29 May 2015

The Road to a Blockbuster: San Andreas Shakes Things Up

It's Friday again and we have a slew of new Summer movies dropping in to assault our senses. The two wide releases this week couldn't be more different. In the first one, The Rock meets up with his estranged wife to rescue California from an Earthquake. In the second, Bradley Cooper meets up with his estranged ex-girlfriend to...pow around in Hawaii for a while. Clearly some pretty straight counter-programming here, although at this point both these films are really aimed at female audiences. My mom is way more interested in watching San Andreas (2015) for Dwayne Johnson's pecs than I am. So, what's the cultural, critical, and commercial potential for each?
Nevermind my shitty preview. This is all you need.

I was actually legitimately disappointed when I found out San Andreas wasn't actually a live action Grand Theft Auto film starring The Rock. I don't know where I got that impression from, but when I saw the first trailer I did have a solid "WTF, Earthquake?" moment. Getting beyond that, this doesn't look at all like a new movie, which is weird, because it's totally a new movie. The effects just kind of look like everything that was done in 2012 (2009), which is a terrible association. I'm not sure why Hollywood throws a big-budget disaster movie out there every couple years. 2012 did do reasonably well internationally, but it also had a lot more riding with it - that secret Mayan Apocalypse Bullshit and all - than just Lex Luthor's plot from Superman (1978).

This ought to make money and I can't imagine another Tomorrowland (2015) on our hands, which bombed completely and utterly last week. I mean, it's seriously in John Carter (2012)-land. Yet it's also the #1 original sci-fi movie of 2015. Chew on that. San Andreas has a lot more mass appeal going for it, as well as The Rock, which tends to lift a lot of movies like this with an ineffable charm and an ubiquitous presence that's genuinely not annoying at all. It's also all about saving people, which seems to be the hip thing in the wake of films like Man of Steel (2013) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), which had all this city destruction porn without any regard to the heroes actually saving anyone.

San Andreas also benefited by a pretty decent trailer and a pretty cool ethereal cover of The Mamas & the Papas classic tune. And Alexandria Daddario is on the cusp of being an It Girl as much as Rock is our boytoy of the moment. So, why do I still have the feeling that no one is going to give a shit about San Andreas? Well, like I said, even though the effects are impressive, it's all sort of been seen before. Those city destruction sequences in 2012 were actually the best parts of that movie, and if San Andreas can weave some actual human drama into that film, it's all for the better. We need to actually be able to connect to the citizens trapped in the CGI mayhem, and with that solid father/daughter/estranged wife connection going on, that's certainly possible.

You know, come to think of it, as I'm remembering that terrible 2012 movie, that was full of a dude dealing with his divorced wife and kids as well. Did the screenwriters (by the way, there were six of them), just watch 2012 and agree to focus on California falling apart? I'm also curious about how well this connects to real-world problems, namely the fact that California really is destroying itself, albeit due to water shortages, or the fact that a very real and very devastating earthquake just hit Nepal. There hasn't been a huge amount of Internet up in arms over the film's fetishization of this sort of destruction, but it's an issue worth considering as long as it puts a bad taste in my mouth the more I think about it.

The film so far has had middling reviews that seem to proudly proclaim it to be average, rather than outright shitty, and it probably has some decent sequences, but The Rock, who is trying so hard to be a solo summer action star, especially after the underrated Hercules (2014), may be better off saving overblown franchises like the Fast and Furious and G.I. Joe series. Or just make The Rundown 2: Gato in Manhattan (2025), already. I don't think anyone is going to care about San Andreas in fifteen years.
Native Hawaiians must always drink chi chi before hapanoa

On the wide other end of the spectrum is Aloha (2015), and ostensibly terrible romantic comedy/drama from Cameron Crowe, who, after I glanced at his resume, actually hasn't really made a good film in like fourteen years. I don't really know anything about this movie before reading about it fifteen minutes ago, but despite a knockout cast that includes Brad Cooper, Rachel McAdams (obviously a future what-if scenario from Wedding Crashers [2005], Emma Stone, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, Danny McBride, and John Krasinski, it apparently sucks ass.

Its counter-programming to all the stupid shit in Summer, along with its relatively smaller budget makes it nearly a surefire thing to make some coin, especially from uninformed old people who really liked Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Brad Cooper is also pretty hot right now, having just improbably wrapped up his most successful movie, American Sniper (2014) and his third straight Oscar nomination. This all seems to be a bait and switch, though, because Aloha is terrible. It's like a rom dram version of The Descendants (2011) with less goofy Clooney and people getting punched in the face.

As you can tell, I have a fairly low opinion of both flicks dropping today, but that's only because they are by all accounts uninteresting and terrible. What do you think? Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.

25 May 2015

Summer Jam Week 3: Kendrick and Taylor Rule

Ah Memorial Day. This is the moment where Summer Truly begins for many people across the country. With that kind of lofty status, it's an integral component of the ascendancy of a tasty Summer Jam. And this week our contenders are truly taking shape in the form of some very familiar faces that keep stunning again and again. Let's dig into the Memorial Day Jams:

Hot Jam of the Week: "Bad Blood" by Taylor Swift ft. Kendrick Lamar

Yep. There's no real question this is the hottest new jam that dropped last week and I may already posit that it's in an extremely good position to be if not THE Song of Summer 2015, at least a very highly ranked Jam. It's extremely catchy, has a interesting, if not entirely coherent music video stocked with cameos, and most of all, rides on two of the hottest contemporary artists. I love the love between Kendrick and Taylor that's been stewing for a while now. I also love every single part of this video. Taylor's fab hair as she's kicked out the window. Her complete unrealization of what kind of video she's in at the 3:36 mark. Kendrick rocking the Dodgers hat while everyone else is a combination of Mad Max, Kill Bill, and The Fifth Element (1997). It's fantastic.

Bring the Funk: "King Kunta" by Kendrick Lamar

I want to keep the Kendrick rolling for a little bit here. I don't think this jam is really popular nationwide on the level of some of these other pop songs, but I watched this video eve more than I did "Bad Blood" this week. It's one of the best rap tracks I've heard in a long time, even if it's more a canny hodge-podge of Mausberg, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Ahmed Lewis. For some reason I just love the cinematography in the video, maybe because it's so cramped, limited, and simple while still being so fun and funky, which undercuts its amazing lyrics. I don't think "King Kunta" will be King of Summer, but listen to this song!

Just Breathe: "American Oxygen" by Rihanna

I don't know what "American Oxygen" is, but I suppose that's the puzzle of this jam. I'd contend it's just the concept of every immigrant in this country trying to get a piece of that precious American air, the lifeblood of the new American dream. Totally not that catchy or totally summer-y, and as I talked about with "Bitch Better Have My Money" last week, probably dropped too early to truly make an impact. Still, a soulful Rihanna American Ballad, even if it doesn't totally strike down the plate is a nice lick.

Who? "Somebody" by Natalie La Rose ft. Jeremih

I'm probably pimping this track out far too much, but whatever, I still like it. It's the sexiest song on the list this week and even with its simplistic, undeveloped beat and monotonous lyrical content, it possesses a keen rhythm that allows for a fun Summer Moment. And that's all this song will last for - the moment, but that's notable to call out.

Ode to Monogomy: "Honey, I'm Good" by Andy Grammer

The bumping positivity of this jam is crazy and contagious and the way it rips through its knee-slapping rhythm sets it up to be a grand Summer Track. I am still curious about its legs, especially when braced against the typical cynicism that comes with pop culture. It has the potential, though and it's distinctive enough in a retro way to gain some deserved notoriety this season.

