30 May 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: One Maleficent Way to Die in the West

There are two films hitting the Box Office this weekend with relatively high expectations. One is another in a long line of surprisingly successful live action epic fantasy adaptations, and the other is a dirty comedy western. Unbelievably, this is Summer Fodder. Will either reign supreme as a commercial, critical, or most importantly, a cultural champion? Let's discuss:
Craw! Craw!

The frist, and undoubtedly higher profile release today is Disney's Maleficent (2014), the celebrated retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story (or more specifically, the Disney Sleeping Beauty [1959] story) from the perspective of the chief baddie in that film, Maleficent. Maleficent is a sweet villain as far as classic animated cinematic villains go, and she is usually the one that all the other Disney Villains answer to, after all, she's the Mistress of All Evil. Not only is she totes wicked as a human (is she human? With the green skin and horns?) but she also turns into a giant black dragon at the end and spews hot green fire. As far as Disney Princess movies go, that part always really hit me as a prepubescent boy.

And now we have all this in a big budgeted Disney Summer thrillride. And be sure - this is not the kind of movie you make if you don't have Angelina Jolie in the title role. She looks perfect in every way, from the visual facsimile to the intimidating weight of her stardom. It would appear like a perfect match. My only question is, what the hell is the audience for this thing?

As I mentioned, there has been a glut of these kinds of heady fantasy adaptations lately dating back to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010), which also took a spin on the specifically Disney-canonized version of the material. That made a ridiculous amount of money, which naturally led to more classic fantasy stories getting the Big Hollywood treatment like Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). Neither of these really struck what Alice struck, though, which was also one of the first films that started this trend of being completely critically and culturally ignored in the United States, but made crazy crazy money overseas. I mean, we had things like AVABAR (2009), but that was at least lauded for its quality here and also made an insane amount of money domestically. Alice proved that you can pull off completely screwing the American audience in the name of spectacle. Snow White and Oz didn't really pull off that same feat, but it's what everyone major motion picture release has been going for since.

So, there is that audience there. Note that also due to its PG rating, it's neatly positioned itself as the family-friendly blockbuster entertainment of the summer, even though if I was a little kid I may be creeped out by all the witches and Ent monsters running around. I'm also curious if anyone is familiar with the 55-year old source material, but Disney's Princess line, for all their criticism, has done a spectacular job of keeping these ladies and their stories in the public consciousness. But will this family / princess enthusiast crowd be interested in the re-telling from the villain's perspective? Well, I think that's where Angelina fits in, who just owns this part.

So, yes, I think this will make a lot of money. Will anyone care about it come August? I don't think so. It won't make headway in the kinds of fan-crowds that continue propagating a piece of pop culture (nerds) and it doesn't, frankly, look like all that good of a film to sustain interest or positive word-of-mouth. It won't be Lone Ranger (2013)-level of dismissal, but I just can't picture this stealing anyone's hearts. Maybe it wins a Costume Design or Art Direction Oscar like Alice did, but other than that, I don't think this will find any long-term love. But, money - that's important.
Basically, Brian in a Western

The other epic opus we're seeing this week is Seth MacFarlane's One Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), which has had a truly insane amount of advertising this past month. There's hardly a commercial break that goes by where I don't hear Liam Neeson exclaiming that "Some one in this town is going to die." On that part , the cast is largely a dream, with Charlize Theron and Neil Patrick Harris rounding things out. It looks like a delight, but again, there's this big gap concerning who the hell is actually going to see this thing.

Seth MacFarlane's empire and stock is rising, (maybe not, actually, The Cleveland Show was just cancelled, but at least making fun of it was one of the funniest and on-target things Family Guy has done in a while) at least among his fans, after TED (2012) and the Oscars, and that was also a nice way to show what he can do with live action. But as much as his fans turned out for it (And I'm the rare dude who generally has never cared for any of his shows, but I do dig, well, I guess just TED and his go at the Oscars), there is such an equally huge contingent of people who hate MacFarlane, for pretty justifiable reasons.

Also, what's the market for comedy westerns, exactly? What do we even have to go on? Blazing Saddles (1974) is the easy one, of course, and that fits the offensive bill as well, but does MacFarlane really want to go up against the funniest movie of all time? And if we look more recently we have only...jeez...Rango (2011)? Let's take out animation. Wild Wild West (1999)? That could be considered more an adventure film. Back to the Future Part III (1990)? There's not really anything like One Million Ways, which makes it hard to draw comparisons. I have no idea if people will be up for a romp in the West with Seth MacFarlane, and with the very recent success of Neighbors (2014), I'm not sure we're really comedy starved, either. And in two weeks we get 22 Jump Street (2014). He had better be bringing his A-game here, because if not, this movie will get lost forever in a sea of superior Summer 2014 comedies.

It's really a wildly divergent weekend. Will you go to see the Disney live action fantasy revival? Or the Hard R-Western Comedy? My guess is that your answer is going to say a lot about where you are in your life right now. Or just see Neighbors, Godzilla (2014), or Days of Future Past (2014) again, they're all solid. Maleficent and One Million Ways to Die in the West hit theaters today.

27 May 2014

First Impressions: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Since 2000, X-Men movies have been all over the place. They typically retain the comic's strong sense of pulp insanity, but the original ensemble team-up varies tremendously in quality from the films generally considered good: X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men: First Class (2011); the ones considered shitty: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009); and the one considered good until its stupid ending: The Wolverine (2013). Suffice it to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) plants itself firmly in the "good X-Men movie" territory and, by and large, is spectacular. Naturally, SPOILERS abound from here on out, let's discuss this flick and its place within the film and cultural narrative of X-Men and its place among its fellow blockbusters and superhero movies.

Is it the best X-Men movie ever? It's an easy question to answer - is it better than X2? Well, scene for scene it's a nice duel, and Magneto's prison escape here probably rivals that scene in X2 (with even a nice nod to his jumpsuit), and the character work is fantastic, if not surpassing the 2003 installment. I'll leave that to you to debate, but suffice to say that considering the argument is even brought up, Days of Future Past does that good of a job. So, while we're on a high note, let's tear down the film first:

Continuity Woes
The Professor really got into the Allman Brothers.

The major issue with this film, which should chiefly arise in the minds of anal nerds, is the fast and loose handling of the X-Men film continuity. First I'll note that no one should really care about this stuff as long as it works within this particular film's context (and it does), but for a film that relies so heavily on serving as a simultaneous sequel to X2, The Wolverine, and First Class, as well as a prequel of sorts to the first three X-Men movies, there are problems.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. First Class didn't really mesh with X-Men Origins: Wolverine at all, goofing up Emma Frost severely. And don't forget the TV appearance of a  fully human Hank McCoy in X2 years after he became furry. What's most notable is that Bryan Singer actively chose to pay attention to continuity only from the "good" X-Men films listed above, which is perfectly fine if you ask me. I particularly liked how in flashbacks to Wolverine's adamantium scenes, stock footage from X2 and not X-Men Origins is shown.

There's larger issues, though, too. Like Patrick Stewart's Xavier being alive somehow (although the ending of The Last Stand strongly hinted at his unexplained resurrection). The Last Stand is largely only successful because of its concern with finality and desire to kill off as many core X-Men members as possible. This was a laughable time when we may have actually believed that only three of these movies would be made. Ha! Clearly that finality is no longer relevant, fuck it, let's erase that shit and bring everyone back. And it's nice to be back.

Getting the Band Back Together

The nature of merging the Original X-Cast with the First Class cast has warranted a few comparisons to an Avengers-style Team-Up movie, but as I said in my preview, it's really far more like a Fast & Furious movie that combines once disparate casts that have been introduced across a series of linked movies. And to be fair, the end result is more just like Wolverine teams up with the First Class blokes.

But for sure, the rapidfire cameos, even if they're sort of useless (jeez it takes forever for Storm to do something cool in this one. At least she's not claustrophobic), are welcome. Even if Kelsey Grammar's beast looks like bad Halloween make-up. But fuck that, he's there for about eight seconds, he probably didn't want to wait nine hours in a make-up chair for that. But no Alan "Nightcrawler" Cummings? That's alright, we get our teleportation fix from Fan Bingbing's Blink, who has some of the film's more awesome scenes.

I'm glad Blink is in this movie, even if she doesn't really have any lines. Not many of that pack of young, in-shape future mutants have anything to do but fight Sentinels, but that's fine. Leave the heavy character work to the established actors and just let these guys fly. In those gut-wrenching first few minutes we actually get a couple moments we've been waiting seven movies to see - an Iceman ice slide and Colossus actually do something other than stand there and serve up the occasional Fastball Special. That in itself is so rewarding.
Bingbing and Booboo!

