25 August 2014

Summer Jam Week 16: Taylor Swings! Misses!

Have you everything ready for fall? School supplies? Work...supplies? This week sort of sucks - it's about the last gasp of Sunshine we're going to get before all shit gets run into the hellish maelstrom of Autumn. Fuckin shit. Sorry to get so angry, but I just depressed myself. At least the Summer Jam is nearly over so we can toss a coin to decide which Iggy Azalea song won.

Hot Jam of the Week: "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift

Is this it? The final moment were Taylor shakes off the last remaining remnants of her country-ness and allows herself to be completely absorbed by pop music, instead? I actually first heard this maybe last week or something, and totes didn't even realize this was Swift until this very moment when I looked up who the hell sang this for the List this week. Therein lies an interesting inherent conundrum - is this gamble going to truly bring Swift into the mainstream pop world or will it alienate enough of her country-loving fans to prove her doom? Also, didn't she get her start singing about not being the popular cheerleader?

The Poor Girl's Jhene: "2 on" by Tinashe ft. SchoolBoy Q

I probably give Tinashe more crap than I should just because there seems to be this influx of cooing babyvoiced R&B singers lately, and she's just on the tail end of that upsurge - but damn if this isn't a really damn sexy song. There's a bit of an edge to her soft brays here that make this super-listenable and a really righteous Summer Jam. I don't think this is winning Summer anytime soon, but I may list it as one of my favorite jams of the year come December.

Fart Noises: "Boom Clap" by Charli XCX

The hook really saves this otherwise pretty boring pop exercise and there's nothing else really notable about this jam. I wonder what else Charli XCX has in her, because right now she's basically proven herself to be an exceptional chorus singer but there's something lacking in substance elsewhere here. I don't mean to shit all over Charli XCX, but I'm just unimpressed with this song in contrast to her talent.

Gone Fishin': "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor

How had I never heard this track before this week? This is fantastic! The beat! That swagger! I love that chunky sassy white chicks like this can launch jams like this and get 27 million YouTube views and soar to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. America! The "love yourself, you're beautiful you fat goddess!" message is a little on the nose and appears immediately defensive. It also seems like an old message if not for the fact that nothing in pop culture's attitudes towards women has really changed at all since something like Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." But yeah, this song rules.

To the Woods: "Back to the Shack" by Weezer

This jam is starting to hit me more and more as a pretty solid track and not just a re-tread of '94 Weezer. It's at once this call for simplicity, to turn up the radio and turn down reality singing shows. It even has a bit of admission to the necessity of making mistakes to foster character growth. All this is wrapped up in a really lively package that is probably one of the funner tracks of Summer 2014's Rock Scene. If only we had a bit more Days of Sunshine left.

Right Here: "Stay With Me" by Sam Smith

I really dig this song, even if it's really just for that throbbing building beat and the gorgeous tenebrity of Smith's voice. The lyrics themselves aren't really sophisticated or insightful, although there is certainly a pitched emotion and fearlessness to their simplicity. I think that Smith can keep proving himself to become a pretty good presence in pop music, and we'll all be able to say "Summer 2014! I was there, man!" Who cares.

Completely Without Flaw: "Flawless" by Beyonce

I featured here the Nicki Minaj remix, which is pretty solid. It's not even fair for every other artist out there when Bey really brings her A-material like this, although it seems like hubby Jay's ego is rubbing off on her. Doesn't this sound like Jay-Z Watch the Throne lyrics sung by a pop goddess? It'd be easier to hate on Queen B if she was wrong at all.

Sawing Ears in Half: "Rude" by MAGIC!

I think I've run out of things to say about this song. I don't like it. The reggae doesn't work. The lyrics don't work. It's really popular because it can earworm its way into everyday life with exceptional ease. It's also making the best case for Song of the Summer right now with a late run that could possibly upset either "Fancy" or "Problem." Not entirely likely, but hey - magic.

Next week...

I like Sam Smith's other track, "I'm Not the Only One," although that may be fueled more by my severe crush on Diana Aggron. Other than that, we've only got one more week of Summer Jams to go - can MAGIC! take one more swing at Iggy Azalea and strive for relevance? Stay tuned for one more exciting rendition of Summer Jams, folks! It's gonna be hot!

22 August 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: A Summer to Kill For

Well folks, it's getting to be about the end of August, and so our Blockbuster Season comes to a close. Now, this week we only have one really major Franchise-y type release, and it's the long-awaited Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Wait, is this movie actually long-awaited? Maybe a better description is the long-produced A Dame to Kill For. Because this was supposed to come out like seven years ago but never seemed to get off the ground. It's the kind of movie that I'll believe was actually made when I'm in the theater watching it. Until then (including right now), I tend to be skeptical that it actually exists.
Cobra Commander himself...

Now, looking back on it, Sin City (2005) was a tremendously formative film. It was one of the first flicks to be filmed entirely with green screens, but more than that it was one of the first of these kind of brutal, action-oriented comic adaptations, with nonsense like 300 (2007) and The Spirit (2008) to follow, with more or less success. Especially with the rise of Zack Snyder recently, this school of Rob Rodriguez and Frank Miller is still going strong. It was perhaps most notable for being incredibly stylized in its visual production, perhaps to the point of leaning too heavily on style and neglecting significant story elements beyond shock value tactics and clever integrated twists on its shared world (the eponymous city). At least it got a cool trailer song out of its release.

Now, don't get me wrong, I really liked Sin City. That love stems more from its collection of cool moments, almost hyper-cool to the point of subtle character self-realization that they're in this ridiculous movie with really crazy and literal mise-en-scène everywhere. It's kind of fascinating. It's also the weird kind of property that begets further adaptations because of its own nature. Sin City was made up of three (four actually - remember that Josh Hartnett wrap-around?) interlocking stories that sort of fed on each other really loosely, but all took place in the same city. So, it should have been natural to just make more stories set in the city. Really, the serialization should have been easy and based on the success of the film, should have come quickly, while people still cared.

Instead, we get this nine years later, and A Dame to Kill For does look cool, but in the sense of there just being more Sin City tales to tell. It's not really innovative or new anymore, rather just more of the same kind of noir genre stories with a stylized CGI veneer. It's actually damned impressive that Sin City works at all, considering it is more a mash-up of old pulp genres with really modern action styles and it still provides a satisfying experience.

So that's the big question for anyone interested in seeing this, right? Has it been long enough that that Sin City punch is still potent or new feeling? Or through a combination of this style being copied to death by its peers along with the fact that this was groundbreaking nine years ago working against it? A Dame to Kill For doesn't appear to be adding anything to push the concept further, and rather just seems like spinning plates from the first installment. Which, I'll reiterate, isn't a bad thing, it's just not that interesting of a thing. I really don't care about seeing A Dame to Kill For this weekend and I'm a fucking fan of this shit. Totes solid January Netflix pick, though...

To wrap up here, our Road to a Blockbuster is always looking for the critical, cultural, and commercial potential of any film, and I don't think A Dame to Kill For is going to rise very high with any of these. Audiences haven't really responded well to these kinds of grubby action flicks as of late - perhaps that stylized action was really just a fad or perhaps we're just more in tune to the pop palettes of Marvel flicks instead of the grimy broodiness on display here. It's also late August and I don't think anyone will see anything but Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) for the second or third time.
I'm getting kind of torn on Eva Green. She needs
to stop appearing in sequels no one cares about or
ever wanted to see made. Like 300: Rise of an Empire (2014).

