25 March 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Stuff

Well folks, today sees the release of one of the most anticipated films of all time that became one of the most meh movies of all time as soon as the director was announced. Nevertheless, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) is finally upon us after an insane deluge of marketing that in many ways started with I Am Legend (2007). Seriously, that fake poster has a May 15th, 2010 release date. So let's discuss the anticipation of this thing along with its commercial, critical, and cultural prospects:

To get this out of the way, I believe that the general gripes about Zack Synder in general and Man of Steel (2013) in particular have been dissected on the Internet ad nauseum. To sum up Snyder's skillset, he really is a fantastic visual director who has no idea how to tactfully handle the big concepts he seems to love to take on. He works better creating a facsimile of concepts rather than actually creating notable works of art. He's almost like as if Michael Bay was directing scripts and concepts by Christopher Nolan.
You know, if he's not ionized by a nuclear blast like in TDKR
this is totally impossible.

Despite this, he's actually worse than Michael Bay, because even though his direction can be baffling, one of his biggest insistences is the need for real-world filming locations, explosions, and stunt work. Snyder is very comfortable in the George Lucas all green-screen mode of things, which is as detrimental for its weightlessness as it is exhilarating in his endless possibilities. Still, I said this before, Snyder is a visually acute director who is really good at framing shots, capturing action, and perhaps most importantly, taking whatever's on a comic book page and putting it on screen.

That last bit is hard to do. We're finally getting to the point where we're starting to see an evolution in comic book movies, which I touched on in my Daredevil post a few days ago. It's funny to watch a film like X-Men (2000) which seems awkward now, trying to get away from its campy / pulpy origins while maintaining this high brow conceit through intelligent tête–à–têtes juxtaposed with classically corny CGI action. There's also this remarkable move towards more strictly faithful adaptations, which is part due to a now sizable build-up of fan demand and a shift in film creators - we're actually reaching the moment where these people grew up with superhero films rather than action films, and there's a desire to render the comic medium accurately on screen rather than just imprint it onto the latter.

This is an important note when discussing Zack Snyder. There is no better director out there at taking what's on a page and putting it on screen. This is most emblematic with Watchmen (2009), which is just about as good as we're ever going to get with an adaptation of Alan Moore's brilliant superhero deconstruction. I'm even okay with the slight story changes, because even though a giant vagina monster attacking New York City is an impressive visual feat, Snyder's version is a little bit more concise and equally as successful in the post-modern sense.

The key criticism, therefore, is whether or not simple emulation of a previous medium is actually worth watching on the big screen or not. Watchmen actually predates this blog by about three months, which is stunning to me how long ago that was. All this is to say that in 2006, when we were within a year of both a new Batman film and a new Superman film and really excited to see them either fight or team-up or do something, it's insane that all that anticipation has been largely middled by the mere announcement of an incompetent director.

Needless to say, though, this is the biggest film of the Spring. It'll ride at least until Captain America: Civil War (2016), which as I've said before, is not coincidentally coming out and pitting a rival studio's two big studs against each other. The marketing for this one has been astounding, and it feels like a cultural event for sure. To some extent, though, it's been overwhelming. Did we really need Turkish Airline ads? The cross-promotion has served a little bit to cheapen the brand. Then again, I otherwise wouldn't even know what Turkish Airlines is, so I suppose that's a successful strategy.
I'll reiterate again that this is totally not an exciting shot
because you know that Batman might as well be a fly
to Kal-El unless that fist is full of Kryptonite.

If you compare this with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), most of that film's promotion worked because everyone else wanted to cash in on it. The articles, videos, and fever you saw online were mostly third-party cats trying to ride the wave. Bv.S:DoJ seems to stem more for the studio trying as hard as it can to establish a giant cultural force rather than it happening naturally because the people choose to flow that way. This is an important distinction in its long-term prospects, even if it will almost assuredly make some money.

Critically it seems like a sort of mixed bag right now. After some cautious first reviews, then really positive ones, it now seems to be settling on a general meh. Mostly people just seem really up and down. I'm in a weird position, I guess, considering I actually like Ben Affleck, enjoyed Henry Cavill in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) last year, and am pretty steeped in the man against god mythos that the film seems to be going for, being a big fan of everything from Kingdom Come to Lex Luthor: Man of Steel that the flick seems to be drawing from. My confidence in Snyder bungling the whole affair is my largest hurdle right now. I'm not sure I actually care about watching it in theaters, but I'm sure you will.

