Sunday, December 29, 2013

Leo Wows in The Wolf of Wall Street

       Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have formed a bond throughout the actor's career: Leo was the main man in 2002's messy but entertaining Gangs of New York, he starred as the mentally ill Howard Hughes in 2004's The Aviator, he was the major part of the great ensemble cast in 2006's The Departed, and he provided a haunting performance in 2010's Shutter Island. In Scorsese's new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, Leo stars as Jordan Belfort, an aspiring stockbroker who builds a company up from scratch to become a money-raining powerhouse. It's the best role of his career. Before seeing Wolf, it almost seemed like the Best Actor of the year award was a lock with Chiwetel Ejifor's portrayal in 12 Years a Slave. Not anymore: DiCaprio goes absolutely crazy in The Wolf of Wall Street, dominating every single scene with a drug-fueled excitement that makes the film one of the best of the year.
     The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that takes you by surprise: from watching the trailers that have been plastered over television screens for the past couple of months, you might think that it's a film about stockbrokers and big money deals. And it is about that too. But it's truly a story about addiction to drugs, addiction to sex, addiction to excess in general. It's a frenetic ride that--even with clocking in at just one minute under three hours--does exactly what every movie should do: entertain the shit out of us.
     Like many Scorsese films before it, Wolf helps us along the story with a cocky voiceover from its main star. Belfort begins his journey (after losing his entry-level stockbroker job on Black Monday) selling penny stocks at a sketchy backroom operation. He's a natural. He soon befriends Donnie (Jonah Hill, showing again that he is a damn fine actor), and they decide to form their own firm with a group of ragtag misfits that have experience selling drugs and scamming people. It doesn't take long before the group starts getting rich and the firm expands exponentially.
     The Wolf of Wall Street is packed tightly with vulgarity, sex and drugs. Everyone is high or naked in nearly every scene. There are gay and straight orgies, bathtubs worth of cocaine and enough Quaaludes taken to tranquilize an elephant. It might become overwhelming with a less skillful director: but Scorsese--at 71 years of age--is a master at taking lives of excess and turning them into cinematic gold. His signature use of music with editing and his masterful cinematic techniques keeps our interest peaked throughout the entire run time of the film. The group makes a lot of money as the firm grows--then they make more than they know what to do with. All of the drugs, yachts, hookers, and alcohol don't even make a dent in their bank accounts. But like Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas, the higher these characters--especially Jordan--climb amidst a smorgasbord of illegal activity, the more attention it draws to The Man trying to bring you down.
     The FBI takes notice of the firm, and they assign a boy scout agent (Kyle Chandler) on the scene. It provides a couple of great scenes with Jordan, who thinks he can out maneuver the FBI since he's been winning at life for years. Jordan starts trying to figure out how to hide all of his money before it's too late. He gets too cocky, as characters like these always do, and it sets in motion drug-and-alcohol-fueled downfall that is epic in proportion and shocking in its depiction.
     The Wolf of Wall Street is such a wacky and wild ride. I'm almost out of breath just writing and thinking about it, it moves at such an insane pace. And it mainly comes back to Leonardo DiCaprio's performance; it's so damn full of energy: whether he's snorting boatloads of coke, drunkenly dancing up a storm at his wedding to a gorgeous model (like in the gif above), or getting hot wax poured on his back by a violent stripper, Leo lets us unabashedly love this charming jerk of a man. The Wolf of Wall Street is an epic story of American excess showcasing the best acting performance of the year.     (A)

Friday, December 27, 2013

My 10 Favorite Books in 2013

Only a few of these books were released in the year 2013. These are just my favorites throughout the year
in chronologically-read (January to December) order:

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain)


Fountain's debut novel was the first book that I read of the year, and it was a mostly downhill journey from here. Focusing on the Bravo Squad (mainly Billy Lynn) after they become war heroes because of an embedded Fox News crew broadcasting a blazing firefight against Iraqis, Bill Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a heartfelt and hilarious and heartbreaking look at American excess and culture. The Bravo boys are on a "Victory Tour", where the group gets shipped home for a period of time to get dragged around from different events like prized cattle. Bravo are soldiers, and the contrast between their rugged lifestyle and the glitz and glam of Hollywood Producers and NFL players and Beyonce is realistic, and only part of their problem. Billy Lynn makes us wonder if parts of our American culture (greed, excess, religion) are even worth fighting for. And Ben Fountain becomes a late-starting author whose every new book will be a major event.

Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

Another first novel, another incredible debut. After writing a book of short stories, Karen Russell expands upon an idea in that collection (St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves) and builds a lush, swampy world full of vivid characters, beautiful imagery and innovative descriptions. The star of Swamplandia! is a ferocious 12-year-old girl, Ava Bigtree, whose family owns a rundown tourist attraction (aptly named Swamplandia!) in Southern Florida, where the main event is an exciting spectacle of alligator wrestling. The matriarch of the family, Hilola (also the star of the show) has died of cancer, leaving her husband, three teenage children, and the park in disarray. Swamplandia! focuses on Ava, but her siblings and father are all wonderfully drawn characters too. The novel is fantastical: Ava's brother, Kiwi, joins a rival attraction called The World of Darkness, and her sister Osceola falls in love with a ghost (is it real or her imagination?), yet Russell never lets fantasy get in the way of Ava's real struggles: learning to cope without such a shining star of a mother and the terrifying (and sometimes brutal) reality of growing up.

Room (Emma Donoghue)

Jack is a five-year-old boy. He has many similarities with other boys his age: the wondrous nature of every single new day excites him, he loves playing a variety of different games with his Ma, and reading books and occasionally watching television opens doors into his imagination. But there's one gigantic (and horrible) difference: Jack has never left the 11 x 11 prison cell of a room where he was born--it's the only thing he knows. When Ma was years younger, she was abducted by a repulsive man known as Old Nick, who still occasionally visits in the night time. And as Jack is becoming more aware of their unique situation, Ma knows that it's impossible to live in this confinement forever, so the two try and form a plan to release themselves from the bondage of Old Nick. Room has echoes of the horrible news stories of recent years--from the abduction of Elizabeth Smart to the three women in Cleveland--but Emma Donoghue makes the great decision to tell the story through the eyes of Jack, a boy that is slowly coming to the realization that something is incredibly wrong yet has never known anything different. And by focusing on a child, Room allows us to focus on moments of wonder and beauty and the hope of sunlight finally shining on Jack's face instead of the disturbing and grotesque actions of Old Nick.

NOS4A2 (Joe Hill)

Though we don't need a "new" Stephen King (the guy is still churning out great writing with this year's Doctor Sleep and Joyland), Joe Hill could be considered the "new" Stephen King. It helps that he has the same blood--he's King's son. And now's the time to start reading him, because he's sure to produce exciting and thrilling horror works for years to come. His two previous novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, both contained moments of greatness. But NOS4A2 is a culmination of Hill entering the big scene with a disturbing and incredibly well-written horror of a novel. Though the title of the novel invokes an image of vampires, NOS4A2 is a modern twist on a vampire epic that is utterly engaging: the villain is a sick man named Charlie Manx who takes children on a long ride in his Rolls Royce to a mysterious place called 'Christmasland". Our Heroine is a badass chick named Vic McQueen who can ride her motorcycle across a wooden bridge to other places (like a warp). When the two meet, it sets in motion an epic battle that turns into the ultimate page-turner of the year.

