Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Thing Review

The Thing
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Released in 2011

Hollywood’s current state can be summed up with the 2011 version of The Thing:  it is a remake, of a remake, of a film, based on a novella, about a replicating ... thing. The recycling program in the movie industry that prefers to shun inspiration for silver screen adaptations of such winning comic books as Jonah Hex has made a remake of a remake, folks. Technically, it is a prequel. Reused scenarios and exact shot compositions speak otherwise. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s (this recent flood of Northern European directors tests even the eloquent) modern take on the horror staple borrows so liberally from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic that there are bound to be moments of near-greatness. Not only is the genesis of these segments lifted, however, but the entire film lacks the sparse, humanistic touch that made the original remake (did I just say that?) the gritty masterpiece it is to this day. 

The source material, traced via carbon dating to John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, remains one of the strongest in the horror canon.  Part of its continued appeal lies in its setting, at an isolated scientific base located in Antarctica. Chances are you or I will never set foot anywhere near the ice continent, so a film focusing on a group of scientists holed up in a base there provides an odd source of exoticism. The inclusion of a highly advanced alien lifeform only compounds such interest. Frozen in a million-year-old block of ice, this thing is uncovered from its gigantic spaceship and brought back to the base, where it obviously wakes up from its long sleep to wreak havoc (if Terminator 2 taught us anything, it is that cold = stubbornly alive and hot = dead as dead). By that measure, the humans wield flamethrowers to torch the beast, or, more accurately, the many disposable humans it infects. 

A bloody witch hunt ensues, with the monster revealing its tentacled, shrieking self reliably for maximum gore and minimum wonder. Carpenter’s film utilized models, puppets, and animatronics that shocked and nauseated because they were undoubtedly on the same plane, there on the same soundstage. The CGI sheen of this film robs much of the realism for more elaborate, and in turn less believable, Thing-flailing, impaling, and face-morphing effects. There is a sequence where flamethrowers roast a series of Things that cascade from one person to the next. Such liberal violence, and on-screen depictions of it, desensitizes the audience to a point where it simply becomes an action movie. 

An action movie loaded with cheap scares, that is. Van Heijningen exploits the jump scare to its last cliched leap. You likely will be able to predetermine the exact moment the bogeyman appears through the submergence of ambient sound and the familiar cadence that follows. The terror of the film exists moment by moment and does not pervade, live in the atmosphere. No dread constricts the narrow, monotonous hallways;  the psychological trickery Carpenter played by never assuring anyone as safe is absent. The windy Antarctic wasteland surrounding them does not look cold enough. And the journey into the flying saucer comes across as just unnecessary. The design of the ship’s interior combines Cowboys & Aliens’ generic hallways, video game Prey’s organic, fleshy walls and an inexplicable fountain of pixels into one anachronistic, needless sin of feng shui. 

Van Heijningen (the director if you’re losing track) can be blamed for the superficial scares, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5 ... this is making sense now) attempts to mend the gap by emulating the 80s version to a fault. Scenes that copy from its inspiration build suspense effectively for they have done so before. When Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) organizes a test to determine who’s human and impostor, anxiety indeed grows. There is something much less badass, however, with shining a flashlight into someone’s teeth to check for fillings (the alien cannot replicate inorganic matter, blah blah blah) than jabbing a flaming rod into a dish of each person’s blood only for the infected one to literally scream when touched. Last time I checked, dental checks do not belong in any horror film not called Marathon Man

R.J. MacReady is a name any horror buff will recall. Kurt Russell’s legendary beard in the 1982 version may be responsible, but the film built a strong protagonist who thwarted the menace with ability and genuine frustration. The characters this time around lack any distinguishing qualities. In fact, I do not even recall their names. Lost’s Mr. Eko - that is what I called him - played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is tragically underused. The script feeds Eric Christian Olsen’s character such needed lines as, “It’s inside,” after an exterior window breaks off-screen. Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Scott Pilgrim exceeds the laughable standards now set for females in horror films, but she is no Ripley either. Eric Heisserer’s jumpy script can be held accountable, which raises the question as to why a better writer was not chosen.

I step back and ponder why they made this Thing. John Carpenter updated Howard Hawk’s 50s Marxist allegory for modern audiences 30 years ago. What else needed to be said? It does not offer a modern take on the worn story aside from updated computer effects. I enjoyed some of it, yes, particularly the end credits sequence that, rather heavy-handedly, tied this prequel’s story to Carpenter’s universe. It roused the few Thing fans there were in the audience. Universal is learning the tough way that this franchise is not a money earner. That both the 1982 and new films share in common. The former was released just two weeks after E.T., and no one wanted to see an alien that they thought loved Reeses Pieces feast on human flesh. Which reminds me: E.T. ... we’re due for an update on that cash cow by now aren’t we?

