28 July 2021

Summer Jam 2021 Week 10 has Fun in the Sum

We're rounding out the end of July, people and really only have a few short weeks to go. Is this year's season only 16 weeks? Or have I just really gotten off track? Undeniably a bit of both. It's peak Summer Vacation time, time to get in all the fun things before August creeps up its dirty slimy head and all this glory fades forever. As Mayor Larry Vaughn would say, "AUGUST?!"

"Wild Side" by Normani ft. Cardi B

There would never be a world where I don't like this video, but honestly the song is kind of shit. It's not really all that wild for its wild side. It plays out like a 90s R&B slow jam, which is all fine, I guess, but the video doesn't line up with the tempo, which doesn't line up with the lyrics, which don't line up with the beat. Sexy, though.

"INDUSTRY BABY" by Lil Nas X ft. Jack Harlow

I'll give Lil Nas X all the credit in the world for 1) Trying sooo hard not to be a one-hit wonder, 2) Making one of the gayest videos of all time, and 3) repeatedly repudiating an industry after making it big on his own merits. This is just pink soaked dick-grabbing fun.

This track hasn't dominated, but by this point has become a steady feature here. I'm curious to see how well it stays and what its final rankings are.

I thew this on and left "good 4 u" off this week - I don't think the latter is done, but definitely had a little break.

Honestly a big week, this feels like Olivia's summer, but "Peaches" is a roaring contender.

20 July 2021

First Impressions: Black Widow

Yes! The streak is finally over! After 18 months of not seeing a film in theater (not counting various Vin Diesel drive-in adventures) I made it back to see Black Widow (2021). Yeah, of course, a Marvel movie sent me back to the theaters. Whatever, bow to your corporate overlords. But this is has gotten a lot of heat from reviews, because it's the trendy thing to do to trash Marvel these days. I enjoyed this quite a bit, it wasn't wholly without problems, but I would like to SPOIL everything for you and dive into this theatrical experience.

First of all, I think this film is deserving for Black Widow, who has been a supporting Avengers character for the better part of 11 years now, first appearing in Iron Man 2 (2010) which seems so long ago. She predates Captain America and Thor, folks. I never really thought the character was all that compelling, to be honest. She's just kid of...there. With some guns. Is she the heart of the team? Or the most cold and ruthless? There is always a weird line to walk that never really develops her beyond a sexpot. There is a lot of clamouring for her to get her turn in the spotlight because she has been a prominent female character since nearly the beginning, but through all that I wish she actually WAS a good character.

Seriously, she's introduced as an explicit sex object for Tony Stark. I'm not sure if we ever truly got past that. Whedon tried in Age of Ultron, but crap and a half, that whole "I'm a monster for not being able to have babies" landed terribly and looking back critically on Whedon's treatment of women (yeah, after he had crafted the illusion of inclusivity around himself), it all feels more weird and awkward.

Irregardless, this all to say that Black Widow deserved not only her own starring role, but a chance to be an actual character and human being. They sort of do this. I mean...the character is dead in the mainline continuity (yaaaay for girls dying so that sinful men may atone for their past deeds. Jeez we need to move past all these tropes), so this awkwardly sets her story in the aftermath of CIVIL WAR (2016). Listen, I didn't hate this - they needed a time when she was alive, and as a spy fugitive, Black Widow works best when she's on the run. Introducing her cast of side characters works well with this, too, since it's a moment where she can't call on the Avengers for help.

We never really got proper CIVIL WAR catharsis. The biggest aftermath was that Captain America had a beard during Infinity War (2018). It is nice to see some ramifications, and to be honest, I'd love to see more stories out this era. The Thanos movies in particular always felt like we were dropped into this story and forced to piece together what had happened, it is cool to actually see some of this stuff. It's obviously five years too late, but in all reality, all the Marvel movies will gel and slush together in the big Disney+ pot for all eternity so release order doesn't even matter any more.

The basic plot is that since BW is off on her own, she tries to reconnect with her estranged sister, Yelena Belova, who leads to her estranged father, who leads to her estranged mother. It's a good challenge for Widow. As even her name implies, she doesn't have family by nature, and centering her around her makeshift Russian Spy family is a good challenge for the character.

The opening is straight Americans and although I don't know why young Black Widow had blue hair (not like she is a punk or into wacky hair dye as an adult), it largely works. There are legit thrills here, and we also get the first of MANY impossible feats, this time David Harbour escaping Ohio on the wing of a plane. I thought the Nirvana cover during the credits was a little hackneyed, I don't know why, just didn't seem to fit, especially after such a good opening scene. But in a small time it does a great job of establishing the family unit, undercutting it as fradulent, and then demonstrating the betrayal that formed Black Widow's character as an untrusting superagent.

