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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Life of Pi (Release Date: 11-21-2012)

         Narrative filmmaking is a very, very unique art. Music attacks the eardrums. Literature stokes one's cognitive powers. Fine arts appeal primarily to the eyes. Movies, as an amalgamation of all of these forms of expression, takes on all of their responsibilities, and becomes a robust beast all its own. This is not to belittle other mediums, or aggrandize cinema: having more on your plate does not necessitate true complexity, and filmmakers often allow the expressive surplus of their medium to get in the way of crafting a good product. It's no coincidence that I bring this to light right in front of my Life of Pi film review; this is a challenging piece to evaluate, as some of its elements soar up to heaven, and others sink down to the ocean's floor.

         A boy, a boat, and a tiger named Richard Parker; readers the world over already know what the adventures of young Piscine Patel come to involve, but for the uninitiated, here's a quick brush-up. Life of Pi takes place on two separate tracks, one where in an older Piscine (Irrfan Khan) relays his life story to a writer in desperate need of a good yarn (Rafe Spall), the other bringing said tales to life with one of three younger actors (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, and Suraj Sharma). Patel's tales range in subject, from childhood bullying, to his thorny relationship with his zoo-keeper father, to a truly inventive take on theological acceptance, all warm-up acts for the sea-faring adventure that serves as the crux of the story. I'm avoiding spoilers as best I can here, but suffice to say, Pi (the knick-name Piscine adopts early in the film) will be spending quite a bit of time with one of earths most expansive bodies of water, as well as one of her deadliest predators.

      As honesty is always the best policy, I suppose I have something to get off of my chest: I have read Yann Martel's bestseller Life of Pi, and I was not a fan. Where others see wisdom and perseverance, this reader only saw painful degrees of over-earnestness, repetitive (albeit pertinent) storytelling, and theological over-simplification of the most egregious sort. Elements of the tale really sing, but I could never help the feeling that Martel was pulling a fast one on me. Ang Lee's film adaptation, built from the hyper-loyal screenplay penned by David Magee, recreates the ideas and moods presented on page with surgical accuracy; those committed to the prose, and worried that a film adaptation would, 'ruin,' Martel's original offering can take a deep breath. Those turned off by the overwrought paradigm of the saga the first time around would be advised to inhale sharply.

        No, I do not like the plot of Life of Pi, I object to the mind-numbingly corny opening 40 minutes, and the awe-and-wonder deflating twist that occurs in its final moments leaves me cold. I essentially have every reason to dislike both Pi and his frienemy tiger, but I don't... hardly at all. As a matter of fact, I throughly enjoyed the movie, because despite all of its short-comings, its sense of spectacle is entirely undeniable, its visual effects truly among the very most accomplished in the history of celluloid. The storms that the Sharma Pi faces are down right ferocious, the calm moments of wonder sincerely miraculous, and oh-my-god is that tiger A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!! Never mind that Sharma lays it on reeeal thick at certain points, or that using endless computers to celebrate the beauty of the natural world is kind of missing the whole point: This is amazing we're talking about here, not cool, or neat, or rad. Amazing. Yes, Life of Pi frustrates in more ways that it titulates, but that could be said of any number of movies. Amazement is entirely more rare, and worth celebrating, even if it comes with a boat-load of baggage.

Grade: B

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (Release Date: 11-16-2012)

        This is the end.

        My glittering friend, the end.

        It's hard to believe that teams Edward and Jacob, Bella Swan, and the mystical land of Forks, Washington have only been a part of the cinematic universe since 2008. After all, Stephanie Meyers' brood-a-thon love-triangle has already become so embedded in the fabric of popular culture that folks feel the need to declare themselves as either staunchly for or against it, as though Twilight was a political party. But those who stand firmly with their arms crossed and their brows furrowed are missing a key facet in the ongoing debate over the legitimacy of the saga: the fans know it's dumb, too. Not all of them, mind you, as the tear-streaked faces of tween America will ready attest, but a lot, lot more than any recent mega-franchise that comes to mind. Each installment I've seen in theaters has enjoyed a more-than-occasional soundtrack of irrepressible laughter, which, truth be told, is more than I can say about most comedies that I've watched over a similar period. Whatever the charm of Twilight really is, it obviously has loads of it for certain people, and the final chapter, Breaking Dawn Part 2, is yet another lip-biting, smolder-staring example of just that.

