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Friday, May 30, 2014

Leftovers: April/May

Leftover Movies:
Under the Skin:
        After my bloated expectations turned this year's entirely serviceable iteration of Godzilla into something of a disappointment, I needed a break; no more movies that ended by knocking over the city.  My quest for something different led me much further from the norm than I could have ever anticipated, and thank god for that. Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as (wait for it...) an often-silent extra-terrestrial being prowling around the outskirts of Scotland, seducing and kidnapping young men, and then harvesting their bodies. Director Brian Glazer's lets its freak flag fly to perilous heights, rejecting expository dialogue whole-sale, allowing his audience to decipher the meaning of his beautiful nightmare on their own terms. The visuals are at once gorgeous and unsettling, the varying vistas and textures all made memorably tactile by cinematographer Daniel Landin, bolstered by composer Mica Levi's score, which makes hair rise, and sweat go cold. Be warned; Under the Skin lives up to its name, and is not for the faint of heart, but those brave enough to stomach and process the picture will be left pondering themes of gender, identity, predation, sexuality, mercy, and a slew of others. I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of the flick upon leaving the theater, but after a week in which its ideas and images have rattled ceaselessly around in my brain, utterly refusing to leave, the truth has become undeniable: Under the Skin is the best movie I've seen in 2014 thus far.

Leftover Music:
Here and Nowhere Else---Cloud Nothings
        It's a standard musical complaint that every one of an individual band's songs sounds the same, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Here and Nowhere Else is nothing if not repetitive, eight tracks that mercilessly slash and pound their way through a tight 31-minute runtime. Drummer Jayson Gerycz, who made his debut with the band on 2011's also outstanding Attack on Memory, has become the outfit's muscular driving force, ripping straight through the core of opener Now Here In, fueling the stop-and-start mania of Psychic Trauma. Like all Cloud Nothings releases thus far, HaNO walks a tight rope between punk and pop, band leader Dylan Baldi's expertly calibrated combination of the two working like gangbusters on early piss-and-vinaeger-sing-a-long single I'm Not Part of Me, as well as the claustrophobia-inducing humdinger Giving into Something. Lovely and delicate it ain't; Here and Nowhere Else is an eruption of brute force that further solidifies its author as a band who demands our attention.

Nikki Nack---tUnE-yArDs
        Following up an album like w h o k i l l is no easy task; tUnE-yArDs' previous LP possessed an absolutely insane amount of madcap energy and confidence (not to mention tough-to-articulate pop appeal), prompting a cavalcade hosannas from critics and fans alike, gracing innumerable Best Albums of the Year lists along the way (including this one). As dense and confrontational as follow-up Nikki Nack might often sound, it notably refuses to sock listeners in the face in the same fashion as its predecessor, but then again, what album doesn't? Merrill Garbus is still a force to be reckoned with, many of the band's best tunes wrapped snuggly in her guttural howl and hauntingly evocative lyrics. Nate Brenner, the duo's seldom-celebrated bassist, is given more space to roam this time around, his plunks crucial to the charging Sink-O, even taking occasional center stage on closer Manchild. But he's clearly the Pippen to Garbus' Jordan, the vocalists' enormous personality warping esoteric sounds into ear worms on the brilliantly under-played Wait for a Minute, as well as on the irrepressibly ecstatic lead single Water Fountain. Something tells me that this Merrill Garbus is in the 'making provocative, challenging music,' scene for the long haul.

        Phantogram, where have you been all my life? The New York duo's debut disc, Eyelid Movies, met the US over four years ago, and while the LP wasn't a smashing success as a whole, it spawned a pair of undeniable night-time jams (When I'm Small, Mouthful of Diamonds) that still receive independent and college radio play to this day. Voices is the electro-pop outfit's first full-length since, and while it might lack an instant classic like Small, the band's maturational leap is difficult to ignore. They come out guns blazing, opener Nothing But Trouble setting the stage with its jittery pulse and surprise guitar solo, leading into the siren-infused stomp of lead single Black Out Days. As was the case with Eyelid, the record experiences minor setbacks whenever guitarist Josh Carter steals the mic; the real star here is Sarah Barthel, who vacillates between seductive confidence (The Day You Died, Howling at the Moon) and wounded earnestness (Bill Murray, Celebrating Nothing) with ease and aplomb. Please, guys, don't make us wait so long next time!

