25 February 2010

Undisputed: Why "Fortunate Son" is the Perfect Song Choice at the End of Die Hard 4

This is probably a random post today. Now, it's pretty clear that I watch movies way too much, whenever I'm driving around or otherwise listening to music somewhere, songs often remind me of different films. Thus, in the car today, the Cleerance Clearwater Revival song, "Fortunate Son" started playing on the radio. I immediately felt like I had just watched Live Free or Die Hard (2007), as the song features during the end credits. From here I started with the common assumption that the song is horrendously misinterpreted and in no place belongs at the end of a patriotic movie like Live Free or Die Hard.

As I started tuning into the lyrics, however, my attitude started to change. Here, take a listen:

For some history of the song, you can check out this very accurate and substantiated database, or just read on: Featured on CCR's Willy and the Poor Boys album, dropped November 2nd, 1969, the song protests the Vietnam War. It takes the perspective a bitter draftee resentful of his station in fighting a war he doesn't believe in while the sons of the conflict's architects skip out. It's also a great bit of 60s Rock.

So, the first impression you get from Live Free or Die Hard is that it's a really American movie. The entire franchise is. Perennially hungover cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is the original blue collar action hero. He's brash, aggressive and impatient - immaculate American. The first impression of "Fortunate Son" is that it's an un-patriotic song. It's anti-war, anti-imperialist and anti-spoils. This is a conservative criticism I hear a lot against anti-war liberals. Anti-war is not anti-patriotism. In fact, most anti-war protesters are the most patriotic cats out there, wishing both not to sully this nation's international reputation as well as exercising the freedom the troops fight for. Now that we've got that clarification out of the way, let's take a closer look at what's going on in Die Hard.

McClane is a solider. The war he's fighting is against a faceless enemy that could pop up anywhere in any disguise (Tim Olyphant as this supreme Hacker-villain dude). It's not terribly unlike Viet Cong that could pop up anywhere and attack with little warning or pretension. This might be stretching, but the situation of McClane and the average Vietnam Private are not dissimilar. McClane also fights because no one else will. It's up to him because he's not a fortunate son. He has no excuse or power to get out of his duty. He growns at his initial mission he receives from his chief, but cannot escape his draft.

He doesn't believe in what he's doing necessarily, nor does he understand or want to fight the war, but he does with honour. This is the key to "Fortunate Son." It's a song of pride ultimately. It complains about not being a privileged individual yet at the same time it doesn't express an interest in converting. Its their badge. If they were a fortunate son, there would be little connection to that common dude out there identifying with the resentment of fighting a dumbass war. Likewise, McClane can't get out of his shit, but if he ever did, he wouldn't be that McClane we love. McClane's always a character who may hate and curse his orders but always follows through with them. The CCR is generally the same way. It's cheeky in its teasing of the upper class and presents the draftees a private club of misfortunedblue collar youth.

There's a few other good reasons unrelated to the song's content. For one, McClane, given his age and demograhic, as well as the time of the song's peak popularity, undoubtedly would have liked the song and listened to it as a young man very close to draft age. Also I know this for a fact because he states it himself while listening to the song ealier in the car with Justin Long. The playing of this earlier diegetic music serves to highlight some generational contrast, which is also pivotal to establishing Bruce Willis as an action hero where age is indeed a factor (one of the few recent "old-man" franchises to do this well). The song's successful playing in full at the films' end symbolizes McClane's renewed relevance and the triumph of hardassery and old fashion-ism over an ungrateful and technologically advanced yet hollow generation.

Can't think of a better song to end this flick with, baby.

23 February 2010

Trends: Jackass, Bizkit, Diesel and the Fuck You Culture of 2000-2002

In honour of the two-year anniversary of the launching of Jackassworld.com (convenient blogging excuses 101), today I'm taking a gander at an interesting bit of sub-culture from the turn of the century, which I am summing up as "Fuck You Culture." Needless to say, Adult Language galore in the following post:

So, what am I talking about here? The end of the Twentieth-Century gave us excesses of American culture in every fashion, often steering towards intense jingoism. I've already talked about the rise and bloating of this kind of zeitgeist here. Understanding massive culture trends is actually very simple. Everything is always a reaction to something else. This conservative, authority-bound culture broke by the final year of the past century where we saw the great uprise of Anti-Normalcy films, as I called them. Now, what happened after this? In that small time period between an era of unparalleled American Excess and the attacks of September 11th, 2001, we grew an interesting culture. This group of people in general realised how far we had grown and began to rebel, but in a way that yet remained in the confidence of American Global Hegemony. Basically, they were brats. Kids who had seen all the Anti-Normalcy films and gotten the message wrong. Wanting to rebel and believe in something else, but not understanding exactly what, thus we arrive at the Fuck You Culture of 2000-2002.

Music and the Inherent Damnation of Woodstock '99:
The first indication that something was seriously wrong with this generation was probably Woodstock '99. Woodstock '99 was a bunch of people trying to recreate one of the most important events in Modern Western Music history, but instead of Santana and Joe Cocker, we were looking up to Fred Durst and Joseph Bruce. The music was angry. Even if the lyrics and even some of the stylings weren't angry, the attitude was. It was this big "Fuck You!" to the establishment, not unlike the Sixties, but it was this radically violent "Fuck You!" not one based on peace and love. Obviously these sort of angry people existed in the Sixties, but they had reasoning and manifestos and lots of education to back up their radicalism. The "Fuck You!" of 1999 was based on ignorant kids wanting ice cream before dinner.

Hot Topic, Backwards Hats and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater:
Most of the "Fuck You! Culture" came out of the skating scene. It's that kind of "XxXtreme!" attitude that helped to craft the angry, anti-authoritarian culture that pervaded the early 21st-Century. This can be seen in the explosion of popularity from events like the X Games, even the conclusion of Snowboarding in the Winter Olympics in 1998 (greatly boosting American Medal Counts ever since). Thanks to video games like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (1999), even fat or socially awkward youth could get in on the sub-culture. Stores like Hot Topic (long before it became a means of creating vampires) funded the fashion while icons like the aforementioned Fred Durst provided new and unique ways of wearing Yankees Hats backwards all the time, not as expression of love for the team, but just as fashion. Man I fucking hate this culture. It called itself "Punk" or skate-obsessed, but really a small number could name the members of The Ramones or actually know how to do an ollie. The distinction between true Skater-Culture and Fuck You! Culture Posers is almost indiscernible, because though different in motivation, they are identical in attitude towards authority.

The Diesel Cometh:
The Fuck You! Attitude filled many of the biggest action films of these early years as well. This mostly came from Diesel films, such as The Fast and the Furious (2001), xXx (2002) and even other films like Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) relied on this sort of fast-paced edits and a plot that tried to undermine authority rather than establish it. Unlike the Anti-Normalcy films of 1999, however, these movies lacked the Spiritual Awakening dimension, which left the Fuck You!'s hollow and vapid rather than a healthy growth experience.

I mean, look at those boobs. These kind of films were in fact more similar to the jingoistic Patriot films like Independence Day (1996) than something like The Matrix (1999). They appealed very flatly to visceral thrill reactions instead of any deeper underscored theme. The music accompanying these films is fast, violent and thoroughly tied to an extreme way of life. In fact, the best way I can probably describe this sub-culture is fast. It predicts the forced immediacy in our current zeitgeist, the only real difference between now and then being the true immediate availability of any piece of information or media conceivable from virtually any spot on earth (except some regions in northeastern Ohio). The Fuck You! Culture exhibits a need for immediate satisfaction from its sports, films and music, the technology to do so would follow. Perhaps this is cause for some of the anger in the Fuck You! Culture, that some things at the turn of the century were as of yet, unimmediate.

