Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer Movies 2: Iron Man, Hulk

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably already realized that this is the summer of superheroes. If you’re not a fan of the genre, your best bet is to grab a book, head to the beach, and wait for September and the rollout of this year’s crop of Oscar baiting flicks. And if you are a fan of the genre and want to catch The Dark Knight at a midnight showing, well, you’d better buy your tickets soon or you may be consigned to a 3 a.m. - or, worse, 10:35 a.m. - showing with the other plebes. This week we’ve got Wanted and Hancock, two movies that tweak the supergenre’s nose. But before digging into the postmodern dismantling of the supermythos, I want to talk about those other summer superhero movies, the ones that don’t tweak the genre but rather exemplify it, to varying degrees of success.

I don’t think of myself as a superhero movie fan, probably because I lack appreciation of the genre. I’m not comics averse, mind. I grew up reading Archie and Betty and Veronica, think Maus is a masterpiece, was recently introduced to the awesome that is Preacher, and I’ve kept up with the Buffy and Angel spin-off comics for years. In fact, there’s every good chance I would have gotten into comics long ago, if the whole culture wasn’t so damned girl unfriendly. With the exception of St. Mark’s Comics and maybe Forbidden Planet, I’ve never walked into a comic book store and not been made to feel like a) a brain-addled bimbo, b) a nuisance, c) I’d ignored a hand-painted No Girlz Allowed!! on the door. And so it goes. But I do love a good action movie, especially if it’s wonderfully comedically tinged, and in recent years I’ve enjoyed Spider-Man 1 and 2 and Batman Begins.

Last week, I saw Iron Man for the second (wonderful) time and The Incredible Hulk for the (ambivalently enjoyable) first, and seeing them in such close proximity allowed me to note the differences, and, worse, the similarities, between the two.

It’s no secret that Robert Downey Jr. made Iron Man what it was (awesome), and for me, it was refreshing to see a superhero having a blast rather than angsting over their predicament. I get that heroes should be conflicted. Gilgamesh, one of the earliest literary heroes, has all sorts of angst going on after his BFF Enkidu kicks it, and that set the tone for the thousands of years that followed. But just once, I wanna see someone going, “Woo, I can fly!” (Yes, Peter Parker had that “Wahoo!” swinging-through-the-city moment in Spider-Man, but that’s like two minutes in an otherwise angstalicious movie.) And sure, Tony Stark has his share of angst, but mostly he’s about having fun, which makes for a damned entertaining movie. (That he’s charismatic as hell doesn’t hurt.)

But then of course we get Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. Not only is he all angsty and conflicted because of his powers, but the movie drops us into the middle of angstland right out the gate. We don’t get to see the pre-everything-goes-to-shit Bruce, which is kind of a bummer, and worse, lowers the stakes in the movie. We don’t know if we should root for him to get back to normal because we don’t know exactly what it is he’s lost by becoming the big green meanie. For all we know, before he went all gamma-a-go-go, he spent every night eating macaroni and cheese while watching reruns of The Hills in his underwear. “If he doesn't find a cure soon, he may entirely miss the Spencer/Heidi reconciliation!”

Hulk also suffers from some odd pacing. It hits the same beat (Bruce is chilling, the army types ambush him, chaos ensues) over and over. It almost seems to be dipping its toes into the episodic structure that Sex and the City employed, so that by the time the actual climax rolls around, I’ve already gotten my fill of “Hulk smash!”

The climax, however, is a problem I have with a lot of action movies. It’s hard to feel suspense over what the outcome will be and whether our brave hero will save the day. Spoiler alert: the titular hero is gonna win. Action-driven television series have the same problem for me. Too many episodes of Buffy and Alias wanted me to bite my nails wondering if Buffy Summers or Sydney Bristow was going to be killed horribly in a way that you don’t come back from. And aside from the series finales (where anything goes), it was hard to muster up any real fear. So the least you can do is make the climactic fight interesting. Despite knowing Nic Cage wasn’t gonna bite it since that would endanger a third installment in case the second achieved box office domination, National Treasure 2’s climax scene was pretty cool and visually interesting, with rising water and crumbling temples and stuff. As another option to spice up a climax, you can always endanger a loved one or otherwise show that the hero has something to lose besides their life. But both Iron Man and Hulk were pretty standard smashfests. I also thought it was odd that both fights were between the title character and what amounted to a bigger, badder version of the title character, created using the title character’s own designs/bodily fluids. Way to monitor content overlap, Marvel.

