17 November 2017

THE JUSTICE FRIENDS

Today we see the opening of what should be a pretty huge event. Finally - the Justice League on the big screen!

Why is it, then, that no one seems to care? Maybe it's that awful Disney monopoly and Marvel bias that runs rampant across the Internet (bollocks). Maybe it's tough coming off a really good superhero year and it's easy to get overshadowed by THOR: Ragnarok (2017). Again, blaming Marvel, although it's worth pointing out that when I talked about how good 2017 is for superhero movies I literally DID NOT EVEN THINK OF JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017).

Of course Snyder needed a really jacked
Commissioner Gordon for some reason
I always preview these big movies trying to ascertain some kind of cultural context. To be honest, I was surprised that Justice League was coming out today. It feels like it should have been out months ago, right? It's almost like the DC Hype Machine is too strong. It's exhausting. We've seen trailers for so long that the green screen has changed during the scene where Aquaman lands on the Batmobile. Now there's way more fire. To be fair, Ragnarok did this, too, with a fairly iconic scene of Hela destroying Mjolner (that's not really a spoiler, it's the centerpiece of the trailer and film, happening like 15 minutes in) changing from Asgard to a random field.

This digresses besides the point. I don't really think I'm bias towards one studio or another, but I also have eyes and I've seen these damn movies. I actually never watched Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), because it looked far too stupid, then I read about that Martha thing and was just out. But I've seen all of both studio's other films in theaters, and I clearly didn't care for Ragnarok that much, so hopefully you can see some balance here.

This is all to say that, damn DCEU films are such hot fucking garbage. Wonder Woman (2017) is the clear outlier in terms of quality, and it seems like everyone (ESPECIALLY Warner Bros) knows it. Zack Snyder being the core champion of this entire overextended franchise is one of the more obvious bad calls in movie history, but the production of this film gets kind of muddled.

Now, his family faced a true and devastating tragedy that ultimately led Zack to step away from the film. Still, Warner Bros so quickly replacing him with Joss "That Man's Playing Galaga" Whedon seems like such a chase for the few leftover magical bits from The Avengers (2012) that they can possibly grab. Both these directors have very contrary styles, though. Snyder formed the DCEU through his dark and brooding colour palette and intense comic-driven Frank Miller-esque imagery. Whedon drove the current Marvel style of bright colours, witty banter, and a mix of realism and silliness. Did I just say The Avengers was realist? Realist in contrast to the hyper-reality of Batman v. Superman, which is super-ironic because they were originally going for Nolan-esque, right? This is all a trip, man!

In the end, who knows how this film turned out. Advance word is...suck. That's no real surprise. DC always seems to be chasing rather than innovating these days. Superhero team-up movies are in? Well, let's put ours out super-late even though we've had reliable franchises and more popular heroes for the past thirty years! Actually, Superman (1978) turns forty next year. How did we get two movies where the fucking Vision teams up with heroes before Superman did? There's also a clear tonal shift after "funny" superhero movies like not only the banter in Whedon's flicks, but Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Deadpool (2016), and yes, now Ragnarok proved to be moneymakers. They got this so wrong with Suicide Squad (2016), though. That's simply because this is all superficial. It doesn't matter of a movie has funny jokes or insane premises or whatever. What matters is if a movie is good or not - if we care about the characters, the stakes, if the plot progresses from action and reaction, and if what it presents is iconic and aesthetically pleasing with a clear sense of space, action, investment, and engagement. Non-Wonder Woman DCEU movies don't really do that, and that's why I just haven't cared about them as much as Marvel films. Marvel has its own problems, but they're legendary compared to DC's crap. I mean, look how much fun Deadpool 2 (2018) is having with its trailer this week, just trolling every body. It's confident in its product, that's why.

