Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

Lucy Movie Poster

I’m honestly not sure whether Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014) is a good film or a bad one, or even whether I like it. I’ve always had a great fondness for Besson’s assassin thrillers, La Femme Nikita (1990) and Léon: The Professional (1994), and, although I initially hated The Fifth Element (1997) (its introducing me to Milla Jovovich notwithstanding), I have gradually come around to appreciating it as a justly enduring and, to this day, singular classic. Honestly, The Fifth Element is one of the very few works I have ever so done a 180 on, which is why I am so tentative now in assessing Lucy. Quite a lot of the movie seemed awful to me, parts of it I found almost unbearable, and yet there were moments (including some of those very same that might be, on one level, among its worst) that also felt singular and sensational.

The difficulties begin with Lucy’s very premise. No, not evolution, but the myth that humans use only 10 percent of their brains. The false notion has been perpetuated in pop culture for decades, and, for a long time, I took it as truth, never bothering to look into the real neuroscience, as I happily ate up fictions postulating that, if we could but tap into those unused parts of the human brain, we could access godlike superpowers. I can’t remember how or when exactly I learned the truth. It was not that long ago, but it was definitely before Lucy went into production. I don’t recall there being any big story debunking the myth, so I think I must have heard it by word of mouth. And, as my social circle is extremely small, I am almost always last to hear things by word of mouth, which means that, by the time Lucy went into production, the myth was already commonly understood to be just that, as attested to by my Facebook news feed full of people independently voicing their complaints against the film’s science, or by the fact that it’s the first thing that comes up in any discussion about the film, including now this one. It’s something that you just have to get over, as you willingly suspend your disbelief, which should not truly be any greater than for most sci-fi action films, but still it’s irksome that someone fully wrote and produced a big-budget movie in 2014 without doing even the barest research into the science of its premise.

The ways Lucy explores that premise are not altogether original. It has shades of The Lawnmower Man (1992), Akira (1988), and that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 4, Episode 19 “The Nth Degree”), where an accident involving an alien probe causes Lieutenant Barclay’s intelligence to steadily increase far beyond normal human levels. In Lucy, it is an untested new recreational drug accidentally released into the title character’s system that causes her cerebral capacity to steadily climb toward 100 percent, bestowing her with psychic powers, mastery of electronics, and the ability to reshape her own physical form (sometimes grotesquely). As Lucy’s powers grow, she also “ascends” beyond simple human concerns and even just humanity, although this is more of a drastic transformation than a steady one. The moment the drugs kick in, she becomes a different person.

Lucy’s story begins with an agonizingly protracted scene, where some shady male acquaintance tries to enlist her help to pull off a clearly illegal deal. These early goings intercut the action with clips of Morgan Freeman spouting bogus science as some authoritative professor (the use of Morgan Freeman I think is supposed to lend the character some credibility, but all the scientists in the movie end up so useless that he comes across more as a gentle-voiced hack in a world of idiots), also splicing in documentary footage of wild animals used to accentuate the tone of a scene (for example, predatory imagery to convey the danger closing in on Lucy)—a technique that is, at first, intriguing, then quickly annoying for its obviousness and overuse, but mercifully not carried on for the entire length of the film. As drawn out as this opening is, it’s necessary to get across what kind of a person Lucy is before her transformation, so that we can all the better appreciate the drugs’ effect. Played by Scarlett Johansson, Lucy may be already, without any drugs, a 10/10 in looks, but otherwise she’s a fairly ordinary young white woman living alone in East Asia. She likes to party (within reason), evidently has poor taste in men, is not especially acclimated to the city (with seemingly no local connections or any grasp of the language), has enough sense to decline the shady guy’s job offer (but not enough firmness to cut loose the scoundrel), and is suitably freaked out when things go sideways. By the end of the film, it feels a lifetime ago that she was ever that person.

Once the drugs take over, Lucy becomes basically emotionless and expressionless, speaking in a deadpan, deriving no satisfaction from the ass she kicks, evincing no alarm at her condition or situation, nor any real concern for anything, other than her immediate mission, whatever that is supposed to be. (I think the plot is supposed to have her working to somehow pass on the knowledge she has attained as an ascended being, although the movie never really bothers to convince the audience of the how or why or “what does that even mean” of it all. Rather than worry about it, it’s better to enjoy the experience in the moment, which is kind of how the film itself lives.) Johansson has two wonderfully physical scenes—the first when she’s captive and the drugs kick in, then later when she’s on the plane—but, the rest of the time, she’s just walking slowly, observing, waving her hands, and letting the special effects fill in the rest.

As an action film, Lucy really doesn’t work. Lucy’s displays of power are impressive and usually amusing, though often arbitrary in the forms they take. But she’s so powerful, and the villains so petty, that one feels that conflict should have been over and done with within ten minutes of the drug activating. Or maybe one of the bad guys should have taken the drug also, and become a rival god (unless such gods are altogether beyond such concerns), but the thought never occurs to anyone else in the movie. Instead, we get a really confusingly edited car chase and a truly awful shootout not even involving Lucy. Watching that shootout, I couldn’t help thinking, if it were viewed in isolation from the rest of the movie, one might even mistakenly get the impression that the bad guys were actually the good guys, but it’s more probable that you wouldn’t care which side is which, because it’s all so pointless and nonsensical.

