Micro-Review: Rodman Flender’s CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP

In many ways, CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP is the vague, thematic equivalent of Judd Apatow’s criminally underrated FUNNY PEOPLE. As a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most trying periods in his career, it’s hard not to sympathize with O’Brien’s almost patronizing off-stage antics. Underneath the surface of CoCo’s hilarious demeanor, there is an uncomfortable rage and misery that bubbles its way up over the course of the documentary; the only question is whether or not it’s intended as humor.

While on stage, the comedian is thoroughly in his element. At one point in the film, one of his crew acknowledges the fact that he seems to be having genuine fun during his show – in spite of the numerous shots scattered throughout depicting him alone, isolated and completely floundering. It’s this juxtaposition of moments – his absurd stage persona versus his crass, insulting, off-stage one – that makes the film something more interesting than it would initially appear.

So what does it all mean? Not much. Though CAN’T STOP is an interesting look into a television personality’s identity when the cameras are off – even when they’re not – it doesn’t really go beyond that; in the end, it doesn’t have much to say, and despite scratching the surface of the complexity of comedic personalities, it never digs deep enough to warrant any provocation of thought. Still, it’s worth a watch for CoCo fans – even if they might not look at O’Brien the same way again after watching him wrestle with his demons – and the way it exemplifies the toll that loss of purpose can take on a man is interesting enough to make it watchable.

6.5/10

d.a. garabedian

 

Broken Mirror Theory: Mike Cahill’s ANOTHER EARTH

Spoilers, including discussions of the final scene, follow.

ANOTHER EARTH is the deceptively intimate embodiment of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”; or, rather, it is a deceptively intimate deconstruction of said poem, depending on your personal perspective on the film’s final shot. Using the high-concept, science-fiction backdrop of a second, mirror Earth entering our planet’s orbit, co-writer / director Mike Cahill and co-writer / lead actress Brit Marling explore the philosophical meanderings of alternate routes through life. As much a film about penance and imprisonment as it is about reflections and identity, ANOTHER EARTH crafts an appropriately ambiguous arc of one woman as she tries to find herself again following a tragic accident.

Featuring more shots of characters staring into mirrors than might be particularly wise for a film so obviously about our own reflective nature (including a “broken mirror theory” that makes its way expositively into the final act of the film), the film still manages to paint an impressively sincere portrait of a protagonist who desperately wants to move past the skeletons of her past. Whether it be by making amends, running away or cleaning up after herself – which she does figuratively at first, followed by a more literal interpretation – she is a character completely in limbo, unsure of how exactly to continue the life that she’s made for herself.

But it is these shots of reflections that are actually the key to unraveling the real mystery of the film: the final shot. There has been much debate as to what this ending actually means – does it represent an Earth Two where Rhoda never gets into her car accident, goes to MIT and finally achieves her dream of going into space, becoming an astronaut and eventually visiting Earth One? Or does it represent a mirroring of the Earths all the way up until the moment where she gives her ticket to John, thus making her sacrifice a noble but ultimately fruitless gesture? Both seem equally plausible, and Marling and Cahill leave it up to the audience to interpret, but if you ask me, it’s the latter.

In spite of the tasteful direction that Cahill provides throughout the film, his many shots of reflections seem to be much too on-the-nose – that is, unless you consider the possibility that they are there to serve a purpose other than thematic decoration. Up until the very end of the film, Rhoda sees her reflection in every pane of glass that she encounters, a possible metaphorical reflection of this other person that she longs to meet, interact with and, specifically, to be. And as Rhoda boards the train home from John’s house after telling him the truth, there is a very particular, lingering shot of the window opposite Rhoda, where her reflection – faded, but still hard and clear – sits in perfect symmetry.

This is the last reflection that we see for the rest of the film; the last example of symmetry between one side of Rhoda and the next. This may very well be because it is the last time before she performs her first truly selfless act by giving away her ticket. I, however, prefer to read it is as the final moments of synchronicity between the Rhoda of Earth One and the Rhoda of Earth Two – the last moments that they were ever true, mirrored images of one another before their roads diverged. This gives those questionably blunt images earlier in the film a deeper meaning, and provides a sincerity and depth to our protagonist that would have been less impressive had the entire film been nothing more than a philosophical “what-if?” scenario.

