Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Late Night Trailers: The Great Gatsby

I walk away for a minute and the trailer everyone's been waiting for finally drops.  Figures.  I was a die hard Moulin Rouge! fanatic back in the early aughts.  We can use my parents as witnesses on that one, as I think the sibling and I watched that movie no less than a million and fifteen times (the DVD is actually kind of worn out).  With that in mind, it's safe to say that anytime Baz Luhrmann choreographs a confetti and glitter loaded party scene imma be there in no time flat.  Disappointingly, he hasn't done so in a good decade.  He tried to force feed us the old school romantic epic Australia and then dropped off the map to go on walkabout or something.  After years of rumors on an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (would it be a musical? would it be in 3D?), he finally made it happen and JESUS H. CHRIST IT LOOKS GODDAMN GORGEOUS.  My favorite track off Watch the Throne matched with a quarter ton of confetti? Yes.  Oh yes.  At first glance, my early predictions are: this is the adaptation the book deserves, I'm probably going to love this, and everyone will be wearing drop waist flapper dresses in 2013.

Monday, May 21, 2012

This Morning...

...I feel very much like this.  Also, there's never a bad reason to post a slow motion video of Alan Rickman having a slow motion dramatic tea time.

Late Night Trailers: Skyfall

As soon as one 007 film is released we begin to look ahead to the next one.  What will the title be?  Who will be cast as the villain?  Where will they find the girls this time?  Will they re-cast our beloved MI6 agent?  Skyfall has been in a limbo of title reveals, font choices, and poster teasers for what seems like ages, but we finally have a teaser for the third Bond film starring Daniel Craig: November's Skyfall.  This time, it sounds like we'll be getting a little more of Dame Judi Dench's M in the picture (I know one person who will be psyched about this), as the film supposedly revolves around 007 settling a score in her past.  Oh yeah, and don't forget: Javier Bardem is the villain and Sam Mendes is at the helm.  Boom.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The 100 Best Uses of Songs in Movies pt. 10 (of 10)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the end.  100 songs, a whole lot of movies, and not a single one of them is Ghost.  That's right, it's not an oversight,  "Unchained Melody" does not appear on this list  (because seriously, I'm more convinced that moment is famous because it's so easy to parody and not because it's anything other than lame).  If you don't believe me, you should definitely go back and listen/watch/read through the 90 entries that brought us to this moment.  Seriously, though, the last ten involved several tough calls.  New shit came to light, things were remembered, and the competition was fierce.  In the battle between 'canon' and personal impact, the latter often won out.  It's tough to argue when a film transforms the way you hear a song, and if it manages to do that off an album you already love (as with 98, for example), there may be something there...  

91. "Blue Moon" / Sam Cooke
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
American Werewolf is basically one big mixtape of songs featuring the moon. "Moondance" and "Bad Moon Rising" are snuck in here and there, and "Blue Moon" shows up in roughly a million iterations.  The Sam Cooke version, however, serves as a placidly nostalgic backing track to the painful transformation scene. It's a perfectly average horror, something made day to day without excess drama or swelling instrumentals.  

92. "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" / Nancy Sinatra
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
It may not be my favorite Kubrick film, but its hard to argue with how well a bit of Nancy Sinatra works in this too often referenced scene. Just the right amount of cheesy swagger with just the right amount of artfully cheesy exploitation.  

93. "O'Children" / Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1 (2010)
A last minute addition to the list.  I won't tell you what it bumped, but as soon as it was stumbled upon, it grabbed a slot on the list.  Nick Cave is a lyricist who can throw down a thrashing hell or a violent, fairy tale lullaby.  Even in the light there is a darkness, and the tone of "O'Children" beautifully matched the slow, melancholy loss of innocence in the moments leading to the finale as two close friends try to distract one another from heartbreak. It's a sweet, beautifully human instant in the middle of all the fantasy.

94. "The Killing Moon" / Echo and the Bunnymen
Donnie Darko (2001)
I've heard that Richard Kelly swapped out "The Killing Moon" with the release of his director's cut.  Why the hell he did that, I haven't a goddamn clue.  In the din of the living room, with the volume up, the song is a giant, sweeping introduction to the visual representation of all your teenage angst.

95. "Danke Scheon" and "Twist and Shout" / Wayne Newton and The Beatles
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Is it cheating if I push these two together?  Cause, I mean, they're back to back! It's practically a mash-up!  Ok, so maybe not quite, but they blend into a singular memory: Ferris Bueller, larger than life high school ubermensch, casting his spell on the city and reminding Cameron of everything he'll never be.