Critically, this movie so far seems to be getting about what you'd expect - which again, isn't necessarily being raked through the mud but it's not going to offer some really deep artistic insight into the human condition, either. Films like this, or all films really, deserve to be judged on whether or not they fail at achieving what they set out to achieve, and A Dame to Kill For isn't really going to try to become the greatest film ever made. It will likely be a pretty competent genre film full of pulpy goodness, and while that can be difficult to put into a "see it" or "don't see it" category, I think that most people can make up their mind as to whether or not this will fit with their personal interests. I don't think that extends to most people on the fringe, which of course, means that it will not make much money.

As for a cultural influence, with a property like this it's going to have to boil down to one really cool scene or two, or some awesome character introduction, which films like this base their bread and butter on. Sin City already did the cultural work and changed the game for action flicks both in style and production, so A Dame to Kill For really has an uphill battle, because it really offers a plateau instead of an advancement. Nothing really culturally significant can come from that kind of lack of innovation which in itself fails to spur widespread interest.

That's it for me, folks. September tends to be a lonely time for big important flicks that I'm interested in discussing culturally, but here and there I'd like to bring this column back on a couple November and December Fridays. How else will you spend your weeks?

And what do you think of A Dame to Kill For? Leave a comment below!

19 August 2014

First Impressions: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I was never tremendous into the Planet of the Apes franchise, but it has always sort of compelled me. It's really an age-old tale of an absolute classic sci-fi film spawning a ridiculous number of inferior B-level sequels that get crazier and crazier until peaking with this monstrosity. We took a while to get there, though, which I've already recounted here, for your pleasure. While the Tim Burton 2001 edition of Planet of the Apes seemed to do reach the pinnacle of everything wrong with Hollywood's remake culture in its incomprehensible narrative that sought to exploit its source material without adding anything significant to the cultural mythos of the property, Rise of the Planet of the Apes seemed to rectify much of the doubt in the minds of haters. SPOILERS to follow.
Aww! Fuzzy!

Like I said, I had never had much interest in this franchise, but in the past month, thanks no doubt to the premiere of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), there has been a bit of a revival and I've managed to catch EVERY SINGLE APES FILM on television at some point. Except for the original. But really, Dawn has nothing to do with the original and everything to do with its follow-ups, specifically the third through fifth sequels that dealt with the time loop-fueled origins of intelligent Apes on earth competing with humanity in the modern day. Got that?

Rise was essentially a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) in its goals and themes, but hardly the story. This was always kind of a weird move because of how inherently goofy the film is, but upon re-watching it I gained a pretty high degree of appreciation for what the original film was trying to do. I'd call it successful just because of how straight it plays everything ridiculous happening within it, as well as the credibility it gives to an Ape uprising along with thoroughly demonstrating the sly cunning of its protagonist, the eventual Ape King, Caesar.

Rise did much of the same work but with less time travel and pet epidemics to meet its end goals. Like Conquest, it's a satisfying film because of how straight it plays the idea of an Ape conquest of earth, or at least San Francisco, because that's really the only region established as partly under Ape Control in either modern film. It also walks this really clever line with Caesar, showing his intelligence despite his inherent animalistic nature. He's able to exploit the system of is captivity, from both Ape and Human angles to form his own society with followers understandably loyal to him for granting them thought and freedom. I think people dug this just because of how surprisingly good it was. While Planet of the Apes (2001) could be considered everything wrong with remakes, Rise is very much everything right - spinning fallible source material enough to add substantial themes to the mythos of the franchise. This subversion of expectation caused the normally groan-inducing sequel announcement of Dawn (wondering how far their thesaurus work will keep going for future sequels...) to be met with anticipation rather than dread.

Unlike Rise, though, which is based on the intriguing Conquest, Dawn is equally based on that film's sequel, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), which is largely considered the worst film in the series. I really think that Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) is a whole lot clunkier and campier (that's a tough margin, though), but Battle shouldn't really be esteemed at all. Seeing both films pretty close together, though, it's interesting how Dawn takes all these core conceits and plot elements straight out of Battle, turns some of them around, adds more credibility to others, and through a more careful non-B-movie treatment of production design, special effects, tone, and character work, succeeds in creating a pretty damn good movie.

Be sure, though, that it's not nearly as smart as Rise, or even Conquest for that matter. It would be more disappointing that it doesn't deal with these heady themes or intricate plot work if it didn't so delicately balance its own plot with significant tension and a remarkably tight sequence of action beats punctured by long intricate sections of dialogue (both verbal and non-verbal) to advance its narrative. It's a well-constructed film absolutely, but while watching it my mind was continuously drawn to whether that alone actually made it a good film.

I'm usually all about character, too, which this film does really well. There is a lot of depth and motivation behind the actions of every major character in the film, and Caesar in particular shines as one of the more complex Summer Heroes of 2014. I think that I just can't get over the general dourness to the whole precedings, especially since the way my summer worked, I happened to watch this the weekend after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which was obnoxiously fun. Dawn, despite its really good narrative and character work, just isn't that fun of a film. It's constantly rainy and pouty, and despite the undercurrent of hope that runs through it, it is always more or less headed to an inevitably depressing conclusion (which it hits). It's not like this is inherently a bad thing, indeed it often offers a less "Hollywood" happy ending, but like I said, I think I was riding a high from watching Guardians and I'll have to revisit this sucker. It's not like an uplifting ending would fit the mood or tone of the film, either. Nor is it an issue that the film takes itself too seriously or anything, in fact, there tends to be this acknowledgement that it's crazy for these Apes to be acting this way.

The film primarily deals with this kind of bizarre examination on the nature of war; from the invariable tension between different peoples to the miscommunication, the misinterpretation of intention, and the struggle to appear strong in the face of a strange new neighbor that leads to conflict. It makes this interesting case for the need for diplomacy but also how mistrust from past sins can doom future relations. There isn't really a bad guy in the film, just a couple racist (apeist?) douchebags on both sides that cause problems for everyone as their situation spirals out of control. It's a stage setting movie for what will presumably be a greater conflict in the next installment...which is really exactly what the ending of Rise did - so there is some disconnect there in this story's execution within the framework of the franchise's larger arcing narrative, although the character progression is worthwhile.

It's also this enticing look at how complex the politics are in this ostensibly simple society, which still has so many direct roots in the animal kingdom. It's very much this bridge between how a shrewdness of Apes would act and how they are just making up a new society as they go along based on these monkey traditions, what they've learned from their impression of human society, and Caesar's decrees. Koba is actually almost a visionary for creating the idea that Caesar is not Ape God, and if Koba didn't want to himself become an Ape God, he could have been a great leader.

On that note, let's talk about Battle for the Planet of the Apes. For those of you who haven't seen the film, it follows Caesar in the early 21st Century (there's actually bizarre contradictions within the film as to the exact year it takes place) is trying to form this integrated society between Apes and Humans in the wake of an off-screen nuclear war, although Humans are clearly second-class citizens. A crazy gorilla named Aldo is totes opposed to this deal and wants Ape Supremacy. Caesar goes to the Forbidden City to learn more about his wacky parent seen in the first three movies but it turns out there are all these mutated humans still living there who remember what a dick Caesar was in Conquest. Tensions rise between all three forces and everyone ends up fighting each other, and Aldo eventually falls out of a tree after killing Caesar's son, so Caesar's vision of an integrated Human/Ape world is eventually realized.

There is still a little bit of ambiguity, though, because the final scene seeing both Human and Ape learning together takes place in 2670 AD, while the time period Charlton Heston visits is 3978 AD, meaning maybe the timeline changed or maybe things get really bad for humans in a millennium or so? But there are all these similarities to Dawn, which is interesting to me, just because everybody hates Battle but loves Dawn, so all that goodness must just all be in the construction of the film, right? For once, no one really cares about nostalgia here, which is cool, especially how much it sometimes hampers other properties that must keep on making these winking references (thought that is a nice lampshade) and more fan service repetition and things (I'd put a spoiler warning on that last link, but since the scene is actually so meaningless and temporary, it doesn't really give away anything significant. Just another scene that happened). But this is totally weird because there are a crazy amount of references to this terrible 70s B-Movie that no one really remembers.

