Friday, December 20, 2013

After the Burial - "Wolves Within"

How would you like your blog today, folks?

Perhaps I can interest you in one of our signature dishes: a choice selection of adulatory paragraphs directed at a band on whom I clearly have a massive man-crush. That comes with a healthy side of the narcissistic obsession I have with my own words, lightly drizzled in a pretentious musician sauce. All of this of course served on a bed of my relentless fixation with all things relating to heavy metal. And for dessert, the meal is topped off with a piping hot cup of critical commentary about the metal scene and what's wrong with it today, served alongside a slice of self-righteousness - marinated to perfection in pop culture references.

Excellent choice, if I may say so. Coming right up!


THE PROS

This is going to sound bad, but After the Burial is one of those bands I keep forgetting about. Not in the sense that I completely forget the day I bought In Dreams or the week I had "Aspiration" (Rareform re-release version) basically on a loop. But when I think of bands I want to listen to during my commute or at the gym or what have you, I just keep forgetting they're in the mix somewhere waiting to be queued up. Me, of all people!



But that forgetfulness allowed me a pleasant surprise: hearing about their latest album only a few short days before it was to be released. Instead of months of crossed fingers, I had less than a week to enjoy the two tracks they had already posted: "Of Fearful Men" and "A Wolf Amongst Ravens." These two tracks made me genuinely hopeful for the quality of this release, and I'm happy to announce that Wolves Within delivers the goods like a really good good-deliverer.

"Anti-Pattern" kicks things off with a half-second of bending guitar strings that almost sounds like the revving of an engine before a quick drum solo smashes the door down like an axe-wielding lumberjack. Then the guitars jump in to a staggered pattern of riffs that are as heavy as they are head-bobbingly catchy, and the hypothetical lumberjack from the previous sentence announces he's traveled 500 miles to bring you his seed.

A reference for this reference.
And that's just the first track. Next up is the previously mentioned "Of Fearful Men," which had already pleasantly surprised me with its brief, jazzy interlude - one of the more experimental moments in After the Burial's discography, and a welcome ingredient. Later on, "Nine Summers" opens with a complex riff that leaps back and forth between needling high notes and sweeping low-end chugs in a sequence that reminded me of the opening to "Luck as a Constant" from Periphery's sophomore album - a release whose praises I have already sung at length. Elsewhere, "Neo Seoul" opens gently on a soft bed of ambient musical textures before the guitars ninja-chop their way into the song while maintaining the chord progression established. And in a wonderful example of musical symmetry, the smooth melody I just mentioned returns toward the end of the song while the rest of the instruments are still going strong - adding a beautiful depth and resonance to the piece.

There really is a lot to love about this album, but my personal favorite track is the last - "A Wolf Amongst Ravens." When I first heard the track a few days before the album was released, I kinda fell in love. It's easily my favorite song out of After the Burial's entire discography, which means I'm scheduled to have a very difficult conversation with "Aspiration" in the near future.

"A Wolf Amongst Ravens" perfectly encapsulates what After the Burial brings to the table. The main groove barrels along like a muscled juggernaut launched from a polymetric cannon while the second guitar layers a complimentary lead over the proceedings. It's a song that gets your blood pumping in an almost trance-like way, as the interlocking rhythms and riffs envelop the listener in an ocean of energy and focus. This is of course saying nothing of lead vocalist Anthony Notarmaso, who flawlessly alternates between the high-pitched shrieks of a mutant panther and the low rage-growls of a battle-ready berserker. (A wild reference appears!)


THE CONS

Guitarist Trent Hafdahl performing the crowdpleaser: "Split Ends"
After the Burial has been something of a "song-by-song" basis kind of band for me. I loved 3 or 4 tracks from Rareform, I loved 3 or 4 tracks from In Dreams. I didn't dislike the rest of those albums, I just didn't find them terribly compelling. With Wolves Within I've found the After the Burial album for which I've waited - with basically a complete set of songs I enjoy without feeling the need to skip ahead.

However, one thing I was slightly dismayed to see was the absence of any clean vocals, and I know that might sound a little heretical. In Dreams featured a very light amount of clean vocals, primarily on "Pendulum" and "To Carry You Away." I felt those moments - brief though they were - added a dimension to the album that would have been lacking otherwise, and frankly I expected to see it return on Wolves Within. It's hardly a deal-breaker, but I was hoping for a little more variety in that department.


THE VERDICT

Without question, Wolves Within is my favorite After the Burial album to date. The band seems to have found the perfect blend of metal ingredients, and have managed to arrange them in such a way as to sound distinctly unique. Each piece taken by itself - the blast beats of "Virga," the quirky bass interlude on "Parise," the standard uptempo metalcore pace that appears in most of the songs, simple palm-muted breakdowns accompanied by complex palm-muted polyrythmic grooves - isn't strikingly remarkable when compared with what plenty of other bands are doing these days. But when all those elements come together the way they do on this album, the result is immensely satisfying.

Anyone who's read my blog before knows I like to pontificate about the state of the metal scene and decry how everyone seems to want to decry everything else. It's a bad habit, but it has its uses; for example, sometimes you can use the lack of negative response to a given album as an indicator of its quality. It's not a perfect measurement, some people will always find something to be upset about. But when a new album drops and you're actually hard pressed to find someone drinking the Hater-ade, you know you've found something exceptional. From what I've seen, response from fans and critics alike has been overwhelmingly positive towards Wolves Within....turns out there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo; and it's worth fighting for.

There are a few moments on Wolves Within that reminded me of other artists - "Disconnect" reminded me of some of Volumes' work, for example. And the mix in several places put me in mind of Monuments' debut album Gnosis. None of that should imply that After the Burial is "ripping off" anyone else; quite the opposite. One of the strengths of Wolves Within is how deftly different defining qualities emerge and evolve throughout its run time - there's even a vaguely Iron Maiden-like hook in "Virga" right after former lead vocalist Nick Wellner's guest spot (right around the 1:43 mark).

I made this, I want everyone to see it, and I couldn't really think of a clever way to work it into the rest of the review so, here.
Wolves Within is the kind of album that from moment-to-moment very definitely fits into one genre or another. This part here is very metalcore, this part over here is classic djent, this moment is your typical Nazi-face-melting-before-the-Ark-of-the-Covenant-core, etc. But After the Burial manages to bring all those elements together on Wolves Within and bind them together with their own signature sound. I've already said this album is my favorite After the Burial release, but I'm going to one step further; Wolves Within is the best After the Burial album to date and you'd be a fool not to go pick it up right now.

