29 June 2010

Modal Nodes: Gorillaz - the Strength, Limitations and Bending Realities of a Virtual Band

Despite my obvious proclivities towards Pop Music and obsession with temporal mass consumption of Shit American Culture, I do take a lot of Music pretty seriously. Music is like movies and beer. It all has its place. Undercover Brother (2002) is a horrendous affair, but it'll get me through a Hungover Sunday Afternoon. Pabst isn't an enjoyable beer, but it's got its use and price for a good game of Beer Pong. Usher and Ke$ha don't good music but it's part of Summer Party Fun.

So while I've got that side down, I also have a place for insanely good music. My favourite Band of the Decade undoubtedly has been Gorillaz. Their latest Album, Plastic Beach, I believe to be their best yet and with their recent video for the best track on the Album, "On Melancholy Hill" premiering a couple weeks ago I thought I'd go in for a closer look here.

For a Few Dollars More

What's most unique about the Band is that it doesn't actually exist in our physical world. Instead it is a self-referenced "Virtual Band." Through animated bandmates and carefully constructed stories through music video, internet and apocrypha the band has both its real history and "Virtual History." This has allowed an incredible amount of freedom as well as its obvious limitations.

The major creators of the band are artist Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl) and musician Damon Albarn (Blur). By unforeseen fusion of art and music they formed Gorillaz. Thus in our Physical World there are much collaboration and composition of tracks and video animation only available in the Digital Age. In the World that the animated band members exist in however (by all rights seemingly identical to our own World in every respect [except maybe the acknowledged presence of ghosts and demons - but this really is just a factual take on legend], thus further blurring the lines of what a "real" band is supposed to be) there is a very detailed history of the Band's formation and Character Backstories. I won't get into them here but Wikipedia will. There is thus this ongoing factual history as well as a "manufactured evolution" of the Characters which is really interesting.

Of course this comes with very obvious limitations. Although they have attempted Live Shows, I don't believe they can really effectively pull them off. It also makes for difficulty for interviews, red carpet appearances, anything that you really would have to do in person actually. It is also somewhat more difficult to describe or sum up neatly for anyone not previously sold on the idea. It's a tough concept to pitch with credence and back-up that the group is genuinely innovative as well as highly listenable. Plastic Beach in particular is a much more chill album than Demon Days, although possibly more abstract. There is also the obvious toll it creates on its creators - instead of a genuine free-flowing band narrative, it must be constructed. This bolds as many problems as solutions it generates as I'll get into shortly.

High Plains Drifter

Their first, self-title album (2001) utilized many advantages of a studio-created band, including many songs crossing genres, different singers and guests that could all be said to come from the same cloth and experimental styles and tracks. They didn't play around with their reality as much as their later albums and videos did. The big one is of course "Clint Eastwood" which to its credit forms the basis of future Gorillaz Music Videos - that uncertain boundary of whether or not it is a video produced out of fiction like any other Band would or if it is actually a documentation of real events that has befallen the band. Take a look:

This continued with Demon Days (2005), a bit of a darker album that has this constant eerie Halloween tone to it. The animation shifted to a much less cartoony style, favouring instead inspiration from the Real World. The videos such as "Feel Good, Inc" and "El Mañana" are also breathtaking to watch. "El Mañana" continues this dark trend towards their reality, supposedly featuring the death of Asian Guitarist Noodle "while filming the video" according to some source material. Whether or not this fictional character actually "died" wasn't fully revealed until the video for Plastic Beach track "On Melancholy Hill" (although to be fair she's wearing a mask...) thus creating this narrative reality between music videos really unsurpassed by any other musical performer. This is also achieved while maintaining significant different in tone and background. Simultaneously Gorillaz bends its own history around its Music Videos - is it staged or reality? That is - a reality for the Fictional Band itself? Take a gander at "El Mañana" here.

Demon Days also increases the Gorillaz status as almost an Alt Rock / Rap band with well blends of Reggae, Techno and Latin even ranging to Spoken Word and Choir in its final, most epic tracks. Needless to say I'm still somehow leaving out some of the best tracks on Demon Days, it's a fantastic album.

Pink Cadillac

So, from this point the Gorillaz with Plastic Beach have extrapolated the tenuous nature of their reality. Plastic Beach has a very detailed backstory and execution, this time told through a handful of "Idents," websites, as well as music videos. It's a perfect culmination of our Digital Age - relying on viral marketing, a cutting blend of CGI and Traditional Animation, hip beats and even shades of mainstream collaboration (There are tracks with Snoop Dogg as well as appearances by Bruce Willis in "Stylo." Yeah - Bruce Willis!) In fact, just about everything in Plastic Beach so far is summed up here:

While Plastic Beach has a decidedly more Pop Tone than Demon Days (that might be where my appreciation comes from...dammit...) it's still got that Gorillaz edge, that recrudescent half-sardonic gloom that catches my interest. It might be its nautical theme (just like how Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest [1995] is my favourite SNES game of all time) or its greater affinity for Hip-Hop guests but this is an unparalleled Summer Delight. Now, I haven't really had a chance to listen to this entire album 15 times in a row in my basement while dripping on Salvia yet, but my favourite tracks so far included 03 -"White Flag," 04 - "Rhinestone Eyes," 10 - "On Melancholy Hill" and 16 - "Pirate Jet." There's a lot of good in this album and the Gorillaz certainly deserve some credit for pulling off a narrative complexity unheard of elsewhere in the music industry.

So - do you feel lucky?

28 June 2010

Summer Jam 2010: June 28 Winners

We had a bit of a weird week for the Summer Jam, and the intricacies of Rochester Radio are becoming more and more apparent to me. In my home town of Rochester, NY I'm finding that our own tastes skew a bit off the national curve. For one, our GaGa intake is huge - she's massively popular. A week where I don't here every single from GaGa's career is pretty rare and "Alejandro" by far has had the most airplay the past two weeks.

Also, David Guetta's "Sexy Chick (Bitch)" had enough radio play this week to earn the #7 spot on this week's Jam Countdown. This was bizarre. Since the track was last seen on the Billboard Hot 100 at #50 a month ago I've left it off this list, but I may note that this was a good week for the Jam, at least in Rochester, NY. So let's get to it:

#8: "Young Forever" - Jay-Z & Mr. Hudson

What is the deal with Jay-Z and black and white videos? I mean, the stylization is cool once but when it's used every time it loses a bit of its specialty. It's like if Kevin Smith made all his films black and white after Clerks (1994). It's as if Jay-Z is attempting to fuse all his videos with that same kind of integrity that is just repeated too much to remain effective. Actually that last one is pretty cool. Of course it'd be his least popular song out of that lot. Anyway, it's still lingering around the Summer Jam List.

#7: "Break Your Heart" - Taio Cruz ft. Ludacris

Back with a vengeance, this track had a good resurgence this week and should be considered a great contender for the throne. If it can fight up a bit more to regain some momentum I'll be pleased with what it can do. That chick in the video is still incredible looking, and despite its slightly pessimistic lyrics (or is it? There's a great kind of honesty there with some genuine longing for redemption from inherent character defects) it's worth a good Summer Beat and certainly Jammable.

#6: "Bulletproof" - La Roux

Still lingering around, "Bulletproof" is that secret song of summer that no one's really extremely into but likes just enough to keep it around. It's gotten a bit more exposure each week that goes by although it's very possible the height of its popularity has crested, certainly with the massive amount of better songs this summer. We'll see how it limps off.

#5: "Billionaire" - Travie McCoy ft. Bruno Mars

Again, this was pretty close this week. There is a ton of parity between Jams #5 - #2. There's a lot of mellowness, hopefulness and coolness in this song and it could make a pretty good run soon. Also, what is up with songs like this being so needlessly dirty in their uncensored versions? It reminds me of "Best I Ever Had" or even "Sexy Bitch." It's weird for songs so dependent on Pop Airplay and mainstream success to have such explicit lyrics. I mean, kids mostly listen to Pop Stations, which now feature a pretty equal amount of Bubblegum Pop and sexually suggestive tracks. In fact, what further blurs the line is the simple notion that the Censored Versions of these songs really are simply Bubblegum Pop. It's a weird place for our culture to go but at any rate it's not hurting any popularity.

