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Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 12 February 2010 01:32 (A review of Fever)

Fever owes as much to Donna Summer and ABBA as it does to the reigning Queen of Dance, Madonna. Kylie Minogue might not have as impressive a voice as Donna Summer, but she’s got just as fierce beats. She might not be as ethereal as Agnatha and Freda of ABBA, but she can blend her voice into just as impressive melodies and sweet talking whispers. And much like Madonna, she knows that a strong voice isn’t necessary for success in the club, but you must have a personality. And so she does. Who needs deep poetical insight when you could have a throbbing bass, gurgling synths and Kylie sighing that she can’t get you out of her head? It’s hypnotic, it’s infectious, it’s hot. With not a ballad in sight, although “Fragile” comes close until Kylie starts to coo like a sex kitten in heat, this is the perfect disc to become a slave to its rhythm. Or to break out a sweat to outside of the dance floor. She’s the perfect kind of pop star: infinitely disposable, utterly charming and she sings every song like it was for your ears only. DOWNLOAD: “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

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Hard Candy

Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 8 February 2010 09:18 (A review of Hard Candy)

Hard Candy screams ‘contractual obligation’ from start to finish. Instead of Madonna leading the pack and being ahead of the curve, American Life’s unedited video was ahead of the curve just like Confessions’ bubbling Euro-disco was right before that took off, she’s following the pack. And not just following, but doing it about five years too late for a collaboration with Timbaland to really mean anything. By 2008 it had seemed inevitable that she would eventually get around to working with him. If this album had been released by any nondescript pop tart, Britney for instance, then it probably wouldn’t have arrived with such a shrug.

Justin Timberlake and Timbaland offer, oddly enough, both the best and worst of the lot. “Voices” is an awful hot mess to end the album with. Falling somewhere between hip-hop and orchestral bombast, it features Timberlake, annoyingly over-sexed, moaning something about masters and slaves and Madonna ranting about something or another that sounds vaguely tortured. “Dance 2Nite” isn’t atrocious, but it’s not terribly memorable either. However, they do redeem themselves with “4 Minutes” and “Miles Away.” “4 Minutes” was the huge first single, the lyrics make little sense but that marching band gone to Wonderland groove is hot. “Miles Away” is wistful and proof that there was trouble in the Ritchie homestead. But the best track is “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You.” Filled with her New Age mysticism and Catholic imagery, surrounded by a killer Timbaland beat that proves he hasn’t shot all of his tricks off on Timberlake, it is a hypnotic (almost) close to an album that is by turns fun and garish.

The other half of the album is offered up by Pharrell, who seems to have rediscovered his producing insanity…in a good way. Gone are the minimalist to the point of idiocy beats that marred his efforts with Gwen Stefani (honey, I love you but…). “Candy Shop” sounds like paint cans being beaten, and Madonna compares her clitoris to a one-stop candy shop which can be customized to fit your cravings. Disgusting, but hilarious. And he manages to create an urban-disco which makes Madonna sound right at home, instead of the Tim squared numbers which made her sound both desperate to stay young, relevant and hip, and like she was just doing a bunch of filler to get out of her contract. “Give It 2 Me” is funky, in a Chic-meets-MC Lyte way. “She’s Not Me” sounds like the Queen is reminding everyone within ear shot that all of the Britneys, Gagas and Christinas of the current pop world are just pretenders to her throne. And “Beat Goes On,” featuring a cameo from Kanye West, is second best on this album. On the outside a frivolous hip-hop party track, on the inside an even more frivolous bubbly disco number. Nothing deep, or revolutionary, but a hell of a fun dance track.

But Pharrell isn’t immune from releasing bizarro-world tracks like “Spanish Lesson” or “Incredible.” “Incredible” suffers from the kitchen-sink approach which sunk tracks like “Wind It Up.” The only joy to be had from that track is once the beat kicks back in towards the end and Pharrell starts to scream out “BOOM!” in the background. And “Spanish Lesson” is the worst song Madonna has recorded in the past ten years. A strange thing: she threatens to sex you up if you don’t do your homework and proceeds to translate random phrases in Spanish. What does it all mean? Who knows.

