Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wale – The Gifted (2013) – Review

Review: Wale seems to reside just on the precipice of blowing up – he has the lyrical skill and flow; he just has never had a big hit. His first two albums Attention Deficit and Ambition are both good, but do not stand out either. With his third album, The Gifted, Wale seems to have both embraced his place in hip hop and desperately grasped for a breakthrough hit with a somewhat random assembling of guest features.

The Gifted is at its best when Wale is just riffing off the beats. He has such a nimble flow and he is a layered storyteller that his raps alone are enough to sustain the listener. His lyrics give a much more nuanced and realistic view of urban culture than most other artists who still speak for the streets. Wale’s verses have substance. Musically, the album is very vibrant and often the beats have more of a live band feel, which is a nice change from the constant flow of EDM influenced hip hop songs (and just every genre really). The live drums really pop.

But for all its positives, the album is just flooded with pointless features by artistes that do not fit Wale’s sound, who seemingly are only there to increases sales and draw new listeners – like: Yo Gotti, Nicki Minaj, Juicy J, Rihanna, Wiz Khalifa, Ne-Yo, and 2 Chainz. None of them bring anything to the album. Wale’s MMG mates Meek Mill and Rick Ross also show up, but again neither stand out and their styles somewhat clash with Wale’s – though, Meek Mill and Wale do have some chemistry. The Gifted would probably be a better album without all these features (as really only Cee-Lo Green and Tiara Thomas bring something worthwhile), especially when the genre’s best recent albums (good kid, m.A.A.d city, Born Sinner, and Yeezus) have all been built around a singular voice – all these random features dilute the album’s impact.

The Gifted is sure to please fans of Wale, as it is a good hip hop album. However, it is also slightly disappointing (as it is almost a great album, held back by all the features). 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Golden Salvation (Jesus Piece) – Produced by Lee Major
2)      Bad – Produced by Kelson Camp and Tiara Thomas, featuring Tiara Thomas
3)      88 – Produced by Just Blaze

Available on: Digital Download

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (2013) – Review

Review: Much Ado About Nothing is an absolute joy. The film is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedic play about two couples Claudio and Hero and Beatrice and Benedick. Claudio and Hero are in love with each other and plan to marry, but Beatrice and Benedick loath each other, constantly engaged in a war of insults. Content with their own relationship, Claudio and Hero concoct a plan to bring Beatrice and Benedick together, with the help of friends and family. However, not all are included in this happy love and tomfoolery – the villainous Don John devises his own plan to ruin everything, just because he can.

 Writer-director Joss Whedon brings the play into a modern setting while keeping Shakespeare’s language. There is always an awkward disconnect between the modern backdrop and the words. It is true of this film as well, but Much Ado About Nothing seems to lend itself better to a modern framework than many of Shakespeare’s plays as the themes and characters translate just as vibrantly today as they did hundreds of years ago. Still, there are some moments that feel strange and do not fit the modern environment well – like guns replacing swords and the idea of a woman’s virginity being so important when being courted for marriage (which feels very outdated now).

Whedon uses black and white photography to give the film sort of a 1940s feel and look (even though it is set in present time), and the music score reinforces that feel as well (seemingly to create a modern yet timeless feel). However, the film does not cross over into noir territory tonally, as Whedon keeps it pretty light for the most part. But, there are still stylistic throwbacks. Dogberry and Verges, for example, feel like typical noir-era detectives, though again played for comedic effect, while Beatrice and Benedick could be interchanged with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (doing their best screwball comedy work).

What Whedon does exceptionally well with the material is that he captures the characters brilliantly, especially Beatrice and Benedick (who are both wonderfully played). The audience completely buys into their love/hate relationship, and Whedon’s decision to include a prologue showing that they had a previous sexual relationship only strengthens Beatrice’s case for why she is so scornful towards Benedick when he first appears. Whedon gives the audience something tangible that they can visually latch onto and relate to (while they are adjusting to the language). Additionally, Whedon has his actors play their emotions slightly bigger which greatly enables the audience to follow along.

Much Ado About Nothing has never been my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies (I love Twelfth Night) nor is it his funniest (based on other adaptations I have seen), but in Whedon’s hands it is as funny as it has ever been. Again, the actors play everything a little bigger, and thus the comedy is very physical if not slapstick (filled with pratfalls and big expressions), which works to great effect. This is an extremely funny film (probably the most laugh inducing film of the year so far). And as such, it is the joyous film experience of the year (it is hard not to have a big smile on your face while watching it).

However, the sometimes silly tone that the film takes with its comedic moments somewhat undermines its dramatic moments. The villainy of Don John just seems out of place, and when Claudio chastises Hero for what he believes are her crimes it comes off as unimaginably harsh – in that, given the light tone that the film has had until this moment, it feels preposterous that Hero and her father could ever forgive Claudio. The emotional and tonal swing between the buffoonery of the comedy and the sheer seriousness of the sudden emotional drama is almost too much. It is so abrupt and shocking that it is hard to except that things could be happy in the end (Beatrice literally wants Benedick to prove that he loves her by challenging Claudio to a duel – and in this version that includes guns – thus, Beatrice is earnestly asking Benedick to kill Claudio for what he did to her cousin; how does Claudio come back from that in the eyes of Beatrice, Hero, and Leonato?). As a result, the film feels a bit awkward in moments due to the drastic change in tone. That said, the comedy is too great to lose, and so the clumsy tonal shifts are easily forgiven.

Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is probably the strongest (and best known) filmic adaptation of the play, as tonally and character wise everything works exceptionally well. However, Whedon’s film offers a version that is many ways exceeds it, particularly comically (and Beatrice, Leonato, Don Pedro, and Dogberry are fantastic, but I do love Branagh’s Benedick). Yes, the language is an obstruction for many (as will the black and white photography and noticeably low budget), but those willing to give Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing a chance will be delightfully enchanted.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Joss Whedon adapting one of Shakespeare’s plays just seems right. Whedon has always, if nothing else, been a master of langue and character, and Shakespeare was his teacher. Plus, Whedon and his friends periodically meet to casually perform Shakespeare’s work for fun. This film was inevitable. Whedon brings a great energy to the material, garnering wonderful performances that make the words come alive.

Whedon also composed music for the film. His score has a classic feel (again fitting the overall 1940s era vibe that the film has), and mostly serves as a mood setter for the film. Jay Hunter’s cinematography gives the film a very soft look with his black and white photography that feels very intimate (as if the viewer is just another member of the party), but the film also sometimes looks like a home movie, which is slightly distracting (it literally is a home movie, as Whedon shot it in his own home). Cindy Chao and Michele Yu’s production design at times has sort of a magical waft to it as the lights of Leonato’s party glisten against the night, while at other times seems very minimalist (which is mostly the case).

Even more so than either of Whedon’s first two features (Serenity and The Avengers), the performances here make the film special (as this completely lives or dies on them). Sean Maher definitely sets his Don John apart tonally from the other characters as he is utterly joyless, seemingly causing trouble merely because he is bored and wants to see the world burn (yes, that is a The Dark Knight reference). Jillian Morgese comes off as very sweet as Hero, but she is almost too bashful. She is somewhat lost in the mix. Fran Kranz seemingly is playing outside his comfort zone as an actor with Claudio, but he hits the right romantic notes and is devastating in his dramatic delivery. Reed Diamond (a standout among the cast) and Clark Gregg seem to be having an absolute blast as Don Pedro and Leonato respectively, and that is conveyed wonderfully to the audience who in turn is also having a great time. Nathan Fillion is goofy as Dogberry – a clueless hardboiled detective – but his sheer incompetence poorly veiled behind extreme confidence plays for splendid laughs. Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker have phenomenal chemistry (something that all fans of Angel know well), and thus their Benedick and Beatrice carry the day. Denisof is wonderful in his dramatic moments, particularly when conversing with himself, but it is his aptitude for comedy that really endears him to the audience. Acker, on the other hand, has a fierce wit with each slight striking like a rapier thrust. Her Beatrice feels almost tragic. She is beautiful, yet love (or the absence of it) has left her bitter.

Summary & score: If nothing else, Much Ado About Nothing is film experience sure to bring pure joy, laughter, and happiness to its audience. 8/10

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Bling Ring (2013) – Review

Review: The Bling Ring is a stylish look at celebrity, the new American Dream, and today’s culturally vapid and self-entitled youth. The film is about five teens who decide to rob the homes of celebrities.

Writer-director Sofia Coppola approaches this true story with a detached perspective. The audience is neither a part of the group, as Coppola never really digs deeply into what motivates them, or completely outside, as the narrative never leaves its leads. Marc and Rebecca serve as the film’s leads. Marc is new to his high school and has self-esteem issues. He is the most relatable character for the audience, as he is the audience’s way into the group and he seems to somewhat elaborate on why he stole (and may even feel slightly regretful about it at first), but his sincerity is questionable. It feels like he is more nervous about being caught than actually being conflicted about whether or not what he is doing is wrong. Rebecca, on the other hand, is a kleptomaniac. She gets a thrill from stealing in addition to it being an easy way she can fill her need for nice things. She sees celebrities, their lifestyles and thinks that there is no reason why she should not have the same life. She wants to be them (on a deeply psychological level), and thus she does what she has to do to afford that lifestyle. When she breaks into Paris Hilton’s house, it is not just about stealing, she imagines herself living in the house – she just wants to hang out and absorb the full experience. The third lead, Nicki, is also fame obsessed. Her whole life revolves around how she might elevate herself to celebrity status (which seems to be normal behavior based on her friends and home life – so who can blame her). Like Rebecca and (to a lesser extent) Marc, Nicki does not feel any semblance of shame or regret for her actions. In fact, it was just a learning experience for her, a stepping stone on her way towards fame. They aspire to be the same as these people. They are constantly engorged on personal details of their lives, and thus try to emulate them. They go to the same nightclubs, wear the same closes, and try to embody the same outward appearance and attitude (which is mostly fake – a show for the media).

The Bling Ring is not a full on satire of these seemingly celebrity and fame obsessed teens however. Rather, Coppola’s film plays as sort of a commentary on the cultural attitude that has developed in America (and to some extent the rest of the World). Why are we so interested in celebrities? Compared to the average American, their lives must seem fantastical. They surround themselves with beautiful things. The myth of the American Dream has always revolved around the idea of the self-made man – hard work is how one achieves their dreams. Now, it is the opposite. Driven by media’s oversaturation of every facet of a celebrity’s life – in L.A., London, New York, Paris paparazzi stalk celebrities every moment of their lives (and they do this because it is all lapped up by the public) – the American Dream has been warped. Fame is now seemingly the easiest way to achieve all the riches of the World. Work is also now a negative word, only saps work for a living. Today’s youth truly believe that they deserve the same wealth that they see in others and it is not fair that they do not have it. Thus, stealing is not really a negative action because they are merely appropriating what they deserve. Consumerism has overtaken almost every other value.

