31 December 2014

2014 in Review: Muzak

Welcome ya'll to the Final Day of 2011. We got room for about one more post this year, so we'll talk about music. Yeah we skipped TV. The winner was True Detective, followed closely by Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. No more debate there. But music! Let's talk about music! Like we usually do here, let's start with a big list of every remotely good or interesting single to drop this year, forming a heady 2014 Capsule in roughly chronological order:

Singles of 2014:

"Sweatpants" by Childish Gambino
"Drunk in Love" by Beyoncé
"Cookie" by R. Kelly
"Turn Down for What" by Lil' Jon
"Dark Horse" by Katy Perry
"Hell of a Night" by Schoolboy Q
"Happy" by Pharrell
"Girls Chase Boys" by Ingrid Michaelson
"Fragile" by Tech N9ne ft. Kendrick Lamar, ¡MAYDAY!, and Kendall Morgan
"Pompeii" by Bastille
"Hey Brother" by Avicii
"Stolen Dance" by Milky Chance
"Talk Dirty" by Jason Derulo
"All of Me" by John Legend
"Glory and Gore" by Lorde
"West Coast" by Lana Del Rey
"#SELFIE" by The Chainsmokers
"The Worst" by Jhené Aiko
"Fancy" by Iggy Azalea ft. Charli XCX
"Digital Witness" by St. Vincent
"Problem" by Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea
"I Mean It" by G-Eazy ft. Remo
"The Writing's on the Wall" by OK Go
"Stay With Me" by Sam Smith
"I Wanna Get Better" by Bleachers
"Boom Clap" by Charli XCX
"Rude" by MAGIC!
"Wiggle" by Jason Derulo ft. Snoop Dogg
"Tacky" by Weird Al
"Chandelier" by Sia
"Seen It All" by Young Jeezy ft. Jay-Z
"Come Get it Bae" by Pharrell ft. Miley Cyrus
"Flawless" by Beyoncé
"Back to the Shack" by Weezer
"Habits" by Tove Lo
"Left Hand Free" by alt-J
"Shake it Off" by Taylor Swift
"All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor
"This is How We Do" by Katy Perry
"Anaconda" by Nicki Minaj
"I" by Kendrick Lamar
"Blank Space" by Taylor Swift
"Animals" by Maroon 5
"Lips Are Movin'" by Meghan Trainor
"Tuesday" by ILOVEMAKONNEN ft. Drake
"Black Widow" by Iggy Azalea ft. Rita Ora
"Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars
"Take Me To Church" by Hozier
"I'm Not the Only One" by Sam Smith
"Love Me Harder" by Ariana Grande ft. The Weeknd
"Break the Rules" by Charli XCX
"The Heart Wants What it Wants" by Selena Gomez

So let's narrow that down. A couple songs clearly rise above the rest, and I would think they're all pretty obvious. At least for anyone who follows the Summer Jam. My picks for the Best Singles of 2014:

"Drunk in Love" by Beyoncé: They could still be overplaying this on the radio and I couldn't get sick of it. Queen Bey always puts a crazy amount of passion in her songs but her ode to drunk banging is her crowning achievement. #SURFBORT.
"Habits" by Tove Lo: I always think "Tone Loc" which is something else altogether. Tove Lo squirms around this track before finding some sublime confidence in a painful elegy to coping drug use that really shouldn't be suitable for Top 40 Radio. But hey, that's what that rhythm is for.
"The Worst" by Jhené Aiko: Is there a better voice that debuted this year than Aiko? This is R&B ballad is smooth, chilling, and full of heart-wrenching pain all at the same time.
"Blank Space" by Taylor Swift: I love the pop version of Tay Sway who seems to be super-aware of the public perception of her and who is in turn determined to undermine that through essentially meta-songs like this and "Shake It Off" where she's also hijacking youth phrases and culture to stand up for herself. They hate us cuz they ain't us.
"i" by Kendrick Lamar: I've had an awful lot of pop here, so let's finish with Kendrick. He's sampling the Isley Brothers' "Lady" so much he might as well be just rapping over the song, but he elevates it with his personal brand of self-effacing rapid-fire rap that has this real bitter edge to it that lends an outstanding fury to the audial experience.

This was also an outstanding year for the Music Videos. Here are my picks:

"Dangerous" by Big Data ft. Joywave

And it's not just the busty chicks running in slow motion! I swear! If I wanted just that I can watch Flo Rida's "Run" anytime I want. "Dangerous" is full of all these subversive misguided marketing elements revealing the stupidity inherent to a corporate culture that only follows what tests well. And yes, I can watch this all day for the chicks. Until they start attacking and eating people. See, it turns that sexiness on its head in fabulously gruesome ways.

"Tacky" by Weird Al

The single-take thing and the celebrity-lip synching are both kind of played out (tacky, if you will), but this video plods along until Jack Black arrives and just kills it with this infectious fat impish glee. This is the musical equivalent to Birdman (2014).

"7/11" by Beyoncé

There's so much going on here. Maybe it's one of the most successful ladies in music making the kind of video on the cheap she could have been making her first year in the business. Maybe it's the slightly subversive element of letting those back-up dancers be a little more sloppy, natural, casual, and fun. That's it. This video just looks like a hell of a lot of fun. Most artists aren't comfortable looking this stupid, but part of Bey's confidence is why we love her.

"I Won't Let You Go" by OK Go

I'll freely admit that OK Go kind of sucks musically, so I feel like they make all these crazy videos in order to bring attention to themselves. And for sure they're pretty immersive, but the music ends up just oddly accompanying the tracks as white background noise rather than anything I'd be dying to hear on Spotify. "The Writing's on the Wall" is more visually impressive, but "I Won't Let You Go"  is more technically impressive, so we'll go with that. They are really creative when it comes to these videos, just kind of shitty musicians.

"Sweatpants" by Childish Gambino

This was one of my favourite songs of the year and by far the most interesting music video. From its impossible single take aspects to its slow burn intensity shared with absurdity, it's completely engrossing. There's a slowly degrading loop, doppelgangers, and a descent into the self that's rarely seen in such a bumping driving upbeat track like this. Ending with a sharp segue into "Urn" adds to the dreamlike nature of the video and also lets you come down after the mind-tripping intensity of the video piques to match the song's climax. It's awesome.

Albums of the Year:

Rock: Everything Will Be Alright in the End by Weezer.

"Ain't Got Nobody" feels like every song off the Green Album, which just perfectly reassures Weezer faithful this is getting back to their roots. "Back to the Shack" says this much more explicitly. Everything else that follows delivers on that promise as Weezer's blend of ear-friendly punk, pop, and falsetto rock congeal into an album that is surprisingly both familiar and experimental.
Best Tracks: "The British Are Coming," "Cleopatra," and "Foolish Father."
Runner Up: Everyday Robots by Damon Alburn

Pop: St. Vincent by St. Vincent

No, not the Bill Murray movie, as Google seems to always want to direct me to when I search this album. Annie Clark St. Vincent has a lot of hard rock mixed with grungy synth in this breakthrough album. There's a reason why she was the best singer to join with Nirvana for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. She spits that hot fire while the background sounds like Rezopolis. It's such damn good ear candy that feels like David Byrne was put through a glitter freeze blender.
Best Tracks: "Huey Newton," "Bring Me Your Loves," and "Severed Crossed Fingers."
Runner Up: 1989 by Taylor Swift

Hip-Hop: Run the Jewels 2 by Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P)

That first track hits you with the unashamed intensity of a full speed bull and this album never lets up. It's a gothic brutal hip-hop that oozes with awesome beats and epic mastery of the spoken rap. Killer Mike and El-P have never been gods in the rap game, but they support and trade blows with each other like the best in the game. This hasn't really gotten the credit it should have, because the album doesn't contain one radio-friendly track, but if you're in a mood to put a scare into some white people, let this riff for an hour.
Best Tracks: "Blockbuster Night Part 1," "All My Life," and "Love Again."
Runner Up: Oxymoron by Schoolboy Q

Artist of the Year:

This year was a real formative one for many future superstars, among them Sam Smith, Charli XCX, Meghan Trainor, and Ariana Grande. It was also an epic return to relevance for Weird Al, who for one week completely dominated every chart imaginable. Other weird bits of musical dominance came from Movie Soundtracks - last year's Frozen ruled the roost with thirteen total weeks at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 (it was also 2014's highest selling album somehow). Guardians of the Galaxy proved to have an even more incredulous feat, also hitting #1 despite containing no original songs, and no song made after 1979.

