Monday, January 23, 2012

The Top 10 Films of 2011

Happy Lunar New Year to all of you.

I had wanted to compile this list a lot sooner, but I've been busy all month, and when I finally found the time, I was too burnt out to make the post. To top it all off, I'm having trouble sharing my blog posts on Facebook. Some technical thing with those idiots.

Anyway, let me start by saying I was underwhelmed by last year's offerings. My list for this year isn't as varied as 2010's list, and I feel it's because local film distributors here didn't do a great job in bringing some films over here. The best example would be screening Winter's Bone 8 months after the US, and long after the DVD had been released here.

So here they are, in order of view:

1. Black Swan
Technically this is a 2010 film, but only made its way here in February. Natalie Portman earned a Best Actress Oscar for portraying a ballerina who, in her quest for perfection after being chosen as the lead dancer for the new production of Swan Lake, suffers an emotional and mental breakdown. It is her psychological downward spiral that makes this film simply astounding. Kudos to Darren Aronofsky for directing such a beautiful film. In my opinion, this should have won Best Picture.

2. Battle: Los Angeles
There have been many alien invasion stories, but how many of them are viewed from a soldier's perspective? Battle: L.A. is a Black Hawk Down version of how humans fight off an alien attack. Aaron Eckhart shines as the aging Marine who must lead his men to victory despite being haunted by his past failure. Intense and adrenaline pumping, this film is a winner.

3. Fast Five
The Fast & Furious franchise was never going to be one filled with good performances and strong plots. What it does offer though are sleek cars and nonstop action. This fifth instalment does the impossible by topping all its predecessors combined. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker return with all their friends to pull a major heist in Rio de Janeiro, while being pursued by The Rock. The final car chase sequence is worth the price of the ticket. Bring on Fast Six!

4. Super 8
This movie is hands down the runaway hit of the year. I initially didn't think I'd like it this much, because I was of the opinion that adventure films driven by teenage kids had seen its last days back in the 80s. But I was wrong. J.J. Abrams pays homage to producer Steven Spielberg with Super 8, where a group of teenage friends attempting to make a horror film, witness a train crash that will forever change their lives. Heartwarming and terrifying at the same time, this film will remind the film fan inside you about why we love movies so much.

5. X-Men: First Class
I may be an X-Men comicbook fan for two decades now, so you may think I'm biased with this inclusion. But even regular moviegoers would love X-Men: First Class. It's fun, slightly campy (in a good way) and action packed. What's not to love? Director Matthew Vaughn directs a near perfect ensemble cast led by James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr, as they portray Professor X and Magneto before they became rivals. Fine performances all around, and it wins the best cameo of the year.

6. Transformers: Dark Of The Moon
Nearly everyone hated Revenge Of The Fallen, because of dumb characters, inane humour and a slightly nonsensical plot. I enjoyed it where it mattered though. But thankfully Michael Bay learned his lesson well and made Dark Of the Moon much more enjoyable than its prequel. We have new robots, a better plot concerning Earth's first moon mission and a replacement for Megan Fox. I prefer Megan though. But the well filmed carnage and phenomenal special effects on display is the true star of this third Transformers film.

7. Captain America: The First Avenger
Out of the four superhero films of the year, this was the one that surprised me the most. I had thought that this film would be haphazardly done just to facilitate the upcoming Avengers film this summer. But you know what, Joe Johnston did an awesome job in giving Captain America a backstory and then moving him to the present time. Chris Evans is great as the meek Steve Rogers who gets a chance to serve his country as its first super soldier. I love the retro feel Johnston brings to it. It's just awesome.

8. Contagion
Director Steven Soderbergh collects an A list ensemble that includes Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Kate Winslet among others, in a film about a killer virus that spreads quickly and kills just as fast, and how it affects everyone, from people to governments to health departments and the media too. Soderbergh successfully presents a realistic view on what the world would be like if an outbreak were to occur, and it is downright scary. You might change your mind about personal hygiene after watching this.

9. Warrior
I was very fortunate to be able to catch this film, which is critically acclaimed though not financially successful. Set in the world of mixed martial arts, Warrior stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers who take part in a fighting tournament for its huge prize money, each motivated by his own personal reasons. In between them is their father played by Nick Nolte, who is trying to atone for his past sins. The brutal fights may be the main attraction, but it's the personal drama at its heart that matters the most in the end. Everyone in the cast were superb in their roles.

10. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, makes his transition to live action in an explosive manner. He has successfully made the M:I franchise fun and relevant again. Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, who must lead his team to stop a terrorist from starting World War 3 and clear the IMF's name. Bird gives his audience some of the best action sequences ever, including one that takes place outside the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. This is arguably the best film in the entire franchise.

Films that deserve special mention for 2011 are Kung Fu Panda 2, The Muppets, Hanna, Real Steel and Insidious. Again, I have no candidate for a good comedy this year (though The Muppets is a comedy in a way). I skipped Bridesmaids, even when everyone said it's hilarious. I saw the trailer and wasn't impressed at all. My biggest peeve was missing Drive, that was yanked off its scheduled release because of a technical problem (which I don't buy at all).

So now I'm looking forward to 2012, which will be offering plenty of good stuff like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Snow White & The Huntsman, The Amazing Spider-Man, Battleship, The Expendables 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. There's also the second part of Breaking Dawn, the return of Bond and more Paranormal Activity.

See you at the movies. Cheers.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

CD Review: Marit Larsen's Spark

Let me get a couple of things out of the way first. Number one: Marit's voice has always been her biggest flaw. She's a great musician and a skilled songwriter. But her vocals are not outstanding. I'm not saying she can't sing, I'm saying her voice has a limited range. Some of her songs benefit from it, others don't.

Number two: I'm not a fan of country music. I don't hate it, but I can't like it that much either. So my opinion on Marit's attempts to sound country on this album may be swayed by this fact. Okay?

From a writing standpoint, both lyrical and melodical, Marit scores a lot of points here. She writes great lyrics, I'll give her that. Her melodies, which shift from catchy in one song to slow and quiet the next, are well executed.

However, not all of them are good. Keeper Of The Keys is a quiet ballad, much too quiet actually. It was bold for her to start the album with this song, since most artistes begin with a fast number and save songs like these for the last. Bold, but ill advised. Keeper and the last track, That Day, suffer from the same quietness. When Marit tries to pair her vocals against low piano and guitar, it sounds like she's loudly whispering and drowning out the instruments. It'll probably work in a live setting, but I don't think it worked here.

Coming Home and Don't Move are the faster songs here, and unfortunately they sound almost the same. I know some of you will be able to distinguish them, but I'm having a hard time. Other than the lyrics and a few arrangement differences, they sound more or less similar. They do sound good though.

Me And The Highway and Last Night are my least favourite tracks, because of....yeah they sound country. I'm sorry, I just can't like it. I wish she had put more keyboard or electric guitar or synthesizer or something in them.

I Can't Love You Anymore is nice. It's a ballad that doesn't sound too sad. It's heartfelt and heartbreaking, but not mushy. Well written and well performed.

What If is the closest Marit gets to sounding different altogether. The verses are played with a touch of pop and R&B, but Marit goes back to her usual style when the chorus hits. With a bit more effort and daring on her part, this song could have been awesome. Right now for me it's just very good.

I think the two tracks I like most would be Have You Ever and Fine Line. The former is kinda like Taylor Swift's You Belong With Me in terms of concept, only Marit does it way better. Marit makes it sound very creative and fresh, I love that. The latter song is a nice ballad that goes straight for the heart. Nicely done.

As I said before, Marit's vocals are her weakness. It's most evident on the quiet first and last tracks. Sometimes she even sounds like she's murmuring and I can't make out what she's singing. I know that's what lyric books are for, but I want to hear the words myself instead of reading them.

One picture, one cover and a whole bunch of words? That's it? Whoever did this inlay is either lazy or rushing things. I certainly hope it isn't Marit's idea. I mean, come on. Give your fans some nice pics of yourself. It doesn't hurt to be generous.

I saw the video to Coming Home a few weeks back, and I was sorely disappointed. Too many shots of the band and no creativity in it at all. Compare this video to If A Song Could Get Me You and you'll see what I mean. Like the inlay, this felt lazy and rushed.

Overall, I'll give Spark three out of five stars. I applaud Marit for writing some really good lyrics and some very neat arrangements here and there. But there is a lot of room for improvement. I feel like I need to see her play live in order to fully appreciate her music, when it should be me appreciating how the CD sounds like before wanting to hear the live version. Someone I know said she's too kitsch, I wonder if that's true.