Blink is a nice pick, even though her most famous incarnation hails from yet another dystopian X-reality, the Age of Apocalypse. She's made her rounds in Exiles, though. There's also Bishop, who has a much lessened role in than other media (note that int he afore-linked cartoon, it was Wolverine that originally was supposed to go back in time before Bishop takes his place. In the movie, Bishop had been the one going back in time until Wolverine replaces him for the big jump. And of course, in the original comic it was Kitty Pryde. So, everything's related here). Another callback, the M-scars over the mutants' faces reminiscent of the tattoos of old are a great touch. Other than that, Sunspot makes a nice appearance as does Booboo Stewart as Warbath. Fan Bingbing and Booboo Stewart. This cast is awesome.

And that's just the mutants who don't talk! They just fight something challenging until they die. A few times. It's probably the best use of these guys. All the other A-List mutants bring their A Games, even if it's a bit of a bummer to see yet another movie focusing on Wolverine. Arguably, even though we're ostensibly following his story, though, he's not really the main dude, and doesn't even really get all that many action scenes. We do get a Hugh Jackman naked ass shot, though, which is something.

J-Law makes up for that for those craving the female body, though by being virtually naked similar to Rebecca Romijn's first go at Mystique. It makes viewing pretty fun. She also imbues the part with a bridge from her innocent, kid-troublemaker in First Class to the acrobatic killing machine in the latter X-films. Part of this movie's whole premise for existing, though, is to bring her back from that nature, which really fits in to what First Class was trying to do and where this series can go.

After all, apparently the franchise's future (purportedly, X-Men: Apocalypse [2016] is following this gang over the Patrick Stewart crew). While it's a bummer that most of First Class mutants were given off-screen deaths (not like we were attached to any of those actors), or stuck in a tiny Vietnam cameo, we're perfectly fine handing the series over to them. They're more than game, at least more than people like James Marsden, who are pretty ready to move on, and frankly, they do make a better ensemble. Passing the torch here fittingly reminded me of Star Trek: Generations (1994) or something.

There are some spectacular character moments, here, though. Both Fassbender and McKellan's Magneto gear up simultaneously (fifty years separated) and really show what Magneto can do, but Fassbender's really proves why he's one of the most dangerous mutants. Airlifting a baseball stadium, taking over sentinels and nearly offing the president is the way to be. McKellan's metal control seems to be a little rusty with age, though, and he gets scrap-stabbed.

The character work between Magneto and Professor X continues to develop, even if their relationship was already the driving force of First Class. Instead, this movie refreshes by treating us to an entirely different Xavier, who is beaten, depressed, and powerless, literally and metaphorically. After being the team's anchor in so many stories, he's in need of guidance, and the way the film plays with his need, reluctance, guilt, and even a sustained joy over the Magneto team-up is fantastic.

Weird Stuff
You got to give Magneto credit at least for consistently
wearing costumes that don't look horrible on screen.

The best stunt that Days of Future Past does its continually cheap narrative mistakes that do not impact the enjoyment of the film at all. Why the hell does Kitty Pryde suddenly have unexplained consciousness-time traveling powers? Because the plot needs it, and the film is content to leave it at that, without making some explanation that would be bogus anyway. And wait, if time passes normally in the future as well as the past, damn, did Kitty have to keep charging Wolverine's brain for like, a few days? Damn, girl. The little power-suppressing serum Beast and Xavier take works the same way - it's essentially nothing more than a plot device because we can't have a furry monster and a dude in a wheelchair running around doing what their chracters needed to do.

The film gives a pay-off, though. Xavier's powers come with him coping with using them, and Days of Future Past deals with the burden of being a telepath more than even First Class did. He's only able to once again read minds and become the teacher again once he's able to forgive himself and his own significant sins. Beast functions in a similar way - once he can get over his shame, which has always been a hurdle of this incarnation of the character, he's able to grow and help the cause physically and intellectually.

Quicksilver is the same thing. He's an instrument of plot that allows them to spring Magneto. What makes it palatable is both his incredibly fun personality and the awesome visual potential of his powers on screen. It's an easy distraction from his shallow script function. I'm not saying that all these gripes are necessarily negative, quite to the contrary, the film has such a positive feel for itself (astounding, considering the future it depicts), that it's tougher to get bogged down by these issues like a lesser made movie tends to elicit. And Quicksilver is totally Magneto's son, that was a great reference to the characters' history. Now, what the hell is The Avengers: Age of Voltron (2015) going to do with him?

And Wolverine WOULD make a great history teacher. If his brain's intact. That metal drowning scene also brought up two important ideas: 1) it visually resembled Magneto sucking out his adamantium in "Fatal Attractions" (ironically reversing the metal flow), and 2) Damn that's a plausible way for him to die, right? We actually feared for Wolverine for a second, holy shit.

Themes and Legacy

I suppose we should spend some time talking about the thematic merit of the actual movie, although I might say that it's a little light in delivering big, world-changing message, political, social, or otherwise. It finds its way more thoroughly being about the human (or mutant) capacity for change, thorughly examining the nature of redemption and whether or not we're premeditated to take action because of our inherent character.
This is all you need, really.

See, an underrated part of this film is that the future didn't change by just merely stopping Mystique's one assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, who I haven't really even mentioned yet, as evil not in the sense that he's mean, grandiose, or a mad scientist, but just in his clear-headed matter-of-fact determination that mutants should be cleansed without more thought than an exterminator thinks of rats), but by stopping her intention. It does a nice job of opening up this concept. The future isn't doomed by Mystique killing Trask, it's doomed by the majority population (humans) developing a fear and mistrust of mutants, which can happen from any hateful mutant action - killing the President, stealing Robots, anything. It's a concept that Mystique refuses to understand until it happens on a very personal level (her character has become a sort of bargaining chip wavered between Xavier and Magneto, until the end when she rejects the influence and mentorship of  both of them).

Magneto understands this concept, but he also rejects a peaceful alternative, instead opting to turn the tables against humans entirely. This is also flawed, though, namely because as the future states, the robots can't really tell the difference when the mutant gene exists in the DNA of humans but isn't expressed until a few generations down the line. The point is, don't be an asshole, because those people you hate could be your kids some day.

Lastly, those future scenes really were incredible. The production design of the entire movie is phenomenal, giving us a bleak future accented by hyper neons and genuinely thrilling action scenes. The 1973 scenes are imbued with funk and period action that matches First Class for its 1960s work. I love the idea of the X-Mansion becoming an old haunted house, with Hank McCoy's Renfield as a practical werewolf serving Xavier's despondent and hermited Dracula. There are a lot of problems with this movie, but it's almost all forgivable by both the excellent character work, but also by just how fun it all is.

I've long considered X2 one of the Best Superhero films, but Days of Future Past may surpass it. With that and The Winter Soldier (2014) both being incredible entries into the Superhero canon, it's possible that we're very far from exhausting the possibilities of the genre. With all the perceived pop culture fatigue that comes with big brash entries into the genre that are more focused on setting up sequels than telling a good story, perhaps articles like this at The Atlantic are right in that we need more variations to push the limits of the genre rather than less to hinder development. We'll just have to see about Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

26 May 2014

Summer Jam Week 3: Lorde and Iggy Go for the Jugular

As Memorial Day charges through the nation and everyone really starts opening pools, playing outside, and generally gets actually pumped for summer, a whole array of Jams are pounding our ears into pop submission. I like mixing things up here, and there a lot of pretty hot tracks to cruise to this week. Go for it!

Hot Jam of the Week: "Tennis Court" by Lorde

Back when I reviewed Pure Heroine as I was wrapping up the Best Music of 2013, I called "Tennis Court" one of Lorde's better songs and I'm glad it's now getting some airplay. The beat is typically minimalist for Lorde, which allows her ridiculous vocals to really shine through. It's not as blase as either "Team" or "Royals" but it's still full of that "over it" attitude that makes Lorde refreshing and instantly popular.

Hum it Out: "La La La" by Naughty Boy ft Sam Smith

I take an extreme amount of joy in listening to this track, even though it's really not that great of a song. I think I just dig the cute kid and the simple chorus. It's a pretty undersung pop track that doesn't really descend into either heady erudite lyrics or completely braindead pop stereotypes. It's fairly solid if not a total breakout Summer Jam.

Rap's Champ: "Trophies" by Drake

I generally dislike Drake, even if he lit it up on SNL and generally appears to be pretty self-aware of his Canadian, half-Jewish, Degrassi: The Next Generation past that should add up to create the softest rapper in the game. That's all true, but Drake doesn't really care and in doing so, sort of diffuses the stereotype as well as the notion that any of that shit even matters. "Trophies" is a sweet song even if it's highly likely we won't be talking about it again this summer.

