Monday, July 28, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2 Imagine Itself

In continuing the I Watched A Movie In The Summer (da dada dada dada dada dada da da da) miniseries, the Author is glad to welcome an exclusive guest review of How To Train Your Dragon 2 written by none other than the star of the show himself, Chief Hiccup the Averagely Proportioned.  This is a take you couldn’t possibly read anywhere else and we’re looking forward to seeing more of Hiccup’s insightful, original analysis in the future.

This is Berk.  If that sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve already heard it spoken in monologue at least twice, once at the beginning of my debut film and once at the end.  A useful narrative framing device, it clearly illustrated the progression of myself and my thick-headed Viking colleagues from brutish ignorance to peaceful understanding.  At the opening of How To Train Your Dragon, I spoke of my village’s many hardships, citing the dragons as perennial pests and a blight upon our livestock, but at the end of How To Train Your Dragon, I spoke from maturity of my village’s many strengths, referring once again to the dragons not as our mortal enemies, but as our greatest friends and companions.  If you go to see How To Train Your Dragon 2, you’ll get to hear me talk about Berk and dragons twice more, except that this time my monologues stem from the exact same perspective in each instance, rather nullifying the purpose of having such a revelatory and reflective monologue at all.  But how else am I to wrap things up in a movie where nothing really changes other than the emergence and predictable downfall of a generic, one-sided villain-character?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  My name is Hiccup, son of Chief Stoick the Vast and somebody else you’ll know shortly enough, though my girlfriend of something like five years-and-running calls me “Babe” for short, as in, “Go get ’em, babe!”  Gods, that’s annoying!  Astrid knows me well enough by this point that she can do a bang-up impression of my speech patterns, right down to the flappy shoulders and arms, but it’s a heck of a lot cuter when she does it, as you can certainly deduce.  My buddies Fishlegs and Snotlout think Ruffnut’s a lot hotter and will remind me so vocally throughout the film, which has an altogether inordinate focus on teenage hormones for a record of war, but I think Astrid has to be the second prettiest girl in the world, with the first prettiest making her residence in a whole other continent and/or universe depending on where the heck Berk actually is.  I just wish she had more of a personality. Remember how wonderfully self-inflated, feisty, ambitious, and affectionate she was five years ago, kind of like a real teenager, punching me in the gut one moment and smooching me the very next?  I miss that Astrid.  All she does now is give me motivational pep talks when I’m feeling blue, something about what’s in here vs. what’s out there and whichever one is more important.

I guess we all grow up at one point or another.  You may remember the days when I was a lone liberal in a village of myopic, irrational warmongers, an open-minded and prudential reformer who stood for independent thought, answering to logic instead of impulse, and knowing who your real enemies in the world are.  As a result of my exposure to the pacifistic mentality so often implanted by post-secondary Viking training, I have since matured into a naïve and insulated “liberal” who likes to imagine that my real enemies in the world don’t even exist or that they can easily be converted to my side through the mystical healing power of peace talks.  Needless to say it turns out I’m the foolhardy ideologue and my father is the voice of reason, which at the very least means this second adventure of mine isn’t a total retread of the first, even though both are mostly about people journeying from ignorance to knowledge, both have cutesy but endearing coming-of-age themes, and both culminate in a bravura showdown between the mountainous alpha dragon and a much smaller, more nimble underdog dragon which wins the boss round against all odds.

There are other differences between my earlier challenges and these, the biggest one being that I now have a token, one-movie “bad guy” to contend with instead of the broader policy issues formerly dividing the dragons and my community.  His name is Bloodspiller* or something ridiculous like that, and he’s got the looks to match, draping himself in a dragonskin robe that conveniently protects him from burns and partially enables him to claim an easy victory in the first major battle, before we good guys come around and turn the tides in a requisite second major battle.   There’s also another sidekick joining me on my quest, a dragon-hunting turned dragon-liberating mercenary type who wants to be devilish and evil but just can’t manage it – as if I didn’t already have enough knuckleheads following me around between Jonah Snotlout Hill, Fishlegs, and the twins, one of whom falls instantaneously and shamelessly in love with this newcomer.  I wouldn’t want to betray the greatest plot twist of them all, but then I fear I already have earlier in this manuscript, and even assuming that I haven’t spilt forth the beans yet, it’s clear that my marketing division has spared no pains to divulge the secret on my behalf.  I suppose it’s only a secret in the sense that the dawning of the planet of the apes is a secret, or that Jake Sully’s ultimate defection to the noble savages is a secret, or that Katniss surviving the Hunger Games is a secret, but it’s not a bad secret as far as they come.

So, what can you expect if you choose to go watch me and Toothless one more time on the big screen? There’s a lot of pretty sights, for sure, not the least of which is my gal Astrid.  Is there a single male alive on this planet who can bask in her high-definition rendering and not do figurative gymnastics inside his head?  Her wavy golden locks, the faintest glimmer in her gaping blue eyes, verily every perfect imperfection** of her lovely aspect is recreated with striking precision by the painters at Dreamworks; in truth, the studio gives all my friends a similarly royal treatment, though they don’t look quite as impressive, obviously.  So too does Dreamworks honor the legacy of our noble brethren in Dragonkind by animating a spectacular array of colors and fantastical frills for your pleasure, envisioning an alternately majestic and adorable race that should lend itself nicely to the overstocked toy aisles of your local Wal Mart or Target. These are the most stunningly accurate CG dragon models I’ve ever seen south of Westeros, but your kids wouldn’t know anything about that, would they?

I swear, this is just like the real deal.

