Thursday, May 7, 2015

Kamelot: Haven (2015) Review

Kamelot have exhibited a minor case of stylistic discord for the past decade.  Even before the leave of vocalist extraordinaire Roy Khan, the group were clearly going through unenthused motions between Ghost Opera and Poetry for the Poisoned.  Then Swedish powerhouse Tommy Keravik ( Seventh Wonder) jumped onboard, finding a modest degree of comfort on 2012's Silverthorn.  His outing could be argued as both better and worse than what one might expect; he fit the formula well enough without bringing the true majesty of either Seventh Wonder Khan-era Kamelot out.  Now eyes rest on Haven for what direction the band are bound for.

Things are immediately and consistently pleasing, with the first half establishing the various shades Haven employs.  "Fallen Star" and "Veil of Elysium" both showcase a melodic-on-melancholic angle that will be familiar to longtime fans.  However, what makes these (and all other) moments on Haven feel fresh in their familiarity is the fact Kamelot haven't sounded this comfortable and lively for a long time.  Silverthorn didn't necessarily lack high points, but it had an overall compressed feeling, like it had a restraining order.  Haven isn't so hindered, which primarily shows thanks to the production, this time realizing and enhancing Kamelot's long-lost vigor.  No one will claim Haven as the next Black Halo (or even Epica), but this is easily the catchiest Kamelot have been in over a decade.

Take the intoxicating "Insomnia," for instance; first impressions are modest, but it quickly turns into a repeat button's newfound lover.  This is also one of the album's heavier moments, alongside the frantic "Revolution" and crescendoing "Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)."  A similar structure adorns "Under Grey Skies," one of two included ballads, which is key to its benefit.  Another factor is the expected inclusion of female vocals (this time Charlotte Wessels of Delain) and a subtle contribution from Troy Donockley (Nightwish).  Silverthorn's "Song for Jolee," by comparison, was a troublesome drag comparable to waiting in line at an amusement park. 

Less emphasized, however, is the air of progression Silverthorn neared suggesting for the future.  "Citizen Zero" rings similar to "Prodigal Son" with its dark atmosphere and stiffly played chorus.  It reminds us of Silverthorn's burdening shortcomings, all while pointing to Poetry for the Poisoned's grievances.  Some listener's may appreciate it after multiple listens, yet both exemplify a lack of instant gratification that Kamelot are routinely known for.  There's potential in running with a more challenging sound and structure, but at this point it'd be at the expense of numerous fans.

This brings us to the predicament Haven sees Kamelot in as a whole: a lack of evolution.  Improvements to the production (highs have room to shine again) and a subsequent sense of freedom are welcome, but these are mere spices sprinkled atop an undercooked steak.  Silverthorn wasn't a "fun" album in the way Khan-era Kamelot was, but there was always a lingering sense of newfound ambition.  Haven, conversely, favors tradition, which leads to many enjoyable moments, yet they typically flatten out when viewed objectively.

The biggest pressing concern for Kamelot has become how much staying power they'll have if they continue their current path.  Silverthorn saw them tiptoe into a different-yet-familiar body of water; Haven demonstrates that they've regained comfort, now they just need to find the current and glide with it in grace. 

Grade: B

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Review

 The Avengers is a tough act to follow.  After 2012's epic ensemble busted blocks like an 8-year-old boy on a sugar rush, Marvel's track record went somewhat haywire.  Efforts such as Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were essentially blips on an otherwise crystal-sharp radar, primarily thanks to Captain America: The Winter Solder and last year's little surprise, Guardians of the Galaxy.  Subsequently, audiences are approaching the next Avengers installment, Age of Ultron, with hype rushing aplenty.  Can the grandeur and memorability of Marvel's collective greatest be recaptured--even surpassed, or has a wall suddenly protruded before the rushing current?

