Monday, 28 February 2011

Donnie Darko (2001) - Richard Kelly

I think I understand it.

Or do I?

But that’s the whole appeal of this film.  The complex.  The weird.  The crazy rabbit.
I like a film you can watch repeatedly and still find something new.  Each time I watch Donnie Darko I understand it a bit more.  And a bit less.

The film is based on paradox, time travel and alternative realities, all instigated by an imaginary rabbit, combining the best elements of science-fiction and family drama.  The narrative concerns a teenager dealing with the trials of school, family and girls.  In the process, he has hallucinations of Frank, the imaginary rabbit (or is he?), who warns of the end of the world.  The ambiguity and dark intrigue will have you guessing and second guessing the plot.  And when it ends, you’ll want to rewind and watch it all over again.

I leave you with two words: cellar door.


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Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009) - Niels Arden Oplev


It's the best word to describe my feelings after watching this film.  I'm now totally intrigued by the series of novels by Stieg Larsson.  In fact, I feel guilty for watching the film before reading the book - reading subtitles doesn't really substitute.  At the least, I'll be investing in the other books.

Intrigue is also central to the plot.  It's a crime thriller based around a serial killer.  The narrative is central to the film - even without reading the book I can tell it is an authentic replication.  It's intense, perfectly paced and totally compelling.  The direction is minimal - there's no clever trickery or computer wizardry.  It's simply a brilliant murder mystery story brought to life by excellent performances throughout.  Especially intriguing his Lisbeth, now an iconic modern (anti-)heroine.  Just two warnings: the film is pretty long and it's also pretty violent - the sexual victimisation of women is a key theme.

I'm now hooked and intrigued by the rest of the series.  But I'm almost more intrigued by the forthcoming English remake starring Daniel Craig and directed by David Fincher.  What can he bring to the table?  The cold, icy landscapes of Sweden are integral to the look and feel of the film - how will this translate to English screens?  Will Craig pout or act his way through this one?  Most importantly, a question that arose with the remake of Let The Right One In: is a remake even necessary when the original is this good?



Saturday, 26 February 2011

Alexis Jordan - Good Girl

I'm not ashamed to say that Happiness is one of my favourite tracks from last year.  Good Girl is the follow-up and again proves what a great production team Jordan has working with her.

Of course it helps that she has a good voice, as showcased on this acoustic track (though 'happiness' is only one word not two...).  This second track is yet another sucessful dance-pop hybrid. 

However, the song fails with its structure.  After the second verse and chorus it just ends, so it never really hits full throttle.  Resultingly, the song falls prey to repetition - you're a good girl, ok, we get it.  Also, the lyrics are appaling: "You'd better have some cake"?!  Ah, don't mind if I do...

Good Girl is poised to hit the top five this week - it's deserving, but this track isn't as good as her debut.


Friday, 25 February 2011

Dr. Dre feat Eminem, Skylar Gray - I Need A Doctor

I (as I suspect a fair few people have) had forgotten about Dre until I heard I Need A Doctor.  It's his first single since the late '90s.  And it's totally formulaic.

It's ironic that the student has now become the master - Eminem has undoubtedly taken over as the King of rap.  His influence is clear on this record - not least because it's essentially an Eminem track featuring one verse by Dre.  It's also decisively in the Love The Way You Lie mold.  It follows an identical structure, is in the same key and similarly features a catchy female vocal for the chorus, undoubtedly the highlight of the track.  However, the reason Love The Way You Lie was last year's biggest selling single is because of its contextual resonance with both Rihanna and Eminem's personal lives. 

By contrast, I Need A Doctor is just an old rapper struggling to stay relevant.  But nothing comes out when he moves his lips, just a bunch of jibberish.  Plus there's an overblown music video with too much posturing from a man clearly addicted to protein shakes.  And that car is far too sexy to crash.  Perhaps if he got his head out of his own ass and concentrated on the music rather than the accompanying film, this record would be more successful.

Sorry Dre, but you're better off forgotten.


