25 May 2018

Red Cup: A Star Wars Story

That joke's been done, actually by legitimate corporate interests now, but there's nothing that can top it.

Let's start this preview out right - I've been disinterested in Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) since it was announced. And I'm this guy. I don't want to sit here and just rag on corporations making money, because that's like getting angry at a dog for having fur. But it is worthwhile to explore a little bit of the disconnect here.

Maybe Chewie can do more than eat Porgs this time
Tracing it back to its earliest origin, there were a lot of dumb ideas bandied about with Disney's Star Wars acquisition and the early concept that they're going to churn out these movies forever. I'm a little iconoclastic in saying that not all Star Wars, even the originals were necessarily holy precious works of art, but they've doubtlessly influenced a lot more people than most works of art, which is in itself significant to acknowledge. While an expansive storytelling empire is not new to Star Wars at all, making a shitload of crappy to forgettable movies is.

So therein lies the first difference we need to get past and understand. Are Yoda and Boba Fett prequels really a disservice to the brand than if they were in comic or book form? Star Wars' Expanded Universe (now Legends) obsessively explored just about every nook and cranny of these characters lives and filled out lore from thousands of years in the past (first story taking place in 25,793 BBY apparently) to about 130 years or so after the original movies take place. That's a solid span of history to explore.

And that's the first reason I sort of didn't care about seeing young Yoda or young Han Solo - like, it's never fun to flesh out characters with mysterious backgrounds. We already know everything about their characters that we need to, elucidating every off-handed comment is a trite exercise. In a way similar to how Rogue One (2016) seemed to spin an entire movie out of an inconsistency made in a jokey space adventure from the 70s, Solo also will apparently deal with rectifying Harrison Ford's infamous Kessel Run line where he measures distance, not time by bragging in how few parsecs it took him. This is the only reason I know what a parsec is.

But it's also not necessary. It's not getting at why these films were popular - the relatable characters in a mere pocket of an extensive and lived-in universe. Instead it's obsessive in a redundant nerd kind of way. Of course, that's surely not the only inspiration for these films and it's kind of reductive for me to say so - because in fact, a movie about young Ponda Baba could be amazing. The point I think, is that Baba: A Star Wars Story can still go anywhere. We can guess what we're getting with Solo. Imperial Academy drop-out. Sabacc. Falcon. Chewie. Kessel Run. Maybe dumping some cargo for Jabba. With Rogue One, even though it was somewhat derivative and ultimately kind of a mess, we got a look into the lives and ideology of some people in this universe we'd never seen before. The first hump to get over with Solo is the fact it already feels repetitive.

There are also production troubles, but I don't really care about that. Every movie ever has production troubles and reshoots. I do think that a Ron Howard movie is far less interesting than a Phil Lord and Chris Miller movie, but I'd never say Ron was a poor director. Plus we did get this out of it. Either way, though, it does kind of reek of meddling in order to create a safer product, which isn't altogether awful, but for sure a whole lot less interesting. And less interesting filmmaking sucks. Well, most of the time.

This is all very superficial stuff, though. There's got to be something else preventing me from liking this thing. Maybe it was the trailer that was so full of predictable shit that Red Letter Media predicted it to a dime. It's this crux of pandering where even edginess (maybe the more apt word is "quippiness?") is predictable. As I sit and reflect on the Disney Star Wars with a few years and films now under our belt, it's also safe to say that there is something that just feels continuously disappointing.

The Force Awakens (2015) was a true event, which was really cool to experience. But to a ridiculous fault it felt like it was made out of fear of upsetting a virulent nerdy fanbase. Rogue One felt so good while watching it but when you sit down and examine it, nothing makes sense until the admittedly brilliant last act. And I loved The Last Jedi (2017), which switched things back so far from The Force Awakens that it was met with equal vitriol. There's no pleasing us. We all have our own little Star Wars head canon now and it's extremely difficult to make anything we perceive as good.