That said, I did enjoy The Incredible Hulk. Norton and Tyler give stellar performances. It’s no Iron Man, but it has solid franchise potential. I did find the Tony Stark cameo interesting. From the way it was cut and the scene preceding it, I’d bet money that cameo was originally intended to be post-credits like the Nick Fury scene in Iron Man. If that is true, I wonder whether it was re-cut after Iron Man kicked box office ass, or if something else triggered the change.

It will be interesting to see where these two franchises go (or if Hulk goes at all, after a disappointing post-opening drop-off) and what it will be like when they merge in The Avengers in, what, three or four years? Oh well, at least we’ve got the genre nosetweakers to tide us over until then.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Oh, Riley.

VH1 is hawking their new tribute to The Who during every commercial break of the sublimely addictive I Love the New Millennium, and every time I hear the strains of “Baba O'Riley”, I am beleaguered by two distinct flashbacks – first, its use in the American Beauty trailer during the cinematic carnival of awesomeness that was 1999, and second, its use in the argument my father and I have been having for almost a decade now.

It starts the way it always starts. He and I are in a car, or somewhere else radio adjacent, and the radio is tuned to The Q because that is one of the few NYC radio stations that doesn’t completely blow nowadays. The Q plays roughly the same 40 songs over and over (which, admittedly, is no different from the rest of the NYC stations, except that none of the 40 songs played on The Q are sung by Rihanna), so it is inevitable that “Baba O'Riley” will make an appearance. And when it does, this happens: Dad will interrupt whatever conversation we may be having to say, “Oh, it’s the song from Tommy,” because he knows that I love that album. I love it enough to gently correct him, “No, this isn’t from Tommy. It’s by The Who, but from a different album.”

He’ll shake his head and say, “No, it’s definitely from Tommy.” He’ll pull the old “it’s my generation, I lived through it, I have more authority here” card, I’ll argue that his advancing age has clearly addled his mind and would he like me to go and find my CD of Tommy and play it for him so he can see that “Baba O'Riley” does not make an appearance? It goes on and on like this for a long time. (And, side note, “Behind Blue Eyes” also triggers this argument, because my father is apparently convinced that Tommy is the only album The Who ever released, but sadly, “Behind Blue Eyes” is not played with even a quarter of the frequency of “Baba” so we don’t have that argument as often.) This is not remarkable as familial spats and patter go, except that we have this argument every blessed time the song is played. For about ten years now. And you’d think that after all this time he’d learn that “Baba O'Riley” is not on Tommy, or I’d learn to just smile and nod when he asserts it is, but alas, we are hewn from the same stubborn fiber.

A few months ago, I was asked to put together a playlist for his 60th birthday / retirement party, since the restaurant was apparently iPod-ready. I got the assignment because in the venn diagram of my family, I am the sole occupant of the overlap between “young enough to own an iPod” and “old enough to be entrusted with even menial tasks”. I know how his tastes run (classic rock, with a special love of Creedence Clearwater Revival which he happily passed on to me) so I gathered up a lot of his favorites fairly easily. He made some special requests (“Smoke on the Water”, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, “Beds Are Burning”, “Fire on the Mountain”, “Sound of Silence”, “Dust in the Wind”, “Werewolves of London”). He shot down some of my suggestions with a pained “OH MY GOD NO!” (“Don’t Stop Believing” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” – blasphemer). I snuck in a few complimentary songs (“Wrong ‘Em Boyo”, “I Fought the Law”, and some anachronistic stuff like “Welcome to the Black Parade”, the Rasputina cover of his (and my) favorite CCR song “Bad Moon Rising”, the Daughter Darling cover of “Dust in the Wind”, and the Emiliana Torrini cover of “Sound of Silence”). And, of course, “Baba O'Riley”. I happened to be standing near him as it came on, and when he said “Oh, it’s the song from Tommy,” I just smiled and squeezed his arm.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Summer Movies: Sex, Strangers

This weekend and last I decided to catch up on my summer movies. This weekend I caught Iron Man (for the second time) and The Incredible Hulk, and I’ll write more on them later, but last week I saw Sex and the City and The Strangers, both of which I had some fairly shallow thoughts on.

First, Sex and the City. I was a fan of the series. Not to a rabid extent, definitely not enough to make it my life’s aspiration. I had one annoying friend who would always spend every night out in NYC cooing how we were “soooo Sex and the City” while knocking back Cosmos. (Which, first of all, I assume that true Sex and the Citiness is like true Coolness – the more you proclaim yourself to be it, the less you actually are.) And this was only three years ago, when the SATC culture was already pretty long in the tooth. But I did watch every episode and sniffle at the finale. So I was excited to see the movie. And overall, I wasn’t disappointed…but I wasn’t thrilled either. It took me a while to figure out where it fell flat for me. I liked almost all of the character arcs (I was bummed that Sam, my favorite character, felt like she actually regressed a bit from where we left her in the series). It had some great moments. Overall, it was pretty solid. Then it hit me: the structuring was way off.