Final Verdict: 
2 Stars out of 5

This review was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Björk's Biophilia Review

Artist: Björk
Released in 2011

Iceland needs your help. Their economy is in worse shape than ours and their most recent export was a volcanic plume that managed to piss off the entire volcano-less Western world. Sigur Rós, pioneers of music existing beyond the infinite, should have ended their hiatus and released another album of spacey extraterrestrial speak to get their country back on track. Jónsi and co. won’t budge. We thus turn to the most popular statesman in Icelandic history: Björk. The proprietor of the swan dress that your mother remembers from the Oscars  returns after four years off with a eclectic LP that consists of individual iPad apps for each song, and they are, according to her, expressions “of the music, the story and the idea.” The entire project is one potpourri of science, nature, technology, geology, love, bedlam and the bizarre from one crazy mind. Uh-oh. 

Well, I build up the insanity of the album yet forgo mentioning its much-deserved qualifier: it works. Björk is an agent of chaos as well as beauty. She deftly clashes the two to find that beauty shines within chaos and chaos boils underneath beauty. Her peculiar (a platitude of a word here) 90s hit, “Hyperballad," consisted of lucid, intimate lyrics of a girl dreaming of throwing all she owns - and even herself - off a cliff only to find solace in her lover’s arms upon waking up. Not a typical approach to love, but more than effective with her puling delivery and the internally resonating bassline. The instrumentation of her songs always contains curiosities, and especially so on Biophilia. Four harpists layer the gentle opener “Moon," and demented spurts of church organ haunt “Hollow."  She even customized a Tesla coil (the dramatic lightning generator David Bowie walks through in The Prestige) for additional sound effects in the aptly-titled “Thunderbolt."  Better yet, she  - or, more accurately, her poor roadies - is lugging that mad device around for her tour. 

No matter how many machines creak underneath, her voice still reigns as her supreme asset, a beautiful instrument unleashed with her polarizing manipulation. Björk has gotten flak for decades now from those who do not care for her pipes, and this album will not convert the disenchanted. At the very least, you must admire the craft she endows in every syllable or hushed utterance. She sings dynamically, moving up and down the register and dipping into perfect harmony or shocking dissonance as quickly as she pulls away. Peruse pictures of Iceland, and her take on vocals may even resemble the oscillating terrain of her homeland. She scales icy mountains like the wind only before plummeting off a plateau the next moment. Her venomous rebuke of a lover, rift with such winning geological images as “as fast as your fingernail grows/the Atlantic ridge drifts," “Mutual Core” harbors a contempt best emoted through her triumphant delivery of “you didn’t know I had it in me.”  That voice which sounds so grand also feels tender, vulnerable on other tracks as “Moon."  In a harsh landscape of cold, she is alone wishing to “once again be reborn.” She receives her wish, finding warmth in the multiple dubs of her own vocals she cushions around herself, declaring herself “all birthed and happy.” Bizarre yes, though beautiful in its abstract confessional style that doesn’t self pity but throws all on the table, daring the listener to digest it all.

Compounding such an idiosyncratic style is Björk’s curiosity with the cosmos, a theme in every track here. She whispers gibberish in the nonsensical “Dark Matter,” composed in free time to convey the struggle of codifying that elusive medium. “Cosmogony," the title of which refers to the study of how existence came to, well, exist, is a very Björk track, as she sings without much accompaniment. Some may not dig, but her connection between being, faith and music as the ultimate source of all makes for a heartfelt study. This all culminates to the standout track of Biophilia and front-runner for Song of the Year, lead single “Crystalline." Innocent xylophone strains prance underneath a vocal line that sounds like it is sung from a solitary confinement cell until reaching the limitless expanse of the universe, and returning back again for the microscopic fury of an atom splitting. The jaw-dropper of an ending packs its punch from the machine gun barrage of beats and out-of-sync moments of silence that are the fitting moments of calm before the firestorm. Show me a dubstep artist who matches this euphoria. 

