Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pop Candy Arcade Playlist: 100 Most Excellent Songs of 2014, 26-50

The journey continues. On this New Year's Eve, I present for your consideration part two of my 2014 song list.  It would have been nice to have this wrapped up before the calendar turns over, but let's be real: there's no way that's going to happen.  This is slow going, decisions are still being made, and so it is. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies



I've been a defender of The Hobbit films to this point. While I was never on board with the decision to break down such a slight text into three endless films, I could get behind the storybook lightness of the first couple entries in the series. There were dwarf songs and overeating to buffer some of the questing action, and the characters felt like they were being developed here and there over the course of the bloated run time.  They weren't great films, but they were entertaining to watch and quite lovely in their way.  Which is why all I really need to say about The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies can be summed up with a throwing up of hands and a resounding 'WTF'.  My time as a Hobbit apologist ended somewhere in the midst of the battle sequence that makes up most of this film's two-and-a-half hour run time, and the things that frustrates me the most is the way this lazy piece of storytelling casts a pall over the entire franchise.  Much like George Lucas before him, Peter Jackson has taken too many liberties with the world he manages.  Unlike Lucas, Jackson's alterations are a betrayal not only to his own work, but to J.R.R. Tolkien's.  He's transformed a slight volume into a war-heavy act of political tedium so pointedly directed at tying the mythology into The Lord of the Rings that it nearly forgets to include the title character for impossibly long stretches of time.

Into the Woods



After seeing Into the Woods, two status updates passed through my Facebook feed that gave me unusual - albeit temporary- pause.  The first was a distant acquaintance who basically suggested watching the film was a type of musical waterboarding, the second was someone asking whether people thought it would be ok to take their young kids to.  In response to the former, I figure if you're not much for musicals there's very little chance of Sondheim's unceasing lyrical structure winning you over.  The latter, though, I was oddly baffled by.  The thing is, it was only in that moment that I actually stopped and thought about the film for what it technically is: a PG-rated Disney vehicle built around a musical most frequently put on by middle school theater kids.  Into the Woods is a mash-up of fairy tales with a bevy of young characters, and though I knew this going in, I have to admit that while I was watching Into the Woods it never really occurred to me that it could be mistaken for a children's story. Odd, since it is that over all else.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything



What is The Theory of Everything? At a surface level, the answer appears rather obvious: this is the story of a marriage. It is also, though, a capsule recap of Stephen Hawking's life in moments. Throughout the film there's a sense of what it should or could be versus what it is.  It provides us with glimmers of an impressionistic type of cinema, but then back peddles into a very English, staid period piece.  It turns our love story expectations inside out to show us the ugly side of their relationship, but then shies away from any sense of fallout.  The film's first half is a very pretty, effectively devastating depiction of a love story against all odds, and in those scenes it makes sense that we're presented with the unfolding events as a flipbook of important moments. We see life as it was in Hawking's graduate student days at Cambridge, we're shown life as it could have been in Stephen and Jane's blissful, bantering courtship, and finally we're shown their shared commitment in the face of Stephen's battle with motor neuron disease.  He's breaking down, both are struggling to keep things together.  And then?  The film sticks to the same formula.  It never plateaus. It never seems to have a sense of what it wants to accomplish in its run time. Theory of Everything grows into a rhizomatic structure that tries to do so much that it begins to fall emotionally flat.  The further we get into the lives of the Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), the more the film keeps us at a distance.

Pop Candy Arcade Playlist: 100 Most Excellent Songs of 2014, 1-25

We find ourselves at the end of yet another year.  With each closure comes the obsessive and oppressive need to chronicle and lock a bit of pop culture away in a time capsule.  So, we build lists. Or, at least, that's how things work for me.  2014's song list marks the sixth time I've gone through the process of publicly documenting my taste and daring to call things "best," and though from time to time I've later discovered tracks that could have easily been at the top had I known about them, the most rewarding thing about the act of listing is that each of these really does serve to make some part of my memory all the more concrete.

