Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Best and Worst of Catherine Keener

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 "Get Out" star Catherine Keener.

Films starring Catherine Keener that I've seen:
Being John Malkovich
Death to Smoochy 
The 40-Year Old Virgin
Capote
Hamlet 2
Cyrus
The Croods
Captain Phillips
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa 
Begin Again 

Best Performance: The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005)
To be completely honest, The 40-Year Old Virgin is the only time where Keener has every really stood out to me. She is a likable, funny ray of sunshine as Steve Carrell's love interest and manages to completely hold her own alongside this film's talent-loaded ensemble cast.

Worst Performance: Being John Malkovich (1999)
It's not that often that an Academy Award-nominated performance goes down as an actor's weakest moment, but alas here we are. Keener's overly quirky performance as the object of John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and John Malkovich's affection made her the most obnoxious element of Spike Jonze's admirably strange directorial debut.

Best Film: The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005)
The 40-Year Old Virgin is a special movie. Not only was it responsible for elevating the likes of Steve Carrell, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Judd Apatow to superstar status, it also happens to be a hysterical, over-the-top R-rated comedy with a huge heart. I'd be surprised if I ever enjoyed another comedy more as long as I live.

Worst Film: Capote (2005)
I actually just watched this earlier this week in preparation for this piece and was shocked by how underwhelming it was. Director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Foxcatcher) somehow manages to squander an interesting premise (a look at the unorthodox relationship between author Truman Capote and the convicted murderers that inspired his acclaimed non-fiction book In Cold Blood ) and an outstanding performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman on a meandering film that doesn't examine the relationship between its protagonists nearly as deep as it should have.   

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 "Table 19" star Craig Robinson. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Album Review: Future-Future

The absurd musical output machine that is Future slowed down a bit in 2016. The 33-year old rapper only released an album, a mixtape and an EP (despite his numerous guest spots on it, Project ET is credited as a DJ Esco release) last year, which is a pretty notable decrease from the pair of mixtapes and studio albums he dropped in 2015. After somehow going a full calendar year without releasing a full-length solo project, the reigning codeine king of Atlanta's workhorse-driven hip-hop scene has returned with a vengeance on Future.

The year gap between solo projects seems to have conjured up a different set of emotions within Future. Everything he's released since his career took off with 2014's Monster has been defined by self-loathing and emotional pain stemming from his substance abuse and inability to remain faithful in a relationship. On Future, he decides to put his conscience on the backburner and just relish in the opulent lifestyle that his fame has allowed him to live. The shift in tone grants Future the freedom to cut loose for the first time since he ascended to stardom and it results in the creation of some of the most memorable music he's ever produced.

The pressure of not having to bear his soul on one of his records has done wonders for Future's delivery. The biggest pet peeve I've had with Future's music over the year is how phoned-in his rapping can sound at times (particularly on Purple Reign and Beast Mode). The abrasive, unrestrained nature of this record just about completely eliminates those issues. On tracks like "Rent Money", "Draco", "POA", "Outta Time" and "Poppin' Tags", Future showcases an energetic delivery that's far more fluid and technically-impressive than a vast majority of the stuff he's done than in the past. Given how comfortable he sounds crafting ignorant hip-hop tracks, it's hard to believe that he went the sedated, emotionally-removed route for as long as he did. The lack of substance compared to what was found on DS2 and EVOL will undoubtedly alienate some of his fans, but I found listening to a record that was more focused on boasting about his success to be a refreshing change of pace for an artist that is usually defined by suffocating gloominess.

As confident and playful as Future sounds on this record, the production is the primary reason Future never hits any notable slumps over its 63-minute runtime. Would-be filler tracks like "Super Trapper", "Scrape" and "Flip" are salvaged by their frantic, electric production from Future's most trusted collaborators (Metro Boomin, Southside, DJ Spinz) that you can't help but groove to despite the middling nature of the bars. The quality of the production is essential for trap to work and Future's ear for sharp, inventive beats is as good as you'll find in the genre.

Future seems like its only the start of a new chapter for Mr. Hendrix. The broken man that has dominated his releases over the past couple of years has been replaced by an arrogant one that gratuitously flaunts his success in everyone's faces, and that revamped attitude helps makes this record one of the most consistently enjoyable releases he's put forth to-date. It might not have the sneaky depth and minimalist sound that helped thrust Future into the forefront of the modern hip-hop scene, but it's a change in direction that I can fully get behind and hope to hear more of on his upcoming projects.
        