Age of Ultron goes utterly gung-ho from the get-go.  Action is the first card of choice, showcasing each player we've come to know and love.  Forgo, however, is a single attempt to cover loose ends between the last Marvel installments and this--you'll wonder where to start.  Comic book fans may be less confused, but all others are like to be as lost as Thor in his cinematic debut.  From there, the story struggles to trickle its way to a cohesive introduction, making it immediately clear where the priorities (didn't) rest.  Essentially, Tony Stark creates an advanced AI (Ultron) intending to protect the world and prevent a grim vision from seeing fruition.  Sounds simple, but since this is Hollywood, things go bad…fast.  James Spader is the man behind Marvel's latest baddie, and what's surprising is the level of sarcasm instilled in his character.  The more you listen to him, the more you see him as a spitting shadow of Tony Stark.  In fact, he acts more like the Tony we've come to enjoy than Tony himself, who has far fewer low-blow remarks than before. 
The time to push Ultron out is so short, you may suspect Whedon and company of being in over their heads.  There's an overwhelming sense of urgency, extending to the film's own poppy structure; the blink-once-and-you-miss-it notion definitely applies.  Want further proof?  The previous Avengers now feels like an elderly tortoise while Age of Ultron zips by like a cheetah. 

All of this may sound par for the course, but Age of Ultron plays out in such a way that you feel a need to pay attention.  Then, when you comprehend what's going on, you often find it's sillily joke-riddled.  It may sound counterintuitive, but Age of Ultron demands attentiveness while begging we don't think too critically all the while.  For instance, two characters show a sporadic connection, and while the play-up is fun and cute, the moment one throws thought into the mix (considering previous Marvel projects), the entire scenario just doesn't mesh.  What's more is we get a formal introduction of sorts to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, but saying they're introduced is like saying Hawkeye was fully fleshed out in the first Avengers.  But don't worry, he gets the majority of individual character development here.
 With the apparent mess going on, one may get the impression Age of Ultron isn't an enjoyable experience.  This isn't the case--not entirely.  Schizophrenic though it may be, Age of Ultron must be experienced on the big screen, as the frequent action and comic relief are easy to embrace with a lively, pumped up audience.  When action truly heads into overdrive, it delivers; the Hulkbuster scene is particularly memorable and arguably the best sequence.  Curiously, our heroes are constantly trying to get civilians out of harm's way, which may or may not be a big jab to the careless, wanton destruction in DC's Man of Steel.  If anything is more overblown than the action, it's the ever-present comedy.   The entire cast spits one-liners amidst action scenes like a middle schooler after one too many Mountain Dews.  Recurring jokes are another motif throughout Age of Ultron, with the only successful ones being those that involve Thor's hammer (and trust me, they work).  There are plenty of laughs to have, just be ready for an equal amount of eye-rolling.
When all is said and done, Avengers: Age of Ultron ends up being a bigger, busier piece than its predecessor.  The movie is both better and worse because of it, with the determining factor being your state of mind.  If you're ready to be completely forgiving and are with the right audience, the entire thing will be a laughing, cheer-ridden blast.  However, if you're hoping the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would take constructive steps to build the most fleshed out and complete experience possible, you'll likely be underwhelmed.  Either way, it's a compromise, and how much this will impact future MCU installments only time will tell.

Grade: B

Friday, April 3, 2015

Furious 7 (2015) Review

How many seven-part franchises can you name where the latter movies outdid the initial ones?  That the Fast and Furious has been around for 14 years is, in and of itself, a real shock.  Going from car-centric to action-eccentric, the series has matured by embracing and basking in sheer absurdity.  Never has the franchise been for thinkers, so all Furious 7 would have to do is fulfill the status quo and leave a slot or two open for more sequels.

Or so it would've been.
With the tragic passing of series vet Paul Walker late last year, everyone involved with him and the film faced a sudden hardship.  This likely explains why the plot and structure around it feel so convoluted.  Points include a device in the vein of Big Brother called God's Eye and a revenge plot meant to link Tokyo Drift's ending with that of the previous film's finale.  All the while a nearly faceless Djimon Hounsou shows up while Leti's amnesia-laden mind hampers her spunk from earlier films.  Everything sloppily compiles together in the evident 137-minute runtime.  Miraculously, the film avoids stagnating into a complete the drag, resulting in (and from) the frequent testosterone overdose that is the action scenes.  Car nuts will hate to see their beloved vehicles misrepresented and oftentimes demolished, but when the intensity blisters this much, you can't help but smile in glee.  Whether everything matches Fast 5's exhilarating final sequence is purely subjective, but that's all the more testament to how far these films have come entertainment-wise.