The real climax of the movie is when Lucy reaches 100 percent and—SPOILER—attains the power to travel through time. This sequence, devoid of dialogue, where Lucy sits in observation of human history and evolution in reverse, is, at times, awe-inspiring, although that awe is also undermined by some heavy-handed imagery, as when she meets gazes with the Native Americans just lined up in place like a museum display, or when she decides to touch fingertips, a la The Creation of Adam, with humankind’s earliest known ancestor, with whom she shares a name.

That pretty much describes my feeling about the entire film as I came out of it. Lucy is at times awesome, at times awful, and maybe, at its very best, both at the same time. At the very least, it is, like La Femme Nikita (a film that created a mood and a style for which I have, ever since, felt an intense affinity) and The Fifth Element (another film that I will never forget), a unique work that holds back nothing creatively. Take that line about Lucy remembering the taste of her mother’s milk, for example. My immediate feeling was that this had to be some of the worst dialogue of all time, but, on the other hand, it was unlike anything I had ever heard, and it sure got my attention. So do I reward or deduct a star for that? Well, my feeling is that uniqueness has to be worth something, so… five stars! (I won’t say out of how many.)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bonds (Deluka, 2014)

Deluka Bonds EP Cover

I was first introduced to indie dance-rock band Deluka when I heard "Come Back to Me" (off their 2010 album, You Are The Night) beckoning to me over the Macy's in-store playlist. The evocative lyrics, along with Ellie Innocenti's captivating voice and distinct British accent, made for an irresistible imperative. Their earlier song, "Sleep Is Impossible," was also featured in the hit 2008 video game Grand Theft Auto IV, but it never came on the in-game radio during my admittedly brief time playing.

In the four years since You Are The Night, the originally-from-Birmingham Deluka relocated from Brooklyn to LA, where they assumed residencies at a few venues, and released a handful of songs directly to the Internet. They continue to work on their full-length followup to the impressive You Are The Night, but, in the meantime, they have put out a new five-track EP, Bonds.

Led by the single "Home," the record is an intriguing mix of traces of the disco-punk flavor of Deluka's earliest work, some evocative indie pop rock along the lines of "Come Back to Me," and even a tinge of heartland sound. And the music is carried all the way by the rich and bluesy singing of frontwoman Ellie Innocenti, which manages the rare combination of sounding both commanding and vulnerable.

Deluka will be playing in San Diego this Tuesday, August 26, 2014, at Soda Bar.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Killer App


I received the solemn news the other day that my PlayStation 3, the 80GB model with the PS2 backward compatibility, had died mid-game. My sister had been in the middle of playing the recently released Tales of Xillia 2, when apparently the system froze upon loading a battle. She had tried to resuscitate it to no avail. After she called me over to take a look, I observed that the red light was blinking, but the game wasn’t on. When I attempted to reboot it, a solid red light turned briefly to green, then for a split-second to yellow, before blinking red again. A bit of research told me that, after six years of service, the system had succumbed to the dreaded “yellow light of death” that has marked the demise of so many PS3s past a certain age.

It was bitter news, indeed. I had heard reports before of how widespread the issue was, yet still somehow never believed that it could happen to me. I had heard similar reports against the PS2 in its day, but this was the first PlayStation product to die on me through three generations, during which time I had lost a GameCube, an Xbox 360, and a DS Lite. This meant that all three major console makers had failed me now, leaving little for me to believe in.

Thinking back, it occurs to me now that the GameCube had crapped out while my siblings and I had been in the middle of playing Tales of Symphonia ten years ago. That was a great game, the first Tales any of us had played (I personally wasn’t able to stick with the series very long after that), and maybe the most unified my siblings and I had ever been in our investment in any game we’d played together. We were right in the middle of the story, too, when the GameCube, which was then less than two years old, lost its ability to reliably read discs, and, with no real way to fix it ourselves, we just had to buy a brand new GameCube. Internally, I think we were all quite mad at Nintendo for putting out such shoddy hardware, but we couldn’t let those negative thoughts dampen our positive enthusiasm for the game, and so we played on, enjoyed ourselves, and never really properly grieved/griped over the injustice done unto us.

Now, as much as I enjoyed Tales of Symphonia, I would just as soon never stick another Tales game in any of my disc drives, if the series is evidently such a serial system killer.

*Sigh* I kid, because, right now, I can’t even wrap my mind around the reality of it all.

That PS3 lasted six years, which, in fairness, might have been longer than the active life of any of my other consoles. (Actually, no, I was still playing Persona 3 on my PS2 some eight years into that machine’s life, and I reckon it still works today, though I haven’t turned it on in about four years.) It was not a launch model. It was the 2008 80GB model that came bundled with Metal Gear Solid 4 on the game’s release date. This was reportedly to be the last model to include any kind of backward compatibility with PS2 games, which raised its value considerably for any enthusiast who had so far held out on buying a PS3. Supply might not meet demand was the word, and so, on release day, I headed out early on a workday to wait outside Walmart until store’s opening at 6:00 AM.

A few other people got there as early as I did. There were two guys there together, who looked to be in their late teens or early twenties. A heavyset biker dude in a denim vest and bandanna kept to himself. And an older white-haired gentleman was standing impatiently to the side. There were also a few middle-aged Latina ladies, who I gathered spoke limited English, but it was the four aforementioned males that I supposed to be the guys I might have to outrace to the video games department. One of the young guys, in fact, was telling the other about all the different models of the PS3, so there was little doubt that they were there for the same thing I was.

