Saturday, June 30, 2012

Radio Daze Vol. 11: May/June 2012

The following is based on the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated June 30, 2012.

1. "Call Me Maybe," Carly Rae Jepsen

I'm not even sure if I have to say anything about this song. You most likely know it; even if you don't know the 26-year-old Canadian who recorded it, you've likely seen any number of viral videos starring a wide swath of stars (everyone from Justin Bieber to Katy Perry to the Harvard baseball team to former Secretary of State Colin Powell has one). "Call Me Maybe" is more or less the perfect pop song: a brisk three-minutes-and-change, with easy-to-digest lyrics and, most importantly, its insanely catchy. Even if Jepsen never has another hit, and long after we've forgotten her name, we'll all likely remember that we just met her, and her song was crazy. A-

2. "Somebody That I Used to Know," Gotye feat. Kimbra

Somehow, this managed to make it to number one. For seven weeks. Seven. Damn. Weeks. I'm not saying that's a bad thing; I really like the song a lot. But this is a true left-field choice for number one. Stranger things, I guess, but man, what a time we're living in. A-

3. "Payphone," Maroon 5 feat. Wiz Khalifa

Maroon 5 come roaring back after the number-one hit "Moves Like Jagger" with another pop confection. Adam Levine and company deliver a bitter ode to love lost via a hilariously analog form of communication, but despite the bouncy uptempo beat, the lyrics sting, particularly when Levine wails "all those fairy tales are full of shit." Khalifa's guest verse doesn't really add much to the song besides a quick cameo and an even more literal interpretation of the song's theme. All the same, "Payphone" is remarkably delightful for a band I used to not be able to stand. B+

4. "Wide Awake," Katy Perry

Ever since Perry divorced Russell Brand, her new songs, on her deluxe edition of Teenage Dream, have been downers. Former number-one "Part of Me" was a defiant kiss-off to an ex who took everything but her sense of self, and in "Wide Awake," she finds herself hurt by a man whom she loved and lost. Ballads, though, have never been Perry's strong suit, and it shows here, with flimsy lyrics that could have been written by a high school kid and a repetitive "I'm wide awake" motif that grates as the song goes on. Hopefully the future will find her cheering up again. C+

5. "We Are Young," fun. feat. Janelle Monae

The ultimate anthem for the melancholy of a night on the town, when you feel the possibilities opening up but ready to fall into the arms of someone close. I'm still obsessed with this song and the album that spawned it, Some Nights. A

6. "What Makes You Beautiful," One Direction

If this is the dawn of a new boy band era, we're going to have to do better than One Direction as the leaders of the charge. "What Makes You Beautiful" is the kind of song that was clearly calculated to be a pop hit, like "Call Me Maybe," but not nearly as hooky. It doesn't help that, musically at least, the members of One Direction have no personality. They lack the complex harmonies that defined the Backstreet Boys, and they don't seem to have a charismatic star like N*Sync did in Justin Timberlake. Its innocent-enough teen pop, but this is a weak beginning for a new era. C

7. "Starships," Nicki Minaj

As I've said before, I really wish Minaj would stick to the bugfuck-crazy and leave the shameless pop grabs behind. But as far as shameless pop grabs go, you could do much worse than this. B+

8. "Where Have You Been," Rihanna

Another day, another Rihanna rave-up. I've mentioned before that the new dance-influenced sound of pop music fits Rihanna perfectly, allowing her to become an even bigger pop star than ever. Her voice perfectly wails on this song of finally finding the proverbial "one," whether that be the One or the One-Night Stand, most likely amid the strobe lights and glowsticks of a pulsating dancehall. It's a great song, one that sticks in the mind while not requiring any thought to enjoy. Instead, it goes straight for the pleasure center, in the way that only Rihanna is doing. B+

9. "Wild Ones," Flo Rida feat. Sia

I think I've mentioned this before, but Flo Rida has pop smashes in spite of himself. I guarantee you there is no one out there going, "wow, Flo Rida has fantastic rapping skills and really has a lot of interesting things to say." In all honesty, for the purposes of this column I had to really concentrate on Flo's verses to hear them, rather than tune them out in anticipation for the chorus. That's Flo's strength: a monster beat pared with a terrific hook, usually a sample or sung by an up-and-comer (see "Right Round," which featured a yet-to-be-famous Ke$ha on the hook). Here, Australian singer Sia (best known for "Breathe Me," aka the song from the Six Feet Under finale) takes on that role, and the result is an instant earworm. I'd give this an A for being an indelible slice of pop, but since Flo Rida has to make an appearance on his own song (like some sort of jerk), it'll have to settle for a B+.

10. "Boyfriend," Justin Bieber

If Justin Timberlake isn't going to make new music, why not have Justin Bieber fill that role? It seems odd at first glance, but surprisingly, the Biebz makes it work better than anyone could have expected. I've long advocated that Bieber would be more than a one-hit wonder, and that as long as he matured musically as well as vocally, he would have decent career longevity. He's still fairly innocent lyrically, singing about being a good boyfriend without explicitly mentioning anything too risque, but there's a shocking degree of sexuality in his voice now that gives it a little more of an edge. Way to go, kid. You might just be something more than a teenybopper heartthrob. B+

Brave (2012)

When Brave was first announced, there was plenty of hype around the gender aspects of the film: Pixar is making its first film with a female lead! Written and directed by women! Unfortunately, this would not be the final case: original director Brenda Chapman left the project halfway through, and Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell stepped in to complete it, as well as adding to the screenplay. This troubled history had many, myself included, worried about how the film would turn out.