Hey! Jackass!
Here we go. The greatest instance of Fuck You! Culture comes from small-budgeted MTV show, Jackass. Premiering in October of the year 2000, Jackass was full of not necessarily angry young men, but at least a bunch of dumb young men who were willing to push reality for a laugh. What I mean by this is the notion that
the cast members would routinely sacrifice not only their bodies, but dignity, social standing, and on occasion, their actual real lives for their craft. This should be seen as a good predecessor to Borat (2006), as well as other hidden, goof camera shows (some, like Trigger Happy TV pulled the same schtick with much more class, thus much less of a cultural influence).

I generally praise Jackass for its creativity and willingness to not pull any punches. Ever. Half the stunts play out like real-life Looney Tunes moments (see the giant rocket in Jackass Number Two [2006]). It's a show that encapsulates almost every significant part of the Fuck You! Culture without a ton of the explicitly violent aggression that plagued Woodstock '99. It's less Fred Durst and more Jimmy Pop. It's dirty, but playful instead of negative. Fueled by skaters, kitsch and a love for taking one's body to the extreme, Jackass takes much of the Fuck You! Culture and makes it positive, both in a spiritual sense (you always get the impression that these people are great friends, and they are, there's a continued feeling of comfort), commercially (nearly $500 mill lifetime for Johnny) and critically (uhhh...two thumbs from Ebert for the second one).

Anyway, the movement here was really about living in excess with little care to consequence or social standards. This kind of thinking slowly gave way in the mid-2000s to a more consumer and judgment-based culture that currently has its way with the current zeitgeist. This was mostly fueled by technology catching up to the spirit of the times, but again, it also has to do with younger generations simply getting the message wrong. Kids watching The Matrix and then thinking that their minds are free through the course of violence and "coolness" instead of the tranquility necessary for spiritual growth. We're too crowded. The Fuck You! Culture in many ways took all this really good shit that came out at the end of the Twentieth Century and boiled it down to "FUCK YOU!" In this basest of expressions, the Anti-Normalcy movement was lost and the door was open for Twilight: New Moon (2009) to have the greatest opening weekend of all time.

If I lost you there, don't worry about it. I'll connect the dots soon!

19 February 2010

Top 7 Best End Credits in Film

For some reason this has been on my mind lately. Today I want to highlight some of the greatest end credit sequences of all time (read: of movies I've seen recently). To get in this list, I was looking for movies that generally had either some genuine aesthetic value or advanced the themes or plot in an organic way (read: seven movies I've seen recently). So, let's get right to it:

#7: The Bourne Series (2002-07)

I'm not sure why this appeals to me, I think it has to do with the crappy song that somehow fits as well as the overall simplicity of the design, when contrasted to the explosions and excess of other spy films of the time (see here). I think I'm also just amazed that the same design and song work in all three films with some basic alterations in song and design. I mean, the mood still fits in three very different endings thematically. Somehow, brilliant. Here are the credits for Ultimatum.

#6: Tropic Thunder (2008)

One of the best-timed credits, aligned with "Get Back" by Luda, Tropic Thunder's end replays the film's sweetest scenes, then freezes them with a stylistic painted image. It's great in that it highlights almost every character, no matter how obscure and gives them a personalized colourful freeze frame (Downey's is the best). It's also interspliced with scenes of Tom Cruise doing his greatest Golden Globe-nominated performance, set perfectly to Luda. Cruise's love of pseudo-pop rap was an already established character trait, it actually fits well that he would celebrate his cinematic triumph with a personal boogie in his office. Finally, after the LudaCruse, the "Name of the Game" by Crystal Method remix at the end is also very listenable, leaving viewers wanting to stay in the theaters and jam even while just words are playing. Quite an achievement.

#5: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Asskaban (2004) and Harry Potter and the Ass-Blood Prince (2009)

In terms of big-budget Blockbuster credits, the common contemporary technique is highly stylized, big explosions or in the case of most Super Hero (Marvel) films, either a travel through DNA or Cells or even Armour designs. This fits almost in the vein of a boring action scene. These two Harry Potters' credits, though, have always captured my attention. Asskaban follows a small but integral part of the film, the Marauder's Map, while Ass-Blood Prince has credits stylized similar to the pensieve scenes, some of the most unique and best in the movie. They're both examples of well-done CGI credits, not overblown, but creative enough to be interesting. Furthermore, these are the two best Harry Potter films to date, my all-time favourite being Asskaban.

#4: Wall-E (2008)

This should be a no-brainer. The hand-drawn ending animation is a great contrast to the stunning CGI Animation that comprises the rest of the film, but it also furthers the story and themes. The entire credits are basically the film's epilogue, providing the hope for humankind. What's subtle as well is the final crossover from a robot to human focus of the narrative. While the first human we see is live-action (over the centuries, apparently humanity gets more pudgy, fleshy and then fully animated), brash, impatient and driven by endless consumption (this is us), the last we see are barely more than simple cave-drawings, demonstrating our full hubris and humility we might need in order to survive for the next Millennium. It's also practically a perfect 8-minute lesson on the history of Western Art. Powerful indeed. Add to this the beautiful simplicity of the Peter Gabriel song "Down to Earth" and you start getting the feeling that Wall-E is the most technically advanced way of telling a space story that really about the simplest things on earth. This is also why I ranked Wall-E so high here.

#3: The Hangover (2009)

This is by far the funniest major film of 2009, and the end credits do not disappoint at all. In fact, they're probably the funniest part of the damn film. They're perfectly timed for humour, some of my favourites are quick shots of Alan in the same post, one without sunglasses, then with big Aviators. It's the raunchiest part of the film, revealing many of the unanswered mysteries of the night before. It's also the only time we actually see any of the bachelor party, which The Hangover was very notable for not showing at all. Would a film made only twenty years ago be instead only focused on the fun night? Oh, it already did. We're a hangover culture now, but it's a great nod to some of the time-traveled insanity that occurred prior.

#2: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

These credits were better than the movie itself. You should be able to tell by now where my greatest taste in end credits lie, I love the art on display here, repeating much of the subtle iconography of the film (eyes mostly), as well as resembling some of the original literary base. It also sums up much of the basic idea of the plot in a much more forward way, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) repeatedly trying to kill his little nephew and nieces (brats). It's very dark as well, especially for a children's film. Most of the creativity, but none of the coolness is in the actual film. We can analyze a lot here. The kids generally travel in a downwards direction, towards doom, Olaf is always huge, a domineering presence in their lives with eyes and knowledge everywhere, often in hidden places. It's sweet.

#1: Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Yes, this is the third Summer 2008 film on this list, I don't care. Good credits that summer, good credits. Kung Fu Panda's opener and closer are so awesome, also much better than the actual film. In fact, I contend they're better animated than the actual film. Check both out right here in super-High Def at ArtoftheTitle.com, which is also full of excellent opening credits from other films. I don't want you to watch a shitty embedded version, go to that site, watch both and come back.

... ... ...

Okay, welcome back. There's two major things I want to point out: 1) The hand-drawn animation is so good it makes the CGI afterwards look shitty and much less fun. 2) In these simple titles the characters are so well established that it becomes unnecessary to ever watch this movie in full. It's a delight for the eyes to behold. Best end credits ever.