Smoking Under: "I Wanna Get Better" by Bleachers

This is a pretty fun song that's further supported by a pretty crazy video featuring actors like Retta and that guy from Outsourced. As far as Summer Jams go, there's no musical reason why this kind of lighthearted, catchy thumper shouldn't take off, but it just hasn't found traction yet. It needs a bit more airplay and interest outside of its niche market to become a true Summer Jam.

Love Me Do: "All of Me" by John Legend

"All of Me" is still out there, but it wasn't quite as dominant as it has been so far this summer. I still have less respect for this song than it probably deserves, it's not like it really transcends anything that Legend as ever done, even if it's getting a lot of attention. It is the best crooner love song we've gotten recently, though, but I can't picture jamming out to it at a Beach Party.

Welcome to the Machine: "Digital Witness" by St. Vincent

This is a spectacular track that has so far eluded really mainstream success, but I'm still pulling that those trumpets find their way onto mainstream radio play. Actually, I think Annie Clark is perfectly satisfied enjoying her own level of success distinct from the typical popular airwaves. It would be great to see this start to take off, although as it stands now, we may not be able to support it much longer.

One Prescription: "Fever" by The Black Keys

The Black Keys have had a bit of diminishing returns in regard to the quality of their alubms lately, and their latest, Turn Blue, doesn't really have the punch that El Camino or Brothers had. There is a lot of talk about them being one of the last really great contemporary Rock Bands, which is probably true, and everyone likes this shit, even if "Fever" doesn't really do much to distinguish itself from every other single in the Black Keys' catalogue.

Clueless: "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea ft. Charlie XCX

I generally can't believe that Iggy Azalea's voice comes out of Iggy Azalea's mouth, but it's incredible. It actually took me until "Fancy" to buy into what she was doing, and Charlie XCX's bridges here just add to what could be an extremely potent Summer Jam. It's certainly my favorite song right now, and the video references to Clueless (1995) are sly, surreal, and awesome.

Next week...

No song has yet really broke out to take hold of Summer, so really, it's wide open, folks. I'm still looking at Pitbull, and maybe either "Wild Wild Love" or his World Cup Song to take off, but it's really pretty shitty. Other than that, I'm curious if "Wiggle," "Talk Dirty", or some other really misogynistic "Blurred Lines"-style track takes off. It's probably going to be a long summer.

24 May 2014

The 39th Season of SNL in Review

This past Saturday another season of Saturday Night Live flew by us (the 39th, for those keeping track at home), and now that we've had a few days to collect our thoughts, let's discuss what the hell just happened. This was a crazy, crazy transitional year for the show. I mean, when Vanessa Bayer and Jay Pharaoh are your seasoned veterans, it's kind of insane.

For the most part, though, I'm going to say they pulled it off. They pulled something off. Listen, it wasn't nearly as bad and forgettable as it could have been. Even with their six new white guys. SNL actually got a lot of flack for that, but to be honest, that show gave more a voice for women and African-Americans than much other network outlets out there. Even before they very self-consciously dealt with their minority problem with Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones, episodes like Kerry Washington were very black-centric. Then again, episodes like Ed Norton and Andy Samberg tended to whitewash everything. Obviously, these judgments come from who exactly is hosting, but there is a voice in that show.

The women also really own SNL far more than the men, especially this year. What other show is giving us stuff like "Twin Bed" and "Dyke & Fats"? A lot of SNL is still that old white guy comedy guard, but more and more it's trying to lead progressive comedy, despite its hiring practices. While its bite may be favoring the innocuous over the satirical (I blame Colin Johst, though that can still be funny), to say that SNL is totally dead is fairly ignorant. So, let's go through a few things:

Episode Ranking:

I debated the first two sincerely. Ultimately, I think that Fallon (with Timberlake's help for sure), just added that many more great sketches. Others like Jonah Hill and Lady GaGa didn't really have one great sketch, but their strong line-ups of collectively okay ones stood out in my mind. I had no idea who Josh Hutcherson was before his episode, but he was so game that it became instantly watchable.

As for everyone else, there was clearly some struggles early on in the season, which didn't help Tina Fey's season premiere. It seemed to hit a groove around Christmas, but then the show really dropped off towards its end, to the point where bringing back nearly the entire cast from a few years ago for Andy Samberg seemed more a desperation move to return to established talent rather than to develop new ones. I get kind of sick of SNL when they do this - it's clear that Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon are the ones invited into these "classic" sketches like Bill Brasky and the Vogelchecks, but give some one else a chance, and if they don't deserve it, get rid of them. He, John Milhiser. Anyway, here's my complete season episode ranking:

Jimmy Fallon
Josh Hutcherson
Kerry Washington
Jonah Hill
Lady GaGa
Lena Dunham
Paul Rudd
Anna Kendrick
Jim Parsons
John Goodman
Andy Samberg
Andrew Garfield
Louis C.K.
Seth Rogen
Charlize Theron
Edward Norton
Miley Cyrus
Tina Fey
Melissa McCarthy
Bruce Willis

Yeah, despite "Boy Dance Party," Bruce Willis really seemed like he couldn't care less about being there. Louis C.K. and Melissa McCarthy hosted some of the best episodes in recent memory the first time they hosted, but came up pretty non-thrilling this time around. Others like Andrew Garfield seemed really eager to give it their all, but were stuck in crap sketches. Although my opinion of that is informed by a disinterest in the one-note joke nature of "The Beygency."

Best Sketches:

Boss Dinner (Jonah Hill)

This is brilliant in a lot of ways, mostly for Jonah's absolute straight-faced dinner talk in contrast with him losing his mind in the bathroom. It's built on layers of shame and embarrassment, made all the more significant upon his character's elevation of mundane faux pas to yes, infant penis syndrome. Also, why is starring at Aidy Bryant's facial reactions continuously the best part of any sketch?

Blue River Dog Food (Seth Rogen)

This sketch sort of reminded me of the Chris Farley Colombian Coffee sketch, where it seems like a normal commercial advertising technique that gets absurdly overblown and the "victims" of some marketing ploy or brand treachery completely overreact and go insane. Cecily Strong is irreconcilable here, and although the premise wears thin decently soon, cutting to that cute dog helps. It's also totally insane.
The Midnite Coterie of Sinister Intruders (Edward Norton)

Wes Anderson spoofs tend to be a dime a dozen, but this gets credit for its mash-up with recent home invasion thrillers like The Purge (2013) and You're Next (2013). Ed Norton also does an incredible Owen Wilson, but I get most excited for Jay Pharaoh's brief Danny Glover appearance. Alec Baldwin as the narrator and the stop-action mouse get me every time. I also actually really dug the weird non-sequitor nature of the Halloween Candy sketch in this episode.

Disney World Show (Drake)

I don't know why I liked this one so much. It won't appear on many other folks' Top 10 Lists this year. I think it's how well Drake masks his growing frustration with Nasim Pedrad's Rahat character and how upbeat his Disney World guide character remains while in a pretty hopeless situation. While other sketches are funny because of the complete straight face of the characters involved, this one succeeds because of Drake's unrelenting positivity. It's tough to pull off a role with that subtext of annoyance and somehow the fucking Degrassi star does it.
Les Jeunes de Paris (Anna Kendrick)

These are all pretty brilliant, but this version takes it up a notch, with a nice Pitch Perfect (2012) shout-out and then a ridiculous French medley that begins with Jean-Luc Picard and ends with Ruby Rod. Not enough sketches end with Ruby Rod. The bizarre elation this sketch produces is unmatchable, as is the real star, Nasim Pedrad, who seems to understand in the background what this is supposed to be far more than Bobby Moynihan.
Ooh Child (Lena Dunham)

There's a lot going on in this sketch. There's this depressing pall over the friends that's broken by a spontaneous sing-a-long to The Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child" that Lena Dunham's character just can't seem to get into because of interruptions by the GPS. It's again another very simple high concept but it's made so much weirder by its ending where the four innocuous friends plan on killing and burying Brooks Whelan for unspecified reasons. It's bizarre, hilarious and spectacular.

Josie (Josh Hutcherson)

This is another very simple high concept Josh Hutcherson sketch, but it works really well. Lip syncing is in right now, especially if Emma Stone has anything to mouth about it. Part of this sketch's greatness is how straight Vanessa Bayer plays her responses to a doofy 80s song whose lyrics no one has really ever considered seriously. Actually what gets me the most is Killam's brief appearance, banging a drum pad and then vanishing in a blur of a rat tail.

Chris for President (Louis C.K.)

I would literally lie awake in bed trying to figure this sketch out. SNL seems to have brought on Kyle Mooney and the Good Neighbor troupe to replace Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island crew but what they got is far weirder, which is an astounding feat. Samberg more often tried his hand at a goofy song or a catchy bit of zeitgeist that hit massive mainstream popularity. Mooney has no such aspirations. Of all their digital submissions, "Chris for President" was by far the most surreal, presenting itself as a horribly misguided video advertising the eponymous Chris Fitzpatrick's campaign for Kentwood High School student body president. I think I was most astounded because we've barely began an era of making fun of the 90s when suddenly this is targeting early-2000s wannabe goths. I went to high school with a ton of these kids and it was ridiculous. Mooney nails their faux attempts to be cool or edgy through Getty Images of car crashes and the Mudvayne-like soundtrack. And casual racism.