Still, however you read it, the ending is extremely powerful: the moment a reflection becomes more than something abstract and becomes a tangible object. Regardless of how John will fair on Earth Two – will he be reunited with his family, or find nothing but bitter disappointment? – this is still the meeting of symmetrical objects, a chance to learn from one’s self. Does Rhoda One find that her counterpart is simply the summation of her youthful hopes and dreams, or does she find her to be a selfish, petty girl, as screwed up by her own mistakes as she is, but without the redeeming factor of that one last, selfless act? It seems a far more fascinating scenario to imagine them having gone through the same ordeal, only to find that our protagonist – in spite of her desperation to escape her past – is actually the one that came out stronger and a better person for havingnot run; that her counterpart is the screw up, the selfish side of herself that she abandons when she gives up her ticket.

But I guess we’ll never know for sure. After all, Earth Two is just an abstraction – we never get to go there.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

 

Micro-Review: Jack White’s BLUNDERBUSS

A year has passed since The White Stripes announced that they were calling it quits, and the typically over-active Jack White has been suspiciously idle. Known for juggling multiple acts, including the Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather (a lot of the” bands), White took off most of last year to work on yet another project: his first ever solo album. BLUNDERBUSS is the result, and regardless of what he’s calling it this time around, it’s irrefutably Jack White. Fans of the Stripes who have mourned their disbanding should find a lot to love here, as this release solidifies the suspicion that his first band was really just the Jack White show (though how anybody could possibly think otherwise is strange, considering they were a duo, and he handled all songwriting duties).

That isn’t to say that this is completely familiar territory for White. Despite the vague similarities to his previous work, White certainly explores new sonic territories: there is an abundance of low-tempo blues work here, not to mention an array of stylistic flourishes that are less reminiscent of the more rock ‘n’ roll Stripes. The piano is of more use here than it ever has been in White’s past, and the guitar seems to take a backseat to overall composition. Freed from the confines of guitar-oriented songwriting, BLUNDERBUSS seems to revel in its sonic and structural diversity: song lengths are generally short and to the point, and give the impression that they were written almost entirely on piano with all extra instrumentation treated as an afterthought. The White-esque guitar solo on “Weep Themselves to Sleep” is a rare occurrence, and the bass-driven “I’m Shakin'” is one of the few obvious throwbacks to old-school Stripes.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to be surprised by BLUNDERBUSS. This album is exactly what you would expect from Jack White: his signature vocals set against the backdrop of blues-rock meanderings. And even though I would have loved to have seen White experiment a bit further with his formidable musical talents, it’s difficult to argue with the results – even Jack White playing it safe is a force to be reckoned with, and this release should be everything that White fans have been clamouring for. Hopefully it signals the beginning of a new chapter in White’s creative output.

Standout tracks: “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”, “Weep Themselves to Sleep”, “On and On and On”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Drawing a Line in the Sand: Drew Goddard’s THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

With the possible exception of the upcoming, two-part adaptation of THE HOBBIT, it’s hard to imagine a recent film more steeped in production issues than THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (ironically enough, both of these films’ problems derive [largely] from MGM’s 2010 implosion and eventual bankruptcy). Wrapping principal photography in May of 2009, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS sat on the shelf for an unbelievable three years before finally being salvaged by Lionsgate, who managed to release the project last weekend. To put this dormancy into proper perspective, it’s worth noting that one of the film’s stars, Chris Hemsworth (now known primarily for being the God of Thunder, Thor, in Marvel’s AVENGERS world) had not even yet broken into the spotlight in J.J.’s reboot of STAR TREK at the time of the film’s completion.

Directed and co-written by Bad Robot alumni Drew Goddard (whom fans of the school of J.J. will recognize from his contributions to LOST, not to mention as the scribe of the criminally underrated CLOVERFIELD) and produced and co-written by fanboy-fave Joss Whedon (who is now the director of THE AVENGERS – funny how it all comes together like that), THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is not just the first really terrific genre film of the year; it’s one of the best, period.

Mystery box aficionados should be familiar with Bad Robot’s know-as-little-as-possible-about-the-film-before-seeing-it approach, and this is no different: I cannot possibly stress the fact enough that you should see this film as fresh as humanly possible. Although THE CABIN IN THE WOODS does not rely on its surprises to make it the refreshingly spectacular genre entry that it is, it certainly is enhanced by them; getting blindsided by each absurdly intelligent twist as they develop is half of the fun. It’s for this reason that I’m going to avoid spoiling anything about the film in the following review, so feel free to read on even if you haven’t seen the movie yet; but – and I really mean this – the less you know, the better. You’ve been warned.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is a spectacularly intricate deconstruction of the horror genre.   It’s so devastating, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine any viewer ever looking at horror films the same way again after seeing this movie. What’s truly impressive, however, is the fact that it manages to skewer the genre whilst simultaneously being an entry in it. Make no mistake: this is a horror film in spite of all of the comedy. Much in the same way that the recent TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL lampooned horror archetypes, Goddard and Whedon manage to pay off those archetypes even as they subvert them beyond recognition; just because characters are frequently aware of the fact that they are playing into very specific conventions, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to make those mistakes anyway.

