Friday, September 30, 2011

22 Years Around the Sun

Yep, it's my birthday, and even though I don't usually post on the weekends (thanks job!), I'm taking this one off anyway. I'll be back next week with thoughts on the Glee premiere, Terra Nova, the increasingly-crowded Best Actor race, and maybe a review or two.

Also, how perfect is it that I share a birthday with this lovely lady? *sigh* 'Twas a wonderful day indeed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Radio Daze Vol. 8: September/October 2011

The following is based on the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated October 8, 2011.

1. "Moves Like Jagger," Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera



Remember once, long ago in the halcyon days of the early 2000s, when American Idol would produce a legitimate superstar who would top the Billboard charts? Well, that role now apparently belongs to The Voice, and the ones benefiting from exposure on the show aren't the competitors, but rather the judges themselves. Blake Shelton saw his Red River Blue debut at number one, and Cee-Lo Green avoided becoming "the 'Fuck You' guy" and has had several more minor hits. But it's clear that Maroon 5's Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera benefited the most, with this collaboration saving both of their music careers. Before they performed "Moves Like Jagger" on The Voice, Maroon 5's latest album Hands All Over was a non-starter, and Aguilera was flailing between the failure of Burlesque (and album Bionic) and her botching of the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Who knew that within six months they'd both be ruling the airwaves?

So what about the song itself? The strange thing about Maroon 5 is that underneath the glitzy blue-eyed white-boy soul-rock is a surprising bit of menace, as if Levine and Co. are threatening you as a means of seduction. Here, he sings in the chorus that he doesn't "need to try to control you / look into my eyes / and I'll own you." Of course, this is all a metaphor for sex, as just about any pop song is, but there's no denying that even when he's promising you control, he's the superior one. It's kind of off-putting in the way that Maroon 5 song is, yet the buoyancy of the beat makes it easy to miss. Aguilera doesn't add much outside of a reminder of her gigantic singing voice, but really that's enough. Bonus points for never once rhyming "Jagger" with "swagger." B

2. "Someone Like You," Adele



I'm still completely flabbergasted by Adele's popularity. It's not that she's not talented, it's that she is so truly talented that she stands out among the regular Top 40 crowd. Take, for instance, "Someone Like You." When it hit number one a few weeks ago, not only did it make a tremendous jump from the bottom to the top, but it became the only song in the history of the charts to reach that position featuring only piano and voice. In an age when processed, club-ready thudding beats are the requisite for pop success, how the hell did a song so beautifully, achingly spare make it to the top? The key, I believe, lies in those words: "beautiful" and "aching." With only her powerful voice and a arpeggio-playing piano, she sings a kiss-off to an ex that's full of pain and heartache. It's a gorgeous ballad, one that easily cements her in the tradition of the great soul singers rather than her comtemporary pop-tart peers. Like "Rolling in the Deep" before it, it's sure to spawn plenty of bad, drunken karaoke, but is there any better measure of a truly great talent? A

3. "Pumped Up Kicks," Foster the People



Here's another oddity for the top of the charts: a low-profile outfit that I guarantee not a single one of you could pick out of a lineup, singing a bouncy, instantly-hummable ditty about...murdering all of the kids with better shoes than you. It's seriously disarming, and I wonder if the audiences out there who made this reach number three realize what it's actually about. On first listen, it's a fun, cheery sounding song, complete with whistling (whistling!), but then the darkness seeps in when you realize it's essentially Columbine by way of The Polyphonic Spree. There's nothing wrong with making a song like this, but it's just weird that it would be so popular. It also doesn't help that Foster's lead singer Mark Foster doesn't have enough menace or exuberance in his voice to really sell the song for what it is. Whatever it is. B-

4. "Party Rock Anthem," LMFAO feat. Lauren Bennett and Goonrock



The last time we check in, this was the number one song in the country, and I blasted it for being a basic affront to America's eardrums. Which is still accurate, though I must admit that I've heard worse songs since then (see this volume's #10), and it's grown on me just a little bit. The isn't to suggest that Redfoo and Sky Blu (who, incidently, are relatives of the great Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records) have any skill in rapping, but the production here is probably their finest. Which isn't really a compliment, but it's an improvement. D


5. "Stereo Hearts," Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine



The first of two songs to be featured in Bonus Tracks to crack the top ten, "Stereo Hearts" is further evidence that Levine is indeed seeing a resurgence. This is vintage GCH, charmingly sweet and inoffensive rapping from Travie McCoy over a rollicking beat. As I said last time, you wish they'd really shake things up and do something different, but as it is it's perfectly enjoyable aw-shucks pop-rap. B


