14 August 2009

The July Review Round-up

Keeping my blog as updated as possible has become increasingly difficult as school approaches, so here is my effort to make amends for my absence, with a giant round-up of reviews of July's releases. It's been a good month.

Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup
Written by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman
Directed by Mann
One of my favorite types of movies is what I call the "grand showdown" movie, where two (usually) great actors go head-to-head in a battle of wills and words (and sometimes use actual weapons). Some examples: Doubt, The Prestige, Frost/Nixon. I also love everything Michael Mann has ever done, with the exceptions of the truly terrible Miami Vice (hey, every director gets to make one bad movie), so when the two combined in this project, I couldn't contain my excitement. And while Public Enemies is not a flawless movie, it's certainly one of the very few Best Picture contenders so far this year. Johnny Depp shows impressive range, giving a restrained performance as outlaw John Dillinger, a simple man who loves "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you." The you in question is hat check girl Billie Frechette, his steadfast girlfriend, who endures abuse, loneliness, and deep uncertainty yet remains unwaveringly faithful. Her name is at the top of the list for Best Supporting Actress this year. The other part of this triangle is FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale, who may just need to cool it for a little while. After spending the better half of this decade proving he's the best actor in the world not named Daniel Day-Lewis (in demanding roles like American Psycho, The Machinist, and Rescue Dawn, not to mention anchoring two wildly successful Batman sequels), his performance is a bit underwhelming, especially considering the just-OK Terminator: Salvation. It's only a minor quibble in a movie that gets everything else right.

Brüno (B+)
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ron Paul, Richard Bey, Paula Abdul
Story by Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer
Screenplay by Cohen & Hines & Mazer & Jeff Schaffer
Directed by Larry Charles
"Vassup!" After staving off dozens of lawsuits, the world's most fearless comedian returned to the big screen in his first comedy since Borat. But while that mockumentary earned its laughs and social digs in equal measure, Brüno has none of the freshness and seems more concerned with broad sight gags than sharp satire. Here, the ones who look the most foolish aren't gay-bashers or pastors looking to turn folks from that lifestyle, it's the fame-hungry throngs he encounters, those willing to submit their toddlers to liposuction and donning Nazi attire or talk show audience members who long for the camera to focus on them so they can overpower the guests. It's harder to distinguish the truth from the fiction in Brüno, and it's also much more hit-and miss than its predecessor. However, its disappointing box office take ($60 million at last count, compared with Borat's $128.5 million) may have proved how profoundly messed-up the movie-going populace really is. Consider this: at the midnight showing I attended, several folks got up and walked out. After I went home, Twitter and Facebook were a-flurry with comments about the movie's sheer grossness, which you think would have helped the movie, but it led to a sharp drop-off from Friday to Saturday box office. I imagine many of the folks who saw Brüno (mostly under the age of 25) also go back year after year for another needlessly gory Saw outing. I ask: Is seeing countless victims dismembered in the most gruesome ways imaginable that much LESS appalling than a swinging male member? Maybe Cohen really did get the last laugh.

