Monday, July 23, 2012

tv review: 'the newsroom' S01:E05

Is it just me, or is The Newsroom getting a little better?

Okay, I admit, there were a number of elements in this episode that flat-out did not work.  The romantic subplots are a tangled stupid mess that would embarrass most reality television (which I find a little ironic), but at this point, I think the show seems to be aware about how much the previous episodes' romantic elements didn't work. It's what they do with it that I find significantly more interesting.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

movie review: 'the dark knight rises'

It's hard to name a trilogy where the last entry is the best. 

The original Star Wars movies, The Godfather trilogy, the original X-Men trilogy, the Spider-Man trilogy, even the Lord of the Rings movies often suffer from the last movie just not being able to close the loop (I understand that my issues with Return of the King are primarily structural, but I'm sorry, The Two Towers is, in my opinion, a better film. And to some degree, I understand the problem. In the first movie, you establish everything. In the second movie, you ramp it up. In the third movie, you draw things to a close the best you can - and most filmmakers just can't. The expectations are the highest, you expect the best, the most epic things on screen - and often times, it just doesn't deliver.

So maybe, just maybe, it would have been better had The Dark Knight Rises never been made. That's a harsh indictment, but you couldn't realistically hope to top The Dark Knight. That's an implicit condemnation of The Dark Knight Rises, I know that, but considering how great, how much The Dark Knight crystallized the modern superhero blockbuster, it would be impossible to top it. With Heath Ledger giving the most powerful performance of his career, with that film ending the way it did, how can you follow that?

At some point, this had to have occurred to director Christopher Nolan, and you can tell that he tried - oh, did he try - to make this movie the biggest and most impactful of all three films. The conflict was bigger, the stakes were higher, the danger was greater... and I'm sorry, but it doesn't work.

Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises isn't terrible. It isn't the worst ending to a trilogy I've seen - the comparisons to Spider-Man 3 and The Godfather Part III are unfair - but the film just doesn't work, despite all of the efforts involved. I can't say that this movie is uniformly unworkable - there are shining moments of brilliance, I can't deny that - but ultimately The Dark Knight Rises, regardless of comparisons to its predecessors, is the worst of the trilogy and arguably a failure. I'm going to try to explain why without spoiling anything - and at some point, I'm going to drop all pretence, because I have to discuss the ending and the thematic payoffs, but you'll be warned when that happens.

Let me make this clear - The Dark Knight Rises has all of the pieces of that epic finale that it wants to be. The acting is universally solid across the board, and damn near amazing when it comes to some characters. Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman all reprise their roles and deliver excellently (although I'm not entirely pleased that Alfred's character seems to vanish for over half of the movie), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers the best performance of his career thus far as a beat cop named Blake. Hell, I'll even stick up for Tom Hardy doing the best he can with Bane, and Anne Hathaway trying to make Selina Kyle work. This is really an ensemble piece, and if they had just titled this film Gotham, I think it would have sounded a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises. It certainly fits the tone of the film a lot more (I'll come back to this).

In terms of directing and cinematography, this is a great looking film. The shot composition is excellent, the action is framed beautifully (although not quite as nicely as The Avengers, in my opinion), and the scenes that could look silly with a bad director look awesome as all hell here. And I'll be the first to say that the fight choreography here is the best of all three movies, and the special effects have never looked better. And Hans Zimmer's score is epic, sweeping, and does a lot of work to make this movie feel big and ponderous and meaningful.

The sad thing is that it had to do that work, because the script and plot of this film is an absolute disaster.

At this point, being familiar with Batman continuity outside of these movies allowed me to pinpoint the exact comics Christopher Nolan was drawing inspiration from - and this isn't exactly a bad thing, because one of those comics is one of the most well-written and crafted pieces of all time. That comic is The Dark Knight Returns, written by future nutcase Frank Miller, and along with Watchmen, was one of two comics released in the mid-80s that would be responsible for redefining the medium. And you know what? If Christopher Nolan had chosen just to use The Dark Knight Returns as his primary influence, it could have worked, and would have made for a very interesting political commentary (oh, the political elements are here, but I'll get into that after the spoiler point). But unfortunately, there are two other comics that Nolan draw influence from. The first is Knightfall, where Bane does the one thing that made his character famous in comic-book history rather than a footnote. The second was No-Man's Land, a rather bleak comic that did a lot to explore Gotham as a whole, and probably would have fit the tone Nolan was looking to examine.

If I'm being completely honest, all three of these comic lines could have been workable for The Dark Knight Rises - but Nolan chose to mash all three of them together and then fuse in a fresh plotline of his own, which renders the plot a twisted, tangled mess that has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. And here's where Nolan's focus on realism proves to be his undoing, because if he wants the plot to be relatable and cerebral and 'above' the comic books he's drawing from, accessible to the mainstream, I'm not going to be as forgiving when it comes to the plot holes. I'm not going to spoil anything at this point, but let me say that Bruce Wayne could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he got in contact with the corporate lawyer for Wayne Enterprises - and for a man who is supposed to be a smart and well-connected as him, the fact that he doesn't is a real problem.

