30 December 2015

2015 in a Bottle: Best in the Movies

This is post #700, by the way. No big deal.

We've been recounting the Best of 2015 all month like a good little Internet site, and here is where we end it. We've already gone through our Top Ten-ish list of the best films of the year, which I can totally see changing dramatically (hint: Star Wars: The Force Awakens [2015] doesn't last), but there's more to film that just good movies. There are always excellent actors, trailers, scenes, and soundtracks to dig into. Most of these were in good movies, but there's always epic moments in terrible films that deserve to be highlighted. So, let's talk about the greatest scenes of the year. I suppose there could be some SPOILERS since a solid amount of these are ending scenes, but whatever. Get over it:

Best Scenes:

Goodbye, Paul Walker from Furious 7

Here's your challenge: watch the above without balling your eyes out. It's impossible. It's amazing that a franchise like The Fast & The Furious, which once made its bread and butter on fast cars, bikini babes, and super bro moments has completely transformed itself into one of the most inclusive movie series in history, also capable of scenes like this. There's almost no other film influenced as much from a major actor's death, to the point where a tribute like this is crafted and worked into the story. The film is full of moments where you think Brian O'Connor is going to eat it, but their choice to instead send him off into retirement in the sunset is both touching and brilliant. For as insane and as stupid as most of this film is, that ending grabs your heart and twists it till the tears come out.

"I got something to say" from Straight Outta Compton

The culmination of generations of racial angst encapsulated in a single performance from 1989 that's more relevant today than ever (not like the issue has gotten worse - we just have cell phones to record it), the emotional build-up to this scene is perfect. It also works as a microcosm for the entire movie - the young, dangerous attitude that strikes against an established yet unjust order that's been opposed on the populace. "Fuck Da Police" is still a great song, blatant in its hatred for the man, but less blatant than the everyday racism, institutional and personal that oppresses victims every day.

"OH WHAT A LOVELY DAY" from Mad Max: Fury Road

It's tough to pick one scene from Fury Road, if only because it feels like most of the film is just one huge chase. There are plenty of epic, worthy contenders to choose from, but this line that became instantly iconic, that leads into the sandstorm chase is what we'll always remember.

Bing Bong's Sacrifice from Inside Out

Pixar has the uncanny ability to rip your heart out and spit on it more efficiently than any other group of filmmakers. You don't need to know who Bing Bong is or what the hell he's doing there with any of these people to just start shedding ridic tears upon watching this. That's the point of really good and concise filmmaking. When you're in the midst of the film and understand the stakes and been on the journey with them, though, it's obnoxiously tragic. Oh, children's films.

Underwater Shenanigans from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

A lot of people would point to the opening plane ride, or the daring tête-à-tête opera scene, but there was no other point of Rogue Nation, or any film I saw this year for that matter, than the underwater scene. There are continually "oh shit, no!!" moments that stack on top of each other, until the mission actually became too impossible for Ethan Hunt, and he needed Rebecca Ferguson to step in and do the job. Tom Cruise's wobbly half-dead performance after the fact is an awesome bonus.

Vision is Worthy from Avengers: Age of Ultron

There were a lot of issues with Age of Ultron and it was hard to think of a single memorable scene, but the earlier set-up to this and the shorthand it then affords the story is spectacular. It instantly grants the Vision credibility among the super-team even if his creation and powers make no sense.

A Trip to the Store from Magic Mike XXL

I haven't actually seen Magic Mike XXL, only this scene, which may be even better out of context. It's sincerely goofy yet also full of these really spot-on character beats. It's sexy, of course, but the juxtaposition of this ripped guy trying really really hard to impress an unimpressable clerk offers some hilarious moments. "How much for the Cheetos and water?"

Ex Machina Dance

Possibly the scene of the year, this also works possibly better out of context, which is how I first saw it. It suits an impossible tone between humor and horror, with Oscar Isaac's blithe commentary crashing into Domnhall Gleeson's righteous need for inquisition. In most other movies this would be a funky feel-good number, but here it becomes a distracting bit of terror as you slowly realize what is going on.

Intro to Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland seemed to get an unfair rap when it came out, but when Britt Robertson first steps foot (teleports? transposes realities?) into Tomorrowland, even if it later turns out to be a fake recruiting advertisement, you're blown away by the possibilities of this world. The whole point of Tomorrowland is that our Utopian fantasies will never be as great as the effort we can make in the real world, but for a moment it looks like the greatest place on (or not on) Earth.

Bear Attack from The Revenant

The Revenant is pound for pound the most brutal mainstream film of the year, and the relentless pain suffered from Leo in his Bear Attack sets the tone for the rest of the film and presents his first amazing hurtle to overcome - simply surviving this thing. Iñárritu fearlessly sticks you in the midst of this shit, offering voyeurism that feels as painful as the attack itself.

Honourable Mentions:

The following scenes are all also fantastic. I may need to post about them later.

Margot Robbie explains the financial crisis from her bathtub in The Big Short
The border patrol shoot-out from Sicario
Dia de los Muertos in SPECTRE
Adonis runs with the motorbikes in Creed
Rey overpowers Kylo Ren's mind control in The Force Awakens

Actor / Actress of 2015

This was a big year for a lot of new faces, and even some old ones that seem to have finally gotten some traction. Oscar Isaac, Amy Schumer, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth are all in this conversation. This year, though, truly belonged to Tom Hardy and Alicia Vikander.

After years of playing an underrated chameleon in a dozen notable roles, Tom Hardy blew up in a big way with three major acting creds. Donning the dusty leather jacket and limp in Mad Max: Fury Road is the obvious starring role, although that can honestly be debated based on how much he actually does and how many lines he had. Add to this Legend where he owns his double role as twin British Gangsters. Finally, he completely sinks into his shifty fur trapper role in The Revenant, completing the year of Hardy forever.

Alicia Vikander didn't have any dominant blockbuster roles, but her resume this year is outstanding. She's gone from nobody to on the map with rapid speed. Her showcase is Ex Machina, in addition to narrating a documentary, appearing in the little seen Brad Cooper chef vehicle, Burnt, as well as the summer blockbuster attempt, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Add to this Oscar Bait The Danish Girl and she's got one hell of a year.

Best Trailers of the Year

Sometimes I'll have an assortment of trailers both for movies that came out this year and some for next, but this time I felt like almost all my anticipation is gearing up for things to come.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

There is a sublime balance of introducing characters, stakes, plot, and tone here that really works. The narration would seem awkward in-film but is pretty precise and specific in setting up what could be an excellent hair-brained Coen Brothers film in vein with a lot of their modern screwball work.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

It's important to note that the second trailer, while no less impeccably edited, gave away a little too much to be valuable at all. Taking a suspicious property and embedding it with ideological weight like this is a difficult task, and the focus on the central conflict between iconic heroes is smart. The second trailer totally wasted all this good will.

Suicide Squad (2016)

Perhaps its a solid feat, then, that Suicide Squad has stuck with the one exceptional trailer they've generated? The core conceit of the film is laid out plainly, and the character introduction with a focus on Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn is an excellent choice, especially with how many acting and character heavy hitters there are hanging around this place. It's got enough gumption and quirk to look really interesting when confronted with the glut of cookie-cutter superhero films both Marvel and DC that we're knee-deep in right now.

Queen of Earth (2015)

The tone here is managed with expert precision in a throwback to a 70s-style exploitation flick. It's a brilliantly captivating trailer as shit slowly starts winding out of control as the dueling women here, played by the ever watchable Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston plunge into insanity against each other. It's sharply cut and wonderfully executed.


Last year there seemed to be a glut of spectacular soundtracks and scores, but I never got that vibe this year. Straight Outta Compton is the obvious choice, but I'd like to side with Dope, pushed mostly by the in-movie band, Awreeoh, but with a spectacular sample of modern and classic hip-hop hits.

