Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Perfectly Fine "Contradiction"

I first became a fan of British singer Paloma Faith when her sophomore album, Fall To Grace, was released in 2012. I enjoyed her powerful vocals and emotional, almost theatrical renditions of songs like “Let Me Down Easy” and the soul infused “Black & Blue.” Now the songstress is back with a new disc, entitled A Perfect Contradiction. The record opens with the funky, groove laden “Can’t Rely On You,” co-written & produced by Pharrell Williams, and it’s followed by the disco-fied “Mouth To Mouth,” which evokes memories of the Studio 54 era. It’s clear that this time out, the lady is having a dance party, and we're all invited. The album is full of old school R&B grooves, and you’ll also hear touches of soul, pop, jazz, & Motown in songs like “Other Woman,” and the fantastic “Love Only Leaves You Lonely.”

Faith co-wrote most of the tracks on the disc, along with a cadre of superstar co-writers & producers like Williams & Raphael Saadiq. There’s no denying she set out to make an album that evokes memories of an earlier musical era, but also has a modern feel to it. This is music that will make you want to dance & sing along. And for those fans looking for the Dusty Springfield meets Amy Winehouse style of earlier numbers like “Picking Up The Pieces” and “Beauty of the End,” that sound is also well represented here on standout tracks like “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” and “Trouble With My Baby,” as well as retro soul style of “Taste My Own Tears.”

Of course, none of this would work without Ms. Faith’s passionate voice & strong personality. She delivers strong performances & really brings these songs across; she makes you listen to her. While some listeners & critics find her a bit over the top & think her voice is somewhat shrill, I enjoy her work immensely. It’s a shame she hasn’t yet made a bigger splash in the US. If you’re looking for an enjoyable album that will reward you with some cool retro sounds and a modern twist, give A Perfect Contradiction a spin. Here are links to performances of “Can’t Rely on You,” and an acoustic version of “Only Love Can Hurt Like This” The album is now available on iTunes, and other online stores..

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Can Humans & Apes Find the "Dawn" of a New Day Together?

I was 5 years old when the original Planet of The Apes was released in 1968, so it took me a few years to catch up with the movie, when the film and it sequels were first being shown on CBS. Growing up a science-fiction, horror & monster story loving kid, I couldn’t wait to see these films. I instantly became a fan. Later the Apes movies became a staple of afternoon TV showings; remember “Apes Week” on the ABC 4:30 Movie in the New York area? Short lived animated & live action TV series were also spun off from the original, and “Apes” related items & toys were all the rage in the 1970s. In those pre Star Wars days, the Apes films were one of the first heavily merchandised sci-fi properties, and the series continues to have a loyal fan base. It was only a matter of time before the story was revived. Director Tim Burton tried his best with a 2001 remake that failed with both fans & critics. After that misfire, it took some time for the Apes saga to return to our movies screens.

Then in 2011, director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of The Planet of the Apes was released. Written by Rick Jaffe & Amanda Silver, it‘s a well-made update of the Apes concept. The movie follows scientist Will Rodman’s search to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The serum he comes up with gives his simian test subjects (especially an ape named Caesar, whom he adopts) enhanced intelligence. Of course, nothing ends up going the way Rodman imagined. The film concludes with Caesar leading a group of hyper-intelligent simians into the woods outside San Francisco, while a mysterious virus had begun spreading across the world. The movie was a success, and featured multiple tributes to the original series for fans, while still carving out a new spin on the story. The ending clearly left the door open for a sequel that could expand on this version of the saga.

The story continues with the recently released Dawn of The Planet of the Apes. It’s 10 years after the events of Rise, and the virus has wiped out most of humanity. The intelligent apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) are living peacefully in the woods, and have started their one society. Meanwhile, some human survivors struggle to get by in San Francisco. The two groups clash when a scouting party heads into the woods to see if they can repair a hydroelectric dam and restart the city's power grid. Caesar’s lieutenant, a violent ape named Koba, distrusts the humans and wants to eliminate them. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leader of the scouting party, convinces Caesar humans can be trusted, and they will do their repairs and leave the apes in peace. He & Caesar begin a tentative friendship. But Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the humans, may not share Malcolm’s peaceful intentions. He blames the apes for the loss of his family during the outbreak of the virus, and its aftermath. And the militant Koba has his own (self-benefitting) plans for creating conflict between the two groups.