Pharrell and Beyoncé also had big years, but that happens all the time with these two. This year's Big Artist, without question, is Iggy Azalea. She had a one-two punch this summer with "Fancy" and "Problem" and then continued slaying it, teaming up with Rita Ora for "Black Widow" and then closed out the year with "Beg For It." It's an exceptional line-up of very popular songs that are actually pretty damn good.

Iggy's a household name now. But will she continue her output or fade in the background? How much did you hear about Macklemore this year? That's what I'm talking about. Macklemore just ran out of songs on The Heist, but I think that Iggy's output can be a bit stronger and we could be talking about her again this time next year. She's a strong enough presence. Who am I kidding, Macklemore is also awesome, who knows what will happen. But at least she can always claim 2014 as her greatest year ever.

So, that's it, folks. Crank up your radios, make sure to catch True Dectective, and have a Happy New Year!

30 December 2014

2014 in Review: NMW's Top Ten

You have been so patient, people. I appreciate it. Here we are, with two days left to go in 2014 and it's finally time to really get into the movies that landed this year. I went back and forth on this list a ton and I'm sure that in a few years I'll look back and go "What the hell was I thinking?!" I like the idea of Best Of lists being dynamic rather than static. So, fuck it - let's revise 2013 first!

Wait, I ranked 19 movies last year? What a cop out. Here's 2013's Updated Top Ten, in order:

#10: Nebraska
#9: You're Next
#8: Frozen
#7: This is The End
#6: 12 Years a Slave
#5: Pain & Gain
#4: Spring Breakers
#3: Inside Llewyn Davis
#2: The World's End
#1: The Wolf of Wall Street

Now that that's out of the way, let's dig into 2014. I am actually now more curious about how I will feel about this list in 2015. For some reason I feel like at least The Double will drop out. Anywho, let's get in that ass:

#10: Guardians of the Galaxy

I like the summation here: "Guardians of the Galaxy is better than four out of six Star Wars movies." It's absolutely true! There's a hundred things to love about this movie - its sense of unadulterated fun that's become absent from major studio blockbusters, the deft character work, the inherent humour, or even Marvel's competent cosmic world-building that dips its toes into very nerdy water without lingering too long to make our eyes glaze over. What I love most though, is how Star-Lord finally kicks Ronan's ass through sheer irreverence; a giant post-modern fuck you to the stodgy self-serious soliloquies of blockbusters long past. The movie did all this while turning a half dozen throwaway joke characters into 2014's most significant pop culture force. And the best Soundtrack of the year.

#9: Under the Skin

Okay, I actually have a lot of trouble with Under the Skin. I'm pretty sure it's either the greatest cinematic experience of the year or the most frustrating. It's full-fledged reliance on visual storytelling requires a keen eye to decipher everything that's going on, and the abstract nature of its presentation can be maddening. In some sense it fails because it flat out refuses to divulge all of its secrets in visually coherent ways - but then again isn't a movie that allows you to form an opinion of the narrative, taking as much or as little from it as you want or can, a pretty sublime experience? For what it's worth, Under the Skin made me think more than any other film this year and will probably be on this list for a long time as I keep trying to figure it out, which in itself proves its greatness.

#8: The Double

I didn't totally mean to shit on The Double earlier, but I just feel like it's something I really like right now that may not stay with me. It's hard to say that it's better than the other surrealist doppelganger drama that came out this year, Enemy, but I certainly enjoyed Richard Ayoade's flick a bit more. There's a dry Visioneers (2008)-vibe to the bureaucratic world-building with characters that react very humanly to these impossible situations. Jesse Eisenberg is a revelation here in his dual roles, completely selling two different sides of visually identical duplicates with mere cock-eyed grins, slumped shoulders, or walking pace. Mia Wasikowska balances the equation beautifully, and when I tried to think of who the third lead was I remembered that it was Eisenberg again. He sells that dual role that well.

#7: Top Five

Top Five is the most recent film I've seen, which is unfortunate, because I'm so jonesing off it that it gets #7. Yes, Top Five is the black film I'm choosing for this list over Selma. I feel like this film was years in the making, because Chris Rock has never really been a true movie star. He's always really famous, but that act has never done well translated to an on-screen persona for some reason. He creates a film that's at once a spoof of culture, Hollywood, personal demons, societal expectations, and a chance to riff on everything from Obama to Ho Sleep. The cast hits all the right notes and the ending is perfect.

#6: Snowpiercer

You have to go with the premise, which immediately makes no sense at all. The entire world's population is confined a train which runs infinite loops around the world, where the rich live in the front and the poor live in the back. Where do all the rich people sleep? How do they have cows for steaks and shit? Who knows. Who cares. This movie rules. The action is mind-boggling but so is the confined sandbox world-building, international mix of cast and characters, and even the humour. This is a movie where you never have any idea of what's going to happen next, and when you do, your expectations are subverted and something else totally bonkers happens. In a movie that features a pitch black axe battle over an ice bridge the more insane moments happen in the pre-school car a few minutes later. What's up with that?

#5: The Grand Budapest Hotel

How does Wes Anderson keep out-Wes Anderson-ing himself? I thought that Moonrise Kingdom (2012) was the most Wes Anderson movie ever, but The Grand Budapest Hotel by far takes that trophy. Impressive as it is to have an adjective named after him, Wes Anderson-ing up a film like this somehow works perfectly. The set design gorgeously gels with the story and becomes a character unto itself. Ralph Fiennes gobbles up a juicy role with delight and plays straight the doofiest aspects and plays doofy the straight aspects. It's bewildering and awesome. Then there's the parade of Anderson regulars, from Adrian Brody to Willem Dafoe to Tilda Swinton who show up briefly for wacky side parts that are still so based in consistent character motivations. The whole package works beautifully, which is an astoundingly hard thing to do.

#4: Interstellar

This is probably what a Christopher Nolan Star Wars would feel like. Dripped in humanist realism with big loud epic, humanity-changing moments, this film succeeds in almost every possible facet of blockbuster filmmaking, from its script to the acting, directing, production design, and special effects. It's even a bit more warm than most of Nolan's harshly intellectual flicks (don't worry, there's plenty for your brain to digest), but when the film truly starts soaring into tripped out mind-blowing territory that echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), that's when I knew it'd be sticking with me for a while.

#3: Gone Girl

Dave Fincher's subtle directing here is spot-on, which is a shame in a year full of really flashy directing jobs like Nolan, Anderson, Linklater, and Iñárritu. So he's not likely to be recognized, but his camera work, editing, slow build of tension, and complete mastery of the most brutal twisty mystery of the year is commendable. Likewise to Ben Affleck, who I still think turned in one of the most credible acting performances of the year. Rosamund, who is a ton more showy (and who don't get me wrong, did a ridiculous job of selling every part of Amy's character who swings from affected mania to eerie control on a dime) may rack up the awards, which is some consolidation. You're constantly guessing who the true victim is here and it ends on a truly meaningful and relevant discourse on marriage, gender balance, and media power. It's stunning.

#2: Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our greatest living directors and it's refreshing to see him get away from the deep brooding There Will Be Blood (2007) territory and into more silly Boogie Nights (1997) territory. While I loved Blood and The Master (2012), Anderson has this great knack for this level of sincere goofiness and Inherent Vice just kills it with its mastery of attitude, tone, and acting prowess from the best cast of the year. There's a lot going on under the surface, too, and characters who don't even understand their own motivations are the most entertaining to watch.

#1: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

What do you want to call this? An unparalleled directing achievement? A movie that didn't need to go through a black hole to be a mind-bender? A film that sifts through multiple levels of meta-analysis not only about its own industry but the very nature of subjective art and criticism itself? A heady discussion on the needs and merits of acting vs. living the life of an actor? Or maybe just a self-contained hedonistic exercise in a narrow, pretentious industry. No other film grabbed my attention as much as this did and I had no other experience at the movie theater like it. From start to finish (There wasn't a more memorable opening line this year than "smells like balls") this flick just delivered everything you could want from a movie - complete technological and logistical control disguised as artistic minimalism. It's a wonder to experience.

Honourable Mentions:

I love all these flicks, but not enough for them to get a nice write-up. OK, just a sentence each!