26 December 2015

2015 in a Bottle: Best of the Music - Songs of the Year

Another year in music has come and gone and as I'm looking back on it, what a terrible, terrible year for the audial arts. Sure we have some standouts, but taking a look over my big list of top influential songs, how many do we really care about? It's a rough crowd. Take a gander:

"Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars
"Four Five Seconds" by Kanye West ft. Rihanna and Paul McCartney
"Beggin' for Thread" by BANKS
"Stay With Me" by Sam Smith
"Ghost" by Ella Henderson
"Love Me Harder" by Ariana Grande
"Not the Only One" by Sam Smith
"Style" by Taylor Swift
"Budapest" by George Ezra
"Classic Man" by Jidenna
"Love Me Like You Do" by Ellie Goulding
"Heartbreak Song" by Kelly Clarkson
"Truffle Butter" by Nicki Minaj ft. Lil Wayne and Drake
"See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth
"GDFR" by Flo Rida
"Trap Queen" by Fetty Wap
"Ayo" by Chris Brown ft. Tyga
"Worth It" by Fifth Harmony
"Somebody" by Natalie La Rose ft. Jeremih
"Pose to Be" by Omarion ft. Chris Brown and Jhene Aiko
"Shut Up and Dance With Me" by Walk the Moon
"Bad Blood" by Taylor Swift ft. Kendrick Lamar
"King Kunta" by Kendrick Lamar
"Watch Me" by Silento
"Good For You" by Selena Gomez
"679" by Fetty Wap
"Girl Crush" by Little Big Town
"Can't Feel My Face" by The Weeknd
"Downtown" by Macklemore
"$ave Dat Money" by Lil Dicky
"Wildest Dreams" by Taylor Swift
"Like I'm Gonna Lose You" by Megan Trainor and John Legend
"The Hills" by The Weeknd
"Ex's & Oh's" by Elle King
"Hotline Bling" by Drake
"All My Friends Are Wasted" by Snakeships ft. Tinashe and Chance the Rapper
"Hello" by Adele
"Same Old Love" by Selena Gomez

Best Singles of the Year:

"Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars This is that rare kind of song that retains its greatness the more you listen to it. It's nigh impossible to get sick of. Imbued with eternal funkiness, sublime catchiness, and maximum long-term listenability, this is that rare song that transcends all critical and commercial boundaries and can play on repeat forever.

"S.O.B." by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats Part folk, part Southern Rock, "S.O.B." is a rousing ode to problem drinking with gleeful tone that throws up goofiness along with its impassioned vocal work.

"High By the Beach" by Lana Del Rey The ethereal anti-pop nightmare by Lana Del Rey is a highlight of the album, fully committed to chilling out and avoiding the pressures of life. "You can be a bad motherfucker/but that don't make you a man" Lana coos, a confident front to excessive masculinity.

"Don't Wanna Fight" by Alabama Shakes Another perfect amalgam of genres, Brittany Howard squeals her way across this funky anthem that works both as a chilled out background jam and a hard-rocking arena bolero.

"Hello" by Adele For a little bit there I actually thought Adele might be done for - four years without a major record, although "Skyfall" kept us all at attention. "Hello" unified the country, though, and along with "Uptown Funk", bookended the year with huge widespread hits.

"Trap Queen" by Fetty Wap It was tough to pick just one Fetty song as emblematic of this exaggerated style of rapping, but "Trap Queen" is probably the most rhythmically complete of his efforts. It's a cute love song fueled by hustling drugs and gettin' cheddar with bae - a truer song for our times there is none. HEYWHATSUPHELLO

"L$D" by A$AP Rocky Simultaneously soft and soothing with restrained intensity and a progression that builds to a surreal cosmological climax, this song is a journey that gets better when the video breaks down and transitions to an entirely new song three minutes in.

"King Kunta" by Kendrick Lamar For the second consecutive year I'm picking a Kendrick effort as the top track of the year, that this dropped off the same album as last year's "i" is no coincidence. "King Kunta" emphasizes this year's return to funk and provides an uncanny mix of sampled sources, complex lyrics referencing the temptation of fame, a love of Compton, and Richard Pryor. It's full of community pride, good vibes, and infectious energy along with a strong undercurrent of righteous anger all supplanted by an addictive beat. "Life ain't shit but a fat vagina."

Artist of the Year:

Kendrick would be an obvious choice, but there were so many big names that came out this year. Mark Ronson, Fetty Wap, Drake, Ed Sheeran, the Weeknd, Selena Gomez, Wiz Khalifa, Demi Lovato, Alessia Cara, but in the end, there's really one obvious choice, that's totally Tay Sway.

After dropping her most mainstream, pop-iest album, 1989, late last year, Swift had a string of ridiculous hits that carried her through 2015. It's almost like Katy Perry's Teenage Dream which seemed to be made of only Top 10 singles. As "Blank Space" carried her out of 2014, Taylor dropped "Style", "Bad Blood", and "Wildest Dreams" and in the process, never wrote herself out of the pop cultural conversation for the entire year.

It helps that all these jams are pretty legitimately good, even if "Bad Blood" ended up being kitsch-y and "Wildest Dreams" is floaty and weird. Still, she can do no wrong at the moment, and for now, 2015 is all Taylor.

What do you think about the music of 2015? Any additions or subtractions?

24 December 2015

2015 in a Bottle: Best of the Music - Recs and Vids

Welcome again to our look at the best and greatest bits of pop culture to come out of the year 2015, which will soon be known as one of the greatest years in all of human existence. I actually might suggest that this year's movies weren't nearly as great as 2014 and its albums don't really hold a candle to 2013. Nevertheless, the important thing is that the year has ended, so we're still going to talk about this crap.

We'll recount all the year's best songs after the Holiday, for now let's go through Records and Videos:

Top Albums of the Year:


I always like separating my artists into three big genres that cover everything - Pop, Rock, and Hip-Hop. Every music ever is derived from those three big monster genres. This was an alright year for all three, although more seemed to come from Hip-Hop than anything else. On the pop side, though, there wasn't a more intoxicating album than Lana Del Rey's Honeymoon. It's creepy, ethereal, addictive, and I dare say even catchy at times. She continues to grow as a pop artist who seems entirely disinterested with fitting into cultural or musical expectations, unlike say, Fifth Harmony which always gives me the vibe of a completely manufactured act.

Top Tracks: "Music to Watch Boys To", "Freak", "Art Deco"

Runner Up: A lot of people would probably say Adele's 25 but that never did it for me. The stunning debut of The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness which feels more like a greatest hits album because every single song feels like it could be a Top 40 single.


I was torn a lot listening to a few albums, but I ultimately settled on a more obscure record, I Love You, Honeybear by Father John Misty. The first track is a big ballad that hits you like a mix of sweeping folk with ironic sentimentality and the album never lets up. Each song gets more engaging than the one before it, essentially a romantic record that's stooped in enough casualness and even bits of social commentary to keep the whole thing entertaining. It's a compelling record that pushes the genre forward and is probably my favorite album to chill out to this year.

Top Tracks: "Bored in the USA", "Holy Shit", "I Went to the Store One Day"

Runner Up: The other two best albums this year dropped from more established artists, although one hasn't put anything out in twelve years and the other is still the freshest voice in Rock. Blur came back with The Magic Whip which really made me yearn for another Gorillaz album. The next is the successful follow-up to their break-out debut, Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color, which improves on anything they've ever done.


My and also everyone's pick for Top Album of the year, naturally is Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly. I listened to this record non-stop from its debut to...well, I still am. He's not only become one of the most lyrically complex rap composers but his ability to switch personas with ease evokes Eminem or Nicki Minaj. The beats are infused with a high level of funk this time around while even his top tracks are infused with the pain and angst of de facto segregation and life on the Compton streets not heard since NWA. Fitting that this was the year of Straight Outta Compton (2015) and an increase in general awareness of Black Lives Matter, but the main rub of it all is that this isn't that different from what Cube, Dre, and E were dropping nearly thirty years ago. I wonder if we'll have a landmark album in 2032 rapping about the same thing.

