Friday, January 26, 2007

that's that...

you (will) just live in it

Our trips to the East, my brother, to the East (and London even) have been filled with kid-in-a-candy-store obsession with Muji. The SOHO MOMA-store stationery spin-off is sorely lacking the immersive Ikea + Gap + Japanese Grocery Store anti-logo aesthetics applied to bags, packaged food, a café, kids toys, furniture, house-wares, clothing and even housing that is Muji. The ‘what took them so long’ Manhattan locations should fulfill my only Muji-related wish: Please provide XXL options for some of the gear.
I don’t really wanna blow this one up, but my prediction for hottest item next Christmas…

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

'Aces' trumped up

smoke ‘em if you got ‘em

I tend to like my action flicks lean and mean.
Unfortunately, ‘Smokin’ Aces’ is a turducken wrapped with bacon and attitude.

Opening this Friday at a rowdy multiplex near you the latest joint from Joe Carnahan deserves word-of-mouth…and that word should be ‘overload’… which can be a good thing for some but a disappointment for others. The rawness we appreciated in ‘Narc’ is given over to the overcooked and overstuffed parade of semi-star cameos, distracting artillery fireworks and ‘bad-ass’ moments that have become all-too-familiar in the Tarantino zeitgeist. But rather than embracing the nerdy joy and humor that people overlook in Tarantino’s violent ‘low-budget’ homage, Carnahan goes for the safe combo platter of shoot-em-up and sentiment. It has a Woo tang but is really just dollop after dollop of Hollywood empty calories. (Insert contrast to ‘Layer Cake’ here.)

To Carnahan’s credit all of the storylines and characters hint at great moments but because the path was chosen to overwhelm rather than drilldown, the audience is left with an inkling that more interesting stories are happening just off screen. The meeting between a ‘bodyguard’ (played by Common) and one of the assassins is really kind of beautiful in a B-movie way and holds so much potential… but it is not set up with the power of ‘inevitability’ or followed through with any earned satisfaction.

One plot thread is violently and effectively ended earlier than you expect it and the revenge subplot that spins off from there was an opportunity for great character development and the potential to hit solid genre marks/clichés (the ‘avenger’ is resuscitated by kindly stranger, the ‘avenger’ doesn’t take revenge quite the way you expect…) but instead it is filled with too many surreal quirks (a ‘karate kid’ doing the robot?) that make things bizarre and at times funny but, in the end, annoying because there is no more development of the recovering ‘avenger.’

It is clear that Carnahan can handle quiet moments, but he seems to have no faith that the audience might want more of them. The opening scene between Ray Liotta’s and Ryan Reynold’s characters is filled with so much of the promise set up by ‘Narc.’ The timing of the two actors is impeccable, the dialogue is naturalistic and for a moment you think this is going to be a great ‘buddy’ study. The final shot of one ‘buddy’ is also perfectly done with a swell of music, simple camera work and a believable performance in a classic genre scene. The problem is that the scenes that would have effectively connected these first and last shots have been chucked to make room for thirty or more other speaking parts.

The closest comparison I can make to another movie is to “True Romance” which also had a multi-character swirl of plotlines and ammunition and has the distinction of being a true combination of the Tarantino and Tony Scott precedents that “Smokin Aces” will inevitably and deservedly be compared to. The key difference being ‘TR’s ‘heroes,’ Clarence and Alabama, who are prominent even in the midst of the quirky and quite large cast. ‘Aces’ doesn’t give enough screen-time to ANY of its quirk-deliverers or characters for us to truly care who lives or dies. Even a solid-B-minus actioner like “The Transporter” builds the ridiculous action around a clear protagonist regardless of how wooden that character is portrayed and/or written. And even a “Wild Bunch” of anti-heroes display their humanity long enough to earn the audience sympathy. What’s sad is that “Aces” actors seemed amply prepared to deliver the charm if given the room.

“Aces” overwritten plot will be defended for ‘complexity,’ which supposedly ‘invites multiple views.’ “Ronin” is a brilliant example of purposely leaving a barebones ‘action’ plot and yet still inspiring a sense of complexity. The “Ronin” McGuffins are there to inspire dynamic action and tense character interaction. Who really cares what the fuss is about when the fuss is what it’s really all about? “Smokin’ Aces” commits two more sins with it’s McGuffin by putting waaay too much exposition in the dialogue AND not making that exposition very interesting. If a film is going to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ it better strive to sound as interesting as two hitmen talking about Le Big Mac or foot massages.