The LEGO Movie: Adorable discourse on cultural hegemony disguised as product placement!
Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The most heady superhero movie ever!
Bad Words: Jason Bateman's confident and hysterical directing debut!
Obvious Child: Abortion romantic comedies can be hilarious - who knew Jenny "F-Bomb" Slate had it in her?!
Foxcatcher: This cast is a dream in any other genre, but is ridiculous in the dramatic folds here!
Edge of Tomorrow: Oh yeah, I forgot there's a reason why we all love Tom Cruise movies!
The Interview: The silliest comedy of the year is built upon James Franco's expressive face; brings nations and corporations to their knees!
The Babadook: Oh this was scary as hell! But with such a cute name!
Tusk: I really just liked Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp's daughters...
The Imitation Game: All the makings of a classic biopic rendered interesting through the will of Cumberbatch!
Selma: All the makings of a classic biopic rendered incredible through increased contemporary relevancy and an honest portrayal of its subject within the context of the event going on around him!
Whiplash: J. Jonah Jameson, here's your Oscar!
Jodorowsky's Dune: You're an insane man, Alejandro! But you're also nearly responsible for revolutionizing Hollywood!


By the way, I hated both Boyhood and Nightcrawler. On the former I think it's a pretty difficult task that Richard Linklater set out to do, and the conceit is infinitely intriguing and creative, but I just wish it resulted in a better film. Ditto with Nighcrawler - Gyllenhaal is amazing, but I couldn't get passed how much I hated his character. I suppose that means he did a great job. He's had a really underrated year, actually, with Enemy also clocking in as that other doppelganger movie. I just couldn't deal with that one because I'm afraid of spiders, man.

So, where will this list be in 2015? Or even 2020 for that matter? Who knows. I really digged a lot of movies this year, as you can tell, I think I wrote more reviewing this year than any year past. This year gave me a lot of hope for film in the years to come, even if 2015 looks like it's lining up with brainless blockbusters. But hey, we got Guardians out of that attitude, so whatever. As long as we keep taking risks I'm not worried. Hi ho silver! Away!

2014 in Review: Best Trends, Actors, Movie Music, and Trailers

After we got the Best Scenes out of the way (a post far lengthier than I expected), it's now time to talk a little more about the Year 2014 in Film. I actually really like doing this visually and there are a ton of compilation or montage videos out there this time of year, but to save you some time, here is the best one:

Got all that? So let's talk a bit about film this year. It was an uncommonly good year for movies, which I have said before is probably one to rival great years in the recent past like 1993, 1999, or 2007. I used to do whole columns on this shit. But it's not only a great year for small indie movies that only nerds, critics, and awards pundits see, but for big stupid filmmaking as well.

Yes, 2014 should be known as the year of the Smart Blockbuster. Sure there were things like Hercules and Noah that no one will ever remember but we also had some solid outings in the form of Captain America: The Winter Solider and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. There were other pretty competently made films like Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past to add to the good blockbuster party. Then you can look at a film that took itself less seriously than all of this but was probably better than any of them - Guardians of the Galaxy. Even Transformers...sucked. No, nothing good can come from that, anymore. I couldn't even really think of one single awesome scene. It's just noise. Maybe the robot T-Rex.

The only issue with this is really that none of these flicks did all that great at the Box Office. I mean, it's hard to saythat $200 mill a pop isn't great, but that wasn't really the standard most of these guys were shooting for. I'd be curious to see where this leads us going forward. Maybe we're out of the dark brooding self-serious intellectual blockbuster and more into the doofy but strong character-driven blockbuster? I'm so scared.

Best Actors:

I think that for both men and women we have really solid winners this year, but let's waste some time. Obvious male choices include McConaughey, Tatum, and Cumberbatch who seem to be everywhere, but underrated kudos should go to Chris "Captain Snowpiercer" Evans and Martin "Lester Nygaard" Freeman. I also like the idea that this could be the year that Chris Pine realises that he's a much better wacky character actor (Stretch, Horrible Bosses, and Into the Woods) than a leading man (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit).

But we all know 2014 belongs to Chris Pratt. Everyone else here is certainly deserving, but they're all already stars. 2014 turned Pratt from a chubby side character on Network Television to a global megastar. And all it took was The LEGO Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, and a Jurassic World trailer. For this transformative experience, Pratt is definitely our dude.

As for the ladies, Emma Stone was everywhere, from a terrible superhero film to a really good film making fun of superhero films. Ditto to Jennifer Lawrence, whose presence never really seems to go away. I give most credit out of this crew to Shailene Woodley, who is really cementing herself in both mainstream and indie filmmaking with Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and some other movie no one saw.

But of course, Scarlett Johansson eclipsed everyone. She just turned 30, did you know that? I'm always astonished by how young Scarlett Jo is. The Winter Soldier and Under the Skin premiered on the same day, did you know that? How are you that damn good in two movies that couldn't be more different? She followed that by headlining Lucy which was a crazy trippy original Summer Blockbuster that was sort of bypassed in the USA but did ridiculous international business. I wrote a whole post on how amazing her year was for a reason. Scarlett was already a star, but she's turned that star into a megapower of acting in a range of roles that are drastically different and widely appealing. It's a sight to behold.

Best Score/Soundtrack/Music Moments:

I looped all this together. Deal with it, we don't have all day here. I want to point out the scores for two films and the soundtracks for three more, especially because at least one score is ineligible and there's no award for soundtrack. There should be an award for soundtrack. There's always good movie moments that work only because of one perfectly used pop song. But we won't see composer Antonio Sanchez get any statue for his perfect throbbing all-drum score for Birdman. All my cheering then falls to Mica Levi, who also achieved an incredibly eerie screechy score that echoes across Under the Skin with delicious creepy tones.

So now let's talk soundtracks. C'mon - soundtracks are incredible! I'm sure they're just fresh in my mind, but I love both The Interview, which hinges around Katy Perry's "Firework" (which is played or sung four times in the movie), and Top Five, which presents one of the greatest collections of hip-hop in years. The Interview also hosts Usher, ODB, the Scorpions, the White Stripes, and Sister Nancy. It works beautifully. Top Five boasts "Niggas in Paris" as its feature song in addition to Slick Rick, Scarface, Ghostface Killah, and the Roots. Can you tell I'm biased towards hip-hop based soundtracks?

Obviously, though, this year's winner was Guardians of the Galaxy, whose soundtrack actually reached #1 on the Billboard Charts, the first ever for a soundtrack featuring no original songs. Hell, we could even add Frozen (2013) to the mix of great movie soundtracks this year, since it had most of its popularity in 2014. Guardians famously made its bank on Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" but I always dig the Redbone, Elvin Bishop, 10cc, and the Runaways. It's a dream.

Best Trailers:

Do I really have to get into this? Or can you guys just read this post? Needless to say, I'd call this a 3-way tie between Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Jurassic World (2015), and Star Wars Episode VII (2015), which just goes to show how epic 2015 is really going to be. Or maybe just how big and loud and nerdgasm-inducing it'll be. The winner is Star Wars, by the way, obviously. Not only was it an incredibly constructed trailer that is organized perfectly with just the right levels of suspense, attention-grabbing, and familiarity, but it's been scrutinized and dissected down to the millisecond. What other trailer this year has entire blog posts of speculation, complaints, or praise written about a single frame? It will be very interesting when this comes out.

And with that, I would say that we've run out of space! Haha! Do I keep giving you blue balls? Tomorrow we'll talk about my Top Ten List, I swear.

29 December 2014

2014 in Review: Best Scenes in the Films of 2014

Once again I felt like waiting until the last gasp of 2014 to put out my best of list - all those people who rush at the beginning of December really aren't absorbing everything that the year has to offer. With one last mighty breath, 2014 is extinguished and we head into the throngs of 2015. Hoverboards, ya'll! But before that, let us take a moment to describe the best scenes, actors, trailers, music, trends, and films of 2014. This post is going to be wicked drippy. Actually I think I'll split it up, because there's way too much going on here. Let's just talk about the scenes.

Best Scenes of 2014:

There are some spoilers here for sure, because some of these are the endings of films and stuff, so if you haven't seen a lot of these flicks, just skip ahead. I like the idea here of highlighting a lot of crappy movies that had really awesome scenes, along with the best films of the year who did have incredible moments.

#15: Creating the World in Noah

Noah really isn't an altogether terrible movie, or at least it really wasn't as bad as people purported it to be. I mostly enjoyed it because it's trippy as hell and has all these bizarre moments like Rock Angels and other insane gritty moments of like, Ray Winstone eating a live rat on board the Ark. It falls apart because no one cares about Noah, and the character himself grows insane to the point of being unlikable. The production design is also other-worldly and ridiculous, and I've never seen the Biblical account of the World's Creation rendered so creatively.

