Sunday, January 15, 2017

Live by Night

Joseph Coughlin (Ben Affleck), the son of a powerful Boston police officer (Brendan Gleeson), returns from World War I disillusioned and becomes a stickup artist. He is reluctantly drawn into a mob war between Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) despite insisting that he is an outlaw, not a gangster. Following a doomed affair with White’s girlfriend Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), Coughlin agrees to head up Pescatore’s bootlegging operation in Tampa alongside friend Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina). It isn’t long before they establish a power base and Joe falls in love with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), the charitable sister of his Cuban importer. While Joe dreams of a casino and a position of comfortable security, disapproving locals, a still-vengeful Albert, and an increasingly demanding Maso all threaten to undo his success.

Ben Affleck’s ascendance as a director began a decade ago with another Dennis Lehane adaptation, Gone Baby Gone, so having him bring to screen another work by his fellow Bostonian seemed a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Live by Night seems a bit too content to coast on its pedigree. Though not a flop, it is also, given the talent involved, not all that it could have been.

As a director, Affleck maintains a sharp eye for detail. Tommy guns, fedoras, and sleek roadsters exude period-appropriate style while the Georgia coast fills in admirably for the Florida one. These sunny scenes contrast nicely with the urban grit of the film’s Boston-based beginning. All told, aesthetically, Live by Night does not disappoint.

The acting isn’t quite up to the same standard across the board, but there is no shortage of experienced hands here. Though a bit too old for his role, Affleck convincingly gets across Joe’s pragmatism and conviction that he can simultaneously be a criminal and a decent person (hence the sleep by day/live by night metaphor of the title). However, in their scenes together, he is clearly upstaged by Elle Fanning as the Tampa police chief’s drug addict-turned-evangelist daughter, a would-be antagonist that Fanning plays quite sympathetically. Saldana and Messina make the most of their underwritten roles, and Glenister makes Albert quite a loathsome thug. On the other hand, the miscast Miller’s Irish accent is distractingly inconsistent, especially compared to the authentic one sported by Gleeson (who is rock-solid as the stern, disapproving patriarch). Affleck, wisely, sticks to a standard Boston accent rather than affect a sure-to-be embarrassing attempt at a brogue.

Ironically, given Affleck’s screenwriting Oscar and Lehane’s Edgar awards, the writing may be the weakest element here. While the film and the book on which it was based both explore the nature of spiritual as well as financial and political corruption and provide Joe with an arc, there is quite a bit here that is formulaic or rushed. Live by Night is actually the second book in a trilogy, and had its predecessor, The Given Day, been filmed first, Joe’s disdain for authority and turn to crime would be better understood in context. Even without the added background, this film could have certainly done more to build its relationships. Joe and Graciela, a Boston crook and an Afro-Cuban-Floridian philanthropist, seem to fall a little too easily for one another, and that’s still more that can be said for how Joe (“lace curtain Irish”) and Emma (“shanty Irish”) end up together. Add to this some moments of canned sentimentality, and Live by Night loses some luster.

Were it brought to life by anyone else, Live by Night would be a perfectly serviceable gangster yarn, but as an Affleck film, it comes as a letdown. A longstanding element of comic book lore is that being Batman has caused Bruce Wayne’s social life and business dealings to suffer at times. Perhaps playing Batman (in the upcoming Justice League and a solo film) has taken a similar toll on Affleck.


Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Year in Reviews

This past year has been notable for its multitude of down notes, but it wasn’t all bad. Lost within the mire of scandals, celebrity deaths, and political breakdowns were the following highlights.


Favorite New Restaurant in Greensboro: Taaza Bistro 

This stylish Indian eatery offers an outstanding $10 lunch buffet. See the review here.

Local Eatery I Wish I Had Tried Sooner: Dame’s Chicken and Waffles

Crisp, juicy chicken + generously sized waffles + appealing sides, syrups, and schmears = satisfied customers. See the review here.

Favorite Food Finds outside the Triad: a.)The Shoppe Bar & Meatball Kitchen and b.) Luna Rotisserie (tie)

a.       Customizable combinations of meatballs and sides (including a killer risotto) are offered in this cozy Carrboro space. See the review here.
b.      Friendly service and a diverse round-up of flavorful South American dishes make this Durham spot a winner. See the review here.