In any case, they’ll be begging you for their own nightfury, deadly nadder, and zippleback action figures long before you’ve left the cinemas, which is almost as ominous for your wallet as the latest Spyro the Purple Dragon video game but shows the filmmakers must have done something right in the visual department.  You’d probably do better to get them John Powell’s musical score instead, which draws too much perhaps on the themes we already know and love but still introduces some beautiful choral sections and soaring pieces to accompany the many creative and cathartic flying sequences featured in the film (one of my kindred trainers has mastered some kind of dragon-surfing by now, an eye-popping and elegant ritual in which you literally dance across your dragon’s wings and back instead of assuming the more functional position and just sitting on it).

The script isn’t as clear-cut a success, though, largely because there’s not a development in the documentary you can’t see bearing down from a mile away.  Anyone who’s read the reports will know the course of things long before they transpire, but the filmmakers do little to heighten the suspense or emotional poignancy for those who are unfamiliar with our people’s near skirting of extinction.  The final destination of the plot should be glaringly apparent to anyone who’s watched a Saturday morning cartoon, and the humorous dialogue added by the screenwriter for a more mainstream appeal is roughly on par with that you might hear in such TV entertainment, as opposed to the genuinely funny albeit entirely fictionalized gags from Dreamworks’ first chronicle of Berk (“What are we going to do about all this?”  “But you just gestured to all of me.”).  For no discernible artistic reason, they have also decided to inject such theatrical clichés as:

* The particular fighting move that the protagonist struggles to execute for the first and second acts until the critical moment when he really needs it, at which point he magically pulls it off perfectly to beat the bad guy and save the day.  See driving backwards and turning right to go left in Cars, repelling the knife in Snow White and the Huntsman, subduing your opponent with his surroundings in Batman Begins, thrusting yourself through space in Gravity, generating a forcefield in The Incredibles, shooting the forcefield in Catching Fire, doing the wooshi finger-hold in Kung Fu Panda, and stopping the bullets in The Matrix (technically not trained for by Neo but foreshadowed by Morpheus in dialogue).
* Two guys constantly competing for the hand of the same girl, who isn’t interested in either of them. 
* A happy, time-consuming moment of singing and dancing and levity to relieve tension before a chaotic battle scene that ends in tragedy. 

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a story that needed to be told, if only for the sake of immortalizing our turbulent history in film.  It’s not nearly as inspiring or relevant to cultures outside our own as HTTYD1, but it still comes as a timely warning about the perils of passing off our real enemies as our fantasy friends.  I just wish it were better told.  For all the staggering trials we’ve endured and overcome, I only feel that Berk deserves far more than this mediocre sequel-on-rails.  After all, how much greater are the problems we’ve surmounted than those of our neighbors?  The Danes have bested their Grendel, the hobbits have toppled their Sauron, and the amigos have vanquished their El Guapo, but we… we have bridled monsters, we have saddled demons, we have domesticated giants… we have mastered…


End review of the glorified Saturday morning cartoon.

Grade rating: I hate to be the purveyor of sour news, but the Author has instructed me to read you this following letter that will undoubtedly put a damper on your spirits.

“The Author will hereby be discontinuing the Files’ grading system on the intelligence that it enables lazy moviegoers to skip over the other 99% of his reviews’ content for a generalized and by no means informative statistic which tells them effectively nothing about the movie and which is entirely relative to other films measured by the same scale and which thusly encourages praise or criticism by comparison rather than by the subject film’s own merits, perpetuating an epidemic of quite frankly idiotic excuses for commentary that devise to convince readers not whether they should like the movie but whether they will like the movie: e.g. ‘If you liked The Hunger Games, then you’re going to love X pseudo-dystopian teenage franchise movie that was made just to capitalize on the Hunger Games hype.’  That so many critics resort to cheaply pinning a number or letter on their estimation of a product is symptomatic of an intellectually tarnished digital generation, one in which people lean on percentages and graphics from critical web aggregators to make up their minds instead of looking at ideas and detailed analysis.  We at the Author’s Files have had enough of the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritics of the universe, and so it is that we’re dispensing with our own blog’s cheat sheets to better emulate Joe Morgenstein, Rex Reed, and other critics who write at higher than a third-grade level.  To determine the Author’s position on a certain movie in the future, you’ll have to actually read his words and read them thoroughly.  It’s better for your brain and better for his, considering the countless hours he’s committed so far to writing what he hopes have been stimulating and enriching critiques of modern art.”

Wow.  All that basically means I can’t give you guys who skipped to the bottom an easy answer to your question.  I will say this: I’ve been saving up to get Astrid a nice ring and it’d really, really help if you chipped in and bought like as many Imax 3D tickets as you can.  It’s really amazing in 3D – flames spouting out of the screen at you, flying through the clouds, it’s all so surreal, like really really awesome! Take the kids, take the whole family, ’cause it’s PG, you know, and there’s nothing remotely offensive in the whole movie***, except for maybe the fact that you paid $100 for it, but that’s not important.

More trailer reviews (by the Author)
“The Giver” – Good gosh, what the hell did Hollywood do with the most thought-provoking and deceptively simple young-adult novel of the last twenty years?  Why are the starfighter thingies chasing Jonas across the desert and sucking him up in their tractor beams like this is an action movie?  Why is Meryl Streep’s Obligatory Antagonist Character leading a conspiracy among the evil bureaucrats to root out troublemaking freethinkers like Jonas who “pose a threat” to the community?  Why’d the a-holes behind this even bother adapting a novel so lauded for its subtlety and philosophical depth if they were only going to pervert it into another gosh-damned Divergent clone?

See?  It is a frickin Divergent clone!

Pardon my language.  I didn’t mean to offend anyone.  Will you accept my apology, Jonas?