#4: "OMG" - Usher ft. Will.i.am

Back up a couple notches this week "OMG" is here to stay. Speaking of Swearing Pop Songs look no further to "Lil Freak," gaining popularity on Hip-Hop stations. It's funny how some artists have that success between slightly different genres expressed through different radio stations (or television channels) that specifically cater to one race or another. Usher's Summer Hit for Whites is "OMG," his Summer Hit for Blacks is "Lil Freak." Parts I and II of "Airplanes" is the same way.

Also, real quick I need to mention this old Trey Songz track that I heard this week, "LOL:)," clearly there was some precedent to singing about Chat Acronyms. This song is full of youth zeitgeist. Also, Trey Songz tends to sound exactly like R. Kelly in songs like this, what the hell.

#3: "Airplanes" - B.o.B ft. Hayley Williams

Like I mentioned earlier, the Eminem-less Part I is the one we're tracking, more popular among the predominantly White Stations. It's popularity is still pretty high although I'm starting to have some doubts over its sustainability. It's too intense and bemoanful to be a good Summer Jam especially in the face of such other Bubblegum hits that we've been assaulted with this Season. As long as Hayley smooths over that Chorus, though, it'll be pretty high.

#2: "Alejandro" - Lady GaGa

For the second week in a row GaGa comes in at #2. I'm starting to realise how much Rochester is bias towards GaGa however and while she's of course popular nationwide her ubiquitous status in Upstate New York is seemingly over-deserved. For now though, she'll be number two and if the rest of the nation catches up to my hometown which plays a GaGa song about once every four minutes she'll get that #1 Spot.

#1: "California Gurls" - Katy Perry

Katy Perry's insane assault on Pop Culture continues this week with no real signs of slowing down. Now, I talked about this video a bit last week but it really needs some finer addressing. Katy started a bit of controversy and displayed some massive hotness with vids for "I Kissed a Girl" and "Waking Up in Vegas" but nothing like this. It's not only that she's so unspeakably hot but she really is just about bucky naked throughout this whole thing.

This song is everything a Summer Jam could ever be. It describes a perfect dream location (Exactly what California was named after) with sex and sand and wet wild girls. The video is the cutest, hottest video in years with an edginess belied by playful innocence. In an era of brooding emotional action films, drawn out droopy break up songs and complex TV melodramas with increased pessimism, Katy Perry lifts up an entire nation with this chipper bubbling song. Hooray!

So that's it for this week. No new debuts, although we'll see if Ne-Yo can fight back or even if T.I.'s new track can make some movements. You'll notice a thankful lack of Ke$ha this week, we can only pray it stays that way. For now there isn't a whole lot of indication these positions will change but hey, that's what Summer Miracles are for. Stay tuned, dear readers.

27 June 2010

More First Impressions: Toy Story 3, Part II: Toy Society

Last week I made my first couple ramblings about Toy Story 3 (2010) which will continue more in-depth this week. Considering the film won its Second Weekend by a large margin, I'm sure it's still pretty relevant. There are a quite a few questions I have about this fantastic Summer Flick so let's dive in:

To Infinity and Malfunction

It's time to talk about Buzz Lightyear. Buzz presents some interesting questions about the nature of Toy Society and the "Rules" briefly referred to by Woody in the first film. What are the Laws of Toys? From what I can gather, it's something like acting lifeless whenever humans are present. At all costs Humans may never see an Animated Toy except in extreme cases (see: Sid). Why? Part of Toy Story's magic is how seemlessly it creates a world for these Toys. Somehow you get the impression that this is plausible because of such ironclad rules - if Toys aren't allowed to come to life around humans how do we really know our Toys are always lying still at night? Childlike faith provides the answer.

So this brings us to Buzz. There are running threads in each film of the trilogy dealing with the simple fact that Buzz Lightyear believes himself to be a character rather than a toy. The inclusion of a second Buzz in Toy Story 2 (1999) with the same problem seems to indicate strongly that all Buzz Lightyears start out this way. I'm curious then, if all of these models are lacking this meta-cognition concerning their own identity or do all Toys simply start out this way? The Barbies at Al's Toy Barn could easily pass for real Barbies instead of self-aware Barbies. Perhaps all New Toys are imbued with a confused identity until they realise their own true nature.

Thus we come across a few problems here. If Buzz knows not that he's a Toy, why does he follow the Toy Code when Andy or another child plays with him? The Laws of Toy Society are surely complex and intricate, seemingly allowing plenty of freedom when not in the presence of Humans. It's a twisted line - Toys desire Human Adoration above all else but may never express their own love.

Speaking of Toy Love, what the hell is up with Buzz and Jessie? I talked about this a bit in Part I. I can see the "manufactured" Toy Relationships like Barbie and Ken as well as Mr, and Mrs. Potatoe Head, but where is the line drawn with other toys banging each other out? Whatever Woody and Bo Peep was was weird enough but the Buzz/Jessie dynamic is explicitly more sexual. While every character acknowledges Jessie as this Babe Toy, Buzz is clearly the coolest Action Figure Toy and should land the hottie. As Buzz's jock all-star personality is stripped away though, his confidence and swarthiness diminishes. Indeed, the Buzz aware of his identity is far less interesting than the Buzz who believes himself to truly be a Space Hero.

Viva Mexicana

While the continual plot re-hash of Buzz's programming is tiresome, his reset in Spanish Mode was very entertaining. It's important to determine the extent of Buzz's loyalty, as blind as it may be. In the first film Buzz was intensely loyal to Andy's Toys, only balking at Woody's failed attempt at plasticide. In the second, after the Store Buzz disposes of his perceived insubordinate (Andy Buzz), he displays impeccable leadership with the remaining toys. In fact, his valiance and daring at this point far surpasses Andy Buzz.

Mexican Buzz in the third film is very much the same way. Andy Buzz is almost a bit of a pussy. He whines about his "family," doesn't get anything done and is fully ineffective when his friends need him. By switching to his original programming (with loyalty based around the right Toys), he becomes a much more reliable and confident soldier. Of course with this necessary lack of heart comes...a lack of heart. Jessie, being the sultry cowgirl that she is ultimately seeks a median between the Spanish Seducer and the Meek Down-to-Earth Buzz.

The End of Things

Toy Story 3 ended on an incredibly satisfying note. It's about moving on, honouring good memories instead of packing them away and passing down the good times to new generations who will appreciate them. There is one vital scene (SPOILER AHEAD) towards the end which is a real Soul Test.

As the Toys end up at the dump charging forth towards the incinerator there's a part when it really seems as if they aren't going to make it. Holding back tears here is real tough, generally though if you're not crying here you haven't got a soul. What is interesting though is this nature of Toy Immortality. What's really cool (and this is a reason why the Franchise is so popular, because it makes the outrageous believable) is that basically whatever can kill a toy in real life will kill a toy in a Toy Story film. Taking it apart bit by bit won't do it but smashing its face or burning it up will. Other than that, the Toys are kind of like Elves from Lord of the Rings - they'll just keep ticking forever.

Anyway, besides the Deus Ex Claw that saves the Toys at the moment of greatest despair the ending is very satisfying. This is a great film in every possible way. The thing that Pixar does more well than any other studio in Hollywood is genuinely making a film enjoyable for all ages. Their films are neither dumbed down children nor over their heads while simultaneously containing themes and characters complex enough to keep adults interested. This is the only secret behind their great success - the broadest possible appeal enjoyable for all generations, races and genders. They maintain this appeal while also making a sequentially good movie with an interesting and relevant narrative. It's a studio that does everything right consistently and for once, it pays off.

23 June 2010

Profiles: The Big One - Tommy Cruise

Thomas Mapother IV is a silly bitch.

But he's also an icon for the past three American Generations and as of late, possibly one of the biggest PR blunderers in history. What images does the name Tom Cruise conjure in the past five years? Insane couch jumping? Screaming at Matt Lauer? Trapped in a closet? Similar to fellow 80s/90s heartthrob Mel Gibson, Cruise really fucked up the past decade.

Unlike Mel, who is just making Okay Movies with a renewed intense image, Tommy's been steadily and subtly re-crafting his image right under our noses for the past two years. Thus, when we're looking at Tommy, we've got three main phases:

1983 - 2004: Awesome.