Besides, doesn't your grandma need some new tunes to jam while she's making jam?

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Traditions are important.

Say, for example, waiting until the Saturday of opening weekend for The Desolation of Smaug in order to enjoy a Denny's Hobbit-breakfast beforehand. Such traditions mean that the timeliness of my review might suffer, as did my digestive tract after that trip to Denny's. But also like the mild gastrointestinal discomfort I experienced, the delay in getting this review posted was well worth the trouble of a little change in routine - and that's as much thanks to the film itself as anything else.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up where movie number one left off. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and the dwarves (a bunch of dudes in costume and makeup prosthetics) are continuing their journey to Erebor - the former city of dwarves that was stolen from them by the evil dragon Smaug (voiced to chilling perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch) ages ago. Another evil has been gathering across the land in the interim, and it's not long before Gandalf is called away to confront that evil in the ruins of Dol Goldur. A few pit stops in spider pits, several non-canonical characters' appearances, and some thrilling visual effects sequences later - we conclude on a cliffhanger ending that leaves you perfectly primed for the third and final film.


THE PROS

You may recall that back when the first film came out, it wasn't terribly well-received. But being a longtime Tolkien fan and confrontational internet blogger, I predicted that critical response to the series would warm once the next film came along, as viewers and reviewers alike saw that Jackson was very slowly bridging the gaps in style that characterize the source material. After all, The Hobbit was meant to be a children's book, while The Lord of the Rings was written for a more mature audience. From what I can gather, my assessment was accurate - and the critical reception to this film has already been much more positive, and with good reason.

Having done away with the majority of the more laborious exposition in the first film, Peter Jackson can get right down to the more fun aspects of in The Desolation of Smaug. There are an almost overwhelming number of characters to keep up with as nearly everyone from An Unexpected Journey returns; in addition to the coming of several new characters. First off, readers of the books will note that Legolas (Orlando Bloom) does not make an appearance until The Fellowship of the Ring, and the character of Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) exists nowhere in the Tolkien canon whatsoever. Having said that, Elven-king Thranduil (Lee Pace) is very much a part of The Hobbit and since he is Legolas' father - it's hardly a stretch to fill in the gaps and write ol' blonde-hair-and-blue-eyes into this movie.

"I just felt a great disturbance in the Force. As if millions of ovaries cried out..."

As for Tauriel, the bottom line is that without her, the extras are the only female characters to appear in this particular installment. And since it should be a given that adaptation from page to screen means some liberties have to be taken, we should judge additions and subtractions by how well they serve the story and not simply whether or not they're canonical or cool. So I was on board with Tauriel as a character since it was announced she was going to be added to the cast, and Evangeline does a great job with the material supplied.

One of the things I was a little unsure about going from book to film is the scene where the dwarves go over a waterfall in barrels. In the book, it's a downright silly moment that reflects just how much of a children's story Tolkien was trying to create. In the film, it's arguably one of the most thrilling and exciting sequences of the entire series - including the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rolling over foaming waves and bobbing along the current, the dwarves have to be nimble and well-coordinated to defeat an army of orcs that have the tactical advantage and high ground. And even in this edge-of-your-seat roller coaster moment, there's still plenty of room for laughs and pratfalls amidst the high-wire stunts. Seriously, it's just about worth the ticket price for that sequence alone.

Or to see the craziest "Previously on Pushing Daisies..." EVER.
And what of the titular dragon? (Hehe..."tit") Jackson's been teasing us with glimpses and peeks ever since An Unexpected Journey and Smaug does not disappoint, ladies and gentlemen. It takes us most of the film's run-time before we even get to meet him, but trust me; it's worth the wait. And it's not just the visual spectacle that he provides, nor the spine-chilling resonance of Cumberbatch's vocal performance: Smaug himself is very much an active character in this film, rather than simply a narrative obstacle for the heroes to overcome. His dialogue reveals the inner workings of a mind as narcissistic as it is sadistic, and the film doesn't miss a beat bringing us an "anatomically realistic" dragon that also talks; something I feared might skew too far towards the light-hearted, children's book tone of the source material.

Oh yeah, and Stephen Colbert's cameo...That definitely goes in the "PROS" section of my review.


THE CONS

Split Ends: The Movie
No matter how much these films try, there will just always be moments that seem impossible to render with a straight face. The Return of the King has one of the most cringe-worthy moments at the end, when everyone is coming to visit Frodo in his elven bed and all the hobbits are jumping on it in jubilation and Gandalf is giggle-snorting in slow motion... Everyone commits to the bit, and it almost-sorta-kinda works considering everything that came before - but ultimately it still feels awkward and weird. The Desolation of Smaug suffers a similar fate at one point. There's a scene where Tauriel is attempting to heal one of the dwarves, and I think Jackson was trying to draw a visual comparison between this moment and Arwen's introduction in Fellowship of the Ring. Both ladies - breathtaking and lovely - are backlit and haloed by the light. Their voices echo and reverberate as they chant in sultry Sindarin, and they look into the camera with eyes that sparkle with elven might and magic. For whatever reason, it totally works in The Fellowship of the Ring and I find myself transfixed in that scene. But in Desolation of Smaug, the moment feels cheesy and almost hackneyed, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.

Some of the Laketown sequences, while completely appropriate, also felt strangely out-of-place in the film. Again, this is simply a limit of the source material - and it's certainly not like Laketown was poorly designed or the time spent there doesn't serve the story. But there was something strange - vaguely anachronistic - about the production design of those sets and costumes that almost took me out of the story. Maybe it's just me.

SPOILER...ish:

I'm a bit torn over the budding romance between Kili (Aiden Turner) and Tauriel. It seems a bit too obvious; as if it's been placed in the story to keep the stakes and tensions up, and in that sense it kind of succeeds. But it also feels strangely on-the-nose...like some fan-fiction indulgence run amok. Again, I'm torn and having a hard time expressing my feelings over it; I don't hate it, but I don't love it. Having said that, I'm pretty sure Tauriel is going to perish in the third film (gotta write her out of the way somehow), and I am eager to see how that aids some of the character development down the road. So I'm fully reserving judgment until the final chapter in this trilogy. Check back here in another year or so for the final word on that development.