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon
Written by Steve Kloves
Directed by David Yates
I think it's a bit unfair to call the latest Potter outing a "letdown." After all, it's only a set-up for the big showdown coming in the Deathly Hallows (slated to be a two-parter, which I'm sure pleases fans who clamor for longer, more detailed adaptations, but angers me because I want to see how this thing ends already--I haven't read any of the books--and reeks of shameless money-grabbing by Warner Bros.). Still, the ending of the latest dark adventure starring the bespectacled boy wizard is a bit unsatisfying, even after the death of a major character and the revelation of the traitor in the midst. This time, the focus lies more on the characters' relationships, both mentor-pupil (or manipulator-pawn) and boyfriend-girlfriend (or "snogging" partners) which I appreciate in a Michael Bay era ("Character development? We need more explosions!") but many times it slows the pace, making for a bit of predictable experience. Don't get me wrong, the filmmaking here is on par with some of the better films recently, and the visual effects are spectacular, but this is in the middle tier of Potter adaptations (better than the first two, not as good as 3 and 5). But the most praiseworthy element of the supernatural series remains the acting. Here, Alan Rickman (perhaps the greatest living actor to never be nominated for an Oscar) chews up and spits out the scenery as the slithery Snape and Michael Gambon acts with more than just words. You can see the pain on his face as he puts Harry and himself in harm's way. And the best of the trio of teenagers (slowly creeping toward adulthood) remains Emma Watson as Hermione, the strong-willed enchantress who proves hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Clark Gregg
Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Directed by Marc Webb
"You should know up front this is not a love story. This is a story about love." And it's not just any story. After years of romantic comedies suffocating under the limits of their predictability, here's a fresh, funny, hip entry perfect for the iPod age. Forget your traditional story arc (meet cute-fun times-big fight-dramatic public make up). 500 Days of Summer stars with the devastating break-up and then shuffles its way through the rest of their relationship. The real magic (aside from its stellar performances, killer soundtrack, and honest writing) lies in the utter uncertainty about how events will unfold. Obviously, it can only go one of two ways, but the film captivates us from the very beginning, and unlike a couple of schmucks played by Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, we actually care for these characters.

Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Written and directed by Judd Apatow
To say everyone involved in Funny People is at the top his game would be an understatement. This is a film that's remarkable in every way: it's remarkably hilarious, endearing, honest, and captivating. For a movie that stretches on for nearly two-and-a-half hours, it never drags, which marks a definite improvement over Apatow's last two efforts. It also possesses an alarming maturity. Well, as mature as a movie with jokes about "distinguished balls" can be. Those expecting another Sandler low-brow laugh-fest will be disappointed because, while the first half is filled with hard R-rated stand-up comedy, the second half is filled with just as evocative (if not provocative) words. The kind that cut deep and leave a lasting impression. Rogen and Mann give the best performances of their careers and Sandler, playing a darker version of himself brings back memories of Punch-Drunk Love, the apex of his career. I think it's safe to say Apatow has become our generation's James L. Brooks. Does this mean an Oscar could be on the way? Stay tuned.

11 August 2009

Worst Songs of 2009...So Far

I thought it could wait, but despite such outstanding music from the likes of Animal Collective, Bon Iver, and, the band I can't stop listening to, the XX, Top 40 Radio has unleashed an unholy amount of crap in just the first half of the year. So cover your ears (all of you) and prepare to be ashamed (some of you); here come the worst songs so far this year.

From the album Want
Technically a 2008 song, though it didn't hit #1 on the Mainstream chart 'til this summer, this misogynistic tune about the wounds left by loose women instructed ladies on dancefloors across the U.S. to "do the Helen Keller," which on the surface sounds clever, but it's really a double insult: to people who suffer from Helen Keller's afflictions and to women the world over, because he's basically telling the girl to shut up. Maybe the band should take their own advice.

Justin Bieber - "One Time"
From the forthcoming album My World
When I first saw this on MTV, I assumed it had to be a joke, because this kid has barely hit puberty and he thinks he's an R&B superstar. Further research indicates he's a YouTube sensation, but he's the epitome of a flash in the pan.

From the album The E.N.D.
While they could have easily made this list with "I Gotta Feeling," perhaps the most repetitive #1 single of the decade (though not the most repetitive song on this list), this monster track (which spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a feat equalled by only a few groups in the history of music) is far more annoying.

From the album I'm Not a Fan, but the Kids Like It
When a friend told me the worst musical genre in history was "crunk-core," I agreed with him, not entirely understanding what it was, and then I came across this little ditty while doing research for this blog post. If you can make it all the way through, you deserve a medal. And just to prove its how bad it is, here's a quote from the NME review: "even if I caught Prince Harry and Gary Glitter adorned in Nazi regalia defecating through my grandmother’s letterbox I would still consider making them listen to this album too severe a punishment."