Now, as we take this journey I want to remind you that when we're looking at Tom Cruise, almost all his performances from the start of his career to now are pretty solid (or at least congruent). It's not like he started making poor role choices or starting acting in Cage-caliber films, just his PR went insane.

In the 1980s however, he was an American Hero. Risky Business (1983) allowed the kid to break on to the movie scene, but Top Gun (1986) is probably still his greatest opus. For some reason I've never been able to get into Top Gun, it might be somewhere between the Pulsating Beach Volleyball scene or the fact that the coolest song on the soundtrack is Kenny Loggins but somehow I've just always been a bit thrown off. Fighter jets are fucking awesome though and the masculinity on display gave Tommy an action career for the next twenty-five years (and counting).

After this for a while we've basically got the two Toms - the action hero and the dramatic actor, with a couple bizarre vampire and bartender films strewn about. Both of these dual roles came to a fever in 1996 with Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire. Maguire is still one of the best 90s classics and one of the closest he'll ever get to Oscar. The original Mission: Impossible has developed into his signature franchise (with a bullshit second, critically and commercially successful third installment and an upcoming fourth by an Academy-Award winning director). With these joints Tommy simultaneously became the American action hero counterpart to a slew of Bond films that were regaining popularity mid-decade as well as widely acknowledged as a mainstream highly talented actor.

After this he's got the two mindfuck pics in Magnolia (1999) and Vanilla Sky (2001) then three solid appearances in action films with large doses of drama (Minority Report [2002], The Last Samurai [2003] and Collateral [2004]). All three of these could be considered some of the best of the past decade (Minority Report for sure). Especially when Tom busted out of the smirking hero character with Collateral to pretty decent effort he really should have been considered one of the most enigmatic, charismatic and talented actors of our time.

2005 - 2007: Shitty

Soon after, all this weird stuff started happening around Tommy. Read: Every recent image of Tom that first pops in your head happened. He was suddenly madly in love with Katie Holmes, seemingly more so to promote his films than to express puppy love (c'mon dude you were 42). More than anything though, which somehow the creators of South Park seemed to catch on to, he started being really really open with Scientology.

If there's any doubt in your mind anywhere, please know that Scientology is an absolute cult religion that relies on teams of lawyers and intimidation to protect its public image at all costs. Any read into their operations should immediately generate the most ridiculously immoral findings you could imagine, although it's shocking mainly because it was largely covered up successfully for the first forty or so years of its operation.

Scientology primarily targets celebrities because A) L. Ron Hubbard suggested it as a way to allow its public image to soften with free endorsement and B) its nature caters to very selfish people, there's no guilt over being special or wealthy in Scientology, its practice is specifically driven by flooding ego in its doctrine. Of all the celebrities in the past decade though, no Scientologist has been at the forefront like Tommy has.

At the height of his American Iconic Status either due to Publicist mistakes or whatever, we started seeing layers of Tommy peeled back and this insane, insane man emerging underneath. It's funny how celebrities let us down. I don't understand why we adore them so much, I mean there's entire channels devoted to following their lives. Thus when we started seeing our icon making these frighteningly ignorant statements about anti-depressants, initiating verbal arguments with fellow celebrities and getting pissy at British Water Gun Interviewers, we freak out. I mean, look at the amount of Tommy that penetrated Pop Culture mid-decade.

Fuck, Tom, just talk about how much War of the Worlds (2005) sucked because Robbie lived.

2008 - Present: Awesome

There seemed like there was this pretty huge valley for Tommy to climb out of now. America's darling fallen into a pretty big shitpile. The only real way out was to do something so entirely outrageous and out of carefully crafted character, something so impossibly Tom Cruise that he basically won back our hearts from the bottom up.

Enter Les Grossman.

Really a mere side character in the ridiculously character'd and cameo'd Tropic Thunder (2008) this somehow got Tommy his first Golden Globe nomination in five years as well as a whole lot more interest in his career. It played against type so well that we lost the Tom Cruise part of him. This was necessary - the Tom Cruise of late is that image again - the Couch Jumping Fuckhead. Since his face is so recongisable, he needed to be in complete disguise to reestablish his Iconic credentials. Les Grossman is an absolutely brilliant PR move. In the past two years although he was still scoffed for Valkyrie (2008), certainly less so than Mission: Impossible III (2006) which was a far superior movie that audiences avoided because of his PR jumbles.

With a much more careful eye then we may understand perfectly the reasoning behind Les Grossman "producing" the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. Tom Cruise has a new movie coming out today. What's the only likable bankable character he's done in the past five years? Fuck yeah. This is the megastar coming down a few levels. Tom's showing he has a sense of humour, he can laugh at himself and isn't afraid to look fat and silly. This is the exact opposite of that Water Gun Interview. It's his 360. It's his attempt to get back his American Icon Status. Right in time for his next summer blockbuster.

So boom. Knight and Day (2010) comes out today. Tom's back in smiling funny action mode and there's less talk of avoiding this because Tom's Crazy than there's talk of avoiding it because it looks stupid. If a movie can cripple itself on those merits then Tommy's heading in the right direction. It actually doesn't look that terrible, certainly more interesting than Killers (2010) (by the way, what the fuck is this a Dante's Peak / Volcano [1997] deal?). So we'll see if this can truly be the film to restore faith in Tommy's Career.

Until then-

Hail Xenu!

22 June 2010

First Impressions: Toy Story 3, Part I: Characters and Themes

Inarguably the best film of Summer so far, if not the entire year, Toy Story 3 (2010) seemingly does the impossible - surpass its predecessors. It's one of those films that simply cannot be hyped enough - I know there's a lot of positive talk around the Intranets about it, and it's all legitimate. Every moment of this movie is fantastic, let's dig in:

Monuments in CGI:

The first Toy Story (1995) is notable for a few reasons. It was the first full-length CGI film, it was Pixar's first full-length film and if you saw it as a kid it's a core element of your childhood. It certainly is for mine. It's a film about simple child needs and desires - playing with toys and imagination then dealing with loss, jealousy, replacement and acceptance. It's brilliant.

I watched both this installment as well as Toy Story 2 (1999) a couple days before I saw the third one. There are definitely upgrades in each proceeding film, although none of them looks terrible. The biggest thing I noticed between the first two is camera placement. Toy Story really isn't that innovative in its camera movements, it's like the animators were worried enough for the simple shots to look good. Toy Story 2 loosened up a bit and by the time we have 3 it feels like not only a live-action film but one with exceptional camera work. There are also massive improvements to level of detail, textures and variations of environments, lighting, number of moving parts on the screen at once and scope. One reason why Toy Story 3 is an excellent sequel is that it ups the ante in all these categories while maintaining a story and characters committed and faithful enough to the original.

Big Fat Southern Villains and Mobile Tortilla Heroes:

The major baddie in the flick is this big pink bear that smells like strawberries. Fearsome as he is, Lotso is a complicated, intricate character with a great deal of insecurities and abandonment issues that he covers up through merciless control of his Daycare, violence and betrayal. He just had to have a Southern Accent and position himself as a Prison Warden, didn't he? His animation is spectacular - the fur is dirty enough to be believably old and worn and its texture in rainfal is breathtaking. There's never really a moment in this film when the toys look like they couldn't exist.

There are a lot of new toys in this film, but it never really feels too crowded, mostly because the majority have already had some room to grow in previous installments (some like Rex had bigger roles in the second film as well). While some characters have certainly been squeezed out (Hamm and the aforementioned Rex had the second film packed with their best lines and there's a passing mention of Bo Peep's disapperance. Really, how did a Woody/Bo relationship work with Jessie in the picture anyway?), there's still a good amount of growth here. Much of Bonnie's and Sunnyside's toys exist only for a few good jokes and the film wisely doesn't feel compelled to give every single character a motivation and backstory. That's left to Lotso, Chuckles and Ken.

I've never been so entertained by a Ken doll. Michael Keaton nails this voice and the film really pins down the inferiority complex Ken must have attempting to retain masculinity in the shadow of Barbie. I mean, it's one thing to be second banana to your woman, but to be second to Barbie is something else. Ken eventually relishes his role while authentically fighting for his right to be included among the other action figures. I'll get into more of this later, but his retention of mannerisms from the nature and time period of his design are simultaneously bizarre and hilarious.

