cause, wreaking havoc down in a Hawaiian paradise. After drunkenly trying to impress a by-the-numbers hot blonde (Brooklyn Decker), Hopper's older brother, inexplicably named Stone (would the same pair of parents really name one son Alex, and the other Stone?), enlists his kid brother in the Navy along with him. At this point, the title of the movie flashes on screen, and you look down at your phone. Only ten minutes passed, partner; you've got a waaays to go. We flash-forward to young Hopper, who's since cut his hair, and is now dating that same girl, who was apparently very impressed by his inebriated rampage. We know that she is a good person because she has very large breasts, but her scowling father, Admiral Shane (played by a where-the-hell-am-I? Liam Neeson), doesn't take kindly to Hopper's wily ways. All of a sudden, NASA starts picking up those same ominous signals, and Alex must defeat an alien invasion to prove that he has enough courage, integrity, and character to be worthy of fondling Decker's glorious bosom. Don't check that phone again, because only a half hour has past. Hang in there, Champ.

        I went into Battleship expecting from it the one and only thing that might have been fair to anticipate: dumb, empty-headed, moronic fun. While the movie is surely a stirring success in as far as those first three descriptors are concerned, the, 'fun,' part of it only shows up sporadically. Yeah, it's kind of enjoyable to laugh at how Decker's, 'Concerned Face,' is less deep-inner-pain, and more who-just-farted? There's also a late-game twist that literally had me doubled-over with laughter, which is worth something, I suppose. But the aliens are so lazily imagined, and the action sequences so repetitive and boring, that no number of terrible performances could save(?) this thing. The single best aspect of Battleship is getting to make fun of it afterwards, but in order to do that, you have to sit through 2012's loudest, most bombastic snore-fest thus far. Expect so-bad-it's-good at your own peril, and don't blame me when your phone says it's only been an hour.

Grade: D


Friday, May 18, 2012

The Dictator (Release Date: 5-16-2012)

        Above and beyond all else, comedy relies on the art of surprise. Ever laugh at someone falling over, or falling down? It’s because you didn’t see it coming. Ever chortled at a witty remark your friend made? It’s probably because they caught you off guard. This is, of course, a tremendous simplification, but it’s just about impossible to deny that humor and the unexpected are the closest of friends. This is why Sasha Baron Cohen’s first real exposure in the U.S., Borat, made him such an over-night star. This is also why his latest, The Dictator, is such a clunker.
        Let us list the basic similarities between the two films (and Bruno, for that matter). A xenophobe hailing from a Middle Eastern country (Embodied in this episode as tyrannical dictator Aladeen) embarks on a journey to metropolitan America. Here, he is outraged by the general acceptance of all races and creeds, his bigotry coaxing out similarly inflammatory remarks from the closeted racists around him. He falls in love with an unlikely partner, has run-ins with random pop-culture icons, and waggles his naked body across the screen on more than one occasion. To put it delicately, The Dictator feels a tad familiar.
        To be sure, there are some winners. Certain scenes play in just the outrageous, gross-out fashion in which they are clearly intended, but they alternate with sequences that compensate for their lack of smarts with an abundance of vulgarity. It’s not that The Dictator is too offensive; on the contrary, the avalanche of naughtiness becomes so constant, so berating, that the next supposed jaw-dropper just falls in line with the rest that came before it. Baron Cohen seems to have hatched this movie out of simple boredom, and writers-block. The fact that we’ve already seen this same flick, only in invigorating, gorilla style only makes it look worse. There are many problems with The Dictator, and about 13 jokes that solidly land. I’ve certainly seen worse, but here, Baron Cohen and friends slip up in one truly critical department: They forgot to surprise the audience at all.

Grade: C-

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why The Avengers isn't the Best Superhero Movie of All Time

        Last weekend, The Avengers had the biggest opening weekend ever at the box office. Wait, scratch that. Last weekend, The Avengers had BY FAR the biggest opening weekend ever at the box office, bettering Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2's $169.2 million to the tune of $207.4. As if that wasn't impressive enough, the movie has held extremely well through-out its first several days, becoming the first flick ever to post over $100 million in its second weekend, throttling Avatar's previous sophomore session cash-grab record of $75.6. Why is the movie such a sensation? Well, there are a variety of factors. There's the four-year build-up that we've had through all of the other Marvel Studios' tent-poles. There's a mind-blowing saturation in the media, ensuring everyone and their pet cat knows it's out there. But most importantly, as both Rotten Tomatoes, and your good buddy Greg will tell you, it's because it's really good. Just don't tell me that it's the Best Superhero Movie of All Time, because it's not.

        As it often is, the term, 'All Time,' is a but misleading here. Superman and Batman made it to the silver screen before the 2000's, but just about every other property had to wait, which means that unless you're picking one of those movies, or their sequels, your test sample is pretty damn small. Like, 2000-2012 small. Despite that tiny window, there have been a variety of winners already, from the first and second X-Men, to Marvel's wheelhouse, and so forth. The Avengers has immediately joined the all-time club, and deservedly so. It's slick, fun, and full of both great characters, and gonzo action sequences. I personally have a few issues with it, but this article isn't so much about bashing Marvel's massive tent-pole as it is returning the crown to its rightful owner... or splitting it between its rightful owners, as it were.

