Thursday, March 8, 2012

Radio Daze Vol. 10: March/April 2012

I missed the January/February frame this year, but the series returns for its first installment in 2012. And what have we learned over the past few months? Well, Adele basically rules the world now, and some new players are now rubbing shoulders with established pop stars. Oh, and it still pays to have your music featured during the Super Bowl, as our #1 can attest.

The following is based on the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated March 17, 2012.

1. "We are Young," fun. feat. Janelle Monae



A posh spot in a Super Bowl ad for the Chevy Sonic (not to mention a Glee cover back in December) has lifted this pop-rock trio to the top of the charts, and though I'm some have lost their patience with it's omnipresence, I'm still thoroughly enjoying. Though the song talks of making the most of a situation because "tonight, we are young," it almost sounds like a desperate plea from a guy who can barely take one more night alone. All of this is set to perfect mood music, with trippy R&B chanteuse Janelle Monae providing the bridge and backing vocals. This is set to be the anthem for everyone, but really it's for the last-call hanger-ons hoping for a break from the loneliness. A


Also, the band's newest album, Some Nights, is a killer. Go get it (legally, of course).


2. "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)," Kelly Clarkson



Wow, how long has it been since we've had a Kelly Clarkson song dominating the radio? Answer: not since 2009, when the ridiculously-titled-but-perfectly-done "My Life Would Suck Without You" was inescapable. Clarkson has actually pretty much made a career out of taking overwrought, eighth-grade-poetry lyrics and singing them with such conviction that you can't help but believe every word she's saying, as if by pure spunk and attitude she's turned them into universal truths. "What Doesn't Kill You" is a kiss-off to an ex, and once again Clarkson makes lyrics like "what doesn't kill you makes a fighter, makes you even lighter" sound proudly defiant. There's nothing new here, but there's enough attitude in her voice and exuberance in the undulating beat that it works as a delicious piece of bubblegum. And I dare you not to sing along. A-


3. "Set Fire to the Rain," Adele



Earlier this year, "Set Fire to the Rain" - the third single from 21 - reached number one, becoming Adele's third consecutive charttopper. Of the 10 Billboard 200 charts for this year, 21 has topped nine of them, selling over 2 million copies in 2012 (the highest tally for an album this earlier in the year since 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' in 2003), and entered its 23rd non-consecutive week at the top since its release last year, the most of any album since Prince's Purple Rain in 1984. Clearly, Adele is not finished dominating the musical landscape. "Set Fire to the Rain" is another great torch number that shows off her fantastic voice, but unlike "Rolling in the Deep" and "Someone Like You," this one lacks the, well, fire behind those songs. It also feels overproduced; the strings come in, the piano crashes, the drum kicks in, and it all seems to be extraneous, drowning out the vocals and robbing them of their power. It's still a great song, but its not the instant-classic that her other two singles were. B+


4. "Glad You Came," The Wanted



All things considered, I suppose its not all that surprising that the boy band could be making a comeback. It arose from the synth-pop of the late '80s the first time around, building on pop's newfound love affair with electronica, peaking, of course, at the turn of the millennium. And now that pop has come back around to be heavily dance-influenced, well, it just makes sense that a group of five soulful guys with looks tailor-made to be put on locker posters would have a pop hit. Here they are, The Wanted, and "Glad You Came" is an infectious little ditty that sounds as if it were imported straight from Ibiza. Granted, its that beat that makes up half the reason this song works as well as it does, and its likely to be much more appealing under the strobe lights of the club. As it is, its fun if repetitive; what better way to make the perfect earworm? B


5. "Part of Me," Katy Perry



In 10 installments of Radio Daze, only one of these columns (Vol. 8) did not feature a Katy Perry song. She's back this time around with "Part of Me," the first single off her deluxe reissue of Teenage Dream. A breakup anthem perfectly timed for her split with Russell Brand (which, honestly, we all saw coming, right?), it features lyrics that seemed to be ripped straight from the Facebook statuses of high schoolers across the nation. Perry, however, doesn't quite have the voice and attitude to sell it a la Clarkson, but she does a fine job anyway, with a pulsating beat that gives it all life, even if she doesn't seem particularly heartbroken. She actually sounds like she's ready to start the party. We wouldn't have you any other way, Katy. B


6. "Starships," Nicki Minaj



Nicki Minaj is a lot of things, depending on your point-of-view: a fierce rapper, rap's Lady Gaga, an obnoxious pestilence, a Dadaist poet with rapid-fire delivery, a man. The one thing that we should all be able to agree on is that she knows what sells records and what gets her on the top of the charts. "Starships" falls in the vein of last summer's megahit "Super Bass," trading in the lyrical acrobatics and skittering beats in favor of production from RedOne (responsible for Lady Gaga's "Poker Face") and singing. This is music to rave to, and its much more accessible than the other singles from Roman Reloaded that have debuted so far (the free-form "Roman in Moscow," for example, or Lil' Kim diss "Stupid Hoe"). She has only a limited vocal range, but that hardly matters here. You can debate whether or not she's original, but there's certainly no one else like her right now. B+


On a side note, I personally prefer batshit-gonzo Nicki to please-the-masses Nicki. Though I understand why the latter is necessary, in terms of sales.

