28 June 2013

The Road to a Blockbuster: White Heat Down

As another Summer Friday lurches over the horizon, it's time once again to examine the latest crop of wannabe blockbusters. Every Friday in the Season of the Sun we're examining the critical, cultural, and commercial potential of every big flick that's set to premiere this year. We're not only looking for short-term success, though, we're looking at the extended T-shirt potential - which films are we going to be still quoting a year from now, and which ones will we stick ironically on a T-shirt twenty years from now? This weekend we have two sort of wacky cop / action movies - one with two dudes, the other with two dames: White House Down (2013) and The Heat (2013).

White House Down is the latest in a long line of Hollywood Dueling Movies, of which there is a surprisingly expansive list over at TV Tropes. While some of these are kind of fishy (Inception [2010] vs. Shutter Island [2010]?), all the big ones are spot on. Wyatt Earp (1994) vs. Tombstone (1993). Volcano (1997) vs. Dante's Peak (1997). Antz (1998) vs. A Bug's Life (1998). Deep Impact (1998) vs. Armageddon (1998).  Happy Feet (2006) vs. Surf's Up (2007). A lot of these more famous duels seemed to come about in the late 90s, but there's also a definitive glut in recent years. We've got things like Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) vs. Observe and Report (2009). No Strings Attached (2011) vs. Friends With Benefits (2011) and Mirror, Mirror (2012) vs. Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). This year alone we've got two magician movies (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone [2013] vs. Now You See Me [2013] - speaking of which, what is it with Magician Movies coming in pairs? See also: The Illusionist [2006] vs. The Prestige [2006]), two A-List "Last Man on Earth Movies" (After Earth [2013] vs. Oblivion [2013]), and finally, the battle to see who can destroy the white house first, Olympus Has Fallen (2013) vs. White House Down.

Now, all of these movies have a very obvious superior version. Think Tombstone, A Bug's Life, and Armageddon. I wholeheartedly believe that White House Down will be the superior White House Disaster Movie of 2013. It just seems to be a bigger, crazier, funner film than the brooding Olympus Has Fallen, and stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx have both proven to do nice doses of action and comedy better than Olympus analogues Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart.

This past spring we seemed to get just an assault of mediocre action films that weren't all that terrible, just sort of not that great. Movies like Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), and of course, Olympus Has Fallen were all kind of OK in the sense that their basic stories made sense and they were enjoyable for a few hours. They're essentially all perfect lazy Sunday Afternoon F/X movies. None of them are going to rise to the tops of 2013's best of lists, even in their own shitty genres.
The age old action formula of
Black Cop President / White Cop

How is White House Down going to avoid that? Simply put - Roland Emmerich, for all his sheer idiocy, knows how to destroy shit. He's still a poor man's Michael Bay, but he does know his way around an explosion. Besides, he was doing this White House destruction schtick almost twenty years ago. Yes, that was almost twenty years ago. We shouldn't have total faith in a director though, so what else is there that is going to make this thing stand out?

In a single word - it's C-Tates. While he got his career start as a stripper, dancer, and the lead in a seemingly endless, endless road of crap, in the past two years he became one of Steven Soderbergh's go to actors at the supposed end of his film career and starred in the funniest film of the damn decade. Channing ends up best when he's channeling this sort of parody - the doofie but loveable bro to end all bros, who can mix action chops with purposely vacant expressions and a mind too dumb to even earn a brow furrow. There's not even an attempt to understand his situation - as Danny Lugo would say, he's a Doer, not a Don'ter. He's been able to pull this off with a glowing sense of self-awareness that has ended up causing him to be extremely likeable. He's not like the dudes in the Expendables movies who take their careers pretty seriously. C-Tates is all about a fun stupid time and he's the best at delivering that right now.

I believe in Channing Tatum.

I also believe in Jamie Foxx. A quick glance at his career will show you one of the most variable actors in Hollywood. Ray (2004) to Stealth (2005). Django Unchained (2012) to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). The man can do it all, and it's about time he's became President. Even though things in general don't go well for Black Presidents in movies. His voice has that soft Django coo to it, though, and even though Jamie certainly has the action chops, he seems more like a fish out of water being coached by C-Tates. Fine by me as long as this becomes a true buddy cop film by the end with both Foxx and Tates kicking ass. I am also intrigued by who the villain of this picture might be - from the looks of the trailer, it's just straight-up Tim Olyphant from Live Free or Die Hard (2007), but there could be something else neat going on there. Or not, who cares.

On the other side of the aisle we have another buddy movie, this one starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. And it's pretty damn hard to find a more likable duo than that. They've both been nominated for Oscars in recent years (the latter winning for The Blind Side [2009]), and they also generally star in films that make buttloads of money. And if you ever doubt the potency of McCarthy's schtick or think that her act has worn itself thin, just take a gander at the first surprise hit of 2013, Identity Thief which somehow cranked out $134 million in February. Both actresses are crazy popular across just about every demographic, although they possibly skew a bit towards women.

So there's the rub - will women come out to see the female buddy action comedy? There are inevitable comparisons to Bridesmaids (2011), with which The Heat shares a director, the great Paul Feig, McCarthy, and a nice solid R-Rating. Bridesmaids also used shifted genders to play with genre, although it wasn't ever quite the female Hangover many expected it to be (for the better). It also made a ridiculous amount of money, meaning that no one really cares whether it's chicks or dudes up on screen, if it's funny and poignant and worth watching, it'll make some money. The Heat switches Kristen Wiig for Sandra Bullock, which is assuredly a lateral move at worst and an upgrade in popular appeal at best.
The other age old formula of Fat Cop / Old Cop

The issue here really is if all these translations can come to pass. Is a female buddy cop movie analogous to a female party movie? Did we max out on McCarthy playing the same character in every movie with the very recent Identity Thief? Is Sandra a better Kristen? If all the answers to these questions are yes, then watch out as The Heat becomes the breakaway comedy hit of the summer. Its only other competition is really Grown Ups 2 (2013), The To-Do List (2013), and We're the Millers (2013), which when paired with The Internship (2013) and This is the End (2013) form a list of really different comedies this summer. While I can't picture any of them getting better or funnier than This is the End, no other comedy has the potential for both critical and commercial success as The Heat. It's obvious and unfortunate that the tepid Grown Ups 2 will almost assuredly run away with the most money this summer, but that's about guaranteed to some how be even more terrible than its predecessor. But that's for another week.

The marketing for The Heat hasn't been that strong (assuredly it is not as ubiquitous as White House Down), but it has clearly laid out the actors involved, the character tropes they embiggen, and the general "Oh shit - odd couple!" kind of plot that is set to unfold. There shouldn't be a ton that hold this back, but the vibe around White House Down is a hell of a lot stronger right now. It's tough to even remember that The Heat is coming out this weekend. It is important, however, to never doubt that female demographic, who has been spoon fed male-centric action films for the entire year. And their entire lives, really. Hell, I'm down for switching it up.

As for twenty years down the line, I've got to think that White House Down finds a special place in Emmerich's oeuvre while The Heat will probably be overshadowed by Bridesmaids as McCarthy's best movie, and Sandra still has a plentiful career to pick and choose from any number of classics, although she's laid low since The Blind Side. I'm sorry, make that All About Steve (2009). If anything, this ought to get us amped up for her turn in Gravity (2013), which actually looks fucking terrifying, but that may also be because I first saw the trailer in 3D IMAX.

So there you have it. The fellas vs. the ladies this weekend in a buddy action kind of comedy weekend. They'll probably all lose to Monsters University (2013) anyway.

24 June 2013

Summer Jam Week 7: Radioactive Collard Greens

Well folks, believe it or not, Norwegian Morning Wood, the Beatles song-turned-boner joke pop culture blog site just hit its Four Year Mark, and this post is No. 500. Five Hundred! So, we could do something special, but who cares, let's just recount the most popular Summer Jams of the week. Radioactive Collard Greens. Every Summer Monday we dissect the Hottest Jams out there in an effort to see who will be crowned THE Jam of 2013's Summer. Let's begin:

Hot Jam of the Week: "Collard Greens" by Schoolboy Q ft. Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar is sort of taking off by now, and it's telling that in the same week that Yeezus dropped we're highlighting this instead. Schoolboy Q seems like a juvenile name, even for a rapper, but his flow is on point and contains a nice mix of fury and potency. Kendrick smooths his way in here and while I can't see this getting a ton of mainstream play, I bet it's going to be added to plenty of playlists this week. You're welcome.