Of course, most people just like Han Solo. That's not really accurate actually - most people like Harrison Ford. I'm not sure a Solo movie can work without him and Alden Ehrenreich never felt like the right fit. I mean, his biggest role so far, in the Coen Bros' Hail, Caesar! (2016) landed so well precisely because he's a terrible, miscast, uncharismatic actor. The total opposite of Harrison Ford. There are two issues with this assumption - 1) concluding that that's a bad thing or he NEEDS to emulate Harrison Ford (see the first sentence of this paragraph as to why I think this is important) and 2) That's an awful harsh judgment to make without seeing the movie. Of course, that's also the vibe I get going in which makes me feel like it's not worth my time to see this thing.

And maybe I am just getting a little jaded and a film needs to really strike the right chord for me to get off my ass and see it in theaters these days. There are not many traditional tentpoles I'm interested in this summer. It's rough. I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way, since no one apparently goes to the movies or watches television anymore.

So pumped for the prequel movie to explain...whatever
the hell that thing to the left is
I do think that while saturation doesn't necessarily devalues the Star Wars brand any more than extended comics and novels did, the effect that we can now pick and choose makes things a little more precise. I'm not into Solo, and that's fine, the next one will come along. I super wasn't into Dark Empire II but definitely into the Thrawn Trilogy. Joruus C'Baoth = the Original Daddy. Maybe that's perfectly fine.

It's kind of like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018). I was super into Jurassic World (2015) and gave it a great review, but this new film doesn't appear to be pushing the franchise in any interesting direction. Neither is Solo, which I think is probably the biggest drag. Screw everything I said about Ehrenreich or fatigue or nerd anger or market saturation. Why would you see this film other than the fact that it's about Han Solo? What are you going to gain from it? What story are they even telling and why is it important? Ultimately the best I can come up with is that I want to see Donald "This is America" Glover as Lando, but I'm confident in YouTubing "Solo - all Lando Scenes" in three months. There's just no other compelling reason. Tarzan and Lone Ranger movies aren't inherently bad, but they can't gain seats just from name recognition. It's a total lack of freshness that's incredibly disappointing.

What do you think? Do you agree?

23 May 2018

First Impressions: Deadpool Dos

For no fault of its own, Deadpool 2 (2018) is actually dropping at a weird crossroads in cinematic history. What's the last great comedy you can remember? I mean, truly deserving, game-changing comedy? Like...22 Jump Street (2014)? Or maybe it's Deadpool (2016). Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). But that made no money nor cultural impact.

2017 was really rough. Girls Trip (2017) gets the title without much competition and literally nothing else is memorable. Despite a lot of effort, we haven't seen much of anything in 2018. We have Game Night (2018) and Blockers (2018), but can we really talk about any of these films with the same breath as The Hangover (2009) or Bridesmaids (2011), or going back, a Billy Madison (1995) or Zoolander (2001)? No, we cannot.

So, it would appear that we're in a rough patch of comedy. The numbers and percentage of box office gross supports this as even promising stars like Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer have headlined pretty awful bombs in the past month. It seems difficult for anyone to truly breakout and make a run of high-concept mainstream comedy films these days. Sandler is trying on Netflix, but they're all pretty bad and more importantly, wholly outside of the cultural conversation.

Into all this we get the curveball of Deadpool 2, which IS the mainstream R-rated comedy that we seem to be so desperately lacking. The pessimists would lament that even our comedy films these days have to be name recognition superhero movies that only work if we also really understand the cultural context of other superhero movies. It's like literally our only world is superhero films.

The optimist would say, who cares, it's funny. It's also surprisingly well-written. I always like to talk free from the burden of SPOILERS, so SPOILERS abound all through the following article. There are a lot of shocking moments, although considering most are either undone by the end of the film or simply happen in the first ten minutes, it's tougher to really spoil anything. Instead, there are plenty of jokes and cameos here that really deserve a first-time, unabashed viewing. So, if you're into that, go see it and come back. The Internet will still exist in the next two hours.

