Tuesday, July 30, 2013

You May Not Have Watched "The Way, Way Back" Yet, But You've Already Seen It

There should be an official name for all of these seemingly genre-less, low-key films that occupy that transitive territory between comedy and drama, given how many of them pop up year after year.  The good ones, like The Descendents or The Kids Are All Right, are able to use that limbo to their advantage, playing our emotions like a maestro, as we alternate between laughing and crying.  Unfortunately, most movies think that because they're a dramedy, they don't have to do much of either part of that portmanteau, and instead we end up getting a film where people just kind of do stuff for a while and then the credits roll.  With that in mind, The Way, Way Back certainly falls into the latter category.

The extent to which this film is generic runs deeply.  You've seen everything that The Way, Way Back has to offer, and it basically functions like a composite of several other coming-of-age films.  We're introduced to Duncan, a gawky teenager who's embarking on a summer trip with his new stepdad (Steve Carell in a subdued role) and the rest of his blended family.  The film drops you in the middle of Duncan's situation, and there's not much in the way of exposition, but it's clear that there's a great deal of tension in this recent arrangement.  From there, it's just a rote tale about an awkward boy who meets a colorful cast of characters and works through his personal drama to slowly come out of his shell and snag the pretty girl.  Does anybody really need to see this kind of film anymore?  You can almost just check off the boxes when each element of this common framework comes along.  It even ends with what I like to call the "Indie Triumph," a small victory that signifies big growth for the protagonist.

What's most upsetting is that this could've been a great film.  There's nothing wrong with utilizing tropes, but it should at least be done well and bring something new to the table.  The film is littered with great performances -- particularly Allison Janney in a loose, broad role and Sam Rockwell playing a character whose manic energy masks a more soulful side -- but the problem is that they feel like they belong in a separate movie.  At its core, The Way, Way Back is a drama about being a child of divorce, but then there are all of these wacky characters that exist around the edges, and it just never gels together.  Some of the teen-angst is well-observed, and the water park setting is interesting, but just as the film comes close to clicking, it rushes to an unsatisfying conclusion.  I'm a fan of shaggy summer movies, but this one is just a bit too shaggy.  Jim Rash and Nat Faxon make their directorial debut here, and perhaps their scripts need a stronger hand to pull everything together, like Alexander Payne did with The Descendants.  With their new role behind the camera, everything is less assured, and The Way, Way Back is much more wobbly and trite because of it.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Macklemore Problem

Well, aside from every picture of him

So let's talk about Macklemore.  For a while, at the height of "Thrift Shop"'s popularity, I thought I would only have to endure a few more weeks of it and never have to hear from him again.  But somehow, like the musical Hydra that he is, once you lop off the head of one of his hit singles, two more grow back in its place.  And so Macklemore has ensconced himself in every chart imaginable, announcing that he's here to stay, whether I like it or not.  And let's be clear: I don't like it one bit.  Anybody who's familiar with my comedy knows that Macklemore raises a fiery brand of ire within me, seeing as he's the subject of many of my jokes.  But lately I've been trying to figure out exactly what my problem is with the guy.

Is it because he's a white rapper?  Well let me just quickly say "of course not," because I'm no racist.  Many people look at white rappers and immediately dismiss them on race alone.  It would certainly seem like I have something against white rappers if you were to just take a cursory glance, because Mac Miller used to be a frequent target of mine as well.  But the thing is, I don't have a problem with white rappers -- I have a problem with rappers who make mediocre music.  As soon as Mac Miller stopped doing that, embracing a loopy LA stoner sound on his surprising new album, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, I begrudgingly gave him respect.  So my disdain for Macklemore being about race is out of the question.  The Marshall Mathers LP is arguably my favorite rap album of all time!  I've contemplated writing long blog posts defending Kitty Pryde!!  I hate Kid Cudi more than any white rapper!!!

So is it because he's really popular?  Well, you're talking to the biggest Taylor Swift fan there is, so I don't think it's a question of popularity.  My listening habits may primarily consist of hip "indie" bands, but I listen to popular artists all the time, including but not limited to: Kanye West, Paramore, Kelly Clarkson, and Jay-Z.  Sometimes, there will be an occasion where I'll like an artist slightly less because I feel like their level of popularity outweighs the quality of their music.  For example, I think people like Adele and Lady Gaga are okay, but the level of excessive adulation they get turns me off from them ever so slightly.  Yet an artist being popular is never enough to be the sole basis for outright disliking them.  For the most part, I greet popular artists with a certain level of indifference, like I do with One Direction (are they even popular anymore?).  Plus, in an age where Vampire Weekend and Daft Punk have #1 albums and Arcade Fire is capable of winning Album of the Year at the Grammys, is there really that thick of a line between mainstream and indie?