The Painted Bird (Jerzy Kosinski)

Joe Hill's NOS4A2 is a disturbing horror novel. But Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird is just plain disturbing. It's not a book you want to read if you're faint-hearted. Focusing on a young boy wandering from village to village during and after WWII, The Painted Bird shows the absolute cruelty and depravity that human beings can inflict upon one another during times of war (or any time, really). Abandoned by his parents, the boy is tortured and beaten by insane and depraved individuals and only rarely shown acts of kindness. No doubt that anyone in America today would feel privileged compared to this young boy's experiences. But it's not all bloodshed and brutality: Kosinski's vivid and poetic imagery--matched with the boy's undying resilience--never allow us to turn away from one of the most disturbing landscapes in all of the literature to come out of World War Two.

Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card)

Orson Scott Card pisses me off. No, my Republican friends, not just because of his hateful anti-gay rhetoric and peculiar political views. It's his writing: his tense changes, his switching between 1st and 3rd person viewpoints, and his sometimes-corny dialogue have a tendency to drive me up the wall. It's more bothersome in the 3rd book of his Ender's Game series, Xenocide. The second book in the series, Speaker for the Dead, fared much better: it's one of my favorite sci-fi novels that I've read (which isn't too many). Taking place many years after the more simple and funny Ender's Game, Speaker is much more dense, focusing on thoughtful notions of atonement, redemption and race relations. It's incredible what Card can do with his writing--characters filled with empathy and kindness--when his real-life beliefs echo some opposite sentiment. I don't see how Speaker for the Dead isn't the crowning achievement of Card's career: I've only finished the third book in the series, Xenocide, and it was rather over-long and un-exciting compared to Speaker.

The Shining (Stephen King)

So much has been made of the film version of The Shining for the past years. Even a documentary, Room 237, released back in March, decided to delve into the cult-like following of viewers that try and dissect the intricacies of Kubrick's masterful horror film. The original Stephen King novel, released back in 1977, tends to get lost in the shuffle. It shouldn't: The Shining is one of the best novels that Stephen King has ever written, and it's a master class in creating a suspenseful setting where psychological horrors live around every one of the Overlook Hotel's corners. I read The Shining this past summer because King's first true sequel to a standalone novel, Doctor Sleep, was being released in the fall. Sleep--though solid--doesn't live up to the original, but it was a damn tough act to follow: focusing on Jack Torrance's inner struggle with alcoholism and self-pity, King's third book should be on every single person's reading list, and it's--dare I say--better than the treasured Kubrick (loose) adaptation of the novel.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

What can be said about Lolita that hasn't been said already? Just about nothing. So I'll keep in short and sweet: published back in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov's shocking and (yes) sexy Lolita is the king of books that contain an unreliable narrator. The middle-aged Humbert Humbert is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl (or "nymphet" as he likes to call them)--everything about her: her body, her smell, her looks, her naive personality. You name it. When he becomes her stepfather, it sets in motion a journey of questionable sexual escapades that both sicken and enthrall the reader on nearly every page. The narrative in Lolita is always in question: since we're hearing directly from Humbert, we never know exactly what to think. And when our sympathies start to align in his direction--even after all of the reprehensible acts that he was performed on the young girl--Lolita causes us to question our own morality.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See (Juliann Garey)

I don't have bipolar disorder, but author Juliann Garey does, and her novel Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See is one of the best books to come out in 2013. Focusing on Greyson Todd, a movie studio executive with a young family, Too Bright never lets us look away from his world-traveling descent into near madness. The book spans years and places very quickly, never letting us feel settled or the least bit comfortable: and that works beautifully when you consider the thoughts (the incredibly-high highs and the agonizingly-low lows) that find a home in Greyson's head. With each chapter, we get to see a different side of Greyson, usually in a different city. Sure, a lot of the time--because of his mental illness--he certainly isn't an extremely-likable character. But that won't stop you from rooting for him or feeling incredible sadness when electroshock therapy may rid him of his only worthwhile memories left: the ones of his estranged daughter.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

My book bud Ry Lowell always has raved about The Book Thief, calling it one of his favorite books maybe of all time. Some of my family has loved it too. They weren't wrong: Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is one of those novels for absolutely any age group that is absolutely timeless. Its trick is taking one of the most difficult subjects in human history--the Holocaust--and turning that subject into a story of hope and love. Narrated by the omniscient Death, who is extremely busy during the period of WWII, The Book Thief focuses on young orphan Liesel, a girl with a love for the written word. When her foster parents take in a Jew to live in their basement, it sets into motion a chain of events that changes Liesel's life forever. The beauty of Zusak's novel is that it's incredibly visual. The scene set ups are so simple and so vivid that they paint a picture in your mind--one that's very hard to forget. And for anybody that loves reading, it's always great to read a story in which books become precious treasures.

Honorable Mentions:

Dark Tower Book 4: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King--

The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg--

A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones--

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson--

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Russell Continues His Hustle

     Director David O. Russell started his studio career with a few peculiar films that were enjoyable (Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees) yet lacked that special something to propel his name into the pantheon of great American filmmakers. Things have changed in recent years, namely with his story of Mickey Ward's boxing life in The Fighter and one of the greatest romantic comedies in a decade with last year's Silver Linings Playbook. These films showed that his vibrant direction could be gamely applied to any kind of story if they contained a sharp script and impeccable acting. With his new film, American Hustle, he yet again proves that he's capable of making good movies with all-star casts. But I left feeling a little underwhelmed: Hustle contains some very strong performances from its lead actors (some of the better of the year, in cases), but it focuses too much on its 1970's setting and its not-quite-exciting-enough narrative prevents it from becoming one of the year's best.
     In American Hustle, everybody hustles: the con-men, the congressmen, the police and FBI--everyone does what they need to get by and provide for their families. These are complicated characters, and they're the film's best strength: they have many different motives for every action they perform. We first meet Irving (Christian Bale), a chubby schlub with a nasty comb-over and an ability to scam people into giving him money. He quickly falls for a much more attractive Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party and the two bond and instantly make a connection. Irving's never had a solid partner in crime, and Sydney is game right from the start, turning on a British accent and becoming a key factor in upping Irving's game to a bigger league.
     Now they're taking even more money from unsuspecting people in a scamming loan business. So that draws the attention of Richie (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent whose main goal in life is being the "Quarterback" of a major bust involving powerful people, so he can make a name for himself and stop being a doormat to his family and superiors. He comes up with a seemingly great idea: instead of busting these small-timers, he enlists their cooperation in a major sting involving the New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner, surprising in a different role than his norm), Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a fake Arab Sheik, mobsters, and congressmen who are willing to take bribes to perform illegal actions.
    Bale is wonderful as Irving: the actor has always had a knack for fully becoming characters, and he shows a desperation and nervousness here that he's never shown before. It's like he's channeling a Scorcese-era depressed Robert De Niro with a heart problem. Cooper brings back bits and pieces of his performance in Silver Linings: his obsessive outbursting nature sometimes brings him to the brink of sanity. The women are the true stars of American Hustle, though (and no, not because they're consistently baring their cleavage): Amy Adams sheds accents and characters as often as she does 1970's-era dresses. She's sexy and damn good in her manipulating-men role. And America's Sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence steals scenes in yet another film, a running theme in such a young and impressive career.
     Alas, not everything in American Hustle is perfect. With a cast performing so admirably, as I just mentioned, this statement is tough, but: occasionally the proceedings were a little monotonous. Stories like these have been before, and that's okay, but Hustle never surprised me and too rarely made me think I was witnessing something great (a problem I didn't have watching Silver Linings). Take Argo for example, a story with comparably-similar subject matter. I was excited the whole time when I saw Argo, and I even knew how the story was going to end--with Hustle I didn't know how it was going to end and it still didn't have my butt planted on the edge of the seat.
     American Hustle has echos of an early Scorcese film: the use of the time period's clothing, style and music to bring you into the setting (it's often focused on too much in Hustle), a messy (in a good way) plot that jumps around and never lets you feel comfortable, voice over narration that ebbs and flows with each character's motivation. But it never comes close to reaching those highs that a film like Goodfellas brought to audiences. There's never a feeling of true danger. It's almost as if David O. Russell, as incredibly skilled as he is, was focused too much on the glam of the 1970's story and each actor's performance instead of a cohesive narration with true tension. Before the first scene of the American Hustle, some words flash onto the screen: "Some of this really happened." I have no doubt that it did--I just wish it had been more exciting.     (B)