96. "Orinoco Flow" / Enya
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
[SPOILER ALERT]  In what qualifies as easily the most surprising (and flat out weird) musical cue I've heard in a long time, David Fincher throws down some Enya as Daniel Craig's Mikael Blomkvist gets chained up after getting far too close to the truth.  I associate Enya with my childhood and my mom's really strange predilection for the local smooth jazz station (whatever that means).  So...this was a context that made me snort with laughter.  

97. "Down in Mexico" / The Coasters
Death Proof (2007)
A seductive dance in flip flops for a mysterious psychopath.  Following a genuinely creepy setup, this feels like a long goodbye and a last ditch effort.  Nomination for best supporting performance by a perfectly average dive bar.

98. "Lady Grinning Soul" / David Bowie
The Runaways (2010)
(starting at 2:22) This is one of those moments that resonates with a certain kind of girl, and which I predict will be held dearly in the hearts of semi-awkward teenagers as they stumble upon the film for years to come.  It's the sort of fearless, fuck you assertion of individual preference that kids like me wish they would have gone for (that outfit...great), but which we so rarely do. 

99. "Needle in the Hay" / Elliott Smith
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Yep, I've pretty much put the whole movie on here.  I would argue, though, that "Needle in the Hay" is tonally apart from the rest of the film.  It's a short bit of pitch black otherness, a cold, blue self-examination from a movie much darker than what we'd seen up to this point.  It's unexpected, profoundly sad, brilliantly edited, and punctuated with exactly the right end note.

100. "Baby's on Fire" / Brian Eno
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
There's a surplus of amazing music backing up the glitter glam darkness of Velvet Goldmine.  While the film suffers from a case of unevenness, it's climactic moment is effectively scored to the discordant sound of "Baby's on Fire."  Indeed, here everyone burns.  The storylines intersect to find our Bowie-proxy Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, at his best) in his darkest hour and our struggling teen (Christian Bale) at a definitive moment in the formation of his own sexual identity.

The songs that almost made the cut: 
The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" from the end sequence in Cruel Intentions, the Quincy Jones "Soul Bossa Nova" that opens Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Enid's Bollywood bounce to "Jaan Perichaan Ho" in Ghost World, the dreamy use of "Beyond the Sea" in A Life Less Ordinary, the infamous Phoebe Cates bikini scene set to "Moving in Stereo" by The Cars in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Joy Division's "Atmosphere" in Control (which lost out only because it's a biopic and thus, a little obvious), and the oddly lovely use of Gwen Stefani's "Cool" in Somewhere

Squalor: The Dictator

It's becoming surprisingly difficult, lately, to defend the ambush comedy antics of Sacha Baron Cohen.  Where "Da Ali G Show" and Borat were brilliant social criticisms, Bruno was a critical misfire that felt more like an over-the-top exercise in provocation than a dangerously funny trip into  the heart of darkness.  It was a Borat rehash gone stale, more of the same with a narrative arc that seemed to lazily run through the familiar highs and lows of the Kazakh journalist.  That time around, the stunts felt forced and far-fetched.  It seemed somehow impossible that after the tremendous success of Borat, so many failed to recognize Cohen in costume.  We were bored, and all the awkward nudity in the world couldn't distract us from the simple truth that Cohen needed a new character and a new game.  Something a little more scripted, a little more ensemble, maybe a little less reliant on expository narration.  The Dictator had potential.  The old formula had been re-imagined in a more traditional landscape, surely that meant the opportunities for finessing and visual gags had been doubled, right?  
Nope.  After a bit of initial tittering, I found myself settling into a comfortably closed off position: arms crossed, watching, slowly realizing I couldn't care less.  The premise alone should have made for comedic gold:  Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, dictator of the fictional North African republic of Wadiya and a man so idiotically egomaniacal that he's ordered half the words in his language changed to his own name.  Where the opening portion of the film plays with Aladeen's world of excess, casual violence, and secret loneliness, the core of this little film is a classic fish out of water story: dictator comes to America, dictator is kidnapped and robbed of his beard, dictator is left to his own devices in the country he's publicly committed himself to loathing. While many a successful comedy has been built from less, The Dictator never seems to run with what it has been given and the result feels like a quick sketch.  This is a blueprint for a stronger film, a series of set pieces and scenes that could work if the backbone had been stronger, but which here come across as repetitively sophomoric.  As I watched Aladeen go through a series of predictable motions (9/11 joke, slyly misogynistic comments on Western women, comparisons between our supposed democracy and his reign), it occurred to me that Margaret Cho may have managed a richer depth of dictatorial character in her brief appearances as a  Kim Jong Il proxy (on 30 Rock) than Cohen has with a fake beard and funny walk.
Where the opportunities for satire feel plentiful, the only surprises The Dictator has to offer come in the form of celebrity cameos.  We've seen what Cohen is capable of.  He's a comedic force to be reckoned with, no doubt, but one stuck in his own self-created rut.  Under Aladeen's full beard, Cohen appears to be a lost man.  He's been stripped of his anonymity, and while he's proven himself a capable actor in outside works, he doesn't seem to know how to adjust his comedic skills to his Oscar-nominee levels of fame.  What he's doing here is too silly to be successful, too plagued by infantile elements to actually seem smart, too stupidly safe, and simply unfunny.  By the time Aladeen takes an off-screen dump from a zip line suspended above an NYC street, I was long past done.  Even the much buzzed about final UN speech doesn't deliver the full payoff of its build up (though it makes some very good points).  Part of the problem is that Cohen's performance, while enthusiastic, is rather emptily built more on reaction than provocation.  With Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, and The League's Jason Mantzoukas in supporting roles, Cohen has a talented cast to play off of.  Mantzoukas gives Cohen the most to work with, and his scenes occasionally offer an opportunity for a one-note snort.  Yet, ultimately, despite ample opportunity for slick subversion, this film seems to have less to work with than Bruno.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Love: Dark Shadows

