Saturday, June 30, 2012

Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012) -- A

Have you ever done a 180 on a director over the course of only a few films? I certainly have with Steven Soderbergh. Once reviled, now revered for his last three, progressively improving works (Contagion, Haywire) and culminating in Magic Mike, the streamlined, zeitgeist-registering masterpiece many falsely claimed The Social Network to be (though a very good film, in its own right), the artisan director has finally knocked the cover off the ball with his 24th feature film. More than simply a "flavor of the month" retreat for these long, hot summer days, Soderbergh and first time screenwriter Reid Carolin have constructed a work that deserves mention not just alongside (and atop) films like Boogie Nights and The Social Network (the two leads even say "this is our time" to each other here) but, more importantly, it settles in comfortably next to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, especially in both its sexualized narrative and marketing strategies as maguffin's for revealing its true, au bout du fossé, la culbute aims. Magic Mike, like Kubrick's final film, is really about cinema as seduction, layering its perceived aims with implicit revelations about socio-cultural decorum and politicizing the "fuck." Everyone fucks in both films and almost everyone (the exception being Kubrick's vision is bleaker and more stunningly prescient) comes out unscathed - at least, at the expense of humanity, momentarily salvaging the individual. If Soderbergh lacks Kubrick's comprehensive structural/visual aims (or, has them in lesser degrees), he matches the great director's piercing, what I'll call, hopeful misanthropy, as ambivalent about the capacity for true societal healing (in the spiritual sense) as he is the individual's capacity for self-sacrifice. Thus, Magic Mike nearly does for self and sexploitation what Eyes Wide Shut did for capitalism.

Soderbergh's last three films have truly redefined the director's oeuvre; in the past, Soderbergh often resembled an insufferable mix/concoction filmmaker, with aims so disparate the seams not only showed, but were literally ripping apart within the frames. These works consisted of art house cliches, essentially the qualities that have created something like Sundance - dull, boring, clinical, academic works without conviction and, if not quite dispassionate, detached from anything resembling coherent humanity. All that changed, however, with Contagion, when Soderbergh began to display not only an interest in making mainstream, moderately budgeted works, but locating within its genre template more than a reveling in its visual and syntactical archetypes (The Underneath, The Limey, and The Good German are the most disgusting examples). Instead, Soderbergh located a visual short-hand that relied heavily on deceit. With Contagion, the deceit lay in presenting a seemingly straight-forward, realist horror film that focused less on those rote narrative aims and more on its clinical form as a means of tracing an affectless culture, especially with regard to crisis response and waning senses of Nationalism. The most frightening thing about Contagion is not its Outbreak-like narrative, but the rapidity with which tradition and culture are disintegrating and displaced. Improving still with Haywire, his follow-up effort, Soderbergh created a Godardian action film that equally, implicitly (but playfully) probes global capital as the root of not just Eurocentric, fetishistic return (in films), but the locus for loutish politicians and, to quote George Carlin, "piece-of-shit businessmen" that want to fuck the world (humanity, more exactly) as intensely as straight-male viewers want to fuck Gina Carano. All of this, wrapped in a sequential experiment that evokes when Godard called Vivre Sa Vie "a series of variations on how one might shoot a conversation." Haywire becomes a series of variations on how one might shoot an action sequence (among other things), retaining the rigor of formal practice with the modest, accessible textual points that embody cinema's most notable, commendable practitioners.  

Magic Mike, finally, represents the apex for this change of pace and focus. In many ways, it culminates the ultra-contemporary, immanently relevant territory Soderbergh has been venturing towards. Though many of his films have dealt explicitly with sex, Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike consummate not just his mainstream "Fuck" trilogy, let's call it, but also solidifies his latest films as embodying a style of mainstream filmmaking I have termed Trojan-Horse Cinema i.e. films that are sold as generic, mainstream entries, but actually contain thoughtful, subversive, and often controversial narrative/visual aspects within, a trend which has seen some interesting ascension within the past few years, Soderbergh's recent output being primary examples. I have more fully detailed these ideas in my Master's Thesis, entitled: "Postmodernism, Genre, Seduction: Identifying Trojan-Horse Cinema," which will hopefully be online in the coming months.

A central necessity of Soderbergh's aims (and a recurring theme of most Trojan-Horse Cinema) is a generic narrative. In this case, Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is a thirty-year-old, Tampa, Florida based stripper looking for greener pastures. Working for shit-spewing showrunner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and waking up with a different woman every morning (we first see him with soon-to-be squeeze Joanna (Olivia Munn)), Mike wants to move to Miami, quit stripping, and start his own, respectable business. The decision to take Adam "The Kid" (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing precipitates the film's three month chronology, where fun times turn to dark days (at least, that's a reductive way of putting it).

Thus, with generic set-up in hand, Soderbergh chooses to go the Eisensteinian route and "make it strange," opting for the semblance of a three-act structure given the triptych temporal demarcations (each tableaux paints a varied, but almost tonally consistent portrait), and framing, shooting, and insisting upon his trademark "detachment," but this time (like in Contagion, especially) as means for examining both the head and ass-end of a culture (forgive the crude, anatomic metaphor). Cerebrally, Soderbergh's vision of contemporary ennui and affective drives work by contrapuntal means; what's on-screen is often exciting and while Soderbergh does not seek to outright "destroy pleasure by analyzing it" (Laura Mulvey), he is ambivalent about socio-political tendencies that excuse/allow anything at the individual's discretion. A generation founded on ecstasy, cocaine, and post-traditional, electronic aural stimulation (a movement which is garnering more and more enthusiasm by the week), the opening monologue by Dallas, in which he lays down the ground rules during the show but admitting, enthusiastically "I think I see a lot of law breakers up in this house," establishes the ambivalent, potentially self-destructive mores the film wishes to parse out.