One of Carnahan’s successes in the film is his use of elevators to effectively build cinematic tension (even in the shadow of Woo’s “Hard Boiled”), particularly in the quiet moments. When one character looks at a fuzzy reflection in an elevator door or when one character in a group slowly backs away from an approaching elevator we see Carnahan’s sure hand at letting the images play out and speak for themselves; one shot implies ‘dread’ and the other gets one of the bigger laughs of the movie. One wishes there were more palette cleansing moments like these. Most of the time, however, “Aces” serves up bit after overstuffed bit. A turducken might be an entertaining goof but I was left hungry after this one.

Post Script 1: Jason Bateman kills as the quirky exception that proves the rule. His odd scene-stealing cameo is one of the best played, funny scenes you will see this season.

Post Script 2: Surprisingly, “Aces” doesn’t lessen my excitement about Carnahan’s adaptation of “White Jazz” (with George Clooney as James Ellroy’s Dave Klein!), which I imagine and hope will be closer to his impressive “Narc.”

Thursday, January 18, 2007

'Sooo 2006' Long Players: I know all about that…

10. E-40 - My Ghetto Report Card: A solid affair from the futuristic right-on-time funk beats (sparse enough, inventive, foreign AND familiar) to the density of slang to the variety of voices (and there’s a lot of them). The skits are not only forgiven but endorsed for their local detail and slapstick tone.

9. Young Jeezy - The Inspiration: Stays the course with content but the range of play seems greater with layering vocals and ad-lib counter rhythms which complicate the oft heavy-handed descriptions and simplistic dramas.

8. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not:
Distinctly white-boy rock with some swing to the hooks and tight angles to the riffs lets the vocal rhythms bounce while bringing slangy reportage of the absolutely contemporary everyday bullshit which can sometimes seem like the most important thing in a young mans life.

7. Ghostface - Fishscale: The predictably freewheeling and heartfelt ‘educated clapper’ continues lessons on sentimentalizing hard-times (‘Whip You With a Strap’), rapping over old soul (‘Big Girl’), surrealism for the streets (‘Underwater’), how to crossover (‘Back Like That’), detailed seduction (‘Beauty Jackson’) and even just some old-school rap (‘Be Easy’). When an artist opens an album with something like ‘Shakey Dog,’ forgoing hook and inundating with integrated details and action, it begs the question: How have these albums of avant-garde poetry by this bizarre genius become so… I dunno…‘expected’?

6. Yo Gotti & DJ Drama - I Told You So:
The direct talk to the Memphis hood beats out his legit album and those grizzled syllables with extra distortion from his distinctly delivered drag have made YG one of my favorite voices in hip-hop.

5. The Streets - The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living: I might be on opposite escalators of the fans of The Streets and of Ghostface respectively. How else to explain the least heralded of Mike Skinner’s albums getting heavier rotation on my ipod than ‘Fishscale’? Maybe it’s because every time I listened to ‘The Hardest Way…’ I couldn’t help thinking Ghostface should hear this album and do a mixtape over these tracks (especially ‘Hotel Expressionism’ or ‘Two Nations’) and redo the off-key sung-hooks in his own off-key way… The ‘simplicity’ of the tracks (‘Memento Mori’ rap shadowing the keyboard) was criticized by otherwise loyal fans but made the album perfectly great for me.

4. Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury:
It ain’t quite the gospel that was “We Got it For Cheap Vol.2” but their cold and slang-heavy environs allow for a weird mix of desperate actions sprinkled with new money flash (Hi Pharrell!). I can’t help but be struck by the near perfect craft of Clipse lyrics and matching Neptunes tracks and that glossy surface discourages me from reaching out for their shadowed perch. The crispy cadence, the mechanized beats, and the clear vocal tone, click together like a well-oiled machine… but I’m still just admiring clockwork a safe distance from the grinding gears. Clipse cleverness has no equal.

3. Raekwon - The DaVinci Code The Vatican Mixtape Vol. 2:
Where Ghost wears his heart on his sleeve, Rae plays cagey, but both always lean towards an overwhelming barrage of imagery (“Broke down fuckin’ Mazda”), poetic slang phrases (“Stole niggas wizessess… izzizzizz”) and smashed together unexpected details (“Celine Dieon chickenheads straight outta Houston” “Kill industry niggas and build maps”). Puzzles of slang permeate the claustrophobic hood visions even while thinking globally (“Wide world of sniffers, spyroglyphics, Caesars and blue angels” or something like that).

