31 December 2013

The Way We Were: TV and Video Games in 2013

Now, with Movies and Music under our belt, it's time to deal with everything else. Television is such a tricky medium, especially considering honoring the calendar year of 2013 doesn't even honor seasons in most cases. Still, there were a handful of notable television series this year. This was also a standout year for video games to mature into the interactive storytelling medium they deserve to be. Let's begin by dividing television into a few categories.

Finest New TV Shows:

Comedy: FOX is slowly but surely building a Tuesday night comedy empire, with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and The Mindy Project rivaling anything CBS does on Mondays, ABC does on Wednesdays, or certainly what NBC is now doing on Thursdays. In a sea of absolute shit coming out of a lot of networks, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a surprisingly well made show, with a dream ensemble that is far funnier than they ever deserved to be.
Standout Episode: "Sal's Piza"

Drama: Sticking with FOX, I doubt anyone would have called Sleepy Hollow the breakout hit of the year. It's really pretty trashy, but the sheer madness that drives each episode makes it inescapable. It's a giant "fuck you" to twisted long-mystery serials like LOST and even The X-Files, as well as to basic logic. If you're looking for an absolutely crazy horror show that works (and isn't American Horror Story: Coven, of course), Sleepy Hollow has the golden ticket.
Standout Episode: "Blood Moon"

Finest Returning TV Shows:

Comedy: While Parks and Recreation is always a reliable choice, this wasn't their best year. This really could have been the best new show years ago, but it's taken some time to gain a following, so thank goodness FOX actually gave it room to grow - all hail Bob's Burgers. It's worth the investment for fresh characters, intrepid storytelling, and the bold guidance of Loren Bouchard. It's a relentlessly positive show, and of course Bob doesn't sound like Archer at all. There's the reliable goofiness of The Simpsons mixed with the normalcy of King of the Hill, wrapped in a bun. A delight.
Standout Episode: "The Deepening"

Drama: Okay, I don't actually watch Game of Thrones. But I know enough to know that the cultural reverberations of "The Red Wedding"  jammed up my Facebook for days. I mean, I'm more a "Red Robin Wedding" fan, myself. Despite my apathy, everyone is taking GoT, which is far more important than me actually tuning in. It's an encapsulating narrative, a slow burn that's as addictive as it is brutal to its own characters. HBO is riding this one as long as it can.
Standout Episode: "The Red Wedding"

Finest Departing TV Shows

Comedy: There were numerous big shows that called it quits this year. While The Office's "Finale" was pretty competent, its best episode of the season was its penultimate, "A.A.R.M.", which served as more of a effective callback to better years than innovating or growing on its own. Futurama's "Meanwhile" bumped up a bit better, offering everything that series promised: a clever sci-fi high concept, lots of silliness, and some real heart. The greatest send-off, though, was 30 Rock's "Last Lunch", which is just about as satisfying as you can get with a series finale. You want to know that each character has moved on and is going to be okay without you watching them anymore, but also that they've made some progress as human beings. "“This whole time you’ve been telling me how to run my life — you didn’t know what you were talking about. You’re just an alcoholic with a great voice.” It's perfect.
Standout Episode: "Last Lunch"

Drama: Breaking Bad gets everything. The best characters, best story, and the most intricate development on television. Years ago the creators decided to take this meek High School chemistry teacher and find out how far they could push him to become the ultimate badass. Everything pays off here in this last season, even if the story had been stretched a bit the past few seasons. Everything clicks as the world goes out with a bang, no whimper to be found.
Standout Episode: "Ozymandias"

Now, where does Netflix fit in? Arrested Development blasted back on the scene with an epic return that delivered a super concentrated dose of its intense multi-layered storytelling. It was rough to get through, but with some patience and sobriety, proved to live up to its "greatest sitcom of all time" status. Likewise, Orange is the New Black proved that Netflix could push the restrictions of the television medium, in time, content, and character structure. The greatest advances in the television medium are happening now - eventually when the old guard of arbitrarily restricted traditional television falls, everything will be on-demand and awesome. 2013 will forever be the year we point to as the start of everything great in long-form visual storytelling.

Video Games:

There were three major landmark games this year amidst repetitive shooter and GTA copycats. The first is The Last of Us, which somehow spiced up the zombie survival game genre through its truly immersive storytelling and genuinely difficult gameplay that made its world seem all the mroe real. It's also damn tense and scary, with realistic characters to root for.

Going completely opposite in genre for a second, it seems as if all Nintendo can do lately is put new spins on thirty-year old properties. My answer is, so what if those games are still good. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds pulled off difficult puzzles and drawing manipulation to bridge the gap between being a good and great Zelda game. And all Super Mario 3D World had to do was introduce cats. Yes, Cats to make a great Mario Game!

Finally, the greatest game of this past year was well worth the wait - Bioshock Infinite. It succeeds in every level required to make a great game - clever and fluid gameplay mechanics, stunning graphics, and an intricate and involving complex storyline. The game kept you thinking months after completion, and the amount of Easter eggs and other hidden bits that polished the experience kept the world rich. Not only that, but the game actually explored with a deep articulation the racism and xenophobic dangers inherent to late 19th-Century American Exceptionalism along with radical revolutionaries. And metaphysics. All while being really cool. There's not another game that has all this in one package, and Bioshock Infinite is really the game of the decade.

The Way We Were: 2013 in Music

Welcome again to another installment of The Way We Were - a critical examination and look back at the year 2013. It's essentially an arbitrary designation of time to look back on, but it's nice to benchmark where we are at this point in musical history. Here we'll talk about both the biggest songs of the year, the best albums, and the most enjoyable singles. Let's start with some of the most zeitgeist-y singles, in rough chronological order. Now, some of these are spillovers from 2012, but whatever - they made up 2013's soundtrack.

Singles - The Chronological Year in Review:

The Weeknd - "Wicked Games"
"Suit & Tie" by Justin Timberlake ft Jay-Z
"Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis ft. Wanz
"C'mon Let Me Ride" by Skylar Grey ft. Eminem
"Hang Me Out to Dry"by Cold War Kids
"Harlem Shake" by Baauer
"Fuckin' Problems" by ASAP Rocky ft 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake
"I Love It" by Icona Pop ft. Charli XCX
"Can't Hold Us" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis ft. Ray Dalton
"R.I.P." by Young Jeey ft. 2 Chainz
"Alive" by Krewella
"Cups" by Anna Kendrick
"Heart Attack" by Demi Lovato
"Stay" by Rihanna
"Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell and T.I.
"Cruise" by Florida Goergia Line ft. Nelly
"Treasure" by Bruno Mars
"We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus
"Ways to Go" by Grouplove
"Same Love" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert
"Clarity" by Zedd ft. Foxes
"Royals" by Lorde
"Roar" by Katy Perry
"Berzerk" by Eminem
"What Does the Fox Say" by Ylvis
"Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus
"Holy Grail" by Jay-Z ft Justin Timberlake
"Wake Me Up" by Avicii
"Safe and Sound" by Capitol Cities
"Fitzpleasure" by Alt-J
"Brave" by Sarah Barellilis
"Hell and Back" by Airborne Toxic Event
"Applause" by Lady GaGa
"Bound 2" by Kanye West
"Closer" by Tegan and Sara
"Timbre" by Pitbull ft. Keha
"Stay the Night" by Zedd ft. Hayley Williams
 "Monster" by Eminem ft. Rihanna

Cream of the Crop:

There were a lot of big hits this year that overshadowed smaller great songs by the same artist. Both "Royals" and "Team" by Lorde are basically about the same thing - a revolt against contemporary materialistic pop culture through general apathy, but that repeated refrain in "Team," "I'm kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air" sums up a generation. Likewise, the melodic thumping of "Do What U Want" ought to beat out GaGa's "Applause" any day. Even Nelly's "Hey Porsche" is way better than "Cruise." In no major particular order, here are the rest of our favorite singles of the year:

"Poetic Justice" by Kendrick Lamar
"Diane Young" by Vampire Weekend
"Do What U Want" by Lady GaGa ft. R. Kelly
"Team" by Lorde
"Mother We Share" by Chvrches
"White Walls" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis ft Schoolboy Q and Hollis
"Q.U.E.E.N." by Janelle Monae ft. Erykah Badu
"Gangsta" by Kat Dahlia
"Collared Greens" by Schoolboy Q ft Kendrick Lamar
"Get Lucky" by Daft Punk

Best Albums:

There were a lot of tremendous albums this year. Beginning with hip-hop, while Drake and J. Cole put out some surprisingly strong efforts considering their talent, the rap game really comes down to Yeezus vs.
The Marshall Mathers LP 2. It was a year for all these aging rap gods to find something else to sing about when their greatest critical acclaim happened when they were young and hungry. Jay-Z joined in, too, but certainly came up short. Yeezus completely defies expectation and breaks angry industrial ground for Kanye, but Eminem hasn't been able to balance his weird dueling intense and irreverent personas this well, well, ever.