But...is she? She seems to trust Nick Fury and Steve Rogers pretty quick. I wouldn't have wanted to see the movie where she is an evil agent that learns to be good because that's happened plenty of times (this film already felt pretty Bourne), and we generally don't need more origin stories. This film worked pretty well with nice slices of an origin while also advancing the character on her modern adventures (we surely don't need an origin with her...eighth movie). However, that concept still isn't totally developed. Did she betray the Red Room just because...she wanted to? Surely there was a struggle there. Of course it seems like she made the choice to destroy what she believed was kidnapping and torturing young women, but it takes a lot to fight against one's country as well as psychological brainwashing. There is a lot of fodder there that's skipped over.

As I said, though, I'm happy with the movie we got. That is mostly because as I mentioned, Black Widow isn't really that interesting of a character. You know who is, though?! EVERY OTHER CHARACTER IN THIS MOVIE. Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova steals the show, and as an up-and-coming actress for years now, mostly known as being super-sad in Midsommar (2019), really stretches out here. Rumour has it that she's taking up the Widow mantle, either in film or Disney+, and I will take her over Scar Jo instantly. Her character actually has feelings and depth, and propulsive action. We get to know her and she's effortlessly charismatic.

David Harbour comes in as the Red Guardian who is perfect as this lazy boasting Russian super-soldier who also belies a lot of depth and nuance. There is a little bit of a stretch that takes him from perfect competent 90s dad to bearded-up, tattooed-up Gulag prisoner, but he's still an engaging presence. Finally, Rachel Weisz, who is totally only 14 years older than Scar Jo, is great as the cold and calculating mother Black Widow. Watching her, I actually thought she'd be an excellent early-2000s iteration of the character. Which is weird to say, because she could have definitely been cast in 2010, right? She effortlessly walks through this role and although her motivations aren't actually developed, she does a great job.

Finally there's Ray Winstone as Harvey Weinstein, who takes in lost young girls and brainwashes them into becoming assassins. The metaphor for sex slavery isn't too subtle, but that's not a bad thing. We need a sledgehammer these days. Is it weird I liked him better as the most Russian stereotype ever, with big glasses and a tracksuit in the 90s flashback?

Finally, Olga Kurylenko plays Taskmaster, Harvey Weinstein's daughter whose face got all burnt to shit by Black Widow when she was trying to kill him. There is legit trauma and regret here, that was tough to develop when they're all just fighting each other. And her brain is a computer, now, right? The red mist couldn't have just deprogrammed her, right? She needs some good Wakanda juice like the Winter Soldier got to undo her brain fuckery.

And let's get into this, because first of all, the Taskmaster is a shit character. He's got cool abilities and should be incredibly deadly, but in the comics he always gets punked out despite everything he can do. Tony Masters kind of sucks. There's a good concept in there, though. He works better as a mercenary for hire, and the technological angle rather than the metahuman angle is fine (the MCU, for all its weirdness, does at times seem reticent to just give people fun powers for no reason like real comic books. Good luck bringing in the X-Men!). Making her the burnt face daughter isn't an awful twist, but whenever you take away a character's agency, that character becomes a lot less cool. I like the idea of a daughter rightly inspired by hatred of BW relentlessly hunting her down rather than brain control. Brain control is always a cheap soap opera out that removes actual growth and catharsis.

There also just isn't enough done with the character. Sure, she has Cap's shield powers, Hawkeye's Bow powers, and Black Panther's claw powers, but kind of gets owned by fatass Red Guardian (though the fight cops out when she's locked in a prison cell instead). The film tends to tease these cool ideas rather than follow through. There WAS a cool, brief moment where she does the Black Panther triple kick. But the movie doesn't have room to develop her as an antagonist worth cheering for.

She does continually blow up Black Widow. This movie is a little egregious with characters walking away unscathed from ridiculous explosions. It's pretty much Futurama-level. There's even a helicopter crash that they just walk away from. Listen, there is a certain license when it comes to any movie, but this film did a hard job of actually stretching my suspension of disbelief.

Okay, I did actually like this movie. It works, it's one of Marvel's Top Third tier, all the fridge logic doesn't totally hold up, but it has a lot of charm and a really great cast that charms its way into our hearts. The fight sequences might be the best that's ever been in a Marvel movie, surpassing The Winter Soldier (2014). I said it. The choreography is up there.

