Saturday, March 25, 2017

Movie Review: Power Rangers

 
After watching Transformers fans get their dreams repeatedly crushed by Michael Bay, Power Rangers fans can take solace in the fact that director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) and screenwriter John Gatins (Flight) took the time and effort to faithfully adapt this widely beloved series. Power Rangers makes you feel like it's a Saturday morning in the early 90's with its infectious, goofy spirit, emphasis on the power of teamwork and of course, a beautifully over-the top villain in Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks at her scenery-chewing, scene-stealing finest). It's pretty much exactly what you'd expect out of a big-screen adaptation of Power Rangers and in my eyes, that's the biggest complement you can give a film like this.

Where Power Rangers surprises is with the effectiveness of its backstory. Gatins' script devotes a good chunk of time to developing the relationships between the Rangers and thanks to the strong camaraderie between its five leads (Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G and Ludi Lin), it mostly works. The time the film takes to explore each Ranger's backstory combined with the level of authenticity each actor brings to their respective role (Cyler's portrayal of the autistic Blue Ranger Billy Cranston is particularly convincing) makes it really easy for the audience to get invested in this group of flawed yet charismatic characters. The success of these smaller character moments more than makes up for its shocking lack of memorable action sequences. Even with its choppily-shot and relatively underwhelming fight scenes, Power Rangers manages to be an entertaining blockbuster that compares favorably to other recent superhero origin stories.   
3.5/5 Stars

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Album Review: Drake-More Life

Ever since Drake's new project More Life was announced last October, my mind has been flooded with questions about it. Is this project's existence simply an excuse for Drake to further line his pockets with buckets of money from Apple Music, his record label and radio stations across the world? What the hell is a "playlist"? Is his father's majestic mustache the ghostwriter behind his music? On the evening of March 18th, these earth-shattering questions were answered and to my delight, More Life ended up being one of Drake's most infectious releases to-date.

While the classification doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a project that's being sold on every major digital music platform, the "playlist" tag attached to More Life is one of the best creative decisions Drake has made recently. Being free from the confines of a traditional studio album gives him the freedom to explore the different sides of his sound (R&B, trap, pop, dancehall, conscious hip-hop, etc.) without having the burden of being fully committed to any of them for the duration of the project. The looser structure clearly had a liberating effect on him as he turns in his most spirited, fluid rapping/singing performance since at least Nothing Was the Same here. Certain audiences are going to write-off More Life as a cheap, directionless cash grab, but it's clear that Drake fully bought into creating a spontaneous-feeling release and at the end of the day, the authenticity behind and execution of that vision allows it to be more than just a throw-together collection of stylistically-different songs.
  
Drake has been quoted as saying he wanted this release to be a "soundtrack to your life" and for the most part, he achieves that goal. The 22 tracks on this record could serve as the musical accompaniment for anything from a romantic, candle-lit dinner ("Teenage Fever", "Passionfruit") to a rowdy Friday/Saturday night pregame ("Free Smoke", the Quavo and Travi$ Scott-assisted "Portland") to a full-blown dance party ("Blem", "Get It Together"). There might not be anything on More Life that's far removed from Drake's typical pop rap/R&B arsenal, but it was refreshing to see him the utilize the full scope of his sound after he suffocated his audience with sadness on last year's Views.

More Life doesn't avoid the pitfalls that every Drake release seems to have (bouts of inconsistency, overlong, underwhelming guest spots) but when the material is as catchy, fun and generally well-executed as this, those defining flaws are a lot easier to overlook. Even with these nagging issues present, an artist of Drake's magnitude putting out a release that's as passion-filled as this at a point in his career where he could easily just coast off of his past success deserves to be viewed as a victory. If the energy and free-form vibe of this "stopgap" project carries over to his next full-length studio album, Drake has a legitimate chance of returning to the glory days of the Take Care/Nothing Was the Same era.      

