31 December 2012

2012: The Last Year in Review: Movies!

Alright folks, we've come to the last day of the Year of Our Lord 2012. What is there left to talk about? Well, we made it for one thing - those Mayans were full of shit, though there's certainly been plenty of terrible crap happening all over the world lately. This is what the movies are there for, though - to give us a break from the horrible onslaught of awful things that happen to everyone every day, or at least give us some insight into the human condition so that we may try to become better people. So, like every movie review site ever out there, here is our list of the best, brightest, and greatest moments in film during 2012. Let's start with our own Top Ten list.

I guarantee you're not going to find another list like this around the Internet. Moreso than any other year I think this really reflects what I was looking for in a movie this year - I can apparently sum up my taste in small, classy, concentrated action films, subversive comedies, and other movies that really change the game. I'm interested in cultural reverb more than anything - which films are the center of diffusing new innovations and which ones am I not going to be able to turn off when they appear on TNT in two years? That's the basis of my list more than anything else.

#10: Haywire

You remember this one from all the way back in January? Gina Carano has a bit more to come along as an actor, but Soderbergh directs the hell out of this in a distinctive narrative style he developed during the Ocean's films and Contagion (2011). Gina also kicks the ass of Magneto, Obi-Wan Kenobi, G.I. Joe, and Zorro throughout the course of the film. I'll take it.

#9: Silver Linings Playbook

It's always nice to see Bradley Cooper actually acting, because he's not all that shabby at it. David O. Russell throws De Niro the best role he's had in ten years and Chris Tucker of all people into the mix along with material to properly show off Jennifer Lawrence as her generation's best actress in this romantic comedy refresher.

#8: The Grey

Liam Neeson spends two hours fighting wolves, deals with his own mortality, and of course he survives to go on to train Batman. In the process he's become an icon of badass masculinity in the vein of Arnold or Sly of yesteryear. How is that possible? I'm not sure, but he ought to be recruited for The Expendables 3: Wolf Wars (2014), naturally.

#7: Argo

The Best Bad Idea Ben Affleck had has put him on the map of go-to directors in a way his acting career never has. Really, he hasn't had stock this high since "writing" Good Will Hunting (1997). When he started acting outside of his Boston comfort zone he really failed (not necessarily). It's good to see that he is able to stretch outside of his Southie wheelhouse for this great flick, in both acting and directing.

#6: Looper

Clearly the best original sci-fi film of the year, even if it mershed elements of many tropes together, this still took an investible high concept, big-name actors and ran with it in new and exciting ways that ought to really launch a few careers (JGL for sure) and make a significant mark on the cultural landscape. I'm only looking for Rian Johnson to be a bit busier than our last sci-fi directing new genius, Neill Blomkamp, who hasn't done a thing before next year's release of Elysium (2013).

#5: Lincoln

Probably the most prestigious film on this list, Lincoln is everyone at their best, and that's a lot of people who have done pretty damn good things. Spielberg immerses us in a few overlooked days in the life of our 16th President, and Daniel Day-Lewis takes us into his flesh and mind like we've never seen before. The only real shame is that this thing won't give a soul any other chance in the acting fields in what was really a very solid year for many other men.

#4: 21 Jump Street

Absolutely the funniest film of the year, so of course I have this ranked extremely high. It's the kind of balls-out film that absolutely kills every line and every moment, made all the better by appearing out of no where with little hype at all. Who knew Channing Tatum could be so hilarious? "FUCK YOU SCIENCE."

#3: The Cabin in the Woods

It's rare that you see a film that subverts an entire genre like this one. It makes watching any other horror film seem even more cookie-cutter than they already are, while this uses a Thor-led team of pothead, slut, jock, and virgin against vengeful gods, a shady corporation, and every monster in the book. It's something that really needs to be experienced with a bunch of friends, copious amounts of alcohol, and a dark room - at least that was how I first saw it - it's a trip in itself, and that's the whole point of the medium.

#2: Django Unchained

It may just be due to recent memory, but I was very close to naming this sucker #1. A Southern Slavery Epic that we desperately needed, this film does more for race relations than Spike Lee will ever care to realize, and it pushes its themes and narratives hard enough to give Black People the Epic Hero they've always deserved. All praise to QT for even getting this thing made in the first place.

#1: The Master

Joaquin proves that yes, he is one of the greatest actors of all time, and if not for the difficult subject matter and immense love of Lincoln this year, ought to have locked up momentum for Best Actor a long time ago. The Master is the kind of film ripe to be ignored, but really deserves to be considered one of the best of all time, though possibly not for a casual night on AMC (yeah, going against my own criteria here, but this was too good to pass up). It's full of compelling scenes, but the driving question of who the Master is and what that means is what causes this film to linger in my mind months after watching it.

Honourable mentions: Bond returns to form in Skyfall, West Anderson returns to form in Moonrise Kingdom, Will Ferrell's feature-length meta-joke in Casa de mi Padre, Soderbergh's male stripper opus Magic Mike, Rob and Dave's ethereal Cosmopolis, the immense crazy fun of Seven Psychopaths, the Rabbits of Rhosgobel leading wackiness in The Hobbit, and we got him in Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Scenes of the Year:

#10: Say what you will about Battleship, but one of the more surprisingly moments was how organic they worked the grid battle into the film, as well as how that ended up being its coolest scene. Oh Taylor Kitsch, what an awful year you had.
#9: I've never seen a film that spirals into awfulness so quickly, but the opening crash scene in Flight was mind-blowing.
#8: I wish I had a higher quality clip, but Mark Wahlberg, his Teddy Bear, and Flash Gordon hanging out, doing coke, punching through walls, and fighting ducks really encapsulated how fun TED really was.
prometheus self-abortion
#7: Django Unchained really has too many good scenes to count, but to pick one I'd take his final ride as John Legend plays in the background - nothing has gotten me more pumped for the entire year.
#6: The Campaign was an underrated comedy this year, buried under attention to the Summer Olympics and well, our own actual Presidential Campaign. The baby-punching scene is nevertheless legendary, though, especially because it's awfully Romney-like.
#5: In another film that's tough to pick one scene, Batman's return in the Bat is really one of the few uplifting moments in the whole movie, made more significant from the two hours of depressing oppression and darkness before it. This is where Batman rises, and even though we don't even see the actual man, he's done what he set out to do in Batman Begins (2005) - he's a symbol of righteousness that here not only strikes fear into his enemies, but courage in his friends.
#4: This scene magnificently took up an entire early trailer, but as Princess Merida shoots for her own hand in Brave the entire film's central conflict and characters are established in an incredible two minutes of writing and beautiful animation before the film gets real weird.
#3: It's almost as if everything in The Avengers led up to and was encapsulated by a simple command voiced by Captain America: "Hulk - Smash." A big green smile sums up the funnest movie of the year.
#2: SPOILER if you haven't seen it, and I'd recommend slogging through the entire film beforehand, but the sheer hell unleashed at the end of The Cabin in the Woods is a riotous moment, one of the more memorable bits put on film in the past decade.
#1: And now for the most intense, grotesque scene ever, the self-Cesarian from Prometheus was disturbing and crazy. That clip is the best I could find, but it's even better with the Noomi's screams and desperate actions getting that machine to work before her widdle iddle squid son bursts through her tummy. It's certainly one of the more distinctive scenes in the past year, and one that sticks with you (whether you want it to or not) for some time to come.

Actors of the Year:

For the men, though Taylor Kitsch had a fantastic year of flops with John Carter, Battleship, and Savages, certifiably dooming his career, we ought to go a bit more positive, and looking upwards, no one's doing better than Joseph Gordon-Levitt. JGL featured significantly in the second-biggest blockbuster of the year, The Dark Knight Rises (c'mon, that role should have gone to Shia...), and a little less so in the most prestigious film of the year, Spielberg's Lincoln. On his own, he also popped two headlining films, one pretty shitty bikour film (Premium Rush) and one excellent time travel film (Looper). JGL can do just about anything he wants right now, with indie cred, blockbuster cred, and Oscar cred. He's really the 2012 version of Fassbender, but with a relatively thin upcoming schedule we'll see where he can go from here.