Feel free to defend Cannonball Run (1981) below:

16 February 2010

Profiles: Misdirection, Miscommunication and Misinformation with the Coen Brothers

In honour of the latest Coen Bros. film, A Serious Man (2009) released on DVD, Blu-Ray and VHS last week, today I'm taking a look at one of my favourite directorial teams, Joel and Ethan Coen. This also happens to be Norwegian Morning Wood's 100th post, so it will probably be special. Probably.

I recently took it upon myself to watch the entire Coen Bros. Film Canon. It is at times an exercise in the very weird, very violent, jarring, challenging as well as thought-provoking and ultimately entertaining. Throughout their body of work, though, there remain a few solid themes that are repeated over and over again. Namely what I tend to recognize most is how often characters in their stories have little to no idea what is actually going on around them. They make assumptions and decisions based not necessarily on lack of fact, but moreover on misinterpretation of fact or from some other belittling or deliberately misleading agent or factor. Some of this emulates life's natural sloppiness and provides a strong basis for realistic character choices and reactions. It is for this reason that the Coens are masters of character above many other directors. Some spoilers lie ahead, but mostly for films that are 25 years old. C'mon. Go see them already.

Geography and Time:

I've always wanted like, a map and timeline of all Coen Films. I couldn't find one so I very crudely made one myself. See - find the film at the bottom with the date it premiered in parentheses and then the date it's set after the colon, then match the colour to the star on the map for location. Wizard-like tasks, I know. Some disclaimers quick - The cities of Miller's Crossing (1990) and Blood Simple (1984) are never given, but it's established that Blood Simple takes place in Texas with some references to Houston and Corpus Christi, I tried to place it remotely between these two.

There were much less hints in Miller's Crossing, I placed in Chicago, which was most famous for its Gang activity in the late 1920s. Intolerable Cruelty (2003) takes place mainly in Los Angeles, with about a third in Las Vegas. I placed its star in Las Vegas for sheer diversity because L.A. was already home to Barton Fink (1991), whose first scene is in New York City and The Big Lebowski (1998). There's also the eponymous small scenes in Fargo (1996), as well as brief forays into Mexico in No Country for Old Men (2007) and Canada in A Serious Man (2009). Otherwise this map is accurate. Please call me out if you find it is not.

As far as the timing goes, the Coens are generally very forward about their dating, only Miller's Crossing and Oh Brother, Where art Thou? (2000) are real estimates. It's important to note their subtleties in conforming to their dates without knocking you over the head. I think of "That 90's Show" on The Simpsons (S19;E11) as an example of media deriving almost all of its plot and jokes from its nostalgia and forced anachronism. The Coens tend to be much more natural in their approach while retaining an attention to detail, the best examples of which are their slightly skewed Fargo and The Big Lebowski, both taking place only slightly removed from their release years.

Deliberate Misleading from Higher Authorities:

Focusing in to the topic here, the confusion that permeates Coen films comes in two basic ways. The first are conspiracies, if you will, derived from higher powers to either plague the protagonist or suit some other devious end. This can come not only from human characters, but in more subtle, possibly other-worldly powers. This is most apparent in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) in which Norville Barnes is duped by about everyone around him and propped up as a patsy for a company purposely trying to fail itself and in The Big Lebowski, in which no one really has any idea of what's going on at any given time (but often act like they do). In particular, The Big Lebowski becomes much easier for the viewer to understand if he or she starts to realise this simple fact: no one in the film is working for any one else, they do not care what happens to any one else, nor is their vested interest in the conclusion of any one else's story. Thus, the necessity to tie up loose plots becomes less compelling. The Big Lebowski was one of the first Coen films to really fuck around with its narrative structure, more on that later.

Barton Fink stands out as a movie with many possible interpretations. It seems as though the Hotel Earle and Charlie (John Goodman) (possibly a simultaneous entity) understand what's going on and are manipulating the other characters, but the ending is ambiguous enough to leave the viewer thinking. It is another film in which the main authority, the Hollywood Film Studio, does not understand its latest hire, Barton Fink (John Turturro), not does Barton understand his own idol, writer W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, damn a lot of Johns are in this movie) until they get to know each other. In all instances, all parties are disappointed because reality does not match up with the expectations they assumed of each other. This leads us to the second, greater element of Coen writing:

Misinterpretation of Facts on the Part of Protagonists:

In virtually every film this happens at some point. Let's start with Blood Simple, in which everyone assumes incidents and deaths happened incorrectly, leading to greater fear and preparation on their part, which is why Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) ends up laughing hysterically at the end when he is murdered by Abby (Frances McDormand) because she thought he was Marty (Dan Hedaya). Phew. And film one is in the can!

Miller's Crossing is full of similar assumptions and trickery, including Tom Reagan's (Gabriel Byrne) fake killing of Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), and some of the problems that causes. Oh Brother, Where art Thou? is full of mistaken identity, concerning race, secret society membership and even pop stardom - the latter leading to the best moment in the film, watch below:

The film's Governor characters are also interesting in that while the crankier one has the ability to look past race to votes (a true politician!) while the supposedly cheerful one turns out to be a KKK Grand Lizard Turkey Wizard, which kind of costs him the election.

Appearances can be...deceptive:

A few of the Coen Bros. films rely almost solely on its entire cast of characters getting things wrong. The wildly out of control antics that follow the inciting incidents of Fargo and Burn After Reading (2008) are great examples of this. Fargo stands out in that Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand - hey you ever notice a trend with their casting?) is actually pretty competent at figuring out the plodding mechanisms of the rest of the idiot cast. There is no such luck in Burn After Reading, however, which finds the only real resolution at the end when most of its characters are either killed or flee the country, which CIA Superior J.K. Simmons sums up to his cohort:
CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
CIA Officer: I don't know, sir.
CIA Superior: I don't fuckin' know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir.
CIA Superior: I'm fucked if I know what we did.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir, it's, uh, hard to say
CIA Superior: Jesus Fucking Christ.
The film has layers and layers of betrayal, misinterpretation (memoirs, taxes or CIA secrets? Doesn't anyone LOOK at these things?!) and mistaken identity (poor Chad). It's not that much unlike The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) in which the plot is incited by Ed Crane's belief, based on intuition and not fact, that his wife is having an affair. What comes next includes beatings, murders, mistaken identity and mistaken arrests, all on faulty information. Also in a similar vein, The Ladykillers (2004) works mainly because even until the very end, Marva Munson (Irma Hall) has no idea what goatee'd Tom Hanks (one of about 14 Coen Allegories for Satan) was doing the whole time.

In the Coen's only Best Picture Oscar Winner so far, No Country for Old Men, they utilize the same techniques, but expound greatly on the narrative structure. The (SPOILER?!) off-screen death of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) was the most brilliant storytelling move I've seen in a very long time, essentially doing away with the need for the Obligatory Scene in favour of advancing its metanarrative and hardening its theme. Thus, the primary party decieved and abandoned is in fact, the audience. When Llewelyn dies, so does the audience's connection to any one in the story - this should be folly, but instead the Coens merely swap for Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is as weary of the world as the audience should be after losing Llewelyn. Thus the viewer experience is symmetrical to the characters', leading to greater identification and a further emphasis on the themes of loneliness, isolation and the penetration of evil into the simplest of lives. THAT's why No Country is an Oscar winner!

Of course, I haven't yet mentioned the Coen Bros.' greatest misinterpreted film, the oft-overlooked Intolerable Cruelty. This movie is filled with people trying to trick and deceive other people, leading to completed character arcs, quick reversals, then quick changes back, twists upon twists based on how much information and scheming is revealed to any given character at any given time. As a film primarily about love, marriage, cheating and divorce, scandal, lying and treachery are at the forefront constantly. For the most complicated, "Coen-y" movie on this list that you may have skipped as a "chick flick" or something over the years, look no further than Intolerable Cruelty. It's got more deception than No Country, more awkward Clooney jokes than Oh Brother and Geoffrey Rush stabbed with an Emmy. Awesomeness at its full potential.