3.5/5 Stars
Standout Tracks
1.Passionfruit
2.Blem
3.Free Smoke

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

2017 NFL Mock Draft 3.0 (Updated 3/22)

1.Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, edge rusher (Texas A&M)
2.San Francisco 49ers: Mitch Trubisky, quarterback (North Carolina)
3.Chicago Bears: Jamal Adams, safety (LSU)
4.Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Forunette, running back (LSU)
5.Tennessee Titans: Solomon Thomas, defensive end (Stanford)
6.New York Jets: Marshon Lattimore, cornerback (Ohio State)
7.Los Angeles Chargers: Malik Hooker, safety (Ohio State)
8.Carolina Panthers: John Ross, wide receiver (Washington)
9.Cincinnati Bengals: Jonathan Allen, defensive tackle/end (Alabama)  
10.Buffalo Bills: Mike Williams, wide receiver (Clemson)
11.New Orleans Saints: Tre'Davious White, cornerback (LSU)
12.Cleveland Browns: O.J. Howard, tight end (Alabama)
13.Arizona Cardinals: DeShaun Watson, quarterback (Clemson)
14.Philadelphia Eagles: Christian McCaffery, running back (Stanford)
15.Indianapolis Colts: Hassam Reddick, edge rusher (Temple)
16.Baltimore Ravens: Gareon Conley, cornerback (Ohio State) 
17.Washington Redskins: Jabril Peppers, safety (Michigan)
18.Tennessee Titans: Marlon Humphery, cornerback (Alabama)
19.Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Charles Harris, edge rusher (Missouri)
20.Denver Broncos: Garett Bolles, tackle (Utah)
 21.Detroit Lions: Derek Barnett, edge rusher (Tennessee)
22.Miami Dolphins: Quincy Wilson, cornerback (Florida)
23.New York Giants: David Nokju, tight end (Miami)
24.Oakland Raiders: Dalvin Cook, running back (Florida State)
25.Houston Texans: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback (Texas Tech)
26.Seattle Seahawks: Malik McDowell, defensive tackle (Michigan State)
27.Kansas City Chiefs: Corey Davis, wide receiver (Western Michigan)
28.Dallas Cowboys: Bucky Hodges, tight end (Virginia Tech)
29.Green Bay Packers: Forrest Lamp, guard (Western Kentucky)
30.Pittsburgh Steelers: Jarrad Davis, inside linebacker (Florida)
31.Atlanta Falcons: Taco Charlton, edge rusher (Michigan)
32.New Orleans Saints: Takkarist McKinley, edge rusher (UCLA)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Best and Worst of Elizabeth Banks

The "Best and Worst" series profiles the best and worst work of an actor starring in one of the week's new theatrical releases. This week I take a look at the filmography of "Power Rangers" star Elizabeth Banks.

Films starring Elizabeth Banks that I've seen:
Wet Hot American Summer
Spider-Man
Spider-Man 2 
The 40-Year Old Virgin
Slither
Invincible 
Spider-Man 3
Role Models
Zach and Miri Make a Porno
Our Idiot Brother
Man on a Ledge
The Hunger Games
Pitch Perfect
Movie 43
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 
The Lego Movie
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part I
Pitch Perfect 2
Love & Mercy 
Magic Mike XXL
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part II

Best Performance: Zach and Miri Make a Porno (2008)  
Banks cut her teeth in Hollywood with supporting roles in R-rated comedies (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Role Models, Wet Hot American Summer), so when she finally landed a starring role in Zach and Miri Make a Porno, it wasn't even remotely surprising that she crushed it. She's funny, charming and most importantly, possesses the low-key vulnerability to make the friendship that eventually blossoms into a romance with Zach (Seth Rogen) feel completely authentic.

Worst Performance: Love & Mercy (2015)
While Banks has fared pretty admirably in the dramatic projects (The Hunger Games franchise, Man on a Ledge, Invincible) she's appeared in over the years, comedy has been her strong suit since her first notable on-screen role in the 2001 cult comedy classic Wet Hot American Summer. Her limitations as a dramatic performer are fully on display in the somber Brian Wilson docudrama Love & Mercy. Banks falls flat in the film's emotional scenes and her lack of chemistry with John Cusack make their on-screen romance really hard to buy.

Best Film: The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005)
I swear I don't keep picking actors to profile here just so I can keep gushing about this movie.. Outside of its non-stop laughs, The 40-Year Old Virgin will go down as a landmark film in my eyes because it launched the careers of a number of major players in comedy right now (Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Banks, Leslie Mann) and re-defined how R-rated comedies examine sex and relationships. With the possible exception of Superbad, I don't think there has been a more important or influential comedy to come out of the 2000's so far. 

Worst Film: Movie 43 (2013)
Movie 43 is one of the most widely-panned movies of the last few years and for good reason, it really stinks. The idea of making a film that's solely comprised of short comedy sketches starring a revolving door of A-list actors is a noble one, but unfortunately it amounts to a bunch of poorly-conceived bits that aren't edgy, clever or funny.   