As the ladies go, this year was all about Jennifer Lawrence. She had two tiny shitty horror films (Devil You Know and House at the End of the Street), but we care less about that and are instead looking to The Hunger Games, which Jen has totally made her own on its way to becoming the next big teen book-to-movie franchise adaptation to make a buttload of cheddar at the box office. Like JGL, she both established butt-kicking cred and cred towards actual acting talent. She was really the best part of a very good Silver Linings Playbook and we'll see if Oscar also takes notice. It was an incredible year for her, and with plenty more franchise films from both the X-Men: First Class series and the rest of the Hunger Games, she's not going away anytime soon. I just hope she can also keep pulling off those smaller, high quality films as well.

Well, that's it, folks. We've got a little less than 9 hours to go now before the end of the year. What will 2013 turn out? Stay tuned as we look forward to next year's awesome line-up of crap. What were your favourite movies, scenes, and actors of 2012?

30 December 2012

2012: Looking back on Looking Forward

So, last January we made a list of twelve possible awesome cultural events for the Year of Our Lord 2012 that we were looking forward to experiencing. Looking back on it now, it's surprising how many of these things really sucked, and even more surprising how many didn't even happen. So, let's go through our list:

12. GI Joe: Retaliation (06/29/2012)

Yep. Chaulk this one up to one of those nonexistent things so far. The flick was pushed way back after Channing Tatum actually became a more bankable actor and while his character originally died early on, they are now reshooting it to feature more of the guy. Will that pay off? I'm a C-Tates fan, so I can't see why it wouldn't be a good move, though a second trailer much less cooler than the first (and not really that much Tate) isn't a great sign. 2013?

11. The Expendables 2 (08/17/2012)

Read our full impressions here. This thing was certainly better than the first, but it's more and more clear that all these dudes can do now is pick up a big gun and blow people away. With rumours of Cage and Chan coming on board for a third installment, our interest keeps being peaked, but we know that it will never really be all that great. Right?

10. World War Z (12/21/2012)

And...another one we didn't actually get to see this year. The trailer does look really awful, though, so we have that to not really look forward to next summer.

9. MIB3 (05/25/2012)

Josh Brolin was intriguing, and this was surely a whole hell of a lot better than the second installment, but ultimately this thing was still brought down by a lot of stupidity and less of the mix of fun, danger, and sci-fi that made the first one so enjoyable in the first place.

8. The Avengers (05/04/2012)

We'll say hell yeah on this one - The Avengers was a spectacular spectacle, if not a bit bloated and mass-marketed. Still, it was fresh, exciting, and the best sort of escapism in a year where we really needed it. This did more in the realm of pure entertainment more than any other film this year, regardless if whether or not it was actually a good film (it really wasn't). Still, the anticipation this thing has generated for all of Marvel's Phase Two, and the fact that it has basically changed big-franchise filmmaking ought to be a lasting achievement. Here are our initial impressions.

7. Skyfall (11/09/2012)

Bond came back in a big way with Skyfall, one of the best movies of the year, and certainly one of the best Bonds of all time. This certainly went above and beyond our expectations and fully connected Craig's Bond to the rest of the long-running franchise. Here is our full impression.

6. The Cabin in the Woods (04/13/2012)

This one really snuck in there as one of the best films of the year - everyone will remember Whedon's big 2012 for The Avengers, but his part in this shouldn't be overlooked. This is a great film that really upended horror tropes, and of course has one of the better ridiculous endings of any film - really one of the craziest two minutes to ever be put on film. Watch it here, but I'd suggest sitting through the whole thing first if you haven't yet!

5. London Olympics (07/27/2012)

We just talked about this at length in our 2012 Sports Review and our Summation of the Games a while back. Needless to say it was a great couple weeks in Summer and kudos to our pals across the pond for putting up a good show. Less kudos to NBC for their stringent live streaming policies, but they made a shitload of money anyway, so what do they care.

4. Prometheus (06/08/2012)

So do we consider this a good film or not yet? I thoroughly enjoyed sitting through this thing and though many walked out frustrated and annoyed, I thought it was an incredible experience. Then again, I had less a problem with Lindelof's LOST, particularly the ending, than most people as well. If you were OK with not getting answers, which really, answers aren't fun anyway, but rather jazzed about a 2-hour thought experiment parading as an Alien prequel, then this flick was for you. Here are our first impressions.

3. Django Unchained (12/25/2012)

This blew us away. I can't heap enough praise on Django, having just seen it and still being pretty pumped up about it. Go ahead and check out our impressions, but this was certainly a step forward for Tarantino and anyone who had the pleasure of sitting in the theater watching it.

2. Year of Lincoln

What do we think? Vampire Hunter sucked but Spielberg's treatment of the main dude knocked it out of the park. By the end of the year I think we were all thinking of our Tallest President, from Daniel Day-Lewis to Bill O'Reilly. Why is the Kentuckian getting so much attention in 2012? Perhaps because we're realizing (scarily), that our politics aren't so different than they were back then - in times of great division we look to the Great Emancipator who unified the regions and races of our nation at a time where they couldn't have been farther split. Of course, he did this with an iron fist and will, and not a whole lot of people were on board with any of it. Barack 2012.

1. The Dark Knight Rises (07/20/2012)

Chris Nolan saw his trilogy off with an end fitting the Dark Knight - it's tough to think of a film that could better have capped the last seven years of our Gritty Revisionist Batman that has really changed the way movies, in particular superhero movies are made (though Marvel is showing we can still give them a nice candy-coated veneer and make a buttload of cheddar). By putting into place every great last bit of the mythos as only Nolan could, new stars and old ones alike made this a memorable send off for one of the greatest heroes of all time.

So, a lot of these were pretty good. Some were bad. Strikes and gutters, baby, we'll see if we can hit 300 during 2013...

29 December 2012

2012: Sports and other Crap

Welcome back, folks, to our look back at the weird, wonderful times of 2012. Now, we've got the requisite Music, TV, and Movie lists to feed your appetite, but there was a lot more that happened this year. Here we'll talk Sports, Video Games, Politics, and everything else.

Summer O's:

The biggest worldwide sporting event this year by far was the London Olympics. And like all Olympics, it was filled with great stories of American Success. From an Abby Wambach-led US Soccer Team enacting revenge on the Japanese to Gabby "Flying Squirrel" Douglas' breakthrough Gymnastics performance. Then of course, our idiot swim dominated both viral videos, the zeitgeist, and the competition in the pool. Mike Phelps may have gotten AP Male Athlete of the Year, but c'mon - Lochte's jeah dominated Olympic branding.

There were plenty of other great stories to come from these games though. The Olympics are always fun because for two weeks we suddenly care about all these people, then they do talk shows in the fall, then no one really cares about them. What will we think of Mo Farrah memes in 2014? Who knows, but it's pretty fun while it lasts. There's no other event that so dominates conversation for a short period of time and then dissipates without much other thought. The accomplishments of some such as Usain Bolt's victory over Wally West and Misty May and Kerry Walsh's three-peat ought to create a lasting stamp on history, but other great moments tend to be fleeting outside of their respective sports. Will anyone care about the ridiculous fast 100 meter freestyle swim of Ranomi Kromowidjojo? They should - because she has the best name in history.

NBA 2k12:

This was a ridiculous year for Basketball. LeBron James literally could have had more success, having won NBA League MVP and Finals MVP, an NBA Championship with the Miami Heat, and an Olympic Gold Medal. It's not even really fun to cheer for, but then again, it wasn't supposed to be since his 2010 Decision. It's tough to even get excited for, but at least he's losing games this year, although a deep Playoff Run is still a foregone conclusion, and he's had a nasty streak of high but not too high scoring games.

The team of this season, though is really the Brooklyn Nets. Apparently it really helps if you're the favourite team of Jay-Z. I would love to just buy controlling stakes in my casual interests, but that team has successfully become one of the coolest in the NBA (although they have had a little collapse as of late). Dan Gilbert needs to take lessons from them, the Clippers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder to find out how to make a team that can contend for a championship.

Foozball and Giants:

The hottest NFL teams this year really boil down to the Denver Broncos an the New York Giants. Capping the 2011 season we saw a Tebow-led Denver team take a deep stab into the playoffs as he became the most marketable QB in the League. Of course, he was then dumped for Peyton Manning and has played the worst football of any player in history as a New York Jet (except for Sanchez, possibly). At the same time, the Broncos under Manning are a serious Super Bowl Contender. It's a dream.

The New York Giants have proved themselves to be adept Patriot-killers, winning Super Bowl XLVI over the most evil team in the league, in New England. Just like 2008, it was like living in a dream. The unbelievable happened, and we all got to bask in the greatest picture of the year in sports, seen at left. This proved be a great year for Giants of all kinds when the San Francisco Giants won the World Series and also proved to be the funnest team to cheer for in Baseball. If you don't believe me, re-watch Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval's three home runs in Game 1 against Detroit - what an epic feat.