When I was 18 I would never have fathomed that there might come a time when the world would suffer from overexposure to Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.  It’s a terrible ennui, but a valid one.  The two have collaborated on five films together in the past decade, and somewhere along the way, something went sour.  I can tell you, sort of, what it was for me: the major studio hand in the building of the new, recalibrated A-list leading man version of Johnny Depp.  One iconic character (Captain Jack Sparrow) led to a well-documented list of crummy sequels and boring money-grabbers (The Tourist, anyone?) for the actor.  For the pairing? Let’s just say the dreadfully misguided Alice in Wonderland was enough to wear on anyone’s nerves.  With big, noisy, overbearing claptrap like that, it’s easy to forget that along the way Depp had a major hand in the brilliant Rango and the two made the very successful, unflinchingly dark Sweeney Todd.
Yet, forget we have.  We’re bored. I shouldn’t have to tell you, when you’re already sick of something, looking at a trailer for more of the same doesn’t help much.  And, even early on, Dark Shadows looked to be a large serving of more of the same.  Still, I held out hope.  Why not? They were a dynamic duo, a magical pairing shrouded in shadows for gothically-inclined kids to worship secretly on bookshelf altars.  My inner 18-year old (who I listen to pretty frequently) was in teen crush love with Johnny Depp, of course, and Burton will always appeal to me as a fellow black-clad pale weirdo with a penchant for all things in contrasting stripes; but I don’t believe this necessarily clouds my vision.  You could argue, actually, that it might just enhance it with regard to Barnabas Collins.   I am exactly the target market for Dark Shadows and, I must say, though I can see where the detractors are coming from, I found a lot to admire in this glossy oddball comedy. 

