Wednesday, December 05, 2007

As I Am - Alicia Keys

An artist’s sound is something which defines their music. It places them within a genre, giving them a general market base, and making the records more accessible for the mere peasantry of consumers today. Groups such as Goldie Lookin’ Chain (GLC) have very much achieved grounding in the ever flourishing genre of White Welsh Comedy Rap, and ‘Nu-Ravers’ The Klaxons simply invented a misspelt genre of noise so as to dominate what they seem to think is a scene.

Alicia Keys has led and inspired many female artists in the RnB genre with her inclusion of soft melodic piano orientated tunes, something which has been quite a refreshing escape from the bottomless pit of RnB pop artists, where some cretin producer churns out a so called album in a day by sampling/stealing various sound clips from other people’s songs and having it mixed down in garage band (after just buying a Mac and making the most of his new free software). As I Am is Keys’ third studio instalment, and it isn’t surprising that there’s sign of a new sound direction after six years and worldwide album sales of twenty-six million. This move is the perfect example of questioning whether a change is worthwhile after such success with a certain format.

The album really shines and flourishes when Keys finds herself in her comfort zone of soft and soulful piano melodies. ‘Like You’ll Never See Me Again’ and ‘Prelude To A Kiss’ are the types of songs which melt your brain with an amalgamation of lyrics, music and composition and make you wish that that whole album was similar. The other standout track similar to this is ‘Lesson Learned’, co-written with pop/blues guitarist John Mayer, which has ‘Grammy Award Winning Hit’ garnished all over it, with an extra layer of hatred of the perfection that such a song could create.

I have to admit now that overall I prefer Keys’ older records over her latest release. The record is a good release and incredibly worthy of purchasing, however it seems to lack a clear grounding in what and even where it’s trying to place itself amongst other artists. Parts of it such as the immensely satisfying and catchy ‘Teenage Love Affair’ keep the music within its pop roots; capturing the excitement and fun of young love. However, other tracks such as ‘Go Ahead’, and ‘No One’ seem more droning rather than catchy, which effectively makes them kind of unmemorable and possibly even goes as far as to class themselves as ‘filler tracks’, which surely isn’t quite the idea when they are so obviously supposed to be quite standout songs on the album. They remind you of RnB divas such as Mary J Blige and Whitney Houston, and the comparison can even be heard in the vocals in places, which frankly aren’t suited to Keys’ vocals, resulting in what is effectively a moan.

John Mayer best described the album before it came out in one of his blogs where he stated it as ‘brave’. Everything about this is true and you have to commend Keys for trying out something different knowing some parts will be successful and other parts less so. The album is in no way perfect, and many of the chord progressions featured have been accomplished before elsewhere in music, however there remains a large listenable factor to the record as a whole, and despite it’s imperfections I find myself constantly listening to it. The record’s imperfections aren’t failures but more foundations of better things to come once refined. I just hope she avoids the soul power ballad diva within her, because if that’s unleashed...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Grindhouse - Extended & Unrated

Original Grindhouse double feature movies of the 70s were notoriously abysmal. Containing fantastically flawed plots, scripts that made you want to hammer nails into your own ears, and special effects with such a blatant low budget that it was just plain embarrassing. They did however have a certain charm to them, achieving cult status amongst movie buffs, and providing such an infamous cinematic experience that the likes of Hollywood directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez would want to recreate it. The original concept for Grindhouse was to have an exact emulation of this with Planet Terror by Rodriguez, and Death Proof by Tarantino running back to back, even with adverts for other fake movies in-between. Unfortunately in US cinemas the desired acclaim wasn’t exactly achieved. The reception was in fact so bad that both movies were separated from each other, and then given an extended cut before release on DVD in the US and in theatres anywhere else in the world. Annoyingly that means this review is only based upon the extended cuts, though they were viewed back to back in some hope of keeping them both in their original context. Even more annoyingly the spoof trails which appeared in-between the two features were happily removed, just to rub it in the faces of those who couldn’t quite make it out to America to see the theatrical run...thanks Quentin.