What do you think? Do you care about the vacuous nature of Snyder's previous films? Are you content staring in awe at the catchy visuals (not an inherently detrimental statement - his clarity of visual storytelling is generally very good, which is a prized commodity amongst filmmakers)? Leave a comment below!

24 March 2016

First Impressions: 10 Cloverfield Lane

I'm tempted to name 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) as the first really great movie of 2016 (as much as I loved Deadpool [2016], though!), but this flick has a lot going for it. While it executes a lot of great script conventions really well and it's an enormous well-shot film with compelling actors in a carefully crafted taught story, it does however, borrow heavily from a lot of other films, ironically none of them being Cloverfield (2008). Let's discuss this film at length here with a crazy amount of SPOILERS dropping all over the place:
The only monster here is Fred Flintstone.

First of all, it should really be said that this film doesn't have the slightest bit in any way to do with Cloverfield. It's totally not a sequel. No big white goobers show up to eat plucky camera people. Sure there is some kind of monster attack, but it's not Kaiju. To some extent there are thematic similarities - both involve an intimate look at the people on the ground indirectly affected by an unprecedented attack, although the conceit of Cloverfield's found footage style is traded for a tense bottle story with extremely limited characters and locations. For the record I'm more into 10 Cloverfield Lane's style.

This of course begs the question - why attach the brand recognition at all? After seeing this fantastic trailer once two months ago I was all in, and although the Cloverfield connection intrigued me in a sense of "How will they connect the two?" when it turns out it's not connected at all, that didn't detract from the quality of the film except for the cognitive dissonance created by the separation between content and brand identity discovered after the fact. So, why not let it stand on its own?

Apparently the actors probably feel the same way, actually having no idea that their cool little movie was a Cloverfield tie in until days before the trailer was released. It's clear that this was a cheap way to stretch some life out of Bad Robot's earlier successful movie and capitalize on some kind of familiar name to push this film. I'm simply not sure any of that was necessary considering the strength of that trailer that comes off very unique and interesting on its own before the final Cloverfield tie-in is dropped. Still, it probably helped get some asses in seats (since it's been pretty successful, all things considered), although I'm not sure that inherent cognitive dissonance will help the film in the short term. Considering how good it is, though, I'm confident about its long-term cultural impact.

In general, this means really weird things for the future of film branding. There have already been other ideas thrown around that would very tangentially connect otherwise unrelated films. Some of these may share similar styles or more often, production houses, but it seems like a desperate attempt to employ name recognition, which is quickly becoming the most valuable way to make money in Hollywood.

I actually personally disagree with this assessment and I think it's missing a big point - the way to make money isn't name recognition but by simply putting out a project that connects with people. Is there a reason why Zootopia (2016) should make way more money than The Lone Ranger (2013)? No, they're both by studios that have had a ton of success in their genre with plenty of name recognition in actor and director. One film hit a niche and the other didn't. That's all it is, folks.

So enough of this production crap, let's actually talk about the film. Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets her car wrecked by John Goodman, who then captures her so she can be his daughter in a post apocalyptic bunker (that may or may not be the apocalypse) along with a local village idiot who stands around until Goodman shoots him in the head and dissolves him in acid. MEW escapes but then has to fight aliens outside because IT IS the apocalypse.

Got all that?

Each of the three principal actors does a fantastic job. John Goodman hasn't had a role this meaty in a while, although he's had memorable turns mostly in Coen Bros films and Best Picture Winners. Still, he's a powerhouse in this film, able to appear kind and reasonable one minute, albeit with an air of inherent decent, and then instantly crank up the rage, exploding all over screen and totally dominating the scene.

Against this mighty foe, though, is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who holds her own against the mad John Goodman. She's capable of a ton and it shows here when she's given long stretches of dialogue-free scenes to emote through problem-solving, creative ways to escape, and trade between moments of desperation and badassery.

Finally we have John Gallagher, Jr., who struck me as a young Jason Sudeikis with a beard. His role is mostly someone to bounce off of the two principal actors here, but he's an intriguing character nonetheless, who has his own failed dreams, naïve sensibility, and dumbness, but his heart is in the right spot, which ultimately gets him shot in his face. You know, you can't win them all.

And that's pretty much it. There's a brief bit with a woman with a burnt up face trying to get in the bunker, but she dies outside, and apparently Bradley Cooper's voice can be heard as MEW's BF who calls her right before the car accident. I only saw that in the credits, I have to watch it again for sure to train my ears on that. For as distinctive as Brad Cooper is, his voice tends to pop up in odd places melded pretty well with the source material. Alright, just Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), but I'm still impressed.