Dark Shadows is derived from the 60’s soap opera of the same name and follows the exploits of the cursed Collins family.  The film makes a great show of detailing the family’s meteoric rise to East Coast royalty.  They’re captains of the fishing industry, and have been in the business for generations, though not without enduring near endless strife.  The family’s most famed member is beautiful corpse Barnabas (Johnny Depp), a man who –two centuries ago- wronged Angelique (Eva Green)- the wrong witch to mess with- and watched as his beloved Josette (Bella Heathcote) plummeted to her doom from those steep seaside cliffs.  He follows her, as tragic heroes are wont to do, and awakens to find himself cursed as a long-clawed vampire.  Fast forward to 1972 and we see Barnabas returning (like Uncle Fester before him) to Collinwood, the family manor, only to find his beloved home in disrepair and run by a rag-tag bunch of lamentable blood relations.  Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) would be a textbook WASP if she weren’t so gloomy; and under her watch she has her disagreeable daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), a deadbeat brother (Johnny Lee Miller), his ‘loony’ young son (Gulliver McGrath), and a live-in, permanently drunk psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter).  There's a bright spot among the rabble, though, as Barnabas also finds David’s young governess (every dark estate needs one) Victoria (Heathcote again), a girl who happens to be a dead ringer for his long-lost bride.
The elements are gathered from far and wide in the pop culture galaxy, not solely pulled from the original soap opera itself.  Burton appears to be having great fun blending the disparate landscapes of gloomy gothic revival and garishly colored hippiedom, and the result is a surprisingly sumptuous blend of rich contrasts that plays well with the film’s temperament.  Carolyn’s bedroom is decked out in shag carpeting, lava lamps, and T.Rex posters while other rooms are made from elaborate carvings of monstrous figures, wolf packs, and larger than life arches.  It’s an old school haunted mansion and an art director’s dream; beautiful, luxe, cold, comforting and menacing all at once.  Within Colinwood, the actors and actresses move like painted jewels or plastic dolls in a demented dream house.  This isn't a bad thing.  Their immaculate make-up glows whiter, the blood on their lips is brighter, their hair seems to shine, and it’s hard to look away from them.  They’re appropriately hypnotic, even when the film might not be.
One of the criticisms of Dark Shadows will certainly be that it doesn’t seem to know, exactly, what it is or where it's going.  Where it was marketed as a broad comedy, it fails.  This is not a vampire Austin Powers,  nor is it a tarted-up Addams Family (though that DNA is much, much closer).  I’ll be the first to admit that Dark Shadows is not really funny in the laugh out loud sense.  So, while it’s not particularly funny, it is, obviously, a bit silly.  This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if the film had transformed into a sort of Sleepy Hollow rehash.  But, of course, while the body count is actually quite high (this vampire does, indeed, suck copious amounts of blood),  It’s not at all horrific.  Instead, it just exists as a gently bent portrait of a quirky, troubled clan that takes its soapy roots to heart (the dialogue tends towards the slow and dramatically purpled) while itching to release its monsters on the world.  Dark Shadows operates at a pleasant simmer.  It wants you to soak in all its glowing ghosts, dense trees, and high ceilings.  Unlike Alice, it’s never spastic, nor does it depend on distracting CG.  In watching it, my eyeballs were delighted and I was entranced, in a way.  It seemed to quietly hit all the right notes.  Yet, for most, that won’t be enough. 

I can’t speak as to whether or not Tim Burton stuck to the source material (though I know the show has been added to Netflix instant here in the US), but I can say that the film has his finger prints all over it and seems (unlike Alice) to be an act of love.  There is an innocence lurking in the shadows of the film, and while it may not be the strongest in his filmography, it’s an impressive singular vision that certainly trumps your average TV adaptation any day of the week.  The actors have been brilliantly cast, Green is positively magnetic, and Depp remains the perfect character actor for Burton’s directorial visions.  He's a delight to watch, even if its a variation on several characters we've seen from him before.  If you’re a Burton/Depp fan with any bit of lingering hope left, I recommend you ignore the naysayers and take a bit of time to luxuriate in the world Dark Shadows offers.   I suspect you’ll find something to love there, even if its guiltily.  These are, after all, your people.  

The 100 Best Uses of Songs in Movies pt. 9 (of 10)

Next week's entry will be the final one for this list, and before we reach that critical point I'm going to ask you to speak now or forever hold your peace.  If you see something missing, it's very possible I've simply forgotten it.  In an effort to keep things as relevant and thorough as I can, I'm definitely interested in hearing your opinions on glaring omissions.  Feedback = always welcome.  So, take a look through the lists of old, see the sights, and suggest away! Remember, though, the songs have to pre-date the movie.  These aren't 'from or inspired by', they're just part of the soundtrack.

81. "Some Velvet Morning" / Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood
Morvern Callar (2002)
Morvern Callar has a tremendous soundtrack, actually, and is well worth checking out in its entirety.  Of all the tracks, the standout moment on screen comes courtesy of the original gangsta Barbie, Nancy Sinatra and serious mustache cowboy Lee Hazlewood.  I love this song  a shit-ton, so anytime I hear its opening strains my ears flick to attention, but even so: here it seems to underscore Morvern's (Samantha Morton) insulated pain.

82. "Stuck in the Middle With You" / Stealers Wheel
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The other Vega brother, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) has a little dance party that leads absolutely nowhere good.  From what I can tell, there are a massive amount of people who haven't actually seen Reservoir Dogs who still, somehow, are able to associate this song with the hasty removal of an ear.  That's pop culture permanence, kids. 

