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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Leftovers: June/July 2012

Leftover Music:
Ty Segall Band: Slaughterhouse
        "Is it going?" Ty Segall asks at the start of his band's riotous Bo Diddley cover Diddy Wah Diddy, "All right, here we go, extra fast." The guy's not kidding. Though Segall himself is no stranger to the music scene, Slaughterhouse represents the debut album of this particular project, the energy and verve of newness permeating all of the rambunctious proceedings. Just about every song here positively rips through its run-time, speeding across verse-chorus-verse structures at break-neck speed, arriving at rock session outros as quickly as possible. Death, I Bought My Eyes, and The Bag I'm In all follow this blueprint, cramming deliciously distorted pop-punk ditties into their first half before absolutely letting a rip. The grungy nature of the album is one of its most appealing factors, but it does occasionally distract from just how good Segall is at writing a catchy melody, such as on the deceptively early-Beatles-esque Tell Me What's Inside Your Heart. It's a terrifically fun listen, messy, and excitable, and raw, all without mentioning Slaughterhouse's highlight, the immense, towering Wave Goodbye.

Spiritualized: Sweet Heart Sweet Light
        Spiritualized is another band that employs some lo-fi rock recording styles, but they couldn't be coming from a more different place. Where Segall's crew is all aggressive, messy fun, Jason Pierce's outfit is more prone to shoot for the stars, often landing in some pretty mesmerizing territory. Take proper opener and lead single Hey Jane, a track that stretches out over eight minutes, evolving from the radio-ready sing-a-long of its opening into the ethereal chanting of its conclusion. Almost everything here follows suit, employing strings, brass instruments, and female choruses, all in the name of making this thing epic, epic, epic. Even the tracks with less lofty ambitions, such as gritty hum-dinger I Am What I Am, manage to impress with their dense production, and exquisite craft. It's a mammoth of a disc, one that closes out with it's very most cinematic, effecting moment, So Long You Pretty Thing.

On Second Thought...
        Recently, I've been going back through old posts on the site, editing articles, and formatting them to meet HSH's present standards (Don't look back yet: I've got a waaays to go). Doing so has allowed me to confront a few previously posted opinions, none causing my face to redden more than my inclusion of Kick-Ass in my Top 40 Movies of 2010. The blip that I wrote about the film back then perfectly forecast my eventual change of heart, explaining that the movie's detractors found it mean-spirited, and stylistically nauseating. Not only did I come over to their side upon a repeat viewing, I even soured on the performances, save Nicolas Cage's gleefully unhinged turn as Big Daddy, of course. Other than that blessed offering from the strangest of Coppolas, KA is remarkably tone-def, unable to land its many attempted jokes, leaning heavily on poorly staged, repetitive hyper-violence to entertain its audience. It's a lame duck, a crude one at that, and I'm not quite sure how it fooled me the first time around. How I ever thought it was better than Step Up 3D, I'll never know.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Netflix Instant Watch Picks for July 2012

Independent Wonders Made From Money Found Under Couch Cushions Edition

The Evil Dead
        The Evil Dead is quite possibly the most celebrated B-Movie fright fest in the history of American cinema, and it's not hard to see why. The directorial debut of Sam Raimi wants nothing more than to take you on a wild ride through an array of gross-outs, and discount parlor tricks, throwing everything at the screen from claymation, to a rather sexually aggressive tree. Bruce Campbell is the perfect lead actor for such an absurd vehicle, mucking it up with eyes the size of golfballs as his friends disappear one by one from the sequestered cabin where they fatefully decided to spend the weekend. Many prefer the latter two installments in Raimi's trilogy, Evil Dead 2 likely possessing Campbell's finest performance, Army of Darkness doubtlessly taking the cake where comedy is concerned. Personally, I favor the original, which pairs its, 'let's put on a show', excitement with scenes that alternate between laughably silly, and actually scary. The Evil Dead launched Raimi's career, and has been elevated to the very highest rung of cult movie status imaginable since it's initial release more than 30 years ago. If a goofy gore-fest sounds like your thing, and you've never checked this one out, it's time to invite friends over, turn the lights out, and click play.

        Richard Linklater loves dialogue. His films make no buts about it, from Waking Life's tripped-out philosophy lecture, to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset's chatty lovers, Linklater is among the best in American movies at first writing a conversation, and then filming it beautifully. Slacker, the first film that just about anybody saw from this well-traveled auteur, showcases this strength almost exclusively. The flick is subsistent of hugely varied discussions, all taking place in the same metropolis, but switching out speakers at the drop of a hat. There's no protagonist here (unless you want to go all meta, and say it's Linklater), just a bunch of city folks, young and old, strange and normal, tittering away about anything from societal upheaval, to Madonna's pap smear. Those who need A to connect to B might want to look elsewhere: Slacker is defiantly plotless, having all kinds of zany, thoughtful, head-scratching fun within its loopy, otherworldly paradigm.