Earth to Echo – E.T. had a baby with Cloverfield-/Chronicle-for-kids and it is uuuuugly.
The Penguins of Madawhoha? – Because it wasn’t enough for them to get two sucky sequels from the idea-starved Dreamworks machine and an occasionally clever show on Nickelodeon.  These flightless fowl are creepy.  They need to die.
Home – I take it back now, mmm mmm mmm.  Apparently Dreamworks is capable of having an original idea, if talking alien blobs, Seussian candy-color art styles, and fart jokes are original ideas.  This is possibly the least enticing piece of marketing I’ve seen in my life.  So mind-numbingly stupid…
Dolphin Tale 2 – I reckon I should be partial towards this one because I’m personally familiar with the young lady who stars in it, but I really have no idea how they’re going to sustain the crushing weight of so much animal cuteness and audience tears through a second picture… which is all the first movie was in a nutshell.
Annie – Why is Django Unchained Foxx in the movie?  Was this supposed to be funny?  Heartwarming?  I don’t get it.
Firefighting Rescue Planes: a Cars Adventure in 3D – This would be the sequel… to the spinoff… to the sequel to the movie that was made to sell toy cars?  See Penguins above.

* Drago Bludvist.  I had to look it up in the encyclopedia dragonica.
** Insufferable allusion not approved by the chief editor.
*** (From the Author) In the weeks leading up to Dragon’s release, there was no small furor on conservative websites over a scene that allegedly outed Stoic’s right-hand man Gobber as a homosexual. Said coming-out moment is really nothing more than a throwaway self-deprecating comment Gobber makes about the “one other reason [he never married]”.  This, of course, can be interpreted as referring to many different things, most likely his physical handicap or natural Viking repulsiveness, and hardly constitutes a Hollywood conspiracy to foist a secular ideology on young audiences, as was Paranorman or Happy Feet, the former featuring an openly gay character on top of a brazenly gay message and the latter being a barely concealed, allegorical thrashing of traditional, Judeo-Christian values.  The only reason this line stirred up any controversy was because director/writer Dean DeBlois, clearly not the shrewdest cookie in the marketing jar, tried to force feed us the “right meaning” of Gobber’s joke for no conceivable reason other than to win his Caring Liberal merit-badge.  The whole outrage seems even more overblown when one considers that the line wasn’t even in the original script but was actually ad-libbed by voice actor Craig Ferguson during production.  Like the whole “Dumbledore is gay” incident of several years back, it doesn’t make any sense or improve the story whatsoever, but like the Dumbledore incident, it says far more about the author’s worldview than that of the work itself.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Nothing Apish About It

Kicking off a new Author’s Files miniseries entitled simply I Watched a Movie In the Summer (da dada dada dada dada dada da da da).  Future entries in the series will include reviews of Dragon 2 (by a very special guest) and Edge of Tomorrow.

I want to go to the movie, but first...

To the casual Hollywood spectator, the biggest surprise of the year thus far may have been that the CGI monkey movie prequel-sequel dawned to a $74.3 million opening weekend, beating out more star-studded and foreseeable hits like How To Train Your Dragon 2, Edge of Tomorrow, and Tammy. The second biggest surprise would be that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a virtual retread of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite their titles portending very much the same foregone conclusion.  Dawn feels thoroughly older and more cynical than Rise in both execution and theme, bringing a bigger cast, a grimmer setting, and darker sociopolitical undertones which make it as a whole somewhat less palatable to general audiences. Whereas the first Apes film was very much centered on a single underdog character and his triumphant ascension to freedom and leadership, this installment sees the since-ascendant liberator of the apes fighting to secure his tribe from malicious challengers within as well as human enemies without.  Shirking Rise’s somewhat one-dimensional division of good and evil along species lines, Dawn shrewdly depicts pride and weakness in both the human and the simian peoples for a story that’s eminently more layered and intriguing if not as emotionally satisfying as its predecessor.  Both films are visually enrapturing works of art and each accomplishes its narrative’s purpose aptly, but the second one’s purpose may be nobler in the long run, beseeching us to inquire not how nations rise from oppression but how they fall into anarchy.

I may be slightly biased on account of sitting four chairs away from a responsible father and his two yammering 8-10 year-olds* for the first twenty minutes of the movie, but Dawn doesn’t get off to a particularly smooth start.  The opening frames (basically recycled from the closing ones of Rise in case you were negligent or stupid enough not to stay for them) literally revolve around the planet Earth in all its magnitude, visualizing the spread of the flu that wiped out 99% of humanity by brilliant red lights and lines that eventually fade in unison to a startling black, but the severity of the images is undercut by a vignette of sound bytes and video clips that are supposed to represent the responses of contemporary figures to the crisis.  So it is that Barack Hussein Obama mm mm mm worms his wholly gratuitous 4-second cameo into an Apes flick after despoiling such American landmarks as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The Dictator, but the president’s role is thankfully, erm, short-lived within the fiction of the universe.

Dawn’s events are set in San Francisco some ten years after the extraordinary chimpanzee Caesar led a ridiculously massive ape force across the Golden Gate Bridge in an exodus to the Redwoods, where they’ve since built a staggering settlement out of the landscape and happily coexist with their brother stag and sister bear – or so they would if James Cameron was directing.  In fact, the carnivorous apes have forcefully asserted their position at the top of the local food chain, forming ruthless hunting parties and effectively corralling herds of deer with spears and lassoes.  But human society is boding far less well in the city’s urban center, now home to a small colony of genetically immune survivors led by Gary Oldman, whom you may recognize as Commissioner Gordon from the new Batman trilogy, primarily because he’s playing almost the exact same figure here, that is a grizzled and cynically minded warrior who’s ready and willing to defend his people at any cost.  A scarcity of character progression isn’t the only problem on the slate of Oldman’s Dreyfus, as his wavering community is projected to lose electrical power within a few days unless they can activate a dam buried deep in the apes’ territory.  Given the animals’ wariness of humans and their weapons, Dreyfus views this proposal as largely nonviable but reluctantly grants a widower named Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke) and some other colonists permission to enter the beasts’ den and try arranging a deal with Caesar.  Clarke plays surprisingly well off of the ape actors, more so than James Franco did in Rise, and admirably portrays the heroism of his character, who comes to forge a tight friendship with Caesar in spite of his fear of the apes and the desperate circumstances that drive him to seek out their aid.