In addition to always having all of their properties under one neat little roof, as well as having a decades-long head start on Marvel that they totally squandered, I really can't figure out why Warner Bros keeps screwing this up. They knock other franchises like Harry Potter, IT (2017), and Mad Max out of the park. Well, maybe not that last one. Further than that, though, this group of heroes gave us the greatest string of animated series ever. From Batman: The Animated Series right on through Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, creator Bruce Timm brought a slew of stories to the small screen, all with themes adults could appreciate while still being accessible to children, full of action and character and long over-arching narratives that informed and grew each season and even from series to series. Hell, though Batman Beyond into that mix, which somehow becomes integral to JLU's ultimate conclusion. How did they get animation so right and live action so wrong?

The same goes for the latest upsurge in CW programming. They hit that line between kitsch and comic book melodrama so well while making everything grounded and believable. Why do the movies become overstylized and go off the rails? Or the better question may be, why not have Grant Gustin be the Flash here instead of Ezra Miller? Is it because the Flash kind of sort of has his own Justice League going in the Arrowverse? Or is it just that this film series wanted to do its own thing with the character? There's big bucks to be had by seeing all these heroes together, not throwing new actors at us!

And on that note, this isn't even a fully proper Justice League film since Superman is dead. Nah, there's no way Superman is actually dead, or at least he won't stay dead. This is the most obvious terrible secret in film history. It was super public that Henry Cavill had to digitally erase his moustache for fuck's sake! Supes will probably appear here, but it's going to take a bit longer for a proper Justice League team-up.

With pecs so big they're boobs!
Getting back to that Justice League animated note, I'm also struck by the villain choice. Who the hell is Steppenwolf? No one knows who Steppenwolf is. I always think back to what I know the most, and when comic knowledge gets a little rusty, it's definitely the TV shows. Characters who didn't appear in anything in the 90s or 2000s to inform my childhood definitely get blurry. There are so many damn recognizable DC big bads from over the years. Even if you didn't want to blow your wad with Darkseid right away, while go to Steppenwolf? There are plenty of other baddies on Apokolips or other New Gods to play with. Or Mongol or Imperiex or Brainiac or anyone fucking else. It seems like another huge misstep from a movie that is adding up quite a bit of them now.

This is where that tone gets muddy, too. So you want to be jollier, and that's fine, but have you seen this thing? The entire world is on fire, and I'm sure that Steppenwolf is trying to turn Earth into Apokolips, because that's what these assholes always do. Is that the time to be going nuts and screaming "Yeah!" and stabbing Parademons? The criticism comes back full circle - be fun if you want to, but Deadpool got to be fun because it was just Ryan Reynolds being a selfish asshole with no pretense for heroism.

This has all been extremely negative, I know, but I'm just not convinced this is going to be any good. Why tug at my heart strings, oh Warner Bros!? There are a few things to look forward to, though. Gal Gadot has turned into a perfect Wonder Woman, and seeing more of her, as the reshoots purportedly have done, is a good thing. Also just coming off of The Bad Batch (2017) I'm super into how insane Jason Momoa is, although that's not totally in Aquaman's character. Although, let's face it, depending on how he's written, Aquaman is either a stuck-up nerd or angry silent warrior. Momoa seems to be going for uh...bro. Just straight dude California bro. That's rad. It's a fun way to make this fish-talking character actually cool and interesting.

Financially for all the griping DCEU films tend to do fine. I wouldn't expect Avengers-level numbers, but with Ragnarok burning off a lot of demand in its first two weeks (despite a pretty damn good hold), the path is clear for a #1 opening for sure. I'm curious if there's room for two big Superhero films along with a Pixar drop next week. After that, though, the studios have REALLY cleared their schedules in anticipation of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017). The path is clear for this film to do some work, even if this weekend isn't much.

12 November 2017

Exploring Underacknowledged References in Stranger Things

I don't much review television here at Norwegian Morning Wood, even though I watch quite a bit of it. Actually, truth be told, in reality I actually don't get around to all that much. You can check for yourself. It's mostly cartoons. Simpsons. The occasional shitty Flash episode. I don't get in a ton of the prestige television, mostly because I just don't have time nor the capacity for emotional investment. Or access. I'm a cheap bastard.