I'm getting close to discussing themes and elements of this movie that will require spoilers, so let me talk about a few other problems I can talk about without spoiling, the first being Selina Kyle. I will give Nolan some minor applause for finally passing the Bechdel test, but even despite Anne Hathaway trying to make her character work, Nolan's script doesn't have any idea what she's supposed to be. A third of the time she's out for herself, a third of the time she's speaking for the poor of Gotham, and the last third of the time she's an incredibly awkward insert-love-interest-here stand-in that even the movie seems to mock. 

At this point I have to talk about Nolan's 'hyper-masculine' philosophy with regards to film-making, and the portrayal of Selina Kyle is a great place to do it. Thanks to their convoluted plots, the generally bleak settings, and the stoic, heavy style of directing, many have commented that Nolan's cinematography and directing style could be considered emotionally cold or distant. This is namely because Nolan places human reason far above emotion - his Ideal Man is a titan of reason and logic, not swayed by his passions or his feelings. And while I can't deny I find this appealing, it also leads to a sexless portrayal of women in his films - or worse. The crowning moment for this was Inception, where Cobb's wife and her emotional breakdown dragged her into limbo, and Cobb's connections to her nearly result in his destruction as well, in a job that demands reason and logic within the human mind. It's a window of insight into Nolan that very soon explains a great deal of his portrayal of female characters in movies. Compared to a Tarantino or a Rodriquez or even a Zack Snyder, Nolan seems unconcerned with female sexuality in films, and actively works to de-emphasize it through cold, austere film-making. Let me make this clear: you will never see a sex scene in a Christopher Nolan film.

So it was baffling to me that he chose to include Selina Kyle - Catwoman, one of the most sexualized characters in comic book history - in The Dark Knight Rises. That is, until you realize that not only is Anne Hathaway never called Catwoman in the film, but her character is hardly a sexual being at all - at least until she's called upon to drop into the insert-love-interest-here spot. In fact, I'd have a hard time saying she's got a character at all - she's less of a person and more of a plot device, used to push Bruce and Batman towards the inevitable. She does a pretty decent job with what she has, but she's probably the most sexless Catwoman character I've seen on screen, and frankly, while it was expected from Nolan, I was hoping he's step out of his box. 

And speaking of the inevitable, I now have to talk about Bane - and unlike some, I think Bane actually works as an effective villain in this film. He's imposing as all hell, he's a potent physical presence, and it's probably the only way Bane's character could have been realistically done well in a Batman movie. But there are two problems with his character, and the first problem is the line delivery. Unlike some, I can overlook the strange voice - I've heard the comment that he sounds like Darth Vader crossed with Sean Connery, but it didn't both me. My problem was with the obvious dubbing - and dear God, it was obvious.  The overdubbing was too loud and it didn't flow well with the rest of the film - sure, it sounded ominous, but it really broke my suspension of disbelief when his voice was so much louder in the sound mix. The second problem is a little tougher to define - basically, the ending twist (that anybody who's read enough Batman comics will see coming, by the way) leaves Bane something of a shell of a character, ultimately lacking importance in the long run. He executes an incredibly complex scheme (which is full of holes, but it was still impressive) - but the twist strips any true payoff to the ending, and I was left with a real sense of disappointment. 

And now, to talk about themes and other plot problems, I have to spoil pretty much the whole movie. For those who are stopping here, I still think, despite the many, many flaws of this film, it's worth seeing. It's the weakest of the trilogy, though, and it's sure as hell not as good as The Avengers (albeit better than The Amazing Spider-Man). Spoilers after the jump.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

movie review: 'the dark knight' (RETRO REVIEW)

I remember the first time I saw The Dark Knight.

I remember the hours of waiting in line with my friends, where we talked, argued, played cards, and tried to coordinate with our friends who were arriving later. I remember getting some of the best seats in the theatre for the movie, and I remember the audience bursting into shocked applause at the end of the film, still working to take in what they had seen. 

Yes, The Dark Knight was that good. For me, it was something of a formative experience - I know for a fact that scenes in a few of my stories were shaped by those in that film. It was also the first film that appealed to my thinking on political issues - as I suspect it was intended. It also did wonders in defining the superhero blockbuster and was part of the sequence of fantastic films that came out in 2008, which was one of the best years for movie geeks since 1982. Both critics and audiences hailed it, and the choice by the Academy to extend the Best Picture category was driven primarily by the refusal to nominate this film. It wasn't just a formative film for me - it was a film that reshaped elements of the cinematic landscape. It catapulted Christopher Nolan to stardom, provided additional fuel for the revitalization of comics along with Iron Man (which would lead into The Avengers), and gave Heath Ledger the Academy's first posthumous Oscar-winning actor since 1976.

And to be completely honest, while I have seen The Dark Knight dozens of times since it was released in 2008, it's a little hard to talk about - mostly because for a contemporary superhero blockbuster, it has been one of the most intensely analyzed and discussed film in recent years. And it wasn't just film critics this time - Nolan's clear emphasis of themes and symbols have made the film accessible, so everyone could talk about it. My issue will be having anything new to say on the subject.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

movie review: 'batman begins' (RETRO REVIEW)

In two days, like a majority of comic book fans, movie buffs, and semi-professional movie critics, I'm going to go see The Dark Knight Rises. I've been working my ass off to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, so I'll be fully surprised when I go to see the movie, but I also know that's going to be mostly impossible in this day and age. I know the movie has received some amount of critical acclaim (although most critics have commented it isn't quite as good as The Dark Knight), I know Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy are playing villains, and I have a sneaking suspicion regarding the return of Ra's al-Ghul and the League of Shadows in some way, shape, or form (fingers crossed for Liam Neeson to show up).