There are some great action sequences & some jaw dropping use of CGI that’s well-integrated into the film. Andy (Gollum from Lord of The Rings) Serkis & the others who perform the motion capture for the ape characters are excellent. The human actors, including Clarke, Oldman, and Keri Russell are fine in their roles, but in this film, they’re almost the supporting characters. The apes & their world are so fully realized in this visually stunning film that it’s nothing short of amazing. Director Matt Reeves & his crew have done an outstanding job. The script this time is by Jaffa & Silver, returning from the first film, co-writing with Mark Bombeck. There are a couple of nods to the classic film series, including snatches of dialogue & some cues in Michael Giacchino's score that recall previous music in the original series by Jerry Goldsmith & Leonard Rosenman.

Like the original films, the movie holds up a mirror to issues that are going on in society today. The movie wraps its social & political commentary around an entertaining story. There are no clear-cut villain here, among the humans or the apes, though there are deluded & selfish characters on both sides of this conflict. While the “end” of civilization has different causes in this version of the story, man’s pride & inhumanity to himself is still part of his downfall. The movie ends on an ambigious note, setting things up for another chapter in the series, but the future of humanity (and the apes) is definitely uncertain. I’ve stayed vague on the plot details so as not to spoil it for fans who haven’t seen the film yet. If you’re a fan of the Apes saga, you’ll enjoy Dawn of The Planet of the Apes. As with the best chapters of the original series, this is thought-provoking, well produced science-fiction storytelling. The movie is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The X-Men At The Movies: Past & Present

The X-Men began their long run in the Marvel Comics universe in 1963, and have continued in various titles to the present day. The mutant super-team has also had a successful run in movie theaters, starting with 2000’s X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer, who also directed the 2003 follow-up, X2. The films were helped immeasurably by the wonderful performances of Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Ian McKellen as his adversary Magneto, and Hugh Jackman as the loose cannon Wolverine. Both of those films were well received by fans & critics, though the third entry, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand was met with mixed reaction, as was the 2009 solo film X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Many fans felt the series had lost its focus, and moved away from the solid stories & character interaction that made the first two films so successful.

In 2011, a prequel film entitled X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn, was released. A talented cast, including James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult and Michael Fassbender, played younger versions of the team. Their origin was re-told against a Cold War backdrop. The intriguing story & excellent performances re-energized the series, and the film was a success. Another Wolverine solo movie, The Wolverine, followed in 2013. Then fans began wondering what was in store for the next film in the series; would there be a movie bridging the two eras? What would be the next stop in the cinematic journey of our favorite mutants? Singer, who had left the series after X-2, then returned to produce X-Men: First Class, decided to come back to the director’s chair, and opted to tackle one of the comic series most powerful & well-remembered stories: Days of Future Past.

Originally released as a two-part tale in the Uncanny X-Men comic series in 1981, the story tells of a future where mutants are hunted down & killed or placed in internment camps. Produced during the book’s now classic run by writer Chris Claremont and artists John Byrne & Terry Austin, it’s now considered one of the most iconic X-Men stories of all time. The film version is a sequel to both The Last Stand & First Class. In a dark time when both mutants & the humans who help them are exterminated by robots called Sentinels, Professor X & his former enemy Magneto, who are now allies, come up with a plan to stop this timeline from occurring. With the help of team member Kitty Pryde, they send Wolverine’s consciousness back into his younger self in the 1970s, to warn their own younger selves about what is going to happen if this horrible future is allowed to unfold.

Once Wolverine finds the current X-Men, it’s a race against time to stop an event that triggers the creation of the Sentinels by a scientist named Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage. Trask is lobbying the government to activate the robots as a defense against what he perceives as a threat to the world: mutants. Meanwhile, the future X-Men try to stay alive as the Sentinels continually attack their rebel hideout. The direction by Singer & the performances of two generations of X-Men stars, including Lawrence in a standout role as Mystique, are excellent. McAvoy & Fassbender perfectly capture the younger Professor X & Magneto; you can see how their characters will grow into the older versions played by Stewart & McKellen. Dinklage (Game of Thrones) makes for an excellent villain, and there are some interesting twists on the original story. In fact, fans who were displeased by the events depicted in X-Men: The Last Stand should watch carefully in the film’s closing moments.

One thing to be aware of is that if you’re not familiar with the X-Men universe, the film may be a little hard to follow at first. A lot of the supporting characters are quickly introduced, and have minor roles in the story. But this is a solid superhero film that should please X-Men aficionados. The story is exciting and fast-paced; there’s a good balance between some standout action sequences & nice character moments. The movie is currently finishing its run in theaters, but a video release should be announced soon. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: will be happy to know there's already a sequel in the works: X-Men: Apocalypse, based on another famous comic story, as well as several spin-off films featuring some of the team's members. The X-Men's cinematic future appears to be a bright one.