THE VERDICT

If you know me, you know I don't mind tooting my own horn from time to time. And after watching almost everyone change their tune critically speaking from the first film to this one - like I thought they might - I'm just gonna take a moment to do that, if you don't mind.

Pictured: Me, totally
But it's not only a victory for snarky bloggers like myself! It's a victory for the franchise as a return to form - aesthetically and critically. The Desolation of Smaug covered way more ground than I expected going in, which means managing a lot of characters and their development. True to form, Jackson manages to pull this off like it's the easiest thing in the world - introducing us to the intimidating skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), letting us get familiar with the calculating and morally ambiguous Thranduil (Lee Pace), engaging us with the noble struggles of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), etc. All of this while clipping along with the central conflict of the entire series - the corrupting influence of the Ring - and the numerous character arcs that we need to keep track of. Considering the limits of the source material, this movie really is almost perfect in the balance it strikes between cinematic license and fidelity to canon.

The Lord of the Rings is - for me - synonymous with Christmas holiday celebrations. If I'm not watching the movies I'm reliving them through the soundtracks or thumbing back through the books or watching the making-of featurettes on my Extended Edition BluRays. I feel indebted to Peter Jackson for bringing these movies into my life over a decade ago in the first place, and further blessed to enjoy fresh fruits from his vision. The Desolation of Smaug brilliantly builds upon what came before in An Unexpected Journey, and continues to showcase the gradual steps by which Jackson is bringing this trilogy from its roots as a children's book into one of the greatest and most epic film franchises of all time.

And even if you're not a big Tolkien aficionado, this movie really is just a fantastic piece of cinema to look at; breathtaking in its scope and scale, and truly inspiring in its commitment to quality film making.

To sum up, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug makes me feel like this:


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Disfiguring the Goddess

It's rare that you'll find me listening to non-cold weather music in cold weather. When the temperatures drop, I like to crank a lot of symphonic metal, or black metal, or power metal, or folk metal...or any genre that combines those, really. Wintersun, Nightwish, Within Temptation, Amon Amarth, Eluveitie - this is the music that accompanies me into the biting frost mainly because so much of it talks about the biting frost anyway. For me, it's as much a part of the holiday season as Christmas music - and it feels just as weird to hear it during warmer temps (which in Texas is most of the year).

So it comes as a surprise - even to me - that what I'm really enjoying right now is the sickening slam of Disfiguring the Goddess. A one-man act courtesy of Cameron Argon (who also produces curiously different music under the moniker Big Chocolate), Disfiguring the Goddess is among some of the most brutal and hard-hitting music IN THE UNIVERSE.

Haha! Screw you, READING!

I had been eagerly anticipating his latest release - Deprive - for as long as he had been teasing tracks from the new album on his Facebook page. Then Cameron went and did something pretty damn cool: he released a second album on the same day entitled Black Earth Child.



Normally with these album reviews, I like to take Pros and Cons point-for-point where possible. But slam metal is one of those subgenres you either love or hate. It's not the kind of genre with enough diversity for squeamish listeners to cherry pick one or two songs they like while not caring for the rest, unlike more colorful subgenres like progressive metal. Your brain either craves these anthems of the underworld dredged up through the graves of the unjustly slain, or it doesn't. And I'll be the first to admit that a lot of slam metal "sounds the same," but Disfiguring the Goddess is one of those artists that has managed to exist completely within the genre's confines while somehow still transcending them.

For those of you who come to this blog to occasionally learn more about metal out of morbid curiosity, allow me to jump right into this edition of Metal 101:

Death metal is a fairly large subgenre of metal that houses a number of subgenres in itself. One of those subgenres is "slam," so named for the characteristic musical device that defines much of its sound. Slam still uses the guttural and unintelligibly terrifying vocals that characterize much of death metal, and other ear marks of the genre (blast beats, for example) can be found in spades as well. But again it's these slams that set it apart from, say, deathcore. "Slams" are simply sequences of palm-muted transitions that wander around (usually) the first four frets of a heavily down-tuned guitar. So you know that deep chug-chug-chug sound that you hear in a lot of metal? When that chugging stays in one place and counts a rhythm in time with the drums, that's usually called a breakdown. When that chugging wanders up and down and all around - sometimes with the drums synchronized to it and sometimes not - that is how a new slam is born.

As with any genre label, it's dangerous to get too attached to those definitions.

From The Heavy Metal Handbook: Chapter 5 - "How To Not Be A Dick About This Music"


So what's up with Disfiguring the Goddess? What makes this guy so special, huh?

First off: that's a super awesome name, no? Up a few notches on the death-metal-bandname scale from the likes of Morbid Angel, but still below the overtly-intended-as-shock-value Aborted Fetus. And with a name like that, you'd probably guess that Cam was an imposing persona, evincing homicidal rage and terrifying inner turmoil.

He disfigured a LOT of goddesses that day.

Secondly, Cam's vocals are the definition of brutal. I don't know if he uses any effects or electronically enhances them in any way, but frankly I don't care even if he does. The raw brutality and aggression of the sounds coming out of his vocals cords just light up something in my brain that defies explanation. Imagine if the T-Rex from Jurassic Park was behind the mic, chunks of the lawyer's khaki short-shorts still dangled from its jaws.

Deprive
Last but not least, the music. Oh, such sweet sounds of savagery... Deprive and Black Earth Child both showcase an increasing level of polish and mastery of the production process that wasn't present earlier in his work. His first two releases - Circle of Nine and Sleeper - progressively improved on what was an appropriately dark and chaotic sound. After all, death metal isn't normally a genre overly concerned about making sure the minutia of instrumentation comes across. The whole point of death metal is to be unintelligible and antagonistic on every level, even for its practitioners and fans. But as I've mentioned before on this blog, for better or worse, I like production values in my music. So I appreciated Circle of Nine and even enjoyed Sleeper when I was in the mood for something almost comically extreme, but I wouldn't go so far as to call them favorites. With the coming of Deprive and Black Earth Child however, Cam has managed to take the production values through the roof while still maintaining a relentless musical assault on the listener.