        There once was a girl named Bella Swan, who fell in love with... oh, screw it: either you know the backstory already, or you couldn't care less. If you somehow still want to avoid spoilers (who are you?), skip down to the next paragraph, because I'm diving right in. So, that Bella girl (Kristen Stewart); she's a vampire now, which means that she slouches less, and wears a lot cuter, more flatteringly-fitted clothing (she can also do that really cheesy thing where they zoom around the screen, sometimes with flowers and fireflies and other pretty things in her wake). She also has a beautiful baby girl with a name caught somewhere between a tongue-twister and a demonic moniker (Renesmee, pronounced Ren-Ez-May, and not to be chanted whilst in front of a mirror), and, of course, that pale stick-figure of hunkiness known as Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). But because the movie needs a plot, the even-whiter-and-decidedly-more-powerful/evil group of vamps known as the Volturi decides that they're kind of creeped out by little Renesmee, allegedly because of some immortality tripe, but probably because of that damn name. The Cullens are forced to flip through their globe-spanning rolodex to find and recruit other blood-suckers for a climactic throw-down, while the warm-blooded hunk of man meat (Taylor Lautner) scours the woods for some furry, four-legged help. Why would the scorned Jacob help them, you ask? Well, because he's toootally got the hots for Renesmee. Yeah... yeah.

        Talking about the technical elements of a Twilight movie is kind of like discussing the nutritional value of the fruit in an apple or cherry pie; that's not why you're really here, is it? Ever since laying eyes on the series starter, I've looked forward to each year's dollop of gooey super-natural romance as an annual comedy mainstay, and the closer doesn't even think about disappointing. Robotic dialogue is delivered, amorous eyes are made, a truly surprising amount of blood is spilt, and Lautner still just hates those damn shirts! Director Bill Condon, who seemed content to be buried underneath a torrent of uneventful silliness in Breaking Dawn's first half, shows an obvious relish for pushing the PG-13 line. He places an impressively steamy sex scene near the film's opening frames, and slaps moderation right in the face with seemingly endless reiterations of his favorite kill move (who knew that super-humans had such flimsy necks?). Knee slappers positively abound, from the early sequences of girl-you-need-to-eat-something Stewart taking down body-builders and big cats, to some jaw-droppingly, gut-bustingly racially insensitive portrayals of coffin-dwellers 'round the world. I don't really know how good to say Breaking Dawn Part 2 is, but I can tell you that I had a lot, lot more fun watching it than I do most movies, and if you don't want to see Dakota Fanning's head get yanked right off, I'm not sure that we can be friends.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 16, 2012

Crystal Castles: (III) (Release Date: 11-13-2012)

        Celestica, the premiere single off Crystal Castles' 2010 sophomore effort (II), must have prompted quite the outcry from the group's devotees when it first dropped. Alice Glass' vocals, manipulated and indecipherable throughout almost the entirety of their 2008 debut, was suddenly up front-and-center, cooing longingly in a lush whisper. The instrumentals made the shift even more evident, scatter-shot electro-mania replaced by full-bodied waves of pulsating House. The track had all the tell-tale signs of a band selling-out, save one key ingredient; it didn't suck. As a matter of fact, it totally rocked, and where (II) swerved back and forth between these cleaner, more dance-friendly sonics and the break-neck insanity of the disc that came before it, (III) boldly moves forth with the smoothing out of the duo's sound.

        This is not to say that old Crystal Castles has gone soft on us, of course. Glass still screams nearly as often as she swoons, snarling ferociously over the choppy-water beat of Insulin, her aggression provocatively veiled under a distancing veneer on early single Plague. Her bandmate Ethan Kath isn't exactly sleeping through this one either, pulling the strings on the muscly wobble that is Kerosene, standing proudly on his own during club-ready solo outing Telepath. Yes, this is still very much within Crystal Castles' wheelhouse, blaring, staggered synths set to blazing neon, Glass ever channelling all of the animal magnetism the world has to offer. And while the maintaining of sensibilities and sounds is certainly worth celebrating, (III) is most interesting for what sets it apart from the band's previous two LPs.

