Friday, July 30, 2010

The Layered Labryinth of Inception

It's been a long, long time since I've been to the movie theater. With all the 3D junk and over CGI'ed action films out, it's harder for me to be motivated to see anything this summer. Even Iron Man 2 was a bit of a bore with too much CGI action and not enough of the sleak and snark that Tony Stark brought to it's predecessor. But leave it to Christopher Nolan, our generations Stanley Kubrick, to bring something thought provoking as well as action packed to the summer movie screen. Inception, the highly anticipated and highly talked about psychological thrill ride, is the perfect summer movie. Just as he did with The Dark Knight, Nolan creates a chaotic world filled with gun fights, thrilling chase scenes through Mombasa and textured worlds within worlds that are all at once recognizable yet skewed. But what makes Inception more than a perfect summer movie is it's labyrinthine maze of a story. What lacks in most summer movies is plot and for those in need of a story that is less neanderthal and more stimulating to the mind, Inception is it.

The plot revolves around "extractors" who are hired to steal information from people via their subconscious. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gorden Levitt) are two extractors who are trying to convince Mr. Saito (Ken Wantanabe) into using them for a job. One thing leads to another and instead of extracting information, Saito wants them to plant an idea. From here on out, a team of several different skilled professionals dive into the mind of a high profile banking executive (Cillian Murphy) into splitting up his giant corporation. Sounds pretty straightforward in the sense of a sci-fi heist of sorts, but the layered texture of the dream world is what comes into play here. Going much further into the plot would become tedious and probably be impossible to describe without ruining the movie, so I will stop there.

What makes Inception so great is it's master's voice. Christopher Nolan's screenplay is tight as is his direction. Clues are abounding all over the screen but they are never too heavy handed or in your face. Much like the extractor, the audience must glean evidence and clues within the layers of dreams to figure out what exactly is going down. In the long run, the real heart of the story is the emotional pull of Cobb's subconscious and his wife, Mal (played by the exquisite Marion Cotillard.) These heart wrenching scenes between lovers add an emotional splash to the otherwise somewhat conventional heist plot. Without this caveat, Inception would lack the kind of originality that it does indeed have.

Whether or not Inception is Christopher Nolan's finest film is definitely debatable, however, it is no denying that it is yet another grand achievement from a director who has yet to give us anything sub par (even if Insomnia is uneven and rife with casting errors, it's still a decent movie.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

VHS: The New Nostalgia

Nostalgia is something I obsess over. Be it the archives of junk I have collected from over the years or listening to vinyl, the experience is something I utterly love. It's not just the actually music or the pictures of yesteryear, it's the fact that it's all tangible. The digital age may have ushered in better quality home movies and cleaner sounding audio files, but owning an album on vinyl is just a more satisfying experience. Looking through photo albums is more enjoyable than perusing Facebook for pictures from that ridiculous party. The point of this post, however, isn't about vinyl or 35mm pictures but about another now well outdated medium of technology that I feel still has a gratifying experience attached to it: VHS.

Having worked at a video store for four years, the VHS/DVD transition was inevitable and I took advantage of that. Plucking up VHS as we sold them all off for $1 at the time seemed like a great idea. Sure, I'd have a VCR for years and probably could buy one for cheap. Now that DVD will soon see it's end to Blu Ray or even other formats, VHS is a new relic. DVD's made the cumbersome "be kind, rewind" a moot point and the quality is worlds better for sound and picture. But something about VHS is magical. Recently getting a VCR (or as I prefer to call it a VHS Player) from a friend, I opened my Rubbermaid filled with VHS tapes and it was a treasure trove of goodness. Be it out-of-print classics like Hal Hartley's Trust, which is only available on Netflix streaming, or old tapes of stuff taped from television, I really do miss the idea of VHS. The trailers, the classic commercials for Coke before 1988's Batman, having your high school prom video interrupted for 8 seconds for a brief glimpse at The John Larroquette Show... all of it made me miss VHS even more.

So I say Hooray to VHS. Keep purchasing them when you see them at the $1 bin at a yard sale. You never know what kind of hilarious trailers for forgotten movies you'll see or what commercials are packaged before the trailers. It's that kind of vintage nostalgia bomb that really makes the VHS experience something worth more than skipping the trailers before a DVD and getting straight to the movie. Maybe it's too soon after the death of VHS to call it too nostalgic, but I revel in the death of VHS and hope that someday it sees the same rebirth that Vinyl has.

Side Note: I pride myself in only owning a VHS copy of Videodrome.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Mid Year in Review: 2010

2010 has been a pretty solid year for music. A lot of great acts coming back to put new records out and a lot of great new music from bands just springing up at the turn of the decade. Usually I try to rank my favs but I think this time I'm just gonna chat about each record that I've enjoyed thus far.

Goldfrapp - Head First - The great thing about Head First is that it's the most accessible and closest to pop music Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory has gotten yet. This may seem like a detraction for those looking for the moody, synth noir of Felt Mountain or the Marc Bolan infused glam of Supernature. Quite the contrary. Even if Head First sounds like an unearthed album of Olivia Newton John from 1982, it's still a damn good record. It's a tad top heavy with the one-two-three punch of "Rocket", "Believer" and "Alive" soaring high above the rest, but it's still an album worthy to do aerobics to, even if you are a goth guy.