Black Earth Child
Elements he hinted at in Sleeper now take a greater amount of the spotlight (though not so much as to be distracting), like the choral arrangements that weave their way in and out of the chaos of "Death's Head Mask" or "Home of the Dollmaker." At once haunting and epic, they bring to these songs - otherwise fantastic examples of the merciless qualities that endeared me to Disfiguring the Goddess in the first place - aspects of sophistication and theatricality that I crave in my music. There are nods to Middle Eastern acoustic instruments with "Industrial Quarter," and the mournful string arrangements that bring "Old Man" to its conclusion are among my favorite moments of Disfiguring the Goddess's entire musical career. Ethereal soundscapes creep into "Suffer Square" that immediately transport the listener into some cosmic void before hurtling them back before a firing squad armed with nail guns and chainsaws. And in a similar vein with "Old Man," "Phantasmal Tempest" slowly decays into an ominous ocean of brass-like instruments, accented by a choir-like sound effect that makes the song sound like some ancient portent of doom. And those are just some of the highlights - in between and all around these more experimental moments are mountains of breakneck speed and ferocity, valleys of murky growls and sledgehammer guitar work, and every dark and disturbing sound that ever made you fall head-over-heels in love with this grisly genre in the first place.

And by releasing two albums in one day, he's managed to overcome my major gripe with his music thus far: the run-time. Sleeper clocked in at just over 20 minutes. And by itself, Deprive is even shorter: a measly 17 minutes and change. But tack on the 24+ minutes of Black Earth Child...baby you've got a stew going!

It's a testament to just how good this music is that it doesn't have many "haters." Pick a metal band, any metal band, and go check out their Facebook or the comments section on their YouTube videos. It's practically an extended tantrum interrupted by peaks of enthusiasm and joy. It's like most metalheads these days can't enjoy one band unless they first unload all the things they don't like about it, and I'll admit I've been guilty of this too. But check out Disfiguring the Goddess's Facebook and/or YouTube and/or any other social media presence - the voice of the hater is but a whisper, if ever breathed at all. Cam has achieved a feat almost impossibly rare in the metal scene; he's changed. His music has evolved, by degrees but still noticeably, and he seems to have actually gained approval in the process. If you're not a big metalhead, you may not realize just how impressive that is - headbangers are notoriously fickle and difficult to please. At once they're condemning a band for "too much 0-0-0-0" and then in the same breath cursing them for "not sounding enough like ________" where that big blank is usually their debut album or some other release deemed more "brootal" and by extension, better. The message is as confusing as it is hypocritical: "be different but also exactly the same."
He disfigured even MORE goddesses on this day.

Disfiguring the Goddess has charted its own course throughout its musical career, and Cam seems content to make the music he wants to make no matter what his fans/anti-fans might say. And by some miracle he's managed to evolve slam into something a bit more experimental and varied while still preserving the gore-drenched heart at its core. I'm still stumped as to how he's pulled that off yet still grown his fan base. But however he's managed to do it, my hat is off to him.

With these releases, Disfiguring the Goddess has officially become one of my all time favorite metal acts. If you've been wandering the aisles of your local record store, aimlessly searching for some new tunes with which to damage your hearing...wander no more! Deprive and Black Earth Child have cascades and avalanches of raptors wielding assault rifles swirling through Sharknadoes just waiting to devour you and spit you out the other end like so much eviscerated gristle.

And that, my friends, is the true meaning of Christmas.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Frozen

I'm a bit late to this party, I know.

I've tried to make a habit of mostly reviewing new releases (with the exception of my Redbox Reports and Netflix Nuggets, of course) in the hopes of hoarding my own little pile of cyber-relevance. But every once in a while I see a movie or hear an album that gives me the blogging itch regardless of how long it's been since everyone else has already seen or heard it. Disney's latest - Frozen - is just such a movie.

If the box office numbers are any indicator, most of you are probably well ahead of me on this one by now; that's what I get for letting my blog collect a little dust. But with that in mind, I so thoroughly enjoyed Frozen on so many levels that I'll tell you right now I don't really have anything negative to say about it moving forward.

The story is refreshingly different and unique. Like a number of Disney films, Frozen takes its source material - "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen - and removes all the pesky creepiness and horror that characterizes a disturbing amount of "children's stories." (C'mon, Hans...your target audience is still afraid of the dark)

Princess Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) was born with a special gift; with just a wave her hand she can make snow and ice appear in dazzling and beautiful magic. After accidentally wounding her sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) with that magic, Elsa has to learn to keep her powers a secret - as her father tells her "Conceal, don't feel." When it comes time for Elsa to lead the country as queen, her powers have become too strong for her to conceal any longer and she unwittingly unleashes a devastating winter on all of her country. Ashamed and afraid, she retreats to the mountains in the hopes of protecting her kingdom - and her sister - from any further harm she might cause. But spirited Anna isn't so easily resigned, and resolves to bring her sister back. Along the way she teams up with the handsome Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusty reindeer Sven, in addition to Olaf - a dim-witted but warm-hearted snowman. But undoing the damage Elsa has caused is a greater challenge than either of them expects, and Frozen takes us through both of their struggles with narrative aplomb and musical magic.


THE PROS

Right off the bat, Frozen scores major points in my book for hitting all of the familiar (and in some ways, necessary) fairy tale beats without lapsing into cliche. There are princesses and princes, a royal ball, song-and-dance routines that flesh out character motivations and advance the story, anthropomorphic animals - the works. But instead of a pair of female leads who quickly fall into a competitive "good girl"/"bad girl" dynamic, Frozen develops Elsa and Anna in such a way as to bring the audience into their separate worlds at the same time. So while Elsa is doing vaguely villain-y things, we understand her motivations and sympathize with her defensive instincts. It's handled so deftly and subtly that you won't even notice unless you're actively looking for it; the stitches and seams in this story have been masterfully woven.

And this again is where Frozen might have otherwise faltered. Take the on-the-nose, unforgivably weak Cinderella 2: Dreams Come True - where Cindy says saccharine things like "Maybe it's time to start following your heart..." and the borderline bitch-ity boppity-boo: "I have to try this my way." (That's what the original Cinderella was missing - a little Limp Bizkit!) It was painfully obvious what that film was aiming for; trying to put some distance between itself and the whole damsel-in-distress routine and let her flourish on her own as a lead character. Great idea - abysmal execution. Frozen, on the other hand, hits that target dead center. At no point in the movie does Elsa or Anna have to fall back on "strong female character" stereotypes to get their point across or keep advancing the story.

