28 April 2014

Seinfeld and its Paradoxical Fear of Deviations from Normalized Society

One of the greater ironies of the 90s TV sitcom Seinfeld that remains unaddressed in extant literature (Seinfeld has extant literature, right?) is the gap between the fundamental conflict that drives the series - the extolling of daily life minutiae - and the strict perceptions of the characters within the narrative. Essentially the show is comprised of four Manhattanites struggles to align their personal mental constructs of "normal" social behaviour with those of the rest of the world. The irony of course, is both that more often that not, the actions of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Cosmo deviate tremendously from what any sane person would do (as any sitcom would have it), and that their very act of hyper-criticising the deviations of their contemporaries is in itself, abnormal. This has actually been extensively researched in Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld by Tim Delaney.

Seinfeld still captivates me. When I launched Norwegian Morning Wood five years ago I formed six "Posts About Nothing" digging deep into each of the four primary characters. I think what's fascinating is that Seinfeld was such a gargantuan show, both in terms of its original popularity, as well as its unsurpassed success in syndication and rewatchability. The ubiquity of Seinfeld, as you're about guaranteed to still be able to catch re-runs three or four times a day between TBS and your local network affiliates, makes certain things stand out that were passed over the first time, or the first dozen times. Changing time periods from the show's last episode in 1998 to the current 2014 also makes certain aspects of the show more apparent, recognizing that television twenty years ago had very different standards for depicting characters beyond the average white, middle class, straight American. Seinfeld crafts a distinct fear of the Other - any deviation from this mix of race, economic, or sexual standing. Part of its repeal, though, is how it remains a progressive show by dealing with this fear in some cases head on. What is more apparent is its complete misunderstanding and misinterpretation of social norms, but in many ways, this conflict is the purpose of the entire series.

As far as racial standards go, the show generally deals well with African-Americans. Blacks appear in their fair share of roles as janitors or sleepy security guards, but also as Board Members of the Susan Ross Foundation and as writers for J. Peterman. I'm concerned over a few occasions of intimidation, though, that becomes amplified due to race. This happens in "The Outing" (S4;E17) when Larry the Cook at Monk's is able to add more threat to the hapless Jerry and George due to their black fear. A similar event happens in "The Bookstore" (S9;E17), when the African-American woman behind the counter at Brentano's threatens a meek George with some brain-punching.

Other parts of Seinfeld seem to be more self-aware of the racial gulf, though. Looking back on "The Wife" (S7;E17) seems unfortunate in light of Michael Richards' post-Seinfeld racial outbursts when an obliviously overtanned Kramer essentially visits his girlfriend's family in blackface. This was also lampshaded in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode "The Table Read" (S7;E9), which featured Michael Richards finding himself entangled in racially charged situations. I also look to George's Sugar Ray Leonard debacle in "The Diplomat's Club" (S6;E22) which isn't a wholly terrible representation of African-Americans on screen, but it does highlight the naïveté of the white community, which Seinfeld is very emblematic of, towards Black Culture and its people in general.

The end result can be middling towards Black people. Seinfeld's record for Asians, though, is horrendous. Awful stereotypes abound in "The Race" (S6;E10) and "The Cigar Store Indian" (S5;E10). "The Tape" (S3;E25) presents an ancient Chinese baldness cure-all which mystifies the white characters. It also introduces Ping, who somehow has tremendously more broken English than his sister, Cheryl, as seen in "The Vias" (S4;E15). Asians are rarely more than Chinese food service workers, from Ping to the entire episode "The Chinese Restaurant" (S2;E11). There isn't a tremendous amount of fear in these scenarios, except for Elaine's fear of Cheryl, but that stems from her being a shark in the courtroom. This likely has more to do with the fact that Western society has more often treated Eastern cultures as effeminate, ineffective, and magical rather than any real threat.

In dealing with homosexuality, Seinfeld is surprisingly progressive, and much more so than in racial terms. Very early on in the series, in "The Subway" (S3;E14), Elaine casually goes to a lesbian wedding, and when she's confronted with bigotry on the subway, she rebukes the hater. There is also the openly gay eponymous character in "The Wig Master" (S7;E19) who is not defined by his homosexuality. Actually, the only character who really has a problems with homosexuals, or at least the fear of being perceived as one is George, who freaks out at the prospect in "The Note" (S3;E1), "The Stall" (S5;E12), and "The Cartoon" (S9;E13). Of course the aforementioned "The Outing" is troubling when every male character seems stunned and ashamed at this prospect, although they mention "not that there's anything wrong with that" eight times, that fear is still on display.

In an episode like "The Outing," though, that fear seems to be more a reflection of the prejudices of society at large rather than insensitivity on the part of the show. More troubling though, even though their cavalier attitude is liberating in a sense, is Elaine's compulsion to "fix" a closeted homosexual man in "The Beard" (S6;E16). It obviously doesn't work, which actually speaks more to the fact that sexuality isn't a choice or preference, which is astounding for a show that otherwise contains a healthy amount of fear of turning gay because a male masseuse touched you.

Bridging the fear of homosexuals and Hispanics is finally Bob and Cedric, who are kind of mystifying as stereotypes. Puerto Rican, homosexual street toughs? Kramer is continually intimidated not by any of their racial or sexual characteristics, though, and more by their insane antagonism, and when not dealing with him they seem to be otherwise rational people. Still, their easily swayed emotions may be a signal of the middle class white fear of "other" kinds of people. Much more prescient is the tension that fills "The Busboy" (S2;E12), which derives from the anxiety felt by Kramer and George upon visiting a young Hispanic's apartment in what is presumably a rough part of town. The episode actually does subvert this fear by giving the busboy, Antonio, some very human characteristics and an uplifting ending, proving that the white fear is really a confounded property.