2. Lil’ Wayne & DJ Drama - Dedication 2: ‘The greatest rapper alive’ debate is getting tired but there is no doubt that he (at least) sounds like the rapper who most enjoys rapping. Go figure. His disrespect towards hip-hops ‘icons’ is only a reminder of his “Fuck Hip-hop!” days when he was just a Hot Boy. And that’s a great thing!
This mixtape and others on this list are REAL hip-hop ALBUMS, not ‘in spite of’ but BECAUSE they are jacks or flips of the hottest beats and flows and often neglect crossover song structure for the pure pleasures of rep-building. Of course they qualify as albums.

1. T.I. - King :
Clipse, Raekwon and Mike Skinner might be the poets and Wayne’s wordplay could arguably earn him best rapper status but the most integrated versatile personality is both the reporter and the showman, the vocal stylist and the style icon, the trap star and the movie star… He is the best MC... which, you may have forgotten, is a bit more than a rapper. This was the album that connected the dots to finally give the masses something to measure all other pretenders against. A ruler perhaps?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

'Sooo 2006' Joints: Meet me in a club…

14. Ghetto Story – Baby Cham: That flutter intro is followed by well-paced storytelling for those of us less familiar with the Jamdown lingo and the light as air vocals disguise the street tales as a lullaby. The slow ramp up at each verse earns a rah rrrah rrrrah rrrah!

13.Ridin’ – Chamillionaire, Krayzie Bone: Anyone complaining about the lack of political content in bangin’ joints that reach a popular audience by a great MC (even by ‘true school’ standards) should have their backpack smacked off with this surprise hit from Cham in their earbuds. A ‘comeback’ of sorts only because he was counted out of the previous Houston wave. Far from his best and yet huge!

12.Tell Me When To Go – E-40, Keak Da Sneak: Setting off the sprinkler of hyphy hype properly with the video handling definitive eye-wash duties, this 40-watershed joint fertilized ‘the soil’ sound. He caught some backlash… but still did it better than them. He’s a movement unto himself.

11. Cannon (AMG remix) - DJ Drama, Lil' Wayne, Freeway, Wille The Kid, Detroit Red, Juice: A straight-up mixtape structure loading up this shotta with 5 MCs and one ubiquitous hypeman and firing center mass at the titular sample. The firepower of an interstate cipher makes me celebrate with a 21 gun salute to this hookless banger. Lock, stock (“We can trade like the Dow Jones”) and barrel, the sure shot from the mixtape of the year.

10. Me & U – Cassie: Fans of proper singing get lost but fans of perfect pop found the simplest ‘notes’ delivered by a fembot and the minimal musical elements to be a lot sexier than a robot telling me the moving sidewalk is ending. And it’s the perfect backseat, high-school high-jinks, ‘promise-don’t-tell-anyone’ soundtrack. How can so little emotion get a listener all worked up? The video didn’t hurt. Not at all.

9. Mac 10 Handle - Prodigy: Ranking high on surprise tactics, P digs Deep and goes guerrilla dolo… forgets the Unit… and entrenches the song/video with cold-sweat imagery in a post-traumatic realm of hallucination and paranoia. If 50 calls in some pre-mixtape marching orders, the Prodigal thun should answer that call to duty, “Hollywood who?” The most exciting fourth quarter lead single by a ‘90’s artist on the comeback. No typo.

8. Grew Up a Screw Up– Ludacris, Jeezy:
Luda was applauded for his more intricate rhymes but I always prefer his punches sharp and direct. His phrasing and delivery here sets it apart and reminds me of the joys of straight-up old-school bragging. Supplying unrelenting smacks of hubris, he sounds almost exhausted from delivering his own swagger. The other guy sits in as royalty but Cris holds court promising an impressively healthy, lengthy ATL reign. Hip-hop is dead. Long live hip-hop.

7. Chunk Up The Deuce / Break ‘Em Off – Lil Keke, Paul Wall: One popped a minute ago and one hasn’t had the time to bubble properly but the combo of Paul’s crafty flow with Keke’s pulse and drag over slow and spooky beats is just perfect in both cases. Keke should be a star by ’08 and Paul’s new vocal effect on ‘Break ‘Em Off’ should have you anticipating surprises on his next album instead of critiquing his content.

