Star Trek Into Darkness

Warning: This article does contain some spoilers.

The Enterprise has returned and the tides have yet again turned. After 2009’s spectacular reboot of Star Trek, the Gene Roddenberry franchise had become reignited by the forces of director J.J. Abrams. Abrams had became a bold new face in the film industry after Star Trek‘s release and is particularly known for his rich special effects, in-depth storytelling, and interesting characters. Star Trek had refreshed the eyes of devoted Trekkies and even non-Trekkies. Although Abrams was unprecedented at the time of his directorial debut, the summer popcorn hit Mission Impossible III, the 46 year-old director continued to delve into the flow of extraordinary filmmaking with his 2011 E.T.-inspired, coming-of-age tale Super 8. Although Abrams has worked as a producer and writer for a variety of popular early 2000s shows (AliasFelicity, Lost) and continues to do so (FringeRevolution), his repertoire of sci-fi thrillers and psychological dramas has so far been his strong suit. Even after the return of the Enterprise ship four years ago, Abrams’ work has still resonated among critics and fans, especially with his effective collaborations with film mogul Steven Spielberg, composer Michael Giacchino, and the brilliant writers behind the Star Trek reboot, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Fortunately, J.J. Abrams and the Enterprise crew brought forth a much more intense and crazier follow-up in this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness.

Although it’s not as fresh nor as thought-provoking as its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness is filled with visually dazzling effects, high octane action sequences, and even some cleverly placed references from older Star Trek films (spoiler alert!). Chris Pine reprises his role as the self-absorbed womanizer Captain James T. Kirk, with the addition to Zachary Quinto (Spock), Zoe Saladana (Uhura), Karl Urban (Bones), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Simon Pegg (Scotty), Leonard Nimoy (older Spock), John Cho (Sulu), and Bruce Greenwood (Commander Pike). The story also introduces new characters — or should I say, old — from previous Star Trek Films: Carol Marcus, played by the beautiful Alice Eve, was supposedly Kirk’s first love in the original series, but in Into Darkness, it’s a predominately plutonic relationship (so far); John Harrison, performed by “Sherlock”‘s exquisite Benedict Cumberbatch, is a rouge Starfleet commander, who later reveals himself to be…SPOILER ALERT…read at your own risk…..are you sure you want to find out?….seriously?…..alrighty then….Khan. For those of you who don’t know, Khan was the titular villian from the highly acclaimed cult classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and was considered to be one of the most popular and memorable Star Trek villians ever created. This reinvention and reincarnation of Khan is almost good to be true and Benedict Cumberbatch, though a newcomer to film, is spot-on and fittingly mysterious. Although Into Darkness reminiscences a few lines from The Wrath of Khan (the unforgettable “KHAAAN!!” scream), it fortunately doesn’t interfere with the story’s originality.

The plot of Into Darkness continues the story of the Enterprise crew, as the newly instated Captain Kirk and his ship embark on a troubling journey and battle against John Harrison, ultimately leading to violent disasters, which in some way reverberates back to a major modern issue in society today: terrorism, particularly 9/11. Although you may think that the movie dramatized the 9/11 attacks with the sci-fi action and whatnot, Into Darkness carefully demonstrates this theme boldly in the action sequences, but without pushing the limit too much. Luckily, this didn’t bother critics, as it holds positive critical reception and a score of 86% on RottenTomatoes. As a marketing campaign, Into Darkness was promoted a few months before its release. And though it has so far earned over $200 million, its opening weekend box office intake was modest compared to its predecessor. However, I don’t consider $84.1 million modest. But nevertheless its critical success, top-notch acting, and deftly paced storyline make the trip to see Star Trek Into Darkness worthwhile.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes

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Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories”

Once again, Daft Punk reminds us that there is still magic within music. Ever since their small beginnings in the early 90s, the French electronic duo has demonstrated music’s allure in ways that have made them one of the most prominent groups in music today. They’ve created arresting visuals for their elaborate live performances, donned stylish robot costumes, collaborated with a few of the industry’s best musicians, and made some of the the most influential music in modern times. The integration of French house music and synth-pop developed Daft Punk’s first record, 1997’s Homework. From then on, they’ve transitioned into disco and electronic on their colorful follow-up, 2001’s Discovery, which was both commercially successful and produced some of the most memorable songs of the past two decades (“One More Time,” “Digital Love,” “Harder Better Faster Stronger”). Despite the huge setbacks of 2005’s lifeless Human After All, their surreal film debut Electroma, and their vapid contribution to the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, Daft Punk obtained a popular crowd of fans after releasing their dazzling, Grammy-winning live album Alive 2007. However, the two-man group remained reserved from the spotlight and weren’t heard from for a while.

