The first few months of every year are most often a dead period at the cinema. All of the Oscar-baiting artistic ventures and critically-anticipated works have months since hit yet  still linger at the box-office  to give folks who wait to see the award winners after their wins a chance to catch them,  and all of the block-buster popcorn seat-fillers are a couple of months away. Usually new offerings in February and March are artistic-wannabes that weren’t quite up to snuff for award season or things that aimed to be summer crowd-pleasers but aren’t felt by their studios to  match up to their competition. So any good picture that sneaks in to the theaters at this time is  worth praising and suggesting to others seeking a re-entry into the multiplex to start off the film-going experience of the new year.

So, that being said, The Lincoln Lawyer is the first must-see movie of 2011. I’ve been eying this one since I heard about it a few months ago–it seemed to show promise of delivering the noir-crime goodness, and it does that pretty well. Based on the  novel by Michael Connelly, the screenplay manages to keep the feel of a page-turning pot-boiler. Matthew McConaughey portrays Connelly’s character Mickey Haller, a defense attorney whose office is the backseat of his Lincoln town car as he’s chauffeured around the city of LA to its different courtrooms defending his (often repeat-offender) list of clients including prostitutes, biker gangs, and drug dealers. McConaughey does a terrific job, and though he’s always been a likable figure on-screen, he’s rarely had roles that give him much to work with, which makes this performance easily his best to date. He plays Mickey with humor, wit, flaws, and depth. Mickey is no easy character to pin down, he’s a perfect noir character; McCaugney portrays him early on allowing you to admire him in his grime, seemingly cool even in his sleaze and moral grey abode, yet evolves him midway through to show touches of deep humanity, capable of seeking actual justice. The rest of the cast is great as well–Marrisa Tomei continues to be great in this second-wave of her career (reignited a couple of years ago with her turn in The Wrestler) as Mickey’s ex-wife, friend, mother of his child, and fellow lawyer from the other side as a prosecutor; Ryan Philipe as the smarmy, spoiled client Mickey has to defend; as well as everyone else, actors from Bones and Breaking Bad play bit roles to perfection amongst many others.

The cinematography compliments the overall atmosphere of the picture, capturing an LA filled with morally complex and questionable characters and elusive justice. The soundtrack is spot-on, the twists and turns continual yet plausible and realistic. A great thriller, a great mystery, and a picture that looks, sounds, and feels as it should–some scares, some jumps, plenty of surprises, a bit of heart and quite a few laughs. Since the source material for this film is the first in a series of books featuring the same protagonist, here’s hoping a few repeat visits with the same central cast. Hollywood usually doesn’t capture these types of adaptations too well, so in a case where they have, maybe we’ll see them go for it again.

Rating: 8/10

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Lasers finally came out. I’ve waited for this album for more than a year; heck, I’ve really been waiting for more Lupe since The Cool came out. A slew of things in my personal life have kept me from updating this site and thus my album review comes 2-3 weeks after everyone else has given their 2-cents, but reading what others are saying about it prompted me to go ahead with a better-late-than-never approach to this review.

Lasers really requires a measured appraisal anyway; 2 weeks of spinning it allow me to attempt a balanced critique, hopefully. Pitchfork decimated it, perceiving it as Lupe’s “epic fail.” while most other music-journalists gave it a moderate vote, praising his rhymes and accepting the commercial soundscapes as part of the package. I love Lupe, he is probably my favorite working rapper today; so is Lasers his best work yet? No. It is not the hip hop classic that The Cool was, that album deserves mention in any top-ten recount of hip-hop’s all time great albums; is Lasers great though? Certainly.

Without recent years somewhat “post hip-hop” movement–think Kanye’s last two records, Kid Cudi, Drake, etc.–there would likely be no Lasers as it stands. It’s a very polished, hooky, rock and dance music influenced hip hop record. Rumors claim that the main reason for its postponement was Atlantic’s meddling, that the major label’s insistence that Lupe deliver a hit even caused them to coach him on how lead-off single “The Show Goes On” should be rapped. If so, it’s a shame that the label didn’t trust the decision- making abilities of one of the most talented and creative artists in hip hop today, but even if such a claim is true, “The Show Goes On” remains a great song, possibly Lupe’s best single yet.