Shut Your Talking Hole: "Shut Up and Dance"

You know, I take it back, in its own way, this could be the sexiest video of the week. It's so damn fun in a way that also effectively cuts through a lot of romantic bullshit in favor of just going with the moment. Again - that moment! It's all about the moment. Summer is fleeting. Stop thinking about and SHUT UP AND DANCE!!! That's what this jam is all about and although it felt like a lot less people were humming it this week, it's still a fairly potent force.

Queen of the Clouds: "Talking Body" by Tove Lo.

Okay, this is the sexiest song of the week. No, but really, this is an epic jam that's strong and soulful with having just the right level of catchiness in its hook to really crossover into mainstream pop. That being said, I don't think it's actually been soaring all that much outside of this list, but who cares, I love dishing on my favourite tunes of the week. I also don't think that Tove Lo is a carbon copy Fifth Harmony pop star, which also gives her that hard sought credibility of genuinity. I can dig it.

Fine: "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Purth

Alright so I finally caved and gave this the number one spot. After really digesting the Jams this week there wasn't really any other clear winner, and this song just keeps crushing it and is totally listenable nearly two months after its debut. I usually give high-level jams about a three-month lifespan, but it's also possible that "See You Again" crushes that. How high can this thing soar? When everyone deals with loss and pain and can relate to how elegant this track translates those emotions, there's no limit, brother.

Next Week...

I was mighty tempted to throw in "Earned It" by The Weeknd, along with its sister Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) jam, Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do" but I remain unconvinced of their hotness. I would also be hard-pressed to not include Maroon 5's "This Summer's Gonna Hurt like a Motherfucker" which is a weird hard swearing departure from what they usually do, but that's got Jam written all over it. Stay Tuned!

22 May 2015

The Road to a Blockbuster: On the Road to Tomorrow! And Ghosts!

Well it's been a damn exciting Summer Blockbuster season, already! Although to be honest, looking at the upcoming schedule (HERE!), how many movies left are you really pumped up about? I have a nominal interest in Jurassic World (2015), although my enthusiasm actually dropped after stumbling upon this the other day and finding myself agreeing with a lot of random points that found themselves targeting that film in particular, probably because the original was such a paradigm for the genre.

But that's really a conversation to have a few weeks from now. Is there anything else that has really captured our attention this summer? I want to say that we blew our load pretty early with Age of Ultron (2015) and Fury Road (2015), and the combination of both have heartedly taken over our conversational zeitgeist the past few weeks. I would say I'm looking forward to the August 14th double dip of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and Straight Outta Compton (2015), and that's about it. And Dope (2015). I may be the only one June 12 buying a ticket for Dope while everyone else watches Dinosaurs eat people. I'm like 28 or 29 or something and I think I've finally hit that jaded age where I just don't give a shit about big dumb sequels anymore. I do care about big smart sequels, hence my love for Fury Road, but everything else could crash and burn for all I care. So, on this week's big tentpole release, Tomorrowland (2015). Oh, and Poltergeist (2015) comes out this weekend, too? Damn these movies have done a terrible job of promoting themselves. Well, here we go.

This is going to be a fun preview because I know absolutely nothing about Tomorrowland. I know that I liked the first teaser, haven't really seen the full trailer, and maybe George Clooney is in it? That is literally what I started with when writing this post. So let's discover whatever this movie is together in an attempt to assuage its cultural, commercial, and critical potential.

Let's back up and go forward a little bit because the latter two bits of my criteria are easy to judge. Critically this film has already done pretty well, at least in the sense of it just being not shitty. 60% RT. That's well within the realm of being..."at least not completely shitty." It has branded itself as being a hopeful epic movie with strong intellectual appeal, which could actually work against it if the intellectual elite it's pandering towards reject it for being not great. But let's talk about its commercial potential, which is a tricky subject and goes along with the same idea here.

I frankly wouldn't be surprised if this debuted in fourth place this weekend. Actually, there's no way that will happen. I think it can at least beat Ultron in its fourth week. But I imagine that Fury Road rides the strength of its reviews and word of mouth to hold pretty steady, and even a stiff decline of Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) will be a tall order to beat. Okay, so figuring if both of those pull in around $30 million I guess expectations for Tomorrowland need to be higher than that. Right? Okay, let's say it wins. It won't be by too much.

Now, I hate this prospect, because if we're looking at wholly original action blockbusters this summer you've got this, San Andreas (2015), and Pixels (2015), and that last one is a rough stretch. Tomorrowland is our only option for new innovative material at the Box Office. We've actually had a lot of original blockbuster films recently, but the problem is, they've all been terrible. We're talking films like Oblivion (2013), After Earth (2013), Elysium (2013), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Now, those two Tom Cruise vehicles are probably the best of the lot, and I didn't dislike either but neither really lit up the Box Office enough to encourage studios to invest in anything other than shared world comic book adaptations. I have more the feeling that Tomorrowland will settle into this vein of film than anything else. Quick - name any character from Oblivion. Even Tom Cruise's character. Who did Morgan Freeman play? You had completely forgotten Morgan Freeman was even in that movie, didn't you? But I bet you know who is playing Dr. Strange in a few years.

This isn't meant to bemoan either superhero movies or to grouchily yell from my porch that "they just don't make 'em like they used to, dagnabit!" but I am concerned with cultural ramifications, as always. There is something to be said for the big movies of old that succeeded merely on their own  merit as movies. We still talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Die Hard (1988) because they're great movies. To some extent, they needed to be, although this certainly wasn't the original intention, in order to establish themselves in our culture. We don't really remember terrible movies from that era. No one is clamouring for remakes of Dark Star (1974) or The Stuff (1985). Where is our modern adaptation of From Beyond (1986)? Original movies aren't good movies and comic book movies aren't good movies; good movies are good movies. And I'd certainly like to see more of them. If an original movie's method to worm its way into our cultural heritage is to be good, then I'm all for it. I think the disconnect is also because comic book movies don't really add anything new to our cumulative culture. We already have Captain America. We've had him for like seventy years. I want whatever new characters introduced in Tomorrowland to join that great pantheon.

Of course, Tomorrowland isn't wholly new. It's based on a Disneyland ride. Or park section. Or just borrowed the name. I don't know. I think it's the latter. It's also directed by Brad Bird, who seems to really fail at making bad movies, although his animated work has been superior to his one live action attempt, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011), but that's tough to judge someone on, considering the Tom Cruise factor. And I don't have much against Ghost Protocol, it was an extremely fun movie with that one stunt (I shouldn't even have to name it but that moment when Cruise scales the Wiz Burj Khalifa) echoing in memory even if the cast and plot don't really do the same.

I ought to mention that any excitement I have for director Brad Bird is tempered by writer Damon Lindelof. It's not that he's a terrible writer, and I actually liked the two greatest fanboy ires he's created - LOST and its somewhat infamous conclusion and Prometheus (2012). His purposeful obfuscation of answers works better for the former than the latter, though, and even though I understand what he's trying to do, it's still kind of awful for cinematic narrative form. Fury Road didn't give much answers or background but it still bent to its own internal logic, instead of explaining away incongruities with a blanket level of mystery. At this point I am just fearful of anything Lindelof cranks out because you never know when it's going to walk that fine line between awe-inspiring and dream-crushing.

Even though this feels like a lot of good going for it, I just don't feel like anyone is talking about Tomorrowland. At all. It is a complete ghost in our cultural zeitgeist. It's a non-factor. Everyone's lives will move on without seeing this movie. A dozen articles dissecting it aren't going to be written on Monday morning. No one cares. Maybe if the film is good it can snuggle up to us a few years down the line when things are a little less crowded, but in the pure cultural capitalism that is our lives, it just can't fight to the top.
What's actually creepy is that there are
 like four right hands in a row there.