Baby Boss (Josh Hutcherson)

This sketch worked on so many levels. It has an incredibly simple high concept, great supporting work, and really showcased performer Beck Bennett and his talents more than any other live newcomer performance this year. It's also hilarious how Bennett pulls off precisely how a grown man baby would act. It's an instant classic. Bennett's strong authority as a straight man (is he the straight man here? I suppose not, although part of the hilarity comes from how serious his voice tone is in contrast to his ridiculous physical movements) ought to keep him on staff for a few more years.

Twin Bed (Jimmy Fallon)

It's tough to pick just one sketch from the Fallon Episode. While Family Feud exists more for Fallon and Timberlake to laugh at each other (and for Noel Wells to demonstrate the worst Alyson Hannigan impression ever), and "Baby It's Cold Outside" is a nice progression on that old date rape-y song, "Twin Bed" really shines. It not only captures this weird phenomenon of boyfriends coming home for the holidays but offers this weird Pussy Cat Doll-kind of tribute that showcases what all the ladies of SNL can do. And Lil' Baby Aidy exclaiming "It's a whole thing with Jean" is priceless. Fallon's rapping interlude is spectacular and the seventh grade photo shots? Almost as good as JTT.

Jebidiah Atkinson (Paul Rudd)

This was by far the best Update character of the year, and probably the best new character of the whole show. It almost gets to the point where it's funnier watching Killam screw up, but he remains so far in character and goes so hard that it's endlessly enjoyable. I consistently watch this until I'm crying with laughter, he's so fierce, nothing is sacred ("Great location, Jesus, the mount? Any reason we had to climb half an hour to hear this?!"), and his unending angry criticism at all and everything he consumes is hilarious.

There were plenty of other great moments. Like Bobby Moynihan's weird yet perfect love of The Croods (2013), Spider-Man kissing Chris Martin, and a beached whale exploding on Charlize Theron. But we only have so much time. Let's leave with the brilliant arm choreography of St. Vincent's "Digital Witness" and the soft, sweet and touching nature of Drake's little medley with Jhene Aiko.

23 May 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: X-Men: Days of All X-Men United

It's another big loud Summer Friday, and so it's only natural that we return to the Road to a Blockbuster, our almost weekly look at the critical, cultural, and commercial potential of each film trying to be the next big thing - and by big we mean a ridiculous huge crazy cultural event that dominates the national film conversation for weeks to come. This week we see the release of both the Adam Sandler / Drew Barrymore vehicle, Blended (2014), and the much more hotly anticipated X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). Let's examine both in kind.
At least the movie won't be racist.

Blended is much more Grown-Ups (2009) than That's My Boy! (2012), which is more strongly on the side of unfortunate than one could hope for. What can you really say about Sandler's career, anyway? His roles range from the infurious, in not curious, to the more strange notions of what might have been. Blended ought to do well in its own right - Sandler's family fare tends to do well if not reviled by just about everyone. But no matter what he puts out, it tends to put off someone. Erudite film critics hate Billy Madison (1995). Sloppy potheads hate Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Everyone hates Jack & Jill (2011). He's extremely divisive, but besides that point, Blended doesn't really seem to offer anything to his body of work in the way that something like Funny People (2009) or even yes, the hard R That's My Boy! did. It will be instantly forgettable.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's talk about X-Men. X-Men is an eternally interesting franchise. The initial offering, X-Men (2000) is nearly old enough to get its learner's permit, and its follow-up, X2: X-Men United (2003) is still probably one of the best superhero movies ever made. Both these Bryan Singer films actually pared down the action to focus on only a few characters (Wolverine, Rogue, Magneto) instead of attempting to tackle the entire ridiculous X-Men mythos (sorry, Cyclops). X2 in particular offered some incredible sequences like the Nightcrawler White House attack and Magneto's escape. Holy shit.

After that things got weird and shitty. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) provided plenty of finality, but also suffered from trying to cram far too many storylines into one film, as if this would be the last one they'd ever make. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) suffered from much of the same and really just continuously made no sense at all. X-Men: First Class (2011) was able to serve as an extension of this world, the oldest of the Modern Superhero Franchises was able to really experiment with placing some of the familiar characters, others brand new into a period superhero action piece that also had its share of heady character moments. Finally we have The Wolverine (2013), which was mostly kind of a "I'm sorry for X-Men Origins: Wolverine" in its barred down story and setting and lack of mutants, but by its end devolved into some of the same old shit.

Now it's the Age of the Crossover and we're at Days of Future Past. As far as X-Men storylines go, "Days of Future Past" is one of the craziest, and also one of the best. In either its whatever form, comic or cartoon ("Help! Storm's claustrophobic!"), and I think I actually originally read some kind of junior novelization, it involves time travel, an assassination, and lots of sentials killing every mutant. And that cover is one of the more famous in comic history. Only with a franchise six movies deep is this really possible, after every character has been established and fittingly soothed into the collective consciousness. The time travel elements are also fairly tailor made for a franchise that spans mostly the 2000s and the 1960s with tons of crazy continuity problems in between that no one really cares about. I wonder if this will happen.
Now will we get to see an AoA Liev Schrieber?

It's a bold move to make this story into a whole movie. Simultaneously it's functioning as Fox's big Team-Up movie akin to The Avengers (2012), although to be honest it's a lot more like Fast Five (2011) that just brings together disparate characters from the same series that we haven't seen in ten years or so. Honestly, those same chills we get seeing Shawn Ashmore's Iceman again is like seeing Matt Schulze's Vince again. No one really cared about him in particular the first time around. But it's awesome he's back. Days of Future Past has that with like seven characters.

The X-Men series has actually had a bit of troubling diminishing returns commercially lately, with First Class and The Wolverine ranking in the lower tiers financially. Actually, it's almost surprising, and I'm surprised that I'm surprised, that the most cash any of these have made is The Last Stand's $234 million. I also can't believe that I consider that a little low, but in an age where The Avengers have set that bar impossibly high, and even Iron Man 3 (2013) breaks $400 million, the standard for the originators of the Superhero Phenomenon, the reason we're all in this awful age of superhero movies, needs to be crazy high. I actually again point more to the Fast and Furious franchise which only started making proportional real bank when it mashed its characters up.

With the crazy varying range of quality to these X-Men movies, a good one on par with First Class and The Wolverine will be appreciated. A great one in the vein of X-Men and X-Men United would be fantastic. What will the heady time traveling science fiction and more mutants than ever get us? It's hard to tell, but with impressive acting pedigree, Singer, who really knows this franchise, and more hype than anything else this summer, it ought to deliver. Suit up, both Blended and Days of Future Ass come out today.

19 May 2014

First Impressions: Godzilla 2014

Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, the Terror of Japan, that giant green dancing fiend, returned to theaters this weekend with another Americanized blockbuster treatment that took itself far more serious than its 1998 Roland Emmerich counterpart. Actually after watching it, this Gareth Edwards version is forcing far less cliches than that torrid Emmerich film, and probably takes itself less seriously than that epitome of 90s tentpoles. Anyway, after watching Godzilla (2014), I began to consider it under three distinct lenses, and sure, SPOILERS from here on out:

Sociological Themes:

Godzilla was primarily conceived as a Japanese reaction to the horrors of the Atomic Age and existed as a symbolic instrument of mankind's folly come back to destroy him. This premise, of course, was dropped within a decade of the first run of Showa Godzilla flicks, so it's hard to fault 2014's Godzilla for abandoning this origin. The end result, though, is a little short on political commentary like this.
Anyone else notice that really cute Lady and the Tramp
moment between the two MUTOs sharing the
nuclear missile in the third act?

Even though Godzilla's revamped origin as an eternal prehistoric "alpha predator" seems to completely side-step his symbolic nature as representative of the dangers of nuclear arms, that's not to say the film itself is devoid of these ideas. Ken Watanabe mentions the ghost of Hiroshima and there is this constant fear and regret over detonating a nuclear device to lure the MUTOs (two new kaiju, Monstrous Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms. Even if it feels a little NBE 1-y, at least they didn't force an acronym like S.H.I.E.L.D. or something...) away from the city. It's not a necessarily overplayed theme, which simultaneously feels relieving that this film isn't concerned with those kinds of messages that have been well-recorded in Godzilla's past, but also feels like they should be addressed. Then again, the political climate towards nuclear arms is drastically different than it was in 1954 and perhaps the ghost of nuclear use, as it currently exists in the movie with the solemn Japanese reminder of Hiroshima is enough.