        An all-time favorite that I can never help from revisiting, Swingers is a guy's movie with humor, swagger, and heart. Jon Favreau stars as Mikey, a down-on-his-luck comedian who recently moved from New York to Los Angeles in the wake of a nasty break-up. While struggling to make it on the West Coast, Mike hits the town with his two best buddies; loyal, understanding Rob (Ron Livingston), and boisterous ladies-man Trent (Vince Vaughn). It's a simple movie, one about long nights out on the town in which you learn a little more about yourself, stuffed with casually hilarious dialogue, and oozing with style. Director Doug Liman throws in references from 90's peers Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas as Vaughn delivers what is hands down my personal favorite performance of his career. It's small, unassuming stuff, wonderful at illuminating the powers of friendship and self-esteem when it's not busy making you laugh till it hurts.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Release Date: 7-20-2012)

        Writing a review for The Dark Knight Rises is like walking through a mine field. The movie's been in a two-way race for the, 'Most Anticipated of 2012,' crown with The Avengers ever since its release date was announced, and that desire and impatience has finally reached its zenith. Folks are so bat-crazy, in fact, that the Editor in Chief of the review accumulation site Rottentomatoes wrote this open letter, asking users to refrain from employing hate speech in the comments section of every negative review, eventually disabling them all together when the online abusers refused to stop. And, yes; these people almost certainly hadn't seen the movie yet. But a negative review isn't the only thing for which a critic might be subject to fiery rage; in fact, it's not even the biggest faux pas one could make. That dubious honor will belong to those who include dreaded spoilers within their reviews, wrecking an enormously secretive, highly-mysterious finale to one of the most widely appreciated film series of our time. It's a difficult task, this walking on egg shells business, and we're all about to see if I'm up to it. Welcome to my Completely, Ridiculously Spoiler Free Review of The Dark Knight Rises.

        Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) still lives in Gotham. Some time has passed since his notorious run-in with the Joker (***** *****, to be exact), a period that has seen city-wide sentiment swing wildly against the Caped Crusader ever since he took the rap for the death of Harvey Dent. Wayne is very, very sad, whereas Bane (Tom Hardy), a massive, sadistic brute with a permanently situated gas mask covering much of his face, is very, very mean. He's so mean, in fact, that, near the film's opening, he does something in some foreign country that relates to a whole lot of other somethings that he does later (don't tell Bruce, he's not supposed to know until at least 45 minutes in). Alfred (Michael Caine) is wise with an occasional joke, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) continues to fret away his existence, Morgan Freeman pops up every now and then, and a cat burglar with some seriously confusing motivations (Anne Hathaway) also joins the fun. I'd tell you what Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are doing here, but I'd probably have to kill you.

        Before I go too much further, let's go ahead, and get this out of the way: The sky has not fallen, the grass is still green, and writer/director Christopher Nolan has crafted another winner, just like literally everything he's made thus far. When given crazy dollars, and allowed gonzo creative control, I don't really think this guy's capable of a true clunker. Wally Pfister's camera work still dazzles just as much as ever, Hans Zimmer's score still pounds down furiously on your eardrums, and editor Lee Smith continues to cross-cut like a man possessed. As talented as Nolan is at concocting movie magic, much of his gift lies in knowing just who to surround himself with, and never letting go. That 'Nolan feeling,' involves a lot more people than just the geek god himself, and in Rises, their work is just as stunning as ever.

        This technical prowess, as was the case with both of Nolan's previous installments, is perfect for papering over some of the film's more problematic aspects. The most prominent of these pertains to the flick's runtime, a gargantuan 165+ minutes wherein audiences are expected to remember every last detail about every little thing. This has always been Nolan's way, trusting the intelligence and attention spans of audiences far more than his contemporary tent-pole makers would ever dare, but this is his biggest, most narratively complicated film to date (Well, it's at least in a dead heat with Inception). It takes some true mental gymnastics to keep up with, and even if you do manage to juggle all 20 balls, there's an unshakable feeling that not everything here is completely necessary, and that sheer bigness might be serving as both a means, and an end. Nolan detractors often like to bash on him for being all sound and fury signifying nothing. I've never agreed with them, but Rises certainly has moments that add fuel to their fire.