That leaves us with one last option: sadly, I just don't think Macklemore's music is very good.  But why, exactly, do I think it's not good?  Well, "Thrift Shop" is fine enough, the kind of song that should've had a lifespan befitting of its novelty nature.  It has what many other Macklemore songs lack -- flavor.  Much of his other work is just so bland, coupling his average lyrics with Ryan Lewis's generic pop-rap beats.  But the biggest problem with Macklemore is the glassy-eyed, cheesy sincerity in all of his songs.  This is something I've had difficulty classifying, especially since I've been listening to The Weakerthans, a band whose lyrics err on the side of earnestness, alot recently.  I love bands like them and The Decemberists, whose heart-on-your-sleeve emoting is capable of tapping into a deep well of youthful emotion.  So why do I have a problem with sincerity in rap music?

Well there are two reasons that I can think of.  First, rap is seen as a "tough" genre, so hearing somebody like Macklemore is alot more jarring than listening to another wimpy indie rock band.  The bigger problem, however, is that Macklemore's sincerity is empty sincerity.  The Weakerthans and The Decemberists may be overly earnest, but their lyrics are genuinely smart, using poetic language and big ideas to highlight smaller emotions.  Macklemore's lyrics have absolutely nothing thoughtful to say.  The worst offender is "Wing$," his song/treatise against the shoe industry.  It's a plodding, ponderous track where he tells -- with no irony whatsoever -- a story about his desire for stylish shoes, all with a syrupy children's choir on the chorus.  But at the end of the day, the entire message of the song is just, "Consumerism is bad, people!!!"  Is this really a new idea in any way?  Even when he does do something fresh, at least in terms of the rap world -- like his diatribe of homophobia, "Same Love" -- he runs into problems.  It's an admirable endeavor, and I'm totally in support of the message, but I feel like people are so wowed by the social importance of the song that they're giving it a pass.  "Same Love" is an awful song, guys.  Once again, it has this bland simplicity to it, and is another example of Macklemore trying to weave some treacly personal story into his songs.  I don't know how to do a song like this and make it work, but it certainly isn't this, which comes off like a preachy after-school special.

Clearly, I'm in the minority about this issue.  Macklemore isn't going anywhere any time soon, and what's worse, for as much as I can escape him on the radio, I can't run away from the dozens of people on my Facebook feed who obsess over him and talk about going to his concert in November.  So all I'm left to do is sit here, screaming out into the void about this plague to the rap world.  I HATE MACKLEMORE!!!

How The Bridge's Sense of Local Color Informs the Rest of the Show

I hate when people describe a story's setting as a character, like "Woody Allen makes New York a character in Manhattan."  Even though I find that description kind silly, it does speak to the importance of specificity in stories.  Many great shows are thorough in the detailing of their setting, like Breaking Bad and Justified.  The former does it purely through visuals, while the latter is able to convince you that California is actually the backwoods of Kentucky because of how deep the characters and their extensive histories run, but they both give you an unmistakable sense of place.  A show like Mad Men, on the other hand, might not have a unique vision of New York, but it paints the advertising world with such a fine brush that it's what becomes the actual setting.  FX's new show, The Bridge, certainly isn't a great show yet, but like these other shows, it knows that the devil is in the details.

At first glance, The Bridge seems like a disposable and inessential show.  With AMC's The Killing and all of CBS's procedurals occupying our television screens, the last thing we need is another murder mystery show.  However, The Bridge insists upon itself due to its deep sense of local color.  Set on the border of El Paso and Juarez, the show's location differentiates it from others of its ilk, exploring uncharted terrain and allowing for fertile political implications around the corner of every moment.  Breaking Bad uses a different, more orange lens filter when depicting scenes in Mexico, but The Bridge doesn't do that, choosing to shoot and light El Paso and Juarez in similar ways.  The two settings bleed together visually as much as they do functionally, where thousands commute across the titular bridge every day.  That doesn't mean that each of them are generic though.  El Paso and Juarez both leave an indelible impression, and they both feel very real and lived-in, from the sun-soaked deserts to the overstuffed streets.  The show's also not afraid of scaring away the subtitle-averse, having much of its dialogue across the border in Spanish, just adding to the authenticity of everything.

This specificity and color extends to the characters as well.  Creator Meredith Stiehm, whose character-centric episodes on Homeland were often the best of the show, continues her ability to write people with spark and nuance here.  She's crafted one of the most fascinating female protagonists on television in Sonya Cross, a detective who is clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum, even if the show hasn't explicitly mentioned it.  Part of this is in Diane Kruger's performance, which is equal parts steely and vulnerable, but the rest is in the writing, which feels more authentic than the writing for many other TV characters on the spectrum.  The show is good at handling all the big checkmarks, the numerous occasions in which Sonya fails to show empathy, but the best moments are when we are just seeing her live her life.  The second episode features a sequence of scenes where Sonya just studies the case late at night, masturbates, and then goes to a bar to try to awkwardly pick up a guy, and its easily the most engrossing thing the show has done so far.  Her partner, Marco Ruiz, is equally intriguing, as Demian Bichir portrays him with an easygoing charm and a winning smile, yet a little bit of world-weariness underneath.  Even most of the side characters are exquisitely detailed.  Those that show up for just one scene have life and personality, and you can't help thinking that you could watch a whole episode centered around any of them just going about their day.