I realized this when I noticed it felt overly long to me, though I couldn’t point to any specific parts that could have been jettisoned. And, in fact, SATC is only about 10 minutes longer than Iron Man, a movie that felt really tight and had me riveted the whole time. And I don’t think it’s that SATC is overly long, it’s just that it was basically written as a seventh, five episode season. Which is awesome…but not a movie.

See, I’m working on this new theory, guaranteed no one’s ever thought of it before: every story has its own medium. Groundbreaking, right? I know, this is like the time that I excitedly shared a Deep, Meaningful Writing Revelation I’d had over the weekend (and a couple of daiquiris) with some of my writer friends, only to realize as I explained it that it basically boiled down to “write what you know”. But stay with me here. I feel like every idea, every plot, every set of characters, all have mediums – novel, play, screenplay, etc – they’re best suited for. But they’re not always written in the best medium. How many shitty books have been turned into awesome movies? And, of course, the number of shitty movies that have been borne of awesome books proves that sometimes a story is really only meant for one medium. Am I saying that SATC shouldn’t have made the leap to the big screen? No, it could have been done, but I think it needed a more traditional plot structure to keep the momentum going. By the third of fourth climax, the audience is ready for a comedown, and most are not up for another big plot twist.

It comes down to the two traditional types of plot structure, Aristotelian versus episodic. Or, as one of my writing teachers explained it, male versus female, wherein the Aristotelian (male) rises towards one big climax and then comes down, and episodic (female) is a series of ups and downs. Naturally, most films are Aristotelian structured and most tv series are episodic (hence “episodes” - clever, right?). The thing is, with a tv series, after one climax we get a week’s refractory period to gear up for the next round. But trying to jam four or five climaxes into a two hour period is as painful in the movies as it can be in other settings.

Next up, I went to see The Strangers. I’m a horror movie nut, and summer makes for slim pickins for anything not popcorn blockbuster. The fact that the summer horror movie I’m most anticipating is called Midnight Meat Train is downright alarming. (Oh, who am I kidding – it stars Will Tippin and Brooke McQueen and it’s called Midnight Meat Train – of course I’m ridiculously excited.) At any rate, The Strangers seemed like it could be good horror movie methadone until the inevitable glut of scare flicks in the fall. And, you know, it didn’t entirely disappoint. If I’d Netflixed it or caught it on HBO or something, I would have said it was quite good. But at $10 a pop, it didn’t quite deliver. It was basically Vacancy with more attractive actors (sorry, Wilson brother without amusing nickname). It unfolds pretty much how you expect it to, with scared people running around, in a fittingly prescient manner, like chickens with their heads cut off. Even when they manage to get ahold of a shotgun, they still get thoroughly whipped by the masked creepos. The moral of the movie seems to be “violence is random and destructive”, but having spent a few years in a fairly crime-ridden area of New York City, I didn’t really need to part with $10 for that kernel of wisdom. Ah well, at least Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler are good actors and entertaining to watch. And I do still think it’s a movie worth catching, but the small screen will do it justice just fine.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

But seriously, which one is the philtrum?

I have a love/hate relationship with slang. I mean, obviously I trend towards love – this blog is named after an outmoded slang style, and I myself tend to unintentionally spew out my own brand of gibberish by recklessly portmanteauing, verbifying nouns and nounifying verbs, and performing other untold cruelties upon the English language, much to the abject horror of my hyperliterate friends. But at least most of what I say seems to make sense to the people around me. In fact, I am called to mat more often for the 100% bona fide, OED-vetted – but obscure and pretentious – words that I use than any of the times I have ever used “snarkpop” in a sentence. In fact, the one time I whiningly asked a friend to stop hectoring me as we were preparing to cross Broadway, she doubled over laughing so hard she almost got run over by an oncoming taxi and refused to believe that was an actual word until she got home and looked it up herself. Somewhere in that preamble is clear cut proof that the use of slanguage over legit pretentious words is 98% less likely to lead to automobile fatalities.

That said, I sometimes wonder if blogs aren’t changing the English language in ways slightly less fun.