Hard Candy is an album of tremendous filler, not unlike True Blue. In an era where Peaches is releasing psycho-sexual singles that border on sonic pornography on an off day, Madonna’s attempts at overt sexuality play out like cutesy mannerisms. Her vulgarity used to be one of her charms, but all of that time spent in European discos and wanting to tell her real feelings seems to have made her lose some of that rough edge. (For the record, I miss her collaborations with crazy, trashy Euro-disco producers; it was much more fun and consistent.) Somewhere, Dita is either howling with laughter or sobbing in frustration. DOWNLOAD: “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You”

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Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 8 February 2010 09:14 (A review of Coraline)

Coraline tells an old story in a new, highly arresting visual style. Stop-motion animation has been around for a long time, but it has rarely been used to make a feature-length motion picture. And, even rarer, the visual stylization of this film is something that has never truly been seen before. The mechanical/skeletal hand intricately weaving a doll in the opening credits signifies that this movie is going to be the stuff of nightmares, and an eye-popping experience. It lived up to that opening credit sequence in my mind, in fact, it exceeded those expectations. As much as I adored Up, Coraline has stayed with me much more as a whole. Yes, I am hoping for an Oscar upset even though I know it will never happen.

Coraline, voiced to bratty perfection by Dakota Fanning, is smart, bored and smart-alecky little girl. I loved the fact that we had a heroine in a fairy tale/fantasy story who didn’t need to be rescued by Prince Charming or be so saccharinely sweet and good-natured that you think she secretly deserves a few of the bad things that happen to her. But once you get a glimpse of her home life you’ll understand. Her parents, both writers trying desperately to finish up a gardening catalogue, continually hunch over their computers typing away for, what looks like, days on end. They’re not inconsiderate, just strapped for time and very busy. Coraline is about to blossom into her teenage years, and they probably believe that she can entertain herself. Which she does, but her parents are terribly distracted and always on-edge with her.

If you were relocated to a large apartment home and your parents were distracted constantly by work, wouldn’t you go exploring for anything odd or out of the ordinary in the house? I might have. I’m not quite sure I shared Coraline’s sense of adventure, or is that boredom? Anyway, she finds a door that has been covered up by wallpaper. And so begins the mystery, the fantasy and, oh yes, the horror. You see, Coraline takes its time in actually telling children (ha!) a story which features a recognizable personality type going against Freudian psychology. I scoff at this being a children’s film because children under the age of eight will have nightmares for days on end about buttons, rats, dog-bat hybrids, taffy people and all sorts of other incendiary things. Not too say that is a bad thing, but this is proof that not all animation is for all ages.

I can’t say how faithfully this adheres to Neil Gaiman’s original work, but I know that the Other Mother’s descent from normal looking woman to mechanical humanoid-spider has his demented stamp all over it. I also loved Teri Hatcher’s vocal work in the dual role. As Coraline’s regular mother she sounds like anyone’s mom: loving, tough and just a tiny bit annoyed with your attitude. As the Other Mother she must go through a complete transformation and do it all with her voice. To combine that with the several different puppets which comprised that character made it stick with me long after I saw it in theaters. I could close my eyes months after my first viewing and vividly remember the scene where Coraline and the Other Mother face off for the last time. That is the power of this film’s storytelling, visual invention and vocal cast. I have only spotlighted two of them, but across the board the work is first-rate. Normally Pixar produces by favorite animated work in a given year, but there are exceptions. Here is one. And in a year filled with strong animated features, I still rank this as the best one of 2009.

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The Young Victoria

Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 7 February 2010 05:44 (A review of The Young Victoria)

In a more picture world, Sandra Bullock would have never received an Academy Award nomination. That fifth slot would have gone to Emily Blunt for her pitch-perfect dewy interpretation of the young Queen Victoria. Vulnerable but sexy, stubborn but still charming, she is scrumptious and deserved to be recognized. (And yes, she is far too attractive to look anything like the real Victoria.)

