Saturday, December 31, 2016

Better Late Than Never Thoughts: CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Well! That certainly was a big movie.

I'm not exactly sure what I was supposed to be feeling after watching Captain America: Civil War. Happy that Steve was proven right? Sad that his friendship with Tony had to get wrecked? Relieved that all the punching was over? I definitely got that last one.

I suppose I could nitpick about the internal logic of the movie like some internet dork (as if everyone isn't on the internet these days - all being dorks all the time) the whys and wherefores of the hero-fight premise, but it's a means to an end: just as in the comics event that shares half of the movie's name, the heroes have a big disagreement that leads to them having a fight, or series of fights, because since the beginning of time - seriously - it's more interesting to watch good guys hit each other than bad guys. That's why Marvel vs. DC put Batman against Captain America in a fistfight and not Magneto. Because there's no suspense in seeing a good guy beat a bad guy, compared to wondering who would win between two good guys given equal time... even if they normally put their differences aside in the end and realize there is a truer evil at work. Usually.

The big disagreement is over whether superheroes should have bosses. Call me crazy but I seem to recall the Avengers having a boss. His name was Nick Fury. He had bosses too, the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures from Clone High. They wanted to blow up New York with a nuclear missile because it had aliens in it and they didn't have a single better idea. You know what, this is coming up in favour of "no bosses."

Tony, who steered said nuke into a hole in space that allowed him to enact genocide on mindless (we think?) robot alien soldiers, thinks having a boss again would be a good idea, because since not having a boss, they fought a killer robot James Spader, that he designed, who wanted to drop a city from space and wipe out mankind (in Avengers: Age of Ultron) but thanks to the Avengers only fell from a few thousand feet up and wiped out a small eastern European city-state. If he doesn't have a boss, who is going to keep him from doing things like that?

Tony's motivation in this movie is actually characteristically impetuous, dating all the way back to his decision in the first movie to stop making weapons because he saw one get used. It takes only one person upset with what he has done to convince him that an extreme course must be taken. If I have learned anything about billionaires this year it's that they are disproportionately concerned with the opinions of individuals and prone to changing whims. Tony is confronted with the face of the person whose death he is responsible for and decides this can never be allowed to happen again. Or, he needs to ask the authorities for permission if he is going to let it happen again, so that it is their fault, not his.

How come the good guy in the movie is never the one preaching oversight and transparency? Do I feel this way because my girlfriend works in HR and I've absorbed much of her line of thinking? Well, America loves Cowboy Cops. They love the concept in movies and, horrifyingly, in real life. This is an uncomfortable thought that occurred to me when I realized where Captain America's "we don't need no stinking badges" line of thinking ends for some people. Steve, the career soldier, is worried that superiors won't be able to distinguish between Avengers-level threats and petty international grudges.

As it happens, Steve is morally in the right when a bomb goes off and everyone blames his friend Bucky (a trained covert operative who was not caught for many years despite rocking a cool metal arm and Kurt Cobain hair.) He finds Bucky first and protects him because he knows he is innocent. Well, he doesn't know-know, but he knows in the sense that you know your friend will offer you the last slice of pizza before taking it for himself. Because you're friends. Anyway, he seems pretty sure that Buck is innocent. And in doing so, goes rogue.

Then War Came.

Iron Man gets the bulk of the Avengers on his side because his position makes a certain amount of sense. You can't just go traipsing onto foreign soil and declare yourself The Law just because you have superpowers ("Enhancements" as the movie calls them.) Unless, I reckon, Loki or Thanos comes to town with an army of mindless (I hope?) robot alien drones. Then anything you could do to help would probably be welcomed.

So there's Iron Man, who didn't want to sell the government the plans to his Iron Man suit a few years ago because he lives a capitalist teenage dream - again, that whole impetuous whim thing. He gets War Machine, the lifelong military man, of course, and Vision, the pacifist robot messiah, and Black Widow, who reasons that "it's better to have one hand on the wheel than none." In Steve's corner is the Falcon, who has a history of operating outside the law with Steve, and Scarlet Witch by default, because she started this mess by saving Steve from a bomb. Steve also gets Bucky on his side, of course, and Hawkeye for reasons that are never made clear, and also Ant-Man, who has a grudge against Tony Stark because Michael Douglas had one against his dad. But Iron Man gets to draft Black Panther, who has a suit made from the same material as Cap's shield, and who is mad at Bucky because he thinks he blew up his dad, the king of Wakanda (Panther's dad, not Bucky's.) Iron Man also recruits Spider-Man, because Marvel paid for the rights to Spider-Man back and they weren't going to waste any time using him.

I was about to say that this version of Spider-Man felt very true to the character's nature, given how he was so youthful and impressed by all the heroes he was meeting, but honestly, the version of Spider-Man I'm most familiar with has been a super hero for about 50 years of (maybe a decade of comic book time) and has met everyone and done everything and been married except it was erased from history. Even my favourite interpretation of Spider-Man, from the 1990's animated series (hey it has to be someone's) has him in college and going steady with Mary Jane (I mean his girlfriend, not that he's a huge pothead.) This Peter was still enjoyably youthful, but TBH I've never had a problem with any of the actors portraying Spider-Man, just the various movies they were in... and even then I think they sometimes get a bad rap.