The school and the Ape mantra "Ape Shall Never Kill Ape" are there, down to the Orangutan teachers. The role of Aldo the insane militaristic Gorilla is played in Dawn by Koba, who as Caesar says, "Learned only hate from humans." The eponymous battle arises because of Apes trespassing on Human land, for which Humans retaliate out of mistrust of past sins and more directly, after a Gorilla scouting party kills a wandering human. Dawn simply reverses this, with a group of humans exploring Ape Country (...Donkey Kong Country...if you will), and then Apes drawing first blood after both sides mistrust each other. There are crazy fanatics and rational heads on both sides in both films.
Bad Aldo! Bad! I mean Koba

Then there's business with Caesar's son. In Battle, the son is named Cornelius, and he is caught spying on Aldo, who then knocks him out of a tree, for him to die of his wounds later. In Dawn, Caesar's son, Blue Eyes falls under Koba's sway after Koba attempts to kill Caesar, framing humans in the process. Koba then kills Rocket's son, Ash. Aldo/Koba is the first to violate the "Ape Shall Never Kill Ape" law and thus causes Caesar to realize that neither Ape nor Human can be trusted or mistrusted intrinsically. It's actually a profound statement on the nature of creating monsters to fight wars against, and the one interesting turn Dawn makes from Battle is that at the end, even though Caesar has this profound realization, he still finds himself at the center of an inevitable war with an enemy who cannot feel the same way about him that he feels about them. Battle ended with harmony, but Dawn ends with terror. Both Aldo and Koba also fall off tall structures while fighting Caesar. Bummersville.

Make no mistake, Dawn treats these plot elements with a whole lot more credibility than Battle does. Battle steeps itself in its B-movieness, with vengeful Nuclear Mutants and men in rubber ape suits running amuck in general chaos with its inciting action of trespassing on forbidden land based on one Ape's search for knowledge about his future-living, time-travelling parents. Dawn at least presents a pretty rational hunt for resources as its inciting incident, and strives continuously to lend real motivation and consequences to its actions.

On that note, it ought to be mentioned that while Andy Serkis again delivers a wonderful Ape, the human players; including Jason Clarke (who, after this and Zero Dark Thirty [2012] ought to be considered one of our newest, most thoughtful non-action action stars), Keri Russell, who has had an awesome resurgence lately, and Gary Oldman - brief but powerful here; shine impeccably.

On a last note, and perhaps this ought to get its own post at this point, but what the hell is up with our Summer? We've had a heady average of around $200 million, which is staggeringly low, despite the craziness of this Guardians and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)-fueled August. I mean, it's tough to say that $200 million isn't successful, because it certainly is, but nothing has broken out this year domestically. It's important to add this part, because internationally, we're about right where we should be. So how should we be measuring these films' success? Domestically? Internationally? Critically? It's been kind of a weird summer for that as well. I have actually dug a lot of films this year, despite the obvious inconsistencies in something like Days of Future Past (2014) or the perhaps misguided attempt at doing a JAWS (1975)-version of Godzilla (2014). One thing is for certain: the Hollywood Blockbuster Machine is definitely attempting to make good movies. For a lack of a better example because it has become the poster child for dumb, loud, and inconsiderate filmmaking, there have been less Transformers-style releases this year. Except of course for TransIVmers: Age of Extinction (2014). And Turtles. Considering the money both of those made, though, Hollywood really ought to be praised for their attempt at challenging us at the Summer cinema.

Maybe I've got some selective vision here, though. We did suffer through The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), which tended to do everything wrong that a world-building movie could do through a general air of incoherence. But my mind tends to wander towards Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) more than this or Maleficient (2014). No one is making really big money domestically, though, and it's tough to see this year going to anyone besides The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) or The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies (2014) coming out this all. Actually, it will be all Hunger Games.

Holy shit these impressions got off track quick. Anyway, I liked Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and it's an incredibly well-made movie, but some part of it just limits its fun. And it's not like "dark" can't be fun, and I'm not sure I'd even call this "dark" or "serious." And it's not like bummer movies can't be good, either. I loved The Road (2009) which I always think of as the biggest bummer movie of all time. I'll need some time to sit with this, which in itself I suppose makes me think and reflect more than some other movies this summer.

Dawn is still playing...probably somewhere. Good luck!

18 August 2014

Summer Jam Week 15: Coldplay and Maroon 5 Get Rude

By gum it's almost the end of August, folks. Mid-August is this weird time of the season - it's essentially the last gasp you can take before taking the plunge into Fall, which usually means buckling down for school, winter, responsibilities, family, and personal and professional growth. It's terrible. It makes me really depressed talking about it, actually. Let's spend another week partying in the either before we start really talking about that crap. Anyway - here are your winners this week:

Hot Jam of the Week: "Seen It All" by Jeezy ft. Jay-Z

Jay sort of legitimizes this track like he could do with any track these days, but Jeezy actually holds his own, and the beat is ethereal, flighty, and cool while retaining a nice edge to it. No Hot Jam is going to dominate Summer at this point, and I can't imagine that this song really fights its way into cultural relevancy outside specific hip-hop fans right now, but that's okay, because I'm one of those specific fans and I dig this jam.

Cartography: "Maps" by Maroon 5

This video came out a while ago I guess, but I saw it for the first time this week - and OH SHIT IT'S CRAY CRAY! What is going on here? Maroon 5 I feel always tries to be the biggest band in the world, but it tends to come up short time and time again. "Maps" is a bit of a middle of the road song for them. Opinion is personal, of course, but as far as my ears can handle it, Maroon 5's usual output ranges from smooth and awesome to grating. I never thought "Maps" was very special, but it has had a nice run this summer that I have never talked about, so acknowledging that here.

Constellate: "A Sky Full of Stars" by Coldplay

I'd say that everything I just said about "Maps" could apply here, actually. "A Sky Full of Stars" (wouldn't dropping that indefinite article make the song a bit cleaner? "Sky Full of Stars?" What do I know?). I though Coldplay bounced with Myolo Xyoloto (2011) or whatever they had, anyway? But yeah, there are Coldplay fans out there somehow who dig this kind of Grade-A Wuss Rock (which I really mean more in a descriptive sense than a pejorative sense. Seriously!), and this jam has been there this summer. Acknowledged.

Weezy Degrassi: "Believe Me" by Lil Wayne ft. Drake

This is more what I was doing back in May where I cared less about what was actually hot or popular but I just wanted to express the kind of jams that I was digging that week. This is it, son. Actually, this sounds more like both Weezy and Drake are sleepwalking and both have been sharper in the past. Like I said, I'm listening to this track this week, but I can't speak for next week. Yes I can - more Jeezy less Weezy.

Bronytails and Prollems: "Problem" by Ariana Grane ft. Iggy Azalea

What?! I thought this was done for? Well, one last gasp that may send it above "Fancy," who is conspicuously absent this week for the first time all summer. It's a staggering prospect, I know, folks. But I heard "Problem" a bit more this week, signifying that it's not quite dead yet. Or at least clinging to some kind of relevancy. I'm infinitely curious which jam we'll be more inclined to listen to ten years from now in nostalgia, and I think the edge of "Fancy" will get it over the edge, but you never know with these things. Actually I'm sort of glad I didn't have to listen to "Fancy" again for this column. I spent fourteen damn weeks listening to that song.