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Desolation of Smaug: A More Concise Hobbit

     Plenty of people complained when Peter Jackson decided to turn J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit into two (and then, finally, three) films. Considering the book's length (300ish pages) and the fact that Jackson turned the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy into only three films, some more caring fans sniffed out some potential studio money grubbing like Gollum sniffs out the Ring when it's nearby. And after witnessing last year's introduction into the Hobbit universe, An Unexpected Journey, many of the fan's concerns were warranted: Journey was overlong and suffered from far too many false starts towards the actual "Journey". At the end of my review for that film, I stated that Jackson "left plenty of room for improvement." And with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson improves immensely. The middle portion of The Hobbit trilogy is a much more compact affair, and it's filled with an actual sense of purpose and a destination that is finally within reach.
      When we last left the main characters--Bilbo (a comfortable Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan, who could perform this role in his sleep), and a company of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)--they were journeying to the lair of dragon Smaug to retrieve an ancient and powerful relic (called the Arkenstone) that would allow the dwarves to shower the land in wealth and supplies. Since the characters have already been introduced in the previous film, Jackson wastes no time throwing us back into the journey, and Smaug is all the better for it. Unlike An Unexpected Journey, the feeling of darkness and actual tension starts right from the beginning of Smaug, as the characters make their way to the dangerous forests of Mirkwood.
      Jackson has always had a knack for creating intricate set pieces where danger lurks just around the corner (like the Ring Wraiths in Fellowship or the Orcs outside of the gates in The Two Towers), and though the first Hobbit incarnation lacked any memorable excitement, The Desolation of Smaug has a couple of scenes that are extremely notable: Mirkwood is full of giant spiders that any arachnophobe would lose a night's sleep over. You can almost feel the sticky web as our characters are captured and cocooned. Some fans were also worked up over the fact that Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who hasn't missed a beat) and a new she-elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, not nearly as annoying as when she was on Lost) have entered the picture. They weren't in the original Hobbit novel. But I am surely not complaining: The Desolation of Smaug contains one of the most entertaining scenes in the entire Middle Earth film universe, where Bilbo and the dwarves are floating down a rapidly moving river with Orcs in pursuit and the two elves picking them off like archer champions. It's Peter Jackson-directing at its best.
     But one could claim that the film's titular character, the dragon Smaug, is the real star of the show. Deliciously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (who shined brightly in this past summer's great Star Trek Into Darkness), Smaug hordes his gold and jewels in his massive ancient layer, almost begging someone to try and make off with a little bit of treasure. When Bilbo enters the scene, like a horror-movie teenager slowly entering the basement down the creaking steps, it sets up an enjoyable interplay between the man and the beast, where each character thinks they can verbally outplay the other one.
     This Hobbit film is still nearly three hours, much like the first, and though it barely drags at all compared to the mostly-set-up of An Unexpected Journey, it's still only one third of a trilogy based upon one (relatively) short book, so some filler is inevitable (namely the dungeons of the Elves and the lake town of Esgaroth). But there's a big difference between the filler of The Desolation of Smaug and An Unexpected Journey: the scenes that slow down this second entry in the series actually set up great action and excitement instead of just more walking...and more walking...and more walking....And though Smaug ends on a cliffhanger that sets up an important scene in the next film (titled There and Back Again), Jackson's ability to put the focus on much more specific and concise plot points allows The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to rise far above the Journey of the first film.     (B+)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2013

10. Kanye West--Yeezus

Everybody goes through a rap phase. It's that time in high school when you think that it's cool to roast tires and blast the clunky base from your shitty factory speakers. I never would have guessed that--over 10 years later--the year 2013 would prove to reinvigorate some of my first passion with the musical style. And I never would have guessed that I would be enjoying a Kanye West album. But, alas, I bow down to the cockiest of cocky rappers, whose album Yeezus is short and sweet and totally rips your throat out with its aggressive beats and angry rhymes. This is not the Kanye West that sang "Gold Digger" (thankfully). Its a completely reinvigorated and reinvented Kanye: it only takes a few seconds into opening track "On Sight" to realize this. It's quite a step, producing an album that's so ugly for a casual listener such as this, for a rapper that has compared himself to many current and past historical figures, including God himself on the track, "I Am A God". And sure, Yeezus is full of misogynistic and politically incorrect rhymes, and sometimes the lyrics are laughably simple ("Hurry up with my damn massage / In a French-ass Restaurant / Hurry up with my damn Croissants") and that's partially the reason why the album works: matched with the abrasive and distorted electronic fuzz beats, Yeezus seems like the psychotic Id of the world's most egotistical rapper, an album stripped down to his basest wants and desires.

Listen to Kanye's "New Slaves" Here.

9. Foxygen--We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic



     Foxygen is one of those bands that has a distinct trait that makes them very hard not to enjoy, no matter your musical tastes: familiarity. Building upon their short LP (released last year), Take the Kids Off Broadway (containing one of their best tracks, "Make it Known"), We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic never falls into the trap of being too "retro" for retro's sake. It sounds like a band that has been influenced by dozens of different styles: from the weed-hazed buoyancy of hippie music to thrashing acid rock to the best aspects of current pop, Foxygen surprises around every turn of the next track, like when the steady and funny "No Destruction" changes gears into the tempo-switching "On Blue Mountain". No doubt Foxygen, and specifically lead singer Sam France, have an undeniable swagger and carefree attitude that make the album's nine tracks fly by seemingly without effort--and rumors have circulated that the success of the band has been causing tension between the two main members, with France becoming a bit of a loose cannon on stage. So there's no better time to be listening to Foxygen than right now, before they crash and burn. Though they invite comparisons to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Foxygen have found a creative niche--experimental retro rock that gives you that ol' familiar feeling.

Watch the video to Foxygen's "No Destruction" Here.

8. Earl Sweatshirt--Doris


     California rap group Odd Future are only getting more popular: led by I'll-Say-Anything-For-Shock-Value Tyler, The Creator, Odd Future have become the new Wu Tang for young skateboarding kids--each member has a distinct personality and rapping style. None of them have a greater flow than Earl Sweatshirt. Doris, Earl's first studio album, cements his status as the most worthwhile member of Odd Future. Featuring production by himself, Pharrell, and RZA, Doris contains beats that trend more toward underground samples and base thumps than poppy radio hits. His lyrics and rhyme schemes are even better, and instead of relying on shocks and horror like Tyler and Eminem do more often than not, Earl's raps deal with his real-life issues--sitting on his sofa smoking weed, wondering if his father still loves him, and pondering on the success of his rap career that just began. Take his opening verse on "Chum": "It's probably been twelve years since my father left, left me fatherless / And I just used to say 'I hate him' in dishonest jest". Or listen to him show off his funny and intricate rhyme scheme on the 2nd verse of "Whoa": "On the hunt for clues, more food, and some floozy women / Bruising gimmicks with the broom he usually use for Quidditch / Gooey writtens, scoot 'em to a ditch, chewed and booty scented / Too pretentious, do pretend like he could lose with spitting / Steaming tubes of poop and twisted doobies full of euphemisms". It's this combination--Earl's delivery of flow and well-written rhymes--that make Doris the best rap album of the year, a wordplay puzzle that I keep coming back to.