Gorgeous: "Beautiful" by Mariah Carey ft Miguel

I actually had no idea who this was until I looked it up - which may say something about how undistinct Mariah's voice has become, or maybe just the high level of imitators she has. You've got to hand it to a diva most known for being the big-tittied object of affection for both Nick Cannon and the Zohan, she's laid down a solid track here. Anything to keep her out of a Glitter (2001) sequel. Jeez, Glitter (2012) is twelve years old? I need to stop making fun of Mariah, she's got a lot going right for her somehow.

Gay Together: "Same Love" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert

I actually like Lambert a bit more than Mack on this song. The long story-type of song doesn't seem ideal for a Summer Jam, although this is the real Mack that the world needs to be introduced to rather than his "Thrift Shop" ridiculousness. It's a worthwhile message and kind of surprising move coming off such a huge hit. Then again, Mack has his head in the right place, and his independence from any major label allows him to use his huge positive support to push forward a major song like this. Kudos.

Ride Wit Me: "Cruise (REMIX)" by Florida Georgia Line ft. Nelly

See, this is a week of opposites. We've got Kendrick and Mariah, then a huge gay anthem followed by a more traditional Summer Jam featuring hillbillies crooning over their girls. "Cruise" is still a fabulously enjoyable song, although it doesn't seem to be getting the buzz it needs to right now. You'd think the conservative crossover hit would be catching on like gangbusters, but it instead feels more like a misfire. I like this song, but that's probably better for everyone.

90: "I Love It" by Icona Pop ft. Charlie XCX

XCX is roman for 90, right? Or maybe the ten under / ten over just results in 100. Whatever. This remains the greatest pop song on this list, and gains special points for its intense amounts of swagger, originality, and its ode to being a 90s chick. It's bizarre that this has taken off at all, much less lasted this long, but I'll take it. It sums up youthful independence, energy, and aggressive apathy in a more genuine way than anything that fun. could produce. I'm all for it hanging around a bit longer.

Like Spider-Man: "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons

I didn't really consider this to be that relevant for a few weeks, but it seems to have surged lately. Maybe it was just that LeBron James commercial that was on as he won his third ring. It's still fantastic song, with a really crazy Muppet Battle video that walks a line between seriousness and extreme goofiness that just ends being really surreal. It's a trip.

All Night: "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk ft. Pharrell

If Daft Punk paved the way for other electro hacks like David Guetta, Guetta at least paid the way for Daft Punk to be as suddenly relevant again today as they are now. This jam is fantastic, in no small part thanks to the coos of Pharrell and of course a steady stream of funk from Daft Punk. You know, those guys could be like eighty years old. We don't know. Or maybe they are actually robots. The robots are taking over!

Meow: "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke ft. T.I. and Pharrell

My favorite musical Robin is still this one, but I guess Thicke will do for the summer. This song is just starting to get irritating, which is a pretty good sign it's on its way to being a true Summer Jam. The timing couldn't be more perfect to really get nuts going into The Week of the Fourth of July and this thing can pump out of stereos and iHomes everywhere. It's also Pharrell's second Jam of the week, meaning he's of course the go-to guy for this stuff. I'm wondering if its supposedly (and arguably) "rapey" lyrics will end up being its downfall at this point. The very NSFW original video that features all of the models topless for just about the entire time does seem to attest to that. It will be a high watermark in our general understanding of rape culture if this actually causes the song to plummet, but damn if that beat isn't catchy enough to weather the storm. We could certainly use more Emily Ratajkowski.

Next Week...

We kicked "Can't Hold Us" off the list this week - just not enough room at the inn. I'm also curious to see if anything off Yeezus does take off. Perennial favorite Bruno Mars also just dropped a new jam, "Treasure" that has plenty of room to take off. Finally I'm not counting out Miley - "We Can't Stop" is just too much of a party anthem. Right? Or have we actually gotten sick of this kind of music that has done a hundred times before? We'll see. Stay tuned, true believers.

21 June 2013

The Road to a Blockbuster: Here There be Monsters

The dawn of another Summer Friday emerges from the horizon, which means it's time again for our Road to a Blockbuster - our weekly look at the commercial, critical, and cultural potential for each big tentpole film that's jostling to become the next big thing. What are the really important films out there - the ones that will reverberate in our culture ten or twenty years down the line? What will we actually still care about and look back on fondly? We're here to assess that "ironic T-Shirt" potential of the big flicks.

This week we see the release of two monster mash movies of very different tones and genres. The first is Pixar's Monster University (2013), an animated prequel to their 2001 feature, Monsters, Inc. The second ghoully flick this weekend is World War Z (2013), the painfully adapted film from the Max Brooks novel of the same name. One features cuddly animated monsters directed towards children, the other features scary fast zombies rolling over each other and hating helicopters - both monsters of a very different ilk. Let's start our analysis with Pixar.

There tend to be a few different levels of Pixar films. At the top are the universally adored flicks like Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), and Wall-E (2008). Near the bottom is trite garbage like Cars (2006) and...Cars 2 (2011). In this middle are all these pretty good but not necessarily culturally resonant flicks like A Bug's Life (1998), Ratatouille (2007), and UP (2009). I also believe Brave (2012) will one day find its slot here, too. Some arguments could also be made for UP, especially its opening scene, but while that film is insanely good, it didn't really hit a stride with as wide of a population as the four films at the Top did.
Will there be Monster Flip Cup?

Smack in the middle of all this is a sort of forgotten Pixar film called Monsters, Inc. To be honest, I don't think anyone gives a shit about Monsters, Inc. It's a fine film that kind of fleshes out this hidden world of Monsters, almost like what Toy Story does with Toys (although I'm still not clear on all the rules there). A prequel to this film seemed more like a Cars 2 cash grab move than a Toy Story 3 (2010) natural progression and need for finality. Does anyone care how Furry Sulley and Jewish Mike ended up together? I'm not sure this is a story that needed to be told.

Monsters University is getting some OK reviews so far, and I'm sure it's a competently made film, although an 81% Rotten Tomatoes shouldn't really cut it for a studio that was once had one of the more ridiculous streaks of not only good films, but incredible films that were loved by critics, audiences, and wallets. When a 96% rating and $250 million is your average (on mostly original films), you've got to shoot pretty high. My guess is in the entire Pixar schema this ends up as another middle of the pack film that no one really cares about. Maybe Toy Story 2-ish (1999). Can Pixar bounce back with The Good Dinosaur (2014) next year? As long as it becomes an adaptation of Dinosaurs Attack!

That really leads us properly into the next big movie this weekend, World War Z. It's fairly incredible that the Zombie genre keeps finding new ways to spin and mutate itself. In the past decade they've gone from the speedy buggers in 28 Days Later (2003) and Zach Synder's Dawn of the Dead (2004) to the Zombie Comedy-Horror of Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009), to seemingly every possible riff, from a slowburning television drama (Walking Dead) to the romantic comedy (Warm Bodies [2013]). I've gone into this before, from recounting the past fifty years of history to the trends of the past decade. Those posts were admittedly four years ago, and the genre is still going strong somehow. What more can we pull out of these shuffling dudes?

World War Z seems to finally be zombies hitting the mainstream. There's never really been a big Summer Tentpole Zombie flick starring an A-List Actor (aside from Bill Murray of course...does that count?). It's what happens when a studio throws hundreds of millions of dollars at the genre. Zombie films by their nature are more typically built on cheesy effects and small settings. Just ask George Romero. They tend to be small, isolated horror pics. World War Z is escalating this to a global scale - which has never really been done before. It's more of an action movie than a horror movie - and if its PG-13 rating is any indication, that's exactly what it will be. We're witness to the Zombie Blockbuster.
Monster pile!

So, how will that fare? This may be the biggest movie that Brad Pitt has ever done. Even though he's been central to the marketing, it's not really a typical Brad movie, and his fans may not come out. Then again, everybody loves Brad Pitt, so his fans are actually everywhere. I'm wondering if the mainstream action nature of this thing actually alienates more hardcore zombie fans. After a steady dose of the plodding, hyper-violent, deeply character-driven Walking Dead, I'm not sure that people are actually chomping to get this version of the Apocalypse up on the screen. Yes, both films include zombies, but Walking Dead and World War Z couldn't be more different.