Part of the apparent magic of Grindhouse that’s important to mention is the way both movies were presented. Both opened with the original ‘Feature about to start’ splash screens which though unnecessary, simply felt cool and set the tone and even setting quite appropriately. Planet Terror has been given considerable ‘ageing’ to its film and scratches were ridden over the film. Colours were slightly faded and it seems Rodriguez anyway managed to create the desired effect of having the viewer think they were watching a film actually made in the 70s. Death Proof was presented with a much cleaner picture to the point where half way through the movie it seems Tarantino completely forgot what it was his project was about, turned off the ‘age’ filter leaving the audience to watch the second half of an incredibly failed movie with nothing to distract them from it...thanks Quentin.

Planet Terror was easily the stronger of the two features and it suffered the least when having another 25 minutes of footage pumped and maimed into it, all to produce a viable standalone release to further the fuelling of the Jacuzzi of dirty money residing at Quentin’s place. The story sees Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) conveniently reunited with ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodríguez) on the same night that Sayid From Lost (Naveen Andrews) unleashes a deadly green coloured bio-weapon into the unsuspecting night. Once the virus is let loose the protagonists form a band of generic stereotypes to fight off the infected Zombies and find a safe haven to start anew. It’s hard to talk about the faults of the movie as many were deliberate for effect. Thankfully this provided character and humour to the movie, with a highly entertaining tongue-in-cheek script and directive style that I might go as far to say places the movie on a par with the rather brilliant craption parody Hot Fuzz. Highlights included missing reels, a gun-ho destruction of waves of zombies and a child being shot in the face.

Low points came in two forms. Firstly the fact that it was impossible to tell when exactly the movie is supposed to be set. For about half the movie I assumed everything was taking place in the 70s, however suddenly none other than Fergie (of Black Eyed Peas fame) and a few of the other characters had somehow obtained some Blackberrys. A bit too suspect to not ignore and achieved in taking me out of the movie a bit. The same issue arose in Death Proof though only in the first half. The other low point came at moments nearing the end of the film where the extended cut kicks in and makes the movie possibly feel a little too extended. None other than our pal Quentin pops up to show off his acting skillz in a scene which is quite unnecessary and develops neither the plot nor the movie generally so...thanks Quentin, failure number three.

Talking of Quentin... After sitting through the particularly satisfying zombie romp we come to the self-indulgent, reference heavy, overlong, poorly written, badly acted piece of annoyance otherwise known as ‘Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof’. These words may seem harsh but I honestly struggled to stay awake through all the endless dialogue given to characters I frankly cared so little about I prayed that my efforts in trying to watch them would finally be rewarded with Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) killing the bitches in his car. The premise of the tale is that Kurt Russell spends time stalking women who he then kills by smashing into with his ‘Death Proof’ stunt car whilst they unsuspectingly drive along, fairly simple for someone like Tarantino to do well you would think...
The incredibly drawn out 114 minutes is split into two acts following two different groups of women. But already this seems wrong, as the viewer gets no sense of Mike’s sadistic serial ways presented to them if they only ever see two groups and not more, even as an introduction. Instead we are given a scene in between the two acts where two characters tell the audience the precise plotline of the movie, even though it’s so staggeringly obvious that you could avoid the movie altogether and still convince someone you’d seen it. Quentin makes a point of appearing in one of his own movies once again with a performance as the bartender, who despite having nothing wrong with him didn’t make me warm to his movie any more.