Yeezus Best Tracks: "Black Skinhead," "Blood on the Leaves," "Bound 2"
The Marshall Mathers LP 2 Best Tracks: "Rap God," "Love Game," "Headlights"

In the realm of pop, even with a big year with releases from Katy, GaGa, and Britney, everyone was outdone by a pair of kids. Lorde's Pure Heroine may not be that pop-y, but it's a stunning debut for the 16-year old Kiwi that spawned the breakout hit of the Fall in "Royals." Still, this was the year we saw Miley Cyrus jump from innocuous Disney starlet to full-blown slut. Beneath her ridiculousness though, lies a secret, mature, and instantly listenable album in Bangerz, the best pop album of the year.

Pure Heroine Best Tracks: "Tennis Court," "Team," "Glory and Gore"
Bangerz Best Tracks: "#GETITRIGHT," "Maybe You're Right," "Someone Else"

As far as rock goes, it's also down to two groups - Chvrches and Vampire Weekend. Chvrches' The Bones Of What You Believe exhibits an intriguing blend of electronica, alternative, and the ethereal coos of lead singer Lauren Mayberry. Vampire Weekend knocks it out of the park, though, with Modern Vampires of the City, by far their most advanced album. It's got Weekend's trademark spritely chill sound with nice doses of classy beats, mysterious sounds, and Ezra Koening has never sounded more comfortable.

The Bones Of What You Believe Best Tracks: "Gun," "Lies," "You Caught the Light"
Modern Vampires of the City Best Tracks: "Diane Young," "Everlasting Arms," "Hudson"

Finally, we have the notable Daft Punk entry, Random Access Memories. Is this techno? Funk? Disco revival? I don't know, but it's a damn good album, diverse enough for just about any occasion, easily listenable and re-listenable, and simultaneously relaxing and funky as hell.

Best Tracks: "Instant Crush," "Beyond," " Doin' It Right"

Best Music Videos:

There wasn't really one singular spectacular, jaw-dropping video to behold this year. The most significant may be the three sexiest (or misogynistic), Miley Cyrus' nude opus "Wrecking Ball," Kanye's Kim Boob show-off, "Bound 2," and Robin Thicke's monster summer smash, "Blurred Lines." None of these are particular great videos, though, although Seth Rogen and James Franco's "Bound 3" may be.

The top three videos of the year were all pretty epic. First, let's talk about Miley's "We Can't Stop" - an excess of surreal and sometimes disturbing imagery set to thumping teddy bears and general apathetic youth nonsense. Every generation needs a vid like this so that they can claim to be different and special than every other generation to rebel before them. Next is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Can't Stop Us," which features some of the most captivating bizarro video moments of the year such as pirate ship parties, camel rides, and the suavest beach haircut ever.

Still, the top this year is for a song released decades ago. Even though Arcade Fire also released an interactive music video with "Reflektor," Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," which had somehow never before had a video gets an exceptionally cool interactive vid. It's about time artists started using the pull medium of the Internet to their advantage to gain followers and viewers instead of losing them. Here you go.

Artist of the Year:

There are many contenders, such as Lorde, Miley Cyrus, Kanye, Daft Punk, Robin Thicke, or Arcade Fire, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis rule over them all. They literally had a hit for every season this year, starting with the bubble gum novelty track "Thrift Shop" before moving deeper and deeper with "Can't Hold Us" then "Same Love." It may be their most lyrically shallow single of the year, but my favorite jam of theirs is actually "White Walls," whose sharp flow gets me every time.

The Heist will one day become one of those legendary albums, spewing forth a crazy amount of hits. The pair gets bonus points of their independent production, viral success, and instant ability to draw the critical and commercial acclaim of just about the entire world. They got there from an expansive, liberal, and inclusive brand, as well as some damn tight flows for a white boy and great production values.

This was also a noted year for novelty songs in addition to "Thrift Shop," no doubt due to the Internet. How else can we explain "Harlem Shake" and "What Does the Fox Say" blowing up? It's exciting - we were really lacking extremely stupid mainstream tracks.

Well, there you go - uh huh honey, everything you need to reminisce about the music of 2013. What will 2014 bring? Keep listening, folks.

30 December 2013

The Way We Were: The Flicks of 2013

If you're on the Internet this time of year looking at movie sites, no doubt you've come across one or two "Best Of" lists. I struggle with this concept each year, because it's tough to define what really makes a great movie. Is the best movie of the year the one that made me reflect the most about myself? Was it the most fun I had at the theater? Or is it the film that accomplishes the greatest technical achievements?

My general rationale regarding what makes a movie great is its cultural staying power - which is impossible to measure in a year anyway. Even though back in the day There Will Be Blood (2007) probably got the most cultural cache, and No Country for Old Men (2007) got all the awards, who knew that in December 2013 we'd be talking the most about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)? Does this make it the best of the three aforementioned slow moving westerns released in 2007? No, but there's never any telling with these things. It's all subjective and bonkers.

For these reasons, I've split up my favourite films of the year into three big divisions, because I'm going to the movies to get different things out of each. First we have the Blockbusters, where I'm looking at who did and did not succeed at the big spectacle (and sometimes I enjoyed the "failures" much more than the "successes"), who surprised me, and what I thought was genuinely interesting. Let's begin, counting down from no particular set number:

Blockbuster Division:

#5: Oblivion

Oblivion would have been a much better film if it had come out like thirty years ago so that it could innovate and inspire every sci-fi movie to follow instead of appearing to rip them all off. Still, even though it's a far cry from Tom Cruise's high sci-fi watermark in Minority Report (2002), it was a surprising film full of gorgeous landscapes, a likable Cruise, and even if most of the plot elements were largely lifted from dozens of other films, it was competently executed.

#4: The Lone Ranger

I loved the fact that Disney based their entire non-Marvel summer around The Lone Ranger, but Verblinski and Depp were more in a mood to make an anti-Blockbuster, pulling the rug out of its audience's feet with completely boffo shifts in tone, some of the greatest train sequences of the year (or ever), and a general disregard for big movie conventions, despite its identity as such. Racist and un-American? You got it.

#3: Iron Man 3

It took me a while to realize what Iron Man 3 did for superhero films. I'd be curious if it has as general an effect on the genre as something like The Dark Knight (2008) did. While The Dark Knight pushed everything to be "dark" and heady, Iron Man 3 asks why superhero movies can't be exactly like early 90s action movies. It both takes the suit off the Iron Man and the piss out of the Mandarin. While the fanboy in me was outraged at first, I eventually grew to appreciate Shane Black's postmodern take on the pomp and pointlessness of antiquated archrivals and their unnecessary place in the hero narrative. The result is far more interesting than Iron Man 2 (2010).

#2: Pacific Rim

Originality may be a stretch here, for Pacific Rim does borrow liberally from mecha, kaiju, and many anime genres, but still, this was the biggest, best original sci-fi of the year. It gets big points for the best world-building of the decade, its refreshingly multi-cultural cast, its relenting coolness, and Charlie Day. No other big studio film had as much fun with itself or gave its audience so much to play with this Summer.