Whaddap playa
But I've devoured both seasons of Stranger Things. I'm not one to call the show brilliant or anything. It rides nostalgia and overacting over any good, layered ironic writing or truly original ideas, but the characters are endearing and iconic, which is simply rare in these times. More than anything, though, Stranger Things is addictive. Watching it is a compulsion. Each episode climaxes with such a hook that you need to let the next one unfold, which it can do so easily by the nature of Netflix's binge-friendly streaming platform.

So this is all to say that I think Stranger Things is okay. It's not really terrible, but it's not the kind of show I obsess and drool over. For Season 2 I did watch an episode every night for nine straight nights, which was a nice way to let it settle and really think about what was going on. Let's just say SPOILERS here because I want to ramble unencumbered. I generally enjoyed Season 2 more than the first, but I want to mostly give praise for how different it was.

Season 1 set up this central mystery of "What Happened to Will Byers?" which developed and ran its course to include shady psychic child-napping government institutions, spooky monster dimensions, and nerd killing. It's all compelling stuff. It also constantly pays homage to classic 80s genre fare. There are references a plenty to Star Wars, The Thing (1982), Dungeons & Dragons, The Evil Dead (1981), a slew of Stephen King adaptations, but mostly a lot of story elements from E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982). There are so many more.

Season 2 does a lot of this same stuff, but I'll give it credit for slamming through a whole new crop of pop culture references. Ghostbusters (1984) is perhaps the most prominent, but a lot of the first half of the season feels like Gremlins (1984). However, I was most struck by how Empire Strikes Back-y (1980) this season was. Now, there was nothing crazy revealed like the Demogorgon is Will's father or anything, but a lot of the story structure seemed to ape this very famous sequel. There were also definite Aliens (1986) vibes, from Eleven's new Ripley 'do to the inflation of dangerous protagonists. That tunnel scene with the army dudes hunting Demodogs was totally just...Aliens.

But back to Empire. I was struck by the famous Bryan Singer quote describing X2: X-Men United (2003), which he supposedly modeled on Empire. Season 1 was driven on this strength of this core group of friends, even if one of them was missing. Eleven was absorbed into that group and they made their stand together, solving the central mystery, and all the psychic monster dimension junk that came with it. Season 2 sees everyone fractured, doing their own things and exploring the ramifications of that in their relationships. It spins different characters off with each other in unexpected ways. Lucas and new girl Max. Dustin and Steve, which is the most legendary team-up ever. Eleven and Hopper. Nancy and Jonathan, who were kind of a thing in Season 1, but totally go for it here. Mike, ostensibly the lead in Season 1 gets much less to do, and if anything, is more paired and connected to Will, a connection that grows stronger the more Will recedes and the Shadow Monster takes over.

In Empire, we saw this, too. Luke and R2 go and do their own thing on Dagobah while Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO fight Mynocks and Space Slugs, then head to holla at Lando on Bespin. We even see a bit of that. Lando was a smoother, cooler Han Solo. Here, Billy is a tougher, cooler, more asshole-version of Steve. A...Supersteve, if you will. The big thing is, though, that the group splinters and the most powerful character doesn't interact with anyone else for most of the series.

"Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister" (S2;E7) really hammered this home for me. For an episode so late in the season, when so many pieces are coming together it was a bold move to feature only Eleven in a largely stand-alone story. Some critics have said that it interrupts the momentum and flow of an otherwise tight story, but quite the opposite, the episode is integral to her character. It's her Dagobah. She finds an older master with a background and abilities similar to her, trains and hones those abilities, then is pulled away because she senses her friends in danger. This is exactly Luke's journey in Empire.

Now, it's important to remember that Luke doesn't actually do shit in Empire. The great irony is that he abandons his training and rushes back to save his friends, but it's all a ruse by Vader. Luke's presence doesn't affect anything with them. Han is still frozen in Carbonite and sent off with Boba Fett. It's Lando and Lobot that save the day and are about to escape when they have to turn around to save LUKE's ass as he dangles from a weather vane. Eleven's presence is admittedly cooler, she's not the Hawkins, Indiana big gun, she's their ONLY gun. It's breathtaking and insane that it takes nine episodes for Eleven to reunite with the party, but that delay makes the reunion all the sweeter.

