Friday, November 27, 2015

Music Review: 25

Album Review

Adele - 25

Release date: November 20, 2015
Label: XL Recordings

Summary: The powerful songstress from Tottenham is back in full force, and though her homage to moving on in late adulthood isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as it could have been, Adele’s undeniable vocal strength shines in every somber, soulful track.

Four years ago, Adele’s cathartic and solid album 21 erupted onto a totally unprepared music scene like a belting volcano, drowning her contemporaries in the sheer majesty of her voice and the strength of her plaintive lyricism.  Riding the Contemporary R&B wave, this blue-eyed soul singer swept the 2012 GRAMMY Awards, netting a record-tying 6 awards, including Artist of the Year.  However, instead of following-up immediately on her phenomenal success, Adele took a three-year hiatus from the music biz, breaking only to compose the Academy Award-winning “Skyfall” for the eponymous 2012 James Bond film.  The drought finally ended with the release of the breathtaking “Hello” in late October.  The reaction was overwhelming, with the song practically lionized by the music industry as the official music video racked up over 400,000,000 views on YouTube in less than a month.  So with all this outpouring of praise and anticipation, does the final product live up to the hype surrounding it?  Well, yes and no: yes, in that the vocals and sincerity are as superb as one would expect from Adele, but it often sounds indistinguishable from previous efforts, the promise of cap-stoning her musical Bildungsroman never quite materializing in most of the tracks.

The lead single “Hello,” of course, needs not introduction, setting the tone of the album and ultimately standing out as its most powerful song.  This classic ballad drips with regret over a failed relationship, appearing to all the world as the mature follow up to her signature “Somebody Like You.”  But beyond its poignant message is Adele’s commanding vocal range, stretching across multiple cords, all in tune with the piano’s melodic rise and fall.  “Hello” is that rare song with the power to carry an entire album on its own, and if everything else in 25 had been sub-par, it would be worth getting the album just to hear this searching ode in its full, uninterrupted glory.

Still, while the musicianship on the album is a testament to Adele’s continuing maturity as an artist, its content still sounds like more of the same.  Tracks like “Send My Love,” with its upbeat, almost popish rhythms, and the somber, reflective “When We Were Young” hit all of the right notes - and heartstrings - but will undoubtedly feel very familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity of her corpus.  This isn't a bad thing, mind you, as Adele’s stratospheric vocals are nearly immune to anything mediocre.  But with the glimmer of lyrical maturity hinted in “Hello,” I’d hoped that the British songwriter would show a bit more inventiveness, especially with an array of talent as diverse as Bruno Mars, Paul Epworth, and Danger Mouse all contributing to the production.  “A Million Years Ago” is probably the most original track on the record - a calm, Spanish guitar lamentation, punctuated by Adele’s piercing voice at certain emotional peaks, that reminisces on the price of fame and its effect on those who knew her.  Otherwise, 25 is a retread over the same territory forged by 21, and while a few songs like "River Lea" and "Water Under the Bridge" stand out, respectively, for their striking imagery and retro 80s tempo, there's nothing fundamentally adventurous here, and only the most attentive fans will spot the subtle differences between the two albums.

That shouldn’t stop anyone from giving 25 their full attention, though.  Adele is without doubt a once-in-a-generation talent, and while those looking for the much-vaulted maturity this album promised may leave disappointed, fans of this modern siren’s soulful wails of lost love will definitely find reasons to celebrate.

Grade: A-

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Movie Review: Spectre


Movie: Spectre
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux

Unapologetically cliche and gloriously “old school,” the 24th official entry into the Bond film canon doesn’t promise anything groundbreaking, but while it strays into cinema no-nos at times, it still packs enough humor, action, and old-fashioned charm to bring Craig’s run as 007 to a fun, if unimaginative, conclusion.

In depth:
I confess that I've never been much of a James Bond fan.  Far be it from me to deny anyone else their own vicarious pleasure, but I didn’t fall in line with the peculiar brand of wish fulfillment Ian Fleming’s magnum opus had been selling over the decades.  Although Skyfall, with its masterful score and surprising intellectual force, certainly coaxed a bit of interest out of me, I never saw Spectre as one of my “must sees” for this November.  I stormed the movie theater blind, having no expectation,s really, other than the sense that I’m in for an action-packed, meat-headed power fantasy.  And I was right - but as it turns out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Though weighed down by a plethora of minor weaknesses and a startling lack of originality, Spectre by and large delivered a fun, frenetic experience, with the expected charm and strength Daniel Craig commands as 007 on full alert, giving us more than our money’s worth.

We first spy our hero in usual Bond style - trailing an apparent evildoer through a spectacularly rendered Dia de Muertos celebration in Mexico, but not before giving a random woman (and honestly, aren’t they all random?) his obligatory token of affection before heading back out on the case.  What follows is a chase through the crowded Mexico City streets, culminating in our hero clashing with his quarry on a spinning helicopter above the sprawling.  This is where the classic, inordinately-long Bond entrance kicks in, but we’re already given an eye-opening view of what’s to come.  Daniel Craig, of course, stand strong as the supreme spy, indulging in the usual “Bond perks,” without losing one iota of his unflappable manner and surprising wit.  His responses to the random and often humorous happenings in his immediate surroundings - like falling on a conveniently placed couch while a building around him collapses, or pulling a gun-point interrogation on a mouse sneaking into his room - come off as natural and somewhat understated, avoiding the pitfall of overindulgent goofiness.  Every actor leaves his own stamp in this iconic role, and Craig will long be remembered as a man who meshed both tough guy bravado and effortless charm in a way that hasn’t been seen since Sean Connery graced the screen as “Double Oh.”

