Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

Album Review – Miranda Lambert “Four The Record”

November 10, 2011

Miranda Lambert

Four The Record

* * * * 1/2

Miranda Lambert is by and large my favorite contemporary female artist because of her intrinsic ability to blend both the artistic and commercial sensibilities of country music on her records. She appeals to country radio with singles ready for heavy rotation yet restrains from populating her albums with gutless filler like her fellow artists.

Four The Record was recorded in six days, the week following her wedding to Blake Shelton.  Sessions began at 10am and lasted until midnight each day. Lambert has said she likes getting into a vibe and hunkering down to complete a record. This technique works in her favor, making the album every bit as cohesive as diverse. Plus, she’s using it to further her individuality. It sounds like nothing else coming out of Nashville right now and the uniqueness sets her apart from her peers.

Lambert is also a prime example of the quintessential songwriter. She knows how to write a killer song yet has a knack for selecting outside material from some of the most unique and interesting songwriters. Its one reason why listening to a Lambert album is such a joy. Four The Record features many such moments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings gorgeous “Look at Miss Ohio” to Brandi Carlile’s folksy “Same Out You.”

I love the Welch/Rawlings ballad for it’s captivating story. Lambert has a way of making everything she sings sound interesting and she succeeds here. The air of mystery holds together the brilliant lyric – she’s running around with her ragtop down to escape the pressures of getting married. She’s fleeing her obligations to do the right thing, yet we never really know why she’s bolting to Atlanta. She’s reclaiming her independence but not without the guilt of what she’s leaving behind. It’s a story song for the ages, made even more appealing by the understated production and backing vocals by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town.

“Same Old You,” another understated winner, fell into Lambert’s lap after Carlile felt she couldn’t sell it like Lambert. I love the folksy vibe of the production here – the gentle strum of the lead guitar sets it apart from the rest of the album. But what brings the song to new heights is the Loretta Lynn-like quality of Carlile’s lyric. (Lynn is the common dominator the bonds Lambert’s friendship with Carlile). It’s refreshing when the narrator finally sees what’s in front of her – that no matter what day of the week, he’s just the same old person and he’s never going to change. When Lambert sings about how hurt his mama’s going to be when she finds out there won’t be any wedding to cap off this relationship, it shows her maturity. I like how she’s drawn to songs that bring new depths to her feistiness. She’s every bit the same woman, but doesn’t have to resort to killing off her man to prove it.

Another track to display this growth is Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds.” A sweeping ballad about diversity, it not only defines the link binding all the songs together, but spins a unique angle on acceptance. The beautiful flourishes of Dobro give the song a soft quality I find appealing and the metaphor of circus acts as a means of driving home the main point showcases the songwriters’ cleverness in crafting their story.

Her overall growth continues in Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Brandy Clark’s gritty “Mama’s Broken Heart” as well as in the six songs she wrote or co-wrote herself for the project. I love the driving production on this song, especially on the chorus. The loud thumping drums and guitars help it become a standout moment on the album. I also adore how the songwriters spun the old adage of it’s not you’re parents (fill in the blank) into the hook line, “it’s not your mama’s broken heart.” I’ve heard rumblings this might be in contention for release to country radio and I’m all for it. What a joy it would be to hear this song coming through my radio speakers.

As for the six she wrote or co-wrote herself, Lambert never fails to disappoint. My favorite of these is “Easy Living,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray. She was going for the vibe of sitting on the back porch, strumming a guitar, while listening to an AM radio. I love “am radio” effect cut underneath the song which is actually Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report. I wish I could hear what he’s saying but for this distinctive effect to work, it couldn’t be too distracting from the overall song. I also admire the acoustic production, which brings to mind Shania Twain’s “No One Needs To Know.”

Another Lambert co-write is the emotional “Over You” written with Shelton about the death of his brother Richie when he was 24 and Shelton only 14 (he died in a car accident). They wrote the track in his honor as to say you may be in heaven but you’re still a part of our lives. They took the approach of crafting the song more as a break-up ballad than a song of death, which aids in its universal appeal but makes it easy to forget the overall message they are trying to convey. I also would’ve liked a more traditional production but the emotion in Lambert’s vocal saves the song from being slightly below what it could’ve been. Not surprisingly, it’s being downloaded like crazy on iTunes and is likely the second single from the project.