Watch the video to Earl Sweatshirt's "Hive" Here.

7. Bill Callahan--Dream River

     I have a confession: I had never listened to Bill Callahan before downloading Dream River earlier this year. That's pretty incredible, because this is his 15th studio album (the 4th released under his own name--he used to record under the name Smog). If Dream River is any indication, I've been missing out: with eight songs that contrast Bill's beautiful baritone voice with incredibly vivid arrangements that feature guitars, flutes, fiddles, and congas, the album is the perfect bookend to any cold winter day as the sun slowly sets below the horizon. Callahan is a storyteller with simple lyrics that evoke America and Americana in its natural beauty and splendor. Whether the song focuses on a summer spent painting names on boats ("Summer Painter"), seasons changing and sensuality ("Spring"), or a contemplative winter ride home ("Winter Road"), Callahan is a master at slowing us down and having us take in a moment. He can be funny too, like in the opener "The Sing", when a man in solitude states that "The only words I said today...were 'beer'...and 'thank you'". Dream River is music as eloquent poetry, as a transfixing painting, as a goddamned work of art.

Listen to Bill Callahan's "Summer Painter" Here.

6. Pissed Jeans--Honeys

     I'm not sure if we could take music in a more opposite direction, from Bill Callahan to Pissed Jeans. If Callahan's record is good for a thoughtful and contemplative look at the simple things in life, Pissed Jeans' Honeys is the guy that walks up behind you, screams in your ear, and kicks you squarely in the nutsack, telling you to man up. A noise rock / punk band from Pennsylvania, Pissed Jeans makes music for when you feel trapped in the monotony and hilariousness of our messed up world. No punk band is worthwhile without a talented and charismatic lead singer, and that's never more true with Matt Korvette and his ear-piercing shrieks, vein-popping enthusiasm and truly funny and head smashing song subject matter. He sets his male gaze on many daily situations, no matter their importance, and shreds them with sarcasm. Feeling like he "won the Superbowl" upon hearing about the death of an office co-worker in "Cafeteria Food", sneezing because of cat allergies in "Cathouse", or staying healthy by avoiding the doctor in "Health Plan"--Korvette's shows that he's master of picking apart daily life with his noisy rock. Honeys is the 4th Pissed Jeans album, and it only feels tighter and more compact--36 minutes of music that--if you dare approach it--rewards a listener with a smile and bleeding eardrums.

Watch the (hilarious) video to "Bathroom Laughter" by Pissed Jeans Here.

5. Speedy Ortiz--Major Arcana


      I saw Speedy Ortiz open for Pissed Jeans at The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, and in the days post-show I found myself thinking more about the opening band than the main act: hailing from Western Massachusetts, Speedy Ortiz is an indie rock band led by front woman Sadie Dupuis, and their album Major Arcana is an assured debut that shows that the band has major staying power in the New England rock scene. This album doesn't try to impress or show off: it's just straight up great tunes with gnarly riffs and clever lyrics. Dupuis tackles subjects with a wit and originality that is rare in the douchey indie rock scene. Take "Tiger Tank", where she states that her "mouth is a factory for every toxic part of speech I spew", or the insecurities of a young woman in "Plough": "I was never the witch that you made me to do be / Still you picked a virgin over me"--it's this vulnerability mixed with humor that propels Dupuis into a class of indie rock singers that actually add positives to the band. Supposedly, Dupuis fronts an all-female Pavement cover band called Babement, and though I'm not a fan of the band, one can't argue their status as Indie Rock Gods. Speedy Ortiz will probably never make it that high: but with Major Arcana--their first try--they're giving it their best shot.

Watch the video for Speedy Ortiz's "Tiger Tank" Here.

4. Future of the Left--How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident

     One day, a few years ago (maybe it was six or seven), I was randomly searching the Internet for some new music to buy. Sometimes your daily selection just seems stale, and you need something new and exciting to spice up your day. I happened upon a review of a band called Mclusky and their album Mclusky Do Dallas. That day, my life changed (and my face melted off). Led by frontman Andy "Falco" Falkous, the welsh post-hardcore band rarely left my CD player for months on end. There was a minor problem, though: Mclusky had broken up before I had even gotten into their music. Fortunately, realizing that the world (me, anyway) couldn't deal without their tasty riffs, Falco and Mclusky's drummer formed a new rock band, Future of the Left. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is their 4th (and 2nd best) album. Future of the Left have always had a slightly different feel than Mclusky--especially the use of a synthesizer. But Falko has always kept his trademark humor and biting aggressiveness. It's never more apparent than here, on tracks like "Singing of the Bonesaws", a humorous look at the absurdity of modern civilization, and opener "Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow", with Falco sneering "I'm Just a Man!" in a take on modern masculinity. Both Mclusky and Future of the Left have always been political, never afraid to share their opinions while the listener is carried by a kick-ass bass line. And Future have never been more Mclusky-ish than they are here: funny, brutal, and surprising.

Listen to FotL's "Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow" Here.

3. Arcade Fire--Reflektor

     How does one of the best bands of the past 10 years follow up their Grammy-Winning (not that the Grammys mean anything at all) album, The Suburbs? Apparently, by releasing a double album of 13 epic-length songs produced by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. When the band released the video for the title (opening) track "Reflektor" prior to the album's release, I was blown away: it was a perfect combination of Murphy's sonic skill with electronic rhythm and Arcade Fire's married lead singers' (Win and Regina) call-to-each-other lyrics, all with a relevant wink at social media. And that's just the beginning: throughout the span of both discs, over an hour of some of the year's best music comes forth. The first disc showcases the funky groove of "We Exist", the Haitian influences of the beautiful "Here Comes the Night Time", and the most-rocking "Normal Person". Disc two becomes more ethereal and expands sonically, though it still totally rocks: "It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)" features Regina at her best, "Porno" continues a funk that's even funkier, and standout "Afterlife" is Arcade Fire at the top of their game, one of the best songs of the year. Though I doubt that I'll love any Arcade Fire album as much as their first, Funeral, Reflektor reveals that the band is not playing it safe and the direction they are heading in is an unequivocally exciting one.

Watch the video for Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" Here.

2. Savages--Silence Yourself

     Seeing Savages at Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, MA was my live highlight of the year (if not of many years), and their corresponding debut album, Silence Yourself, solidified itself as one my favorites of the last 12 months only a couple of weeks after first listening to it. A post-punk band from England consisting of four incredibly talented women, Savages' debut album is fast and furious and nearly every track is a killer exercise in rocking skill. Two of the women shine in the spotlight a bit brighter: guitarist Gemma Thompson's skillful vitality propels most of Savages' songs like a The Bends / OK Computer-era female version of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, and singer Jehnny Beth's anarchic charm boils down to her animal-like ferociousness and lyrics that immerse you into the music rather than cause you to think too hard. Savages are not classified as easy listening: the guitars and base are forceful and fast-moving, and the percussion slams and shakes and propels the songs forward quickly (except for the three slower--yet still stellar--songs, "Strife", "Waiting For a Sign" and "Marshal Dear"). All of the elements come together best in the albums three best tracks: "City's Full", with its androgynous and sexy lyrics, "She Will", where "She" gets hooked on loving hard and forcing the slut out, and "Husbands", which completely pulverizes. Savages state that their music is "best heard loud and in the foreground". I happily agree.