Most Memorable Meal: Undercurrent

A night-before-wedding dinner in the company of family was bound to be memorable regardless, but Undercurrent’s culinary chops, excellent service, and attention to detail made for one hell of a meal. 

Most in Need of an Overhaul: Café Pasta

The food here is solid, but the menu is limited, pricing offers no great value, and the establishment lacks an edge over competing eateries.


NOTE: Most of 2016’s prestige pictures (Silence, Fences, Nocturnal Animals, etc.) are late-year releases that won’t hit Netflix until 2017. This list reflects only those 2016 releases that I’ve had a chance to see.

Five to Watch
  1. Captain America: Civil War: Though not necessarily an improvement over the previous entry in the series, this film deftly integrates compelling new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man) into a well-established world. An absolute must for Marvel fans. See the review here.
  2. The Nice Guys: 70s nostalgia, buddy cop hijinks, plot twists, crazy dream sequences, and more all come together in Shane Black’s highly entertaining neo-noir mashup that reluctantly pairs a heavy-handed enforcer (Russell Crowe) and a squeamish investigator (Ryan Gosling) to find a missing girl
  3. Midnight Special: Jeff Nichol’s heartfelt, atmospheric, low-key sci-fi drama sees a boy with special powers (Jaeden Lieberher) on the run from both the government and a religious cult with his father Roy (Michael Shannon, in a change-of-pace role) and Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as protectors.
  4. Rogue One: A darker, more mature Star Wars film, this taut sidequel bridges the gap between the first and second trilogies as a Rebel faction of defectors, criminals, and wanderers aims to disrupt the Death Star. See the review here.
  5. Three-way-tie: Deadpool, Doctor Strange, and GhostbustersAll three of these movies engendered controversies for different reasons. Deadpool, the family unfriendly R-rated superhero comedy, tosses any semblance of tact out the window, but the uneasily offended can enjoy gory visual humor as a deformed, unkillable mercenary (a perfectly cast Ryan Reynolds) seeks revenge on those who wronged him. See review here. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange, targeted by whitewashing accusations, adds Benedict Cumberbatch’s surgeon-turned-mystic into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an origin story that isn’t afraid to get weird. See the review here. Lastly, Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters, which caught flack for going with an all-new, all-female cast more than holds its own, delivering fitfully funny dialogue and impressive visuals as a well-matched ensemble of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones answer the proverbial call.
Honorable Mention: Hail, Caesar! The Coen Brothers take down the studio system in this nostalgia-laden dramedy that sees fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) attempting to put out one fire after another in hardboiled fashion. See the review here.

Three to Avoid
  1. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Zak Snyder’s Man of Steel follow-up attempts to build a cohesive DC cinematic universe by putting the two title characters on a path toward collision, thanks to some behind-the-scenes manipulation courtesy of Lex Luthor. While the premise is a winning one and while Ben Affleck (as Batman) and Gal Godot (as Wonder Woman) are welcome additions here, Jesse Eisenberg is miscast as Luthor, and the plotting, pacing, and dialogue all leave a lot to be desired. See the review here.
  2. Batman: The Killing Joke: Batman may have been one of the previous entry’s saving graces, but this animated adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic Joker origin tale is definitely a letdown. Despite featuring familiar voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the addition of a prologue to give Batgirl more screentime needlessly sexualizes her and complicates her relationship with Batman.
  3. Barbershop: The Next Cut: This latest entry in the Barbershop series suffers from a bloated cast and re-hashes themes (a battle of the sexes, shop owner Calvin’s dwindling enthusiasm, etc.) that were handled better in previous installments. The Next Cut certainly has its moments – and wisely retains Cedric the Entertainer’s cantankerous Eddie – but it doesn’t hold up well compared to the original. 
Dishonorable mention: Suicide Squad. Yet another poorly plotted DC offering, this tale of government-sanctioned criminals and misfits on a heroic quest at least manages to be entertaining, giving us quality quips from Will Smith and Margot Robbie even if Jared Leto’s bizarre take on the Joker never quite works. See the review here.


Favorite New Series: Stranger Things
An ode to the 1980s, the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix hit tells the story of a girl with telekinetic powers (Millie Bobby Brown) who appears in a small Indiana town in 1983 shortly after a boy (Noah Schnapp) goes missing. The boy’s friends, family, and the local police chief all try to piece together what happened while a shady scientist with government ties (Matthew Modine) tries to contain the situation. Featuring strong performances (from Winona Ryder as the missing child’s mother and David Harbour as the alcoholic chief), a period-appropriate look and feel, eerily suspenseful pacing, and homages to everything from Stephen King to John Carpenter to Steven Spielberg, Stranger Things offers a lot to like.