To briefly skim some of the other minor characters, it's nice to see the useful natural abilities of the Potatoe Heads and Slinky Dog put into play. It's cool to see a big crowd on the adventure this time around - that was the way to go. With just Buzz and Woody the first time, then adding the four major male characters, we had 11 of Andy's Toys out and about for this round - it upped the stakes both in that we had a lot of personalities to jar around and there were a lot more toys to lose.

After Andy's toys we have Bonnie's toys, which the slightly different rules regarding their society seemed interesting to get into, but I'm sure this is my overthinking nature rather than anything worthwhile for the narrative. More on Toy Society later.

Pair of Cowboys- Woody and Jessie:

Jessie was given a pretty big role this time around and she deserved it after being introduced in the second film as one of the most complex characters. Some of her insanity seemed lessened, perhaps an afteraffect of actually getting played with instead of sealed in a box forever. She's also clearly a babe among toys, something not lost on Buzz.

I'm going to talk about Buzz a bit later because his own personality defects tie more into the nature of Toy Society more than is fit to discuss here. His relationship with Jessie though is interesting. I don't understand Toy Dating (other than the obvious bond between Mr. and Mrs. Potatoe Head), but it seems like he def wants to bang her out. It's kind of weird but since they're toys who don't really have gonads it ends up being pretty sweet and innocent.

As for Woody, wow what an inspiration. He's that rare natural born leader that serves as an instant rally point for all those around him. He's got a commanding presence, unfaltering loyalty and a brilliant tactical mind (Andy sums up most of this by film's end during a direct talk of how he's been with him so long and why he's his favourite toy). His bravery and commitment to his Toy Family is unsurpassed. While Toy Story was arguably a dual protagonist film with possibly Buzz as the deuteragonist, Toy Story 2 was more equal with both their arcs (Woody contemplating leaving while Buzz rising to the role of Leader of Andy's Toys in his stead), Toy Story 3 is clearly Woody's story. You can see this in the opening credits. Toy Story 2 opened up with a space-themed font and sequence, Toy Story 3 is clearly Western. Buzz's role is hardly larger than Mr. Potatoe Head, but Woody is by far the star.

Subtext out the Battery Pack:

There are so many motivations going on at any given time in this film, it's staggering. There are many hard choices going on - do the Toys abandon Andy who seems like he was going to abandon them? Do the owe loyalty to each other? Is there justice in fighting to the top of the brutal set-up of Sunnyside Daycare?

There's the Toys' status as family against belonging to the Daycare System (Lotso offers escape to Buzz but he's loyal to his comrades). Woody, above all has a desire to be Andy's toy forever and it's actually a tough decision for him to sacrifice being with Andy in order to send his friends as well as himself to Bonnie. There is always a lot going on. Abandonment vs. misplacement, with Lotso and Big Baby there's also revenge and corruption vs. innocence (Lotso smashing the Daisy broach). There's adventure (how easy is Toy Travel anyway? Seems nuts but doable), passion (Mexican Buzz...more on that later) and drama out the wazoo. While a Best Picture nomination is about guaranteed, I'm still doubtful over an animated film's ability to win. Shoe-in for Best Screenplay at this point, though. This is an incredible film - I plan to overthink the shit out if it during Part II later this week.

Stay tuned, adventurers!

21 June 2010

Summer Jam 2010: June 21 Winners

Welcome once again to the ongoing search for the King of Summer Jam 2010! It seems as though the contenders for the moment have largely stabilized although it's still anybody's game. Finally, this was GaGa's week, contrary to what Billboard thinks, this chick was everywhere. Summer's getting in full swing now and with a great weekend passed now we're in the thick of it. Let's get it started:

#8: "Young Forever" - Jay-Z & Mr. Hudson

Back on the list this week, this song doesn't seem to be going anywhere. I had a great moment this week when I heard this on the radio while simultaneously another station played "Forever Young" by Alphaville. Both songs still suck.

#7: "Your Love is My Drug" - Ke$ha

Still pretty potent, "Your L is my D" took a bit of a tumble but is still relatively strong. Its unoriginal pop tones seem to be hindering its potential amidst many other catchier cooler songs this summer. It should soon be squeezed out of competition.

#6: "Bulletproof" - La Roux

Steadily climbing, La Roux just seems to not go away! It's a smaller song that will probably have a bit more staying power than other flash in the pan tracks. It's reminiscent of "American Boy" by Estelle and Kanye a few summers ago - that smaller song that proves its popularity and uniqueness, something we'll still be hearing in 2012. Because of this it's also about guaranteed to not rise to the top and conquer our specific zeitgeist.

#5: "OMG" - Usher ft. Will.i.am

Now, the Top 5 this week were all fantastically close, so don't consider this a huge drop for "OMG," it's still certainly a contender and I wouldn't say it's slipping too far. There were however a handful of songs that kicked its ass this week and it's #5 for that reason. I was pretty excited when radio versions came out this week that don't feature that awkward stop and reset at the beginning of the track. When this thing flows, it works supremely.

#4: "Airplanes" - B.o.B ft. Hayley Williams

Slipping just a tad, but again, this race was close. The track's hopefulness and legit beat are growing on me and like "OMG" there's no reason to count it out of the race yet. Paying close attention to both the single B.o.B and the Eminem versions belays subtle differences and as long as Hip-Hop stations are playing the Slim Shady version it's pounding double duty across slightly varied genres, which should continue to help its chances.

#3: "Billionaire" - Travie McCoy ft. Bruno Mars

Here is your flash in the pan Summer Song. It's a longing song while at the same time pretty hopeful and altruistic. It's got to be part of the appeal, just the simple notion that everyone you love could have a couple bucks. In some way it's still selfish but come on, it's a good riff on being a billionaire. It likely won't climb higher than this and will be out of the radio by July.

#2: "Alejandro" - Lady GaGa

Very close to the top spot this week but it's lack of Billboard Popularity has held it back. The boost from the Music Video release a couple weeks ago has finally taken effect. This has been climbing both this list and Billboard's tirelessly ever since its release and it's very close to reaching its full potential of a great Summer Jam. Also someone finally mashed it up with Ace of Base, take a listen.

#1: "California Gurls" - Katy Perry ft. Snoop Dogg

This track finally got a music video as well and it's pretty incredible. Take a gander here:

Yep. Gratuitous candy sex on display. This track is such a fantasy and the video really shows its likeness to heaven. I can't picture a more perfect world than the one Katy Perry describes and everything ridiculous in the video should spike the popularity up a few notches. Legendary cuteness. This is the song to take down for Queen of Summer 2010 and that's certainly a tall order. Heavenly.

No Taio Cruz this week, in case it doesn't appear again (not bloody likely), I need to mention how hot the chick is in that video. She's ridic hot. I'm in love. Next week we'll see if the Black Eyed Peas can rock the charts a bit (although "Rock That Body" is one of their worst songs, it's as if they've really given up into the techno synth shit instead of producing anything close to a good song). I'm also keeping an eye on Ne-Yo's new track, "Beautiful Monster". Both these have some potential to be good summer hits (the Tron beat of "Beautiful Monster" in particular...) and Norwegian Morning Wood will be sure to be there when the Pop Happens!

17 June 2010

One-Year Anniversary Post!

Hey Oh!

It's been a whole year already somehow, and let me tell ya, what a nonstop thrill ride it's really been. What started as a wannabe film nerd's ramblings about pop culture has...not evolved beyond that point at all. I hope the site is pretty enjoyable for all of you out there in the Informosphere, for the One-Year Anniversary this current minute I thought I'd take a well-deserved self-indulgent look at my Personal Top Six Posts. Here we go:

#6: Guessed Impressions: Clash of the Tittans - 06 Apr 2010

I do a lot of what I call Impressions of films on this site, which are distinct from reviews. Reviews tell you whether or not a film is good or bad. My impressions are more a chance to just talk about a movie. I believe you can inherently judge a film this way, but avoid giving it a letter grade, thumbs up or down or even a recommendation on seeing it or not. Impressions allow me to just ramble on what that particular film IS.