83. "Hey You" / Pink Floyd
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
I thought about opting for Noah Baumbach's use of Risky Business's "Love on a Real Train" in this film, as it transforms some crucial coming of age moments into slightly menacing moments of self-discovery and growing up to soon.  I also thought about "Street Hassle", which serves as the perfect closer.  Ultimately, though, I went with the stole Pink Floyd track Jesse Eisenberg's teenage Walt claims ownership of for the school talent show. It's a desperate plea to his family, whether he realizes it or not, and one that thematically echoes the film to a tee. 

84. "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing" / Chris Issak   
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
[NSFW] I'm of the opinion that Eyes Wide Shut is a woefully underrated Kubrick movie containing secret multitudes that can be unpacked for ages.  I've seen it several times, used it for several school projects, and each time I revisit it it seems somehow new to me.  All that aside, however, I love how completely this song is associated with this movie from advertising campaign to film itself.  It cuts to the slightly menacing, nasty heart below the slow, slow scenic surface.

85. "Born to be Wild" / Steppenwolf
Easy Rider (1969)
Um, duh.  I mean, "Born to be Wild" is one of those songs I feel like people actually come out of the birth canal knowing by heart.  And, weirdly, I don't remember a time when I didn't innately know this song as something associated with motorcycles.  Have you experienced this?  Do you feel like you've always known about Easy Rider?  

86. "The Locomotion" / Little Eva
Inland Empire (2006)
I'm a big fan of a successful random dance sequence (again: Spider-Man 3 does not qualify).  I'm also a big fan of WTF moments.  Inland Empire may qualify as one big WTF moment, but David Lynch drops in a dancing group of ladies who seem so weirdly normal in context that the result is almost creepy.  They even return in the end credits to dance about to "Sinner Man" (as previously mentioned).  It's an explosion of echoing sound that's somehow welcome in all the doom and gloom.  But, why is this happening?  

87. "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" / Simon & Garfunkel 
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
I know you're probably sick of me putting cuts from The Royal Tenenbaums on this list, but in my opinion the film really, really deserves the over-hype in this department.  The interplay between the music and the images really helps define the eccentric family at the heart of this story, and this is one scene that I just adore. It's gleefully irreverent and so, so great. All that and there's still another song I could put on this list, but I may have to restrain myself (we'll see).  

88. "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time) / The Delfonics
Jackie Brown (1997)
Pam Grier accidentally seduces Robert Forster with a bathrobe and a bit of old soul in this quiet, strangely sweet scene.  In the middle of all the drug running, gun play, and marijuana haze, The Delfonics enter the picture and add a touch of unexpected romance (all while serving as an absent subject for QT jibber-jabber aplenty scattered throughout the film).  

89. "I'm Your Man" / Leonard Cohen
Secretary (2002)
For some reason Lionsgate has made accessing clips from their films nearly impossible on YouTube.  For Secretary, I can't even post a trailer (totally ridiculous) on this site, so you'll have to view the light S&M montage here.  Leonard Cohen is no stranger to movie soundtracks (hell, he's composed a few himself), but this one usage always stands out as fabulously droll in context.  While the lyrics match the subject, the dry monotone of Cohen's intonation adds an amusing touch to the smirk on Maggie Gyllenhaal's face as she gets herself fitted for a saddle, accepts pellets from James Spader's palm, and bends herself on over.  

90. "Dry the Rain" / The Beta Band
High Fidelity (2000)
In any other movie, this would be a throwaway scene.  In High Fidelity, it makes the list perhaps because after listening to Rob Gordon (John Cusack) make music references through the entire run-time of the film, we learn to pay attention when he speaks and take whatever recommendation he throws at us.  If he knows The Three EPs by The Beta Band will bring a serene calm to his record store,  we must take him seriously.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Love: The Avengers