With all of this in mind, I thought it might be productive (since there really aren't many albums that I can review at this point) for me to do a retroactive examination of the three Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films. Part of this is for me to catch up on canonical elements that I might have missed, but another part of this is to re-examine Nolan's filmmaking and thematic elements he's looking to consider in this series, and ultimately bring to a close in his film set to be released this Friday. 

So, without further ado, let's talk about Batman Begins.

album review: 'swing lo magellan' by the dirty projectors

Short version: yeah, these guys are seriously talented instrumentalists, but outside of that, there's nothing of substance good or interesting enough to justify the artifice. In other words, it's insubstantial, and outside of the great leading single, not really worth your time.

Today, we're going to talk about hipster music, and the culture that supports it.

Considering my fondness for weirdness and off-beat stuff nobody has ever heard of, one initially might make the reasonable assumption that I hold some fondness for the hipster lifestyle, that I might be one of the exotic coffee-drinking, art film-viewing, glasses-wearing, generally snobbish fellows that peruses Pitchfork and has general disdain for everything popular. Now, anybody who has read any of my reviews would know by now that's not the case, and while I can appreciate some of the art and music and films that come out of the hipster culture, I know myself well enough not to consider myself a hipster. In fact, if I'm going to be completely honest, I don't really have the highest opinion of 'hipsters' in general.

Part of it comes down to attitude, I think. There's a certain element of condescension inherent in hipster culture that comes with seemingly knowing and 'understanding' things other people don't, but here's the contradiction: for something to remain hipster-friendly, it needs to remain somewhat underground. If it becomes popular, suddenly it's not cool in the same way, unless said hipsters appreciate it 'ironically'. It comes down to not appreciating the art because it's good or profound or interesting or groundbreaking, but because the 'mainstream' hasn't discovered yet. It's the thrill of being in a secret society and the assumption that just because someone is privileged enough to have the time to go hunting for this sort of material, it makes that person better. Now granted, I get the appeal, but I've got to be honest, I'd prefer that the wider culture would embrace the art in question because it's good, and might provide a message that benefits society on a greater level. While hipster culture promotes exclusivity, I'd prefer something more inclusive, with the only barrier to entry coming in the interpretation or reflection of the artwork. 

And here's where we come to the part of things where hipsters cringe, because it's something they really don't want to admit, and that's the deeper message of most of the 'hipster culture' they admire just isn't nearly as deep as they want it to be. I think, on some level, hipsters recognize that, and thus they seek out music that's more esoteric and bizarre in aesthetic, but not really all that deep or interesting upon a closer examination. It's one of my bigger problems with Pitchfork - not that they don't do a decent job analyzing the external aesthetic and mechanics of a song (albeit all of them need to put away the damn thesaurus), but that they rarely go deeper into the message and deeper meaning of the work. 

Now, it doesn't help matters that being a hipster is becoming a 'thing', so to speak. The mainstream market was starting to realize the appeal of the hipster 'brand' as early as 1995 with the opening of RENT (likely earlier in some places), and it has reached the point that there is indeed a hipster 'brand'. For as anti-corporate as some hipsters like to think they are, they feel to realize that their lifestyles and cultural appreciation are dependent upon the corporate brands that feed them. And as ironic as that is, I can't help but feel a twinge of unease when I see the mainstream adopting some of the aesthetic of hipsters and indie rock while completely missing any substance that might be hiding inside. I've ranted about Foster The People before, how they were a band that was co-opting the hipster look and feel for their music and the attitude for the message, but the message was so insidious and phony that it felt like a self-absorbed parody in the vein of 3OH!3, but they aren't the only band that fits into the corporate co-opting of the hipster brand.

And here's the worst part - instead of fighting this by writing interesting, deeper songs, hipster music has hidden behind greater and greater artifice, perhaps to disguise the fact that they've never had anything that interesting to say in the first place. As an act, Metric's Synthetica was at least trying to make a statement, but most hipster indie rock won't even bother.

And with that, we have to talk about The Dirty Projectors, an indie rock band that's hipster through and through.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

album review: 'uncaged' by the zac brown band

Short version: if you're not listening to this album, you should be. The Zac Brown Band have dropped one of the best albums you're going to hear all damn year, and between the great instrumentation, brilliant harmonies, and top-of-the-line songwriting, it's easy to see why. I don't recommend albums that often, but this one earns it. Oh, does it earn it.

Longer version...

My plan today was to review the new Dirty Projectors album Swing Lo Magellan. From everything I've heard about it, it's critically acclaimed by damn near every music critic (you should see Pitchfork salivate over it), and I'm probably going to enjoy it like nothing else. But here's a problem I have with listening to the Dirty Projectors - their genre-defying music can handily be classified as art pieces, and thus I'm going to need more time to relisten to the tracks and get a firm handle on what the hell they're trying to say. Preliminary impressions are good, but I'm going to need more time with it.