Video Games:

This was kind of a quiet year for video games. After unprecedented industry growth in the past few years, the market for console gaming actually appears close to saturation as repetitive titles and 15 new Call of Duty games crowd a once creatively lucrative field. Ultimately without any Arkham Asylum games, there isn't a real clear winner. We'll sum it up with Borderlands 2, Dishonored, and Halo 4. Both sequels were able to build upon and expand their franchises, the latter was especially needed to move on from both a stale and repetitive story. Dishonored was really the best original title of the year, but it didn't innovate or change the game at all.

Politics and Events:

Even if 2012 wasn't the year that the world ended, it sure came close. We had people on bath salts eating people's faces, a derth of senseless, mindless shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, one of the greatest disasters in US history in Hurricane Sandy, and the racially motivated slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Terrible shit happened all over the country, but at least we have Saint Obama to guide us out of the shit.

Republican primaries and then a national election dominated 2012 news, to the extent that it was unbelievable that the President can actually get anything done in an Election year. Still, it's a good thing that Obama was reelected. We caught a glimpse of the evils of the Republican party this year - how much crazier and partisan they are than even the Bush years. We'll see if we can all just get along, but ultimately we need to start thinking more about the actual people of this country and not just a handful of wealthy white dudes.

This year was also a tipping point year for technology and media in many ways. For the first time since its inception, less American households owned television sets than the year before. Economic struggles and the shifting priorities of a new generation is changing consumption habits, and as more twenty-somethings adapt to new technology and gain economic and political power this country should be forced to innovate to meet their needs as well. This was an election driven by social media and twitter - the side that understood that rather than the one that raised more money was able to pull off a victory. It's the future, and the quicker we adapt and implement creative change, the greater advantage we can have in advancing our civilization.

What do you got, 2013?

28 December 2012

2012: Music in the Final Year of Our Existence

Welcome everyone, to the Season of Top-Ten Year Ending Lists - that special time of year where we all reminisce about the greatest moments in pop culture from the preceding year. What will follow over the next few weeks are a series of Time Capsule-style posts more than anything. We here at NMW are not as interested in assigning bits of media to arbitrary, opinion-driven lists as we are in initiating a discussion of the year as a mechanism to assess where we stand culturally, as well as to highlight some great moments you may have missed this year. We're also interested in things like Nicki Minaj's big fat ass, though, so you know, there's a bit of balance to attain here.

Artists of the Year:

This is a tough call. Last year was clearly the Year of Adele, but it's a bit more muddled in 2012. We can give it to new artists like Gotye and Carly Rae Jepsen who had massive sudden singles fueled by music videos gone viral, but just one big hit isn't really enough to call someone the Artist of the Year (looking at you, too, Psy). There were a lot of other really great works put out by fresh new voices like Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes, and the Lumineers, and they'll get their due but none of these were also overpowering enough to earn this fabled title. We could consider fun., who just ruled the charts and zeitgeist this year, but their poor grammar and the imposing line they strut between drunken irreverence and youthful self-importance is far too infuriating. All of these brand spanking new artists, though, ought to be significant.

We'll give Artist of the Year, however, (yes, in 2012) to Bruce Springsteen. The Boss came back in a big way this year, dropping an excellent album in Wrecking Ball, and performing more shows than most people half his age. He was a total pro this year, with a ridiculous output of music and a crushing schedule. He really picked it up this past fall where he campaigned for Obama, who used some of his tracks for his campaign, and then performed many charity concerts for Hurricane Sandy Relief that decimated his home state of Jersey, including Hurricane Sandy: Coming Together on November 2nd and 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief in December. The man served as not only a musician but a rallying point for some of the biggest events of 2012 and in the process showed what music can really do to a nation, or at least to a region when he never gave up his blue collar Jersey roots.

Albums of the Year:

There are really only five albums that matter this year, all in different genres. We'll talk a bit about all of them to appease a wide variety of people - after all, it's tough to definitively list one over the other (for us personally, it's Frank Ocean). For an update in classic rock we had the pleasure of listening to the aforementioned Wrecking Ball by Bruce, a revitalization of his classicism set against a new age. Sticking with rock, we also received Jack White's Blunderbuss, where he really showed what ditching your drummer sister can do for a career - suddenly becoming one of the more relevant names in rock for the year.

For pop starlets we need only look to Taylor Swift's Red. In a single sweep she moved on from country-pop to pop-country and gained even more likeability and mainstream appeal. In her maturity she really became one of the biggest stars in the year. Neither her predictable her lyrical content or the enraging of her diehard country fans could stop it.

Hip-hop boils down to B.o.B's Strange Clouds and Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE. B.o.B really slipped under the radar this spring but swaggers between big rap beats and smoother emotional high points along with some killer and surprising collabos. But really, this is Frank's year, as his album redefined what hip-hop could be and do through falsetto, sweeping synth beats, and a new distinctive voice and style punctuated by juxtaposition of characters, sound effects, and a rambling, driving train of thought set to a beat. It also helped that he had one of the best SNL performances of the year (when you're trumped only by Mick Jagger, that's not a bad thing)

Videos of the Year:

This was really only ever between two, but I'll throw in the mesmerizing effect of Ellie Goulding's "Anything Could Happen)" which assaults both the eye and year with an ethereal series of bright overlaid images to match the floaty beat and silky smooth vocals both rising to an overjoyous frenzy towards its conclusion.

But really, this year is between Gotye's smash "Somebody that I Used to Know" and Delta Rae's "Bottom of the River." Gotye became a YouTube star with this heavily symbolic video that was unique and new, which is all it took for 360 million people to perk up and watch on the video-sharing website. Gotye paints a tortured relationship story through his lyrics then abstracts the feelings and commitment of both himself and his GF (played here by the singer who joins him, Kimbra) through literally painting confusion onto their bodies and then retreating the paint on Kimbra as she frees herself from the overwhelming density of their relationshit. It's brilliant. It's also everyone's dream of seeing Sting and Katy Perry sing together naked.

BUT we like "Bottom of the River" much better. Take a gander:

In about two minutes the ensemble band devises a short witch-hunt story. It's incredible due the simplicity with which it tells its tale as well as the switch from victim to aggressor by singer, Brittany Hölljes (almost imperceptible, I'm pegging it somewhere around the 1:15 mark). Note the subtle foreshadowing of her image in the mirror at the beginning and then the impressive single-take shot through the simple farm set that nevertheless expresses the misgivings, power, and conflict between the two parties of apparently humans and witches / demons. It's a very cool video, supported by the vocals (Brittany's belts at 1:47 still give me chills as her crazy eyes open wide). It's sexy, scary, and the best vid of the year.

Singles of the Year:

Finally, here's a nice big list in chronological order of our favourite and biggest singles of the year for you all to enjoy 2012 the right way:

"What Doesn't Kill You" by Kelly Clarkson
"Somebody That I used to Know" by Gotye
"Turn Me On" by Nicki Minaj
"Some Nights" by fun.
"Little Talks" by Of Monsters and Men
"Tonight is the Night" by Outasight
"Starships" by Nicki Minaj
"Wild Ones" by Flo Rida
"Simple Song" by the Shins
"Brokenhearted" by Karmin
"Comeback Kid" by Sleigh Bells
"Bangarang" by Skrillex
"In My Trunk" by Dev
"Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen
"Tongue Tied" by Grouplove
"Till I Die" by Wiz Khalifa, Chris Brown, and Big Sean
"Run" by Flo Rida and Red Foo
"Wide Awake" by Katy Perry
"Payphone" by Maroon 5
"Hold On" by Alabama Shakes
"Ray Bands" by B.o.B
"Want You Back" by Cher Lloyd
"Ho Hey" by the Lumineers
"Settle Down" by No Doubt
"Madness" by Muse
"Gangnam Style" by Psy
"Mercy" by Kanye
"Too Close" by Alex Clare
"Thinking of You" by Frank Ocean
"Your Body" by Christina Aguilera - really just for her plus-size boobs
"We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift
"We Take Care of Our Own" by Bruce Springsteen
"Girl on Fire" by Alicia Keys
"Bottom of the River" by Delta Rae
"Die Young" by Ke$ha
"Locked out of Heaven" by Bruno Mars
"All Night Longer" by Sammy Adams
"Va Va Voom" by Nicki Minaj
"Anything Can Happen" by Ellie Goulding
"Home" by Phillip Phillips
"Diamonds" by Rihanna
"Cut Me Some Slack" by Paul McCartney + the Surviving Members of Nirvana
"Clique" by Kanye
"Scream and Shout" by will.i.am and Britney Spears

Ultimately, this was a pretty wacky year. Then again, it always is in the world of music. There were a lot of nice comebacks, some great new artists, many more terrible new artists, and a chubby little Korean who won all our hearts. Bring it on, 2013!! We'll leave you with a little Earworm:

27 December 2012

First Impressions: Django Unchained

The premiere of any Quentin Tarantino film is pretty special. He's the rare kind of auteur with enough of a mix of independent credentials, big studio power, and a passion for his craft and intuitive sense of coolness to inspire a loyal following of die-hard and casual fans alike. His previous film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), was also one of his best ever, so needless to say, the anticipation for this year's Django Unchained (2012) was immense. Plenty of SPOILERS to follow, but let this be a thorough discussion of the narrative, thematic, and contextual elements of the film.