Meanwhile, the apes’ peaceful existence hangs in just as tenuous a balance as their neighbor’s survival, though the threats to their stability are of a more insidious and internalized sort.  Caesar’s judicious rule has guided the noble apes for the better part of a decade, but when a chance encounter with an impulsive man in the woods leads to the tribe’s discovery of the human colony and their concerning weapons stockpile, the rebellious right-hand bonobo Koba seizes upon ensuing paranoia to cast doubts upon his superior’s sound judgment and loyalty to his kin.  A horrifically scarred subject of experimentation up until the day of the apes’ revolt, he bears a deep loathing of humanity and subliminally equates true tribal patriotism with his distrust of outsiders.  Andy Serkis has rightly been heaped with praise for his embodiment of Caesar, so much so that Toby Kebbell’s performance as the erratic and unhinged Koba remains largely overlooked amidst the hype.  The former plays a noble if near-sighted leader who convincingly conveys empathy, injury, authority, anger, and remorse through facial muscles and bearing alike, while the latter constantly exudes a mix of envy, menace, and reverence towards his chieftain, keeping audiences perpetually guessing as to his next move.  Many of the movie’s more effective scenes, regrettably spoiled in the marketing campaign, involve Kebbell feigning both beastly stupidity and virulent patriotism to garner the trust of humans and his fellow apes, all before coldly casting them aside to pursue his own vile agenda.

Caesar disavows Koba’s xenophobic zealotry but abides his alarmist incitements nonetheless, steadfastly holding to an ideal of national unity and spiritual brotherhood embodied in the prime commandment Ape Not Kill Ape.  The rising tensions and eventual clash between the incumbent’s cool-headed wisdom and his challenger’s animal savagery easily comprise the formative moments of Dawn’s drama, proving significantly more compelling than the undeniably stunning but widely forecast hellfire that inevitably erupts between wilderness and man.

As pretty much everybody else has duly noted, Dawn is a visually arresting work complemented by wide-angle swathes of destruction, large, open sets, and the most technically demanding motion-capture effects yet realized in film.  With the release of Rise back in 2011, VFX company Weta Digital struck new milestones in the medium by allowing filmmakers to shoot animated actors side-by-side with human ones even outside of a greenscreen studio, and Dawn is no less astounding in its visual achievement.  Director Matt Reeves graciously eschews the shaky camera of Cloverfield for battle scenes that are harrowing in their brutality and mind-boggling in their magnitude, allowing the chaos of his engineered conflicts to speak for themselves without resorting to cheap and gimmicky trappings of the digital age.  Hundreds of individually animated primates charge the humans’ fortress upon horseback, tumbling to the dirt under flurries of gunfire but driving their foes back by superiority of agility and brawn.  The initial onslaught alone is one of the most impressive and riveting war scenes I’ve seen in cinemas since Avatar, which at the very least managed to mimic the scale and senseless fury that engulfed the greater battles of history.  The movie’s envisioning of a dilapidated and lifeless metropolis overrun by natural growth is wonderfully realized if hardly novel, as we’ve seen the same kind of setting in video games like Enslaved and Crysis 3 and, to a lesser extent, in the haphazardly written I Am Legend.  Indeed, Dawn’s distinguishing triumph over the rest of the effects-heavy sci-fi crop isn’t any particular marvel in its technical design but its emphasis on meaningful storytelling and strong characterization.

A lot of “critics” have united in a kind of self-congratulatory chorus to pass off – or credit, rather – the movie as an allegorical anti-gun, anti-war screed, citing as evidence the prudency of the apes in banning firearms upon their premises and Reeve’s exceedingly violent portrayal of such weapons throughout the plot*. Politically charged facades such as these, revealing infinitely more about the author’s own beliefs than the filmmakers’, can only be the products of incredibly deranged or cinematically tone-deaf minds.  The only way you could arrive at such a grossly simplistic interpretation as the gun-control one is by forcefully reading your own ideology into the narrative or just turning your brain off for the whole picture.  Disregarding that the screenwriters vocally deny any preconceived intention to write a gun-control movie and that the apes’ faulty disarmament policy actually fails to circumvent outbreaks of violence in the community, it’s not the irrational existence of “assault weapons in the wrong hands” that propels a costly war between ape and man; on the contrary, it’s only by the apes’ irrational terror of “the gun” that warmongers within their ranks are able to mobilize the tribe to meet humanity in battle, ostensibly to preempt and prevent any future “unnecessary tragedies” that may be inflicted by human technology.  That the movie graphically and unmistakably depicts automatic firearms as violent tools of destruction, which even the firmest gun rights advocates would affirm they’re built to be, is more indicative of the filmmakers’ tact and commitment to realism than it is of any underlying agenda.  Using the same reasoning pleaded by these phony commentators, most every movie directed by Quentin Tarantino or James Cameron or Michael Bay must be construed as having a veiled anti-gun subtext, rather than the more obvious alternative.

The anti-war take isn’t as huge a stretch, though it’s still an absurdly narrow translation of a film so rich in political and philosophical themes.  I myself read it mainly as an indictment of mob mentality, rabble-rousers, and those who wave the bloody flag of their countrymen for personal gain, though it’s also a potent admonishment to those insular patriots who place such an unmovable faith in their countrymen that they assume them capable of doing no wrong.  For Caesar, the pivotal moment in the film comes with the late realization of his petty and costly communal pride, when he can finally articulate the full gravity of his familial complacency towards Koba’s aggression.  “I always think ape better than humans,” he heaves, suffering not so much from a bullet wound he sustained earlier as from a broken and guilt-wracked spirit.  “I see now how like them we are.”  Other ideas explored within the film include the fragility of peace between rival nations, the way that power structures beget ambition, and the nature of power itself – is rule by tyranny easier to maintain than rule by respect, and is all rule basically primal at its core, delegated to whoever has strength and will enough to seize it?

