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Friday, May 24, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (Release Date: 5-16-2013)

        The corporate big-wigs and studio heads knew there would be a sequel to 2009's Star Trek reboot since before the do-over was even released. Principle photography began on January 12th, 2012, initially set for a release date a mere half-year later before being bumped all the way to last Thursday, May 16th. But even with all these roaming numbers and dates, there is one day that truly changed the fate of the new Star Trek films forever: January 25th, 2013. Four months ago tomorrow, that was the day when director J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg for the digital media generation, agreed to hop directly from Gene Roddenberry's wheelhouse over to George Lucas', signing on to helm the first in a new series of Star Wars films. What at first felt like a kind of adultery has unearthed even larger ramifications in the months since, each franchise baring the weight and implications of the other.

        And to think, just a half-year ago, it was just a movie. Re-teaming nearly the entire cast from the beloved 2009 entry, Into Darkness again stars a wily, dangerously self-assured Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk, and Zachary Quinto as his rhetoric-spewing, biologically-stoic first mate, Spock. The two again clash, Kirk once more knocked down a peg by Spock's compulsion toward rule-abiding, right before the peril of Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) continues to set the main plot in motion. What's this plot, you ask? Why, it's a revenge mission to track down the quasi-human terrorist played by a usually-attractive foreigner (I see your Eric Bana, and raise you a Benedict Cumberbatch!) who hit the crew right where it hurts, and just might have much, much bigger plans in store.

        If you're experiencing a little déjà vu, you're not alone; while Into Darkness is a fun watch for nearly all of its two hours plus runtime, there's a sense that things have already gotten a bit stale. Many of the '09 entry's cute nods to the original series are repeated almost verbatim, the players seem to be experiencing the very same character arcs all over again, and there's enough running around that damn ship to exhaust a cross country team. The only immediately observable tweak comes in the form of an even greater emphasis on action, a ratio of story-telling to things-blowing-up that was already out of sync in the first film, and is now pushed to the outer-limits of space. It works well to get you engaged at first, an adrenaline shot of an action sequence opening the film in sublime fashion, but by the time Spock goes latter-day John McClane to track down the baddie in the finale, you might need a cup of coffee, or a nap.

        This isn't such a problem in, say, the Transformers movies, where the most memorable things about Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox are a Strokes t-shirt, and a bare midriff over a steaming vehicle. We like these Star Trek characters, and it's a testament to Abrams' cast and the director's understanding of human elements that we still connect despite the rampant chaos. Pine and Quinto's bromance again takes center-stage, endearing, funny, and actually kind of touching when it's not pushing too hard (you'll know the moment when you see it, and no, I don't care if it's a reference. They still tried to wring emotion out of it, so mocking laughter is fair game). It's also an honest-to-goodness knee-slapper, an increasing point of interest for big budget film-makers all over Hollywood of which Abrams and Joss Whedon appear to be the forefathers. Finally, the thing is flat-out gorgeous, a flick that cost millions to make, and never fails to look the part. From costumes to camera work to production design, Into Darkness is eye candy through-and-through. Piles of cash burn right before your eyes!

        But despite all the impressively mounted set-pieces and glittering surfaces, Star Trek Into Darkness feels smaller than it should. Part of this is because of the aforementioned broken-record syndrome, but a lot has to do with that fateful day, January 25th, 2013. The fact that Abrams would bail on Trek for Wars is the final piece of a puzzle that we all should have put together long ago: The last two Star Trek films wish they were the Star Wars prequels, and vice versa.

        Abrams' Roddenberry revision jolted a beloved franchise back to life with excitement, nostalgia, and unmissable sizzle, all spheres in which George Lucas' latest trilogy failed miserably. The lambasted prequels wove politics and stayed pacing into a universe that wanted nothing to do with them. One product is clearly superior to the other, but all of the enormity, destruction, and kinetic energy that J.J. and company wedge unnecessarily into Star Trek Into Darkness reveal what we should have known from the start: Abrams has been devoutly Team Wars all along. Fun as these last two Enterprise outings were, this feels like a good break-up. The proven hit maker finally gets to hold what's really been his baby all along, and Star Trek, given new legs by the last two installments, can finally take its time with characters we've learned to love again. Abrams' Trek might have prospered, but as certain, 'spinning wheels,' moments of Into Darkness will readily attest, it was never designed to live long.

