james debate
james debate

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Produced by J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burk
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg
Running time 133 minutes

star trek into darkness khan cumberbatch spock

For ten years Star Trek was a franchise in decline. From the dizzying heights of the 1990s which saw three TV shows airing simultaneously on the back of nine films in 20 years, the rapid freefall was dramatic and the franchise appeared to be on the verge of oblivion.

Then in 2009, the final throes of the decade, Star Trek returned in a big way. Guided by the midas touch of Geek Deity J.J. Abrams, the newly rebooted franchise managed to throw off the stigma and become "cool" again. Star Trek (2009) was a huge success, grossing just shy of $400 milllion and becoming the first Star Trek film ever to win an Oscar.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is the direct sequel to this reboot, directed once again by Abrams and starring the same rebooted original series crew of Kirk and Spock et al. The same cast you loved before, the same aesthetic and yes, the lens flare all return.

As the middle film of a planned J.J. Abrams trilogy, Into Darkness ramps up the stakes and appropriately the level of drama follows. As the name suggests events take a more serious tone; more lives are at stake, deception is around every turn, and ethical dilemmas are raised. In stylistic terms, consider this the Dark Knight of Star Trek. Unfortunately it's when the film attempts to delve into these weightier, serious subjects that it falls most flat. Mild spoilers may follow.

Into Darkness opens with one such ethical premise: a terrorist attack is perpetrated on Earth and the Enterprise is dispatched to assassinate the alleged perpetrator via a targeted long range missile strike, an obvious reference to the practice of targeted killings of real world terror suspects without trial. Of course Star Trek has always been highly political as a franchise, but unfortunately the issue here is given such hackneyed and confused address that it serves little use other than to pander. It's a real missed opportunity for the film makers to tackle some real issues and add a bit of deeper context.

Elsewhere Into Darkness is far more successful. Despite its darker tone the film still finds a place for the series' trademark sense of humour to cut through the more serious plot points. Much like its predecessor this wit is ever present throughout Into Darkness and brings these classic characters to life very effectively. This is fortunate as it is the characters that make the film.

The writing here is as tight as ever, building on the events of the prequel with real progression in the Kirk/Spock friendship as well as the other relationships on the Enterprise. The performances in these roles are also excellent, reminding us how spot on the casting has been. Pine, Quinto and Pegg are all great, while the smaller roles of Anton Yelchin's Chekhov and John Cho's Sulu are fleshed out further. In addition Karl Urban is once again a highlight of the piece with his irreverent portrayal of Dr. McCoy. However it is the villain of the piece played by Benedict Cumberbatch who undoubtedly steals the show. Cumberbatch's star has been on the rise of late, and his chilling performance here should see him finally become a household name in the States. One of the finest Hollywood villains in many years.

Abrams himself brings his usual directing flair to the picture, and Into Darkness maintains the same level of energy and fun as its predecessor. The action sequences are at times stunning to look at, and the stirring film score from Oscar winner Michael Giacchino completes the sensory treat. It may not have the mass market appeal of Iron Man 3, but this a summer blockbuster that stands alongside any other in terms of spectacle.

For any weaknesses Star Trek: Into Darkness may have, this is still a rock solid piece of film making. It is fun, funny and exhilarating, and a spectacular summer film.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Genre Disco, Classic Rock
Label Columbia Records
Producers Daft Punk

daft punk random access memories

Daft Punk are one of those rare artists whose brand is almost synonymous with their particular genre. Few would argue that with their early work in the 1990s and early 2000s they defined the fledgling electronic dance music scene. Their 2001 album Discovery essentially set the precedent for the past decade of club hits and pop music in general.

In fact in pre-release interviews the band's creative duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter revealed that it is precisely this fact that has them so disillusioned with dance music in recent years. In their own words dance music has become stagnant, no longer evolving, and still entirely too dependent on the style and sound employed by Daft Punk themselves all those years ago. It's an astute comment.

With that in mind it's easier to understand the band's drastic departure with new album Random Access Memories. To begin with, they have entirely ditched the sample-based songwriting that dominated their past albums and produced an album of entirely original music recorded using live instruments. For this I commend them. Yet if Daft Punk's apparent intention is to redefine dance music yet again it's somewhat mystifying to see how.