So, what about A Serious Man? It certainly falls in line with all of these themes. The first scene (which I am still trying to figure out what has to do with the rest of the film, according to the Coens, nothing) centers around the possible mistaken identity and then grave actions of a small Jewish home in the mid-1980s. After that, throughout the actual film, protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) barely has any idea of what's going on around him, although this is more accounted for by his good-hearted and somewhat empty-minded nature rather than active deception. He struggles to discipline wayward Koreans, tie together his cheating wife and friend as well as deal with the very nature of his faith. Authorities (Rabbis) also confuse Larry, though not maliciously or even purposefully as in The Big Lebowski or The Hudsucker Proxy. It's very interesting that the Coens can find a means of reinvigorating their primary theme of misdirection, miscommunication and misinformation in their third decade of making films, using the same basic narrative techniques, with only a few wrinkles, to make A Serious Man a very entertaining film.

Oh and Raising Arizona (1987) has Cage. Can't beat that.

15 February 2010

Remember that Past Decade? Top 5 Video Games

Throughout my commentary last month on the past year and decade I covered a lot of ground, mostly in film, television and music. More and more though, video games deserve a mention just as much as their other media counterparts. As games become both more cinematic (so much so that films appear to be more game-like) and ubiquitous in culture, their pop importance also increases. So, while I should have written this piece within the past decade, we aren't losing too much to reminisce a bit here.

Now if you consider yourself a hardcore gamer this list will undoubtedly frustrate you. The games I've targeted are either games with narratives powerful enough to challenge any film of this decade or innovations that have helped either their respective genres or contributed to simply intriguing gameplay. So, the following five video games are either the most innovative or interesting to me, primarily from a narrative or cultural standpoint, they certainly may not offer the greatest graphics, sound or gameplay. Because that's just the way we do things here at Morning Wood. Without further ado:

#5: Halo: Combat Evolved (2001), Xbox

The first Halo game not only set the standard for FPS for the next decade, but is also one of the most fun console games ever. This standard-setting nature runs throughout the whole game, from level design (both iconic multiplayer and single-player maps), gun selection (Probably one of my favourite elements is the limited, standardized weapons - i.e. shotgun, assault rifle, sniper, it's very easy to pick up and play, I have no idea what I'm doing or what gun to pick when playing something like Call of Duty [2003] for the first time) and characters (Is Master Chief the best badass of all time? The answer is yes). It elevated multiplayer experiences almost more than GoldenEye 007 (1997) did and provided a strong science fiction franchise that currently spans books, comics and a possible film. It also generally saved the Xbox's critical and commercial fortunes, facilitating one of the greatest growing creative markets in the business (although its increasingly tepid fanboy-appeasing nature of both the franchise and the market is disturbing). Its sequels were alright, but the original remains my favourite by far. Mostly for the pistol.

#4: Shadow of the Colossus (2005), PS2

This remains one of the most original adventure games I've ever played. It's so beautifully streamlined, a Zelda-like world without any of the overly complicated Zelda-esque drama. It's liberating, the only enemies to fight in one of the largest worlds to date are the sixteen eponymous Colossi.

The Colossi are absolutely huge and intimidating. The music throughout is restrained, as is character interaction, collecting and even the plot development. It all enfolds very naturally, rewarding the gamer for puzzle-solving and insight rather than vomiting out a scripted and procedural narrative. This is to say, that while all these elements are limited, the scope of the adventure is absolutely epic, a very well done contrast that provides for one of the only fun times I've had on a PS2.

#3: Conker's Bad Fur Day (2001), N64

Mostly for all of these reasons, but Conker is still one of the most impressive games I've ever played. It certainly has its share of severe, severe flaws, but it makes up for these with one of the greatest endings of all time that completely shifts tone, elucidates themes and justifies most of the preceding experience. It also gets points for reinvigorating a 3-D platform gameplay that had become stale and obsessed with cheeky character tropes, collecting and very limited and defined worlds. Conker works because it is a parody of culture as well as its own genre, being the only game ever to really do so (except maybe Gex) it ranks pretty high here.

#2: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), PS2

GTA: VC was neither the first GTA game to implement the sandbox-style play (that was GTA III [2001]) nor is it necessarily the best in the series (that is GTA IV [2008]). Vice City gets its spot here for a few reasons, namely because it's the Henry Ford of the GTA Franchise. It didn't invent the sandbox genre, but it popularized it incredibly, leading to a change in all future Spider-Man games, as well as monstrosities like Prototype (2009); in general providing for an entirely new concept of gameplay that was widely popular in the past decade. Vice City also gets points for being one of the most widely known games in pop culture at the time. Observe:

Not only would this never work with a game like Halo, but its core format is instantly recognizable in parody. It was an important part of early 21st-Century zeitgeist, whether it be known for its excessive sex and violence, innovative game design or simply its fun. Vice City is here because its massive popularity alone changed video games more than any other game in the franchise.

#1: Braid (2008), Xbox Live Arcade

And I made sure #1 would be a game you've never heard of. Braid is an excellent, excellent video game available first in Xbox Live Arcade, later on PC, Mac and PS3, so no excuse to not play it right now. It is like a time-travel version of Super Mario Bros. (1985) that both refreshes the 2-D platformer in both gameplay and narrative. In fact I'll argue it has the single most revolutionary ending of any game I've ever played, one that deepens the plot, shifts previous character conceptions and makes you struggle to understand the assumptions you've made about any game you've ever played. Yes, without giving too much away, it is that good. Here is a sample of its time-traveling game play innovation through the mind of Soulja Boy:

Compelling stuff. Man I've got to quit defending Soulja Boy. Anyway, there's a lot here in a very small, indie video game package, which could also provide a foundation to game development as the means of production become cheaper and more accessible (not unlike the explosion of indie film talent in the late 1980s / early 1990s). The 2010s could very well see a rise in independent video game developers, which would of course be a great creative boon to an industry that, as I already mentioned, is tending to become stale and over-catered to a narrowing fanbase of Mountain Dew-drinking college nerds. We'll see what happens.

Honourable Mentions:

In all honesty, everyone knows the best game of the past decade was BioShock (2007), Xbox 360, by all rights this is the most fantastic game, by theme story, style and innovation that any one has ever played. Its influence in the industry as of yet is not clear yet, however, my guess is it will tend to be LOST-like (many imitators, no one comes close, ends up shitting the industry). This decade also saw the rise of truly cultural movements like World of Warcraft (2004), Mac/PC and Guitar Hero (2005), PS2, neither of which I can ever say is a good game without choking on my own blood and vomit. We also saw about thirty-thousand versions of Call of Duty, which I really contend only further re-hash an identical concept in slightly new directions (although props to Modern Warfare [2007] for having a lot of innovative levels and character surpises, Modern Warfare 2 [2009] for fucking that all up with an overemphasis on an addictively rewarding multiplayer that makes casual pick-up gaming obsolete). Also, apparently Fallout 3 (2008) and Half-Life 2 (2004) are really good. I've never played both. I don't care. Here is another pretty good list for your perusal (not just because we shared a lot of the same picks!).

Either way, this was certainly Video Game's decade and as more and more movies turn out really really shitty, who knows how the demographics will shift in the following ten years. Undoubtedly, the industry will have to grow up sooner or later and come out with some more authentically compelling games, games like the five here to continue its growth as a serious form of media.