As per usual, the caveat: this is not a music site. This is a film site, primarily, and a one-person operation.  I like making playlists, I like sharing sounds I've enjoyed, and I'm definitely into collecting my own thoughts.  This list is far more about compiling a very subjectively chosen set of worthwhile artifacts and far less about placing labels on the "best" possible songs of the year. They're the best to me, certainly, even if they're not always the most musically ambitious.

That said, let us begin.  Presented with minimal commentary and in no real order, the 100 best tracks of 2014...

Read on.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Foxcatcher


As time passes, my memory of certain films begins to cloud.  There are the impressions left by the work's visual qualities , that is, the mood a given film seems to want to evoke  -- and then there's this kinda separate thing: what it actually succeeds in doing.  Sometimes, with enough distance and repeat exposure to the right snippets or images, I start to wonder if my initial reaction was justified.  Foxcatcher is one such film: a beautiful work in some ways, a dreadfully dull thing in others.  Since watching it, I haven't been able to quite suss out whether my sense of it is one on the brink of change or if my opinion has simply been dulled from exposure to repeat praise.  To be up front, I'll tell you that my initial reaction was one of near total frustration. This was what I'd waited so long for? What I'd heard so much about?  I'd left the theater exhausted and so thoroughly bored that I'd immediately texted a handful of friends who might give a shit and told them I'd found the film to be among the biggest disappointments in recent memory.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nightcrawler


When we meet Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the opening scene of Nightcrawler, we come face to face with something less man than creature.  His eyes are wide, unblinking; the type of distinctive feature you'd expect to find in a nocturnal animal, and Louis is just that.  The first scene presents him as a scavenger in the process of stealing from a construction site in the dead of night so that he can resell the goods. He takes everything, we learn.  Fencing, manhole covers, scraps of this and that.  It's the type of crime that reads as perhaps petty, but which could also be defensibly seen as an act of desperation.  This is what Louis specializes in, it turns out.  Not the theft so much as working the system from its slimy underbelly.  He thrives in the darkness, looks for loopholes that allow him to avoid real human contact, and turns them to his advantage.  That same evening he stumbles upon a car crash and watches as a freelance camera crew pushes their way through the emergency vehicles to get footage of the suffering victim.  He asks them questions. Not many, but just enough to understand that there's money to be made from this type of savagery.  If it bleeds, it leads, he's told, and we need only look at Louis' eyes to understand that this is the work he was meant for.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1



This semester, I found myself partially engaged in questions of what makes a film subversive.  There
are moments in time where something may be described as such because of the rules it breaks in terms of form or acceptable content, others where the politics of a movie seem to move in opposition to popular opinion. In discussing the conditions that could make for subversive, or, at the least, rebellious cinema within the American studio system, the conclusions seemed to fall into a few camps.  All felt that the most subversive acts had to have some kind of financial backing that would push them in front of the largest audience, though many were wary of essays and claims that The Lego Movie or Transformers or Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully managed the transgressive acts ascribed to them. My class seemed more compelled by the notion that two current films had that possibility, the first was The Interview - picked largely because of the seemingly very real political response it has been met with - and Mockingjay Part 1.  They chose Mockingjay with the understanding that the second half of the film will likely (ok, undoubtedly) reverse the logic by which they felt this first half manages a type of subversion.  I've been weighing this since. The longer I've held off writing about the film, the more I'm inclined to agree with them: this is a blockbuster that manages something most cannot, and the varied responses to those impulses are the best indicators of its trespasses.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Big Hero 6

 

Lately, Disney has achieved a level of brand synergy that feels almost supernatural.  Its star houses are fully aligned: the Pixar world's emotional resonance has rubbed off on the Disney in-house animation studios, Marvel has built a type of cross-generational magic, and that Star Wars trailer? It is on point, my friend.  Disney can do no wrong (Planes: Fire and Rescue excepted), and as they tear through this winning streak they're doing so with an emphasis on heart and raw entertainment that's damn near unprecedented.  No string of companies can make you cry as much as you laugh quite like them, and if one proves it can it's certainly not likely to repeat the formula successfully a second, third, and fourth time in as many releases.  All that is to say: Big Hero 6 is good. So good. Squee-inducing good.  It's everything one could wish for from a family film; a feel-right movie that pulls off its hat trick without sacrificing the action and humor that has made so many of the recent Marvel franchises critical darlings.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Birdman