Thus when Marc, Rebecca, Nicki, Chloe, and Sam break into the houses of the celebrities, Coppola styles it as almost dreamlike. They are entering a magical wonderland full of treasures ready for them to exploit. There is a thrill to it all. Plus, Coppola displays these houses like fantastical palaces lit up against the night sky, sparkling and wondrous. Who would not be allured by these spectacular residences? There are beautiful shots of the teens’ silhouettes against the moonlight as they frolic from or to a score, which elicits a feeling of fantasy, again evoking sort at dreamlike aesthetic.

Yet, Coppola still maintains separation from the characters. What at first feels exciting, like explorers uncovering a great bounty, starts to distort into something much more uncomfortable. As the group takes down more and more houses, there is a shift that occurs subtly. Coppola conveys a feeling of disgust towards each new heist. There is an uncomfortable feeling that the audience begins to have, like they are watching strangers go through their own homes, their own personal stuff. The dream fades into the reality that this is nothing more than petty greed and larceny. There is nothing romantic about these characters or their actions.

There is a sense that develops that Coppola not only does not like these characters, but that she feels no pity for them either. They are almost nothing more than soulless hooligans Рexplaining the blas̩ manner by which they confront their crimes. They are only upset because they got caught (or because society tells them that they should present an outward appearance of regret so as to be not as harshly judged). Coppola does not explore their motivations on a character level because they are not specific to them Рit is a cultural epidemic.

Coppola most harshly (but subtly) addresses what populates this cultural obsession with celebrity. The Bling Ring is filled with sequences of media aggrandizing celebrity and anything surrounding it. The characters themselves are hounded by paparazzi when their names come out in connection to the burglaries. They even find themselves on television, assuming some level of celebrity themselves – to some extent achieving what they always wanted. Thus, taking what they believed was theirs seems to pay off. But for Coppola, the whole thing feels very vulgar. The media that creates this hunger for gossip and need for personal information (that would seems outrageous if it were you or me) is just as guilty if not more so than these teens. The only difference between these teens and the average American teen (or teen growing up surrounded by the culture explored in the film) is that they actually had the fortitude to take it a step further. Their actions are not condemned by their peers or the media, rather on both accounts it is promoted. They are not vilified but awarded (particularly in the case of Nicki). This is what Coppola is fascinated by, and disgusted by. This is not a tale of ‘crime does not pay’ as the final moments reveal Nicki being interviewed on television (achieving some level of fame – something that she always wanted), but a tale of the corruption of American culture – the souls of our youth.

The Bling Ring does have a narrative through line, and Coppola does manage the pacing well, but unlike most narrative films the characters are not the central aspect of the film. Coppola uses them (and their story) more as a foil by which to explore American youth culture. The lack of strong character development does make the film more difficult to relate to for the audience, as really none of the characters are likable, and the audience never gets to know them well enough to see a deeper more emotional side to them. They are all just emotionally superficial, but that was part of the point Coppola is trying to make. Coppola’s detachment also seemingly leaves the audience wondering how to feel about the actions of the characters (or the characters themselves), but the film certainly seems to lend itself to a critical reading of today’s celebrity obsessed culture in addition to the attitude that seems to have developed among young people that they deserve all the World has to offer without working for it – there existence is enough to justify their desires. It is not fair that they are subjected to their level of wealth when they see those that have more. Coppola’s film does not paint a positive picture.

In many ways, The Bling Ring is equally a fairytale and an indictment of American culture. This is the brilliance of Coppola’s film. It enchants the viewer with the excitement of these teens looting these ‘celebrities’ (who themselves are somewhat vilified in the media, so the teens are only robbing ‘bad’ people anyway right), but the film also begins to reveal just how grotesque the whole attitude and culture is, propagated by the media and consumed by America. No one comes away looking good.

Technical, aesthetic and acting achievements: Sofia Coppola has continually been accused of making films that value style over substance. But, she is not making narrative films in the traditional sense. For example, Somewhere works much more as a montage piece as images and scenes are juxtaposed to create a feeling or idea. The Bling Ring is no different. Coppola again has made a wonderfully stylish film that seemingly lacks substance in terms of characters, but she is exploring an idea with the film using the characters merely as a template. The film exists in between the forms of expressionistic art and narrative filmmaking. I think it is her best work since Lost in Translation, as it is a socially piercing look at American culture while still maintaining a high degree of artistic merit.

 Composers Daniel Lopatin and Brian Reitzell create a score that works tonally very well with the film. Their compositions plays into the dreamlike feel of many of the burglary scenes. The Bling Ring also features a brilliant soundtrack that seems to perfectly capture the youth attitude on display (with songs like M.I.A.’s Bad Girls and Azealia Banks’s 212, for example). Christopher Blauvelt and Harris Savides (who the film is dedicated to, as he passed away during its production) provide the film with magnificent cinematography. The exterior shots during the theists are often remarkable. There is a scene in particular in which the camera lingers outside from a far as Marc and Rebecca pillage Audrina Patridge’s house. It is enchanting, skillfully embodying Coppola’s detachment and the film’s thematic dichotomy. Anna Ross’s production design is also evocative. Paris Hilton allowed Coppola to film in her actual house, but Ross’s design work for the other celebrity homes is fantastic as it personifies the fantasy aspect of the film (as the homes just seem absurdly glorious – though, that feeling is strongest at Hitlon’s home). However by the time the group robs Rachel Bilson’s house, Ross has toned down the opulence greatly, and it feels much more like they are just ransacking a normal house and not some grand wonderland. Another interesting aspect to Ross’s work is that all the members of the group live in nice homes too (especially Chloe).

