Hummingbird – Local Natives

If you’ve heard of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Band of Horses, or The Morning Benders, then Local Natives should sound familiar. The LA indie rock outfit recently released their sophomore record Hummingbird, after their 2009 debut Gorilla Manor received acclaim. Four years may seem like a long time for the 4-man group to get back to recording music but it was a four years well spent. Hummingbird is a simple yet expansive set of whimsically sung rock tunes, as well as a collection of edgy guitar riffs and a heavenly atmosphere. Even Hummingbird‘s album artwork evokes a sense of escapism, surrealism, imagination, and pure bliss. Lead vocalist Kelcey Ayer may sound a lot like Fleet Foxes’ Robin Peckenfold, but nevertheless delivers a sweet-sounding tenor that produces elegant material, such as the serene album opener “You & I,” the Band-of-Horses-esque “Heavy Feet,” and the harmonious “Black Balloons.” Much of the songs on Hummingbird have evolved from its preceding hits from Gorilla Manor, such as “Wide Eyes” and “Airplanes,” by holding a stronger memorability and creating a much more passionate-sounding production. Hummingbird‘s sure hard-hitters include the piano-driven “Black Spot,” the drum-thumping “Wooly Mammoth,” and “Breakers,” one of Local Natives’ strongest tracks to date. Local Natives continues to impress as they launch into much more sophisticated songs on the last half of the album, such as the guitar-filled wonderland “Mt. Washington,” the slow, breathy “Colombia,” the melodic and gentle album closer “Bowery,” and the impressive bonus track “Ingrid.” Hummingbird isn’t an almighty rock album, but it is an extraordinary, unique, and admirable record and a plausible comeback for Local Natives.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Heavy Feet,” “Wooly Mammoth,” “Breakers,” “Bowery,” “Ingrid”            

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Long.Live.A$AP – A$AP Rocky

Listening to New York rapper A$AP Rocky’s sophomore album Long.Live.A$AP from start to finish, I instantly came to one conclusion: A$AP has a lot of potential and he’s using to his advantage. Through the use of his symbolic lyrics, artistic and deft creativity, and effective collaboration, A$AP has enough ethos and energy to power the rap industry this year. Of course, this isn’t Rocky’s first attempt at achieving commercial success and mainstream recognition. In 2011, his excellent debut mixtape Live.Love.A$AP. got attention from both hip hop listeners and critics. Known primarily for his enigmatic material, chill personality, dark themes, and epic free-styling, A$AP Rocky transcends his comfort zone with Long.Live.A$AP, an edgy hip hop album with the right amount of spark and spunk. The title track opener immediately sets the tone of Rocky’s second album: Following a roaring thunder, A$AP Rocky rhymes about money, women, and drugs, which can be categorized as A$AP’s main motifs in his music. Afterwards comes one of A$AP’s strongest tracks, “Goldie,” which was released last year. “Goldie” begins with A$AP’s deep-voiced persona, then transitions into A$AP’s infectious normal-voiced rapping, layered over a electro-drum beat. Another great thing about A$AP’s new album is that it offers a lot of great, new material, such as the fantastic hazy tune, “PMW (All I Need),” the surprising Skrillex-produced electronic jam, “Wild for the Night,” and the posse-filled, “1 Train,” with acclaimed guests Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T. However, some of A$AP’s new material might not please fans, especially lazy and dull songs, such as “Lvl,” “Hell” with a disappointing feature of Santigold, “Pain,” and “Suddenly.” But Long.Live.A$AP needs that juxtaposition of mesmerizing and forgettable songs in order to demonstrate how A$AP isn’t a near-perfect rapper, but that he attains the potential to be one. Compared to his previous album Live.Love.A$AP, this new album is much more complex in lyrics and diverse in beats, and A$AP’s character has evolved much more.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Long.Live.A$AP,” “Goldie,” “PMW (All I Need), “1 Train”  

Life of Pi

When I finished watching Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, I was so awed at everything that I almost became emotionally drained. Not only was this film viscerally gratifying and emotionally broadening, the cinematography was captivating, the effects were breathtaking, the story mesmerizing, and the message thought-provoking. Luckily, this is a step up for director Ang Lee after his last disappointing 60s piece Taking Woodstock. Life of Pi has definitely been Lee’s greatest achievement in filmmaking since 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and even before that with 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this new film, Lee adapts the 2001 novel of Life of Pi, a journey of survival, faith, hope, and introspection. This moving tale is about an Indian boy named Piscine (nicknamed Pi) living with his family in their zoo. When he reaches his later years, his family decides to move to Canada to start a new life. However, as their cargo ship sets sail into a deadly storm, Pi escapes into the swarming ocean but unfortunately leaves behind his family on a sinking ship. Lost at sea, Pi discovers a Bengal tiger who had escaped from the boat as well. Soon, Pi faces fear and heartbreak, but learns to adapt in his new environment and the ferocious tiger, in which he ultimately learns more about his spirituality and faith in God. Now, some may think that Life of Pi can be cheesy or melodramatic, considering the outrageous circumstances of Pi’s journey, but looking at the film viscerally, one can feel so much emotion and passion, from the beautiful and mesmerizing storytelling paired with the incredible visual effects. Other than the effects and plot, Life of Pi also contained an absolutely engrossing score, as the bewitching tune, “Pi’s Lullaby,” is nominated for Best Original Song. Life of Pi is also nominated for 10 other Academy Awards, including Best Picture. I think it deserves the highest Oscar achievement because Life of Pi teaches the audience so much, not just visually or thematically, but mentally and emotionally. These qualities all apply to Life of Pi being a classic cinematic masterpiece. The survival drama is definitely a frontrunner and a film to be reckoned with at the Oscars. Watch the trailer here.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes, to everyone. Some scenes may be disturbing for young children, but every person should get to experience it.
Possible Oscar Wins?: Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects
   