The Young Victoria shares much in common with the numerous other costume dramas of the past ten years, even if it is a step below Elizabeth it is miles better than The Other Boleyn Girl or Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It lacks the distinctness of Elizabeth’s visual palette and richness of emotional textures, but it’s a sweetly fluffy treat. Yes, the same kind of political satellite’s maneuver to control our young queen, and she mistakes being headstrong for being strong, but she is only a teenager after all. It does follow another pattern set by Elizabeth: who cares about historical accuracy when you’re trying to describe the emotions and mentality of this young monarch. I feel like I learned something about Victoria from this.

And, yes, since it is a historical costume drama it comes armed to the teeth with an amazing visual palette. The costumes are meticulously crafted and, quite honestly, things of rare and shimmering beauty. Blunt’s attractive face gets framed by all sorts of flowers, braids, buns, hats, scarves, lace, you name it. And the real sets – roughly, nine castles, stately manors, and, of course, Westminister Abbey – are always a glorious thing to behold, especially when they’re outfitted in such ornate and Baroque designs. Visually, this is fantastic, even if it’s all been used and seen before.

What can I say? I love a good period costume drama, especially if some kind of royalty and political intrigue is involved.

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Up in the Air

Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 7 February 2010 05:43 (A review of Up in the Air)

Up in the Air is a very good, almost great, film. With George Clooney playing a variation of the public persona he has built up, not to be confused with the real person, it offers him a chance to act as charming and roguish as one could possibly wish. He never fails to deliver, even if his performance requires no real “heavy lifting” scenes, he manages to find the layers in this man. And he keeps those complicated and messy emotions always swimming underneath the surface, never wanting to crack the surface with a hint of tension or deep thought. Here is the story of a man who has isolated himself from real relationships being forced to look at his life, for once. He is a man who is married to his job, and not much else occurs in his life.

This is where Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, so perfect in their totally opposite roles but never ringing a false note. Kendrick plays a young upstart at the company Clooney works for who comes along and decides to update and shake up the system. No longer will Clooney be the road warrior, he will become the man who fires you over Skype. Upgrade? Downgrade? I’m not quite sure. But she’s perky, smart and slightly adrift in her life. (I related to her the most.) Meanwhile, Vera Farmiga is Clooney’s fellow frequent flyer, with whom he has a casual sexual relationship. She is warm, intelligent and utterly deceptive. That she plays her blossoming romance scenes with such conviction only makes the big reveal that much more heartbreaking.

Jason Reitman has yet to make a film that I haven’t liked, but this, to me, might just be his film that entertained me the least. The fierce intelligence of Juno and the blackest of black humor of Thank You for Smoking were more enthralling. I felt my attention waning at times during Up in the Air. One more trip through the editing room could have made that easy to fix. But it’s slightly complicated. Unlike with Dr. Parnassus, I cannot pinpoint exact spots where the movie felt long and like it needed to be tightened up. I just know that when I walked out that was my one grievance.

And for the record, I liked the ending.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 7 February 2010 05:43 (A review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button falls into two distinct camps: a sense of love and admiration despite its flaws, or a complete and utter sense of hatred and contempt. I don’t understand the latter and fall, very much, into the former. I loved Benjamin Button from the opening shots of the Warner Brothers logo as buttons to the final glimpse of the clock stored away in some shed quickly filling with water. I was teary eyed and stumbled out confused about what I had seen, but knowing that I had seen something quite absorbing. Even, dare I say it, haunting and resonant. From the very beginning to the very end Benjamin Button is all about the ephemeral nature of life, love, time and death.

Benjamin himself might reside in the title, but he is not the main character of interest. Benjamin is doomed to forever be an outsider, a lone wanderer drifting through casually observing but never fully participating. Why do I say this? Because of his extremely odd condition – born an infant, but with all the physical problems of old age, he will age normally in his mental state but will return to an infant form with his mind having suffered the ravages of old age. He was born outside of time, in a sense. Or, at least, how we have come to understand the operation of time. This is his story, but it is refracted and shown to us from several different points of view.