#14: Breast-feeding in Neighbors

I wanted to pick one scene from Neighbors because it really deserves recognition for being one of the funnier movies of the year, but it's really hard. The set-up for the breast-feeding scene is epic, though, and it wins as possibly being the most painful moment in a movie built upon painful moments. I almost picked the Dance Off, though, as much for Seth Rogen's doofiness as for Rose Byrne's conniving stares.

#13: Ending Concert in Whiplash

There's a lot of painful tense scenes in this film, the rushing or dragging scene above is one of them, but there's no better moment that subverts both the entire movie's set-up and what should have appeared to be a classic "rough teacher just trying to push his students harder" bit of acceptance and redemption. Instead it's nuts and Miles Teller has to become a badass on his own instead of getting it handed to him by J.K. Simmons. I'd love to find a clip, but I think it's a bit too fresh to be online yet.

#12: Home Invasion / Club Fight in John Wick

John Wick succeeded by being a perfect antidote to a lot of action movies out there right now, along with giving Keanu a role that should be really natural for him but we haven't seen him do in a while. And it doesn't suck! If you look at these two fight scenes you'll notice a few things - how fast they are yet how much you're allowed to breathe and actually take in the action, along with how creative and fast-thinking John Wick actually is as he's reloading and dodging bad guys. It's clear, crisp, concise action that's done more in the real world than with CGI. Who would have guessed this style was visually appealing?! And here is the club scene.

#11: Smile in Why Don't You Play in Hell

Why Don't You Play in Hell is a bonkers Japanese film about a young film crew that sets out to film the greatest movie ever with a bunch of gangsters, which really just becomes the gangsters actually killing their enemies on film. It's got a real sense of beautiful mania to it, and the final blood soaked battle jumps off from where Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) left off. But really, the Smile Scene is where it's at for pure weirdness.

#10: Opening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There wasn't more impressive character work done this year than in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, especially considering 1) They weren't human, 2) They hardly spoke, and 3) They were CGI motion captured. Everything you need to know about the principal Apes in the film comes across in the first five minutes of the film and then it spirals from there into lunacy like Monkeys shooting guns from tanks and Koba getting the Hans Gruber treatment. But watching and immediately understanding an entire Ape Society without resorting to this is a ridiculous feat.

#9: The Avalanche in Force Majeure

I haven't seen all of Force Majeure but I have seen this scene (and another one where some girl at the ski resort mistakenly hits on the family's father and his buddy), and it's spectacular. From the sudden tension and drama that unfolds after a "controlled" avalanche goes awry to the complete failure of a father to protect his family to the calm way the scene just picks up where it left off once the snow passes, it's a few minutes where you can identify an entire film.

#8: Birdman takes Flight in Birdman

Maybe I shouldn't say this is the best scene in Birdman - I mean, the whole film is rallying against scenes like this, right? But it is the moment where reality and fantasy begin to really blur (maybe I should have picked that ending), and it forms this elegy for Big Blockbuster Temptation - commercialism that will make you a man more than any crappy artistic play could. It's really the crux of the film and it's also where Michael Keaton's Riggan Thompson finds his mojo. And maybe he dies, who knows.

#7: "Ooh Child" in Guardians of the Galaxy

I wanted to pick a musical moment in Guardians and to me, this is the best. Others may go with Redbone or Blue Swede, but for me, Peter Quill's A Cappella "Ooh Child" Dance Off with Ronan is the highlight of this flick. It's Star-Lord's irreverence slamming headfirst into Ronan's antiquated villainous monologue-y attitude. It's a moment of sincere hilarity in what would otherwise have been any other superhero climactic struggle. And most importantly, it actually works, distracting that big jackass long enough for Rocket and Drax to do their thing and blow his weapon apart.

#6: Andre Allen's Hits Bottom in Top Five

There are a lot of spectacular moments in Top Five, but it mostly relies on verbal jokes, revelations, or riffs on various topics. When Chris Rock's Andre Allen's night in Houston goes from the greatest of his life to the worst of his life, though, I was laughing out of my seat. Cedric the Entertainer has never been more over the top and every element to how this scene was constructed, from the early expectations to Chris Rock's perfect terrified face as things go completely awry is perfect.

#5: The Frozen Arm in Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer is full of insane amazing scenes, and many would probably go with the mid-car ice bridge darkness axe battle, but the Frozen Arm is the first indication that this is a special movie. It's an ingenious use of the movie's own universe to dish out punishment that also provides excellent world-building. You're not quite sure what those portals are or what the man is doing with his shirt off, but as you figure it out on your own it dawns on you how brutal and perfect it is. The limb-losing becomes a common thread, and you can begin to tell that this is something that many people in the back of the train have gone through.

#4: Docking in Interstellar

How does Matthew McConaughey know how to do this? Who cares, but this scene is set up with aplomb and is one of the most tense of the year. First we see Matt Damon complete screw up his docking, which causes all kinds of hell to break loose. Then McConaughey gives it a shot and kicks ass, even though his ass is kicked doing it. Nolan does a great job in this movie of framing concepts that are difficult to conceive, and two objects spinning around in circles trying to line-up with each other could have been pretty boring. Instead, it's the highlight of the film.

#3: Throat-slitting in Gone Girl

Here's the ultimate "OH SHIT WTF JUST HAPPENED" moment of the year. We already know that Rosamund Pike's Innocent Victim Amy is really a conniving bitch, but this is the first true measurement of deep her insanity lies. Like I said in my review of this, I don't really like calling her insane because I think the film justifies a lot of her actions, if in their own way, but this is a brutal out of left field moment that cements her status as the most dangerous creature at the party. It's shocking, in character for everyone, and pushes the ending to a natural delicious tortured finish. It's a sizzling caper to an electric film.

#2: Time in a Bottle in X-Men: Days of Future Past

In terms of sheer awesomeness, it's tough to beat this one. At once it's both how much of a Deus Ex Machina Quicksilver is and a brilliantly majestic use of song, special effects, comedy, and character. It's not so much about advancing plot here as it is just getting the gang out of a jam, but on sheer irreverent cleverness alone this earns some big points for existing in an otherwise self-serious movie about time travel, robot apocalypses, and blue girls kicking ass.

#1: Fire Breath in Godzilla

This should hopefully cause some controversy, but I thought long about this and I decided that my most rewarding moment at the theater this year came from that first little charge up the tail and ended with a giant monster's head being melted off. Maybe it's just that we spent forever waiting for the big guy to even show up and start fighting and you know that his most powerful weapon, the Nuclear Fire Breath is coming. It's also just so well designed visually. The way that glow lights up the night where you didn't even know the G-Man was there. Godzilla is the kind of throwback movie that does all the little things right, and this is really the crux of all that waiting and the payoff is the greatest scene in the film. It's the ultimate cheerable moment, and as Godzilla stands King of the Monsters you can't help but feel a little pride that he's on your side.

Bonus: The Devil in Winter's Tale

I had to include this scene. It's not great by any means, but it's certainly the most downright bizarre in the most bizarre movie of 2014. What is Will Smith doing here? Why is he almost a convincing devil? Honestly, this YouTube video only has like 10,000 views - no one even knows that Will Smith is in this movie. And lest we not even forget what is actually happening in this scene - what the hell is going on? Why is there this bureaucracy for Demons on Earth? It's completely mystifying and spectacularly terrible.

Looking Back on Looking Forward: 2014 Under the Microscope

Way back when 2014 was in its infancy, I called out the ten films I was looking forward to the most. It's always a nice measuring stick to look back and see just how dumb and naïve I was to think that any of these would be good. A lot of my anticipation was justified, and nothing here outright bombed (okay, that first one did), but there is a resound meh from this list. So let's go over what I thought was going to be awesome:

#10: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Oh no! Right out the gate I'm dead in the water. I knew this was going to suck, though. I was mostly just pumped up because I actually saw this being filmed in my hometown of Rochester, NY, which is a first for me. What I couldn't have predicted was just how bad it really was - I mean, it's nearly destroyed what could have been a promising franchise with one of the most popular superheros of all time. But really, if it's enough to get Spider-Man back into the Marvel fold, then I'm okay with this and the next one tanking hard.

#9: Dom Hemingway

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, which I think flew under a lot of people's radar. The plot is paper thin, but Jude Law turns in a really engrossing, slightly out-of-character performance as a man nigh-unlikable who's trying to find some way to move on to the less stupid things in life. It also has an amazing ending that showcases Dom's cleverness along with a full-fledged assault on his masculinity, which really causes a huge push on his character. It's tough to get past the lunacy, but this is an underrated 2014 flick.