Instead the film is more concerned with Godzilla as this literal God of the Earth that seeks to restore balance by beating the shit out of the MUTOs that are wrecking up the joint. It's not unlike Godilla vs Mothra (1992) to be honest, but with Battra and Mothra representing Godzilla and Godzilla representing the MUTOs. Got that? This ends up being the most interesting concept in the film that has farther reaching consequences within the greater cinematic narrative than the internal story, so more on that later.

In my preview of this flick, I commented that the marketing material seemed to indicate that this film would have the most interesting humans of any Godzilla film, and that's largely true, even if the main show is still the Big Green Guy. Edwards largely spends his time, though, telling a story about fathers' inability to protect their families with more than a few nods to JAWS (1975). There is a range of success to this, and it isn't this film's last reference to that original American blockbuster monster epic.

The clearest parallel is the surname Brody, taken by Roy Scheider in JAWS and here by Bryan "Breaking" Cranston and Aaron "Kick-Ass" Taylor-Johnson as Joe and Ford Brody, respectively. There was this weird on-going theme in the sequels to JAWS that the first shark's descendents or whatever continuously stalked the Brody family for revenge. Like in JAWS IV: The Revenge (1987). There's almost something similar at work here how disaster in general and the MUTOs in particular seem to stalk the Brody family, and you had better believe that at the end Mama MUTO recognizes poor Ford's face. But let's talk parenting issues.

A huge theme of JAWS is Martin Brody's complete inability to deal with the on-going shark attack crisis on a meaningful level and a continuous failure to protect his own family. He sends his son to play in the lagoon to be safe, but sure enough that's right where the shark goes. He doesn't have any control or authority to enforce any of his actions, despite being the Sheriff. Ultimately on the boat he's reduced to an ignorant child, getting in the way between the more adult and experienced Quint and Hooper before he's forced to combine the science of Hooper (the oxygen tank) and the artful brutality of Quint (the rifle) to blow the shark's head up.

In Godzilla, the Brody's are similarly hapless. Joe Brody fails to save his own wife which exacerbates his already severe emotional abandonment of his son. Despite being arguably the smartest person in the film, his obsession is considered more a sign of mental illness than given credence, and for all of Cranston's brilliant sobbing, vulnerability, and angry, trailer-worthy speeches, he's treated like a stubborn child until his death. His son is forced to bail him out of jail, and he lives in a crummy one-room apartment. The role of adult and child have been reversed, a regression similar to the last third of JAWS.

I think critics have overly mourned Cranston's death, really he dies at a perfect point where he ceases to add anything more to the story. Ford Brody's arc parallels Cranston's fairly closely - he sends his wife away while his son is forced to watch from afar while he deals with affairs at Ground Zero. I found myself perplexed analyzing why he succeeds from a thematic standpoint where his father failed. By their natures he's a far more physical figure, his combat expertise tends to trump the intellectualism of his nuclear engineer father. Or perhaps while he initially lets go too much while Joe holds on too much, when he finally finds a balance he's able to surpass both Martin and Joe Brody's childish faults and ironically, as by far the youngest Brody, become more of a man than any of them.

Intertextuality with Contemporary Films

In addition to this heady Spielbergian fathers-protecting families vibe that runs through this whole thing, there's also the blueballs-generating effect of abstaining the display of the eponymous creature for an exceptionally long time. There's even a shot equivalent to Jaws swimming under the Orca, except naturally, for scale it's Godzilla swimming under the USS Saratoga. I don't necessarily have the problem with this that some other critics do, because it keeps inflating our imaginations. Although I agree with this reviewer, who comments that Quint, Hooper, and Brody would be entertaining enough in a film without a giant shark. There's no Indianapolis scene to really show off the talent that was brought on board.
Dave Chappelle could still take him.

While the humans are plenty interesting for being humans in a Godzilla movie, the film really becomes interesting when it begins commentating on other recent kaiju films in its own way. It's tough to even conceive of the scale of these monsters and Godzilla does a spectacular job of showing bits and pieces of its star, mostly through its influence on the world around it, wrecked buildings and tidal waves that it creates by merely emerging from the water. It's fitting to save the big brawl till the end, which gives it all the more pay-off. The film is trying to be a counter to Pacific Rim (2013), which also treated its Kaiju more as natural disasters you can punch in the face. That's still an exceptional movie that delivered all the smash 'em ups we could have asked for, and I actually may have been more frustrated with the slow burning tension of Godzilla much more if I hadn't gotten all my kaiju destruction love out with Pacific Rim. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson does out-act Charlie Hunnam at least.

It's important to remember, though, that more fights don't make a movie better. Look at Man of Steel (2013), whose fights largely become meaningless immortals battering each other until its controversial ending. Godzilla could have fallen into the same predicament, but instead saved the stakes (and the budget) until the one big super-brawl in the third act. Also considering Man of Steel's city destruction porn criticism (same goes for Star Trek Into Darkness [2013]), Godzilla fittingly seems to withhold this at all costs, showing more of the horrifying aftermath than taking puerile pleasure in watching the act. Of course, you can't have a Godzilla movie without destroying at least one city, which it does in a kind of hellish vision preserved from that first teaser, which is just as bone-chilling as it was in December.

On that note, the film also seems to counter this whole Batman Begins (2005) / Casino Royale (2006) / Star Trek (2009) / Man of Steel obsession we have with "gritty remakes" that go through these really contrived notions just to over-explain classic iconography rather than truly letting things organically develop. Godzilla himself arguably has less of a rational reason for existing than traditionally (I don't know what makes more sense - an iguana mutated by the Bikini Atoll tests; a mutated, time travelling Godzillasaurus; or the ancient million-year old radiation-eating super predator theory here). There aren't fanboy moments here disguised as self-important rhetoric. Godzilla's only purpose is to tell everyone to shut the fuck up and bow down to their god.

That's how you get this commentary on Cloverfield (2008), and even Godzilla (1998) and that film's own relationship with Jurassic Park (1993). The MUTOs are pretty damn Clover-like, and it's fitting that Godzilla gives one of them a kiss of radioactive fire breath and rips its head off (in one of the most satisfying Godzilla-villain dispatcher moves of all time). It's also fitting that his other classic move, the tail swipe, is used to kill the other one. This is the only reason Godzilla exists in this film - to blow apart these monsters that can't be represented by guys in suits, while G-Man himself is stockier than ever.

Seriously - everyone else has a rational for the MUTOs stalking around - eating radiation to gain enough energy to reproduce, but by all accounts Godzilla is pretty content to sleep forever until these jerks come along and try to upstage him. "Fuck that shit, I'm going to nuke your head," says Godzilla. Or, after his eye-to-eye bro moment with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, perhaps we should call him Brozilla. Their tag-teaming of distracting the MUTOs away from each other was a brilliant way for a puny human to team up with the King of the Monsters.

As for Godzilla '98, anyone notice that scene with the MUTO eggs that came awfully close to that film's third act which in itself aped the third Raptor act of Jurassic Park? See, all Godzilla '98 was trying to do was be a bigger, badder version of that Spielberg movie, but it failed miserably for a ridiculous amount of reasons, even if it had one of the more interesting soundtracks of all time. Godzilla '14 wades dangerously close, then literally burns this idea and shuts the door. As if Toho didn't already blow Zilla out of the water. Literally.

I also want to comment on how good this thing looks. Not to harp on Man of Steel some more (fuck it, I hated that movie), but the action was incomprehensible. Ditto for most of Mike Bay's Transformers films (tho the most recent trailer actually seems like he has a handle on things). It's a weird thing to even positively criticize, but you can tell what's going on at all moments in Godzilla, and you have a keen awareness for where monsters are and who's fighting whom. Action hasn't had that much clarity in a loud, bloated blockbuster since Gore Verblinski's At World's End (2007).

Commentary on Godzilla Films

The film constantly weighs expectation and anticipation with what is happening on screen. From the initial bait n switch in the Philippines and at the Japanese power plant there are these constant "oh shit" moments where the audience thinks they're ahead of the film but they're really not. Balancing this expectation with a film series that has such a crazy history as Godzilla is insane.

There are all these forces at work here, mostly to introduce the Monster to American shores, literally within the metanarrative, and therefore, to Western audiences. See, the Americans in this film just don't understand Godzilla, or what kind of movie they're in. They keep thinking up these ridiculous nuclear bomb plots because that's really all they have to go on. Nukes are always the only option, from Independence Day (1996) to The Avengers (2012). Going back to the Japanese understanding o the Atomic Age, the film may have something significant to say about this, after all:

See, nukes are the only way that Americans can think. If there is a world problem, we feel like we have to throw the military at it, even if everyone (including the people in the movie) think it's a pretty bad idea. Watanabe is the only one who suggests just letting the monsters duke it out, because a nuclear alternative isn't even a conceivable option. It should never be considered. Instead, he knows what kind of movie he's in - you gotta let the monsters sort this out on their own. We're at their mercy. The Americans in the movie need to get used to their military being completely outclassed, and thus the audience needs to also re-learn (especially after Godzilla '98 reversed this), that we have less control over this planet than we'd like to - and can't just nuke our problems away.