And then there's also Poltergeist this weekend. I honestly didn't even know this movie existed until a few months ago. It felt like one of those films that was in development hell for years and years and then feels like a bit of a "who gives a shit" moment when it's actually here. The original Poltergeist (1982) was pretty popular as a mainstream horror film and I think you'll find a lot of my gripings from a few paragraphs up to hold true here.

This may not be the best judge of how much a studio is investing in its film, because it can be edited by anyone, but I think that checking out a film's Wikipedia page a few days before its release should give plenty of info to get you pumped up. And as far as Poltergeist goes, either the studio doesn't care, fans don't care, or no one knows that it'd be worthwhile to create some kind of mythos around this film if it's going to stand out and be a champion among everyone else. Check out how much more in-depth Mad Max: Fury Road is. And finally, let's go nuts for Age of Ultron. It's not just the breadth of the articles - Ultron has 256 citations. 256! Max has 93 and Poltergeist has...14.

That's a tough metric to judge a film on but I'm going to do it anyway. It's clear indication of how much enthusiasm people have for these properties, and perhaps it's unfair to compare Poltergeist to these big boy movies, but it's also unfair to give it a Memorial Day release date where you know it's going to fight for fourth or fifth place. It was originally set to launch in February, and you've got to think that would have been a better date. It could have at least gotten some press about it winning its weekend. Or coming in second to Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). You know that the 20th Century Fox studio head was just eyeing the success of The Conjuring (2013) and The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and just wanted to drop a horror movie in summer and hope for the best. This flick is going to get buried.

So I hope I talked about Tomorrowland and Poltergeist somewhere in there. I don't have high hopes in any regard for either of these properties this weekend. We're just waiting for Jurassic World at this point and the Internet is obsessed with Fury Road. Like me!

What do you think about the prospects of these films? What hope have ye? Leave a comment down there.

18 May 2015

Summer Jam 2015 Week 2: Tove is Tops

It's Week 2, a stab at the middle of May and we're full of anticipation of what could be a great jam-worthy summer. That being said, this is a marathon, not a sprint, and it's none too likely that any of these tracks puts a serious dent in our heart of hearts. It's largely just a shuffle from last week with no real jam soaring or falling that significantly, although this is also always the time where you kind of figure out where things should start landing in anticipation of Memorial Day, which to many is the critical kick-off weekend for the Months of Sun.

Hot Jam of the Week: "Bitch I'm Madonna" by Madonna ft. Nicki Minaj

I thought about highlighting Nicki's solo effort, but Madonna was boosted by a pretty sweet Tonight Show performance recently. It's getting a bit of airplay in wake of that, and although it certainly sounds like a Madonna song with a modern veneer, it's a bit too similar to every other EDM track out there to break out on its own. I also wanted to talk about it in context of Britney's similar team-up with Iggy Azalea we talked about last week. I'm glad these former pop superstars are trying really hard to be relevant again, and using current stars to help them reach their former glory, but I think Britney made a bit of a better song. There's difficultly in them breaking out now after they were such a force at the start of their careers. It's a tricky line because it's not actually that they sound like everyone else, just that everyone else since they dropped have tried to sound like them.

Only R&B of the Week: "Somebody" by Natalie La Rose ft. Jeremih

I think this pushed ahead of Omarion's "Post to Be" this week and I think it has potential to hang around this position on the list for a while without really surging near the top. The more I hear this song the more I like it, actually, even though its lyrics are completely unoriginal. You know, I'm really glad we finally got to hear Natalie La Rose's opinion on staying at the club after it closes. Not enough singers are bringing that to our attention. But it's all about the rhythm! It's smooth and cool and rolls with a fresh cadence that's pretty ear-pleasing. That's all a good R&B song needs to be great for summer. To be a song that's great ten years down the line? That's a taller order that "Somebody" ain't filling.

Hey What's Up Hello: "Trap Queen" by Fetty Wap

I may consider "Trap Queen"'s big zeitgeist moment to be a few weeks ago, but it's still a cool enough song to get some notoriety here. Plus I want to talk about Fetty Wap's weird eye. I mean, he's a rapper and a pirate! To be honest, he just lost it to a glaucoma that almost took both, which gives more credence to that disease being a bit more than just an excuse to smoke up. "Trap Queen" is an awesome song, though, and Fetty Wap is as much a rising star as anyone in the rap game right now. He also seems like a levelheaded dude. I think "Trap Queen" has spent too much to last the whole summer, but he could have momentum to drop something else fantastic.

Bring the Tissues: "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Push

One of these days I'll post the Miranda Sings version. This is probably the movie song of the year (Oscar, much? No, I can't picture that), even if the actually diagetic theme of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) may be the most notable score we've heard so far. But as long as this is still getting pretty good airplay and continuing to be a significant tear-jerker, it'll be on this list. Oh, Paul.

Big Pimpin: "Bitch Better Have My Money" by Rihanna

I always sort of have a softspot for SNL performers, and since this was the last one of the year before the Fall Season starts, I ought to include our golden girl, Rihanna. It's been a while since she had a definitive Summer Crown, 2007's "Umbrella," but she has never been a stranger to Summer Jam Success. This song is rising rather than falling, and it has that mix of intensity, personal anguish, and just not giving a shit that Rihanna has really been able to specialize in lately. I feel like she's always in the pop background doing something fantastic but no one totally recognizes it, maybe because it tends to be weird or uncomfortable or uneasy to fit in a projected pop star mold. I love Rihanna.

The Most Positive Summer Jam Ever: "Honey, I'm Good" by Andy Grammer

Here is the best trick to making a good Summer Playlist: "Honey, I'm Good" directly after "Bitch Better Have My Money." Just rolls off the ears. I do like how this is all about staying faithful and being really happy to have the significant other you already have. It's totally upbeat and smiley but it avoids being bland or milquetoast. It's also a track that's rising instead of falling and being pretty damn Summery, I'm sure we haven't heard it for the last time.

Michael Jackson Style: "Shut Up and Dance" by Walk the Moon

Get it? Here's our second totally positive and upbeat song of the week about really positive hook-ups. There's no real pain here, but plenty of longing, and this is still the funnest song on this list. It's got that instant Summer Catchiness and is breaking at a good time to dominate the first half of the Season or so. That being said, it's totally possible that it gets completely irritating by this time next week and we banish it to one-hit Hell. Until then, jam out, baby!

Put it On Me: "Talking Body" by Tove Lo

I think we have really underrated this song, which wormed its way into my earballs more than any other Jam this week. It's a bit more positive than "Habits" but doesn't lose any of Tove Lo's edge or originality. It's epic, grounded, sassy, and sexy. This little bit of everything comes together really well to propel it to great heights. It hasn't totally smashed through the charts yet, but there's no song I hummed more this week and for that reason, Tove rules over everyone. I can see these top two tracks fighting for a while, at least until some killer jam hits and dominates the Summer, but for now, it's these guys.

Next week...

Nicki Minaj seems to be cranking out a lot, whether it be by herself or with David Guetta again, and I'm tempted to see if anything else she can do fights its way into this list. I was also close to including The Weeknd's "Earned It" from Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), which is still kicking ass on the charts, but just isn't that hot. We trade in white hot jams here, people, not that lame three-month old shit. But we'll see if it ends up being worthy of jam consideration. Stay tuned!

First Impressions: Mad Max: Fury Road

Weekends like this that feature a slug to our cultural face and gut like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is really why I love movies and still write about cinema. Despite there being no objectionable reason for it not existing, this long-term sequel finally dropped, and immediately, we realised why it shouldn't have existed for so long. It's certifiably insane, a bonkers, balls-out film at every turn with feminist undercurrents, monstrous baddies, and a largely dialogue-free stripped down story that relishes in media res like a champion. It's an arrogant affront to the Transformers and Marvel mass audience blockbuster-sort of storytelling that has held hegemony over Summer for the past decade. It flexes into the fantastic rather than the realistic at every turn, yet it feels more real than any self-serious summer brooder. It's a masterpiece of tone, competent cinematography, and despite the 30-year drought between the three previous movies in the franchise, feels largely original. This is why it has simultaneously gotten the praise it deserves and while $44 million isn't anything to laugh at, could possibly be seen as underperforming. SPOILERS from here on out.