Her other moment of collaboration with Shelton is their duet “Better In The Long Run.” Pinned by Ashley Monroe, Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, and Gordie Sampson, it features Shelton’s most committed vocal in years. While not up to the iconic nature of country’s legendary duet-pairings, it’s still above average, and works as their first serious duet together.

Lambert takes the liberty of pinning two of the album’s ballads solo, her way of making sure she can still write a great song on her own. I love the sweeping nature of “Safe,” a song she wrote about her feelings towards Shelton, but was taken aback by “Dear Diamond.” It’s a great lyric and all, and I love Patty Loveless’s harmony vocal, but I wasn’t expecting the song to be a ballad. With its biting lyrics, I thought it would have a bit more drive.

One song with plenty of drive is “Fine Tune,” a prime example of a song that probably won’t be a single but adds to the depth of the record. I thought my CD was broken when I first heard it, as I wasn’t expecting the vocal treatment. Writers Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby recorded the demo with a filter on the microphone, inspiring Lambert’s treatment of the song. I love the overall vibe here, especially after understanding Lambert’s reasons for the offbeat recording method. And while it works for this one song, I wouldn’t want to hear a whole album recorded like this.

In the end, Four The Record is essentially an album of all kinds of songs linked together by their overall diversity. I love that Lambert is taking more risks here by delivering an album that isn’t coasting on her success but using it as a springboard to bring outstanding material to the masses. She’s using her newfound clout to hopefully introduce some very talented singers and songwriters to people who would otherwise not have heard of them. In a world of singles, Lambert is the rare albums artist with the richest discography of any country singer since the turn of the millennium. Four The Record not only adds to her growing legacy, but also pushes her career forward in a big way.

Bite size film reviews

December 20, 2010

Toy Story 3 (***1/2)

We check in with Woody and the gang ten years later and find much has changed – Andy is leaving for his Freshman Year of college and the toys sit in a toy chest dying to be played with. When he’s faced with the decision of what to do with his childhood friends, he chooses to lock them in the attic but they are taken to a daycare center instead. fiercely loyal to Andy they fight their way back before he takes off – and bring forth the saddest ending to a movie in years.

Toy Story 3 is another incredible film in the Pixar lineage and a worthy addition to the franchise. Universal themes of loyalty and imprisonment are explored as is the idea of what it means to be a friend and knowing when to let someone go. Michael Arndt keeps the script short and to the point but takes the film farther than I would’ve liked to see it go. Towards the climax, the toys face perils I found unnecessary and far too scary for small children. It could’ve been just as effective a tear jerker without those threats to their lives. Of course, like any great Pixar film it engages the audience and makes us think (and see) those commonalities in life from a different perspective.

Winter’s Bone (***1/2)

Critically praised for Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance, Bone is the story of a girl forced to grow up much too fast in a climate unsuitable for children. Ree, a 17 year old girl forced to care for her younger siblings and her incapacitated mother, is unflinching even as she is forced to search for her absentee meth cooker father. This is a character study in fearlessness and resiliency  and teaches us all to be grateful for what we have.

Jennifer Lawrence is indeed transcending and adds just enough toughness to pull off the role. She isn’t a seasoned Hollywood professional roughed up to pull off the part – you feel she’s lived these horrible circumstances since she started breathing. I found the story a bit barren – I thought she would have to go further in her search than she did (i.e. run away from home) and I kept waiting to meet the man who ruined everything but alas he turned up dead.

The real praise shouldn’t go to Jennifer but to the children who played her younger siblings – apparently they weren’t actors but the real-life inhabitants of the house Ree called home. Their performances were so subtle and made the film so real you would’ve thought they’d been acting their whole lives.

The Town (**1/2)

The gritty reality of bank robbers in Charlestown, Massachusetts is the subject of Hollywood’s latest film about beantown. Doug (Ben Affleck) and Jem (Jeremy Renner) are childhood friends who pull off elaborate schemes while evading the FBI. After a hugely successful bank robbery, Doug becomes romantically linked with Claire (Rebecca Hall) the bank’s manager whom the gang took hostage. Once Claire learns the truth about Doug, she works with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to bring him down.

With countless gritty films about Boston in the last decade – Town doesn’t cover any new ground. We have the same lifelong potty-mouthed friends and a cast of Hollywood actors (except for Affleck who was born in Boston) trying Boston accents on for size. There was nothing mind blowing nor revolutionary about the plot or the performances. You feel like you’ve seen it before because you have.