And that is where the astoundingly gifted supporting players come into play. Tilda Swinton, Jared Hess, Taraji P. Henson and Julia Ormond are all fantastic across the board, despite limited screen time. This story mostly belongs to Benjamin and Daisy and where their lives intersect, diverge and run parallel to each others. While it may cover the entirety of Benjamin’s life, this is primarily a fairy tale, an epic fantasy about two people born to be together, but prevented from fully committing because of life’s natural chaos.

And what of that aging premise, which has caused so many to lash out against the movie? You either buy into it going along with the logic involved in the film or you don’t. Does no one have any more room left for a sense of whimsy? Yes, Benjamin Button is obsessed with death from the very start, but there is an enchantment to be had. At least, I felt like there was. (There is a vague reason given for his condition, something about a clock that runs in reverse, but that would require an intimate understanding of the Chaos theory and a leap of faith.)

I have spent a lot of time describing the plot devices and the emotions they gave me and have spoken very little about the stunning visuals. For shame! The movie is beautiful to behold. It’s as special effects heavy as any of the brain dead action movies that populate the summer, but there’s one key difference: this has a brain and something to say. The ideas are messy, complicated and it might not be as effectively communicated as they could have been. But when was the last time a big Hollywood production went this weird?

And those last shots of an aged Daisy bending down to kiss a toddler-sized Benjamin break my heart and bring a tear to my eye every time. That’s pure emotion without the cloy sentimentality of the overrated Forrest Gump, which this resembles in structure but not in tone. Fincher hits too dark and fights against sloppy emotionality quite often. It might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but I wanted Benjamin Button to pull an upset on the overrated Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards.

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Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:39 (A review of Charade)

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, great, glamorous movie stars and fantastic actors, meet up for a genre-bending masterpiece of the emerging 60s spy/secret agent cinema. With equal parts suspense-thriller, fluffy romance and dark comedy, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are allowed to be sexy, dangerous and goofy in equal parts. But this isn’t just a showcase for two of cinema’s greatest icons, this is a tightly structured, exceptionally well-written film. Charade is one of the greatest movies of all-time.

Once I saw the swirling arrows and color bars that animate the opening credits courtesy of Saul Bass, and heard the Henry Mancini score, I knew I was going to be in for quite a treat. Immediately after that Hepburn’s elegant beauty, intelligence and considerable skills and style filled the screen. I was entranced. She looked glamorous even when stuffing her face. Then a gun enters the frame, it turns out that it’s filled with water, but it showed me that this would be a film of tonal shifts and playing with expectations. And so it is. Who is who and who they are allied with changes at a break neck pace. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’re told something new and everything changes. Or does it? Can we really be all that sure? This is why Charade gets dubbed the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. But it has its own flavor. Lighter than North by Northwest, less male ego-centric and slut-sexuality than the Bond franchise, it plays like a screwball comedy. But a hint of malice and danger is thrown in for good measure.

Grant and Hepburn aren’t the only actors doing the heavy-lifting but making it look effortless. They’re joined by James Coburn, George Kennedy and Walter Matthau – each hitting the appropriate tone between kitsch and seriousness. And, naturally, each is after a MacGuffin. In this case, a large sum of money which has gone missing, Hepburn’s dead-husband was the last person to know its whereabouts. She is assumed to also know where it is, and so each positions himself to gain access to her and obtain the money, if she dies along the away, so be it. Except for Cary Grant…maybe. The night time rooftop fight scene between Grant and Kennedy is pretty shocking considering that this features Cary Grant. The man who’s very image is the concept of a handsome and charming movie star in real danger, or as close to it as this dark chocolate treat will get to it.

It isn’t just the acting and the script that makes Charade so memorable, it’s the Mancini score. It was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award, and it helps set the tone(s) for the film. Charade has everything going for it. While Grant, Matthau and Hepburn have all passed away, they continue to radiate as brightly, buoyantly as they did when this film was new in 1963.