As for Ant-Man, I'm not sure he belongs either, since Paul Rudd, bless his heart, has a way of making it seem like he's just in an SNL skit about superhero movies, not in a real actual one. I loved Ant-Man because of him, but context is important. But both he and Spidey were responsible for some pretty enjoyable moments during the big hero fight.

Obviously, Bucky isn't actually guilty, and so he and Cap are ostensibly absolved, and there is a bad guy at work here, if not engineering the downfall of the Avengers then at least taking advantage of the situation for personal revenge. Black Panther has some choice words at the end about the destructive cycle of vengeance, which Iron Man can't hear because he's in the middle of a knock-down drag out fight with Cap and Bucky because he wants revenge. Iron Man does not come off great in this movie despite coming from a position that starts out pretty reasonable. Someday, superhero movies will broach topics besides "is it right to kill someone because he killed your parents?" (Um, spoiler I guess?) But I guess if it was good enough for Hamlet, it is good enough for 15 to 30 superhero movies.

Incidentally, I wish there was room for more John Slattery as Howard Stark and CGI young Robert Downey Jr as Teen Tony. Excellent casting there.

In the end, what we have here is a 2.5-hour movie designed to showcase the heroes fighting each other in a variety of settings, over something not as flimsy as a misunderstanding but not so dramatic as to make you actually hate one of them. To that point, it's a pretty agreeable movie, directed with great skill by the Russo Brothers. The action is good and it's a shade less lightweight than either of the Joss Whedon Marvel's The Avengers movies. It is stronger on the plot, with all the contrivances needed to make the setpieces and fights happen being easy enough to digest, and the characters are handled better too. Perhaps that's the semantic difference between a "Marvel's The Avengers" movie and a "Captain America" movie. In the former, all the characters need equal time, so the plot develops "tall poppy" syndrome. In the latter, particular attention is paid to Captain America and his problems, and the characters are served the closer they are in orbit to that. (Iron Man and Bucky plenty, Hawkeye not so much.) There's even time for a juicy subtle love connection between Vision and Scarlet Witch that feels less tacked-on than the Black Widow/Hulk ship that cropped up in Marvel's The Avengers The Age of Ultron. (Which, for the record, I was for, since Mark Ruffalo has chemistry with everybody.) And let's never forget that Captain America and Iron Man's cinematic friendship consists of about ten minutes of screen time each at the end of the first Avengers and the beginning of the second, prior to Tony creating Ultron, after which they're mostly at odds. By and large, the two characters, and their problems, feel more substantial in their own previous movies. (I'm particularly partial to Iron Man 3, which gave us the best version of Tony to date.)

What it comes down to is the question at the heart of most superhero literature: to uphold the letter or the spirit of the law? This was also at the heart of about half the episodes of Drop Dead Diva. I find that most people are comfortable with "spirit" as the answer, feeling they have the proper judgment to know right from wrong (they don't, that's why we have laws, to tell you what you did wrong and how you are going to be punished.) Superheroes, and lawyer Jane Bingum, get special dispensation on that one, though.

Perhaps the movie would have benefitted from seeing Cap try it Tony's way and realizing the flaws in practice instead of making it about abstract ideals, but that would have added another 15-30 minutes onto this movie's gargantuan running time, and we've got Spider-Man to get to. The movie never comes out and says whether having a boss is good or bad, and most would agree that most organizations benefit from some level of management, although my experience has always been that there's such a thing as too much. I think the premise of superheroics is supposed to be that if you're really super you're probably a good enough person that you don't need a boss. But you also should know better than to resort to punching your friends? And that's the climax of the movie, one being punched hard and left for dead, with the villain basically successful? Am I expecting too much from my superheroes?

That's probably why the superhero movie I'm most looking forward to at this point is The Lego Batman Movie, which promises to leave the "real" behind, as its protagonist is both a Lego minifig and an animated character, so for some reason we have different standards for him and the world he inhabits. If the movie feels the need to address the tropes of the superhero genre and wonder what it's all for, it will probably do so with enough self-awareness so to make it all part of the show, as the Lego Movie did. The Lego Movie was great. Captain America: Civil War was only okay.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Aerospotting: Selections from Get Your Wings (1974)

There are a few bands whose music I not only love to listen to, but think about for how great it is. Believe it or not, Aerosmith is my favourite. In this column, I will occasionally be taking a look at significant tracks throughout their career and trying to suss out exactly what makes them so special - to me at least.

Get Your Wings: biker slang for a rite of passage (wherein oral sex is performed on a menstruating partner,) in short, to earn respect.