        The first, and most obvious challenger is The Dark Knight, a movie that essentially assumed the mantle of Best Superhero Movie Ever upon its release in the summer of 2008. Epic, propulsive, and possessing Heath Ledger's legendary performance, Knight saw superhero flicks to a new realm, one wherein audiences were expected to juggle about 15 balls at once for two and a half straight hours. Gone was the levity that the genre was used to, replaced with sorrow, loss, and bravery under fire that would have made the Bard proud. The Joker was such a dynamic villain, attacking Gotham with twisted mind-games, prompting Bruce Wayne to partake in some patriot-act style invasions of privacy. It's a meaty story, brilliantly shot, and stitched together in such a way that glues eyes to screens. Simply put, The Avengers weighs about half as much as Batman's last outing: The plots of its villain boil down to simple, 'I'll take over the world!' cliches, the visuals are no where near as entrancing, and the actual feeling that something might go wrong for our heros is no where to be found. But The Avengers never wanted to be The Dark Knight, you say? It's goofier, more true to the way that comic books actually read, and simply more fun, you say?

        If that's the game that you want to play, then Spider-Man 2, for my money, takes the cake. Director Sam Raimi has a masterful way of making fun of what's onscreen without stripping the audience of anything to care about. Spider-Man was a winner in pretty much every regard, and then its sequel took all of that, and made it even better. Though Joss Whedon works wonders with his massive cast, the silly, endearing, empathy-exuding performance of Tobey Maguire connects on a much more emotional level, all while being wholly true to the wizz-bang nature of comic books. Yet again, Alfred Molina's Doc Oc is a much, much more compelling baddie than Tom Hiddleston, not necessarily because of the respective performers, but because Octopus actually has a back story, and ethos attached (Not to mention a few terrifying appendages). You could argue that Loki was already developed from Thor, but that doesn't really excuse the fact that, in the duration of the specific movie in question, he mostly just sneers, and stand idly by as a hoard of CGI goons do his bidding.

         So, there you have it. I'm not really sure which one out of Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight I personally would have sitting on the throne; It kind of depends on the day. Serious-minded, sprawling, thought-provoking: You're going Batman. Ah-shucks, gee-wizz, popcorn-munching glory? It's the web-slinger. Sure, The Avengers kind of straddles the line between those two polarities, but when said polarities are as perfectly realized as these two, picking an in-betweener is hard to justify. You can slot The Avengers as high as second, but in the opinion of this writer, Iron Man and friends have no business claiming the #1 spot.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Casa De Mi Padre (Limited Release Date: 3-15-2012)

        Sometimes, a movie has a ceiling. Those that appeal to grandeur, making bold, sweeping statements about the world at large, usually do not. They could be as good (or bad) as possible, offering a wide array of possible outcomes. A Will Ferrell-starring, Spanish language, mock-soap opera? A lot less left up in the air. If the very premise of Casa De Mi Padre, which stars Ferrell as a ranchero who must become the savior of his family, makes you laugh, then this movie's got your goat. This is meant as a compliment, not an insult. While those who generally find Ferrell exhausting might not locate much mirth here, those who are at least vaguely in his corner (myself included) can celebrate his finest goofy comedy in years.

        Through silly plot mechanics, purposely terrible effects, and a few musical numbers that work out waaay better than anyone could have possibly expected, Casa emerges as a highlight of Ferrell's canon. His mexican accent is almost too spot-on to believe, rattling off complicated, lengthy tirades as though spanish was his first language. The, 'Look at this popular actor speak Spanish,' joke never really wears thin because he's just so damn good at it, playing the language straight, as opposed to purposely mucking it up, a la Your Highness. That joke (and its parent movie) got tired quickly because it wreaked of laziness. Casa, on the other hand, surges with goofball energy, prying big laughs out of mechanical white tigers, outrageous violence, and uproarious anti-American sentiment. Like I said, if Ferrell just generally isn't your bag, this one won't sway you, but I honestly can't even envision a better movie arriving out of this concept, and this star.

Grade (Against Any Old Movie): B+
Grade (For What It Was Trying To Be): A+

Monday, May 7, 2012

Beach House: Bloom (Release Date: 5-15-2012)

        For a band whose sound is ever shrouded in a hazy, enveloping mist, there's actually very little mystery to Beach House. While their sonics might call to mind starry nights and celestial majesty, the two-some has honed their art down to an absolute science. Victoria Legrand's singular, husky voice floats along atop Alex Scally's etherial instrumentation on each and every track, like glowing, shimmering clockwork. The band adheres to a remarkably ridged blueprint, and if song-by-song disparity is important to you, their newest album, Bloom, probably won't be for you. I'll tell you what, though: It sure is for me.