#8: The LEGO Movie

This was tremendously well-placed and probably should have been a bit higher. There's no reason why this movie should have been good at all, but then again, Phil Lord and Chris Miller's 21 Jump Street (2012) had no right to be good, either. From taking what could have been a crass, commercialized story and turning it into a strong metanarrative rallying against both pop culture conformity and hyper-specialization to its canny summation of all the potential awesomeness of playing with LEGOs, it hits everywhere it needed to.

#7: Transcendence

I will first say that I didn't think that Transcendence was as mind-numbingly awful as a lot of other people thought, but still, when that's the best I can say, it doesn't bode well. I'd consider it a movie filled with lots of really interesting and relevant ideas that's wrapped in a stiff shell of inconsistent character work and stretches of logic that we can never totally buy. It's not quite an action movie nor is it quite the philosophical treatise that it wants to be, but it still gets you thinking about the next stage in human evolution, which will almost certainly be technologically driven. There's not a lot of other films out there playing with this concept, and not even Paul Bettany's bizarre Stockholm Syndrome can hold that back.

#6: Interstellar

At the time of writing the preview last year, all I knew about Interstellar was the director, the star, and the name. It was enough to get me pumped and thank goodness, because it's the best film on this list. Big, original, engrossing, and intellectual blockbuster filmmaking is crazily rare in the same year that Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) made more money worldwide. I'm not sure if a director other than Nolan could pull this off right now (in execution and in merely getting the film greenlit), which makes encouraging these kinds of films all the more important.

#5: Guardians of the Galaxy

I'm glad Guardians comes after Interstellar because it's on the complete other end of the spectrum. It's the second-best movie on this list and also filmmaking that needs to be encouraged for the completely opposite reason - it's fun! That fun is derived from character, though, which is critically important, especially considering the off-the-wall characters in this thing that could have very easily slipped into forgettable B-movie doofiness. Instead it's always playing with itself, comfortable being a space opera, a dude flick, and an 80s throwback all at once.

#4: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Increasingly my stance on this movie is that the scenes with the Apes are some of the best of any movie this year, while the scenes with the humans all kind of fall apart. I think it averages to present an okay-moviegoing experience that isn't the all-encompassing gift from the movie gods it felt like when it came out.

#3: 22 Jump Street

There was no funnier movie this year, but I still have issues about how it hung its hat on calling out movie sequels for being repetitive but never really innovated on its own despite trying really hard to form some kind of comment on it. I guess I finish with mixed feelings on this, although I can still think of half a dozen hilarious scenes that make me giggle with glee. And who knew that Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill would be an invincible comedy team?

#2: Godzilla

Here's another film that I liked more than it deserved. It was trashed a lot for its midway ditching of Bryan Cranston in favor of Kick-Ass, but I actually thought that his departure was perfect. I don't buy either argument either for or against holding back on seeing Godzilla himself. It's not really executed with perfect Spielbergian attention to tension and investment in character nor does it completely make the first half a waste of time. I'm definitely a fan, even if most of the flick is just waiting for a really satisfying final ten minutes.

#1: X-Men: Days of Future Past

I absolutely loved this film when it first came out, even though when I thought about it for a week after I realized how phenomenally stupid and inconsistent so many scenes were. It's a testament to Singer's directing skills that most of this is masked in a nice layer of candy upon first viewing, though. It's a seamless mix of First Class (2011) and the original X-Men casts, even if that actually just means First Class and Wolverine. More importantly, though, it erased the history of every crappy X-Men movie. Like Guardians, it is also a really fun movie, despite focusing mostly on a Robot Apocalypse.

So there you have it, folks. Out of our Ten Anticipated Movies, I'd say about three were justified, six were meh, and one totally sucked. What will 2015 bring? Probably more crap. Stay tuned after the New Year to find out our picks!

27 December 2014

First Impressions: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

It's becoming harder and harder for me to form proper opinions on these movies. On the one hand they're clearly no more than cash-grab shells of the cinematic achievement that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was that has never felt as important, epic, or as culturally significant as the superior trilogy. Then again, the lighter touch of The Hobbit Trilogy makes the films a whole lot more fun and much less pretentious. They always feel entertaining, and seem to be widely seen, yet no one really seems to give a shit. SPOILERS from here on out in this discussion of the film's merits and potential.
This image could have been from any Hobbit movie, actually.

Going in to this thing, I really couldn't remember a single scene from An Unexpected Party (2012). Quick, I actually wrote that title from memory - was I right? Is it Journey?! Fuck, it is! Did anyone out there really doubt me hard on Party. I remember The Desolation of Smaug (2013) a bit better because the Bilbo scenes with Smaug himself are legitimately awesome, but there's hardly anything else that stands out, even a few years down the line. It reminds me of Super 8 (2011) or something - a competently made, impressive, and entertaining film that no one remembers or cares about today.

So, how does The Battle of Five Armies (2014) stack up? It's probably the best of The Hobbit Trilogy, so that's saying something. It's still disjointed and forgettable, though, even though it has some cool innovations, some genuinely powerful character deaths, and some badass fight scenes to rival anything else done this year. For what it's worth it's also the shortest of any of Pete Jackson's Tolkien adaptations and probably the one with the least amount of shit happening. For all these reasons it's at once the most streamlined but probably also the most hollow of these films.

The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film involves Smaug's destruction of Lake-town, and his demise at the hands of Bard (and his son, used as a bow of sorts), which really feels like it should have been added to The Desolation of Smaug. I mean, the end of Smaug was actually really cool - "I AM FIRE! I AM DEATH!" it's such a cool way to gear you up for the final installment...but all that badass shit is undermined from Smaug's near-instant dispatched here. We then get into The Hobbit's villain problem - there's just way too many dire threats to keep track of: Smaug / Necromancer / Azog are all significant big bads who only sort of work together. Desolation of Smaug was all about the big dragon, and that film probably should have ended with his death, which could have still have caused a hook-worthy cliffhanger of every army in Middle-Earth looking to the riches now dragon-free mountain.

The Necromancer was also built up fairly significantly, but is also dispatched by Galadriel's Ring Girl powers, I guess. It was nice to see Elrond and Saruman kick some ass against the Ringwraiths...but what is happening here? Does Elrond have a magical ghost sword? Christopher Lee is still alive? God bless him. This scene isn't really necessary besides a chance to showcase a lot of old favorites kicking ass and a bit of the process of the White Council foreshadowing Saruman's eventual betrayal. Is this part needed in this movie in any satisfying narrative sense? Not really.

So that just leave us with Azog. And Bolg, his son, I guess. Bolg is kind of a cool Cyborg-Orc who is somehow really really hard to kill while the rest of the orcs literally die from rocks thrown at their heads. I think he really ended up with way too much screentime, battling Kili, Tauriel, and Legolas all significantly before Legolas uts him down. And why did Legolas get to kill him? He's avenging the death of the guy who wanted to bang the chick he was into. That just seems weird to me. I mean, Legolas is a noble dude and all, but wouldn't Tauriel be a more fitting and equally capable character to avenge Kili's death? Like the rest of this film, it seemed like more a showcase for old favorites to do cool shit than an attempt at any kind of narrative solvency.

Now, I'm shitting all over this film, but it does some nice character work with Bilbo and Thorin especially, and the ups, downs, backslides, loyalty, betrayal (perceived or otherwise) of their relationship keeps this film going. Thorin is unfortunately insufferable for about the first two-thirds which just makes the proceedings really irritating, especially when Bard is really likable and reasonable. Thranduil is still a dick, but at least he's rational. Dragon sickness my ass, Thorin sucks.

But when he finally comes around, he's noble and awesome and the movie can finally get going. I feel like if this was sped up the film could have probably clocked in at an hour and a half or so, which, with some Necromancer trimming, wouldn't have made an entirely awful second film to be done with it. Thorin's duel with Azog is also a highlight, and one where the person who should have his vengeance, gets his vengeance. The ice river battle is pretty unique, especially after the Lord of the Rings Trilogy mostly spent time in the South of Middle-Earth. It's a good play on the temperature of the region they're in.

I would have been okay actually if they had left it with Azog drowning in the icy water. It's a nice twist for Thorin the obstinate dwarf to use his smarts and surroundings to beat an opponent who is physically more than his match. The mutual annihilation play was actually disappointing. Thorin never got to enjoy all that work he did to regain his home, although I suppose he wouldn't have been any good with that, considering he went crazy with greed anyway. There wasn't really an effective denouement, to be honest, where all the gold was divvied up and everyone was happy. We could have actually used a Return of the King (2003) ending to wrap up everything needed.