I had already given Gabe Saporta the "Douchebag of the Year" award after his performance at Nokia Theatre earlier this year (at one point, he told the audience "It's usually hot in Texas, but today it rained, but I'm OK with that, 'cuz I like to get wet."), but then he went and one-upped himself with this horrendous, narcissistic declaration of his ability to "make dem good girls go bad." Really, he makes everyone cover their ears.

See what a little controversy can do? After a flurry of (justifiably) angry comments, the Christian screamo band has gotten tons of exposure from online outlets for this appalling cover of the Postal Service's classic (if overused) song.

From the album Little Bit of Everything
Taking the title of "Year's Worst Country Song" from 2008's owners Sugarland, this pretty cliché twangy track (steel guitar! talkin' 'bout good lookin' girls!) made its way onto this list not only because of its sheer laziness, but also the constant Facebook status updates quoting its refrain "God is great/Beer is good/People are crazy." Hopefully they know only the first and last statements are true.

From the soundtrack album Hannah Montana: The Movie
The song from the inexplicably #1 movie was a smash the world over (and somehow hit #42 on the Hot Christian Songs chart) and proved she wasn't just popular with the kiddos. Total world domination or a sex scandal is the only possible next step. Heaven help us either way.

From the album The Fame
While "Just Dance" was pretty bad, it at least got people out on the floor. Put it this way: you didn't want to kill yourself after hearing it. Then came the sex-drenched "Poker Face," which was also terrible, but put to good use as the sample for Kid Cudi's "Make Her Say" and in Chris Daughtry's cover for a German radio station. But this song simply cannot stand. The aforementioned hits were subtle compared this to this dance track, which has the Lady rhyming "this beat is sick" with "I wanna take a ride on your disco stick."

From the EP Skinny Jeans and a Mic
Here's an assignment: Go to ProTools or GarageBand, pick a grating beat, and just say "jerk" about 5,000 times. It's better than this song, I guarantee it.

From the forthcoming album Rebelution
Another song that ensured its placement here because of Facebook: thousands of kids claiming they learned more Spanish from this song than their actual classes, which is surely the most depressing thing I've heard all year. Regardless, this is another lame shout-out as the Miami rapper makes reference to not only his street, but also his area code. And did you know that numbers one through four are "uno, dos, tres, quatro" in Spanish? Also, did you know that you want him this guy, who is actually less attractive than a real life pitbull? Apparently you do, because he says so at least 100 times in this song.

From the album Asleep in the Bread Aisle
I love college too, but surely "pass[ing] out at 3, wake up at 10, go out to eat, and do[ing] it again" must get pretty old. He's apparently never been to English class, because his grammar skills are atrocious, even for a white rapper, which makes his boastful comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon all the more reprehensible. He's never been to a sex ed class either, because anyone who's been would know wearing two condoms makes the possibility of breakage even greater. And I suppose he's never been to speech either, because chanting "Freshman! Freshman! Freshman!" would probably make someone want to punch him in the face, instead of submitting to his initiations.

From the album iSouljaboytellem
I've almost forgiven everyone responsible for making "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" a #1 hit, because there was a dance associated with it, and we do stupid things when there's a dance involved (see: "Macarena"), but this is pretty much intolerable, especially when dozens of Major League Baseball players use it as their at-bat music. See the embedded video below for the proper way to do this song.

From the album Circus
Any track from her three-ring debacle could make this list, but all the created controversy surrounding this song, which makes Lady Gaga look downright shy, makes you angry, not because of the lyrical content, but because the whole package is so offensive to anyone with ears.

From the album Guilty Pleasure
She only wishes she could be considered her album title. This track, which sounds like discarded Miley Cyrus, is sappy to its core. Don't quit your day job, Ashley. On second thought, you probably should do that as well.