        While both (I) and (II) were almost dance records in spite of themselves, (III)'s rug-cutting ambitions are far more pronounced. The enormous, no-prisoner-taking Sad Eyes is probably already playing at raves the country over, surely sending many a glow-stick flying into the air. There's also a far greater precedent on songwriting: The varied, evolving beats of Transgender and Violent Youth prove far more varied than anything we've previously heard. The band even dabbles in some almost bubble-gummy pop, both Affection and Child I Will Hurt You proving highlights without ever having to raise their voices. (III) is undoubtably less immediate than its forbearers, who each made most of their bones on crackling energy and explosive excitement. It's a disc that realizes how subtle changes can almost reinvent the wheel, hosing off some of their more fiery impulses, and replacing them with a more contemplative, denser sense of craft. Call it selling out all you want; I call it growing up.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 12, 2012

Skyfall (Release Date: 11-9-2012)

        The man who every man wants to be, and every woman wants to be with. A globe-trotting super-spy with elite physical skills, and seemingly unlimited technological resources. M, Q, a tux, a martini, a piercing stare, and countless close-calls with his life in the balance. Yes, we all know who James Bond is, and we have for the last 50 years. At this point, we need no further introduction to the Bond-verse, only a briefing on who the soon-to-be-dispatched baddie is, and a brush-up on the new gadgets. This rigid rhetoric can treat directors in a myriad of different ways, from hand-cuffing their creative talents and vision, to liberating them to focus on items other than character introduction... within the parameters, of course.

        The man behind Skyfall, American Beauty's Sam Mendes, finds himself somewhere in between these two polarities. While the helmer has his own unique fun with the proceedings, there remain a number of specific, rote hoops he's forced to jump through. Even James Bond (Daniel Craig) must be feeling a bit of déjà vu, once more haggling with iron-jawed M (Judi Dench), taking a few ladies to bed who then unceremoniously find their ways out of the plot (Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe), and matching wits, fists, and bullet shells with a diabolical foreigner (Javier Bardem). These are not cliches; they are the immovable ingredients of the oldest, most prolific series in the history of film. While adhering to them nearly ensures that brilliance will not be attained, it also serves as a safe-guard against complete disaster, and ensures that Ian Fleming's pseudo fanboys stay happy.

        And to be sure, there's a lot to be ecstatic about. Mastermind cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers' best-kept secret, isn't about to let all of this continent-hopping go to waste, capturing a sun-soaked Turkey, a Machu exploding with light and color, and an Irish countryside as ripe with beauty as it is mystery. He's no slouch when the action starts either, shooting many a duel with long, uncut takes, permitting eyeballs to soak in the whole battle, rather than editing them into fuzzy oblivion (*cough* Michael Bay movies *cough*). The actors on hand have an absolute ball as well, from Craig's suave, knowing calm, to Marlohe's unhinged tight-wire act between sensuality and insanity. But the cake goes to Bardem, who was apparently told to be as much of a ham as possible, and relishes every minute of it. Bleached blonde, tic-addled, and suffering from a truly massive, unmissable oedipal complex, his Silva might not haunt your dreams the way the best baddies do, but my god, will he slap a smile across your face.

        What's more, he hardly even has a damn script to work with! Penned by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (and subsequently re-written by John Logan, who will take over solo scribe duties with the series' next installment), Skyfall's story-structure is the definition of herky-jerky, misplacing formerly important characters for extended stretches, and lacking any real narrative drive beyond that-guy's-bad-LET'S-GET-HIM! There are also some REAL eye-rollers coming from the dialogue department, but maybe I'm just being too hard on an unapologetic popcorn flick. Truth be told, I'm not the saga devotee that some are, and my opinion ought to be taken as such. Those who enter Skyfall looking for a James Bond movie will likely get more than their money's worth, knee-slapping in-jokes, and pulse-pounding action abounding. Taken as a movie like any other, however, Skyfall is notably above average, but I'm not exactly rushing to hand it Oscars.