Honorable Mention: Luke Cage
Another Netflix series, Cheo Hodari Coker’s winning adaptation of a Marvel property gives us a compelling title character (ably played by Mike Colter): a wrongfully convicted prison escapee with super strength and unbreakable skin who would prefer to be left alone but finds himself drawn into heroics when his Harlem neighborhood is threatened. Timely, relevant, and paired with excellent music, the series also showcases the talents of Simone Missick (as justice-seeking detective Misty Knight), Alfre Woodard (as scheming, two-faced politician Mariah Dillard), and Erik LaRay Harvey (as wily charismatic psychopath Willis “Diamondback” Stryker). Unfortunately, it also gives us Rosario Dawson’s nurse Claire Temple performing unpleasant medical procedures and occasional bits of clichéd dialogue.

Three Others to Watch
  1. Better Call Saul: Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad prequel continues to make the most of its premise: charming con man Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) gradual transition to sleazy criminal super-lawyer Saul Goodman. The second season explores his complicated relationships with his resentful, more accomplished brother (Michael McKean) and his colleague/occasional girlfriend (Rhea Seehorn) in more detail while also giving fan-favorite fixer Mike (Jonathan Banks) more to do and introducing Breaking Bad baddie Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) to the fold.
  2. Bosch: Eric Overmyer’s Amazon-produced adaptation of Michael Connelly’s titular LAPD detective (brought to life by Titus Welliver) takes the police procedural formula and twists it, making the obstructive bureaucrat deputy chief (Lance Reddick) into a more sympathetic figure, setting up red herrings, and improving upon the first season’s somewhat exacting pace.
  3. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Marvel’s premier spy organization has had its ups and downs, but give it credit for continuing to find new ground. The end of Season 3 (2015-2016) saw the demise of longstanding foe Hydra while newly recruited Inhumans teamed up to take down otherworldly monster Hive. The first half of Season 4 (2016-2017) introduced Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna as the Robbie Reyes version of the character), who teamed with the agents to combat a supernatural threat. The second half then looks to show us what happens when an artificial intelligence gets too intelligent for its own good. The one constant in all of these permutations is Clark Gregg’s commendable work as erstwhile team leader Phil Coulson, the organization’s tactical brains and heart.
Honorable Mention: The Arrowverse. The CW’s four-show (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl) DC comics collective is uneven but is a lot more entertaining than DC’s cinematic outings. After being mired in melodrama, Season 5 of Arrow has returned to the show’s gritty roots, The Flash continues to cram in new concepts (alternate timelines) while maintaining humor and character development, and the time-hopping Legends, though cheesy, at least manages to be fun.


Favorite New Release: Hardwired…to Self-Destruct
Metallica’s thrash-laden throwback double-album doesn’t hit quite as hard as their 80s prime material, but the 50-something rockers play with gusto and cover a lot of lyrical ground. See the review here.

Honorable Mention: Dystopia and For All Kings
Metallica wasn’t the only Big Four thrash band to enjoy a bit of a resurgence in 2016. Megadeth’s Dystopia gains a shot in the arm courtesy of new members Chris Alder (drums) and Keiko Louriero (guitar). Dave Mustaine is in good vocal form, and while his lyrics are as paranoid and conspiratorial as ever, they seem apropos in a Wikileaks world. Meanwhile, Anthrax, sporting a new guitarist as well in Jon Donais, gets serious and eulogizes the victims of terror with tight compositions well-suited to Joey Belladonna's voice.

A Note on Books

The overwhelming majority of books that I read this year were published in prior years. I look forward to digging into 2016 releases from Stephen King and Michael Chabon when time permits.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Traveled Farmer

Located at 1211 Battleground Avenue in midtown Greensboro, The Traveled Farmer serves international cuisine using local ingredients. There is a full bar with rotating seasonal cocktails and a market area that offers produce and ready-made meals. Patio seating is available during warmer months, and The Traveled Farmer can also cater.