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach - Ok here's the thing...those looking for "Feel Good, Inc." or "19-2000".... don't bother. For those looking for a concept record on the excesses of humanity, the plasticine nature of our world culture and some killer hooks and countless guest spots, welcome to the world of the Plastic Beach. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlitt get everyone from Mos Def to Bobby Womack to Little Dragon to add a little taste of brilliance to a record that some will hate and some will love. There is no in between with Plastic Beach. It comes off as an excessive mess on first glance with so many different sounds and shifting themes, but let it settle and you'll get the point. And if you are looking for good tracks to take away from it, look to "Stylo" it fill you future funk needs, "Empire Ants" for your space travels and "Sweepstakes" for your complex hip-hop infused with a brass section and a constantly building sound. It's a daunting listen, but it gets better every time.

Broken Bells - My initial review sounded a tad harsh. Danger Mouse and James Mercer's team up may not be anything transcendent but good pop music is good pop music. And what it boils down to is two great minds think alike and together they create some magical moments. "Vaporize" or "The High Road" provide plenty of high floating hooks to keep you company on a lazy day or on a drive to the shore. Tracks like "Mongrel Heart" and "The Ghost Inside" are groovy enough to dance to or trippy enough to zone out to. My only beef with the record is that it doesn't have a solid unique sound to its own rather than a back and forth between what The Shins or Gnarls Barkley sound like. But since when has sounding more like either of those bands been a bad thing?

Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM - If there is one thing to know, it's that Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of the best muses around. Her airy voice and alluring coo were enough to call in the likes of Jarvis Cocker and Air to collaborate on her first record but this time, we get Beck. And can I say something being a huge Beck nerd.... this record is better than anything Beck has released since Sea Change. Seriously. It's that good. After being put through an MRI (in French it's IRM) due to blood in her brain, Charlotte's life flashed before her eyes and the fragility of existence is what IRM is all about. The titular track has all the clicking and clanking and other worldly sounds of an MRI as a back bone for the music. It's utterly captivating and rather transcendent live. "Time of the Assassins" is a beautiful, melancholy number filled with all the usual Beck arrangements. Every song is beautiful be it the catchier tunes like "Heaven Can Wait" or the brooding and slow moving tracks like "Vanities." Wonderful lyrics and arrangements with Charlotte carrying them to new heights. It doesn't get much better than this.

The Black Keys - Brothers - Muscle Shoals has done nothing but wonders for The Black Keys. Sure, Brothers is the most un-Black Keys album to date. Gone are the grimy blues riffs and lo-fi buzz and stomp and in it's stead is an R&B soul and multi-layered tracks with multiple guitar parts, harpsichords and synthesizers. To me, this is the Black Keys best effort yet. I may be alone in this camp, but the album is sumptuous and heartbreaking and catchy as hell. Whether it's the Gary Glitteresque stomp of "Howlin' For You" or the heartbreaking ballad of "Unknown Brother", Brothers is delightfully tight and varied in it's sound.

Tame Impala - Innerspeaker - Just when I thought my days of discovering more psych rock that fits the bill of what I love about music, Tame Impala had to come galloping up from nowhere (Australia to be exact) to create one of the best records I've heard all year. Lead singer Kevin Parker is going to get a lot of comparisons to John Lennon in the Revolver era and if you ask me, how the hell can that be bad? Opening stunner "It Is Not Meant To Be" is the perfect trance like psych garage rock that will immediately thrust you into Tame Impala's universe. "Lucidity" is the stand out here which is this years "Chemtrails" in it's perfect encapsulation of all things 60's psychedelia in a single track. Whatever your take is on bands taking older sounds and making them their own is, Tame Impala's Innerspeaker has the craftsmanship and the catchiness to keep you wanting more.

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast - When Weezer died after Matt Sharp left, there was a void in my life for good, catchy power pop. Sure, bands like Teenage Fanclub (whose album Shadows is a solid entry into the Power Pop catalog) are still around, but nothing stood out until this year. Surfer Blood comes out of nowhere and what do I get? What Weezer should be sounding like. Catchy riffs, interesting song structures and just damn good summertime music. From the initial guitar riff in "Floating Vibes" we know we're in store for some catchy rock tunes. One good thing is that the tracks are never formulaic. The single "Swim" is very intriguing with shifts in sound, tempo and all together catchiness. The vocals are supremely fun, if not a little hard to hear amidst the cacophony of reverb, but it enhances the experience. Overall, Astro Coast is the best pop rock record of the year.

Other notable albums that I have yet to fully soak in but like what I hear:

Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
Ratatat - LP4
Crystal Castles
School of Seven Bells - Disconnect From Desire

Albums I am feverishly anticipating:

Autolux - Transit Transit
Black Mountain - Wilderness Heart
Panda Bear - Tomboy

And Im sure there is more. 2010 thus far has been really great.