The Devil's Side: "Left Hand Free" by alt-J

I heard this jam on the radio this week and really dug it, and then I looked up the video, and it had come out recently, so I was pumped, because I liked that "Breezeblocks"-whatever song alt-J did, but I don't know much else about them, except for the singer's goofy high-pitched but somehow still raspy voice, and the fact that they possessed one of the more annoying band names since fun. But then all these die-hard alt-J fans (apparently) in the comments talk about how much this song sucks and how it doesn't sound like normal alt-J jams and it was all made just to make "money" for some corporate-grubbing studio and it is supposed to be a parody and all that because "mainstream" American couldn't take "Hunger of the Pine." Well, I can't really speak to any of that (except for the fact that yes, all of these songs were released to make money), but I like "Left Hand Free" a bit better. I guess I'm a sellout corporate wannabe. Shit.

Velcro: "Latch" by Disclosure ft. Sam Smith

I have honestly done this a few weeks in a row, I keep looking up a band called Latch with the song "Disclosure" and getting it all backwards. I guess it's because both the words latch and disclosure would make both good band names and good song names and there's not really a decipherable meaning to the title "Latch" than I can gleam from my half-assed focus on this track after sort of getting into the beat and Smith's pipes on the radio. It's a cool jam, though and is making a nice little late-season run at things.

Reggae for White People: "Rude" by MAGIC!

I really hate this song, but it's getting its share of cultural life, from the response from the supposed father the song is addressing to a general debate as to whether or not it's even culturally appropriate to ask a father for the permission to marry a daughter or if women can decide for themselves who the hell they want to marry. I don't have the answers here, but I still think no matter what you believe, "rude" is still a weird accusation to make. It's not like the dad farted during church or made an off-colour comment in front of people he just met to be so rude. It's there, it sucks, I don't know, deal with it.

Next week...

We're almost at our finale folks, which is weird and terrifying to me. I left off "Fancy," which could certainly come back, but other than that I think we've bridged an important hump into fall - certainly Calvin Harris or Jason Derulo or Sia we won't be seeing again here. I did really want to include Weezer's "Back to the Shack," which I think is a really interesting song. Next week. Stay tuned, folks!

15 August 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Let's Be Expendables. And the Giver

We've still got a couple weeks left of Summer, but I think we've officially made it to the dregs of the season. Late August releases are usually either off-season horror reboots, action flicks that couldn't carry a weekend earlier in Summer, or comedies, which actually tend to do well. I mean, just check it out. But the point of all this griping is that we have two films premiering this weekend that fit this bill exactly, and one that's a little more curious.
AKA a Depend ad with Guns

Oh, Expendables...where do I begin with this one? Maybe you should just read impressions from the first one, and then the much better second one before moving on. The Expendables III (2014) is a movie where you have already made up your opinion as to whether or not you like it. You have. I have some big problems with these flicks that extend beyond the obvious (its inherent misogynism, stupidity, and absence of plot or story), but I still do get sort of excited for them.

The Expendables landed in 2010 and promised this epic team-up between old and new action stars that were all still pretty old. But, Lundgren, Li, Statham, and Stallone on screen was still a pretty sweet draw. And no, I don't really give a shit about Crews and Couture. Even if Crews is probably actually the most talented one of the group who is just hitting his prime (hello, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) instead of far past it, he's not the point in seeing this film. You see The Expendables to try to pretend it's the 80's and this team-up would actually be awesome. Instead it's this masturbatory function: sound and fury signifying nothing. These are reactionary films trying desperately to hearken back to a simpler day when movie stars were action heroes who meant something, not interchangeable superhero space fillers.

What is most at work here in building anticipation, though, is that initial chill you get up your spine when you hear all these guys are teaming up. It's the same feeling that makes The Avengers (2012) seem awesome, that also bled into X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) but as I've been wont to point out before, we first saw in fucking Fast Five (2011) that mashed up characters from every individual entry in its franchise and made a ridiculous amount of money as a result. The Expendables keenly created actual fictional characters out of the action personas of its principal actors and in its own way, serves as the giant franchise-colliding team-up movie of every big bloody star of screen of the past thirty years. It's like the 80's action version of ?This is The End (2013).

So why haven't these flicks exactly lit up the Box Office? Well, there are a hundred reasons. The simplest is that times have changed and no one wants to see movies like these anymore where a black ops team will go and kill a bunch of evil brown people for no reason. Maybe it's because at this point everyone on screen is more of a has been than in their prime. Again - this would have been an exciting idea maybe twenty years ago at best. Or frankly, it could simply be that The Expendables straight up didn't deliver what it promised - the action isn't exciting and none of it feels fun or loose in the way a dumb Stallone-ego fueling film like this should feel.

The Expendables 2 (2012) rectified this to some extent. Stallone and company are still taking themselves far too seriously, but the additions of Schwarzenegger and Willis in expanded roles along with Chuck Norris made the film more of that "Legendary Team-Up of 80's Icons" that the first one promised to be. The real star, though, was JCVD, who constantly acts like he's the only one who actually knows what kind of shitty silly film he's starring in. But with films like this there will always be gaps in the roster, so The Expendables III will try to make for that by adding Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, and Kelsey Grammer.

Alright, Grammer makes no sense here, although he was just appropriately menacing in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). He looks full on Frasier here. I can't imagine that Ford is much more than a cameo, but I have some issue with Gibson. Sure it's tough to promote any film from a dude like Gibson, but he's supposedly going to be the film's main villain. This A) isn't really riffing on his 80's persona at all and B) was already done (horribly) in Machete Kills (2013). Finally, how can you look at a poster like this and not feel some sort of shame? Harrison Ford next to Victor Ortiz? Schwarzenegger next to Kellan Lutz? What are these legends doing next to these MMA fighters and terrible young stars? Obviously these young unknowns are just there so that someone can actually do some fighting, but it also defeats that core promise of the movie which is seeing all these screen legends up there in one movie. Again, this promise is faulty at its heart because they can't really do anything anymore besides shoot big guns. And do roids.

So what does all this mean? I'm excited for The Expendables III, beyond all reason to feel differently. It's like a trainwreck that you can't look away from. Or moreover you want to be justified in the simple fact that so much of this film seems like such a bad call. But it's still more of a try to get all these legends together than anyone else has ever done and there's something special in that. But no, I don't think any one will really care about this one. No JCVD, for one thing. Or Seagal. Even Seagal was in Machete (2010).
AKA 22 1/2 Jump Street

Who's next? Let's Be Cops (2014). I liked it better when it was called 21 Jump Street (2012)...but seriously - Jake Johnston and Rob Riggle were in 21 Jump as well - how can they so obviously be riffing on its success? Well, I suppose everyone likes making money. Johnston and Damon Wayans, Jr tend to kill it as co-stars on New Girl and hoping really really hard that Let's Be Cops will make them into movie stars. Wayans is everything his father was, especially on joints like Happy Endings, and he's appeared here and there in flicks (like The Other Guys [2010] with...Rob Riggle again...) but hasn't really broke out the way his dad did yet.

Don't get me wrong, Let's Be Cops looks pretty funny, and for some reason this summer has hardly had any other comedies to contend with, so my bet is it does pretty well and could even win this weekend, but something about it seems a little shallow to me. Maybe it's the hollow premise or the implication that these two TV star buddies are trying too hard, but I get this weird vibe from the flick. Am I completely crazy here or does anyone else out there in Internet-land think it has a bit too gimmicky of a high concept and not enough character work to be a great August Comedy? Maybe I'm nuts, but it's hard to articulate why I distrust this thing.