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The Good, The Bad & the Ugly

Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:36 (A review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

Sergio Leone’s Italian spaghetti Western epic is one of the greatest pieces of purely visual storytelling. There’s very little dialogue, but there’s plenty of music and atmosphere to set the scene and provide the emotions. It’s like a great silent film that’s been filmed in color. This isn’t a John Wayne style Western in which we can easily tell who is good, who is bad and who is going to win in the end. Anyone could die at any minute, and there is no real hero to speak of. The Good, The Bad & the Ugly is a stark and tough piece of art.

Clint Eastwood plays the Man With No Name, probably dubbed as such because throughout this vague trilogy his name changes in each film. He is not a character so much as an archetype, which I think appears in some variation in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Eastwood, naturally, is the “good.” Lee Van Cleef is the “bad” of the title. And Eli Wallach, in full on comic relief-with-a-razor’s-edge mode, is the “ugly.”

The plot concerns the three men searching for a fortune in long-lost Civil War gold. But who cares about the plot when the film is so rich in brutal and stripped images. And at three hours long, the film veers wildly into unrelated subplots, such as the prologue. This is a film of ideas and images, not a narrative. There is nothing wrong with that when it retains a certain hard won artistic vitality and keeps your interest. Those vast desert vistas which seem to extend on and on forever aren’t pretty in any conventional sense of the word, but they are a certain kind of pleasing to the eye.

Leone paints with a cinematic brush that alternates between the widest of shots of panoramic beauty and the most claustrophobic of close-ups. There is broad humor and scenes of horrific and graphic violence and bloodshed. Much like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch from the same era, it repeatedly showcases throughout the film: that violence is not glamorous, it has consequences and it is a bloody affair. The western tropes and stereotypes are given a fresh, new, exciting life in The Good, The Bad & the Ugly.

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It Started in Naples

Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:35 (A review of It Started in Naples)

It Started in Naples is not a great movie in either Clark Gable’s or Sophia Loren’s resume, but it is a breezy, flirty fun piece of fluffy entertainment. The barebones plot goes a little something like this: Gable comes to Naples to settle some business involving his dead brother’s son, who is being raised by his fiery, passionate, earthy aunt, Loren. They meet, and everything seems to be going perfectly well until they begin to argue about raising the boy and who is he better off living with. Gable doesn’t like that Loren is a nightclub singer/performer whose odd hours and anything-goes lifestyle offer little discipline and structure for the boy. Do I really need to explain what happens next? Or even how it ends? But the megawatt star power radiating from Clark Gable could elevate any old piece of dreck. And Sophia Loren’s two nightclub sequences show that she had wiggles, jiggles and curves in all of the right places. They also showed that she could be effortless funny, charming and sublime. You don’t watch something like It Started in Naples for the plot, this is pure movie star charisma. Sit back and enjoy it. I know that I did.

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The Odd Couple

Posted : 8 years, 2 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:35 (A review of The Odd Couple)

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are, in my opinion, one of the greatest comedic duos of all-time. Lemmon’s mania, neurosis and jitteriness is offset by the crusty, cranky and endearing Matthau in The Odd Couple. The Odd Couple offers up two great performances from two of my favorite funny men, who were not so secretly very versatile and could play practically anything. It never quite overcomes it’s stage origins, and it seems bound to recreating the conventions, sets and staging of its theatrical run. It’s not a bad adaptation by any means, but it never reaches the glorious heights of, say, A Streetcar Named Desire which moved past its stage origins to become a great film.

The story concerns two men going through a second bachelorhood. Matthau has been divorced for quite some time, and Lemmon is just starting the process. Lemmon’s character is not one who can deal with fluctuations in his personal life, or much of anything really. Fearing for his mental health and general well-being, his friends decide that the best possible course of action would be for him to move in with Matthau. Naturally, hilarity ensues. Like when the two British girls who live upstairs come down for drinks and swinging good time, in theory. Or when they go out to a diner and Lemmon insists on clearing his sinuses. Lemmon and Matthau give it their all, and they must be commended for their great performances.

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