So instead, let's talk about country music.

Monday, July 16, 2012

tv review: 'the newsroom' S01:E01-04

Let me begin with a disclaimer that I'm sure many will use as ample reason to completely disqualify this review: before watching The Newsroom, I have watched very little by Aaron Sorkin. I've never seen The West Wing or Sports Night(they're on my list of things to watch, but so is Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad). I've never seen Studio 60. I really liked Moneyball, but I found The Social Network frustratingly flawed in ways that I have difficulty articulating. It's a good movie, but it's not quite a great one.

In other words, when people talk about 'good Sorkin' and 'bad Sorkin', I don't have a lot of context to step in and pass judgement one way or another. It's frustrating because I feel it separates me somewhat from the discourse, but on the other hand, it also provides me a unique opportunity. It's not often I get a chance to go into something relatively blind, experience something from a fresh point of view outside of the history of the man behind the pen. Sure, I had heard a lot about Aaron Sorkin and his work (anybody who spends any time on the AV Club is familiar with the man), but I lacked a certain amount of context. All I knew before going into The Newsroom was that it was written by Aaron Sorkin and it had Sam Waterston (quasi-legendary for playing Jack McCoy for years on Law & Order, although I remember him more fondly from The Great Gatsby, if I'm being completely honest). It was enough to get me into the door, and I was planning on relying on the show to hook and keep me there.

So in the tradition of these reviews, I'm going to attempt to provide some analysis into why The Newsroom both does and doesn't entirely work in its present incarnation. Now, granted, a show can evolve a lot from the first four episodes onwards - Community and Glee are both shows that started evolving in the first four episodes and never quite stopped, for better and for worse - but I'm starting to feel like I have something of an idea of what The Newsroom wants to be and how it's going to get there.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

30 years of anarchy: a chumbawamba retrospective - 1982 - beginnings

Some one-hit wonders are just that - they release a single song off a single album, and then disappear into the ether, never to be heard of again. But most aren't - in fact, VH1 has made many a show investigating the one-hit wonders since the beginning of recording, digging into their history and the people who created the music, often times ignoring the music that band made before and after the one-hit, and almost certainly ignoring the politics and views that shaped the music as a whole.

This isn't going to be like that. Not just because this band had a thirty-year run spanning multiple genres and labels, but because Chumbawamba epitomized the best of their genre: good punk musicians and artists that actually had something to say, and were clever enough to say it well. You'd be surprised how truly rare that is.

But even great things must come to an end. On July 9, 2012, the band Chumbawamba announced they were splitting up after a thirty year run. It wasn't with a bang, or a whimper - it simply was. The group had reached a parting of the ways, the best possible way for a group to split. 

But then a thought struck me and gave me pause - did anyone care? Who remembered this band? Who cared now? Sure, the band has a Wikipedia page, but who would bother to maintain it, to chronicle and analyze the strident political message of a band of anarchists? They represented a piece of ephemeral punk culture - would it be like so many other punk acts, lost to anonymity and irrelevance?

Well, it won't happen on my watch. I still don't know who reads this blog, but on every Saturday, this will be my project: a chronicle of the music of Chumbawamba, and an analysis of the political messages behind them. I can't promise that it'll be complete, mostly because some of the music is already lost, but I will try. 

Why am I doing this? Well, Chumbawamba is one of the great forgotten bands - and if it's up to me to be the lone chronicler, I'll do it. Pop culture - particularly punk pop culture - is ephemeral in the best of times, and if I can capture a snapshot of one of the most successful anarchist acts of all time, someone might remember, and maybe the dying embers of punk will be stoked again.

So let's travel back to 1982 - the beginning.

album review: 'wild ones' by flo rida

Short version: it's a short review, because there's really nothing to say about it. While there are some signs of promise, there aren't enough to make the album worth a damn.

We all have guilty pleasures. Yes, even you. Don't even pretend that you don't. Even as you shake your head with disdain, you know that there is something that you just like despite - or indeed because of - its flaws and failings. I feel the admission of said pleasures is important to one's development as a critic of anything, not only because it humanizes the critic, but it also forces us to delve deeper into the question of why we like something. 

And by now, if you've been reading these reviews, you probably have an idea of my guilty pleasures already, but just to clarify them, I enjoy bubblegum pop (this is your S Club 7 and Aqua), boy bands and the occasional girl band, cheesy hair metal and folk/symphonic metal, and a musical every once and a while. 

But besides these, there's one guilty pleasure that I have a fair amount of guilt in admitting - mainly because I still have a hard time explaining why I like the genre. Is it because of the high energy, the potent dance beats (albeit often limited lyrics), or because it's music solely for the purpose of raucous partying amongst a demographic I have never and will never fit into.

Yeah, I'm talking about Southern crunk music.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

album review: 'write me back' by r. kelly

Short version: it's good but just shy of great. R. Kelly is always a compelling performer, but it feels like he was on autopilot for this album, and it doesn't quite strike the same gold its predecessor did. Give it a listen, but I'd check out his 2010 album 'Love Letter' first.

It's always interesting to speculate on the questionable sanity of pop artists.