14 February 2010

The Long Halloween: Valentine's Day

Happy Love Day to all my dear readers! As part of our year-long series looking at the greatest Holiday Television Specials, I bring you today the greatest Valentine's Day Episode ever: from SpongeBob SquarePants, "Valentine's Day" (S1;E16). First airing exactly a decade ago today, you can watch the entire episode here, while the following is unrelated yet awesome:

SpongeBob's first two seasons were pretty legendary. Working from such predecessors as Rocko's Modern Life, the show blended the surreal with a lot of earnesty and heart without the forced layers of irony that plagued some of the later seasons (as well as copycats). Generally the quality and creativity peaked with the Film treatment (2004) and has slowly descended from there. Somehow it is still in production of new episodes.

Anyway, look at this episode. There are some deep character arcs for every personality involved, including the wide range of emotion for the simplistic Patrick, realistically ranging from wonderment to rage to complacency. SpongeBob's guilt and innocence over an overtly complex Valentine's gesture (or lack of) provides a great contrast to Patrick's rashness, and his understanding of Patrick's unstable emotional state provides the foundation for most of his character reaction. It's very well written while also restraining itself to a relatively simple story and limited number of scenes and characters. It almost reminds me of something like "What's Opera, Doc?" which ostensibly has more story in six minutes than Transformers: Revenge of the Swollen (2009) has in 150.

Needless to say, we can address the very obvious homosexual undertones here. I think it's neat that the episode generally expands the meaning of Valentine's Day to incorporate a general agape love for both close friends and all humankind. SpongeBob's expression of a love for all those around him really shouldn't be interpreted as homosexual, but it's pretty fun to do so. The intense feelings of love and betrayal between the two friends should clearly imply some kind of deeper relationship. There is also a great deal of emasculating SpongeBob and Patrick, in that they rely on Sandy the female Squirrel to do most of the manly action-oriented effort in delivering their big candy balloon. The natural gender roles are switched in that the strong-willed female must battle scallops while the men ride the Ferris Wheel. This does not have to necessarily be interpreted as a case for homosexuality, in fact I enjoy a show that doesn't conform to these societal standards, but it certainly doesn't help their case.

Finally, by the way, this episode is pretty funny. "I DEFY YOU, HEART MAN!!"

Happy Love!

12 February 2010

(Won't Be) Trends: Wolfmen...awooooo

I'm a pretty big wolfman fan. You could say I'm more of a dog person than an undead person. Today we see the premiere of Benicio del Toro in his most authentic Englishman role, The Wolfman (2010). This movie, I predict, will fail on all regards, critically, commercially and culturally. Here we go:

There's Too Much Shit Going On:

The Wolfman, I figure is attempting to peak itself on the resurgence of comparable horror icons. Most notably in the past year we have seen the rampant dominance of trashy vampires and nutzoid zombies at the box office. I talk mainly of last fall's epic duo of New Moon (2009) (half-wolvie, I'll admit) and Zombieland (2009). While these films came out without much other media to take the attention, there's way to much other parts of pop culture right now to distract filmgoers from really getting into the Dog-Man. We're still reeling on New Orleans' Super Bowl win, we got the Vancouver Olympics coming up and there's Pepsi Throwback Soda to drink. I mean, c'mon. Our current zeitgeist this weekend is so chock full of events, it's Lincoln and Darwin's birthday today, they're both 201, it's way too crowded for a silly Wolfman movie to find any room in our culture.

It's-a no Sexy!

The major reason for the current Vampire and Twilight surge is sex. In particular Twilight breaks single-day box office records on selling fake sex to preteens. It's true. Werewolves generally aren't about sex as much as they revolve around granting primal animalistic urges as well as the unwilling monster trope. More broadly however, a series like Twilight appeals to the current youthful culture of post-modern teen angst and Vh1-style drama. Likewise, Zombieland appeals to many ironic or genre-spinning ideals, all of which tailor-made to a generation with an incredible amount of disposable income. None of this applies to The Wolfman. Its previews appear neither innovative, sexy nor post-modern. In fact it appears rather dated, serious and contemplative. Nothing that even really seems like a very fun time at the movie theater when it is also possible to watch from a home download. The key to recent box office mega-successes is the selling point that the film can offer an experience in the theater that cannot be replicated at a private home. This is the foundation for the unparalleled success of AVABAR (2009), as well as recent hits like Transformers: Revenge of the Swollen (2009), even The Dark Knight (2008). The Wolfman appears to offer none of this. Although Emily Blunt is still in my current All Time Top 5 Hotties (See also), she doesn't have any up-skirt motorcycle scenes, so it doesn't even seem worth it.

Well, What Else?

Advance reviews indicate the movie kind of sucks. When all other comparisons fail, there's always the possibility of important cultural and commercial success if the film is actually good. A good recent trend in this fashion is Sherlock Holmes (2009), which takes place in a similar time period with a similar style. Sherlock was a box office success (althought non one fucking noticed because of AVABAR) because it's a fundamentally good movie. The Wolfman, apparently, is shit. The one way it could overcome its crowded cultural zeitgeist and lack of pizazz could have been its sheer quality but it sucks. Thus, Wolfmen will NOT become a trend of 2010.

Prove me wrong, Benicio. Prove me wrong...

08 February 2010

Remember that Past Decade? 8 Films I Underrated

Ever since completing my End-of-Year / End-of-Decade Best-of Lists I've found myself feeling unfulfilled. I spent about four months thinking, tabulating and calculating what eventually became this countdown. Looking back on it now, that list sucks. It's real typical, unimaginative, uninteresting and lacks the kind of innovation I think my readers have come to expect from this site. Now, perhaps I'm being too hard on myself, but I hold the goofiness that runs through this place to a very high standard. Thus I bring you all today, my Revised TOP 8 Films of the Millennium (The Quirky List). Enjoy.

#8: The Hangover (2009)

Undoubtedly the film that may hold the greatest influence on the next decade's comedy, simultaneously launching the mainstream careers of Zach Galifniakis (who I'll maintain was actually funnier in Out Cold [2001]), Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms and reestablishing director Todd Phillips'. It's also astoundingly (not really) a Golden Globe winner, one of the largest R-Rated movies of all time at the Box Office and a clever take on a premise that should have been implemented years earlier (or at least its prequel was). It's still one of the all-time greatest comedies.

#7: Hustle & Flow (2005)

Somehow I end up thinking about Hustle & Flow almost every day. It's an awesome film full of hearty songs, classic struggles in the hood and drunken Ludacris fights.It also features the greatest Academy Award-winning song ever made (I say this genuinely). Every performance is awesome especially Terry and Taraji (Terrence Howard somehow raps better than Three 6). It's also got suprisingly good performances from New Guy DJ Qualls, Anthony Anderson from Agent Cody Banks 2 (2004) and the already mentioned Luda. Watching this film again pretty much inspired me to revise all of my previous selections.

#6: Pineapple Express (2008)

The above clip has probably my favourite line of any film from 2008, about 0:44 in, Seth Rogen is trying to make sure his High School-age girlfriend is okay while James Franco stays guard outside. As he leaves and goes inside Franco gives a quick "Just be yourself!" line of advice. This still cracks me up. The line is so fucking stupid and out of place. It's not like Seth Rogen is trying to hook up with the girl or even that nervous about going in, they're already dating. It really demonstrates how spaced out and disconnected pothead Jim is the whole time. I probably should have highlighted this here. This film is heavily underrated and is by far the closest one can get to the experience of smoking pot (with an awkward dealer) without inhaling. The utterly over-the-top action ending is spectacular as is all the core performances (primarily Seth, more primarily Jim).