4/5 Stars
Standout Tracks
1.Rent Money
2.POA
3.Draco

Monday, February 20, 2017

Concert Review: Tove Lo-- Boston, MA-- February 19th, 2017

Lineup: Tove Lo/Phoebe Ryan ("The Lady Wood Tour")
Venue: House of Blues, Boston, MA
Date: February 19th, 2017

Phoebe Ryan: This is a perfect example of how one song can change the trajectory of an entire set. I was completely indifferent on Phoebe Ryan after the first couple songs she played, but then she broke out a high-energy cover of R. Kelly's "Remix to Ignition" that used Miguel's "Do You" as a hook and instantly hooked me. Her heavy electronic influence, low-key catchy hooks and adorable awkwardness reminded me a lot of Kiiara, who went from unknown to one of the buzzed-about up-and-comers in pop after the breakout success of "Gold" last summer. Ryan has a lot of potential and given how popular synth/electropop is right now, she could very well be on the precipice of breaking out in 2017.  

Tove Lo: This was the first pure pop show I've ever attended (I saw Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd in 2015, but they don't really count IMO) and holy hell did Tove Lo set the bar high for anybody else I see in the future. The 80 minutes she was on stage were driven by a towering stage presence, spot-on technicality and beaming positive energy that radiated throughout the entire sold-out crowd at the House of Blues.

The biggest takeaway I had from Tove Lo's set was how good her vocals sounded live. I've always thought her voice was very good and distinct for the genre on the record, but I didn't really appreciate her range or command until this show. She outright crushed everything from ballads to uptempo dance-pop with almost no help from backing tracks and showed the full scope of her vocal capabilities by experimenting with different arrangements and deliveries live on a handful of tracks ("Cool Girl", "Imaginary Friend", "Keep it Simple", "Not on Drugs", "Vibes"). As great of a state as pop is in right now, it's not super common to see an artist that has the confidence to play around with the existing studio arrangements live, so she deserves a ton of credit for having the talent and guts to effortlessly pull it off. 

I've been all aboard the "Tove Lo is underrated" train for a little while now and this knockout performance only further solidified my place on that hypothetical locomotive. Tove Lo deserves to a be a superstar and I hope to hell she can become a Lady Gaga/Rihanna/Ariana Grande-type mainstay in the pop world sooner than later.

Scores:
Phoebe Ryan 7/10
Tove Lo 8.5/10

Setlists:
Phoebe Ryan included:
Remix to Ignition/Do You (R. Kelly/Miguel cover)
Mine
All We Know (The Chainsmokers cover)
Dark Side

Tove Lo:
True Disaster
Lady Wood
Influence
Moments
The Way That I Am
Not on Drugs
Thousand Miles
Vibes
Got Love
Talking Body
Imaginary Friend
Keep It Simple
WTF Love Is
Flashes
Cool Girl

Encore:
What I Want for the Night (Bitches)
Habits (Stay High)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Quick Album Reviews: Dropkick Murphys-11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory, Big Sean-I Decided., Overkill-The Grinding Wheel

Dropkick Murphys-11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory: After the somber ballad-driven snoozefest that was 2013's Signed and Sealed in Blood, Dropkick Murphys wisely brought back the catchy, upbeat formula that better suits their Celtic punk skill set on their ninth LP 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory. It was a good feeling to have some fun listening to a Dropkick Murphys record after being subjected to what was essentially the musical equivalent of being trapped at a funeral in South Boston for 50 minutes on their last record. There's still some serious issues with consistency ("First Class Loser", "I Had a Hat" and "Until the Next Time" are every bit as dull as the stuff on Signed and Sealed in Blood) and the near-complete absence of the aggression that made their earlier records modern punk classics is kind of disheartening, but 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory is still a decent enough addition to the Murphys hefty catalog.
3/5 Stars
Standout Tracks: 1.Blood 2.Paying My Way 3.Rebels with a Cause


Big Sean-I Decided.: Since he transformed into a serious rapper on 2013's Hall of Fame, I've felt that Big Sean has been the most mediocre rapper on the planet. His latest I Decided. spends nearly an hour solidifying the case for that argument. This is yet another semi-conscious pop rap record where Sean blandly raps about his relationship issues and his status as an "underdog" in the hip-hop community over a bunch of forgettable beats that sound like outtakes from 40's back catalog. I'll admit that there are little flashes of potential sprinkled throughout the record ("Sunday Morning Jetpack" is a legitimately great and moving song), but I know god damn well that Sean is too comfortable with where his career is at right now to actually try and take his game to the next level. I would honestly be stoked if he went back to making the type of unintentionally hilarious party songs that drove his breakout debut Finally Famous. At least then his music would have some of the personality that his recent output sorely lacks 
2.5/5 Stars
Standout Tracks: 1.Sunday Morning Jetpack (feat. The-Dream) 2.Moves 3.Same Time Pt. 1

Overkill-The Grinding Wheel: History isn't likely going to remember Overkill as one of the finest '80's thrash metal acts, but they should go down as one of the most consistent. The New Jersey-based quintet back up their reputation as the genre's reliable workhorses with another fiery hour of vintage thrash cuts on their 18th (!) LP The Grinding Wheel. The songwriting features a nice blend of aggression and melody, the solos are exactly the type of speedy excess you want to hear on a thrash record and the hard-rock swagger of vocalist Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth is still fully in tact despite the fact that's he rapidly approaching 60.  About the only complaint I have is that there's nothing on here that's as attention-grabbing as Ironbound's "The Green and Black" or The Electric Age's "Drop the Hammer Down". Regardless of its inability to match the volume of "holy shit" moments that were on their other recent releases, The Grinding Wheel still manages to be another triumph for thrash's unsung AARP wonders.