6. Bossy – Kelis, Too $hort: Swagger rap turned sing-song that Kelis “rides like a bicycle” (and “icy cold”) “while the 808 is jumpin.” It’s a successful pastiche of crossover Houston culture (that includes deep roots leading to the guest MC). The odd video swings from dog to Dog to that dance without getting in the way of the fact that “she’s fine AND she’s pretty.”

5. Do it Do It – Cherish / Chicken Noodle Soup – Webstar, Young B / Goin Down – Young Joc: Not obviously snap but “mixing Youngbloodz with the whisper song” and various other ATL signifiers, ‘Do It’ lets the sisters walk confidently down the A-pop path paved by Ciara. They include the lean, the rock, the poole palace, the shoulder lean… and just when you thought NY had carte blanche to break on the ‘lightweight’ Bankhead they add hot water to oodles and oodles of noodles we knows. The Chicken Noodle reign that was ready to clear it out provided (via Youtube) the thunderbolt that was Light Feet demos. And it had me cheesing just as much as the kids goofing off with it. Like any great dance it had people saying ‘That shit looks ridiculous!’ But the key is that both the participants and the haters are saying the same thing… but meaning something totally different by appropriating a notorious shuffle. The joy of it is of course a middle finger to those that don't get it. Fans of the cathartic and intense Krumping / Clowning documentary ‘Rize’ could not have been prepared for so many more lighthearted dances in 2006… hyphy, snap, chicken-noodle, footwork, buckwilin’… ‘It’s Goin Down’ could not be heard this year without the little bit of Young Joc’s ‘motorcycle rev’ creeping into a listeners wrists…Tom Cruise’s attempt at Jocin’ reinforced clichés about the way certain cultures dance and highlighted the tricky rhythm that all new street dances require (It’s interesting to note that Ving Rhames’ attempts in the background were slightly better but still off.) Many critics of the ‘silly dances’ often expose themselves as not being in on the joke as the wide smiles of most of the dancers reveal a joy, quite simply, in acting a bit foolish… but on beat… and better than you! The more aggressive A-Town Stomp perfected by Sean Paul of the Youngbloodz in the video ‘Damn’ led to the more casual ‘bounce-bounce-pause’ favored by many Atlanta youth which joined with the explosion of the ‘snap music’ sound to form the dance style. And the popularity of Cherish’s ‘Do It’ made the movement safe for suburbia. The cold reaction by many of New York’s hip-hop artists towards the ‘snap’ moment did not prepare them for the more exuberant and youth driven stylings around the new wave of Harlem club culture. Parallel to the snap movement, Harlem youth embraced the simple lyrics and dance oriented song structure and dismissed any alleged ‘rules’ about ‘authentic hip-hop.’ It can’t be a coincidence that the best cure for a cold New York was a healthy dose of ‘Chicken Noodle Soup.’ As a counterpoint to the success of trap/crack rap of 2005, the lighthearted (and it should be noted, non-sexualized) dances of 2006 reminded hip-hop fans of what else the culture can be… at least for a little while: pure, silly, innocent, fun. But “Don’t get it twisted, pimpin: This a HOOD dance!”

4. Grillz – Nelly, Paul Wall, Gipp, Ali: This seems to have been out forever but it still banged the airwaves this year and I enjoyed it every single time. From Destiny Child’s ‘Soldier’ to LL ‘s ‘Kanday,’ to Gipp claiming ‘First!,’ almost every line is a hook. The chorus is as infectious as any other Nelly records (“Let you see my what?”) but we should demand it from all great pop-hop. My smile ain’t on the rocks but long after their diamond dentures are pawned this joint will have folks leaning, rocking and rubbing their hands together with joy.

3. My Love – Justin Timberlake, T.I., Timbaland: Mini-trend for 2006? Roller disco epiphanies. Even with the internet buzz it took a sound-system in a roller rink to finally show me what the fuss was about on this reinvention of disco. ‘Sexyback’ had the rollers bouncing but the ‘My Love’ synthesizer smoothed out the rink. The boom-boom-tap of the beat box (‘Lake or ‘Land?) and the choice of tempo let the sophisticated dancers escape from the regimented four-on-the-floorish ‘Sexyback.’ Some took the half time beat to glide to and others took the double time to bounce their shoulders. The transformed synth stutter, odd vocal squeaks and techno machine sounds signified sci-fi like the best Timbo funk. One could ridicule the sap (“I wrote you a symphony” and “this ring represents my heart”), clumsy slang (“date me on the regular”) and incongruous TI lyrics (“cuz I handle my BI, call me candle guy (why?) simply cause I am on fi’ ha ha”) but sometimes pop music doesn’t have to make sense to be genius. Yes, we all sang the phrase “Toes in the sand” this year… at least those of us who can dance. The video showed a chilled out JT lead that bounce-bounce-slide variation of my middle-school dances but let him do his popping thing in a Charlie Chaplin outfit and walkaway. Was it just that camera trick that thrilled? Nah, the animated rubberbands, too.