This whole film is a long game of claustrophobic subtlety, and MEW is really the star here. The screenplay inserts the most Chekov's Guns I've ever seen, but they're often organic, which lessens their obviousness in a good way. It walks this fine line between screenplay convention and trickery, giving our heroes all the items that would be found in an underground bunker and setting them upon the impossible task of figuring out how to get the hell out there. Towards the end it was almost like things came together too perfectly, as if there were all these bits hanging out there that MEW picked up and used for her final escape, but as I said, it's mostly organic enough that when all these items that are useful later are established you don't think about it that hard or believe it's out of place.

That said, there were a few continuity errors that seemed distracting. The timing of John Gallagher's character entering the bunker doesn't seem to fit in (he said he arrived a few days ago, but if Goodman was racing home and hit MEW the night before to rush in, that doesn't add up). The same goes for the previous abductee, Brittany, who supposedly went missing two years ago, although that also doesn't seem to add up with the conviction of Goodman's character to remain in the bunker that long. I'm normally never ever distracted by these things because despite the best intentions of "Everything Wrong With", it truly doesn't matter when a film is good, but it was distracting for some reason here. I suppose it's because everything is so confined and beautifully crafted otherwise, when your mind is scrambling to put together the mystery, when these impossibilities jack shit up it takes you out of the film.
That bitch Brittany stole some puzzle pieces!

The film also does a great job of slowly unraveling the madness of John Goodman's character. It drops hints to figure out rather than big dialogue or exposition, which is such a welcome rarity. You can eventually piece together that he's simply looking for another girl to be his daughter, regardless if Mary Elizabeth is into it or not. There are some awkward hints at a sexual desire, but I think it's more innocent than that. At least in the sense that forcing a woman to live with you in a bunker forever pretending to be your daughter but NOT raping her is innocent.

I would be remiss if I didn't think a little bit about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. They end up being nice pairs for each other, on completely opposite ends of the "kidnap girls and keep them in a bunker while the fake apocalypse is happening outside" genre.

Of course, in a move that echoes Frailty (2001), it turns out that the Apocalypse is very real. I'm not sure if MEW's best course of action would be to settle into her role as John Goodman's fake daughter in a creepy bunker forever, but it's amazing that the film continues for quite a while after he explodes in a fiery, acidy mess as she fights some aliens. It's kind of an odd turn that suddenly vastly increases the scope of the film, although it retains the repetition of theme, tense mood, and MEW's ingenuity for finding Chekov's Guns.

We should talk about this a bit of course - namely that the final moment where MEW throws a Molotov Cocktail into the mouth of the weird bionic alien ship is totally an exact rip-off of War of the Worlds (2005), although it's arguably a little cooler. Actually, that weird green mist also reminded me of War of the Worlds in the sense that these cats are just spreading their shit everywhere to kill all humans.

Of course, this leads us to the most badass ending in recent memory where MEW is given a choice between the safety of Baton Rouge or to join in the mayhem in Houston. She elects to go to Houston. I had some fridge realizations though that this actually may not be that consistent with her character - wouldn't she want to just take a break? Or does she have those natural instincts, where she actually gets off on this stuff? I felt a little bit of  The Hurt Locker (2009) going on here. I'm not sure if it exactly lines up with the film thematically or with MEW's character, but it sure is a fist-pumping moment that really works as you're watching it. Maybe it works. I'm still going back and forth on it. Comments on this are appreciated. What do you think?

I'll rarely talk about more technical aspects of film because I'm still working on actually being able to credibly discuss them, but I thought the framing and camera work here was actually fantastic. There's a great moment after MEW whacks Goodman in the head with a bottle and tries to escape, but then he asks her to stitch up his brow. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg uses a wide shot with both characters melding with the edges of the frame until MEW reluctantly decreases the distance and comes to help him. It's a fantastic construction. The film is full of these really great shots and framing work.

So, it's not without its problems, but I really dug this flick. I'd stick it with DeadpoolZootopia, and Midnight Special (2016) so far this year.

What did you think?

23 March 2016

YOU HAVE SPOKEN! 2016 March Badassness Sweet 16 is Here!

After many long nights and sweaty tears the combatants in the second-greatest Tournament of Champions ever have mad it to the Sweet Sixteen - Eight Matches to vote on now to see who moves on. There's only one #1 seed left and two #2 seeds, which is amazing.