Lastly we have The Giver (2014), which I have no idea what this thing is about. I remember the book existing and people reading it in when I was in Middle School, and I remember the cover with that old dude's face, but I never read the thing or cared to learn a synopsis. So the trailer launched all Pleasantville (1998)-style a few weeks ago and there seems to be a lot of stuff pulling this film in different directions. There's Jeff Bridges apparently playing the same role he did on TRON: Legacy (2010), creepy anti-emotional dystopian 1984 tropes, and finally, what looks to be a good amount of YA adaptation melodrama. It'll be a fun basket.
AKA ugh I don't care anymore.

Young Adult adaptations seem to be crazily boom or bust properties. There's your Harry Potters, Twilights, Hunger Games, and Divergents as Box Office Champions for sure, but also your Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013), The Host (2013), and Beautiful Creatures (2013) that just bomb horribly. It ought to be a good sign to Hollywood that you can't just adapt whatever the kids are reading this week and pump it full of love triangles and secret world melodrama and expect the cheddar to flow. Films still do need to be good films. Or at least appealing films that accomplish what they set out to accomplish, no matter where that bar is set. My bet is that The Giver is well known enough to be a bit above these last three trainwrecks, but nothing about it seems as cool or as interesting or loaded with the right combination of star power, relatability, timing, freshness, and a built-in audience as The Hunger Games (2012).

So, obviously this week I talked a ton more about The Expendables III than Let's Be Cops or The Giver, so that probably betrays where my loyalties lie. As far as culture goes, the pathetic desperate attempts at late late career resurgences of over-the-hill action heroes contrasted with the attempted jump-starts of its young MMA fighters-turned-actors is pretty interesting to me. From what the first reviews say, it may even be a shot in the arm for Wesley Snipes' career - apparently his turn here is pretty good. Let's Be Cops seems like a toothless comedy that won't rise above itself, like so many other recent summer flicks like Bad Teacher (2011) or We're the Millers (2013). It's the kind of comedy that is funny but not really impactful or meaningful. And The Giver just doesn't look special at all. I'm excited for the remake, The Maze Runner (2014) to come out next month.

What do you think? Are you going dated action movie, lame comedy, or young adult this weekend? Or are you going to see Guardians again?

11 August 2014

Summer Jam Week 14: We Got Everything

Mid-August, folks. That's sort of terrifying. We only have a few more weeks of this, folks, and right now it doesn't look like we have any competition at all. That's okay, because we jam on like the true pop/rock/country/hip-hop/reggae fusion enthusiasts that we are. right? Commence.

Hot Jam of the Week: "Break Free" by Ariana Grande ft. Zedd

This ought to get its own video pretty soon, but for now here's the audio of this largely by the numbers electro-pop song. Ariana exploded this summer, and Zedd should be familiar to lovers of last year's "Clarity" collabo with Foxes. "Break Free" is a bit less than the sum of its parts and ends up being fantastically uninteresting. Late Summer surge for an artist who has already had a pretty great summer? I don't really think so.

Fart Sounds: "Boom Clap" by Charlie XCX

Last week this song went nuts, which died down quite a bit this time around. It's still hanging out there, though and I'm really torn whether or not it's actually a good pop song. I think Charlie XCX is better for hooks rather than carrying her own jam, and sure enough here the chorus is what kills it, not any of the verses. The frantic urge of "BOOM! CLAP!" is epic, everything else is kind of dopey.

The First Syllable in Country: "This is How We Roll" by Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan

I really didn't know there were different kinds of country. Apparently there's pop-country, twang country, and this sort of R&B infused Florida Georgia Line-style among others. It's all pretty foreign to me, I usually stop at Johnny Cash and when the mood strikes, Garth Brooks' "Low Places." But Florida Georgia Line does seem to strike this balance of those old crooner saloon songs and the big stadium energy of modern country. It would all be fascinating to me if it didn't make my ears bleed. I really sound like a hater right now, but I still put it on the list, so step off.

Two-Night Stand: "Stay With Me" by Sam Smith

Sam continues his awesome assault on our ears this week although I'd consider "Stay With Me" to be remarkably less fresh than it was when it first dropped. That's the nature of any jam, though, and even though in my mind I sort of begrudgingly included it this week after not really noticing it that much, those first few bars hit me again and helped me realise how powerful a track it really is. It can and will very likely stay as long as it wants.

Dylan: "Studio" by SchoolBoy Q ft. BJ the Chicago Kid

I really need to dig on more jams by SchoolBoy Q because he's really getting to be one of the better up and coming rappers out there. This track has Kanye-style vocal overdubs along with a chill hook and a legit summer rhythm. Dylan is of course, each of the five greatest rappers of all time. That was the best rap studio joke I could come up with.

Shinin: "Chandelier" by Sia

Actually, by this point we have to consider this to be a fairly serious Jam contender. Somehow this little track sneaks its way onto our list here, and it has consistently outlasted much headier competition this summer. I don't think anyone's going to remember it by Halloween (I heard "Written in the Stars" by Tinie Tempah the other day - I really had to look up why the hell that song sounded familiar. That's my prediction for this - in 2017 it'll be like "Why do I know this song?" rather than "Yes! Sia!"). Prove me wrong, kids.

Ass Quakes: "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea ft. Charlie XCX

Iggy gets the number two spot this week, but "Fancy" isn't going anywhere. There's almost no way it doesn't grab the Summer Crown this year and has yet to spend a week off this list. That's really unheard of around these parts, but it will hit 200 million YouTube views by next week and has really penetrated every aspect of American culture. It's the only jam this Summer that can really claim such feats.

The Cards Don't Lie: "Rude" by MAGIC!

I like that we live in a day and age where a reggae song crooned by white Canadians tops the Hot 100 and a Weird Al album tops the Billboard 200. I haven't dug enough into this jam's reggae nature. Even though it is, by technical aspects a reggae song based on its instrumentation, it really doesn't feel like a classic Peter Tosh or Snoop Lion jam (...). Maybe it's because I consider that Caribbean patois to be essential to reggae. But is it? Thanks, MAGIC! for throwing everything I thought I knew about reggae into question. If "Rude" wasn't so stupid I may put more thought into how we classify these things. Till then, pass the dutchie and I'll just move on with my life.

Next week...

It was pretty hard to not include some old 70s hits this week that have gained popularity in the wake of appearing on the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) soundtrack. Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1 has had that much cultural influence - but do we pick "Come and Get Your Love", "Hooked on a Feeling", or "O-o-oh Child"? It's way to hard. And crazy. But these are great tracks. How about the whole album? Or how about the mere fact that we're even talking about a movie soundtrack album at all, much less one that features forty-year old songs? It's an incredible feat. I wonder if Beta Ray Bill 3: Korbinites on Patrol (2042) will feature "classic" Iggy Azalea jams.

08 August 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Into the Ninja Storm

The sun has risen on another Summer Friday so it's time again to determine how the big flicks hitting the screen are going to contribute to our dear old cultural landscape. I am always interested in cultural reverberations, especially because these days it seems as if Marvel has a choke hold on the national movie conversation any time one of their Golden Eggs drops. I'm betting heavily that everyone is still going to only care about Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) this week, but just for kicks, let's talk about two movies that no one wants: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and Into the Storm (2014).

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is going to be awful in every sense of the word. It's really never been in the good graces of any prognosticator Internet-wide. We can easily contrast this with Marvel - it's really the studio reputation that's at fault. Marvel Studios has built up an uncanny prestige for delivering pretty decent blockbuster material - there are legitimate gripes about whitewashing, overuse of MacGuffins, bland villains, and over-reliance on shared world-building for sure, but generally, audiences respond well to the product and there is a good amount of positivity involved with any viewing.