A washed-up ex A-lister sinks his name and fortune on a production of a Raymond Carver story. He's rented the theater, written the script. He will direct, star, and hold interviews with the press until opening night arrives and puts his life on the line.  He's the man known for three superhero franchise flicks, recognized on the street as "Birdman" and in his personal life as a failed husband, an inattentive father, and a frail mess of ego-wrapped nerves.  This is Riggan Thomson as brought to life by Michael Keaton, one time Batman, long time missing-in-action character actor.  Much has been made of the way Birdman plays, at times, like a sort of meta-narrative driven by our associatons between Keaton and Riggan.  More has been made of Keaton's return to a leading role, but there are things that Birdman is and things too that give it more credit than it perhaps deserves. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Interstellar



 Let me begin with the condemning negative, for it can only go uphill from there.  While watching Interstellar a part of my brain - as happens with most films - tried to come up with how best to describe it.  There's always a pitch-style formula, and with Interstellar the nice version is that it's what happens when you mate Kubrick's 2001 with a greeting card.  The mean version is that it's basically the best possible version of an M. Night Shyamalan movie.  If both of those sound damning, they are and they aren't.  Even when paired with a greeting card, 2001 connotes an epic property -- and Interstellar is indeed that.  The film never struggles to evoke real scale and succeeds in allowing us to understand our insignificance.  It runs big, shows us hours of massive, grand images while speaking in distances and times that build a sense of urgency in the viewer.  Then it does that other thing. The greeting card thing. Out there amid the wormholes and mysterious planets we find a repeated refrain: love will guide us through. Love is a magical power. Love "is the one thing that transcends space and time."  Happy Valentine's Day, human race, we're gonna combat this slow-burning apocalypse with the power of love.

Gone Girl





I don't like to throw out terms like 'master' or 'genius' on the regular.  In a collaborative medium, especially, it's tough to truly pin those titles on the bulk of directors.  Gone Girl, though, makes one thing very clear: David Fincher is a master of adaptation.  Specifically, he's quite possibly the best and most qualified person to direct any and all psychological thrillers adapted from bestselling literature.  If you're agreeing with me so far, let me push this just a little further: I'm actually 99% sure that even The Silence of the Lambs would be significantly improved (or, at least, more temporally dislocated) if Fincher had made it.  Controversial opinion, right?  Really, though, just imagine how much more haunting those prison scenes would be through Fincher's lens.  Try to attach a Trent Reznor score and revel in the clarity and hue of those close-ups.  

Whether you buy into that or not, Fincher's way with thriller novels seems to be second to none these days.  If Fight Club was a prelude (now contemporary classic), the one-two punch of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl seals the deal: these are adaptations that feel definitive.  It doesn't matter how popular the original text was, Fincher's film versions bind and replace them in our minds. They become the text, they mesh with it, they are somehow what we wanted them to be.  Or, more precisely, they are what we didn't know we wanted them to be.  In the case of Stieg Larsson, Fincher's manipulation of the basic pigments can transform a generic, blandly written procedural so that we understand the rage beneath its surface.  In the case of Gillian Flynn (who, wisely, wrote the script here), Fincher draws out the tension from a character driven work.  He fills in the spaces; with silence, with madness. He makes them haunt us.  [Spoilers ahead]

Whiplash


Begin with a rhythm.  With a pulse. With sweat on the snare drum, blood discoloring a set of sticks. Make us feel the mounting speed in close-up after close-up.  Hands keeping time, blisters opening as we advance to 2x, 3x, 4x, more. We understand the callouses, we hold our breath and make fists as the rhythm speeds up, our hearts in our throats.  The worse the suffering is on screen, the better it becomes. This is the sweet torment of Damien Chazelle's brilliant Whiplash, a jazz drama that crackles with the anxious energy that can only come from true desperation.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Skeleton Twins