#5: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

The Coen Bros' best non-No Country film of the Decade, Oh Brother features the best, most concise writing, tightest plot and allegories, as well as one of their best mixes of wry drama and quirky humour. The period representation is excellent, the casting profound (undoubtedly one of Clooney's best roles, one of his first majorly comedic performances) and the direction is superb. It was also a landmark film in that it was one of the first movies to be completely colour-treated digitally to alter many of the scenes, fading and washing out the naturally vibrant colour to replicate a dust-stricken Depression Era Mississippi. It's a gorgeous film both artistically and methodically. Have I poured enough praise yet? Watch it and move on.

Also, its soundtrack won a Grammy. How about that.

#4: Snatch (2000)

I want to officially give Snatch its due. Everybody loves Snatch. Why not have it #4 of the Millennium? Of the many movies that offer complex, intricate gangster plot twists (see Crank [2006], Smokin' Aces [2007], Shoot 'Em Up [2007], etc) Snatch was the first and most well done. Full of classic lines, Jason Statham's last good performance and a then-unforeseen breakneck trademark Guy Ritchie directorial style, Snatch is unmissable.

#3: The Prestige (2006)

I've already given Chris Nolan two out of my Top 15 earlier, but why not one more? The man is here for a reason - his movies fucking rule. Anyway, I feel like out of his oeuvre, The Prestige is mostly ignored for some reason. I can't understand why. It's inarguably Hugh Jackman's greatest ever role, and Chris Bale looks like he has much more to work with than either Batman: Mulligan (2005) or Terminator 4: Suckzilla (2009). Plus, I mean, c'mon. Bowie as Tesla, it's beautiful, man. The plot is intricate with a rewarding twist ending that makes you reevaluate much of what preceded it. It's a truly great film that was most ignored by both the Academy and the population at large. Go see it right now.

#2: Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006)

Couldn't find the Dead Prez performance from the movie itself, but this song rules and their performance is one of the best in the film, or at least deserves more highlight than it gets (radio play for Dead Prez is almost nonexistent, their radical nature is brought up a few times in DCBP). This movie is great for a few reasons. For one, Dave Chappelle is the single funniest entertainer of the past decade, which is funded basically from this movie, two seasons of a cable sketch comedy show and a handful of stand-up gigs (his Inside the Actor's Studio is also a must-see) DCBP is more than some funny Chappelle Stand-up, though. For one it features a collection of the greatest rappers of our generation as well as a fucking Fugees reunion. It is also a high achievement from a political, social and spiritual stand point. It examines all the best parts of Black Culture and then asks why those moments have to be solely black instead of universal.

Some of course is unavoidable, but my favourite parts watching this is the white guitarist banging his head to Mos Def and the white trumpet player holding his fist up with the Dead Prez for solidarity. It's also very spiritually healthy, Chappelle at this point was higher than any Comedian in America, to throw a free concert in a crappy neighborhood featuring the greatest hip hop artists of the day shows an immense generosity, humility and groundedness. His $50 million walk away wasn't surprising at all. His principles, classiness, as well as his sense of humour forged one of the greatest films of our Millennium. Also Michael Gondry was somehow involved.

#1: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Like The Hangover, Anchorman was a springboard for many of the actors that would shape the Decade's comedy - Ferrell, Carrell, Rudd and director Adam McKay. It's a brilliantly surreal film with a lot of heart and passion, as well as a commentary on shifting societal gender roles that has never been topped. It's also the single most quotable film in the history of mankind. Hell, it's even easy to fake Anchorman quotes, they have such a distinctive rhythm and style.

Somewhat unfortunately, this remains Will Ferrel's funniest film and a high point for everyone involved. What's more awesome and virtually unknown is Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie (2004), Anchorman's companion piece made up entirely of extraneous scenes left on the cutting room floor. It's nearly funnier than the source material, with enough of a story that may have been our own idolized cult film if not for poor testing with audiences. I've heard people begin to despise Anchorman for its prevalence among college idiots and overpopularity. This is bullshit. It's like recent reviews of The Departed (2006) claiming it lost its impact after repeated showings on F/X. It doesn't stop the film from being great or initially demonstrating its innovation. It remains regardless of mainstream popularity one of our greatest comedies.

04 February 2010

Profiles: Soulja Boy and the Evolution of Crud-Hop

Today I want to examine one of the worst rappers of our generation, the incomparable young man, Soulja Boy Tell 'Em. To begin, we need to take a magical journey all the way back to Late Summer 2007...


...slowly recovering from the awesome power of Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls," we were ready for about anything in the fall. Something to make the school kids dance, something stupid, incogneous and extremely fun. One man rose to the occasion. 17-yr old Soulja Boy Tell 'Em. Besides having the dumbest name ever in Hip Hop, his opus was lyrically meaningless but also very entertaining. He would form the basis for a movement away from some of the grittier real gangsta shit of the preceding years towards a much poppier-sounding rap that holds sway today. Take a listen:

Gorgeous. The song not only fueled lots of spectacular parody, but provided a cultural icon enough to change the game. Maybe. Hear me out for a sec -

Rap has gone through a few major movements. It started as a West African, then Jamaican, urban-specific (Bronx-specific) form of rhythmic spoken delivery over beats without accompaniment (Here's where I stole that from). From these basic roots that hinged on lyrical and rhyming complexity, rap turned more violent with the "Gangsta" image pervaded by Dre, Snoop, N.W.A., Public Enemy among others. Prior to Soulja Boy there were the occasional goof-off, Pop-centered Raps, but more often by the mid-2000s the basic schools were the heirs of Gangsta (50, Eminem, G-Unit, T.I., etc) and essentially the educated, socially conscious cast of Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006) (Kanye, Mos Def, Dead Prez, etc). I'm being overly general here and there's certainly exceptions. Jay-Z and Diddy probably fall somewhere in the middle as does Luda. Authenticity is always doubtful, but there were not a lot of mainstream Hip Hop artists whose sole export was crappy, Pop-Hop, which I call, Crud-Hop.

"Crank That Soulja Boy" was a near-instantaneous hit with lyrics that widely avoided both social black issues and the promulgation of violent stereotypes. It sought to earn its cred solely on beat and flow without lyrical complexity of any kind. Many rappers since have modeled this template, including Gucci Mane, Rich Boy and M.I.M.S.
This is why I'm hot / I don't gotta rap / I can sell a mill sayin' nothin' on the track
 Truer words could not have been rapped in this tricky time period. The thing is, M.I.M.S. was right. He sold a few mill sayin' absolutely nothing on any track. It's incredible. It's also led to some more great parody. Soulja Boy Tell 'Em, though, embodies the movement of rap into meaningless pop better than any other artist here.

Recent Developments:

Soulja Boy Tell 'Em had a few other shitty songs, but he really hasn't matched the stupidity level of "Crank That." I want to give credit here to what really is the best mainstream Rap Album of 2009, Snoop Dogg's Malice n Wonderland. Take a listen to Track 7, "Pronto." There is some bullshit music video shit before hand, feel free to skip to about 1:35 in:

This is one of the tightest rap tracks in a long time. Soulja Boy Tell 'Em's maturity is very apparent, improving stylistically both in appearance, lyrics and swagger. Snoop's tutelage, if it exists, is apparent. Snoop's own career has strayed far from his hardcore gunslinging (think Favre) appearance in the early 1990s to a more pop-oriented style, beginning early with R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece (2004). With the Doggfather shifting his styles towards a more dance-based style also demonstrates the watering down of Gangsta Rap.