        What's ironic about this, however, is that Rises also stands as by far the most emotional entry in the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan and his team know just how much these characters have meant to American audiences ever since 2005's Batman Begins, and they've devised appropriate, thoughtful, and even lovely conclusions to the arches of just about every player. A hushed conversation between Wayne and Alfred turns out to be the most emotionally resonant thing that Nolan has ever put to film, similarly small, wisely observed moments peppering the proceedings through out.

        As always, this Bat-apalooza boasts of an incredibly stacked cast from top to bottom. Each returning performer is now more comfortable than ever in the skin of their character, Bale, Caine, Oldman, and Freeman all now inextricable from the roles they play. Hardy, assigned the impossible mission of making folks forget about Heath Ledger, is a fun (if extremely hard to understand) baddie with intense physicality, and piercing eyes. Hathaway appears to be having more fun here than anyone ever has in a Nolan feature (They don't usually smile in Nolan movies, do they?), purring her witticisms in a sexy, down-tempo alto. Internet get-a-life-ers have been hounding Hathaway's inclusion since the day she was cast, wondering where silly-old Catwoman, and her ridiculous body suit could possibly fit into Nolan's hyper-serious universe. Turns out, she's Rises saving grace, her humorous quips with Batman adding a much needed levity as Bane goes on his lethal rampage, cracking skulls, and committing one heinous war-crime after another. Again, I'd tell you more about Cotillard and Gordon-Levitt, but yeah... death.

        And so, we arrive at the inevitable question: Is The Dark Knight Rises better than The Dark Knight? No, of course not, but why should it be? That film was a once-in-a-long-while, lightning-in-a-bottle sort of thing, benefitting from a much tighter structure, Batman's most notorious nemesis, and the single greatest performance ever given in the name of a comic book. Rises, by comparison, lacks the omni-present crackle of energy that Ledger provided his outing with, and also gets bogged down under the plethora of plot lines it's trying to wrap up from the other movies. All of that said, this is an enormous, sometimes glorious spectacle, one that operates well as its own movie, but much better as the capper to one of the densest, most challenging, and most exhilarating sting of franchise movies ever put to film. Congrats to Nolan, Bale, and everybody else involved for going out with a bang, and being awarded that rarest of Hollywood gifts: the ability to ride off into the sunset, heads held high.

Grade: B+ 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE (Physical Release Date: 7-17-2012)

        The backstory of channel ORANGE is a long one, so get comfortable. The album's creator, Frank Ocean, first achieved real fame in 2010, when he hopped aboard that buzz-factory of a hip-hop collective known as Odd Future. When the group exploded last year, thanks in large part to leader Tyler, the Creator's indomitable single Yonkers, Ocean capitalized on the moment by releasing the terrific mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. Far and away the most widely appreciated full-length by any member of the collective, Ultra simultaneously served as its slice of sublime R&B, and one hell of a drum roll for the kid's proper, studio-produced debut. By the time Odd Future released their second mixtape earlier this year, it already felt vaguely over-shadowed by the ever-building channel ORANGE hype. Suffice to say, Ocean's proper first disc would have been buried if it was anything less than great. Thankfully, we won't have to worry about that.

         Picking the first single to represent CO must have been a headache: The album is so varied, so robust in sound, and so unpredictable that no single tune could dream of representing its whole. Given the challenge, Def Jam has chosen well with proper opener Thinkin Bout You, a woozy love ballad in which Ocean's voice seamlessly slips between swag-filled baritone, and sky-scraping falsetto. Its defiantly minimal instrumentation flies straight in the face of today's bombastic Dance/Club chart toppers, allowing its bass thump to sink down into your bones, permitting Ocean's voice space to take flight. Don't get too used to the less-is-more approach, though: Sweet Life throws all manner of string instruments and layered vocals through your headphones in order to pump up its party-ready mockery of the 1%, while the nearly ten-minute Pyramids stands as one of the most expansive, ambitious electro-jams in recent memory.

        At first listen, one could be forgiven for missing the home-spun, hissing-cassette nature of Nostalgia, Ultra, which featured the kind of raw, amateur excitement people usually associate with indie rock, or folk. On further listens, however, CO reveals itself to be nothing less than the perfect follow-up, maintaining similar themes and textures, while boldly stepping forth into studio shine. channel ORANGE is about 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, all of its samples masterfully mixed and measured, and all from the same guy that essentially lifted Coldplay, The Eagles (American Wedding, which cannot be linked due to Ocean's lack of authorization... oh, old rock stars...), and MGMT wholesale just one short year ago. These are all technical aspects: they speak nothing to evolution that Ocean has undergone as a songwriter, a story teller, and a public figure.