Grade: B-

Monday, May 20, 2013

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City (Release Date: 5-14-2013)

        Forget everything you know about Vampire Weekend. Or... wait a minute. Maybe don't? Much has been made of the maturation that the band's latest release represents, music scribes everywhere noting how the boys have put down a few of their old tricks, and picked up a few new ones. And while the african influences and whitest-of-white collar lyrical mentalities have begun to fade, I can't help but see many critics as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How much could these guys have really changed if their songs still contain lines like "Back back, way back/I used to front like Angkor Wat/Mechanicsburg, Anchorage/and Dar es Salaam," and are powered by zippy, weightless guitars? And yet, there's this tangible difference between Modern Vampires of the City and everything that the band's done up to this point. I've spent a long time soul searching for the answer, and this is where I've arrived: It's just better.

        Don't get me wrong; I've loved these guys from the start, and no, my inner hipster had no trouble writing that line whatsoever, thankyouverymuch. Modern raises the stakes in just about every imaginable fashion, from its extended length and track list, to its somehow unpredictable and immediate song structures, to Ezra Koenig's suddenly soul-baring lyrics. It turns, 'Hey, hey, hey, hey!' into Ya Hey, thumbing its nose at both God and Outkast in the process. It employs auto-tune and harpsichord on the same damn song, and has the audacity to use the track as the first single. Everywhere you look, Modern Vampires of the City is having its cake, and eating it, too

        That aforementioned lead single, Step, proved mightily indicative of the album at large. It's far more spacious than these guys have ever dared before, dolling out a melody that feels like the wiser spiritual cousin of M79 in languid, self-assured movements. The lyrics, which tell the story of a young man opening up to the world and the love around him, would feel canned if not so beautifully penned and uttered by Koenig, sharing more of himself here than either pervious albums could have possibly foreseen. Both as a single and on the LP itself, Step, is followed by Diane Young, a gonzo speed-demon of a thing that's emerged as the primary track to traverse the airwaves thus far. It's mad-cap vocal distortion and unlimited, 'baby's,' have delighted as many fans as they've frustrated; the song has grown on me a ton since I first heard it a few months ago, but there's positively no mistaking it as the album's best tune. In other words, don't let Diane Young dissuade you from Modern. Even if that 2:40 burst of weirdo glory doesn't do it for you, there's a mountain of other treasures to sort through.

        Take Hannah Hunt, for instance, a number that could almost be seen as Diane Young's perfect foil. Koenig goes full on story-telling mode, relaying the details of a damaged couple's trip across the country, filled with minute details that somehow tower in meaning. The instrumentation is down-tempo and methodical, a variety of sounds employed, but never more than two at a time, guitars sliding contentedly below. The song finally erupts near the 3-minute mark, Koenig wailing the same chorus as before with a whole new sense of urgency and meaning. And then it's gone, refusing to overstay its welcome in the pursuit of a lofty epic, prompting endless repeated listens in the process.

        In the name of fairness, Modern Vampires is not without fault, the LP standing proudly among the most front-loaded I've ever heard in my life. A few songs that crop up near the end, Finger Back and Hudson among them, are certainly not bad tunes, but after that incredible seven song run that opens the album, they sadly emerge as something of an afterthought. Such a fate does not await Ya Hey, however, the only true home run hitter on the disc's backside, a stomp and chant that feels entirely irrepressible and immeasurably cathartic. Lengthy dissertations on the track's lyrics and meaning have been written and posted by the handful, but suffice to say, it's just about the headiest dissection of religious expectations and doubts that you'll ever hear in a pop song. It's subversive, and potentially a bit egomaniacal, but there's no denying its ambitions or its intimacy, and to the right ear, it's also strangely touching.

        Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut arrived a little over six year's after The Strokes' now-canonical first disc, Is This It?, and it's easy to view Julian Casablancas and the boys as a cautionary tale of sorts. Both exploded out of New York City on a tidal wave of hype, both favored fashion, opulence and cool over the heart-on-sleeve aesthetic independent music tends to favor, and both took a singular (see: limited) style, and rode it all the way to the bank. But where The Strokes struggled to write both songs that stood up to their lo-fi glory days, as well as tunes that broadened their horizons, Vampire Weekend manages both. They've obliterated the notion that they might be a one trick pony without ever fully betraying what caught people's attention in the first place, which simply has to be the very hardest part of moving from, 'new,' to, 'established.' 

        By this point in their career, The Strokes had already released First Impressions of Earth, and haven't gotten back on the horse since. It already felt (and continues to feel) like a foregone conclusion that Is This It? would represent the peak of their powers, but no such aura hangs over Modern Vampires of the City... in fact, it's quite the opposite. The LP plays less like a summation of the band's collective talent than a promise that there are plenty more surprises and triumphs yet to come. These guys are only getting started. A bold declaration of a band that is here to stay, and 2013's best album to date.

Grade: A

Friday, May 10, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Release Date: 5-3-2013)

        A sequel is a beast unlike any other. Freed from the chains of character introduction and ground-work-laying, chapter two (or three, or four, or sixteen) has the capacity to explore a far wider array of possibilities. No longer is meeting the gang enough; plot structures and revelations triple in value. For all the films Marvel has released since the studio's coming-out party in 2008, only one has been a true sequel (Iron Man 2). Last year's The Avengers played more like the genesis story of the titular team, whereas Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all announce themselves as start-ups from the get-go. Enjoyable as it's been, the studio has essentially staged a five year meet-and-greet up to this point, the only exception coming in the form of Tony Stark's largely shrug-worthy second outing. We know the studio can get a ball rolling, but can they keep it that way?

        Picking up right where The Avengers left off, Robert Downey Jr.'s billionaire genius playboy is starting to see his smart-allick, one-step-ahead edge begin to slip. The extra-terrestrial throw-down that left New York in shambles has Stark experiencing bouts of PTSD, staying up all night tinkering on one new Iron Man suit after another. And that's only the start of the guy's problems. Enter The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a racially ambiguous super terrorist with a deep-burning hatred for the American way, and a penchant for televising chilling PSAs explaining just why. Stark decides to take the maniac head-on, leading the wise-cracker on a journey with more than a few surprises just around the bend.

        The above summary is vague for two reasons, the first being that Iron Man 3 works best when allowed ample liberty to subvert expectations, and the second caused by a simple case of amnesia; only a week after seeing the film, the actual plot-mechanics feel hazy, and, more to the point, inconsequential. What remains fresh in the memory is the movie's pulse, a crackling mix of humor, thrills, twists, and energy. Writer/Director Shane Black, making his franchise debut, has excellent rapport with Downey Jr., first witnessed in the hilarious dark comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film to which IM3 owes more than anyone could have possibly foreseen. His touch with humor is unsurprising, but his management of the pacing and action are welcome surprises.

        He does have some problems with that pesky tone, though. The trouble is presented immediately, as to film opens with snarky voice-over under-scoring powerful images of destruction. Comedy and trauma don't often make for the best cocktail, and saddling a scene of The Mandarin literally setting a human body on fire next to silly old Downey Jr. and the silly old robot arms that help him make his suits doesn't really work. As a matter of fact, most of the dark stuff doesn't; why even dredge up national anxieties and images of true terror if, deep down, all you really want to be is a fun time at the flicks (undoubtably Iron Man 3's primary goal). To be fair, the heightened moments, tonally jarring as they may be, do often manage to raise the stakes in ways Marvel his proven fatally afraid of testing in the past.

        May 2013's big superhero tent-pole is a little messy; plot-holes abound, characters get lost, and that lack of emotional clarity certainly doesn't help. But to say that Iron Man 3 is anything less than a rollicking ride would be disingenuous, its lows possibly lower than your average Marvel, but its highs undoubtably higher. This is a studio with a firm grip on the quality control of their product, and even if (in the opinion of this writer, anyways) they have yet to really make a, 'wow,' movie, IM3 keeps their hit streak intact.

Grade: B