Thursday, 24 February 2011

Foo Fighters - Rope

Now THIS is more like it.

Last week I reviewed White Limo, released by the Foos as a taste of the new album 'Wasting Light'.  I wasn't massively impressed.  But now we have Rope, the first official single.  With this track the Foos are definitely back on form.

Rather than the incoherent screaming of White Limo, Rope is much more melodic.  Once the opening reverbed chords strike, you know you're in for a treat.  Then the guitar riff hits in full and the rock is truly rolling.  It's catchy as hell and full of raw energy, with a classic Foos chorus.  We're even treated to both drum and guitar solos in the middle eight as the band show off their talent.  If this is indicative of the new album, then it's definitely been worth the wait (I'll just have to skip White Limo...).

Dave Grohl - Godlike genius?  On the merits of this track: absolutely.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Radiohead - Lotus Flower

I have a confession to make.  I've never been a huge Radiohead fan.  There is undoubtedly more to the band than just "music to slit your wrists to" as many people believe, but I think hearing too many appalling covers of Creep to last a lifetime put me off (blame X-Factor for that...).  Aside from the excellent Idioteque from 'Kid A', I've never given the band the full time they deserve.

One thing I've always admired, though, is their ability to reinvent themselves with each album.  As a result, each is a true 'event', with fans clambering at the bit to hear the latest tracks.  Radiohead's sound is in a constant state of evolution - no mean feat.

Their latest album 'The King of Limbs', however, is more a continuation of 2007's 'In Rainbows', further fusing with Thom Yorke's experimental solo work (And It Rained All Night from 'The Eraser' being a personal favourite).  'The King of Limbs' is a more refined work than 'In Rainbows', with more expansive use of orchestral instruments.  Codex is particularly haunting with its use of reverbed brass and string fluttering.

Lotus Flower has become the flagship track from the album, even if largely for Yorke's dancing on the video.  It's easy to see why, not least because it's the album's centrepiece.  The theme of the album is clearly nature, the title of this track being an obvious allusion.  The driving bass and percussion provide the momentum, whilst Yorke's beautiful falsetto hovers hypnotically above.  It's one of the few Radiohead tracks that divides fairly neatly into a verse/chorus structure, so is more easily digested.

As York sings, "slowly we unfurl as lotus flowers" - so does my appreciation not only of this track, but the full album and the band overall.  Lie back, close your eyes, and let the sounds wash over you.


Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Jarhead (2005) - Sam Mendes

“Every war is different.  Every war is the same”

The same can be said of war films.  There are so many excellent, iconic war films, it takes a very special film to stand out above the crowd.  Unfortunately, Jarhead is not that film.

Set in the first Iraq war, the film questions whether the marines are empty, robotic shells or whether there is more to these jarheads than meets the eye.  Mendes has proven time and again that he is an excellent director.  Here, the desert is oppressive in its white blankness, the horizon soaking into the hot sky.  The film is filled with small but clever directorial touches and the performances overall are commendable.

Simultaneously, the film is like a checklist of war film tropes, taking too much inspiration from other iconic films and becoming almost pastiche.  The opening sequence is taken straight from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The ironic choices of music also echo Kubrick, juxtaposing harsh visuals with ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’.  There’s even a scene where the marines watch Apocalypse Now, singing along to Wagner with glee. 
Further, the marines take on the obvious character stereotypes, with machismo posturing and scenes of hyper-masculinity.  By contrast, the relationship between Gyllenhaal and his girlfriend at home appears melodramatic.  As a result, these jarhead’s are hardly the complex men the film attempts to portray.  Ultimately, the film never really goes anywhere, paralleling the pointlessness of the war the marines are fighting.

Jarhead is by no means a bad film – it just lacks originality.  It does have its harrowing moments, but it lacks the intensity and impact of The Hurt Locker, a film which is probably more worthy of your time.


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Rihanna - S&M

Rihanna is the queen of sexual innuendo.  But now it's gone too far.

