Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Strumbellas' 'Hope' Is a Definite Step Forward in Folk Rock

 Album Review

The Strumbellas - Hope

Release Date: April 22, 2016
Label: Glassnote

Summary: This genre-bending, alt-country outfit from Canada breaks the airwaves in a huge way with their third studio album Hope, aiming for a bigger and more mainstream sound that bulls-eyes on most of the tracks, even if they sacrifice a little musical diversity in the process.

For most of us here in the states, The Strumbellas are a complete blank, an indie folk rock sextet who moseyed into town atop
 their ethereal hit single "Spirits."  But these lone wanderers have a warm home in their native Canada, snagging a Juno Award in 2014 and enjoying a strong and loyal fanbase.  But now these small-town heroes are looking to leave a bigger mark on the world stage, and with help from the indie label Glassnote, they're bringing a bigger and more diverse version of their sound to American ears.  The results are a resounding success, a sharp, polished mix of rustic charm and alternative riffs, offering familiarity to loyal fans and a bridge across the musical divide of country and rock.  The tracks can get a little repetitive, kind of like revisiting the same old dusty saloon that, however pleasant on the ears, offers just the same old, same old every time.  That said, lead singer Simon Ward's plaintive voice and wistful storytelling merges with his band's unshakable harmonizing to lift the album far above its trivial redundancy.

No discussion, of course, can proceed without a nod to the lead single, "Spirits."  From Ward's soft-spoken introduction, to the catchy, funkish electric guitar rhythm, to the chimes that add an almost mystical touch, this musical confection seems far and away from either alt-county or folk rock.  Yet it is here that we see the best embodiment of the band's push for more polish, and it all holds together spectacularly.  Its success resides in Ward's searching lyrics that grab the mind with images of guns and spirits, but yield to more contemplative interpretations that, like the spirits themselves, refuse to leave the listener when it's all over.

Ward's lyricism, dripping with metaphors of travel and battles while reflecting profound acts of soul searching, provides the lynchpin for the entirety of the album, holding it together even as the beats and cascading harmonizing starts to get a little old.  To their credit, the band does an excellent job in balancing tradition with innovation - far better than most musicians.  Besides "Spirits," tunes like "We Don't Know" and "I Still Make Her Cry" are undoubtedly new directions - the former held down by the group's talented violinist as synthesizers pry open the sound, while the latter represents the best of yearning piano ballads.  Both, while not major departures from their earlier sound, skips the usual "coffee shop" groove for something more mainstream.  Meanwhile, "Shovels & Dirt" is definitely familiar territory, the classical country twang blending well with the folk collective to tell us a story of change and moving forward.  No matter the genre, the songs all feel as if they belong together, tied by their spine-tingling harmonization and talented instrumentals.  However, this same familiarity is also the one chink in the group's musical armor; once you're hip to the moderate degree of genre shifting, it starts to blend together a little too much.  Nearly everything from "Young & Wild" down sounds very much the same, except "I Still Make Her Cry."  Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; this allows the quality to multiply itself, making the second half of the album smooth listening.  Some of the songs also have a significant amount of padding; even "Shovels & Dirt," one of my personal favorites, devotes a good minute or so to a bridge that, while catchy, feels like it goes on forever.

But these are all minor gripes.  At the end of the day, Hope is a brisk and mature album, filled with smokey images and silver linings, from a band that weaves a beautiful web of life's light and shadows with dynamic instrumentality and old-world lyrical power.

Grade: A

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Bringing Yandere Down to Earth with "Koharu no Hibi"

The perfect mask of sanity here

A year back, I did a review for an interesting little romantic comedy manga called Koharu no Hibi.  You’re free to swing by and revisit that if you want, but it goes without saying that this queer story of an abominable suitor and the unlucky target of her affections was quite the pleasant surprise, despite the premise initially reeking of a rather stale plotline all-too familiar in the anime world.  Let's be honest - we all know who yandere is; she (and it's almost always a she) is the blank-eyed weirdo creeping outside the window of her unsuspecting target, keeping tabs on his every action and interaction.  Undeniably cute, she's as likely to be a "benign" stalker, as to start every sentence with "If I can't have you...!"  She's also, to be frank, a cheap character type, whose luster had long since worn off due to overuse.  But Koharu was different; what saved it from the bog-standard refuse bin stuffers was the way it sculpted its eponymous female lead. Though the “yandere in love” trope is practically a staple in many features, Koharu departed from the usual script in a number of ways - all of which chipped away at the walls around the archetype that serve to obscure and mystify it, bringing it a little closer to home.

Keeping it “Real”
For one, the series setting is kept low-key and firmly in the real world.  Harem comedies and pessimistic Sci-Fi thrillers are a yandere’s natural habitats - environments that don’t exactly gel with most people’s lived experiences.  Seeing a psycho love freak fire off a giant laser cannon, or dive head-first into a suitor dogpile, is clearly awesome to behold, but hardly stirs fond connections with everyday life.  But Koharu no Hibi’s blasé, after school groove convinced me that, despite its endemic situational weirdness, all of this really could happen; these people, exaggerated and fictionalized as they are, just might exist in some place, though the outcome of such a toxic relationship might pan out in a very different way.  The real clincher is how keeping the setting grounded helped narrow our focus on the characters, making Koharu's antics - humdrum compared to most anime yanderes - look more disturbing as a result.