Anyway, doing Clash of the Tittans (2010) was pretty fun because to date I still haven't seen the damn thing and I still contend my Guessed Impressions are pretty accurate. It's not hard to guess what a film like Clash of the Tittans is going to be about or even how it is going to make me feel, which in many ways is largely a major theme of Norwegian Morning Wood, the innate absorption of Pop Culture into our collective consciousness.

#5: Because it was on TV: The Cultural Synthesis of the Venture Bros, Parts I & II - 25 Oct and 01 Nov 2009

Of all my Television Observation posts this was one of my most succinct, in general here you'll find the small handful of posts where I actually typed out exactly what was going on in my head. The Cultural Synthesis of The Venture Bros. truly parallels a lot of what Norwegian Morning Wood's observations are about, the different ways Pop floats into our lives, emerges on screen and ever since shows like this and movies like Knocked Up (2007) came out, make us laugh to realise. Shows like Robot Chicken and Family Guy exist entirely on this principle. No other show filters and floats around Pop ideas better than The Venture Bros, though.

I also like my excuse for posts like these - c'mon, it's because it was on TV.

#4: Terminator 4 and the Blessid Failure of Major Franchises - 01 Dec 2009

This is one of the few legitimate points I've ever made here. Like it or not, the idea that a franchise like James Bond, Godzilla, Spider-Man or Terminator can never be ruined because there has already been an incredibly awful entry into the canon is important. It should be a big relief and shift hopes and expectations for all of nerd culture.

#3: On Pop Culture - 04 May 2010

This had to be here, this post provides the rationale for the majority of posts on the entire site (especially the Summer Banality). It's also got a lot of references and commentary concerning the composition of art, citations to Star Wars Novels and George Hegel. It's focus is Art and Philosophy, which is always a big goal of mine - to reflect and determine what truly is the merit of any instance of Pop Culture. Is it all truly worthless or is mass appeal in itself a moving and interesting art form? It's a question this blog attempts to wrestle with.

#2: First Impressions: Inglourious Basterds - 24 Aug 2009

What makes this rise above the rest? I mean, sure the Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) Impressions were pretty good, but like I said before, I rarely sit back from a post and think I've said everything I could in a thoughtful and meaningful way. I nailed the Inglourious Basterds (2009) post. I felt like I "got" that movie immediately and could write it down in articulate words very easily. Thus, this post is a well-written commentary on a film that most approaches anything substantial you'll find anywhere else. It lacks a lot of the sloppiness, slang and derogatory slurs you'll find elsewhere in this shitshow. Let's jumble on to the next whopper - wah hey

#1: Profiles: Mike Judge and the Philosophies of Self, Enlightenment and Work - 07 Sep 2009

This post has actual footnotes and citations! Wow! I actually put a lot of research into this one and I think it shows. Often my "research" involves memory, guesses and a 20-second Wikipedia check, but I actually opened a few books for this one and it shows. Despite Mike Judge's inability to find a satisfying ending to any live action film he's ever directed, attaching foreign Philosophic Ideas to his work really lives in that perfect zone of overthinking Pop Culture that we here at Norwegian Morning Wood simply adore.

Well, that was probably enough self-congratulating for one day. It's been a pretty fun year. As part of my International Mission, that's one down, 99 to go! Blogging Century Club baby!

16 June 2010

Summer Movies 2010: Cause for Concern?

Many websites and blogs all over the planet have widely agreed on one unifying theme describing this Summer's Film Slate: Sucky. It's among one of the suckiest suck sucks that ever sucked. There are plenty of sequels, and really, any summer for the past five years, even the past fifteen years had their share of sequels, with only a spike in budget and prestige a recent development. So I'm not here to complain about that.

In all actuality, there are many more original films than sequels this Summer. If we divide the elite releases into two big groups we've only got sequelitis from Iron Man 2, Shrek 4, Sex and the City 2, Toy Story 3, Twilight 3, Predator 15, Step Up 3-D, Cats and Dogs 2 and Nanny McPhee 2. Take away remakes A-Team, Karate Kid and Dinner for Schmucks and we're left with the following original films (some [read: most] with well-established source material): Robin Hood, Just Wright, Letters to Juliet, MacGruber, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Get Him to the Greek, Marmaduke, Splice, Killers, Jonah Hex, Knight and Day, Grown Ups, The Last Airbender, Despicable Me, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Inception, Salt, Charlie St. Cloud, The Other Guys, Eat Pray Love, The Expendables, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Takers. Phew.

If you look at this list of original films closely though, you'll notice that it's not only full of Horror, Comedy and Romance, the typical original Summer films. There are a good amount of probable future franchise builders (or attempted future franchise builders) and action flicks, notably Robin Hood, Prince of Persia, Jonah Hex, Knight and Day, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, The Last Airbender, Inception, Salt, The Expendables and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Easily dwarfing the sequel list.

Unfortunately amid all these franchise starts (compare all the franchises that ended [or seemed to end] in 2007) the lack of good businesss so far seems to point towards an actual need for Superhero Sequels. The only comic adaptations are Iron Man 2 and Jonah Hex, and Iron Man 2 is really the only break-out success of Summer so far (for future reference Jonah Hex doesn't know its audience and will do shitty). Original gritty epics Robin Hood and Prince of Persia have bombed pretty hard domestically, and even Shrek 4 has severely underperformed in comparison to its predecessors. There has hardly been any film to capture that Summer Audience, and the slate of upcoming releases doesn't really seem interesting.

This Summer may have some ramifications in the industry as executives re-determine what they think makes us tick. I'm not suggesting they change the way they make films (probably more Superhero Sequels), but it should indicate a need for change in marketing. Movies like Prince of Persia, Killers and A-Team had marketing that relied on name recognition and big action pieces with little focus on story (quick - give a one-sentence summary of what any of their stories are supposed to be without having seen the film), something that seems to have caused their downfall. The Karate Kid, which has blown up this past weekend and could be our second real Summer Success won not only by conquering the family market, but by giving an appealing story to a remake that didn't actually rely on facsimile recognition. It's a turning point in the Summer and before this weekend a lot of the Internet's outlook was pretty bleak.

There's some definite trends so far. MacGruber, The A-Team, The Karate Kid and the upcoming The Expendables are all basically 80s Revivals either directly or indirectly which is startling (add in Hot Tub Time Machine and it's interesting to see how we're evaluating America's Worst Decade). There also seems to be a clamour for lighter fare, compared to the success of The Dark Knight (2008), which was a two and a half-hour brooding episode, films like The Last Airbender, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Knight and Day as well as Iron Man 2 promise a much goofier affair.

So what's to be the best film of Summer? So far it's been Get Him to the Greek, but I'm looking more forward to The Other Guys, Inception, Toy Story 3 and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The Other Guys promises a less man-child obsessed Will Ferrell and an uber-intense Wahlberg, which is honestly pretty incredible. Toy Story 3 seeks only to push Pixar's win streak while Scott Pilgrim vs. the World looks like an invigoratingly original youth-driven film that may avoid kitsch with a slow dose of hipsterism. At any rate it'll be a zeitgeist time capsule of 2010 for future generations to always study and mock.

Finally, like any good blogger, Inception looks like the very clear winner for Coolest Film of Summer. It seems like the kind of film a quality dude like Chris Nolan can make with his imagination going nuts after a Billion-Dollar Dark Knight payday. I'll hold my tongue of praise until it comes out, but while Nolan isn't a perfect filmmaker by far his oeuvre is unmistakably solid. Paranoid mind-game Leo has been a continuing treat and it will be cool to see the Wiener kid from 3rd Rock showcasing his talents in the mainstream.

So, while this Summer has seen a disturbing lack of sequels and Superhero films, we might look ahead to 2011 which should be plenty ridiculous releasing the franchises that will shape the following decade. Besides Thor, Captain America and Green Lantern, prepare for The Hangover 2, Pirates 4, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Harry Potter 7, Final Destination 5, Spy Kids 4, X-Men: First Class and of course, Transformers 3: Blowgasm. Keep in mind this is the release schedule as of June 2010. If 2010 is always remembered as that sort of "off" summer, 2011 should return to form for a Millennial Summer. We'll see if the bubble pops before Marvel has to scrap its Avengers project and DC gives up on a Flash/Green Lantern crossover.