Top Tracks: "King Kunta", "These Walls", "The Black the Berry"

Runner Up: There were a lot of rappers that landed this year with a lot of noise. We'll probably remember 2015 as a landmark year for the game changing with Fetty Wap, Future, Chance the Rapper, and Rae Sremmurd leading the charge. I'll give the edge to the latter, though, whose SremmLife is a glorious exultation of the new wave. I'll also slide in At. Long. Last. ASAP by ASAP Rocky who is also proving his ability to craft some of the most sultuous beats and smooth rhythms in the game.

Top Videos of the Year:

Was there a music video more widely imitated, discussed, loved, hated, parodied, or marveled at than Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood"? No. Was it the best video of the year? Also no. "Hotline Bling" is much of the same deal. I would have thought that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Downtown" would have the same effect, because I'm still stunned by the grandiose marvel of that piece, although I feel like everyone hates that song and no one gives a shit about that video. That's still bizarre to me.

For novelty's sake I actually dig Lil' Dickey's "$ave Dat Money" for being a pure goofy parody of rap videos yet simultaneously emulating their style on a budget that fits the song's conceit. It's a great piece of both homage and satire.

Not to be stuck on Kendrick too much, but he did put out three videos that could all easily be the top of the year. "Alright" is the obvious choice for artistic merit, but something in "King Kunta" draws me in every time it's on. Maybe it's the limited cinematography that resembles a cell phone camera with Dutch angles, yet has incredible depth of frame. Maybe it's the strong sense of community he gets from Compton. Maybe it's the idiosyncratic dance moves and hunched troll dancing that would seem weak and meager yet appear fierce when accompanied by Kendrick's stellar lyrics.

But I actually love "For Free?"

Mostly because it goes for the really weird all the time and also features a unique role reversal between Kendrick and the anonymous ho on display here. Juxtaposed between this silliness is an intensity fueled by American racial tension, slavery, and haters. It's a wonder to behold. Plus, this.

Best Music Video of the Year: "Elastic Heart" by Sia

I've been waiting almost a year to gush about this! Don't drop your videos in January! Sia continues with similar motifs and actor Maddie Ziegler but adds Shia LaBeouf in somehow his best role ever. It's all interpretive dance and you can read into what their struggle represents any way you want, which is in part what makes it so excellent. It's a purely visual digression on the subject of love, power, lost hope, imprisonment in cages of others' or our own making, and finally a freedom that comes natural to some but impossible for others. It's tough not to choke up at that last moment when the girl can't pull what I'd interpret to be her father out of the cage, only to watch him be trapped forever while she's able to go free. Also "Elastic Heart" is Sia's best single.

What do you think about the Recs and Vids for the year? Are you a "Bitch Better Have My Money" or "WTF" person? Let's throw down

23 December 2015

2015 in a Bottle: Best in TV

In every way we're suddenly living in a time where I actually can't watch every great TV show on the tube anymore. That's alright. Competition breeds better shows and the ones that fought for my attention and won are therefore exhibited here. Here are the Top Ten shows for the year listed in the order of when I thought of them, which is as good an order as any in sorting a slew of disparate programs.

Broad City, Comedy Central

One of my favorite freshman shows returned after a stellar first season and gave us everything we could dream of and more. It's such a nice feeling when a series builds on everything that made it great, gets more comfortable with the characters, and amps everything up without overstretching its reach. Broad City is also possibly the most New York show ever while also being the most Millennial show ever. The fact that it sheds what could be an easy descent into liberal pretentiousness in favor of unrelenting goofiness is a small part of what makes it great. Abbi, who seemed like the quieter influence of the pair got to step out of her shell this season, and the best episodes came when Ilana is suddenly trying to keep up with her.

Best Episodes: "Hashtag FOMO" (S2;E5), "Coat Check" (S2;E9)

Fargo, FX

A lot of review sites have posited this - but the successful tale of Fargo the TV Show as opposed to Fargo the movie (1996) is endless and incredible. I'm not sure any relationship this year is as compelling as the tug and push between Lorne Malvo and Lester Nygaard last year, but the plot this time around is much more focused, even with one alien saucer to throw things off in the penultimate episode. There's not a better shot or directed show on television, though, and Bokeem Woodbine's Mike Milligan is suddenly the best character on TV.

Best Episodes: "Did you do this? No, you did it!" (S1;E7)

Better Call Saul, AMC

Here's another unlikely candidate for a great TV Show - the prequel spin-off of one of the best dramas ever, Breaking Bad. Prequel spin-offs always seem like terrible ideas, right? Better Call Saul works the same way Fargo does: less interest in call backs to the source material and more interested in drawing inspiration to tell an entirely new story. In Fargo's case the only remaining threads are largely location and tone. in Better Call Saul's case, all we have to go on are characters, which don't even feel like a tether mostly because Bob Odenkirk hasn't even taken the name Saul yet. The show was somehow the best when it forgot about Saul entirely and focused on the history of Mike Ehrmantraut, which is a character we didn't even know we cared about.

Best Episodes: "Five-O" (S1;E6)

Rick and Morty, Adult Swim

Gonna put this out there - there was not a better show this year than Rick and Morty. I'm not ranking these, but if I was, this would be #1. There's an eternal silliness at play here that masks a deep dark sadness. The show is best when the mask is ripped off, however, and its barren darkness is laid bare for everyone to see. As you can imagine, this happens quite often. Despite its insanity, science is magic who cares tone, and shock value, there's actually quite a bit of authentic character growth in Season Two. Of course it ends on a cliffhanger, and is totally meta about it. There's a balance of self-awareness that works here even better than Dan Harmon's other show, Community. The Justin Roiland component, though, pushes everything weirder, and that's when it really kicks into gear.

Best Episodes: "Get Schwifty" (S2;E5), "The Wedding Squanchers" (S2;E10)

South Park, Comedy Central

What other show would be featured here on its 19th Season? Certainly not The Simpsons, which had a wretched Season 19. South Park hasn't gotten enough love this year, possibly because it's just been around so long we tend to forget how good it is, but it's remained on its toes more than ever, mostly due to its ability to cut through modern issues faster and with sharper satire than anyone else around. As I click through ads, deal with PC culture, and even experience the price gauging of gentrification my mind wanders more to this season of South Park than anything else on TV. I'd say in their second attempt at a season-long arc the ending didn't come together and relate as well as it could have, but the ride was unreal. Also in terms of "need to pause the TV and laugh" moments this year, no show was higher.

Best Episodes: "Naughty Ninjas" (S19;E7), "Sponsored Content" (S19;E8)

Scream Queens, FOX

My total guilty pleasure show of the year, there wasn't a Network show bolder than Scream Queens which relished its campiness and pushed its characters towards more intolerably obnoxious levels. Queens swung for the fences on every single episode and balanced comedy and terror like nothing I'd ever seen before. With the final killer revealed I'd like to take a look back and see if it all adds up, but I'm not sure how well it'd work with the lessened suspense. Chad Radwell gets my vote for the second-best new character of the season - endlessly moronic, misogynistic, charismatic, and supremely confident, Glen Powell devours every scene he's in, creating the perfect foil for the biggest girl power show on television.

Best Episodes: "Pumpkin Patch" (S1;E5)

The Last Man on Earth (Season 1), FOX

I wanted to specify Season 1, because when it returned in the Fall for a full pick-up I'm not sure it's maintained the same edge. Every episode in the spring brought some new unbelievable challenge to overcome, and of course Will Forte's Phil Miller is completely inept at dealing with anything. It's great that Forte finally has a baby to call his own after a stint on SNL that was relatively forgettable outside of MacGruber, Fart Face, and Potato Chips (see, chances are you've never heard of those sketches, or you have and can't stand them), and a movie career that's been insane at best. Phil Miller channels his weirdness among one of the best casts outside of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in a show where anything can happen at any moment. Just look at Season Two's mid-season finale. Maybe it hasn't been so bad.