Despite these many instances of insensitivity, there are signs that Seinfeld knew what it was doing. Jerry pledges racial tolerance and understanding through the black and white cookie in "The Dinner Party" (S5;E13), although it's telling that the cookie ultimately causes him to vomit (apparently even when attempting to become benevolent, the white man literally cannot stomach racial peace). "The Cigar Store Indian" features obtuse and continuous racism directed at Native Americans that is abhorred by most of the principal characters. And "The Chinese Woman" features equally aghast moments when confronting a white woman who desires to be Asian for unexplained reasons. Estelle's belief in the mystic wisdom of who she thought was an Eastern woman, though, is also telling of the white obsession with attributing strangeness and magic to foreign others.

And we didn't even mention the vague foreign fear of the Soup Nazi, who is reduced to a yelling screaming mysteriously angry "foreigner." Whether intentional or not, though, Seinfeld does more to merely expose this fear that upsets the delicate white lives of its characters than to relish in it or suggest that it's acceptable behavior. The final thesis of the show, that these characters should all be imprisoned for their selfishness and long periods of despicable actions couldn't be more appropriate, and its lukewarm reception has more do with the fact that is viewership saw too much of themselves in the minutiae of the show than its misplacement as an ending. It's difficult to turn that kind of judgment on one's self, which, in wrapping the show in a safe, comforting middle class urban white setting, Seinfeld did to its viewers by condemning them along with the fab four at the finale of its run.

18 April 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Transcendence Shoots for the Brains

Today marks the release of Wally Pfister's Transcendence (2014), which when I first heard about it seemed to be positioned as this big landmark moment in sci-fi, something great, interesting, and cerebral to set the genre forward in an age where moviegoers seem more inclined to chase big flashy adventure pieces. From an examination of the marketing material, hype, and advanced reviews, though, none of this seems likely.
"Johny! Transcend me!"

Transcendence is funny. It's trying so desperately to be taken seriously, but by now everything cool it's trying to do with its cast and identity is a huge joke. It's boasting a big time get in Johnny Depp, who for sure remains one of the last true A-Listers, but a close look at his recent filmography reveals him more as a Supporting Actor All-Star in these big studio films.

It's a sort of curious phenomenon. When he's leading smaller flicks like, jeez pick one, Ed Wood (1994), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Chocolat (2000), Finding Neverland (2004), or even The Rum Diary (2011), he's outstanding. His supporting turns in big crazy blockbusters where he puts on these really outlandish characters also range from the innovative (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl [2003]) to the tired (Alice in Wonderland [2010], On Stranger Tides [2011]) to the underrated but probably racist (The Lone Ranger [2013]). While most of these made enough ridiculous money to see him as a pretty bankable star, when you add in The Tourist (2010) and Dark Shadows (2012), suddenly Depp as a leading man in big blockbusters seems like a bad idea.

His schtick just isn't as fresh as it used to be. Jack Sparrow was an incredible creation. Since then he's relied more on make-up and funny voices than any real heart. That's not to say he hasn't made good films - I'd still consider Rango (2011) one of the best animated films of the past ten years, but we didn't see his face on screen. So, how does that affect Transcendence?

It's not like Depp is going white-face for this. He seems to be more or less a normal dude, who I guess eventually becomes a brilliant technological singularity. Reminds me of Lucy (2014), which hasn't actually come out yet. But they apparently share the same Morgan Freeman, who more or less has settled into a "explains things with an incredible voice" role as much as Liam Neeson has settled into a "kick anyone's ass anywhere" role as of late. Everything about this cast seems so done to death, which is a shame, because the premise really isn't.

That's not to say that people will find the premise interesting. The concept of a human-computer singularity is actually fairly fascinating and prescient in today's culture of technological dependence. It's inherently erudite and not really the typical big summer smash 'em up material. I suppose that's why it's getting an April release.

Because of that April release I can't help think back to the similar vehicle from last year, Oblivion (2013), which featured heady material, a genuine A-Lister, a fledgling director, and a fairly shitty story. Advance reviews of Transcendence pits it at touching on interesting themes but completely falling apart in its narrative, which is really frustrating. Films that attempt really esoteric subject matter should be technically good films - why leave all the genius on screen instead of behind it?
I knew I had seen this premise before...

Oblivion brings me to another good point: it seems that every movie like this trying to be cool boils its core concepts down to one neat-sounding word. This dates back to Inception (2010). We get Oblivion, Divergent (2014), Transcendence, and then Nolan comes back round again with Interstellar (2014). For as much as Chris Nolan is a genius filmmaker, his influence on others, notably his boy Wally, who has been his longtime cinematographer before stepping up to the mantle directing Transcendence, has been a bore. Other directors under his wing like Zack Snyder seem to only understand the superficial trappings of his big budget work, which is just the arbitrarily dark tortured egos of male protagonists, usually over some deceased woman in his fridge. There tends to inspire an overwhelming sense of maudlin and more derogatory, an undue self-importance to the films of his imitators that just makes for shitty cinema.

Transcendence is trying to do all of this, and as a result becomes more a facsimile of a film rather than an interesting or original piece of art. This is Oblivion all over again, with an MIT veneer in place of Tom Cruise's Yankees cap. Because of this fact, it ought to fail to connect with audiences - the people don't mind derivative works, but they need to buy into the flashy ideas at work. Just look at The Avengers (2012), an incredibly derivative film masked by shiny explosions and Galaga jokes. Billion dollars. Transcendence isn't there.

So, see what you will today - Summer already started with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (after whining about both ends of the superhero spectrum - the flash of Whedon and the dreariness of Nolan, yes, Cap 2 is the kind of blockbuster I like), and it ought to remain that way until someone else swings along to fight electricity.

17 April 2014

On the Zeitgeist of Youth Culture, Virality, and Selfies

As I am wont to do on a constantly insane basis, it's time once again to take one of the worst dregs of popular culture and apply some ridiculously rigorous analysis. I first heard this on radio play, because I'm a D-I-N-O-S-A-U-R dinosaur, but after a few hundred times listening to it via YouTube, I've come to the conclusion that "#SELFIE" by The Chainsmokers is probably one of the most important songs of our generation, at least at this moment. That's probably not true, but it's interesting to think of this mess from a few different angles. First of, if you haven't heard it:

According to its Wikipedia page (because how else do we learn about this shit), the song was very intentionally intended to capitalize on the growing cultural popularity of selfies and attempts to position itself for maximum re-purposing and re-distribution, the essence of all Internet meme culture. So, let's first talk about selfies.