7. "Young, Wild, and Free," Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa feat. Bruno Mars



In most cases, a movie's soundtrack album is meant to be a companion piece, something of an afterthought as a way to make a little more revenue. In the case of Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa's Mac and Devin Go to High School, it seems to be the opposite: the soundtrack debuted in December, and there's no official release date for the movie yet (and perhaps it should stay that way). "Young, Wild, and Free" is the soundtrack's first single, and it is exactly what you would expect: a paean to smoking weed and not caring who sees, with a hook by Bruno Mars and a gently rolling piano melody over the beat. I think its all time we admit that Snoop will never be as good as he was in the '90s, but he and Wiz have a nice chemistry trading amiable verses. Maybe we don't need the movie, but I wouldn't mind seeing what this partnership produces musically. B+


8. "Turn Me On," David Guetta feat. Nicki Minaj



As he did with Usher in "Without You," French DJ/club guru David Guetta supplies the beat while Minaj sings over it. The lyrics are really unnecessary, though; I feel as if Minaj - who, as I stated before, has a fine but limited singing voice - was chosen just so more focus could be placed on Guetta's production. And that production features the standard Guetta hallmarks that he employs to great use; once the bass comes back in, its hard to resist tapping your toes. But where "Without You" had a certain soulfulness to it, this just feels like another clubbanger meant to light the dancefloor on fire. It all just feels...done, though. B-


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



Sometimes, an artist just kind of manages to sneak into the mainstream just by word of mouth; never mind that they sound like something completely different and are probably destined to become one-hit wonders (Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and Owl City's "Fireflies" immediately come to mind). Belgian-Australian alternative artist Gotye looks to join the ranks with "Somebody That I Used to Know," in which he details the injustice he feels from a breakup, only to be retorted by the ex in a verse sung by New Zealand artist Kimbra. Its an interesting concept for a song, and its all sung over a track that sounds a bit like a low-key White Stripes outtake. I genuinely wish nothing but the best for both of these artists, but I wouldn't be surprised if this charming little ditty was their only US hit. A-


10. "We Found Love," Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris



You know what, I think I underestimated the attraction of this song in my first review of it. This is definitely Ri-Ri's finest hour, coming off of Talk That Talk, which is her best album to date. It's good to see that Rihanna has finally found a sound she fits in. Rihanna, club queen, is by far her most engaging iteration. Stay the course, Ri, and never let the party stop. A

Monday, March 5, 2012

Oscarpalooza 2011: Best Picture

And so we come to the much-delayed finale of Oscarpalooza 2011. By now, most of you have moved on from the Oscars, but not me. Obsession is a blessing and a curse, after all. But, here on The Entertainment Junkie at least, we'll put this year's show to rest here with thoughts on the Best Picture category. Yes, The Artist won, but was it the right choice (according to my humble opinion)?

BEST PICTURE
The Artist

So for only the second time in the show's 84 years, a silent film won Best Picture. And the outrage afterwards was explosive - its too slight, its too gimmicky, it doesn't represent the film industry and the world in 2011, no one will remember it in five years, its overrated. It is slight. And the only thing it says about 2011 is that we're so creatively bankrupt that we returned to the silent era for inspiration. But you know what? The Artist has one goal - entertainment. And it entertains in droves, easily charming the pants off audiences with its simplicity. Sure, the movie drags in some areas (100 minutes is too long for this story), but watching Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo's terrific onscreen chemistry is worth it. Director Michel Hazanavicius also plays around with format and genre in a way that makes the film even more interesting. It's not my top pick for the prize, but it's certainly a worthy choice.

The Descendants

Alexander Payne's made a career out of documenting the crises of American adulthood, and there's plenty to go around in The Descendants. Matt King (George Clooney) has found out that his wife - who's in a coma after a boating accident - has been having an affair, he has to take care of two daughters he's never related to, and he has to make a decision on the sale of his family's Hawaiian real estate. This is a lot of plot for the film, and though Payne handles it with typical deftness, the film still gets bogged down in its melodrama. Clooney has received most of the praise for his excellent performance, but its Shailene Woodley and Judy Greer who steal the film with their terrific work as his oldest daughter and the wife of King's potential buyer, respectively. Its not perfect, but its a fine ensemble film.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The surprising ninth nominee in this year's field, this film drew a lot of flack from critics for being cloying, manipulative, and overly-saccharine. But I liked it. I mean that with true sincerity. Where, say, Spike Lee's 25th Hour captured a New York City that was still angry, still damaged, and still lost after the 9/11 attacks, EL & IC captures the city in healing, no less lost or hurt but coming to terms with the tragedy and coming together to rise up. I'll admit, I'm a sucker for these kinds of stories, and director Stephen Daldry does a fantastic job at integrating the elements for powerful emotional reactions. Thomas Horn as young Oskar can be incredibly grating, but to a degree that's how the character is supposed to be, and, to me at least, this was the best performance of Sandra Bullock's career. And to the critics: what movie isn't manipulative? I wouldn't name it Best Picture, nor would I have necessarily nominated it (in fairness, I wouldn't have nominated most of these films), but its far from the aberration many made it out to be.

