Friday, December 17, 2010

Bruno Mars - Doo-Wops & Hooligans [album review]

* Released in October
Other than one not insignificant bump in the road from a September arrest in Las Vegas for cocaine possession, it's been a pretty sweet year for pop singer/songwriter/producer Bruno Mars. Born Peter Gene Hernandez in Hawaii, Mars co-wrote, co-produced, and sang on massive summer hits "Nothin' On You" and "Billionaire" (by B.o.B. and Travie McCoy, respectively), co-wrote one of the biggest songs of the year with Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You", released his critically and commercially well-received debut album (Doo-Wops & Hooligans) that landed a number one single ("Just The Way You Are") in multiple countries and has a follow-up ("Grenade") headed in the same direction, and received seven Grammy nominations. So how was your 2010?
I first noticed Mars a few weeks back on Saturday Night Live, with his two song performance managing to capture my attention. I DVR SNL most weeks, but find little, both musically and comically, that doesn't have me going heavy on my remote's "FF" button. Before I'd heard a note, it was Mars' live presentation that gave me pause. The singer and his guitarist, bassist, and drummer were dressed in identical suits with skinny ties...throw in a pompadour hair style on Mars and it successfully completed the 50's doo-wop group visual homage. Add in the fact that Mars also played guitar, a rarity for an artist of colour (which sounds so bloody un-PC, but it's just a fact). Those refreshing visual elements, combined with well-executed renditions of his two aforementioned chart-topping singles, led me to check out his debut, which is an unabashedly commercial collection of songs that dips its feet into numerous musical genres, including pop, hip hop, rock, reggae, r & b, and soul.
Mars blows his wad early, with the two opening tracks on the album comprising its best material: "Grenade" mixes a marching floor tom drum beat with heavy keyboards and Mars' smooth vocal style, augmented by some tasteful Motown-style background vocals, and "Just The Way You Are" takes much of the same formula, speeds up the tempo a little, and ends up with a very different sounding song, which I'd have to call one of the best pop tunes I've heard this year. About half of the rest of the album's songs (there are ten in total) fall somewhere within the "very good" level of quality: "Runaway Baby" is a high energy 60's throwback, "Marry You" also borrows liberally from that decade with its highly melodic song structure (love the use of the wedding bells, too), "Talking To The Moon" is a solid ballad that probably best shows off Mars' impressive vocal ability, and then there's the album's final track, "The Other Side". It originally appeared back in May on Mars' It's Better If You Don't Understand EP, along with a couple of other songs that appear on Doo-Wops & Hooligans. The song (featuring Green, who it actually sounds like it was written for, and B.o.B.), while strong, feels somewhat out of step with the rest of the tracks, which is probably because it's the most modern sounding one of the bunch. It was written much earlier than most of the songs on his full-length player and, according to Wikipedia, has eleven (!) songwriters accredited to it (three of those names are Mars, Philip Lawrence, and Ari Levine, who make up the unfortunately named songwriting/producing team The Smeezingtons). How eleven people are needed to write a 3:47 song is beyond my scope of comprehension, I must admit.
At a lean 35 minute running time and ten songs, there's little room for filler, but Doo-Wops & Hooligans has its share. Most glaring is the atrocious "Our First Time", which is the kind of slowed down/sexed up Usher and R. Kelly-style r & b that has me running screaming in the opposite direction. "The Lazy Song", which is almost oppressively lightweight, lyrically celebrates the pleasures of lounging around doing nothing, set to an instantly forgettable laid back musical accompaniment that wouldn't seem out of place on a (*shudder*) Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz album. "Liquor Store Blues" isn't much better, amping up the reggae sound touched on during the aforementioned track and getting a credibility assist from Bob Marley's son, Damian. The result just isn't my cup of tea, though. "Count On Me" is another slight number that borrows again from Mraz and Mars' fellow countryman Israel Kamakawiwo'le, with its stripped down acoustic guitar and light percussion. The nice string arrangement on the song's back half does redeem things, but only slightly.
Mars is a hugely talented young artist (did I mention he also played most of the instruments on Doo-Wops & Hooligans?) who needs to refine his musical focus a little and stick to his obvious strengths, plus his lyrics need a lot of work. Even the album's potent songs are marred by overearnest, soppy wordcraft that one expects will improve as Mars matures.
Rating: ★★★★★