It's also relatively quip-less. There are jokes, but to say that Marvel is the first action franchise to invent jokes is ignoring quite a bit of movie history. There are less pop culture references and sardonic replies, and it all just fits the world quite a bit better. Most of the jokes are at the eponymous title character's expense. Needless to say, going from a brainwashed Russian sleeper agent to a world-reknowned Avenger is a big leap, and one that took away a lot of Natasha's street cred among fellow dirty assassins.

The girl-power stuff is ham-fisted but also relevant and makes this possibly the most political Marvel film yet. It has a coherent message and demonstrates it well, without resorting to de facto liberal praise that avoids positive judgment solely because you'd be shunned to suggest otherwise. I'm an ally, I swear.

This is a solid return to theaters for any movie, and Marvel has done a good job once again. It is a surprisingly grounded work for a company that has The Eternals (2021), and then apparently non-stop Multi-verse nonsense on the horizon. Hoorah!

19 July 2021

Summer Jam 2021 Weeks 8 & 9: Welcome to the Sum Jam!

 Yep, this is for the past two weeks. Screw everyone!

"Whole Lotta Money" by BIA ft Nicki Minaj

We are so thoroughly in the female rap revolution by now. It's nice to see Nicki still throwing down why she was the OG (at least of this generation). She was doing all this shit and blowing up bigger than anyone ten years ago now. But I really like BIA's flow and this is a seductive beat. I'm good with these women finally getting their own voices to do their thing here.

"Twerkulator" by City Girls

This song is the shit. City Girls just seem to continue to find ways to make songs about twerking. It also makes me think of Ali G: Indahouse (2002) which I'm sure was not on purpose. I dig this a lot, even if it's totally just that kind of song that blatantly samples its source material and is popular only because it mostly makes me want to listen to the original.

This is so clearly the summer of Olivia - she DOMINATED everything this week, although she did trip up on the Billboard and Spotify charts this week. I am still convinced that no one actually listens to BTS' "Butter" though, and Bieber's new song hasn't really caught fire yet. Stay tuned, true believers!

08 July 2021

That's My Boy! America's Last Great Offensive Comedy!

I am going to level with you right here and now. I love the Adam Sandler / Andy Samberg 2012 vehicle, That's My Boy. I watched it the weekend it came out, on Father's Day, in theaters, with my dad. We had a great time. It's reliable Sandler fun, while he also ditches most of his usual Happy Madison cronies (although the film is full of truly, truly bizarre casting choices with few traditional actors), but it's also a Hard R with drugs, swearing, and nudity, which is relatively new territory for the Sand-man. Anyway, I can talk about this film all day, but let's dive into the big concept - this is the last traditional comedy that doesn't seem to mind offending people.

Now, we need to get something else straight right away. This is not an article designed to whine about PC culture or anything. Inclusion is vitally important and I find it generally amazing that the comedy world tends to have a knee-jerk reaction to make fun of SJWs instead of the block-headed people trying to preserve a woefully outdated status quo. Comedy doesn't seem to know quite where to go these days. They feel hamstrung by these concepts. This happens for a few reasons.

First, it's basically just Twitter, but all social media platforms gives everyone an opportunity to rant about whatever they want, whenever they want to. So, instead of complaining in the car ride home about a comedian, we get to complain to the entire world. By that same logic, we also have greater exposure than any other time in history. If you wanted to watch a vulgar comedian, you could, and generally, I'd say people who went to an Eddie Murphy show knew what they were getting into. In the social media age, there is not only greater sharing and exposure than ever before, but also an ever-evolving form of group-think where people can make judgments quickly and about things they would never have been willingly exposed to.

And to be sure, this isn't new. People complained about Eddie Murphy and Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and everyone. That's not really at the heart of our current issue, but it's certainly a factor - and as I decry social media for being an easy, consequence-free outlet for folks to complain about whatever they want, it is equally an easy scapegoat for complaining about how people can use it as an avenue to make complaints.

What's more is this idea that comedy, films in particular, struggle to find a voice out of a fear of offending folks. Movies face this more than television simply because they have so many more gatekeepers for any joke that gets in. It becomes difficult for auteurs to find their voice, especially as we thoroughly move past the era of Judd Apatow man-child comedies, which dominated so much of the past nearly twenty years.