Hanging out in a Tarantino film is always a little lesson in film itself. This was never the case moreso than in Basterds, but Django is also both an exploration, amalgamation, and subversion of similar genres. It's based on the Spaghetti Westerns pioneered by Sergio and Clint in the 60s, most notably and obviously, though, by Django (1966), starring Franco Nero, who does make an appearance in Unchained, passing on a bit of a torch to Jamie (we've seen that before). I mostly recognized Franco from Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), but that's neither here nor there.

Tarantino has also had a vested interest in late of moving away from his gangster or assassin films to these sorts of period pieces. Django Unchained also owes some inspiration to Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), a Japanese Western. When you finally pair that with Tarantino's protege the RZA's The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) and you've got this movement by all these dudes to place western tropes or plots into unfamiliar settings, which really just continues the kind of post-modern interpretation of pop culture that QT's been digging since Pulp Fiction (1994). The core element of the Western, thus, is no longer its geography (despite its name) but the characters, which echo across a wide range of settings, as both Tarantino stock actors both old (Sam Jackson) and new (Christoph Waltz) attest to.

Inglourious Django

This film in many ways is a continuation of the filmmaking direction Tarantino began when he created Inglourious Basterds. While there are thematic elements similar across Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction, as well as similar directing styles, likewise Basterds and Django are a solid pair. Dogs and Pulp both involved gratuitous gangster violence, cool black suits, an LA setting, and conversations about minutiae between likeable people who do horrible things for a living. Basterds and Django involve gratuitous war violence, cool luxurious suits, period settings, and intense, extended conversations between good guys trying to fool bad guys.

It's the latter in Django that is ultimately derivative of Basterds, though the tension in the scenes is just as palpable, knowing that at any moment the cover of our protagonists would be blown and they would meet their end by the worst people in history. There's also this binary Tarantino view of morality. He treated the Nazis in Basterds as utterly irredeemable, undeserving of any form of mercy or treatment other than an ultimate brutality. He gives slaveowners and generally any White American in this film the same way. Evil cannot and will not be tolerated.

There is an excessive brutality on display here. Like Basterds, Tarantino seeks to shock people into realizing the evils of history through his trademark hyper-violent style of direction. However, there isn't anything in this film that bucks or criticizes the voyeurism behind his audiences enjoyment of the violence. Instead, Tarantino uses copious amounts of violence, including some really harsh mandingo fights and scenes of dogs tearing apart those unwilling, to demonstrate a kind of unforgivable evil in this world. This also tends to be an unremembered brutality. It's a reason to oppose things like Confederate Flag bumper stickers and hanging chairs. There is still an evil in symbols like this that deserves an unflinching brutality to eradicate.


This binary morality bleeds into the characters. Christoph Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz almost in reverse of his Colonel Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds. He plays a loquacious, educated, wily German, except Schultz uses his powers for good while Landa, the Nazi, was the embodiment of evil. There hasn't really ever been an actor more capable of delivering a Tarantino monologue, and his ability to deliver entertaining exposition or explaining trivia is unparalleled in any film. The key thing about Schultz, though, is his morality. He kills, yes, but only those who have done deeds enough to warrant a bounty, or again, those irredeemably evil such as slaveowners. It is for this reason that he is ultimately unable to compromise and even shake Candie's hand.

Evil likes coconut.
There are a lot of big egos and big ideologies at work here. It's ultimately not a huge deal for Schultz and Django to by back his wife, Broomhilda from Candie. What is a big deal, though, is their ruse (which was necessary to get someone as powerful as Candie to sit up and listen). Candie becomes infuriated at their deceit and intrusion on his Southern hospitality, made all the more biting by requiring him to shift how he treated Django and what he let him get away with (staying in a bed in the Big House, letting him ride a horse and rip another man off his horse, among much more). It's this heavy level of insult to their own ideology (and their way of life) that causes Candie to react with such furor (it's also what caused the Civil War and stretched it out so long - see also: Lincoln [2012]). You can't mess with these things and expect to go unpunished.

This doesn't sit well with either Schultz or Django. It's a significant morality and duty to understand, because otherwise the film could end quite nicely when Candie signs for Broomhilda's freedom and the three of them are free to leave Candyland. This, despite its logic, doesn't work with the narrative, theme, and as we've said, the pride of the characters.

There's also that bit with Beethoven. In mid-19th Century Germany, Beethoven was a tremendous point of national pride. The woman who casually plays it in Schultz's defeat in the very heart of everything he has grown to despise, is thus an insult to his pride and ideology nearly as much as Candie is insulted by a Black Man on a Horse pulling the wool of his eyes. There's also the more personal fact that Schultz is not a man who is used to losing. As we'll get into later, though, where Schultz's wits fail, eventually Django's succeed.

Southern Wagnerian Spaghetti Western

So yeah - what's that, four disparate elements? We have the Italian treatment of the American Western meshed with a German Epic and set in the Deep South. It's a twirling mess that ends up becoming a unique genre and narrative. So, let's talk about Wagner.

"Oh Bwoomhilda, you're so wovewy!"
Wagner didn't invent the story of Siegfried, that's within the Nibelungenlied, an ancient German epic poem, as I learned from that Wikipedia Link. Wagner did, however, incorporate much of the story into his Der Ring des Nibelungen, which nowadays is likely the most famous interpretation of the story outside of Germany. Admittedly, most of my knowledge of the story comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Anyway, the story is famously epic and excessively long. As it was being composed around the same time as the movie takes place, it's unlikely Schultz is directly referring to Wagner and moreso the classic story, so we can't say for sure if there actually is Wagner directly here (it would be strange for the same man who composed Inglourious Basterds to include references to the music of a famed anti-Semite and symbol of National Socialist pride anyway). Still, the dude's not totally concerned with historical accuracy.

Ultimately, at any rate, Tarantino's goal appears to be to apply this same sense of epicness to a tome about the Black Experience in the Antebellum Deep South. It's a full hero's journey through hell and hell and then hell again. In doing so, the film really pushes the narrative structure of such a tome. We've talked about this again and again. Ultimately, the story structure is difficult to accept because it's unconventional. The main villain, Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio), doesn't appear until well into the film, and is dispatched with far from the climax. As this review from the Playlist suggests, there's really three films at work here: 1) Schultz's enlisting of Django and their dispatching of the Brittle brothers, 2) Django's training and journey to and through Candyland, and 3) Django's final escape and retribution.

The unconventional narrative should be nothing new to Tarantino fans. He has long structured his films around emotional highs and lows rather than highs and lows of plot. We could almost consider Django as a series of vignettes similar to Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003/04). Pulp Fiction was nearly connected but ultimately had distinctive stories that occasionally ran into each other. Kill Bill had a strong driving connector to its vignettes but ultimately still worked as a series of self-contained scenes. Basterds has the same thing going for it. Django may be easier to swallow if its vignettes were not linked chronologically, which is, admittedly strange for a Quentin film.

Django and an Unconventional Narrative Create a Black Triumph

Taken together, Tarantino has strung a series of stories together to tell a complete journey of the freed slave Django. In the first major story he is transformed by a white foreigner from an ignorant slave to a flashy, if not inexperienced bounty hunter. After that his confidence grows as "the fastest gun in the South" but ultimately the film seems to crash and stumble when both Schultz and Candie die. This generates confusion by refusing to follow the beats of a more familiar narrative. The hero is supposed to keep rising, refuse defeat, and beat the bad guy. The trick is that Candie is not the bad guy. Well, at least not the main bad guy.