For some people, it's easy. Despite Katy Perry's questionable choices in men, it's obvious from press interviews that's she's quite sane. Jay-Z, likewise, is very much a sane musician and businessman. Same with Usher, and his protege Justin Bieber - they're quite rational, all things considered. In fact, I'd argue most pop acts, given their commercial focus, can be deemed quite sane and rational. 

And then, of course, you have the artists who have questionable sanity at best, or to be blunt, can have their mental state summarized as a blend of mixed nuts and batshit. These are the artists who delve into weirdness and strange spectacle without prodding, and whose antics off-stage are often solid proof of their fragile contact with reality. Some artists really straddle the line, and indeed it's tough to gauge the difference between insane talent and genuine insanity (that'd be your Lady Gaga and Ke$ha analogues), so often times you have to look to more than just the character they play in their music, but also who they are in real life. 

Let's take Kanye West, for instance. The man is a gifted musical producer with incredible and often strange ideas for his music. But the off-the-wall statements, his bizarre rants on Twitter, the incident at the 2009 VMAs with Taylor Swift, and that incredibly bizarre album sampler/art film Runaway that he somehow wrote, directed, starred in, and funded all by himself - all of these suggest a man with amazing talent, but also that something important was knocked loose in his brain. And I don't even think I need to go into the history of a man like Prince, who has done so many off-beat and weird things with both his music and his personal life that I really don't have time to describe them all. Suffice to say, when you have seriously talented artists who might not have all their marbles in a row, the brand of insanity from their actual lives can bleed into their music, and add a real spice to all of their music. 

And with all the talk of insanity, I have to talk about R. Kelly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

album review: 'days go by' by the offspring

Short version: you know what, this is, for once, the easy part. This album is a soulless, worthless, desperate cash-in by a punk band that grew up and lost their edge and sense of humour. If you're a fan, avoid at all costs. If you're not a fan, keep avoiding. 

Long version...

And here we come to the last review in the trifecta of terrible tunes, and despite my general tiredness and antipathy towards people who somehow like this music, those aren't the emotions that dominate my mind right now.

No, right now, I'm just sad. Genuinely disappointed and sad, because of all three albums that I reviewed, this one sucks for the worst possible reasons, reasons that you can't easily dismiss as incompetence.

Guys, The Offspring's Days Go By sucks not because of laziness or arrogance, but because it's an album by a band out of time, struggling desperately to keep up with the times and failing miserably because they just aren't the same people they were ten or fifteen years ago. In short, they grew up, and just aren't fun anymore.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

album review: 'overexposed' by maroon 5

Short version: an album that's bitter, detached, and genuinely unpleasant to listen to. Worse still, the entire exercise comes across as completely insincere when in comparison with the one truly genuine song on the album. Top it off with a real loss of unique sound and some horrible lyrical choices, and you have a real mess of an album from a band who is capable of so much better.

Longer version...

It's always interesting to take a step back away from the typical pop music scene and consider the genres that influence it at various points. At points, rock music has been dominant, at others R&B or hip-hop or rap. At some points, there have even been influences from the indie scene or the country scene, particularly recently. 

But what becomes more interesting that even that are the acts that influence the music scene and the pop acts. These are the bands that push the boundaries, try something new, experiment with concepts or production techniques or interesting sounds. Sure, the experiments sometimes fail, but the attempt can be important as well, as it could be worthy of analysis to try and figure out why things didn't work out.

And today I'm going to talk about Maroon 5 - a band that once had a unique sound and looked to influence pop music, and then completely sold out and lost it. I can't say I'm all that surprised or all that disappointed.

Monday, July 9, 2012

album review: 'fortune' by chris brown

Short version: even by the low, low standards of dance music, I can't recommend this album. Easily in contention for one of the worst albums of the year (not just by me, either, the critics are panning this album), and if society had any taste, it would end Chris Brown's career. I have nothing kind to say about it, so if you like rants, keep reading.

Longer version...

Ugh, I hate this. I really don't want to do this.

Seriously, I don't. I was actually seriously considering combining the three reviews I planned for this long weekend together, and not because of any profound thematic connection or even a shared genre. No, I was going to combine them all together because I don't want to have to put myself through this three times in a row. 

I mean, it's not often you see this sort of thing. Three albums released within days of each other, none of which I can comfortably say reach any sort of good. And in this particular case (with this album), this is the kind of bad that spirals down clear past 'So Bad It's Good' into the void of dispassionate loathing and hatred.

And on the topic of dispassionate loathing, let's talk about Chris Brown.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

movie review: 'ted'

Short version: Yeah, I know that this review is late, and I should be talking about Chris Brown. Fuck that, I don't care, I just saw the movie, and I want to talk about it. As it is, it's a great comedy with Seth MacFarlane finally bringing his A-game. Great acting from the leads on a utterly conventional and unessential plot, but still definitely worth seeing as it's probably one of the funniest movies you'll see this year. Go see this movie. 

Longer version...

You know, you can't talk about Ted without talking about Seth MacFarlane, and you can't talk about MacFarlane without talking about Family Guy, so let's get this part out of the way quickly (I've never watched American Dad or The Cleveland Show, so I can't and won't comment on them). Yes, I liked Family Guy. I think the first five seasons are damn excellent with some clever gags, some surprisingly deft dialogue, some quirky subtext, and some actual genuine heart you wouldn't expect. My favourite character is Brian (obviously), with Stewie and Peter being close seconds. I found the show to be genuinely entertaining, a great way to waste time, and the more clever of the pop culture references always amused me. 