Ninja Turtles on the other hand is coming straight out of the Michael Bay-led Platinum Dunes studio, responsible for such adored hits as well, just about every trashy horror re-make of the past ten years, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) to A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Rather than really adding anything substantial to canon these films more often appear like they're cashing in on a quick name-recognition buck. Now, it's not to say the studio isn't really financially successful, nor is incapable of successful original films - last year and this year's entries into the Purge franchise proves that.

In general, though, these have just never seemed like the right dudes to take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The property is fairly well adored by most 80s and 90s kids, although with an even marginally slightly closer examination this is kind of faulty. I mean, keep in mind that Secret of the Ooze featured a scene where people in giant rubber suits fought the turtles by burping, and then a Vanilla Ice Dance Off. That happened! Why does anyone care about the integrity of this franchise?

The Turtles have been pretty doomed since the start of their expansion out of the world of gritty, independent black and white comic books. Lest we not forget that they share an inconspicuous origin with Daredevil, which is pretty awesome. The comic, originally created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird had a fervent set of cult fans but little of the typical Turtles tropes we recognize today, from Pizza-loving to even the distinct colors and names of our quartet. According to cartoon writer David Wise, that was all him. That cartoon was crazily well-regarded by five-year olds such as myself at the time (and younger), and naturally led to an incredible amount of marketing opportunities, which literally made toys out of just about everything. I'm not hating, I played with those toys damn near every day and as a little kid, I got a lot of inspiration out of them. Shut up.

In some way or another, the Turtles have never really gone away. Turtles in Time (wait...that wasn't the title of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III [1993]?) seemed to be the nadir of their heyday, but there were also animated series revivals in 1997, 2003, and 2012, as well as the full-length theatrically released animated film, TMNT (2007) that was somehow seven years ago. This franchise has been through just about everything, and its 90's Surfer & Pizza attitude has somehow persisted like four Turtle-shaped Bart Simpsons.

So I think that the ubiquitous groans that have gone along with this picture has more to do with Mike Bay's producer involvement than anyone dreading the bastardification or shelling out (hey oh!) of the franchise itself. Or maybe nostalgia is just that powerful. From about ages two to six the only thing I wanted to be was a Ninja Turtle, and I have no interest in this film at all, though. To be fair, even after removing my heavy, heavy Turtles love from the equation this flick still looks incredibly dumb. The visual design of the Turtles themselves isn't winning anyone over (jeez some animator needs to be fired. How is anyone supposed to market this?) and the trailers have demonstrated more of a typical explosions and loud dumbness than any character we're supposed to invest ourselves in. And Megan Fox - miscasting of the year? I just don't think you can release this in a post-Guardians world. Big dumb blockbusters need to be self-aware of their big dumbness, especially in a case like this where the original comic was largely a parody and the original show was also pretty cognizant of its silliness. The new movie may contain that sort of edge, but it hasn't been demonstrated in the build up the way something like Guardians did. Not to belabour the point - but it's just that this really weird, really risky film JUST came out and did everything that Turtles should be doing with getting people over to its side so much better. I think this will tank commercially, critically, and culturally. No one will remember or care about Turtles by Labour Day.
Fire! Tornado!

Ugh, and that's not even the most forgettable movie we have coming out this weekend. Did we need a new tornado disaster film? Well, I suppose we haven't had one since Twister (2006). So, no. We didn't need one. Into the Storm has a mild $50 million and may bring in a bit of that thriller crowd who likes these kinds of films in August. We haven't really had many flicks like this lately, but there this movie also just seems to have come out of no where without a lot of hype riding with it.

There are some pretty cool moments in the trailers and commercials - that fire tornado does look badass and that money shot of the enormous funnel is pretty crunk. I'm not sure that badass and crunk can save this film, though. It's enough counter-programming to maybe make a decent buck, but I can't imagine that it survives even the most liberal critic's drubbing. As for cultural influence - if we see it on TV in 2017 or hear it's name we may be like "Oh yeah, that was that old tornado movie, right? Was that any good? Should I Netflix it?" I love the idea of spending $50 million on what is probably some amateur storm chaser's baby to basically just become a late night drunk at a part and not-really paying attention flick to have on in the background. Hollywood is awesome.

I haven't been kind to this week's new releases at all. What do you think? Will Ninja Turtles or Into the Storm have more merit than I'm giving them? Or do they deserve to be shitted on like all normal August movies? Leave a comment, folks!

Both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Into the Storm may be seen in theaters today, on another bizarre Summer Friday.

04 August 2014

Summer Jam Week 13: (Finger) Bang You Into My Life!

August! Nice to see you. We're entering the final month of Summer, folks, and it would appear that the Quest for the Greatest Summer Jam of 2014 is all but wrapped up in a fancy little package. But we're going to continue this masturbatory effort, anyway, because frankly, Summer Jams is why I wake up in the morning. I live and eat this stuff.

Hot Jam of the Week: "Bang Bang" by Jessie J ft. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj

Here's one thing I really don't understand: this is a dream team of vocal artists right now, but why in a song that features both Ariana and Nicki is Jessie J the most featured voice? That's like a Destiny's Child song featuring Michelle Williams, or if "Moulin Rouge" focused on Maya instead of Christina Aguilera. I'm not trying to hate, but this it's kind of ridiculous that this track isn't able to ride Ariana's "Problem" stardom. This is nitpicky criticism - it's a damn catchy tune, if a little overproduced.

Noventa y Nueve: "Problem" by Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea

Speaking of Ariana, this is duper low this week because I think this jam has really reached a low point. It's still ubiquitous as hell, but everyone has really stopped caring about it. It'll get to that point where it's really being milked, probably as a featured track in Fall Singing shows like The Voice or something (although can you imagine an amateur singing this? It'd be awful). But yeah, I'm over it.

Make Love to Me: "Come Get it Bae" by Pharrell ft. Miley Cyrus

This has been an underrated jam all summer that sort of blew its wad early then retreated to the background but it's still a pretty sick jam. Pharrell has to try really hard to make a faulty jam right now, but it's Miley's cooing that elevates this one this time around. That and that nippy guitar strum. It really makes me feel like making love, hence its title. It also landed a video this week, so here you go.

Spoof! I mean...POOF! "Rude" by MAGIC!

I was hesitant to include this because I think it really burned out after a couple weeks of being on the Top of the Hot 100, but it's still up there, so oh well. It was like a flash fire though, man - I didn't hear much of it this week, although it's still a good way to respond to anyone being rude "Why you gotta be so rude?!" is a common Summer 2014 phrase. But then the song is about bypassing a girl's father's approval for marriage. That's not rude, it's just forbidding or maybe pretty well founded. I wouldn't want my daughter marrying MAGIC!.

Bam Bam: "Disclosure" by Latch ft. Sam Smith

So this is basically background song week - I haven't really acknowledged this enough yet, but here's Sam Smith's companion jam to "Stay With Me" that's been a bit overshadowed. It's got the thumper beat courtesy of Latch which makes it a pretty rad chill jam. But it's absolutely a background song rather than anything that's going to change your life.

50s Housewife Drunk: "Wasted" by Tiesto ft. Matthew Koma

I can't really stand Tiesto and I have no idea at all what Koma contributes to this jam, but it's another fun song that's lurked more in the shadows this summer. It's pretty straightforward EDM but it's got enough conventional pop beats to cross over into Top 40 airplay, even though "I like us better when we're wasted" is a decently horrible message. I mean, I'm definitely one to get wasted, but I'm not going to be proud of that. damn, Tiesto. What a douchebag.