Maybe Autism - Maybe Just Crazy
But it’s not just the setting - Koharu’s “condition” itself is treated in a rather banal fashion.  To really appreciate this, you have to examine how the anime yandere is usually approached.  Depending on the angle, she could be perfectly reasonable in the right contexts, or totally bat-guano insane at all times; her craziness can be understated and focused only on immediate challenges to her “love,” or blare out at full blast indiscriminately in every direction.  But rarely is the character played with any hint to an underlying disorder - a little reality injected in the psychosis.  True, her off-the-wall lunacy makes her a lot more bearable to the audience - just try to count all the fans who claim they’d “love” to have a yandere girlfriend.  But this suspension of disbelief can easily veer into the absurd, losing all connection to a real human being and morphing into a stock type of the most obnoxious variety.  Koharu largely avoids that; while the possible psychosis underlying her personality isn’t explored in depth, her generally obsessive behavior, among other traits, seem to place her somewhere along “the spectrum.”  That might be reaching beyond what the story’s giving us, but I don’t think it’s too farfetched, and even then, her lack of empathy and “handicapped” ability to connect with others is refreshingly down-to-earth.  

Wait - She Did WHAT!?
But the best thing about Koharu’s particular case of muted madness is the reaction it draws from everyone around her - especially her hapless “bae,” Akira.  I already sung (or hummed, in either case) this guy’s praises in the review for departing from the standard setting protagonist on a number of counts, but most relevant here is how he does NOT take Koharu’s shit lying down.  I don’t mean in the constantly scared-shitless way, like certain other characters around their demented love interests.  Akira isn’t afraid to confront Koharu on her weirdness when she gets out of hand, and constantly evaluates both the depth and extent of her possible threat to others.  Not that he doesn’t get a little terrified of her, mind you; any normal man in that situation should be checking over his shoulder every hour or so, just in case she decides to surprise him with another expression of her “love.”  But that’s exactly the point.  Akira is a normal man, in a relatively normal setting, dealing with a girl whom, while obviously one crow short of a murder, isn’t gaudy or exceptional in any way.  I still have a hard time joining this wonderfully mundane interpretation of the yandere romance with its hurried conclusion, but overall it presents a nice model for anyone trying to deconstruct the ”my crazy girlfriend” handle in a sane manner.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Hardcore Henry" is Mostly a Blood-splattered Snoozefest

"First they made him dangerous.  Then he made us blow chunks."

Movie: Hardcore Henry
Director: Ilya Naishuller
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett

A gesture of love to the first-person shooter crowd, this joint Russian-American production promises a new vision of action movies, but only delivers a choppy gimmick, devoid of all thought, purpose, or meaning, with only its black humor and the surprising charm of Sharlto Copley to hold the descent into “hardcore” failure.

In depth:
As a youth, I admit that I never took part in the digitized blood sport of first-person shooters.  Except for some playing around with Portal 2 and GoldenEye 007, I’ve been largely left cold by the worlds of Doom, Half-Life, and the like.  So maybe I’m not the best person to judge Hardcore Henry, which clearly speaks to the Xbox fans who gleefully tuck away 15 hours behind a Halo marathon and a stack of pizza boxes.  But one’s personal experiences shouldn’t dictate whether or not a movie grabs you, and I came into Henry with an open mind.  Unfortunately, this very “openness” left me quite vulnerable, for I can’t possibly count the brain cells I must have lost over those 96 minutes.  Hardcore Henry, far from being the “groundbreaking new experience” as advertised, is simply another brain-dead action sink - which would still be enjoyable had it not been for some very poor choices on the part of the film makers in direction, characterization, and the assembly of anything like a plot.

Our story takes place at some point in the future, where our hero (that’s you, if you hadn’t guess it) is floating in the obligatory Vat of Ambiguous Healing Liquid that’s a mainstay of modern Sci Fi.  He’s greeted by the beautiful scientist Estelle (Bennett), who brings the audience and the amnesiac Henry - same thing, really - up to speed: they were husband and wife, but a tragic accident required that he be rebuilt a la Bionic Man style.  After a few touching moments together, the happy couple is interrupted by Akan (Kozlovsky), a telekinetic madman who apparently funded Estelle’s operations in the hope of obtaining a cybernetic super soldier in return.  Things don’t pan out as he expected, and Henry, after a daring escape, finds himself separated from his wife and on the run from Akan’s paramilitary thugs.  With no memories and no clue as to who he is, Henry has to rely on his brutal killer instincts and a mysterious ally (Copley) to carve a bloody path back to his wife.