The difference between album one and album two for this band can be summed up by one word: darkness. There's something "dark" about this record, not just the shadowy album cover compared to the blue sky and clouds motif of their debut. Album one was mostly about hoping to "Make It," the story of a hungry rock and roll band, with some "woman done me wrong" Rolling Stones 3rd-generation blues tunes, and Steen Tyler's latent hippie psychedelia distinguishing the affair. Album two takes more inspiration from "the dark side" - sex, drugs, booze, violence. Boozy sex, druggy violence, violent sex... all rendered through the refracted lyrics of Steven Tyler. The words on this album seem to have a certain logic pointing somewhere in that general direction. "Same Old Song and Dance" may be about a drug dealer on trial. "Lord of the Thighs" may be about a pimp. "SOS (Too Bad)" could very well be a retelling of "House of the Rising Sun." Part of the brilliance is that lack of obviousness. Aerosmith in the 70's does indulge in a lot of rock and roll clichés, and yet because Tyler's way of doing lyrics is so inimitably weird, it never succumbs to them. It ends up elevating them. Oh, and what a riff on this one.

This is not the only quality that recommends the album, though, because the band plays like hot fire all over the record. Here, Joey Kramer develops the prototype for the broken-down funk groove that will later power "Walk This Way." Joe Perry and Brad Whitford develop this ominous, pulsing rhythm of a guitar riff before Tyler's piano rolls in, introducing that sleazy, menacing delivery, lyrics like an alchemical incantation.

Nobody with anything to say about the subject would ever classify Get Your Wings as Aerosmith's best album - it doesn't have the highest highs of their career - but it happens to be the one I like listening to from beginning to end best, which marks it as their most consistent effort. It just strikes that gritty, dense tone so well and doesn't manage to wear it out. That encompasses the dense sci-fi psychodrama of "Spaced" (a song about interstellar travel that manages to not be pretentious, sitting next to those drug dealer tunes? Wow) and the frothy psychedelic pop of "Woman of the World." "WOTW" is the workhorse of the album. It's not considered an exceptional cut by any means, and definitely not one that the band uses to identify itself even at that time, but I feel like there were any number of working man's bands in the mid-70's that would have loved to have a tune like that in their setlist. Here it's just considered filler, surrounded by more outrageous, provocative cuts. Turn the album over and you are greeted with the rabid garbage punk of "SOS (Too Bad.)" Incidentally, while the band would never be identified as punk today, critics at the time were using the word to mean anything new that was hard, fast and nasty. Tyler always denied the connection because in New York City, "punk" is someone lazy, and this is a band that always tried very hard. That's true, but at their best they were also very good at covering their tracks.

The album reaches its steamy climax with "Train Kept a Rollin'," a resurrection of an ancient blues song as an epic workout, slowly gathering steam from a measured stomper to a roaring inferno of lust. I've had a bit of a problem with this song ever since I learned it was studio musicians who first recorded the track's legendary faux-live solo, but I've heard them do it live so I guess they must have eventually picked it up. And in the afterglow, it transforms via some artificial crowd noise, into "Seasons of Wither." And if "Lord of the Thighs" is alchemy, this is pure witchcraft, a summoning of evil spirits, of loneliness and regret. Beauty, sadness and cold. That lyrics, "Love for the devil brought her to me" is everything, and it's just the beginning. Prior to that, the album's tone had relished its sins, and only now do we start to see the true cost of an evil good time. And yet, a morality play like this was not meant to save souls: only to say, "buyer beware."

And then there's a little cabaret clarinet cleanse the palate before the album returns to fun sexy sex.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Better Late Than Never Thoughts: GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)

I was never against the existence of a new Ghostbusters movie at the outset - at least not on the basis that they had re-cast the Ghostbusters as women. That twist, at least, seemed a better excuse to make the movie in the first place than if they had done four male actors in the role. After all, it feels the vast majority of movies that get made lately are remakes or adaptations, so at least when they remake something I like that already exists as a very good movie, that original movie still exists. And I don't care what anyone says, making a crummy remake would only increase the profile of the original, because it makes you appreciate it better.

(I figure it's worse when something you like in another medium gets its one and only chance to be a movie and it stinks.)

I mean, besides not really being a fan of Melissa McCarthy, I couldn't really see any problem with the people who made Bridesmaids bringing that same sensibility to the premise of a quartet of women hunting and trapping ghosts. I feel like that's at least a rich enough premise to sustain at least one more variation.

This Ghostbusters movie is different from the past one in a very significant way, down to the core, and your opinion of that change probably informs your opinion of it (if you're able to go in with an open mind, at least.) The first is actually kind of a weirdly serious movie, starring famous comedians. The ghosts aren't played for laughs, and neither is the version of New York that the Busters inhabit. They themselves are comedic characters: Earnest Ray, detached intellectual Egon, and of course deadpan Bill Murray as Peter Venkman. The main vein of comedy in Ghostbusters (1984) comes from Bill Murray's character being face to face with the existence of an impressive paranormal power and reacting the same way you would if you were bored at lunch and messing with your waiter.

Ghostbusters (2016) takes place more in a world of comedy. Characters who perform otherwise perfunctory roles are given comedic dialogue, whether it's the line about "anti-Irish fences" at the Victorian estate being toured at the beginning, or the constant issues with Chinese soup delivery experienced by the McCarthy character. The movie is more made up of "bits," probably because Paul Feig has conceived of it as you would a comedy movie, constructing "bits" with each moment, and Dan Aykroyd, while a noted comedian, also really cares a super-lot about the paranormal and takes it pretty seriously. It's only in a movie with the tone of Feig's that you're going to get cameos from original castmembers.