But this is no mere subversion. What this film does goes beyond simple satire and into the very soul of what makes the genre tick: it takes every stereotype imaginable (gender, character, structural – you name it) and not only subverts those elements, it actually gives reasons for why they exist before metaphorically, metaphysically and yes, even literally tearing them apart. And as the film progresses towards its utterly bat-shit finale, one gets the feeling that you will never, ever watch another horror film without associating it with the new rulebook that this creative duo have concocted. Because, in actuality, that’s what THE CABIN IN THE WOODS does: it takes the rules, lays them all out for the audience, then deconstructs every line (and even the stuff between the lines) before rewriting the whole book from the ground up. This is a reinvention of a genre that’s been in such desperate need of revitalization that I can’t help but wonder how the landscape of horror might have been affected had it been released several years ago as planned.

The performances are pitch-perfect. Each character is perfectly cast in their specific roles,  and they never stray, even as the whole world beginnings to fall down around them: the “athlete”, the “fool”, the “whore”, the “scholar” and the “virgin” all sit in their ritualistic corners, awaiting inevitability with due (and sometimes knowing) patience. But what’s particularly fascinating is the nonchalant, mundane characters that the meta aspects of the story give us: Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are the soul of the film, the impossibly perfect proxies for Whedon and Goddard who go to work as fed up with their own dedication to tradition as their counterparts are. Much of the comedy – not to mention much of the originality – comes from their absurdity in the first half of the film as the audience struggles to grasp just what their purpose is. Their interaction in the opening scene of the movie – the elegantly mundane conversation that seems so completely out of place – becomes more telling the more we learn about what the real plot and theme of the film is, pointing a knowing finger back on the artists that work in the genre (including themselves).

But Whedon and Goddard are not content to merely point out the psychology and metaphorical nuances of horror storytellers through meta-narrative; they take it all a step further, adding layers of meaning to that psychoanalysis and wrapping it up in a literal narrative that’s so impossibly ludicrous that the audience (and the characters) are forced to completely reject it, regardless of the moral and philosophical implications. Even at the end of all things, humanity – oh so perfectly encapsulated in a single, shared joint of pot – trumps questions of existential debate any day. Marty sums it up with (paraphrased) earthy, stoner wisdom: if this is the cost, then maybe we need a change.

Fuck “humanity”. They made them choose, and choose they did.

Elegantly directed, cleverly written and featuring a final act that is the wet dream of genre fans the world over, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is the best film of the year thus far.

9/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: DragonForce’s THE POWER WITHIN

After four years and a new vocalist, DragonForce are back with their fifth studio album, THE POWER WITHIN. Despite the loss of frontman ZP Theart – and the subsequent addition of Marc Hudson – almost nothing has changed in the world of DragonForce: they’re the same band that they always were, for better or worse, and if you weren’t a fan before, not much on this latest release is going to change your mind. This is power metal to the nth degree – the second track on the record, which guitarist Herman Li describes as the “fastest, most intense DragonForce track to date”, clocks in at a ridiculous 220 bpm – so unless you’re in the mood for blistering (apparently un-reproducable-in-a-live-setting) guitar solos and drumming, you’ll likely want to steer well clear of this one.

Still, the band’s technical virtuosity can’t be denied, even if it’s debatable as to whether or not what they’re producing is creative or just stilted and masturbatory. The group does occasionally stray from their blistering velocities on rare moments like the intros to “Wings of Liberty” and (apparent) closer, “Last Man Stands”, but they’re always fleeting. In a surprise move, however, the band includes an acoustic rendition of “Seasons” as a bonus track / album closer, and it’s an absolutely fascinating arrangement. Cutting out all of the bullshit that makes DragonForce the band that they are, “Seasons [Acoustic]” is a compelling and legitimately well-constructed song that belies the group’s trademark flamboyance. And without all of the bells, whistles and compression, the track’s guitar solo is a refreshing change of pace. It seems odd to say it, but this acoustic rendition really is a highlight of the record, and the band would be wise to pursue more work in this vein in the future.