There is a lot more to Stranger Things 2, from its amazing Lovecraftian elements to its great expansion of world development, and Steve being dreamy and awesome, but using two of the greatest sequels of all time as its plot points is a solid move. This show hinges around the 80s, and although that can be a little played out (where is my early 2000s TRL-infused nostalgia), using some of the greatest movies of that era as its direct inspiration serves the purpose of the show well. Any Back to the Future (1985) references coming up next? C'mon, the Upside-Down is definitely capable of time travel. #BarbLives. And where is Lucas' love of Conan the Destroyer (1984)? There are endless possibilities.

By the way, speaking of Lucas, one of the weirder bits about Season 2 was how it clearly had something to say about race, but always seemed to afraid to say it. From Mike's insistence that Lucas be Winston Zeddemore when they play Ghostbusters to Billy's subtle racism (there's no other explicit reason he forbids his sister from hanging out with Lucas), there's a little undercurrent of social justice here, but always seems to afraid to point it out in words. Afraid to alienate its younger base, perhaps? It's hard to say, but comes off feeling half-baked and awkward.

Smashy smashy!
And for the record, because I like doing this, Dustin is totally Ray Stantz, as the show makes clear, Will is definitely Egon Spengler, although he lacks Egon's confidence, he maintains his role as the most socially awkward and holds technical knowledge simply from his connection the Upside-Down. Dustin is probably the Spengler in terms of knowing random shit, but he's also the most lovable and hopeful, which is a stronger Ray trait. Mike and Lucas definitely fight for Venkman. Mike had him in the first Season, scoring the love interest and wit while Lucas was more a man of action, very contrary to the slacker Venkman. In Season 2 Lucas' character is developed much more and has the bigger love story along with more time to shine making wry comments. That leaves Winston as the odd man out. Lucas was definitely the Zeddemore of Season 1, but there's not a great analogy in Season 2. The blue collar audience surrogate is Hopper more than anybody else.

What did you think of Stranger Things 2? Did it do it for ya? Are you on the Empire bandwagon? Do you think that Stranger Things 3 will add a bunch of Demoteddy Bears and a Slave Eleven? That's super disturbing. Better go with Slave Hopper.

10 November 2017

Daddy's Murdered on a Train, Other Stuff

There's two major film openings this week, folks, and neither are really big blockbuster action-types, but both have some franchise aspirations in their own way. Spoiler, but neither is going to light up the cinema, either. I can call this a mile away. I can tell you that a redux of Murder on the Orient Express (2017) isn't going to do well. Why would it ever do well? Daddy's Home 2 (2017) is one of the least-inspired comedies in a while, but considering that somehow Daddy's Home (2015) is second only to Elf (2003) in Will Ferrell's all-time grosses (The LEGO Movie [2014] technically out-grossed it, and you could even call it a live action Ferrell movie, but that doesn't feel Ferrell-esque as much as his more classic films), it was only natural that we get a sequel. Let's talk about each of these films in that order.

For real
FUR real
I don't even know if I have much for Murder on the Orient Express. There is an all-star cast here, with Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, and Daisy Ridley. Before you get too excited, with the exception of Ridley doesn't that sound like an amazing cast twenty years ago? I don't think the woes of the current Hollywood system are as much about actors not being appealing anymore as it is a reliance on A-listers that were popular in the 90s. This is all to say that I don't care. Depp has been slumming in everything lately. Dafoe has always slummed in weird shit. Pfeiffer has underwent a mini-renaissance the last few years and she's actually a bit more interesting as an elder actress than she was in Scarface (1983). So that's a mixed bag at best.