#1: Furious 6

How did this Happen? Not only does the plot of Furious 6 run pretty tight, despite a complete disregard for physics (who cares), it changes the narrative of every movie that comes before it, which is impressive in a franchise largely written off seven years ago. From the Rock to Diesel's incredible headbutt, tank chases and runways that stretch from London to Manchester, Furious 6 announced itself as able to play with the big boys in a big way. When every other movie this summer tried so hard to be cool, this rose above the rest and lived it, baby.

Next we have what I'm calling the Prestige Division. These are the kind of high-minded films I'm betting we'll see on many end-of-year lists, but I've probably thrown in a few wacky choices. I'd consider these to mostly be thought-provoking dramas, but a single genre definition essentially eludes the collection I have here:

Prestige Division:

#8: The Way Way Back

This movie tends to come along every couple years. Sometimes it's called Superbad (2007), sometimes it's Adventureland (2009), but it always tends to be tough to get sick of. The Way Way Back takes itself slightly more serious than either of these two, and thanks to Sam Rockwell sliding into a perfect role (he tends to have a lot of those), and Carell caring less and less about stardom, this one works.

#7: Side Effects

I can't stop being a Soderbergh junkie, and this, supposedly his final theatrical film, brings everything you could want from the man. The narrative juggles and switches protagonists like no film since No Country for Old Men (2007), and continually threads a mystery between who to believe and who is full of shit. It's tense fun with a slight critique of Big Pharma for being huge dicks. Rooney, Jude, Channing, and Catherine are all must watches.

#6: American Hustle

Hustle, even amidst criticisms of being "Scorsese Lite," is a damned fine bit of filmmaking. David O. Russell essentially combines the casts of The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) in a slick ABSCAM piece that has tremendous fun with itself. Is it a comedy? That's a question that rages across a lot of flicks this year, and Hustle, while probably not as groundbreaking as Silver Linings, is just as enjoyable.

#5: 12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen finally brings instant acclaim to his filmmaking abilities with a brutal look at slavery in its nadir in the 1840s. It's not only a portrayal designed to shock audiences into recognition and remembrance of slavery's horrors, but a critical examination of black identity, the survival of hope among hoplessness, and the corrupting influence of the peculiar institution. Spoiler alert: this one gets all the awards come March.

#4: Inside Llewyn Davis

Somehow Llewyn stands out among Coen Bros films, which grows more difficult with each subsequent film they release. Biting bitter comedy flicks in and out with splashes of irreplaceable wit in an otherwise exceedingly sad film. "Please Mr. Kennedy" should be the song of the year and with John Goodman's presence turning The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) into Best Picture winners, can he go three for three? 

#3: Wolf of Wall Street

If Goodfellas (1990) had never existed, I may have listed this higher. Any breakthroughs this may make in narrative Scorsese already accomplished with his seminal gangster flick. Still, Wolf is crazy good, with the kinds of overflow of sex and drugs we've always dreamed of seeing on screen. At its heart, though, it's a tortured an uncomfortably funny tale of a man who can't do anything but make money, at the expense of everyone around him, including himself. There's not a better fable to tell in an age where the financial sector regularly screws over the entire world.

#2: Gravity

Picking between these last two was very difficult. They both get a lot of points for using their medium really well. Gravity provides a reason to go to the theater again during a time when the entire industry is whining that they're losing out to Netflix and home viewing options. It's a nauseating, dizzying turn through space with a ridiculous performance out of Sandy Bullock that genuinely works best when paying for a premium 3D IMAX ticket. Finally, a film that makes the trip worthwhile. As soon as other studios learn this, everyone can get a slice of that Gravity pie.

#1: Spring Breakers

Even though it's an incredibly important film for the medium, Gravity really didn't have the story to push it to the #1 spot. I'll give that to Harmony Korine's gritty dirty Spring Breakers, which feels like a dream when watching it. It's bathed in neon excess, Britney Spears rhythms, guns, cash, and a lot of delusional dreams, both broken and half-fulfilled. James Franco's "Spring breeeeaaakk" breathy whisper echoes throughout the slow scene construction over and over again, and unpredictable craziness flows at every turn, not only because it was primarily filmed with real spring breakers interacting with four hot Disney starlets. It crawls and oozes like only it can and remains the trippiest flick of the year.

Finally, we have a smattering of movies that don't really belong anywhere. I doubt you'd find these on any "Best Of" lists, but a handful were the most fun I've had at the cinema in years. In favor of continually eschewing any regard for form or convention, here are the downright funnest flicks of the year:

Fun Division:

#6: Warm Bodies

I'm basically at the point where I'll reward a movie for just not sucking. That's Warm Bodies, which takes what could have been a pretty stupid Twilight-esque premise and eschews any sort of expectation that could come along with that. The Zombie genre has been deconstructed time and time again by now, but perhaps never better than in this romantic comedy. The hokey ending be damned, this was a nice surprise.

#5: Don Jon

Otherwise known as Jersey Shore: The Movie, Don Jon showcases Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a competent and confident filmmaker, pushes a love of porn and girls in some new exciting directions (seriously), and offers a smooth ride from beginning to end. I'm still not sure what it is about this trashy sub-culture that attracts so much adoration from the general public looking it, maybe it's just how ridiculous yet commonplace their generally accepted behavior is within their own communities. I dunno. I can't stop watching, though.

#4: This is The End

I would put this at the top of my list for the whole year, but I understand there's a pretty heavy caveat - just about all enjoyment of this film depends on whether or not the viewer is pretty familiar with the culturally accepted social personas of the actors involved, as well as whether or not the viewer enjoyed Pineapple Express (2008). I'm a big supporter of both, so I had more fun watching this flick than any other single movie this year. Since it's so dependent on buying into that quasi-fictional world though, it's ultimately held back from being a truly great comedy. I also really didn't buy that Backstreet Boys reunion.

#3: You're Next

Probably the greatest marketing for any movie all time, You're Next proved to be the best kind of horror film - small, scary, fun, and effortlessly iconic. There were a lot of pretty good horror flicks this year, notably The Conjuring and even Insidious: Chapter 2, but James Wan can't get all the credit for reviving the genre. This little renegade movie needs a whole lot more attention than it's been given so far.

#2: Pain & Gain

Auteur Michael Bay's greatest film, and notably one of the most insane experiences at the cinema this year, Pain & Gain presents a non-stop assault on the senses, but not in that normal explosion-driven Bay way. Is the American Dream completely delusional? What's the price for success in a world that restricts the working class and rewards the liars and cheats? What's the best road to the top - honesty, steroids, theft, murder, or cooking hands on the grill? These are the big questions that I'm not sure Bay is even sure he's asking, but Pain & Gain contemplates them all pretty thoughtfully while serving up constant insane nonsense. It's a spectacle.

#1: The World's End

What's more to say? The fourth of four end-of-the-world comedies to premiere this year, and the second on this list, The World's End caps the Cornetto Trilogy and doesn't disappoint at all, in fact there's a good argument to be made it's the best of the three. Without a lot of fluff or other goofiness in the kind of film that could easily slip up, this flick provides laughs, some of Simon Pegg's strongest character work, and an answer to the hundreds of man-child alcoholic films that began with Will Ferrell and have accelerated through Todd Phillips' Hangover series. Every inch of this movie is covered in brilliance and it's thoughtfully the best outright comedy of a year full of pretty great ones.

Actor of the Year:

This was a pretty tough call this year. Tom Hanks had a few high profile roles in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks, but despite his admirable best efforts, both those flicks were kind of shitty. 2013 will always be remembered as the year everyone started treating Matthew McConaughey with more respect between Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street, but none of those flicks were really mainstream. Therefore I'm kind of torn between James Franco and Dwayne The Rock Lobster.

Now, The Rock starred in one of the biggest films of the year, Furious 6 as well as Pain & GainG.I. Joe: Retaliation, and Snitch. The thing is, though, only the first two of these films were really that notable, and neither especially because of Dwayne. Franco had a little bit of everything this year - big blockbuster potential with Oz the Great and Powerful, indie cred with Spring Breakers, a comedy blast with This is The End, and a bizarre domestic drama, Homefront. Not only that, but he appeared in small films such as The Iceman, Third Person, and Lovelace, and directed three additional festival films. He was also roasted on Comedy Central. Now, Franco may have the same lack of widespread cultural influence that the Rock did, but for sheer volume and diversity he gets our Actor of the Year award, with Dwayne a close second.