But what THE POWER WITHIN represents, in the end, is the dreaded “shadow album”: a release that’s so similar to those that came before it that it suffers from being a pale copy of that which came before it. Regardless of the quality of what’s being produced, it’s just more of the same – it never strives to be anything more than what precedent has dictated, and winds up coming across like an album of b-sides from a previous release as a result. This review becomes something of a moot point, then: if you’ve found yourself enjoying a DragonForce song in the past and felt like you wanted nine more just like it, you’ll like THE POWER WITHIN. If not, then there isn’t much for you to sink your teeth into here.

Nothing new to see here.

Standout tracks: “Wings of Liberty”, “Give Me the Night”, “Seasons [Acoustic]”.

7/10

d.a. garabedian

And Now the Glass Room Gets a Little Dark: Big Wreck’s ALBATROSS

Fifteen years ago, Big Wreck broke into the Canadian rock scene with their debut album, IN LOVING MEMORY…. The LP spawned a trio of hits – “That Song”, “The Oaf”, and “Blown Wide Open” – and became a bonafide success, achieving double-platinum in Canada (which, to be fair, is actually a tenth of the units required to hit a similar benchmark in the United States). With such instantaneous success, the band decided to do a bit of experimenting on their sophomore effort: THE PLEASURE AND THE GREED was released in 2001 to mixed reception and nowhere near the success of its predecessor. The album was nonetheless a significant creative victory for the group, sporting a sprawling runtime (a colossal 16 tracks over a 66-minute runtime), shifting time signatures and a sporadic sonic palette. But the reception for their sophomore album was so poor, in fact, that the internal issues within the band could no longer be ignored. They broke up a year later, prompting frontman, guitarist and primary songwriter Ian Thornley to pursue a solo career that would go on to last another 7 years.

Now, in 2012, the primary songwriting team of Ian Thornley and Brian Doherty have reunited to bring Big Wreck back from the dead with ALBATROSS, otherwise known as “Ian Thornley Unleashed”. An accomplished vocalist and guitarist, Thornley found himself floundering in a label-fuelled industry throughout his solo career, where his recordings were often taken from him, remixed and distilled down to more palatable rock. This was particularly the case on his sophomore, TINY PICTURES, which, despite an impressively diverse level of instrumentation for radio-ready rock (Thornley is fond of both the mandolin and the banjo, as well as ample amounts of slide guitar), was fed through all kinds of machines before being released as something entirely different than Thornley’s initial intention. And though Thornley managed to achieve modest success through his solo venture – his debut, COME AGAIN, spawned a trio of top ten singles, with another pair coming from the sophomore effort – you could practically feel how stifled the artist was in his voice.

Enter ALBATROSS, Thornley’s most accomplished and focused effort to date. Self-produced, the album has absolutely no signs of label tampering: the production is lush, the structures are atypical and the instrumentation is whatever the band deems appropriate at any given time. With over ten years of songwriting experience under his belt since he last went creatively insane on a record, ALBATROSS represents a glorious combination of both the massive hooks and radio-ready melody lines that Thornley’s solo project encompassed and the musical creativity missing since the group disbanded over a decade ago. What we’re left with is a staggeringly strong record that pulls from all of the best parts of these musicians’ fifteen-year history.

At a perfect 11 tracks and 49-minute runtime, the album neither overstays its welcome nor underplays its value. What really sets the album apart, however, is the band dynamic: these boys can play, and they play phenomenally together as a unit. The band is so tight, in fact, that one wishes that there were more instances where they were just jamming over these wonderful compositions; the extended outros to both “Control” and “All is Fair” dabble in this jam-esque quality that the record embodies, but I couldn’t help but want more. And despite the fact that one gets the feeling that the group will turn these relatively short song lengths into 20-minute sessions on the stage, I just wanted a touch more on the record itself. Still, the compositions are gloriously diverse and varied from track to track, throwing all structural assumptions out the window: just when you think you’ve reached the chorus, Thornley throws in a second part that introduces the real hook. These songs are organic, catchy and powerful in all of the right ways – the kind of songs that would be internationally recognizable radio hits if the world were a just place.

The musicians are flawless. Finally getting a real chance to show his chops, Thornley rips solo after solo on this record, often throwing out a pair in a single track. There’s a loose quality to his playing that is absolutely refreshing in a rock record – the band isn’t afraid to leave a few off notes or mistakes in the tracking, and the result is a very human record. Doherty, of course, compliments Thornley to a tee, and there’s no denying their chemistry; one would think that no time has passed since THE PLEASURE AND THE GREED, as the two guitarists sync up to absolute perfection. Newcomer Brad Park does a perfectly adequate job on drums, though it’s tough to stack him up against the truly wonderful Daniel Adair who tracked many of the songs on TINY PICTURES – instead, he’s currently having his vocal and percussive talents completely wasted in Nickelback.