YouTube videos of Savages do not do the band any justice. Here are two anyway:
Performing "Husbands" on Jools Holland
Performing "She Will" Live at KEXP

1. The Drones--I See Seaweed

     The Drones, Australia's best band, notoriously don't receive much fanfare from the Yanks in America. Their last few albums were released on an American label (most notably their 5th and 6th studio albums, Gala Mill and Havilah), but their newest, I See Seaweed, was released independently and can only be obtained through special ordering or on ITunes. It's an absolute shame: I See Seaweed's eight epic rock songs are arguably some of their best to date, and there is no music in the year 2013 that is better written or more relevant to the world that we all share. In only takes the opening line of the title (and first) track to see that The Drones are not a band with frivolous or meaningless lyrics--"I see seaweed on the lawn / There's no point coming here no more". Echoes of the world coming to end (whether by war, disaster, or global warming) have always been a prevalent force in The Drones' apocalyptic rock songs, and on their newest, it's still pushed to the forefront. The album is bookended by two of the best written songs of the year. "I See Seaweed" builds to a goosebump-inducing crushing rock explosion with its over-population theme, and closer "Why Write A Letter That You'll Never Send" is powerful enough--with its spitball lyrics that cover no less than the Holocaust, the Pope, and people not giving a shit anymore--to bring tears to your eyes. The middle six tracks are far from forgettable: two in particular, "A Moat You Can Stand In", about people standing on their high horse and spouting garbage, is brutal and pounding, and "Laika", about the first animal (a dog) shot into space, is full of loneliness and regret. Many people simply can't get into The Drones due to singer Gareth Liddiard's unique delivery and (very) thick accent. My advice: get over it. No one in music today is writing better and more relevant rock songs.

Listen to The Drones' "I See Seaweed" Here, the title track off of their new album.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jumping into Out of the Furnace

     Out of the Furnace is much like last year's great Killing Them Softly: both ultra-violent tales consist of gritty characters dealing with the undercurrent of less-than-favorable economic conditions, and both films have wonderful acting, making sure the viewer never looks away from the screen, even in the most brutal of scenes (And Out of the Furnace, in particular, has plenty of blood-soaked bodies to mention). But Out of the Furnace feels even more realistic--taking place in a rusty ol' mill town, Braddock, PA, you can almost feel the soot and grime entering your lungs through the theater screen. It helps having this set of actors, too:  Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Zoe Saldana are all completely electric, and Woody Harrelson's backwoods psychopath is one of the most frightening performances of the year. It all adds up to a really good movie, a thriller that is constant with human suffering and despair yet still full of excitement.
     What Out of the Furnace is ultimately about is a bond that a family shares--particularly brothers--and their relationship to their hometown. Russell (Christian Bale) is a mill worker with a beautiful girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) who is just trying to make ends meet. Though he clearly doesn't have the money, Russell tries to pay off Rodney's (Casey Affleck, portraying his younger brother) debt with a local bookie snake, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Not long after, Russell begins an extended stay at a prison for an unfortunate event, and it changes the family's life forever.
     Everything is different for Russell when--years later--he's released from prison. Rodney, who served numerous tours with the military overseas and is a loose cannon because of it, has gotten involved with a bare-knuckle boxing crime ring. Russell realizes how far Rodney has gone into the deep shit pile too late: once he gets mixed up with backwoods "inbreed" Harlan DeGroat (a sadistic Woody Harrelson), it sets into motion a chain of unfortunate events that leads Russell and his aging uncle on a crusade into Appalachia, full of run-down meth labs, tattooed freaks, and drugged-out, violent men.
     Out of the Furnace is a dark movie: and not just because of the dim and gritty sets and scenes that director Scott Cooper (his second film after Crazy Heart) puts onto the screen. The subject matter is depressing and violent, and around every bend is a shocking scene that tries to pull you down into its despair. But--luckily--the cast's skill of electrifying every minute of the run time never allows to the film to go into full pity party mode. Bale, as always, shows an incredible apptitude to transform into intense characters. In Out of the Furnace, he's the lone source of hope for the viewer--it's his journey that keeps our heads above water. Casey Affleck is great too, and it's clear that with his past films (Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and now this, Affleck is more of an actor than his older brother. And Zoe Saldana is heartbreaking in her limited screen time--you really feel for her tough situation. But Woody Harrelson is the true standout in Out of the Furnace. Why doesn't this guy act more? Stealing every scene that he's in (and showing up with an explosion in the first scene of the film), his Harland might exemplify some cliches about back country Appalachia criminals. But it doesn't matter: he's damn exciting.
     None of the characters in Out of the Furnace have it figured out: they're all trying to get by, either by clocking in at the mill or participating in criminal activity. Their stories of vengeance, of retribution, of redemption all criss/cross into a cat and mouse finale filmed with the morning sun just coming up over the horizon. It's one of the few beautiful scenes in the film, and--like the previous 100 minutes--it ends in an act of violence. The film is not perfect: its melodramatic but still charming because of the skill of its actors. And a few coincidences are a tiny bit eye-rolling, specifically a pocket-dial on a cellphone. But these instances don't take away from Out of the Furnace, a dark and well-acted Mill Town saga.     (B+)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Catching Fire is Still Fast and Fierce

     It's becoming harder and harder to not take film adaptations of Young Adult books seriously. Though cinemagoers still see plenty of less inspiring works (like The Golden Compass or Beautiful Creatures), the success of the solid Harry Potter films and a resurgence of great Young Adult literature has caused a chain reaction in Hollywood: with the treasure trove of recent books to adapt, no one (of any age) should feel ashamed to be caught reading Ender's Game or The Fault in our Stars in public. Looking at last year, two adaptations particularly come to mind: the completely wonderful The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the entertaining first part of The Hunger Games trilogy. Flash forward to now, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, in which Katniss Everdeen faces other major challenges, has stormed into theaters. It's even better than the first. Showcasing surprisingly strong direction from series newcomer Francis Lawrence (director of Constantine and I Am Legend), updated special effects, and a running thread of tension for the entire run time, Catching Fire turns out to be a great adaptation--and a great movie in general.
     Since winning the Games in the last film, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) are back in District 12, but they're not in love anymore (if they ever were). Katniss still has feelings for Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but when the annual Victory Tour date inches closer and closer, Katniss and Peeta must put on a kissy face to please the public and especially President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who feels particularly pissed off about how the last Games ended and how Katniss is starting to become a symbol of hope throughout the government-controlled districts. If this all sounds a little Twilight love-triangle-ish, don't fear: these scenes speed by and aren't cheesy like Bella and Edward's vampire tryst.
     The winners of last year's games--trailed by a previous District 12 winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, clearly relishing his booze-soaked role)--go from district to district, pretending that they are in love to please President Snow, but then something interesting starts happening: the crowds, becoming more and more unruly, begin to clash with the Capital-issued troops, and Katniss incites a growing rebellion. Snow has other plans: you see, this year's games is a Quarter Quell; which means that it is a once-in-every-25-years version of the games that encompasses something more special than normal. This year (to quash any uprising), new head-gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), working with President Snow, comes up with a crazy idea: the 75th annual Hunger Games will be between a pool of all of the previous victors, all but ensuring that Peeta and Katniss are thrown back into the deadly mix.
     At this point, there's no denying Jennifer Lawrence's talent. Though the Hunger Games films--at least the first two--don't allow her to showcase her range like in some of her other roles (notably Silver Linings Playbook or Winter's Bone), you would be hard-pressed to fulfill the role of Katniss Everdeen with a better actress. This new arena, primarily water-and-jungle based, poses many new threats for our heroine: forming alliances with a new cast of characters, most notably Finnick (Sam Claflin), an expert warrior in water, Katniss fights off the other victors and a revolving set of dangerous conditions set up by gamemaker Plutarch. Since we know that Katniss must survive this edition of the games in order to truly become a powerful symbol for the men and women of the rebellion, it adds a tension to the proceedings that surpasses the first film's battles. Instead of Katniss Vs. the other tributes, it's more Katniss Vs. the government (specifically President Snow), and it makes every gasp for air and near death all the more intense.
     Director Frances Lawrence really surprised me with Catching Fire. His two other major films, Constantine and I Am Legend, showcased his ability to tell a story involving special effects, but neither of those films match the skill in which this Hunger Games incarnation was created. Though the audience realizes that this film is only the second in a trilogy (though Mockingjay will be split into two films, with a typical studio money grab), the two Lawrence's--Jennifer and Frances--showcase an innate ability to creature tension during the entire run time. Sure, you could take some of the plot points of Catching Fire and turn them into metaphors that pertain to a seemingly more-possible future America. But there's no need to: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is stellar blockbuster entertainment, a film that's made with a passion to the source material and enough excitement to make the 2.5 hour run time fly by as fast as one of Katniss's arrows.      (A-)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Transfixing 12 Years a Slave