Welcome back! With a movie like this there are going to be obvious comparisons to the first installment, and in general comedy sequels have a difficult time re-creating magic. I talked about this way back with Anchorman 2 (2013, which I still think SURPASSES the original. I said it). In essence, comedy only works when you present this cognitive dissonance, a combination of surprise, recognition, the unexpected, and familiarity - all these seemingly competing ideas combine with timing and context to provide a vast array of possible scenarios that elicit a chuckle. Sequels, or doing the same thing over again, is inherently contrasting to the surprise, or cleverness necessary for comedy to work.

Maybe it's fair to Deadpool 2's success then that superhero sequels are generally better, because there is no need to be bogged down with an origin story or character introductions. Superheros generally work better when we just accept that they're ridiculous and we know we're here to just watch a bunch of costumed idiots slam up against each other anyway.

Sometimes, though, the only point is an origin story. This is also why many villains are doppelgangers of the hero - they work to both stay in the same world and create a counterpoint to the hero. That is, when examining the hero's origin and his or her choices, it enhances the theme to show the wrong path. Sometimes that works really well (Black Panther [2018]), other times it comes off contrived (Ant-Man [2015], Iron Man [2008], Doctor Strange [2016]). The best superhero films find a way to make their villain the inverse of the hero. The Dark Knight (2008) was so good in part because its villain both fit into the world and universe, added to the film's themes, and also provided a perfect counterpoint to the hero. Spider-Man 2 (2004) featured its villain as a spiritual counterpoint to the hero (Doc Ock, like Peter Parker, was dedicated to science, but in a fulfilling relationship with balanced responsibilities, victim of a scientific accident but without moral guidance, and powers that emulated Spider-Man's without being a direct copy - wall crawling, stretchy mid-range combat, strength, and agility. I could still write a whole Spider-Man 2 post). This is a really long tangent, but also circles back to Deadpool 2 because its villain introduction revitalizes the film.

See, I don't think 2 is as good as Pool in terms of jokes. It doesn't have that unbelievable kick to the dick that the first one did, not does it really exist in as perfect of a realm between our world and Deadpool's, where Hugh Jackman, Ryan Reynolds, and 20th Century Fox are all things that Deadpool somehow knows about. There is some of that this time around, but we get the schtick. How many movies full of Hugh Jackman jokes can we really have? It's all kind of one note. Deadpool might be better served to check in on the development of superheros ten or twenty years down the line rather than right now. Sure we get some updated Logan (2017), Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Infinity War (2018) jokes, and they all land when you understand context, but that's not really sustainable. Instead it's more meta recognition that's become the only lens for understanding films. Fucking Ready Player One (2018) again.

Where the movie succeeds, though, is the long winding path through character interactions, where everything everyone does has a motive, a causal relationship, and consequences. It's actually amazing. Cable, the main villain turns into an ally. Firefist, an ally turns into the main villain. The fucking Juggernaut! Sorry, I just got excited for that song, which is perfect in every perfect way. Cable is a brilliant counterpart to Deadpool (and has been for nearly thirty years now), because he's the total opposite personality - dark and serious, but they also both really love guns. You can see that in the final battle (naturally, Deadpool has to comment on it) when their fighting is so in sync and they become best friends.

Likewise, Firefist is a great kid sidekick (nice to see The Hunt for the Wilderpeople [2016]'s Julian Dennison again - no Taikia Watiti THOR: Ragnarok [2017] reference? Maybe even that was too deep). Both he and Deadpool learn across the movie about themselves - Deadpool not to be so much of a dick to everyone around him, and when he's able to overcome this and reach Firefist (shades of the Rainmaker in Looper [2012] here. See, I can make references, too) and prevent his dark descent, it's a truly cathartic moment. The fact that that moment is undercut with jokes is less distracting than in some Marvel movies because we're not really meant to take the whole movie seriously.