While Coppola does not explore her characters in detail, the cast does strong work bringing them to life. Leslie Mann plays Nicki’s mother, who herself seems obsessed with fame, as she homeschools her children on the beliefs of The Secret (which just seems ludicrous). She is oblivious and enabling towards her daughters’ behavior. Mann plays her well. Taissa Farmiga and Claire Julien play the two supporting members of the group, an adopted sister who is less pretty and vying for her place and a spoiled rich girl who is wild because she can be, respectively. They are along for the ride and enjoying every minute of it. Emma Watson (playing completely off type) is fantastic as the sociopath Nicki, a girl who is really only concerned with herself. She would be a villain in most frames, but here she seems to merely be a product of her time and surroundings. Watson shows off her range. Israel Broussard has the tough job of playing Marc, a character who seems like he could be sympathetic, but is equally shallow and unaffected by his actions. Katie Chang plays Rebecca the group’s ringleader. She does a great job playing sort of the mean girl role as she seemingly pressures Marc into each situation (but his apprehension stems more from fear than a feeling of what he is doing is wrong), but where she really excels is in her glazed over coldness when confronted with her actions. There is not a true hint of remorse in any of them.

Summary & score: The Bling Ring is aesthetically beautiful and engaging as it straddles the line between artistic expression and narrative filmmaking in its scathing look at the state of celebrity obsessed culture. 8/10

Monday, June 24, 2013

Movie of the Week – Leon: The Professional

This week’s movie: Leon: The Professional (1994).

The crime drama is about a professional assassin who rescues a teenage girl after her family is killed by a corrupt police detective and his team. The girl asks for the assassin’s help. She wants him to train her in his art so that she can avenge her family.

In France writer-director Luc Besson had already made the critically acclaimed hit films The Big Blue and La Femme Nikita, but it is Leon that put him on the map in the States. He has since become France’s biggest filmmaker (mostly writing and producing action films like Taken). Besson has a set group of collaborators that he works with – all of whom do fantastic work – including: composer Eric Serra, cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, and production designer Dan Weil.

The film stars Jean Reno (who is also a frequent collaborator with Besson – appearing in eight Besson productions, including Besson’s first four films as a director) and Natalie Portman, featuring Danny Aiello, Michael Badalucco, and Gary Oldman in support. While the film served as a breakthrough for both Reno and Portman’s careers (Reno in the States and Portman as a young actress), it is Oldman who gives the film’s best and most iconic performance, creating one of cinema’s greatest villains (something he would do again in Besson’s The Fifth Element).

Leon is currently number thirty-one of IMDb’s list of the Top 250 rated movies of all-time, which attests to how much its fans love it. It is a particularly strong character drama for a film that is mainly built around an epic action scene at the end. For fans of crime dramas, this is a must-see.

Trailer: Here

Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Friday, June 21, 2013

TV Series of the Month – The Pacific

This month’s TV series:  The Pacific (2010).

The miniseries looks at WWII’s Pacific Theatre through the eyes of three Marines (based on the writings of real soldiers: Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa and Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow, in addition to Chuck Tatum’s Red Book, Black Sand).

Like Band of Brothers, the series was created and executively produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello, and Jon Seda star, with support from Rami Malek, Jacob Pitts, William Sadler, Jon Bernthal, and Caroline Dhavernas.

Band of Brothers is maybe the greatest miniseries of all-time, putting a lot of expectations on The Pacific. It is also a fantastic miniseries from HBO, but not quite at the same level (and maybe not as good as Generation Kill either – but still one of the best miniseries in television history). It addresses the sheer violence and harrowing fear that America GIs faced in the struggle against the relentless Japanese. The series also does a wonderful job developing its characters. It is a must-see for fans of war dramas. Hanks and Spielberg are currently working on a third WWII miniseries focusing on airmen (Master of the Air).

Trailer: Here

Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Deafheaven – Sunbather (2013) – Review

Review: Deafheaven has taken a momentous step forward with their second album Sunbather. It is massive is its sonic scope, blending the rawness of black metal with the beauty that can be achieved with post-rock tonal guitars.

The album is unlike anything in metal, daring to be radiant yet tortured. Split into four epic tracks with three more experimental ambiance pieces separating them, it is a journey that asks the listener to accompany the band into the pits of doubt and despair and then back up into the warmth of the sun (and then back down and back up again and again). The songs feature scathing black metal stylized vocals, intricately melodic guitars, and powerfully cascading drums. From my own metal collection, Sunbather reminds me of the beauty and anguish of Dawn’s Slaughtersun (though not as intense) with the tonal depression (in moments) of Daylight Dies’s Dismantling Devotion.