Be Vewy Quiet, I'm Hunting: "Habits" by Tove Lo

I really dig this jam and I'm going to express that as frequently as possible through this meager weekly rundown. It has a curious little rolling beat, a lonely lyrical quality, and a passionate batch of vocals out of the pipes of Tove Lo. What a wild thing. It's also more of a Sunday morning coming down song than a Saturday night get pumped jam, but Summer needs those, too, folks.

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

There's almost no question that "Fancy" is outpacing its sister jam, "Problem" by now. This song has cray cray ubiquity and has proven its cultural influence to be pretty significant. The next few weeks are going to be critical though for its legacy - will it really be forever linked to Summer 2014 on its own or does "Problem" need to be part of that conversation? And is it making Iggy into a star or a novelty act? I'm curious how "Fancy" evolves, but it captures so much attitude that I'm still digging it hard now. Actually this week was the first time I really tried to understand the lyrics (I failed) so that will keep it interesting for a while.

Next week...

I was cautious about leaving out Charlie XCX's "Boom Clap" but I think it may have just had its time in the sun last week. Since we highlighted so many under-the-rug jams this week I also feel bad for leaving out Nicki's "Pills N Potions" which has also been a constant presence this summer but hasn't really made the waves something like "Super Bass" did. And that video is so insane! We'll see who can still fight to the top!

03 August 2014

First Impressions: Guardians of the Galaxy

Needless to say when starting any review like this - but I never really thought I'd be here writing that Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) movie is probably one of the best films the studio has ever done as well as one of the better films of the Summer and probably the year. It's simultaneously hilarious, thrilling, and sexy with some of the best character work done in any blockbuster by any studio. I'd like to discuss the merits of this film to the fullest extent possible, so SPOILERS forever, folks.

That's what really pulls me in - strong character work. It would have been so easy with this property to just disregard every character as really silly and stupid, and that's true for every character, but the film also treats them like real people with real motivations and feelings while embracing the inherent silliness. Rocket Raccoon is a good example of a pure novelty character who is really really ridiculous but also expresses this pain, anguish, loneliness, and guilt through demonstrating real feelings inside of him. He also has a genuine arc. This goes for just about everyone and is just one of the ways that Guardians throws us the unexpected.

So much of this film spits in the face of blockbuster convention, which should be the case for a James Gunn film after Slither (2006) and Super (2010). I'm curious about this motif the film has concerning somewhat old-style stagnant characters and new relaxed characters colliding in ways where the new characters, the brash quirky Guardians, triumph every time.There's these really eye-rolling cliché moments where bad girl Nebula is making some grand villainous speech, then Drax just blows her up with a bazooka. There's no room for that lofty pontificating. Same deal a little later with Ronan, who is about to destroy the world and is bragging and going on like every "sophisticated" erudite villain ever, which Peter Quill interrupts with an impromptu dance-off to "Ooh Child." Full soundtrack here, btw. It's this blatant disregard for the kinds of space opera stock characters who are supposed to inhabit these films. Fuck you safe storytelling - climactic dance-off.

It's this battle of cinema. As if in the wake of Man of Steel (2013)'s wanton destruction without seeming regard for actually being heroic, Glenn Close delivers a line explicitly about evacuating the city on Xandar. There's these sudden shifts with the MacGuffin, an Infinity Stone (presumably, Power) and where it can and cannot go and how the goals of each team member shifts based on the escalation of the plot. It's fascinating. The team-up itself also isn't really contrived, and it's subverted as each member moves from selfish reasons for teaming up to realizing that they each don't have any friends because they're all assholes. Drax is probably the best example of this where he reaches his final goal about midway through the film, fails miserably at it, but then his character is strong enough to move on and have a moment of self-realization. It's fantastic.

The Cosmic mythos hits hard and fast but Guardians doesn't care about you catching up and doesn't bog itself down with exposition. You can understand fast enough that the Nova Corps on Xandar are good and the Kree (or mostly the Kree under Ronan) are bad, and that's all you really need to know. It doesn't worry about why Quill was abducted at such a crucial moment in his life or other extraneous plot elements that would slow down the story. It's crisply only concerned with character, which is highly unconventional. With that all said, Ronan isn't particularly interesting, save as a foil for the irreverent Guardians, because of his incredibly self-serious nature. This is again a feature of that battle between old and new cinema, particularly superhero cinema, which can easily be read as a potshot at DC, which has moreover self-regarded its movie properties as high art while Marvel tends to like to have fun in its sandbox.

It's a kind of insane movie where every character is comic relief but also able to play straight. Drax is one of the more intense presences, but his failure to understand metaphor and scenes like this make him the straight man that gets the most laughs. That's probably the best character-building scene of the movie, by the way, and probably all of summer. Everyone has this mix of comedy and pathos that's really rewarding to watch. Even Groot, the braindead tree gets a scene where he instantly kills a ton of dudes, seems overpowered, and then makes up for it with just a goofy grin to let you know he's more human under that bark than the majority of other blockbuster characters out there. Guardians nails this balance time and time again which makes it so damn watchable.

There's these other moments like when Quill saves Gamora from space (I don't know how this works, who cares), and then like, says something really meaningful about his feelings about her which then devolves into basic asshole hitting on her, which she immediately sees through. It's just that irreverence for the trashy typical romantic beats and overused dialogue that sets this film apart. They act like real human beings! From a feminist standpoint it also avoids the issue of its female characters lacking agency, instantly falling under men's magical wieners, and being totally subservient characters. They're real people! Everyone is a real person! The fucking talking raccoon has his own balanced needs and desires! I wouldn't be as excited if every movie pulled this off, but no one does! It makes me so happy.

This is also probably the most well-cast superhero film since Robert Downey, Jr donned a suit of iron. On some basic level that's really the fault with weaker flicks like Green Lantern (2011) or The Incredible Hulk (2008) - the film never recovers from that initial miscasting and no one can get on board. Bautista was born to play Drax even more than he was to play the Gold Man. Zoe Saldana has collected her fair share of heroine ass-kicker roles, but her turn as Gamora is equally tortured, cold, hopeful, and full of agency. It's somewhat disappointing to see that one trope of chicks fighting each other isn't subverted at all, but Karen Gillan's Nebula is a pretty decent jealous twisted foil for her.

The two big voice actors, Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket, though, tend to outshine everyone else in the cast. Diesel reminds us of what he did in The Iron Giant (1999) and what a talent he has for these specific kinds of characters. He needs to do more of this kind of work and less movies featuring cars or Riddick. Well, I really like those movies, but voice acting is at least a decent retirement plan.

Rocket is such a complex character and Cooper somehow nails him without ever really picturing him as the voice. It's not phoned in at all. He brings a good mix of talent both comedic and dramatic that he's showcased in films ranging from The Hangover series to yes, two Oscar-nominated performances. Who knew he also had voiceover talent?

There are plenty of really quick bits with some really decent actors that aren't really given time to develop (though that's only because we tend to think highly of John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benecio del Toro - but their chracters don't need to be in this film more), but we should lastly be chatting about Chris Pratt, who, with the obligatory Marvel ab scene, cements himself as a live action action star in addition to his own voice work in this year's LEGO Movie (2014). How is the doofy Andy from Parks and Rec suddenly fast becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood? It's that mixture of loveability, refreshing well-received material, and actually distinctive interesting work. It's what separates him from the tremendous rabble of replaceable young white dudes in Hollywood trying to become the next big thing.