Who has the cultural power to win it all? Who will go down like a little bitch? Who will move on to the Elite Eight and secure themselves glory forever? Only you can decide!

Get your votes in right here and come back as often as you want!

Previous Results:

Detroit Region
Lavender Town Region
S-Mart Region
Mega-City One Region

Initial Seeding

22 March 2016

Daredevil vs. Flash - The Effects of TV Getting More Comic Book-y

I didn't really care for the first season of Netflix's Daredevil at all. Besides the lackluster production values and shoddy acting, it seemed to never pace itself well and the episodes felt like they took forever to complete. I'd literally be depressed when I saw that the next installment was an hour long. I'll refine these criticisms later, but despite all this, I was looking forward to Season 2, which dropped last week, mostly due to the introduction of The Punisher, which has been a favourite hero of mine since the time I realized that guns are cool. What followed was what should have been expected - I loved every single Punisher scene but the rest of the show drags itself through shit.

I want to compare this to CW's The Flash because even though the shows are tonally 180° from each other, they both followed this general idea of becoming more and more like their comic book counterparts after establishing audience buy-in. Both shows tried really hard to ground themselves in reality and then go totally out of control with insane comic book plotlines that make no sense in a rational universe. This is a tough line to walk, and granted both Daredevil and The Flash walk that line very well, without ever losing suspension of disbelief. So, let's talk a bit about both shows.
"M'ask you somethin..."

Daredevil is intriguing because of its subtle use of magic through the nefarious secret ninja association, The Hand in the latter half of Season 2. I recall how worried pundits were about the Marvel Cinematic Universe incorporating the magic of Thor's world into the "grounded" world of Iron Man, although the conceit should rather be that it takes exactly as much suspension to believe a man can build an advanced metal suit as it is to believe in a magic hammer. That is to say, all of the periphery isn't really what grounds the universe - it's consistent tone, aesthetics, and characterization which completes the universe. The coming introduction of Doctor Strange (2016), which I believe everyone hopes will be off-the-wall bonkers has a similar fear, that magic will disrupt a Universe based in logic, but that's a fallacy. It will neither be disruptive, nor is there actually anything to disrupt. What Daredevil and The Flash have proved, as soon as the audience is on board, you can push just about anything.

The Hand in Daredevil is really a show of comic book insanity, and demonstrates how modern adaptations aren't afraid to stay pretty close to their source material. Recalling the Ben Affleck Daredevil (2003) (which I'll still defend), the film stuck to a lot of action film conventions, and while it dropped subtle comic book hints, more or less stuck with a realistic, if stylized plot, at least in the sense of favoring convention over weirdness. Comic book plots are inherently serialized, but also tend to be convoluted, intricate, steeped in jargon, inter-connected with other simultaneous stories (a 1960s Stan Lee innovation born out of a need to keep track of everybody), and bathe in a nerdiness born out of deep world-building, establishing iconography, and fostering cultural obsession. Daredevil and The Flash as they lean more into these sorts of stories more than earlier superhero films did. Notably, this is also a feature of more recent successful comic book films. It's amazing that true comic book film success was emulating their originating medium rather than applying the conventions of their new medium.

In my diatribe against Daredevil last year I made some cogent arguments, but with a whole other season to refine my thoughts I think I've figured some stuff out a little better. I made a passing reference that if the show was 42-minutes on FX it'd be a lot better, and after seeing this on other Netflix show, I'll contend that throwing away the length requirement is a huge detriment to these shows. Showrunners are now allowed to indulge themselves, ignore the positive effects of tight editing, and pass it all off as a "slow burn" show. There's nothing wrong with slow burns, but Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul still actually have stuff happen each episode. There's a sense of looser reigns, which seems great for artists, but that contention also makes it seem like successful producers and network executives have always stood in the way of great television. That idea would purport that there has been no great TV ever. That's sort of an insane assessment, and some sort of system of checks should be implemented for streaming shows that suddenly find themselves without restriction or inhibition.

Daredevil Season 2 still has a lot more tell than show, which is partly why the generally silent Punisher is such a welcome addition. Like his role of Shane on The Walking Dead, Jon Bernthal's character quickly establishes himself as the most interesting dude on the screen, through a combination of his barely-suppressed rage, high level of perceived righteousness, and the general showiness of the role. It's pitch-perfect casting, even though I'm also a fan of the Tom Jane interpretation, particularly "Dirty Laundry."
King Shart!