Let's talk about its Box Office first, because as we'll learn, I think that is really an insignificant part of this film's lifecycle. Its take places it around Lucy (2014) in terms of Recent Summer Action Blockbusting, which certainly isn't great, at least when your standards are right next door - Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) clocking in at $70 million over the same weekend on a fraction of Max's $150 million budget. None of this really matters though, because Max is built to last. We'll be watching and talking about this insane odyssey for the next twenty years thanks to George Miller's simultaneous uncanny and natural ability to estimate the direction modern blockbusters are heading in and completely leaning against the tide and creating a refreshing moment of clarity ironically stacked against the cacophony of on-screen mayhem that is Fury Road.
"Nobody cared who I was until I put on the mask."

Do you like heavily plotted stories with intricate background and ample exposition? Do you like Optimus Prime's voiceover bringing you up to speed on each film? How about complex multi-film world-building obsessed with careful character debuts and a cautious expansion of logical possibilities? If you'd rather fuck all that shit, sit tight for Fury Road. It's has a visual language that is all-encompassing. The only thing I could compare it to is like a action-filled Under the Skin (2014), that is completely dependent on visual information that banks on your immediate understanding of what is going on on-screen and doesn't care if you're too slow to keep up. I have seen films that treat its audience with this level of respect before, but it's rare to see a film that the studios have put so much backing behind trust its audience to know what's going on so well. I will be calling this film "a relief" a lot, and that was a relief.

And it's not like it's very complex or obtuse. The imagery is visceral, immediate, and definitive. Why does Immortan Joe have a big scary breathing mask that makes him look like a cross between Darth Vader, Emmett Brown, that clown from American Horror Story, with the body of an overweight Predator? I don't know. It doesn't matter. What matters is that he's one bad, ugly motherfucking dude, and that image is translated immediately. The film doesn't have time to stop and explain how his breath machine works. It doesn't matter. Such an insane thing would distract from the parts of the narrative that are actually important.

That is another important aspect of this film: it is completely at ease with its own silliness. In an age where many films, from Chris Nolan and imitators to the Modern Bond movies, are focused on their own groundedness, hard science, or dark introspection and careful real-world set up of what was formerly outlandish, Fury Road revels in its complete ridiculousness. It's easy to see what a lesser director would do to the original Mad Max films. Perhaps there would be a long set-up to the practical use of shoulder-pads and mohawks and a close press-in to how Max got his trademark uhh...kneebrace (actually a keen detail from Mad Max [1979] that I was pumped to see again here, albeit completely unexplained, or even shot in a way to draw attention to it). Maybe there would be cars that would exist in the real world, a suitable extension of current trends. No. No. NO. BLIND MONSTER GUITAR PLAYER ON AN AMP TRUCK THAT SHOOTS FLAMES FROM HIS MIGHTY AXE. Let that soak in. It's called the Doofwagon, by the way, and yes, it's the perfect encapsulation of what this movie is about.

Like they say, old war parties had a fife and drum to pump up the people. So what would they have in the post-apocalyptic kill-or-be-killed world of Mad Max? Of course they would have some dude wailing on a guitar that shoots fire with huge timpani booming behind him. It's the most metal thing in the world. It works in part because even though it's extremely goofy, it fits perfect with both this world and the tone of the film, which is one of complete shamelessness.

You can guess by now that I was a fan of this film. That being said, it's not completely a revelation if you've ever seen The Road Warrior (1981) or Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). In many ways, Fury Road is just a mix of the final chase in Road Warrior combined with the slightly more insane mentality along with the literal freakshow that was Thunderdome. It has all the best manic race action that characterizes both with the addition of a few hundred million dollars to its budget. Isn't that the perfect modern blockbuster update? It holds the same spirit but pushed to its maximum without losing any of the renegade attitude that made the first trilogy essential viewing for every little boy growing up in the 80s.

Now, that original trilogy was great for little boys, but Fury Road is now a great film for little girls. I didn't really know this going in (only because I hadn't yet caught wind of the Men's Rights protests), but somehow this is a super-girlpower movie that's as much about gender wars as it is about loud fast cars clunking into eachother. The plot quite literally concerns the de-objectification of women, with a strong, independent female character, Charlize Theron's Furiosa, offering freedom for young women imprisoned into a forced breeding program with the above-mentioned gross-ass Immortan Joe (notably played here, we should mention, by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain in the original Mad Max and is the only returning castmember). It's a weird way to treat women, because Joe ostensibly wasn't really about just pleasing himself with concubines, but really just wanted to get them all pregnant. Call him the Tracy Morgan of the Mad Max World.

In an age, though, when there are outcries every week for more positive depictions of women, or rather I should say, just ANY depiction of well-rounded, independent women with a sense of free agency, Fury Road comes out of no where, without even a loud declaration of attaining this achievement, more as a matter-of-fact boost for powerful women on film who will capably fight their male oppressors that somehow rings so much louder.

Let's get into those characters a bit more. We've talked about Joe, but the other two big roles here are Theron's Furiosa and Tom Hardy's Max. Hardy plays Max's voice like a combination of Bane and Mel Gibson, which is somehow fantastic, although his speech isn't all that common. Max has become a man of action, chiefly concerned with self-survival, although his past failures continue to very literally haunt him. He may not care to admit it, but he's seeking some sort of redemption, which is the most apparent overreaching theme to the film.

MRF meet MFP
Furiosa, who by the end of the film is more a dual protagonist than supporting role, is also seeking to redeem herself, although her initial capture from her hometown, the Green Place, is hardly her fault. It's more likely that she was forced to do some things as Imperator for Joe that she regrets and moreover just wants to do something great with her life. These are real stakes with consequences that are both personal and extra-personal, such as when when she isn't able to save all of those brides. There is pain there based on personal and interpersonal issues that are also rarely explored in Summer Blockbusters, or if they are, are sort of bungled like many of the films that tripped over or merely muddled them last year, such as Godzilla (2014), or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). Fury Road is so focused. Each character is trying to achieve his or her objective, and all the action follows suit.

The last redemptive character is Nicholas Hoult's Nux, a War Boy lackey of Joe's who really just wants to impress his big boss, earn a spot in Valhalla, and win the warrior's respect of his insane peers. It's just too bad that he's sort of a doof, and immediately screws up many of his attempts to be the cunning action star he needs to be to complete Joe's mad mission. Once he is able to actually see and understand some real human contact, and not just his brainwashed cult-like contact, though, he is able to redeem himself to help these real people and honor his connection to them. He earns his entrance to Valhalla doing something noble rather than cruel.

All the character interactions stem from their initial and then shifting desires, which are all clear, apparent, and always in motion. The film finds a great way to bring the reluctant Max into the core of the action through his use as a "Blood Bag" for Nux, literally strapped to the hood of his car as he races into battle with blood pumping to refuel the poor injured War Boy. Again, so damn metal. That is the one major logical issue I have - Max loses so much damn blood in this movie. There's no way he'd be able to do all those stunts without a cookie or something.