I think this will flop. It certainly won't be a Battleship (2012) kind of flop, but probably more like a Superman Returns (2006) kind of flop, where it actually isn't a flop. As for its cultural success, the book has already made a lot of waves, which makes it difficult for the film to stand out as well, although they are supposedly (and necessarily) very different. What can this movie for the genre that the book hasn't already?

World War Z the novel stood out because of its realistic depiction of the breakdown of society on a global scale that highlighted interconnected events around the world. It's also notable in the genre by the fact that the world actually does bounce back, even if the majority of the population was killed. The World War Z film stands to something similar in showing a more procedural zombie film. A shorthand to describe the film, Zombie Dark Thirty already seems to be popular. It's an interesting proposition that may pay off, especially when so many other Zombie films come and go. Its scale should actually help it because it will be difficult to mimic. To recall an earlier point, though, when this becomes less of a by-the-ropes hide and survive Zombie film and more like a globally-minded procedural will it recall more of a political thriller than an undead gorefest? Or will it survive in its own niche?

All I want is the Battle of Yonkers.

There you have it - two wildly different monster mash flicks for your enjoyment this weekend. Which one will you be seeing?

18 June 2013

First Impressions: Man of Steel

There are fewer cultural icons that have had more longevity or cultural impact than our big boy in blue - Superman. Whenever a Superman movie drops, then, it's a pretty big deal, except for those two. Man of Steel (2013) seemed to position itself as the movie of Summer in an attempt to strike at the lofty position attained by The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers (2012) in years past. So, what of it? Man of Steel is certainly a better film than a lot of the schlocky Marvel carbon copies of late, but ultimately it's still just not very good. There are problems with tone and characterization, but ultimately there just aren't a whole lot of significant themes to latch on to. Rachel Edidin of Wired described it best in her review here, critiquing the film is exciting but not interesting. We'll discuss this concept and many more today - needless to say, SPOILERS abound from here on out.
I actually think he looked better in the red underpants.
Jeez look at that codpiece.

Man of Steel comes as this reboot of the Superman mythos to seemingly let it fall more in line with the Chris Nolan-crafted Dark Knight Trilogy, which is now ostensibly designed to lead into a Justice League team-up movie that will mimic the success of Marvel's Avengers. None of this is really clearly successful. The tone and world created doesn't really match that of Batman, there isn't any real significant groundwork laid for a shared universe, and there's no sense of a coherent theme beyond big things fighting and crashing into each other. As Justin Craig at Fox News described it, there are no overarching themes, messages, or consequences.

Now, there are some very good things about this flick that we should talk about first. Better than perhaps any other Superman Origin story, Man of Steel does actually a nice job showing the realistic development of Superman's powers and how much hell he would go through as a kid without any sense of control. It also makes a nice initial weakness for Zod and the rest of the Rogue Kryptonians who come down and initially get kind of bonkers when suddenly exposed to the crazy level of sights and sounds they can sense.

This is also possibly the best acted Superhero movie of all time, with just about every actor putting in really great performances. Kevin Costner, playing Clark's adoptive Robin Hood father is particularly memorable, even if his logic doesn't quite make sense. He teaches Clark not to kill or fight, for sure, but also not to save anyone and let everybody drown rather than expose who he really is. I suppose he does have a point, though, because Superman's presence on earth attracted evil aliens who destroyed Metropolis. More on that later.

It's a bizarre, if not compelling reason for Clark to have laid low for thirty years. Costner's Jonathan Kent fears that everyone will freak out and that the world isn't ready for him yet. There are a few big issues with this - for one, when the hell will the world be ready? Also, if he's instructing Clark to never save anyone, why the hell does he save everyone all the time anyway? Clark Kent becomes this kind of crazy wilderness drifter who occasionally rescues oil drillers and pulls school buses out of rivers. This is actually a neat way to see Superman as the quiet, humble, anonymous savior of the world, but it doesn't actually gel with what Jonathan instructed him to do while that instruction is made out to be a huge part of why he's saving this way in the first place. It's kind of a mess.

Kal-El's biological Robin Hood father is played by Russell Crowe, who acts the hell out of Marlon Brando's original, phoned-in role. He's still kind of in that Man with the Iron Fists (2012) weight class, though, but that's okay. His best scenes may be when he starts acting like a kind of Ghost-R2-D2, opening up doors around the alien ship and helping out Lois and Clark.

Amy Adams also improves on Margot Kidder's Lois with a perfect blend of feisty yet likeable, arrogant yet honorable. And don't even mention Bosworth. As part of many ways this movie screws with normal Super-continuity, thought, it features a Redheaded Lois, in addition to a Black Perry White (who no, is not named Perry Black) and a female Jimmy Olsen (who is named Jenny). The thing is, though, that all of these decisions worked pretty well. Laurence Fishburne's Perry White in particular leaves a much more memorable impression than Frank Langella in Superman Returns (2006). Diane Lane does a really nice job,  too, but she's way to hot to play an old woman, although the make-up effects here are pretty good and far better than a trainwreck like J. Edgar (2011).

Michael Shannon as Zod is suitable, and he never really tries to channel Terrence Stamp's iconic performance, which is a good thing. In general, one of the better things going for this flick is how it really tries to strike out on its own, rather than tether itself to earlier Superman mythos like Returns did. Zod does fall victim to general accusation rather than actually proving his evil, though, which is somewhat similar to Benedict Cumberbatch's villain in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), who everyone just warned was bad without him really proving it. Jor-El accosts him of being a megalomaniac, and later he's suitably menacing but doesn't really do anything. He's later destroying a big chunk of Metropolis and then the world, but this also doesn't really make sense. Didn't he want to salvage the codex from Superman's cells? There isn't a lot of merit in that McGuffin anyway. How would using that World Engine work to his goals? It doesn't, but it gives Supes the "big feat" or "test of will" that Superman Returns did far more naturally when he lifted the big Kryptonite rock.
Supes is like "kiss...kiss...kiss..."

Hank Cavill himself is a pretty natural fit, but there's more a problem with the script that doesn't really give him any character. Superman, even though he gets a tremendous amount of screen time, just tends to keep doing different stuff without much dialogue or insight as to why, and so never really seems like an actual  human character. There's also no humor and no wit at all, rather a consistently maudlin atmosphere. We don't really get the dopey Clark till the end, which is fine, but there could have been some respite from the dreariness.

Most of this film a trademark case study of director Zack Snyder's penchant for style over substance. There is nothing to this movie. There's no real deep messages or anything. It's just kind of world-building, but as said before, it seems to be for a specifically Superman world, which is fine, but makes me concerned for the inevitable Justice League team-up that will be forced into this world. There is apparently a Wayne Enterprises Easter Egg that I didn't even catch the first time around, along with a Lexcorp Egg, among others that we really shouldn't care about. I mean really, Booster Gold? At some point it's not like we need a Justice League movie, but Warner Brothers needs to get their act together pretty damn fast. It would also be pretty rad to at least get their act together for a World's Finest flick.

The worst parts of the Superman mythos has always been his very dense Kryptonian heritage. There has always been a lot of weirdness in the design there, which Returns lovingly avoided, but Man of Steel plunges in immediately. The entire opening on Krypton was entirely unintelligible. It's full of sudden dense exposition and conflict between characters we have no reason to care about, and then some crazy action sequence that involves one of those flying monsters from AVABAR (2009) for some reason and lots of nonsensical explosions. Snyder's claims that this film would be "grounded" and "realistic" thus prove to be a huge load of horseshit.

The action sequences later on, including the Battle of Smallville and the Battle of Metropolis are a bit easier to follow, although a lot of it starts to become a retread of The Matrix Revolutions (2003), which itself resembled live action Dragon Ball Z. The same thing happens here, and eventually, after punch after punch without any real consequence at all, it's difficult to still care. It was actually interesting giving Zod a weakness that he didn't foresee (although is he a brilliant tactician or a brutish warrior? Snyder doesn't know) when he can't deal with his own superpowers, but for some reason, Kal-El told him how to focus, and later they match up pretty evenly.