For a big-budget summer movie, Dawn’s screenplay has an unusual deficit of one-liners and verbal banter, focusing instead on intricate character development and politically provocative drama.  It doesn’t try to foist any single message on the viewer, which shows at least an inkling of respect for the viewer on the part of the writers.  It’s not a perfect film by any measure: the score by Michael Giacchino is frankly terrible for the first half, fraught with too many bells and chimes that make serious scenes sound relatively inconsequential, and the final ten minutes dissolve into a fairly standard fight to the death, a bout where neither participant can defeat the other unless he reinforces his physical blows with witty smack talk and verbal jabs.  Still, Dawn is an excellently crafted piece of entertainment which more than vindicates its remake-prequel-sequel status, if not its pointless 3D presentation.  If Rise gave birth to a new science-fiction mythology, then Dawn has molded it into a veritable legend, dark, magnificent, intelligent, and moving.

Grade rating: B+

Trailer reviews
Music app commercial featuring “Iggy Azalea”, “Charli XCX”, “Childish Gambino”, John “Legend”, and Lady Antebellum – Aha.  Ha ha.  That’s a good one, guys.  Fail!
Guardians of the Galaxy – This is shaping up to be either really campy or really amusing – maybe both, though the machine-gun-toting raccoon is doing more to sell me than any of the one-liners at this point. Oh, and the musical selection is genius.

One of my friends is responsible for this, this foul-mouthed, inappropriate piece of trash.

Exodus: Gods and Kings – I can tell you what the angle of this movie is going to be even before some disgruntled Christian spills the beans on its heresy.  Mother Nature has grown weary of the Egyptian Pharaoh over his impious exploitation of the Jewish people, and in retaliation for these wrongs… on second thought, I could make an entire video out of my theories, so I’ll spare you my cynicism for now.  In spite of my reservations, Atheist Ridley Scott appears to be giving this the same visual majesty he brought to the spectacular Gladiator and the otherwise pathetic Prometheus, which is more than I can say of the lackluster Noah trailers.
Gone Girl – Ugh.  Ben Affleck and Tyler Perry in the same movie?  Based on a best-selling novel?  Just say, “No.”
Fury – Ugh.  Logan Lerman, Brad Pitt, and Shia Labeouf all in the same movie?   Just say, “N-no-no-no-no-no-NOO!”  Actually, this one doesn’t look half-bad considering its cast.  The whole WW2 setting is a little tired by this stage, but there looks to be a lot of mud and grime and dirt and grit and explosions and tanks ripping each other to shreds, which is more than enough for me.
Into the Storm – “Hello?  I want to speak to the cinematic genius who wrote Hollywood that we needed a 3D handheld-camera movie about doomsday tornado chasers?  He’s not available, you say?  Well, that’s fine.  Could you just kick his rear for me when you get the chance?”
Unbroken – This looks like one of those inspiring, based-on-a-true-story crowd pleasers, complete with generic rousing, heroic trailer music, that’s typically released around Christmas that’s supposed to make me feel good about myself and the human race… I hate those movies!  On a side-note, why are the Japanese POW guards speaking English?
(Frank Miller’s) Sin City: A Dame To Kill For – I’m assuming Jessica Alba is supposed to be the titular dame.  I know nothing about Miller’s comic series, but hot damn!  If uber-stylized B&W brawls and film-noirish strippers are your thing, go see it by all means… or, you know, find a different thing.
Hercules – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson faces off against CG lions, hydras, and boars ohmi with slow-motion awesomeness, Amazon warriors, and PG-13 nudity in tow.  Count me in, probably on DVD.
Mockingjay Capitol propaganda teaser thingy that cuts out to the black techy guy from Catching Fire Corny.  This is the kind of thing you should be watching on some stupid movie news website instead of in a theater, serving only to confirm the existence of the forthcoming film without divulging any dialogue or scenes that took any time or effort to capture.  Short of using any actual footage, the preliminary Dark Knight teaser managed to showcase core philosophical themes of the story, generate excitement for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, and flaunt Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score in fewer than 50 seconds.  This is just fluff to hold teenagers over until a real trailer is released.

* How daft could you possibly be to take any child, let alone a talkative, overly anxious one, to a film so riddled with shooting, beating, stabbing, burning, and realistically monstrous wild animals which holler, bellow, and shriek as they’re waging their hunting and killing and – did I say shooting?  I don’t think I’ve seen a PG-13 bloodbath, and one that was explicitly advertised so, which featured such an intensity and abundance of violence outside of The Dark Knight.  This is not for kiddies!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Author's Playlist – Generic Review of the I Am Titanium Sequel

I’ve been getting a lot of flack lately from people who wish me to abscond with my personal, excessively verbose writing style in favor of something more palatable and mainstream.  As the old song goes, be careful what you wish for, ’cause you just might get it all, and then some you don’t want...  Oh, my head. Sorry to bring that one back from the grave.

I drew up this article in 4-5 hours after streaming the album once and reading a bunch of professional, normal music reviews on Amazon and various news websites which took care to tell me everything I might expect from the new Ed Sheeran release so long as I knew not just who David Gray, Justin Timberlake, Jason Mraz, Damien Rice, and Eminem are but also how they sounded on fill in whatever old, outplayed album the critic thought sounded like the contemporary one he was actually supposed to be reviewing.  I hope this mimicry will serve as an enjoyable and informative change of pace.

Up until the release of Sia Furler’s 1000 Forms of Fear, the prolific 39-year-old Australian singer-songwriter has been working mostly under the radar, keeping a low profile with independent LPs like the underappreciated We Are Born and busying herself with writing songs for the likes of the masters Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, and Katy Perry.