As far as the construction of the film itself, again, many filmmakers can learn from its very practical filmmaking. Simply having a camera that remains still and steady, and that isn't afraid to collect as much information as possible is a brilliant revelation. There is a constantly clear sense of geography and character placement, in part due to the use of many simultaneous cameras that were used to capture the chase scenes, which were largely practical. All this really means that it deserves some attention for its editing, which is spectacular. This also helps the impact of the film tremendously. There is a real sense of gravity, danger, and reality to the unrealistic proceedings because of this. At the same time it can still be totally revolting and disgusting and awesome and crisp and fantastic.

Its nature, though, is still inherently episodic, similar to all previous Max films, which begs for another sequel that can pick-up with the Road Warrior on his next adventure. This allows the franchise to easily bounce between realms in this world, and even though a lot of that aesthetic is intact, Miller greatly flexes his creativity here with the different cultures, especially after Lord Humongus, Master Blaster, and Tina Turner all made their turns as nefarious villains. It would be easy to just completely repeat the past, but instead Miller is able to flesh out no less than five freaky cultures, from the Citadel, to Gas Town, Bullet Farm, the Green Place, and those weird Tusken Raider-looking assholes in the canyon. And the Porcupine-Car-driving people! There are like six unique cultures that all look new and distinctive! This isn't even the kind of thing I should be excited about, but it's just so rare these days. Everything usually looks the same, even across franchises. Why did Battleship (2012) look just like the Transformers (dumb question)? Why did Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) look just like Alice in Wonderland (2010)? What terrible standards we have now, but it seemed like everything had to look alike, like we had reached the end of our creative mindscape. Nope.

So I'm giving this a thumbs-up. It's nuts, bold, and refreshing, while providing great drama, character work, focus, and clarity. It's mind-erasing. Go see it, so this thing makes enough money to push Hollywood into more this direction. Seriously!

What did you think?

15 May 2015

The Road to a Blockbuster: Cars and A Capella: Max vs. Bellas

It's another epic Friday in the world of cinema and there's a tasty match-up this week. In one corner is the somewhat anticipated sequel to one of the surprise hits of 2012, Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), starring Anna Kendrick and her ragtag team of Competitive A Capella Singers. In the dramatic other end of the spectrum is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), the sequel/reboot/whatever set in the progressively more insane world of Mad Max, which launched Mel Gibson's career in the 80s. Even though at first glance these movies may seem really different, they're actually more akin to each other than they seem. So let's talk about the cultural, commercial, and critical prospects for each.
Pitch is the new black.

Both of these films have the advantage to exercise franchises that aren't really worn out yet. Pitch Perfect 2 has a tall order to surpass its original film and to promise to me more than just a retread of what happened the first time around, which was still fun, new, and riotously funny, with plenty of heart. Elizabeth Banks has somewhat surprisingly stepped into the Director's chair, although after reading her story, it's not actually surprising at all. The film also returns most of its original cast with a handful of departures and some new exciting additions.

By all accounts this looks to be a solid entry that I'm not sure will totally break away from the first film and may actually be going through its own Alan Garner-ification in Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy character, which was a pleasant departure in small doses, but could bog the film down with more airtime, becoming stale and undercutting the development of stronger characters. The first film, while it was full of all these really bizarre moments like this also had incredibly strong moments like its ending, which rules.

I wouldn't underestimate this film's potential to make some serious coin from audiences who may be weary already of the big male-centric action spectacle that has become synonymous with Summer Filmmaking. It's not like the first one was super-dominant, but it has had decent legs post-release and its fandom is pretty significant. That said, I think this is totally a young person's film, and with that regard, those people will be dishing on Fury Road as well.

Mad Max had never totally gripped my attention, indeed it has been sort of a gaping hole in my nerdy knowledge up until the last few weeks. For that reason I've spent the last few weeks crushing through Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). There is certainly a gradient of wackiness there, with Thunderdome reaching peak insanity. I'll still hold that the series doesn't really get better than that first chase in Max, though (note that video is mislabeled as Road Warrior). It's such a great action set piece with continual movement, rising action, and clear geography, even if the character distinctions get a little blurry.

My vision of Fury Road is that kind of attitude and filmmaking extended to a two-hour run time with much more outrageous stunts, vehicles, and people. With that sense, it's no wonder it's being hailed as a great work of art. It helps that it features the return of original director George Miller, whose wacky, hyper-violent mastermind has also been applied to both Babe films as well as Happy Feet (2006), which earned him an Academy Award. It's the kind of seriously legitimate career of a madman that really earns him and only him the reputation and skill necessary to make this movie.

The first, rejected title was "Angry Andy."
Mad Max is an interesting property to get the big modern blockbuster treatment, though, possibly because it seems so obvious, yet it was so difficult for this fourth installment to get off the ground. It has been in some stage of development since 1998, with the proper cast and filming specifically on Fury Road having been churning it out since 2011. This is especially long considering that Mad Max 2 was essentially cranked out in just over a year. Of course, with the heavy amount of post-production effects and more complex stunt work required of any big action film now, things got way more cluttered.

That's the thing I'm a little suspicious of though - the original Max Trilogy really succeeded through surprisingly simple storytelling that was supplemented with brilliant characterization and extended setpieces, often at high speeds. It's really the original version of The Fast and the Furious (2001). The excellent reviews and minimal plot revealed so far leave me little doubt that Fury Road will emulate this method of storytelling, albeit on a much grander scale, which is a difficult balance to achieve, especially with the temptations of technology and the pressure of a high-profile Summer Release. Kudos, if all goes right.

Mad Max as a brand was also always ripe to receive another installment. Individual films tended to be episodic, even if events in one led into another. Mel Gibson is obviously iconic as the titular character, but he was never indispensable to the mythos, such as Harrison Ford is to Indiana Jones or Arnold Schwarzenegger is to the Terminator. Max Rockatansky never achieved that particular level of pop culture stardom, probably in no small part to Gibson going on to being better known for characters like Martin Riggs, Braveheart (1995), and his terrible, anti-Semitic directing career. Max could have been brung back virtually any time. And it's also in that sweet spot of there being not enough fans to really be up in arms about any ridiculous moments that contradict earlier canon, but there's that level of pop cultural awareness that people will think it's cool to be in the spotlight again. I almost think of Star Trek (2009), which obviously has a bigger fan base, but they're so insular, and enough people knew just enough of the mythos to get into it when presented with the modern adaptation.

And needless to say, the compelling, non-stop action of Fury Road ought to appeal to the young people. It's even got strong female characters, though as well, which may attract young women away from Pitch Perfect 2. I don't know if as many dudes dig Pitch Perfect, but there might be some movement that way as well. After all, as Elizabeth Banks says, Pitch Perfect is actually really just a sports movie. And there's the argument that Fury Road acts more like an opera or musical. So we have a sports movie disguised as a female-centered singing movie, and a musical disguised as a balls-out action movie? Radical.

Which flick are you seeing this weekend? Leave one below!

12 May 2015

7 Terrible Characters We Want in Avengers 8

Avengers 8: Stupidity's Rainbow (2032) is just around the corner, and my guess is it's going to be tough for that flick to feature most of today's bright young cast of do-gooders. Hopefully not too much of a SPOILER, but the ENDING for Avengers: Age of Ultron (2012) shows an epic B-Team of Avengers that ought to feature pretty well for the next couple of flicks. But even that's not going to last forever. Marvel will need to keep churning this shit out, but dammit, once you get very far outside what Marvel has already announced, things look grim indeed. Then again, there was a time where Iron Man and Thor looked like heroes far too stupid to ever have multi-billion dollar trilogies strung around them. The Vision is a great start, because he's a terrible character that makes no sense, but why stop there? Let's go full-tilt towards the insane heroes and villains that need to be featured in terrible upcoming films. And yeah, this is way more in jest than normal posts around here, so with my tongue wedged firmly in cheek...