New bassist Dave McMillan, on the other hand, takes the reins from Dave Henning and emerges as one of the standout sections of the record. If anything was seriously lacking on Thornley’s solo outings, it was the distinctive and masterful bass guitars that permeated Big Wreck’s first two records. Here, McMillan does an absolutely terrific job, syncing up with Park and dancing his way around chord progressions, weaving in between Thornley and Doherty with such effortlessness that one can’t help but wonder why the hell any bassist would be content to just follow the progression. He often comes out on top, supplying some of the most memorable instrumental moments on the record, particularly on the absolutely staggering “All is Fair”, where the whole band is clearly firing on all cylinders, not to mention his complete dominance in the penultimate track, “Do What You Will”, where call-and-response guitar-fills make way to a toe-tapping bass line.

Thornley outdoes himself on the lyrics, too. Despite always having been as impressive a word-slinger as he is axeman, there is a certain elegance to the variety and breadth of lyrical content on ALBATROSS, from love and sex to questions of determined living and everything in between. But the most emotionally devastating lyrical display shows up in the album closer, “Time”, a reverential lament on the passage of (you guessed it) time: “If I could go back in time / What would I change of mine? / I’ve wasted way too much of it / Just wishing I could go back in it”.

Ultimately, Big Wreck’s latest represents a powerful, exciting new direction for the band. Anybody who has long been a fan of any of these musicians should be smiling from ear-to-ear for the entire runtime and counting off the days until they get a chance to see them perform it live. As one of the finest rock albums in recent memory, this is the album to beat this year. An absolute masterpiece of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll.

Standout tracks: All of them. Every track is perfect. If pressed, however, “Glass Room”, “All is Fair” and “Control” are an unbeatable, back-to-back trio.

9.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Halestorm’s THE STRANGE CASE OF…

Another mainstay of the Rock on the Range scene [I’m sensing a pattern here…] and known primarily for their infamously excellent drum circle, Halestorm returns three years after their major label debut with THE STRANGE CASE OF…. Playing like a female-fronted version of Shinedown (which should come as little surprise, considering the familiarity between front-woman Lzzy Hale and Brent Smith – they’ve collaborated both live and in-studio on Shinedown songs), this sophomore effort continues their pursuit of big hooks and an edgy attitude. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t really get anywhere beyond that – it really is THE SOUND OF MADNESS-lite with female vocals and nothing more.

Luckily, Lzzy Hale is one of the better female vocalists in the scene right now. She has spectacular control and attitude, and the edge that she gives her voice balances a fine line between precise technique and raw force. She’s one of the few females out there that makes her gender a completely moot point – she’s more than capable of pulling off (and often besting) the rock ‘n’ roll swagger of her male counterparts. By the end of the first track it’s become obvious that this is no gimmick; she’s just a damn good vocalist.

Because this review is pre-release, the precise songwriters for this album are not readily available yet. However, judging from those on the band’s debut – which includes a variety of familiar faces, including Marti Frederiksen, Brian Howes and, of course, Dave Bassett – one gets the feeling that the case will not be dissimilar for this release. The results are as obviously competent as they are disappointingly unoriginal and mundane.

The result is carried entirely by the charisma of Hale, who depressingly proves that all you really need is a powerful and convincing vocalist to capture the listener’s attention. Still, she gets her chance to shine in both the dark and the light, as the album takes a baffling turn into straight pop ballads in the middle. It turns things around again in the second half, but by the time it arrives, the album has already given just about everything that it has to give. With the exception of a few solos that were apparently laid down by Eric Friedman of Submersed and Tremonti fame, there’s nothing worth sinking your teeth into.

It’s very telling when a rock album that runs only 40 minutes feels long. It’s a damn shame, because anybody who has seen this band live knows that they have more talent than is on display here. It’s too bad that they feel the need to limit themselves in the way that they’re doing on THE STRANGE CASE OF…. Still, the first three tracks have a terrific rock swagger to them, and the Black Stone Cherry-esque “American Boys” is a highlight, as well. Album closer “Here’s to Us” is also an interesting cut: it may not be particularly groundbreaking, but the fact that it plays like a rated-R Kelly Clarkson song is fascinating.

Fans of the first album should be happy, but others might find themselves rather bored with how little the band tries to push themselves.

Standout tracks: “Mz. Hyde”, “American Boys”, “I Miss the Misery”.

6.5/10

d.a. garabedian