The acting was a case of swings and roundabouts and Kurt Russell’s performance was easily the best thing in it to the point where he claims it to be one of the best characters he’s ever played. It’s just a real disappointment that he’s onscreen for so little of the movie. The girls in act one did a better job all round and I found them considerably less annoying to watch, even if they did too much talking and not enough dying. The real blood curdling enragement came in full force in act 2, where every single one of the four girls failed in all possible ways. The worst offenders were Tracie Thoms and Zoe Bell. Thoms character has been written as the most stereotypical black person ever known to mankind, and every one of her lines felt unnecessary, unrealistic and just plain annoying as she provided idiotic ‘black’ wisecracks to nothing in general. Zoe Bell interestingly played herself in the movie, and had her part written especially for her by Tarantino, who felt after years of her acting as a stuntwoman in his movies she deserved an acting role. Unfortunately for Zoe the girls she hangs out with in this fictitious life are obviously much younger than her and not Australian, making her stick out somewhat. It’s also noticeable that Zoe is in fact a stuntwoman and not an actress. It’s possible she doesn’t usually speak for a reason... but I wont lay too much into her as there’s no chance I would ever be caught hanging myself off of the front of a Challenger in a high speed car chase, so she deserves some positive thought.

Quentin surprisingly didn’t appear in the second act which was disappointing if anything after he managed to wangle himself in at opportune moments, though maybe he realised his movie was so ridden with references to his other movies to make himself and other Tarantino fanboys salivate to the point of drooling that is effectively destroyed what could have well been a good movie...thanks Quentin.

It seems that both movies suffered from the corporate decision to separate and extend them and I feel that taking them out of their original context makes the movies much harder to ‘get’ and appreciate. I say that especially for Death Proof where it just felt like there was no point to the movie at all, except for an overly glorified advert for all previous Tarantino movies. Hopefully the original cuts in their full Grindhouse form will be made available for viewing pleasure someday, but then again we’ve been kept waiting for ‘Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair’ for the past four years, now finally being released on Nov 6th

...thanks Quentin.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Knocked Up - Unrated Edition

Judd Apatow is still a fairly unknown name to general moviegoers. If however I were to say that he has been responsible for recent comedy classics such as ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’, ‘Anchorman’ and ‘Superbad’ you would see he’s worth giving some attention to, even if it’s the smallest amount. The comedy frat pack of Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn and many others may have dominated the comedy scene since the late 90s. However it seems that their comedic misadventures are becoming a little tired of late, and the child friendly ‘Night At The Museum’ proved that perhaps its time for ringleader Stiller to do the humane thing and step outside the museum for a second with some whisky and a firearm of sorts. Luckily for the viewing public, Apatow has dived in to save the day for comedy… even though no one’s really noticed yet.

Similarly to ’40 Year Old Virgin’, the title of ‘Knocked Up’ has implications that its contents could well be jam-packed with immature jokes centred around a generally vulgar theme. However as ’40 Year Old Virgin’ proved this is not the case at all, and the film is in fact quite a ‘grown-up’ comedy. Ben (Seth Rogen) is an unemployed loser, who after a one night stand with beautiful blonde Alison (Katherine Heigl) finds her eight weeks later claiming that she’s pregnant with his child and intending to keep the baby. To Alison this seems like the end of her life. To Ben it’s the opportunity to turn his life around and prove himself as a sweet, decent and most importantly responsible guy.

The story is simplistic and this is I believe to be one of the strong points to Apatow’s movies. As great as ‘Zoolander’ was, some feedback from people (generally idiots) were that it was amusing however they didn’t really seem to get it. A prime example would be this prick…
Shoot yourself in the foot. This would be better than watching ZOOLANDER. Better yet, pay someone $3.95 to do it. Or burn the money, that's still good because you can enjoy the few seconds of flame. But do not watch this. It will devour your soul. It is a movie that makes me want to puke until I am dead.’ Interestingly he only gave it one star out of ten on imdb, and even that surprises me as something about his comment makes me feel he didn’t like it…

The movie’s simplicity also seemingly adds to the realism of the tale, and the audience thankfully doesn’t bare witness to a heart-warming montage, resulting in the transformation of Ben into a gentleman and Alison into loving him. The relationships Ben and Alison and even the characters around them have suffer problems, and it’s something that rarely is achieved realistically in movies. Usually the young, good looking badboy-turned-ponce (through montage) will accidentally return to his old ways resulting in ‘the end’. After a short fifteen minute reality check (also through montage) resulting in some sickening public act of affection such as a poem, or degradation in front of a mass public regains her love, not only achieving this but also a longer running time and apparent realism to the story. Fantastic! Thankfully in ‘Knocked Up’ this is not the case.