Deafheaven’s album is transformative, an aesthetically masterful piece that will influence the future of black metal. It is not just a record for metal fans; it is a must for fans of music, as this is surely one of 2013’s great works. 5/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Vertigo
2)      The Pecan Tree
3)      Sunbather

Available on: Digital Download

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Kanye West – Yeezus (2013) – Review

Review: Kanye West is a leader of artistic creativity in hip hop, often drastically altering the direction of the genre with each release. His sixth album, Yeezus, is no different. Following the trend of his last two lustrous records, 808s & Heartbreak and My Dark Twisted Fantasy, West again transforms his sound and tests the limits of the genre (and popular music).

Rejecting the commercial corporate process by which music is put out, West promoted the album with guerrilla video projections of his song New Slaves across the world. He did not release any singles or music videos. The album artwork is almost non-existent (see above). But, all this plays into West’s attitude on Yeezus. He is fed up with the whole structure behind corporate run popular music. He does not want to make bland generic music like everyone else. It wants to challenge everything and reach for new aesthetic heights.

Yeezus does not sound like anything else in hip hop. It is a minimalist amalgamation of punk, new wave, dance hall, electronic, and hip hop all smashed together. It feels raw, and yet still features immaculate production. West has always been a great collaborator, and here he brings in veterans like Daft Punk and (frequent producing partner) Mike Dean as well as fresh artists like Arca and TNGHT. Rick Rubin served as the co-executive producer with West to get the overall sound just right. Sonically, the album is intense, vibrant, aggressive, and utterly compelling. West maintains his position ahead of the genre while everyone else lags behind perpetually trying to catch up. Musically alone, this is a magnificent album.

Lyrically, West again plays on similar themes to his last two albums. He is self-aggrandized and seems to have a guarded mistress of women, but his boasts come from a thinly veiled frail insecure place of sadness and doubt. He turns to fleeting moments of pleasure to escape the darkness that clouds his thoughts, stemming from failed relationships and racial inequality that West sees around him. West has no desire to make a commercially accessible album, and he blatantly attacks the establishment. He wants to air out his distrust and misgivings to instigate emotion in the listener and he also lets the listener into his soul to engage them emotionally as well. That is the appeal of West. He is not afraid to put it all out there, to connect with his fans on a deeper level.

West is at a place in which he could bring in any artist for a feature, but unlike My Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus is very much from a singular voice (being West’s). Frank Ocean, Justin Vernon, Kid Cudi, Tony Williams, and Charlie Wilson show up to add supporting vocals, while Chief Keef and Travi$ Scott also bring some punch to the album. But only relatively unknown Chicago MC King L has a verse outside of West. In this way, West pays tribute to his city and troubled, gang-violent South Side neighborhood by including leading local voices Chief Keef and King L (because he can). It works well because West has essentially challenged what is possible sonically in hip hop. To have a bunch of recognizable voices clouding up the album would have diminished the overall power and freshness of the album.

Like each Kanye West album, Yeezus changes the game. It is vital, raw, incredibly ambitions, and just simply a work of an aesthetically brilliant artist (who knows the perfect collaborators to bring together to find the right sound). It is safe to say that this is one of the best and important albums of 2013, a must. 5/5  

Essential Tracks:
1)      New Slaves – Produced by Kanye West
2)      Bound 2 – Produced by Kanye West
3)      Black Skinhead – Produced by Kanye West and Daft Punk

Available on: Digital Download

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Man of Steel (2013) – Review

Review: Man of Steel is a massive action/adventure film that is tonally much more serious than most superhero fare. The film is about Kal-El (Clark Kent), an alien being who struggles to find his place on Earth (deciding how to use his remarkable gifts). He is torn between two worlds. He has spent his entire life on Earth, growing from a baby into adulthood, but his alien abilities make him a god among men. Should he show his true self and potentially be hated and feared for his differences and power or should he stay hidden, keeping to the fringes? That is his choice. However, he is forced to reveal himself to mankind, to protect them, when warriors from his destroyed home world come to Earth seeking revenge for what his father did years ago (a man they consider a traitor).

From the opening scene of Man of Steel it is clear that director Zack Snyder has a grand vision for Kal-El and the world in which he inhabits. Snyder wants the film to feel epic, and thus kicks it off with the humongous battle for Krypton, ripe with wonderful sci-fi/fantasy styled action. He never really lets up from there as almost the entirety of the third act is one elongated action sequence between Kal-El and General Zod (and his group of Kryptonian warriors). Again, the set pieces are grandiose in scale with seemingly much of Metropolis destroyed during the melee, but it works because both Kal-El and Zod are titans fighting in a world incapable of restraining their power (thus, there is a lot of collateral damage as one would expect). The magnitude of their combat also greatly plays into the final decision that Kal-El must make regarding Zod. There is no Earthly force that can stop Zod, therefore it solely rests with Kal-El to make a tough choice.

Snyder, somewhat following in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s (who produces this film and co-wrote the story) The Dark Knight Trilogy, takes a much more serious tone with both the character and world than fans of superhero films have become accustom to (especially given Marvel’s model for producing films that are on the lighter, entertainment first side). Man of Steel is very weighty in its drama, as Kal-El spends the whole film soul searching and trying to live up to the hopes of his two father figures. There is almost no reprieve from the intense action and emotional drama, which for some will be all too much.

Yet, as an origin story about a being caught between two worlds in addition to the clear narrative reflecting how mankind often treats outsiders and the pain and suffering incurred as result, Snyder made the stronger dramatic decision to play the film as a deeply emotional and momentous struggle. Kar-El’s path to becoming ‘Superman’ would not feel as earned or important if it was easy (both in terms of overcoming the main villains and his emotional journey finding who he is and who he wants to be). Like Nolan, Snyder invests a lot more in the journey of his lead character than the average lesser genre fare, and it pays off as Kal-El’s narrative resonates with the audience on a more profound level. His struggle actually means something, and is not merely presented for the audience’s entertainment.