The Help

The Help, too, is a problematic film in many ways. It streamlines and simplifies a very complicated issue. It goes on for far too long. And it's ostensible protagonist, Emma Stone's Skeeter, is a complete bore, no matter how many scenes with her even-more-boring romantic interest she gets. But at the same time, The Help does a great many things right. It makes the maids - Viola Davis' Aibileen and Octavia Spencer's Minnie - the real protagonists, and makes them real, layered, complicated characters. It ties together its disparate storylines neatly (perhaps too neatly), but especially thematically in a way that brings up interesting questions. And it is a veritable boon of great performances from great actresses - this and Bridesmaids should be used to make the case that there's nothing wrong with great films featuring a cast of great actresses. It's the ensemble - especially Davis - who lifts this film to the greatness it reaches. And that's certainly something worth celebrating.

Hugo

There was so much potential here: Martin Scorsese, making a children's film about a young boy who lives in a Parisian train station who's trying to solve the secret his father left behind for him that doubles as a history lesson on the birth of cinema, all based on the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. That sounds difficult, but if anyone could do it, its Scorsese, right? Look, the film is gorgeous to look at (it earned those five technical Oscars it won), and its intentions - teach kids about early cinema and serve as a PSA for film preservation - are noble. But its such a shame to see Scorsese - one of cinema's greatest storytellers - too often abandon the film's intriguing story to riff and recreate Melies' short films. It also doesn't help that, outside of Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory as the Melies, the performances are not very interesting.  The rest of the film community went nuts for this film. I just couldn't share the enthusiasm.

Midnight in Paris

Perhaps Marty could have taken a lesson from Woody. Midnight in Paris took flack as well for being "too slight," and like The Artist, it relies a lot on the charms of the Roaring '20s. Yet this is perhaps one of the most insightful films Woody Allen has made in years, as he relays the message through time-hopping writer Gil (Owen Wilson) that every generation fantasizes the previous as being the "golden age," and that nostalgia may keep us warm at night but it won't help us move forward. The film is a fantasy, certainly, but its also Woody's best since [insert your last favorite Woody film here; for me personally its Everyone Says I Love You], and brings out great performances from Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Allison Pill, Corey Stoll, Kathy Bates, and a particularly memorable cameo from Adrien Brody. Its great to see a master working in fine form again.

Moneyball

Its rare for a sports film to show so much soul without being about the players, or even really the coaches. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the manager of the Oakland A's, a team that's just lost its trifecta of stars to other teams and doesn't have enough money to bring in more. Beane, a former next-big-thing who's playing career crashed early, proposes using a controversial system known as sabermetrics to build a championship team out of affordable players. Pitt shines as Beane, a perinneal underdog who's always fighting a system that's rigged against him, and the film takes on the melancholy that his life entails. Jonah Hill, in a rare non-comedic role, shows a completely different side of his talent as the math whiz who sells Beane on sabermetrics. The film absolutely glows with humanism and optimism, even as history wouldn't be kind to Beane (the 2003 A's - which the film follows - wouldn't win the World Series, but the Boston Red Sox would the next year using Beane's system). As the film's closing song intones, it's best to just enjoy the show.

The Tree of Life

I'm going to look like a total snob for loving this film, but this is a truly magnificent piece of art. Director Terrence Malick's near-masterpiece takes the story of one West Texas family in the 1950s and places it in the context of the history of the entire universe, as Malick - cinema's finest working philosopher/filmmaker - expounds on the concepts of Nature and Grace and the duality in which they exist in our physical world. Yes, the film is non-linear, featuring long segments of shots of the universe (genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was robbed of the Oscar) set to classical music, but come at it with an open mind and...well, its possible you still won't get it. It took me three times to really process it. But there's no denying that there was no other cinematic experience like it this year, and that's what this is: its a film, its a philosophical treatise, and most importantly, its an experience.

War Horse

On paper, War Horse looks like it was built to win Oscars: an adaptation of Michael Morpergo's 1982 novel, its a Steven Spielberg war epic modeled on the epics of John Ford. Perhaps, then, it stings that the film didn't win any. Its a fine film, with plenty of memorable human characters (particularly Tom Hiddleston's commander and Niels Arstrup's French grandfather) and several great scenes that highlight both the atrocity and humanity that can be found during war. However, the film hits its sentimental notes hard, and unfortunately horses aren't terribly expressive or compelling protagonists. Its a fine film, but it wins the award for "we're trying way too hard to win some hardware."

My personal ballot:
1. The Tree of Life
2. Moneyball
3. The Artist
4. Midnight in Paris
5. The Help
6. The Descendants
7. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
8. War Horse
9. Hugo