Somehow my guess is unlikely. Yours?

14 June 2010

Summer Jam 2010: June 14 Winners

Deep into the heart of June we travel on Norwegian Morning Wood's ongoing quest to seek the Throne of Summer Jam 2010. We have a new Queen this week and with any luck she should be primed to stay there for the foreseeable future. Usher's reign might be over and GaGa's play for the top was subverted. Not too many new faces here, but check it out:

#8: "Bulletproof" - La Roux

Proving to have a bit more staying power than I attributed to her, La Roux is hanging in there as her techno-fused vocals are catching on with a year that's been aching hard of 80s Nostalgia (Hot Tub Time Machine, MacGruber, Karate Kid and The A-Team [2010] are all but examples of our recollective trend). I'm picturing this track hovering around this low position for a while, possibly giving her more endurance than #1 Flashes.

#7: "Break Your Heart" - Taio Cruz ft. Ludacris

Swapping positions with "Bulletproof" this week, this song's incessant hook isn't going anywhere either.

#6: "Billionaire" - Travie McCoy ft. Bruno Mars

A swarthy fusion of smooth R&B vocals and cut-up rapping, this is our only new track for the week. It's fantasy-fulfilling popularity is sure to grow and is certainly helped by it altruistic rather than covetous lyrics. It's definitely got a chillness to it, but isn't really exceptional enough for a good Summer Jam. It'll go high for a few weeks then no one will listen to this again.

#5: "Alejandro" - Lady GaGa

Still creeping, GaGa's new insane video may have hurt her rather than helped. It's tough to devote both TV airtime as well as Non-Masturbating Internet Time to all these mini-movie videos, especially ones as thematically dense and indecipherable as "Alejandro" is. Remember "Just Dance?" What happened to Fun GaGa? I guess that's the difference between The Fame and The Fame Monster, which if it ends up she's actually following some sort of metanarrative-focused career continuity, might be pretty sweet as far as Pop Princesses go. Yeah, GaGa's a Pop Queen. Apparently an evil one...with goggles.

#4: "OMG" - Usher ft. Will.i.am

Pretty strong yet, although I went almost the first half of last week without hearing it once, which doesn't bode well for its run at the top. It's still got a chance to crawl back, I'm picturing this more as a bad week than a serious blow to its chances. #2 on the Hot 100 this week for the first time in a month, I wouldn't worry about it falling off the Contender List any time soon.

#3: "Your Love is My Drug" - Ke$ha

This song gets more irritating every week it's on this list. That probably means it's doing well. By and large Ke$ha's least interesting and least edgy song, although as I mentioned last week I have doubts over her genuine edginess, or at least her confidence in herself. Anyway, this has been close to the top but it's inherent banality should keep it from the top spot.

#2: "Airplanes" - B.o.B ft. Hayley Williams

We're still choking on Part I while the Eminem addition and slightly modified lyrics in Part II is the superior version. More hip-hop stations have been playing the second version, which adds a wrinkle bonus to the popularity of this track. It's a heavy song and almost too maudlin for Summer but its hopeful streak gives it a positive, if not gleefully cheery streak.

#1: "California Gurls" - Katy Perry ft. Snoop Dogg

Here's your gleeful cheer. This is a perfect Summer song, every part of it hints towards the sunny carefree paradise encapsulated by the Summer Months. An emotional 180 from "Airplanes," this track should hold this for a while. Far from getting old, there's enough pastel pep in this song to keep the ladies and fellas bouncing. Snoop kills it and Katy pours out vocal sex like molasses on strawberries, it's beautiful. My only gripe so far is the possibility of more parody songs, we've got one meh entry so far that lacks a lot of lyrical originality.

The brunette's pretty cute but the singing is shit. Actually that white dude is pretty funny. Well, that's it for this week, folks. Jay-Z very narrowly failed to make an appearance among the Contenders this time but I wouldn't necessarily count him out. I don't know what happened to Sean Kingston and Justin Bieber, I expected their stock to rise this week, we'll see if they hold out one more and sneak in. And by the way - where the hell is Flo Rida? That dude's career was made for Summer Hooks.

Happy tuning

The Long Halloween: Flag Day

Here again is our year-long look at the greatest Television Holiday Specials. Rules are, one holiday a month, one show a year. Today is Flag Day, one of the most Holy of all the High Holidays in this nation. Nothing says "I Love You," "You're Beautiful," or "Let's Get Drunk!" like a good Flag Day Celebration. As for Television Specials, I couldn't really find anything, but here's the next best thing: Upholding the same general principles we have "A Taste of Freedom" (S4;E5) from Futurama.

Yes, this partly in Russian. Okay, mostly in Russian, you can watch two minutes of the American version (and then buy the whole thing if you really want to) here. You should be able to get the just of it.

While the episode is technically showcasing the celebration of the ficticious "Freedom Day," the episode's themes are easily applied to Flag Day. Flag Day is basically a day to honour a nation's colours (in this nation that nation is America. How wonderful) and what those colours represent. "A Taste of Freedom" is a thorough examination of the meaning of flags.

The episode focuses mainly on smelly foreigner Dr. John Zoidberg, fish-monster from Decapod 10, who eats the Earthican Flag during a large mistaken celebration of freedom. It raises the old question of free speech and action that extends too far and threatens patriotism. As Zoidberg himself states later in the episode (while lighting a flag on fire in order to attract a heat-seeking missile towards the Mobile Oppression Palace...uh...just watch the episode somewhere), "Yes, I'm desecrating a flag, but to preserve the freedom it represents!" Thus while flags are important symbols, flags without genuine freedom and principles to back the symbols, are meaningless. In the end, both the Flag and the Planet's integrity are preserved not through blind jingoism, but through constructive action.

Futurama was an incredible show, certainly one of the best of the current Millennium. In ten days we'll see a slew of new episodes for the first time since 2003. In between that time there's been a slew of movies, some fantastic, some terrible. If anything, these movies should serve as a warm-up before the series dives again into a more episodic structure (although the individual movies were unfortunately episodic in their nature anyway). The short time spent between Family Guy's cancellation and rebirth greatly lowered the quality of that program, if the movies are any indication of Futurama's progress, rather than consistent greatness the season will seem more hit or miss.

Then again, the only way to find out is to wait until the Season drops June 24. Let's see what you got, Comedy Central.

13 June 2010

First Impressions: The A-Team

I'm calling it - The A-Team (2010) is this Summer's first really fun movie. Enough with the maudlin, brooding neurotic heroes, failed comedies and gritty grim action. This is just a fun flick through and through. The cast is light, no one worries about plot problems or gun and SUV acquisition, and you get this impression that it was pretty fun to make. This is everything a Summer Movie is supposed to be.

Now, let's get one important thing out of the way - I don't give a shit about the Original A-Team TV show. I never watched it, I hardly now any characters or tropes, my only real impression of it was it features Mr. T acting as himself and tons and tons of bullets that never hit anybody ever. Frankly with this as the source material I could care less if it was closely followed. This new film does just that - throws a lot of the stupider 80s elements out the window in favour of ridiculosity.

In general the best thing about this film is the cast. Each actor brings his A-Game to the A-Team and the roles fit perfectly. UFC fighter Quinton "Rampage" Jackson is of course the weak link, but works basically as Ghetto Muscle. Bradley Cooper, in between showing off abs (c'mon, there's really like two shirtless scenes, only one showing his great abs, who cares. He's no McConaughey) is starting to show more and more leading man material and works great as this scruffy playboy. Liam Neeson is in straight Taken (2009) mode, continually pissed off yet pretty cool under pressure. They've both got a lot of confidence and smugness in their own exploits until something goes really wrong.

Then there's Sharlto Copley as Murdock. This guy's awesome. How did this dude never act in anything before District 9 (2009)? He blisters through a flurry of accents perfectly (including his own native South African briefly) as well as navigating that tough balance Murdock has between genius and insanity. As the given comic relief in a pretty funny film, he shines as the nuttiest hilarious character and again, displays a good amount of confidence in what is an incredibly silly role, a 180 from the heavy intensity of Wikus van der Merwe. This dude just showed Hollywood that he's got wicked range and a lot of talent to boot.