Finally, a Walmart employee unlocked the doors, and the Latina ladies dispersed, while, sure enough, we males all headed in the same direction. There were no words exchanged, nor any eye contact. We didn’t want to get to know each other, in case it turned out we would have to fight over a limited number of PS3s. But, even though I think we all knew this might be a race, still nobody was actually running. We were all just walking somewhat quickly in the same direction, separately but in a tight cluster.

I wasn’t quite first to the racks, and, to my dismay, there was only one PS3 behind the glass. Of course, we still had to wait another while yet for assistance, and the employee who arrived would have no idea who was “first,” but still I would have honored the order if it had come down to that.

The biker dude claimed the PS3, but the young guy—the one who had been detailing the different models, first to his buddy, then to the older fellow (some kid’s clueless dad, it turned out) as we had been waiting for assistance—immediately inquired if there were any more in the back. The Walmart employee said yes, and asked how many we needed. The same young guy answered for everyone: none for himself but one for his buddy, one for the kid’s dad, and, (after shooting me a glance, which I answered with a nod) he added, one for me. So everybody got one, and we then parted company, as though (I like to imagine) having been to war together.

The bundle was $500 (plus tax)—an outrageous price, even up against today’s consoles—but Walmart was including a $100 gift card with purchase. I stowed mine in the trunk of my car, then proceeded to head off on my forty-minute commute to work.

Even considering the price, I never really regretted that purchase. I bought the PS3 specifically to play Metal Gear Solid 4, billed as the conclusion to the saga that was maybe my favorite video game series of the time. It was the killer app I’d been waiting for, so to speak, and I wanted to be sure to play it before the Internet could spoil the story for me. A few weeks later, and the very next day after I completed it, I left for Anime Expo. At one point, I was waiting in line to see none other than David Hayter himself, and some guy in line was describing the entire plot of the game in explicit detail to his buddy ("So it turns out they were all the Patriots!"), who seemed to be only half-listening. (I got the impression the buddy had never played any game in the series, in which case, I wonder, how could this extensive plot summary have even meant anything to him? Or, if he had played the game, why was the other guy recounting every plot point to him, as if he didn't already know the story?). Of course, during the panel, Hayter himself would hold back no spoilers, so, to me, it was worth the cost of the system to have been able to play the game before all that.

Now, six years later, it’s all gone.

The most infuriating part is that, even now, a new PS3 is not affordable. A 500GB model goes for $269 (plus tax), at a time in my life when I make about half what I was pulling in six years ago. These are the expenses that you don’t see coming and thus can’t budget for, but which I also can’t really put off for long, for the same reasons my siblings and I couldn’t put Tales of Symphonia on hold ten years ago. Speaking just for myself, it may not be my livelihood, in the sense that playing games doesn’t earn me even a cent (while costing me quite a lot), and yet gaming (and then talking and writing about the games I play) is, in all seriousness, a major motivation in my life, without which I would feel far less productive. So I know, at most, I can dilly-dally and agonize over it a few days (basically, until the next billing cycle on my credit card, around which I plan my monthly budget), before ultimately I’ll have to plunk down that money.

I would just buy a PlayStation 4 at this point, except it has no backward compatibility whatsoever, and it so happens that there are no PS4 games I’m currently interested in, whereas I already own a ton of PS3 games that I have yet to play. Hell, I even have a large backlog of PS2 games to get through. I guess, if I’m ever to play those, I’ll have to dust off the PS2 (and the old memory cards and controller), since backward compatibility on the PS3 died along with my 80GB model. Truthfully, I rarely took advantage of the PS2 compatibility, first because I knew it wasn’t perfect, and later because I simply wasn’t playing PS2 games, period. I did use the backward compatibility any time I wanted to check a PS2 game for reference in recent years. Mostly, it’s just a huge bummer that I won’t even have that option anymore.

Even as I complain about the prospect of having to fiddle around with PS2 memory cards again, another pain attached to this PS3 failure is the loss of my data on the hard drive, which, for all its convenience, seems in hindsight less reliable than memory cards. Now all my PS3 game saves are inaccessible, which may not be a huge loss, since I don’t think I was in the middle of anything (but the full scope of the loss is one of the things I haven’t yet been able to wrap my mind around). I had many digital games also, which I guess I could always download again on a new system. Still, what a pain.

Christ, the Tales of Xillia 2 disc is still stuck inside there! That never would have happened on any of the cartridge-based systems, nor on the PS1. Even the PS2 and the Xbox 360, which use sliding disc trays would probably be easier to jimmy open. Now, I may have to attempt some sort of blow-dryer or oven-based short-term home remedy, just to get the disc out and hopefully recover some of my data.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy Poster

Going into Guardians of the Galaxy, I had enjoyed all of the earlier Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. As definitive adaptations of the comics characters, they were all so carefully and calculatingly crafted, almost to a fault. And the construction of a shared cinematic universe was something truly unprecedented, which Marvel absolutely pulled off. But there was not a single movie in the meta-series that I could call a classic among blockbusters, or that I would rate as a personal favorite. I liked them all, I considered them all “good,” and expected I would always, without fail, show up to the theater to catch the next one. But, at the end of the day, they were “just” movies—something to fill the day, but not to direct significant emotional energy toward. Maybe it was partly because I never felt as much attached to these characters to begin with as I had to my favorites, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Batman.