Wonder Man
yuck yuck yuck

Avengers comics are always terribly stupid, but they tend to get at the heart of what comics are all about, which is really outlandish serial storytelling - a battle between crazy dudes in spandex that will last for hundreds of years. When I think of those Classic Avengers C-Listers, my thoughts always turn to Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Vision, and Wonder Man. I don't know why that was always on my periphery, but there was always that weird dude with red eyes, a big W on his shirt and purple Kirby dots all around him. Just try to figure out that origin story, shit. He has ion-based powers, which any scientist will tell you, translates to flight, superhuman strength, and durability. He's one of many analogues to Superman in the Marvel world, like Sentry and Hyperion, but also like those dudes, he's never at the forefront of action or importance like Superman is all the time. To be fair, as a character, he's not the absolute worst Avenger you could pick for Avengers 8, but what's sad and insane is that he's probably the top tier dude we have left whose movie hasn't been announced yet. Which means he will DEFINITELY be in at least Avengers 6: Beta Ray Bill and Friends (2022).

Black Knight
Just a flesh wound!

Black Knight, you suck so much. This isn't the Monty Python version, or even the Martin Lawrence version. No this is a dude straight out of Arthurian Legend, which comics use because it's public domain and why the hell not. That's just it, though, he's a straight up descendant of a knight from the 6th-Century who uses a magical blade forged by Merlin to mess up peoples' days. Apparently, all of the original Knight's descendants never figured out that guns were invented, though, and he still has his swords and limited magic skills to fight cosmic evil. Listen, I don't even care about battling Thanos, this cat ain't even gonna stop the local bank robbers. They do need to add him to the cinematic Avengers team only so that Hawkeye finally looks like a competent hero.

Kang the Conqueror
Where we're going,
we don't need...roads.

Ultron and Loki really are classic Avengers villains in the sense that they have always been baddies more of the team than anyone specific, although Hank Pym and Thor are the obvious direct nemeses here. Not so with Kang the Conqueror, who defines himself by countering the entire Avengers as a unit. Honestly, with Ultron and Loki out of the way, who else is there for the Avengers to fight? Korvac? Less people know Korvac than even Kang. The Masters of Evil? That would actually be a sweet match-up. But the time-travelling douchebag Kang the Conqueror is easily the third-tier Chief Avengers baddie and if there is any film that drops after Infinity War (2018-19), it's got to be Kang. This is more to my point that as soon as they breach this current tier, these films are going to be terrible.

Demolition Man

Daredevil, meet Wolverine, and apparently no one has a problem with this. He will definitely be played by Sylvester Stallone and appear in three stand-alone films that first jump off from an end-credits scene in Infinity War. Listen, I had never even heard of this asshole until a few weeks ago I thought it was some weird mash-up, but there he is. Apparently he's just like, slightly strong and has a preponderance towards being brainwashed. Sounds like he'll fit right in with most of the MCU Avengers. And he has a beard now! Quick, someone call Zach Galifianakis or Brett Gelman!

Okay, maybe we can squeeze her in.

I didn't even realize that Mockingbird was actually already in Marvel's shared universe through Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., played by Adrianne Palicki. That's a solid demotion from Wonder Woman. I don't care, Mockingbird is still a terrible C-Lister who fights crime with goggles and little sticks whose ass could be kicked by Black Knight. But again, she's totally that go-to Avenger on a downsloping tier that no one wants or cares about. Where are the big Mockingbird fans that clamour for her great appearances? Who wants to see her beat up aliens with sticks? The thing is, she would actually kick a ton of ass if she was fighting in Sokovia. Thank goodness for movie dumbness.

Fin Fang Foom
Toho were innovators
for keeping pants off

Hell yeah, giant dragon monster man! Why not turn the next Avengers movie into a Godzilla movie? This is something they have to push after the Kang movie fails and they need a radical new direction. There's barely any way for Fin Fang Foom to work in Marvel's cinematic world, but hopefully with more Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)-type nonsense and the promise of nerdy Infinity Gems to come, the universe will get dumber and dumber until it matches that glorious comic book world where anything can happen. Seriously, comic book worlds are insane because you have gods, ancient knights, aliens, magicians, super-tech people, and Beta Ray Bill all fighting each other. For some reason that all looks stupid when you put it in a movie. I'm convinced Fin Fang Foom is coming, and when he does, damn will it suck. It will suck so bad. I hope and pray. And they better stick to his original design which is "Let's make a badass dragon with a retarded face and purple shorts." I love you, Marvel.

Should I be this
turned on right
now? No, right?

Furry cat Avenger! Tigra is the last of the really shitty C-listers before we get into the super obscure characters. That is, the "I had to look them up in this list" characters. As for Tigra's origins, I had to look it up, because I have no idea what Tigra's fucking origin was, and I found it was even better than I could imagine. Cat People! Yes! Finally! See how easy it was when you had X-Men and you could just go "mutant!" for whatever insane, stupid, or awesome power you could come up with? Tigra is like the chick version of Beast, or better yet, the cat version of Wolfsbane, but they had to make her origin so much more insane. They need to make a full on movie with that origin intact exactly. OMG and she has both a Cat Soul and a Human Soul and carried Skrull-Hank Pym's son who is biologically human having been born of both Skrull and Cat Person. Comics...comics, I love you.

There are two other characters who I failed to mention here, even though they're basically at this level of shitty-Avengers-ness. Those would be the Wasp and She-Hulk because I'd actually legit like to see them on screen and they aren't truly terrible. Janet Van Dyne is a fairly insignificant part of Avengers history. She was only a founding member who have the team its name. Nothing worth appearing in a movie over. Apparently her daughter, Hope Van Dyne is the one Evangeline Lilly is playing in Ant-Man (2015), which is disappointing, but I'll take the surrogate. Through Lilly in a costume and shrink her down for Infinity War for goodness sake. It makes as much sense as the fucking Vision.

And then She-Hulk. Oh, She-Hulk. She-Hulk is spectacular because they found a decent way to make a Hulk distaff counterpart with her own personality, goals, interests, and conflicts that are distinct from Bruce Banner. Has Jennifer Walters appeared opposite Matt Murdock on Daredevil yet? Enough of the lack of females in Avengers films already or complaining that all the best ladies in Marvel are X-Men (undeniably true, actually). Give me Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Captain Marvel, then throw in Mockingbird, Tigra, Wasp, and She-Hulk for good measure. Actually look at that, we totally have a perfect female Avengers team. Captain Marvel for Thor, Mockingbird for Hawkeye, She-Hulk for...Hulk. Wasp and Tigra don't match up great with Cap and Thor, but who cares, it's something new.

This post went in some weird directions, but what do you think? Once we burn off Black Panther and Dr. Strange, this is it, people. Are you pumped for the Wonder Man movie? Or is it best that we all go home and cry and reek the day we ever gave Iron Man (2008) so much money that we'd find ourselves down this road? I do want to revisit this post in 2032 and see if any of this shit came true. How about you, future readers on holo-watches?!

11 May 2015

Summer Jam 2015, Week 1: Let the Glory Commence!

It's the greatest time of the year, folks. For the next seventeen weeks we'll be crushing eight tracks a week to determine which song will forever enter the annals of Summer Jam Royalty, joining jams like "Call Me Maybe" and "California Gurls" as the greatest Summer Songs ever. Which artist will we always remember as THE hit-maker of Summer 2015? That's what we're here to find out. Take my hand, little one, and join me in our quest to dish on the hottest jams around. We'll go from here to Labour Day. Let's get started!

Hot Jam of the Week: "Pretty Girls" by Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea

No music video yet, but you can bet this song is going to soar this summer. It's only slightly intoxicating, but the combo of legendary pop artists past and present attracts everyone's interest, if only for novelty instead of merit. Britney can still do that weird baby-talk voice singing thing, which actually complements Iggy's killer edge pretty well, though. And this is an easy club banger for a ladies' night out. All of her songs last summer were better, but could this be the start of an Iggy Azalea dynasty? It's only week one. Cool your jets.