The shape-shifting maestros behind the robot helmets, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, have always kept their idea of what music should sound like by incorporating distinct influences from diverse artists and making it their own. With the booming of technology in their earlier years, Daft Punk have mostly recorded and sampled with computers. However, with technology’s prominence in the music industry nowadays, it makes the whole idea of making real music seem obsolete, for Bangalter and Homem-Christo. That’s why the inseparable duo have accentuated the old-fashioned feel of music from the 1970s and 1980s into their highly anticipated new record Random Access Memories.

Most Daft Punk fans would expect the band to return to their EDM roots, but Random Access Memories is a slight departure from their club-friendly sound. Instead, RAM is a multi-dimensional record that revitalizes generations of jazz, funk, rock n’ roll, pop, electronic, and disco. Though this will most likely come as a surprise and as confusion from devoted fans, Daft Punk’s top-notch craft is nevertheless commendable. This time around, the two Frenchmen have recruited several unconventional collaborators for RAM (as shown on the Collaborators web series): Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, singer/producer Pharrell Williams, Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, actor/musician Paul Williams, vocalist/DJ Todd Edwards, Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder, pianist Chilly Gonzales, and old friend DJ Falcon. With this variety of artists, Random Access Memories contains an electrifying and visceral sound. But despite all its praiseworthy production, it might just be Random Access Memories’ heavy marketing, glossy look, and promising songs that are getting everyone pumped for the new album.

Though the conception of RAM started in 2008, the announcement of a new Daft Punk album was kept quiet, until collaborator Nile Rodgers revealed last year that one would be coming soon. Eventually, in the beginning of this year, Daft Punk left their label EMI Records for Columbia and promoted a mysterious image of what would eventually become RAM‘s album cover. Soon after, snippets of their instantly catchy lead single “Get Lucky” played in commercials during Saturday Night Live and, eventually, the announcement of the album’s title and an iTunes pre-order. Though Daft Punk are known for their obscurity, the heavy promotion for RAM sustained throughout March and April, appearing on billboards, television ads, and the aforementioned web series. Because the hype kept increasing, it seems as though this was a strategy for Daft Punk to intrigue fans, even though it could either hold them on or leave them hanging.

Personally, I think Random Access Memories is a huge step-up from its predecessors and worth listening to. However, some of the album’s elements might disappoint fans. To give an example, the first half of the idiosyncratic record is a bit underwhelming: Opener “Give Life Back to Music” builds up with Air-esque guitar riffs, but ultimately turns into a monotonous melody; “The Game of Love” and “Within” are morose, downtempo love ballads that have moments of keen emotionality but mostly do nothing with the rest; “Lose Yourself to Dance” has the potential to be memorable, especially with Pharrell William’s captivating falsetto, but drags on way too soon. However, two of RAM‘s standout tracks, “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Instant Crush,” save the first half from becoming tedious. The 9-minute “Giorgio by Moroder” is an epic, stellar clash of funky synthesizers that zoom in and out throughout until it ends with a rock-induced jam. In addition, the beginning contains a 2-minute commentary of the Italian producer, who references some of the album’s central themes of combining random-access memory technology and the human experience. “Instant Crush” features a mellow, vocoded Julian Casablancas and some guitar riffs and drum machines that reverberate a similar sound to Casablancas’ band The Strokes.

“Touch,” the Paul Williams-featured, psychedelic centerpiece to Random Access Memories, might the craziest, strangest, and most fascinating song in Daft Punk’s career, but its unusual sound is a bit risky. After the haunting vocals in the beginning, Paul Williams’ soft tenor makes it impossible to stop listening. However, “Touch” might catch off you guard, as it flickers with disco-influenced guitar wobbles, trumpets, vintage vocoders, and a children’s choir. But for some reason, its bewitching “Day in the Life” quality could make “Touch” an understated favorite off the album. RAM‘s second half is much steadier, smoother, and more lively than the rest of Random Access Memories: The star single “Get Lucky” features a timeless guitar-driven melody produced by Nile Rodgers and remarkable vocals from Pharrell Williams; The enthralling distorted guitars of “Fragments of Time” is almost like a sequel to Discovery‘s “Digital Love;” guest Panda Bear’s pitch-perfect vocals make “Doin It Right” an exceptional track; and the cinematic, 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe on album closer “Contact” ends Random Access Memories with an enlightening effect.