But just because it is markedly different (in one way) does not mean it is not also very, very good.

My main concern was that the movie would go too far over the top: too many gross-out gags, goofy ghosts, pratfalls, and winking references. And there were a lot of all those, but oddly enough they a) work for half the audience, and b) don't detract from the rest of the movie. So when there's the inevitable "testing new equipment" scene that ends with a character being hoisted about like a wild firehose, it's a bit of an eyeroll but it doesn't drag the movie down too much. Mostly it's defined by clever back-and-forth and really well-disciplined comedy. And a disproportionately great line about the world's tiniest bowtie. The "comedy world" approach enables the filmmakers to play around a bit more with the ghosts themselves, the way of fighting them, as well as side-characters like Chris Hemsworth's (possibly synesthetic) Kevin.

Paradoxically, the emotional lives of the Ghostbusters in their 2016 iteration is also richer, establishing the background of Abby and Erin's friendship and interest in the paranormal. That alone feels like enough of a raison d'etre for the movie, beyond better VFX" and "increase the wacky." (That increased wacky, the manic mood of the movie, has its hits and misses - there's a lot of great bits in there, and a few moments that feel off, like trying too hard to be funny for the sake of funny.) The climactic battle and rope rescue scene were top notch, though - I loved seeing NYC swarming with ghosts in a way that was simply not possible in 1984.

The plot of the movie mostly tracks with the first one, which is a value-neutral statement: it's both the easy way out and a soothing familiarity. It's the same thing that happened with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and your mileage may vary on whether you were into it in that case or this one.

For me, it was fine, a good enough clothesline to hang the new gags on. I felt like Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones could have been better done-by (although mostly great, McKinnon's dance to DeBarge was a miss for me, one of those "wacky for wacky's sake" gags with no real context or point.) Jones in particular gets a lot more development and more to do than Ernie Hudson got in the first one. Complaints about Chris Hemsworth's character are completely unfounded, as he is one of the most consistent sources of laughs in the movie.

This was a good movie, guys, and if they get to make a second one it could get even better from there. I just hope that, per the tease at the end (spoiler alert?) they don't do Zuul again. They just remade the Zuul story with a new coat of paint with this one, so why bother?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Gravitys Pull 2: Selections from R.E.M.'s Reckoning (1984)

There are a few bands whose music I not only love to listen to, but also think about. R.E.M.'s discography provides room for endless speculation as to the meaning and source of its magic, but also just for endless remarking on its sheer quality. In this occasional column I intend to examine a few key tracks from each album and muse about what exactly makes them so significant.

Reckoning: to seek (or find) oneself, or to deliver justice.

The year following R.E.M's full-length debut, Murmur, saw them return with an album that bore many of the same characteristics: obscure lyrics delivered by Michael Stipe's low rumble, matched by Mike Mills' elegant counterpointing backup vox, propelled by Bill Berry's drums and given liftoff by Peter Buck's jangling guitars. Effectively, album two is a more polished version of album one. If Reckoning isn't exactly a reinvention of the band - certainly not on the order they would later achieve from disc to disc - it was a clear progression from what they started with. A fuller, more vibrant sound with a few more moving parts, a little more finely tuned. With more get-up-and-go. That statement is immediately made by the spellbinding back-and-forth-and-inside-out vocals of "Harborcoat" and the bright, shining riff of "& Chinese Bros.," an ideal Buck effort. Stipe's lyrics in that one, which apparently tell the story of a torrid love triangle of sorts invoking the folktale of the Chinese Brothers are a real highlight, as is...

The masterpiece of this album is the mournful "So. Central Rain," which also seems to have a narrative about lovers (or acquaintances at any rate) separated by a disastrous flood in Georgia. As the peppy piano and 12-string guitar plinks a sprightly tone, the guitars make room for Stipe's chasmic "sorries." The music, like rain, cannot be abated though, as the rhythm continues. The funerary "Camera" is another bright spot, moving from a low key verse to a soaring chorus - again, I would signify Buck as the hero of this song, as every movement of the guitar feels beautifully pained, staggering stuff.

All over this album, the band tries on folksy, country and westernish personae, but there's never any bid for legitimacy in that arena. It's not parody per se, but observation of some musical tropes. They're not making fun, and not imitating, but trying to play a musical character, express things in a way that can only be done with a certain type of music. That's why, I think, to a non-country-loving person like myself, the Very Much Country "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" is such a powerful, effective, enjoyable song. Rather than being a country band just doing what comes naturally, they put in the work to become one, just for a few songs on this album. Of course it doesn't hurt that they used to cover Roger Miller's "King Of The Road." That this rustic tune shares album space with the sweaty rockclub gem of "Pretty Persuasion" is a testament to the scope of this band's abilities and sense of identity.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Today's Jam: Ben E. King, "Stand By Me"

Inevitably, when I hear this song, I start to hum or sing along, and I never can get through the whole thing without choking up. It's one of those most perfect pop songs. That quiet, minimal, delicate shuffling backing track broken through by King's tear-cracked voice invokes the feeling of loneliness and isolation, of helplessness and hopelessness, but also the repudiation of it, the sharing of sorrow and comfort between two knowing, caring souls. Then in comes that note-perfect string break to relieve the fear. It is vulnerable and raw and yet resolute and polished. It is a testimony to strength in hard times, and it doesn't need to be romantic.