6. "Lighters," Bad Meets Evil feat. Bruno Mars



Even though this isn't a strictly-Eminem song (Bad Meets Evil is his collaboration with former-rival Royce Da 5'9"), it serves as an interesting referendum on the direction of his career. Take a listen to the whole Bad Meets Evil EP Hell: The Sequel and you'll hear Em revisiting his Marshall Mathers LP days, with demented, misogynistic lyrics that could only come from his mind. The most accessible song, however, includes none of this: it has verses from both Em and Royce about redemption and forgiveness, with a hook sung by one of pop music's current favorite hook-men. So of course it's "Lighters" that finds traction, but it's not really anyone's best work, and compared to even other recent Eminem singles ("Not Afraid," for example, or "Love the Way You Lie") it's tame and...well, rather boring, knowing that all three are capable of more. B-


7. "Cheers (Drink to That)," Rihanna



I've written before that in general, I'm ambivalent about Rihanna. Specifically, she has some of the best pop songs written for her, but you can't listen to them without thinking about how much better it would be if someone else had done it. It all goes back to my thesis that Rihanna has no real musical personality, and that drags down her songs. Take, for example, "Cheers (Drink to That)," a song that should be fun and perfect for a night of barhopping (solidified by the group-chant chorus toward the end). Instead, Rihanna sounds almost bored to tears with the idea, with barely a hint of fun or excitement in her voice. The only life comes from the "yeah-yeahs" seemingly sung by co-writer Avril Lavigne. I would love to hear what kind of bratty energy she could have brought to it. C+


8. "You and I," Lady Gaga



Lady Gaga's Born This Way, as I wrote back in May, is a messy, sprawling work in which the music and the persona finally align in gloriously bizarre harmony. The apex of this comes here in "You and I," easily the album's strongest track. The combination of Nashville stomp, Elton John lyrical flamboyance, and hard guitar shredding by Queen's Brian May is the perfect example of how Gaga can (and should) combine her many obsessions into a perfect slice of pop that's, in a word, irresistible to sing along to. She's finally found a musical identity that fits, and I hope she keeps it. A+


9. "You Make Me Feel...," Cobra Starship feat. Sabi



As I wrote back in the first Bonus Tracks, this is a surprisingly fun song from a group that was sort-of supposed to be a joke. Guest vocalist Sabi really steals the show though, which makes me wonder, when are we going to hear her solo work? B+


10. "Sexy and I Know It," LMFAO



Remember when I said that I'd heard worse from LMFAO? Well, here it is. Granted, it doesn't reach the "Shots" nadir that pop music can only reach when it willingly decides to self-destruct. It should be noted that this is LMFAO on their own, without the help of a guest to distract from the duo's god-awful lyrics (they may have reached a new low when "wiggle wiggle wiggle" becomes your bridge), nor do they have production that allows you to tune them out. Instead, we get an over-busy, twitchy train wreck that sounds as if it was meant to become the anthem for the next season of Jersey Shore. And I wouldn't be surprised if it is. F

Monday, September 26, 2011

Drive (2011)

Maybe it's because every film professor I've ever had idolizes Roman Polanski, but Drive reminded me a lot of Chinatown. That's an interesting and perhaps controversial lead-off, but think about it: both are stylish neo-noirs that pay homage to the genre while also twisting them, coming from directors who are outsiders both in the sense of being foreign-born and in coming from outside mainstream Hollywood, and both feature a Los Angeles setting. The most significant similarity, though is how each film approaches the noir genre from the perspective of the time it was made: Chinatown toyed with the idea that nothing can possibly be known for certain, while Drive supposes that no one is truly innocent.


A young, unnamed driver (Ryan Gosling) works several jobs. One is as a mechanic, where he works at a body shop for Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Another is as a Hollywood stunt-driver. And another is as a getaway-driver-for-hire. Just as Shannon  is striking up a racing business with merciless mobster Bernie (Albert Brooks), the driver gets involved with his neighbor, angel-faced Irene (Carey Mulligan), who's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is just getting release from prison. When a job with Standard goes awry, the driver finds himself in the middle of a plot that goes much deeper than anyone expected.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director prize at Cannes this year for this film, and it's easy to see why: he has a striking, lyrical style that is mesmerizing. Most importantly, though, he understands the basic rule of cinema, which is show, not tell. There's very little explicit exposition here; we learn from the very first scene everything we need to know about the driver's after-hours gig with barely any spoken dialogue. Instead, the film relies on its audience to be smart enough to follow along without any hand-holding, something that has probably contributed to it's lackluster box office performance. Of course, some of that credit goes to screenwriter Hossein Amini, but much of it belongs to Refn's masterful visual storytelling and concept of the story. Can you imagine what the film would have been with original director Neil Marshall (The Descent)?