Think again about Tarantino's morality. It's not enough to inspire social or legal change (again, go see Lincoln if you want that kind of movie), nor is it enough to just kill the main dude. In Tarantino's world of Django and Basterds, no amount of evil may be tolerated. There isn't a slaveowner who lives in this film and it's not over until Django says it is - and that means that no racist hillbilly or Uncle Tom can survive. In this way, it's not the triumph over Candie that serves the climax, he'll be replaced. It's the triumph over everyone - racism and oppression itself, that completes Django's journey. Until Candyland is literally blown up and then lays in ruin, the film cannot stop. The excessive length to do this only cements the extreme difficulty in achieving this endeavour.

Blame it on the pigment
Schultz's death is also essential for Django's story as well as the theme of the entire film, and the entire genre as of late. In the first few stories, Django is dependent on Schultz for his wealth, connections, race, and intellect to advance their goals as well as Django's place in life. It's not terribly different from films like The Help (2011) or The Blind Side (2009) that tend to demonstrate little more than white patronage, ultimately making the black race dependent on Whites. This tends to make these films more palatable to white audiences, who can feel all warm and fuzzy that they'll help Black People out of any jam they find themselves in.

The last story in Django is the most important because it concludes both Django's character journey and what this film should mean for Black People. He does what no white man in the movie can do for him - saves his wife and kills all the evil in the movie. Using his own wits, talent, and will he takes control of his own destiny and self-determination, doing so with the kind of flair (including, yes, his crip walking Horse - just watch Broomhilda swoon) that solidifies this as a black experience. It's a spectacularly Black achievement, with no help from the White Man, that is lacking in just about every racially-toned film ever.

Finally, the Characters

The big four in this film are surely Chris, Jamie, Leo, and Sam. Waltz makes love to classic Tarantino dialogue like no other, and is fast proving himself to be an incredible actor - even if he really is just playing a version of Landa filled with Justice rather than Malice. Leo is also having a great time as the slimiest character put in a major film in years (possibly since Landa) but he's devastatingly cold and brutal. There's also a clear bit of incest with his sister going on there.

So this is what Sam can do in movies that don't feature snakes or planes
So let's talk about Sam. Sam Jackson plays a ridiculous Head House Slave who is unquestionably loyal to Calvin Candie. He's putting on a few levels of acts here, though, and is clearly one of the closest confidants to Candie himself, helping himself to liquor in his private Library and altering his speech and walking ability drastically depending on the company he's keeping. It's one of the stronger Sam Jackson performances in years, though certainly a difficult and controversial one for the Academy to recognize. This is really as close to an Uncle Ruckus we're going to get on the big screen as we're ever going to get.

The Stock Character of an African who is extremely sympathetic to White interests is relatively rare. Sam Jackson clearly acts as Candie's dragon, though, and as the final opponent in Django's path to Broomhilda, really caps the final scene as an extension of the Nibulungenlied. The handful of times where Sam Jackon's inner Sam Jackson-ness (any screaming of "MOTHERFUCKER" for sure) is just icing on the cake.

So, finally, let's talk about Jamie and Kerry. Foxx and Washington are reunited from their time with Ray (2004), and they're both spectacular here. Kerry Washington doesn't have all that much to do here and is mostly the unattainable princess at the end of Django's journey, but Quentin does throw in a few significant roadblocks that really requires Django to walk through hellfire to get her. She of course, though, gets the most-Tarantino-esque moment in this whole picture at the very end when she sticks her fingers in her ears and smiles in preparation of Candyland's destruction. It's the kind of cheeky, genre-crossing postmodern moment that's noticeably absent from most of this film.

Now, really, this film leans all on Jamie Foxx. Jamie's career is really fairly bizarre. His first mainstream break was being hilarious on In Living Color, then he appeared in a lot of crappy films, won an Oscar for Ray, and then has done really bad crap like Stealth (2005), Miami Vice (2006), and Law Abiding Citzen (2009) ever since. He's also had a decent singing career that has ranged from taking advantage of an impeccable Ray Charles impersonation to disguising himself as a Panda while hanging out with Forest Whitaker, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ron Howard. I love Ron's face at the beginning, he's just like "yeah, I don't know why the fuck I'm here, either." Maybe Quentin can get in his next video. Somehow, though, his stock is still pretty high, probably because he's immensely likable. He's also confident in his own skin, unapologetic about his swagger, and is thus a symbol of black success through being black instead of acquiescing to a white standard. He's the man.

Also Django Powers
Django also finds his own skin, but a bit slower. His confidence grows as his skill does, and he eventually finds a medium between his flashy first choice of outfit, and something more practical. Jamie coos through every line he speaks with a soft but threatening rush, in the process becoming one of the coolest characters in contemporary cinema. Again, his last few scenes really emphasize this. He rides in bareback on a white horse, appropriates Candie's trademark clothing and cigarette holder as if finally settling on an outlet for his stylish nature, and gives Sam Jackson Sambo the best monologue in the film.

So what else is there? I haven't mentioned a lick of a script full of incredible one-liners, made cooler by Jamie's gentle and fierce delivery ("I like the way you die, boy" "I'm curious what makes you so curious" "The d is silent"), as well as bits of hilarity from brief appearances of the likes of Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, and many others. I can't imagine what this film would be like if the RZA, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Kurt Russell had all made the cut.

So here you have an excessive post to match an excessive film. It is an epic, a Black Southern Epic, and deserves to be treated as such. It's a fantastic film, even if its need of plot and theme at times trumps its need for believable scenes or characters. But hey, it's doing its job - delivering the message intended with sparing flights of fancy.

It also has just about the best soundtrack of any film this whole year - at some point no matter who you are you need to acknowledge his contribution to bringing that back to relevance.

The only thing I skipped over here is Quentin's gratuitous use of the N-word. Like the Mark Twains and Dave Chappelles before him, though, I don't find a problem with him using such a vile word in a context to further elucidate the evil in the world. Anyone who thinks that word isn't used today to a similar extent amongst private company would truly be ignorant.


25 December 2012

The Long Halloween Vol. IV: Simpsons Edition - Marge Be Not Proud

Happy Christmas to all of you out there this fine December morning. Once again we are here to deliver to you the Long Halloween, our yearly look at the greatest Holiday Specials to pair with your marvelous festivities. This year we're taking a crack at an array of Simpsons episodes that match up with every holiday. There are plenty of great Simpsons Christmas episodes to choose from this day, including of course the very first episode, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" (S1;E1). The greatest Christmas episode, though, is "Marge Be Not Proud" (S7;E11).

I hated this episode when I first saw it, because I was 9 when I first saw it, and it's not the typically goofy episode that fills little kids with hilarity. There's a lot more to this episode, which deeply explores the relationship between Bart and Marge. Bart is tempted to acquire the latest, hottest video game for Christmas, Bonestorm, to the point where he appears to have no option but to steal it. He does so, is caught, and when Marge finds out it it's the worst kind of punishment - an air of tense, parental disappointment. Eventually Bart redeems himself by taking a nice picture of himself and giving it to her for Christmas.

It really touches on some great topics. There's the irrational childhood obsession with hot Christmas toys, but that really is just a way for the show to explore that mother / son dynamic. Bart generally treads a few lines between mischievous little boy, innocent child, and evil demonseed. He really runs that here, and part of the narrative tension here arises from his own shifting judgment of his stage in adulthood and the way it conflicts with Marge's judgment of just how innocent he is. It's heavy stuff for any kid to grasp, and while The Simpsons generally has some deep philosophy behind many of its themes, this episode lacks the coating of silliness that makes most narratives accessible, hence my dilemma as a 9-year old.

Still, looking back on it, there are some hilarious moments. There's Homer's riff on Police Academy movies, Thrillhouse, and Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge to name a few great moments. There's also Lawrence Tierney as Detective Don Brodka, who manages to be intimidating, wacky, and scary at the same time - really in perfect Simpsons fashion. Tierney is famed to be one of the scarier actors in Hollywood, and his voice works perfectly to put the fear into Bart.

What's great is that the other characters in this story really take a back seat to Marge and Bart's relationship. Lisa is really pushed to the background though she has a great line about not getting a Christmas Eve present the way Bart does. Homer, too, is almost only used for jokes, really surmised with his yokel "Get 'im, ma!" towards the end of the episode. This allows Bart and Marge to do the heavy emotional lifting while everything else gives what it can for that goofy dressing we love so much.