I have not been sleeping well lately.  While this has nothing to do with the subject at hand, it should, at least, explain why it is the post time on this entry will probably clock in at about 2:30 in the AM.  Sometimes these bouts of insomnia come back.  Right now this means that I am wired.  I have played by turns on Words with Friends, I have Scrambled, Drawn Something, Tweeted, looked at Lookbook, read the introduction of A Common Pornography and somehow wound up taking a quiz to figure out which Avenger I would be even though I was pretty sure I already knew what it would tell me.  And then, you know, I got to thinking very exhausted, very trite, really quite insipid half-baked thoughts about how The Avengers is just that kind of movie.  It's a fan-maker, an allegiance-builder, a choose-your-favorite-character-and-revert-back-to-your-8-year-old-self-in-a -cape type of experience.  It has been custom built over the last five years; assembled (ha ha) with the full knowledge that eventually the pieces would need to come together in a way that didn't destroy a super-sized franchise.  It's the sequel to a sequel, a prequel to a new saga, a partial closure, and introduction, a dream team of egos and legends.  
By my every calculation up until just a couple weeks ago: The Avengers shouldn't have worked.  It was a product made of hype and so overloaded with intersecting stories and stars that I'd braced myself for a clusterfuck of catastrophic proportions. The problem with dream teams on film is almost always the same: too many characters = not enough screen time, a plot you couldn't follow with a flowchart, and a reduction of characterization to floppy, flaccid one-note quips.  We couldn't overlook the fact that The Avengers already had a couple of these relative clunkers under its utility belt already.  Exhibit A: Thor. Exhibit B: Iron Man 2.  Entertaining? Sure. Empty? Absolutely. In some ways, both of these films are necessary for a full appreciation of the main event, but their pratfalls could have easily been carried on if the studios behind the franchise had succumbed to the greedy, lazy knowledge that the movie was already a sure thing.  The Avengers made quick work out of the international box office, and if you're reading this it's likely only because you're as interested in comparing your opinion with my own.  You know that it succeeded. You know that it's likely one of the most entertaining films you'll see this summer.  And no, let's be real, Joss Whedon isn't the only one to thank for that.  Get over it.
The story picks up shortly after the conclusions of its primary sources to begin anew with a focus directed on the characters who have existed at the periphery of the previous films.  This is our chance to see inside S.H.I.E.L.D. before the entrance of our bickering titans, a moment spent with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the sulky, fairly useless Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  In this issue, smirky, smarmy, greasy Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Earth hellbent on taking over and enslaving society into revering him as the demi-god he is.  Though his appearance is laughable (and luckily: this is addressed), Loki possesses an understanding of the innerworkings of the mysterious Tesseract, an energy source capable of mass destruction (among other things).  Cut to: AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, heroes interact for the first time, power struggles, exposition, exposition, exposition, and battle sequence after battle sequence.

 Genetically, The Avengers is just like every other brightly colored comic book film.  The plot requires that these exceptional specimens save the rest of mankind, and we expect that they will succeed in their quest and send us on our merry way.  The Avengers is not Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight saga.  It has no real interest in true crime, gritty noir, or seeking out existential baggage in its wreckage.  It is merely here for your entertainment, and it is a vivid, shiny chrome piece of pop art.  What the film primarily succeeds in is an act of gratification: it gives us what we want as an audience and it gives it in the right doses.  Somewhere in Disney/Marvel headquarters there must be a secret algorithm determining exactly how much we want to see of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) vs. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) vs. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) vs. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), because the math is pretty dead-on.  Each of the characters gets their moment to shine, no one is useless, and the successful, really quite funny, quips have been dispersed fairly between the smart-mouthed titans. [Quick sidenote: Nick Fury's dialogue is totally the worst, guys. I'm convinced that next time Tarantino should be brought in to rewrite Sam Jackson's lines]
While the film certainly isn't perfect, and Whedon's much-praised pop-snark dialogue only really hits its mark 50% of the time, it is a massively entertaining nerdgasm that can be appreciated by superfans and casual observers alike.  The Avengers is a pure popcorn movie to be cherished for its absolute irreverence.  There's real humor to be found here, real action, and -at long last- a version of the Hulk I think everyone should be able to agree steals every scene he's in.  Ruffalo's take on the character finally gives him heart without shirking the undeniable entertainment value that comes  with super-smash powers.  Oh, and as for that quiz?  Why yes, apparently I am Iron Man.     

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

RIP: Maurice Sendak

The wild rumpus came to an end today.  Beloved children's book author/illustrator Maurice Sendak died after experiencing complications from a recently suffered stroke.   He was 83.  Sendak is most famous, undoubtedly, for 1963's Where the Wild Things Are, a picture book that the generations can agree on without question.  That story, and many of his others (Higglety Pigglety Pop, Chicken Soup with Rice, Bumble-Ardy, In the Night Kitchen) are brief visions is light and darkness that have been reprinted and adapted numerous times for stage, screen, and grandiose opera.  It seems appropriate to send him off with a quote from his very own Wild Things: "oh, please don't go! We'll eat you up! We love you so..."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The 100 Best Uses of Songs in Movies pt. 8 (of 10)