        Much has been made about a recent open letter that Ocean posted to his twitter, in which the singer vaguely and poetically opens up about a homosexual relationship he engaged in starting at the age of 19. It's a brave move, one that has gained him fans, and doubtlessly lost others. His place as an openly bisexual man in a genre-sphere often characterized by aggressive heterosexually, and even bigotry, is worthy of note, but it's not what makes his story special. The letter itself is gorgeous in its simplicity and truth, and those who have both read it, and listened to channel ORANGE, will always heavily associate the two with one another, for better or worse. Like Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, or Nick Drake's Pink Moon before it, CO is an album who's backstory will always color the way in which people hear it, and the crooner himself is helping that myth along.

        A week ago, Ocean made his national television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with the violin-drenched lament Bad Religion. The performance won rave reviews, largely because of the man's lights-out voice, but don't think that the choice of song was an accident. The track in question details a torturous affair, in which Ocean poignantly shouts, "Unrequited love/To me it's nothing but a one man cult/.../I could never make him love me." The gender pronoun used here is sure to turn heads, as are a few others on the disc, which might be some real blood-letting on the part of the troubadour, but could just as well be one hell of a red herring. Ocean is clearly in story-telling mode here, alternating protagonists between spoiled Cali-brats (Super Rich Kids), morally-eroding women (Lost), drug abusers (Crack Rock), and stoned philosophy majors (Pink Matter). For all we know, channel ORANGE could be comprised entirely of fiction, but none of that will prevent that feeling of knowing catharsis that washes over you during proper closer Forrest Gump, wherein Ocean baits us once more, declaring, "You run my mind, boy." We'll never know the truth, and that's just perfect.

        CO is not without fault: This particular writer is decidedly more fond of the album's second half than its first, and even the back side stores semi-snoozer Monks. But the positive here so greatly over-shadows the negative that it's easy to get rapturous when discussing it, especially considering the musical landscape that it enters into. R&B is essentially a lost genre, left for dead in favor of euro-club-leaning radio jams that are about a year or two away from finally admitting they'd rather be Dubstep. Ocean's disc breaths life into an abandoned form, one that hasn't been widely popular since Justin Timberlake brought sexy back. It might not be perfect, it's pretty damn elating to hear someone working so hard to craft a classic on his first at-bat. channel ORANGE is robust and celebratory, spanning genres, coming to you with its heart on its sleeve, and beckoning you to the dance floor all at the same time. If that's not worth all the hype, then I don't know what is.

Grade: A-

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (Release Date: 6-3-2012)

        Want to take a pot shot at The Amazing Spider-Man? Trust me; it's not hard. There are a myriad of complaints that are ready to be made, pre-packaged even. First and foremost, there's the fact that it arrives a mere 10 years after the original Spider-Man first came out, inspiring the comics-at-the-movies sensation that we're still toiling through today. There's the re-casting of the leads, the over-familiarity of some of the TV spots, and the inclusion of 3-D, always good for a cynical crack or two. Yes, if you go into this Spidey flick expecting to be underwhelmed, you will be, and this review probably doesn't really pertain to you. If you're going at it with fresh, un-skeptical eyes, your opinion might land a bit closer to my final take.

        You know the story: High School after-thought Peter Parker (played here by Andrew Garfield) is bitten by a radio-active spider, attains glorious super powers, watches his Uncle Ben (a scowling Martin Sheen) get murdered, and pledges his powers for good. The Amazing Spider-Man makes sure to run down these plot points, but it also finds some clever ways to subvert the, 'been-there, done-that,' vibe that the flick could have so easily fallen into. These include a mysterious past for his parents, a new villain (The Lizard, played by an especially hammy Rhys Ifans), and a whole new love interest in the nerdy-chic form of Gwen Stacey (miles removed from Kirsten Dunst's bubbly girl-next-door).

        Even with all of this said, there's simply no way The Amazing Spider-Man can disguise itself as an entirely new entity. The moments that it essentially copy/pastes from the first one (spider bite, Uncle Ben bites the dust) feel rushed and unimportant, as though director Marc Webb and company were all too aware that their audience already knew the backstory. I suppose this is better than belaboring expected plot points, but why include them at all if you're so disinterested in taking the time to do it right? Even aspects that aren't directly lifted feel awfully informed by Raimi's vision: how many real, substantial differences can you name for me in the character arches of The Lizard and The Green Goblin? I've got nothing.