Best Episodes: "Some Friggin' Fat Dude" (S1;E6)

Master of None, Netflix

This show is basically Aziz Ansari's version of Louie, and while that seems like it would be derivative, it's still somehow totally awesome. Aziz is such a positive dude and his energy is infectious as he uses a loose platform to discuss racial stereotypes, generational and cultural gaps, dating, and relationships. It's incredible because Aziz goes so small here, finding little life moments to ponder instead of big broad laughs that even Louie swings for once in a while.

Best Episodes: "Hot Ticket" (S1;E3), "Mornings" (S1;E9)

Review, Comedy Central

This is probably the most under-the-radar show on this list, and I started watching it mostly because I was too lazy to change the channel after repeats of South Park. I had seen the first season a bit, but was never really interested in the premise and didn't pay attention to it much. It was usually on in the background while I was writing or doing something else and I never cared. Slowly but surely, though, with each passing week I was watching Review more and more. By the last three episodes I was totally into appointment viewing. Andy Daly displays a ridiculous range as the hapless Forrest MacNeil who is simultaneously pathetic yet bound to his duty working for the fictional TV show for some reason. The rules applied to him don't make sense and as his personal life unravels and the show gets super dark while maintaining a comedic edge.

Best Episodes: "Murder; Magic 8 Ball; Procrastination" (S2;E8)

BoJack Horseman, Netflix

As soon as BoJack Horseman found its groove the second half of its first season it hasn't taken its foot off the gas. It keeps growing and mutating until it has become the funniest look at depressed failed lives since You're the Worst. It's unrelenting, yet also features zany animal people doing animal things. It takes its insane characters seriously, though, and harbours no fears towards lurching them through the most painful situations possible, although most of it is their own fault. Its Hollywoo industry satire feels fresh, which after dozens of meta movies from Bowfinger (1999) to Birdman (2014), is an impressive feat.

Best Episodes: "Still Broken" (S2;E3), "After the Party" (S2;E4), "Let's Find Out" (S2;E8)

Honourable Mention:
Mike Tyson Mysteries
You're the Worst
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver I should have talked about this one. It's nice to see out of all The Daily Show alumni, including those on The Daily Show itself, John Oliver has crafted the greatest show of the lot, wisely understanding that leaning into longer, more thoroughly researched pieces would enamour and not alienate a young, intelligent audience.
Sense8 Hardly anyone is talking about Sense8 and it's probably because it was one of the most self-indulgent shows out there, but if every episode was 40 minutes instead of an hour...damn we'd have a lean show. The final episode when everyone finally comes together is the best, and there's absolutely plenty of potential here.

22 December 2015

2015 in a Bottle: The Top Ten

This is the ultimate moment for every film fan - the infamous Top Ten List. In years past I have done this many different ways. It's always helpful to look back and re-examine films that have drifted up or down depending on cultural significance or long-term impact. I'm a big believer that these lists are fluid and require constant updating. Or at least updating every couple of years as tastes change and we realise that films we fell in love with upon first glance actually suck a few years down the road.

Here is my original 2014 list, which is still largely solid. But here's where I'd update things:

#10: Whiplash
#9: John Wick
#8: Dear White People
#7: The Grand Budapest Hotel
#6: Why Don't You Play in Hell?
#5: The Double
#4: Gone Girl
#3: Inherent Vice
#2: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
#1: Under the Skin

In general I consider this a reflection of the films I personally have dwelled on the most in the past year rather than films like Interstellar or Guardians of the Galaxy that may have been more culturally significant. So let's get into 2015, obviously following this protocol:

#10: Slow West / Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I was debating between these two and then I realised it was hilarious and awesome that I was touting this random obscure indie western alongside one of the biggest films of the year, so I'm already breaking a rule and just lumping them together. It'd be great, actually, if Slow West had TFA's breakneck, enthralling opening instead of a boring roll-out and TFA had Slow West's personal, ironically tragic ending that elevates all that came before it instead of wholly dropping like fifteen characters' stories.

#9: Sicario

Director David Villeneuve in a relatively short mainstream career has suddenly amassed a reputation for bringing the most out of great actors in the grimiest films this side of David Fincher. His astute direction is aided by the best working non-Academy Award winning cinematographer in the business, Roger Deakins, and Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, and especially Emily Blunt at the top of their game. The film ruthlessly builds and draws out tension, to the extent that I wonder if it will hold up after repeated viewings - or like other Villeneuve films if you can even get through repeated viewings without becoming clinically depressed.

#8: Inside Out

It's almost weird that Inside Out has completely overshadowed Pixar's other effort, The Good Dinosaur this year, possibly due to the tough task of marketing two films over six months, but I'd say it's because Inside Out is really good and The Good Dinosaur is just okay. There's no other film this year, animated or otherwise, that rips your heart out of your chest, tenderly kisses it, then smashes it on the ground. It's an emotional ride, even if the premise is merely a Herman's Head update, whose stakes are the smallest of the Summer but somehow feel bigger than any other blockbuster this year.

#7: The Martian

Finally, a pleasing return to good moviemaking by Ridley Scott, whose career by this point has had far more misfires than sure things, despite the legendary films to his credit. His traipsing of genre is underrated and he finds great balance in The Martian, undercutting hopelessness with humour and more science than fiction that's inspiring to budding young astronomers everywhere. Even though it shares half the cast and all of the pro-NASA enthusiasm of Interstellar, its inherent light-heartedness translated into a crowd-pleasing, box-office dominating event of the Fall. That's of course not a bad thing at all, which resulted in the most charming film here.

#6: Creed

I'd have never predicted listing this film here, and although it's actually exactly like the first Rocky (1976) it actually sells its story a bit more coherently, and dare I say it, Michael B. Jordan is even more fun to root for than Rock himself. Stallone provides a moment of unparalleled humility by not throwing a single punch and not even picking up any Gatling guns to kill Eastern Europeans or Cambodians. He's had a string of terrible movies - it's nice to remember he can actually act, even if the last time he did that was actually 1976.

#5: Dope

No movie tackled modern issues of racial judgment better this year, and in addition to spinning stereotypes, expectations, and temptation in ways that seem fresh rather than preachy, Dope is a really funny ass movie. It's bristling with excellent character work, a charming young cast, and one of the best soundtracks of the year.

#4: The Hateful Eight

The latest in Tarantino's middle period (late period?) follows a dream cast of actors who have filled his previous seven films and an acerbic wit penetrates his uncommon wild winter western. It's bristling with violence and attitude, as is most of his work, but it's his penchant for going smaller rather than larger with each consecutive film that gives this its edge (okay, Django Unchained [2012] was clearly his epic tome). Always full of surprises, from its twisting plot to its Glorious 70mm distribution that's simultaneously pure and erudite, The Hateful Eight proves that it's getting really really hard for Tarantino to construct a faulty movie.

#3: The Revenant

So, what do you do with an Oscar in your pocket, at the top of your game and widespread critical acclaim? Do it again! Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose name I always have to look up before typing it, pushes cinema forward again with the brutal in every way Revenant. I don't care as much about Leo's or Tom's Oscar chances, but I do care about the unrelenting story, bravado filmmaking, and the totally assured third win in a row for Emmanual Lubezki's cinematography.

#2: Mad Max: Fury Road

Fury Road has topped plenty of end of year lists, and when you get down to it, it's legitimately really hard to look back on it and name anything better. It's pure visual storytelling on the grandest scale ever, matched with a truly insane mind from renegade Happy Feet (2006) director, George Miller along with every single actor bringing their A game, including knowing when to go over the top and when to go more subtle. Every scene is pumped to the gills with clear and purposeful action, but there's also an impeccable rhythm to everything that somehow keeps the characters grounded no matter how outlandish they may be on the outside. This is the film that showed us that every single other blockbuster film ever made is not nearly trying hard enough. It didn't actually gain the financial traction of some other summer films this year, but looking back on it six months out, can you name anything better? Or even memorable?