When The Marshall Free House opened in this space in 2014, I was skeptical given how long the restaurant was in development. Despite that – and high pricing - it won me over with well-appointed décor, excellent service, and tasty food. Well, the Free House closed this September, and after a few weeks of redecorating and rebranding, The Traveled Farmer opened in its stead. Welcome back, skepticism. Since my doubts were ultimately misplaced the last time around, however, I felt it only fair to give The Traveled Farmer a try. Ultimately, it amounts to another victory for the Kotis restaurant empire, but not an unblemished one.

Thematically and aesthetically, The Traveled Farmer is a strange and somewhat contradictory place. The interior keeps much of the Free House’s refined pub look: brick, long tables, and handsome dark woods. This still makes for attractive décor, but it doesn’t exactly suggest a farm motif. To remedy that, they’ve added some green paint and bucolic pictures of fields, which leaves you feeling like they’ve split the difference between the past and present concepts. The somewhat limited menu also speaks to a bit of an identity crisis. Though there are a few “global” offerings (a schnitzel, linguine and meatballs, a Korean rice bowl), “local” (as in Southern) takes precedence here. This is a lot closer to Lucky 32 than it is to Crafted, not a bad move given the commendable incorporation of locally sourced ingredients, but a bit of a confusing one.

For our first visit, my wife and I opted to start with one of the few Free House holdovers: Scotch eggs, a dish we had both enjoyed previously. They came plated differently (atop a bed of greens) but tasted as good as ever. Though the fried chicken proved tempting, we ended up with a blackened catfish and a low country shrimp bowl respectively. Both dishes were composed and presented well. The fish was buttery, and my wife, who usually disdains collards, found The Traveled Farmer’s rendition (sweetened with a hint of carrot) to be to her liking. My bowl featured perfectly cooked shrimp, and an accompanying broth imbued richness. However, despite the presence of andouille, it could have definitely used more spice. As it was my birthday, The Traveled Farmer was kind enough to offer a free dessert. The bread pudding with apple miso sauce was excellent: sweet, but not cloyingly so and moist without being mushy.

Compared to the previous concept, The Traveled Farmer’s prices leave less room for complaint. Many of the appetizers (including our Scotch eggs) come in at $5.95 while the non-steak entrees range from $11.95 to $15.95. Portions aren’t huge, but they are filling enough. The service, as was the case with the Free House, is on-point. Our server had a number of tables to cover but didn’t seem frazzled, and though The Traveled Farmer was clearly having a busy night, we didn’t have to wait long for anything.

Overall, The Traveled Farmer has promise. The concept doesn’t quite gel, but the food featured more highs than lows, and the pricing is reasonable enough to allow for future exploration. Don’t let whatever reservations you may have about this place stop you from making reservations for it.


The Traveled Farmer Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rogue One

After sending his daughter Jyn into hiding, scientist Galen Urso (Mads Mikkelsen) is forcibly recruited by Imperial weapons developer Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on the Death Star. Years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) is freed from prison by Rebel Cpt. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K2SO (voice of Alan Tudyk), who need her to forge an alliance with Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), who is holding an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) carrying a message from Galen. En route to Gerrera, the Rebels join up with Chirrut (Donnie Yuen), a pious blind warrior, and Baze (Jiang Wen), his cynical mercenary friend. Meanwhile, Krennic is facing increased pressure to prove the Death Star’s effectiveness in the face of skepticism from his rival, Grand Moff Tarkin.

Given the renewed interest in the Star Wars franchise stirred by the success of Episode VII, it is easy to see Rogue One, a side story, as an unnecessary attempt to keep milking the cash cow. However justified this cynicism may seem, for a placeholder (until Episode VIII arrives next year), Rogue One is a lot better than it needs to be. For Star Wars fans, it bridges the gap between Episode III and the original/Episode IV, adding context to the earlier stories while bringing back some familiar names and faces (such as Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa and, notably, James Earl Jones as Darth Vader). For those who typically find Star Wars silly or are simply not well-versed in its mythology, Rogue One works well enough as a stand-alone film featuring a darker tone and a lack of annoying kid-appeal characters.

Though it clocks in at over two hours, Rogue One moves briskly with no real lags. Director Gareth Edwards previously helmed 2014’s Gozilla reboot, and he seems to have ironed out the pacing problems that plagued that film. Edwards brings to Rogue One a sharp eye for stylized action, deftly blending martial arts, shootouts, and spacecraft battles. The latter remain a bit visually disorienting – too many objects on screen to keep track of at a time – but no moreso than previous Star Wars films, and the battle that takes up the last half-hour of the movie (during which dogfights play a key role) is executed impressively well. Edwards also helps bring to life new planets, and the changes of scenery are refreshing even if some of the locales are destined to be fodder for the Death Star’s devastating power.