Here we find a set of fraternal adult twins. On the day the brother attempts suicide, his estranged sister picks him up from the hospital, her own attempt disrupted by the emergency call.  Together they have cheated death by their own hands, and so she brings him to her home.  At home, she lives unhappily with a nice, oblivious husband.  Here, they commence a second childhood.  They grapple with the unresolved issues of their shared past: an absent mother, a father who successfully killed himself, their individual sexual and emotional dysfunctions.  Over the course of the film, there will be realizations, confrontations, intense sadness shaded through a comic lens darkly.  Take this plot. Or, swap out or in as you feel fit: other varieties of siblings, a road trip, a quirky child or curmudgeonly, aging patriarch.  Then, choose your cast from any of the following: sketch comedy alums, cult sitcom alums, multi-Oscar nominated dramatic actors, Wes Anderson alums.  Release.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

About Alex

One day I'll get around to writing a long essay about my ongoing love/hate relationship with The Big Chill, but for now, I'll encapsulate it like so: I keep wanting it to tell me something, I keep wanting it to reveal something, I have this sense that it should and it just never does.  So, when I heard that About Alex was being billed as essentially a rethinking of The Big Chill for my own generation, I was on board.  I'm drawn to a zeitgeisty ensemble movies, even thought they're nearly all doomed to fail miserably.  They try to capture so much, to speak to so many, and as a result: they're prematurely afflicted with this bloated sense of self-importance and responsibility. About Alex is a movie truly of that ilk. It has one foot in mid-eighties nostalgia and another firmly in the present moment, and because of that it becomes a sort of hipster paradox: it gets nothing right even as it gets absolutely everything right.

This is writer/director Jesse Zwick's debut, and as such, it's an ambitious endeavor. Zwick has gathered a host of familiar primetime faces for his quarter-life crisis.  Notably, Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation") and Max Greenfield ("New Girl") step up as the most embittered within a group of estranged college friends forced back together after the attempted suicide of one of their own.  Alex's (Jason Ritter) attempt is clearly a cry for help, and as he enthusiastically invites his cohort into his mess of a home, forgotten joys and past skeletons surface with predictable regularity.
There's nothing especially new about About Alex.  Many of its most dramatic turns feel ripped from an undergraduate creative writing course and forced to hold more weight than they deserve.  Though the contrivances keep coming, the ensemble cast holds it together and their moments are dispersed with some degree of deftness. This, perhaps, combined with the current landscape's lack of small, quiet, conversational dramedies, allows the film to read as somehow refreshing even when it's a bit shallow.  Of course, the film's relative shallowness is ultimately one of the ways in which it gets things exactly right.  These are characters that speak to a type of privilege that they don't seem to recognize, and which is endemic (if we're being honest) to my generation.  Even when they have things good, they can't recognize it and don't seem to understand the ways their personal failures are not new, are just repeated. What's unclear?  Whether the film is actually aware of that as a theme. 

The Trip to Italy




When the world embarked on the first round of The Trip, Love & Squalor covered it in a rare moment of collaborative exercise.  Now absent co-founder M. and I found we couldn't write a straight critical appraisal of the film, we had to toss it back and forth and converse (in the form of the film) about the ways it spoke to something personal.  In that case, it was a way of seeing our own friendship in the dynamic between the metafictional versions of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.  We were them, in a way.  We are them, maybe.  Beyond that, though, I still have a sense of how abnormal that film watching experience felt for me.  Though it was dressed up in the trappings of one, there was a sense that The Trip wasn't a movie in the traditional sense of the word.  It became this thing, this collection of moments that felt weirdly personal and which I found myself loving in a way somehow different from the  way I love my favorite films.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