#1: Ex Machina

I feel like this was a trendy pick when the year was young and as a ton of other films have came and went, I don't think it's been topped. It's all at once an intricate character study, a bottle episode, an engrossing mystery, a Frankenstein tale, and a look at what it means to be human, even though its most human character is full of wires and powered by Google. There are scenes of humour, tension, anger, pain, relief, and an uneasy friendship / mentor relationship at the core of a story about a boy and a robot where love is all a deception, if there could even be love. There's a lot here and it's all executed with as much precision as its leads would enjoy.

Honourable mentions, because you just have to have honourable mentions. One-line reviews for these.

Crimson Peak Guillermo del Toro goes small with an enticing and gorgeous gothic ghost movie.
Beasts of No Nation Bleak and brutal, but more importantly and hopefully, a total distribution shift for Hollywood.
Straight Outta Compton The hip hop biopic we needed with enough attitude to remind us that we haven't come far at all.
Carol I don't really care about this period piece and haven't seen it, but apparently the acting will change you life.
The Forbidden Room You need to have the occasional super-insane foreign movie here to make you seem smarter for "getting it" when it's totally just whatever the director thought was funny.
The Duke of Burgundy Ditto.
Queen of Earth I love the super brutal emotional assault in a situation that shouldn't escalate so drastically.
The Big Short Adam McKay is really really into checks on the powerful people who secretly run the institutions of this country, and puts enough humour into his work to make it palatable.
The Voices So many people hate Ryan Reynolds and this film got no love, but he displays crazy range here and it's totally the best lovable serial killer comedy of the year.
The Final Girls A modern-day Cabin in the Woods (2012); the most meta movie of the year, full of great horror and comedy.
Zombeavers Ditto.

Well, that's it for the year. What's your Top Ten?

19 December 2015

2015: What Have We BECOME?! Looking Back on Looking Forward

Way back in the nether reaches of January, 2015 we produced a list of fifteen great pop cultural events dropping in the year that we ranked in order of most-looking forward to. As usual, most of these were utter, utter crap that I know don't care about. But let's take a look at what we were looking at a year ago anyway:

#15: The Return of Archer (01/08)

I'll be honest, I didn't really remember much of Archer's sixth season when it came time to write this reflection. It only ended in April. I suppose in early January of last year I was really looking forward to it and so it was naturally on my mind, but looking back at some of the episodes now to refresh my memory I'm filled with a surprising amount of "meh." I recall really enjoying the season when it was on, and there is still hardly a more complex and funny animated spy comedy on television right now, but for all my purpose here, it's fitting to be #15 and no greater.

#14: Pitch Perfect 2 (05/15)

I didn't end up seeing this. I want to. It landed with more a thud then a "YEAH!" and appeared to be mostly a re-hash of Pitch Perfect (2012), as awesome as that still is. It suffers from a hard case of sequelization where nothing is really added to the premise except that things get bigger, badder, and more outrageous. It's essentially a skip.

#13: Minions (07/15)

Why is this on this list?

#12: The Avengers: Age of Ultron (05/01)

I have really mixed feelings still about Age of Ultron. I left the theater really enjoying myself, but with seven months now to reflect, it's astonishing how much of a shitty movie it was. Ultron, while promised greatness in Jim Spader's voice and a stellar marketing campaign, ended up being a bit lackluster, with murky motivations and an evil maniacal scheme that seemed reductive at best. The film works well as an advertisement for Captain America: Civil War (2016), but shouldn't we hold our movies to a higher standard than that? We all know this. This film actually broke me - I didn't and still contain no desire to see Ant-Man (2015). I guess this was compounded by the excellent one-two punch of Marvel Avengers Assemble episodes, "Crack in the System" (S2;E14) and "Avengers Dissassembled" (S2;E15), which deal with a similar story line with greater efficiency and cleverness.

#11: Jurassic World (06/12)

I'm going to have to side with similar feelings to this as I did with Ultron, although certainly not as drastic. It's a fine litmus test to try to think of a great scene from a movie six months down the line, no matter how jazzed I was watching it in the theater. Maybe it's the general souring of this film on the Internet that has me jaded, because I was a sole voice of reason during its initial $1.6 billion run. I did point out at the time that Chris Pratt only exists to explain things and be the only reasonable human being on screen at any given moment, and the film serves more as a meta-indictment of current blockbusters while acknowledging the superiority of Jurassic Park (1993) while relishing in its own blockbuster-yness. In the end I sorta just wish they made a better movie instead of pumping nostalgia, even if their commentary on doing just that is pretty canny.

#10: Better Call Saul (02/08)

This is certainly a deserved chunk of pop culture and Better Call Saul quickly became extremely watchable television. It's amazing that a spin-off prequel to Breaking Bad could be so successful, but it works in part because it's not beholden at all to the original's mythology. It has simply taken a handful of characters from the original show and elucidated them under different circumstances. This is exactly what we want. It's what we always want.

#9: Halo 5: Guardians (Fall)

This is kind of a curveball, I totally forgot that this was even coming out and that I even cared about this until I was re-reading this list. After slamming through some playthroughs, because I never actually play video games any more. Again, I'm totally just into the single-player campaign, which is probs the minority opinion among Halo Junkies. Anyway, the split focus recalls the middle chapter in the previous trilogy, although Locke is a bit less interesting than the Arbiter. At least we don't have to play as a gross Elite and be disgusted with ourselves. The composition of the story ends up being a little disjointed, and after Halo 4 really impressed me by subtly breaking away from some of the Halo conventions and feeling really fresh, suddenly Halo 5 seems like a retread. Well, time to look ahead to Halo 6: Space Monster Boogaloo.

#8: The Return, then Finale of Parks and Recreation (01/13)

Parks and Rec ought to have secured its place among the pantheon of contemporary classics, even if its intense serialization has actually made re-watching a less enjoyable affair. The final season limped a bit with heavy losses to the cast and a show that ultimately didn't feature any of its core characters still doing the same work, but in its own way, that's what Parks and Rec was always about - a workplace comedy that eventually had all its people spin out of the workplace and go on with their lives. The final scenes were some of the strongest and most inspirational in recent memory, which also boils down to what it's all about - the most positive and hopeful show on television.

#7: Furious 7 (04/03)

It's seemingly impossible that the seventh installment of a film series that once included Ja Rule would continue raising the bar for itself in every possible way. Each film seems better than the one that came before it both critically and financially. It's also amazing that we all realized that we cared so much about Paul Walker. It certainly lived up to expectations, although is it the Oscar hopeful we all thought it could be? Nah, but probs one of the better blockbusters of the year. Somehow.

#6: The Return of Broad City (01/14)

Yes, a thousand times yes. Broad City strutted out in 2015 for its second season with an absurd amount of confidence and put together some of the greatest scenes in any show this year. It's hard to find a weak episode, with Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson firmly making their case for the funniest buddy duo of our time.

#5: The Revenant (12/25)

It's tough to follow-up a film like Birdman (2014) in terms of both direction, cinematography, cast, cultural context, and ambition, but Alejandro and Emmanuel dare try. Stick these guys with Leo and Tom who have both had spectacular careers lately (lest we forget they were buddies in Inception [2010]), and there's a lot going on here amidst the bear attacks and river fights. Totally worth it and this should have been bumped up this list a ton.

#4: Tomorrowland (05/22)

I like a lot of what Tomorrowland tried to do, but it seemed to get lost in the shuffle of the summer and could never really break out sandwiched between Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), which drew the most eyeballs, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which drew the most wonder, and San Andreas (2015), which seemed to be able to mop everything up with the Rock and Alex Daddario better than Clooney and Britt Robertson. And Britt Robetson has total movie star potential, but Tomorrowland is ultimately forgettable - so she'll need something else lest she fall into fell Disney failure Taylor Kitsch territory fast.