There's also this delicate balance of camp vs seriousness. Again, the Americans in the movie keep trying to make it a more serious, Battle: Los Angeles (2011)-style military adventure, but the Japanese are trying to just let it be a goofy monster mash. It ends up being a bit of both, but that works. At the end, Godzilla roars, having been anointed and earned the honorific, King of the Monsters - and he's hear to stay. Now, how do we get a King Ghidorah appearance?

Summer Jam Week 2: From Gangstas to St. Vincent

It's the second week of Summer and as Godzilla's fire breath incinerates the Pacific coast, we have something else heating up - Summer Jams! That was awful. We've got an eclectic mix this week of commercialized alt rockers, former gangsta rappers trying to make their way in the modern world, and finally, a handful of ladies that are producing the best pop music out there right now. Dig in:

Hot Jam of the Week: "Chase the Paper" by 50 Cent ft. Prodigy, Kidd Kidd, & Styles P

The kind of homophobic hardcore gangsta rap that 50 and G-Unit pioneered ten years ago really died out by 2007 or so, but give him credit for attempting a comeback with a pair of songs that sound exactly like the crap he made way back then. He sleepwalks through "Irregular Hearbeat," which sounds exactly like anything off his uninteresting sophomore album, The Massacre (2005). "Chase the Paper" is a little bit more engaging, but also suffers from an underproduced beat and no real grabby hooks. Keep searching, 50. Also, what the hell, you have more collaborators than can fit on the YouTube title, man.

Just Friends: "Sleeping with a Friend" by Neon Trees

Neon Trees is kind of a shitty, easily commercialised band without a ton of artistic merit, but this track has that strong kind of background appeal that makes it a decent Summer Jam. It's the kind of song that will play at a party and then you suddenly surprise yourself by knowing every lyric. It innocuously worms its way into your brain, it's hell. I can't suggest that anyone recalls this one in September, but it's cool for now.

Walk it Out: "The Walker" by Fitz and the Tantrums

This is kind of a jazzy song that doesn't really soar above its genre, but it's easy listening by Fitz and the Tantrums, which is growing into a decent band. It's got that whistling bridge that you can picture filling out a lot of movie montages in 2015. Can't you just picture a whirlwind "getting life together" set orchestrated to that jingle? I don't give this a lot of wings this summer, but it's fun.
Happy Mothers Day? "Headlights" by Eminem ft. Nate Ruess

See, 50, this is how you adapt. "Headlights" is one of the better songs off of The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013), or at least simultaneously the most personal and epic. The video is simple and touching and builds a story like few rappers or artists are capable of. Ruess' big voice is used to wonderful extent here, and even if Em has spit hotter fire ("Rap God"), this is still a great track. Does it have Big Summer Jam potential? I'm not sure anyone is rocking out to it, and it hasn't gotten tremendous airplay, but interest ought to surge.

Got a Commercial? "Best Day of My Life" by American Authors

To me, this is the commercial song of 2014. Just like anything Vampire Weekend produced in 2009. It's just got that much positivity to it, a quick and simple chorus to play over that last three seconds of a Hyundai driving away, it works really well. Vampire Weekend turned in one of the best albums of the year last year, so it's not an entirely awful way to get your music out there, but for now, American Authors can be considered the sell-outs of Summer. Maybe they'll move past it because it's not an entirely awful track.

An SNL Springboard: "Digital Witness" by St. Vincent

St. Vincent has had some nice exposure lately, whether it's Annie Clark singing with Nirvana at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony (by far the best collaborator of their four guests, by the way) or their gig on SNL this past weekend. And Jason Derulo, this is how to parlay a trumpet into a song. "Digital Witness" is awesome but hasn't really received mainstream national airplay yet. They're ready to break, though, and all will be well.

Big Pop: "Problem" by Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea

There's no one really hotter than Iggy right now and even though "Fancy" is still pretty spectacular, "Problem" has come on like a dynamo. It's crazy to hear Iggy and Ariana's voices merge and play with each other here, the former sounding like a bad bitch thug and the latter resembling a smooth efficient Broadway star. It's incredible. More trumpet. I don't really see a ceiling for this one.

Godzilla-Level Legendary: "All of Me" by John Legend

There wasn't really a choice here, Legend is still on top of all the charts, countdowns, and this track is everywhere, even if listening to it sometimes this week I didn't even recognize it. While Legend has longtime been a notable artist, he's never really exploded like this, although I'm not sure if this is really exploding. This isn't really Usher "OMG" level early Summer success, more success because that one killer jam hasn't come along yet. I'm curious about how sustainable this slow burning crooner jam lasts.

Next week...

I had a lot of tracks in mind that were left off, including the aforementioned "Fancy" and "Irregular Heartbeat," along with St. Vincent's other SNL showpiece, "Birth in Reverse." I think the songs chosen this week were more appropriately hot, but the ebb and flow of Summer can do strange things. I was also curious about Pitbull's modified NBA Playoffs "Timber" but deemed it far too stupid. "Wild Wild Love" is a tremendously awful song, but also pretty Jammy. That might creep in here.

16 May 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Godzilla Stomps on Everyone and Likes It

Another Summer Friday is upon us and it's time again for the Road to a Blockbuster - our look at the cultural, critical, and commercial potential of every big, loud, brash Summer Movie Hollywood has to throw at us. Now, it's typically important that a film be a big commercial success, that's what everyone writing the checks cares about. Generally the fans and critics also hope it to be a critical success, that is, an actually good movie that inspires some sort of insight into the human condition. I am most concerned, however, with its cultural success. What kind of impact will this have in driving the national pop cultural conversation as well as creating an investment that will make us want to discuss it ten or twenty years down the road?

There are all kinds of variations here, but in the long run, culture trumps all of them. Blade Runner (1982) is always a nice example of a critical and commercial failure but a stunning cultural success. You can go up to AVABAR (2009) to see the full extent of commercial success without much critical or cultural influence. And I might think of something like Super 8 (2011) which had a lot of critical love without a ton of cultural impact or commercial success. Get my drift? Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014) already has all three this year. Can Godzilla (2014) replicate?
Sometimes I struggle to even believe this is a whole genre.

I love Godzilla. I saw every Godzilla movie probably between the ages of six and nine years old, which up to that point mostly involved Showa Era goofiness. Giant puppets and dudes in rubber suits smashing into each other with incomprehensible alien plots are very attractive to small children. It's what made Pacific Rim (2013) so fulfilling last year in that it put up on screen all those ancient fantasies which worked nostalgia with a shiny veneer of competent CGI work.

That's the thing though - it took a while for special effects to catch up with imagination. We can do just about anything now, and it's not totally limited to big rubber masks and stock footage. Of course, that's not necessarily a good think. Just ask Roland Emmerich's Godzilla (1998), staring GINO, Matthew Broderick, and that blonde chick whose career was possibly destroyed because of it. I feel like Godzilla has sort of become the poster child for everything that can go wrong with a modern blockbuster. It's really embodies the re-make that can't get anything right. Even when I was a fairly inarticulate movie-goer at the tender age of twelve when it came out, I hated it because Godzilla died at the end. Godzilla can't die - his skin is made out of super-radioactive armour or something. That's my kid brain logic, anyway. Even then I understood that the main symbolism of Godzilla originally began as a clear analogue of the uncontrollable dangers of nuclear power, but he's also morphed into this elemental force of nature that mankind unleashed upon the world. Call him nuclear fallout, a tidal wave, global warming, whatever - you can't kill it with a missile. You can't kill it at all, folks.

And this kind of deep symbolic reading of Godzilla combines with a sixty-year, thirty-film history that also includes aliens from Planet X, Giant lobsters, horrible dubbed acting, and some of the cheesiest shit ever be featured in this prolific of a series. Still, for being a giant rampaging nuclear lizard, Godzilla has a really articulated personality and clear sense of branding that has infected just about everything, from Reptar to Cloverfield (2008). In the back of my mind I also kind of wonder if the recent spat of Godzilla video games, like the canny Godzilla Unleashed (2007), helped both to canonize both Big Green's allies and Rogue's Gallery (it's always nice to remember that a monster as cool as Titanosaurus exists) as well as featured that fine mix of fast organic movement with the genuine weight of a man in a rubber suit. Things like this that held back more than the rapid energy of the Jurassic Park (1993) T-Rex-like Zilla foster a greater sensibility in line with the original, slow-moving destruction concept, but without the expense of things looking totally ridiculous.
This movie will at least go down in history as having
some of the best posters ever.