And then... something happened. It was after it had been moved to Adult Swim, and after 'Blue Harvest', the first Star Wars themed episode, but I can't quite pinpoint the exact moment when it happened. What I do know is that after that point, Family Guy stopped being the consistently funny and occasionally heartwarming show I liked and became something else. And that something else was darker, more cynical, and loaded with the kind of anti-humour gags that only work on Adult Swim when you're baked out of your mind. The show began relying much more heavily on cut-away gags that rarely worked as well as they should have, and even some of the novelty episodes began feeling phoned in (this was present in both 'Something Something Dark Side' and 'It's A Trap!', the followup Star Wars episodes). It began in Season 6 and then actively got a lot worse in Season 7 and 8 - suddenly, outside of a few glimmering moments like 'Brian & Stewie' and the 'Road To...' episodes, the show got a lot less watchable. The show became a depressing, angry shell of its former self, and I really found it unpleasant. And plenty of critics agreed, attacking the show for its reliance on cheap shock humour, bad cutaway gags, and terrible pop culture references. Even Seth MacFarlane admitted he wasn't a fan of what Family Guy had become.

So when Ted was announced, a film that Seth MacFarlane wrote, directed, and starred in, I was a little nervous about how good it could possibly be. I was sure that some of the traditional Family Guy tropes would be there, but which would he include, and which would work? Would it be like Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, a critical flop because it took the excuse of an R-rating and cranked up the scatological humour without a better script, using the higher budget to make everything bigger and more stupid? Or would it be like the excellent Simpsons movie, a show that harkened back to the best of the source material, simply making it bigger and better along the way?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

album review: 'synthetica' by metric

Short version: an intriguing, but flawed album from a band I can recognize is good, but I've never quite liked. In this review, I try to figure out why with mixed success, and take a look at a pretty good album that's missing the thesis statement that would elevate it to greatness.

Here's an odd question for you all: have you ever found something - be it a video game, a movie, a television show, a band, a song - that you've realized is quite good, but is just missing something to make them a favourite of yours? Maybe it's a flaw in the art design, maybe it's a bad character, maybe it's an awkward control, or maybe it's just a personal foible - hell, you might not even be able to distinguish what the flaw is, but you know it's there. You can fully recognize why other people like it, and you can even respect the talent and effort that goes into that thing, but you just can't get behind it like everyone else. 

I can answer the question definitively for a number of things. I know that Lil Wayne is really good, but his meandering flow and hashtag rap doesn't connect with me. I know the Foo Fighters are a great band, but there's something about their delivery and performance that puts me off slightly. I know both of these acts are really good, sometimes at the very top of their genre, but there's something that's preventing me from liking them as much as I want to.

And in the indie rock scene, one of those acts that I wish I could like more than I do is the Canadian post-punk New Wave band known as Metric.

Friday, July 6, 2012

album review: 'down to the river' by monica munro

Short version: an indie folk/jazz singer/songwriter that you've likely never heard of, but who you definitely should be listening to. Strong points go to her excellent delivery, clever songwriting, and a few surprise stand-outs that elevate her above the usual conventions of her genre. Definitely one you should check out.

Those of you who actually read these reviews (and I have no idea who you are, by the way) are probably a bit perplexed by this name and album. Hell, after the shouty-then-sullen behaviour in my Linkin Park review (which is ironic, come to think about it), you probably I expected I was going to review Metric's new album before I went after Chris Brown.

And indeed, I am planning on taking on Metric's Synthetica next time before I pummel Chris Brown's Fortune, but this is a rather different review for me for a number of reasons, and while I will be just as characteristically harsh, I ultimately want to walk away from this review with a smile on my face (so make of that what you will).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

album review: 'living things' by linkin park

Short version: in which I finally get a chance to vent about rap metal and nu-metal (yes, it's been long in coming), and I get the chance to explain completely why I hate those genres with a burning passion. Oh, and then I review some album called 'Living Things', which was only distinctive in its ability to disappoint me. Wonderful.

How many of you remember rock in the mid-to-late 90s? Because I can say this definitively - having briefly revisted that era to do a bit of research, you don't want to.

I should explain this. After Kurt Cobain's death and the collapse of Nirvana, grunge rock lost market share, and while alternative rock pushed by bands like R.E.M. continued to hold some sway, there was a rush to fill the void with a variance of musical styles. Punk received a mild mainstream revival thanks to bands like Green Day, weird psychedelic/prog rock began making headway in the underground (like with the Flaming Lips, Radiohead and Porcupine Tree), and even ska got a brief, painfully short time in the limelight. Sure, bands like Soundgarden and the Foo Fighters and the Smashing Pumpkins were continuing what Cobain started, but towards the end of the decade, they would find their mainstream spotlight usurped by an unholy, haphazard blend of genres that touched off some of the worst trends in rock at the turn of the millennium.