Tomorrow's Hits---The Men
        Everyone's got their pet bands, and The Men are one of mine. The Brooklyn-based five-piece has released one LP a year every since their 2010 debut, peaking on 2012's raw, emotional, exciting, and pulse-raising Open Your Heart. Just over two years since that album's release, the punk-ish classic rockers (with a pinch country... just for added flavor) remain steadfast in their refusal to stay still, releasing this scrappy, joyous eight song collection. Their instrumentation is notably more varied this time around, a jaunty piano-trumpet pairing serving as Another Night's unlikely backbone, while opener Dark Waltz clears out space for a harmonica to cut through the track's brawny central riff. You'd be forgiven for wondering if the boys are losing a bit of their edge, but the manner in which the more pop-leaning tracks (Sleepless, Settle Me Down) bounce off the more rollicking cuts (Different Days, Another Night, Going Down) is quickly becoming one of the band's greatest strengths. Another year, another low-key triumph for The Men.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Black Keys: Turn Blue (Release Date: 5-13-2014), and Coldplay: Ghost Stories (Release Date: 5-19-2014)

        For two bands who don't actually sound much like one another, Coldplay and The Black Keys sure do have a lot in common. They're both household names, a rare accomplishment for a rock band in the year 2014. Both could be (and have been) criticized for riding the coattails of more innovative acts who came immediately before them (U2 playing Coldplay's granddaddy, The White Stripes fathering the Keys), both surpassing their forbearers in terms of fame and fortune along the way. Finally, they each lay claim to their own extremely exacting sound, one that leaves room for precious little experimentation, ensuring that each new release, while pleasurable, can feel remarkably 'same-y'. Perhaps each recognizing their creative stasis, both The Black Keys and Coldplay decided to mix it up... within a week of one other. How could these albums not be reviewed in tandem?

        Coldplay is a proud graduate of the School of More is More, frequently stuffing their songs with as much orchestration and sky-scrapping vocals as can possibly fit. Anyone who's listened to the radio at least twice in the past decade can tell you that this game plan often works (Yellow, Clocks, Viva La Vida, Paradise, Fix You, The Scientist, Lost... should I keep going?), though their song-to-song familiarity has become the impetus of much scornful snickering over the years. Ghost Stories dials everything back; eight of the nine tracks on hand (we'll get to the outlier later) feel about half as dense as the outfit's average offering, prompting listeners to hone in and come closer, rather than rushing out to meet them through every shopping mall, fast food joint, and car speaker in America. It's a remarkably smaller sound, one that harkens back to the band's still-popular debut disc, Parachutes, though favoring a far more electronic aesthetic this time around.

        Though their reign at the top has been decidedly shorter, one could argue that The Black Keys' sound is already more worn out than Coldplay's. With Dan Auerbach's raspy howl and chunky, muscular guitar riffs ever front-and-center, the band's faux-grit-and-grime blues rock sound has proven both immediate and repetitive. Each of their albums starts off with a head full of steam, steadily loosing listener interest through lack of variation, and exhausting sonic front-loading, not unlike a 3-D movie that starts out great, and makes your eye balls ache by the end. Their latest effort, Turn Blue, feels far more spacious than anything I've heard from the duo before, Auerbach and drummer Joe Carney each taking about three steps back, and allowing their moodier, mid-tempo tracks to breath a little. The mega-catchy, stadium-sized riffs and wily chants are largely absent here, replaced by more varied instrumentation, and a surprisingly increased reliance on Auerbach's falsetto. It's certainly not their most energetic approach, but it might just be my favorite.