Or, while we're at it, with original star Hugh Jackman in the lead role? Though he has very little dialogue (he's the strong, silent type, the driver is), Gosling gives a phenomenal performance, making every violent outburst even more shocking and emphatic. Cranston is a wily one, easily sleezy without ever becoming unlikable. Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman don't have much screentime, but they pack a powerful punch in their few scenes. And Mulligan is surprisingly great as the inadvertent femme fatlate, a role that she wears with remarkable comfort. Brooks ends up stealing the show, though, brilliantly cast against-type and proving just what a dynamic and superb dramatic actor he is. His Bernie should start making lists of great movie gangsters soon.


There's no doubt that this is a polarizing film. I'd hesitate to call it excessively violent, since there isn't non-stop physical violence throughout the movie as there is in 99% of thrillers made today. But those moments of violence are powerful and brutal, making an impact every single time. Drive moves through it's narrative at a contemplative pace (I've read it called "existential," which is pretty accurate) rather than cut-cut-cut-cut-cut, as the Bourne movies have made popular. As my friend Nathaniel wrote (and I completely agree with), this film is going to have a passionate cult following 10 years from now, when people get a chance to really discover it. It's a one-of-a-kind film that really stays with you, and should be regarded as a classic in the years to come. A+

*Oscar watch: I predicted this as a Best Picture contender, and I still think it can pull a big enough following to sneak in. However, I wonder if Refn, though thoroughly deserving, really can make it into the director's race. Other than those two, Brooks looks like a safe bet for Supporting Actor, and not nominating Matthew Newman for editing or Newton Thomas Sigel for cinematography would be an egregious mistake on the Academy's behalf.

**Also, I urge everyone to go out and buy the soundtrack. Utter brilliance.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Oscar Predictions: September 2011

See August predictions here.

Thanks to the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, a good number of Oscar hopefuls have been seen, which means it's now a little easier to make these predictions. However, it is important to note that festival audiences are not the same as Oscar voters and critics, which means a film that played well at the festivals may not meet the same reaction from the public. We'll have to wait and see what happens.

BEST PICTURE
War Horse

J. Edgar

The Ides of March

The Descendants

Midnight in Paris

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Artist

The Help

Drive

The Tree of Life

I'm upgrading Midnight to a sure-thing, since it's buzz has only gotten stronger as people are now saying that director Woody Allen could find his way into the Best Director category. The Descendants and The Ides of March both impressed at film festivals, particularly the former, so I still see them playing well. The first J. Edgar trailer didn't exactly inspire confidence in me (post coming soon) in terms of quality, but it did look right up the Academy's alley, so we'll leave it in the sure-things for now. Though we've seen very little from War Horse and nothing from Extremely Loud, they still seem like strong possibilities at this point. The Artist's noise has quieted some, but it played well at Toronto and when it's released here in November, the buzz will be deafening. With it's huge-hit status and strong performances, I'd be surprised if The Help doesn't stay in the conversation all the way up to nominations morning; the only thing that keeps me from making it a sure-thing is it's many detractors. Drive is the kind of film that will polarize audiences, but it's also the kind of film that will get first-place votes, which is what matters most now (same goes for Shame, but I'm not sure it will get as many thanks to its very-difficult subject matter). Carnage wasn't greeted with ecstatic raves, so I'm thinking it's going to miss the cut, and though Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still a strong possibility - it's been described as have a "cold center," something that Oscar sometimes loves and sometimes doesn't - I'm going with The Tree of Life, though it's chances seem less likely than earlier this summer.

BEST DIRECTOR
Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar

Steven Spielberg, War Horse

Alexander Payne, The Descendants

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

Refn is a wild choice, I know, but he's a true rising talent, and if the directing branch chooses to go for that, he seems like the best candidate. But they could also prefer Steve McQueen (Shame) or Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), or the could even consider Hazanavicius to fill that spot. There's a lot of competition there, which means someone else, such as Stephen Daldry (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), or David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) could take the spot. Though Terrence Malick has plenty of fans, the more Tree of Life fades, the less likely his nomination seems. And though I'm still counting George Clooney (The Ides of March) in, he didn't receive many notices for his direction, and with the competition heating up, he'll likely be dropped.

BEST ACTOR
George Clooney, The Descendants

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar

Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March

Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Following the Odd-Numbered-Year Rule of Clooney and the great reviews of The Descendants at Telluride, I'm convinced that he will be nominated. I also can't see Dujardin or DiCaprio being excluded yet either, since their buzz has never really faded. Gosling's buzz has faded somewhat, following somewhat-middling reviews of his performance in The Ides of March; however, his raves for Drive can only help him overall, though they ignore him for worthy work anyway. Similarly, Michael Fassbender will end up on plenty of year-end lists for Shame, but A Dangerous Method seems like his most Oscar-friendly role; however, even though he's having a breakout year, he will likely be ignored. I'm dropping Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) in favor of Pitt, who's getting "best of his career" reviews for this performance. Sadly, it seems to me, right now, that Oldman will get to keep his chair as President of the Overdue Club.