        It's worth noting that I personally LOVE the first two Spider-Man movies. To me, they are a perfect realization of the Spidey who I'd grown up with, appropriate in terms of casting, mood, aesthetics, effects, humor, and all the rest. In other words, I already saw my ideal vision of this movie, and merely visited The Amazing Spider-Man to see a remix of my perfect song, and, what do you know, that remix is kind of a jam.

        I'd still take geeky, smiling Maguire over the insular, goth-lite Garfield any day, but the latter certainly does have quite the chemistry with Ms. Stone, who's great here, as always. Visually, the movie is among the most breath-taking of the year, all dark, sleek, and wholly immersive in 3-D. Swinging along through nighttime New York is worth the price of admission in an of itself, and that doesn't even take into account the plethora of stylish, eye-popping set design choices on display. Above all else, this Spidey is an aesthetic wonder, which would be damning it with faint praise if it weren't so, well, wonderful to behold. As previously alluded, there are problems with this flick, including an absolute rag list of plot holes and cheese-infused dialogue, but it their own strange way, these goofy short-comings feel homey and fun. When the dust settled, one thing was clear: I'd had a blast watching The Amazing Spider-Man, and if you can table your sneers and mockery for a couple of hours, my guess is you will too.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Brave (Release Date: 6-22-2012)

          Once upon a time, there was a film studio named Pixar, and they could do no wrong. Beginning with their inaugural offering, 1996’s Toy Story, the folks over at the Disney subsidiary produced one champion after another, each flick more heavily anticipated than the last. The studio married quality and commerce in a way that no other movie house has touched in at least the last decade, using originality, humor, and heart to pump out one money-guzzling, insta-classic after another. Sadly, there’s a reason that I’m writing all of this in passed tense: The following review is something of an obituary for the greatest film-making fraternity of my adult life.

        Much has been made of Pixar finally turning to a female protagonist, but the path that our carrot-topped hero trots down is more than a bit familiar. Merida (Kelly McDonald) is not only a Scottish Princess, but also trouble-making free spirit. When her mother (Emma Thompson) decides that it’s time for her daughter to marry, Merida takes actions into her own hands, first embarrassing her suitors, then becoming mixed up with scorcery that quickly spirals out of control. If this description of a young, wily female struggling against both her mother and the cultural concerns that she represents sounds familiar, wait till you see the rest.

        The, ‘Pixar Touch,’ is woefully lacking here, just about every aspect of the production starved for their normative ingenuity. Switching up the protagonist’s gender doesn’t really do anything when you’re essentially importing her from Tangled, Princess and the Frog, Aladdin, and any other princess cartoon you can recall. Her concerns are so commonplace, so unclouded by either complication or nuance (and, in some areas, even basic intelligence), that advertising this as a progressive move from the animators is just plain insulting. Fine, you added a lady to your collection; why did you add her?

        And since when have Luxo Jr. and friends become so eager to outsource? Brave is directed by Mark Edwards and Brenda Chapman, only the second and third directors to be added to the Pixar stable since Brad Bird debuted with 2004’s The Incredibles (Toy Story 3’s Lee Ulrich is the other newbie). Their freshness (See: Inexperience) shows in nearly every frame, neglecting to gloss over their messier passages, instead letting their lack of attention to detail permeate the whole production. Perhaps even more disheartening, the standard Pixar Short that takes place in front of Brave isn’t even an in-house production: It’s last year’s Best Animated Short Nominee, La Luna, which is built in the likeness of a Pixar short, but looks and behaves nothing like one.

        Look, I know I’m being hard, and Brave certainly isn’t the horrid kiddie fare that a lot of studios dump out mindlessly. It’s positively stunning to look at, the vast plains, textured animals, and, yes, that unruly maine of red hair, all causing jaws to drop. But this is a group of people who set an impossibly high bar for themselves, one that Brave comes no where close to clearing. In 2010, we were surprised to see Dreamworks finally give Pixar a run for their money with the wonderful How to Train Your Dragon. Last year, we lamented that Cars 2 seemed more like a cash-grab than a heartfelt artistic endeavor. And now this. I’m not ready to call them dead just yet, but consider this: once their next offering, Monsters University, is released, it will represent three sequels in their last four entries, with their one original movie wholly failing to live up to its billing. Brave is the most ironically named movie of 2012, a chicken, a dud, and the surest, saddest sign yet that these guys might have finally lost it.

Grade: D+