#3: The Return of The Venture Bros. (01/19)

This was pretty sweet. Well, the one special, "All This and Gargantua-2" was. So many storylines were wrapped up....so much loss. We're virtually at the same point we were A YEAR AGO with the promise of Season Six premiering in February. So Venture Bross will totally be on our anticipated list for next year. Great. I'm not going to let it get to me that the pilot dropped on February 16, 2003. That's six seasons in thirteen years. There are no other fans that know our pain.

#2: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (Aug or Sep)

I'd say this has been pretty good but not really the great, awe-inspiring change to late night forever as we know it that I sort of hoped it'd be. He got off to a real shaky start, despite what a lot of critics have said, but I've been disinterested in his faux-pundit persona for a while now. The more he's steered away from that and discovered more of who he wants to be on camera, the stronger the show has become, even if Fallon and Kimmel have a slightly stronger hold on virality right now.

#1: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (12/18)

And he's cute!
If you really want to hear what I think about this and have a good forty-five minutes or so, you can check it out right here. Re-thinking all that now, though, I suppose that if we divorce ourselves from this film's utter reliance on basic plot points and motifs from the Original Trilogy, it is a pretty great film. That's a tough call to make, though. I still believe that this has some pacing issues and problems with establishing a clear plot, but every new central character is fantastic and it absolutely feels like a gift more than the prequels, which is a true Christmas blessing.

So that's 2015 in a nutshell. As always, most of the pop cultural artifacts we were looking forward to were really really terrible. I might say 5/15 of these were really worth it?

What do you think of 2015? Do you agree? Stay tuned after the new year to find out what crap we're looking forward to in 2016!

First Impressions: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Are you ready for the awakening? Take a deep breath - you are about to read the most comprehensive impressions of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) ever put to electrons and sent across the world. To begin, let's take a trip down the road of cultural context. And there will be SPOILERS everywhere for this movie discussion, so if you'd rather not find out that Chewbacca is Luke's biological father, stop reading now.
If only they'd bring him back as Indiana Jones

Here at Norwegian Morning Wood I'm always talking about cultural value. Every film has a commercial value, which is very obvious, and a critical value, which is subjective, but also apparent. How much money does a film make the people who create and distribute it, and does anyone actually like it? Culturally, though, is where films are most important. Film is an art form that can steer the way we think about things, or at least take control of future artistic conversations. This becomes most interesting when we take long-term looks at things. Why is Ghostbusters (1984) a revered cultural institution but no one gives a shit about The Last Starfighter (1984)? Does it come down to the merit of the film itself? Or just certain things that we've tended to latch on to and propagated over the years? What makes Alien (1979) so much more groundbreaking than Dark Star (1974)?

These questions plague me all the time. It's amazing that out of any film series, none is really the equal to Star Wars. Sure, only two of its films crack the Top 50 Worldwide All-Time and only three crack the Top 25 Domestic, but how many people would pick it over AVABAR (2009) or Shrek 2 (2004)? All of them. They all would. Star Wars means more to more people than any other American cultural artifact, and that is more valuable than any box office return.

It was only a matter of time, therefore that in this age of continuous franchise regurgitation, that the great-grandaddy of all blockbusters would take its turn at the podium to flex its muscles. I have spoken at length at my inherent problem with the presence of more of the same rather than creating anything new. I'm not totally into another Star Wars film as much as I'd be into an entirely new nerdy property to gush over. That's part of the reason why I've loved Pacific Rim (2013) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) so much (face it - even though it was based on a comic, no one was totally looking at that as a faithful adaptation or whatever), but it also comes at a steep Jupiter Ascending (2015)-level risk. What's the balance? Well, don't make your world-building mythos retarded is a good bet, but there has still been a financial discrepancy between original and re-hashed properties, which is totes unfortunate.

If you take a look at the other high-profile long-term revivals this year, it becomes more obvious why certain things work and others don't. Creed (2015) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) both pushed their former primary protagonists to the side in favor of new, more interesting people, and although they act as straight remakes of Rocky (1976) and The Road Warrior (1981) respectively, they're imbued with different viewpoints, updated engrossing camera work and scene construction, as well as the feeling of fresh characters, new themes, and a carefree confidence towards casting off a reliance on the past. This creates the illusion of new cultural material despite the fact that it's more typically just re-branded or re-arranged.

The Force Awakens is sort of like this, but doesn't exactly pull it off, in part due to J.J. Abrams' nature as more of a fan than a man of any original ideas. There were minimal lens flares this time around, but by the time of that first circle wipe it was clear that he was trying to emulate Lucas' directing style. With more care for his actors, of course, because for once, they're great in a Star Wars film. Lucas trips over his need for homage far too often. Sticking with the concept of cultural value, despite his aping of Amblin and Spielberg, how much do any of us think about Super 8 (2011)...ever? His shining film remains Star Trek (2009), but even that film was stuffed with a little too much reverence and suffered from a weak villain and ending. I'd consider TFA to be cured of those ills, but the film gets bogged down by the unenvious position of balancing perceived fan needs with actual storytelling.

Now, there are of course moments where TFA elevates from this. The introduction of the Millennium Falcon is nearly perfect, precisely because it's as disregarded by the new crop of characters as the old generation did. It works really well because there's a tacit acknowledgement in the Star Wars universe that the Falcon is a piece of shit. The actual character introductions largely work because of this. Han Solo, Leia Organa, and Luke Skywalker all fit in pretty naturally, without too much issue.

My major problem with the film is that it follows a lot of similar beats to the first film and the OT in general. Lucas called these little homages, which lead to the Star Wars Ring Theory, which is a pleasant read, but totally not his original intention. Now, as I recollect here, there are plenty of scenes that are innovative and great, and I have a pretty positive appreciation of the film over all, but we need to slog through this first.

The film starts off incredibly strong, in media res similar to the original Star Wars (1977), where critical information is stowed in a small, cute Droid unit who then gets lost on a desert planet and is found by an orphan (okay, in Luke's case it was a soon-to-be orphan). TFA tends to amp everything up though, so it's not just any orphan, but a SUPER-ORPHAN named Rey. I don't understand why they used Jakku when they so clearly just meant to have a redux of Tatooine. Sure, I'm grateful that we didn't AGAIN head to Tatooine, but Jakku operates exactly like Tatooine, so who cares? It's actually more like SUPER-TATOOINE with even less civilization and an even harsher way of life. But for the purpose of the narrative it's all the same shit.

There's an old dude living there, Max von Sydow, who is the first of many characters introduced who seemed important and then whose stories are quickly dropped, in this case, due to him being killed immediately. Actually, if you look at this scene, which features him, Po Dameron, BB-8, Captain Phasma, Kylo Ren, and Finn, you'd think they'd all be important, but Po and Phasma are largely tossed aside soon after this scene. I'll get to more on that later.
You did NOT survive this.

Don't take this bitching too much, because structurally and cinematically, the first third of the film is fantastic. You know everything you need to know of all the above mentioned characters and there's a palpable danger to all the heroes, Kylo Ren has a fearsome display of power (I can't recall any Sith ever stopping a laser bolt and freezing it in mid-air so effortlessly), and you can instantly tell which Stormtrooper Finn is because of how particularly he acts. The central MacGuffin, a map to Luke Skywalker is at once something instantly significant both in-universe and to the audience and serves as a simultaneous metaphor to how lost the franchise has been without the steady hand of the old guard of characters.

The film gets better as it introduces Rey, its best character, played by Daisy Ridley, whose eyes can at once display enough strength, confidence, pain, fear, caring, and badassery to carry the entire film. She's truly the Luke Skywalker of the film, a sentiment even echoed in her dress, which recalls Luke's weird bandage leggings from Star Wars. She eventually morphs into an amalgam of Luke and Han as she demonstrates her technical knowledge, becoming the Falcon's new pilot, and learning under his guidance.