Selfies, for those of you over the age of 25 (maybe 22), who don't know what selfies are, it's the act of reversing the lens of a camera phone and taking what amounts to a self-portrait. That's all, really. We can add in selfies taken during ridiculous acts, with famous people, or a legendary combination of both to create the most re-tweeted image of all time.

This is where the narcissism inherent to this act become all the more apparent. It's one thing to self-portrait. I do it when fixing my hair on the go all the time (obvi), but the main objective of a selfie is to take it and then put it online - for the 28 year olds that's probably Facebook, for the 25 year olds it's probably Twitter, but all the really cool 20 year olds put that shit on Instagram. I Pinterest, so screw all of you. This is kind of an insane act that I can't really figure out. I get big selfies - you want evidence of you at an event, or meeting someone cool, or at a big moment of your life - because apparently no one would ever believe you if you just told them. But these sort of random innocuous typical Saturday night bar hopping selfies? It's almost as if it's a way to remind people of yourself - a kind of on-going update of the banality of other people's lives that has an increased in perceived importance due to the ubiquity of social media and the great time consumption it takes.

Positioned in "#SELFIE", though, it takes on a slightly more advanced meaning. The unnamed narrator is ostensibly playing peer selfie analysis to her advantage in order to secure a hook-up with someone named "Jason." The selfie in question comes as just another part of her nighttime routine, in between going to the bathroom and smoking a cigarette. It's as if it's a natural part of her life. Picking a filter for Instagram and coming up with a caption becomes a huge decision. It's faux-art (arguably something that doesn't exist), selfies from Van Gogh are priceless and immemorial, selfies here are based on narcissism and indulgent self-interest.

So much of this song hinges on both the importance of the selfie in driving the core narrative as well as its complete inconsequentiality. The spoken monologue probably stands out the most in this thing, and whoever is saying it seems to be just as interested in expressing an unbroken train of thought concerning random events, feelings, or observations from the night ("Why is the DJ playing 'Summertime Sadness'?" "Is that guy sleeping over there?" "Who goes out on Mondays?" "I feel like I'm going to throw up. Oh wait, I'm fine."). She also makes up passable slang like "that's so ratchet." I just wished she had said "fetch."

The narrator is incredibly conceited, breaking down why she hates everyone else in the club for superficial reasons like a girl's dress ("Who wears Cheetah?") or passing out with their shoes on. It's an intense spotlight on a culture so absorbed in itself that outside influence is foreign to the point of painful. It's not that much of a step-up of Jersey Shore-type funny business. These kind of self-sufficient yet painfully temporal cultural pockets fascinate me - just wonder for a second how many current High School students actually know what Jersey Shore is? MTV may have seemed to jump the gun cancelling it when they did, but they had a keen eye on when the zeitgeist was getting old.

I think "#SELFIE" is everything right now. It's painful, but it's everything. It's satirical, sure, and "The Chainsmokers" are virtually destined to wind up in the trash pit of every other shitty EDM duo out there. I'm not sure if its 68 million YouTube views are out of adoration, enjoyment, or horror, but it may also be expected that next year we'll listen to this as much as we listened to "Gangnam Style" in 2013. I don't really think it's there in viralness, yet. It's too manufactured and conscious of itself. That's the thing about viral videos, there's really no predicting them - an integral component of their shareability is the fact that they're so ridiculous as to acerpose some hapless misconstrued intent upon the part of the author. Black Ninja, Chocolate Rain, and especially the Sneezing Panda aren't really conscious of their ridiculousness, which is vital to their popularity. Likewise, no one expected Baauer or PSY to suddenly bounce haphazardly into relevance, because, here's a hint: they never were relevant. Viral videos don't really make significant long-term impacts on culture. More, nostalgic memorials to September 2012 and January 2013.

And that's all "#SELFIE" will be reduced to. It's important now, but won't be next week. 

08 April 2014

Profiles: Scarlett Johansson's Magical Year

Start the year garnering support for accusations of an Oscar snub for your voice work and it's bound to be an interesting couple of months. Scarlett Johansson has been near the top of the A-List for some time now, really a notable name ever since really breaking out in Lost in Translation (2003). In and out of the past decade she's starred in her fair share of the insanely awful (The Island [2005], The Spirit [2008]) and the surprisingly awesome (The Prestige [2006], Vicki Christina Barcelona [2008]). Over a span of twelve months though, starting some time last year, she'll release a crazy array of films of varying genres and roles that's damn near as impressive as any actor has ever done.

So let's look at her September 2013 to August 2014, so we are now just a little past in the middle of her Magic Year. She has wonderously turned six oddball roles into significant national prominence. Last September Scar Jo featured in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon (2013), playing Barbara Sugarman, the "dime" that drives JGL's eponymous Jon character to fits of mistaken love until he matures and realizes that she's crazy and horrible. Scar Jo completely owns her Jersey Shore-infused manipulater airhead character. So romantic comedy indie / Jersey Shore movie? Check.

Speaking of romantic comedy indies, she next lent her voice to Spike Jone's Her, with its ridiculous yet sapient premise of a hapless Joaquin Phoenix-looking schmuck falling in love with his operating system (be honest, this is happening all over America albeit in more subtle and unconscious tones). It's saved and immediately rendered reasonable by the coos of Scar Jo, which is instantly dateable, even if she's coming out of a computer.