And what's a good Disney movie without some good Disney music? In the tradition of older Disney Renaissance era films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, this movie does a fantastic job of reviving song-and-dance routines that don't put the rest of the film on hold. Towards the beginning of the film young Anna attempts to gain her sister's attention with the sweet-as-it-is-heartbreaking "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" Skip ahead a few years and Anna is bursting with excitement for her sister's upcoming coronation ceremony in "For the First Time In Forever." But my personal favorite is Elsa's theme song, "Let It Go" - a simple but thrilling melody that brings Elsa through her shame and self-doubt into confidence and peace with her powers.


And on that note (pun intended), the voice acting and singing in this movie is pitch perfect (again, pun annoyingly intended). Kristen Bell's voice-work is an absolute joy; not only can she sing beautifully, but she works in all of these subtle vocal inflections and expressions that I didn't fully appreciate until I listened to the songs over and over again in my car. Seriously, her performance is perfect to a syllable. Idina Menzel has already proven her sing-acting chops in Wicked, and her approach is right at home in this film. Another hidden gem in this film is the snowman Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad), whose non-sequitur attempts to relate to his human counterparts offer up a good deal of this film's comedic value.


THE CONS

Frozen really doesn't fall short anywhere, at least not significantly. At one point Olaf performs his own song - "Summertime" - about his love for that time of year, without of course realizing the perils associated. The song stalls the film's momentum for a minute or two, but it's also such a beguilingly cute moment that holding it against the rest of the movie would just be silly.


THE VERDICT

As I mentioned before, I've had this soundtrack on repeat thanks to the glories of my Spotify subscription and returning to it has allowed me to appreciate just how much went into this movie. At first viewing, it's charming and delightful and infectiously sweet. These are all fine qualities, but they don't necessarily impress upon the viewer any aspect of depth or profundity. But when I listened to the opening song - a chorus-type piece that depicts a group of mountain men collecting ice blocks from a frozen lake - I realized that the lyrics to this song act as a kind of overture to the entire film:

Born of cold and winter air
And mountain rain combining,
This icy force both foul and fair,
Has a frozen heart worth mining 


It wouldn't be spoiling anything to say that these words very accurately describe how the movie treats Elsa, and the struggles she faces with her own "icy forces." And elsewhere in the song the chorus shouts "...Let it go!" Again, thematic overture and even a little musical foreshadowing - and we're not even 5 minutes into this lovely little film.


I've had a soft spot in my heart for those classic Disney movies for as long as I can remember, and I rarely go more than a week or so without belting out "A Part of Your World," "Be Our Guest," "Never Had A Friend Like Me", etc. during my commute or as a way to harass my dog Chewbacca before bedtime. So it's a real pleasure to have a fresh batch of Disney songs to add to that habit, and just in time for the cold weather. And with that in mind, I think Frozen will go down in history as another of the Disney "greats." Additionally I expect - with equal excitement - that Frozen will serve as a template for future films aiming to elevate their female characters above the cliches and stereotypes to which they've largely been confined, and it's about time.

Now if you'll excuse me, I don't think Chewie knows all the words to "Let it Go."

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

I've been getting a little burned out with all the Marvel Studios movies lately, truth be told. They've built an impressive brand in a very short time span - especially considering how long it took for comic book movies to enter the mainstream. I've enjoyed the ride so far, but it's just been a bit tough for me to...um...marvel at these films as they keep coming down the pike according to formula.

So it was with higher hopes that I entered Thor: The Dark World. The trailers made it out to be something of a departure from previous Marvel works, with a greater emphasis on the Norse mythology upon which the eponymous character and his series is based

In a very Tolkien-esque opening prologue, we learn that before the universe existed, forces of darkness beyond comprehension reigned supreme. The dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) sought to use this dark power - called the Aether - to destroy the universe. After being defeated by Bor, Odin's father, Malekith retreated into space while Bor and the Asgardians - unable to destroy the Aether - hid it away where it would never be found again. Fast-forwarding to the present, the movie catches up with the mighty thunder god (Chris Hemsworth) after the events of The Avengers as he wages war in the Nine Realms to restore peace after Loki's rebellion. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been brought to Asgard in chains after an unsuccessful attempt to subjugate humanity, and placed in prison. But when Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) accidentally stumbles upon the Aether, the very fabric of the universe is threatened and it's up to the thunder god to save us all from oblivion - yet again.

THE PROS

As I mentioned before, Thor: The Dark World wisely roots its narrative in the fantastical worlds of Asgard while occasionally visiting Earth, instead of the other way around as in the first Thor film. The real appeal of these movies - for me at least - is the way these ancient Norse tales have been adapted and recast as part of a modern fantasy/sci-fi mythology. The production design of Asgard itself is truly impressive and immersive - rooted in the architecture and artisan traditions of ancient Scandinavia, with some Star Wars thrown in for fun.

In place of an unruly and somewhat petulant hero, the Thor of this film is much more mature and even-keeled. He still lets loose with the lightning-struck fury for which he's known, but he's not wrestling the crippling hubris that characterized his first outing. This means that there's not much character development to be had this go round, but I think it's a fair trade off to see Thor fully come into his own rather than having little temper tantrums and being sent to Earth to "learn his lesson." Tom Hiddleston of course impresses as the beguilingly charming trickster god Loki, and I think I finally understand the fangirl appeal for him and his character.  Christopher Eccleston is still surprisingly recognizable under all his elven makeup, and his ice-cold visage and stern voice lend his villainy some actual menace - though he seems to have little motivation beyond just being evil and trying to destroy everything. The familiar cast of Earth-bound characters is back, and Kat Dennings provides some characteristic comic relief.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I feel as though we've entered an era in visual effects where convincing realism is the rule rather than the exception. To compensate for this equilibrium, films have to find new ways to show us things we haven't seen; this usually equates to scaling things up as much as possible. Thor: The Dark World strikes a nice balance here, offering us a pleasant blend of big-time spectacle and practical visual effects. There's some tasteful restraint where I often expected the film to go overboard, and I'm once again to pleased to announce that the "shaky cam" effect is practically non-existent in this film. This means that, unlike Man of Steel for example, you can emotionally invest in the action rather than simply flinch every five minutes as something blurry and out of focus whizzes into the camera. And while this movie features plenty of action, it also takes its time to develop its story. It's ultimately thrilling, but isn't in a rush to get your adrenalin pumping.