It's an intriguing episode and difficult to get through, but ultimately a heartwarming story with plenty of good jokes along the way. It all comes together for a spectacular Christmas time.

21 December 2012

First Impressions: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Part II - Characters, Plot, and More Crap

Alright folks, we're back at it with more discussion of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). Yesterday, we put the flick in context with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, but today we're letting that sucker stand all on its own. There will certainly be SPOILERS to follow, but then again, the book is like eighty years old and you've read it, so who cares.

The Big Picture

I also read The Hobbit book after reading all of the Lord of the Rings books, so I suppose this order of films works fairly naturally for me. We should, however, state again right off the bat that it is ridiculous that this one little book is getting three distinct films made from it. From what we saw in The Hobbit, it seems like most of this will be elements from Tolkien's Unfinished Tales, and other work like the Appendices to The Return of the King book. And you know there's nothing more thrilling than making film versions of appendices. The Hobbit seems to work in this material well, though, and doesn't really feel slow once it gets on its feet a little bit. Pete Jackson tends to overemphasize the epicness and importance of the stories in his films, and there's certainly quite a bit of reverence (undue or not) to get this sucker going.

How is his hair connected anyway
In general, though, this is a really fun film. Take trolls, for instance. In the Lord of the Rings, Trolls were mean, mindless, and dangerous. In The Hobbit, they're silly, doofy, and dangerous. Now I'm comparing trilogies again, but this film turns things just enough to lighten up the atmosphere and give a really wacky ride. Take the Rock God fight in the mountains - why is that in existence? It serves no purpose really except to heighten the inherent craziness of Middle-Earth and demonstrate that anything can happen at anytime, especially if it serves the plot.

Even though there are way more songs and slapstick humour (the kind of stuff Pete definitely couldn't get away with on his first go-around - but with the popularity of this shit in the Extended Editions as well as his enormous clout as an epic director that now rivals Spielberg, Jackson can do just about anything he wants), there is a bit of sinister undertones. There is a constant foreshadowing of bad shit to come - the spiders that attack Radagast's Hedgehogs, the shadowy evil at Dol Guldur, and the final eye shot of Smaug all point to a ton of calamity on its way for our poor dwarves.

Bilbo and the Seven Dwarves

There's actually a dozen dwarves, but that's besides the pun. The dwarves are treated virtually identical to how they are in the book, which is a good thing. That is, they are quickly mentioned by name and then completely undeveloped. I'm not sure if Dori even had a line. Or maybe that was Ori. But basically, we get to know Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Bofur, Thorin, and then we all just recognize Bombur as the fat one and the rest are interchangeable for comedic effect. I repeat, this is EXACTLY as the book treats them, in fact, the film develops the characters of everyone besides Thorin much better, and gives them all little things to do. Again, just those five, though.

That brings us to the slapstick of Bombur - he's really just a movie-long fat joke, which is kind of immature for a 2012 film. It's as if Norbit (2007) seeped its way into The Hobbit, which provides a really jarring experience. In general, though, the dwarf race is never really developed in the Lord of the Rings, which focuses much more on Men and Elves, who, frankly, are much less interesting. The dwarves are a much better way to connect to an audience than the lofty, erudite elves, and again, help with that fun experience. The few elves that do appear here only serve to overemphasize the difference between their stuffiness and the dwarves' revelry and crudity.

This is apparently the best the Valinor can muster against Sauron
So let's talk wizards for a second - Gandalf forgetting the names of the Blue Wizards is spot-on (Alatar and Pallando, for starters - and by the way, their journeys seem fairly awesome yet mysterious and will never be developed at this point), but the real star of this entire film is Radagast the Brown. About a third or so into An Unexpected Journey, this just becomes the Radagast Show, as all his oddity is on full display, including his chats with plants and small fuzzy animals and his legendary Bunny Sled. Yes, the Rabbits of Rhosgobel are a ridiculous and incredible sight in this film and really breaks the line of Lord of the Rings tonal continuity. The wacky dude, with half his face covered in bird shit, is also nearly identical to his literary depiction, though, so kudos to Pete Jackson on that one. We've also got Saruman back again, who is still a total dick.

As far as hobbits in the film go, we get to see Elijah again on a break from Wilfred. Between that and the Beastie Boys, he's had a fairly decent little run during his post-epic years as of late. In fact, unlike Star Wars, most of the cast has done pretty awesomely, avoiding typecasting and stagnation. Martin Freeman is also a great Bilbo, considering we didn't see a whole lot of Ian Holm in the original trilogy. He's really given the character some life, a crystal clear arc (if not an inexplicable way of getting there), and is again a testament to the bravery and underrated skill and character of hobbits as on the whole. Or hole, oh ho ho.

Keep Eagles on Speed Dial

There really isn't that much of a plot to this movie, it's more like just a bunch of stuff that keeps happening. It hits its beats from scene to scene and tells a story for sure, but it's more like a series of events and distractions rather than a continuously focused narrative. The basic premise is that the dwarves are trying to get back to Erebor and that that journey is very difficult, so they keep getting sidetracked. That's really it. It's basically a huge fantasy road trip movie, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it detracts from the humanistic quality of the film but certainly not its value or potential to entertain.

But really, like the Lord of the Rings, or perhaps even more so, so much of the film is just walking. It's also important to note how much more distance Aragorn and the hobbits covered on foot than Bilbo and the dwarves did on pony (I actually don't have an online link, but a physical link to this source in The Atlas of Middle-Earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad - pick one up here). It's a testament to the greater casualness and ridiculousness of this story.

I, too, often find myself yearning
to sleep on big piles of gold.
The one thing that does really stick out is the sheer number of really bad main villains both in this tale and to come in later installments. The only one they really dealt with was the King of Goblin-town, who is tough to remember has nothing to do with Azog or the other Orcs, even though their appearances are close to each other. One of the reasons this series is likely to take so long is probably due to the fact that sometime over the next three films the party will have to deal with Azog the Pale Orc, Smaug the Dragon, and the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, the latter of which has not thoroughly been developed at all yet. My guess is that Azog will replace Bolg as the Goblin Commander in the Battle of Five Armies, which should take the majority of the third film, or perhaps they'll save that for Dol Guldur. There's no telling.

We've also got Gollum, who doesn't really appear later in the book, but with the greater connections being fleshed out (which again, was covered in literature through appendices), we may see more of his journey, his encounters with Strider and Gandalf, and his imprisonment and release from Mordor. That's another villain to deal with. One great part of The Hobbit, though, was the wonderful intactness of his riddle scene with Bilbo, that is completely uninterrupted. It's another diversion, though, that seems jarring without the context of the extremely significant part Gollum and of course the Ring plays later in the franchise.

There are many other moments that are greatly lifted from the book. One after the escape form Goblin-town is Thorin and Gandalf's "Out of the frying pan" "and into the fire!" exchange, which is lifted from the title of Chapter 6 of the book. Speaking of which - is there any stronger physical force in Middle-Earth than the Eagles? They're the best! They even give the Nazgul a run for their money in Return of the King (2003). Gandalf seems to be the only dude who can call on them - I can just picture him landing in Middle-Earth and visiting the Eagles' Eyre first and just making friends with them immediately. That's paid off so well for him so many times. They kick everyone's ass - they're the Optimus Prime of Middle-Earth, it's not even fair. Thank goodness they generally fight for the good guys!

So all in all, this is film is pretty tight butthole. It may not have as strong a story as Fellowship, but it's just as competently produced and certainly a lot of fun to watch. Where will the trilogy go from here? If its eclectic tonal mix of wackiness and serious destiny (the latter really only comes whenever Thorin enters a room) continues, this could be a really special trilogy. Or one that's pretty easy to write off.

19 December 2012

First Impressions: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Part I: Comparisons and Callbacks to the Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings is the kind of poorly written but timeless story that has captured the attention of every other generation since its inception, whether it be the Zeppelin-loving potheads of the 70s, to the Fantasy-loving Second-Life Queers of the Present Day. What remains at the end of it all, is a beloved story of a bunch of dudes and some hobbits roaming around the words. Immortality, thy name be Tolkien.