Flash forward to this weekend where she outgrossed her own big-budget blockbuster in per-screen average with the U.S. release of Under the Skin (2014). Scarlett J plays an alien disguised as a woman who eats men in Scotland before discovering her own humanity. Or something. It's a tiny picture both absurd and horrifying by Jonathon Glazer, which continues to subvert the only thing people cared about Johansson for years - her incredibly sexy curves. All of these films grow her as a real person, or at least make you think twice about hitting on he, lest you get eaten.

Naturally after all these small films, some like Her gaining notoriety through an Oscar bump, others like Under the Skin probably staying under the mainstream radar, S.Joh saw her most high profile release reprising her once superfluous role of Black Widow in the superhero flick, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). It's probably Marvel's best film all time so far, thanks in no small part to the balanced role inhabited by Johansson, who is less Cap's sidekick than another equal but twisted and secret side to the life he's found as a government agent.

So that's all for films that are actually out there. The two more upcoming films are really just heresay, but they stand to further put Scarlett on the map. First is another independent comedy, Chef (2014), directed by and starring Jon Favreau, and yes, this will inexplicably re-unite most of the cast of Iron Man 2 (2010). If you've never heard of this, don't worry, the trailer dropped yesterday. I don't really see either wide interest or a cult hit out of this, but it's sure to be the kind of underrated comedy with a lot of actually coherent human drama to it that deserved recognition. Like a Cyrus (2010) or something.

Lastly, in August we get Lucy (2014), which also just got a trailer pretty recently. It uses that old "10%" of our brain garbage that I'm not sure anyone really believes is true anymore, gives it a drug induced spin à la Limitless (2011) and whatever. This seems a whole lot more science fiction-y than the Bradley Cooper vehicle, though, and it should largely be seen as Luc Besson journeying back into The Fifth Element (1997) territory after...jeez I had no idea his filmography was so ridiculous. Anyway, this thing will hinge on whether or not audiences can buy that gaining close to 100% brain capacity gives Scarlett Johansson realty-bending psychic powers, but it also really rides on Scar Jo herself. She's carrying this one rather than riding sidecar, and that budget's a lot more intense than Under the Skin.

So, an unrepentent Jersey Whore, an AI, an undercover hungry alien, an ex-KGB master spy, a hostess (I guess, what is she in Chef?), and a super-psychic drug mule all in one year, in films ranging from quirky indie comedies to devastating male power eschewing indie horrors, to big mainstream work in hits as sure as Hawkeye to wild French stabs in the dark. She's all over the place, and generally pulling it off, with love for Scar Jo at an all time high, and her maturity appreciated by just about everyone. What can she do from here? Did someone say Black Widow movie?

07 April 2014

First Impressions: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Listen, I shit a lot all over most Marvel films for being the kind of safe, cookie-cutter uninteresting fan-service Hero smash and mash that they are, most notably in my recent scathing preview for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I'm not to proud to admit a mistake though, and The Winter Soldier is not only clearly one of, if not the single greatest film the studio has produced, but easily ranks as one of the better superhero movies, hell, even one of the best action / thriller movies of the last five years. Have I gone full circle to overselling it now? SPOILERS to come in the fruitful discussion to follow:
After this trailer scene is out of the way, there's also
a surprisingly lack of glibness.

I'm not sure what it is that makes superhero sequels generally superior to their predecessors. The second installment is generally considered the best one in nearly every hero's franchise - X2 (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and The Dark Knight (2008) are big ones, but even Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) ought to be considered over Fantastic Four (2005), even if they're both big letdowns. We can even go back to the stirring critical success of Superman II (1980), director drama aside. The success probably lies somewhere in the fact that superhero origin stories are long, messy, and boring because everyone really knows them. Sequels can hit the ground running and develop themes that come with dealing with powers instead of gaining them.

Still, Marvel has had a bit of a blind spot in this area with its two largest critical failures being Iron Man 2 (2010) and Thor: The Dark World (2013), which were both nigh incomprehensible beat-em-ups without much solid story. The Winter Soldier continues a strong run of Captain America movies daring to push what a superhero movie can be (a period war film, a political thriller), while simultaneously making the guy everyone thought would be the most boring character on screen, Steve Rogers, into the most interesting fellow in the current glut of men in tights parading through cinemas.

The film starts and ends with the principles of Chris Evans' Captain America, which leans heavily on a nice touch of Mark Millar's Civil War, including uncompromising liberal principles and a realization to abandon government in favor of country. And on the Civil War side of things, it's notable that Tony Stark helped create the Death-From-Above Hellicarriers' repulsor lifts, a slight nod to him being a part of the conservative pro-government side of things. But we're getting ahead of ourselves diving into the film's themes - for now, it's fitting that someone who couldn't care less about this role seems to be having a great time and brings one of his more mature performances in a respectable film.

Everyone else is electric. Robert Redford fits in perfect in both a nod to the kinds of political movies he made in the 70s (The Candidate [1972], Three Days of the Condor [1975], All the President's Men [1976]) and at the same time legitimizes the proceedings in the way that Anthony Hopkins legitimizes the extreme goofiness of the Thor movies. On the other side is Sam Jackson, who is given more screen time than ever before, including some stand-out action sequences (where he gets his ass kicked), a fake death befitting the master spy, and one of the coolest send-offs in recent memory. He burns his eyepatch, puts on some stone cold women's beach glasses, laces up a purple hoodie and stands over his own grave that reads "The path of the righteous man..." Ezekiel 25:17. It's a dream.

Speaking of dreams, Scarlett Jo is also able to let loose as Black Widow like never before. She was basically a pretty face that could kick ass in Iron Man 2, offered a slight development in The Avengers (2012), but she's finally a fully fleshed out character here. I'm not sure she deserves her own movie yet, even though there's apparently plenty of backstory to her character and Scarlett has made her more interesting than was ever conceivable five years ago, but she holds her own, especially when sharing screentime with Evans.

The Falcon is still a lame hero, but Anthony Mackie brings some changes to the character that fit in nicely with Evans' Rogers. I really want this duo to meet up with Stark / Rhodes and compete for who has the better black sidekick. Cobie Smulders and Emily VanCamp round out the cast with little refreshing moments without a real weak link.