        About half the tracks here are nearly impossible to imagine on another release of their's; the six-string that guides Year in Review comes enrobed in a swirl of violin, back-up singers, and additional percussion, while the wah-pedal lilt of In Our Prime would have previously proven too leisurely. Both are stand-out numbers on an album that, at just over 45 minutes, is remarkably listenable in one sitting, something I never thought I'd write about The Black Keys. It doesn't hurt that they lead off with arguably the best song of their career: Weight of Love announces Turn Blue's intentions right off the bat, drifting out of speakers like a soft mist, Auerbach's voice tucked away until past the two minute mark, and only sparingly employed thereafter. Stretching all the way out to the seven-minute mark, Weight grows at steady clip, morphing into an enormous guitar-solo throw down by its conclusion. It'll never make it as a pop song, but these boys have already made enough of those; this is an epic.

         Ghost Stories, on the other hand, is entirely bereft of epics, or even attempts at epics for that matter. It's almost difficult to believe that Magic is really the lead single on a Coldplay album, light axe strumming and a simple drum beat ushering us in where we're used to having enormous, almost confrontational big-ness hold the door open. It's a pleasant listen, something that could be said about the entirety of Ghost Stories, but those anticipating another massive Coldplay anthem won't find one here. As a matter of fact, the disc sounds determined to avoid such a hit, a pervasive hush defining all proceedings until the head-scratching, dance-floor-ready A Sky Full of Stars comes out of absolutely no where. It's a jarring tonal shift on an album full of quiet heartbreak, the perfect opposite of having the lights turned on and the music shut off at a club. Maybe working with Rihanna on Princess of China wore off on them; Stars would fit far more readily in the songstress' catalogue of bangers than it does here.

        A week following its initial release, Coldplay's latest is already being referred to as the band's worst disc to date, which is understandable regardless of wether it's accurate. There's no real world-conquering going on here, but for my money, its minimalist sway is vastly preferable to Mylo Xyloto's unrelenting excess. That album became just plain exhausting after a few listens, so many ideas and flourishes packed into every waking moment. I for one admire Ghost Stories' more modest ambitions. The miss-steps might be fairly glaring, Martin's cliche-ridden lyrics pushed up front and center by hushed sonics, Midnight's status as a Bon Iver rip-off proving unforgivably obvious (if still lovely), but this is no disaster. It's pleasant, nocturnal easy listening that's being overly punished for a lack of real hits... unless we're hedging our bets with A Sky Full of Stars. 

        Turn Blue is also being met with less-than-stellar reviews, though my support of the Keys' latest is far less passive. Again, the lack of radio playability will prove a demerit for some, but this is by far my favorite LP by the two-piece yet. Unfurling in a steady, funky rumble, the album is confident enough to let you come to it, and not the other way around. Even those who are bored by the languid grooves of In Time or the title track get to have their cake too, crunchy single Fever serving as the album's better-every-time-I-hear-it aspiring hit, closer Gotta Get Away sending us home on a rollicking sing-a-long with the good ol' boys. The Black Keys have always wanted to sound like a band from another era, tripping themselves up along the way by applying pop accessibility to a sound that doesn't intrinsically possess a whole hell of a lot. On Turn Blue, they finally go broke on their 70's aspirations, and, to these ears, they've never sounded better.

Turn Blue Grade: B+
Ghost Stories Grade: B-

Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla (Release Date: 5-16-2014)

        "It's a Godzilla movie; you think they'll do anything that really surprises you?"

        A friend of mine asked me this very question a couple of days before my long-anticipated date with pop culture's most famous enormous lizard. At the time, the quandary was met with a semi-sneer; I'd spent too long looking forward to Hollywood's latest Giant Monster Movie (a film genre for which I have always fallen, and will continue to fall) to let measured skepticism infiltrate my outlook. Of course the scaly beast could catch me off-guard! Hadn't they already with that stunning teaser trailer (Is that really György Ligeti’s Requiem? Like, from 2001: A Space Odyssey? You guys went there?!?), and the magnetic, haunting ad campaign that's been all over my TV for the last couple months? Surely this was more than your average Summer blockbuster, right?

        Well... yes and no.