Though, the film is highly entertaining too. The action scenes are supremely massive, to an extent that audiences have maybe never seen. Yet, they still work because the audience is invested in the characters. However, one of the film’s weaknesses is also the scale of its action scenes. For viewers who are only peripherally engaged (viewers who for whatever reason do not buy into Kal-El’s narrative journey) the magnitude of the action scenes can feel overwhelming. And again, there is almost no respite from the exacting tone of the narrative.

Another weakness that holds Man of Steel back from being among the genre’s best films is the one dimensionality of General Zod. He is perpetually intense and seemingly crazed. Snyder does not make any attempt to connect emotionally with the character, rather presenting him purely as a potentially unstoppable force of sheer one-sided rage. Zod is thus nothing more than a plot device, an obstacle that must be overcome, and not a fully fleshed out character (like the best genre villains), which undermines the overall power and impact of the narrative.

However, Snyder does make up for it with the great work he does with his other supporting characters, particularly Jor-El and Jonathan Kent – Kal-El’s father figures. The strong character moments that Snyder gives these characters, in addition to their dramatic interactions with Kal-El, make up the film’s emotional core and drive Kal-El’s narrative journey. Their relationship with Kal-El is what enables the audience to connect with him and relate to him. Lois Lane also plays an important role both for the audience and Kal-El. She provides the audience with an additional perspective into the narrative (as an outsider looking in), while serving as an important emotional step in Kal-El’s journey. She is the first human (outside his family) that he feels that he can completely trust, which allows him to find the will to step into the light (so to speak). Snyder handles this relationship well, but also leaving a lot for potential sequels (as the film is about Kal-El becoming Superman and not his relationship with Lane).

Man of Steel also resonates due to its look at modern society’s seemingly intensifying fear of people that are different. Without becoming overly political, there is a palpable discontent in how many feel towards those they deem as outsiders – a distrust, if not complete hatred. This stems from ignorance and anxiety regarding the unknown. The world just feels like a more dangerous place (whether it really is or not), which seems to drive people inward, shunning what they do not know or understand. Snyder’s narrative offers a symbol of hope to remind people that it is within all of us to be accepting, moral, and trust in others. Zod is utterly engulfed with the perseverance of his own beliefs at the ultimate cost to all others (which seems to be a very real, and scary, feeling today among some groups, American or otherwise). Kal-El is able to succeed because he puts his trust in the greater good, setting aside and sacrificing selfish motives.

Superman represents the good of mankind while Zod the close-minded hatred. This juxtaposition however makes the final confrontation between them all the more shocking. Kal-El is not presented by Snyder as the infallibly morel being that Superman has been represented as in past characterizations.  In Man of Steel, he is limited by his own humanity, which makes him more interesting and allows his narrative journey to resonate to a much greater degree than past Superman films.

Man of Steel is imperfect and does not stand among the genre’s truly brilliant films (like The Dark Knight Trilogy and Spider-Man 2). That said, it is very entertaining and emotionally engaging, and more specifically a great modern superhero film (and massive summer blockbuster).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Zack Snyder is an impressively visual director. Man of Steel has many wonderfully iconic and grand moments and visuals that serve the character well. However, again he seems to favor his over-the-top visuals to content. Man of Steel does have a strong dramatic narrative, which is what makes the film work so well, and the action set pieces are incredible, but they are also a bit overpowering, dulling the overall experience (but it is not to as devastating an effect as with Sucker Punch or the weakest moments of Watchmen). He is able to find a better balance with this in comparison to his past few films, which gives me hope that he will get better as a filmmaker. Man of Steel is a great start, and I look forward to seeing what will likely be an even better sequel (assuming Nolan returns as well to guide Snyder a bit). This is my favorite of Snyder’s films to date.

Following his brilliant and immense scores for Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, composer Hans Zimmer again gives Man of Steel a similarly dominating score (utilizing commanding drums). However, the genius of Zimmer’s work is in the smaller emotional moments. He is able to capture the sheer grandeur of the film while conveying the theme of hope that the character encompasses. It is fantastic work (as usual).  Amir Mokri’s cinematographer fits the tone that Snyder has set for the film visually. His lighting creates a harsh world, mirroring Kal-El’s own internal struggle. Though, it is the moments in which happiness and light are let into the frame that are the most breathtaking. The flashes of Kal-El as a kid wearing a cape playing with his dog in the sunshine are visually and thematically magnificent. Alex McDowell’s production design does a good job of creating Krypton, which has a very sci-fi fantasy feel. Meanwhile, his sets on Earth are grounded in reality, making the Kryptonians all the more extraordinary by comparison.

The cast is good throughout. Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, and Antje Traue are strong in small supporting roles. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe (as Jonathan Kent and Jor-El respectively) are excellent in vitally important roles. Their great dramatic work pulls the audience setting the tone and the narrative in motion. Michael Shannon has a special gift for looking like he is on the verge of a complete mental break, exploding into unyielding madness. That is how he plays Zod. It is too bad the character is not given more character development. Amy Adams does a good job with Lois Lane. She is strong enough to fit the part, but also emotionally engaging enough to feel like the right ally to help Kal-El find his way. Henry Cavill makes for a superb Superman. Physically he has the right look, and dramatically he hits the right tone as well. He is able to convey the deep and troubling struggle that he is having internally, creating a character that the audience cares about.