So I really had no idea what to expect, as I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie based on a title and characters that I knew nothing about. Would this finally be the dud to break Marvel’s streak of box office and critical successes? Some would say Iron Man 2 (2010) was already that dropped ball, or if you want to count it, you could name TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013). But the point is (and it’s merely a realistic view, not a cynical one), nothing lasts forever. And, as Marvel has begun branching out to draw from its superhero C-listers for source material, the end of its cinematic golden age has felt increasingly imminent.

Well, as of my writing this, Guardians of the Galaxy has already successfully crushed the competition at the box office, so it is no bomb. And if the previous films, good though they were, somewhat underwhelmed, was this to be the one I'd been waiting for all along? No, it’s quite a lot better than that, better by a mile than anything I would even have hoped for out of Marvel and Disney. Guardians of the Galaxy is not only by far the best movie to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also the first space opera epic to fill me, as an adult, with the same feeling of joy I once experienced watching the original Star Wars trilogy as a child.

The world that director James Gunn and crew have created in Guardians of the Galaxy is grand, wondrous, and whimsical in the manner and on the scale of Star Wars, without ever looking like a Star Wars knockoff. It has a palette all its own, seemingly inspired by color psychology marketing, looking as though made up entirely of aluminum soda cans, with even the skies, perhaps lit by non-yellow suns, exhibiting a metallic multi-color sheen. Like the great vessels of Star Wars, the hero’s ship here, the sleek and brightly painted Milano (apparently named after actress Alyssa Milano), becomes, by the end of the film, a recognized and beloved character in its own right. The villain’s giant craft, meanwhile, with no conventionally discernible parts, or even a clear front or rear, looks like none other in science fiction, more closely evoking the ominous and unknowable monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The galactic police officers pilot miniature fighters that don’t look impressive, until they link together to form an expansive barricade—inefficient, I would think, but nevertheless it makes for an applause-worthy moment. And even the industrial pods, not built for combat (yeah right!), are a delight, especially when one character crashes a pod into a spaceship, then uses the pod's mechanical arms to man the ship's controls, one ship piloting another.

The unearthly visuals of Guardians of the Galaxy still manage to feel of a piece with the Asgard segments of Thor: The Dark World (2013), although the events of the film are far enough removed from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as to require no knowledge of the other movies. Thanos does appear, and it’s exciting to speculate on how Guardians of the Galaxy might cross over with the Avengers once “The Mad Titan” inevitably takes his proper place as the big bad for the Phase Three centerpiece film, but, for now, it’s actually quite refreshing how well this movie stands on its own.

What makes Guardians of the Galaxy work so well is, ultimately, not so much the visuals or even the world it builds, but the characters and story, which have real heart. Although irreverent and more vulgar than Star Wars, the film succeeds in presenting characters that are easy to like and to root for. One factor may be that they actually seem to like one another and play well together. The strength of the ensemble immediately shows from the moment Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) first meet. Each manages to shine and show off their particular skills and personalities in that first encounter, but what really makes it is the chemistry, even as their relationship is, at that point, actually adversarial, as they are engaged in a three-way struggle. The other two members of the titular gang of misfits are an anthropomorphic CG tree and a musclebound meathead played by a former pro wrestler (Dave Bautista). They are more limited, but still fill their roles well, and are essential to completing the group dynamic. This team chemistry was something painfully absent from The Avengers (2012) and never really emphasized in the solo pictures, which has been a problem, because characters like Thor and Captain America simply haven’t the depth to carry stories on their own, and come off dull with no one to play off of.

I want to take this moment to say how amazed I have been by the casting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has not perhaps been the pitch-perfect casting of the Harry Potter films, and there will always linger those controversies over the actors who were replaced from one movie to the next. But some of the gets have been truly impressive and even daring. They got Jeremy Renner, who could and has played the lead in action movies, to be basically a second-string Avenger. We had Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Redford playing supporting roles in the Captain America films. And now Guardians of the Galaxy has Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, and Benicio del Toro, all in minor (but not cameo) roles. Reilly could play the lead in a very different kind of superhero picture, and Hounsou, as well, could be (and probably has been) the number-two in a cheaper comic book movie. But both actors here very professionally assume smaller roles in service to a film that is far greater than their performances. It says something about just how big a deal these movies are now, that even the bit players are name actors.

The real surprises, however, are Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper. Either of these guys is a big enough star to headline a superhero movie (albeit against my better judgment), but here they join the Marvel Cinematic Universe without ever actually appearing on camera. Vin Diesel puts in his best work since The Iron Giant (1999), providing motion capture and voice for Groot, a simple-minded tree-man, whose only words are “I am Groot,” delivered with varying inflections, according to the context. As for Cooper, I’ve never been his biggest fan, but he is legitimately one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men right now, and it is, once again, amazing to me that Marvel could get him to voice a talking raccoon. And his performance, along with some photo-realistic CG, really does bring the coarse character of Rocket to life.