Lasers opens with a great 3-punch; “Letting Go” is a melancholy burner, similar in sound to much of ‘Ye’s 808s and Heartbreaks but better than any of the tracks there; fading out by lyric-checking Jay Electronica (“this uzi weighs a ton”), track one gives way to the best moment on the album, “Words I Never Said.” Skylar Grey plaintively croons the heart-hurt hook that opens the song and serves as the chorus, a refrain that carries the theme of heartbreak and uncertainty from the album-opener, but the verses are all Lupe’s politically- charged attacks which comprise some of his best verses ever. Sure he veers into “building 7” and “diet soda” conspiracy-theory territory at times, but he makes excellent anti-war indictments, confronts both sides of the aisle with political accusations (to Limbaugh, Beck, and Obama), writes off modern media “news,” holds up peace and activism, and as the devout Muslim he is serves up one of the most thoughtful, measured, intense capitulations of Israel-Palestine and Islamic stereotypes that pop music has ever contained (“Jihad is not holy war/where’s that in the worship/murdering is not Islam and you are not observing/you are not a Muslim/Israel don’t take my side ‘cuz look how far you’ve pushed them”); wrapping up those verses by condemning the banks and housing markets, and those who complain about issues while not doing anything about them or even while participating on the wrong side of them. Then Lupe gives the album some lightening with the third song, “Till I Get There,” a witty pop-rap song that Lupe is capable of doing better than anyone else today in managing to balance rhyming skill with upbeat positivity while foregoing cheesy. It also features some of his best and most charming inflections in delivery yet.”State Run Radio” is another smart song later in the album, full of great lines taking on misinformation in the media, though it is buffered by a crooned hook and a rock guitar that brings the bad taste of nu-metal to some of its critics (for the record, it sounds more like the better half of those nu-rockers–much more Incubus than Limp Bizkit), but it works for the song and doesn’t distract from those ferocious lines Lupe delivers (“we ain’t got the truth, but how about a remix?”). “State Run Radio” is prime example of what hurts this album for those who gave Lasers less than a 4 star review. It is understandable that many would feel a hip hop artist of Lupe’s caliber should be able to make cutting edge hip hop without watering the work down with middle-of-the-road rock and pop flourishes. He should and could, and I have no doubt that the major label had at least a little bit to do with the finished product in that regard; but Lupe’s rounded edges and clean production here don’t sound like a sell out or a signifier of bad taste. He didn’t showcase fading or bemoaned rock artists on these hooks, the hooks are pop, folk, rock and R&B unsigned or unknowns who deliver the goods in subtle, unobtrusive ways, and such sounds serve to create a Lupe record that sounds like a superb pop record–a bit of sugar to get the medicine down, because even at his most “radio friendly,” Lupe is subversive–throwing Trey Songz on a love- jam song like “Out of My Head” yet keeping things completely clean and classy, hearkening to true romance rather than “love in the club” escapades is post-modern hip hop covert activity! Shout outs to equality and the queendom of women, a daydream of racial peace via rewritten history in “All Black Everything,” acknowledging his less-than-pretty past as something moved beyond (“they say how come you don’t rap that/’cuz I don’t wanna backtrack”) and thus unfocused on is subversiveness to the highest degree– Lupe stands as the exception to the rule in hip hop, where so many artists with bad pasts who move beyond that but revel in it on record or even go so far as to invent criminal backgrounds out of suburban upbringings, Lupe moves beyond the trouble of his youth to never mention it in songs, to focus on celebrating the goodness of life and the progress he now advocates.

Lasers is a solid outing for Lupe, and though it is not the hip hop foundation making work he surely has in him, it is nice to finally hear this, crank this, and support genuine heartfelt hip hop talent with substance.

Rating: 9/10