The King of Summer: "G.D.F.R." by Flo Rida ft Sage The Gemini and Lookas

Can I first comment on how annoying it is when singers have a ton of featured artists with long complicated names attached to their tracks? I really don't want to remember Sage The Gemini and Lookas all summer. I do think G.D.F.R. is more on the downturn than the upswing by now, though. I didn't actually even realize this jam dropped last December but really blew up thanks to Furious 7 (2015). Flo Rida has been crushing Summer Jams for so damn long now. I can't think of a worse Summer artist, really, but I love that he keeps specializing in these ridiculous, meaningless summer songs.

Ethnically Diverse Hot Chicks; "Worth It" by Fifth Harmony ft. Kid Ink

Speaking of ridiculous, meaningless summer songs...I have no idea where Fifth Harmony came from, but they're totally reminiscent of Little Mix, or before that, the Pussycat Dolls or something. Aaaand actually looking them up now, they're a product of Simon Cowell's The X Factor, just like Little Mix. I should have known. I sort of have a problem with Cowell's manipulative method for pop success, which really just apes the success of other acts that seeks to apply bland music to massive tastes instead of formulating anything original. But this jam is catchy, even if it steals Jason Derulo-style trumpets (Derulian Trumpets?) and is incredibly hard to distinguish from any other pop song that's been producer in the past ten years. That's not the way to find real success! Hot, though.

No More Getting High: "Talking Body" by Tove Lo

Tove Lo follows up "Stay High" with "Talking Body," which is at least as good a song, if not better. Our girl Tove (is that her first name? I don't know) again mixes some sincere passion with a fun, energized jam that's less like Tone Loc that I always want to write. As far as its chances to be a Summer Jam, it's peaked a little bit early, but I could see her using this to roll out with something else that can flick the pulse of the zeitgeist pretty hard.

Go Ahead and Cry: "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa ft Charlie Puth

You ready to just cry every week when we issue this song? This is also probably passed its peak popularity, which happened about a month ago in wake of Furious 7 and its obviously tragic but hopeful subject matter, but it has enough legs to crush the first half of Summer, too. The success of Furious 7 is really unbelievable, but this is also a franchise that is full of monumental songs, and the fact that "See You Again" is probably the biggest of any of the franchise's signature jams is also a ridiculous achievement. So sad.

Your R&B Injection for the Week: "Somebody" by Natalie La Rose ft. Jeremih

I realized far too late that two out of my top three jams this week are fairly interchangeable R&B jams but fuck it, they're too fun to leave out. "Somebody" is notable for featuring "Birthday Sex" Jeremih and a fine showcase for whoever Natalie La Rose is. The video is relatively simple, cool, and sexy, which is all great for Summer Jam notoriety. The actual song itself ought to be a little more distinctive to really catch fire, though.

Your Second R&B Injection for the Week: "Post to Be" by Omarion ft. Chris Brown and Jhene Aiko

I hate how much I like Chris Brown's music. Seriously, he's objectively one of the biggest douchebags on the planet. But he's so damn talented. I would still try to not listen to him if I could. In addition to that woman beater, this is a dream team of current smooth jam artists, with Omarion back from the dead and Jhene Aiko cooing in a more pop setting than her usual soulful tracks. Also I am fairly sure it should be "posed to be" as in "supposed to be," unless I'm totally behind on what "post to be" could be. Eat that booty like groceries. We'll forgive you.

Dance Jam of Summer: "Shut Up and Dance" by Walk the Moon

I love the immediacy of this song along with its sheer funness, and it's a perfect Summer Jam. Super danceable, super catchy and memorable, and sexy without being crude. It also tended to be everywhere this week, ensuring its hotness. I would be curious if it keeps trucking or fizzles out, though, because songs like this never seem to be able to fully engage our great nation of Jam enthusiasts.

Week One is in the books, folks. What do you think? Are there any jams you would have added or taken away? And where do you think we're going this Summer?! Stay tuned each and every Monday morning for more Hotness!

04 May 2015

First Impressions: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Call it a sick addiction, or perhaps merely the sad fate of a nominally self-aware and rigorous-minded cinema fan, but I somehow felt a strong desire to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), not particularly for the spectacle but because I actually wanted to see what happened to these characters next. I'll fully admit to suckling the billion-dollar marketing teat of the corporations who want me to see this, because sitting down in the theater, I had a genuine interest in seeing where this grand story went to next.
Let the Metal Men Battle Commence

This is sort of flawed thinking, though, right? By its ending, Ultron feels like more a pitstop than a completed film, because that's exactly what serialized storytelling is all about. It doesn't totally matter what happens in this, or any other big studio franchise film anymore, because the next installment is going to be an even bigger, equally momentous event. This is nothing new, of course, even to movies, but there is a big change in expectation when that spectacle is thrown in - stakes in episodic television or the serials of old are understandably lesser than these earth-threatening escapades.

None of this matters because I still saw Ultron and I actually liked it a lot. This is also a feat that The Avengers (2012) achieved, though, which through a combination of pace, coherence, and cheekiness proves itself to be a great romp the first time around that depletes upon repeat viewings. If Ultron suffers from anything, though, it's actually that it's too short, at least in the sense that it doesn't get to develop some of the interesting characters or concepts it comes up with. Everything feels really rushed, even though it clocks in around 141 minutes and its big set-pieces tend to drag on, it could have used some more focus.

I suppose that is now left to our solo flicks - Iron Man 3 (2013) and Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014) had the luxury to delve into our main heroes, but Ultron can't be bothered to do such things. That's not a direct criticism of this film, because it tries pretty damn hard and deserves kudos for its focus on Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Hulk, who don't otherwise get much of an opportunity to shine. Everyone else, and by everyone I mean like fifteen other characters, float in and out sometimes randomly, and others operate more as balance instead of pushing any development. I ought to drop a SPOILER comment from here on out, folks.

It's not like a film like this needs all of his characters to develop or have arcs, though. Just by its team-up nature this would be virtually impossible. I'm more excited now for Captain America: Civil War (2016) because suddenly that's turning into a tighter focus on issues between Cap and Stark that subtly emerged in Winter Soldier and were brought into stronger light in Ultron. This is what true Shared Universe movies should be about - when there's not enough room in one film to develop an idea, relationship, or conflict, just mention it, table it, and spin it more in the next go-around. So now that we've fully discussed the macro of this film, let's take a bit of a deeper look.

One thing that worked, and this is really why most superhero sequels of the X2: X-Men United (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and The Dark Knight (2008) variety work well, is that the film wasn't bogged down with its origin story, this time of course, being the Avengers Team origin story. Ultron starts in media res in the form of a snowy Eastern European Hydra fight and blows its wad early in a tracking shot reminiscent of that great team shot from The Avengers where everyone shows their stuff. It efficiently reminds the audience who everyone is and what everyone can do. It then aptly presents new challenges in the form of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, while quickly deposing of Hydra dick Baron von Strucker, whose legacy haunts the movie far more than his actual character is present. I wonder if Thomas Krestchmann thought he had hit the jackpot here.

I'm not too worried about things like the complete lack of explanation for why Tony is still suiting up after "retiring" in Iron Man 3 or the inevitable fact that he ended this one with the exact same attitude as he did then. It's clear that this life has been wearing on him, which when combined with Banner's reluctance to go green, provides them ample reason to create AI to protect the earth when they won't be able to, or want to anymore.