So, here we are. It's 2014 and we've got a new Godzilla movie that is making the biggest promise in the world not to suck. It's a testament to the talent involved and a very concerted marketing effort that strives for cool and intense over schlocky and arrogant. Director, Gareth Edwards' Monsters (2010) does a great little bit of world building, shows some effective human drama, and plenty of destruction from giant alien monsters. He's an inspired choice for Godzilla. As far as the actors go, from Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson giving us a little Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) preview of their big-budget chops to the instant gravitas brought by Bryan Cranston (I dunno - he's kind of ended up everywhere lately. Has John Carter [2012] or Total Recall [2012] changed anyone's minds? Cranston does not a good piece of art make), there are some power players here.

And that could be this film's greatest strength. Name one human from any previous Godzilla film. By character name. Yeah. Now name twenty monsters. Yeah. If Godzilla can actually create some interesting human characters, juicy disaster-addled drama, AND a monster-mash, this will knock it out of the park. It's been a long time coming, to be fair, but Godzilla's twisty-turny history between camp, thoughtful commentary (okay, we haven't seen that one since 1954), and playful sci-fi fantasy has both given us an incredibly deep well of mythology to draw from as well as plenty of experience with adaptations that have gone horribly, horribly wrong. I'm serious about pulling influences from the horrors of Godzilla '98, the balance between action and homage of Godzilla Unleashed, and even some of the line between insane science and thrilling smash 'ems of some of the better later films like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) or Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S (2003) to give us the best concoction of drama and destruction. There's plenty riding on this, and with any luck, this will be the first really great film of the summer.

Godzilla is in theaters today.

12 May 2014

Summer Jam Week 1: The Legend of John Legend

Listen here, folks - it's time for the Summer Jam Countdown 2014, and this Summer promises to be one of the hottest ever. Steaming, even. Each week until Labour Day we'll be tracking the hottest jams of the week, fresh beats and smooth tracks only need apply. Past winners include immortal tracks from Rihanna's "Umbrella" in 2007 all the way up to Robin Thicke's date rape opus in 2013. Who will take home the Crown this year and forever be linked to the Summer of 2014? Keep logging in every Monday morning until the leaves turn brown to find out!

Hot Jam of the Week: "Summer" by Calvin Harris

I'm always curious about these explicitly summer tracks that seem to try way to hard to become a Summer Jam. It's an informal title, after all. It's not like LMFAO set out to rule 2011. This song kind of sucks, too. There's nothing really revolutionary about the beat or subject matter, which makes it pretty damn forgettable. I can see this gaining traction as people get pumped up for the Summer Months but it'll fall pretty hard far before fall.

The Prestige: "Magic" by Coldplay

"Magic" seems like just another solid Coldplay song in a "Fix You" or "Speed of Sound" sort of way and not a really incredible song like a "Violet Hill" or a "Paradise" sort of way. It's kind of boring, but pretty chill, and definitely palatable. Which is why Coldplay sells a ton of records. Anybody can put it on at anytime and it's pretty okay, but not challenging. I thought they were done after Mylo Xyloto (2011) anyway.

The First Couple Strikes Again: "Part II (On the Run)" by Jay-Z ft. Beyonce

This song is a little old but it's had some nice airplay lately and is infinitely listenable. Bey isn't really killing it like her secret album, and as far as collabos between these two go, "Drunk in Love" is still the high tally mark. Still, this sequel to 2003's "Bonnie & Clyde" earns its stripes with competent cooing from Queen B and Jay strutting through an old school cadence. As far as Summer goes, this won't last too long, but we can dig it.

Reznoriffic: "Satellite" by Nine Inch Nails

I'm not sure if Reznor is more conforming to modern day electronica or if EDM just owes that much of a debt to him, but even thought modern NIN isn't really the same band that would show up at Hullabalooza, "Satellite" is still an engaging track. It grows and permeates like the mature output that an Oscar-winning composer should produce and Reznor's voice is more suited to this style than anything else NIN has came up with in recent memory.

I Do Understand: "Talk Dirty" by Jason Derulo ft. 2 Chainz

It's wild what a well-placed trumpet can do for a song, right? It lends this otherwise dumb song a solid New Orleans Jazz flair and Derulo a bonafide hit. I can't really figure out if Derulo is worthy of attention as an R&B artist - I mean, who cares about "Ridin' Solo" today? 2 Chainz tends to save this track, though, and he's just ridiculous enough as this new wave of intense hip-hop artists (Future comes to mind) to pay attention to.

Inuition: "La La La" by Naughty Boy ft. Sam Smith

I'm captivated by the calm progression of this track, as well as the video which is cute as hell. There's this build to the eponymous "la la la's" that really grab me. The beat is minimal and the singing isn't really groundbreaking, but that childlike chorus is catchy as hell. The video is simultaneously surreal, grounded, bizarre, and comforting, which leads to a trip. It's a bit past its prime radio airplay, we'll see if this can make a run.

Put in Work: "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea ft. Charlie XCX

I'm wondering when Iggy Azalea is going to transition from underrated to overexposed. It may be soon. I kind of passed on "Work" actually, but she's really showcasing what a blonde white Australian girl can do with a full articulated hardcore rapper voice. Charlie XCX, last seen with Icona Pop last summer is a perfect addition during the bridge. It's also always a pleasure to watch Jimmy Fallon's lip sync version. I don't think this will be the last time Iggy is on this Winner's List.

Wedding Season: "All of Me" by John Legend

This is kind of a weird way to kick off the Summer Jam Season, but John Legend's wedding video will have to do. This track was clearly all over the place this week and just kind of dominated everything. I don't really think it has the legs to last that long this summer, but it's nice for the criminally underrated Legend to gain some public recognition.

Next week...

We're just getting started, folks. May is a brutal jam month, and it's very rare that any of these tracks will have the stamina to last long enough to become a true Summer icon. The race is wide open, though, and I wouldn't count out Iggy or Legend in particular. Stay tuned to find out who moves up and down and who becomes true Summer Royalty!

09 May 2014

Because Star Wars: An Examination of Macro and Personal Narratives

Maybe it's Star Wars Day this past week (May the Fourth be with you), or just an inspirational spark from the Cast of Episode VII: Probably Not As Good (2015) being released, but a lot of Star Wars has been on my mind lately. It's a testament to the cultural power of this series that after two good ones, one very marketable one, and three awful ones, that this thing is still getting folks pumped up for whatever George and J.J. have in store for us. That said, for whatever reason, I began thinking of the narratives of each film, particularly how A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) run completely inverse of each other, then how everything else is crazy.

A New Hope follows the personal story of Luke Skywalker as he gets caught up in this macro story of this galactic rebellion. Now, the macro story is where much of the adept worldbuilding comes from, and leads to discussions like this. Part of the film's success is how articulate Luke's heroic journey is from small town farmer to a key participant in this big climactic battle in the name of freedom in the Galactic Civil War. If you watch it, though, the stakes get less and less personal. One of the early horrors the Empire wrought (and one of the nastier things they do) is burning Owen and Beru Lars. This has more weight than the entire destruction of Alderaan because we met and got to know these people. Luke travels from avenging their deaths to saving a bunch of random people he just met for a cause he isn't wholly a part of yet. It's still great character progression, but the essence is a personal story flirting more and more with the macro until they are inexorably intertwined.
Do you wanna build a snowman?

The Empire Strikes Back works in reverse: It starts with a big battle where Luke does some awesome feat (single-handedly destroying an AT-AT), but the rebels still lose. He then retreats out of the forefront of the rebellion, as does everyone, really, and goes into hiding with a more personal journey with Yoda. Looking back on it, it's surprising how little Empire deals with the macro story of the rebellion beyond those first Hoth scenes. Luke's narrative here climaxes in a fight with Darth Vader that's both caused by personal reasons (his vision of Han in pain, and the fact that his friends were tortured and frozen solely to get to him), and then obviously ends on an extremely intimate note with the revelation that Vader is his pappy and how could you, you chopped off my hand. Luke spins away and away from the Galactic Civil War and back to his origin, in this case, an origin he didn't know he had.

Return of the Jedi (1983) is downright bizarre when read this way, though. The first half at Jabba's Palace doesn't really have anything to do with anything besides fulfilling the plot and getting Han back. Luke doesn't really learn anything, but he's able to show us his progress as a warrior since Empire. It also has nothing at all do with the Galactic Civil War. In this sense we could read it as part of his personal journey, but there isn't really any growth. The Endor half is also peculiar. We see the greatest mustering of both Rebels and Imperials ever, as well as the most significant battle and insight into their politics. For Luke, though, it's expressly personal. His final arc sees him confronting and dealing with his father's sins, as well as his own temptations before the face of the Emperor and eventually triumphing not through force but through earning his father's sympathy. It's a powerful statement about how Luke rejects the temptation of power, or even the nature of fighting, both earns and doles out forgiveness, and not only brings a return of the Jedi Order but a better one. I'm lost as to whether or not it's part of the macro - I guess it is only because his personal story at this point has huge ramifications for his universe.