What If




Can you handle seeing Daniel Radcliffe play a romantic lead without thinking of Harry Potter?  Did you feel like (500) Days of Summer was lacking in real connection?  Are you intimately familiar with the "friend-zone"?  Do you have a grasp on what it feels like when you have an unreciprocated 'crush'? If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, then there's a solid chance that What If will work a sly bit of magic on you.  The film is essentially a rehashing of territory made familiar by When Harry Met Sally, exploring the question so many romantic comedies rely on: can men and women really be just friends?  Whatever your actual opinion on this may be (I vote yes), in the world of the Hollywood ending the answer is almost always no. It's a convention of the genre, and the success of the film stems from its ability to play with our expectations, make us question what it is we're asking for, and to make us love (and perhaps, see ourselves in) the characters.  In that, What If succeeds where so many have failed.  Though flawed, it's smarter than the average, willing to explore uncomfortable complications, and aware of the damage the viewer's wish-fulfillment brings.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


There are some movies that you expect to be so god awful that when you actually see them, anything remotely palatable comes as a pleasant shock.  We know this.  We have all experienced the phenomenon of our lowest expectations reversing halfway in the wake of something awful, but, well, not entirely.  I'm not saying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of those occasions - it doesn't carry nearly the 'dread'-weight of something like, say, Transformers - but I am owning up to a possible blast of overcompensating happy-chemicals triggered by my enjoyment of it.  I kinda liked the latest Turtles reboot, guys.  I kinda liked it. Sure, in some sense I'm part of a built-in target market.  TMNT is riding high on a wave of 90s nostalgia, and I'm a kid who grew up proudly wearing my turtle-printed t-shirts to preschool and treasuring the trading cards.  For those of us who loved the friendlier, softer lines of those TV turtles, though, the franchise has been dead for ages.  We've suffered the leaner, meaner animated reboots, the evil-eye redesign, and the bastardization of our beloved mutants.  Our childhoods have been destroyed time and again, so by the time a Michael Bay-produced resurrection rolled around? Let's face it: there was little anyone could do to make things worse.       

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey



On the spectrum of lightweight cinema, there are ebullient trifles like Magic in the Moonlight, where charm occurs without demand and then there are films like The Hundred-Foot Journey.  Journey is light, but conflicted about it.  It carries with its frothiness a desire to be something deeper and more affecting.  Labeling a film like this under a genre doesn't work, as it hits all the necessary marks of a particular kind of "nice" "feelgood" type of movie that serves as a corrective cultural balm to audiences who want the illusion of meaning without any of the deeper woes that may come with it.  So, on the one hand, Journey is designed to be airy and semi-inspirational, a Cinderella story by way of Michelin stars.  On the other, it's a type of "problem" picture that uses haute cuisine to speak to differences of class and racial intolerance.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight



If it's anything, Magic in the Moonlight is a trifle. It's a frothy, lightweight bit of comedy not meant to withstand anything beyond its run-time. As it plays, it works like a charm. The cinematography is a dream, the costumes dazzling, and the actors run through their dialogue as though they'd been playing their roles on stage for ages.  The punchlines are rambled off as quickly as the scenes seem to turn, and the story is one tried and true: a case of false identities, wealthy aristocrats, marriage plans, and infidelity.  It's our yearly dose of Woody Allen run through generations of screwball influence.  Most of Magic keeps things at a surface level and leaves us with almost nothing to digest.  The film is something like bubblegum or cotton candy. Depending on a viewer's temperament you'll either chew on it until it loses flavor or enjoy its sugar sweetness until it evaporates on your tongue.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy



If we run through a superficial description of Guardians of the Galaxy, it sounds a hell of a lot like The Lego Movie. Chris Pratt plays a likable nobody who acquires an artifact that makes him the target of a manhunt.  He accidentally assembles a team of misfits and they embark on an epic battle upon which they learn the relative merits of teamwork, the strengths of their own unique brands of weird, and the importance of a good pop song.  Throw in a love interest, a raspy bit of extra muscle, and a talking animal (heeeyy, Unikitty!) and you're even closer.  