        It certainly aspires to be, laying out an elaborate, globe-trotting plot that relegates the big guy almost exclusively to the film's second hour, a choice that dominated the flick's pre-release chatter. Hopping decades and jetting across seas, we learn of a government cover-up with historical trappings (too clever to spoil here), meet two pairs of scientists (first Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, then Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) on vastly different paths toward the same eerie truth, and, finally, are introduced to Cranston and Binoche's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy officer with expertise in the field of diffusing explosives. It's an admirable approach, focusing in on the characters and plot mechanics before showing off your surround sound, but Max Borenstein's screenplay simply isn't as involving as it thinks it is. Stuffed to the brim with plotting, exposition, and movement, the barrage of information becomes exhausting for two extremely important reasons: because it's tough to focus on a semi-intricate story-line when we all know it'll eventually boil down to WWE with monsters, and because human-level stories need interesting humans, a precious commodity for which this film is absolutely starved.

        It's certainly not the fault of the thespians, the ridiculous wealth of acting talent listed above bolstered by the likes of David Strathairn and Elizabeth Olsen. For those counting at home, this seven-pack of actors can lay claim to a Best Actress Oscar win (Binoche) and 4 additional nominations (Watanabe, Hawkins, Strathairn, and Binoche again), not to mention Cranston's three Emmy victories for Breaking Bad. They toil about with clunky dialogue and faceless characters, Cranston resorting to a slight variation of Walter White, while Taylor-Johnson explores new lows of just how charm-and-charisma-free a leading man can be. All three women on hand are egregiously underused, their presence proving more distracting than anything, like watching a great basketball player stand around in the corner waiting motionlessly for someone to pass the rock. Watanabe probably fares best because he's allowed to embrace the schlock most fully, cast in a hilariously stereotypical role that appears hearteningly self-aware on more than one occasion.

      And then comes the monster mash. Godzilla is only director Gareth Edwards' sophomore feature, and what he lacks in actor rapport and character development he more than make up for in the spectacle department. The effects here are nearly seamless, certain moments of destruction landing with far more force than your average 'let's knock down some buildings' tent-pole action flick (see: every single major studio release between the months of May and August). He's also smart enough to learn from his elders: his 'zilla owes more than a little Roland Emmerich's Independence Day, both Ridley Scott and James Cameron's diverging takes on the Alien universe, and everything Speilberg. His carefully calibrated mix of awe and horror (not to mention rampant imagery near-plagiarism) harkens directly back to Jurassic Park, all while his choice to reveal only so much of a beast, thereby allowing the viewer to image the rest of its expanse, is straight out of Jaws. That's not to say the guy always goes easy on the gas, the last 20 minutes or so largely forgoing the visual trickery of what came before, preferring a full-blown melee wherein the film's namesake is finally seen in his entirety. It's thrilling stuff, bolstered by the filmmakers' choice to retain the 'rubber-suit' shape and design of the city-smashing reptile instead of taking a stab at something more 'modern.' It meets the eyes somewhat clumsily at first, but proves strangely charming by the time the credits roll, all while bringing a whole new meaning to the term 'thunder thighs.' It all works like gangbusters, though it's not difficult to image how the film could have been bettered by peppering some of these big blow-outs in through-out the first act, rather than cramming them all into the latter half.

        So, yes, the post-halftime pyrotechnics ensure that Godzilla slots safely in the above-average category, but the film's whole still served to sadden me about the general state of modern blockbusters. Simply put, this is a better version of a head-spinningly familiar tale, one for which audiences seem to harbor an unquenchable thirst. Last week, I reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film that is at once unmistakably inferior to this one, yet readily comparable on a nuts-and-bolts level. Both feature award winning actors visibly questioning their life choices, uninteresting conspiracy theories, impressive effects, sidelined females, propulsive scores, and about an hour of exposition followed by about an hour of cities being leveled. It's not enough that all of these movies contain similar themes and agendas; they're even built the same way, following trusted blueprints down to the minute, eradicating any small chance of genuine shock or revelation. We're quickly moving into a place where 'event movies' can only be judged on execution, as the content is so constantly identical, a land where the 'better film' is simply the one with the least plot holes, and who blowed stuff up the best. Sorry to go all jaded old man on you, but a superior version of the same movie is still the same movie.