4/5 Stars
Standout Tracks: 1.Goddamn Trouble 2.Red, White and Blue 3.Mean Green Killing Machine

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Best and Worst of Tracy Morgan

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 "Fist Fight" star Tracy Morgan.

Films starring Tracy Morgan that I've seen:
Half Baked
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
How High 
Head of State 
The Longest Yard
Little Man
First Sunday
Cop Out
Death at a Funeral
Top Five
The Night Before

Best Performance: Death at a Funeral (2010)
I'll concede that Morgan's forays into the world of film have been nowhere near as strong as his career-defining small screen turns on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. That being said, he's still been pretty good in a number of the movies he's starred in and his relatively major part in the Death at a Funeral remake tops the list. Morgan gets a lot of laughs as the obnoxious cousin of the Barnes brothers (Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence) that serves as one of the primary catalysts for the dysfunction that occurs at their father's funeral in this highly underrated remake of the 2007 British cult classic.

Worst Performance: First Sunday (2008)
Watching First Sunday helped me understand why people don't like Morgan as a performer. He's an annoying, unfunny and deeply unlikable presence for the duration of this really awful movie.

Best Film: Half Baked (1998)
Stoner comedies is a subgenre that I have well-noted affinity for and in my eyes, the genre has never spawned a finer film than Half Baked. Dave Chappelle and Neal Brennan delivered an early showcase of the biting comedic genius that made Chappelle's Show an all-time great TV series with this wild, surreal and highly quotable piece of dumb comedy gold.

Worst Film: First Sunday (2008)
Here we are again.... First Sunday has been in my crosshairs multiple times during this series and for good reason, it's an insufferable piece of garbage. It's preachy, unfunny and worst of all, it made me briefly turn against a trio of performers (Ice Cube, Morgan, Katt Williams) that I really admire.

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 "Get Out" star Catherine Keener.

 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

The fall of 2014 spawned one of the most unlikely cinematic success stories in recent history in the form of John Wick. An action film about a retired hitman forced back into action after his former employer's son kills his dog that was directed by a former stuntman and starred the notoriously stoic Keanu Reeves in the title role didn't exactly ooze potential on paper, but it ended up being one of the most inventive, bloody and straight-up badass shoot-em-up movies ever made. Nearly two and a half years later, the sequel manages to deliver another round of poetic mass carnage that further solidifies John Wick's place in the gritty action movie hall-of-fame.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is what every sequel should strive to be. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad retained everything that was great about the original (crazy fight scenes with high body counts, effective straightforward storytelling, Keanu's emotionless yet eternally cool presence) while simultaneously building upon the previously-teased "secret society of assassins" mythology and adding a dash of humor to its deadly arsenal. These might not seem like earth-shattering additions, but the deeper look into the inner-workings of the hitman underworld that Wick operates in and the occasional bursts of comic relief (Laurence Fishburne's cameo as a homeless, bird-loving New York City crime lord is particularly great) amidst all of the bloodshed is enough to help this film distinguish itself from its predecessor.

The further development of the hitman community that serves as the backdrop of the story and a handful of good one-liners may add some depth to the proceedings, but it sure as hell isn't why you go see a movie like John Wick: Chapter 2 for. People come for the insane action sequences and in that regard, John Wick: Chapter 2 gives the audience its money's worth and then some. Stahelski once again delivers a wide-variety of fight scenes that are practically guaranteed to fill action junkies with an abundance of glee. Just about every action sequence (with the notable exception of a pretty significant setpiece in the middle of the film that takes place in a pitch-black underground tunnel system in Italy) is so well-shot and choreographed that you feel like you're a watching a ballet that happens to feature point-blank pistol headshots, frantic knifeplay and basically every style of hand-to-hand combat you could think of. It might sound ridiculous to the purist cinephiles of the world, but I believe that the John Wick franchise is the closest the film world has ever come to seeing an artful action movie. The dark beauty of its cinematography and the grace of its fight scenes gives this film a vivid, intoxicating atmosphere and that level of visceral artistry is the primary reason why this series is so great. 

John Wick: Chapter 2 is another cathartic blast of pure adrenaline that should satisfy the hell out of most action movie enthusiasts. Any skepticism I had about the filmmakers ability to pull off a sequel was erased within the first five minutes and everyone involved with this project deserves a ton of credit for offering up a film that manages to match the quality of the original without ever feeling like a cheap retread. If the creative powers behind this can continue to deliver a product that's as enthralling and well-executed as this,  I'll gladly sign up for an infinite amount of future John Wick sequels.
     
4/5 Stars

Monday, February 13, 2017

2017 NFL Mock Draft (Pre-Combine #2)

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