As for the other side, this film also stands out among Marvel movies for its impressive array of villains, which the studio generally has a hard time getting a grip on. Moments like Garry Shandling's Senator Stern saying "Hail HYDRA" puts new light into his efforts to destroy Tony Stark in Iron Man 2 (2010) - he's not just a dick but a Nazi sympathizing dick. There are also bad guys with more subtle comic ties like Brock Rudlow's Crossbones, whose stage name is never mentioned, and Batroc the Leaper. Wait, what the hell? Yeah, these shoddy villains got exactly as much screentime as they deserved.
He's your father, Cap!

But Sebastian Stan as Bucky as the Winter Soldier reigns supreme. A Soviet / Hydra brainwashed and frozen solider put on ice and thawed out every couple of years to cap some do-gooder is easily the second-greatest Marvel Cinematic Villain, after Loki. As far as twisted mirror images to heroes go, the Winter Soldier is near the top. Literally coming from the same place as Cap, Bucky was tortured and brainwashed into service for his country, and unflinchingly obeys, contrasted with Rogers' capacity for free thought and ability to choose to go against the organization he represents. They're both highly trained government operatives, but Bucky represents the dangers of blind obedience. He's also primarily offensive, while there's a lot of obvious symbolism in how often Cap uses his shield - an inherent defensive weapon used to react and protect rather than to preemptively strike.

Therein lies the brilliance of The Winter Soldier: it doesn't really feel like a superhero movie; more like an action movie, with some character names inspired by good-fitting comic counterparts that takes precedence over fan service. It's not wholly unlike Iron Man 3  (2013), which eschewed standard anticipation in favor of old fashioned action filmmaking with a twist of modern superhero conventions.

While the film is grounded in character, there are also a good deal of contemporary political themes to sift through. The most overhanded of these is the negligible difference between S.H.I.E.L.D., a government agency intended to protect the world from threats more ridiculous than drug smugglers or hostages (like alien invasions, or Space Vikings), and HYDRA, an organization founded by Nazis with the explicit goal of taking over the world. The film suggests that both entities have become indistinguishable, both literally concerning HYDRA's agent infiltration and on a macro level concerning their overall goals. It's a suggestion of accountability - a "who watches the watchmen" sort of derision that brings up strong questions concerning our current state of surveillance. Whether you buy into the paranoid idea of the NSA's eyes on you at all times or shrug at the fact that it makes no difference if you have nothing to hide, that question of accountability is pointedly focused in The Winter Soldier.

The big bad evil plot in the movie is the construction of three massive Hellicarriers armed with a cray cray amount of supertechnology and huge guns that have been programmed by a former Nazi scientist whose brain is now housed in big room on magnetic tape to execute an algorithm that finds future threats to HYDRA's plan of world domination by analyzing SAT scores and job history and killing those people. About 20 million worth. Hmm, yes it does sound silly when put like that, but it's an exaggeration of the current state of things. It's not all that far off from drone warfare, and substitute brown people for Stephen Strange and we're right there right now.

There is also a bit where Natasha Romanov leaks all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s intelligence, which seems to be more than a nod to Wikileaks and Eddie Snowden. It's shocking that in a film so expressly devoted to American ideals (it's Captain America, for goodness sake, you can't get anymore explicitly patriotic. Except for Captain Britain), it heads in such a liberal and progressive direction. In the old freedom vs. security debate, Cap is firmly on the side of freedom, which is in line with his comic counterpart. It stands in contrast with the Nolan Batman films, which have always taken the side that surveillance and one man's judgment of justice is the way the world should work. Jeez Cap vs. Batman would be a great movie. It's also a test of the ideals of the greatest generation put to the test in a modern political environment, where the bad guys don't have literal skulls and lightning bolts on their black uniforms trying to shoot you.

We've also got one of the most mainstream films to deal with the military industrial complex since White House Down (2013). Yes, that was also a politically brilliant film. S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA has been sewing seeds of chaos in order to fuel the need for order for decades, in essence creating a military need for itself to exist. By the films' end, S.H.I.E.L.D. is effectively destroyed (or at least hidden, you've got to believe that Maria Hill working for Stark Industries is still a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent answering to Nicky Fury), and for the first time, the glue that has been holding together the shared Marvel Universe has been shattered. What the hell is going to happen to the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show?

All this intrigue is backed by some great action sequences that are some of the best ever put in a Marvel film, including The Avengers - there is more emotional weight and character moments to all this than the bright coloured jumble of other films. It's also generally more fun to see Steve pull off the feats of strength and endurance he does, moreso than even Thor, that human flair is what sets him apart.

With all this praise, there is some messiness to be found. Not all of the plot points really line up, and it does sort of descend into SPLOOOSIONZZZ at the end. Not before Cap's duel with traitorous former friend on the catwalk totally reminds me of the Cradle from GoldenEye (1995) though. It's about as damn near perfect as these films are going to get.

04 April 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Captain America and Springtime for Hitler

Every Friday last summer we dove into the Road to a Blockbuster - an effort to predict the cultural, commercial, and critical success of every big movie that came out during the sunny months. Why Summer? It's big, it's loud, it's fun - it's time for every big studio to vy against each other not only for the most bank, but for who can culturally dominate the national conversation at any given zeitgeist. Which of these movies will we still be discussing ten or twenty years from now? Which will have enough cultural engagement and influence to become a really significant part of the national film discussion?
Actually by far the most interesting part of
this whole affair is what Chris Evans thinks
of the nonsense

In the last few years, Marvel Comics and Disney have threatened this concept. At least as it has stood for the last forty years. Under the umbrella of the Avengers franchise tag, Marvel has set forth a slew of films that don't really matter on their own. In twenty years no one is really going to care or even distinguish between Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Beta Ray Bill: Asses of Fire (2021). Every film seems obsessed with being good, but not great. Marvel changed the way studios handle blockbusters forever, but now it's not enough to have a single memorable film or franchise - but you need a conglomeration of tepid releases that simultaneously homogenize massive swaths of new releases and monopolize studio development interests and release dates decades ahead of time.