What a strange DVD cover
James Randolph Rodrigo Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, to quiet up his wiener kids as they were always running around and screaming around the house when it came time for bed. He sought to craft a story so tiresome, so boring, that anyone who listened to it would instantly fall aslumber. That story would eventually become The Silmarillion, while The Hobbit turned out much better, and probably his most interesting and engaging writing.

Tolkien of course would later compose The Lord of the Rings, which is by far his most popular work. These flicks eventually then became some of the best films of the past decade, directed by Peter Jackson, famed director of such epics as Bad Taste (1987) and Meet the Feebles (1989). Nevertheless, this bloke from New Zealand (also know as Australia's Canada), went on to make a trio of excellent adaptations that are way more fun to watch than those books are to read.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) is then in an unfamiliar relationship with the cinematic Lord of the Rings than their literary counterparts were. The Hobbit novel was very fairy tale in nature and Tolkien was able to codify his universe through the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and much of its appendices, as well as The Silmarillion, some of which he had written down at the time of The Hobbit). Either way, while the Lord of the Rings was a follow-up to The Hobbit, the film is a prequel. This means that there are going to be some very different aspects and expectations going into the film - namely that much of the world that is kind of wacky in The Hobbit has already been codified through the previous Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson thus has the unenviable task of crafting a story as deep as his previous work while also making it congruent with what would follow within the universe.

Luckily, he's just about thrown out the latter.

It may seem strange to take a single book that is much shorter than any of the three Lord of the Rings books and make three films of equal length to the Lord of the Rings films - but there is a sense of fun and thrill here that is totally absent from the first trilogy and much appreciated here. The Hobbit is not nearly as good of a flick as any of those earlier entries - but damn it isn't one of the funnest. Let's round out Part I of this review by setting this thing up in context against the other Trilogy.


The ten years of advances in filmmaking since The Lord of the Rings is extremely evident here. Middle-Earth benefits incredibly from high-definition and 48 fps shooting, the world is visualized and grander than ever before. Every shot is far more intricate and even the Shire is beautifully realized with depth and precision previously impossible. The environments and settings are so much more immersive in The Hobbit, it actually does nearly the unthinkable - realizing the fantasy realm as a factual location greater than The Lord of the Rings did.

So, with all this, we're stuck wondering what parts of New Zealand we haven't seen yet. There already seemed to be some re-use of some lands from the earlier trilogy (Eregion sure looks like Rohan, for one).
Still, it's good to see that the enormous production studio Pete Jackson founded in New Zealand is getting some use - it's basically only been used for the Lord of the Rings films and King Kong (2005). I'm wondering if New Zealand goes into massive waves of unemployment whenever Pete's not making some epic film.

A little Proactiv never hurt, pal
The other big change in this film is the use of CGI to make many of the Orcs and Goblins in the film. The Lord of the Rings primarily used actors in live costumes to make these creatures, with CGI used for the other, more ridiculous things like Trolls and Nazgul. The residents of Goblin-town are also quite different from the other orcs seen throughout - it is always a testament of the production crew to make these different little pockets of Orc Culture. The Goblin-town Goblins are dirtier, covered in more pustules and boils, as well as paler and squirmier. Just as Goblins should be - much more menacing, twisted, and maniacal.

To that effect, the battles are pretty different, too - more visceral and intensely lit and shot. They occupy much briefer spots in the narrative, of course, but they're highly stylized and more flush with colour. They work with the heightened vibrancy seen throughout The Hobbit's palette, an element of the High-Def, High-contrast shooting style that pops far more than the muted tones of the Lord of the Rings. My only real issue is that the Orcs seem to be fighting fine in sunlight, or at least at dusk or dawn. Then again, that was an issue in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King (2003) as well. It will be interesting to see this treatment during the Battle of Five Armies that should take place in the final installment of this trilogy - a big huge battle that ought to take the majority of the film.

What's great is that many actors from the original trilogy were able to return here; quite the feat that Chris Lee and Ian McKellan are still alive! There's also an interesting moment between Gandalf and Galadriel when you realize they never encountered each other in any of the Lord of the Rings films until the last scene at the Grey Havens at the end of RotK. And Cate Blanchett, by the way, is still quite the babe. And the pyschic weirdo she always is. It's nice to remember that she's possibly one of the oldest beings in Middle-Earth, having come over from Valinor with the Noldorin during Feanor's first chase of Morgoth after he stole the Silmarils. She knows her shit.

There are two characters we need to highlight in particular because they clearly echo characters from LotR that are absent here. The dwarf Kili is by far the handsomest cast member (and best-looking dwarf), and they stuck him with a bow and arrow that never misses. Legolas anyone? Besides that, they added the Dwarf leader, Thorin, who has lost his home and has wandered the wilderness struggling to reclaim it. Aragorn, anyone? It almost seems as if Pete struggled to break from these tropes he exercised so well in the first trilogy.

The biggest difference though, comes from this Screen Rant article, that states simply the points where the basic character arcs and themes diverge between The Hobbit and LotR. Frodo and Aragorn in LotR find ways to deal with destiny thrust upon them and rise up to meet the expectations of others in the grand scheme of the World's Workings. Bilbo and Thorin in The Hobbit are finding their own destiny and carving their individual paths in a story confined to individual success and reclamation. It's a narrative difference at the heart of both stories in Pete's interpretations, and where The Hobbit takes this and spins itself differently from its predecessor remains to be seen.


There are a few moments that offer subtle callbacks to the first trilogy that were fairly amusing. This ranges from simple things like Gandalf bumping the chandalier in Bilbo's home as he does in The Fellowship of the Ring (2012) to his constant use of Moths to call down Eagles for aid. Damn those Eagles are handy. The Hobbit is also adeptly able to build on the conventions of the previous trilogy through its musical cues - the moth certainly being one of them, as is a familiar melody when the One Ring is first sighted. It's awfully handy to have these cues on hand to remember not only old echoes of plot, but old themes repeated here. There's even a new little dwarf riff based on this haunting number. The music in this join, on the whole, is spectacular.

Is it a...rocket...in your pocket?
We also get some nice chances to see some inner workings of both the Lord of the Rings and moments that were referred to in the first trilogy. First is the little scene we get to see of Elijah Wood's Frodo moments before his now iconic Tree-Reading / Gandalf Hugging Scene that helps to open FotR. What's a bit cooler is witnessing the moment between Gollum and Bilbo that invokes Gandalf's line in Moria in FotR, "Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand." The Hobbit explores the first meeting between these two ringbearers (it's a bit rocky), the great fear and insecurity gripping Gollum in that moment when he's lost both Bilbo and the Ring, as well as Bilbo's rational and level-headed character. It's a great bit of development for everyone. It's also a nice reminder that when Bilbo puts on the ring in this film he doesn't have the Nine Ringwraiths bearing down on him immediately - it's more a cool magic trick. Such is emblematic of the greater innocence to behold in this version of Middle-Earth.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, this flick has helped to make the Lord of the Rings relevant again. It really is the trilogy for this generation, denser and headier than Star Wars for sure, but nevertheless beloved. So, how may we hold this new Hobbit Trilogy against the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy? If An Unexpected Journey is any indication, it does just enough to differentiate itself from the previous films while maintaining much of what made them beloved in the first place.

It's ultimately difficult to judge which is a better film - An Unexpected Journey or The Fellowship of the Ring. FotR is certainly a lot more serious, but that doesn't make it a better film. FotR also has many more characters and arcs to deal with, the most interesting of which is probably Boromir's, but AUJ (oh, what an awful acronym) doesn't even pretend to treat its insane subject matter or ridiculous number of dwarves seriously, which works within its own context. It's also difficult to sort out biases of nostalgia or the introduction to the wonderful world of Jeffrey Raoul Rango Tolkien that FotR gave us. The Hobbit is certainly jazzier, whether or not integrating that jazzy mix into the otherwise contingent world of Middle-Earth will make it a lasting film is yet to be seen. One cool thing is, though, that the final shot in both is virtually identical - as the remaining party members look on to their final goal across the many challenges ahead.

Check back as we dive deeper into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey itself with Part II!

04 December 2012

First Impressions: Lincoln

It's about time that someone came along and created a definitive portrayal of one of the Greatest American Presidents in all of History. Finally, something to watch on President's Day. In that President's Day post I noted that Abraham Lincoln's most definitive recent cultural depiction to date may well have been his appearance in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). Finally, though, Spielberg and Daniel Day have come along to give us a reason to live again.