The first time the openly gay artist made a truly significant dent on the international music scene was with Swedish House D.J. David Guetta on the 2012 feat. song “Titanium”, a soaring and inspirational power ballad about being just that. With its strong, metaphorical lyrics about shooting, deflecting, and recovering from bullets, the collaboration ultimately landed on many critics’ best-of-the-year lists and engendered more covers possibly than any song up to that.

Accordingly so, the first question most people will occur to ask of 1000 Forms of Fear is whether it lives up to the expectations set by “Titanium”.  The answer, equally predictably, is: Of course not!  But why ever should that deter from you listening to it?  When you set the standard of comparison as high as “Titanium”, it’s only inevitable that the follow-up is going to fall short, but that hardly makes it an unworthy album on its own merits.  On the contrary, this latest record made with producer Greg Kurstin is a powerhouse piece of uplifting electronic pop that’s guaranteed to finally elevate its artist to the superstar status she deserves.

The opening single “Chandelier”, a poignant and magnificent power ballad, is already a hit on Top 40 Radio, carried by Sia’s big pipes, deliberately garbled enunciation, artistically Auto-tuned vocals, and monotonous, personally inspired lyrics about the emptiness of a party-centered lifestyle.  It’s lines like “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, drink. 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, drink. 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, drink.” that demonstrate the impressive depth of Sia’s songwriting ability, which also stands out on tracks like “Straight for the Knife”, “Free the Animal”, and “Fire Meets Gasoline”.

The first of these, a sexy and vulnerable jazz number that evokes the more iconic works of Sara Bareilles and Fiona Apple, provocatively compares the throes of love to the abusive hand of a sadistic pervert who goes straight for the you-know-what and exacts such pains that the singer can’t help but relish every second of the treatment.  (At least I think it’s supposed to be a comparison; in a day where 50 Shades Whatever can become a bestseller, it’s hard to tell whether such musical analogies are in actuality analogies or literal accounts.)  Sia masterfully links a series of emotionally bare confessions together that appropriately make less and less common sense as they progress, “Put on my best dress / I wanted to impress / I put makeup on / put a bow in my hair / wore pretty underwear / hoping you might take it off???” Her believable lyrics are thankfully far from the most articulate or poetic, and turns of phrase like “If your goal was to love, you scored an epic miss” reaffirm the honesty of her balladry.

“Free the Animal” is almost a direct continuation of “Straight for the Knife”, commanding more entrancing BDSM imagery but opting this time for synthesized Beyonce-esque, dance beats and ridiculously excessive auto-tune instead of synthesized R&B beats and ridiculously excessive auto-tune.  Sia uses just as much pitch correction and/or destruction software as her mainstream competitor Ke$ha but always employs it artistically and thoughtfully.  Anyone who’s seen her perform live without lip-sync may testify that this woman can belt with the best of them.

“Fire Meets Gasoline” is loaded with mesmerizing symbolism and original visualizations of love as a fiery force that burns, burns, burns, burns in its passion.  “Burn with me tonight, burn with me tonight… I can barely breathe / fire meets gasoline,” she intones amid a sea of backing vocals.  But it’s not this or the Catching Fire-featured “Elastic Heart” that takes the cake for the record’s best offering, as Sia truly reserves the best for last.  The final and longest track “Dressed In Black” is a powerful and rousing anthem of pride, taking us to church with a protracted outro that repeats something like twenty times with no variation and exchanges real words for choral chants and orchestral gravitas observed only in modern classics like “Set Fire to the Rain”.  Sia clearly draws from her own sexuality in the writing of this piece and the results should be deeply moving to anyone black, white, young, old, straight, or gay.  Filling out the rest of the album are relatively safe but far from expendable tracks like “Eye of the Needle” and “Cellophane” that provide a balancing dose of totally vintage Sia.

If I had to gripe about the album, it’d be over the repetitiveness of the sound.  Without a doubt, Sia does a very commendable job mixing different genres and influences throughout 1000 Forms, carving out a unique and fully original style that’s a kind of intersection between the collective works of Beyonce, Katy Perry, Amy Winehouse, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Sara Bareilles, Miley Cyrus, Billie Holiday, Demi Lovato, Shakira, Colbie Caillait, Avril Lavigne, Lana Del Rey, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Ellie Goulding, Nina Simone, Britney Spears, Madonna, Celine Dion, P!nk, Rihanna, Paramore, and Mariah Carey, if that makes sense.  If you don’t know what one or two of those people sound like, go give them a listen and return here when you feel you’ve acquired an adequate grasp to understand the sentence I just wrote.

Unfortunately, in spite of Sia’s very diverse and accomplished pool of inspirations, 1000 Forms ends up sounding rote and tired by the half-hour mark due to the redundancy of certain production choices.  Like a lot of full-length albums, it falls into the trap of relying on one person’s voice for the whole of the run time, and while listening to Sia’s auto-tuned shrieks for a track at a time is perfectly enjoyable, listening to her for nearly an hour of music in a row will unavoidably wear on the consciousness.  The problem with listening to any artist for such a long period of time is that the brain begins to detect patterns in the singer’s voice which allow it to instinctively identify the singer every time, which psychologically leads to monotony and consequently to boredom.  Sia sings like Sia in every song on the record, and as a result – yes – every song sounds the same.

Progressive artists like Pharrell and Pitbull and Jason Derulo have recently made strides to circumvent this weakness of the ADD generation by enlisting certain of their peers to write and sing songs in their place as “features”, but Sia apparently didn’t get the memo, as “Elastic Heart” is the only song on the release to feature guest vocals.

She attempts to break the tedium by liberally throwing high notes and intentionally slurred lines into her tunes, but it’s a largely futile exercise that can’t redeem 1000 Forms from the singularity of her own voice, the continual usage of the same instruments (especially ones that aren’t real), and the recycling of themes about love and sex that are all too common in music generally.  Although the rhythm, tempo, chords, key, arrangement, and lyrical content vary from song to song, the whole album eventually just blurs into one familiar noise and makes you feel – yes – that if you’ve heard one Sia song then you’ve heard them all.