Actress of the Year:

This was also a very tough decision. Jennifer Lawrence just like last year has awards buzz from American Hustle, won the Academy Award for Silver Linings Playbook, and starred in one of the biggest films of the year, Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I'm also looking at Amy Adams, who had a slice of big budget blockbuster with Man of Steel, and two smaller great films in Her and American Hustle.

This duel, however, is coming down to the two starts of The HeatSandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Besides the success of The Heat, Bullock owned Gravity, and McCarthy added a supporting role in The Hangover Part III and provided a lot of the success of the year's first hit, Identity Thief. I'm not going to question the cultural impact of Gravity, however, and Bullock will get our Actress of the Year Award.

Scenes of the Year:

#11: When Oz's head finally makes its appearance in Oz the Great and Powerful, there's a lot of clever pay off there that encapsulates the entire movie and this douchebag's journey from Kansas to Oz.
#10: Pick any train scene from The Lone Ranger or The Wolverine. Why were trains in this year?
#9: Much of Star Trek Into Darkness fell flat, but Kirk and Harrison's (c'mon if you don't know who he really is by now) space jump saw Abrams briefly find a moment to equal the thrill and excitement of Star Trek (2009)
#8: There's not much more to say about the powerful hanging scene from 12 Years a Slave - McQueen lingers uncomfortably long on Northrup's body - if you don't get the point after the first thirty seconds, maybe another thirty will do.
#7: There were two big SPOILER-y superhero scenes that changed a lot in the genre this year - the first upends everything Superman is supposed to be about when Man of Steel kills Zod. The second is when Tony Stark finds out about Trevor Slattery and everyone's idea of what makes a supervillain is completely upended.
#6: Michael Cera has always seemed like kind of an enigma, but his brief turn in This is The End blows by ridiculous into a super-insane coke-fueled, Rihanna ass-slapping glory.
#5: Did you hear the apocalypse was cancelled? The best moment in Pacific Rim may be both of Gipsy Danger's Kaiju exterminations in Hong Kong (a double tap and a sudden massive sword, respectively), but when Idris Elba tells us that they're cancelling the apocalypse - damn if we don't buy his conviction.
#4: Gravity lets you know what kind of innovative, unique movie it's going to be from that first, exhaustive opening scene scrolling through the infinity of space.
#4: Smaug Awakes in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - it's as if this whole crummy cash grab was worth it - Smaug is an incredible character and Peter Jackson offers us a rare pay off that's really worth it.
#3: Say what you may about Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, and many will point to the absurd obligatory battle scene, but for me, nothing beats the moment where the family says goodbye to Doby.
#2: It's hard to pick a scene from Spring Breakers. The most famous scene is surely James Franco serenading his masked beauties to the tune of Britney Spears' "Everytime," but I dig the crazy tension and character turn when the ladies make him fellate his own gun.
#1: You knew this was coming. Leo, on Quaaludes goes into the cerebral palsy phase in The Wolf of Wall Street. It's horrifying, hilarious and full of powerful character moments all at once. Scene of the year.

Trailers of the Year:

I always like dishing on trailers as their own special artform. Let's begin with films that came out this year:

Gravity - This first teaser still scares the shit out of me. In just 90 seconds the trailer demonstrates the inescapable fear, loneliness, and terror of the whole film, as well as a brief showcase of the crazy good effects. Seeing just this in 3D IMAX for the first time was more memorable than the Man of Steel that followed it.
Don Jon - Trailers have the unenviable task of capturing the spirit of a film, grabbing our attention without spoiling big moments, and getting our butts in seats. Don Jon provided a memorable trailer based on a simple man's routine that's interrupted by a unique woman that shows a lot of story but leaves the viewer intrigued for more. And the music's perfect.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire - I give this a lot of props because I didn't see The Hunger Games (2012), and have no desire to see Catching Fire, but this trailer really made me want to check it out. It's mostly the intriguingly conniving dialogue between Don Sutherland and Philip Seymour here that catches my fancy, hinting at some brains behind this bippity YA adaptation. You have my attention - thanks, trailer.
The Wolf of Wall Street - Even if the film itself is really just Goodfellas meets Boiler Room (2000), the trailer presents itself as wildly original. It's got a fine slice of insane douchebaggery on display, exhibits Leo's totally unhinged performance, and presents the film's irreverent tone set to the intense thumping of Kanye's "Black Skinhead" - a match between clips and song made in heaven to perfect demonstrate the theme of this flick. MORE IS NEVER ENOUGH couldn't be a better thesis for this flick. Completely engaging and instantly re-watchable, it's a nigh perfect trailer.

There is aother set of trailers that came out in 2013 for films premiering in 2014. Let's wrap up the year in movies by dishing on them:

The LEGO Movie - I can't think of a worse idea for a movie than LEGOs. I mean, I love LEGOs, but the point is to play and build with them, not watch them on a screen. This trailer gets a lot of credit then, for just being damned funny ("The 2002 NBA All-Star Team...") and hinting that maybe, just maybe this won't suck.
Captain America: The Winter Solider - Could probably go without seeing the Helicarrier go down, but as far as cookie cutter Marvel superhero flicks go, this seems solid. More than Thor 2 (2013), this looks to push Cap's ideals as far as they go, especially through S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems like a nice little dose of Civil War. I'm intrigued more than I should be.
Godzilla - This is another movie that really needs to prove in its marketing material that it won't suck. The trailer succees with a kind of urgency that is usually lacking in previous campy Godzilla films, GINO (1998) included. It wisely sticks with just shots of shadows, and destruction, mostly around one scene, which aptly demonstrates just what kind of film this wants to be - a badass realistic interpretation of the Big Tokyo Stomper. Walter White can't hurt.
X-Men: Days of Future Past - How the hell were they going to pull this one off? While holding back a lot of his hand, Bryan Singer helps us remember how he started all this superhero nonsense - with damned good character work. This trailer doesn't need a big explosion at its climax to let us know it's a big shouty important movie - merely one man saying to his younger self, "We need you to hope again." It understands where its drama is and promises a hell of a ride by way of character, not set pieces. If that holds, that'll be about the best we can hope for.

28 December 2013

First Impressions: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Often I'll feel a bit in the minority when writing about Will Ferrell and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) in particular. I suspect I'll remain there when I expose here that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) is the superior film. Now, with a film like this, going in cold is pretty important, even though it's just about impossible with this kind of marketing. Needless to say, SPOILERS of all kinds follow from here on in our discussion of the merits of the sequel to Anchorman.
And Perms!

See, it's as if director Adam McKay, producer Judd Apatow, and star Will Ferrell finally hit their stride in what they've been trying to do in narratively subversive films for the past decade. It blends the surrealism of the original Anchorman, the genre satire of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), with a whole lot more refinement and subtlety, and finally and most importantly, the sharp social satire of The Other Guys (2010).

The Other Guys was really this film about a few different things - a pair of unlikely cop heroes rising to the occasion, a savvy buddy genre spoof, and an indictment of the financial crisis, with corrupt stock lenders as unlikely a villain as Will and Mark were as heroes. Anchorman 2 is equally about three very contrasting subjects: the redemption and growth of one man focusing between his family and career (with explicit references to the myth of Icarus), an extremely goofy experiment in surreal filmmaking, and an indictment of the corruption inherent to the 24-hour news cycle.

Not only is the film brilliantly inciteful concerning the 24-hour news cycle tendency to veer towards crap, but it also extols the dangers of synergy and contains an intense critique of pandering to the audience (which it also essentially eschews through toying with its own audience's expectations). While the final battle is admittedly goofy, with plenty of A-listers making fun, they actually distract a bit from what that scene is actually doing - a meaningful critique of how many overlapping and unnecessary news outlets there are out there.