Thor: The Dark World was probably the worst of this. Besides being incomprehensibly stupid regarding its plot, MacGuffin, and backstory, its world-building didn't really add anything to its characters. Sure it set Loki on an interesting path, but it was more bridging a gap between The Avengers (2012) and whatever is next in the pipeline. Same with Iron Man 2 (2010), which existed more as a building block for other works than its own movie. These kind of interstitials used to be handled by comic books or other inconsequential tie-ins. Now we have to watch a whole movie that feels less important than the Avengers "phase" bookends. It's the future of movie-making, though, and it gets asses in seats.

This is in itself an extremely roundabout way to mention that I'm not at all that excited for Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014). Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), was probably the weakest of the "Phase One" Marvel movies, despite its marvelous cast from top to bottom, handful of really impressive hero moments, and its ability to make the literally eternal boyscout Steve Rogers into a genuinely interesting character. It instead always feels like hackneyed film, not for its over-the-top 40s-style song numbers and period authentic chocolate milkshake-style dialogue. As F/X has recently begun playing the film ad nauseum, its faults have become more rapidly on display - even with a coat of surface-level freshness, its tropes are familiar and the film does little to innovate from a cultural standpoint. It strives for coolness over inventiveness. Safety over intrigue.

So now I've shredded both the film's first installment as well as the entire reason for its being and rationale for release. The second films in each of the main franchises that make up The Avengers - Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America have been among the worst Marvel has ever done. Iron Man 3 (2013), with its nods towards finality, exploration of villain tropes, and manifest of Shane Blackisms, was salvageable. Is that what it takes? Or will the good reviews centering around The Winter Soldier prove to contain merit? Can Marvel buck their first sequel trend of horribleness?

By all accounts, The Winter Soldier will center around the return of (SPOILER - kind of. Unless you've read a Captain America comic, ever) perennial sidekick Bucky Barnes as an unfrozen brainwashed Soviet Agent. Or probably some other Agent. Hell, maybe just a Putinist Russian Agent, it's the same thing at this point. It also features S.H.I.E.L.D. getting massively fucked up, a possible exploration of the military industrial complex, and it even looks like glimpses of Mark Millar's Civil War, judging how the Captain seems to disagree with and rebel against S.H.I.E.L.D.'s legal dubiousness. Does Steve Rogers become a superhero equivalent to Edward Snowden? Will this be the most relevant film of all time?

I think that makes the difference. Iron Man 3 works on its own as a solid action movie. The Dark World doesn't work as anything but a reason to remember who Thor is in between Avengers trips. If The Winter Solider can remember the former and explore the heady themes I've proposed in ways that avoid delving both into camp and Nolanesque over self-seriousness, I think it can have some cultural clout. It's already received plenty of critical love. Commercially, even though an April release is a bit of a gambit, my guess is that this does fine. Even though I thought The Dark World was inconsequential, people loved this thing, and everyone is completely gaga for all things Marvel right now. This will do fine.

So, what's it going to be? Do you have a little Captain in you this evening?

03 April 2014

Profiles: Colin Farrell, Courage, and America

This past weekend I somehow found myself in the middle of a grueling debate over the nature of actor, Colin Farrell. I, naturally, am generally pro-Farrell, but my opponent hated the Irishman with such fervent vitriol, that my only recourse was to turn to the Internet to provide a well-connected and reasonable forum where rational debate and intelligent thought and reflection may be facilitated. Of course the Internet's the place to do that.

So, why Colin Farrell? I suppose he's been leading debates for years now. It's tough to even remember when he first became a noteworthy actor. He was kind of just appointed one, without ever proving himself. That's why our debate centered on ridiculous films that came out over a decade ago like Minority Report (2002) and Daredevil (2003). Farrell is sort of like a Jude Law or a Sam Worthington - he doesn't really have that one distinctive role that thrust him into the spotlight. Instead we were suddenly supposed to care about this random dude with good-looking leading man chops. I believe that this general disdain or apathy has unfortunately informed the public perception of Mr. Farrell since his debut.

My opponent's basic argument was firstly, that Colin Farrell's appearance in any film was never distinctive enough - that he could be played by any actor. This opinion was primarily based off things like Daredevil, though, which again is a very narrow-minded way of arguing over an actor's oeuvre, and essentially the worst part of modern Internet fan-fueled criticism. There was no convincing my opponent because he had already written Farrell off. He could not distinguish the actor Farrell from his early accepted persona, nor take out Farrell from a total work (for instance, since Farrell has a small role in Horrible Bosses [2011], therefore all of Horrible Bosses is bad), nor understand the difference between acting well with a ridiculous part (Let's go with Daredevil again), ruining what could have been a great role (let's get Alexander [2004] out of the way), or just true, true complete shit (Miami Vice [2006]). All of this is anemic to true, unbiased critical appreciation of films, which in turn limits the scope of what movies you'd be inclined to watch and enjoy.

In my counter-argument I first attempted to dig into a few choice Farrell roles that have gone culturally underappreciated or maligned with the ravages of time. When The New World (2005) came out, it was largely dismissed as a failure. This was due likely to its accepted status among critics as trite Oscar Bait, cultural fatigue over another massive attempt to make Farrell a star, and a gap between the expectations of grandiose spectacle it created vs. the natural and intimate wandering epic that Terrence Malick actually delivered. Nine years later we're able to watch The New World without all of this context screwing with our judgment and really enjoy the nuanced revisionism that Malick and Farrell put on screen.