The movie really depends on the complete ensemble, but if I had to pick a favorite among the cast, it would be Zoe Saldana as alien assassin Gamora. The lone female member of the team, she's also the straightest. But she's cool, sexy, and heroic. After playing the blue CG alien Neytiri in Avatar (2009), now Saldana plays a green alien in Guardians of the Galaxy. One could say there is something distasteful about this actress of color having to repeatedly play, well, "colored" characters in her biggest movies, as though Hollywood couldn't handle a black woman as the lead female in a tent-pole production. But one could also consider that, in painting her green here, the film takes conventional race out of the equation. It's possible that, if you weren't already familiar with the tremendously versatile Saldana, you might not know from her appearance here that she is black, and you would simply recognize that the character is strong and beautiful, without any racial qualifiers. And, for what it's worth, in the Star Trek reboot series, Saldana does play an African human, while the most prominent green alien woman was memorably played by the Caucasian Rachel Nichols. I'm pretty sure the green women of Star Trek have always traditionally been played by whites, so, on some level, it could even be argued that the Afro-Latin Saldana is breaking down a wall here.

The story of Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't break any new ground. It's a fairly conventional and universal "ragtag group of scoundrels band together to save the world" tale, selling themes of bravery, selflessness, and especially teamwork. But it is well-paced, well-executed, full of action, and ultimately succeeds because, again, you like the characters, and so you care what happens to them.

The soundtrack, full of hit songs from the '70s, has received much attention. It actually figures into the plot of the film, although tenuously on close inspection. The songs are taken from a mixtape put together by Peter Quill's mother, who passes away in the opening sequence, when Quill is a child. He is immediately afterward abducted suddenly by aliens, which is scarcely referenced after the film skips ahead to Quill’s adult life as the space-faring “Star-Lord.” The mixtape then is all he has left to remember his mother by, but it doesn't actually guide the action in any way. No, the film's sequence of events is instead set into motion by Star-Lord deciding, for no given greater reason than greed, to double-cross his associates on a deal involving a mysterious artifact, which leads to him crossing paths with the other likewise mercenary protagonists and into the crosshairs of the villains. The songs that play throughout the movie, representing Quill's relationship with his mother, may be the emotional core of the film, but the entire mother subplot could truthfully be removed with no impact on the main plot. It's not a major issue, but it's the one noticeable indicator of the possible contentiousness and disharmony between writer-director Gunn and the film's first writer, Nicole Perlman, as the whole mixtape angle was definitely Gunn's contribution.

On reflection, maybe one reason I loved Guardians of the Galaxy so much is precisely because, for the first time, here was a Marvel movie where I didn't know the source material at all. I suppose the armchair filmmaker and comic book geek in me always had very particular ideas about how I would have adapted The Avengers, and maybe anyone else's vision brought to screen, no matter how objectively quality, would have disappointed me. In the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe I could not be disappointed, because I had no expectations. If so, I guess I had better continue to stay away from the comics, but expectations for the sequel will now be high, regardless.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hello Memory (Little Daylight, 2014)

Little Daylight Hello Memory Cover

Brooklyn-based synthpop group Little Daylight’s 2014 debut LP, Hello Memory, is one of this summer’s highlights.

The trio of Nikki Taylor, Matt Lewkowicz, and Eric Zeiler formed Little Daylight two years ago, taking their name from the George MacDonald fairy tale, and started out remixing tracks by other electro-pop artists, including Passion Pit, St. Lucia, and Niki and the Dove. In 2013, they released their first EP, Tunnel Vision, an impressive and thoughtfully put-together collection of catchy tunes. Their talent for deconstruction and reconstruction as electronic remixers informed even their originals, including my favorite track off the EP, “Restart,” which, as the members tell it, began life as an accidentally reversed piece of another song they were writing. Tunnel Vision was also one of those albums that told a story. Taken in context, “Restart” is clearly the second of two parts, following “Treelines,” which is contemplative, anticipating the driving action of “Restart,” which, in my opinion, would be a great soundtrack to accompany, say, the climactic stage of a racing video game. And the closing track on Tunnel Vision, “Name in Lights,” would be a great cooldown song to accompany a victory lap or end credits sequence.

The band’s self-produced LP, Hello Memory, continues to show off the trio’s strengths. Together with lead single “Overdose,” the only song that reappears from Tunnel Vision, the nine new tracks on the album are synthpop distilled, powered by end-to-end hooks, relatable lyrics, and Taylor’s enchanting vocals. And, like Tunnel Vision, though this time twice as full, it contains a narrative arc. All its tracks are individually catchy, but, taken as whole, Hello Memory is a coming-of-age chronicle. Even as it maintains a consistent sound and upbeat attitude throughout, it somehow manages to capture the highs and lows of summer, opening with the idealistic “My Life,” which could serve as a prologue. The middle of the album features romantic throwbacks “Love Stories and “Mona Lisa,” before things slow down with the wistful and dreamy “Be Long.” A standout toward the end is the more mature but still optimistic “No One Else But You,” featuring more of a rock sound along with a guest appearance by Atlas Genius. When it’s all over, you can loop back again to “My Life,” which, on a second listen, takes on the character of a reflective framing device for the rest of the album.