While two hours of kinetic, aesthetically pleasing combat and mayhem would have been enough to satisfy some viewers, Rogue One also manages, as best it can, to add some complexity to the franchise’s central good vs. evil conflict. The forces of the Empire are as malevolent and foreboding as ever, but they are not a monolithic evil. Here we get a look at the political maneuvering and brinksmanship within the Imperial ranks. The Rebels, for their part, take on a more morally ambiguous role than in previous films: Andor is willing to straight-up assassinate Galen if he believes it will halt the Death Star, and the leadership council is fraught with bickering. Though we know, by virtue of Rogue One’s place in the Star Wars chronology, that the movie will end on a hopeful note, it doesn’t take the easy way in getting there.

Unfortunately, that fixed place in the chronology makes for some stilted character development. There are definitely exceptions to this shortcoming: Jyn transitions from cynical criminal to someone who is willing to take up a cause, Andor rediscovers a measure of idealism after making many coldly pragmatic decisions, and Galen shows that it is possible to serve (however unwillingly) the side of darkness and maintain a measure of humanity. Not surprisingly, these roles were the best-acted, and Mikkelsen’s sympathetic turn is a welcome break from the antagonists he usually plays. Credit too goes to Tudyk, whose K2 is the prissy C3PO’s opposite: a combat capable, brutally honest, and insolent (though ultimately loyal). Beyond that, however, the characters are either static, underdeveloped, or both. Cool as he is, Chirrut is a zatoichi caricature, Baze seems to be just along for the ride, it is never made clear what drove Ahmed’s character to ultimately defect, and Krennic is too much of a one-note career climber to be truly threatening. Lastly, a woefully miscast Whitaker gives a distractingly bad performance. He’s supposed to be the Star Wars equivalent of Che Guevara, but instead he comes across closer to a less sinister Robert Mugabe: an aged, deeply paranoid former revolutionary. The screenplay (by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) is funny in places, but there is also a fair amount of clichéd/uninspired dialogue and a general lack of quotable lines.

Rogue One lacks the grandeur, memorable characters, and world-building of a “proper” Star Wars film, but in unencumbering itself and accepting its place in the larger scheme of things, it also loses grating sidekicks and plot bloat. It is by no means a vital film, but it is definitely an enjoyable one.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Taaza Bistro

Located at 1216-M Bridford Parkway off of West Wendover Avenue in Greensboro, Taaza Bistro serves Indian cuisine for lunch (buffet style) and dinner (a la carte). There is a full bar, and catering is available.

When this established Burlington eatery expanded into Greensboro over the summer, it entered a market that already featured a few decent options for Indian food. But whereas some were inconsistent or limited in their offerings or muted their flavors, Taaza has so far managed to avoid all of those pitfalls. As a result, it has emerged as unquestionably the best Indian lunch buffet in Greensboro.

Small but stylish, Taaza ditches a lot of the classic iconography in favor of a more modern look. The bar area is well-lit, and the sleek interior is inviting.

The buffet offers a good balance of vegetarian (pakoras, daal, and curried vegetables) and non-vegetarian (tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala, and curried mussels) dishes along with chutneys, sauces, salads, a goat soup, and two different kinds of rice. Kheer and mango custard are among the dessert options, and servers deliver complementary naan to each table. Though the buffet offerings rotate, it should still be easy enough to find something to your liking.

The execution is, for the most part, spot-on. Whereas some Indian restaurants will tone down their buffet offerings for mass consumption, Taaza’s curries are aromatic, appropriately seasoned, and deliver the expected complex flavors. The tandoori chicken had a nice char note, as did the buttery naan.  The sauces and chutneys allow you to cool down or heat up as suits your palate.

At $10, Taaza’s buffet is competitively priced. The servers are also attentive: you won’t go long without water. While there are a few minor quibbles – the floor is overly slick in places, some of the buffet items can be better labeled – Taaza otherwise makes for an impressively tasty lunch destination.


Toshi's Cafe

Located in the Adam’s Farm shopping center at 5710 Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro, Toshi’s Café serves coffee drinks, smoothies, breakfast foods, sandwiches, and Japanese fare. It is open from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Sunday. Food and drink specials change daily.