Yes, I'm talking about rap metal.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

movie review: 'the amazing spider-man'

Short version: well, it's okay. Realize that I've never been the biggest Spider-Man fan, but I will say that certain elements (like the leads and some of the aesthetic) really do work, but they're let down by an uneven supporting cast, some iffy effects, and a really problematic script. It's worth seeing, but it's not going to change your life. Warning: if you're a hardcore fan of Spider-Man, particularly of the Sam Raimi films, this movie will make you spit fire and brimstone, and while I can't say that you're not somewhat justified, you could do so much worse.

Longer version...

You know, I was all set to talk about all of the factors behind why this movie was made, and all the contributing factors. Having kept up to date on much of the press and buzz surrounding this movie, I couldn't help but feel both jaded and a little angry that it was being made at all. Even despite great casting and a hugely promising villain (I'll come back to this), I had a really bad feeling about this movie.

Because let's be honest here, this movie isn't being made because the writers wanted to try something special. This isn't being made because the Spider-Man story needs another fresh coat of paint with promising talent. No, this movie is being made because Marvel and Disney want the Spider-Man license back so they can team him up with the Avengers, and the only way Sony gets to hold onto the Spider-Man license is make a quick movie on the fly with the most affordable cast of stars they can scramble together. They threw Sam Raimi out and under the bus because he was difficult to work with on Spider-Man 3 (can't blame him, exactly, considering he wanted to use the Lizard or Vulture and was instead forced to use a shitty, shitty version of Venom - sorry, Topher Grace, but you couldn't have redeemed that), and they wanted to go for a darker, edgier sensibility. Immediately, this set off warning bells for me, because I know well that from the comics, making Spider-Man stories darker doesn't make them better. The fact that this seemed to be a remake for all the wrong reasons (drawing story cues from the Ultimate Spider-Man series in the comics) just didn't sit well with me.

And continuing on that thread, as much as I knew they had a great cast for this movie with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone and Denis Leary and Martin Sheen, I still had misgivings. As much as I think Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst aren't compelling leads, the supporting cast of Raimi's Spider-Man movies was phenomenal. I mean, James Franco, Willem Dafoe, J.K Simmons (who is awesome in anything and everything), Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, and Thomas Haden Church all gave great performances in the trilogy. Yes, sometimes the movies were a bit campy and silly, but that's Sam Raimi's sensibilities for you - he got the tone and style of the better Spider-Man comics down pat, even if Peter wasn't snapping off one-liners. 

And here's the other thing: for the most part, all three of the Raimi Spider-Man movies are pretty damn good. The second is widely considered one of the best superhero movies of all time, but I like the first one a little more because Willem Dafoe is awesome. But even the third one I'd still hold to being a good movie - just not a great Spider-Man movie (and that has to do with a lengthy diatribe regarding Sandman and Venom and a number of other factors that would eventually descend into a clusterfuck of nerd rage). Yes, it's over-plotted and a little stupid at points, but there are moments of genuine artistic genius in that movie (my personal favourites being the Sandman creation scene in the particle physics research facility and the clocktower scene). To me at least, there doesn't seem to be a need to retell the Spider-Man story - there's already been three good movies exploring it - unless, of course, you're going to do something new with it.

But enough dancing around the issue - all of you know the history behind this production, and you just want me to talk about the movie. And so with that in mind, I went to see The Amazing Spider-Man on a stormy night, trying desperately to shove the misgivings out of my heart, and...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

album review: 'avenged sevenfold' by avenged sevenfold (RETRO REVIEW)

Short version: it's a retro review that finally gives me the chance to vent on a genre I haven't talked much about. Suffice to say, the album left me with a lot to say, and I can't guarantee it's all pleasant. But then again, considering how much Avenged Sevenfold is a butt of bad jokes on the internet, you can't really be surprised about that. 

There are some bands, particularly when viewed in retrospect, have had their music and reputations change somewhat. Viewing them outside of the trends they were riding, one can appreciate them with fresh perspective, find nuances and influences outside of their sphere, and perhaps grant them more respect.

And then there's Avenged Sevenfold.

Monday, July 2, 2012

movie review: 'rock of ages'

Short version: it's a glorious disaster of a film, both parody and completely straight. There's no surprise this film is failing catastrophically at the box office, and there are some good reasons for that. The leads aren't very good, the songs aren't great, and the storyline is a mountain of cliches - but then again, if you've seen the musical, you'd know with the last one that that's the point. So yeah, it's another 'So Bad It's Good' movie, and... ah, hell, I enjoyed it. I had a lot of fun, and frankly, though  I can't see the movie is anywhere close to good, some scenes in that movie are kind of glorious. Plus, Tom Cruise gives one of his best performances in decades.  

Longer version...

Let me tell you a story.

I first got into heavy metal when I was about fourteen, mostly due to the fact that I had heard people had made songs about characters in the fantasy novels I was reading (the Dragonlance series, for those who care). Now since most of this metal was inspired by fantasy, it tended towards the power and symphonic genres, and for the most part, it was cheesy as all hell. I can admit this - bands like Nightwish and Blind Guardian and Kamelot and Dragonforce and Within Temptation have a certain factor of ridiculousness that makes them easy as hell to make fun of. It's an easy joke, and it's one I don't have much of a problem with. Now granted, there will always be stuff that will rise above genre and achieve acclaim, but suffice to say there's a reason why metal is seldom treated with any respect, even in an era where pop, country, and even techno have critical acclaim.