But 1000 Forms of Fear is a fully competent pop album that should nicely complement your summer music hit list (what rhymes with hit list?) along with I Found You In The Summer, We’ll Be a Family, I’m So Fancy, Jay-z’s 99 Problems With Sax, Turn Down For What?!, I Could Be That Guy, and Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle.  Comparative to other hit records in the recent day, I’d say the quality of this one falls somewhere between Ellie Goulding’s Halcyon and Lady Gaga’s Artpop while being roughly equal to Beyonce Knowles’ Beyonce and Mariah Carey’s Me. I Am Mariah… The Exclusive Chanteuse.  Its lyrics aren’t as deep and empowering as “Titanium”, but Sia’s undeniably dance-ready beats and thought-provoking songwriting places her squarely in the same league as the pros and renders her a worthy time investment for anybody who hasn’t already listened to Ed Sheeran’s epic sophomore release X – arguably the best album of the last five years if not for The Civil Wars and Halo 3: ODST – a hundred times or more.

Simply put, if you liked “Titanium feat. Sia”, you’re going to love 1000 Forms of Fear.  Rarely does one see a seasoned artist taking so many scary risks to broaden her musical horizons, but Sia manages to pull it off while still retaining the trademark sound we know and love.  Thankfully, this is both 100% Sia and 100% not-Sia, and we can rest assured it should appeal to fans of both.  No matter how many times life shoots her down, Sia gets right back up, and this album is just as much a triumph.

Final rating: 2.7 stars out of 4 or 81/100 points
Buy… if you like Beyonce, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Shakira, or other female artists I’m going to assume you’re familiar with
Don’t buy… if you don’t like Beyonce, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Shakira, or other female artists I’m going to assume you’re familiar with

This video is perfect.  Saying nothing of his dramatic vocal range and feel for the lyrics, the man doesnt loose his hold on the camera once.  Oh, and there’s a violin-playing girl in it too!

Download: Chandelier (the Postmodern Jukebox & Puddles the Clown version)
Don’t download: The whole album.
For musically and lyrically invigorating Girl Power, the Author recommends: Most everything by Sara Bareilles; A Fine Frenzy’s One Cell In The Sea; P!nk; select singles and Red by Taylor Swift; Enya’s Watermark; the Dog Days and Snow White Huntsman songs by Florence and the Machine; some of Birdy’s stuff; Poker Face and Bad Romance by Lady Gaga; all the Lorde songs that aren’t played to death on the radio; and, well, Lindsey, obviously
For avowedly junky and vacuous but nonetheless catchy and mostly entertaining Girl Power, the Author recommends: Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear, which he honestly expected he would despise but found surprisingly tolerable all things considered

Monday, July 7, 2014

Fireworks, Soccer Reveal Disturbing Truths About American Psyche

Articles written by George Stefano Pallas.  Timidity, stupidity, jumbled metaphors, and pop-culture references expressed by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

Obama to answer Iraq crisis with jerseys on the ground

While a Congress buried in partisan gridlock bickers endlessly over which regime is primarily to blame for the deteriorating stability of Iraq, President Obama has sent a strong message to the jihadist army storming the region that he means business.  In a serious bid to reclaim the U.S. influence he eagerly gave up three years ago when he directed every last one of the U.S. forces to evacuate the Middle-Eastern country, Obama has stepped up the strictly rhetorical battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS as it’s referred to for the sake of avoiding the confusion of a legitimate nation-state with a metaphorical pseudo-state.

According to credible, unbiased news outlets like CNN and the New York Times, America has finally caught up with the rest of the socialistic world to appreciate the complexities of The Beautiful Game, and the president has taken that progress into his foreign policy considerations.  NBC News, Google CEO Larry Page, and the White House itself formerly leveraged the hype surrounding the Sochi Winter Olympic Games to denounce homophobia and communicate the United States’ acceptance of all sexual lifestyles in sports.  By the same token, Obama hopes to pacify and have a dialogue with ISIS through the universal language of sports, this time by exploiting current obsession with the World Cup.

Sports have historically played a crucial role in guiding international negotiations and preserving worldwide stability.  Mere months ago, it was through the bond of brotherhood shared by basketball players that U.S. ambassador Dennis Rodman engaged North Korea’s authoritarian ruler Kim Jong Un (albeit at the cost of his own life) to enter peace talks with South Korea, disband its nuclear arsenal, and release prisoners detained for religious or political dissension.  Much further back, when the 100 Years War was still raging between France and England, the Dauphin sought to mollify King Henry V over a lighthearted game of tennis, and even before that tradition was enshrined in theater, it’s said that the ancient Romans would use rousing contests of strength in the Coliseum to connect with emergent religious minorities such as Christianity.

The president hopes he’ll have the same fortune with the holy Muslim army and has already assigned Secretary of State John Kerry with the task of arranging a game between U.S. players and their jihadist competitors.  Kerry declares he’s excited about the potential to close barriers between cultures and is committed to achieving peace by any means necessary, even if by the notoriously controversial game of soccer, which he insists is becoming more broadly accepted every day just as society is growing more tolerant of formerly stigmatized lifestyles like homosexuality, which primitive and regressive peoples used to
fear might lead to severe mental, spiritual, and health effects.

Obama has spoken of soccer (or football, as the rest of the world calls it) in the most glowing of terms, calling it his favorite televised entertainment next to “Modern Family”, “Mad Men”, and “House of Cards”. Appealing once again to the recurring imaginary figure, the president said that, “If I had a son, he’d playing soccer long before pro-football.”  Like many Americans, he appreciates the game’s multicultural aspect in that it brings his country together with other people’s republics in a spirit of good will and rivalry from which neither nation need necessarily emerge victorious, but he also admires the nonviolent nature of the sport, in which players often vie to see not just who can score the most goals but also who can sustain the most fake knee injuries in the process of performing as little physical activity as possible.