The one bright spot, though, is Rebecca Hall. With Town she cements herself as an actor to watch. After turning in great yet under the radar performances in Vicki, Christina Barcelona and Please Give she proves her worth as a Hollywood leading lady. Gentle yet tough she can play the romantic love interest while proving she is so much more than a pretty girlfriend. If she plays her cards right she could be huge in the years to come.

Black Swan (****)

Black Sawn is as close to perfect as any film this year. An epic tale about a ballerina torturing herself to play the sawn queen in Swan Lake, it grabs a hold of you and doesn’t let go. Natalie Portman is mesmerizing as Nina Sayers – the woman taking on the duel role. She’ll do whatever it takes to achieve perfection even if she destroys herself in the process.

Swan is the character study the film world has been waiting for. Portman is so fully committed to the role that she blurs the line between acting and metamorphoses. She becomes Nina so completely, with seemingly little effort, that you’re drawn into her. When she mutilates herself you feel the pain right along with her.

Not in recent memory has a performance become so much of a film that the plot barely matters. Portman more than makes up for the shortcomings in the storyline – screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and  John McLaughlin take the film too far out of the realistic and into the abstract. A sequence in which Nina takes her obsession with fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis, in a star making turn) into a wild sexual fantasy is a bit over the top and could’ve been done without. Yet the screenwriters brilliantly take the viewer on a journey through Nina’s psyche and show us a woman tortured into the depths of mental illness. We see the world as she views it – her reality is our own.

The Academy would be making a bold step by giving Portman the Oscar but what a richly deserved prize it would be. Her performance left me in a trance – I’ve never come away from a film loving the lead actor as much as I do here – words cannot describe my feelings towards Portman in this role. She may have been a great actress before, but with Swan, she proves she’s worthy of Hollywood icon status.

An exhilarating 127 Hours

December 4, 2010

127 Hours (R)

Starring: James Franco

Directed By: Danny Boyle

1 Hour and 35 Minutes

*****

The film 127 Hours chronicles the true story of Aron Ralston, a hiker whose arm got pinned beneath a boulder for just over five days in April 2003. He was hiking in Blue John Canyon in Utah when he fell and his armed got crushed. He fell deep into a tiny crevice where no one could see him or hear his screams for help. To make matters worse, he told no one where he was going.

The film brilliantly brings Ralston’s story to life while faced with a seemingly impossible task: how do you tell a story that will interest an audience when it revolves around a single character being alone on screen for well over 85 percent of the film?

Superstar director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) infuses the film with little touches that help complete this task. He let’s the audience into Ralston’s soul and puts us on the journey right with him. The unique camera angles allow us to experience Ralston’s every pain – instead of us seeing him run out of water, we get his lips cupping the bottle, sucking out every last drop. Every time he turns on his video camera, Boyle focuses on the gears turning within the device as it comes to life. And as the film progresses, Boyle fixates on the camera’s dwindling battery as it goes lower and lower, like Ralston, running out of time.

It wasn’t evident to me before seeing 127 Hours, but Danny Boyle is a master filmmaker. His unique approach took an otherwise very simple story and made it jump off the big screen and become a part of the audience. There were points in the film I was almost crying; jerking around in my seat uncomfortably because Boyle makes you feel. He makes you care and invests you in Ralston’s story. Boyle adds that all important human element that makes Ralston a person and not just some guy stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The other key to the success of the film is the masterful performance by James Franco. This is his breakthrough; a study in Hollywood finally taking him seriously as an actor. Franco is perfectly cast as Ralston – he injects his performance with the right amount of enthusiasm and dramatic intensity. As is the mark with any outstanding performance, you forget you’re watching Franco and believes he really is Ralston. Accomplishing that is near impossible, yet Franco does it with the ease of a seasoned professional. (Of course, Franco has been around for a while. He won a Golden Globe nine years ago when he played James Dean in a made for TV movie.)

But what really makes 127 Hours so powerful, are the life lessons woven throughout the story. When most people would’ve given up, Ralston had an unnatural will to survive that conquered even his deepest pain. This film is a study of just how tough we are and what we can endure before we finally break down and surrender. He was able to see a life beyond the rock that cost him his arm which made him want to live. We humans are tougher than we realize and the main lesson here is not to give up – even when life puts in situations that seem impossible to get out of.

127 Hours isn’t just another popcorn flick – it’s a brilliantly executed look at human spirit and the Aron Ralston inside all of us – that person we become in life’s toughest moments.


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