This was already cresting by 2012, where we got three pretty big comedies. That's My Boy (fine, that wasn't big, no one saw it), TED and 21 Jump Street. TED worked that offensive humour as well, but it never felt as cringe as That's My Boy, which is fully of dated joke choices and really weak attempts to be woke (like making the household servants Asian instead of Black or Latinx. Like, it's still a racist deal, and when you try to look less racist you look more racist). Maybe the talking teddy bear lessened the blow of every insane line ("Yeah, whatever, thanks for 9/11" said to Norah Jones). At any rate, TED is a good movie, the sequel is derivative in that Family Guy sense where it relies more on references than constructed jokes (The Jurassic Park (1993) / weed field sequence comes to mind). That's not always a bad thing for everyone, but it's never really caught my interest.

But 21 Jump Street figured it out. And then 22 Jump Street (2014) figured it out more. I think about this article a lot. A LOT. What movie would you pick for 2018? 2019? I think 2017 belongs to Girls Trip, as many noted at the time. And so far 2021 probably belongs to Bad Trip so far, another Tiffany Haddish movie. But 22 Jump Street was honestly woke before woke was a thing and found great delight in spoofing collegiate institutions (and surely they've never been skewered before...), found a way to reflect on films themselves (at the time I commented that it was a little tooo meta, to the point where it lost its own substance via constantly commenting on itself), and turned ignorant talk about different people into one of the film's best jokes when it's turned around on less woke folks.

That's maybe the thing I most don't understand why comedians are so afraid to speak their mind. We've never been in a better age to skewer ignorant people in power. Modern comedy is only difficult when you punch down. It feels like there is more injustice than ever these days. A common refrain in the Twitterverse is "You could never make Blazing Saddles (1974) today!" which seems to ignore the fact that it was hugely controversial when it came out. I also generally don't understand that refrain, it was clearly a movie about elucidating ignorance but the kind of folks whining seem to just want an excuse for more white people to say the n-word. Memory, like ideology, is selective I guess.

There is always surely the danger in satire for people to take the wrong message. Personally I think that's just a risk you have to take. The people who are listening will get it, and those who don't weren't going to be swayed anyway. So, what about the ignorant woke people who take parody and satire at face value but are in actuality on the side of the comedian fighting for justice? I don't know, maybe you just need to be really in on the joke, like Borat: Subsequent Movie Film (2020 - another candidate for Comedy of the Year). Like, to be so unambiguous about your views in your private life that people know what side of the aisle you're on when the punches start to be thrown. That movie is probably the best recent satire of this vein, and we need more of it.

Then again we're in a weird spot. Is this satire even doing anything? As the amount of us who are moderates declines, who are we swaying to our side? Modern injustices are so obviously unjust, but there are many who disagree. Maybe that's the line, explore why this is, then make fun of them until the sun dries up into the big peach core it is.

There tends to be three major kinds of comedies these days. There are straight up dramedies, or movies close to dramedies. Something like Palm Springs (2020), which was very entertaining fits into this. But there's also The King of Staten Island (2020), which didn't even try to be funny. Dramedies can work, they really can, but there's so much fear over being funny. There are a lot of shows that fall into this as well. Every comedy is trying to do prestige character work. You're the Worst was one of the most depressing shows ever, but it was also genuinely funny. Barry hits that line. Shrill doesn't, or maybe I was just exhausted by the time I watched it, yearning for a return to silliness. Arrested Development is the greatest-written show of all time, had great continuous character work and growth and was also consistently thoroughly doofy.

Then there are movies trying to be throw-back comedies, that are mostly about older folks complaining about younger folks. This is a lot of current Adam Sandler like Hubie Halloween (2020). These movies also include revival movies like Coming 2 America (2021) which must exist in a weird zone where they are moving older characters forward, so the culture clash is really the only choice. They invariably neglect to give the newer generations a chance to shine, however. In the television zone, this is...pretty much every network show. Matt LeBlanc and Kevin James and Ashton Kutcher seem to not be able to let go of their previous personas and are far more comfortable returning to this schtick over and over again.

Then there are the films that are legitimately trying to advance the genre. I think of Game Night (2018) or TAG (2018), which never really work. It always feels like they are really trying to be funny, but afraid to go all the way. There are so many movies like this. I can't remember a thing from Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016) or Let's Be Cops (2014). They tend to feel tired and trend chasing. Kevin Hart is a slight exception. For every uninspired Get Hard (2014) he has a Night School (2018), which was super-tropey but genuinely funny.