So enjoy this goofy asshole while we can as Soulja Boy Tell 'Em has the potential for some greatness if he can stave off his One-Hit Wonder status and prove he has some legitimate talent, which I believe he is on the right track with considering "Pronto." Until next time, stay gangsta

03 February 2010

Oscar Noms and Predictions

Well, the 82nd Academy Awards Nominees were announced yesterday, and among the usual lot there are some neat suprises that could make for some intriguing wins (they won't). Thus I bring us now to the fabled MORNING WOOD 2010 OSCAR PREDICTIONS! Hooray!

The following is two-fold: In RED are the nominees that WILL WIN. In BLUE are the noms that SHOULD WIN. PURPLE means the shoulda is actually gonna. Got it? Good.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:

Avatar (2009): James Cameron, Jon Landau
The Blind Side (2009): Nominees to be determined
District 9 (2009): Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham
An Education (2009): Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey
The Hurt Locker (2008): Nominees to be determined
Inglourious Basterds (2009): Lawrence Bender
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009): Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness, Gary Magness
A Serious Man (2009): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Up (2009): Jonas Rivera
Up in the Air (2009/I): Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman

AVABAR will win this, there's no doubt. Jim has enough history with the Academy and no Best Picture can avoid looking at that cash haul, which will be beating Titanic by a wide margin by the time the Ceremony airs.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart (2009)
George Clooney for Up in the Air (2009/I)
Colin Firth for A Single Man (2009)
Morgan Freeman for Invictus (2009)
Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker (2008)

Bridges has enough support rolling from the Globes to fuel this one, and he actually deserves it (in fact he deserved it years ago). He's not facing much other steep competition and the other nominees are either older actors that have already been honoured or young ones who just haven't been snubbed yet. Jeff is just the right mix of both to pull this off.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side (2009)
Helen Mirren for The Last Station (2009)
Carey Mulligan for An Education (2009)
Gabourey Sidibe for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia (2009)

Sandy has enough going on from somehow having one of the greatest years that no straight man in the 18-49 year old demographic noticed to get this. Like Bridges she has a huge body of work with little honour so there's not a lot of doubt here. Carey Mulligan has the best performance from this list, but it's not strong enough to topple Sandy. The only real fun that can come from this if she also wins a Razzie for All About Steve (2009).

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Matt Damon for Invictus (2009)
Woody Harrelson for The Messenger (2009/I)
Christopher Plummer for The Last Station (2009)
Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones (2009)
Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds (2009)

An easier prediction than Ledger last year.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Penélope Cruz for Nine (2009)
Vera Farmiga for Up in the Air (2009/I)
Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart (2009)
Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air (2009/I)
Mo'Nique for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)

For some reason people love Mo'Nique, but I can't get over her atrociousness in Beerfest (2006), being the only weak link in that class is SUCH a weak link. She does do a good job in the worst-name Best Picture Nominee ever, but I'd give the award to Vera if I could.

Best Achievement in Directing

Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2008)
James Cameron for Avatar (2009)
Lee Daniels for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
Jason Reitman for Up in the Air (2009/I)
Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Again, there's not a question this goes to Jim, but the better job, especially after reading some production stories is clearly Katie's. I'd also love to see Quentin finally get this, but this isn't his year.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

The Hurt Locker (2008): Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds (2009): Quentin Tarantino
The Messenger (2009/I): Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman
A Serious Man (2009): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Up (2009): Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Thomas McCarthy

This will be the Academy's way of apologizing to Quentin for snubbing him at Best Picture and Director. He deserves it though, his distinct brand was somehow still relevant and still beautifully crafted, especially for being only about 60% English.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

District 9 (2009): Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
An Education (2009): Nick Hornby
In the Loop (2009): Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009): Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air (2009/I): Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner

I base this somehow on Milk (2008)'s win last year. Somehow the smaller yet bigger vibe and impression from that film still fits this year and Up in the Air is the only one worthy.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Avatar (2009): Mauro Fiore
Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (2009): Christian Berger
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009): Bruno Delbonnel
The Hurt Locker (2008): Barry Ackroyd
Inglourious Basterds (2009): Robert Richardson

Cinematography's tricky, and I DON'T think AVABAR will sweep. Thus I give it to The Hurt Locker, but it probably should be Inglourious. Harry Potter's kind of a curveball in this generally serious, un-Summer Blockbuster category, we'll see how that plays out as well.

Best Achievement in Editing

Avatar (2009): Stephen E. Rivkin, John Refoua, James Cameron
District 9 (2009): Julian Clarke
The Hurt Locker (2008): Bob Murawski, Chris Innis
Inglourious Basterds (2009): Sally Menke
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009): Joe Klotz

There was nothing really special about AVABAR's editing, but District 9's was carefully crafted to give the impression of a slow, painfully disturbing transformation. Still, AVABAR will get it.

Best Achievement in Art Direction

Avatar (2009): Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg, Kim Sinclair
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009): David Warren, Anastasia Masaro, Caroline Smith
Nine (2009): John Myhre, Gordon Sim
Sherlock Holmes (2009): Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
The Young Victoria (2009): Patrice Vermette, Maggie Gray

No question, but again, these nominees are pretty interesting. All of them, actually.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Bright Star (2009): Janet Patterson
Coco avant Chanel (2009): Catherine Leterrier
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009): Monique Prudhomme
Nine (2009): Colleen Atwood
The Young Victoria (2009): Sandy Powell

See what happens when you CGI the whole movie? No costumes. Nine will get this based on its snuffage for just about everything else while Dr. P probably earned it more. Too bad every studio hates Terry Gilliam.

Best Achievement in Makeup

Il divo (2008): Aldo Signoretti, Vittorio Sodano
Star Trek (2009): Barney Burman, Mindy Hall, Joel Harlow
The Young Victoria (2009): John Henry Gordon, Jenny Shircore

This is a Young Victoria-kind of category, but it would be sweet to see Trek pull it off.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Avatar (2009): James Horner
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): Alexandre Desplat
The Hurt Locker (2008): Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders
Sherlock Holmes (2009): Hans Zimmer
Up (2009): Michael Giacchino

AVABAR's was typical, but it'll win. I like the quirky twans of Mr. Fox much better, though.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Crazy Heart (2009): T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham("The Weary Kind")
Faubourg 36 (2008): Reinhardt Wagner, Frank Thomas("Loin de Paname")
Nine (2009): Maury Yeston("Take It All")
The Princess and the Frog (2009): Randy Newman("Down in New Orleans")
The Princess and the Frog (2009): Randy Newman("Almost There")

Crazy Heart will upset Nine and it should.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Avatar (2009): Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, Tony Johnson
The Hurt Locker (2008): Paul N.J. Ottosson, Ray Beckett
Inglourious Basterds (2009): Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti, Mark Ulano
Star Trek (2009): Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson, Peter J. Devlin
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Geoffrey Patterson

Transformers should legitimately get this award. ESPECIALLY after it got jerked around by The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) last time. C'mon, the sounds are sweet in that movie.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

Avatar (2009): Christopher Boyes, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle
The Hurt Locker (2008): Paul N.J. Ottosson
Inglourious Basterds (2009): Wylie Stateman
Star Trek (2009): Mark P. Stoeckinger, Alan Rankin
Up (2009): Michael Silvers, Tom Myers

This is true.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Avatar (2009): Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham, Andy Jones
District 9 (2009): Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros, Matt Aitken
Star Trek (2009): Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanagh, Burt Dalton

In any other year this would have been District 9's game, but not this year. AVABAR gets this legit.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Coraline (2009): Henry Selick
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): Wes Anderson
The Princess and the Frog (2009): John Musker, Ron Clements
The Secret of Kells (2009): Tomm Moore
Up (2009): Pete Docter

I like seeing a film like Coraline in there, but c'mon. Pixar is Pixar.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Ajami (2009)(Israel)
Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (2009)(Germany)
El secreto de sus ojos (2009)(Argentina)
Un prophète (2009)(France)
La teta asustada (2009)(Peru)


Best Documentary, Features

Burma VJ: Reporter i et lukket land (2008): Anders Østergaard, Lise Lense-Møller
The Cove (2009): Nominees to be determined
Food, Inc. (2008): Robert Kenner, Elise Pearlstein
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009): Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Which Way Home (2009): Rebecca Cammisa

The only one I've heard of - thus is a good indication that it has enough word of mouth to win. This is also true.