For one thing, it’s too easy for new words to be invented and disseminated. But before one can catch a toehold, some other blog or media outlet has coined another hilarious word that becomes the hot new thing, and suddenly, everyone’s forgotten all about twatwaffle. It’s been three years since we’ve had a new “truthiness” hit.

And then there’s Variety. Most media slang can be easily decoded through context clues. If, say, I told you that the recent EW article made Mike Meyers sound like quite a twatwaffle, I’d like to think you’d discern the general meaning without thinking too hard about what part of Mike Meyers resembles a waffle or, well, you know. But Variety has, for over a hundred years now, intentionally cultivated an esoteric writing style meant to shut out all but the klatch of industry insiders at which the mag is aimed. Which would be just dandy if industry insiders actually used half these words. No, in fact, most are Variety-specific. And some seem to be holdovers from the roaring twenties. Though, credit where credit is due, the more recent issues I’ve skimmed have cut back on the V-speak a skosh – maybe a concession to the fact that print mags are in enough trouble without further alienating potential readers?

Worst of all, won’t someone think of the poor lexicographers? Somewhere out there right this second, some poor schmuck is embroiled in an impassioned debate with his fellow lexicographers over whether or not the slang meaning of taint should be included in the next edition of Merriam-Webster. And for the record, my vote is yes. Who the hell can remember a word like perineum? Linguistically, I can never remember which is the perineum and which is the philtrum. No worries - biologically, I can tell the difference between the two, despite a beloved but gruff professor once insinuating otherwise.

But maybe I’m Chicken Littling over nothing. After all, writers have long shaped our language. Lewis Carroll gave us “chortle”, another portmanteau. And on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon regularly twisted common English into something new but recognizable. I’m just hoping that the next word Gawker champions sounds less like a menu item from the IHOP adjacent to the Bunny Ranch.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Press Play, Repeat - Addictive Albums

Okay, let's kick this thing off with a summer music post. These are the albums I'm currently enjoying. There are several single songs burning up my iPod right now ("Sour Cherry" by The Kills, "Why Am I Still Broke?" by Treaty of Paris, "Only Fooling Myself (Brian Malouf Mix)" by Kate Voegele, "Stuttering" by Ben's Brother, "Shut Up and Let Me Go" by The Ting Tings, to name a few), but these are the albums that I love from stem to stern as complete pieces.

What I’m Listening To Now

Smile For Them – Armor For Sleep
I admit, I was initially worried when I saw that the first single off the album was a song called “Williamsburg”, because the last thing the world needs is another paean to hipster heaven, and AFS always seemed more down to earth than that. But, to my relief, I had incorrectly pre-judged what’s actually a snappy dismantling of Billyburg: “Bored again, watching the rats/ Eat all your food/ At least you'll be used to/ The place you'll be soon/ This city was the blueprint for hell.” As the song goes on to conclude, “You will all die in Williamsburg.” Well played, Armor For Sleep, well played.

This also serves as a nice reveral of my earlier quick-wrong judgement of Pitchfork’s rentboys – or is Pitchfork the rentboy in this scenario? – Vampire Weekend. I expected “Oxford Comma” to be a tribute to my favorite punctuation mark, the serial comma. Alas, I heard the opening lyrics – “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” – and my soul died a little. (Then I listened to the rest of the album and my soul died the rest of the way. I caught them live a few years back, and I distinctly remember them being more interesting and less smugly twee back then. Sad.)

But back to Smile For Them. Unlike AFS’s earlier stuff – Dream to Make Believe, and What To Do When You Are Dead – and, sidenote, that is why I give a fuck about an Oxford comma, because without it, you might think AFS has only one previous album with a confusingly long name – Smile For Them is not a strongly concept-driven album. And while this does mean there’s no emotional gutpunch akin to WTDWYAD’s penultimate track, “The End of A Fraud”, which nicely ties up the album’s narrative while reprising earlier melodies and themes, Smile For Them is probably AFS’s strongest album to date. There’s a wealth of stellar tracks, and a good variety in the melody and lyrics. I can easily distinguish one track from another, something that isn’t always true for other contemporary bands that fade into a wall of (admittedly pleasant) noise. It plays light (“Stand in the Spotlight”, a sweet, up-with-people track) and dark (“Chemicals”, a harrowing look at addiction) with equal deftness. For the first time, I feel like AFS is not standing behind a concept, conceit, or character. This album is raw, emotionally exposed, and quite tuneful to boot.