Anyway. I feel like it sums up the day pretty well for me.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Today's Jam: Mark Knopfler, "Boom, Like That"

Imagine being in a band. You've created some immensely popular songs and have a strong following and will go down in history as some of pop music's finest. But there's something missing. Even though you're the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, you still don't feel like you're being heard, being permitted to make the music that truly matters to you. That's when you break away and begin a solo career. Write songs that are intensely personal and important, that you couldn't do with your old band because they wouldn't have understood, they would have straitjacketed you. Only now are you truly free to pursue these works of great importance, personal significance. Now the world will know the real you.

Anyway, here's a song written by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits about Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Recently: The Girls by Emma Cline

At the surface, Emma Cline's The Girls is a book about a murder. But not a murder mystery - you know from the outset exactly who is going to commit the crime and vaguely sense who is going to be the victim. That the book centers around an ersatz Manson Family should be enough to give that away, as does the framing device, which catches up with the narrator, Evie Boyd, 40 years or so down the road in the present day, where we find what kind of person she has ultimately become - shaped by these experiences, and yes defined by them to a degree, but somehow simply the person she was always meant to be.

What's really special about the book is how it fills the moments leading up to that murder. The encounters between Evie and the future murderess Suzanne. The way she grows apart from her childhood friends and turns toward this toxic hippie commune. The way she regards her mother's failings as she settles for mediocre boyfriends and how she resists her father's new wife's attempts to bond. This is a book about the mind of a young woman as much as it is about someone who commits a crime. Moreso.

It's brilliantly written: the way it picks up on stray details and observations from its main character's world and really digs deep into their significance and her opinions on them. I can't emphasize enough how much great work is done with Evie's psyche as the narrator: how she peppers her teenage observations with adult awareness that would have come in later. How deeply and richly the read experiences the mind of this girl.

On that level, it's a timely and engaging read, for this moment when the media (well, really, the Internet) gives more and more visibility to the issues that have been faced by the interior lives of women since time immemorable. Oh did I say timely? Guess I meant timeless.

The language is absolutely gorgeous, nearly every paragraph containing some remarkable turn of phrase. Sometimes I worry, when reading overly "literate" literature, that the authors are trying too hard to be clever with flowery when they can just make their point in simple language, causing me to notice the author's hand and take me out of the world they're trying to build. Cline proves it's possible to do both simultaneously and with ease. Showoff.

It's been a while since I've encountered a book that seemed so well-suited to my tastes, but those looking for a quick thrill and a last-minute gasp should probably stay away or at least think twice, but it's a damn rewarding read.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Today's Jam: Blind Melon, "No Rain"

Maybe you've noticed that most of my jams lately have been dated to the 90's. At my former grounds I used to try to spread it around, but I can't deny that the decade of my youth calls to me.

At the beginning of this decade, the one we currently live in, I feel like we really saw the rise of a kind of Premium on Memories. I have actually experienced the 90's more clearly from the 2000's than when they were actually happening (being that I was 13 when they ended.) By this, I mean the rise of Buzzfeed, and countless articles on what Only 90's Kids Will Remember.

And of course there was the music, to the point where items that would have been extremely passé at the end of the 90's, became rare-sought-after gems for excavation in the 2010's. It's the race for Who Could Be The First To Remember and to remind everyone. Who could find the kitschiest, most random item for appreciation? And of course it must have been popular enough to be part of our shared cultural memory, but have dropped so completely into obscurity that remembering it at all feels like a magic trick. Sorcery of Memory.

This song, and its memorable "Bee Girl" video, is a particular beneficiary of that, I feel like it's more popular now than it ever was in the 90's. And me posting it now doesn't make me any cooler because we are All Remembering The 90's At All Times.

But it's a good song, still a blast to mumble along to on the radio or on rainy days (or sunny ones!) And let's face it, no matter what the weather, most of the time I really don't have much more to say than that my life is pretty plain.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Today's Jam: Frank, "I Love You All"

Last year my girlfriend and I had the pleasure to happen upon this movie (Frank) at the library, where Michael Fassbender plays the reclusive singer of an underground rock band who performs (and lives his life) wearing a papier mache mascot head. This somehow doesn't keep him from singing strangely beautiful indie rock lyrics in a delightful baritone. It was one of the better rock movies I've seen in my time, dealing with the struggles of sacrificing your art for attention and approval, whether that's a worthy goal or whether it's enough to be uncompromising and please only a small number of people. The music is appropriately quirky and, since it's meant to have a cultlike appeal within the movie's universe, strangely deep and moving. Witness one scene's beautiful-in-context tribute to a lone protruding carpet tuft.