BEST ACTRESS
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs

Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Viola Davis, The Help

There's still nothing new in terms of Streep, but it's La Streep, so it'd be foolish to cast her out at this point. Close received great reviews for Albert Nobbs, but many commented on what a restrained turn it was, and restrained is not always recongnized by the Academy, especially in this category (where "best" means "most," generally speaking). Olsen's buzz will heat up once her film is released next month, and Mara still seems like a good fit unless her film tanks/we collectively decide we're no longer in love with this franchise. However, the biggest development in the past month is that Davis not only made a case to be nominated, but gave a performance that makes her the frontrunner to win (in my opinion, at least). There's still a possibility that Disney could botch her campaign and try to push her as supporting (like I originally predicted), but that would be incredibly foolish. I dropped Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) because her film and performance just aren't picking up the kind of white-hot buzz they need to became major players at this point, but never count her out. Nor, in a heated race such as this, should you count out Charlize Theron (Young Adult), Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn, though I fear this might be a misstep for her), Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) or Kate Winslet (if she's campaigned as lead for Carnage).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Albert Brooks, Drive

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Armie Hammer, J. Edgar

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn

Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method

This category is still near-impossible to predict, since there's no real front-runner and lots of confusion about who's a lead and who's supporting. Plummer still has plenty of heat, as does Brooks, so I imagine they'll still make the cut. Mortensen seems a little less likely now, since his film is getting a great-but-not-excellent reception. And Branagh is still something of a wild card choice here, since we've only recently seen our first image of him from the movie. After the news broke that Jim Broadbent's character in The Iron Lady is mostly meant to be silly, I don't have much faith that he can get nominated this year (yes, the Academy does have bias against comedy, but if you ask me The Iron Lady still has potential to be an absolute train wreck). So I'm including Hammer, who earned raves last year for The Social Network and has the juicy part of Clyde Tolson, Hoover's gay lover.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Octavia Spencer, The Help

Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Sandra Bullock, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method

Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

This field looks strangely sparse this year, perhaps because we don't know yet who's campaigning for what or who the breakout scene-stealers are. The one thing that is certain is that The Help's success will get Spencer to the ceremony, and even though the film didn't excite many, Redgrave still earned great raves and will likely be nominated. It seems silly that I didn't include Bullock in my first predictions, since everything about the statement "Sandra Bullock in a 9/11 movie based on a best-selling novel" practically screams "Oscar nomination." Though we still haven't seen anything from that movie, it seems like a good bet. Knightley earned great reviews from festival audiences for her turn as a sexually awakened Russian immigrant, but she could choose to go for lead instead (a mistake, since one, its a supporting role and two, the lead race is extremely crowded right now). And yes, ladies and gentleman, the star of the god-awful Juno-ripoff/teen soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager is likely to be an Oscar nominee, thanks to excellent reviews for Woodley's performance in the film. Plus, it never hurts to be the female supporting role in a film starring George Clooney (see: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton; Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air).

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
War Horse; screenplay by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall (based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo)

The Descendants; screenplay by Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne and Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; screenplay by Eric Roth (based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer)

The Ides of March; screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Strong (based on the novel by John le Carre)

The Descendants seems like the safest bet of all of these, since it's the most well-regarded films so far. War Horse still looks like a safe bet, but there's still a chance voters could decide it's the work of the director. If Oscar sinks its teeth into The Ides of March as a political parable (and I suspect they will), this should definitely make the cut. I'm a still skeptical about Extremely Loud, since barely anything's known about it, but if it does any good it'll pick this up. I dropped A Dangerous Method after the reviews didn't really proclaim greatness. Oscar voters do love twisty works, though, which makes me think Tinker is right up its alley. That said, Carnage, A Dangerous Method, Moneyball, and even The Help could make the cut, but time will tell.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Midnight in Paris; written by Woody Allen

J. Edgar; written by Dustin Lance Black

Like Crazy; written by Drake Doremus & Ben York Jones

Bridesmaids; written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumulo

Young Adult; written by Diablo Cody

Midnight's huge success means that it's a lock for this category, to the point where Allen is probably the odds-on favorite to win right now. J. Edgar has the biopic angle, and Black is generally a respected writer (he won three years ago for Milk, which was also a biopic). I'm starting to think it might be risky sticking with Like Crazy, but I'm thinking it's going to be the indie breakout that lands a nomination this year. With Bridesmaids on DVD and Melissa McCarthy's recent Emmy win for her role in the movie, it seems likely that they'll honor the film with a nomination here. I've lost faith in The Iron Lady, so instead I'm going with Young Adult, which seems to be picking up a lot of good buzz lately (plus, how awesome is that poster design?). I wish I could believe that Shame could get in here, but I just don't think it's going to get enough people to see it. And I do think The Artist has a real chance, but I also see it being difficult to nominate a silent film here (but not impossible).