At this point, the plot of the show might not be pulling me in as much as I'd like it to -- aside from the initial shock of the reveal that there are two separate bodies that are being investigated, it feels a bit pulpy and by-the-numbers.  There are various threads right now, and while most of them are at least somewhat interesting, everything has yet to tie together enough to make the less interesting ones work.  Even when the plot isn't gripping, it's the level of depth to the world that keeps my attention.  The pace is slow for sure, but allows you to soak in every little detail.  Even the mysterious killer's motive ties in to the idea of stopping and taking in what's going on around you.  At the end of the very first episode, he/she calls Sonya and Marco, lamenting the fact that the police galvanize around the death of one white American woman, yet ignore the hundreds of deaths that happen in Juarez every year.  That the killer has a reasoning for murdering, beyond some psychotic perversion, and it fits into the grand scheme of the show's ethos is enough to convince me that Meredith Stiehm and her crew of writers have what it takes to elevate this past the trappings of the murder mystery genre.  Usually, I have more reservations about shows this early on, but many of the necessary parts are already here.  FX has had an insane hot streak with its dramas in the last few years, and The Bridge only seems to be continuing that trend.  

Friday, July 26, 2013

"Orange is the New Black" is Netflix's Most Impressive Work Yet

I had little to no expectations for Orange is the New Black in the weeks leading up to its premiere on Netflix.  Although I was much more positive on season 4 of Arrested Development than many critics, I found House of Cards so generic that I stalled around episode 8, and the universal panning of Hemlock Grove kept me away from ever even giving it a try.  Needless to say, I hadn't been that excited about Netflix's foray into original programming, especially when their only success was the continuation of a pre-existing property.  Further hurting matters was the fact that the show was by Jenji Kohan, who's most known for creating Weeds, a show that I was never particularly a huge fan of.  Its prison setting just seemed to serve as an extension of the direction that the latter seasons of Weeds took, so I was just planning on skipping the show altogether.  The rapturous praise that it got after critics received early screeners for the first three episodes was enough to convince me to at least sample the show, and I'm glad I did, because Orange is the New Black is a staggeringly brilliant, life-affirming piece of television.

The show opens on the story of Piper Chapman, an upper-class white woman who finds herself in jail because of her involvement in a drug ring 10 years ago, and although we follow her throughout the course of the season, it's very clear that she's just an entry point to the larger narrative that Kohan is trying to create.  The Litchfield prison is such a fully-realized world, filled with characters who could easily be the protagonists in their own right.  In a television landscape that's so white male dominated, it's refreshing enough to see women of all races and positions on the sexual spectrum, but the fact that they're all fascinating makes the show even more remarkable.  Over the course of 13 episodes, you'll seriously lose count of how many complex, interesting female characters there are on this show.  I've seen a few complaints about the opening credits, but to me it seems like the central idea of the show, presenting all the varieties of people in this world with equality.  In a way, the show is all about widening Piper's worldview and in turn, ours, by proving that everybody has a story to tell; not just you.  The show presents these women as having troubles like anybody else -- both petty (the jealousies of jilted lovers) and soul-plumbing (a transgendered woman not being able to get her estrogen pills).  Yet it also does a wonderful job of not making the prison be a wholly grim place.  The 6th episode, "WAC Pack," has frequent instances of the tiny joys one can find in such a situation: having an impromptu freestyle battle, finally getting the bathroom all to yourself, skirting off with somebody you like, etc.

Structurally, Orange is the New Black is just as bold and daring as it is with its characters.  The show employs the use of flashbacks, but not in the same way that Lost did, where the flashbacks functioned as a backbone to an episode.  Instead, they are used in a more free-form way, being sprinkled on when needed.  With so many characters to serve, things could feel overstuffed, but somehow it never does, as episodes can devote large chunks at a time to an individual storyline, before smoothly picking back up on a smaller story and just rolling along.  Eventually, the show reveals itself to be a surprisingly deft long-form narrative -- character details become larger plots, but the plot still largely exists to further these characters.  Even on a show like Mad Men, which is the best show on TV, people complain about how a season doesn't have enough Joan or Peggy or Roger.  What's most impressive about Orange is the New Black is just how many characters get a complete and satisfying arc by the end of the season.  The best episodes, like "Moscow Mule" or "Tall Man With Feelings," frequently feature separate plotlines converging and playing off of each other.  Others, like "Bora Bora Bora," are able to pull off the difficult balancing act of being really funny while also featuring incredibly dark material.  With all of these characters, storylines, and tones to balance, it all precariously approaches falling apart at any moment, but everything remains tightly bound together.