Here's where the film got way more comic book-y than any other Marvel film so far, which have typically been more grounded in reality, or at least some kind of reasonable explanation. Thor's magic=science, Iron Man's suit, even the caveat of the various serums or radiation that give powers, that stuff is all hokey but you can wrap your head around it and get over the ridiculous quickly. I'm still struggling to understand how Ultron was born, or why he came out such an asshole right away.
This is actually really solid writing.
A humourous throwaway scene with really important
 payoff later on that quickly establishes character. Tasty.

So, the Mind Gem (or was it the casing around the Mind Gem?), that came from Outer Space allowed Tony to crack the code and create AI, which he spliced with JARVIS or something, and poof - evil robot. Okay, fine. I don't care. It doesn't matter how Ultron was created, what matters is that he was, and how the other Avengers deal with Stark afterwards, along with how Stark deals with himself. He didn't quite get the redemption he got in The Avengers, though, and he probably should have been the one to get the killshot on Ultron Prime instead of Scarlet Witch, even though that cements her transition from Avengers-hater to full-on team member.

Much of this same insanity can be applied to Vision, who is this weird Frankenstein made with equal effort from Banner, Stark, Ultron, and Thor. He's very literally a Frankenstein monster when Thor brings the hammer home giving him the electrical jump start, which is all he apparently required to rise and become awesome. His most important power is of course, creating clothing for himself, but other than that the film even blurs that a bit. Of course, Vision is most known for density control and shooting lasers, including his solar jewel, which is all pretty accurate in the film. I think I saw him give one of the Ultron droids an arm phase, which was rad. But the film neither totally absolves itself of scientific credibility like something more fun like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) would do, nor does it try to steep itself in hard science like Interstellar (2014). Alright, those are weird analogies, but Ultron seems like it miffs when it tries to have its ridiculous comic book cake and eat it, too. Just let it be nuts. This whole movie is nuts. Who cares.

I don't really want to talk about every single character, but it's worth it to pick out a few. I love that Hawkeye sort of becomes the heart and soul of this movie, even if the rest of the team doesn't really realize it, and he never does anything outside of an audience-surrogate position to earn that recognition. He certainly makes up for time lost when under mind-control for all of The Avengers, particularly when that plot thread affects almost everyone else on the team.

Ultron himself proves to be a pretty fun character, full of weird James Spader-isms like apologizing to Andy Serkis for sawing his arm off or halfheartedly asking Hulk to spare him before he's pummeled out of the Quinjet. The film doesn't do a great job with his characterization, though, and doesn't smooth over these sort of childish growing pains with his intellectual grandiosity and schemes. He is again reticent to relay his full plan, similar to how in The Avengers it was tough to figure out exactly what the hell direction Loki was headed in at any moment, but in the end it doesn't actually matter. We get that he's turned Sokovia into a meteor and plans on crashing it into the earth, destroying all humanity. What isn't clear is his motivation that's so clear in the comics, the simple fact that he finds humanity a danger to itself. The movie seems more focused on Ultron's fixation with The Avengers being the greatest threat to humanity, which is a fine plan in itself, but if that's the case, why the meteor? Is it all to merely capture their attention and kill them when they show up? None of it is really solid, which is unfortunate, because as Cap says, the criticism Ultron presents towards the Avengers is valid.

There is also an underdeveloped dynamic between Ultron and Stark, namely that Ultron has a lot of Stark in him that he resents, and that Stark also exhibits short-sighted Ultron-like qualities. Like I mentioned earlier, there just isn't any scene of Stark repelling these tendencies, and when Ultron goes from joking with Ulysses Klaue to cutting off his arm (so he'll become this dude! Finally at long last.) the tone stretches to goofy klutz instead of diabolical supervillain, which is just bizarre. If we really wanted to get into this junk, Ultron should just be in an Iron Man movie. Or even better, he could have been in a Hank Pym movie, because for some reason the lamest Avenger got the coolest nemesis.

I mentioned this in my preview post, too, but that brings up another point - with the introduction of Ultron, Scarlet Witch, and Vision it feels more and more like a real Avengers film, in the sense that the Avengers are terrible. When I think of the Avengers I really do think like, Vision, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch, all these junk characters that were pretty weird and lame and so far below the A-listers. Finally, that is on screen. I'm really appreciative for Whedon sticking pretty close to the comic script, honestly, in his treatment of many of these characters. After all, the Avengers did use Vision, who Ultron created, to first defeat Ultron. And there are nice creepy nods to him shacking up with Scarlet Witch. And damn, I love that B-Team of Vision, War Machine, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch at the end. Infinity War (2018) is gonna be rough. Hopefully some of the A-listers will stick around. Right?

On that note - we ought to talk about Captain America's dream sequence, and the dream sequences in general, because there a pretty interesting part of the film, which Whedon apparently fought to keep in. They're a look into every character's fears, which can either take the form of a tortured past she's trying to forget (Black Widow), or a horrific future they may cause (Iron Man). But Thor's and Cap's are kind of weird. Thor and his weird shirtless cave pool have already been somewhat up for debate, but nothing seems to have come from Cap's experience. Seriously, Black Widow is left shaken and crippled, Thor leaves the damn movie to find answers from Stellan Skarsgard, but Cap just chops wood. The answer actually likely likes in Civil War, which ought to provide our answer to Tony's lack of comeuppance for creating Ultron as well. See, that's better than any end-credits set-up teaser. The teaser is now the movie itself!

Now, I can't stress enough again that I did enjoy this movie a lot, and despite its darkness it keeps a blistering pace, a ton of fun, and its jokes land a little better than the first installment. The camaraderie is very well-developed both in action sequences (I kept seeing these combo moves, like Thor banging Cap's shield to make a shockwave to mess up Hydra's day) and in the interplay of personalities. That said, there are a ton of structural problems. I'm curious if the Hulkbuster scene was even necessary beyond a "Look! this is cool!" moment, because it really doesn't progress the story or characters along at all. Cut that and let's get more psychological development of Stark's Ultron machinations.
I didn't actually think all those Pinocchio (1940)
allusions were that accurate. Let's stick with Frankenstein (1931).

The ending is also remarkably similar to the first Avengers in the sense that they have to take on an overwhelming but ultimately fairly dispensable army. Really though, there's no other way to showcase a team like this fighting together. They can't really gang up on one baddie, and this gives lots of different characters lots to do. Speaking of that, did anyone else sense an overcompensation for the Man of Steel (2013) "Superman doesn't save people" criticism? The majority of every sequence is about half the team saving or evacuating civilians to the point of ridiculousness. That's a weird aspect to pivot against DC with but whatever. I suppose that's because the point of Man of Steel wasn't really about saving civilians, it was Supes' own struggle with the inevitability of Zod's destruction weighed against his own moral compass, one ultimately devolves into a no-win scenario. In a weird point of contrast, though, while DC heroes nominally vow to not kill anyone, there are a ton of henchman deaths in Ultron. Everyone kills humans beings all the time, and the only one who seems remorseful is Hulk. Oh well.

Should we talk about the Infinity Gems? Like it or not (and aware of it or not), the Gems have driven just about every Marvel film, crescendoing lately with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) explicitly using initially unnamed Gems as MacGuffins. And we have them laid out pretty well by now. But we're missing two. Where the hell are the Time and Soul gems? It would make perfect sense for the Soul Gem to show up in Dr. Strange (2016), and that pesky Time Gem could show up in any of the five films set to premiere before the first installment of Infinity War. I'm actually half-curious if those two culminating films will actually tell the same story, considering that there two other movies set to come out in between the two. Perhaps Part 1 (2018) will be more a "first round" that results in victory for only one side that then recoups for Part 2 (2019)? Who cares. By then we'll be burnt out. Right?


What did you think of Age of Ultron, and more importantly, the state of Blockbusters and Cinema in general? Did you see Ex Machina (2015) this weekend instead?
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