I twiddled with the iPad app and played a surprisingly intuitive game built on the beats and vibe of “Crystalline." It is solid and even fun, like some psychedelic inverse of Tempest. As for advancing the theme of the album, I am not sure if that is apt, but the focus is already clear. Björk gazes at the stars and marvels at the unseen expanse of it all.  Not unlike this year’s Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life. She wonders aloud of the truths that evade us all, only through eccentric, occasionally kick-ass music. Iceland, your hero has returned! Good luck finding the answers to your worldly problems though.  We just want to stare into space.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars out of 5

This review was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Janelle Monáe Concert Review

Janelle Monáe
At Barton Hall, Cornell University
On Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sometimes it is not just the music, but the atmosphere that makes the night. With a closer stage than usual and a respectful crowd filling the ranks, Janelle Monáe tore down the usual barriers to become one with the audience at Sunday night’s intimate, energetic set. It was a comfortable antithesis to B.o.B’s crowded and sweaty concert at Homecoming, with a smaller crowd that knew exactly where they wanted to be. Prelims and the rush before fall break likely kept many holed up in their dorms. Their loss. Monáe, a soaring rocket of talent and class, ignited Barton Hall with an incendiary performance.

The neo-soul darling has played shows for nearly a decade, but with the success of her first album, The ArchAndroid, last year, she is finally giving it all for the crowds she deserves. As a result, Monáe navigates the stage with the grace of a veteran, yet absorbs the rapture of her audience with gratitude the jaded have long forgotten. Decked in a tight tuxedo shirt and exaggerated black necktie, the fashionista blended singing, dancing and performance art (the term used quite literally in this case) into a stylish conglomerate of experimental R&B and funky, retro throwback. It is fitting she covered two classics from her heroes, with Prince’s 80s hit “Take Me With U” and the Jackson 5’s immortal “I Want You Back.” The original singers’ voices already bordered on the effeminate, and Janelle captured the youthful yearning with her soaring lines and stunning range. Certainly no one in the crowd was expecting the pitch-perfect delivery of “All I want ... All I neeeeed!!” in the Jackson standard, but she met the challenge. 

Her command of voice is thoroughly impressive, as she juggles a myriad of styles without struggle. “Locked Inside” could be a lost Off the Wall cut, with bass slinking underneath bars that allow for plenty of vibrato improvisation. Really, you wonder where Quincy Jones was hiding on the production credits. The cut staccato of “Wondaland” stands in stark contrast, and she held the microphone close as she screeched and ridiculously instructed, “Take her back to Wondaland/ She thinks she left her underpants.” Trust me, she could stick any absurd phrase in this refrain and you would still end up singing it to yourself on the way home. “Dance or Die,” which opened the festivities, basically blends hip-hop, funk and afropop into a groovy chant that allowed for her to pace across the stage and survey the fans she will entertain for the night. 

Janelle’s two huge hits, “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” received enthusiastic hoots and hollers upon the initial measures alone. Following her sensational performance at the Grammys this year, “Cold War” has entered the playlists of millions due to the fact that it is ... well, awesome. “Tightrope” wears its influence on its sleeve, with that James Brown enunciation of “sceeene” and even numerous dance breaks as horns blast behind. You have to appreciate the stamina of this girl. No synchronized moves were defined; she fell into the groove. A dance-savvy individual could list all her techniques better than me, though the whole crowd witnessed gliding redolent of the late King of Pop. 

When interviewed by the Sun last week, Monáe pitched her show as “not just a concert” but a “full experience.” Behind this 25-year-old Vessel of Soul a huge backing band laid the foundation. Not only one enthusiastic guitar player but assorted percussion, strings, backup singers and a full horn section. The James Bond brass punches and sweeping violins in “Sincerely, Jane” added a layer of class to a track aspiring to be a 60s Burt Bacharach composition. She regularly interacted with her musicians in crime, conducting the band with her giant winglike cloak for appropriately epic endings. Cyclops shades, Victorian masks and black robes made for a bizarre costume rack, and don’t forget the black and white balloon orgy throughout “Tightrope.” Monáe even stopped to paint her “Insanity Painting” — to which she gifted to one lucky birthday girl after the show — which consisted of angry swipes of paint on an innocent canvas.

Artists of Janelle’s caliber are not always so spot-on live. I saw Cee-Lo at Lollapalooza this summer and it was terrible. He had the audience — easily numerated in the hundreds of thousands — in his hand, yet lost them through awkward, extended banter and distant stage presence. It was a dreadful performance. Yet when Janelle silently asked for a hand wave, back and forth, with a heart cusped at the hands, the audience hypnotically obliged. It was natural, not forced, and more than deserved. In the final song of the encore, “Come Alive,” she engaged all of Barton Hall in repeat-after-me scatting before literally having them all descend to the floor. And when she broke the spell by screaming “I came alive!” before flipping over a mic stand, we, just for a moment, shared that collective rush as one.

This review was originally written  for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location at the this link. The header picture above was taken by Tina Chou, Staff Photographer for the The Sun.