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Little Daylight will be playing in San Diego this Tuesday night, August 19, 2014, in the Voodoo Room at the House of Blues.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Crossbones (2014)

Crossbones Poster

I’m not sure what says more about why NBC is in such a sorry state these days—a) that it would greenlight a period pirate show that was obviously doomed to fail, or b) that it would take every measure itself to basically doom the show to failure before it had even aired a single episode. Crossbones, about the fictionalized twilight chapters in the life of Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, was a full-on costume drama, complete with lofty dialogue delivered in accented English, and concerned with the 18th-century day-to-day of a band of island-dwellers, whose existence could not be any further removed from the reality of most of NBC’s network television viewers.

I can’t remember the last time any kind of period show had any success on U.S. network television, where a milieu of barbarism is not so much, as it is on cable, an easy excuse to fill genre programs with gratuitous gore and nudity. Wait, no, I suppose The CW’s Reign (last season’s Mary, Queen of Scots, show, which will be returning in the fall) would be the answer I’m looking for, although it is not nearly so ambitious as Crossbones. Like all CW shows, Reign is full of gorgeous young people and pop music, and it pushes the envelope on sex as far as network TV can, at one point even offering a steamier web-only cut of an episode.

Crossbones is not so shameless. If anything, it’s a very proud show (or, at least, it wants to be), and a production that harks back to a less cynical age of highfalutin dramas, where the action and adventure were allowed to be occasionally illogical or even absurd, because the narrative was ultimately driven more by characterization than by sense.

Blackbeard is neither the protagonist nor the point-of-view character in Crossbones, but he is assuredly the central figure. Believed dead by most of the world, the former Blackbeard has taken on the new name and position of “Commodore,” having seemingly retired from piracy to instead work toward building a hidden island republic of rogues and outcasts living free from the tyranny of the monarchy. This is a Blackbeard mindful and weary of his own legacy as some bogeyman of the seas; his past is now his own nightmare. And yet, for all his presenting himself as some contemplative philosopher clad in robes and interested in Eastern medicine, he may be less than reformed, as suggested by the contradiction of his claiming to live as one among equals in his republic, while at the same time dubbing himself “Commodore,” whom his fellow freemen would yet fear to cross.

The Commodore is one of the more compelling antiheroes of any recent TV series, and John Malkovich’s performance is both surprising and inspired. In the role of a fabled pirate captain, it would perhaps suffice for an actor to be charismatic, but Malkovich plays the character as borderline contemptuous of even those he would claim to love. He is always either making veiled threats or expressing exasperation at them, but he is also merciful, not so much by reason or moderation, as by eccentricity. Most remarkably, Malkovich manages to play the Commodore as idiosyncratic without ever going over the top. His measured delivery of the legitimately artful dialogue actually manages to lend the character an effortless dignity.

The show’s actual protagonist, played by Richard Coyle (somewhat like a more subdued Russell Crowe with an afro), is Tom Lowe, an English officer, who infiltrates the island town under the guise of a surgeon in order to assassinate Blackbeard. It so happens that he is also a real surgeon and, in fact, the only doctor on the island, which is very odd, since they seem to need his skills every episode, leaving you to wonder how they ever got along without him. As circumstances force Lowe to spend an extended period of time living among the townsfolk, one can see coming the old twist of the spy going native. But there is also an almost palpable animus between Lowe and the Commodore. Even as Lowe comes to respect, admire, and even kind of like the former Blackbeard, there is the sense that the two likewise world-weary but equally unremitting warriors could never coexist for long. The one is a career killer, while the other is basically a self-appointed emperor, after all.

The characters and their relationships with one another are the core of Crossbones. In this society of cutthroats, characters are caught in this persistent tension between conflicting interest and sincere affection. But everybody is surprisingly “adult” about it all (they move on quickly), because there’s a weird sort of “understood dishonesty,” which becomes a kind of honesty unto itself. Another great example on Crossbones is the relationship between Tom Lowe and the crippled Scottish rebel, James Balfour (Peter Stebbings). The two should be enemies, not only for political reasons, but also because Lowe is in love with Balfour’s wife, Kate (Claire Foy). But, as between Lowe and the Commodore, there is both animosity and admiration between Lowe and Balfour, and everybody is, again, very adult about it. It might actually be the most mature love triangle I’ve seen on television.

In spite of its strong qualities, Crossbones is ultimately undermined by those very same period trappings that, in a different era on a different network, might have elevated it. The show tries to be serious, but it comes across more often whimsical or even fantastical, not because anything supernatural happens, but simply because any show about 18th-century pirates, and where the dialogue is poetic but never natural, is necessarily going to seem outlandish and misplaced on network television.

Taken as a less ambitious, more fun “family-friendly adventure” show, Crossbones still mostly works. The first episode is fairly devoid of intentional humor, and most of the characters continue on humorless (save the one comic relief coward), but Lowe and the Commodore at least manage to conduct themselves with an amusing degree of dry wit amid all the tension. And, although the characters spend quite a lot of time lounging around the tropical settings, making for maybe not the most sensational prime time viewing, there is also a good amount of action to be had.

Although the characters are well-developed, the plotting perhaps does not exhibit the same level of thoughtfulness or intelligence, as, prejudices against period dramas aside, the show admittedly has its share of mildly ludicrous elements, including, as executed, its very premise. Crossbones is set in the 18th century, which of course was a very different time from today, but I have my doubts as to whether the world it presents is accurately reconstructed out of painstaking research into the era, or if it isn’t truly based more in fantasy after all.