The film also large centers around Peter Quill's Walkman (see Soundtrack, above), which provides an incredible anachronistic beat that offers the film most of its charm as well as a symbol of Quill's complicated relationship with his mother and her death, which is something that he's really not able to accept until he grows as a person with real contact with other characters by film's end. Each of the Guardians is in some way the last of their kind, and the film demonstrates Peter's loss of Earth through this subtle but still achingly lonely expression of his devotion to his music. Blue Swede, "Hooked on a Feeling" - "That's MY song!" he exasperates to an unsympathetic blue guard: Peter for better or worse is trapped with 80s culture in addition to whatever the hell culture he's getting in Space, and his Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1 is his only real connection to Earth, his mother, and a life back home he may or may not ever want to get back to. It's a pretty damn complex lead character.
Summer's greatest heroes...what the
 hell...how did this ever happen

Also re: the stinger: I love idiots like this that suggest either 1) a stand-alone Howard the Duck movie (there's no bloody chance of that happening or 2) a strong featuring role in Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Rocket's Dark Moon (2017). I don't understand why many people out there can't understand Marvel's shifting marketing tactics. Once upon a time in the far away world of 2008, Marvel used all of its stingers to set up the next installments of things to build anticipation and hype and to reward hushed whispers of "OMG AVENGERS!" and the like. They filled Hall H at Comic Con with full casts and announced crazy new projects like Guardians where we all went "what the hell are they thinking?" Marvel doesn't give a shit about that anymore. They are out of the business of proving themselves. They can just make ridiculous joke movies like this and cap it with ridiculous Howard the Duck jokes. It's just this giant "fuck you" to its audience that it's been favoring lately, even within mainstream projects like Iron Man 3 (2013) and most of Guardians, which as I said, tends to directly upend blockbuster cliches.

Should we even talk about the future of Guardians in relation to the Terrestrial Marvel Cinematic Universe? I'm going to tend not to care - when and if the Avengers meet the Guardians (possibly in Avengers 3: Give Us All Your Money [2018]), it'll be a shitshow of epic proportions. There's already a firm connection in comicdom of Tony Stark joining the Guardians, and with the numerous Infinity Stone drops and Drax's Thanos hatred, it does all seem like a long but inevitable collision course.

So yeah, I loved this flick. It's that rare kind of funny, good-feeling film that still contains a lot of heart and soul amid its goofiness that all Summer Blockbusters need to learn from. It is a very distinct and difficult style to pull off, though, and it's evident already that audiences have responded pretty well. I'm really curious about where this franchise can go and intersect with the rest of Marvel's cinematic baby, but for now I find a film without a great deal of flaws that strikes new and interesting ground where so many others have failed. Hail Xenu.

01 August 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Guardians of the Galaxy

How did this happen?


Today we see the release of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which promises to be an absolutely insane trip through space with an obscure group of self-proclaimed A-hold comic characters that will somehow tie into a growing inter-connected series of films that's proving time and time again that they're the only studio who knows what they're doing. It's mind-boggling.
And Chris Pratt got abs! What the hell?! Did anyone see
 this coming after watching Parks and Rec in 2009?

I had heard of the Guardians before this, but I was always familiar with the 90s version that included Major Victory, Starhawk, Charlie-27, and other pretty shitty characters. It's tough to get into Cosmic comics of either DC or Marvel - they tend to be this weird mix of space opera, superhero stories, or more often space western motifs. They're sprawling, with hordes of advanced civilizations, heroes, and eternal cosmic gods that shake the foundations of the universe. It's a scale tremendously grander than say, Batman's confines of Gotham or Peter Parker's inner turmoil. What's fascinating is that as these stakes seemingly get grander, with entire universes at stake, the stories become tougher to relate to, and far less interesting. So, cosmic is tricky.

A few years back Marvel announced some exciting dates for sequels to well-received films like Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Thor (2011), and The Avengers (2012) that would comprise their self-titled "Phase Two" of the progression of the semi-interconnected stories of their shared universe. In addition to these flicks (and the obvious Iron Man 3 [2013]), they subtly commented that Guardians of the Galaxy would be part of the ensemble. This contained numerous implications, most notably the fact that a mainstream comic movie series would be going Cosmic.

We've had doses of this before, to horrible, horrible results. We first glimpsed the Silver Surfer, perhaps Marvel's most notable Cosmic Hero, on screen in the terrible (but enjoyable in a hungover, Sunday-afternoon sort of way) Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). We also saw DC try their hand with Green Lantern (2011), which is an abomination against all comic and cinema lovers alike. Like I said earlier, in a somewhat ironic note, extending the stakes of the story to universe-spanning proportions really takes audiences out of the picture.

But that's kind of stupid - I mean, the space opera generates some of the most culturally significant and highest grossing films and television shows of all time. Why doesn't it work with superheroes? It might be because it's just tough to sell audiences on an expanded world when they're more used to being grounded. You can't have multiple comics and films set within the confines of earth and then involve these crazy aliens that threaten earth, then go away to their own adventure. People tend not to care, if the characters aren't compelling. There was nothing compelling about the characterizations of the Silver Surfer or Green Lantern in either of their films.

That's a tough criticism because it's not like the characters are poorly drawn. And Marvel already proved that you can have crazy fantastical worlds in a flick like Thor, and you can have successful period films like Captain America and X-Men: First Class (2011). You can even combine period and sci-fi and time travel pretty well in Days of Future Past (2014). So it's not like the source material explicitly damns a film, but it's more how a director or screenwriter will handle things. In addition to that, audiences need to react to the film with enough hype to think it'll be a really cool hundred plus minutes to spend in a dark room staring at a screen.

Guardians has pulled this off. Its marketing has been so quick-witted, engaging, fun, and badass, with a demonstration of decent stakes as well. Maybe it's the demonstration of so many humans in space, which is also the foundation of former successful space operas like Star Trek, Star Wars (1977), and Battlestar Galactica. It's also a true testament that source material doesn't really matter at all. Those Guardians I listed earlier that I knew? Yeah, I hadn't realized that some time ago Marvel had taken a slew of random badass underused Cosmic heroes and anti-heroes and teamed them up to create a new team unrelated to the Space Avengers of yore. So they're basically starting from nothing. Start from nothing, nestle them under an established studio, and provide really really awesome previews and you've got a hit on your hands. It's just that simple.

This is what makes me even more frustrated as a Green Lantern fan. There are plenty of incredible Green Lantern stories to draw from, but that movie tended to get everything wrong, from its bland casting, its murky treatment of complex and moronic cosmic elements, to its rushed feel and hideously un-badass production design. Movies are such a visual medium that it really needs to look cool to be successful. Without any prior knowledge, who wins in a fight - him or them? And it's precisely how bizarre these characters seem (a tree who only says his name; a talking, gun-toting raccoon; a green space assassin; a big green badass with knives; and some dude with a walkman) that has somehow piqued audience interest rather than turned them off.
Oh shit!

In so many ways, Guardians will be a complete fluke. It makes no sense at all that it will be a huge, successful, cultural event. It assures that director James Gunn will be making movies forever with whatever budget he wants, which as the director of Slither (2006) and Super (2010), is fine by me. We always talk about what films will have huge cultural, commercial, and critical impacts throughout this country, and I'm telling you that Guardians will crush every possible aspect. And it has no competition anywhere around it. It will absolutely roll through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and The Expendables 3 (2014), which are both pretty tired and derided, even if the former is only on its first installment (recently). This whole summer has been full of tremendous hype that has all turned out kind of okay instead of great (Godzilla [2014], Days of Future Past, Maleficent [2014] - we could go on). Guardians could end up being the one great movie we got out of this summer.

Besides Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), that is. It's time to set a new standard for August releases - will you be there to witness this movie that has no reason being a success? It releases today.
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