Best Documentary, Short Subjects

China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (2009) (TV): Jon Alpert, Matthew O'Neill
The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner (2009): Daniel Junge, Henry Ansbacher
The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009) (TV): Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
Królik po berlinsku (2009): Bartosz Konopka, Anna Wydra
Music by Prudence (2010): Roger Ross Williams, Elinor Burkett

Academy loves this kind of shit.

Best Short Film, Animated

French Roast (2008): Fabrice Joubert
Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty (2008): Nicky Phelan, Darragh O'Connell
La dama y la muerte (2009): Javier Recio Gracia
Logorama (2009): Nicolas Schmerkin
Wallace and Gromit in 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' (2008) (TV): Nick Park

They have enough history with the Academy, and frankly I know nothing about any other nominees to make a more educated prediction.

Best Short Film, Live Action

The Door (2008): Juanita Wilson, James Flynn
Istället för abrakadabra (2008): Patrik Eklund, Mathias Fjällström
Kavi (2009): Gregg Helvey
Miracle Fish (2009): Luke Doolan, Drew Bailey
The New Tenants (2009): Joachim Back, Tivi Magnusson

I like the Doors but Miracle Fish has a cooler name. Go figure.

Award are presented March 7th. Stay tuned for additional coverage!

02 February 2010

Because it's On TV: LOST, Heroes and the Rise and Fall of Overly Complicated Nerd Dramas

There's been a good amount of "Rise and Fall" posts lately around here, but that's really just because a lot of good stuff tends to turn shitty pretty fast. In honour of the Sixth and Final Season of LOST premiering tonight, I thought I'd take a look at the interesting Sub-Genre of Dramatic Television it has spawned in this decade, which I have no real better word for other than the Overly Complicated Nerd Drama. Let's start where it started:

Precursors, '67 and '91:

The kind of show I'm talking about is the intensely convoluted, sometimes existential, other times incomprehensible live-action drama that almost shuns casual viewership in favour of a necessarily devoted following to extract all possible meaning. LOST (2004), while popularizing the genre in the mid-to-late 2000s was certainly not the forerunner. I'd give that honour to the British series The Prisoner (1967). Not only was much of the plot and setting downright surreal, but it was also one of the first shows with production values (in both set design, acting and writing) to rival most films. It's an incredibly good show with a lot to say about just about anything you could think of, from mind control and free will to love and big bicycles. From there we don't have much else in this specific genre (feel free to argue in the Comments Section) until David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990). Twin Peaks, like The Prisoner had incredible production value with the addition of an intensely sequential method of plotting. The first one and a half seasons contained a whole arc rather than an episodic structure (The Prisoner was largely episodic with a generally connecting narrative). It mostly fell apart when its second arc couldn't compare at all with its first one, losing a lot of what viewers and critics felt was the core of the story. Thus Twin Peaks operates almost more like a long mini-series rather than Primetime drama. Thus while these shows were revolutionary, neither could sustain their complex plot structure for much more than one or two seasons. Then LOST comes around.

Apex, 2004 - 2007:

LOST was the most expensive pilot ever made (between $10 - 14 million). Everything about the show was cinematic, but to a very high degree. Twin Peaks had the movie-level production of an acclaimed drama. LOST was like an epic studio tentpole film. Combine this with a plot structure that rewarded repeated viewership (this show was made for DVD collections) and close attention and ABC had a ratings giant its first year. It also won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, thus at the apex of both the critical and commercial community. While its ratings have steadily jumped around since then, and for some reason Mad Men (2007) has continually beaten it at the Emmies, LOST remains one of the most solidly written shows on television, rewarding that close viewership with genuinely significant parcels of information that add to its depth rather than leave a bitter aftertaste. The only other franchise that I've seen to be able to do this is Harry Potter.

In 2006 we had another freshman entry into the Sub-Genre, the very promising first season of Heroes. Its premiere was one of the highest for any NBC show all-time. Although any comic fan knows its basically a continued rip-off of X-Men, the initial hook of Heroes was simply what would happen if these disassociated people across the world suddenly found they had superhuman abilities. From this relatively simple premise the show spun some really cool conspiracies, character growth and a very satisfying conclusion. It was likely that conclusion wrapped up too much, as its second season saw a heavy decline in all-around quality. The only interesting characters left is Sylar and Parkman, the rest tend to either re-hash the same problems (HRG and Jailbait) or make stupid, incomprehensible new ones in order to limit admittedly godlike powers (Masi Oka has brain cancer, wtf). After its first season, Heroes tended to write itself into a corner with some of its characters, and then proceeded to dig its way out (See Peter Petrelli's case of James Franco-like amnesia, always convenient) in terrible fashions. Thus we start to decline.

Excess and Downfall, 2007 - Present:

The limitations of the Overly Complicated Nerd became readily apparent during the later part of the decade. The sheer failure and absentia of ideas for Heroes Season 2 was very disappointing, and hinted at the fact that the genre could not be performed on a Season-to-Season basis, similar to the failure of Twin Peaks nearly twenty years earlier. The genre only really works well as a whole, that is, a consistent driving idea from start to finish, regardless of Series length. Thus, LOST with its supposed overarching plan emerges as the only series that appears to know what its doing. That is, although its driving idea is as of yet hidden from view, there is still faith that it remains consistent, that every moment IS working towards SOMETHING.

There have also been some recently spectacular failures in the genre, namely ABC's FlashForward (2009) and V (2009). Both these shows are faring in somewhat opposite directions. While FlashForward is clearly the better show critically, its ratings have been slipping, and without strong viewership in March when it returns from hiatus it will be gone. V is an abysmally terrible show, but currently has a very good Renew / Cancel Index, which might lead to its renewal (again, still dependent on its Spring performance). Regardless, neither of these shows can begin to compare to both LOST and Heroes freshman seasons, which both earned huge critical acclaim and astounding ratings. As you can see, Heroes hasn't come close since. A severe problem with this sort of genre is how the writing must conform to the ratings and whether or not the series will be renewed.

LOST is the only series to manage this (although during negotiations in Seasons 2 and 3 things got pretty hairy) by determining during Season 4 that the Sixth Season would be its ultimate. This allowed LOST to plan its arcs with a finite goal in mind instead of just buying time developing random storylines until it sees its cancellation. Currently FlashForward is in an an interesting position - if it is indeed cancelled after this year, will it be able to wrap up its plot ties that satisfies its audience? If it was expecting at least a second season, will it have enough to maintain its mystery or lose its mystique like Twin Peaks and Heroes have? It's a tough call to make, but one that comes with the ground of the Overly Complicated Nerd Drama. 

LOST Season 6 premiers tonight at 9 pm EST.
Related Posts with Thumbnails