THE CONS

While Thor: The Dark World wisely managed to avoid some of the shortcomings of its predecessor, there are some things it seems this franchise just can't surmount. The main thing that comes to mind is Jane Foster, Natalie Portman's character. Portman is a fantastic actress, so the fault doesn't lie with her. Jane is simply not a compelling character, and there's precious little reason for a romance to bud between her and Mr. Tall-Blonde-and-Godlike - apart from the fact that "it's in the script." It's even less forgivable when you consider the actual chemistry he has with fellow Asgardian and battlefield badass Sif - played by the exceptionally lovely Jaimie Alexander. Portman gives it her best shot, but she simply can't overcome a character that's almost painfully paper-thin; two movies have given her almost nothing to work with. Rene Russo - who plays Thor's mother and Odin's wife Frigga - is also surprisingly undercooked in a role that could have been much more compelling.

Towards the beginning of the movie, we're introduced to a kind of Asgardian magic that acts like a hologram - showing things that aren't there or allowing characters to appear as someone else. It's never fully explained how it works, and it certainly doesn't need to be. But what starts out as a nice visual effect quickly becomes a plot point, as we find several characters using this "shapeshifting" ability to advance key elements of the story. This is at the heart of Loki's trickster powers, as it's a major part of the Norse mythology that initially gave birth to him - so it felt appropriate for him to use it. But when we find others employing it without any seeming reason as to how or why, it kinda bugged me. Maybe you won't find this quite so nagging.

And while two stingers (one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene) didn't do any real damage, they also felt completely unnecessary.

THE VERDICT

In a few places this film struggles with tone, though I'll admit I couldn't immediately think of ways to remedy this problem. For example, during the big climax we're treated to the majority of the film's laugh-out-loud moments - as Jane uses what basically looks like a glorified Etch-A-Sketch to cause temporal and gravitational distortions. What this amounts to is Thor and Malekith falling in and out of our world - fighting - as they're thrown through other realms or teleported from this corner of the field to the other, as Natalie Portman brings all her acting skills to bear on furiously twisting a knob back and forth (re: almost nothing to work with). The whole time I couldn't escape the idea that if we sped up the action we'd be watching some kind of silly Buster Keaton or Benny Hill routine, complete with a zany Tin-Pan alley soundtrack.

But even in that moment, I couldn't deny that I was enjoying the hell out of what I was watching.

So ultimately, in spite of being a mixed bag, Thor: The Dark World delivered on its promises. It's a strangely compelling blend of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, so it came as little surprise that I enjoyed it while noting its shortcomings. Moreover I was pleased to discover that it does indeed stand out from the rest of the Marvel Studios ventures, if only by a little bit. Fleshing out the worlds and realms beyond makes for far more compelling material than the Earth-bound wandering of the first Thor.

For my money, this is one of those rare sequels that actually outdoes its predecessor - though it's certainly not a cinematic game-changer. But in the same way that The Wolverine offered something of a respite from the comic-book-status-quo, Thor: The Dark World proves that there's room to explore genuinely compelling material despite the limits of a blockbuster label.

And it goes great with a day's worth of Amon Amarth albums, too.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Born of Osiris - "Tomorrow We Die Alive"

In my previous review of iwrestledabearonce's new album, I mentioned I had come full circle on another band. But with this review, I come full circle on my entire blog. Yup, back in 2011 when I started this whole thing, my very first post reviewed Born of Osiris' second full length album The Discovery.

*throws confetti in the air*

I'm going to temporarily set aside my PROS/CONS/VERDICT format during this review for a couple of reasons. First, I feel strangely obligated to do something to mark the occasion. Secondly, I think a straightforward collection of paragraphs would better suit this album descriptively.

So let's dive right in, shall we?

Alright, I have to get this off my chest: I was a little let down by this album.

There's a lot more to say about it, but that's my log line for this post. If you just came here for the synopsis, there it is.

Now, on to the specifics.

I heard the first single - "Machine" (which also happens to be the first song in the track list as well) - back in June when they posted it to their YouTube channel. I tend to have a Facebook tab open at work permanently, so the moment that dropped into my news feed I eagerly queued it up. My reaction to the song - and the song itself - is characteristic of the album as a whole. If you've heard it, you know what I'm talking about. If not, have a listen!

 
It opens dramatically; a violin riff circles around methodical percussive strikes in a style that calls to mind epic movie trailers or the Uruk-Hai's theme from The Fellowship of the Ring. The snare comes in shortly thereafter to signal a build until the introduction gives way to the song's primary punishment; a barrage of palm-muting in structured sequence overlaid by a guitar lead that mimics the violins from the introduction. Canizaro's vocals descend on the listener with the ferocity we've come to expect as he growls "Take another look at yourself! Tell me, what do you see?" It's pretty standard Born of Osiris; it's big and aggressive, there's some nice interplay between sledgehammer riffs and precision shredding, and the ever-present symphonic and electronic elements from keyboardist/vocalist Joe Buras keep everything from being stereotypical deathcore fare. But I found myself simply satisfied with the song, rather than impressed.

"Divergence," the next song on the album, starts right in with a punch to the face as the primary riff barrels forward without hesitation. Again, the song bears all the earmarks of Born of Osiris' signature sound and carries forward some musical ideas hinted at in the previous track. Additionally, we discover that the album title comes from a refrain that weaves its way in and out of this song with the perfect rhythm to the words, "Tomorrow we die-a-live." Finally, the song concludes with a dubstep-ish breakdown that surprisingly did not deter me - despite my general dislike of the genre. In a visual picture, "Divergence" puts you in a high speed car chase then at the last minute tosses you from the vehicle as it goes full-on Transformers and morphs into a hulking robotic beast. But there's still something vaguely perfunctory about it.

I continued on through the album, expecting something a bit more abstract and progressive to define the overall experience. Those progressive and abstract moments are still definitely here - just not in the quantities I personally hoped. For example during "Mindful," a swift little arpeggio-like riff scurries across the listener's ear in defiance of the song's established time signature. "Exhilarate" employs some yell-singing in a refrain that emerges then melds back into the fracas over its 3-and-a-half minute run time. "Absolution" opens on a pretty and delicate minor 7th scale that defines much of the song, but towards the end the riff evolves. From the typical headbanger schtick, a light and hauntingly futuristic melody soars over some djent-y palm muting as the song goes from fairly straight-laced to a more "space-metal" vibe, similar to Chimp Spanner's music.