Mr. Obama’s motion has been met with soaring approval from Pacifists, a Democratic Senate, and USA Today readers.  In under 120 characters, foreign policy expert @FlyInStilletos concurred, “We should embrace soccer because it unites us with other cultures through friendly competition.”  But conservatives are rallying against the president’s tactics, calling them foolish and ineffectual.  Ann Coulter furiously writes that, “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay…  In soccer, the blame is dispersed and almost no one scores anyway.   There are no heroes, no losers, no accountability, and no child's fragile self-esteem is bruised.”  She recommends challenging ISIS to football instead.

In other news, Obama recently invited non-American actress and esteemed economist Keira Knightley to testify on the pressing need to realize equal pay for equal non-work in women’s soccer.  “As much as we want to feel the realm of women’s sports is like a feel-good comedy,” she said, “it’s really more of a dark tragedy, and while I applaud the president’s support for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and other propositions, I would reaffirm that the rules as they stand are really more like guidelines anyway, judging by the White House’s own employment disparity between genders.”

The Author would comment on the State Department’s reaching-out to ISIS but has temporarily committed all his mental faculties to ascertaining whether Lindsey Stirling even cares enough about soccer to make his pretense of interest worthy of the effort.

4th of July Fireworks Illuminate Partisan Divide

A coded message to Democrats as seen at a Patriots-sponsored Independence Day event.

When the executive branch warned Americans last fall that the Republican shutdown would compel the federal government to gut vital services such as panda cameras, non-essential environmental studies positions, student White House tours, and Independence Day fireworks shows, many conservatives were understandably outraged, accusing the administration of overstepping its boundaries and threatening the privileges of middle-class Americans to achieve its agenda.  Now the issue of public tolerance for fireworks has become even more contentious, as newly-elect New York City mayor Bill de Blasio acted upon the advice of his predecessor and fellow Nanny State Party affiliate Michael Bloomberg to add 4th of July celebrations to the long line of things already banned within the city limits, including soda cups of an arbitrarily delegated size, the burdening of beasts of burden, cigarettes, e-cigarettes, trans fats, etc.

De Blasio cited environmental and fiscal concerns as the city council’s main justification for prohibiting the Macy’s fireworks show and others.  Due to the lack of scientific research on the subject of these explosives and the strong potential for resultant smoke clouds to trap heat from the sun, the mayor deemed it prudent to restrict these activities until a solid “consensus” is reached in the “scientific community” that the aftermath of fireworks shows “doesn’t contribute to global, man-made climate change.”  Co-sponsor of the ban Al Gore said that it’d be “irresponsible to gamble the security of our children’s children for a momentary bit of selfish amusement and chest-thumping patriotism.”

The White House agreed with a press release stating that “in order to preserve the blessings of 4th of July fireworks for ourselves, our posterity, and other folks, we must practice good stewardship of the blessings we presently enjoy on account of the generosity of foreign lenders.  A lot of people mistakenly assume that America’s system of unbridled capitalism enabled one of our technological pioneers to invent the firecracker that’s become a hallmark of Independence Day tradition, but we didn’t build that.”

Free-market, environmental activists advocating economical but green solutions to the country’s foreign dependency have likewise applauded De Blasio’s law and its selling point of reducing U.S. reliance on Chinese imports, an effect which is bound to curb corporations shipping jobs overseas and build incentives for creating shovel-ready jobs back in America.

Rivals of New York’s progressive administration have seized upon the ban as a chance to attack the forward trajectory of the country at large, calling it a slippery slope that both diverts attention from the real problem, viz. excess spending on something or another, and opens a door to further encroachments on constitutional rights in the name of protecting the environment.  “Before you know it,” said former Massachusetts Governor and conservative icon Mitt Romney, “they’re going to be banning such important pastimes as birthday parties at public schools just on the basis that they make kids fat.”

The Pew Research Center modeled American attitudes on 4th of July displays in a poll released this last weekend which showed a sharp split between the political right and left on the subject of the fireworks. While “steadfast conservatives” by a majority of 80% answered that fireworks were a symbol of their American Pride, 60% of “solid liberals” claimed that watching fireworks go off didn’t give them any sense of Pride whatsoever and that they’d be more likely to take Pride in other things, like their pigmentation or sexual flexibility.

Even more strangely, most respondents agreed that the awe they experienced in watching fireworks far eclipsed their satisfaction with the current state of American government.  Pew concluded that if the aim of fireworks is to celebrate the past while simultaneously pointing out the impending explosion that is the present, they’ve served their purpose remarkably.

Unfortunately, the polarization over fireworks is yet another sign of America’s diminishing middle ground and inability to compromise.  Obama likens speaking with the deniers of fireworks-caused global warming to “being the tough parent who has to reason with their kids who just want to eat candy and sip on slurpees for dinner and you tell them, ‘That’s not good for you,’ but they’re like, ‘Give me, give me more!’ and once you’ve paid for their slurpee, they run off and leave you with the tab, and then they have the nerve to come ask you for the keys back!  There’s always been a fringe that insists on denying scientific fact, but I don’t remember a time when people expected their lawmakers to indulge the kooks who said the moon was flat or the earth was made of cheese.”

“I’ll always have fond memories of fireworks shows as a kid,” said the president, who’s been striding a thin line between retaining the approval of big businesses and alienating the green lobby which backed him throughout both elections.  “Nobody’s talking about taking your fireworks shows away, but at the same time, we have to recognize that everything is best in moderation.  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying these ceremonies, but it’s just as vital that we leave the same opportunity to our kids twenty years down the line.”

Whatever the future holds for fireworks in America, one thing’s for certain: if you listen closely enough on the 4th of July, you can hear them go o-o-oh as they shoot across the sky-y-y.