Now, do most people care about the news or the decline of journalistic integrity, or care to see these ideas examined in a major studio-funded and highly anticipated comedic sequel? No, but it's pretty damn important. There is some talk in the film about the morality of selective news reporting and the fact that people want garbage rather than the boring news that they need. The film also examines the news' democratic function, its purported intention to use the independent discovery of truth to increase government transparency and accountability. Hell, it's basically a modern day iteration of Network (1976), and even set during a similar time frame. Is this message lost in a film that also features Harrison Ford turning into a werewolf? Maybe, but the range of McKay's sensibilities are pretty insane. Just ask Glenn Frye.
A love for the ages

The second (or third? Wake up!) installment of Anchorman is also structurally superior to the first one. It contains far more story, and Ron remains both the biggest protagonist and villain - he gets in his own way more than any other character. Despite that, Jack Lime (Lame), played admirably by James "Cyclops" Marsden serves up a fine antagonist role, even if he's essentially defeated around the midway point. Lesser comedies may spend more time devising this conflict, instead McKay hands the victory to Ron early, and spends the rest of the film dealing with more interesting character moments. The most significant issue in the film then is that it gets away from this core story with these really zany moments - such as the competing realities of Anchorman. The flick ends up not being quite sure if it exists in the real world or the rubber band fantasy world of the first Anchorman. Either way though, if you can maintain a high suspension of disbelief, with a little cognitive effort, it hits pretty funny.

This is also the year for idiots to find love. After Galifianakis found his perfect partner in The Hangover: Part III (2013) in Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig is perfect here as Brick's blushing beau. Anchorman needs to learn to tread carefully with Brick, though. The latter entries in The Hangover series ought to demonstrate that there's almost an Alan Garner-ification where the retarded guy gets to be too much. Brick tolerance nearly peaks in his first scene, but just like the first Anchorman, there is some mental adjustment required to deal with his non-stop issuance of non-sequiturs. The film wisely pulls him back a bit, until Ron snaps at him, to the revulsion of the rest of the cast. You see, this is a moment where realities collide and a "true" reality intruding here, where the universe's generally accepted tolerance of Brick collapses and things go crazy.
And Kristen Dunst as
Alterius, Maiden of the Clouds

A lot of people will be calling the final battle the best scene in the film, and to be fair it's brilliant, not only for the onslaught of cameos. Sacha Baron Cohen, Kanye, Tina and Amy, Jim Carrey and Marion Cotillard, Will Smith, Liam Neeson and John C. Reilly, and Harrison Ford. Wow. That will never be repeated ever. I just wished Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Chewbacca, and James Earl Jones could have joined Harrison all spouting "Totes McGoats!" I'll contend instead, however, that the best scene by far is the capture and release of Doby the shark. Not only is it a pretty apt metaphor for the rehabilitation of Ron himself, but it features a perfect hilarious shot of Ron's son, Walter "No Eye Contact" Burgundy, sobbing uncontrollably watching Doby's release. It's like this twisted demented version of Harry and the Hendersons (1987) that also lets you know that this is, in their own right, a perfect family that's going to be alright.

This comes despite some really complex interactions between Ron and Veronica. Some part of Veronica, for some reason, always love Ron. Ron's just such a constant blowhard, though, that any kind of sustainable relationship with him must be ridiculous to bear. She returns when he's humbled by blindness, but also exhibits her own level of selfishness when she denies him the information that the doctor could return his sight. Ron also contains inescapable love for Veronica, though, and he's finally able to forgive her, resist (sort of), the incredibly confident performance of Linda Jackson (Meagan Good), and become the family man he needs to be.

The first Anchorman was really the first movie that Ferrell and McKay had ever done - it's this small scale, cheap, dirty kind of surreal filmmaking that didn't really have any major expectations. The second one couldn't have higher expectations, so it's only natural that their attitudes are still this general "screw you" to the audience and what they wanted to see. It becomes incredibly silly, absurd, and politically poignant at the same time. It's a real scene, man.

Anchorman 2 is far less quotable than the first one. It also lacks much of the heightened masculinism - there's less scotch, mahogany, or other testosterone-fueled elements. In the age of another Ron, by the name of Swanson, these kind of jokes are played out. It finds its own niche.

There's a lot more going on here. There's a little racism in the workplace, fried bat wings, and even the shimmering transition from sunny San Diego to the crisp streets of New York City. Not to mention a nice scene featuring hot oil, bowling balls, scorpions, and cruise control gone terribly wrong. And down with news.

Stay classy.

27 December 2013

First Impressions: The Wolf of Wall Street

As if Martin Scorsese needed to add to his long legacy at age 71, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is a pretty damn worthwhile companion to anything the famed director has done exploring the excesses of debauchery and terrible human behavior. This is perhaps Scorsese's most simultaneously ridiculous, hilarious, horrifying, and confident film in years. It's also Leo and Jonah at their most unhinged, and its three-hour run times feels like fifteen minutes by the end of it. It's that rare film where everything is firing hard, crisp, and crazy. SPOILERS to come, folks.

Steve Maddon!
Wolf makes a fine addition to the sort of series of high-level Scorsese ensemble flicks he makes every couple years like Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Departed (2006). In fact, if Wolf has any major flaw it's simply that it highly resembles a financial version of Goodfellas, especially its ending. It's about a man who rises up from nothing through hardly legal means, gets addicted to all manner of drugs, abuses every personal relationship in his life, and ultimately tries to find some redemption when his life falls apart. Actually, Henry Hill is a bit more redeemable than Jordan Belfort.

If you could go back in time and tell me that the whiny kid from Titanic (1997) would eventually have a series of collaborations with Scorsese to rival his work with Bob De Niro, I might sock you in the mouth. Leo DiCaprio is going crazier than he ever has before here, though, bolder and wilder than anything he's put on screen. There's none of the brooding he's done in every other Scorsese partnership or even Inception (2010). He's loose and enjoying every Bacchanalian moment on screen.

As for that - the film presents a non-stop orgy of douchebaggery, with excesses of racism, misogyny, and the crudest treatment possible of homosexuals, disabled, and little people. From midget tossing to cousin-fucking, these people are the worst kinds of degenerates ever put on screen. It's fitting then, to compare them with the murderers and drug peddlers of Goodfellas. I mean, they're all worse people than mobsters.

It's natural that this film comes out in the wake of a global financial meltdown and films like Inside Job (2010) or even The Other Guys (2010). We've all seen what these people are capable of - swindling money out of millions of people with little to no accountability - the richest 1% lording over the rabbles of the 99%. It's a question of morality - poor thieves and murderers do much more time in prison than the rich, who steal to get richer. What are these people actually like, though?

According to The Wolf of Wall Street, they're the most hard-partying, lying, cheating, testosterone-fueled (even the women), whore banging-then-penicillin injecting, crazy-ass motherfuckers to ever walk this earth. At the top of this is Jonah Hill, as Donnie Azoff. Now, if anyone can remember Michael Cera's fictional version of himself in This is The End (2013), you'd have a good idea of this crazy dude. He's Wolf's Joe Pesci - an utterly irredeemable bastard that epitomizes the worst parts of Wall Street bro sub-culture. It's not only the quaaludes and whores, but the despicable ways he treats his closest friends, business partners, and family. There is nothing good about this human being. He's the amoral, out of control element of the film.

Leo as Belfort himself, is somewhat better, but not by that much. His one redeeming moment, where he attempts to differentiate himself from Goodfellas' Henry Hill may be his sly attempts to not rat out his friends when the time comes. Of course, this blows up in his face (possibly due to a betrayal by Donnie), and he has to do his time and be a rat anyway.

Belfort really falls to the drugs, though. Even facing certain death, he's desperate for a lude ("I will not die sober!"), even risking his life and everyone else's around him. The Lemmon 714 quaalude scene may also be one of the more enjoyable of the year, even though there's this real drama of sadness to it. It's capped off with him consuming cocaine explicitly like Popeye (seriously, it's intercut with Popeye clips) to gain super-cokehead strength. There's both a cartoonish quality here and a real drama, which makes it inexplicable among any other movie this year.

The rest of the cast is killing it. Matt McConaughey appears briefly to first show Leo the ropes of the financial industry. Cristin Milioti, coming off her recent appointment as the eponymous mother on How I Met Your Mother, also shows up as this real Lorraine Bracco-like early wife of Belfort's. There's also little moments with Jean Dujardin, Joe Bernthal, and Ethan Supplee that are a pleasant whirr.