There are plenty of things to love about this album; it has some fantastic moments and mountains of metalicious riffage in between. And to give credit where credit is due, songs like "Imaginary Condition" have exactly the kind of blend of progressive elements I was expecting to find. But ultimately, Tomorrow We Die Alive doesn't strike out in new directions the way previous releases have. I am loathe to have this opinion, though I can't escape it, because it's effectively the exact same feeling I expressed in my review for Late for Nothing. It's not a bad album; it's quite good. But it's not really anything more than that - an 11-track CD where every song is somewhere between 3-and-a-half and 4-and-a-half minutes long.


Tomorrow We Die Alive checks all the right boxes and does everything technically right. It's fantastically produced as well, and the Canizaro/Buras vocals are as clear and abrasive as they've ever been. But the album feels uncharacteristically safe; it doesn't really take the kinds of aesthetic risks I've come to expect from Born of Osiris. I don't know if this is because my own musical tastes are evolving and I crave something increasingly bizarre in my heavy music or if the band - subconsciously or otherwise - just decided to play it safe(r) for this release.

Born of Osiris is still one of my all-time favorite bands, and I don't regret going to Hot Topic to pick up this album the day it came out. Ok...maybe I regret going to Hot Topic. But Tomorrow We Die Alive is still an album I'm enjoying - I think I like it better even than A Higher Place in terms of track-for-track appreciation. But after the diversity and scope of The Discovery, I just can't escape some mild dismay that this album doesn't really build on what came before.

Tomorrow We Die Alive is epic and anthemic, but more than a little predictable. It's well crafted and technically precise, but at the cost of experimental and bold. It's a strong album, a powerful one - but lacks the brilliance that made previous efforts stand out.

Having said all that, I'm still getting perplexed stares from motorists on the highway who catch me whipping my head around and swiping at the air like an insane person as Tomorrow We Die Alive pours out of my speakers.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

iwrestledabearonce - "Late For Nothing"

We've come full circle on another band, ladies and gentlemen. One of the earliest posts on this blog was my review for Ruining it For Everybody - the second full length album from avant-garde metalers iwrestledabearonce. It's now my pleasure to once again revisit the band and see what they've been up to in the years between with their latest album Late For Nothing.

As a preamble to the rest of my review, I have to say that there have been some pretty significant changes in the past year-and-a-half. Most notably, Krysta Cameron is no longer with the band having amicably parted ways in order to focus on her baby boy - who, by all photographic evidence, is completely adorable. In her place is Courtney LaPlante, who joined forces with the band to complete their Warped Tour 2012 obligations and ultimately became a permanent fixture in the lineup. Secondly, and much to the chagrin of YouTube commenters everywhere, the music of Late For Nothing is definitely a bit of a departure for the band and strays into some of the most organized and non-wacky sounds of their career. But I'm getting ahead of myself; let's break it down, Camacho!


THE PROS

Any lineup change is a potential risk, especially if the change is drastic. Fortunately for IWABO fans everywhere, Courtney LaPlante is a fantastic fit. In fact, she and Krysta are completely comparable as vocalists. They each have distinguishing strengths and weaknesses of course, but LaPlante's style isn't radically different from Cameron's and that's a good thing. If I had to make a distinction between the two of them, I would say that LaPlante's cleans are stronger than Cameron's by the same margin that Cameron's screams/growls are stronger than LaPlante's. If you're a longtime fan of the band, you'll definitely catch the shift between these two; but casual listeners or newcomers won't likely be as quick to notice the major differences.

As I mentioned before, Late For Nothing marks a considerably less "wacky" release for the band - at least comparably speaking. That's not entirely a bad thing, because IWABO has always had a knack for writing catchy hooks and choruses. The difference here is that there's a lot more "catchy" than "chaos" in this album. To that end, a small handful of the tracks really stick in your head with the first listen-through, and thankfully they're good tracks. "Boat Paddle" and "I'd Buy That For a Dollar" play around with melodies that alternately soar and glide in and around the signature double-bass schizophrenia and guitar work. The legendary Steve Vai even stops by during "Carnage Asada" with the kind of guest-solo face-meltage for which he's renown.

And before all this talk of comparatively tame music gets you down, Late For Nothing still contains IWABO's signature sound. Breakdowns alternate between low-end chugging riffs and high-end dissonant semitones, songs occasionally make a hard left into breezy, laid-back interludes only to explode again with ferocity seconds later, and - my favorite - the "spider riffs." That's a term I made up because of how distinctly visual it sounds to me, but one of the guitars hammers out a palm-muted riff while the other swiftly ascends a cacophonous scale of wicked sounds that flurry together in a kind of menacing web of aggression. Ya know, the delightfully deranged musicality for which this quintet is known.

THE CONS

I'm not going to dwell too much on this, but it bears mentioning: Late For Nothing does not contain the full-on insanity that made their first two albums stand out so noticeably. The album still stands out against your average run-of-the-mill metalcore release, but less so than their previous outings. As I mentioned in my review for Ruining It For Everybody, this is a trend that metalheads the world round just seem intrinsically unable to forgive. Once their favorite heavy band goes too "mainstream," it's time to break out the bad attitudes. Late For Nothing is not a mainstream album by any standard, and still contains some of the most intense moments in their discography. But, as I mentioned before, what endeared me so much to IWABO was how relentlessly hare-brained and truly avant-garde their music is - and I'm not "hating" on the band to say that Late For Nothing isn't really an avant-garde album.

THE VERDICT

Despite the journey into more accessible territory, I still enjoyed the hell outta this CD. Maybe I would be more butthurt by their musical evolution if I didn't see it coming, but before the release of Late For Nothing guitarist Steven Bradley said: "We didn’t want to make another weird IWABO album or whatever people were expecting.  We set out to make something different and better than anything we’ve ever released.  It’s a more evolved version of the band.  We explored new styles and genres as well—especially in terms of the more spacey, epic, and beautiful parts. It’s got the most melodic moments of our career as well as the heaviest." Couldn't have said it better myself...says the blogger who spent an entire review trying to anyway.