During some of these parts, and the weird Superman fight against the World Breaker and its tentacles (The Incredibles [2004], anyone?), I kept thinking back to the Legend of Superman's Development Hell. The long story of Reborn, Lives, and Flyby has been documented many times, but I thought that this was very much the successor to all that crazy shit more than Returns was. With that understanding, I can't even believe that Returns was made at all. With Giant Tentacles that looked a bit spidery (Jon Peters' obsession as documented by Kevin Smith while writing Lives), crazy mid-air martial arts moves and a vague Kryptonian Army that seemed to clearly be left over from Flyby, and the vengeful, darker look to Supes himself all seemed to have carried over from the Hell. It's almost unbelievable that they actually pulled off Zod.

Until of course, Superman kills him. That's right. It's a pretty good example of the limits of Snyder and Goyer's imagination. Instead of bestowing Superman with any kind of wit or smart thinking, he's forced to kill his enemy. One of the other interesting limitations of Superman is his guilt over not actually being able to save everyone. That's why Jonathan Kent's original death from a heart attack was far more interesting than a tornado, because Superman was powerless. It's interesting to see him deal with this. And why fuck did the Pa Kent go back to get that damn dog, anyway? Some of the rationale has come out for Superman killing, and while even a show like Justice League has dealt with the pretty severe ramifications of Superman losing control in interesting ways, it's clear that Snyder and Goyer have no intention of exploring that.

Still, Zod's overall scheme reads a lot like the same alien invasion bullshit from Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). His goal is to rebuild the planet and race his people destroyed while the heroes abandon their native race in favor of their adopted homeworld. This is really a pretty American concept, right? When you emigrate here, you shift all your talents towards America and neglect your home country. What is interesting is what Zod decides to do once he has no more hope, although the fact that Superman kills just about all the Kryptonians left makes him seem more like Lobo than the Big Blue we know and love.
Did you notice that only his hair aged thirty years? And it was only slightly gray?

And on that note - why would anyone favor Superman on this planet? Metropolis is significantly destroyed, and one estimate puts the death at a few hundred thousand, and the total economic costs in the trillions. This is clearly all Superman's fault, although the city getting wrecked is actually pretty par for the course in any Superman comic or animated TV Show. It's also about the closest we're going to get to a live action battle like his bouts against Darkseid or Doomsday. If this movie has any point, it's that the world wouldn't trust this strange outside alien if he actually came to earth. What could be a bit of brilliance, though, is that this paves the way for a seamless introduction of Lex Luthor, since that last sentence exactly fits his modus operandi. A pissed off Lex that gets into an "everyone else is taking crazy pills!" kind of mood, that's not too shabby a set up for Man of Even More Steel (2016).

Finally, it's worth noting the heavy dose of uncomfortably with those Metropolis destruction scenes really giving off a distinctive 9/11 vibe. From the ash and paper littering the city, to helpless citizens trapped in the rubble and Zod acting as a fearsome, unstoppable terrorist, nothing was really appropriate for a stupid comic book film like this that didn't have anything actually intelligent to say about, say our perceptions of terrorists or place in the world (like Iron Man 3 [2013] did). Especially given this film's also not-so subtle Superman / American Jesus connotations, there are all kinds of really awkward inferences to be made. Congrats, Zack.

17 June 2013

Summer Jam Week 6: Dirty Miley and Thicke Takes It!

Here we are beginning another Week of Summer, so it's a time for another recap of the hottest Jams of the Week. There's lots of groovy shakeups this week as a lot of High Schoolers finish up their exams and we all get ready for the Real Summer to begin! Let's get to it!

Hot Jam of the Week: "Cabin by the Sea" by The Dirty Heads

The Dirty Heads always seem like a spiritual extension of Sublime, just super chillout music. It helps that their first big hit, "Lay Me Down" featured Rome from Sublime back in 2010. That's still a perfect Summer Song but "Cabin by the Sea" isn't too shabby. If "Lay Me Down" couldn't catch on significantly, though, this won't to all that much. Still, it's a legit smooth track.

90s Chick: "I Love It" by Icona Pop ft. Charlie XCX

This track really has some legs! It's still hanging around as a pretty popular, but it would still say underrated track. It's just about the most fabulous pop track of the year. It just drips with attitude and a furious independence that really makes it worthy of a Summer Jam. I can't picture it hanging around any longer, but I wish it would stay as long as it likes.

Smiley Jam: "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus is kind of undergoing a Bieber-ification where her voice and popularity are maturing a bit and it's really signified in this song. Apparently, the track was originally intended for Rihanna, but Miley added a bit of swag to it. First of all, though, there's no way that Miley could add more swag to a track than Rihanna could - but this is also a sweet jam and a bit step forward for the artist. It could certainly take off and we'll be watching this closely.

LAy Your Windows Down: "Cruise (Remix)" by Florida Georgia Line ft. Nelly

This song is taking off a bit but I think it's dividing country and hip-hop lovers  a bit more than uniting them. It's still got a super-concentrated of pop appeal for a country song not seen since 2010's Lady Antebellum. I also still have a lot of hope for this track and it could easily become a theme song of Road Trips through the Dirty South this Summer. A more perfect track doesn't exist for a jaunt through Dixie.

We're the Lucky Ones: "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk ft. Pharrell

There may not be a song more opposite of "Cruise," but this also works. Summer is all about chilling to the max, but you also need some beat to groove with. "Get Lucky" has it in spades and it's also the most relevant Daft Punk track in ages. I have nothing but good vibes for this track but it needs quite a bit more tension to really make a good wave this summer. Jam out.

Ass Attack: "Heart Attack" by Demi Lovato

Still relevant this week, but possibly at the beginning of a decline, Demi's "Heart Attack" continues the rehab-addled singer's rise to maturity. It's a wonderful, if not fairly annoying song that is far more explicitly pop-y than anything else on this list. Demi's attempting to showcase her dark side for sure, but it ends up being a little empty. There's this weird line between confident and unconfident lyrics here. There's some pay off but in all, no one will be cheering for this song five years from now.

The Mako Strikes: "Can't Hold Us" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Ray Dalton

While this track is still huge, it proved to be more mortal this week when it was overtaken on the Billboard Top 100 and also slightly less than overplayed on local airwaves. Still an exceptional track, it still holds the most epic video of anything on this list, with energy, enthusiasm, and swag (yes, Miley) that far surpasses anything else out there right now. That's why the Mack is blowing - in addition to all this, he's a genuine dude, which people buy into. It works.

What Rhymes with Hug Me: "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke ft. T.I. and Pharrell

Congrats to Pharrell for landing on his second track of the list for the week, but I'm just pumped this Jam is taking off. Not only is it the damn hottest video in years but it's an unrelentingly bubbly bouncy song that's truly the sexiest Summer Jam in years. I think the road is now paved for this thing to dominate - there is no looking back from #1 on the Billboard Charts and it's really just taking off. Calling it now - this will take the Summer Throne.

Next Week..

There were some close calls with Pink and Selena this week being left off the list. I've also got my eye fixed on Ariana Grande along with Kanye's "Black Skinhead", which might take off with news of Kim's baby and its use in the trailer for Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), which dropped today. That suddenly made that track so much more listenable. We'll see.

15 June 2013

First Impressions: This is the End

In a weekend that contains a certain Man of Steel hitting the big screen again, there is another film we should all focus our attention on. That is the fantasmic This is the End (2013). This is the flat-out craziest, funniest, most thoroughly insane film all year, and maybe of all time. In other words, this was an incredibly fun time sent at the cinema. Let this be a discussion of the film's merits, so needless to say, SPOILERS from here on out, folks.
"You're the Green Goblin, you can afford it."

The trick to enjoying This is the End, though, is to a have a full understanding and love of the Apatow Gang of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride. The majority of the film involves these six dudes dealing with the apocalypse, and the film derives the majority of its humour from sending up their public perceptions.

The results is pretty damn fascinating. The movie plays with the constructs we have formed after years of growing familiar with these actors, and they end up playing fictionalized caricatures of the people we think they are. This gives the film an inside spin - it's always a voyeuristic thrill to spy on the personal lives of celebrities, but this takes it a bit further, giving them each a tremendous amount of personal and psychological problems (some very dangerous), mostly with the understanding that everyone is too narcissistic to realise it. There is this bait and tug with the audience that uses our own expectations and cultural mitosis of these guys to enhance the film and provide most of the laughs. We feel as if we understand their relationships well already - it's very clear that this is a passion project that everyone has joined in on - to rip those perceptions apart in front of us (among many other things) is a real treat.