However, the Adult Swim show Metalocalypse often touches on a theme that tends to be unexplored in the discussion of heavy metal, or indeed most hard rock of the past forty years. This theme is simple: that kind of music might be silly or cheesy or a little ridiculous, but if you're the right mindset, it can be epic and powerful and just as moving as the more serious and critically accepted grunge and alt rock most people prefer. The thing is, most people can't get into that headspace, mostly due to their disdain for metal as a 'low' musical genre, or their own pride preventing them from being a part of the 'joke' and potentially being laughed at for the acceptance of actually liking something silly. In fact, you can stretch this general concept to cover a lot of material - the bubblegum pop of the 90s, anything tinged with fantasy or sci-fi, or even musicals.

Continuing my story from above and fast forwarding a few years, I began listening to a lot of musicals in the fall of 2009, and around that time I discovered a jukebox musical called Rock of Ages. It was a musical filled with hit songs from the hair metal era, and I rapidly took a liking to it. What made the musical special - at least to me - was that it seemed to be in on the 'joke' - it accepted the cheesiness and silliness of the hair metal era (doubled by the fact that the songs were in a musical, of all things) and played things for laughs, but it also ran with the fact that in the right mindset, the music was fucking glorious. It didn't matter that Don't Stop Believing or Here I Go Again or We Built This City were overused, corny, and often times a little silly - they were going to play it straight and for the people who could get into it, it would be glorious and epic and fun. Remember fun rock music? It was like that before the early 90s came along and told everyone in the rock industry that they had to be serious, and maybe (just maybe) the simultaneous declines of rock of all striipes on the charts is because nobody is having any fun anymore.

For another example, do you want to know why I find it so damn hard to get into the Foo Fighters? It's because on every bloody track I try to listen to, Dave Grohl and his band aren't having fun - they're being all morose and serious and bitter, because ROCK MUSIC IS SERIOUS BUSINESS. You know, say what you want about Nickelback, but at least the damn band is learning from their post-grunge roots and is trying to add more glorious silly fun to their act (it's what made 'This Afternoon', a late single of their Dark Horse album, halfway listenable). They aren't really succeeding, but at least they're trying.

So now we come to Rock of Ages, the movie, a film set in 1987, the peak of hair metal. The storyline is cliched to the point of ridiculousness - young people trying and failing to make it big in the metal scene - and about the time when everybody begins tuning out or groaning with exasperation, Alec Baldwin (playing Dennis Dupri, the hard-edged bar owner) turns up and ruthlessly lampshades the entire damned movie. At this point, Rock of Ages is sending you a message - even though the movie will continue to take itself seriously, you certainly shouldn't be. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

album review: 'believe' by justin bieber

Short version / opening: I don't know who to blame for Justin Bieber. Or what to do with him. And from his newest album, I can say this definitively: neither does anybody else.

I mean, who do you hold responsible for Justin Bieber at this stage right now? Do you blame the kid himself, a poor but musically talented kid who got unbelievably lucky thanks to YouTube and is now becoming a product of the pop star universe around him? Do you blame Usher, who made him his protege and has cultivated elements of Bieber's image and personality in ways that would come back to haunt him? Do you blame the producers who are desperately trying to pin down what Justin Bieber should become, trying every option they can in a whirlwind of A-list production, guest stars, and half-formed musical ideas? Do you blame Justin Bieber's managers, who haven't provided him nearly enough guidance to prevent the fame from going straight to Bieber's head and turning him into a little entitled shithead with a cockiness he hasn't earned? Do you blame Selena Gomez, his far-more-talented girlfriend who has somehow managed to walk the line between innocence and sluttiness with a deft touch beyond most of her contemporaries and predecessors (Demi Lovato, Lindsey Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff to some extent, Britney Spears, the list goes on), and who clearly hasn't helped Bieber become less of a douche? Do we blame Bieber's protege Carly Rae Jepsen for releasing one of the most irritatingly juvenile and catchy songs of the year with 'Call Me Maybe' (which is now the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 - kill me now), and who has been publically criticized for dressing like a preteen girl, far younger than her age of 26?

No, at this point, while I am going to place blame on all of these people for this album and what Bieber's become in the past few years, the real blame needs to be placed on Justin Bieber's rabid, preteen-to-teenage female fanbase, the girls who create mobs who throng Justin Bieber and spur the paparazzi to chase him with unparalleled fury outside of Brangelina and allegations that John Travolta might be gay. The girls that buy tons of Bieber merchandise to replace their Hannah Montana fixations and call themselves Beliebers (ugh, that word hurts to write). And the girls who have tastes so nebulous and fleeting that in the desire to appeal to them, the producers and writers of this album have completely abandoned any thematic conceits to create an album so unfocused and schizophrenic that I half-expected guest starring spots from Tony Bennett, Andrew W.K., and Eminem.  Sadly, none of those guest stars showed up, because Tony Bennett was too busy working on some new jazz album, Eminem was working double-time between helping push Slaughterhouse and finish his eighth album, and Andrew W.K. was going to a My Little Pony convention to speak on a panel of 'In The Flesh: What Would Pinkie Pie Do?' (this is totally true, by the way, look it up - you can't invent shit like that).