The only time this really doesn't work is the opening, where yeah, Morena Baccarin's Vanessa dies. Celine Dion's "Ashes" (which is actually an original song, done so well you could swear it's a kitschy 90s ballad and one of her old hits - totally should win an Academy Award) comes in and there's a doofy James Bond-style opening, which doesn't feel right. Again, the film is aware of this, and the opening credits agree with our jaw-dropped feelings. Seriously, "Directed by One of the Guys Who Killed John Wick's Dog" is spot-on. In addition to this being an unfortunate 2018 fridge-stuffing incident it seemed painfully clear that a Deadpool movie doesn't know what to do with a girlfriend. Vanessa was gone for most of the original before becoming a damsel in distress. While it is the best way to put Deadpool down this depressed, suicidal path, since this was the only thing he really cared about, and greatly fuels his desire for death which becomes a major theme as he is able to accept this and repair himself and his relationships to others, it left a sour taste in my mouth.

To some extent Deadpool 2 does the same as its predecessor, where it will do something lazy or tonally off, then point it out in an attempt to wink at us and let us know they're in on the joke. This film actually does a better job of rising above still proceeding with the tropes as Deadpool did, which really still followed beat-by-beat a superhero film while winking at us. There's quite a bit more to this film derived from its complex character interactions, genuinely engaging action scenes, and again the facts that the jokes work enough that everything is smoothed over. Still, things like "Here's a CGI fight!" followed by a big CGI fight is more surface-level pandering than digging in and solving a trope in a unique way. It's still better at this point that having a mindless crappy CGI scuffle, but it also leaves me wondering if we can ever again have sincerity in our films. I had this idea when watching Blood Fest - horror films are so victim to tropes these days that their only way out is to expressly call them out.

There's a lot else this movie does really well. The assembling of X-Force and summarily dismissal of nearly the entire crew is hilarious, if not a total rip-off of MacGruber (2010). I've really reached a point where no reference can get by me. It's still an impressive cast of Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgard, and Brad Pitt, and their deaths are also both clever in a Final Destination-sort of way, foreshadowed by the high wind advisory (which Deadpool's irreverent personality dismisses), which is made funnier because it's the kind of innocuous comment you wouldn't take seriously, even when it's brought up again. It ALSO adds to Zazie Beetz' Domino character in both seeing her unique luck abilities and personality on screen. There is a lot going on here, and it's one of the reasons this movie works so well at the intersection of action, plot, character, and comedy. Beetz is also fantastic here.

We should probably talk about the ending. Apparently even Ryan Reynolds thought it was cheating a little. So yeah, this movie is all about Deadpool learning to cope with his inability to save the love of his life while simultaneously being literally incapable of dying. At the end he's finally granted death, but Vanessa sends him back because he needs to learn to accept others into his life and not just her. In thirty seconds during the end credits, though, he goes back in time and saves her. This actually undoes the entire movie, and seems like a tacked on, hokey ending. I mean, even Conker's Bad Fur Day knew how to employ this the right way to hit you in the gut. Again, my obscure references are on point.

Excising Ryan Reynolds of his personal demons from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Green Lantern (2011) are also inspired. I mean, we have Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool shooting Ryan Reynolds in the head and MY head exploded. Yet, not a single reference to Blade: Trinity (2004). I mean...Thundercunt. There was a subtle moment earlier actually, where the current Deadpool does what the earlier Deadpool was most famous for - deflecting bullets with katanas. Here of course, he's riddled with bullets anyway, which shows his real superpower. Was I also the only one who really wanted a Two Guys and a Girl reference. Maybe through Traylor Howard some work, she ain't doing shit anymore.

As I reflect on this post, it's amazing I haven't dwelt more on X-Men lore. It was great to see the fore First Class mutants super briefly, and the idea that we never see them in a Deadpool movie because they're actively avoiding Deadpool is kind of amazing. It's also an interesting concept to re-tool Juggernaut away from this (which listen, The Last Stand [2006] is rough, but Vinnie Jones is alright), and make him more comic accurate, which also got me thinking that between him and Colossus, these characters really are finally standing on their own, totally separate from the need to even have a recognizable actor play the role. Or frankly, even an unrecognizable actor (Juggernaut is credited as himself, although the voice is actually Ryan Reynolds). One day everything will be CGI and we won't have any actors at all. Cool beans.