Plus - dance!
Ultimately, the film demonstrates that these people act like they do out of a complete lack of accountability. There's no punishment here. Not when money is the only thing at stake. Sure they suffer horrendous personal relationships, lose family members, and deal with Mediterranean hurricanes, but even in the face of jail time, the only thing they have to lose is cash. And there's always more cash. It's this unsustainable drive. It's why Belfort can't quit in the face of armageddon. He just can't stop, even after he tries to go straight and serves prison time. Being a conniving, money-grubbing asshole is who he is, and there's no appeasing that appetite.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an instantaneous Scorsese classic. It's definitively one of his funner movies, but with a heady amount of pain, desperation, and naturally, the least moral characters put on film since Casino. It's about impossible redemption, a greed that's never satiated, and the worst that men are capable of outside of a murderous rampage.

25 December 2013

First Impressions: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Ever since Petey Jackson announced that he'd be directing a trilogy follow-up to The Lord of the Rings, anticipation has been reserved rather than eager. Maybe it's because of The Hobbit's strange position as a film prequel while the book actually preceded LotR, and general fanboy wariness of big cultural prequel events after Star Wars ruined things for everyone. Maybe it's just the fact that a book shorter than any of the LotR books was being adapted into three films of equal length, arousing suspicion or money-grabbing in Hollywood. For whatever reason, The Desolation of Smaug has almost become an under-the-radar movie, without a great deal of cultural weight. This is fairly undeserved, because regardless of source material or production drama, Smaug himself is well worth the wait, one of the best characters of the year, and possibly the greatest dragon ever put on film.
She also gets so much shit from snooty Blonde Elves.

The Hobbit remains an enjoyable alternative to The Lord of the Rings with a certain frame of mind. While The Lord of the Rings excelled (mostly) in being a serious, true adaptation of James Randolph Rodrigo Tolkien's work, The Hobbit goes completely bonkers, with much more freedom to expand into crazy, liberating directions. Since the actual story is so thin, this isn't really an issue if you can get past the commercialism conspiracy. Its complete disregard for being loyal to fanboy interpretation makes it a pretty engaging experience. Some of this works, but most of it is super-wacky. The result is this blend of an LotR-like "serious" epic fantasy experience and the more common CGI-fueled goofiness seen more often in contemporary tentpoles.

The film picks up right after An Unexpected Journey and goes right into more ridiculous dangers in Middle-Earth such as Beorn the Were-bear. He's kind of weird and random and far too chill with thirteen dwarves, a tiny little man, and an old geezer crashing at his secluded place without even a call ahead. What jerks.

The most interesting dynamic of this film is still Bilbo's relationship with the One Ring and how it grows on him, which is an ever-present theme in this franchise. While it increases his confidence and heroism, it does so only by making him more paranoid and defensive against threats against the Ring. The most compelling scene in the whole film so far is his "rescue" of the Ring from a big nasty white spider lurking in Mirkwood. Bilbo's becoming a fierce warrior, a slave to the will of the Ring, without even really knowing it.

See, Frodo always had people warning him in LotR. There was this feeling of doom around the whole movie as the Ring weighed heavier on his soul. Bilbo's basically in the dark in The Hobbit. He doesn't really know what the Ring is, nor does anyone else. It's just this mysterious force that's slowly pushing him towards the brink of corruption. It's a sinister twist on the Hero's Journey, where the audience is in on how the force making him grow into a warrior will also cause his downfall. Essentially, the inner conflict that most characters in the film aren't even aware of, is making these movies worth it. That, and Smaug. More on that later.

Despite the interesting dynamic between the inner conflict and heroic development of Bilbo, there's a lot of weird moments in this flick, which should almost be a given considering its bloated run time. Once we're out of the Spider's trap in Mirkwood (which includes some of the best set design I've seen all year - big movies like this are always technical achievements and this is no different), we get into the Woodland Realm of Thranduil. There the dwarves are all captured and one in particular instantly falls in love with Kili.

Okay, let's get into this. Tauriel, an elf made up for the film and played by Evangeline "Kate from LOST" Lily, gets a pretty cool introduction showing her badassery, as well as plenty of screen time. It's about time that Lily got something of a career going, but it's also funny that she's instantly involved in a love triangle after that took up most of her time on LOST. Now, the triangle in question is between her, the dwarf Kili, and Legolas. Yes, that Legolas.

See, Kili was always the "Legolas" of this group and acted in that exact role in Unexpected Journey. He's the incredibly good-looking archer dwarf for some reason who doesn't really have a full beard, just a bit of scruff. So basically, I'd consider Tauriel in a love triangle between Legolas and himself. It's so damn goofy. I'm not sure if there are any Elf / Dwarf pairings in the history of Tolkien's writings, or any idea what that offspring would look like or the abilities it'd have, but why not? There's this weird bit where Tauriel kind of likes Legolas but after talking to his dad, they're both like "hell no", then Legolas comes along with this kind of "mmm I would hit that" attitude. Considering there's no sign of Tauriel or Kili in LotR are we in for some doom? Or just who the hell cares? I'd go for the latter and just ride out this silliness while we got it.

Sneezy was killed in Erebor.

As far as the other elves, they're given about the same random treatment as they did in the first film. I didn't even recognize half of them. Besides Thorin, Balin, and Dwalin, you can recognize Kili, maybe Fili, Bombur just because he's the fat one, and possibly Bofur just because of his silly hat (and the fact that he looks like a 70s porn star). That leaves Nori, Dori, Ori, Gloin, Oin, and Bifur as just random fill-ins. And rightly show, that's about what they were in the Book. There is a nice moment where the film acknowledges that Gloin is the father of Gimli, where he shows a pic of his son to Legolas.

Bilbo tends to prove himself again in the Barrel Escape, which coats the film with a high level of madcap absurdity. It's surely a thrill ride and a very nice set piece, but the infusion of humour and action so improbable that it makes Furious 6 (2013) look like a lecture from a Physics Nobel Laureate. Then we get to Lake-town. Lake-town sucks.

It doesn't really suck from a narrative prospective but it's pretty rough in the metafilm. Why are the lands of Men in these flicks always these really impoverished, Dark Age-beset shitholes and every other kingdom glitters with gold in spectacular halls of fantasy? I suppose it's that sense of wonder for these fairer, fantastic races compared with the idea that, yeah, humans can't really do shit.

Lake-town is also filled with these really ham-fisted political allegories, with Stephen Fry's Master the cruel overlord of the town, his unibrow toadie under foot, and Luke "Owen Shaw" Evans' Bard the slightly insurgent rabblerouser. There's just no place in a film like The Hobbit to thoughtfully contemplate the nature of free elections, the 99%, or anything else it tries to deal with for a whole forty-five seconds. I'm just waiting for Bard's brother to show up, played by Jason Statham.

Like the first film, in addition to all these cray cray action scenes that really expand the story, we also get a ridiculous amount of villains. Azog the Defiler hangs around but isn't as much of a threat as the silent but deadly Orc Commander Bolg. Sauron himself makes a brief appearance, as do hints of the Nine in a pretty cool scene where we get to see where they were entombed. Finally, though, we've got Smaug. Oh greatest of calamities.
You know, this actually pretty damn
similar to the Eye of Sauron

The plot works by coming down to a more philosophical battle with Smaug rather than an outright physical confrontation. There is a lot of hate in both sides between both Smaug and Thorin, and it's far more interesting to hear him jest with Bilbo than to run amok, although both are visually impressive. Smaug is a huge dick basically just because he's effectively immortal, but he's also generally content to be just left alone sitting atop his pile of gold. That's not really a sustainable future for anyone, though. He's absolute power corrupted, an untouchable and cruel asshole because he can be. Thorin is understandably pissed that he gobbled up all his kin and stole his home for two centuries. They both attempt to use their wits and strengths to battle, where Thorin eventually covers the beast in molten gold. That really just pisses the dragon off, though.