Rogen has shown people that he is very capable of playing cameo roles in past movies, and I was dubious as to whether he would manage the same when playing a lead. However the on screen chemistry and dynamic between both him and Heigl is undeniable and incredibly watchable. Both leading actors have come from recent television backgrounds and it’s refreshing to see some new faces in comedy. Rogen perhaps more experienced and in his element after both writing and starring in Saturday Night Live, however the decision to take Heigl away from the dramatic and disease ridden world of Gray’s Anatomy appears a very good one, and it fits her character well.

Overall ‘Knocked Up’ is a tour-de-force blend of comedy with more realism than you would expect. This and the addition of great casting and the Apatow brandname show more than one reason for this not to be missed. Though it may not appeal to everyone (people who liked Babel), it can still stand proud as great encouragement to me and those like me that we still have a general hope in life of finding Miss Right… even if all it takes is an ‘accidental’ impregnation forcing them to find the inner beauty within me.

…Time to start hitting the clubs.

Monday, October 01, 2007

KT Tunstall Drastic Fantastic

Maroon 5 reappeared back in May after a few years out, with what was overall a disappointing second album, overproduced and crafted to appeal very much more to the pop loving crowd who have This Love as their ringtone. The curse of overproduction on second albums has been a worry for bands over many years, and despite the brilliance of Coldplay’sA Rush of Blood to the Head’, I can understand what people mean when they say to me that it was overproduced.

KT Tustall is unfortunately another name to add to the list of those who have been haunted by a vast layering of instruments glossing themselves across their new repertoire, and her resulting ‘Drastic Fantastic’ really is the paradox it labels itself as. The record does feature some likeable and good songs, however the only problem is that it takes at least three or four listens of the thing before you can scratch away at the polished pop surface to find their merits. Those familiar with her first album will know her for her pop/folk/acoustic guitar/singer songwriter amalgamation which was not only successful but also in fact very good. It was refreshing to see something which hadn’t been tainted with the pop factory magic wand and the rawness of the vocal and guitar combination showed emotion and meaning in what was being sung no matter how lyrically deep. It would seem that overall one track succeeds in re-achieving this and unfortunately ‘Funnyman’ is also the shortest song of the twelve, only to then be followed by the popiest track of them all.

Hold On’ is coincidentally the single accompanying the record, and contains the generic strumming rhythm of Satan which has graced our ears all year with the never ending abyss of ‘indie bands’ who all have the word ‘The’ at the beginning of their name. It seems very much like it’s been written for the sole purpose of being the single and a way of enticing more buyers because it sounds like that other song they like. It just seems disappointing that the song was deemed necessary to include. I don’t wish to get political about the music industry; however to me it really seems that this release focuses much more on creating a mass buying audience thanks to general interference from the record’s producer.

If in search of more of the KT Tunstall you were a great fan of from Eye to the Telescope then I wouldn’t recommend this record. Instead I would point you in the direction of the very low brow release of ‘KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza’. Like ‘Drastic Fantastic’ the title of ‘Acoustic Extravaganza’ is in fact an accurate description of its audio contents, and the track list features unreleased B-Sides and selected tracks from Eye to the Telescope performed live with a small acoustic band. It fills in all the missing gaps that are ridden within Drastic Fantastic and overall is a much more satisfactory listen, which doesn’t need multiple listens before you actually begin to enjoy it.

Long live the list of overproduced mediocrity!