Daft Punk have been on a long journey with music with their many transformations. Their influential music and visual aesthetics have captivated audiences across the world, but Daft Punk have preserved the different sounds and rhythms of genre-bending music as well. Though the hype of Random Access Memories might’ve stunted people’s prediction of the album, the album demonstrates the fascinating notion that music has magic to it, a concept that has again reinforces Daft Punk one of the most influential groups in music history.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Giorgio by Moroder,” “Instant Crush,” “Get Lucky,” “Doin’ It Right”

Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City”

It seems as though Vampire Weekend is trying to stray away from being Vampire Weekend. To put it more accurately, the New York-based quartet are recognized today for their preppy fashion sense, post-collegiate anthems, and Afro-pop oriented sound. Garnering critical praise and an indie-going-on-mainstream status, Vampire Weekend has also acquired a cult following from music listeners, who most likely associate the band as the “ultimate indie pop group.” Unfortunately, this has made it inevitable for the group to leave their comfort zone and to keep continuing to make the same predictable music. Despite the increase of popularity and sold-out concerts, it already seemed like people knew what was in store for new Vampire Weekend music. Luckily, all four band members have taken the extra mile to produce one of this year’s most anticipated and highly acclaimed albums, their third full-length record Modern Vampires of the City.

After the release of their 2008 cult classic self-titled debut and 2010’s similarly appealing Contra, Vampire Weekend used the opportunity to take extra measures and enhance their foreseeable sound by experimenting with different genres. Even if this meant losing fans, their artistic integrity would still remain intact, especially after the circulation of an outrageous hoax of their rumored album cover and title Lemon Sounds in late January. With a three year recording process and taken place in various locations, including New York, Los Angeles, and Martha’s Vineyard, the “anti-publicity” of MVOTC kept the mystery that was beginning to emanate off Vampire Weekend and their predictable aura. Thankfully, the four-man outfit received help from record producer Ariel Rechtshaid, whose mainstream work includes Usher, Charli XCX, and Snoop Lion. Notwithstanding the aid from an unconventional source, Rechtshaid helped Vampire Weekend distance away from the sound they’ve been so heavily associated with, which also meant going back to the drawing board several times and essentially scrapping songs that could’ve easily been catchy, chart-topping hits.

With bewitching lyrics written by lead singer Ezra Koneig and a flawless production, Modern Vampires of the City is an unpredictably insightful, heartwarming, and mesmerizing album that incorporates diverse sounds without losing sight of some of the band’s old practical rhythms. So far, the record has impressed both fans, critics, and even haters, some of whom having encountered a divine change-of-heart thanks to this album. Most of MVOTC‘s best songs can be considered instant masterpieces, much like their previous songs “A-Punk,” “Oxford Comma,” “Cousins,” and “Holiday.” But more importantly, it encompasses much more complex storytelling, darker themes, and unusual recording assets, including pitch shifting on the hyperactive, toe-tapping lead single “Diane Young.” The noisy 60s-influenced jive is one of the most energetic songs off Modern Vampires of the City, as well as one of the many highlights.

With the exception of the organ driven “Don’t Lie,” the fast paced “Finger Back,” and the ukelele-strumming “Worship You,” the majority of the album also evokes a dramatic ambience, which again exemplifies Vampire Weekend’s exploration of diverse sounds. Opener “Obvious Bicycle” instantly sets off a cathartic reaction of subtlety, as the sounds of piano riffs and (what sounds like) a pogo stick play in the background. Two standout tracks in the first half of the record — the atheist anthem “Unbelievers” and the haunting “Step” — are very different in style and lyrics, but both are equally catchy and masterful. “Ya Hey,” another enchanting tune, can be considered the weirdest song off MVOTC, with a pipsqueak vocal shouting the title intermittently, but nevertheless is another great addition to the impeccable work of Vampire Weekend. The sharp violins playing in the beginning of “Everlasting Arms” already grabs you enough to listen to the rest; the ambient “Hannah Hunt” is a delightful love ballad, despite the title deriving from one of Koneig’s college classmates (not lovers); “Hudson” is perhaps their darkest song, with the insertion of a ghostly backup choir and pouding snares, but it’s still very promising. Though the last song, “Young Lion,” is less than two minutes, its spine-chilling, piano driven composition and angelic vocals, is just as spellbinding as the rest of the album.