She's gone from 'a ride that's smoother than a limousine', 'giddy up giddy up giddy up babe' and 'let's explore your talents' to 'chains and whips excite me'.  From flirtation with a knowing wink to...well...deepthroating a banana and writhing around on all fours.

In the process she's ironically lost her sex appeal.  It's too blatent.  There's no subtlety anymore.  And what's with condom on her head for f*cks sake...?

It is quite a catchy track, despite the chorus being ripped from David Guetta and Akon's Sexy ChickYet again there's a 'na na' section (there's the banana again), which you won't get out of your head.

My guess is that it's all supposed to be tongue in cheek.  Or banana in cheek.  Either way, it's not pretty.


Monday, 14 February 2011

Foo Fighters - White Limo

Later this month Dave Grohl is set to win the 'Godlike Genius' award at the Shockwaves NME awards 2011.  Whilst it's undoubtedly deserved after his exceptional music career, this track really doesn't do him, or the Foo Fighters, justice.

It's not an official single, but a teaser song for the upcoming album released in April.  The comedy video features Motorhead frontman Lemmy, and Grohl seems to have channeled a bit of Motorhead into White Limo.  The track starts with a heavy, chromatic guitar riff that has a classic metal sound.  The chorus, however, is Foo Fighters through and through.

For me, though, the best Foo tracks are the most melodic - classics like Monkey Wrench, The Pretender, Times Like These and (my personal favourite) Everlong amongst othersI realise these are their most commercial tracks, but there's a reason for that - they allow Grohl to prove his guitar skills and his rock vocal.  White Limo by contrast just features a lot of incoherent screaming.  As such, it's a real shame the vocals don't match the guitar riffing.


Saturday, 12 February 2011

Lady Gaga - Born This Way

Early in her career, many likened Lady Gaga to Madonna.  Now, she's proven she is in fact Madonna reincarnated.  And yes, I do realise Madonna isn't actually dead.

As is typical in the mad world of Gaga, everything is pushed to the extremes.  Born This Way certainly resembles Madonna's Express Yourself and VogueBut this is meant as a compliment.  It's as if she's taken the best bits of Madonna, turned the knobs up to 11 and thrown in a twenty-first century twist with her own unique brand of crazy. 

Everything about this track is over the top and camp as Christmas - "don't be a drag, just be a queen".  The central message of accepting who you are is more than a little nauseating, but nevertheless it's a great feel-good pop song.  The title, too, is perhaps a not-so-subtle indication that Gaga does not in fact have a 'disco stick'.  She belts out the lyrics with gay abandon and in the process proves she does have a good voice behind the costumes and make-up, despite the words being mostly incomprehensible.  No doubt there'll be an epic three hour weird and wonderful video with gender confusions, bizarre costumes, semi-naked dancing men and some sort of vague storyline.

Born This Way is sure to be the pop anthem of 2011.  But after that infamous meat dress, what will she think of next?  At least Gaga's proven she's the complete pop package, with decent songs to go along with her freak-show appeal.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

RockNRolla (2008) - Guy Ritchie

The words ‘flogging’, ‘dead’ and ‘horse’ come to mind.

It seems all Guy Ritchie is capable of directing is gangster films (minus Sherlock Holmes).  Fast-paced editing.  Dodgy dealings.  Two-dimensional characters.  An apparently intelligent script that is in fact, through its liberal use of profanities, pretty immature.  A convoluted plot that’s all a bit silly.  And plenty of brash Laaaaandaners.

All the stereotypes are in there – your arrogant, money-hungry boss; your drug-addled weirdo; your cold but sexy female; your young, butt-of-everyone’s-jokes guy (literally).  Yet, despite the presence of some emerging British talent, the film (and the genre) just feels so tired and mediocre: a bit violent, slightly amusing in places, but also messy and not all that interesting.

Ten years ago, with the re-emergence of the gangster genre, Guy Ritchie was at the top of his game.  But since then times have moved on and it’s about time he caught up.