Some of this praise, uh...this film's got a lot of problems. It's the kind of movie though when these problems are pretty easy to ignore. It's paced well enough that it never dwells on a scene long enough for audiences to think to hard about what's going on. There are actually a lot more that makes sense in this film than it lets on, it's more of a G.I. Joe: rise of Cobra (2009) than a Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), in that it makes a surprising amount of sense. In fact, I'd contend that the plot makes a lot more sense than G.I. Joe.

Probably the weirdest part was B.A.'s weird arc from total badass, to Peaceful Prisoon Convert back to violent warrior. Whereas his turn towards non-violence may have been interesting, it seems as though the producers instead needed their angry black guy back. A lot of the CIA characters were pretty bizarre, they basically acted like clandestine versions of Animal House (1978) villains. Their leader, known for most of the film only as Lynch, is an easy vision of what happens when kids who play too many video games grow up and become important. You can tell this guy is a Michael Bay fan. The replacement Lynch at film's end (played by John Hamm - somehow a cameo or sequel set-up?) seemed much more serious.

My strongest desire to see this film came from the Air Tank scene from the trailers, and sure enough this scene was fucking awesome beyond belief, but a lot of it was disappointingly given away by its marketing. Luckily, this is only mid-way through the film and the ending sequence is somehow far crazier. There's a thrill factor here that is lacking in a lot of other Summer films lately, something like Iron Man 2 (2010) could take a nod from The A-Team to up the ridiculous and excitement instead of pounding out bland action sequences. There's a good line here - if you're blockbuster isn't T2 good, then it might as well be Transformers-bad. The A-Team is somewhere in between (more towards Transformers) and is able to relish in its underdog, ludicrous status, employing some great action in the process.

The movie is kind of interesting in that it is actually an Origin Story, although it never exactly feels like it. It spends little time with the four dudes meeting each other, and the action always feels like a classic adventure rather than a first adventure. I suppose this is due to the 8 year, 6 month time span the film charts its course over, skipping a lot of the honing skills training sessions and montages.

I enjoyed their simultaneous showing of planning and execution, it allowed the film to flow smoothly and connect easy the intense preparation with execution. I hate to say it because I had pretty low expectations, but this is a great Summer Movie. It's not negative at all, it's got a lot of pep, humour and ferocity, never gets too deep to be that worrisome. It may not be a great film, but with sunshine and a cold beer, this is a great trip.

I love it when a film comes together.

12 June 2010

Because it was on TV: The Success and Failure of the Terminator Franchise and the Future of Blockbusters, Part II

Welcome to Part II of Norwegian Morning Wood's longest ever titled post, examining the modern blockbuster with a special focus on the Terminator franchise. Bounce over to Part I for some initial ramblings on some of the genuine merits of one of the greatest action movie of all time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). After watching this on TNT last week, I started thinking about its role against more recent action films. One question I think we need to address is thus, Do we think T2 is so good because today's blockbusters are so bad?

So, What have we got?

I've been racking my brain to find another blockbuster as good as T2 from the past decade. There's not a lot even from the 1990s. Now what I mean, for the sake of argument, is let's say a big "event" tentpole film that grosses at least $120 million. Big action films that have some kind of artistic merit. Amongst all the shit that has come out this decade, I'll posit myself that the following action films have come close to replicating T2, although none I think are as well paced and structured as the 1991 Epic. After we run through this I'll mention a few close calls and some clear exceptions.

The Bourne Series (2002 - 2007): These are all pretty good while Identity (2002) barely covers my wide ranging appeal criteria, the subsequent films did in spades. Identity is by far my pick for the best in the franchise, though and its influence within both the spy and action genres in this decade is enormous.

Harry Potter (2001 - Present): While all of these are above average blockbuster films, the only really exceptional one is Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), which of course has the least gross.

Star Trek (2009): By all rounds this had the pacing and thrill to rival T2 but by far its complications, array of characters, lack of an iconic villain and "easy" ending bring it down for me. Remember how basic and simply driven T2 was from its four primary characters. In Trek we get to know the Spock/Kirk dynamic a bit but beyond that the crew are basically stock (except Simon Pegg).

Spider-Man 2 (2004): I have some problems with the first and third installments, but the second Spider-Man is about as close to a perfect superhero movie as you can get. In Summer 2004 no one thought this one would be topped.

X2: X-Men United (2003): Keeping with superheroes for a second, X2 shines far above the other X-Men films. Again, being on the top of the Comic Book pile isn't a great accomplishment.

Minority Report (2002): Underrated and one of both Spielberg and Tommy's best films of the past decade. It has a sense of classicism that should give it more credence amongst SciFi fans that it currently has.

That's about all I got. I'd also give Steve and Tommy War of the Worlds (2005) if they hadn't mucked up the ending so hard. I still contend that that film has some incredible moments, intense drama and is the type of film that is thoroughly more enjoyable in a big loud theater than on a TV screen at home. Speaking of movies that need to be seen in theaters, I'd actually rather not mention AVABAR (2009). AVABAR sucks. What you should immediately get from that list is pretty basic - none of them really even come close to how awesome T2 is. None of the above feature the combination of groundbreaking action, deep characters and legitimate thought-provocation that T2 elicits.

Now, I was watching I Am Legend (2007) last weekend, which inspired a lot of this post. As I'm watching this thing start I started remember how awesome this movie was. The opening empty streets of NYC, hunting deer with a canine buddy in a sports car, there's a good amount of iconography at work here and some great scenes...in the first half. The threat of the Anti-Sun Zombie Vampires is insane, there's such an unstoppable fear to them during those first slow scenes, building up the horror Will finds when he sees them huddled in a Breathing Corner in that abandoned building. It builds up really cool, Will does a great job on his own and there's this affection between man and dog that you can tell lasted the apocalypse.

Then (SPOILER) the mutt dies. It's powerful and sad shit, but after that the movie just becomes this big rolling piece of shit that won't stop. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, this ending would have saved it a bit (for some reason half of that video is in German, you'll get the just of it), giving the monsters a lot more depth as well as attributing new contemplative meaning to both the entire story as well as the title. Instead, we got normal Hollywood shit. Let's move on with our lives.

That Can't be it!

There's two big franchises I've left out here. The first is every movie in the Lord of the Rings series, all of which are peak film experiences. They approach the unspeakably good level, and unlike its comparative trilogy from last generation, they don't sell themselves out as they go along.

Then we've got Nolanverse Batman. Like I said, when Spider-Man 2 emerged, no one thought superhero films could get better. A year later they did. On IMDB, Batman Begins (2005) is the #107 movie of all time, The Dark Knight (2008) is #10. Ridiculous internet voting aside, these are two fantastic movies, and I hate them for it. I hate them because they buck the trend. For the next couple years whenever anyone complains that no good film makes a lot of money at the box office, or that superhero movies are really pretty shitty, anyone can always pull out The Dark Knight as a counterpoint. It sucks. It's almost like Godwin's Law. The more we talk about shitty blockbusters, the closer we'll be to talking about The Dark Knight. I'll be the first to admit that it is a fantastically well-made film. I don't believe it deserved a Best Picture nomination (C'mon - Gran Torino [2008] should have won...) and it certainly has its own problems, but in the end it is a film that elevates itself above the competition of the past twenty years and ends up (along with any Lord of the Rings) as the only film that can stand against T2.

Wasn't there some Terminator Sequel recently that was supposed to rule?

Okay, so we've found that there are a handful of pretty good blockbusters, but it's admittedly rare. Now, pretend it's Spring 2009 and you see this trailer:

Holy Shit! McG didn't screw this up! This is one of the most incredible trailers to come out in recent memory, every part of it is fucking fantastic - you're promised a great actor, Christian Bale in the lead role (to be fair, Bale's been the most boring part of his last four films), grisly Worthington supporting, terror on the face of Katherine Brewster. Katherine Brewster is fucking shitpantsed, look at that face. She shit her pants from awesome. This is inspirational in every way a Terminator trailor needs to be - humanity facing a fruitless war against cold machines but fuck it - we have a strength that CANNOT BE MEASURED. Not to mention that if we stay the course, WE ARE ALL DEAD! Then the drums come in, how can you not get pumped at that thudding. The trailer evokes every great part of the glimpses of the future we saw in the first three films and promises more.