Each character is essentially a riff on their own public image. The film eventually acknowledges this very directly in the form of a rant from Danny McBride as he leaves the house. First we have Jay Baruchel, who is our entry way into this crazy world. Jay is probably the most unknown of this bunch, and it works that he's our skeptical lens through which to view the chaos that unfolds. He is also riffing his earnest, know-it-all character from flicks like Million Dollar Baby (2004) and moreso, Tropic Thunder (2008). His best bud, Seth Rogen is depicted largely as someone who used to be like Jay but has now "sold out" to Hollywood. He's still the Best Friend anyone could have, although his major issue is that he stretches his friends too thin.

James Franco is an art snob pretty boy who, despite his status as the most successful of all the friends, desperately tries to maintain a relationship with Seth Rogen that borders on obsessive. Craig Robinson has a bit of edge but is mostly a big softie. He also constantly carries a towel for some reason. Jonah Hill is a stuck-up two-faced asshole who literally becomes a vessel of Satan. I'm not sure how that is riffing on Jonah, but it may have something to do with the fact that he's the only Oscar nominee out of this mangly crew. Finally, Danny McBride is suitably legendary in his apathy, immorality, and general insanity, eventually becoming the leader of a gang of cannibals, with Channing Tatum as his gimp lover. Considering that C-Tates is getting to become the biggest star in this movie (and he was likely pulled in due to his relationship with Jonah Hill), his cameo ends up being one of the more ridiculous.

The relationships between all these guys couldn't play out better in an Apocalyptic scenario. Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel hate each other but try to cover it up. Jay and Seth are best friends but have been growing apart. Craig Robinson is essentially neutral, but ends up forming a bit of an alliance with Jay. James Franco hates Danny McBride, which culminates in a screaming match about jizzing on each other's faces and walls. Actually it culminates in McBride eating Franco's face. Literally. McBride gets two of the best entrances in movie history, along with a pretty damn good exit. He first appears as a stowaway who crashed the party uninvited and spent the night smoking in the bathtub, with the camera focusing only on his boots and his spliff. He then leaves the house after trying to kill everyone, backing up into the Hell outside, double-deucing with a sly knowledge that the uncivilized world is really best for him. He later appears again in a slow reveal as the Cannibal Leader, wearing part of a human skull as his crown. Danny really steals this show.

Fly like paper

You've really got to love these guys to love this film. More importantly, though, you also really need to love Pineapple Express (2008). The principal cast reunites four leads from Pineapple Express and it's clear that they have a strong adoration for that film, and are also relying on their audience to share that sentiment. I do love Pineapple Express, so it worked for me. Their fake Pineapple Express 2 trailer was a genius bit of marketing, but within This is the End, that whole trailer is actually created out of props from James Franco's house. It's spectacular and just about the closest to a sequel we're ever going to get. It's also extremely satisfying to finally hear M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" actually being used on screen, after it became so popular from the Pineapple Express trailer, but went unused in the film itself. It's practically the damn theme song at this point.

In this way, This is the End almost works as a series of interconnected sketches. It will become very re-watchable scene by scene. Some of the best are "Let's Do All the Drugs!" and "The Exorcism of Jonah Hill", which even gets a title card. That latter bit had a perfect bit of very Jonah Hill-like acting ("The power of Christ compels you!" "Does it? Does it compel me?") with a big scary Satanic voice. Before this we get a fairly horrifying Satanic rape scene in which the Beast implants his evil into Jonah after the latter wishes for God to kill Jay Baruchel. This would only be the first of two giant demonic penises, though, and the next one literally towers over the boys in Los Angeles.

Or should I say Hell? The Apocalypse as predicted in the Book of Revelation strikes the City of Angels, and the whole thing is really laid to waste. There is an incredibly creepy and tense atmosphere after the sinkholes start to emerge. Part of this film's success is its ability to induce laughs, terror, uncomfortableness, and a warm happy glow within the span of about an hour. It is thoroughly consistent tonally while doing this nonsense, and despite the general wretchedness of the characters, we're still kind of rooting for them. Because they're celebrities.

It's a pretty damn keen observation that no one at James Franco's party notices the Rapture because no one at the party is beamed up to Heaven. It's a great commentary on the selfish self-importance that celebrities have (or we perceive them to have - this film also doesn't work unless we buy into the fact that hard partying celebrities are really a pieces of shit. But we still kind of want to be them - so the whole thing exists in this nebulous zone that the film just kills). From Jonah Hill's insistence that during disasters, celebrities are saved first to James Franco's contention that they should earn a spot in Heaven after entertaining people, the delusions here are on a grand scale.
"Is it? Is it compelling?"

Simultaneously, though, and this is where the meta kicks in - the mere fact that all these actors are admitting this stuff seems to indicate that they're aware of it and on some level exist beyond it. It's notable that there aren't any big cameos by very serious actors, instead it is mostly comedians (with Rihanna, Emma Watson, and C-Tates thrown in there) who are pretty OK with poking fun at not only themselves, but their entire lifestyle. I mean, the vast majority of celebrities die here. And go to Hell. South Park has done that for years, but here the celebs are playing themselves. This twist ends up bringing us even further into the film because we grow more comfortable knowing that none of these actors take themselves seriously. It creates a very transparent and intimate film experience.

On that note, let's talk about Michael Cera. Of all the fictionalized characters in this film, Ceratops is by far the craziest. He's on screen for a very small amount of time, but he skewers his public image as a soft meek little dude (which is especially fresh in our minds after repeated viewings of new Arrested Development episodes) and instead acts completely insane and coked out of his mind. It's fitting that he gets the first death, and possibly the most gruesome (Franco's might take that cake, actually), and he's still an asshole while impaled. Yet, even though he proves himself in less than four minutes that he's the biggest jackass on the planet, that first death is still a little jarring. Such is the majesty of This is the End.

So grab your Milky Ways and CT Crunch and prepare for the end of days along with the best movie of the year.

14 June 2013

The Long Halloween Vol. IV: Simpsons Edition - Flag Day

Well, it's Flag Day. That's right - Flag Day! Being the grand holiday that it is, it's time again for The Long Halloween - NMW's monthly examination of the greatest holiday specials out there. Now, since this was our fourth year doing such things, it's time to spice it up with the ALL SIMPSONS EDITION. Now, you may ask yourself, which episodes of The Simpsons have anything to do with Flag Day? Your mind may wander towards "Bart-Mangled Banner" (S15;E21) where Bart accidentally moons the flag. Or perhaps, "A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love: (S13;E4) in which Mr. Burns unwraps a fortune cookie that predicts he will find true love on Flag Day. We all wish to find true love on Flag Day, but for the best Simpsons Flag episode, we turned to "Much Apu About Nothing" (S7;E23) for its obscure bit about the American Flag surrounded by a hell of an episode.

The episode centers around Quimby's Proposition 24, which if passed, will boot out all the illegal immigrants in Springfield. This measure was pushed through, of course, because of a run of bear attacks. Er - bear attack. Homer is all for it and all for America until he realises that his good friend Apu will also be kicked out of the country.
"Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday."

The flag part comes in when Homer is attempting to educate Apu about our Great Nation in order for him to pass a citizenship test. He claims that the 13 stripes are for good luck, but there are only 47 stars on the flag. Apu notes that the flag, which Homer stole from the Library last year, was purchased during the brief time in 1912 after New Mexico became a state (January 6) but before Arizona did (February 14). We're dealing with some pretty obscure historical knowledge here, and it's fitting that Apu knows much more about the Land of the Free than Homer does. The earnest of their relationship is part of what makes this episode endearing, though. I'm not sure how the Simpson Family became so close to their local convenience store worker ("Homer and Apu" [S5;E13] I guess), but it works here. Apu ends up passing his test, but no one in Springfield learns anything about immigration. That sounds about right.

The episode is a little more joke-heavy in its opening that centers on a Bear wandering around Evergreen Terrace. From the ordeals the Flanders had to face ("It was horrible! We had to drink...toilet water!") to the terrors that bestowed the Simpson Family ("If I'm going to be trapped in here I need to go out and get some beer."), the panic surrounding this big doofy bear is simultaneously played up and acknowledged as unnecessary hysteria. There's also a nice visual gag where the Simpsons fridge only contains three boxes of baking soda. The scene is capped with the Bear being shot and taken away by the U.S. Forest Service while the same happens with Barney, who is hauled away by Moe's.