Kenneth Branagh is terrible. He does Shakespeare well and pops up randomly in mainstream shit ranging from Wild Wild West (1999) to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2001), and of course, this year's Dunkirk (2017). Still, his last few directorial projects in order are Cindarella (2015), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), and THOR (2011). Why. Why in every sense of the world is this someone whose art is worth seeing?

The worst part may be that the first fucking image you see is Branagh in the most ridiculous moustache ever, but it's played completely seriously. Look, I know it's a European period piece, but have some restraint to make things palatable to today's cynical audience, dammit. This film just doesn't seem like it's doing itself any favours. It's definitely going to play to an older crowd. No young person has ever heard of Agatha Christie, much less can appreciate her work.

Now, the merit of the film will largely depend on how accurate the adaptation is, but considering this is the fourth live-action screen adaptation, including previous films and TV movies, is there anything new to say? It's a mystery story - isn't not knowing the ending critical? This story has been around for 80 years, man! Of course, maybe the young audience doesn't know whodunnit, and maybe even the older target audience has forgotten. It's going to have to be a compelling movie, but I'm struck the same way I was when that shitty Alex Skarsgard Tarzan movie came out last year. Who the fuck cares about Tarzan? Studios seem to be grabbing anything with name recognition for the sake of name recognition, not whether that property is even engaging.

Murder has like a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes right now and may do okay, but it'll fade out of consciousness quickly. To me that's the greatest crime of all, and is the source of a lot of the vitriol in this preview. Why could this try to be new or cool or interesting? It's just a bunch of shit that we won't think about next week or next year or in the next ten years. Who cares. It's a cultural tragedy.

Altho isn't this tough cameo lessened by how goofy
John Cena has become the past few years?
WE'LL FIND OUT
Moving on from that trainwreck (wha-hey!) we have Daddy's Home 2. What I can say about this one? I was eager to see the first film because it did really well and Mark Wahlberg for some reason plays off Will Ferrell so well. It was such a damned waste of time. It's a film that doesn't know how goofy it wants to be. Tonally it's like Kicking and Screaming (2005) without any of the fun cameos or cheekiness meets Step Brothers (2008), but without the surreal nuance. It's crazy to see what director Sean Anders does while he's trying to be Adam McKay. The Other Guys (2010) and Step Brothers had such solid world-building around them where every actor was so game for subtle weirdness. Daddy's Home tries so damn hard but falls flat over and over again. And this guy made That's My Boy (2012), which counts me as the only existing fan in the world!

Anders returns for the sequel, which hasn't made anything appealing at all. It's all very Meet the Fockers (2004)-esque, where it portends to bring a bunch of new older characters played by former A-listers into the mix to challenge and reverse the roles of the former protagonists and antagonists. For some reason people seem weirdly cool with Mel Gibson now, who has appeared in a ton of movies for someone with his racist and conservative views. But that's stunt casting for sure. John Cena is now always welcome, and John Lithgow is a doof, but that seems to work well here. It all makes me think about how much more pigeon-holed and thrown in a corner capable actress Linda Cardellini is going to be.

This is a Christmas movie, which is coming out far too early. Then again, we had A Bad Moms Christmas (2017) last week for reasons that completely escape me. It could make some bank because the first one is well-liked, but I think that novelty has worn off, and this November is looking pretty busy already. It's not totally a family-friendly comedy. Then again, I have no idea what the audience for Daddy's Home was (was it new parents? college kids? bros? working stiffs? Moms who wanted to see Mark Wahlberg's chest?), and maybe those people will turn out again. I don't see this doing well financially and culturally...I mean, how often do you quote Daddy's Home?

Hollywood is not incapable of churning out interesting new and exciting quotable films. A lot of the major 2017 releases have just been junk. Will Ferrell is already having a rough year as he finds it difficult to find new ways to riff on his immature persona. Adult movies like Orient Express aren't really that sexy, either, at least how this has been presented. It's not just that moviegoers only want to watch superhero movies and horror movies, those are just the only ones doing a good job at capturing our attention. They're what's in with culture now. Turning your nose up at that trend isn't good for anybody.

What will you watch this weekend?
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