Then it just kind of stumbled and fucked up. Apparently, McG could screw up this franchise. He could screw it up pretty bad. I mean, watch Charlie's Angels (2000), this shit makes no sense. I mean, we can have all the fun in the world adding another movie to Common's filmography where his character is completely unnecessary, but this is getting ridiculous. Every cool part that could or should have been developed (Connor's baby, all of what Sam Worthington's means) wasn't, and the thing ends with this dependability on Arnold, which is below the franchise at this point. It was always Connor's story, that's the catch more than that fucking Austrian. This really pisses me off here.

I'll even support T3: Rise of the Machines (2003). Granted that couldn't live up to the enormous standard set by its predecessors and reads more as a generic action movie, it's got its great moments (Elton John glasses, truck chase (from dawn to morning better than T2 and the graveyard are all pretty top-notch). It stumbles with the mythology, but whatever, it's probably the best we could have expected. With an "I'll be back" or an "Hasta la vista" line it could have sealed the deal on cultural ubiquity. There just wasn't enough in this movie that felt like it deserved that Terminator mantle.

But no, T4 managed to take what is ultimately an okay film in T3 and kick it in the balls so hard the franchise got cumstains on its tongue. T3 sure did lower standards, but this is fucking terrible. How did this happen? I cry at night in bed after watching both these movies and struggle every day believing they're in the same franchise.

So what now?

There's hope yet. 2009 had a slew of good, cheap films like District 9 and Inglourious Basterds to its credit, along with the aforementioned Star Trek. Throw in The Hangover and Moon and we had one hell of a summer last year. This year so far hasn't seen anything that could possibly come close and unless The Expendables (2010) delivers what it's meant to, we might as well hold our blue balls hoping Thor (2011) kicks Holy Ass next year.

Where art thou, Superior Action Film? Where art thou?

09 June 2010

Because it was on TV: The Success and Failure of the Terminator Franchise and the Future of Blockbusters, Part I

Congratulations on the longest blog title ever.

This is something I've needed to address for a while. In the past couple months I've had the opportunity to watch every Terminator film over again (except T4, but the taste of shit is still pretty fresh in my mouth from last year) and during last week's spectacular line-up on TNT, which included both T2: Judgment Day (1991) and I Am Legend (2007), I began thinking about the blockbuster. The first Terminator (1984) is far from an tentpole although it did pretty well. It views more like an 80s horror or even a B-Movie (we also need to re-evaluate our standards for 80s films, outside of Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, the decade wasn't really filled with Big Budget Franchises like our Summers are today). T2, however, is not only one of the best blockbusters I've ever seen, it's probably one of the best films I've ever seen period. I want to ramble about this for a while, contrasting it to the later films in the Franchise and then talking about the lacking quality in our Contemporary Tentpole. Let's begin:

The Merits of T2

Why is this movie so awesome? It exudes awesome out of every possible pore. Almost every facet is close to perfect. It works largely because while it is an action and effects driven sequel, it also is intently character driven while simultaneously limiting the scope to four major characters (Sarah and John Connor, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the T-1000). While implementing an initially similar plot as the first film, T2 quickly establishes itself as tonally distinct while progressing its characters into new interesting yet plausible states.

Characters are what makes a film last in memory. The Characters, for instance, were the glue that kept LOST grounded amongst the most ridiculous TV plotlines in history. Likewise, as complicated as the plot of the Terminator's franchise was (it was never that tough, I don't think), the characters kept viewers tuned in and interested. Let's start with really the only common thread between the first two films, Sarah Connor.

In the first movie Sarah doesn't know shit. She's kind of flighty while still bold, but eventually steps up into her role and kills the Terminator sent to kill her. Thus in T2 her plot line continues as she becomes harder and harder until she becomes really the toughest, hardened character in the film. Throughout Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator 4: Shitmouth (2009) she becomes only a legend in death. I feel like while this was a good step to go with the character rather than overusing her potential, when she was lost we lost that one person who had glimpsed Apocalypse. Through her dreams and direct contact with the Human who had lived through it, Kyle Reese, her connection and desperation was always more driven than John Connor's. In T3 John is trying to save the world because someone told him to. In T2 Sarah Connor tries to save the world because she needs to. Something is lost here.

In four films we have three John Connors. Edward Furlong does the best job portraying this character although I give in that this could be only because we always picture his potential instead of witnessing it. That's actually a fine reason in itself - Nick Stahl and Christian Bale never really do much shit as the Saviour of Humanity to earn that title. Furlong is this punk kid who 1) continually outwits machines and deploys a knack for hacking and using them to his advantage, 2) is incredibly aggressive with all kinds of authority figures (hating foster parents and cops) and 3) cares deeply for humanity (preventing Arnie from killing innocents, preventing his mother from killing Dyson and expressing a love for friends and family). These are all the qualities a great leader against the machines needs. Let's evaluate Stahl and Bale.

Stahl is whiny. Furlong had this whiny streak but countered it with an equally aggressive streak. Stahl doesn't outwit any machines when he should be starting to become clever enough to do so. He's more passively antagonistic with authority figures, desiring fear of loss instead of drive to win. He also wishes to bone Claire Danes, but other than that never really shows compassion for humanity. His only explicit distaste for machines must be initiated by Arnold himself. Bale is even worse really. Although he does two cool things in the film, including taking out some machines in the beginning (losing a ton of men in the process) and grabbing a Robo-Cycle, he isn't really capable of anything great once inside the Skynet City. He's a bitch when dealing with the Human Submarine Council whatever, though he plays rogue a little bit and never really has enough emotional depth to express care for humanity. Bale is always too focused on being badass rather than selling the character's heart - which is of course what he's supposed to be fighting for. The thing about T4 is that it never gives John a chance to prove that there's a reason Humanity should follow him. That should have been the point. If this guy is so important that Skynet sends three Terminators to the past to take him out, which must require a huge amount of energy and Robo-Tax Dollars then he needed to prove that he was worth it. It just doesn't.

The major fault of T2 is actually that it's so iconic, filled with elements that are just so "perfect" that it's about impossible to ever duplicate. The T-1000 is a good example. This new Terminator is an exponentially worse threat than the already formidable Arnold from the first movie. I mean, this cat can hide in the floor! It's major power is deception and investigation, through disguises as authority figures and ruthless access to information. Add a modifiable weapon and tool arsenal (metal that can pierce a milk carton or open an elevator), as well as a basically invulnerable structure and the T-1000 is one of the most powerful villains of all time. Really, think of anything other than a tub of molten metal that could kill this thing. Ever. The Sun maybe? The only thing that could kill it or even trap it is if Arnold threw it into the Sun. The TX does not top this, she merely retreads old ideas and is never the threat that the Kilo is. Of course then, nothing in T4 comes close.

At the core of T2 is a tremendous plot shift that is simultaneously repetitive. The major villain from the first film is now the major hero, fulfilling the role of "Protector from the Future" that a human served in the first film. What's awesome is that not knowing about this plot shift going into the film offers a very unique experience. It's not until both Terminators stumble upon John Connor do we understand who was doing what. Some of the trailers hinted at this, although I don't believe the final one did:

Let's get back to the characters. Every single character in this movie has a genuine arc, even the robots. T2 becomes a great film not in its explosive chase scenes or effects wizardry (which still look great, as I'll talk about later, even I Am Legend looks shitty) but rather in its smaller moments. Moments like Sarah Conner with the swingset, the bonding between John and Arnie in the desert, and the repeated crying motif. That whole desert scene is one of the best, it's one of a bunch of moments when John Connor acts like a real kid who has the coolest toy on the planet. Sarah's monologue is the soul of the film - the machine that will never beat him or neglect him, never abandon him, the best father that John could have. The bond between man and machine that fosters an understanding in John that subsequently allows him to save Humanity. All of this going on in T2's subtext underneath a shiny veneer of cool explosions lifts it above its successors.

I think I've run out of room again. I'll next talk more in-depth concerning this film's relation to its own Franchise as well as the Blockbusters of our time. Stay tuned, dear readers.
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