     Without seeing the film, many will classify 12 Years a Slave--just by watching the trailer during television commercial breaks--as typical Oscar bait: an incredibly emotional subject matter that takes place in a past period of time, an all-star cast with its main star performing one of the best portrayals of the year, and all types of devastating moments that the Academy gets incredibly excited about.  But they would be wrong. A movie featuring a story about slavery that focuses on realism instead of humor or revenge (like last year's Django Unchained), 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching, blinders-off look at one of America's most shameful times. It also cements the status of its director and two of its stars as contemporary greats.
     Based upon the autobiography of the same name (Twelve instead of 12) written in 1853, the film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery, working on plantations in Louisiana for twelve years. A husband and father of two young children, Solomon is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a career-defining role, one that will be tough to beat in the upcoming awards season. The entire film's success rests firmly on his shoulders, and he performs admirably. Doing just enough to survive and not stick out to the (mostly) evil plantation owners, Ejiofor is wonderful at showing us his inner devastation and confusion at the insane situation that he finds himself in. It's completely unbelievable--we see it in his face, his body language, his actions.
     It's not easy for the myriad of us to relate to being in bondage, because most of us haven't experienced it. But since Solomon seems like such a good and normal (and free) guy before he drunkenly gets kidnapped, we're thrown into the chains with him. After a short introduction, it's not long before Solomon wakes up in a dank prison cell and is beaten without mercy. He's told to forget his old name and profession and admit that he's a slave. He adopts a new name, Platt, and is shipped down to Louisiana to be sold to the highest bidder. From here on out, 12 Years a Slave takes a dream-like (or nightmarish) quality, focusing solely on Solomon and a cast of nefarious characters in an odyssey of torment and incredible acting.
    Solomon is passed between owners at first after being sold at auction by Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti in a uniquely unlikable roll). He starts with William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is about as likable as a slave owner can be--deep down, it's easy to understand that he thinks what he is doing may be completely wrong. But when Solomon crosses paths one too many times with Plantation overseer, John (Paul Dano, showcasing plenty of that There Will Be Blood intensity), Mr. Ford pawns him off to a new owner: Edwin Epps. Epps is portrayed by Michael Fassbender, and any friend or constant reader of these reviews knows how intense my man-crush for Fassbender is. And in 12 Years a Slave, he's arguably never been better. Epps is a drunkard who takes it upon himself to break any slave that stands up against his ways: he's brutal and terrifying. He has a mad-eyed intensity and a penchant for molesting a young black female who picks him the most cotton in the fields. It couldn't have been easy portraying such a character, yet every scene with Fassbender is electrifying and full of tension-- the work of one of the best actors working under the age of 40.
     British film director Steve McQueen created two films before 12 Years a Slave, and both were exercises in originality and greatness: 2008's Hunger (in which Fassbender starred as Irish hunger-striker Bobby Sands) and 2011's Shame (in which Fassbender also starred and showcased the dark side of sexual addiction). He solidifies his position as an always-watch director with 12 Years a Slave. McQueen is a cinema artist: of course this is a completely brutal film at times, but McQueen only shows us what we need to see. Never more. One particularly want-to-turn-away-but-can't scene involves Epps forcing Solomon to perform a lashing on Patsey, whom Epps is particularly fond of. The combination of first the sounds and then the quick turning of the camera to watch to outcome of the whip is like a shot of adrenaline that you don't want. And McQueen's handling of Solomon's ever-changing status between wanting to escape and wanting to survive is beautifully done.
     12 Years a Slave is not a perfect film. It follows a path of other ensemble period pieces that have dozens of recognizable character actors and huge stars that doesn't quite allow it to reach a level of naturalsim that transcends cinema (something the subject of slavery could someday do). Even Brad Pitt shows up late--in a small role--to potentially help our main character. He seems a little out of place. And the film never truly exceeded my expectations, though it met them head on. But these small things never truly deter 12 Years a Slave from being an Oscar movie to seek out. With two great performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, and confident direction by Steve McQueen, it's one of the best films of 2013.     (A-)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thor: The Dark and Average Sequel

     Marvel knows what they're doing: after the success of the Iron Man films and then the gigantic The Avengers, they realize that any fan of their work will shell out a dozen dollars to witness the next spectacle in their different "phases". The problem with this situation is that the company has to keep surprising and satisfying us at every turn, or else the movies start to feel stale. Thor: The Dark World--unfortunately--falls into this category: featuring the powerful titular character and his brother Loki, this sequel to the (amusing) first film falls a bit flat, failing to exceed any expectations and failing to be funny even when it tries to be--a problem the first film didn't have.
     Thor as a film has a much tougher sell than most of the Marvel universe: it's necessary to balance the scenes in Asgard (where Thor is from) and the scenes on Earth, and the symmetry has to be seamless for it to work--unlike Tony Stark in Iron Man, who is much easier to relate to due to his snarky humor and based-in-reality (to an extent) situations. The Dark World jumps all over the place: the nine realms are about to converge, which is a sign of trouble when some Dark Elves (led by Malekith [Christopher Eccleston]) take the opportunity in this rare event to try and take control of a dangerous force to turn the galaxy to darkness.
     What turns out the lights? This mystical floating substance called the "Aether", that when consumed causes the consumer to become incredibly powerful and power-hungry, looking to rid the world of everything beautiful. This is where Thor's love interest from Earth, Jane (Natalie Portman, probably regretting that she has a contract to keep appearing in the sequels), comes into play. Accidentally coming across this substance in some sort of weird inter-dimensional warp thingy, one that allows people to switch back and forth between worlds, she gets fully consumed like a ghost entering a host in a horror movie. Going on a road trip to Asgard after Thor comes to the rescue, the battle for the Aether that's inside of Jane between the Asgardians and the Dark Elves becomes the main focus for the second half of the film.
     One of the main problems with this new incarnation of Thor are the poor attempts at humor. In the first film, Thor's brutish and confused nature when first coming to Earth was charming and funny (like his uttering of "I Need Sustenance!" when eating at a diner). Since that novelty has worn off, and Thor the character is familiar to us now, he's just not too funny anymore. Sure, there are moments that induce chuckling--like when he hangs his trusty hammer on a coat rack--but they are few and far between. And Jane's assistant, Darcy (portrayed by one of the Broke Girls, Kat Dennings), is incredibly annoying at every turn, trying to make us laugh with bad jokes and an irritating nature. That's the script's fault--but her delivery does it no favors. Thor: The Dark World does have some interesting aspects: the story can be interesting and Loki (wonderfully portrayed by Tom Hiddleston again) is always entertaining, and the climax involving a multi-world battle where Thor and his foes switch between worlds through numerous invisible warps is well done and clever. But nothing comes close to the battles in The Avengers.
     And this is Marvel's problem now: because of The Avengers, it feels like every standalone film involving their characters is more of a place holder than an actual event of awesome entertainment. Well, maybe not Iron Man, but the others. Take the trailer for the new Captain America film that enters theaters in March: does it look cool? Maybe. Does it look good? Sure, it has potential. But it doesn't feel like an "event" anymore, and my wallet is starting to get the feeling that Marvel has sucked me into paying for all of their films. And maybe it has: I just wish my return on investment was more than just average.     (C+)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ender Plays A Decent Game