A little overdue, but part 8 has arrived.  The problem with a largely 'personal' blog? Deadlines don't actually exist.  Anyhow, this time around I figure I should clarify that the qualifying factor for all the songs on this list is that they had to have been in existence prior to the film itself.  They're being used by the film.  Sometimes they're a diegetic needle drop in the moment, calling on a pop song we all know and love. Sometimes, it's a bit of score swapped from a classical piece for extra dramatic flair.  For the purpose of this list, the songs can't be composed explicitly for the film (though maybe that list will come one day).  Check out numbers 1-70 here

71. "As Time Goes By" / from the musical Everybody's Welcome
Casablanca (1942)
One of the most famous musical cues in all of cinema; the original "Play it again, Sam" moment.  A man, a woman, and a song Warner Brothers still uses to back its logo. Dooley Wilson's rendition of the song lent an endearing, lasting romance to an already atmospheric film.  Beautiful & absolutely classic.  

72. "The Times They Are a-Changin'" / Bob Dylan
Watchmen (2009)
It's hard to mention Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel without sparking a heated debate, but one thing even the haters should be able to agree upon is the technical brilliance and phenomenal detail of the opening credits.  Sorry high school teachers, but this is certainly the best use of the played out folk ballad I've ever encountered.  

73. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" / Santa Esmeralda
Kill Bill vol. 1 (2003)
The Bride (Uma Thurman) travels to the east to face off against Oren (Lucy Liu) and Tarantino keeps the balance between the samurai and western influences even with a bit of Spanish guitar disco in a snowy Zen garden.  The rhythms build, tensions rise, and the stylized idiosyncratic nature of the scene hits the roof.  

74. "Don't Stop Me Now" / Queen
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Can you hear this song without visions of zombie beatings dancing in your head?  I can't. Synchronized destruction with a beat you can dance to.  

75. "In Dreams" / Roy Orbison
Blue Velvet (1986)
There ain't no party like a David Lynch party.  Long before "Crazy Clown Time" we had Frank Booth, Dorothy Vallens, and a very special moment brought to you by Roy Orbison.    By the way, we've all noticed that "Crazy Clown Time" is totally just a remixed version of "The Pink Room" from the Fire Walk With Me score, right?  Yeah. It is. But with creepy vocals.

76. "New Slang" / The Shins
Garden State (2004)
It's hard for me to ignore Garden State as it's one of those movies that came out at exactly the right time in my life.  It seemed to take everyone at school by storm, and people suddenly became incredibly affectionate and weirdly, prematurely nostalgic about The Shins.  The soundtrack was the thing to play in any non-party situation, and while I'd originally wanted to opt for "The Only Living Boy in New York" as the key moment here (screaming into the abyss, and all), M. pointed out that ignoring "New Slang" would be fairly criminal.  

77. "Puttin' on the Ritz" / Fred Astaire
Young Frankenstein (1974)
The reasons why this is great: do I even have to explain them?  No. Absolutely not. For how else do you prove that a monster is a refined, dignified human being?  Tap dancing, tuxes, and the full Fred Astaire. 

78. "Faith" / George Michael
Rules of Attraction (2002)
Couldn't get the clip for this one, so you'll have to watch it here. While the film is fairly minor (though it definitely has a loyal underground following), and mentioning it in the same breath as something like Casablanca feels like severe juxtaposition...The Rules of Attraction excels at the ADHD mayhem it depicts.  Pushing against the darkness we have strange bits of bright, drug-fueled, sexualized joy.  The moment Ian Somerhalder and Russell Sams bounce furiously about the room to "Faith" is a bizarrely memorable, too brief respite.   

79. "Sweet Emotion" / Aerosmith
Dazed and Confused (1993)
I can't lie to you: I never really 'got' this movie.  It just didn't click for me.  That said, I've never really been able to divorce "Sweet Emotion" from the film's opening credits. It's a perfect moment, and those opening notes work like a time machine.  

80. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" / Rolling Stones
The Big Chill (1983)
I have a problem with The Big Chill.  See, at first I really didn't like it.  I thought it was absurdly overrated and massively problematic.  I still think it's problematic, but, for some reason I've found myself returning to it every so often. It's oddly comforting even though it's fairly infuriating (WHY DO THEY DO THAT SWAP? WHO THOUGHT THAT WAS A GOOD IDEA?!?).   I've come to appreciate the use of the Rolling Stones track during this somber reunion.  It's become a cliche now, but it had to start somewhere, right? 