But it all comes back to Piper, who may not be more important or interesting than the scores of women on the show, but is at the center of it all.  "Blood Donut" is a perfect example of this, as it shows the collateral damage that is caused by Piper getting what she wants.  She may help somebody, but she also hurts another that she ultimately didn't have to in the process.  As Piper, Taylor Schilling gives a great, increasingly twitchy performance in the role.  Where another actress could've made this character extremely unlikable, Schilling is able to find the humanity in Piper, even when you often want to strangle her for her myopia and naivety.  Time and life function differently inside and out of prison, and Piper changes in ways that her family and friends can't understand.  Piper's season arc is one of the more clever aspects of the season, in fact.  Throughout the first half, it seemed like she was poised to have a breakthrough, becoming more aware of the world around her, just as the audience is.  Most of the second half, however, features her backsliding and becoming entrenched in the flaws deep within herself.

Part of this journey comes from her entanglements with her ex and former drug partner, Alex, who further complicates her relationship with her fiancee on the outside, Larry.  There's a real frankness to the sex and sexuality, and it never presents this bisexual love triangle as something that's broad or goofy, preferring to depict Piper's feelings as extremely complex and matter-of-fact.  In general, Orange is the New Black is the greatest case of showing how people can contain multitudes.  Piper and Alex's conflicts have a lot of baggage that comes with them, and it never boils down to concrete right and wrong, because both of them have their own failings.  Even a character as loathsome as Mendez, the prison guard, can have moments of humanity, like when he stands up for Sophia in "Lesbian Request Denied."  At the end of the day, although these individuals are in extreme circumstances, people are just people, and they all act out of fear, anger, love, and loneliness.

It is in these moments where the show truly shines, and fortunately it's filled with many deeply human, powerful scenes.  Take "The Chickening" for instance, which somehow finds strange beauty in everybody's quest to find a chicken that's rumored to roam the prison grounds.  It's something that could easily be a goofy runner, but ends up being a thematic backbone about hope in a largely hopeless place.  Orange is the New Black is a depiction of people trying to exist within a system that often overlooks them, and many of the stories ("Tit Punch," "Imaginary Enemies," "Blood Donut") are all about being unwanted.  That's why the story of Taystee is so moving, because everybody hopes to be released from prison, but when she does get out, she quickly realizes that jail time didn't equip her for the real world, and the system is almost designed for her to fail.  The last stretch of episodes in particular feature a fantastic level of emotional accretion, leading up to a Christmas pageant that should feel hokey, but is just overwhelmingly beautiful.  Like in season 4 of Arrested Development, the final shot is a striking one, and it leaves the viewer with tons of possibility for the next season.  Everything leading up to that scene offers enough to stew over as well, and it's likely that I'll still be unpacking this first season -- which I had no anticipation for, but ended up being floored by -- for months to come.  I never thought that the woman who created Weeds would make a show that would make me a better, more thoughtful person, but here is Orange is the New Black, easily one of the best shows of the year.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

RIP Bunheads (2012-2013)

Look at the disappointment, ABC Family!

I watch alot of TV, and anybody who watches as many shows as I do has to deal with tons of them getting cancelled.  So you would think that by now I'd be used to it and not get too worked up about it anymore, yet it still usually hurts.  Yesterday, after many months of stalling, ABC Family cancelled Bunheads, and this might be the most upset I've ever been about a show's cancellation.  I've spilled alot of digital ink on this blog about Bunheads -- and deservedly so, because it's one of the best shows on television -- so I had a large investment in the show's fate, which had been up in the air since the first season ended in February.  Since then, there were many ups (the cancellation of The Lying Game, all of the various thinkpieces popping up on the internet) and downs (the sets being taken down, good ratings for The Fosters and Twisted, ABC Family barely submitting the show for Emmy consideration), but I was still holding out hope.

Bunheads isn't the first great show to be cancelled this year, as 2013 has already taken the lives of Ben & Kate and Enlightened.  Enlightened is likely to be in the top 3 on my list of favorite television shows in 2013 by the time the end of the year rolls around, and I found its cancellation to be unfortunate, but its ending felt so complete that it was hard to be too broken up about it.  And Ben & Kate was my favorite new comedy of last fall season, but I'm pretty sure we saw all that show had to offer.  The difference with Bunheads was the possibility.  Part of the reason why I was rooting for a renewal was because I was convinced that the show was going to deliver next-level excellence in the second season.  It was already starting to make that leap anyway -- the first 10 episodes that aired in 2012 were good enough, but the back 8 that aired in 2013 were some of the most heartwarming, funny, and devastating television episodes I've seen all year.  Now, instead of getting to see the show's trajectory play out, Bunheads got clipped just as it was blossoming.