The album artwork, which isn’t the vintage image of a girl in a yellow, droopy dress that circulated in January, is a picture of Manhattan, taken in 1966 during the smoggiest day in New York. Despite the image’s bleak quality (and the fact that the “smoggiest day in New York” killed 169 people), it invokes a somewhat dystopian future for America, if not to say for Vampire Weekend’s future. But understanding this idea of the past and the future demonstrates the group’s visual aesthetic and analytical insight on life and the world we live in. Perhaps Modern Vampires of the City has not only changed the group’s sound, but indicates how mature they really are as artists and as individuals.

Vampire Weekend has come a long way from being soft-spoken Columbia University undergrads to a musically acclaimed band of 29-year-olds whose sensibility shouldn’t be underestimated by their youth. Somehow, Vampire Weekend has really grown and evolved into an iconic collective and thankfully, the product of their astute attitudes is another great album and one to remember for years to come.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Top Tracks: “Obvious Bicycle,” “Unbelievers,” “Step,” “Diane Young,” “Ya Hey,” “Young Lion”  

        

Iron Man 3

Even after five years since the first Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. still remains a total badass. The 2008 film adaptation of the Marvel superhero comic series not only revived Downey Jr.’s celebrity lifestyle, but thoroughly recognized him as one of the greatest actors in the current film industry. His irresistible charm, lingual dexterity, satirical sense of humor, and committed acting has rightfully earned him the role of Tony Stark, a womanizing philanthropist, whose deft engineering skills shapes his superhero alter ego, famously known as Iron Man. With the help of his assistant/lover Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his best friend/partner in crime Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Tony Stark fights off both crime and publicity, while still managing to crack up an entire audience and keep them on the edge of their seat at the same time. After two critically and commercially successful Iron Man films, as well as last year’s summer blockbuster The Avengers, Tony Stark returns as the titular character in Iron Man 3.

Though some may think the external appearance of the sequel looked a bit predictable, I was surprised by its unpredictability after watching the trailer and the actual film. Firstly, every single scene blew my mind, whether it was the epic opening, the eye-opening plot twists, the gripping action sequences, the comical moments, or the satisfying ending. Although Jon Favreau stepped down as director after making the first two Iron Mans, director Shane Black continues the impressive progression of a franchise that was already producing at a high level. Plus, we still get to see Favreau reprise his acting role in Iron Man 3 as Stark’s overly protective bodyguard Happy Hogan. Shane Black already has experience with Downey Jr., after both collaborated in Black’s dark comedy debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Thus, he helps maintain the franchise’s durability by making Iron Man 3 in his own way without going over-the-top (i.e. Michael Bay).

In continuation from The Avengers, Tony Stark narrates the aftermath of his experience in New York in Iron Man 3. The premise depicts a sullen, post-traumatic Stark up against two new villains: a mysterious terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and the equally mischievous “mad scientist” Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Both pose threats towards Stark, his loved ones, and even Iron Man himself. Given its ambiguous plot in the trailer and its many spoilers in the actual film, I won’t reveal much. But I will say that it was way better than its adequate 2010 predecessor and almost as good as the acclaimed 2008 debut.

With impressive visuals, a strong story, a well-written script, and even a few surprises, Iron Man 3 works as both a witty Marvel action-adventure and a riveting, cerebral thriller. Iron Man 3 might also be the most intense and dramatic out of the three films. In addition, even though Tony Stark does remain the same self-absorbed narcissist that we love, we get to see a more human side of Stark that feels more compelling than overly sentimental, thankfully. Downey Jr. also continues to do some great acting, but even more from its amazing supporting cast, which includes the aforementioned Ben Kingsley, Guy Pierce, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a small but intriguing role performed by Rebecca Hall.