Friday, May 4, 2012

RIP: Adam Yauch (MCA)

Beastie Boys co-founder Adam Yauch passed away today at age 47.  In 2009, Yauch announced he was battling a cancer that infected his salivary glands and lymph nodes, a battle it is truly unfortunate that he lost.  Yauch was a creative force who balanced his musical roots with an interest in film.  After directing several of the group's music videos he tried his hand at documentary filmmaking with "Gunnin' for That #1 Spot" and founded the production company Oscilloscope Pictures (an off-shoot of his Oscilloscope Laboratories).  He is survived by his wife and daughter.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Under 250: Albatross

Albatross is like the literate teen film companion piece to 2010's Tamara Drewe.  Emelia - a smart, pretty, too-wise-for-her-17-years young writer (Jessica Brown Findlay) -takes up a housekeeping job at a little seaside English inn owned by a bored, trapped family.  The matriarch is an ex-actress (Julia Ormond), the patriarch is a floundering novelist (Sebastian Koch), and their daughter is a bored to death kid just waiting for someone like Emelia to rush in, shake things up, and push her outside her comfort zone.  That she does.  Albatross is a variation on a story we've heard time and time again.  It thrives on the used up tropes of the edgy, indie, coming-of-age story.  There will be affairs and mildly creepy seductions, there will be vaguely slutty outfits and pregnancy scares, there will be parties, leering middle aged men, and fumbling relationships.  Ultimately, what you stay for are the elements you haven't quite seen before.  Here, the light melodrama is aided by the general likability of Brown Findlay and her unbridled, snappish intelligence.   Where the film itself is a heavily flawed piece of work, her character is a bright bit of odd honesty.  Emelia is the rare teenage jailbait character who doesn't seem like overdone caricature, and she's the unlikely source of the film's comfortably numb warmth.

Love: Damsels in Distress

I had a conversation at some point in college with a then-friend who was also starting to tear through the Criterion Collection.  She'd watched Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (which I hadn't yet seen) and declared it the worst, most pretentious piece of bougie indulgence she'd ever had the misfortune of seeing.  I recalled this as I watched Damsels in Distress, Stillman's newest.  Here, the action is situated on a college campus.  Through an intrepid young banterer named Lily (Analeigh Tipton), we meet a group of upper middle class 'do-gooders' led by the cheerfully affected Violet (Greta Gerwig).  Violet and her small band of cardigan prepsters put in hours and hours working in the Suicide Prevention Center feeding donuts and coffee to their depressed classmates, searching for the telltale sources of their grief, and -wait for it- attempting to single-handedly cure them with tap dancing and wonderful smelling soap (hygiene is key).  This is just that kind of world.  At one point, Violet defends a supremely doltish 'Roman' fraternity house against the newspaper's accusations of elitism by questioning how on Earth a group of morons could be considered elitist.  If anything, she observes, they deserve our pity.  Indeed, you could say the same thing about the film itself.  Where Stillman dabbles in worlds of disposable income, pedantry, and fast-talking East coast WASPs, there's a sublime silliness to the whole thing.  Damsels in Distress is endearingly screwball, pretentiously lighthearted, and so clever in its absolute stupidity that I had to stop and wonder if Stillman had always been this way or if he's playing into his own criticism.
Of course, the entire purpose of Damsels seems to be a sort of good-natured meandering. This is a talking and walking movie; a film made up of little comic vignettes, observations, and instances that cling together by the threads of semesters at small liberal arts schools across the country.  Loosely, the overarching theme is partially a sort of satirizing of the holier-than-thou social consciousness via TOMS shoes cool kids (which 21 Jump Street made note of), and partially a skewering of a certain type of reaching intellectualism.  Here, the so-called morons are dumb at an unheard of level.  Violet informs us that she believes in dating down to help the less fortunate realize a sort of inner potential.  Her boyfriend doesn't know what color his eyes are while, meanwhile, his housemate doesn't even know the names of the colors (not an exaggeration).  Yet, while Violet is certainly a smarter girl than that, her constant optimistic pontification belies her own lack of a certain type of intelligence.  She's ridiculous without knowing it, a role Gerwig pulls off with amicable ease.  Where she's played a few quirky characters of this sort in her brief history as an actress, Violet is a comic standout who hits that perfect sweet spot between the massively irritating and sweetly confused.  The entire film is smartly cast with a blend of overacting underactors, if that paradoxical statement makes any sense.  While at points its endless blathering may grow a little tiring, there's something charming about the whole ordeal.  Damsels in Distress in an accessible film gussied up as something traditionally pretentious.  If you can laugh at its bald-faced absurdities, though, it has a script full of very very funny observations and idiosyncrasies.

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