But you're not going to win an argument this way. After Miami Vice or so I think Farrell really started to get his act together. He stopped trying to be the next big blockbuster or franchise leading man and began taking these smaller roles in less high profile films. The results were a slew of both leading and bit parts for the next five years, but the shining jewel here is really In Bruges (2008). Whenever someone says they hate Colin Farrell, mentioning In Bruges should be enough to get them to at least say "Oh yeah, I forgot about that one." He justly earned a Golden Globe for the off-beat role in this little seen "criminals-laying-low-in-Bruges" flick, that also represents a turn where Farrell took on more challenges, recognized his daft public persona, and started having a lot more fun.
Scumbag or Sex Symbol? Scum symbol.

He's recently returned to bigger filmmaking with this weird kind of prestige. No one knows how he became a big name. Honestly. Is it Minority Report and Daredevil? Because Farrell wasn't the reason anyone saw those. S.W.A.T. (2003)? Do you honestly even remember what happened in S.W.A.T.? For whatever reason, though, the man is a household name, and when he started taking some ridiculous roles in major studio films that another established actor of his standing wouldn't have touched, it's significant. The combover king in Horrible Bosses. The fucking vampire in Fright Night (2011), equally throwing weight around as the heavy villain as well as the huge acting "get," intimidating everyone with aplomb. The guts to remake Total Recall (2012). And back to the intimacy of the endlessly enjoyable romp through the narrative twists of Seven Psychopaths (2012).

I think that intimacy is what sets Farrell apart and gives him his edge. In Total Recall he's the opposite of Schwarzenegger because you can believe that Arnold really was a secret agent all along - look at him! The ambiguity inherent to the mindfuck premise becomes tried. Farrell is like watching the film remade with Jason Bourne - he has all these abilities but also a ton of fear. You get this same vulnerability on display in In Bruges, The New World, and Seven Psychopaths. He's not an action star. He's more romantic (and yes, this article won't forget this year's Winter's Tale [2014], which is notable for making the least sense of any movie ever made), cautious, and charming. It's easy to see why anyone raised on Schwarzeneggers and Stallones would balk, but that doesn't make him a disastrous lead actor. Even if you ultimately look at his box office and attest that he still hasn't really connected with audiences.

We do really need to get back to Daredevil. I'm not sure why Daredevil kept coming up, maybe it's because it's when the guy who was really cool in Minority Report who was able to go toe to toe with Tom Cruise had a big chance to be a really cool supervillain and he totally hammed it up. He broke our hearts. Daredevil tends to have this really awful reputation, but I think that's also because of the presence of Ben Affleck (try as he might, Ben can never seem to get over his pretty boy douche image - how is the memory of Pearl Harbor [2001] more potent at this point than The Town [2010]?), which is also an unfair fanboy assessment based more on acceptable public perception that articulate critical lens.

I really liked Daredevil when it came out. I was also like 16 years old and still jazzed up about seeing Spider-Man and X-Men on screen for the first time. See, that's an important moment. Daredevil was really a gutsy call - way before Iron Man was adapted, or even Batman Begins (2005). It was the darkest superhero film to date before an age where everything had to be "dark" if it was going to be cool (I don't know if we're still in that age. I think bubble gum is cool now. Is The Avengers [2012] cooler than Man of Steel [2013]?) I know I'm arguing now for liking a movie within its contemporary context, but I think that initial enjoyment kept me afloat when all the hate started pouring on.

Daredevil has the unique distinction of being an origin movie and a pretty good mid-career movie all in one. A film like Batman Begins spends just about the entire time creating all these justifications for why someone in the real world would eventually conform to the iconic imagery forged 70 years ago. Despite its genuinely profound character construction, its entire conceit of taking a comic character with extreme seriousness, is in itself, a silly prospect. Daredevil wastes no time in its origin, and then jumps to find its protagonist pretty well in his years, cleaning up the scum of Hell's Kitchen, questing whether or not he's the bad guy, balancing a personal life (or not, as Matt Murdock's lawyer alter ego is very much derived from his late night antics, seeking both legal and vigilante methods of justice), as well as getting well and confused over the right paths to take when all these crazy assassins like Elektra, Bullseye, and Kingpin show up.
Yeah he is pretty douchey

Oh yeah, Bullseye. Colin Farrell. In the comics, Bullseye is all kinds of awesome. He's super insane, never misses, and loves killing everyone all the time. That's all pretty true for the film version as well. My opponent made a big contention that Colin Farrell was really stupid because Bullseye's superpower was that he could never miss, and in the film, he misses poor Affleck's Daredevil. Neverminding that it's less a superpower, and more of a superskill, I tried to reason that that's a huge, genuinely affecting reason for the criminally insane Bullseye, who has never before met Daredevil, to become obsessed with killing him, thereby hitting his mark and proving that his power does exist. It's integral to the development of their relationship. It's as if Professor X made Magneto's powers stop working. Wouldn't a huge part of Magneto's development then be getting his powers back (Jeez, that really happened towards the end of The Last Stand [2006]). It's not exactly the same, but it's worthy motivation.

He also argued that Bullseye doesn't do anything cool and when he does, it's only important for the plot. I argued that his motorcycle flip introduction was sort of cool, which he countered saying that that's something any of Charlie's Angels (I assume the McG versions) would be able to do, and considering none of them have superpowers, Bullseye should do something cooler. As a side note, my opponent apparently hadn't seen an action movie since 2003. Also, for the record, we were now arguing about whether or not flips of motorcycles were cool. I think they're pretty cool, I dunno. Bullseye also propels a lot of the plot by (SPOILER, if you somehow have made it 11 years without seeing it and/or still care about Daredevil being spoiled) killing Elektra, but that's also a big character moment for Murdock, considering he wasn't able to reconcile with her due to Bullseye also killing her father and framing him. Still with me? Bullseye fucks up everybody in this movie, this whirling destructive psychotic force that stands against all the law and justice Murdock is trying to achieve. Murdock is Dent and Batman rolled into one and Daredevil beat The Dark Knight (2008) by five years.

