Albert Hammond Jr. – Yours To Keep (New Line Records)

I liked the debut Strokes album quite a bit. I hated the second and was kind of apathetic to the third. But the band has always been decent about respecting their influences, paying tribute and even collaborating with these elder statesmen. You don’t need to look any further than the comical “Someday” video with Guided By Voices, and although this influence isn’t all that evident on the Strokes albums on Albert Hammond’s debut solo record you hear Bob Pollard and company soaked lovingly throughout each of the albums 12 songs including a cover of the GBV classic “Postal Blowout.”

“Yours to Keep” is much more than just a derivative rock record, it is more a pop effort complete with cameos from Sean Lennon and Ben Kweller, in addition to quiet acoustic ballads that remove it from the shadows of the mighty Strokes. There is nothing that I would describe as particularly new here, but what there is is very good. Hammond and his main band of merry tricksters will likely be back soon, but as a solo effort this one is a pleasant surprise.

Order It Now From Amazon

Bus 174 – Dir. José Padilha

Like a companion piece to the brilliant “City of God,” the epic documentary “Bus 174″ explores the tragic and gritty world of the hoards of homeless kids in Brazil, in the context of a now infamous 2000 Rio hostage situation. Most great documentaries take wonderfully complicated stories, and juxtapose them with a cinematic creativity and parallel narrative idea to create something new (“A Thin Blue Line,””Capturing The Friedman’s,” “Paradise Lost”). “Bus 174″ uses the many hours of actual footage of a 21 year-old glue sniffing mugger; during his 12 hour gun-wielding rant on a Rio bus that resulting in two deaths.

From a variety of perspectives, the surreal overhead opening shots of the densely ominous Rio slums to the harrowing footage of the overcrowded jails in Brazil, the incident on Bus 174 seems so tragically predictable. For a country and city as seemingly sophisticated as Brazil might appear to be, the reality of the pervasive violence and homelessness that runs rampant is mind-blowing. As for the actual saga that was “Bus 174” it is rare to see a story like this unfold so desperately and in real-time driving towards such an unpredictable conclusion. This film ranks up there among the best docs I have ever seen, as suspenseful and chilling any non-fiction is likely to be.

Order It Now From Amazon

Stranger Than Fiction – Dir. Mark Forster (Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson)

I am a Will Ferrell fan. But unlike most of his trademark over-the top obvious physical humor, “Stranger Than Fiction” could do for him what films like “Eternal Sunshine” did for Jim Carrey and the highly underrated “The Weatherman” could have done for Nick Cage. These films manage to surround their characters in a kind of surreal fog, but one immersed in a real world. In this context Ferrell is rock solid.

This film, not to be confused with the classic low budget Jim Jarmusch film “Stranger Than Paradise” portrays Ferrell as a lonely, anal, IRS agent who begins to hear his life narrated in his head. The arrival of these voices happens to coincide with his audit of a lovely anarchistic baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has purposefully underpaid her taxes. There is an odd and lovely pace to things in this quasi-real place, but ultimately, clever gimmicks aside, there is a genuine kind of emotion associated with every once of onscreen time. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and probably end up liking Ferrell more than you thought.

Order It Now From Amazon

Quinceanera – Dir. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Quinceanera” refers to the ceremony that officially ushers a 15 year girl into womanhood. This film uses the Echo Park LA locale and the ceremony itself as a starting place to explore a variety of themes surrounding the repercussions of the gentrification of Mexican-American communities. Initially, the film feels a bit like a lo-budget after school special, more akin to Degrassi Jr. High than the Sundance Jury Prize.

But as the primary characters, Magdalena a pregnant teen and her gay cousin Carlos, begin to confront the realities of the world around them, while taking refuge with a wise and warm great uncle, the film begins to work its way under your skin. Magdalena is the popular daughter of a full time security gaurd and part time storefront minister, who seems to have everything thing she could want (friends, a boyfriend, supportive family) but with a single utterance she manages to watch it all disappear. Her cousin Carlos, a thoughtful but thug-like guy falls for the yuppie gay couple who rent his uncle the shack and becomes oddly motivated to change his life.

There is nothing visually or stylistically unique about this tiny little jewel, but somehow it manages to preach without preaching, to tug heartstrings without tugging, and ultimately continue to root for little movies, made on a shoestrings to succeed. Also take the time to watch the making of this movie special feature on the DVD, it will make you like it even more than I you thought you did.

Order It Now From Amazon