        Elements of surprise are usually of the utmost importance to me for a musical act. Not Beach House. The Baltimore tandem has been one of my favorite acts for years now, despite the fact that the album-to-album variance in their sound is almost exclusively an issue of recording styles. The more money/fame/praise the band receives, the more, 'produced,' their sound becomes. But the duo isn't stupid: Legrand and Scally know that their lo-fi style is important to their sound, and because of this, each new effort takes smaller steps towards studio shine than the last. As a result, Bloom can often feel like a B-Side collection from the Teen Dream recording sessions, with one pivotal difference: There's no drop-off in quality.

        For this reason, talking about individual tracks on Bloom can almost feel a bit unnecessary. Lead single and opening track Myth plays out pretty much as expected, it's night-time enormity almost as predictable as it is gorgeous. The disc has its world-conquerers (Myth, Irene), its sunny-hums (Other People, The Hours, Wishes) and its ballads (On the Sea), expertly alternating between styles just as Teen Dream did before it. And while nothing on Bloom matches that disc's unbelievable opening half, the band's new release might be a tad more consistent. It also has Lazuli up its sleeve, a sumptuous, sparkling number that immediately slots next to the band's more powerful tracks.

        No, Beach House has not reinvented the wheel here, but why should they? No one does Dream Pop anywhere near as well as they do (Did that silly genre tag even exist before them?), and they don't look like they're changing the recipe anytime soon. I do have to bring up one real gripe, though: How can this band still not have a drummer? Maybe Legrand and Scally don't want a third party to intervene with what they know is working, but their use of drum machines can get pretty damn distracting (if that isn't just a basic, cheapy keyboard setting on Wild, then I don't know what). Other than that, we've got a real winner here. If Beach House isn't your flavor, there's absolutely, positively nothing here that will change your tune. If you're a sucker for their comely grandeur (like me), then you need to get your hands on this as quickly as possible.

Grade: A-

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Avengers (Release Date: 5-4-2012)

        At long last, the Avengers have finally assembled! I know, I can hardly believe it either. Almost four years on the dot since the original Iron Man’s famous post-credit scene alluded to the Super-Hero Team-Up flick, Writer/Director Joss Whedon’s Mega-Tent-Pole finally arrives on screen. It’s an ambitious project, one the has required four lead-up films (five if you count The Incredible Hulk, and that film’s mother studio seems to hope that you don’t), each tasked not only with telling its own story, but also with weaving together the disparate threads of the Marvel Universe. I’ve enjoyed each entry to varying degrees, but there’s no denying that this is the big one, the one we’ve been waiting for, the one we’ve been told to wait for.
        If The Avengers could be described in one word, it would be this: Zippy. Zippy as in a lengthy runtime that goes by in the blink of an eye. Zippy as in one wise-crack bouncing off of another, more tightly-edited incident always just around the corner. The film immediately calls to mind last Summer’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II: Both carried the tremendous expectations of patient fans, both rewarding their years-loyal audiences with a product that picks up right in the middle of the action, and never takes its foot off the gas. Those who found Hallows Part II to be the dessert they’d been craving for all these years will get an absolute kick out of this, but I personally can’t help but feel that a two and a half hour long movie with no beginning is a slightly off-kilter beast. It’s like ordering a steak dinner, and seeing it arrive without the mashed potatoes: You got what you really came for, but a little something to round it out would have been nice.
        My main concern coming into The Avengers was how anyone was going to find enough screen time for all of these actors to have an impact. Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn have found a perfectly appropriate solution: Drop the story, focus on characters. Each of the six Avengers is shown the lime-light for a substantial amount of time (Jeremy Renner’s Hawk Eye predictably drawing the short straw), bickering cleverly, sometimes hilariously, and raining down havoc on whoever opposes them. It’s great fun, and some lofty credit goes to Whedon and Penn’s script for establishing and explaining the group’s social inter-workings so effectively. Only problem is, that’s about all that’s going on here. 

        Tom Hiddleston’s Loki simply doesn’t feel like an appropriately massive villain, and the cohorts that aid in his attack are sloppily explained, and seemingly not so menacing as to require such an elite fighting force. There's a great chance that some of the whip-smart dialogue or the break-neck action sequences will glue themselves into your brain indefinitely, but the narrative arch of the thing will be out of there within the week. The true bad guy in the room is the Avengers’ initial lack of chemistry, and while that’s a pretty solid idea in and of itself, it makes this film, which carries with it such a lengthy mythology, feel like even more positioning for, ‘The Big One.’ That Marvel, always looking ahead. But before we move on to Thor 2, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3, The Avengers 2, and whatever else those geek gods have waiting in their wheel house, let’s give a solid round of applause to this offering. It might not be perfect, and it’ll be up to the individual to decide whether it was worth all of the hype, but one thing is for certain: It’s a damn-good time at the movies.

Grade: B+