     Adapting a very popular novel is hard for many reasons, the major one being the old saying, "There's no possible way the movie can be as good as the book." Ender's Game, in particular, has more hurdles than most: its sci-fi setting, its ideas of pushing young children headfirst into battle, its author's (Orson Scott Card) asinine--and very public--views on today's society. So when the film adaptation was announced, my interest was solid yet my expectations were kept in check. There's no possible way the film adaptation could be as good as the beloved book, right? Right. Ender's Game the film version loses something in translation, a thoughtfulness and subtlety that made the book about powerful (but naive) children so potent. But it still succeeds as solid sci-fi enjoyment, a film with great acting by its lead Asa Butterfield and a story that exceeds most other tween-geared entertainment.
     Earth has been attacked by a bug-like Alien race. Years later, after the initial attack that ended in a daring suicide mission by a selfless pilot, the military grooms children into becoming powerful commanders to fend off future alien forces. Rumor has it that the aliens have begun preparing for another battle on their distant planet, so Ender (Butterfield), a 12-year-old with all the right characteristics of a commander, is chosen by Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford, a gruff military man who is putting all of his hope in young Ender) to figure out a way to squash the buggers.
     Ender becomes Earth's Great Hope as he progresses through Battle School, which consists of different teams playing a zero-gravity version of paintball only with guns that shoot stun lasers instead of exploding balls. It takes a lot of strategy: random blocks float around the room (as obstructions) and teams have different formations and ideas about how to win. One problem with the film version of Ender's Game are these scenes: in the book, these battles were numerous and exciting--but the film only shows a couple, and they never come close to holding the tension that the book's battles have.
    When reading Ender's Game, you form a vision of the character of Ender in your mind (obviously). He might not look like the film version. But there's no doubt that Asa Butterfield is growing into a good actor who can command a scene--anyone that has seen Scorcese's Hugo already knows this. In the film, as he becomes more and more confident, the changes in him are portrayed with skill by Butterfield: whether he's standing up the older, higher ranked characters, forming a friendship with a young squirt named Bean (Aramis Knight), or starting a maybe-more-than-friendship with a fellow cadet named Petra (True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld), he portrays Ender with passion. If you don't enjoy Butterfield as Ender, than it's your own pre-conceived notions that are holding back your enjoyment.
     Orson Scott Card is moronic, with his personal views on homosexuality and science. But there's no doubt that his books have interesting plots that deal with bullying, notions of age and power, empathy about other species (metaphorically, other races). The main problem with the film version is that it quickly glazes over any real thoughts on these issues, and instead focuses on looking good with slick camera work and special effects. I cant imagine filmmakers would ever figure out a way to adapt the second book of the series, Speaker for the Dead--which is short on visual spectacle and filled with complicated issues about colonization. The adaptation of Ender's Game is entertaining and permeated with solid performances, but it's basically a good-looking Cliffnotes version of the book that leaves a little to be desired.     (B)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Counselor: Cormac McCarthy's First Original Screenplay

     You couldn't have put the pieces together any better: Cormac McCarthy--arguably the greatest living American writer--turns in his first ever screenplay. The story is vintage him, dealing with drug smuggling on the Texas/Mexico border and a group of morally ambiguous characters performing violent actions as often as they wax poetic about the nature of man and life vs. death. Filling the roles of these characters is a group of actors that any cinephile could get excited about: Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz (okay, not her), and Penelope Cruz. Even director Ridley Scott was promising--though lately he hasn't any films that could be considered classics, he had the talent to make The Counselor a slick and sexy thriller. And The Counselor is slick and sexy; unfortunately, it's a lot of other things too: messy, confusing, scattershot, and downright weird.
     Fassbender stars as "Counselor", a lawyer who deals with seedy clients who get in too deep with criminal situations. He represents the type of people that come up to him in restaurants years later and threaten him for not doing a good enough job. Not long after the opening credits, the counselor decides to get involved with a group of gaudy and eccentric characters in a drug-smuggling operation involving the Mexican cartel and a pump truck full of raw sewage. There's a couple, Reiner (Bardem) and Malkina (Diaz), who live an extravagant lifestyle filled with a contemporary mansion, expensive cars and exotic animals. Reiner is a charismatic drug kingpin who's also insecure and would rather not think about consequences than face them head on. Malkina is dangerous in our own right, with ulterior motives and a penchant for using her sexuality to transfix other characters. Soon, once things start going incredibly wrong, the counselor realizes that he in too deep. Far too deep. Brad Pitt shows up as Westray, a mystery man who has dealt with the counselor's employers in the past and gives the counselor advice in verbal puzzles. And Penelope Cruz, as the counselor's fiance, provides the counselor with something to fight for once she inevitably becomes involved.
     The best part of The Counselor is also the worst part about it: Cormac McCarthy's script. The author of a few of the best American novels ever written--Blood Meridian, The Road, The Border Trilogy--creates a weird mess of a plot that jumps around cities and characters, introducing us to some people who play an integral part and others who have the same amount of screen time but don't offer anything useful other than some intellectual dialogue that doesn't pertain to anything specific about the story. A word that some may come up with is "pretentious", though I don't agree with that: Cormac's script is always colorful and interesting, but it eventually grows a little tiresome when you want more of a climax instead of an extended conversation about the nature of man.  If anyone has seen The Sunset Limited, the HBO adaptation of a play that McCarthy wrote, it delves into similar territory--a lot of talking, and not much resolution: better suited for a novel than a major motion picture.
     The cast hams it up with plenty of effort, and The Counselor contains a few scenes that are laugh out load funny (one involving Diaz's character doing a nude split on the windshield of a car) or nerve-wracking (one involving a torture device that has to be one of the worst ways to die ever). In particular, I found Bardem and Diaz to be the most interesting characters: Reiner with his flashy wardrobe and personality but with a naive fright under the surface and Malkina with her smiling maliciousness and utter disregard for whoever she screws or screws over. Director Ridley Scott does a serviceable job that echoes his late brother Tony's work: sleazy, sexy and sometimes all over the damn place.
     Overall, The Counselor is just a bit silly. It doesn't seem realistic, and it doesn't come close to anything that McCarthy has ever written (at least the 8 out 10 novels I've read) in terms of staying power or having a reason to even exist. It has occasional moments of greatness and plenty of WTF moments that make you question why someone didn't edit this film down into more of a tightly-packed thriller. There's barely a bit of character development, and that's a major problem when the film is filled to the brim with potentially interesting characters. I wouldn't go as far as saying that I regret watching it, but The Counselor is too much exposition and not enough excitement.    (C+)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Different Kind of Cast Away: Captain Phillips