Summary & score: Man of Steel is Superman’s most ambitious and ultimately grandest cinematic undertaking, packed full of monumentally epic action sequences and effective dramatic heft. 8/10

Monday, June 17, 2013

Movie of the Week – Torn Curtain

This week’s movie: Torn Curtain (1966).

The thriller is about Michael Armstrong, an American scientist who publically defects to East Germany, much to the shock of girlfriend Sarah. She goes against his wishes and defects too. However, when it is safe, Michael reveals to her that he is really on a covert mission to learn a secret from an East German professor. The problem is how will he get them both safely back to the West when she was never part of the plan?

The film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who worked with a mostly new group of collaborators, including: composer John Addison (Bernard Herrmann originally wrote the score, but Universal Pictures convinced Hitchcock that he needed a more upbeat piece causing Hitchcock and Herrmann to have a major disagreement, and they never worked together again), cinematographer John Warren, and the great production designer Hein Heckroth (this was his last feature).

Paul Newman, who constantly fought with Hitchcock over creative differences regarding his performance and acting style, and Julie Andrews, who was just coming off her breakout hits Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, star. However, Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, but the studio felt that they were both too old.

Torn Curtain was a hit when it came out in 1966, fitting the Cold War hysteria of the times – it was one of Universal’s highest grossing films for the year – but has since been deemed as one of Hitchcock’s weaker films. Certainly, it is not among his best work, but it is still a great thriller and features some of his best scenes of suspense, particularly the scene in with Armstrong finds himself in trouble at the farm house (it is absolutely spellbindingly brilliant). It is a must-see for fans of Hitchcock’s work as it does feature many redeeming qualities.

Trailer: Here

Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Friday, June 14, 2013

This Is the End (2013) – Review

Review: This Is the End is hilarious, insane, and above all very entertaining. The film is about best friends Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel who decide to get together for a weekend of hanging out (playing video games and smoking weed). Jay, being from Montreal, does not really like the celebrity-obsessed atmosphere of LA but begrudgingly agrees to accompany Seth to a party at James Franco’s house. Seth and Jay begin to feel at odds as Seth is very comfortable in the surroundings and with his ‘new’ friends, while Jay just wants to leave (and hates everyone there). However, suddenly, what seems like The Apocalypse happens, with many of the party guests being killed. Now, Seth and Jay are stuck in James Franco’s house with James, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson. Will they survive?

Writer-directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have created something comically wonderful with This Is the End pairing Judd Apatow style (self-deprecating) improvisational humor with what amounts to be a horror style action-thriller. Much in the style of Ricky Gervais’s Extras, the actors all play somewhat exaggerated versions of themselves (for comedic and dramatic effect), allowing them to basically make fun of each other and themselves in sort of a meta way (as presumably the audience has seen most of these actors’ films and TV shows and knows who they are). In a strange way, even though the characters are still fictional depictions, the drama seems heightened as well due to the audience connecting to these famous people (as themselves). Thus, the audience enjoys the humor more because they are laughing with and at the actors, fully aware of their past work and personas, and are more dramatically engaged as well, which combined amplifies the overall experience.

However, if the viewer is oblivious to these actors and their past work, a lot of the jokes and elevated sense of excitement will probably be lost, and the film will not play nearly as well (and may not work at all). The story is very simple and not a lot of character development occurs (because they filmmakers assume the viewer does know going in). Additionally, the humor is almost completely dependent on the viewer knowing (to some extent) the personas of these actors (like James Franco being really into reading literature and studying art or Danny McBride personifying his Eastbound & Down character Kenny Powers). In this way, the film is like a sequel to the actors’ careers up until this point in time. To appreciate the sequel, the viewer must see what comes before it first.

But if the viewer is in the know, the humor throughout is very funny thanks to a talented cast (these are basically the best young comedians in Hollywood right now, for the most part). All these actors have come up through the ranks of or have frequently worked with Judd Apatow and the overall style of comedy in this film is very much in his mode. It feels like these actors (who are all friends in real life) just got together with a thinly outlined plot and just improvised jokes and scenarios (Evan Goldberg even made it his mission to get the actors to do more and more outrageous gags until they were too embarrassed or offended and said no – Rogen and Franco both never said no). Many of the jokes are very crude in nature, and there is a sense of each actor competing to come up with better, funnier stuff. The result is a comedy that is hysterical all the way through (and easily the funniest film so far this year) and there is a camaraderie among the actors that the audience can feel.

This Is the End also works as an action-thriller. First-time directors Rogen and Goldberg keep the film moving, which is vital to the film’s thriller aspect. The narrative does not lose momentum, and they also strike a good balance with the ‘empty space’ moments that are needed for the improv-comedy and the action sequences. Rogen and Goldberg also escalate the stakes and the danger as the film progresses – as things get rather insane and the third act is brilliantly funny and exciting. While it is certainly a comedy first, it is also a good action-thriller.