Lincoln (2012) seeks to explore our 16th President through a very focused time period in the man's life. It centers around his efforts to push through Congress a 13th Amendment to the American Constitution that would outlaw Slavery. It's a moment in the President's life that is both little acknowledged and intriguing. It provides an opening to investigate both the greatest and lowest traits President Lincoln exhibited in his day. The film bypasses much of what has already been said about the man and what is already common knowledge, after all, wasn't that the job of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)?

Lincoln's Excessive, yet Righteous Presidential Power

The film really should have opened with a fun. video. I guess the brief but resonant scene of brother vs. brother in the muddy throes of battle will have to do. Spielberg almost gives us a bit of Saving Private Ryan (1998) treatment here - using an exhibition of painful brutality to engage our attention and let us know immediately what the people in the film are fighting for, as well as in this case, the results of President Lincoln's difficult decision to extend the war in order to maintain a perception that the 13th Amendment was necessary.

What follows is a long and in-depth examination of mid-19th Century American politics that is not sparing in its depiction of the political trickery required to push through one of the most important pieces of legislation in American History. The bulk of the film engages Lincoln in debate with everyone around him, from Radical Republicans to his own Cabinet to his family and constituents. Throughout it all Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly exhibits Lincoln's contrasting folksy, homegrown personality with an iron-willed determination towards his own perception of justice.

This is the biggest criticism of Lincoln's Presidency, yet it is often overlooked by contemporaries. Lincoln took the Constitution under his hat and wielded more power than any President before him (and more than most since. His only challenger may be Franklin Delano Roosevelt - is it interesting  how we honour our Presidents that most expanded the amount of power the Office may wield?). He supposedly did this justifiably - after all, he was fighting for the preservation of the Union, which later morphed into a fight for the freedom of all Black Slaves in the nation. In doing so, though, he was also fighting directly against the way of life for half of the nation.

In this sense, it's understandable that the South seceded upon the news of Lincoln's 1860 Presidential Election. Lincoln represented a threat to their way of life and during his Presidency vastly expanded the powers and role of the Federal Government. To this day the Rural South is fiercely independent in the sense that they favor a small government that is unobtrusive in their lives. They're also still pretty racist.

That's the kicker - even though Lincoln was absolutely contrarian to the Southern Way of Life, is he justified if that Way of Life was certifiably morally wrong? Most people living today would agree, and it's virtually impossible not to side against Slavery on this one, folks. What makes his Presidency so monumental is Lincoln's ability to forcibly "correct" an Evil Institution (we'll go with that instead of their favored "peculiar") that plagued half the nation and to not back down in the face of stagnant opposition.

The danger, then, comes when a President may wield such immense power against a way of life whose morals are not so murky (to be honest, for contemporaries in Antebellum America, the idea of Black Slaves as property or another form of sub-human people was taken for granted and most moderate Republican Ideology sought only to prevent the expansion of Slavery into the Western Territories in order to preserve the lands for White Settlement and empowering their way of life economically. The moral judgment of whether Slavery was right or wrong was still up in the air for many Americans prior to Lincoln's incorporation of the idea into a rallying point for Northern Morale and into another ideological battleground [yet it did remain a difficult judgment to make for many after]). The South certainly didn't perceive it that way, and today there are many moral political ideas that could splinter families that the President has no real authority on which to engage political action. Just tell that to Lincoln, though. His immense trust in what he knew was right (and of course he was right) fueled his passion.

There are obvious parallels to homosexuality today. Obama should watch Lincoln and get inspired to force through a 28th Amendment against the wishes of a substantial group of people who are against the morally correct position. This statement offers tremendous debate in itself - but over the next century we may struggle to believe in a society that did not allow for equal rights to homosexual couples as we now struggle to comprehend an entire society that could believe that Africans were not real people.

The politics involved are dirty, using job offers to lame duck Democrats, in essence, Bribery to force Lincoln's way. This required an astute understanding of politics as well as the human condition on the part of Abe, Secretary of State Bill Seward (Dave Straitharn), and a trio of lobbyists (Jim Spader, Tim Nelson, Johnny Hawkes). This and the raucous Congressional Environment are unbelievable to picture today, which may be largely thanks to C-SPAN and the presence of rational-minded women Representatives. Well, maybe not. The political insight, virulent attitudes, and stodgy partisan entrenching defines today's politics even more than in 1865 - in fact, politicians today are probably less likely to flip a position than they were back then. And they're just fighting over healthcare and Mexican fences, not the liberation of an entire subjugated race of people. The biggest pill to swallow here of course is that it's the Republicans that are good in this film and the Democrats are the evil ones. Oh how times have changed...

Abe's Character

Daniel Day-Lewis really doesn't even make this fair. Why should anyone even try to act in years where he decides to really chomp on a lead role like this? He's practically a shoe-in for his third Best Acting Oscar, where he'd be the first in history to do so. At this point he's well on his way towards Kurt Lazarus status. I'd love to see a special on how Spielberg even got him to match Lincoln's tall, gawky stature - did they film this Hobbit-style with forced perspectives or what? (If anyone has stumbled upon a making of, post in the comments!) He captures everything about Lincoln, from the physicality to the down-to-earth attitude.

Lincoln deals with problems through anecdotes and storytelling, to the comical chagrin of his Cabinet members. He has a clever and sharp tongue and a specificity of language (note as Grant says to the Confederate Delegation that Lincoln would not accept a surrender proposal between "two warring nations" - because that's not what they are in Lincoln's mind - they are one nation split by rebellion). The film simultaneoulsy provides a political drama as well as an intricate character study.

Almost second to the politics are Lincoln's difficult family relationships. Mary Todd was basically batshit crazy by his point in her life due to an inability to deal with the grief following the death of her son, Willie. Indeed death seemed to follow Lincoln around throughout his life. His birth mother died when he was nine. His first love, Ann Rutledge also died when they were very young. After that came the death of Willie, and finally, Abe himself.

Lincoln was the first President to be assassinated, and throughout the film there's the subtle notion that the thought of assassination is inconceivable. This was a time of Presidential Reverence, and Lincoln tends to freely walk the streets, interact with the common people, and walks without fear (in actuality this was mostly true except for a secret carriage ride immediately following the election when there were threats to his life). As Lincoln became engulfed in the most-Death filled war in American history, his character is haunted by the spectre of tragedy. This is obviously why some people tend to blame Vampires. And yes, I did learn most of my Lincoln facts from reading Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Lincoln's death in the film is handled sublimely - we all cringe during an early trip to the theater, and likewise at the end after we see the final image of Abe walking off we're transported there again, except this time we only see Tad's reaction to the news, not the act itself. In fact there is no mention of John Wilkes Booth at all - I suppose that's wisely left to The Conspirator (2010). Tad would also actually die a short while later, in 1871, leaving only Robert Lincoln to carry on the bloodline.

Speaking of that dude, Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds to his fantastic year with his minor role here. Could we have a spin-off film featuring the older Bob Lincoln, and his role as President Garfield's Secretary of War? I think so. The side story of his desire to join the Union Army isn't integral to the main plot of Lincoln (2012) but provides depth to both characters, elucidating both the President's desire to limit the death that surrounds his own family and Robert's desire to serve his nation and make something of himself rather than ride the impressive and intimidating coattails of his father.

Technical Components

Lastly, it's time praise everything else about this film. It ought to receive Oscar nominations, if not wins, in Production Design, Costuming, and Make-up, as they're all astounding and perfect. The sets give an intimate confinement to every scene, and the costumes are extravagant, subdued, interesting, and historical all when they need to be.

It's also proper to mention everyone else's acting. The cast is particularly impressive in this picture. From character actors such as Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man [2009]), to John Hawkes (Winter's Bone [2010]), and Jackie Earle Haley (Semi-Pro [2008]) filling minor roles to others who brilliantly play iconic historical figures such as Jared Harris' Ulysses Simpson Grant and David Straitharn's William Seward, everyone brings their A game. I didn't really like Sally Field, but I think that's because her character is terrible, which means she probably actually did what she was supposed to do.

The two dudes who really stand out though, are Tommy Jones' Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as a 19th-Century version of James Spader. They eat up these roles with magnificent flamboyant flair and passion like only Two-Face and Robert California could do. It's a feast.

This is an incredible film. Who knew that by taking vampires out of the Lincoln Story we could have so much success? It's a technical achievement, even in its subtlety, an acting feast, and a dense political tale that's also one of the most important yet underknown in our history. Go get your Lincoln on, baby.
Related Posts with Thumbnails