Let's steer back towards The Flash for a second, which I actually had compared last time. It's interesting that these shows have become parallels for each other, perhaps because they both feature dudes in red suits kicking ass with their friends. The Flash keeps spinning into supreme nerdiness, though, often wearing its goofiness on its sleeve, yet so covered in heart and charm that it's instantly forgivable.

After a string of semi-plausible heroes and villains, The Flash started pouring on what would seem impossible for mainstream superhero viewing. Gorilla Grodd. King Shark. Earth-2. These are the kind of pulp villains and scenarios no one should take seriously, but it works in part because comic fans have been taking Grodd seriously for decades, and because the relationships between the characters is so solid that despite all the zaniness going on around them, you always believe their struggle.

It'a a strong caveat that every Flash episode is actually the exact same. Barry's going fast...a new metahuman shows up and finds a way to beat him...in order to beat the metahuman Barry must go...EVEN FASTER. I'm not sure how speed is the answer to literally every problem they face, but thank goodness it is! Again, though, all these flaws are pushed to the background because of how well the show relishes its own tone which is equal parts sincere and doofy. There's a reason why Barry Allen was conscripted into the Blue Lantern Corps (now who's nerdy...) - it's all about hope.

As both these shows lean into their source material, the better they get. It's as if they have thrown off the shackles of shame that we perceived pulpy comic stories to have all these years and they're fully embracing their intricate, obscure, and convoluted weirdness. The Flash actually does it with enough surface level junk to render paying close attention less meaningful while Daredevil fosters enough buy-in through traditional action scenes to bypass possible clashes in world-building.

What do you think of these shows? Which one succeeds more?

19 March 2016

March Badassness Round 2!

We've just wrapped up a mind-melting Round of 64 where favourites like Kurt Russell, Robocop, Russell Crowe, Rama, and Rowdy Roddy Piper have tumbled down from impressive season performances. Apparently you people hate badasses whose name starts with the letter 'R'.

Let's dip back into our regions though, and once again, vote to see the greatest fighters out there!

Detroit Region
Lavender Town Region
S-Mart Region
Mega-City One Region

You have until next Wednesday, March 23rd to get your votes in! Sic Semper Tyrannosaurus!

13 March 2016

Welcome to 2016 March Badassness!

Greetings folks - for the second year we present March Badassness - our cheeky exploitation of Tournament Obsession to find out once and for all who is the baddest motherfucker in all of history, pop culture, and real life. We have 64 Combatants battling for supremacy again this year, with #1 Overall Seed, Clint Eastwood leading the pack in the Detroit Division. Here is the total breakdown:

Detroit Region
Lavender Town Region
S-Mart Region
Mega-City One Region

Here are the total seedings for the Round of 64:

Detroit Region Lavender Town Region
(1) Clint Eastwood (1) Hulk
(2) Rowdy Roddy Piper (2) Russell Crowe
(3) Robocop (3) Mr. T
(4) Powerpuff Girls (4) Kurt Russell
(5) Rama (5) Dr. Manhattan
(6) Django Freeman (6) Pikachu
(7) Finn the Human (7) Hulk Hogan
(8) Deadpool (8) Hellboy
(9) Buffy (9) Tommy the Green Ranger
(10) Voltron (10) Link
(11) Highlander (11) Jack Sparrow
(12) Genghis Khan (12) Braveheart
(13) Chev Chelios (13) Sarah Connor
(14) Bigfoot (14) Captain Planet
(15) Samurai Jack (15) Kick-Ass
(16) Quailman (16) Bucky O'Hare

S-Mart Region Mega-City One Region
(1) Tony Jaa (1) Mohammad Ali
(2) Wonder Woman (2) Judge Dredd
(3) Van Damme (3) Charles Bronson
(4) Mad Max (4) Wolverine
(5) Boba Fett (5) Beatrix Kiddo
(6) Iron Giant (6) Patrick Swayze
(7) Jackie Chan (7) The Tick
(8) Darth Maul (8) Nic Cage
(9) Ash Williams (9) Randy Savage
(10) Shaft (10) Ethan Hunt
(11) Walter White (11) Leatherface
(12) King Leonidas (12) Riddick
(13) Lee Marvin (13) Hannibal Lector
(14) Alexander the Great (14) Bane
(15) Bullitt (15) Scott Pilgrim
(16) Ralph Macchio (16) Buckaroo Banzai

Come back and vote as often as you'd like!

Rounds will be updated each week until we hit the Final Four and a champion is crowned!

Check out last year's results right here.
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