Speaking of which, Smaug is also the richest fictional character ever, according to Forbes. He is worth the price of admission and essentially two films worth of anticipation. Benedict Cumberbatch nails his voice to perfection, and hearing that thing boom across a crowded IMAX is a treat to the ears that rumbles the soul. Bilbo's banter basically trying to stay alive rivals that of his riddle game with Gollum, and Smaug's keen senses are perfectly put on screen. The physical effects itself, including his massive on-screen presence is also a delight. Basically, everything about this fucking dragon is perfect.

The Desolation of Smaug is a pretty decent improvement over An Unexpected Journey. It tones down the weirdness slightly, raises the stakes, moves at a bit brisker pace, and adds a lot more insane characters and situations. Depending on what you are looking to get out of a fantasy movie you might still be better off with the first three Lord of the Rings films, which tend to be a little bit more prestigious, while The Hobbit films still veer into the more obscure parts of Tolkien's mind. 

19 December 2013

Undisputed: The Fastest, Most Furious Franchise

There's a good amount of Fast and Furious talk as of late, whether it be from the tragic death of Paul Walker, its sixth's installment's recent release on Blu Ray, or a constant stream of play of the first four films on TNT. I am regularly astounded by this movie series' existence, and transition from a knuckleheaded joke to barely above a direct-to-DVD release status to a global phenomenon, the cream of the crop of Summer Blockbusters. What the hell?

The Fast and the Furious (2001) remains that indelible part of Vin Diesel's early century oeuvre, right along with Pitch Black (2000) and xXx (2002), these sort of "extreme" takes for the X Games generation. It was an extreme time, dude. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) was treated nearly as an uncanon sequel, and still enjoys that status, save for its introductions of Tej Parker (Ludacris) and Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson). While the first film had a pretty cool undercover street racing cop running with bad dudes that turned out to be antiheros-angle, the second is basically a buddy cop movie with cars.
Tokyo Drift also featured the best music, largely thanks to "My Life Be Like"

By The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), no one gave a shit. Seven years on, though, it could very well be considered the best film in the whole franchise, or at least the most interesting from a narrative standpoint. You surely know by now, but the chronological order of the films is 1-2-4-5-6-3-7. It's fairly well documented through commentary tracks and interviews that director and writer Justin Lin didn't really plan on anything else after Tokyo Drift. Looking back on it, though, their tie-ins are brilliant.

First, Diesel's appearance at the end of the movie validates Tokyo Drift tremendously within the franchise. When he says he "rode with Han," you don't really know what that means. What's astounding is that they crafted three more films to demonstrate that period. In particular, re-watching Tokyo Drift, there's an interesting little monologue as Han Seoul-Oh (still the greatest name in this franchise, period) talks to Sean Boswell (still the worst name in this franchise, played by Lucas Black). The whole vid is here, but let's look at a few lines:

Sean: "So how'd you end up over here, anyway?"
Han:"You know those old Westerns where the cowboys make a run for the border? This is my Mexico."
Sean:"Why'd you let me race with your car? You knew I was going to wreck it."
Han: "Why not?"
Sean: "Cause it's a lot of money!"
Han: "I have money. It's trust and character I need around me. Who you choose to be around you lets you know who you are. One car in exchange for knowing what a man's made of? That's a price I can live with."

All of Han's lines here directly relate to Fasts 4 - 6. He's running both because of the pursuit of Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and because of (SPOILER) his disillusionment after Gisele (Gal Gadot)'s death in Furious 6 (2013). He has money from the haul in Fast Five (2011). His final words about trust and character are references to "The Family" that Diesel formed, the tight brotherhood of trust between the heist gang.

More than Han's foreshadowing (or callbacks to past events that happened in their world that we didn't know about yet), Tokyo Drift was also made much more compelling thanks to the ending of Furious 6, where we find out that Han's death was no accident. The Mercedes that crashed into him while running from Takashi was fucking Jason Statham, the brother of the dude Han helped kill in Furious 6 (Owen Shaw). See, from a narrative standpoint, what happened (retcon, of course), is that another movie's plot is literally crashing into this movie and killing characters.

While Han's death is a big deal in Tokyo Drift, it's a holdover from Furious 6. Tokyo Drift is otherwise very insular. There's racing, but not really the good cop / dirty cop elements that Brian O'Connor pumps into literally each of the other five movies. It's basically a straight forward story until this big moment. Therefore, the events of a film made seven years later directly intersects and interferes with this movie, while also setting up the seventh installment. It may be sort of forced and hackneyed after the fact, but I can't think of another franchise that would be so bold.

And that's part of what makes Fast special. It has nothing to lose. What? It's going to make a movie more coldly received than Tokyo Drift was when it first came out? Screw you, they'll make that the most integral cornerstone of their franchise. With Paul Walker's passing the franchise's future is in jeopardy, though. His role has been diminished enough that it can be successful without him (he really didn't do anything important in Furious 6), but would it really be right?
Finally the dream pairing of Wonder Woman and Han Solo

Sometime in the period between 2006 and 2009 I think everyone in the world caught up with these characters and some kind of love grew for them. In many ways you could even consider Fast Five to be the predecessor to The Avengers (2012) - it's a big team-up movie! Take the most popular characters introduced at various points in the previous four films and mash them together - with no source material or imbecilic fanboys to appease, Justin Lin was also free to make whatever the hell he wanted. By moving away from a dirty street racing flick into more of a global thriller / caper movie, it also opened the audience up a ton. By the time Furious 6 comes around, all you have to introduce is a tank, a plane, and a couple huge guys headbutting each other and that's one of the biggest movies of the year. Boom.

I'm not sure where this franchise can go. Especially whether or not Paul "Angel" Walker or Dwayne "Hercules" Johnson get many scenes in Fasterest + Furiousest 7 (2014). Its redemption, handling of Han, purposeful or not foreshadowing and growth of prestige among franchises is unparalleled. Forget superheros, all I need is Vin Diesel blasting his way across bridges and awkwardly hosting cookouts. Seriously though, you know on some level he thought he was going to pull of going out with both Letty and that Brazilian chick at the same time. You can kind of see that look of disappointment on his face when he realizes he's not going to get to do both of them. Poor guy.

I would buy Furious 6 on Blu Ray now - I mean, what better Christmas present is there ever? We can all still mourn Paul Walker, in a month where we lost Nelson Mandela and Peter O'Toole, he's the most important. I'm still waiting to see Neela, Bow Wow, Buffalo Bill, that Black Guy who gave them missions in 2 Fast, Suki, and Ja Rule to appear in Furious 7. A Man can dream.

18 December 2013

The Road to a Blockbuster: Is Anchorman the Most Marketed Movie Ever?

Around a decade or so ago a small film came out featuring a once funny SNL alum who was more famous for playing an Elf. A few years ago I wrote an essay exclaiming the wonder of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), proclaiming its great features, such as its odd competing realities, lack of a villain, and nature of toying with its audience between reality and expectation. This was all fine and good, and Anchorman was forever this immortal sort of film - stuck between cult classic and mainstream hit. Ron Burgundy eventually became a household name and its cinematic mark on the world of comedy is undeniable.

Did someone say sequel?

No toilet store in sight.

Now, comedy sequels almost always suck. They lack the tension built up in the first go around, and since the comedy is derived from that tension, or at least the high concept, the sequel often stumbles. Here's a big fat list of comedy sequels, try to name even one or two good ones from that. I'm not even sure if Back to the Future: Part II (1989) or Lethal Weapon 2 (1987) should even really count, but whatever, you can throw them in. Was either really better than the first one? Some may match their predecessors, such as Clerks II (2006) or Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995), but more often you get horrors like The Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) or Meet the Fockers (2004). Actually, the only flick on that list that I'll say surpasses the original is A Very Brady Sequel (1996), which rules for taking everything strange and out of place in the first film and going full on incestuously insane with it. What a delight.

Anchorman was sort of this slow burn. It's such a weird, translucent film experience that audiences for some time had trouble pinning it down. A sequel isn't totally outrageous, director Adam McKay and star Will Ferrell cobbled together Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie out of spare scenes they had shot while filming Anchorman and released it on DVD in 2004. It's not a great film by any stretch and some of the edits are pretty choppy, but the evidence of where they were going with certain ideas are there and it forms a neat sort of alternate universe version of Anchorman.