I'm not sure I have all that more to say about this film. I'm not sure we'll remember the cool Thorin / Azog fight this time next year like we remember the Smaug / Bilbo riddle battle. There's something to be said for using your intellect against pitch-perfect voiceover and CGI dragon work rather than just a cool ice battle. The Azog CGI was actually really good, I actually tended to lose myself a little bit, thinking it was a dude in a suit at times. And maybe they pulled some Jurassic Park shit and interloped the two, I'm not sure.

By the way, what were the Five Armies? I've actually always been curious about this since reading the book. Was it Dwarves, Elves, Men, Orcs, and Eagles? Or could you consider it Dwarves, Elves, Men, Azog's Army, and Bolg's Army? Or Dain, The Company, Elves, Men, and Orcs? Where do the Bats fit in? Is Beorn  his own Army? Oh shit, by the way, why the hell didn't we get more Bear-Beorn destroying hundreds of orcs action? I'd watch ten minutes of that shit over ten minutes of Legolas trying kill Bolg when Tauriel should have kicked his ass instantly! Yes, I clearly would have done this movie completely differently. Here's to the Extended Edition.

The last thing I'll say is that this film was full of interesting mounts, which were really cool. Of course the King of the Elves rides a huge moose thing with antlers than line orcs up well for smooth decapitating. And of course Dain of the Iron Hills rides a big fat piggie. And where did Thorin and company get those rams? They were actually incredibly useful for assaulting a snowy mountain!
Quick! Name more than...two of these.

Okay, I did like this movie, but I didn't feel much watching it. Maybe that was because I literally forgot almost everything going into it, and there was virtually no recap at all (I like to imagine this was done to streamline marathon viewings in the future...). I had no idea, for instance, why Bard was in jail or who half of the Lake-town characters were. The characters haven't been as endearing as the equally impressive and expansive cast of the Lord of the Rings. Perhaps that's because we actually got to know these people instead of half of the Dwarves, who I could swear I saw for the first time in the goodbye scene. Maybe it's because there's more moments of intimate character instead of just sequences of barrel racing and battling. For whatever reason, this just always feels like surface-level entertaining stuff instead of anything meaningful.

So, here's to The Silmarillion Parts 1-24 (2023). I would actually still legitimately watch a Silmarillion movie.

17 December 2014

Terror Wins: Hackers, SONY, and The Interview

It's really really rare that I comment on current events like this, but I felt compelled to write something up about this, mostly because A) I really wanted to see The Interview (2014), B) the American Government, the MPAA, and mainstream media have not treated this act of cyberterrorism with the proper level of seriousness, and C) this whole situation is so fucking stupid.

A lot of this gets back to South Park "201" (S14;E6) stuff, where Comedy Central self-censored a depiction of Muhammad out of fear of reprisal from Muslim Terrorists. This brought about a heady debate over the nature of free speech, namely, that if everything isn't up for discussion, then nothing is. It's a potent argument at the heart of our Bill of Rights - freedom to express oneself should not and cannot be limited by the whims of any particular group that takes too much offense. It would become far to easy for any group of people to threaten violence resulting in them controlling artistic output rather than the artists. The uncensored version of the episode sums it up pretty well.

It's for this reason that we really can't censor ourselves. Now, with the South Park deal, there was some very real precedence with earlier crisis in Denmark, but you could go back to Salman Rushdie with this nonsense if you wanted to. The Interview is a little different, though. It's been widely speculated up until now, but now it seems official that the hacking attack on SONY was perpetrated, or at least sanctioned by the North Korean government itself. This would indicate that the leaks are actually a cyberattack by one nation's government against a business in another country.

More importantly, on a global scale, this is a country that is not complying with the laws of another. North Korea is not acknowledging our own Bill of Rights. This is a tremendously important conclusion that our nation's media or government does not seem to be addressing. The immediate result of the SONY leak was more concerned with racist emails sent by the CEO, what the company thought about Adam Sandler movies, and plans for future James Bond and Steve Jobs films. While none of this is really great for SONY's business, as Aaron Sorkin points out, none of it is really illegal, and certainly not as illegal as North Korea's act of terrorism.

Other countries cannot dictate our laws based on what they may or may not find offensive. People often talk about setting dangerous precedent, but this is extremely dangerous precedent, indeed. I'm not sure what the call is here, but I don't think that SONY pulling the film with seemingly little backing from the MPAA or any of the Unions is the best one. It's intimidation into self-censorship, but can you blame them? The narrative if North Korea really launched an attack as a result would be disastrous - a few jokes isn't worth risking the lives of their employees or patrons.

You could argue otherwise, to be honest. Art and free expression is worth risking our lives, although that's hard to sum up in a headline. Comedy Central had the same rationale back when "201" premiered, but backing down really is giving into what terrorists want, which is to use violence to influence the display of media to suit the interests of a very small section of the population - in this case, the world population, which is a terrifying prospect.

It's also important to call back to Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), which is a legitimate indication that Kim Jong-Un can take a joke less well than Hitler. What happens when we can't criticise literally the worst people in the world? Why should these bullies get their way because they speak the loudest and with the most violence? It's very upsetting, but SONY really hasn't had the backing of our government, so it makes sense that they'd be bullied into pulling the film. It's not their business to provide theater security. Unfortunately, their leaks have made the entire company seem more like a joke to be mocked than a victim to be defended. Regardless of the crudeness or unlikeability revealed from their most private documents, they are still an American company at victim of an international attack. And while racist emails are one thing to denounce, social security numbers, salary information, or personal contact information is another.

One reason why the government may have such a cavalier attitude toward this whole thing is because it really is so, soooo stupid. The Interview by all means appears as an extremely goofy movie, one that looked to be much more silly than insightful. I'm honestly wondering if Kim Jong-Il grew up in a more rational environment than Kim Jong-Un - that is, did the nation-state under Jong-Il become so insane and out of touch with reality that he feels so entitled to be legitimately insulted by this doofy stoner flick? It really doesn't get much different than celebrity treatment in America. Can you imagine the North Korean equivalent of That's My Bush?

Sony has officially scrapped all plans to release this film in any format, which I don't believe will hold. Especially with this level of Buzz - current trending topics (17 December 2014, 11:30 pm) on Twitter include, "The Interview," "North Korea," "Team America," "Sony," and "World Police." And that's a good point - where was all this shit during Team America: World Police (2004)? Again, I'm wondering if Jong-Il was a staple of mental stability compared to his turdy little son.

But this level of publicity is too good. I would pay $15 to watch The Interview on demand right now. Hell, I'd pay $25. It'll make its rounds, if not in the US, then certainly Internationally, and one of those copies are going to make it back here. Legal or not, millions of Americans will see this - and here's the thing, North Korea - even if millions don't see it, we all still already feel the way about your shithole country that you think this movie will make us feel. That's what happens when you live in a country with a free flow of information and freedom. You can think different things from other people and look up opinions and news if you want to. I really believe if we get into Jong-Un's psychology, he doesn't understand that as a kid who grew up in a steadily declining North Korean State. He believes he can propagate the myth of his own greatness outside his borders, where he is sadly mistaken.

So, as you can tell, I'm more upset than I usually am. We didn't get one threat over that Grouplove video. Or when Avery Jessup was kidnapped on 30 Rock. Of course, these didn't really entail an assassination of the Head of State. Maybe Jong-Un can't tell movies apart from reality and thought The Interview was a real movie. I'm spitballing here anything because I'm such a Rogen / Goldberg / Franco fan, I really wanted to see this movie, and I'm just sitting here in utter disbelief that these idiots cobbled together a film that should change International Relations and treatments of freedom of speech and International Law for decades to come. Should change. If we're not afraid of turdy bullies.

15 December 2014

First Impressions: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Believe it or not we're almost at the conclusion of the Year 2014, and as is the norm for this time, each and every website worth its shit covering film is dishing out lists of the best movies, music, TV, nudie pic leaks, and anything else they can imagine. Rest assured, Norwegian Morning Wood's Lists are coming (we never jump the gun on these things - that's what the week between Christmas and New Year's is for), but looking back on it a bit now, one thing is clear: 2014 was a CRAZY good year for movies. It's like 2007 levels. Seriously, look around. Even the blockbusters didn't suck! Mostly!