After the panic, Quimby institutes the Bear Patrol, which features round the clock armed vans and even a few Stealth Bombers (there's a rather insane bit in the Springfield Shopper later on that the Bear Patrol "stepped up their bombing campaign"). When the taxes are too high ("I pay the Homer Tax!" "That's the home owner tax."), the blame is shifted to illegal immigrants ("It's going to take real leadership to duck this issue!"). Moe, in a bit that ends up being ironic, seems to lead the charge against the immigrants with his barflies protesting the Kwik-E-Mart and regularly engaging in a rapid xenophobia ("Even when it was the bears I knew it was them!"). At the end though, it's revealed that Moe, too, is an illegal immigrant - and with a name like Momar Szyslak (Revealed in "The Springfield Connection" [S6;E23] and "Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 1 [S6;E25], respectively), who wouldn't be? It seems that he passed the citizenship test along with Apu, though, as did Dr. Nick, who is seen at Apu's Party.

Among the people who didn't pass, though, was Willie, who is sent on his way at the episode's end. Of course, nothing in The Simpsons is all that permanent. There's also a nice Native American (like Homer...) vs. American Indian (like Apu...) bit at the party that goes on just as long as it needs to. This episode also has one of the most succinct descriptions of specious reasoning and the concept that correlation does not imply causation through the form of Lisa's Tiger Repelling Rock. She surmises that since there are no tigers around, her rock must be keeping them away. Homer, of course, buys her rock.

This episode not only contains a study of the classic Springfield mob mentality and a harsh critique of anti-immigration, but it's a deeper look at Apu. It's revealed that he may be something of a genius, having graduated first in his class of 7 million at Calcutta Technical Institute, and then completing his Ph.D. in nine years in what seems to be computer science. It's notable that he's studying under the brilliant Professor Frink, whose future predictions of computers may be a bit off, but there's also a sly joke that Apu studies at Springfield Heights Institute of Technology (or SHIT. Sounds like South Harmon). Yet, he still works at the Kwik-E-Mart.

"Who needs the infinite wisdom of Ganeesha when I have
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman staring at me
from Entertainment Weekly with THEIR DEAD EYES!"
There are also some great moments getting his fake American I.D. From Fat Tony ("A cheap $2000 forgery!") A lot of this scene reminded me of Adam Sandler talking to Dan Aykroyd and Sinbad in Coneheads (1993). Yes, Coneheads. You know, looking back on Coneheads, that movie had one of the more expansive comedic casts in history - I mean, everyone from Sandler to Drew Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, and even half the principal cast of Senfield. Re-watching that thing is ridiculous today. Anyway, back to Apu, he loves this country because he loves "...this land, where I have the freedom to say and to think and to charge whatever I want." Such is the American Dream.

There is also a nice bit of foreshadowing with the first appearance of Manjula in a flashback, who would reappear in "The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons" (S9;E7) to fulfill the arranged marriage to Apu first hinted at here. On the topic of marriage, this is also a notable episode which reveals that sometime before now, Selma added a marriage to Lionel Hutz in addition to Sideshow Bob and Troy McClure. I also really like the "Listen, shut up for a second" bit that Homer pulls on the phone with her.

The only last joke I'll comment on that I continually love is when Wiggum nails the sign into the boardwalk and falls through. Lou's nonchalant delivery of "Sign's floating away, chief" as Wiggum ostensibly sinks to the bottom of the habour is just brilliant.

So, Happy Flag Day! Happy America! We are in the throes of Summer now - so go out there and kick those extra points!

12 June 2013

The Road to a Blockbuster: Superstoners

Usually this is a Friday thing, but since This is the End (2013) is dropping today (Wednesday), and anyone who's anyone is catching Man of Steel (2013) midnight on Thursday, we thought we'd jump the gun a little bit here. We've been assessing the critical, commercial, and cultural potential for all the big movies of Summer for the past couple weeks. That last point is what we're really interested in, though - what kind of cultural effect will these things have? Will these comedies become the next Ghostbusters (1984) or Nothing but Trouble (1991)? Are we looking at Superman (1978), The Quest for Peace (1987) or Returns (2006)? That's the big question - will we care about these flicks years on down the line? Let's take a look:

Are you telling me that James Franco
didn't suck any dicks last night?
This is the End, by all rights, appears to be a spectacularly funny film. It's a true Apatovian Ensemble that seeks to permanently etch its R-rated Stoner Niche on to our culture. In many ways this seems like their crowning moment - after establishing their improving buddy genre with The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005), the crew has turned to pot and hasn't looked back, delivering us, as an ensemble, varying hits and misses through Knocked Up (2007), Pineapple Express (2008), Get Him to the Greek (2010), and Your Highness (2011). Along the way, it seems like everyone has set their own path with their own little franchises. James Franco is by far the most mainstream, and has done everything from hosting the Oscars terribly to Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). Seth Rogen is also a major movie star, but he seems to rather toy with his stardom in fits of apathy and instead makes crazy dark comedies like Observe and Report (2009) and Funny People (2009). Jay Baruchel has How to Train Your Dragons, Jonah Hill has 21 Jump Streets, Craig Robinson is coming off The Office and Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), and finally, Danny McBride has Eastbound & Down to his name. Everyone is starting to pull in different directions and this virtually serves as a literally cataclysmic means of bringing everyone together for their most insane romp yet. It's a sheer cavalcade of riotous insanity.

It's also the fourth damn apocalyptic comedy of the year, the others being It's a Disaster (2012), Rapture-Palooza (2013), and The World's End (2013). Whereas all of these features have their pedigrees, it ought to come down to a duel between This is the End and the finale to the Cornetto Trilogy, The World's End to become the definitive 2013 End of Days Ensemble Disaster Comedy. That's such a specific genre for there to be four different movies coming out in in such a short time span.

Really, This is the End has had one of the best marketing campaigns of recent memory, from their fake Pineapple Express 2 trailer or their 420 video, not to mention the incredible character posters (scrolling down to Jonah is the best), everything has been done right. It feels as if this is just a casual movie made by a group of friends, and the marketing genuinely reflects that, which is extremely appealing. It doesn't seem like we're being advertised to, which is an incredibly powerful technique. The only real issue is if they saved any good jokes for the actual movie.

Now, who can save us from the end of days? How about Superman? The Man of Iron may have kicked off the Summer in high-flying fashion, but the Man of Steel is a heavy favorite for the biggest film of the year. Still, I have some trepidations.

Superman tends to get a bad rap for some reason. Whether it's his extraordinary array of powers, or his idealism that may have been lost in another time, he tends to come off as unrelatable. To some extent he's similar to Captain America, who was crafted at a similar time. The Cap'n, though, gets away with that image from being frozen for seventy years. Still, every single facet of Superman and his iconography are inherent iconic and Man of Steel looks to make up for every mistake that Superman Returns made. The only problem with this line of thinking, though, is that Superman Returns didn't make a ton of mistakes. Sure it's a methodical, slow moving movie where Superman doesn't fight, but rather lifts three increasingly heavy objects, but this is what Superman is supposed to be. He's a protector and savior - he's someone who goes around accomplishing feats in a Herculean sense. Bryan Singer also delivered a film where Superman didn't need to throw a punch - the intellectual battle between him and Luthor, after all, is always far more interesting than any action sequence.

The problem with Returns, though, is that it was always heavily reliant on the mythos crafted by Richard Donner. There is nothing wrong with the Donner films, for the most part, but Singer seemed to be more tied up in the past rather than creating anything interesting to move forward with, at least in terms of tone or plot. The most forward-moving thing he did with Returns is saddle Lois with a kid (Superman's) and a genuinely great dude, which is really a far worse enemy for Kal-El than Zod could ever be. If Lois has been played by an actress more competent that Kate Bosworth, this may have been a more proper sticking point.

So, in essence, all the feel-goodery of Returns was lost somewhere in the wake of Nolan being given a "Do-Whatever-the-Fuck-I-Want" Card by Warner Bros / DC, which then turned to pushing all the properties he handles into "dark" or "tortured" territory. While this worked for Batman, I am wholly unconvinced this can work for Superman. What's more, though, is that I don't believe anyone cares whether or not it would work for the character. Despite fans being up in arms at Superman's Bastard Son in Returns, a complete shift of tone and character from what we've seen so far from Man of Steel doesn't seem to arise their ire.