I recommend this highly.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Recently: Bad Moms

I feel like, to a certain extent, Bad Moms got overshadowed by the other female-led comedy film of the summer, Ghostbusters. That one had all this dynamite controversy surrounding it, the baggage of a decades-old franchise and much of the crew that brought you Bridesmaids. By comparison, Bad Moms was this little film you could be forgiven for being unaware of. I think in general we're now trained to overlook movies (and TV shows) that are titled "BAD [Thing that is usually wholesome and good.]" I reckon there hasn't been a good one since Bad Santa (the originator as far as I know.) And it's not like Mila Kunis has legions of fans flocking to the theatre anytime she gets a lead role, otherwise Jupiter Ascending would be getting the trilogy treatment.

But you know, there's a really great comedy here. Kunis makes a really enjoyable lead as Amy, an overworked young mom stretched to the breaking point by the demands of modern parenting and getting no help from her manchild husband (played by perennial sitcom "that guy" David Walton.) Her ill-defined "three-days-a-week" job at a trendy millennial coffee company basically amounts to being the underappreciated on-site adult who keeps the whole organization from falling apart. Her kids have a plethora of after school activities due to the college application arms race (the oldest is only 12 and she's already got to learn Mandarin for her resume!) Amy even does her kids' homework for them, which at one point amounts to a giant unexplained papier-mâché Richard Nixon head. When she gets press-ganged into volunteering for one initiative too many by "perfect" PTA Prez Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate in perfect form) she snaps and decides, in a very trailer-ready moment, to be a "Bad Mom," flanked by the inattentive single mom Carla (Kathryn Hahn, always a blast) and mousy, repressed mom of four Kiki (Kristin Bell, who can basically play anything.) Marvel as they tear-up a late night supermarket, go clubbing, and throw one hell of a house party.

The movie has a lot of fun watching these women rediscover their independence, learn how to loosen up on their kids and cope with the demands of parenthood. Of course Amy and Gwendolyn get set on a collision course over the PTA election and of course there's a stirring speech at the end about what a "good mom" even is. There's a good amount of raunchy bad behavior and some awesomely candid sex talk, but the tone is never too far over the top to break the movie into farce. Mostly it succeeds on the dialogue and the main characters' chemistry. A one-dimensional romantic subplot is tossed in ever so lightly as to not detract from the main storyline, which is about right. Every beat of the movie is done well, even when it gets a tad formulaic, because it's charming as hell. Watching the way the moms act out, catch some repercussions for it, but then manage to press forward, is just a joy.

There's a lot of good points about what we have come to expect from the women in our lives, and what we should be doing to help out (as men, as children or as a society.) Probably not enough men will see this movie, definitely not without their wives and girlfriends. But that's their loss, not because they need to get a lesson in equal partnership, but because there's too many damn good laughs in there to be missed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Today's Jam: Aqua, "My Oh My"

When you're 10 or 11 years old, as I was when Aqua's first album came out and everyone in my Grade 5 class had it, you feel like you can eat candy all day. Even with the awareness that you do get stomachaches afterward, nothing is going to keep you away if it gives you pleasure. I felt absolutely no pressure to disavow this band despite the distant advisories from the adult world that their music was cheesy, shrill and trite. (Nevermind the fact that "Barbie Girl" is one of the top most biting bits of satire in the decade, considering the source.)

Anyway. Aqua was candy. They had a winning formula for preteen listeners: most of their songs took on some kind of costume and setpiece, thus providing a unique backdrop for their tooth-achingly sweet yearning pop, in this case the harpsichord-laden medieval/high seas pirate/Robin Hood vibe. The contrast between the voices of Lene Nystrøm and René Dif reinforced the romantic back-and-forth: "Baby I miss you" "I miss you too but I can't be there" etc etc. A lesson in schoolyard romance with Saturday morning colours and a bunch of irresistible hooks. And yeah, it'll rot your teeth, but it's good to indulge now and then.

Friday, September 16, 2016

WWE Thoughts: Heath Slater has arrived (and is moving up to a double-wide.)

Initially, I thought, WWE had slightly blown a good thing with the Heath Slater "free agent" gimmick. By being "left out" of the brand split draft, lifetime low-midcard-comedy-heel Slater managed to take on the status of a mythical folk hero, appearing at totally random times on either show, able to interact with seemingly anyone on either roster, and yet devoid of any ongoing feud or storyline. That part is key because it meant Slater had a bit of protection against the gimmick getting stale (feuding with the same party for weeks and eventually re-enacting the same segments half the time tends to cause that) and it made him into a wonderful element of chaos on a show - two shows - that can become predictable too easy. This is especially risky for comedy acts: who wants to see another Golden Truth or Darren Young/Bob Backlund segment? But Heath Slater (baybay) was able to insinuate himself into any segment, at any time, and make a spectacle of himself to the fans' delight. Just when I thought his shtick had long since gotten moldy, he managed to pull focus back to himself, better than ever.