It's such a shame then, that Birdman (2014) makes them all look like pieces of shit. In 2007 this was No Country for Old Men (2007), which dominated amid a weird flurry of Westerns like There Will Be Blood (2007) that I'd now consider a little worse, as well as Westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) that seven years gone I'd consider a little better. It was a strange time for everybody.

2014 isn't linked by a singular genre, and who knows if these opinions will hold up across the next seven years (can we link 2014's best films through the dark-comedy genre? How will Birdman's Legacy compete with The Grand Budapest Hotel [2014] and Inherent Vice [2014] in 2021?), but right now Birdman stands out as a really great movie in a crowd of really good movies, which is damned impressive. Top to bottom this thing just excels in every possible way. SPOILERS will fire from all angles from here on out people, so go see it now if you haven't already, take notes, then come back, prepared to discuss. I'll wait.


OK, welcome back. So since this is basically a critical assertion of the film, let's start by addressing how the film addresses critics, and then focus our impressions from there. There are many layers throughout this whole thing, from the subtext of the plot formed from both the personal struggles of the principal characters and the congruent themes along with a plot that intersects fantasy with reality in increasingly meta ways that comes off much less obnoxiously than that sounds. But there's a solid dig at critics at the intersection of art and commerce.
Caw Caw!

There's this continual argument in the film against the vapid emptiness of stupid superhero films, which is rendered indelibly ironic through not only its main character, Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton, whose role in Birdman (1992) is the clearest extension of his real-life role as the Caped Crusader in Batman [1989]), but also the use of Ed "Bruce Banner" Norton and Emma "Gwen Stacy" Stone. Throw in Naomi "Ann Darrow" Watts and Andrea "The Chick from Oblivion (2013)" Riseborough, and you've really got a cast with a tremendous amount of big-filmmaking experience. Tabitha, the New York Times Critic played by Lindsay Duncan exposes at length about her contempt for Riggan's kind - the ego-driven celebrities posing as "actors" who take up space in theaters where real art could have been produced.

Riggan counters that Tabitha doesn't know how to bare her soul for art, and chides her for merely labeling things without digging into structure or meaning. Tabitha isn't really phased, and this argument about the nature of art rages between her, Riggan, and the pompous actor, Mike (Ed Norton). So let's try not to label things here and dig into structure and meaning, baring a little soul.

That's how Mike sees things. He's really only alive on stage and is only comfortable as a performer. As a real human being he's downright detestable, without much concern for how people look at him. He's a firm believer in the pursuit of truth, though, and his introductory riffs with Riggan are a marvelous introduction to character that also blends what exactly is acting and what is real personal reactions. He also chastises Riggan for making populist drivel, considering him to be an ego-driven hack who used his name to write, direct, and star in a passion product where he lacks the talent or insight to actually make a play or performance to reveal human truth.

Riggan is therefore at this intersection of opinions on art. He made his name on big, billion-dollar franchises but twenty years on is mostly a wash-out. Again, the meta-irony with casting Michael Keaton in this role is just as heady as the irony of casting Ed Norton as the pushy, difficult actor. And apparently, this concept was not lost at all on either Norton or Iñárritu. Riggan understands the stupid emptiness of blockbuster filmmaking and wants to distance himself from it - that's the whole point of his undertaking. Each time he's derided for the very past he's trying to fight against it's a rough blow to his own sense of self-worth and direction. At the same time his ego swells large enough to fantasize himself as a real-life Birdman fighting giant mechanical eagles and flying around the city. If you've gotten this far and haven't actually seen this film yet, what more do I need to tell you? Get going!

Welcome back.

Like I was saying, there's all these competing ideas for what art is. And as well there should be, because no one actually knows what art is. Everyone has an opinion of what it is, and that's what really makes art anything - it's simply worth discussing. Here at Norwegian Morning Wood, we think just about everything is art. Especially Rebecca Black. I wonder what Rebecca Black is doing right now. You ever think about that? Or what Gotye is up to. Did you ever think Gotye would become a one-hit wonder? How does, oh I don't know...what does Kel Mitchell do to get through his day every day? Does he chill with Kenan after SNL rehearsals? I'm fascinated by this shit.

Way off topic. Riggan is fighting for truth as well, but gains confidence by the idea that he can fall back on his billion-dollar franchise and although the film mostly derides the stupid big studio movie, there's some sense that it can be a source of pride for those involved, even if Iñárritu expresses such sentiment with some degree of sarcasm. I think there's a heady concept out there that these big movies push the little movies out of the way, to the irritation of those seeking high art, the same way that vanity projects like Riggan's supposedly hack adaptation of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" leave less space for other, more important plays to rehearse.

These are the huge ideas the film presents about art, movie-making, and specifically superhero movies. But there's so much more to this thing. Let's talk structure, as Riggan would like us to. The most notable feature of this film is obviously its one-take nature which is hypnotic, baffling, and erection-causing all at the same time. Now, it really wasn't one-take, although the illusion is crafted precisely. Through some careful pans, editing, and color corrections the film is present as such, although I've been fooled pretty thoroughly. I assuredly can't point out to you where these moments are, although the two time-lapse (presumably) skyshot scenes that transition from night to morning are fair indicators. There may be more spliced in, and if anyone can find an article online determining when, feel free to share below!

That being said, much of the film was only a few takes, which is crazy hard. Seriously, it makes Touch of Evil (1958) look like a pile of crap. The precision involved for literally everyone - director, blockers, lighting guys, and actors especially - being on point in some really difficult scenes is infinitely impressive. And I usually don't give a shit about actors. The planning and precision required from the screenplay is all the more impressive and mind-boilingly difficult. I mean, they literally designed the set around how long it look to say a piece of dialogue while walking down a corridor.

And the cheats are incredible and puzzling and exactly why you still go to the movie theater in an age where a lot seems to be able to be explained with CGI. How do Keaton and Norton exit the St. James Theater on 44th and walk into a bar on 47th? Or how is Keaton suddenly in the middle of Times Square in his underpants. The logistics are crazy! It's a script and directing achievement that I think unfortunately will overshadow many other tremendous writing and directing achievements this year, although who knows if the Academy will even agree, and who knows if time will agree with either of us.

Everything in this movie also fits really well tonally, which is also astounding, because it's such a tricky tone to achieve. It's not quite straight, there's way too much goofiness and surrealness, but it's also not an out and out comedy. The bubbling bursting drumming by Antonio Sanchez offers a frenetic pulse that complements the unending continuous take. The continuous take style mimics the Live Theater subject matter at the heart of the movie. Even the set design represents the characters' struggles from the crumbling, cramped backstage hallways to the immaculate stage, suggesting how disastrous these people's personal lives have to be against the public face to which they are judged. It's amazing.

Riggan wants us to dig deeper. So let's talk about ego. There's a lot of this in the movie, and it's touched on just enough to remind us it's an important theme without over-explaining itself, leaving a lot for interpretation. That sounds like good art! There's a lot of talk about Icarus and of course the title of the film, which also configures itself as a final Times headline, "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance." That's essentially a good sum-up of the film, perhaps as good as "Birdman" is. Or maybe they're the same thing.

Tabitha uses the title to describe how the hapless, unrespected, Broadway-outsider Riggan by accident created a new performance method, which she dubs, "Super-Realism" by shooting himself in the head, only to miss and annihilate his nose, which by itself is also an unexpected virtue of ignorance. It could thus be seen as the power a fresh mind with little experience has when entering a new medium without bounds of expectation to limit potential. It's also a statement supporting dumb luck.

Icarus, obviously, flew too close to the sun in his pride, after which his wings melted and he fell to his death. Right? Did he die? Well, he got messed up for sure. Riggan either did that years ago with the Birdman franchise, which doomed him to never step out of that shadow and be respected as a real actor, or is doing that right now in overstretching himself to create this play at the expense of his entire life - straining every personal relationship and obliterating himself financially, professionally, and mentally to get it completed. His ignorance is either in his pride (the Birdman blockbuster invincible mentally that also saves him from suicide. Maybe.) that allows him to think this is possible, or in the completely accidental way the play becomes a hit, mostly due to his or someone else's (usually Mike's drunken freak-out or public erection) bungling that catches on, through word of mouth, real or digital.
"You wanna get nuts?!"