Grade: B

Friday, November 9, 2012

Fall 2012 Playlist

1. Our Swords---Band of Horses***
        We open our Falling Leaves playlist with this beauteous rumble, rolling along gracefully on top of a forthright baseline, and subdued, evening-time magic.
2. Earthforms---Matthew Dear
        From subtle earnestness to the seediest guy on the dance floor, Earthforms is the standout track off of Dear's 2012 effort, Beams, building and swirling around a filthy, irrepressable groove.
3. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards---Tame Impala***
        Bass lines again take president in this 60's-pop-riffing gem, woozy guitar fiddling and plain-spoken vocal yearning giving way to a sublime background jam session right around the two-minute mark.
4. & It Was U---How to Dress Well
        Tom Krell's HtDW project isn't often upbeat in nature, which makes this 3+ minute blast of Jacko-infused R&B that much more elating, its rippling beat and piercing falsetto difficult to deny.
5. Blue Bloods---Foals
        The opening few notes of BB seem to echo in a vast, limitless space, a chasm that the Oxford boys then fill all the way past the brim with funky undercurrents, sky-scaping vocals, and gorgeous mayhem.
6. Poetic Justice---Kendrick Lamar feat. Drake
        Lamar has one of the most varied, singular flows of anybody on the scene, and PJ perfectly frames his ability to instantaneously change cadences and offer true-to-life sentiments with equal aplomb.
7. Yes, I Know---Daphni***
         We may never know what the endlessly looping line, "Yes, I know; she told me so," refers to, but given the ecstatic, enormous, brass-sampling track it floats around, I'm guess it's good news.
8. Out Getting Ribs---Zoo Kid
       OGR is a bare-bones production, nothing more than Archie Marshall's slacker mumblings, and one of the most evocative guitar lines imaginable, noodling along into glowing oblivion.
9. Ego---Burial+Four Tet+Thom Yorke
         An all-star assemblage of some of the most accomplished trance-inducers in all the land, Ego is a dancy, dark, and psychedelic all at once, Yorke's ghostly croon stretching out over the tune's brooding pulse.
10. Jerome---Lykke Li***
        A powerhouse track of the, 'doomed romance,' variety, Jerome's thunderous percussion lines fire off like cannons beneath Li's tormented harmonizing.
11. Radio Ballet---Eluvium
        From a couple tracks wrought with tension to a shimmering beauty of unfettered loveliness, RB consists of nothing more than a piano, ascending to enveloping, luminescent heights.
12. Running---Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx
         Who would have thought that neon beats and Scott-Heron's father-time ramblings would make for such a pairing? Running's current runs bone-deep, all while its philosophies tickle the mind.
13. White Magic---ceo
        WM is a multi-faceted journey of a track all in 4-and-a-half minutes, churning furiously through its blustery opening half before busting open into technicolor relief.
14. Marked---EMA***
        A gritty, poignantly unpolished lament, Erika M. Anderson's voice aches with loss and desperation, smokily swaying before turning into a growling rasp, and scaling back down into a gentle hush.
15. Henrietta---Yeasayer
        Henrietta is a story of two halves, opening to a boisterous, skittering electro beat before spending act two on billowing clouds of synth, all powered by one monster of a bass line.
16. When I'm Small---Phantogram
        A nightclub bounce lent mysterious allure by vocalist Sarah Barthel's breathy, dynamic turn, all wrapped tightly in a record player's fuzzy hiss.
17. Pink Matter---Frank Ocean feat. Andre 3000
        One of Ocean's most dynamic, explosive vocal performances to date (and that's already saying something), PM lets the troubadour's voice soar, then gets out of the way for one hell of a guest verse by Andre himself.
18. So Long You Pretty Thing---Spiritualized***
        The go-for-broke finale on an album built almost entirely on the very same principle, Jason Pierce's small, personal plea unravels into an enormous, cathartic climax.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Leftovers: October 2012

Leftover Movies:
        No filmmaker can be located across such a wide spectrum of popular opinion as Tim Burton. The, 'Hot Topic,' kids (as well as those who vividly remember the early 90's) revere the guy as a demi-god, while many film-buff circles ridicule the autuer as a cash-grabbing, one-trick pony. Here's something both sides can finally agree on: Frankenweenie rocks. Adapted from a short film that helped Burton make his name, the back-and-white, stop motion affair revolves around the experiments of a brilliant, socially ill-equip boy named Victor Frankenstien (evocatively voiced by Charlie Tahan). Young Victor enjoys making his own short movies, and conducting scientific research with the aid of his trusty canine, Sparky... that is, until the pooch reaches his untimely demise. Unable to let go of his best friend, Victor, in mad-scientist mode, brings his little buddy back to life, but playing god has unique ramifications. Frankenweenie is a heartfelt affair, one wherein the protagonist clearly stands as an avatar for the storyteller, and one brimming with visual and thematic clarity, and inspiration. A fun, bubbly trip to the flicks, and a sure tear-jerker for anyone whose ever loved a pet, Frankenweenie stands as a twisted, joyous reminder of what Burton is capable of concocting when he puts his back into it. Adorably dark, and oddly cozy at nearly every turn.

Leftover Music:
Good Kid M.A.A.D. City by Kendrick Lamar:
         Has more ink been spilt in the name of any single musician over the last month then Kendrick Lamar? The youthful hip-hopper, who broke out onto the scene with last year's Section.80 mixtape, finally released his much-anticiapted proper debut, and while I can't quite get as rapturous as some, there's no denying that the disc is a winner. Lamar's flow has always been positively electric, and here he gets to play with studio production and gadgets that are worthy of his immense talent. Kendrick suffers from a few known vices, like over-doing simple-minded hooks, and occasionally blunt phraseology, but none of that comes close to derailing this LPs heavy-hitters. The Hit-Boy produced Backseat Freestyle is simply undeniable, as are the seedy grind of early single Swimming Pools (Drank), and the silky swagger of Drake-featuring Poetic Justice. A potent blend of the scholarly with the badass, GKMC is doubtlessly one of 2012's finest hip-hop releases, and will have you considering gangster lyricism almost as often as it sends you bouncing down the dance floor... almost.