Wake Up, Ron Burgundy is my primary rationale for why Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) won't be total shit. Each of the five main actors (Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Steve Carell) know their characters pretty well, and each is pretty solid (Burgundy, Veronica Corningstone, Brian Fantana, Champ Kind, and Brick Tamland). Not only that, but just watching the characters interact with each other, without even a story to go along with (such as is the case with Wake Up), is just damned funny. So here are my concerns. They center mostly around the Dodge Durango.
"There were horses and a man on fire
and I stabbed a man with a trident."

I have ranted previously about trailer abstinence, and I stand by that theory, especially when it comes to comedies. Comedies, especially ones full of potential cameos such as Anchorman 2 rely on surprise to generate that impact of cognitive conflict which results in an expression of shock, hopefully displayed as laughter. When that surprise or conflict is removed, the movie ain't funny. Think of any joke or flick you saw the first time and compare it with the eighth time. While there are cult exceptions (Anchorman itself is one that tends to grow in humour as it ages, although part of that is nostalgia, self-satisfaction for memorizing lines, and the occasional new insight), comedies need to be pristine. I still contend that's why I enjoyed The Hangover: Part II (2011), while it tends to be reviled elsewhere. There's no guarantee of this, because I went totally cold into The Hangover: Part III (2013) and that movie just sucked ass.

So I've done the impossible so far, with a few more days to go - completely avoided all of Anchorman 2's marketing material. And this has possibly been the most advertised movie of all time. Its TV commercial period has been about double standard film campaigns and the amount of product tie-ins, most blatantly Dodge Durangos and Sportscenter appearances have been over the top and ridiculous. Oh, and apparently, Durangos are selling like cray cray, by the way. I'm curious as to whether or not this is just building more of the Ron Burgundy world or spoiling all our appetites for the main course.

I'm also concerned about whether any of these ads needed to appear at all. In 2004 my generation was coming off a heady love of Will Ferrell from SNL, Zoolander (2001), and Elf (2003). I graduated High School that summer and everyone was talking Anchorman. And Spider-Man 2 (2004). While we weren't that important of a market, there's hardly a soul among us who wouldn't be interested in more Burgundy. Like me, all many out there needed was an announcement and a date and we'd show up cash in hand. No Durangos necessary.

Then again, there's a wee bit of fear from earlier. Comedy sequels suck. Not enough people knew about Wake Up, and if they did, they didn't watch it. Will Ferrell, despite my pleas to the contrary, has overstayed his welcome and settled into a rut. What is a boy to do? Advertise the fuck out of Anchorman 2 and sell that the gang is back, primed, and ready to capitalize on the greatest comedic dream team once again put on film.

Really, in the past ten years Paul Rudd and Steve Carell have become household names with plenty of their own legendary turns (I'd pick Role Models (2008) and Michael Scott. Maybe Burt Wonderstone. No, no, I can't even keep a straight face with that one). David Koechner is still the same supporting role master, from Snakes on a Plane (2006) to The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2009). Christina Applegate is coming off the underrated and newly cancelled Up All Night. The time is right. And that time is right now.

So how will it do? I always cheer for a movie being good, but this one's hard to figure. I have some faith in the very self-aware and parodic sensibilities of Ferrell and McKay, but with so much pressure, there's no telling where this thing can go. Anchorman was a shot in the dark. A film made by amateurs and crazy people that somehow caught on. Anchorman 2 is expected to be the prestige of Hollywood. If anything, the hype machine is going to ruin this film in the eyes of its fans. Then, twenty years from now it will join the list of  Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) and Weekend at Bernie's II (1993) as really misguided comic sequels. We'll find out this Friday, December 20th, 2013.

Until then, stay classy, Planet Earth.

17 December 2013

Because it was on TV: How "How I Met Your Mother" Secretly Became a Ridiculously Long-Lived and Successful Show

You ever wake up and realize that How I Met Your Mother is on its ninth season, has one of the best casts on television, is currently CBS' greatest sitcom, and is going out with a run that's completely breaking its mold while remaining true to its core roots and form?
It's always nice to see Wayne Brady not on a
gameshow, Whose Line, or Chappelle. Wait, has
he ever done anything else besides HIMYM?

I had that moment a few months ago as I set it in to see the writers pull off the unbelievable - an entire season set during a single weekend at a Wedding in the fictional Farhampton, NY. And it's not even the wedding we've all been craving since this damn thing premiered in 2005. No other show has delivered blue balls with such panache as HIMYM, except for maybe LOST. Both shows were actually more victims of uncertain renewals or cancellations affecting their narrative rather than true fault of their own. LOST spun its wheels for years before resolving to end itself after six years, about three and a half or so of them good. In its case, an ending date was the best thing for it, because after years of faulty promises and dead ends, the narrative was able to conclude itself.

HIMYM is the same way. It resisted splurging on The Mother too early and then letting the show loose all its momentum. It did, however, loose a good amount of traction when it kept coming back for more seasons without a definitive end. Without that end, the story could only be stretched thinner. Thus we're presented a problem with endlessly renewable television whose meta-narrative superposes some fixed ending objective. Where do we go? Blow the wad and let the stories dry up or resist and...let the stories dry up? It's a rough commodity. With a light at the end of the tunnel finally granted, though, HIMYM kicked itself into high gear and lurched towards its conclusion.

Despite this, it's not like anyone actually cares. Well, maybe these guys do. The core premise is fun to be reminded of once in a while, but it's essentially become a meager excuse to follow the lives of characters played by actors who should have left the show years ago. Alyson Hannigan, coming off of American Pie and Buffy was arguable the series' biggest "get" when it premiered in 2005, although her career may now be the weakest. Neil Patrick Harris may have been the other big name, Dougie Houser basically irrelevant, but mostly gaining notoriety from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). His star has only continued to rise. Throw them in with Cobie "Maria Hill" Smulders and Jason "Muppets" Segel, and it's a pretty potent cast. Of course, Josh Radnor still sucks, ironically enough as the main character of the show.

The show has also always had a unique structure. Blending both three-camera and single camera sitcom conventions, most scenes are shot without a studio audience, and then edited together with flashbacks, flash-forwards, callback jokes, and other montages. The whole thing is then shown to a studio audience, where the laugh track is recorded. Unnecessary? Probably, but the result is a comfortable-feeling sitcom without many of the cringe-worthy jokes (looking at you, 2 Broke Girls) or necessary pauses for the audience to settle down from laughing or clapping for a character's entrance (Hello, Seinfeld). All this built until Season 9, its final season, when it took this structure and gave it a nice big bag of crack.
Ditto with Marshall's Odyssey.

Last night's episode, "Bass Player Wanted" (S9;E13), was emblematic of this, and likely the most energizing of the season so far, especially after the previous episodes, "Bedtime Stories" (S9;E11) and "Rehearsal Dinner" (S9;E12) were both kind of clunky and got away from the season's core conceit. Both of these earlier episodes relied too heavily on flashbacks that made the episodes essentially identical to any other season - the gang moping around New York City, dealing with dating problems. "Bass Player Wanted," however, introduced the first interaction between Ted and The Mother and set a solid stage for their hook-up to enfold.

The season is a slow burn through highlighting small moments over the course of a single weekend, but there's still a hefty dose of character development and interaction, as well as some classic sitcom-y premises, such as Robin and Barney's mother engaging in a scrambled egg competition ("The Lighthouse" [S9;E8]). Thus it's able to transport both its characters and conventions into a different lens, almost completely located in the Farhampton Inn, with the Inn's Bar and Bedrooms doubling for McClaren's and any given apartment in respective postmodern fashion.

It's been a refreshing ride for a stale show that has jerked its audience around for nine years. Part of its brilliance is in its boldness and its ability to handle both its long-term arcs as well as its smaller, doofier moments with aplomb. How will it all end? Naturally with Ted getting together with The Mother, even though we've more or less seen that already. More than seeing them together, it's about the payoff - has this broad really been worth it? Based on "Bass Player Wanted," the answer so far is hell yeah, but we'll have to keep watching to find out.

How I Met Your Mother comes on Mondays at 8:00 pm EST - it's the only CBS show worth watching right now. Invest some time.
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