What did you think? Are you down with the pool? What do you think about the intersection of comedy, meta, superheroes, and Two Girls, A Girl, and a Pizza Place? Leave a comment below

21 May 2018

Summer Jam 2018 Week 2! Girls and Boys

Welcome, loyal pop audiophiles to the second week of summer - and boy has it been a cold, dumb, rainy one so far. We've got lots more jams along with more of the same crap from last week. Truly this is an age to behold! Let's just dive in.

Hot Jam of the Week: "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" by the Backstreet Boys

Yeah, so this is the first new BSB song in like twenty years, I had to let it drop here. Although they really aren't Backstreet Boys anymore, more like Backstreet Men. It's amazing, I would never listen to a group called Backstreet Men. That's not right. I'm kind of blown away by how un-notable this track is, they seemed totally comfortable to settle on the most generic song ever instead of anything that acknowledges a legacy or comeback. Also, are they still like, trying to chase girls and sing about having their hearts broken? You're 40, bro.

"Girls" by Rita Ora ft. Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX

This is a little known fact, but this is actually the exact opposite of boys. Of course, Charli XCX already covered that. I do dig how this jam features every hot female artist of the moment and they come together pretty well. The track is fun enough if not exactly revolutionary or groundbreaking or anything. I'm down.

"The Middle" by Zedd, Maren Morris, Grey

This is another song that I can never remember either the name of or the slew of artists involved. It's actually remarkably restrained for a big EDM pop ballad with a really confident beat drop. It's also incredibly old, and we're still seeing it ride its big wave but it ought to die down pretty soon.

"Nice for What" by Drake

This song returns, under the radar again, but it's actually got a nice beat and flow to it. Do you think that Drake has crossed a boundary from rap into pop yet? It's totally plausible. This jam is actually better than I've given it credit for in the sense that it's really listenable and engaging, but I also don't necessarily think this will become an immortal track that we always think about in tandem with 2018.

"Chun-Li" by Nicki Minaj

I had "Barbie Tingz" last week, although this is definitely a better song. Nicki performed on SNL this week and this track has also been around for a while. It's kind of grown on me lately, and although there seems to be an artificially generated feud between her and Cardi, by all means they appear to be friendly. Although this film is hella assertive towards her rap dominance. I don't totally get why she's into Street Fighter, and there is some awkward appropriation here that doesn't make sense, but the beat is hot.

"Never Be the Same" by Camila Cabello

The hardest challenge every week is remembering how many "L's" are in both Camila and Cabello. This track is still just taking off and I think could have some legs, although may not ever reach #1. I get the feeling it's a perennial runner-up kind of song rather than one that truly captures some zeitgeist. It will probably inch up here or there, but I've definitely got my ears on it for now.

"This is America" by Childish Gambino

This was a tough call to not be #1, but I also feel like it's dropped a little bit, at least in its novelty. It's still dominating a lot of pop conversation, but the bigger question now is if it can last sonically. Even though it IS a very listenable song, it's hard to divorce that from the political implications. Like, would you play this at a wedding? Is it even comfortable to dance to? I mean, that distracting minstrelsy is the whole point. It's designed to make you uncomfortable. Can it still be a hot jam that way? Well, until it truly dies down, we'll list it pretty high.

"No Tears Left to Cry" by Ariana Grande

For some reason it took me a while to put it together that this song was about the Manchester concert massacre last year. That certainly adds a bit of weight to this jam in addition to it being a fantastic song from every level from Ariana's vocal prowress to the juicy beat. It was kind of every where this week, including this fantastic and surprisingly good-sounding Nintendo Labo performance.

Next week...

There was a shitload of new music that dropped this week, from Meghan Trainor to The Weeknd. It was all pretty shitty, though. I think the top three jams here will last for a bit, at least until something hotter drops sometime in June. What are you listening to this Summer?
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