Jiaolong by Daphni, and Luxury Problems by Andy Stott
         Never have two trippy, dance-music-for-people-who-don't-like-dance-music albums had less in common. Jiaolong, the rug-cutting child of Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith, is all about repetition, and brightly-tinged simplicity. Many of the winners here are founded on little more than a constant, unchanging rhythm, like the über-direct Cos-Ber-Zam Ne Noya, while the celebratory Yes, I Know, builds and builds upon warm, identifiable ingredients. Luxury Problems, on the other hand, desires no such blissful satisfaction. Andy Stott's disc is built out of chilly rhythms, and evolving backdrops, opener Numb growing from misty origins to swirling dread, while the title track rumbles along in a hypnotically foreboding fashion. Neither LP is a champion through-and-through: each has its own noticeable weaknesses, and pronounced strengths. But as a couple of discs bent on creating their own worlds, in a genre that too-often plays it safe, both are efforts worth celebrating.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Cloud Atlas (Release Date: 10-26-2012)

        Perhaps above all else, Cloud Atlas is a movie for those with patience. With an exhaustive 172 minute runtime, six disparate story lines, and more prosthetics than you ever thought could be crammed into a single movie, the massive film is defiantly, proudly esoteric. Directors Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski are clearly swinging for the fences here, and your enjoyment of their work will ultimately boil down to how much you appreciate their throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks attitude. What is this unwieldy beast of an epic even about, you ask? Well... I'll try my best.

        A ship sails the pacific ocean in the year 1849, carrying among its passengers a young lawyer (Jim Sturgess) who documents their various adventures in a journal. This journal is in turn read by Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in the year 1936, when he serves as a amanuensis for an elderly composer while working on his own piece, The Cloud Atlas Sextet. Said sextet has an almost etherial ring to it in the ears of Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a 1975 journalist bent on uncovering some devious acts committed by a powerful energy corporation. Follow me so far? Good, because the final three stories, one set in the present, another some 130 years from now, where a Korean metropolis does its best to ape Blade Runner, and the last in a distant, unspecified, post-apocolyptic future, have little-to-no literal connectivity to speak of. Suffice to say, there's a lot going on here, and nifty narrative lines from point A to point B are at a minimum. Oh yeah, and most everyone in the cast plays multiple characters across the various, interwoven stories, some thespians filling as many as seven different rolls.

        If you're the type to enjoy ambition for ambition's sake, my god, do I have a movie for you! In terms both technical and thematic, Cloud Atlas is a mammoth under-taking, one that might have crushed lesser artists under its weight, and almost does the same to Tykwer and the Wachowskis. As one might expect, the quality of the various stories is ranges wildly, from the gentle, melancholy romance of the 1936 section, to the blazing neon action of 2144 Korea, to the utter nonsense of watching a face-tattoo-covered Tom Hanks speak gibberish in the desolated future. Some work better than others, but the film is so determined to madly cross-cut through time and space that it almost nullifies their unevenness. The audience has neither the time to become truly annoyed by the lesser chapters, nor the exposure to the better ones that might have permitted real emotional investment.

        Tom Hanks and Halle Berry should not be in this movie, period. Their faces are recognizable to just about any movie-goer out there, and watching them pop up in one stupid costume or fake nose after another is just plain distracting. Other thespians, whose voices and mannerisms aren't so emblazoned into America's pop culture psyche, fair much better, often justifying the artistic indulgence by furthering the film's sense of connectivity. Yeah, seeing each swap genders and races is a bit jarring, and I'm positive that someone out there is extremely offended by all of the culturally ambiguous dress-up on display here, but it's nothing if not unique. And I guess that's where I landed with my thoughts on Cloud Atlas: It's a messy film, far from the masterpiece that it so clearly wants to be, but it's also some of the most enormous, bombastic pageantry that you'll ever see on a big screen. Clumsy and occasionally wrong-headed, yes, but lazy and satisfied it ain't, and it's big-budget audacity alone was worth the price of admission for this guy. Those who like things neat and tidy will be beating their heads against the wall, but if big is your thing, it's a can't-miss.

Grade: B-