Earlier in the year, when everybody was concerned about Hannibal possibly getting cancelled because it's a Bryan Fuller show and it wasn't drawing overly impressive ratings, I was rooting for it too, but if it wasn't renewed I wouldn't have been phased too much.  In fact, I'd easily trade in season 2 of Hannibal to get a second season of Bunheads.  There will be many more gussied-up procedurals.  There will certainly be many more serial killer shows.  But there might not be another show like Bunheads in a long time, which featured such interesting, unique, and real portrayals of women and teens.  In a television landscape overstuffed with blandly "edgy" shows filled with brooding antiheroes, Bunheads was light and easygoing fare, yet it never shied away from dealing with the disappointment and doubt that lurked underneath the surface.  It was unlike anything else on television, but more importantly, it was good.  What's worse is that who knows if Amy Sherman-Palladino has another show in her.  Maybe she'll be too jaded after he experience at the end of Gilmore Girls and now with the cancellation of Bunheads.  Maybe she just won't have any new ideas after this.  But the world will be much less wonderful without her voice.

So goodbye, Bunheads.  Goodbye to Sasha and Melanie and Ginny and Boo and Michelle and all of the other complex and nuanced characters on the show.  Thank you for making me laugh and almost making me cry.  You had a stupid name and were on ABC Family, so people scoffed at you, but you were an amazing television show and you'll be missed.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Strap Yourself In For The Conjuring's Relentless Thrill Ride

There's a scene in 2011's Insidious, where I instantly knew that I would at least give it some kind of credit, no matter what else it did.  It comes toward the middle of the film, where, in broad daylight, Rose Byrne goes to take out the trash and when she peers back into a window of her house, she sees a little ghost boy dancing to "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" in the living room.  It's a bizarre and delightful moment, one that makes you laugh so much that it circles back around to being creepy again.  Ultimately, the film has very little else that comes close to the madness of the ghost boy scene, but it does have a few scenes that exhibit director James Wan's knack for rollercoaster ride thrills.  I found myself thinking, "this movie kind of sucks, but James Wan is certainly onto something here."  Well folks, that something is The Conjuring, which takes all of the energy from Insidious and cuts out the silliness that plagued its limp third act.

People tend to groan when characters make "horror movie decisions" that seem illogical and only serve to drive the scares forward, but here Wan uses these to his advantage.  Where other horror movies try to put the audience directly in the action, he understands the idea of a ride, and throughout the film we're constantly being placed between the director and the characters, simultaneously strung along on rails, while also being implicated in the gear-spinning that makes the journey progress.  A door opens slightly, a floor creaks in the distance, and we want somebody to follow that yarn, knowing that there's trouble in store.  In that way, The Conjuring functions exactly as a haunted house should -- we're aware that there are strings being pulled, but we get wrapped up in the machinations nonetheless.  And if this movie is a roadside haunted house, then it's a well-built one, with every character and set dressing perfectly constructed to maximize scares.

This all works because James Wan is an excellent visual stylist, perhaps the best in mainstream horror right now.  There's such a command of the camera on display in The Conjuring.  Every framing decision and camera movement is so perfectly selected, pulling the audience along and keeping you on the edge of your seat.  While there are some complicated camera tricks (A dolly zoom!  Long steadicam takes!), the film keeps it simple when it comes to the visuals of the actual horror, and this straightforward approach is even more effective.  Wan leans heavily on jump scares, but what makes them work is that he isn't content leaving you with a cheap shock.  After the initial scare, he twists the knife and finds a way to stretch out and elevate the horror.

I don't watch many horror films; I can probably count on two hands how many I've seen in the last few years.  That's mostly because the mainstream horror world seems to be pretty dismal, relying on worn out tropes, dull characters, and messy stories.  My favorite director working in horror right now is Ti West, whose films skew far from the spectrum of mainstream, delivering the kind of old-school slow burn that we don't see much these days (it's no surprise, then, that many detractors label his films "boring").  His work, like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, is best enjoyed alone, where you can really let the simmering mood seep into you.  On the other hand, I urge you to see The Conjuring in a packed theater.  James Wan has masterfully crafted a film that's designed to have a large audience be putty in his hands.  The Conjuring is less of a film than it is an experience, and its one that offers nonstop surprises and delights.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Do We Tell the Difference Between Dumb Fun and Just Plain Dumb?

Ever since the release of Jaws in 1975, summer has been the default season for blockbusters and widescreen spectacle.  This correlation has its roots in people wanting to beat the heat and bask in the cool air of the cineplex, and the idea of turn-off-your-brain entertainment has only extended and grown in recent years.  Once May hits, we all know we have a deluge of superhero films, Will Smith vehicles, and big-budget bombast for the next four months and if we're lucky, we get a movie that manages to check all the boxes of a summer blockbuster while also having something more to offer.  But what are the parameters by which we delineate between something that's dumb fun and something that's just plain dumb?  I've seen many movies that fall into either category, but let's look at four films from this season -- Fast & Furious 6, Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation -- the former two being examples of films that I found to be pretty fun and the latter two being torturous, joyless experiences.