Though this sequel might not appeal to the non-superhero fans as it did for the first film, watching Iron Man 3 will still be a satisfying experience and one never to forget. For the actual Iron Man devotees, this will definitely be worth watching and, like I said before, way better than Iron Man 2. Out of the many spoilers in the film, I will only reveal one that I hope will give optimism for fans of the franchise, who haven’t seen it yet: Tony Stark will return.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes  

            

Snoop Lion’s “Reincarnated”

When 41-year-old rapper Snoop Dogg publicly announced late last July his decision to change his beloved moniker to Snoop Lion, it seemed like an insincere gesture. He spent his entire music career making commercially successful records, performing in front of sold-out crowds, and producing radio chart-toppers “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Gin ‘n’ Juice.” So why bother changing the name of one of the most respected rappers in hip hop history? According to Snoop’s transformative documentary Reincarnated, he received the Snoop Lion title from a Rastafarian priest when venturing on a “spiritual journey” to Jamaica, as he was intrigued by the popular Rastarfari movement. After the trip, in a press conference, Snoop Dogg even proclaimed that he was the reincarnation of reggae icon Bob Marley. Though this bold statement seemed a bit too self-absorbed, it indicated that Snoop’s chameleonic transformation from rap to reggae might not be a publicity stint. It probably wasn’t even meant to intentionally insult or desecrate Marley’s image (similar to John Lennon’s infamous declaration of the Beatles being “better than Jesus”). As Snoop described in the trailer of Reincarnated, he’s “sick and tired of rapping” and feels that his experience in Jamaica motivated him to create a new path in life. This may be the most emotional point in Snoop’s life, considering his history of participating in gangs, drugs, violence, debauchery, arrests, and court trials. These feelings of pain and suffering have fortunately rendered into an optimistic attitude, resulting in his reggae debut, Reincarnated (the same name as the film). But for fans of Snoop Dogg’s clean cut raps, it may be hard to adjust to the Snoop Lion phase.

Reincarnated isn’t necessarily the Bob Marley of reggae albums, but it’s certainly ambitious. Strengthened by Snoop’s crispy vocals and soulful tunes, the record is also fantastically produced by record producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Dre Skull, as well as Diplo and his electronic reggae side project Major Lazer. However, in terms of the thematic material, Reincarnated doesn’t offer anything truly inspiring and lacks in depth. More songs are written as plain pieces of music than as spoken-word poetry or adrenalized social commentary. Even the list of popular featured artists, which include Miley Cyrus, Akon, Busta Rhymes, Chris Brown, and Drake, makes Reincarnated look predictable and humdrum.

Notwithstanding Reincarnated‘s underwhelming appearance, it nevertheless incorporates some great tracks, including the catchy album opener “Rebel Way,” the vibrant “Here Comes the King,” and the Beirut-sampled, Drake-featured “No Guns Allowed.” Not only are each of these songs the most effectively produced, but the most lyrically powerful. On “No Guns Allowed,” Snoop and his daughter Cori B sing eloquently against the use of violence and about the necessity of peace; Snoop speaks and croons on “Rebel Way” with poise and extrapolates the idea of tranquility once more; “Here Comes the King” is probably the most hip-hop influenced song off of Reincarnated, which may (or may not) excite Snoop Dogg fans.

Unfortunately, the majority of Reincarnated is filled with frivolity and lethargy, gradually decreasing the album’s appeal. Some songs are way too simple and uninventive (“Lighters Up,” “Tired of Running,”), while others are just plain annoying (“La La La,” “Fruit Juice,” “Smoke the Weed”). Snoop trips up with awkward romanticism on “Torn Apart” and with complete mediocrity on “The Good Good.” Additionally, the electronic and pop influences on “Boulevard” and the Miley-Cyrus-featured “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks” are basic repetitions of recycled reggae. Though “Remedy,” which features a dull Busta Rhymes and a barely audible Chris Brown, reverberates some hip hop-styled rhythms, it doesn’t come close the lively appeal of “Here Comes the King.”

It’s hard to say what the future will hold for Snoop Lion and whether or not he will return as the beloved Snoop Dogg. Hip hop and rap have always been within his blood, but it has also led him to unhappiness and indecent behavior. Reggae is indeed a bold and beguiling new path for Snoop, but Reincarnated isn’t as impressive as you might think, despite his genuineness and artistic integrity. It’ll be even harder if he were to keep a hip hop career and a reggae persona simultaneously. But hopefully, whatever is bringing him down, Snoop will find a way.

Grade: B-
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Rebel Way,” “Here Comes the King,” “No Guns Allowed”