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Release Date: 5-2-2014)

        George Santayana once said that, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," a brilliant and important quote which I guarantee has never been heard by any of the higher-ups at Sony Pictures. Directly following a pair of massive critical and commercial successes, 2007's Spider-Man 3 was immediately derided by fan-boys and film snobs alike, their complaints largely focused on two specific areas: emo (funk?) Spider-Man, and TOO MANY VILLAINS. Cluttered and semi-incoherent, you'd be forgiven for thinking the big-wigs in charge of Spidey would have learned their lesson. You'd also be wrong.

        The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a rag-tag cluster of plot points and ideas that onlykindasortanotreally congeals into a proper narrative. As always, we've got wise-cracking good-ol'-boy Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) clumsily compartmentalizing his normal and superhuman lives, and a lovely girl (Emma Stone's Gwen Stacey, in this instance) patiently waiting for him to figure it out. In addition to normal street-level crime, the web-slinger must also fend off an über nerd (Jamie Foxx) who flips from super-fan to vicious assailant in under three minutes' time (I swear I'm not kidding), and old friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan), who needs Spider-Man's magical blood to cure a terminal disease (again, not joking). Toss in some friction at home with Aunt May (Sally Field), and Peter's ongoing quest to discover what happened to his late father, and you've got a smoothy with more flavors that a normal human tongue can really handle (but maybe a super tongue...).

        I've always been in love with director Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films (and still think the third receives more flack than it really deserves), but even those who weren't previously infatuated with the trials and tribulations of the wall-crawler should now hold the original films in higher esteem. It's not the casts' fault: they all perform gamely, Garfield and Stone in particular, Foxx and Paul Giamatti providing enough ham to clog arteries. Director Mark Webb and his action-focused second team are also absolved: the set-pieces are indeed dazzling, and the film itself moves along at a steady enough clip to distract the audience from just how illogical the on-goings really are. It's the dastardly screenwriting duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci who deserve the brunt of the blame.

        Veterans of recent big-budget disappointments The IslandTransformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Cowboys & Aliens, and Star Trek Into Darkness, Kurtzman and Orci are honorary members of Hollywood's untra-exclusive 'How Do We Keep Getting Work?' club (Ryan Phillippe and M. Night Shyamalan are also card-carrying members). Where their work on the Transformers films represents a career-low in terms of sophomoric humor and tastelessness, Amazing 2 betters it (worses it?) where structure and logic are concerned. The screenplay attempts to juggle about seven different story lines all at once, resulting in that rarest of things; an over-long two-and-a-half hour film where no one gets enough screen time. Worse yet, character motivations are almost impossible to come by, Electro's decent into evil and megalomania (not to mention his initial transformation) lacking any proper explanation, Peter Parker's messy embodiment, some undercooked amalgamation of wise-ass/mope/heart-throb/nerd/skater-punk/science wiz, preventing any real emotional investment.

        The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a complete and utter mess, plain and simple, and yet I just can't bring myself to hate it. Plot holes abound, eyes can't help but roll ("You don't know? I'm Electro!" is an actual line, and Foxx's baddy is frequently introduced with his very own dubstep theme song), but the whole thing is just so damn big and bright. Much like its Amazing predecessor, this Spider-Man is a triumph of the eyes over higher cognitive function, another sublime 3-D production that has you swinging between sky-scrappers in exhilarating fashion. Even the chemistry between Garfield and Stone works best visually; their lines are just as awful as those uttered all movie long, but the way the two sizzle together on-screen is pretty tough to ignore. I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in spite of myself, but it does serve to widen the quality gap between the originals and the reboot. The former trilogy had heart, humor, tragedy, slap-stick, and (most importantly) characters whom we all cared about. This new series is like that attractive person you work with who never has anything interesting to say; fundamentally unlovable, but enjoyable from a distance.

Grade: B-