Part of what classifies a movie that is dumb fun is the level of self-awareness that it has.  Pacific Rim might be the most self-aware film of the summer so far -- it's a send up to anime and 80s action movies, all while having a winking jocularity.  With the wacky scientist, ultra-macho attitude, commander who returns to the field for one last job, the tropes are all there, and the film uses them with a playfulness that allows you to just roll with how over-the-top it all is.  Fast & Furious 6 is at least halfway there -- it depicts its syrupy concept of "family" with a bizarre self-seriousness, but outside of that, the film is conscious of its status as fluff, choosing to go full-throttle and never making any pit-stops along the way.  In that sense, I guess G.I. Joe: Retaliation probably hit what it was aiming for.  It's a splashy film, a big-screen version of watching a kid crash his toys together, but the problem is that it's still kind of boring.  As for Man of Steel, who knows what it was striving to achieve.  To be fair, it certainly isn't trying to be what the other three films are, instead taking on much more gravitas.  But Zack Snyder is a lover of nauseating pulp, so surely there was supposed to be something fun about the 45 minutes of action that concluded the film.  Unfortunately it's the lowest point of the movie, taking something that conceptually works and making it monotonous, brainless, and most detrimental to its status as a dumb fun movie -- dull.

So it certainly doesn't hurt that both Fast & Furious 6 and Pacific Rim showcase some killer action setpieces.  Helmed by the likes of talented directors Justin Lin and Guillermo del Toro, respectively, both films contain action sequences with fluidity, coherency, and variation.  FF6 continues the series' expansion away from solely driving scenes, and the hand-to-hand combat is well-choreographed, while also fitting comedic moments in.  The car stuff is just as kinetic too -- I wasn't much of a fan of the series before this installment (Fast 5 was fun but not fun enough), but this film takes things to such high-octane levels that it's hard not to marvel at the technical brilliance.  Meanwhile, scope is the main point of praise for Pacific Rim.  The sheer scale of the battles between the Kaiju and the Jaegers is impressive enough, but the clarity is what really makes it satisfying, eschewing the muddled shaky-cam that rules modern action movies.  It's no surprise, then, that the only time G.I. Joe: Retaliation shows any kind of spark is in its one decent action sequence, the mountainside ninja battle, but even that one gets spoiled in the trailer.  I wrote at length about the problems in Man of Steel, its repetitive action being chief among them.  It may be thrilling for 5 minutes, but less so in the next 5 minutes, and by the time you get to about an hour of artless smashing, the film solidifies itself as a purely dumb film.

Despite the name of "dumb fun," films that fall into this category still usually have something to latch onto.  I'm not even talking about having emotional content that works, or else it would elevate the film past being any kind of "dumb," and the moments where Fast & Furious and Pacific Rim attempt to deliver anything deep are the least successful.  But Fast & Furious 6 constructs a web of characters who have an extensive history with one another, and even though I might not have been incredibly invested in their plights, it was still interesting to watch them play off of each other accordingly.  Likewise, the characters in Pacific Rim are simple archetypes, but they're really fun archetypes, and they're played by actors who know what kind of movie they're in.  There's simply nothing more delightful than watching Idris Elba or Ron Perlman tossing off cheesy lines with a winking irony.  Plus, the world of Pacific Rim is so fully realized, filled with the kind of interesting designs that are staples in Del Toro's films, and everything is so full of color, particularly a sequence in Hong Kong in the second act that's just a visual splendor.  Man of Steel flirts with having something to latch on to in its meditative middle portion, but it quickly moves away from that and into utter drabness.  The less said about G.I. Joe the better, which, save for a chiseled and glistening Dwayne Johnson, has very little to offer.

To add a fifth film to the mix, let's talk about Star Trek Into Darkness.  I gave it a review that sounded much more positive than I actually felt about the film, and some of why I'm not so hot on it is because of how much it seems to be firmly planted in the middle of these two poles that I've been talking about.  J.J. Abrams is the master of popcorn entertainment, and there are elements -- the always game cast and their terrific chemistry, the camera movements, the relentless pace -- where it flirts with being the dumb fun that the first one was.  However, it gets so tangled up in its idiotic plotting, especially in the third act, that it ultimately doesn't fly as high and stops being fun altogether.  That's not to say that Pacific Rim or Fast & Furious 6 have airtight plots either.  If you look hard enough there's a ton to pick apart in both films (like what exactly was the villain's goal in FF6?), but I think they both have far less ambition than Star Trek Into Darkness.  With its overwrought theme and half-baked 9/11 imagery, the whiffs in Star Trek are much harder to take.  Essentially, it fails the essential rule of being a dumb fun movie: don't try to be smart, and if you try, at least don't fail.