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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Fenech Soler - Demons

Northampton (my hometown) is finally on the map.

Firstly, we have this legendary old woman saving the world, which made the national news this week.

And secondly a fantastic live lounge from Jo Whiley's Saturday Radio 1 show by Northampton's Fenech Soler, including a cover of Jessie J's Do It Like A DudeYou may have heard their track Lies late last year, or their remix of Marina & The Diamonds' Hollywood.  You may also have heard lead vocalist Ben Duffy singing on Groove Armada's Paper Romance.  Demons is the follow-up single, released later this month.

Ok, so their sound isn't the most original: falsetto male vocals plus synths, fitting neatly in the 80's electro-pop revival.  One YouTube viewer described them as "Calvin Harris having his way with Delphic".  There are also similarities with the excellent Frankmusik, Sam Sparro and more.

Demons is, however, more than the sum of its influences and gives Northamptonians something else to proud of besides shoe-making.  It's catchy, instantly likeable, and well produced.  A great pop track.


Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Rumer - Slow

With vocal comparisons it's best, on first hearing, to give the benefit of the doubt.  But with Rumer, she is basically just doing a Karen Carpenter impression, albeit a good one.

It's a smooth, gentle vocal with perfect diction and is perfectly pleasant to listen to.  But that's Rumer's problem - her music is pleasant, nothing more.  As the name suggests, it's a slow one.  Its jazz harmonies provide the perfect piece of background music to slowly...drift

Perhaps I'm being overly critical.  Rumer has a very musical vocal delivery and the simplicity of the music, which allows her voice to take the fore, should be applauded for its honesty.  But the track lacks...balls.  It needs some oomph to lift it out of forgetability.

Expect to see this on a bargain easy-listening compilation soon alongside Sade, Dido and Norah Jones.


Monday, 7 February 2011

Precious (2009) - Lee Daniels

Watching Precious, I can't help but compare the English and American styles of social realism.  We English, we're a bit grim really.  Our social realism films tend to be gritty and tragic.  Even feel-good films like Billy Elliot have their dark moments.  Hollywood, though, tends to sugarcoat tragedy, cushioning the audience for a safe landing. 

Case in point: Precious.  It's the story of a morbidly obese black teenage girl, abused by her mother, raped by her father, bullied by all she meets and unable to read and write.  Can things get any worse?  Most of the darker moments are smothered with fantasy - fluffy sequences of Precious dreaming of celebrity.  As a result, the film doesn't quite have the emotional weight it aspires to achieve.  More so, despite some shocking moments, you never get the sense that things won't be alright in the end, diminishing their effect to melodrama.  It's all a bit preachy.  Precious' literacy teacher is bathed in angelic light, always read and willing to give us all a hug.

The performances are all a little one-dimensional.  Gabourey Sidibe's performance has been lauded, but she's given little to do but mumble incoherently.  The other characters, too, lack depth and realism, though they're performed competently enough. 

Ultimately, Precious attempts to tackle a number of sensitive issues but treats its subject matter like a precious stone, rather than a rough diamond. 


Sunday, 6 February 2011

Jessie J feat B.O.B - Price Tag

This feels to me like Lily Allen meets The Black Eyed Peas.  And not just because it bares more than a passing resemblance to Where Is The Love.

With the excellent Do It Like A Dude, Jessie proved she not only has an incredible voice (as evident at the Brit Launch party), but she has the 'swagger' and attitude to match.  Yet that's all dissipated with this track.  Sure, she still has a great voice, but this is a much more gentle pop track.  The scathing message of the song reminds us not to be materialistic.  It's overly preachy (another link to Where Is The Love) and following the edgy Do It Like A Dude I just don't buy that (pun intended).  She also proved she's more than talented enough to go it alone - so why include B.O.B's unnecessary rap?

Ironically, Price Tag has been released simultaneously on iTunes and across the radio in an attempt to combat music piracy.  It's also been a swift turnaround after Jessie won the BBC SO2011 and is coveniently poised to capitalise on her winning the Brits Critics Choice Award in just over a weeks time. 