At one point, a character inspects the cameo portrait contained in Tom Lowe’s locket, remarking that the lady, his wife presumably, is “exquisite.” After a lengthy conversation about what the item means to Lowe, finally the audience gets a good look at the image, and lo, it is no more than a crude drawing. Maybe that really is how people had to live back then, in an age before photography. It’s hard for me to take without guffawing, but maybe that is my own anti-period prejudice hindering my capacity to take seriously stories not set in my own time. In any case, that example is only one insignificant instance, but several of the more major plot twists and core conceits similarly elicit incredulity and unintended laughter.

Crossbones might have been a hit as a single-season BBC series. NBC might have different standards for what constitutes a hit, and Crossbones probably would have needed to perform better than pretty good in order to justify its production expenses (the locations, the costumes, the props, the John Malkovich). Which is why it’s crazy that NBC ever greenlit such a project with so clearly limited an audience. Then, after they had already committed to a 9-episode order, but before a single one had aired, apparently NBC changed its mind about supporting Crossbones, pushing back its premiere from mid-season to summer, to a 10 pm Friday slot at that, and then finally to Saturday. You'd think NBC must be rolling in it to be able to afford to make such money-bleeding calls, one after another.

Crossbones, though doomed, still came out fairly entertaining, and, at a mere 9 episodes, it’s not a great commitment, especially as a summer binge-watch on Hulu. Since it was canceled, the story is not quite resolved by the end of it. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger exactly, but the final shot raises questions that frustratingly will never be answered. Were it not for that closing shot, Crossbones would have had a perfectly fine open ending, but still it’s an enjoyable ride while it lasts.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rdio vs. Spotify (For Cheapskates)

To the extent that I am not actually a paying subscriber to any of these services, I also do not count myself a true user of any of them. As someone who enjoys music and likes to keep up with new releases, however, but doesn’t generally need or want a soundtrack to accompany my entire daily life, I used to turn to Spotify as my free (ad-supported) on-demand streaming service of choice. Really, for cheapskates like me, there have only ever been two options: Spotify or Rdio. I used Spotify because its free version was more transparent; Rdio had an unspecified limit on how much you could listen to without paying. But, since Rdio removed all caps for web-based streaming at the beginning of this year, I decided to give it a try. It wasn’t like I was invested in Spotify in any literal sense, after all.

Truthfully, unless you’re a tech junkie, there is not a whole lot to distinguish Rdio from Spotify or from any of the other major competitors (Beats Music, Google Play Music All Access, Rhapsody etc.), such that anyone should feel strong personal attachments to one over all the others (well, unless you literally have a personal connection to the company). They all offer similarly large and overlapping catalogs, including most of the current releases that the average user would be looking for. Spotify has a slight edge overall in song selection, with such notable exclusives as Led Zeppelin and Metallica.

In addition to expansive on-demand catalogs, music discovery is another pillar of any streaming service experience. In fact, Beats Music’s entire competitive strategy is based around its playlists curated by actual human tastemakers—the sole premium it can offer over its more established competitors. Since Beats has no free version, I haven’t been able to put its curators to the test, but I’m skeptical. I’ve tried other services, including Slacker and Songza, which boasted “expert-programmed stations” or a “music concierge," and I felt they were way off the mark, so I have zero confidence in any such concepts.

Rdio and Spotify are both more barebones in this regard. They both let you browse new releases and top charts, and they will both make recommendations based on the music you’ve been listening to, with Spotify being considerably more aggressive in bringing things to your attention via its cluttered interface.

They also both include a bit of social networking, so you can see what’s hot among people you’re following. Spotify is the platform most likely to be used by a number of your Facebook friends, so if you use your own Facebook account to log in, you’ll see a lot of your friends on Spotify, along with what they’ve been listening to. I don’t find this to be a useful feature at all, because my Facebook friend list includes a broad spectrum of acquaintances with tastes far from my own.

Rdio can also integrate with Facebook, but the San Francisco-based service has cultivated a more techie-hipsterish following, so you’re less likely to run into your older or more conservative Facebook friends on Rdio. On the other hand, one of the freakier experiences for me personally was when I randomly came across, not a Facebook friend at all, but a former college classmate from one of my short fiction workshops of almost a decade ago.

Rdio had notified me of a new release I might be interested in, and I clicked on the link to check it out. I found that it had only been played a dozen times at that point. (This public data is actually pretty interesting. I never would have guessed how few plays some of the artists I listen to get.) Rdio further tracks the recent activity for an album, displaying the most recent listeners. And there among them I saw, to my horror, the name of this old classmate I hadn't even thought of in years, who was shown as having listened only “a moment ago.” Terrified at even the remotest possibility that I might have to reconnect with this person, I naturally freaked out, got the hell off that page, and shut everything down. (One knock against Rdio: there’s no way to clean out your public listening history, except to make your entire account private.)

One of the neater things about Rdio is that some of the artists have accounts, and you can follow them just as you would any other user. Spotify’s “verified artist accounts” are ostensibly the same idea, but, on Rdio, some of these artists actually use their accounts to listen to music themselves, so you can see, not just some promotional playlist that they were paid to put together, but what they might be actively listening to on their own. Rdio is not as bustling with artist activity as Soundcloud or, for that matter, YouTube, but some of the semi-active artist accounts I’ve found include MNDR, Little Boots, and Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino. Sometimes you might even, by complete coincidence, find yourself listening to the same album at the same time as Greta Morgan of Gold Motel and The Hush Sound.