Maybe there is no concrete dividing line between dumb fun and just plain dumb.  Maybe it's all just a matter of preference, because after all, I'm sure somebody would write the exact same thing but saying that Man of Steel is the fun one and Pacific Rim is just an interminable slog.  All I know is that when I walked out of Pacific Rim, I had a feeling of glee that I don't get from many other summer films.  I'm as much of an artsy-fartsy loving film snob as there can be, but I think Pacific Rim is an example of how you may not always need a great story when you have a well-crafted film that's such a giant slab of maximalist spectacle.

Friday, July 12, 2013

"Magna Carta Holy Grail" is a Solid Late-Period Jay-Z Album

I've been throwing around this half-baked theory on Facebook that Jay-Z is the Greg Maddux of rap.  Unlike Jigga, Maddux was never much of a high heat thrower, even in his younger days, but they have numerous similarities in the way they have aged.  Many baseball pitchers have trouble adapting to the loss of velocity that comes with old age, but Maddux just used this as an opportunity to fall deeper into his role as a strategist.  To him, at-bats were chess, and he would work hitters through the sheer force of his movement and variation.  He may not have had all the tools that the younger guys did, but he was able to thrive by leaning into his age rather than resisting it.  In the same way, Jay-Z has managed to create Magna Carta Holy Grail, an album that may not have the zest of his younger days, but one that mostly succeeds due to how he utilizes his arsenal.

One of the most vital parts of this arsenal is his stable of great producers, whose beats cause many of the songs to work in spite of themselves.  "Tom Ford" has a terrible, meandering chorus and "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt" might as well be a Rick Ross song given how little Jay-Z shows up on it, yet both are saved by their great production.  He rounded up the likes of Timbaland and Pharrell for this one, and it's almost like the rap Expendables in the way that it has this old guard of hip-hop combining their powers to create something.  Like those action heroes of yore, Jay has lost a step or two, because at times it feels like he's coasting on the lyrical front.  There are some flashes of wit and vitality, but many of his verses get bogged down in half-time rapping and weak couplets.  "Versus" manages to capture everything that's bad and good about Jay-Z's rapping on this album, all in the span of 51 seconds.  How he can start off with something as awful as "Hey sucka nigga, wherever you are / I thought about you fool while I was driving my car" and then close out with something as knotty as "The truth in my verses versus / your metaphors about what your net worth is" is kind of strange and impressive in its own right.  This save-the-best-for-last mentality continues on album closer, "Nickels and Dimes," which features one of my favorite lines: "Pardon my hubris -- Stanley Kubrick / with Eyes Wide Shut, I could cook up two bricks."

Another element in his array of assets is the rogue's gallery of featured guests that appear on the album.  Having a good artist to play off of seems to elevate his game, because all of the best songs have a prominent guest spot.  First, there's "Oceans," which is a top tier Jay-Z song, while also making me desperately want a new Frank Ocean album.  I've never been very impressed with collaborations between Jay-Z and Beyonce, but "Part II (On the Run)" is just wonderful.  Backed by a watery, cavernous beat from J-Roc & Timbaland, Beyonce's vocals are appropriately regal, sounding as if she's in a giant room and singing into a distant mic.  But no song captures the collaborative spirit of Magna Carta Holy Grail more than "BBC," which is just ridiculously fun, and features Nas continuing this streak of reinvigoration that he's been having lately.  The one exception to this "great guest = great song" rule is Justin Timberlake, unfortunately.  It's almost as if the two of them had an agreement to stink it up on each other's albums, because first we had Jay-Z's limp verse on "Suit & Tie," and now we've got two complete whiffs from Timberlake on "Holy Grail" and "Heaven."  The latter features some quality rapping from Jay, but JT's grating chorus nearly ruins the song.

Nobody exudes opulence better than Jay-Z, and with all its references to high art, Magna Carta Holy Grail might be the apotheosis of his obsession with luxury.  It's all a bit off-putting at first, because of the way he seems to keep the audience at a distance.  Kanye West may mention Givenchy and French restaurants on Yeezus, but that album always feels like a direct invitation into his headspace.  When Jay-Z tells us that we know nothing about Wayne Perry, it just feels like we're viewing him from behind a glass wall.  But everything turns around on "Somewhere in America" which is the Rosetta Stone for understanding what the album is about -- the infiltration of (a largely white) high culture by a black man who came from nothing.  "Shout out to old Jews and old rules / new blacks with new stacks," he starts off the song saying, and if you look closely, the album has numerous references to making it but still feeling like you don't belong.  Even the album cover backs this notion -- there are famous sculptures, yet the "Jay-Z" is blacked out.  On "F.U.T.W.," he also talks about how he no longer fits into the world in which he grew up either.  This limbo of being too rich for his street past and too New Money for the current upper class gives the album a backbone that makes it a much more interesting listen.