The rest of the cast left a bit to be desired, but Craig’s command of his role more than made up for it, and in either case they were at least a touch above “just enough.”  The departure of Judi Dench as M in Skyfall left an unfillable void, since she provided a near pitch-perfect foil to the traditional paragon of masculinity that is Bond.  However, the circumstances of her exit in the previous film did help kick off the current plot, giving a reason (however spotty) for Bond’s presence in Mexico.  Ralph Fiennes takes up the mantle of M16’s head in an admirable but rather textbook performance, playing as if he following a master script of beleaguered bosses, with little nuance or personality - an unpleasant surprise, considering the man’s distinguished background and obvious ability.  Unfortunately, he’s not alone, for if I were to leverage a blanket complaint about the actors as a whole other than Craig, it’s that they seemed simply to go through the motions, adding nothing to their characters beyond the bare-minimum demanded by the weight of what they represent in the Bond Mythos.  The beautiful Léa Seydoux, playing Madeleine Swann, the latest “Bond girl” and daughter of an old nemesis, is virtually interchangeable with any of her Seventies-era counterparts, although her chemistry with Craig is palpable, despite the wide gulf separating their births.  The one notable exception to this is Ben Whishew, who plays M16’s long-suffering but ever-reliable quartermaster Q with a delightful blend of awkwardness and subtle smugness that never comes off as irritating, and actually gives him a more natural rapport with Craig than anyone else in the whole film.

In any other movie, such an admission would be tantamount to a dire condemnation, a character-based foulness in the heart of Denmark, but Spectre avoids the consequences of skimping on the character development by dancing a delicate and difficult line in maintaining the status quo without sliding into staleness and decay.  This impressive accomplishment is owed to a rare triumph of plot over character, cemented by the power of the Bond mythology.  The film’s momentum is driven first and foremost by the setting, and the characterizations, though comparatively thin, at least didn’t leave me wailing and gnashing my teeth.  This balancing act would have fallen to pieces were it not for Craig and his magnetic onscreen charisma, or if his co stars had been less than average; as they stood, I was willing - even delighted - to mostly ignore the actors' shortcomings and dive into the film's manic, high-octane world.

And Spectre certainly sanctifies our good faith, putting the pedal to the metal right from the start, bouncing from Mexico City, to the M16 home in London, and Rome, all while pursuing our film’s shadowy antagonist - who turns out to be none other than Ernst Blofeld, the mysterious mastermind behind the eponymous organization who also harbors a “surprising” connection to our film’s hero.  If it seems like I’m skimping a lot on the details, it’s because I am, but trust me - there's little that can’t be seen from a mile away.  Spectre is a movie held and propelled by a startling kinesis, one that defies easy description. The eternally actified Bond moves through his mission with old school zeal and determination, and must literally be seen in order to be fully understood.  In fact, this very celebration of the “old ways” of doing things speaks out in the side plot running congruent with Bond’s mission: M16, perceived as a relic of old-world spying, risks absorption and eventual dissolution into the Joint Intelligence Service.  This leads to M engaging in dimwitted but relevant ideological battle with the  devil-in-plain-sight leader of JIS, C (played by Andrew Scott), who also advocates a technologically-based global surveillance initiative called “Nine Eyes” that will supposedly replace traditional spies like Bond on the field.  This angle in the story is handled in a maddeningly hammy and meat-headed manner, but it isn’t shoved down the viewer’s gullet, serving only to contrast the (admittedly romanticized) fun and adventure found in Bond’s unrepentantly "classic" style of espionage with the cold, sterile and potentially-abusive threat posed by more “up-to-date” methods.

Just as Spectre succeeds despite its relatively weak characters, it also somehow manages to avoid stumbling over its many other flaws; it goes without saying that there is a lot to pick apart in this film, especially its pacing at some points.  Part of the downside for being such an action-oriented flick is that the stretches between the gunfights and fisticuffs feel that much longer, though I personally didn’t find this to be an issue for most of the movie.  More notable is the polarization strewn from its self-consciously old-school flavor.  The treatment of Seydoux’s character, the blandly avuncular showing by Fiennes’ M, along with the mandatory displays of hypermasculinity, might not sit well many modern audiences - nor, I imagine, would the old-fashioned extended torture sequences that’ll have you screaming “Why don’t you just shoot him?!” at the tops of your lungs.  These are legitimate critiques, and should be weighed in any debate regarding Spectre’s cinema mettle.  However, these disturbances are minor annoyances at their very worst, and the film was so linear in its direction that even the wonky pacing between fight scenes was far less painful than if this had been a less dynamic movie.

I came into this movie as a relative 00-novice, with mostly the older works for my reference besides Skyfall, so I might not reflect the reactions of someone who grew up with or participated in the mythology on a more continuous level.  Still, for all the cliches embedded into its thick-headed veneer,  there is a firm, pitch-perfect action flick pulsing beneath, and one that hardly misses a beat where it really counts.  It may not be the best Bond film ever, or even recently, but as long as you withhold your judgements, its energetic plot will carry you along for one wild ride.

Grade: B

Thursday, November 5, 2015

November Releases

 November Releases

We all know it's that special time of the month again.  There are a lot of big-name releases this time around, like the new Bond movie and the triumphant(?) return of Peanuts to the national consciousness.  On the television front, Aziz Ansari's pilot project Master of None is set to debut on Netflix, as well as AMC's Into the Badlands, a martial arts drama that looks like the bastard child of Mad Max and Lone Wolf and Cub.  And of course, every dedicated RPG gamer on the planet is geared up for the release of Fallout 4 in just a few short days.  With all this and more, November's going to be a very interesting, and very entertaining, month.






See you at the movies!