So, now we have to discuss the prequels. The Phantom Menace (1999) is all over the place. I can't quite make rhyme or reason out of it. Whose journey is it? Obi-Wan's? Anakin's? Liam Neeson's? Let's go with Anakin, where you get something similar to A New Hope - Tatooine farm boy is caught up in this greater interstellar conflict - but trade disputes don't really have the panache of a Galactic Civil War. The macro conflict is also crazy, like, what does the podrace accomplish for any character? It's all plot. There are very little personal stakes anywhere, maybe when Darth Maul murders Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan has some motivation, but other than that, it's basically "I'm good and you're evil, so we should fight."
Tracking the arc of Owen and Beru Lars and their role
in setting up personal conflict for the Skywalker boys
would also make for a good post

Attack of the Clones (2002) heavily mirrors Empire, but it's far more hollow, except it once again ends with a battle instead of starting with one. Anakin goes from fulfilling the macro storyline through his duty as a Jedi to a very personal one with Padme. Considering that Luke went off on his own with Yoda, George is saying some interesting things about the perils of love here (maybe that's why nerds love it - girls are bad!). There are personal stakes, like Anakin's mother being killed by Sand People, but that's resolved fairly quickly, although there is supposedly some inner turmoil there (I do dig this reading, which suggests that the film should have transformed into an Old Western, with Anakin, Owen Lars, and One-Leg Cliegg searching out the Tusken Raiders, but oh well). Anakin and Padme also go to the final planet to rescue their friend, this time it's Obi-Wan instead of Han, who again had to battle through an asteroid field to get there. Obi-Wan and Anakin's final battle with Dooku is a smaller scale than the Geonosian conflict going on around them, and would at first seem to recall the duel in Empire with Anakin's hand getting cut off and the Jedis getting pwned and all. But there's also no real personal connection between Anakin and Dooku, so who cares? It certainly doesn't hold a candle to the conflict between Luke and father, so it ends up parallel but empty. There's no real need for Yoda to arrive besides being awesome, which is more the typical prequel route.

Revenge of the Sith (2005) succeeds for the most part because it's the only prequel that doesn't mirror its OT counterpart, but it does mirror Empire much stronger than Clones. It begins with a huge battle and even though the Republic wins, it's a somewhat Pyrrhic victory that showcases Anakin's flying skills much better than anything Phantom's podrace needed to do. It also features a throne room scene in inverse of Jedi, where Palpatine tempts Anakin to give in and kill Dooku, and unlike the mercy that Luke shows, Anakin commits. That's what training with Padme instead of Yoda will do to you. It then descends down Anakin's path mirroring Luke's mentorship with Yoda, but instead he's getting taught by the Sith Lord. It ends with perhaps the most personal battle in the sextology, with Anakin vs. Obi-Wan. As far as the macro goes, Anakin flirts in and out. He's inexplicably more caught up in it than any other moment in the series. When he's killing younglings and the nematoids, he's at once creating great personal anguish and ending the Clone War.

So, what does all this mean? It's easy to see that films that lay heavy work on the macro (Phantom) suffer, because it's tough to care about all this fiction that's just made up. Films that rely on the personal journey (Empire) tend to be a bit more revered. That doesn't seem like a difficult concept. Those films like Sith and Jedi that really intertwine the two, though, make for some of the best moments in the series. What will Episode VII give us? It's hard to tell, but perhaps we should look to Abrams' Star Trek (2009) to see something more like Jedi than anything else. What do you think?

02 May 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 causes "Swinging into Theaters" Puns Everywhere

As far as Superheroes go, there's a lot to Spider-Man. His powers are naturally awesome, his attitude is fresh, he's young, a bit of a science geek, and he struggles every day with his great power. Something else about responsibility, I don't know. He's the perfect hero to absorb all of our insecurities and picture ourselves swinging as him - the all-encompassing mask and body suit helps, along with the knowledge that inside, he struggles to pay rent, please his family, and keep his grades up, just like anyone else. It's no wonder that he's sort of the grandaddy the modern Comic Book Movie - while X-Men (2000) proved the genre could be lucrative, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002) proved it could be ridiculously lucrative, as well as successfully center around the pathos of one hero and one villain and still be engaging. Of course, all that was thrown out by the third installment, which everyone but me hated, but that's besides the point.
Coming in 2019...Son of Spider-Man!

So let's think hard about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). It's certainly winning the marketing battle of the Summer, and in the past few months, there has been more set photos, trailers, commercials, and product tie-ins than anything else. Why am I getting the Spider-Man logo in the corner for my commercials for NBA Playoffs? Oh synergy, where would we be without you? So what exactly will the commercial prospect of this be? Probably good but not stunning.

The film just doesn't look all that great, there's no real story being told, or anything to latch on to and invest in. Any interesting twist it may have held, like Harry Osborn becoming Green Goblin, has also been thoroughly spoiled by run of the mill commercials. That's not even a twist, actually, considering it's something that already happened like ten years ago at the end of Spider-Man 2 (2004). The marketing effort actually really reminds me of Man of Steel (2013), which was considered a financial success, even though for some reason its $291 million domestic and $667 million worldwide always seemed low to me. Maybe that's because Superman was everywhere last summer, but it grossed less than any Iron Man movie, the first three Spider-Man movies, and the latter two Nolan Batmans. For a movie so hyped and for a superhero so profound and iconic, you'd think he'd be at the top. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is right behind at #11 all time among Comic Book Adaptations and that's probably close to where this one will go too.

I guess what's also true about Man of Steel is that I really didn't care about it immediately after I saw it. Same with The Amazing Spider-Man, especially in a summer with The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) which each pushed the superhero formula, for better or worse, into new directions rather than the bland origin re-hash of ASM. The marketing reeks more of desperation than excitement generating (unlike say, Godzilla [2014], which drops a few weeks later).

Let's keep on that topic. Culturally, it does seem like it's more contributing to a universe rather than striking out on its own. It's not built to stand on its own, but to set up future shit. And yes, I'm curious about a Sinister Six movie, I think a villain team-up sort of Avengers antithesis is awesome and there is a ton of greatly plodded Spider-Man history to support it. I'm not sure that six should be Lizard, Goblin, Rhino, Electro, Venom, and whoever else, but beggars can't be choosers. C'mon - we deserve a Mysterio movie. Still, the entire business model of these big superhero films has become more about leading to these big team-up movies. In ten years time no one is going to revel over ASM2, it'll just blur together as this shared Marc Webb memory while someone else is demonstrating their interpretation of the character.

And I have no problem with that, really. We should actually see more directors handle the same characters in different contexts. That's what the comics themselves are like, after all. Why not? Why do movies have to be so static? When will we get a movie that's daring enough to put Doctor Octopus' brain in Peter Parker's body? We have a strange obsession for continuity of fictional characters, and tend to freak out when they're shaken up, which mystifies me. I am one of the few probably who are disappointed that Peter's back in his own brain, but why not be bold? The character has already achieved immortality - his legacy isn't tarnished, so when will movies catch up and start going really crazy and more experimental?

Probably never. Movies aren't comic books. They're far to expensive and far too many people are involved to really go crazy. Especially with big studio tentpoles like this, where whole universes ride on its success, this is going to be as mass marketed as you can get. And that's globally, which is a trend that continuously hurts movie quality. That's not to say it's all bad. The flashy colours, flashpan movements, and comic value provides for a much better comic book movie than Raimi ever delivered, and maybe even a better spider-man movie, but it doesn't create a better movie. Andrew Garfield is also a far better Spider-Man than Tobey "Devon Morehouse" Maguire ever was, although probably a worse Peter Parker.
I couldn't decide between an AVABAR,
Dr. Manhattan, or Mr. Freeze joke.

Critically, this film is already getting a thrashing. I'm not actually sure why there is even a point to seeing this film. It's not like you really need to understand where these characters are coming from like in The Avengers before they all team up. What are the stakes? Is New York City getting electrocuted? If you look at something like Spider-Man 2, you'll see that city destruction there, but it was born from a tremendous amount of personal conflict. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3 dealt expressly with personal conflict over mindless flashy conflict, which will always provide a more interesting story.

It is actually a fallacy to completely honor Raimi's films though. As Honest Trailers points out, they are all the same film, after all. Peter doubts his powers until Mary Jane is kidnapped by a misunderstood victim of science gone wrong, then he saves her but can't quite seal the deal. It would probably be worth your time to just go see The Winter Soldier (2014) again this week and wait till Sinister Six (2016).
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