Going into the album with that in mind, the comparatively restrained approach didn't catch me off guard, so I was able to take it in stride - despite my hunger for a little more of the maniacal and psychotic IWABO. And while it doesn't have any bearing on the music specifically, the liner notes of this CD are a minor riot in themselves to read through. Guitarist John Ganey concludes his brief thank-you's with "PS. I'm Batman.".... Drummer Mikey Montgomery thanks "...God for all the health problems I inherited and the FDA for being sacks of shit and giving me more. Thanks to President Obama for flushing this country further down the shitter. Last but not least, thanks Chipotle. See you later today. Give me all the burritos." And "Ricky" (who I assume is bassist Mike "Rickshaw" Martin) concludes his thanks by saying: "A final 'thank you' goes out to weed, beer, whiskey, cheap bars, sexy women, vapes, PS3, XMEN, and the new girl."

Personally, I took some comfort in knowing that the band's evolution wasn't a move to get "more serious" or somehow shed the deranged image they had initially constructed. So while Late For Nothing isn't nearly as challenging or diverse an album as Ruining It For Everybody or the downright psychologically fractured It's All Happening, it's still far from boring and it's still undeniably iwrestledabearonce.

The moral of the story: go out and buy this album.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine

He's arguably the most popular of the X-Men, or at least Hugh Jackman's portrayal of him is. Logan, or as he's more commonly known "Wolverine," has already had one outing as a lead character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and it didn't go so well. Despite sufficient commercial success, the film received a great deal of negative press - though Jackman's take on the character remained in the fan's and critics' good graces.

Initially envisioned as a sequel to Origins, The Wolverine went through a minor whirlwind of writers and directors before eventually securing James Mangold behind the camera. Having been at the helm of decidedly non-comic book fare (Walk the Line, Girl, Interrupted, and 3:10 to Yuma most notably) for most of his career, Mangold's involvement implied a more character-driven piece than most comic book films are known for being - though personally I was a little dismayed when Darren Aronofsky dropped off this project.

Emerging from a minor miasma of production delays and setbacks is a film that chronologically follows the events of X-Men: The Last Stand but succeeds as a standalone piece. Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) lives as a kind of mountain-man/hermit on the outskirts of a nondescript Yukon town, plagued by nightmares of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and surviving the bombing of Nagasaki long before the events of the first few X-Men films. Early on, he's approached by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who tells him that a Japanese soldier he saved during the bombing named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is on the verge of death and wishes to thank Logan for saving his life all those years ago. Arriving in Tokyo, Logan discovers a much darker plan behind his being brought to Japan, suddenly pitted against ninjas, yakuza, Viper (played by Svetlana Kodchenkova) and - naturally - his own demons.


THE PROS

Fortunately, there are a lot of good things to say about this movie.

Taking the character completely out of his natural North American habitat is a fantastic setup, and the film makes wonderful use of the contrast. Accustomed to getting in bar-fights and shocking non-mutants with his vicious adamantium claws, Logan undergoes more than just culture shock once the action gets going. But rather than simply being another "white savior" narrative (e.g. The Last Samurai or 47 Ronin - whose trailer practically promises a dud), Logan is unwittingly swept away by the complexities of an epic family feud and the machinations of villains beyond his control. It's not something we've never seen before - the reluctant, cynical hero forced to get involved - but it's something that suits this character perfectly.

On top of that, the film's side characters are actually engaging and fleshed out (to varying extents) individuals with often complex motivations. Yukio acts as something of a companion to the Yashida family, who we discover adopted her at an early age. Despite her appearance - a kind of punk anime school girl - she demonstrates masterful skill with the katana and jokingly refers to herself as Logan's "bodyguard." Mariko Yashida, (Tao Okamoto) the granddaughter of the Yashida that Logan saved at the beginning of the film, becomes something of a love interest for Logan - despite the apparitions of Jean Grey that act as a manifestation of his psychological torment. Hiroyuki Sanada plays Shingen Yashida - Mariko's father, a son jilted out of his inheritance by the dying wish of an old man.  So as you can see, the underlying framework of the narrative into which Logan is dropped is complex and engaging enough even before he shows up, thus it gives our hero a good deal to work with story-wise.

And no superhero movie is complete without the fight scenes. Though the first big outbreak of gunfire and Wolverine-rage gets a bit lost in the somewhat shaky-cam shuffle, the rest of the film wisely restrains itself in letting the action flow with a much more choreographed and structured grace. The visual effects are also tastefully deployed for the most part, relying on CGI only when necessary and not bludgeoning the audience with spectacle the way a handful of recent superhero films have seen fit to.

THE CONS

The Wolverine is not without flaw, though I'll say that overall its shortcomings are outweighed by its strengths.

My biggest beef with the film is that the main antagonist, Viper, isn't really the villain I hoped for. Kodchenkova plays the character with all the appropriate vampy beats, but as a character she's not very fleshed out or strong. This isn't always a bad move - especially considering how many characters this film asks you to keep track of - but Wolverine is such a strong character to begin with, he needs an equally strong character pitted against him.

As a number of critics have noted, the film's third act does stumble a bit. It couldn't really be avoided; a film like this has to pay off with a big epic showdown, and in this case it's effectively Wolverine versus Silver Samurai. Story-wise, again, it's the right kind of ending - but the film takes such pain to build a narrative that's more grounded and character-driven that it felt like more of a stretch than usual to suspend disbelief during the climactic conflict.

THE VERDICT

With movies like Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 letting their visual effects take a front seat to some of the more meaty aspects of their story, The Wolverine is a welcome change of pace. It's still a superhero movie, and even an occasionally predictable one, but the finesse with which its crafted and the tasteful presentation of most of the film's visual effects are what set it apart.

There's some real character development here, which is no easy trick considering how well-defined Wolverine already is. While The Wolverine has a very definite place in the sequence of events outlined in previous films, it feels much more like a standalone story than a sequel or a prequel or a whatever-quel. Even with a post-credits stinger that seems to set up the events of the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, this movie exists as a narrative unto itself and doesn't require any pre-existing knowledge or understanding of the X-Men universe to truly appreciate. There are a handful of sight gags and references here and there, but The Wolverine isn't confined to the chronology of another film or series of films and as such explores its own story on its own time by its own rules - much like the title character.


The Wolverine doesn't fully ascend to the heights of the original X-Men, X2, or X-Men: First Class - but it's a vast improvement over Wolverine's Origins title. And Hugh Jackman still spends just enough time shirtless and raging to make it all worth while. So if you're getting tired of some of the excesses of more recent superhero films, The Wolverine is a welcome reprieve and return to form.