It was a golden few weeks, but it reached its zenith when Slater went eyeball-to-eyeball with Brock Lesnar, boldly proclaiming he didn't want to face the Beast, but would if he had to because "I got kids!" in a moment that was somehow absurd and hilarious in its pretend patheticness. From there came the difficult part of actually doing something with Slater, which meant slotting him in (with Rhyno as his straight-man) to the SmackDown Tag Team championship tournament that seemed destined to be won by American Alpha or the Usos. I was worried. Once you start knuckling down on a gimmick like that and actually, you know, doing something with it, it becomes difficult because all that chaos is gone, all those wild possibilities suddenly aren't possible. No more random visits to RAW, and of course what could be the outcome of this tournament? Because either he loses and he's gone for good, which wasn't going to happen, or they contrive some other BS way of letting him be "signed." And he definitely wasn't going to actually win the titles, right? Because wrestling championships are serious things.

Okay, we know they're really not. Slater's predecessor Santino Marella was Intercontinental, U.S., and Tag Team champion something like nineteen times, and even the blessed New Day were hardly a thing when they first became your double-you, double-you, ee, world, tag, team, chyampionssss. So to go with the joke champions in this case is no big thing either. And now the great experiment begins, for Slater (and Rhyno) to capitalize on this attention and maybe become as big a deal as the New Day. I believe it's possible, I saw it during the "free agent" weeks, but we need a better Slater than we saw in 3MB, or in Slater Gator, or in the Social Outcasts.

What gets popular in wrestling is tricky. Not everyone has what it takes to make it to the top of the show, but as I said when I came back to this blog, if you can't be first be last. Over the years I've seen WWE wrestlers race to the "bottom" of the card to become the biggest joke characters, some more successful than others (who could forget the meteoric rise of Damien Mizdow?) Because since the act of watching pro wrestling is so ridiculous even to those of us who enjoy it, it helps to have something we aren't being asked to take seriously. And yet somehow, within that routine, there's something a lot more sincere and relatable than the stuff that actually is on the top of the card.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Today's Jam: Cake, "Love You Madly"

It's a weird feeling to know the song and know the band but not know the song was by the band until sometime later. How could anybody mistake John McCrea's deadpan, disaffected yet secretly romantic voice for any other singer's? His is the sound of a Gen X slacker who has been taught by society and his own inner impulses to reject the pomp and circumstance of love (and any real feelings at all) and yet finds himself nevertheless drawn to it, swept up in it, loving it. I dug it up after a trip digging around Tidal for unfamiliar songs by familiar artists, and what do you know, I had that moment of "They did this? ...Well, of course it's them!" This song feels like it's soundtracked many a 2000s slacker comedy film... or at least their trailers.

It's happened to me before, with this very distinct band, when I was a little younger and less worldly. When I was in Grade 9, I happened to catch their "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" on the radio when I was in my aunt's car and I found the song so unique and interesting that it stuck in my head for years afterward until someone finally mentioned it to me and I learned what it was called and who it was by. We weren't yet at the point, as a civilization, where if you knew a snippet of a song you would know to just pop it into Google and get all the answers, we've come a long way in a decade and a half.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Recently Consumed: Dark Matter, Drop Dead Diva, The Last Shadow Puppets and more

Blake Crouch, Dark Matter (2016)

Shockingly, the first thing discussed on this blog ostensibly dedicated to being behind the times is a recently-released novel about alternate universes and the self. We're not going to get into it here though: I have a guest blog up at my friend the Literary Counsellor and I highly recommend (with total impartiality) you check out my thoughts, at length, there.

The Last Shadow Puppets, Everything You've Come To Expect (2016)

The side-project of Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner doesn't announce itself as boldly as their work (especially their career-highlight fifth album AM) but it is a delightful, irresistible slice of retro-psychedelia, calling up Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles alongside the Powerpop-Funk-Indie-Alt-R&B-Boyband-Crooner-Hard Rock fusion of Turner's other band. Check out the Madman Across the Water/Honky Cat era Elton John-esque "The Dream Synopsis."

Drop Dead Diva (2009-2014)

The ultimate Lifetime watch-with-your-someone series. We're 4 and a half seasons into the 6-year saga of model Deb Dobkins in her reincarnated life as lawyer Jane Bingum, and while I have to admit I can see the plot beats coming a mile away (wait, they're about to introduce some new evidence and amend the complaint! The judge is going to allow it, but tell them to be careful!) I do enjoy the often-quirky cases the firm of Harrison and Parker takes, which provide challenging, usually frothy puzzles for their legal minds. The show is also buoyed by the charisma of its star Brooke Elliott, who wears the tics and traits of a runway model as well as those of a ferocious legal shark who only wants to make the guilty pay, and is always a delight to watch in doing so. Only, the ensemble has really lost something since the departure of Ben Feldman as Guardian Angel Fred, who left midway through to pursue a position with Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Could also do with more Margaret Cho.

Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts (2011)

Having been a fan of Larson's Devil in the White City, I was glad to finally get around to reading his account of William E. Dodd, American ambassador to Germany in 1933, and his scandalous daughter Martha. This book doesn't live up to the quality of the previous, owing to the fact that we are essentially reading the tale of a man who is patently ordinary in temperament, in over his head from the get-go, with the foregone conclusion that he doesn't prevent the Holocaust and everything is going to get a lot worse by the time it's over (and then some more afterward.) It's not as rich and full of a story (from a beginning-middle-end standpoint) as White City, since Dodd's part just misses some of the most fascinating, dark moments of the Third Reich. It doesn't help that the key event of the book - the Night of Long Knives purge - has little to do with Dodd at all, underscoring the notion that maybe he wasn't someone who made history as much as someone history happened around. But Larsen's writing style kept me turning pages; the man writes facts as gripping as any fiction, by including fascinating details but never letting them dry out the story. The intrigues surrounding the many loves of Martha Dodd are a revelation, it's as much her tale as her father's.

WWE RAW and SmackDown Live (Week of Sept 5)

I can quibble about some of the awkwardness that has accompanied the return to a brand split, the way the ascent of Kevin Owens was pretty much a reminder that it's HHH's world, and the fact that 3 hours of RAW is just too damn much but the real scandal is the tasteless scripting of the Sasha Banks return promo designed to ape the retirement speech of Daniel Bryan (just a few months ago) or the title forfeiture of Finn Balor (just a few weeks ago!) To play on those real life sympathies only for a wrestling story makes me feel upset as an audience member, reminds me that these entertainers are constantly putting themselves in real danger just for my amusement (at a rate that surely could be decreased with some new policies) and that the people in charge will do just about anything to get a reaction. Makes me wonder why I ever watch. And yet there I am every week. I'm not happy with myself, let me tell you. That Sasha Banks promo really took me to a dark place. But at least we've got Owens on top, Enzo & Cass and the New Day in the middle of the show, Bayley's "inflatable tube man" aesthetic and Chris Jericho alluding to people about to get "it." There's maybe 40 good minutes in every 3-hour RAW and somehow that's enough.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015 film)

Watched on a lark for potential "so bad it's good" qualities, but was honestly disappointed in that regard. There just wasn't that much in there to laugh at, let alone follow along as a story. It's as bad as everyone says, sure, but not in quite the way I was led to believe or hoped. It was just a snooze that could have used a bit more sex (to bring it up to the level suggested by the reputation) about two exceptionally boring human beings (I think) who engage in an unconventional courtship, but boringly. It's almost like there's something unhealthy about deliberately consuming media with the intention of disliking it. Huh.

Here We Go Again Coming Back For The First Time

Sometimes I get concerned that I'm not living my best internet.

The world wide web is full of great people, smart people, funny people, interesting people, creative people, insightful people, people with perspective, people who make taste. I was absolutely flummoxed one day recently to wake up and realize that, at the age of 29, having spent two decades walking the smoldering pit of damnation that is online discourse, I had made my mark as none of those things.

It occurs to me that for the most part, people who garner a lot of attention online are the ones who catch onto things first, can tout them or tear them down as needed. This is a problem for me, since I always seem to be a latecomer to these trends. By the time I have something to say on a given subject, everyone has already moved on to the next thing, or possibly several things after that. This inability to be on time for anything seems, in retrospect, to be an ongoing theme in my life.

So I realized, not long ago (but longer ago than you'd think) - if you can't be first, be last. Embrace your lack of punctuality. Be the guy who chimes in an causes everyone else to wonder, "Is this still a thing?"

I'm not even going to work particularly hard at it. I'm just going to sit back and let my natural inclination against rushing into anything take its natural course. This blog might not even get updated ever again after tomorrow, because I'll end up putting it off so badly. And if so, then isn't the promise of a new beginning the best way to end?

(No, that's dumb and I shouldn't have suggested otherwise.)

So for context's sake, in case you somehow managed to get here without already knowing any of this, here are some facts: You are reading the blog of a 29-year-old Canadian male of white complexion, who works retail (currently selling mostly books in a mostly book store) and has been in a serious relationship for the past 21 months (we figure after the two year mark we can stop counting by months. You know, like a baby.) I have variously written about comic books, music, TV and movies, and most notably music* where my passion for the subject matter constantly competed with my instinct not to be absolutely up-to-the-minute current. I want my media to be intellectually stimulating or else sickeningly over-the-top (or both!) I promote diversity when I can but I also dismay myself by liking many entertainments that are in some way regressive. I struggle with the concept of "guilty pleasures." I wish I were funnier on twitter but I always considered myself the kind of class clown who kept his humor hidden up his sleeve for surprising moments when he deemed his audience worthy, rather than desperately seeking everyone's approval. Basically everything I watch on TV is chosen by my girlfriend anyway, and in case she's reading this, I'm totally cool with that and love her very, very much. I don't care about sports but I watch pro wrestling. I wear plaid shirts exclusively.

And you, my dear, are still reading this blog. We're going to have fun.

Keep on rockin'

*I only didn't keep up with it because the mission statement I had set out for myself started to make it time consuming and I couldn't figure out a way to cut back while still enjoying it, a weird contradiction.