Of course, The Lego Movie is built to play off of the tropes of so many action movie origin stories, and I don't mean to suggest that Guardians necessarily follows those rules. It's more of a misfit piece in the Marvel canon, pulled from a relatively recent comic book iteration of an already obscure team.  Though the origin story patterns may repeat a bit, Guardians plays fast and loose with formula.  Where we've become used to muscle-bound dudes battling out political issues and repping masculinity, for example, the origin story here is one that doesn't fit the stock Avengers-style construct.  There's no real ascension to power or acquiring of mutation, and the only characters to come out of a mad science experiment gone wrong aren't all-powerful super-soldiers...they're a jabbering raccoon and a magical walking tree. The buff white guy at the group's center is less a leader by any display of skill or power and much more so the type who simply brings folks together accidentally. He's just an affable dude, and -weirdly- there's something unique about this.  

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Boyhood



Open on the sky, the strains of Coldplay's "Yellow" flaring up as the childishly scrawled credits segue into a type of stock image: a fine-haired young boy staring up at the clouds.  This is the humble beginning of Boyhood, a gesture towards something like universality so mundane as to be almost off-putting. There's something clunky and homemade about the opening minutes, as if in launching his ambitious project, Richard Linklater wasn't quite sure how best to guide the action.  So we're lead slowly through a series of searching moments between between Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his struggling mother (Patricia Arquette); the act of being picked up from school, the act of overhearing conversations one shouldn't, the act of being baited by his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater).  We find that something begins to build slowly out of these strung together bits of naturalism.  Scenes feed seamlessly into one another, bound by a sense of developing purpose or small wonder.  We're treated to short continuous arcs detailing a day Mason and Samantha spend with their newly reformed father (Ethan Hawke), perhaps, or later, a relationship from beginning to break-up.  Always, though, Boyhood dwells in the moments that add up to a life.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lucy



Lucy is a special kind of disappointment. It's the sort of disappointment best reserved for overblown action movies. You know the ones, the bright, promising looking ones that lure you in with a sharply cut trailer and convince you there's a glimmer of self-aware possibility below that glossy surface.  When you get there, though, you sink further and further into disappointment.  The sentience never shows itself, so you resign yourself to being simply disappointed and to trying to enjoy the fact the film is so much of a letdown. That's what Lucy is: disappointment with a creamy chocolate center of more disappointment, and if there's a word for this, the Germans surely have it. In the meantime, the film is a train wreck of overblown pseudo-scientific philosophy and good old ultraviolence.  It's maybe the stupidest movie about hyper-intelligence, and so bizarrely straight-faced in its approach that it's hard to tell whether the film doesn't get its own joke or simply isn't including the audience.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Snowpiercer




Rumor has it that when South Korean director Bong Joon Ho decided to adapt the graphic novel La Transperceneige, what attracted him most wasn't the potential for action or the text's overarching social commentary, but the setting. Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a transcontinental train.  From car to car, tail to engine, we find society represented in miniature; the remaining population of a now frozen Earth bound to an extreme class structure. They circle the globe once a year, never disembarking.  At the head, the engine's godlike creator shrouds himself in mystery. He's built an arc, and on it collected a traveling show of civilization's political nightmares.

In his wake, each car plays a role in an intricate, life-supporting system. The wealthy ride towards the front with their clubs, spas, and gardens. The unlucky bring up the rear, packed like sardines into a rolling tenement.  Here they feed on gelatinous protein bars, bound together by circumstance as they're mercilessly controlled, counted, and picked off without reason.  Many of them have missing limbs, some have been separated from their children, all are caked in dirt and on the verge of revolution.

The improbability of the self-sustaining engine is part of Snowpiercer's beauty, and one Bong Joon Ho clearly understands as a type of character; a true mechanical god for the characters on board. The fact of the train, of the constant forward momentum, the things it contains, the spaces it opens up and decisions it necessitates, are what makes the film a truly special work of dystopian science fiction. Rules matter more than they might in open spaces. Continuity matters, progress matters, and world-building becomes inseparable from the story.
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