*DOWNLOAD THESE TRACKS: “Hold the Door”, “Somebody Else’s Arms”

Pretty. Odd. – Panic! At The Disco
First of all, yes, I am aware they have dropped the ! from their name, but I obstinately refuse to roll with name changes implemented once someone has gone famous, because that is ridiculous, egotistical, and very drama queenish. And also, I’m lazy. Exceptions granted only if someone got famous while young. If, in 10 years, Dakota Fanning would like to go under a stage name less stripperlicious, I’ll happily acquiesce. Otherwise, sorry Charlie. I refused to call Puff Daddy any of the increasingly ridiculous monikers he switched to over the years – Puffy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Sean John – and hey, looks like I’m finally in the right again. So I’ll keep using the exclamation mark until its inevitable official return on album #3 or 4.

Anyway, if the band’s debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, made you feel like swilling gin and picking fights in skanky bars, then the new album will make you feel like donning whatever the 2008 equivalent of this dandy look would be and skipping through a field of psychotropically-induced daisies. The lyrics this time are less tart and winding, but the tradeoff is that one can actually understand what they’re saying without having to read the liner notes or consult The melodies are lush, maybe a little more simplistic than Fever but ultimately more catchy. There’s still some simmering darkness, too, in “Behind the Sea”, whose creeptastic ending lyrics are “Legs of wood, waves / Waves of wooden legs” set to an unsettling sea shanty-style melody. It’s no gimlet-eyed “But It’s Better If You Do”, but it’s a nice throwback to the days when P!ATD was best known for a video of the skeeviest wedding imaginable.

(Okay, I lied, I don’t think that wedding is skeevy – in fact, it maybe just might possibly closely resemble a wedding I could fancy, because who doesn't love firebreathers and mimes? – but I know better than to impose my own lack of taste on the world at large. With the exception of starting this blog.)

*DOWNLOAD THESE TRACKS: “Northern Downpour”, “She Had the World”

Raise the Dead – Phantom Planet
Phantom Planet’s first album released by their new label, Fueled By Ramen (home of Fall Out Boy, The Academy Is…, Cobra Starship, Gym Class Heroes, and every other band beloved by 14-year-old girls...and me), is a bit of a departure from their earlier sound. For one thing, they inexplicably imported live children for the chorus of “Leader”. The whole album feels oddly vintage, a change from the dreamy broodpop of 2002’s The Guest and vibrant snarkpop of 2004’s Phantom Planet. And I admit it took a few listens for it to get under my skin, but get under my skin it did. Go ahead, I dare you not to sing along with the kids on “Leader”.

First single “Do the Panic” has a quasi Art Brut feeling of cheeky speaksinging and some skilled drumwork that makes me glad Jason Schwartzman split, paving the way for Jeff Conrad’s manic glee.

*DOWNLOAD THESE TRACKS: “Quarantine”, “Do the Panic”

What I Probably Should Be Listening To Now

@#%&*! Smilers – Aimee Mann
It’s not that I’m not excited for a new Mann album. Lost in Space is one of my all-time favorite albums, and The Forgotten Arm is wistfully beautiful if less emotionally raw. But when I finally get the new album, I want time to enjoy it, let it soak in, pull it apart. Listen to it on repeat for a day or two. And right now I’m too compulsively into a few other albums to give it a fair shot. And after giving me hours of moody contentment with Lost in Space, I owe Aimee’s new album the kind of unfettered reverence reserved for observing the work of great artists.

What I Wish I Was Listening To Now

The Glass Passenger – Jack’s Mannequin
The new album by my favorite band – I try not to play favorites but Andrew McMahon (of Something Corporate prior to Jack’s Mannequin) holds a warm spot in my heart, far above all other musicians – was pushed back from April to September, and I’m trying not to pine too much. What I’ve heard from the new album sounds good, and the track titles are intriguing – is “Suicide Blonde” an INXS cover? Will songs like “American Love” and “Annie Use Your Telescope” live up to my favorite Everything in Transit tracks, “Miss Delaney” and “La La Lie”? This is the first album since McMahon's diagnosis of and recovery from leukemia, and I’m curious to see how, if at all, the experience has influenced his music. So now I just have to wait, and hope it doesn’t get pushed back again.

? – Head Automatica
Head Automatica’s second album, Popaganda, took longer to grow on me than did their first album, Decadence, but I eventually acclimated to the tone shift from electroheavy to popunkish and now listen to both albums with equal frequency and matched enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to their third album, rumored to be out this summer, but info is scant thus far. Title? Release date? Anyone? Bueller?

Every album mentioned here is available on iTunes and Amazon, and all of these bands are small enough to be very appreciative of your financial support. Save the illegal downloading for artists who can literally swim through their money piles, Scrooge McDuck-style.