Best part of waking up

I’d only be exaggerating a little if I told you that my summary is about half as substantial as the movie’s own plot.  Hardcore Henry is paper-thin, even by the lax standards of the videos game genre it so faithfully apes.  To be fair, though, that isn't really a problem; it's meant to be an ode to fast, frantic, gloriously nihilistic, grindhouse violence.  No one walks into something like this expecting Citizen Kane, and anyone above a minimum level of squeamishness and the cliche storm will get a sure-fire kick out of Henry’s increasingly violent escapades.  The first person viewpoint initially adds to the thrill, for along with streamlining audience focus and putting us up close and personal with the action, it also lets us live vicariously through every gun blast and knife wound he inflicts.  Henry is a wronged man, and we’re no doubt supposed to get a sick kick out of seeing our collective avatar deliver vengeance on every baddie in sight.

But it doesn’t take long for weariness and boredom to set in.  The “inventive” cinematography trick soon reveals itself to be just that - a trick, a cheap gimmick that, while fun and interesting the first half hour or so, quickly gets old.  And nauseating; I began feeling dizzy no later than the twenty minute mark, and between the constant motion sickness and the buckets of blood spilling every other second, my stomach was screaming obscenities at me and the screen by the time it was over.  This could have been kept to a tolerable level had there been anything in front of us or in the script to hold our attentions, but the first major flaw in Naishuller’s film making soon reared its ugly head.  Beyond the first-person schtick, there really isn’t anything to this movie.  While the unique view gives us an enticing tunnel vision that could, in the right hands, be exploited for any number of shenanigans, the script is too weak to make any use of it.  “Predictable” doesn’t even begin to describe it; the story’s practically transparent, which removes any sense of anticipation, dread, or interest beyond seeing the next blood fountain.  For the more discerning action fan, this can be quite the deal breaker, since it turns the whole thing into a monotonous dancing bear circus: a mind-numbing, hyper-linear and poorly-written dime-store shoot ‘em up, with only one trick to nudge it above the rest of its miserable herd.

You'd think the pliers would be enough
This cinema torpidity rests on the film’s all-too successful mimicking of the video game experience.  Too many scenes feel stretched out just to boost the body count; too much time is devoted to long chase sequences and literally dizzying battles that do everything to shove the action down your throat, but nothing to bite back the apathy sure to creep in with so much senseless slaughter.  You might argue that this was all intentional, a “stylistic” suckiness that’s all part of the masquerade.  And in part, you’d be right.  Hardcore Henry's signature grace is that it doesn’t take itself seriously, wrapping much of its absurdity in a fine linen of black comedy.  The endless violence and crudeness, while excessive to certain tastes, is so over-the-top that it’s practically farce, and gives it a delightfully grindhouse humor that makes the otherwise offensive or sickening series of events more bearable.  But alas, even this sprinkling of dark humor is more silly than smart - at times juvenile or downright insulting, at others, too stupid to even laugh at.  Big bad Akan was a perfect example, with Kozlovsly’s acting equal parts wooden and clownish, and nearly everyone else was completely forgettable.  

The sole exception is Jimmy, Henry’s one true, if somewhat dubious, ally, played by Sharlto Copley.  It’s hard to say anything about this guy without spoiling him, but he’s the only bandage on this gaping wound of a plot.  Copley, by the nature of his role, had to wear multiple hats, and he did so with style and flare, jumping naturally into each and every one of his character's many incarnations with ease.  With Henry being a rank mute, Jimmy was the prime source of the film’s comedy, the instigator and sustainer of its “plot,” and all-around the most pleasant thing on screen at any given moment.  He’s even the center of the film's one almost touching scene, his parting lines to Henry delivered with actual feeling and meaning.  But his departure in the final act opens more constant killing, which was painfully repetitive by that point.  

Oooh!  Is this the boss fight?  Where are me power-ups?

The fact that Hardcore Henry’s action, its supposed main draw, lulls you into a state of narcolepsy by film’s end shows how poorly built it is as a whole.  The effects were literally all over the place, for a second leaving you in awe that all this came out of a 10 million dollar budget, but soon after, a bald CGI or bad prop reminds you just how cheap it really is. The first-person perspective, plus the insane violence without real meaning, joined together to disconnect me from the movie very early on.  There’s so little of substance happening that your mind can almost sit through the entire thing without processing any of it. It was a struggle just to pay attention, and trudging through more of this deadening experience was hardly a reward for my efforts.  It’s one thing to watch a fun movie that lets you kick back and not have to think deeply about it.  It’s another to be forced into a stupor by the sheer nonsense of it all, and Naishuller and company failed to make that basic distinction.

It’d be hard to call Hardcore Henry a truly terrible movie; though it’s not my cup of tea, I’m not adverse to a little mindless action.  But every filmmaker should heed the warning of making things a little too mindless.  There’s nothing in Hardcore Henry you can't get from spending a few hours watching someone’s Half-Life Let’s Play on YouTube for free.  But who knows?  It might make a good video game one day.

Grade: D

Saturday, April 2, 2016

April Releases

April Releases

Well, it's that time again, and these April showers bring along some old classics revamped, along with some fresh blood promising a whole new movie experience.   On the music scene, Canadian indie outfit The Strumbellas are set to release Hope later this month, so be sure to catch it when you can.