We were talking about That's My Boy? Yeah. That was probably the first movie I watched in the theaters that I really cringed at. There was a lot of "Ooooh...you probably shouldn't say that." Around this time we were just starting to melt away all our use of "retard" and "midget" and these other expanded slurs that ran throughout the mid-2000s. The word "faggot" is used so early on in The Fast and the Furious (2001) that when I re-watched it the other day to get pumped for F9 I was genuinely taken aback. "Oh yeah, we kind of just didn't care about this only 20 years ago."

That's My Boy doesn't actually have any of those grievances or discriminatory language, but it does feature the aforementioned awkward Asian servants (The Campaign [2012] did this, too. It was as if 2012 didn't know what to do with its servant characters, panicked, and cast Asians). It is generally full of contempt towards women, and uh, oh yeah, the whole premise is that a 12-year old boy was raped by his teacher and then raised a son who hates him.

There is a sly undercurrent here that cooould border on parody. Maybe? Said 12-year old becomes an instant celebrity with no single mention ever about the mental health ramifications (except that his dad is going to kick his ass). Instead, the whole thing is played up to an extreme level. Donnie Berger is able to parlay his rape into nationwide celebrity (clearly he would be on Dancing with the Stars later in his career), and universal cheers and applause. There's even a sign behind him perfectly framed that says "Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them."

Now, you could take all this another way. The film is saying that our culture is so rotted that it praises sex with hot women, even if statutory rape that you can parlay this into celebrity. Our mental health system is so broken that adult Donnie Berger is clearly a maladapted alcoholic. Our child services system is so broken that he had to raise his son on his own, which created severe lasting psychological trauma. This is all under the surface, but to be sure, NONE of it is treated as anything more than joke fodder. There are others out there who think like me. It goes for some truly fucked up shit, too. It's hard to pass the bar set by the brother /sister secret tickle time.

It all makes for a fascinating film. Character behavior is off the wall. It is relatively well-written. Samberg brings his all, and Sandler does really dive into the abhorrent material in a refreshingly R-rated way. The stakes are clearly articulated, the tension of the relationship keeps driving the movie forward, and we are well set up Samberg's spoken and unspoken desires - a normal life with a great job and hot wife or the sheer chaos hanging out with strippers and Vanilla Ice offered by his past. It's all pretty fun, but you need to check your soul at the door to truly hop down the rabbit hole.

This was the last film that got through the gate. Pushing any further wouldn't have worked. And hell, this isn't even the kind of movie you could make today. The charm of its leads really make it watchable. I'd be hesitant to show it to any sort of woke audience today. If it is in fact a satire, it does not present itself that way. I think you had to be there and know what they were going for, and like I said, check your soul at the door and go to work. Once you do that, you get to see Vanilla Ice bang grandma and Rex Ryan talk about how much he loves Tom Brady. There are good things here.

What do you think? Are comedies dead? Where do we go from here? Am I crazy to love That's My Boy? Or does it exist now as a genuinely interesting historical artifact as the last bastion of comedy before we couldn't say and do these things anymore?*

*Oh, and just a disclaimer, I'm not complaining like "Ohhh why can't we treat women as only sex objects anymore?!" It is assuredly a good thing we've moved on and started actually caring about underrepresented groups. There are a lot of good stories there, and easy racism to skewer. Go for it.

05 July 2021

Summer Jam 2021 Week 7: Beat the Heat with these Heat Beats

This summer has been an odd one so far. There just doesn't really seem to be any major shake-ups with the top tracks so far. It's just kind of...more of the same. I keep checking multiple sources and everyone seems content in their zone, without much huge debuts or huge fall-offs so far. It's still fun to jam on these hot jams tho, spread them on your toast and shove them down your gullet!

"I am the Stripclub" by Iggy Azalea

Make no doubt about it, folks - there is no redeeming part of this song. The beat is pedestrian, the video is uninspired, and Iggy's vocals are serviceable while not being super engaging. It's not a good song by any mark. I wanted to put it here because it's not popular, and also...is Iggy doing blackface here? She's always done black voice, did she get a tan and a black hair dye job to complete the Rachel Dolezal illusion? Also, is she aping "Montero" with the gay chic dancers? I guess normalization of this stuff is cool. But watching this feels a little like how much Target is into Pride. She has Summer Jam Royalty in her blood, but I hate to say that Iggy is probably done. Oof.

Yeah, I haven't really included "Levitating" that much because it is seriously CRAZY old, but...folks, this is still a thing. It's got great radio play and currently #3 on both Spotify and Billboard. Honestly, I still dig it, too. It really hasn't met that hotness freshness criteria so integral to be honoured here, but whatever, it's clearly still in the conversation and deserves to be acknowledged.
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