Part deli, part coffee shop, and part Japanese eatery, Toshi’s is a quirky little spot with much to offer. Like a coffee shop, it’s small inside with only a few tables. Shelved lined with manga, mugs, and decorative knickknacks enliven what would otherwise be a sparse interior.

The breadth of the menu is impressive if also a bit confounding. In the mornings, Toshi’s has a full array of breakfast sandwiches, a decent stock of baked goods, and a respectable selection of smoothies and coffee drinks. Come back later in the day, and you can enjoy a salad or sandwich or a sushi roll or a rice bowl or even a slice of cheesecake. This makes for a somewhat nebulous identity but also a convenient one-stop-shop for the hungry and undecided.

As it is on the way to work, Toshi’s has become a weekly breakfast stop for me. More often than not, I opt for the breakfast burrito, which comes stuffed with eggs, cheese, tots, salsa, and sausage (choice of meat is available and there is a vegetarian variant as well). The zest of the salsa and the texture of the tots put it several notches above a frozen or fast-food equivalent, but at $5.75, it’s also rather pricey. The smoothies are a slightly better deal at $3.85 for a small, $4.35 for a medium, and $4.75 for a large. I’ve tried several and have enjoyed some (the Green Machine and the Tooty Fruity) more than others, but none has been a disappointment. Another intriguing – if also overpriced – breakfast choice is Russell’s Rajun Cajun: egg whites, Cajun cream cheese, bacon, and scallion on an everything bagel: definitely tasty, but probably not worth $5.65.

Toshi’s gets its name from owner Toshi Yoshida, who can often be found behind the counter. Both he and his staff are friendly and accommodating, and I’ve yet to see them get an order wrong.

It’s been years since I’ve tried Toshi’s for anything besides breakfast. I remember their sandwiches being OK, and I will have to investigate their sushi and rice bowls some day. As a purveyor of morning munchies, Toshi’s consistently delivers enjoyable food with a smile. There are cheaper options, but what you get here is usually worth the price.


Toshi's Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, November 25, 2016 Self-Destruct!

After more than a decade of alienating fans with behind-the-scenes drama and unpopular stylistic choices, Metallica pulled off a coup with 2008’s Death Magnetic, a triumphant return to thrash marred only by questionable mixing and production. Eight years later, Metallica’s double-disc tenth album manages to continue that march back toward respectability while simultaneously adding a few new wrinkles.

In some ways, Hardwired is very self-consciously a throwback album. The destructive connotation– and punctuation choices – of the title seem to be taking a page from Megadeth’s 80s catalog (ironic, given Metallica’s love-hate relationship with ex-member/Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine) while the radio-unfriendly song lengths call to mind …And Justice for All.  Across the first several tracks, James Hetfield’s snarling vocals and sometimes-juvenile lyrics, backed by hard-hitting instrumentation, would seem right at home on a mid-late 80s Metallica release.

But Hardwired is neither simple repetition nor self-parody, and as it progresses, the album takes a number of unexpected turns. From track to track, lyrics alternate between Biblical and mythological themes (“Atlas, Rise!” and “ManUNKind”) to tributes of sorts to Amy Winehouse (“Moth into Flame”) and Lemmy (“Murder One”). The band also plays with slower tempos on some songs, gradually speeding up to project a sense of growing menace. Metallica may have embraced its roots, but it hasn’t chucked every bit of musical development from the past two decades out the window.

An alternate explanation, of course, is that all of the members are north of 50, and sustaining a 77-minute thrash assault simply is beyond their reach. Yet if Metallica is slowing down, the members mask it well. Robert Trujillo delivers strong basslines while Lars Ulrich’s drumming, always somewhat divisive, is at least well-timed. Ironically, it is lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, usually the most reliable of the bunch, who seems the most noticeably absent here. It isn’t that his guitar is neutered but rather that he doesn’t really get a chance to cut loose, in trademark fashion, until the closing track, “Spit out the Bone.” Whether or not this is related to the fact that Hetfield and Ulrich wrote all of the songs is anyone’s guess. Whatever the reason, it comes as a letdown following the epic riffing found on Death Magnetic.

Hardwired doesn’t pack as much of a punch and won’t turn as many heads as Metallica’s classic albums, but it is a commendably hard-hitting effort from a band that seems to have seen and done it all in three-plus decades.