Finn, on the other hand starts off very Han-like with his urge to run away all the time, which is also reflected in his wardrobe, although the tan jacket and black undershirt is reverse of Han's typical attire. He eventually becomes more Luke-like as he ends up the unlikely inheritor of Luke's lightsaber and finds his courage. His and Rey's duties in the final battle are split with the same lightsaber, which also echoes the fact that they are both combinations to differing degrees of the same original characters. This is of course all bizarre because the film starts with Po Dameron being Luke-like in the desert with his X-wing and trusty astromech droid, and then revealing a very Han-like cocky attitude, but he's totally forgotten about around the twenty-minute mark so who cares.

Let's keep moving on with how TFA echoes the original trilogy. They soon move on to an intergalactic bar of sorts, which is totally just the Mos Eisley Cantina. Finn even tries to barter for passage off-world, which was Luke and Obi-Wan's original goal. It feels like it's striving for a classic moment full of weird goofy monsters that Jabba's Palace already ripped off from Mos Eisley, and then the prequels just did non-stop. The lush forest world was rad, though, and seemed like an actually unique planet, which was amazing, even if going to see a weird little ancient master on a swamp world is totally Empire Strikes Back (1980).

After this we totally have another Death Star. Again. To align with our theme, though, this is a SUPER DEATH STAR. That idea in itself is pretty cool, actually, and the Empire's obsession with super-weapons is well-documented. What helped Star Wars, though, was the discussion earlier in the movie proving their rationale in the form of the Tarkin Doctrine. This tended to give some political weight to their insane actions. The First Order is largely just a bag of dicks. More on that later.

Harrison Ford, by way of Han Solo seems to sum it up well, as if he's speaking for an audience, when he says, regarding the Stakiller "Why don't we just blow it up?" and then yes, there is indeed a way to just blow up the planet. I really liked the idea of having that planet-embedded superweapon and the sun-drawing power / hyperspace power as all really cool, even if it's just totally SUPER DEATH STAR. I mean, there's even a trench run! I wish they had found some other way to take it down besides just blowing it up like they way they blow up every Death Star. That's like three times the Rebels / Resistance just blow shit up! Why does the Empire / First Order keeping building this shit! And there's no way the First Order has the financial resources to do this anymore, right? These are the inane nerdy questions that shouldn't bog the movie down, but you have to ask, but this is STAR WARS. Discussions like this have so permeated culture, they're in other movies.

This is all to say that the plot beats and locales are fairly derivative. The final planet, which I'm not sure is ever named, but Internet tells me is just called "Starkiller Base," is pretty Hoth-like, but I actually appreciated the wintery forests, which offered a new and cool Star Wars locale. Of course, the inside was straight-up Death Star, with all the classic elements - those doors that open in a square, trash compactors, and a total lack of guards that allow anyone to walk around as much as they want.

The Empire was always like that, actually. Like when the gang is escaping the Death Star after disabling the tractor beam, they send like two TIE Fighters out to catch them. Don't they have a huge, disposable fleet? TFA brings this idea back - completely incompetent Stormtroopers and a total reluctance crush the Resistance with numbers like this instead of just one superweapon that's totes ineffective against small fighters.

The idea of the depletion of sunlight working as a timer for charging the superweapon was a great visual guide for both the characters and the audience, and actually provided a logical reason for why the planet was an ice world - because they keep killing whatever hear they should get from their sun. Of course, being in the middle of space would be a little bit colder than just a few snow flurries, and that's not even counting the gravitational destabilization that would occur with draining a sun, but Star Wars has always been pretty soft science, so who cares.

Once we get past the derivative plot, though, we find that we have a pretty good film on our hands. Finn offers us an unparalleled look at what it means to be a Stormtrooper, and it's surprising that more don't have serious problems with killing random civilians all the time, but then again, real armies do that all the time, and these guys were specifically trained to lack individuality. There is some awkwardness with Finn's hitting on Rey, but I'm more impressed that he isn't completely developmentally challenged since he was only a number until a few days ago.
See? Even his lightsabre is like, built shittily. Also this
shot is not in the movie.

Kylo Ren, though, is instantly the most interesting character in the film. He appears first as a total badass, but as his layers are unpeeled we find instead that he's actually mostly just an overcompensating poser pussy. It's an important scene when he unmasks himself and we see the neatly coiffed Adam Driver and not some monster or burn victim. It's as if everything he's trying to do is to prove that he has some angsty personal reason for his internal conflict, but he's really just a brat who can't handle the balance of the force inside him. You've got to believe that when he tells his father, Han Solo, that he faces a tremendous amount of pain that he really doesn't know how to deal with it at all. Just like this film is trying to live up to its predecessor, Ren tries to live up to Vader and is constantly insecure about the fact that he's failing. To deal with this he lashes out abruptly and arrogantly. When Vader was pissed he's just choke an Admiral and move on with his life. Gone is the propriety and formality of even young pussy Anakin from Attack of the Clones (2002). Ren is trying to hard to live up to something he can't obtain. By the end of the film after he's dealt a blow to Star Wars lovers everywhere and finally had some actually good ol' face mutilation courtesy of Rey he actually has hatred to claim.

This is a generational indictment. The whole First Order are just dicks for no reason. They're not trying to put down a rebellion or maintain order, they're just evil for the sake of being evil. They're attempting to emulate an ideology without anything substantial to back it up. At one point General Hux says something or other about "order" but he's not coming from a place of cool and collected strategy like Tarkin. He's instead coming from a place of irrationality, anger, and mistaken purpose. I don't think it's a coincidence casting Domhnall Gleeson instead of someone older who would have been alive during the Galactic Civil War. He and Ren battle for who the biggest pussy is in the First Order but they're ultimately both just kids trying to prove themselves. And did they escape Starkiller Base, btw? Who knows. At least Star Wars showed Vader's TIE Advanced stabilizing after hurtling through space.

Do we have to talk about Supreme Leader Snoke? I'm putting this out there - he's the worst part of this film. A total Emperor Rip-off that was startlingly weak CGI who looked like a weird giant at first (later revealed to be a hologram), who seems like the laziest a-hole ever. I actually thought there was a disconnect between the CGI characters and the real environments, which was weird. It's insane to believe that there were practically no sets in the Prequel Trilogy, and things like every single Clonetrooper were made in a computer. That gives it all a nice plastic feel looking back on it now, and the scope and sets of TFA are refreshing and awesome. The problem with that is actually populating them with lame CGI peeps who are suddenly juxtaposed and take you out of the story. That's so terrible to complain about. I really do love the weight and naturalism of the practical sets.

I also generally didn't understand the relationship between the Republic, the First Order, and the Resistance. The Republic is in charge now, but is the First Order still ruling over a few planets or something? And is the Resistance resting them on those planets? If the Rebel Alliance is totally just the New Republic, then why is it like, a secret, shady deal? Does the Republic not want to outwardly look like they are resisting the First Order? They blew up like five planets on a whim! This doesn't make any sense.

Despite the film's 2 hr 16 min runtime it feels oddly rushed, but that may just be because certain characters like Captain Phasma are totally thrown away after sweet introductions. I can't for the life of me figure out why I feel this way. Boba Fett is on screen for like six minutes in Empire and didn't really do much, but you felt like he had such an impact. Same with all the other random idiots in the universe. Like, I got more of a feel for Bossk than I did for Captain Phasma. Even someone like Finn who goes down like a bitch in the final fight, AND NEVER WAKES UP feels like he got the short end of the stick. I honestly don't know what took up so much time, because the scenes felt like they were paced really well, especially towards the beginning, but somehow some beats were skipped that would have fleshed out the world a bit more.

Some of this is probably due to the fact that this is more like being the first in a trilogy than working as a standalone movie, which each film in the first trilogy, and even in the prequel trilogy did really well. What's critical is that even though in the OT, Star Wars is definitely the call to action, Empire is rising action, and Return of the Jedi (1983) is climax and denouement, within each film lies similar beats. The prequels function the same way structurally, but we just hate the world, characters, and tone they built. TFA, especially with its ending scenes, feels far more like it was cut off rather than allowed to have a proper, cathartic ending.