However, it seems that nobody else is as high on this album as I am.  I'm not saying that I love it, but I think that it'll be remembered much more positively with time.  After all, it is the second best post-retirement Jay-Z album behind American Gangster.  Plus, it doesn't have any of the pop trash that plagued The Blueprint 3,  like "Run This Town".  Jay-Z has always been very much a traditionalist, and this is definitely a traditional rap album, which may be difficult to adjust to in a year full of forward-thinking ones (Acid Rap, Yeezus, Run the Jewels).  On Magna Carta Holy Grail, we see Jay-Z long past the point where he has to prove that he's great, and perhaps we're supposed to view it with the same surprise and delight that we would if The Rolling Stones put out an album that was good, but didn't reach the band's peak.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

"This is the End" Has Laughs and Heart in Equal Measure

I'm not a big fan of comedy films.  Sure, I love comedy in a 22 minute, weekly form on television, but I find that it's hard to sustain laughs for 90+ minutes.  Eventually, fatigue sets in -- on the part of the film, myself, or both -- and story/structure demands bog down the actual funny.  It certainly doesn't help that film seems to be much less fertile ground for producing critically acclaimed comedies than television, but even some of the ones that the rest of my generation hails as classics, like Anchorman or The Hangover, are okay at best in my eyes.  The comedies that I do tend to latch on to usually have something else going on besides getting the biggest and quickest laugh, relying on character depth and story to push things forward.  That's why I respond so strongly to Judd Apatow films, because even when some of his films go for long stretches without a laugh (I'm looking at you, Funny People), it's always about three-dimensional characters struggling through something, which I'll always find more compelling than an intricately wound up joke machine.  It's taken me a while to get around to it, but I've finally seen This is the End, and I can safely say that it falls into the former category, managing to be a success simply because of how much it has to offer.

In some ways, what I find this movie to be most similar to is the films of Edgar Wright, which use genre not just as an opportunity to do parody, but also as a framework around which to structure an actual story.  This is the End is a film about the apocalypse, and it could've easily just coasted by on 100 minutes of ironic winking, but the film doesn't take its premise lightly.  In a movie full of surprises, perhaps the biggest one was how far Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg decided to take the story.  Yet even with its commitment to the apocalypse, it's not a bleak Lars von Trier type of film.  There's such a perfectly balanced tone to the whole thing -- it's hilarious despite the circumstances, but the weighty moments still land.  Additionally, the film also manages to avoid fatigue due to the sheer variety of comedy that it delivers.  It's hard to get tired of any style of joke when the film juggles gross-out humor, surreal comedy, improvised looseness, and physical bits effortlessly.  And for being a comedy, This is the End is also a genuinely thrilling, suspenseful, and exciting film.

What holds the entire movie together, however, is the character work.  In a recent appearance on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast, Seth Rogen said that one of the biggest things he learned from Judd Apatow was to always root your comedy in the stories of the characters, and he definitely makes use of that lesson here.  As is the case with all of Rogen and Goldberg's films, this story is primarily about exploring male friendships, but this is the best they've ever done it.  Seth and Jay Baruchel's relationship feels so relateable, and the conflict that arises from them drifting apart is some of the most gripping stuff in the movie.  After all, we each have probably found ourselves in their characters' positions, whether we're the ones having difficulty fitting in with the new friends of a longtime friend or if we're the ones trying to blend two groups of friends together.  The actors are all playing themselves, which helps the audience bring alot of information to the relationships, but they're smartly skewed versions, allowing for some great use of comedic exaggeration.  As much as the Rogen/Baruchel relationship holds the film together, the entire group dynamic is so well-constructed, and many of the biggest laughs come from all of them bouncing off of each other.  From Jonah Hill's earring-sporting obsequiousness to the libertine Danny McBride, everyone has a consistency that makes all of their actions logical, but still slightly unexpected.  

The biggest problem with most comedies is that they fall apart in the third act.  Many films devote so much of their attention to wrapping up the story that the laughs begin to die away, giving the whole thing a lumpy and logy feel.  This one threatens to fly completely off the rails multiple times near the end, but not in the same way that most comedies do.  Instead of not having enough, the ending of This is the End almost has too much going on.  It's a mess for sure, veering all over the place in search of a conclusion, but I couldn't help thinking "Yeah this is a mess, but I don't care because it's so much fun!"  Not only that, but I was surprised by how moved I ended up being.  It's about the entire world ending (or just L.A., which might as well be the same thing to these characters), yet the highest stakes come from Rogen and Baruchel's friendship.  The final scene is goofy, but it's also one of the most joyous things I've seen on the big screen all year.  In a way, that's This is the End in a nutshell: silly, but never straying far from the emotions that ground it.