I don't really think Man of Steel is going to work. I said it. We can compare the marketing campaign with the homegrown efforts from This is the End - Man of Steel has been everywhere. There are some clever bits by Gillette, but in addition to that, this may be one of the most heavily cross-promoted films of all time. Take a look. It all hinges on the relatively unproven Henry Cavill, who you can imagine is trying desperately hard not to become 2013's version of Taylor Kitsch. Selling this movie is selling the character, the hero himself - almost no attention has been paid to Hank's creds. And rightly so.

There is also an incredible degree of self-seriousness here. Snyder has spoken at length to how "seriously" he interpreted the character, how "grounded" the story is, and how important Superman is, especially compared to all these B-level (Marvel) wannabes. It's such a load of horseshit. You're still making a a movie about a dude who flies around in tights. Ease up, chief. Those Marvel movies worked because they have some awareness of how stupid their world is and they relish it.

Come, son of Jor-el!
In addition to Supes himself, though, this is another Summer Film whose marketing appeal is heavily reliant on its villain. Michael Shannon is a perfect Zod, and much of the film seems to center around their conflict. Iron Man 3 (2013) was also like that. And Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). With a little bait and switch in both of them, the heavily hyped up villain fell pretty flat. Can you imagine if it turned out that Zod was an actor played by Trevor Slattery. That's what held Iron Man 3 back from being a truly great, widely accepted Summer film (for sure it had an incredible box office, but what a terrible buzz that spread after watching it - and it was probably the sharpest written superhero movie of all time).

So, in 2023, what will we think of these flicks. I imagine This is the End will be a damn fine capper to the Stoner Exploits of the Apatow Crew, and probably the last great film they make together. After all, they can't keep catching lightning in a bottle, which is evident from other misfired team-ups of late like The Watch (2012). There's also just no way to top it. Literally, this is the end, folks.

As for Man of Steel, its best scenario is fitting into its current franchise the same way that Furious 6 (2013) did (it's also the sixth entry, by the way) - as debatably either the best or second-beast of all time. The fact that it's only real competition is 35 years old, though, is another story. This is a crowded summer for sure, but it does seem like every other franchise has backed away from this one, which leaves it tons of time to grow, unlike Star Trek Into Darkness, which was pretty overshadowed, and The Hangover: Part III (2013), which got eviscerated on a weekend its second installment dominated on two years ago. Can we get psyched for another super-brooder from the auteur that brought us Sucker Punch (2011)?

I still just want to see the Burton / Cage version.

10 June 2013

Summer Jam Week 5: The Gay Anthem of Summer

 As the sun crests over another Summer Monday Morn, it's time once again for NMW to recount the hottest jams of the week previous. Each song is jostling for position to claim THE Throne of Summer 2013 - which track will we forever remember as that one great Summer Jam? Let's dive in:

Hey! A Gay Summer Anthem: "Same Love" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert

This track dropped a while ago, but with Macklemore suddenly exploding, it's got a bit more attention now. And while it's way too heady to be a truly bubbly Summer Jam, the subject matter is bold and prescient, and there's no telling how high a Gay Anthem like this can soar. Its drawbacks are its slow-burning tune and story-based nature, which can limit its playability, but there's no reason why this can't take off, at least in personal playing this summer. But it's probably not a party jam.

Tastes like Garbage: "Crazy Kids" by Ke$ha ft. will.i.am

I think it was Peter Griffin, describing Xtina Aguilera as "Salty Garbage" that really was a much more apt description of Ke$ha all along. There's no real talent there and an assault on all five senses. You've got to hand it to a girl who bangs ghosts, though, Ke$ha may be one of the bolder pop acts out there right now. Who the hell knows why she's rapping from Compton now, but it's not like that could ruin her image. The only thing that could make this song worse is if will.i.am made an appearance, so sure enough he does, as some kind of Astronaut / Television, while doing so adding nothing positive to this track. I can't imagine a world where a producer finishes this up in the studio and then thinks, "Yeah, I contributed to society today." There's such an unspeakable horror in the fact that this exists, which means that someone, somewhere thought that this was the best they could do.

Oh Baby: "Diane Young" by Vampire Weekend

This has taken a few weeks to catch on, and Vampire Weekend is quite there yet, but their latest album, Modern Vampires of the City is their most mature yet, and this is a pretty fun song that someone sounds much better coming out of the radio than they did on SNL a few weeks back. It's fairly palatable, and hopefully Vampire Weekend won't need an Old Navy commercial or Step Brothers (2008) to properly break this jam.

As Fun as Pink Eye: "Just Give Me a Reason" by Pink ft. Nate Ruess

If anything, the popularity of this song has introduced us all to the name of the lead singer of fun. and ensured that we'll all one day figure out how to spell it. Ultimately, even though this is still pretty popular, Pink will be the bridesmaid and not the bride this Summer, mostly due to blowing her wad a bit too early.

Sassy Fierce: "I Love It" by Icona Pop ft. Charli XCX

Those are the two words I use to describe this juggernaut - Sassy and Fierce. There isn't a fiercer, sassier song out there on the charts right now, and Icona Pop is fine to get a pass to stick around here for a while. It's like a little "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" kind of furious and proud independence infused with copious amounts of swagger. It's spectacular and a true jump up and down headbanger Jam for Summer. Its timing is a little off to truly make some waves, and it's not all that popular really - but a great tune this is.

Get Those Windows Down: "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line ft. Nelly

This is so close to breaking wide opening and destroying Summer, and I'm all for it. It's an elegant blend of country and hip-hop, and perfectly suited for a Summer Drive. This ought to convert a generation of hip-hop lovers into country bumpkins, as well as transition a bunch of hicks into the smooth flows of R&B. It's got such a good vibe to it - it hasn't really been able to catch on, but it's got plenty of time to gain some traction and it's catching on at the perfect time to really secure its Jam Status.

Cracked: "Heart Attack" by Demi Lovato

Demi scares the shit out of me in this video, really. She's crazy intense, although I have no idea why. It's fun actually after the liberating nature of Icona Pop to listen to this song where Demi virtually says that she's usually a strong independent women, except this one guy has total control over her and she falls apart, destroying her strong feminist ego and causing her to succumb to more "painted nails and perfume-wearing" stereotypes. Her ultimatum to have a heart attack rather than going through with this kind of behavior is actually, oddly strongly feminist in its own right, actually. Go Demi.

Mack is Back: "Can't Hold Us" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Ray Dalton

Macklemore closes this week's list as he opened it - with another Jam from The Heist that actually dropped years ago. The Heist itself was released as a series of singles that have dropped since 2010 - if only they had led with "Thrift Shop"...but there's a good formula of finding really good fits for the tracks like Ray Dalton, Mary Lambert, and Wanz, among many others who appear here - and as long as Ryan Lewis is producing these incredible jams that fit with Mack's own style and cutting voice, there ought to be a nice career here. Or not, who cares.

Next week...

We'll see if Mack keeps on keeping on - I kind of have the feeling that that bubble has got to burst soon. I'm still a fan of "Cruise" but I'm also wondering if another crossover country artist, Taylor Swift and her "Everything Has Changed" can make some summer waves. On the other end, I think the sheer funk of Daft Punk and Pharrell has some juice left in "Get Lucky". Stay tuned!

08 June 2013

First Impressions: Furious 6

Against really all odds imaginable, the sixth installment of a film franchise that wasn't Harry Potter or James Bond has become not only one of the best, but is on rapid pace to become the highest grossing film of the whole series. This series, still unbelievably, is the Fast and the Furious. After Fast Five (2011) proved to be a game changer for the franchise, its direct follow-up, Furious 6 (2013) is not only one of the best in the franchise, but probably the best damn movie that has come out all summer. This post will contain an open discussion of the film, its merits, and its path to greatness, so needless to say, SPOILERS to come from here on out!
Han and his chewies

This doesn't make any sense. Over ten years ago Paul Walker and Vin Diesel made one of the most knuckleheaded movies of all time, The Fast and The Furious (2001). It continually spat in the face of physics, and centrally highlighted an obscure street racing fad while wearing its "extreme-ness" on its sleeve with pride and containing more esoteric car jargon than had ever before been attempted on film. Its follow-up, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) was not only prescient enough to include Ja Rule, but featured an innocuous turn in Miami in what was essentially the same exact film, with a narrative that was actually more straightforward than the cop-to-criminal turn of Brian O'Connor (Walker) in the first film.