2. Hustlin’ – Rick Ross: Coked up thump over a screwed down hook and over-the-top keyboard vamps, made this Jeezy-jack epic. This joint was driven by economics. Ross recounted his source of revenue and invested in stock simple stylings; a powermove not unlike Reasonable-Doubt-era Jay-Z (Oh, you forgot how much Jigga was dissed when he ‘simplified’ his ‘Can I Get Open’ flow???) But Ross makes you appreciate the word ‘economy’ as it relates to ‘movement’ as well… even if Jeezy showed us, and him, the way. Clichés, maybe now, but classic phrases are in abundance… “whip it whip it real hard” “22s!”… and look how he flips them plurals… bitches and biznizz and Benzizz and chickinzz. Every syllable was calculated and the investment paid off significantly. And I’m just talking artistically. Maybe short on clever metaphors but memorable lines still count towards a classic.

1. What You Know – T.I.: Is it the throwaway braggadocio (“sitting pretty with Latin broads and a china doll”) or the uplifting anthem? Is it the hypnotic drone of keyboards and vocals or the multilayered rhythms and complex rap phrasing? Is it a celebration or a threat? Is it the drawn-out synth-line pulse or the punchy catchphrase? Is it the exploitation of an ad-lib (“What?!?” “Okay?!?!”) or the sly slang poetry? Fired-up and cool as fuck, T.I. provides a kiss off to those that think like he does. When he says “all that attitude, unnecessary dude” he couldn’t be more wrong. Is it absolutely contemporary or a classic? You know.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

taipei’d in full

happy as a b-boy buddha...

These were a few of my favorite things… big bowls of nyo ro mien, paigu galore, the best xiau long bau at Din Tai Fung (twice), eel noodles on the street, Ay-chung Flour Rice Noodle in the green bowls, oyster pancake/omelette at the Shilin night market, two kinds of stinky tofu (fried and not), sao bing yo tiao style breakfast with do jiang in the Neihu district, do hwa with peanuts, yakiniku ‘burger’ (rice paddy ‘buns’!!) at Mos Burger (I know it’s Japanese but I didn’t get to it in Tokyo), a ‘ring’ from Mister Donut and countless ballin’ ass banquets (it was a fam-a-lam wedding thing… get familiar!) including teppenyaki at BEN (oxtail, abalone, escargot…)and szechwan at the Ambassador Hotel (best in Taipei?).

Didn’t try these but I gotta love ‘em: Fried Chicken Peanuts, Reggae Cheese Doritos, International Seaweed Lays, and Lonely God Potato Twists.

And maybe the greatest work of craft ever created: a mug with spiders on one side and a sculpted female figure on the other.

Oh and of course KTV with conviction!

We watched the tallest building in the world (for the moment), Taipei 101, burst into flames, explode, be obscured in hellfire and smoke and we all cheered ‘Happy New Year!’(FujiHD rule number ten-thousand and eightyyy…?) (The BIG New Year celebration for Asians comes next month like I ain’t told you before…)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

that food food

let's see what's next on the menu

Asian-Hipsters, Asian-fetishists, plain-old-Asians and even you exotic non-Asians should check out the new issue of Theme Magazine. It’s The Transplants Issue (or is it ‘Trans-Plants’?) and I’ve got an interview in there with old boy Dan ‘The Automator’ Nakamura about, of all things, food! I’ll leave the usual ‘drum-machine’ and ‘crate-digging’ questions to other folk.

Buy Theme off the stands ‘cause it’s another beautiful ish as usual.
Or you can catch it on their updated website.

They even included a photo of Dan and I having what looks like a ‘romantic dinner for two’ (No Bromo!). Ha!

The editors titled the piece The Good Food and I’m not sure if it was a botched pun on That Good Good but that’s the only thing that comes to my mind (as usual). It’s all Good though…

However, I must take issue with the last line in the intro… “Here’s a taste, no pun intended”… You know my puns are always intended and I rarely pass up a chance for one because (if I may remix Bill Macy’s character comment on flan in Wag The Dog) “There’s no difference between good pun and bad pun.”

Fellow foodies dig in.