That cool moment notwithstanding, I pretty quickly found that I didn’t much care what anybody else was listening to, be they friends, hip strangers, or any of the artists I myself listened to. So Rdio is not any more useful to me in this regard than any other service.

Both Rdio and Spotify also offer Pandora-style automated radio stations, which are theoretically supposed to aid both with discovering new music and with relieving you from the tyranny of choice, when you simply can’t decide what to play out of your massive library. For non-paying users, these stations are the only way to experience Rdio or Spotify on your mobile device.

In my experience, Rdio’s stations lag way behind just about every other service I’ve tried. As on Pandora, you pick an artist, song, or genre, and then Rdio will queue up songs from “similar” artists. To help Rdio get a better sense of your tastes, you can “thumbs up” tracks you like, as they play on the station. For me, after I gave my thumbs up to about 10-20 tracks (and thumbs down to a few others), Rdio started to play almost nothing but those same 10-20 tracks, even after I tuned the slider toward more adventurous, and even after I tried switching to a different station (albeit a similar one, as per my tastes). It wouldn’t even give me different tracks by the same artists. Sure, I enjoy “No Rest for the Wicked” by Lykke Li. I mean, that’s why I gave it a thumbs up. But I don’t need it on a constant rotation. It’s not even my favorite song off that album!

I think this may actually be a bug. Or maybe Rdio’s stations are so shoddy right now because it is transitioning to a different algorithm, after Spotify bought The Echo Nest, which formerly powered Rdio’s music discovery engine. In any case, this doesn’t affect me too much, because I would only use my phone for music if I were away from my computer (e.g. when I’m on the road or when I’m working out), in which case I usually prefer to listen to podcasts or talk radio anyway. (The new NPR One app, by the way, gets a thumbs up from me after a solid week of use.) Meanwhile, when I’m on the computer using the web version of Rdio, I always know what I want to listen to. So I have little need of the stations.

Going back to the social networking aspects, I will say that one unique feature that Rdio offers is the ability to play other users’ personal stations, which includes stations molded by the actual listening habits of those artists mentioned previously as having legitimate Rdio accounts. I haven’t really tried this much myself, because, again, I’m not all that interested in what other users are listening to. But I suppose it could potentially be a fun and social way to discover music.

So, after all that, how is it that Rdio has managed to win me over? Well, as I said from the outset, there’s not a whole lot to practically differentiate Rdio and Spotify, which means it all comes down to the little things.

I find Rdio’s web player to be faster-loading, its white color scheme much less oppressive than Spotify’s black, and its overall design much slicker and more streamlined. Ditto for the mobile apps, although the mobile experience is quite limited in either case, unless you pay for a subscription. But, ultimately, my preference for Rdio has less to do with its own virtues than with my frustrations with Spotify.

A recent major update to Spotify effectively retired its long-established “star” system. Before, if you liked a track, you could click the star button, which would add it to your “Starred” playlist, which, for a lot of users, was functionally their “collection” or “library.” Now, the star button has been replaced by a plus button, which, when clicked, becomes a check mark, which, when clicked again, becomes an X. This is already confusing and unintuitive, especially as the change initially arrived without any helpful tutorial to explain what all these newfangled symbols meant precisely. Moreover, what became of all those tracks users had previously starred? Well, they’re still part of the “Starred” playlist, and users are free to continue to add new songs to that playlist. But there’s no longer an easy one-click button dedicated to this purpose. The “Starred” playlist is now just like any regular playlist, and you have to dig into the menus to add songs to it. Instead of starring tracks you like, Spotify now prefers that you add them to your collection by clicking the plus button.

As someone who has never bothered curating playlists, and just wants one unified library of all the songs I’ve ever liked, I found that Spotify’s new system served only to introduce needless fragmentation and redundancy. I had my old list of starred songs, which Spotify moved around and made harder to find, and now I was also adding new songs via the plus button to my collection, which had previously been empty (because it used to be easier to star tracks than to add them—the reverse of how things are now). I haven’t even discussed Spotify’s radio stations yet. When you give the thumbs up to a track on a station, Spotify will automatically add that song, not to your collection, but to your “Liked from Radio” playlist, creating yet another layer of redundancy.

At least the stations themselves are much better, in my experience, on Spotify than on Rdio—not so repetitive, and occasionally able to introduce me to new music. In fact, for the price (i.e. free), Spotify might offer the most robust experience on mobile, because, besides just playing music by "similar" artists, it allows non-subscribers to shuffle only a specified artist's discography. So, even if you can't pick a specific song to play on demand on mobile, you can still be assured of hearing a bunch of other songs by that same artist, and probably eventually that one song too, after a bit of shuffling. You can even shuffle your own playlists, if music discovery's not really your thing, and you just want to hear your jams on your phone. Again, I don't really use my phone for music, so none of this means anything to me.

I never even really listened to my “Starred” playlist on shuffle (or otherwise). But, at the end of the day, Spotify's inscrutable trend from already cumbersome to downright arcane is aggravating on principle. And so I've had it with Spotify.

Also, Rdio has Chromecast support.