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Inception [movie review]

* Released theatrically in July; released on DVD and Blu-Ray today
A common complaint with most of today's movies is that they don't challenge the audience enough. Inception is the exception...almost to a fault. On more than one occasion, I heard feedback from moviegoers along the lines of "I liked it, but I couldn't quite figure out what was going on". That ability to impress (even while managing to somewhat alienate) translated into powerful word-of-mouth buzz, which, combined with strong reviews and repeat business derived from the gotta-see-it-again-to-suss-out-the-plot's-complexities factor, led to huge box office for the film. Many critics just downright hated it because of its labyrinthian storytelling (sprawled out over an also demanding 148 minutes), the best of which has to be Rex Reed's hilariously scathing review here.
Clearly, it's writer/director Christopher Nolan's recent strong track record at helming films that make a boatload of cash for their studio (like The Dark Knight) that convinced Warner Brothers to cough up the reported $160 million budget for such a high-risk project, which Nolan has been working on since 2002. Despite its over-ambitious narrative leanings, Inception does look quite amazing, between the numerous globe-trotting backdrops (New York City, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Tangiers, London, Paris, and Calgary, subbing for the Alps) and impressive, original special effects. Nolan's dream world allows for mind-bending visuals like shapeshifting landscapes and a trippy one-on-one battle in a hotel in both inverted and zero gravity. The director insisted on keeping CGI to a minimum, leading to the building of three sets alone that were used for the hotel scenes, including one set that housed a rotating 100-foot hallway.
As much as I can sum up the multi-layered, high-concept story in one paragraph, here it is: Don Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert hired by captains of industry to infiltrate the dreams of other corporate heavyweights to steal their ideas. His team consists of long-time associate Arthur (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a man skilled in the arts of deception named Eames (played by British actor Tom Hardy), a chemistry wizard (played by Dileep Rao) who oversees the placement and extraction of the team into the dream realm, and Ellen Page's character, Ariadne. She's the newest recruit, a young and gifted architecture student for Cobb to mentor who is taught how the dream-hijacking world operates (which, in turn, helps school the viewer) and who will instill her expertise to help create the layouts of the dreams. The outfit is hired by Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe's character) to slip into the dreams of one of his corporate rivals (played by Cillian Murphy) and not extract information already present, but implant an idea that will ultimately benefit Saito financially. The catch: such a feat (known as "inception") has never been successfully accomplished. If Cobb and his team can pull the job off it will also allow him to reunite with his family after a forced exile from America due to circumstances I won't disclose. Tied into that subplot are Cobb's periodic encounters with his unstable wife, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard in full-on femme fatale mode. Oddly, there are incredibly coincidental elements of the relationship Cobb has with his wife in this movie as there were with DiCaprio's character and his spouse in his last film from earlier this year, Shutter Island.
Good performances all-around and a surprisingly liberal use of action help to dilute the mildly abrasive effects of the movie's high-minded plot machinations, which, at one point, is balancing four concurrent stories involving a dream within a dream within another dream. Inception isn't quite as wholly original as critical and public reaction might have lead you to believe, with Nolan employing several well-worn movie ideas: the use of a team of thieves, each with their own specialty, is heist movie 101, there's Cobb's "one last big job before I retire" offer, and the scenes in the Alps are straight out of a James Bond movie. Films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Fight Club also have their fingerprints all over this one. As mentioned, many feel a second (or more) viewing is necessary to digest all that Inception has to offer. I liked it well enough, just not enough to devote another two-and-a-half hours of my life to sitting down with it again.
Rating: ★★★★★