If there's a pervasive break in Furious 7's chain, it's actually the characters and their overall charisma.  Furious 7 favors comedy to drama, which is fortunate, since these moments trump the dramatic slumps at every turn.  Laughs are completely silly and utterly stupid--probably more so than the action, but that's also the fun and charm.  When Furious 7 does take a lightly dramatic turn, it's never with a sliver of compelling air.  Acting across the board is minimal, seldom of non-comedic enjoyment, even from typecast extraordinaire Jason Statham.  As a result, the film struggles to effectively convey what heart and emotion the previous six built to.  One saving grace does come from the very last shot, however, serving as an appropriate sendoff for Paul Walker.  There's a simple yet beautiful honor to this final moment, one that will move fans who've stuck with the franchise since day one.
Furious 7 plays exactly as it should, catering to the strengths of recent installments and making some not-so-subtle throwbacks to the series' beginning.  Those who enjoy the franchise and know what to expect will ultimately find little to gripe over in what should stand as the series' closing chapter.

Grade: C

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jupiter Ascending (2015) Review

The Wachowskis continue to trek through sci-fi territory with Jupiter Ascending, starring Mila Kunis as the heir (or resurrection?) of someone in royalty.  This expectedly puts her in the midst of debates and conflicts over certain matters, as in property.  Along the way we get spacey air-rollerblading, out-of-place monsters and a little action scene ripped right out of Ender's Game.  Audiences should also know: Jupiter Ascending isn't the sci-fi epic it's marketed as.  Rather, it's a law squabble using space as a backdrop. 

My scant pitch for the plot stems from the apparent laziness of the Wachoskis, since we're never properly cued in to the lore.  Scenes play out with an air of presumption, as if we're already versed in the drab, egregious backstory.  Characters passively spit monikers out left and right, making the story and plot feel like a football when the crew (players) thought they were playing basketball the whole time.
Not only is the narrative poorly realized, but the characters are sloppily portrayed.  Channing Tatum does, as he says, "have more in common with a dog" than a human being.  And no, that's not a good thing.  Sean Bean appears, if only to play an obligatory hard-ass who entertains the same way minimum wage jobs support us.  Then there's Eddie Redmayne, who serves up campy acting like The Cheesecake Factory serves up clogged arteries.  What's astonishing is that I can't tell if he took the role seriously or not.  Finally, Mila Kunis portrays the titular character, albeit with less Jupiter and more Bella Swan.  You'll forget what little she does or says, with one exception being an abhorrent response to the aforementioned canine comparison. 

Despite these blunders, the most appalling crime of Jupiter Ascending is its inability to entertain, even on a guilty pleasure level.  The two-hour runtime would be better served as an overdue nap, which the movie just might accomplish for you.  Forgettable and frustratingly dull, Jupiter Ascending makes but one more case against the Wachowskis, suggesting that The Matrix was either a fluke or realized by other, more capable minds.

Grade: F

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Red Velvet Oreos Review

Nabisco don't always make logical choices with their limited edition Oreo variants.  One needn't look further than last year's Fruit Punch version for proof.  For Valentine's Day, however, America's favorite processed cookie is seeing a proper makeover. 

A Red Velvet Oreo sounds like it would be a long time coming, considering the terrain Nabisco have ventured into with each iteration.  This particular offering features wafers enhanced with red food coloring and cream cheese flavored creme.  The presence of both is immediately noticeable; the wafers are a tried-and-true color while the creme has light, butter-yellow hue that gives these a spiritual, distinguishable appearance.  When you open the package, a definite cocoa aroma pours out, though not the extent of say, 2013's Gingerbread Oreos.

 When biting into one of the sandwich cookies, it's immediately clear that they're playing their part.  Several Red Velvet products miss the euphoric, borderline decadence of the original dessert.  Even Ben & Jerry's Red Velvet Cake ice cream variety missed the mark.  Yet it's Nabisco (of all companies) who managed to get the Red Velvet recreation correct.  Where a brand like Ben & Jerry's made the experience feel subpar, a single bite of these made me swear I just bit into an ice cream sandwich.  The effects are completely disarming.  This is the worst temptation an Oreo product has given me since the Reese Oreos, yet I'll savor every malnourishing slip-up
 Where I Bought Them: Wal-Mart

Price: $2.98

Grade: A