From there, this franchise plummeted. It jettisoned its entire cast and shimmied off to Tokyo for The Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift (2006), which always felt like a step above a direct-to-DVD release if not for two things: Its luscious soundtrack (which may only be matched by Fast Five among the series), and the sudden shock appearance of the Diesel at its finale. Somehow this legitimized the entire film and helped round out a world that promised that these characters had more in them yet.

Sometime during this era, these cheesy, shlocky stupid movies took off. Perhaps it's because out of all the loud, dumb action movies that assault us every summer (actually most of these were spring releases...), so many trend towards two kinds of tones: 1) They either take themselves too seriously and self-important while the lead character is still flying around in tights (Man of Steel [2013] anyone?) or 2) They totally lose control of any coherent thought, instead blasting us with constant cries for attention like a needy child (think Transformers: Revenge of the Swollen [2009]). The Fast films continually walk a line between these extremes - they revel in what they are without doubting themselves, and they show us their awesomeness without needing to jump up and down for their attention.

People responded to this and through many runs on USA (I feel like for a few years there 2 Fast 2 Furious was on every Saturday late afternoon on USA. Characters welcome), somehow all of these characters won our hearts. Mostly because they're fun and every movie is damn fun, too. So when Fast & Furious (2009) got the gang back together it felt like a momentous event, even though the movie kind of sucked. Finally, Fast Five got even MORE of the gang back together and in its own way, canonized its history as important while simultaneously retconning some its characters to fit an entirely new genre - the group heist with cars rather than the cop-to-criminal angle so thoroughly explored by its predecessors. For instance, Ludacris' Tej Parker from 2 Fast suddenly becomes their tech guy and Sung Kang's Han Seoul-Oh (seriously - say that with me - HAN SEOUL-OH.) from Tokyo Drift takes up the Brad Pitt "Guy Who Eats All the Time" role.

Essentially, the Fast franchise pulled off the miraculous in switching genres to massively expand its fanbase while not alienating its original gearhead supporters. It has become one of the bigger Summer franchises, and unlike just about everything else this summer, hit theaters with a ton of positive support and actually left with greater support. No disappointment of villains not living up to expectations or stupid twists here. Fast cars. Hot babes. Even hotter dudes, and a tank on the highway. Nuff said.
The racial blender

So let's get into Furious 6. It may not be greater than Fast Five, but it's at least a worthy companion. One of the cooler things about the whole franchise (and needless to say, one of the sources of its broad appeal) is its ability to spin its wheels in a new town for each movie (L.A., Miami, Tokyo, L.A. again, Rio, and London - I'm just waiting for that Fast Seven: Muncie Drift [2015] moniker) along with its multi-ethnic cast. In fact, out of every movie that has been #1 at the Box Office in the past two months, Furious 6 is the only one to universally pass the Bechdel Test (The last #1 movie to do that, by the way, was G.I. Joe: Retaliation [2013]. Yeah.). It also prominently features black, white, Asian, middle-eastern, and latino characters (along with whatever the hell The Rock and Diesel are), all in roles that aren't stereotyped to their gender. It's actually a vision of what the future of moviemaking should be - none of this is pandering, either. It's Furious 6 for crap's sake - and nothing could be more naturally integrated. Now, why do we still only have white male Avengers?

So - let's actually start digging into this thing. The movie centers around the Gang's efforts to bring Letty Ortiz, recently discovered as actually alive (she seemingly died in Fast & Furious - after which she became a Fridge Girl that fueled Diesel for most of that movie), back into the "family", which is Diesel's colloquial name for the gang of them who used to hang out in L.A. committing car-related crimes. Letty, though, has amnesia and is working for Owen Shaw (Luke Evans, one of the better Fast bad guys). The best part is that by the end of the film, none of her amnesia is cured. Diesel has her on his lap as they're digging into the "beers and brats" spoils of war and he asks her, "Does any of this feel familiar?" Letty's response: "No."

Rounding out the cast, it's nice to see that there is plenty of eye candy for the women in addition to the men here. Ludacris makes his first appearance showing off some ridiculous abs he got somehow, and Tyrese is really coming on to his own in his third portrayal of the character, Roman Pierce. This is in addition to Gal Gadot, Jordanna Brewster, and Michele Rodriguez who are three of the hottest women in this series. Adding Gina Carano and a magnificent early, extended side-boob shot of Elsa Pataky makes this a damn fine movie for both boys and girls to beat off to.

Lastly, we have the two big men. Really, the biggest men of all. The Rock (Samoan Thor) and the Diesel. Their double-team clothesline towards the end of the film may be one of the greatest moments to ever be put on film. That would be true if not for Diesel's Solo Headbutt that happens mere moments before. He doesn't even bend his knees - suddenly he's just flying towards two dudes (who were kicking his ass), and just launches his big bald head into their flailing torsos. It's spectacular. This movie has every kind of action you could want - tanks coming out of cars, cars coming out of planes, Diesel flying everywhere, across bridges and shit - it's awesome with a capital FUCKING.

As for our deuteragonist, Paul Walker, whose portrayal of Brian O'Conner we once named among the Best Brians in Media, has less to do here, but that's probably for the best. His awkward white boy ways have always stood out in these movies - often it makes him a formidable, underestimated opponent, but it's also usually really awkward. Brian O'Conner is also the whitest name ever. He actually pulls a cool stunt that calls back a lot of Fast & Furious (this whole film does, actually), where he is temporarily incarcerated with Braga in L.A. to get info on Letty. He comes back feeling really depressed, but in the meantime, Diesel has actually talked with Letty, and his whole trip, where he risked lifetime incarceration, mind you, is proven unnecessary to the narrative. The only thing that was actually necessary was getting O'Conner out of the narrative, actually, so I suppose it has its purpose. Forcefully.

Lastly, this film lacks Rico Santos (Don Omar) and Tego Leo (Tego Calderón), who are not missed. They were kind of the comic duo in Fast Five (think Casey Affleck and Scott Caan), and they wouldn't really have a purpose here. All comic relief is handled rather well by Tyrese. One of the more interesting tricks this flick pulls is by putting up some doppelgangers in the form of Owen Shaw's team, including Joe Taslim from The Raid: Redemption (2012), who notably kicks everyone's ass all the time. The evil twin idea isn't played with too much, except for the fact that Gina continually fights her "twin", Letty (until they switch sides...and still fight each other), and the fact that we get some jokes about White Hobbes and Brian's evil twin.

This film not only calls back many of the events from Fast & Furious, but virtually every film in the franchise. Well, besides 2 Fast 2 Furious, which seems to have been swept under the rug. It's kind of crazy that Tokyo Drift is given more stock than that, but that could be for the best. While this is in may ways a direct sequel to Fast Five, and thus finishing up director Justin Lin (this series' version of David Yates...)'s trilogy within the franchise, it also finally brings us back to Tokyo Drift. See, due to the presence of Han, all of these movies had actually been set prior to the third installment, making the current chronology: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 3, 7. And as we flash back to Han's demise we see...what...no....what the hell....

omg it's Statham.

Parker himself!

Thus, The 7ast and the 7urious (2015) will seem to represent another shift in genres for the series. Furious 6 ended with beers and brats - which is really how Diesel started his life in The Fast and the Furious. Despite having millions of dollars and nice pardons (which, by the way, The Rock didn't hand to them until they were in L.A. - how the hell did they get into the country?), the dream of Diesel and his family is still to chill in a cruddy little house in East L.A. Of course, one has to wonder what the hell amnesiac Letty's life is going to be like, but still, there's even more closure here than at the end of Fast Five.

Statham is poised to utterly ruin all of this - and if Fasturious Seven (2015) continues being the utter license to print money that these latest installments have been, there's no reason to stop there. And the thing is - I have no problem with that. There isn't any purity to these characters or natural ways the stories should end. This isn't Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy which deserved a proper conclusion, or Indiana Jones that deserved to have its book close twenty years ago. This series has faced franchise failure plenty of times - there's no getting worse, there's no limit to how crazy, stupid, loud, and obnoxious this can get. Getting big and crazy and dumb isn't ruining anything for the Fast and the Furious. It's in a unique position among Hollywood to do whatever the hell it wants. It's possibly the greatest franchise of all time.

We're in for a glorious ride.

Fun last bit - check out how long that runway was!
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