     Tom Hanks is one of those actors who is so good at what he does. Sometimes it barely gets noticed--his every-man charm, goofiness, and likability come off as so natural that he isn't even making an effort. But every now and then he involves himself in a role that can change perceptions about how good he is at his craft. His portrayal in Captain Phillips is one of those roles: showcasing a bare-it-all emotional climax and a subdued but anxious performance, Hanks adds another good film to his resume, a film that is exciting and taut with tension but is ultimately pretty standard and a bit overlong. It's like Zero Dark Thirty without the backroom dealings and ambiguity, and it's a lesser film to director Paul Greengrass' tear-jerkingly-intense similar film, the true-life story United 93.
     Captain Phillips' based-on-reality plot is something that Hollywood would have loved to dream up: the fact that it's real only adds to the scariness of its situation. Hanks is the titular character, the captain of the American container ship MV Maersk Alabama. His small crew respects him due to his diligence and no-nonsense attitude about the dangers and possibilities of what can go wrong at sea (especially near the Horn of Africa). He's the type of Captain that you'd want on your ship--stern and trustworthy. Not long after the ship enters Somali pirate territory, a nerve-wracking blip begins to ping on the ship's radar. The two little boats with their choking outboard motors seem like no match for the massive ship and its powerful fire hoses, but a lack of sufficient weaponry and a small crew allow a group of four armed pirates to jump aboard.
     Led by a man named Muse, the group makes demands that set off a chain reaction of intense events. Muse is portrayed by Barkhad Abdi, and he's the Somali man that the film focuses most on. But he's not a true villain: he seemingly has some compassion and doesn't seem interested in murdering any of the crew. He just wants the treasure of the cargo to make his bosses happy back home. When the situation escalates into a long sequence involving a lifeboat and the ever-present involvement of the United States Navy, Muse seems to realize that he's a man without choices: he's torn between realizing his errors and having no other options. Abdi--an acting newcomer--does a solid job of internalizing the character's struggles.
     Though Captain Phillips--with a run time of over two hours--has trouble sustaining its intensity through the long lifeboat portion, its climax and Hanks' haunting final moments are sure to stick with the viewer for a few days afterward. Maybe not since the other ocean-based film Cast Away has Hanks had such a powerful performance. But Phillips, as a whole, didn't affect me as much as another Paul Greengrass film, United 93. They're surely very similar: they both involve hijackers, men set in their convictions (whether its in the name of money or in the name of religion), and both employ hand-held camera techniques (a Greengrass staple) that add to the tension and confusion of the more energetic scenes. So what is Phillips missing? For one, since both films are based on true stories, we know the outcome. One could type a few words into Google and find out how the Captain's story ends. United 93, on the other hand, because we know the plane crashes into an empty field, is that much more tragic and heroic. The few passengers on the plane ultimately saved hundreds more because of their selflessness. Captain Phillips is more about the flexing of military muscle, and while that's surely entertaining, a few Somali's stranded at sea are no match for skydiving Seals and high-tech sniper rifles. It's lacks the human element that 93 employs so awesomely.
     Captain Phillips is an above-average time at your local cinema. But it sometimes feels more like a procedural than a full on exciting ride. There's nothing too surprising about the film; what you expect to happen...happens. Maybe it had too much to do with my thoughts on other films: the similar but superior United 93, the recent technical brilliance of Gravity, the recent beauty of Prisoners, the recent violent style of You're Next. But Captain Phillips, despite Tom Hanks' great performance and plenty of entertainment, treads water a little bit too much and fails to reach true greatness.    (B)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Gravity: In Space, No One Can Hear You Have a Panic Attack

     Seeing Gravity in IMAX 3D is the closest the majority of us will ever get to being up in space, hundreds of miles above the Earth. It's also one of the most stressful movie experiences I've ever had the pleasure (or pain) of being a part of: between of all of the spinning, breathing trouble and panic that Sandra Bullock's character experiences, I felt like I was 12 years old again, pinned to the wall of the Gravitron at the Blue Hill Fair. There's no question that director Alfonso Cuaron has created one of the most technically brilliant spectacles--really, see it in IMAX 3D or don't bother seeing it at all--of movie-making maybe ever, and it's a testament to his skill that a film about two people floating in space is intense for its entire 90 minute run time. But after all of the pomp and brilliant execution of special effects and 3D, there's still something a little bit missing that prevents Gravity from becoming an instant classic.
     The movie wastes absolutely zero time before it makes your blood pressure rise: Medical Engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are servicing the Hubble Telescope, and "Houston" comes onto the radio--Ed Harris' voice, in a nice nod to Apollo 13--to warn the crew that debris from a Russian Satellite have started a chain reaction of faster-than-a-bullet metal chunks that threaten to damage their mission and shuttle. And then: Boom. It happens--hundreds of thousands of deadly shards rip apart their ship, and both characters are rolling and floating in free space with dwindling oxygen and a twirling loss of direction.
     There are no more plot points to delve into: just picture every worst case scenario for Bullock's character at nearly every turn, and you're almost there. In a film such as this, a film that focuses on (mostly) one character, it's generally hard to relate without some back story or flashbacks. But Gravity foregoes any sort of character development and focuses on the incredible visuals. Sure, we get a few introspective talking-to-herself scenes about Bullock and a deceased family member, but they're the worst parts of Gravity. And that's not to take anything away from Bullock's performance in the film--it is surely good.  But I'm skeptical that it's one of the best portrayals of the year. Anyone can breath really heavily (like me, sitting in the theater watching the movie). Clooney is charming and assured, as always. But the real star of the film is the terror and loneliness of space.
     Gravity is one of those films that comes along every couple of years that truly advances the technology of special effects and computer-generated imagery. The 3D--something I avoid nowadays--even works perfectly with the zero-gravity objects and floating humans fading in and out of the various shots. A scene involving sparks and fire was especially incredible. When Matt and Ryan are blown from their ship, you are out there with them, in the great unknown, instead of just watching on a screen. Cuaron is an expert at integrating you--the viewer--directly into the scenes. Just take a look at 2006's Children of Men, his most recent film before Gravity: the long tracking shots, the beautiful dystopian visuals, the incredibly intense you-feel-there scenes. He continues his dominance of directing intensity with Gravity. Another shine of excellence: the sound, editing, and score. Since the film takes place in the vacuum of space, explosions and the deadly debris field don't make noise for our characters, so the music plays an intregal role in upping the tension. And when Bullock enters different areas, the clashing of sound rather than silence is a shock to your senses.
     Many themes run through Gravity, themes that have been explored in cinema many times before: trying to survive in the face of death, the randomness of life, the psychological danger of isolation. And these themes--though never heavily focused on--work well with Cuaron's direction. Though Gravity on the whole seems like one long tracking shot, Cuaron actually seamlessly interweaves POV angles from inside Ryan's helmet to outside shots showing the perils of her situation. It's effective. One could go on and on about the visuals in Gravity: it feels like this is the future of movie-making in the ever-growing computer-based technology age. One could also argue how realistic all of the science stuff is, but it's not really the point. This movie is made to entertain, not be a Space 101 class. And it does entertain: Gravity is one of the greatest technological achievements in modern movie-making, and one that could have reached perfection had the characters mattered more and the script be less typical.     (B+)