Not about the money? Hmm.


Saturday, 5 February 2011

Clare Maguire - The Last Dance

I can't get enough of Clare Maguire.

This is the second single from the BBC Sound of 2011 top five nominee, following the incredible Ain't NobodyThe more I relish in her voice, the more I melt.  Here, it's given full reign - as Maguire powerfully belts out the chorus, the music swells in its euphoria.

The lush, 80's style production is excellent - rich strings punctuated by synthesised melodic riffs and thumping drums.  There is something of a battle for dominance between the music and the voice, but Maguire was always going to be the victor here (for an alternative, listen to the Chase & Status remix).  The harmony adds a mournful quality, reflecting the subject matter - Maguire wrote the song following the death of her childhood hero Michael Jackson.  As such, it's a very personal track and her powerful lungs reveal a vulnerable, earnest side.  Further, the vocals and production combine for a truly emotive effect.

It doesn't have quite the same punch as Ain't Nobody, but it's still a brilliant pop song that deserves a place on everyone's iPod.  It's available on 20th February, with the album 'Light after Dark' just one week behind.  Tickets are also available for Maguire's tour - if you still need persuading, here's a live acoustic version of The Last Dance and a live version of Ain't Nobody.

A unique voice and a unique talent.  Superb.


Thursday, 3 February 2011

JLS feat. Tinie Tempah - Eyes Wide Shut

One word: cliche.

Yup, it's time for some JLS bashing.

Lyrically, this is appalling.  Writing songs about dreaming of your love is one of the oldest cliches in the book.  I say 'writing', I doubt JLS even had a hand in it.  Then we have Tinie's miniscule rap, followed of course by the obligatory "hands in the air" section that every pop-dance record is required to have (Everybody in love?!).

Ok, it's a catchy, cheesy pop track.  But the production is ripped almost directly from Madonna's 2003 hit Get Together.  It's even in the same key.  There are further similarities with Calvin Harris' I'm Not Alone, JLS's own One Shot and a shared melodic structure with any Backstreet Boys song you can think of, especially All I Have To Give.  I could go on, but I'll stop there for fear of crushing my own egoIt's just reminiscent of so many other songs.  And don't even get me started on the boyband posing in the video.  Even the cover art looks like West Side Story meets Boys 2 Men.

Still, the video does contain some cool graphical effects - it's clear that money has been lavished here.  But the song just doesn't match up.


Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Chipmunk feat. Chris Brown - Champion

Anyone who's been listening to Chris Moyles' breakfast show recently will have probably heard Tina Daheley's version of this track.  Whilst it's a semi-joke, it's probably the superior version.

Chris Brown seems to be attempting something of a comeback after the fallout following his split with Rihanna.  She's on top, he's playing catch-up.

He's teamed up with young British rapper Chipmunk for this track.  Sure, the chorus hook is catchy and it's got a good beat.  But the rest of Champion is totally uninspired - Brown is trying far too hard to self-consciously reinvigorate his image.  It's hardly "the meanest shit I ever wrote".  Even the pretentiously cool video is dull: a copy of TI's Dead and Gone feat Justin Timberlake, just with a different shade of sepia. 

The real champion here?  Tina Daheley and the Radio 1 breakfast team.


Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Adele - Tired

Ok, the new album, 21, may be out, but let's not forget Adele's humble begins, including this rediscovered gem from first album 19.

This answers the question of what Adele would sound like if mixed with The Cure and The Postal Service.  The answer?  Bloody brilliant (even if it bares more than a similarity to Close to Me).

This track probably promotes Adele's excellent vocal the least, although her laidback vocal delivery suits the style of the song.  Instead, it's the production that makes this song, despite the slightly disjointed middle-eight.  Indeed, Tired jarrs with the album as a whole, the new wave influence contrasting with the other largely blues and soul inspired tracks. 

With 21, the London singer has found her feet with a more focused album overall.  But this previous, more experimental track deserves to be remembered.