So, I'm not sure if I convinced you on Colin Farrell's greatness. To be honest, he's not all that great, but he's not the worst actor by far to come about, and he's been more the victim of biased groupthink perception than real criticism of his acting or role choices. I can't seem him being interchangeable, especially in flicks like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. And I'm going to watch Daredevil again. Stop hating on Daredevil. If anything it is more a proto-Superhero film in wake of what's going on today, but it has influenced Nolan's Batman a whole lot more than any of its fans would care to admit.

02 April 2014

First Impressions: Muppets Most Wanted

Everything about Muppets Most Wanted (2013) can be summarized in the first thirty seconds of the film. It pikcs up immeidately where The Muppets (2011) left off, literally, with the backs of Jason Segel and Amy Adams along with a wrap on the old movie. They quickly dive into an introductory song that sets up the disappointment and stupidness inherent to sequels with a bit of the same tongue-in-cheek flair that filled Segel and Nick Stoller's film to the brim. While this is typical and as refreshingly as on the nose as most of the The Muppets, but it's also telling you right away that this film isn't going to feature Segel and it's not going to be as good. I think we all knew that, though.

There's a decidedly different air to Most Wanted. By all means it's a hilarious film and certainly one worthy of the Muppet Canon, not in a Muppets From Space (1999) awful sort of way, but not really a The Muppet Movie (1979) or The Muppets legendary kind of way either. More like a The Great Muppet Caper (1981) whatever sort of way. It's not really going to be remembered as anything really special in ten years, but it's another installment in the franchise that adds to its net value. SPOILERS from here on out.
25% Natasha Fatale, 40% Ouromov, 35% Baby Mama

So, why is that? Well, part of that has to do with the humans involved. Adams, Segel and every other human from the first film is tossed out in favor of noted Golden Globes hosts Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey, along with Ty Burrell rounding out the human cast. It's telling that the film suffers because of the goofiness of all three compared to the much more grounded roles and real pathos earned by the first humans. But we didn't come to see humans, right? It's true that the moving pieces of felt get a whole lot more to do while the human characters become one-note cartoonish caricatures. Maybe that's a good thing.

Ricky is suitable here, but this isn't really his forte. His song is especially awful, and he never looks all that comfortable singing and dancing. He's also just not that likable as a really deceptive Lemur Burglar. Now, Gervais has made a career out of being unlikable, but his treachery isn't as fun to cheer for as Constantine's over-the-top #1 Burglar character. And not one shout-out to Ocean's 12 (2004) to be found.

Tina Fey is a ridiculous ham that is probably the best of these three, completely sending up Russian Gulag Guards (they had it coming). It's oddly fitting that this comes on the heals of everyone on earth hating Russia for their Crimean Annexation, making it all the more comforting to mock and laugh at these crazy backwards people. Burrell also suitably mocks the French in ways that are really lacking these days. His buddy cop role with Sam Eagle is pretty close to perfect but it's never in the center of the proceedings.

As for the rest of the humans, these kinds of movies have always prided themselves on some really thick cameos, but unlike Steve Martin or Mel Brooks appearing in The Muppet Movie (1979) as great bit parts, these cameos are more flash and you miss 'em sort of things, with everyone from Tony Bennett to P.Diddy showing up for a mug. There's also a ton of really quick bits with people who aren't all that noteworthy. Is that James McAvoy as the UPS guy? An Stanley Tucci as a Gulag Guard? Why? I did get some pleasure watching Tom Hiddleston as "The Great Escapo" and Hugo Stiglitz as a quickie German Police Officer. The trio of Russian inmates played by Danny Trejo, Ray Liotta, and Jermaine Clement (a nice appearance considering the work his Flight of the Conchords bud Bret McKenzie has done for this series), may fall in line with this, too but there isn't much substance here.

Now, we can't just complain about humans, that's like whining about the humans in a Godzilla movie. The Muppets themselves are spot on and given lots of room and time to be as weird as they wanna be. Especially when Constantine, posing as Kermit, gives them free reign to do whatever they want within the Muppet Stage Shows. There may be a dig here at the validity of reviews, suggesting nefarious interests that prod one show to be better than another (in this case, outright bribing), but I'm not sure there is enough to support that theme, either.

Constantine himself is pretty enjoyable as an extremely silly villainous frog, hopping around, butchering names with an obtuse accent, and being a ridiculous host and lover of Miss Piggy. It's also good that they found a role for the most recently introduced Muppet, Walter, who remains a solid character addition from The Muppets. They even highlighted this with a direct call out to Rizzo and Robin, who were absent from the previous film.
I can't imagine what kids think of this reference
when it comes up. I guess just "That looks so silly!"
Fairly accurate I suppose.

There are plenty of excellent gags here, from the Swedish Chef imitating The Seventh Seal (1957), to epic sets by Electric Mayhem and accusations that Fozzie is so dumb that it must be an act. Or the German sign, "Die Muppets." Kermit himself demonstrates his natural showrunner abilities in the Gulag, with plenty of references to The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or even The Great Escape (1963). At the same time, the movie plays with what would happen to this particular Muppet ensemble if it lost its rock, a frog leader who may be overly cautious, but one with an eye for good critical work.

I ended up most fascinated with the last line in that first song, though. All the Muppets proclaim their movie to be called The Muppets...Again! which was indeed the original title of the production. It's possible the song was recorded before the title change to Most Wanted, but it seems unlikely that they wouldn't have been able to alter this. Instead, it's as if the Muppets, despite all their self-awareness and winking at the audience, don't actually know what kind of movie they're in until it's dreadfully too late. They in fact believe they're fulfilling another great sequel trope, the international journey (jeez, move it movie it to Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted [2012] for any more proof that this idea is still everywhere. Or the aforementioned Ocean's 12). But they're actually in this double-crossing doppelgänger heist movie, which informs their awareness levels up until nearly the final scene.

Then we get some horrible green screen and we're out of here. Despite the gaps in genre knowledge on the part of the principal protagonists, this is a much more straightforward experience than the thorough meta-commentary of The Muppets. It still hits the Rule of Funny pretty hard, though, and is worth it for any Felt Fan.
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