Thank you for reading this week's installment of "The Best and Worst of". Next week, I'll take a look at the best and worst work of "Ghost in the Shell" star Scarlett Johannson.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

Quick Album Reviews: Future-HNDRXX, Within the Ruins-Halfway Human, Charli XCX-Number 1 Angel, Havok-Conformicide

Future-HNDRXX: If you've ever wanted to know what a Luther Vandross record would sound like if it was filtered through a bunch of auto-tune, HNDRXX is the album for you. With sentimental lyrics about love, often upbeat R&B production and far more singing than rapping, this record is the complete antithesis of the grimy, somber trap rap that has driven all of Future's notable releases. Future's past thoughts on romance and monotone singing style makes HNDRXX's lovestruck crooner act a bit of a tough sell at times, but this is still a decent release that proves the 33-yeard old rapper can have some success outside of his established wheelhouse.
3/5 Stars
Standout Tracks: 1.Incredible 2.Lookin Exotic 3.My Collection

Within the Ruins-Halfway Human: Halfway Human is the record I've wanted Within the Ruins to make since I was first introduced to their brand of robot-esque deathcore on 2010's Invade. The introduction of clean vocals and traditional guitar solos to the fold takes the Massachusetts based-outfit's signature sound to dizzying new heights without sacrificing any of the spastic power that made their first four records enjoyable. The over-the-top technicality and clean production style will undoubtedly repulse some metalheads, but anyone that is down with frantic guitarwork, triggered drums and pummeling breakdowns should have a ton of fun with this record. 
4/5 Stars
Standout Tracks: 1.Incomplete Harmony 2.Objective Reality 3.Bittersweet


Charli XCX-Number 1 Angel: If the perpetual sadness that comes with rooting for the Chicago Bears doesn't kill me, the spirit-breaking highs and lows of Charli XCX's music will. Number 1 Angel is yet another piece of cruel emotional torture from England's queen of untapped potential. As always, there are moments on Number 1 Angel ("ILY2", "Drugs","White Roses") where Charli displays a level of bubbly energy and hook-writing proficiency that's comparable to the best pop artists in the game right now (Ariana Grande, Tove Lo, Demi Lovato). Of course, these triumphs manage to be overshadowed by the rest of the records bland, forgettable dance/synthpop nature. There's no denying that Charli has all of the tools required to be an elite pop artist, she just doesn't seem to be able to unleash them consistently over the course of an entire project. Stay tuned later this year when I do a slight variation of this review for Charli's upcoming third studio album.
2.5/5 Stars
Standout Tracks: 1.ILY2 2.Drugs 3.White Roses

Havok-Conformicide: The hostile political climate gave Havok the perfect opportunity to return their furious, teeth-kicking roots. Conformicide is an anti-government gospel that reminded me a lot of the pure venom that drove Overkill's early releases. While the aggression and instrumentation is impressive, the shaky production, bloated runtime (58 minutes) and underwhelming vocal performance from David Sanchez prevent Conformicide from being the shot of pure, unwavering adrenaline it was intended to be. Conformicide is a solid enough return to form for Havok after their failed attempt at writing more mid-paced material on 2013's Unnatural Selection, but it's nowhere near as memorable or headbang-worthy as their 2011 breakout album Time is Up.   
3.5/5 Stars
Standout Tracks: 1.Dogmaniacal 2.Peace is in Pieces 3.Claiming Certainty

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

2017 NFL Free Agency Recap

With 95% of the notable available players now under contract, the chaos of the 2017 NFL free agency period is all but officially over. Here's a brief look at who won and lost this year's round of football musical chairs.

Biggest Winners: New England Patriots
The defending Super Bowl champs abandoned their usually conservative approach to free agency by unexpectedly signing the best available corner (Stephon Gilmore) and trading for one of the league's best young receivers (Brandin Cooks) within the first 48 hours of the new league year. In addition to the those headline-grabbing moves, the Patriots were also able to bring back defensive leader Don'ta Hightower, bolster their defensive line depth with the addition of run-stuffing specialist Lawrence Guy and re-confirm their unwavering love of running backs with "sneaky quickness" by signing future fan favorite Rex Burkhead. Even with the seemingly inevitable departure of top corner Malcolm Butler on the horizon, the Patriots absurd haul still make them the clear winners of free agency.
Honorable Mentions: Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Losers: San Francisco 49ers
John Lynch's approach to free agency was every bit as misguided and insane as I figured it would be. The former player/broadcaster/next victim of Jed York's annual firing parade used his 70+ mil in cap space to lay down the groundwork for the 49ers latest failed rebuild by bringing in 2 of the 3 signal-callers (Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley) responsible for the Bears 3-win season in 2016, a former Super Bowl MVP that gets worse with each year he's in the league (Malcolm Smith) and a 31-year old receiver that needs complementary pieces around him to thrive (Pierre Garcon). At least Lynch made grit enthusiasts happy by making 2016 All-Pro Kyle Jusczyk the highest paid fullback in NFL history.  
Dishonorable Mentions: Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins

Best Individual Signing: T.J. Lang to the Detroit Lions (3 years/$29.5 mil/$19 mil guaranteed)
In a thin offensive line market that resulted in middling-to-bad players (Matt Kalil, Russell Okung, Riley Reiff) getting paid far more than they're worth, T.J. Lang proved to be a tremendous value signing. The highly underrated ex-Packers guard should provide a huge boost to a Lions squad that has had its fair share of interior line struggles over the past few years. 