All in all, This Is the End is a marvelous comedy that is engaging as an action-thriller and riotously funny. However, again, liking and being aware of these actors and their past work is probably essential to maximizing the enjoyment of this film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen have written some very funny stuff in the past (Superbad and Pineapple Express), but This Is the End clearly shows that they have a talent for directing comedy as well. The film has sort of a loose documentary style, fitting the premise, and Goldberg and Rogen often just let the camera linger on the actors allowing them to perform (and be funny). In addition to getting the pacing right (which is probably the hardest part of feature narrative filmmaking), they also find the right tone for the film – completely ridiculous, keeping things funny, while still with a constant feeling of impending thrills. In this way, it works much like a horror film. The audience is constantly expecting something frightening to jump out or a character to suddenly and gruesomely be killed. The audience is laughing, but on their toes – a great combination.

Henry Jackman’s score works well, underlining the tone and emphasizing the apocalyptic aspects, but it is the film’s brilliant soundtrack to steals the show. Goldberg and Rogen seem to find the perfect song to fit each moment (they probably spent as much acquiring the rights to use all the great and fitting songs as on the rest of the film itself, and it pays off). Brandon Trost’s cinematography also fits the tone well. His lighting creates a heightened, darker reality – an atmosphere for the crumbling of society that looks gritty and stylized. By the end of the film, LA basically looks like how we might imagine Hell. Chris Spellman’s production design is strong too. His set for James Franco’s house is great, as it works both as a joke on Franco and as the perfect bunker for a catastrophe. I also loved the juxtaposition of the neighbor’s house that the characters enter later. It is so neat and polished in comparison.

While the story is fresh and original and the soundtrack is great, the cast really makes the film. This Is the End features small supporting work from tons of great comedians (all of whom have worked on Apatow projects in the past – many from as far back as Freaks and Geeks and/or Undeclared). And, there are some fun cameos. Michael Cera (who is rambunctiously silly) and Emma Watson (who seems to be having a blast) are both good in their supporting roles. However, most of the film is spent with its six stars. Danny McBride is so much fun, as he exudes misguided swagger and mischievousness. Jonah Hill plays himself as someone who just wants everyone to like him and think he is cool, coming off like a complete tool. Craig Robinson is brilliant playing himself as being insecure and lovable. James Franco is very funny, as he plays off his own lore. He is also not afraid to make himself out to be ridiculous (much like McBride). Jay Baruchel does a good job as well playing the outsider, which also works in bringing the audience into the story. To some extent, he plays their perspective in the film. And finally, Seth Rogen is good as well. He is the element that brings all these characters together and is the peacemaker, but also secretly selfish and not a hero.

Summary & score: This Is the End is something fresh in a genre that has become complacent and boring. It strives to be something different and bonkers (much like The Cabin in the Woods), and it achieves it in all the right ways. 8/10  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Wampire – Curiosity (2013) – Review

Review: Portland, Oregon, synth-pop group Wampire got their start blasting electronic music at house parties, but Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps had higher aspirations.

For their debut album, Curiosity, they approached their music differently, writing guitar pieces and adding a drummer before approaching their synthesizer/laptop. The result is a very accessible album full of great songs (that seemingly pull from a myriad of influences). Tinder and Phipps have created a cohesive sound that in ways is both simple and intricate – simple in that the songs have a very clear pop sensibility (and feel like a mixture of today’s indie rock sound that is very electronic music infused and the rock/pop of the late 1960s) and intricate in the way the sounds are written and layered.

On a side note, Wampire’s album cover for Curiosity is incredibly weird, tacky, and hideous (which, I think is the point) – but also hilarious and well suited to that collection of songs, which have an overall odd tone and spooky ambiance.

Curiosity is well worth checking out, and fans of synth-pop and indie rock/pop will probably enjoy it. 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Spirit Forest
2)      The Hearse
3)      Orchards

Available on: Digital Download

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The-Dream – IV Play (2013) – Review

Review: The-Dream is one of the leaders of R&B’s darker/pop sound (influencing artists like The-Weeknd) – an auteur of the genre. His music is explicit, emotional, and wonderfully produced (it is generally much darker and slower than most popular modern R&B). While he has written many of the last decade’s biggest hits, Terius Nash has never enjoyed commercial success as a solo artist (despite his critical acclaim).

IV Play seems like an attempt by Nash to make a more commercially accessible album. It is packed with a lot of guests: Jay-Z, Big Sean, Pusha T, Beyonce, 2 Chainz, Kelly Rowland, and Fabolous, but really only Pusha T adds anything of note (his very brief intro to Pussy is fantastic). The-Dream is at his best when he is battling his own insecurity and melancholy using his great falsetto vocals, but still with a helping of swagger. Love vs. Money had a ton of features, but it is his best album (and I would argue one of modern R&B’s best). It is not so much that these songs are bad, but rather that they just feel like The-Dream is not as ambitious with his music (which is disappointing).

Interesting, and sort of in the face of making a more mainstream album, Nash makes the statement that he is tired of EDM – when it has completely taken over almost every genre (but especially pop and R&B). Musically, the album is filled with more classically styled pop/R&B tracks that move to a slower beat. However, R&B has seen sort of a resurgence of this more soulful sound with artists like Frank Ocean.

Overall, IV Play is a decent album that should work for The-Dream’s fans and those that like pop/R&B, but after strong albums like Love vs. Money and Love King this just feels disappointing (plus, most of the best songs are the deeper cuts and bonus tracks). 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Y’All – Produced by The-Dream
2)      Psycho – Produced by The-Dream
3)      Holy Love – Produced by The-Dream and Los da Mystro

Available on: Digital Download