That's another big theme that runs through the film, usually through Riggan's daughter, Sam (Emma Stone): the fight for relevancy and legacy in both an age where everyone is fighting for it and an industry that is quick to discard has beens and latch on to the next up and coming star. Another great irony in the film is that Riggan is so quick to dismiss and disregard social media (as is, I would imagine, Mike and Tabitha, who would denounce it as a lack of the search for truth, which is as outdated an attitude towards social media as you can get), but he ends up becoming a sensation through his own dumb series of fortune. Another bill for the unexpected virtue of ignorance. He achieves relevancy not when he is seeking it, but exactly when he doesn't want to be seen (an underpants parade through Times Square). That battle to stay relevant in the digital age, not only through ignorance of technology, but really when you are but one of billions with the exact same capability, is an extremely difficult endeavour that the film hits home pretty well.

Needless to say, this is all supported by really good acting. Keaton has always been a bit of a chameleon, switching between roles like Beetlejuice and Bruce Wayne with ease in the 80s and popping up in random things like Multiplicity (1996) and Jack Frost (1998) in the 90s, then killing it with TLC references in The Other Guys (2010). The dude can actually do anything. Norton, who usually plays such nice dudes slips into this asshole role really well, perhaps because it's a little closer to home. Stone is the other stand out as a bit more bitter than she usually skews, but with all the charm she can elude. The rest of the cast has impressive turns, from the strained Watts, the confused Riseborough, and a fierce Galifianakis, who is showing an actor inside him that deserved to come out a long time ago. It's fantastic.

I can't heap any more praise on this thing. I know it's been praised a lot, but it deserves a little more. I really thought Gone Girl (2014) would have been my pick this year, but this might do it. I have a few more weeks to get through all the best movies of 2014 but this is hard to top. Go and see it, already, jeez.

And leave a comment about where those cuts are below.

04 December 2014

Because Internet: Trailer Wars

Movies are interesting among the producers of goods in that we don't really care who's making them. To some extent this is true of everybody, I mean, no one really gives a shit whether or not a cookie comes from Nabisco or Kellogg, in fact it'd be extremely difficult to even name each of their products offhand. But the irony is that through all this complete irreverence on the part of the consumer, big companies are locked in deathly dire competition with each other and will kill to get to the top.

This is why I've had my interest peaked by three trailers and one bit of casting news as of late. It's as if every major studio is suddenly throwing its hat into the ring and screaming to be noticed. A month or so ago I went on a long rant about what I thought of the Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) trailer, and I think that went pretty well and I stand by that. I still think that's a decent trailer which does an excellent job of re-introducing these characters while mystifying just enough of the plot while maintaining intrigue to keep our attention going. That's really hard to do with a trailer. For a reminder:

About 60.6 million views on its official channel, as of 03 DEC 2014.

A week ago another trailer debuted, which did almost as well, but had arguably a bit more of a wow factor and buzz going into Thanksgiving Weekend. That would be Universal's Jurassic World (2015). There's that bit of dread, a slight twist (an actually successful, up and running Park?), that "HOLY SHIT!" moment (Mosasaurus getting a snack), and that mysterious, dark intrigue (the brand-new super-badass hybrid Dinosaur). It even has a hauntingly mellow score, this time in the form of a super-laid back version of Johnny Williams' opus that contrasts with the havoc on screen. Jurassic Park is always this juxtaposition of man's need for order and nature's proclivity for chaos, usually to the detriment of man (don't worry - woman inherits the earth). A lot of those themes are still echoing in the cheesy B-movie sci-fi vibe the trailer gives off with the Frankensaur here, but the point is that this had big points that it got across well and made everyone on the Internet lose their minds. Here it is again:

That would be 40.4 million views as of right now. Not quite beating Age of Ultron, but that one had nearly an additional month of lead-time. For as big as Ultron felt, it never felt as monumental as hearing those riffs from Jurassic Park one more time, which is crazy because the franchise has totally had diminishing returns over the past few years. Jurassic World works because it feels like more of a new story instead of a re-hash. It's not like someone is lost on the Island again. Or there are lost little kids to find. Crap. It still hit nostalgia just right and seemed awesome.

Until Friday when Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens dropped and everyone lost their damn minds. Not just nerds - everyone, EVERYONE is talking about this thing. It's crazy to think of what the actual power of this franchise is when it's not being bogged down by really really shitty movies and word of mouth. I mean, there are entire separate films devoted to answering that question. And I was curious, too, about how all this stacks up. So I looked at some Google search trends. Age of Ultron peaked admirably where it should, and Jurassic World is up there, but actually not as much as I may have predicted - but look at fucking Star Wars. On any random day there's about as much search activity to nearly equal the peak levels of these giants, but when the trailer dropped? It doubles the Avengers' peak and nearly triples Jurassic World. You may do the searches yourself, or check out this dandy bugger:

There has been a mind-boggling amount of trailer analysis. Everyone from master bladesmiths to Stephen Colbert are weighing in on the Sith Lightsaber design. People are offering detailed specs as to how that little rolly-ball droid may have originated and how it works. And of course, everyone on Earth and Hell are speculating about the three leads here (which mysteriously are not Han, Luke, and Lando), played by John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Isaacs. THIS.

Why is all this going on? Well, first and foremost, it doesn't suck. It's new and different at the same time, which is in line with all these other trailers, but Star Wars is different. Star Wars means so much to so many people - and by that, I mean that Star Wars is EVERYTHING to so many people that any glimmer of a Star Wars that doesn't suck is a huge monumental event. There's just that right level of nerd teasing (check out the S-Foils) and wha-moments (Is Boyega a stormtrooper or pulling a Luke and Han on the Death Star?) that it's just nirvana for all sorts of fans. So here is that one, again:

And I don't even know if this one is officially posted by a studio here, this is about the biggest one, which comes from just MOVIECLIPS Trailers, which is sitting at 40.9 million views at this current moment.

So it seems. Ultimately you'd have to add some of the other top hosts together and then we get to to those Avengers numbers, which neither of these other films really have. So, to get back to what I was originally saying, about Studios knocking each other around, first of all, it's insane and depressing to think that both Avengers and Star Wars are popping out of Disney's asshole these days, which is also why they aren't cannibalizing each other, with Star Wars dropping a solid seven months after its Robot-driven cousin. Universal, though, sure as hell wants a slice of that pie. And look at little Warner Brothers trying to make some waves with its ridiculous Suicide Squad Casting announcement. So let's talk about that for a bit.

This casting is absolutely insane, mostly because it's really good. DC is effectively lining up all these prestige actors for its projects, mostly because they'd otherwise be pretty bad. Suicide Squad is a really interesting title to come off so early in the DC Shared Universe Movie World because it's so damn out there as a concept - hardly mainstream friendly or even that well known. Will Smith as Deadshot? Out of every superhero that Will Smith could have played, he's going to end up being Deadshot? More importantly, though, this film straight up doesn't get made if Jared Leto isn't the Joker.

That's a huge bridge! That's your news! You can't just sign up anyone to play the role that single-handedly saved DC and changed superhero movies forever. There's always the Batman Begins (2005) argument, but The Dark Knight (2008) really was the one to put every single person involved on the map, and that was 80% Ledger's Oscar-winning Joker. How the hell do you follow that up and keep the cash flowing? Cast the dude who last won an Academy Award in the same category, who can kind of pull off the same thing. I don't really understand why no one remembers that the rest of Leto's roles are pretty shitty and he has more politics to thank for winning for Dallas Buyers Club than any talent, but whatever. It's a casting that looks really good.

The same goes for the rest of this. Margot Robbie is a natural, trendy selection after The Wolf of Wall Street; Jai Courtney was undoubtedly available; Tom Hardy is still made fun of for Bane, despite towering over Ledger's Joker, in my opinion; the other chick is pretty hot; but then there's Will. What the hell is Will Smith doing anything near this thing? Well, the honest truth of it is that the only films he's headlined since 2008 is a desperate sequel and a terrible ego project that everyone hated. I still think that when people hear "Will Smith" they think it's a big deal, although how did I miss that cat in Winter's Tale (2014)? He needs this bullshit, even though it's totally beneath him.

Now I'm totally off track. The fight for buzz completely interests me - there's only so much room on the Internet, after all. I actually mean that - how quick did we forget Jurassic World after The Force Awakens dropped? There's a delicate balance of timing there that's infinitely compelling - after all, all the nerds are going to see all this shit anyway, but what about those extra folks that really give a film its big bucks? The normies, as we might call them. You've got to stir up so much of the pot that all these nerd juices spill over into mainstream. And the prize? A few billion dollars ain't bad.

But Suicide Squad (2016) will suck with a really mismatched tone and do terribly. Now if I could only gear up you people for Space Station 76 2014....
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