Let's take a brief moment to get this out of the way: it's better than Cars 2.

Brave tells the story of Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), a young girl in medeival Scotland who would rather shoot arrows and run amok than do princess-y things. Her father (Billy Connoly) is a lovable oaf who's happy to indulge her, while her mother (Emma Thompson) would rather have her daughter be more lady-like. When it comes time for Merida to be betrothed in order to maintain peace in the kingdom, she refuses, and discovers a witch (Julie Walters) who offers her a spell that can change her fate. That spell is more of a curse, Merida discovers, and she has to find a way to make things right.

Right off the bat there's a number of problems. The film's creators seem to be unable to find away around the "princess problem;" that is, presenting a female lead character in a role other than a princess. It couldn't have been so difficult for them to present Merida as an average girl with similar problems, could it? The film presents a surprisingly sophisticated story, but ends up moving along with life lessons learned and platitudes telegraphed from the beginning. The film also feels as if it was sewn together from the parts of two other films, likely the result of two (or rather, three) different directors bringing different visions to the table. The result is a film that doesn't live up to the high bar that Pixar has set for itself, but instead feels like a missed opportunity for something great.

This isn't to say there's nothing worthwhile about it. Brave's biggest strength is its complex presentation of mother-daughter relationships, and how though mothers have more experience, they don't always know what's best for their daughters. This is a, well, brave move for the company, considering Disney has a long history of killing lead characters' mothers. It also has all the trademark beauty we expect from Pixar, with gorgeous sweeping shots of the Scottish landscape and a particularly impressive fiery mane of hair on Merida. Even background characters have distinct personalities, making crowd scenes rich and enjoyable. Despite the rather obvious ending, I'll be damned if I still didn't tear up. And of course Merida herself is a great character, and MacDonald lends her a sense of mischief that should have been explored more.

When people list the best movies Pixar has made, Brave likely won't be among them. But it is better than most of the current crop of animated movies so far this year, and worth checking out. I'd just like to see the film that Chapman originally had in mind. B+

Back in Business

Good lord, has it actually been more than three months since I've last posted? I apologize for the long hiatus, everyone. I don't usually go into personal details on here, but it was a particularly busy semester, one that's postponed my graduation from university from May to August, and then August to December, thanks to a number of problems, many stemming from a serious bout with depression. Now that summer's here and things are heating up (too much so), I'm back to blogging!

So what have I been seeing? Well, I've caught up on Breaking Bad, which holy shit, what a great show, right? And I've made the time to go out and see a handful of movies as well. Instead of doing full reviews for things I saw months ago, I'll give you this rundown of short blurbs, with a full review of Brave going up later this evening. Also be on the lookout for a new Radio Daze, featuring Gotye, J. Beibs, and that song that you know that you can never get away from. You know which one I'm talking about (hint: it rhymes with "Hall We Maeby"). Hopefully, I'll be back in the swing of blogging regularly, so those of you who have stayed, thank you for your patience, and to all the newcomers, welcome and enjoy.

The Lorax (dir. Chris Renauld & Kyle Baulda)

Sugary musical numbers, manic humor and Minions "Brown Bar-ba-loots" are employed to pad a barely-there story about environmental conservatism. Though the Lorax speaks for the trees, the film is too scattershot to say anything. C-

The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross)

I have never read the books, so I can't tell you how faithful this adaptation is. But the film was beautifully acted, particularly Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, and Ross clearly understood the material and handled it well. Though surely a few minutes could have been shaved off that running time? A

The Cabin in the Woods (dir. Drew Goddard)

Goddard and Joss Whedon gleefully riff on horror tropes with a tight script and terrific setpieces. The third act gets a bit out-of-hand, but it's great to see everyone have a grand, gory time. And "the board" (WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS IN THAT LINK) is probably the single greatest image in cinema so far this year (if you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about). A-

The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon)

If Marvel has its way, soon enough movies will only be about their stock of superheroes, teaming up in various configurations to fight evil. Luckily for this film, Whedon specializes in impromptu families, and gives this blockbuster team-up a healthy dose of conflict and fun. Plus, we've finally found a Hulk worth watching in Mark Ruffalo, an example of perfect against-type casting. B+

Haywire (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh's latest films have featured an impressive roster of actors, and this spy thriller is no different: Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Bandaras, Ewan McGregor, and Michael Fassbender all feature in this story of a betrayed agent (Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter). Though Soderbergh's films are always interesting, this one lacks a certain thrill, making it oddly bloodless. B-

Gone (dir. Heitor Dhalia)

Somewhere along the line, Lifetime rejected this film, and it somehow ended up with a theatrical release. Amanda Seyfried pouts and yells she's not crazy, yet even though you know how the story's going to end, I fail to believe the "not crazy" nonsense. Bury it in the bargain bin where it belongs. D

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott)

Sure, the story suffers a little from "otherwise very smart people doing incredibly stupid things because that's what the plot needs" syndrome, but this sort-of prequel to Alien delivers by asking big questions...and offering no answers. It's not all philosophical ponderings, though: a surgical operation scene looks like something David Cronenberg would come up with. A-