Honorable Mentions: Chris Baker to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Alshon Jeffrey to the Philadelphia Eagles, Martellus Bennett to the Green Bay Packers

Worst Individual Signing: Matt Kalil to the Carolina Panthers (5 years/$55.5 mil/$24 mil guaranteed)
Offensive lineman have a tendency to get big bucks on the open market and there is perhaps no better example of this befuddling phenomenon than Matt Kalil's deal with the Panthers. The left tackle-who only appeared in 2 games in 2016 before suffering a season-ending hip injury-who was most responsible for getting Teddy Bridgewater murdered for the first 2 seasons of his professional career securing a long-term deal from a team that is usually stingy as hell in free agency is proof of just how far NFL front offices will go to try and quickly patch up holes at key positions. Unless the joy of playing alongside his brother Ryan can magically fix his pass-protection woes, this signing is likely going to result with Cam Newton being taken off the field in a body bag by the halfway mark of the season.
Dishonorable Mentions: Russell Okung to the Los Angeles Chargers, Robert Woods to the Los Angeles Rams, Mike Remmers to the Minnesota Vikings

Best Player Still on the Market: Adrian Peterson (running back)
The lack of suitors for Adrian Peterson over the first 7 days of free agency speaks volumes about how little running backs are valued in the modern NFL. While the concerns about his age and durability are 100% valid, I still believe that AP has the potential to be a potent addition to a contender's backfield rotation. 
Honorable Mentions: Dontari Poe (defensive tackle), Jonathan Hankins (defensive tackle), T.J. McDonald (safety)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017 NFL Mock Draft 2.0 (Updated 3/14)

1.Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, edge rusher (Texas A&M)
2.San Francisco 49ers: Mitch Trubisky, quarterback (North Carolina)
3.Chicago Bears: Jamal Adams, safety (LSU)
4.Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Forunette, running back (LSU)
5.Tennessee Titans: Solomon Thomas, defensive end (Stanford)
6.New York Jets: Marshon Lattimore, cornerback (Ohio State)
7.Los Angeles Chargers: Malik Hooker, safety (Ohio State)
8.Carolina Panthers: John Ross, wide receiver (Washington)
9.Cincinnati Bengals: Jonathan Allen, defensive tackle/end (Alabama)  
10.Buffalo Bills: Mike Williams, wide receiver (Clemson)
11.New Orleans Saints: Gareon Conley, cornerback (Ohio State)
12.Cleveland Browns: O.J. Howard, tight end (Alabama)
13.Arizona Cardinals: DeShaun Watson, quarterback (Clemson)
14.Philadelphia Eagles: Christian McCaffery, running back (Stanford)
15.Indianapolis Colts: Charles Harris, edge rusher (Missouri)
16.Baltimore Ravens: Tre'Davious White, cornerback (LSU)
17.Washington Redskins: Corey Davis, wide receiver (Western Michigan)
18.Tennessee Titans: Marlon Humphery, cornerback (Alabama)
19.Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Hassam Reddick, edge rusher (Temple)
20.Denver Broncos: Ryan Ramczyk, tackle (Wisconsin)
21.Detroit Lions: Derek Barnett, edge rusher (Tennessee)
22.Miami Dolphins: Quincy Wilson, cornerback (Florida)
23.New York Giants: David Nokju, tight end (Miami)
24.Oakland Raiders: Reuben Foster, inside linebacker (Alabama)
25.Houston Texans: Forrest Lamp, guard (Western Kentucky)
26.Seattle Seahawks: Garett Bolles, tackle (Utah)
27.Kansas City Chiefs: Malik McDowell, defensive tackle (Michigan State)
28.Dallas Cowboys: Bucky Hodges, tight end (Virginia Tech)
29.Green Bay Packers: Dalvin Cook, running back (Florida State)
30.Pittsburgh Steelers: Jarrad Davis, inside linebacker (Florida)
31.Atlanta Falcons: Taco Charlton, edge rusher (Michigan)
32.New Orleans Saints: Takkarist McKinley, edge rusher (UCLA)