On that note, we ought to talk about how Luke Skywalker is totally not in this movie, but I was pretty okay with that. It actually mythologizes him more. It was great to see Harrison Ford acting like he did in the 80s and less grumpy, though. Carrie Fisher didn't seem to have her Leia spark, but she's been through some shit. It's all good. I also enjoyed the direction of Chewie, having a lot more humour, along with the Stormtroopers even getting some good bits. Of course, C-3PO is still unbearable, tho R2-D2 had almost no time to shine. That's alright. BB-8 as Finn's wingman is just as good, if not cuter and therefore better.

The whole film actually felt very small despite the SUPER-ness of all the elements, likely due to its concentration on what's happening on the ground to a handful of characters in a handful of locations, which is again, much more similar to the OT than the Prequels, which is good. This is also a fine set-up for bigger, crazier movies to come.

We should talk predictions. Rey has got to be someone's daughter, right? Someone who was maybe left behind on Jakku because she was going to be a sweet force user? My guess is she's Chewie's. Has to be. I am curious, though, how this series is suddenly beholden to its bloodline twists instead of it being a sweet bonus. Star Wars and Empire both work without Vader being Luke's father, but that revelation pushes the stakes so much higher. Rey being related to someone at this point is an expectation rather than a surprise, as was the fact that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia's daughter, which didn't really come as a shock, tho I'm not sure it was meant to. It's like the franchise's bread and butter is suddenly big family reveals, but they've already blown their wad on that in the biggest cultural way possible.
We should talk about how her core conflict,
returning home, is actually the opposite of Luke's.

There's also the vague possibility that Ren and Rey are brother and sister, which would be sweet because she totally pwns him with superior force power in both their combative scenes together. I haven't even talked about how sweet and revelatory it is to see both a black Jedi and a woman Jedi and how casual it all feels, although of course we had Mace Windu and uh...shit...can you name one human female Jedi that's appeared in person in a Star Wars movie? My mind goes to Asajj Ventress, Mara Jade, Adi Gallia, or Aayla Secura. Looking it up now. Ah yes, totally - the Librarian from Attack of the Clones. Let's try again. Okay, found one - Bultar Swan. You know, I don't know what women complain about, they got Bultar Swan!

There's a shot of Rey out-forcing Anakin Skywalker's lightsabre from Kylo Ren and then lighting it up and my entire theater cheered. It's a spectacular shot that unbelievably took until 2015 to achieve.

And the cast from The Raid movies shows up! It'd be cool if they fought some of those monsters using their Indonesian pencak silat on some very Abrams-esque monsters in that weird First Order freighter that Han and Chewie were apparently running. There's a lot to go off on in that last sentence. I'll let you figure it out.

Where does TFA land in terms of greatest Star Wars ever? Well, it's at least the third or fourth greatest one, which is good enough for me. Time for pizza, which like Star Wars, is still good either hot or cold.

14 December 2015

First Impressions: CREED

This has already been an impressive year for seventh installments in film series, but there isn't another that matches Creed (2015)'s delicate balance of honouing what's come before while still striking out on its own. This is what Rocky Balboa (2006) or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), or even this year's Terminator: Genysis (2015) should have been. It features the iconic hero stepping into a role that actually makes sense while figuratively passing down the mantle to a new hero who embodies the core aspects of the character while also maintaining a distinct and interesting identity. SPOILERS forever of course, from here on out, but let's discuss:
Could definitely take Jake Gyllenhaal.

Creed really came out of no where, too. For another installment in the Rocky franchise featuring a slew of really hot actors right now, no one had really heard of the flick until a few weeks ago. Ryan Coogler directs by a far more deft and careful hand than this franchise has ever had, which creates a slew of artfully constructed yet perfunctory shots, dynamic engrossing in-fight camerawork and the execution of a compelling, if at times derivative screenplay. Boxing matches have never felt this theatrical, though, and while I'll always miss the sweat eruptions from Rocky IV (1985), the blood splats are just as good.

If he's not considered one already, though, this should signify that Michael B. Jordan is ready to be a star. That middle initial is critical, of course, but this dude devotes himself to the physicality of the role to match Sly's 1976 outing, even if he trades sleekness for jackedness. Jordan also displays a staggering array of emotion, from cocky arrogance to real vulnerability, sometimes in the same scene, masking pain with machismo, balancing ego with a yearning for a father figure. More than anyone else, he sells his right to be here more than Shia LaBeouf could ever sell putting on Indy's hat.

The core conflict is actually sort of meta, although the film never beats you to death with that fact like Jurassic World (2015) did. Jordan's Adonis Creed continuously attempt to distance himself from his father's name. Even though he wants to honor his father, he also has a strong desire to make it as a fighter on his own merit. It's a desire to not be the second Apollo but the first Adonis. The actual film works the same way and largely pulls it off.

The second heavy hitter here is of course, Sly Stallone reprising his role as Rocky, which is almost a surprising turn since he has seemed hesitant to let go of his action persona. His last few films have included the not-good-in-any-way Expendables trilogy, schlocky action flicks Bullet to the Head (2012) and Escape Plan (2013), and of course, the has been boxing film with Bob De Niro, Grudge Match (2013). I'm genuinely surprised he doesn't swing a punch in Creed, and the one time he jumps into the ring he pukes and gets cancer. The result, however, is a far more natural and believable role that isn't reliant on the appeal of a star well passed his prime. These are simple concepts, people.

Tessa Thompson, who has made notable appearances in movies centering on black struggle, such as Dear White People (2014) and Selma (2014) provides a third anchor for the film and complements Jordan in every scene they share, even if she's not allowed to stand out that much.

Of course, Creed is actually the same exact movie as Rocky, down to the training montages, championship running and leaping, and even losing the fight at the end but winning respect. Creed actually sells that juxtaposition a little better because as we've discussed, Adonis' clear goal is to fight for himself and prove that he's his own legacy, which is a bit more developed than Rocky, which gets mired in Rocky awkwardly trying to bang Adrian for like the first forty-five minutes.

I was also impressed by how much Coogler must know about boxing and training, although I'm curious if any of that comes from Stallone. Some of it must. Or he's just so beloved among the boxing community, and through in all the MMA jackholes he's given jobs in Expendables films and he has enough clout in the fighting world as Rocky does in his fictional world.

The film does do an incredible job at setting up that fictional world along with Rocky's place in it as one of the greatest athletes of all time. From casual Sportscenter and PTI blurbs to the recognition and reverence from everyone around him. The only major issue is that no one really gives a shit about boxing anymore. Sure everyone was down for Mayweather-Pacquiao, but that's certainly been an exception rather than the sign of a trend lately. It's generally weird that boxing movies remain pretty popular while the sport is not. I suppose that's because it's great to see characters grow and test themselves in one of the most difficult sports out there, but a little more disturbing to see people sacrifice their minds, bodies, and faces in real life.

I was actually also struck by the idea that this is also a great Black boxing movie, which we don't see that often. Seriously, compared to how many brothers are in the sport we always see some white guy pushing himself past the limits. Name another black boxing movie. Ali (2001)? The Hurricane (1999)? Does either hold the cultural clout of all the Rocky films, Million Dollar Baby (2004), Cindarella Man (2005), The Fighter (2010), or back to Raging Bull (1980)? Well, you could probably argue for a few, but even this year's Southpaw (2015) features some white dude. This fact isn't lost on everyone. Creed becomes a somewhat unlikely candidate to showcase the experience of a young struggling black athlete in genuine but not exploitative context.

It's almost ironic that actor, Michael B. Jordan looks the part more than his final opponent, played by real boxer, Tony Bellew, who looks a bit pudgy. It's nice that the series has moved on from names like Clubber Lang or even Mason "The Line" Dixon, even if "Adonis Creed" is admittedly goofy.

I'd highly recommend Creed for any Rocky fan, boxing fan, or movie fan, really. It's honourable without being obnoxious or on the nose and very well constructed both in plot and cinematic structure. Michael B. Jordan should be in every movie ever, and Stallone could win an Oscar. Let that sink in.
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