Daft Punk have always drawn heavily on disco and classic rock influences in their music, but what made their past releases so noteworthy was the way they took these dated genre tropes and re-imagined them with futuristic production and a modern vibe that was unlike anything else. The same ideas as their disco and classic rock roots, but refreshed and given a slick space-age 21st century polish for a new generation.

With Random Access Memories they have done away with this signature sound and produced an LP of what is almost relentlessly straight disco, as is apparent from the opening track, the ironically titled Give Life Back to Music. This is certainly not a bad song, it's quite good in fact; velvety smooth disco groove with a sunny west coast vibe, but if you take away the classic Daft Punk robot vocals there's nothing to distinguish this from any song lifted straight out of the 1970s.

There's also a bit of easy listening piano music, a sound that's completely alien to Daft Punk, notably the 8 minute epic Touch featuring the vocals of Paul Williams. Again this is a very pretty song; moving, delicately sung and impeccably produced with sweet backing vocals and a thrilling instrumental mid-section around the 3:25 mark, but where is the trademark Daft Punk innovation that elevates this from nostalgia to something... more?

Gone for the most part are the exciting beats, high energy build ups, and synth guitars. Gone also for the most part are the vocoded robot lead vocals, the album now chock full of big name collaborators from Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas to Animal Collective frontman Panda Bear and DJ Falcon, from Nile Rodgers to Pharrell Williams. It's an impressive list of collaborators, but without the trademark style this album is near unrecognisable as a Daft Punk record, it just doesn't sound like them.

A great example is lead single Get Lucky. This is a perfectly solid dance track that's already being widely played around clubs. It has a suitably funky disco club beat, it even has a brief but chaotic vocoder section in true Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger style. But it lacks that Daft Punk rock and roll edge, and with Pharrell Williams taking the lead vocals this song comes off as nearly indistinguishable from any other r&b jam out there. This could easily be Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars or someone, it comes off as sounding incredibly generic and safe. This goes double for Pharrell's other song Lose Yourself to Dance, a song that sounds disturbingly similar to Timberlake's Rock Your Body.

The fact that the band has tried to do something different is by no means a bad thing, on the contrary I very much approve when musicians display diverse musical tastes. The guitar solos on Discovery still melt my face off, but I have no issue with Daft Punk trying something more mellow. The problem is that they haven't really brought anything new to the table. Far from revolutionising or reinvigorating a genre, Random Access Memories sounds more like an old school pastiche of other artists. A band that once led the way for music now follows others.

It's a sign of the high expectations that this alone renders the album somewhat disappointing. However once you detach yourself from any preconceptions you can enjoy the music for what it is. Random Access Memories is an ambitious and impeccably produced collection of luxurious and grandiose songs. Each one is a throwback to a different time, but it's a delicious and occasionally brilliant nostalgia.

Fragments of Time shows another example of a perfectly decent classic rock song in the mould of Steely Dan or Electric Light Orchestra. A lovely song in its own right once you get past the fact that it just sounds absolutely nothing like Daft Punk, save for a brief but explosive instrumental climax in the 3rd minute.

Still, Random Access Memories is most successful on the occasions where it endeavours to combine the old and the new. The summery Instant Crush is one of the best songs on the album, employing of all things a traditional verse/chorus structure in a Daft Punk song. Yet it builds on its simple, catchy tune with robotic vocals, dance music production and sensibilities, and a fantastic Daft Punk guitar solo. Doin' it Right is another highlight, featuring a sparse but effective arrangement. A simple driving baseline gives rise to Daft Punk's robotic backing overlaid with Panda Bear's distinctive vocals. Sounds like a funkier version of Animal Collective.

Ultimately the album might not tread much in the way of new ground, but it is big, opulent, and epic. The songs are packed with complex melodies and lush orchestral compositions, and with the transition to a full band of live instruments one gets the impression of Daft Punk maturing from basement dwelling hobbyists, arranging samples on laptops, into genuine music superstars. This is an event album, and while it will certainly divide existing fans, it shows all the signs of cementing Daft Punk as one of the world's biggest entertainment acts.

Must Listen:
Instant Crush
Doin' It Right
Give Life Back to Music

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