Zero Dark Thirty

After 2009’s The Hurt Locker, which was the surprise Oscar winner for Best Picture and many other accolades, one can presume that director Kathryn Bigelow had reached a great milestone with such little recognition. The epic war drama about a bomb disposal team during the Iraq War set a path for Bigelow for her next big movie, which would ultimately become this year’s Zero Dark Thirty. Similar to The Hurt Locker‘s war drama vibe, Zero Dark Thirty tackles the 10-year manhunt against the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. The plot involves the story of a CIA operative (Jessica Chastain, “The Help”), who pursues bin Laden over a decade, persisting through her relentless effort in receiving valuable information that would eventually lead to the whereabouts of the head 9/11 terrorist. Upon watching this movie, I recognized the high points first: its premise was promising; it included action-packed sequences and a taut script from acclaimed writer Mark Boal; and it attained the recognition it needed from both audiences and critics, as it currently holds 5 Academy Award Nominations, including (once again) Best Picture. However, after realizing this, I began to wonder: Was Zero Dark Thirty really that Oscar-worthy? I mean, sure, the effects were great, the intensity was never-ending, the acting was superb, and the direction was steady. But compared to other epic war dramas, such as 1997’s classic Saving Private Ryan and 1998’s The Thin Red Line, it didn’t seem to hold the same high standard. In fact, most of the beginning was slow and parts of the movie mish-mashed the plot characters with actual horrific post-9/11 events in various countries, which only makes sense because it just adds onto the drama. Moreover, Jessica Chastain has been praised for her performance, but I consider it a bit overrated, since it didn’t feel like the movie had centralized her until the very end (which was brilliant, by the way). Also, people made such a big deal about the torture scenes in the movie, which, in reality, weren’t that bad. It was only a few scenes in the beginning that they tortured one victim who was considered a lead to knowing info about Osama. However, the use of torture wasn’t the only controversy that took place in Zero Dark Thirty. Other controversies included putting improper classified material in the film, such as the fact that only one person (in this case, Chastain’s character) was involved in the Osama bin Laden pursuit, when in actuality, there were many. But if you think of it differently, Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of the Osama bin Laden killing so it didn’t necessarily have to be completely analytically or politically correct since it’s a movie. It’s amazing, though, how a movie can receive so much controversy for its themes, yet it becomes one of 2012’s most acclaimed films. I guess you could say that Zero Dark Thirty was meant to bring up the topics of the use of torture in America, international tension, and political authority, which can be useful for after-movie talk. However, despite the fact that Zero Dark Thirty is both an intellectually stimulating political drama and war epic, it lacks the potential to withhold a high standard of being a cinematic masterpiece. Watch the trailer here.
Grade: B
Recommended: For political junkies and die-hard action fans (but really, anyone can see it)

Django Unchained

Film auteur Quentin Tarantino has outdone himself again. After his last acclaimed release of 2009’s Nazi revenge flick Inglorious Basterds, the masterful and eccentric Tarantino has created an even grittier, bloodier, and badder follow-up film, Django Unchained. It’s a satirical spaghetti western/action thriller/period drama comprised of a spellbinding cast of Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, and even Jonah Hill. Much like Tarantino’s previous ultra-violent, sadistic, and iconic films, such as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Jackie Brown, Django Unchained delves into the 19th century slavery era vigorously but realistically. Although lengthy and slightly parodic, Django‘s blood-bath and comical scenes are what make the western thriller another Tarantino masterpiece. The story revolves around a smart-talking bounty hunter/dentist (Waltz) who acquires a traveling slave named Django (Foxx) to help him with killing bounties and collecting their rewards. During that time, they are led to Candieland, the biggest Southern plantation in the country, owned by the ruthless proprietor Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). Django plans on rescuing his troubled, enslaved wife (Washington), who belongs to Candie. As the 2 hour-45 minute epic plays, Django not only becomes unchained from his slave owners, but his anger and anguish is unleashed with merciless vengeance against the people who have disowned him. Through all the gore, violence, and torture that is perceived in Django, it delivers strong performances, superb direction, and an authentic screenplay albeit vulgar and edgy. Some may argue that Django is too vile and takes racism and slavery to a whole other level. But to be fair, most of Tarantino’s films involve pervasive language that includes the N-word, as well as daring violence. Therefore, with that in mind, the idiosyncratic 49-year-old director understands that movies like Django would cause controversy, but disregards it for the sole purpose of filmmaking, not trying to create a tense, uneasy atmosphere. If you’re not a fan of Tarantino or you just hate unnerving brutality in film, don’t see Django. But if you are a Tarantino fan or you’re looking for an energetic display of sardonic action, stylish thrills, and occasional comic relief, Django is the perfect specimen. Watch the trailer here.  

Grade: A-
Recommended: For Tarantino fans or interested moviegoers
Oscar Nomination?: Yes