Entailed within this are social-capitalist superficialities which begin to pile up. Of course, the aesthetic (refreshingly playful, instead of clinical) insistence by the strippers to meet "perfection" (an aging stripper gets The Kid to spray tanner on his leg) extends outside of the club, as when Mike explains why he keeps the plastic on the interior dashboard of his car: "If I keep the plastic on, it'll look brand new when I want to sell it." Looks or, more precisely, resemblance becomes a thematic tick at the heart of Soderbergh's dialogic aims; inherent to that is the necessity of seduction - an invitation for a proposed activity that has alternative motives - and it's a quality Soderbergh has embraced on both micro and macro levels in his recent work.

Building on that, Soderbergh permeates every scene with an underlying sense of dreadful ambivalence, no better characterized than his allowance for the four central characters to get a close-up, simply letting the viewer watch as they watch the (except for one instance) on-stage proceedings. The Kid gets the first one, watching (and soon to be mimicking) the moves of his new-found friends. Dallas gets the next staring close-up when The Kid first takes the stage (patriarchal father exploiting the new blood); most importantly, Adam's sister Brooke (Cody Horn) gets an almost parodic succession of them while watching Mike perform for the first time. She has an affectless, Kubrickian face, yet she is the most stringent, moral presence in the film (Mike even calls her "mom" at one point, for good measure). Her maternal instincts are, unto this point, the only discerning set of eyes, ambiguously watching along with a perceptible mix of pleasure and disgust. Finally, Mike gets his close-up and it's the first time a set of eyes are not turned to the stage; late in the film, having had his money and dreams stripped (pardon the pun) from him, he looks angrily at his fellow dancers, fed-up, his human compassion resulting in personal degradation.

Magic Mike is peppered with economic discussion. Brooke's limp-dick boyfriend (oddly played by screenwriter Carolin) drones on about the differences or similarities between Medicare and home foreclosures. He isn't sure (typical Soderberghian ambivalence of old). Likewise, when Dallas talks about rearing a child and grooming him to watch nothing but "Mad Money" and see him "flushing cash," especially with the slow, 360 degree rotation to reveal all participants reactions, Soderbergh's polemics seems a little too on the nose. At least - such should be the conventional reaction. In many ways, Soderbergh has solved a riddle that plagued the most recent films by Steve McQueen, Drew Goddard, and Joe Carnahan (to name a select few): he has found a way to speak while saying "there's nothing to speak about." His newfound dialectic lies in personifying the inextricable duality of mind and body, the Cartesian myth debunked. Moreover, in synthesizing form and content so acutely, and reigning explicit textual opposition, Soderbergh equally engages a variety of post-cinematic affect that, to quote Steven Shaviro about Neveldine/Taylor's Gamer, is "more radical than reality remains a few steps ahead of any possible critical reflection that one might try to apply to it — including, of course, my own." Soderbergh's sense of neo-neorealism is so tightly wound in its implicit concerns over the legitimacy of narrativity, that these anxieties extend to the characters themselves, manifesting as purely organic (and often viscerally orgasmic) extensions of director-material. Style and narrative in Magic Mike are strangely, stunningly, inextricable.

I began by comparing Magic Mike with Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut. These similarities encompass both convention and conviction. To start with convention, the less interesting of the two: Soderbergh opens his film with the old Warner Bros. logo, the one Kubrick had before Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. Not only does Soderbergh uses title cards to abruptly interrupt the action (a Kubrick staple), he uses the exact same lettering and font Kubrick used for Eyes Wide Shut. Dissolves, perhaps Kubrick's favorite transitional cue, are used by Soderbergh with liberal, but precise placement. These borrowings, while fun and exciting for cinephiles (at least, in theory) resemble the kind of impulses amateur directors often employ, mistaking convention for conviction. In my eyes, the entirely of neo-noir beginning with Kasdan's Body Heat are guilty of these sins (including many of Soderbergh's), but that is a speech for another sermon. Luckily, Soderbergh's explicit desires to approach a Kubrickian discursive level extend both to qualities that made the director's work so endlessly impeccable and fascinating, but also engages Soderbergh's egoist (and rightly so) eclecticism - the director who believes no film, narrative, or style is out of his grasp. As such (Kubrick rarely worked in the same genre, much less similar narratives) it's inevitable there will be overlap. Whether these qualities are explicitly intended or not (and we'll never really know) is relatively beside the point.

Nevertheless, those overarching levels of layered meaning within Magic Mike are distilled with Kubrickian patience and intensity. Kubrick had a knack for achieving seeming oxymorons, often with dry irony or polysemous methods of constructing mise-en-scene. Moreover, Soderbergh intimates prideful, shameless sexual obsession as the degeneration of a capital driven society, where pain and pleasure become inseparable or indistinguishable - jouissance. In the final moments of Eyes Wide Shut, Alice (Nicole Kidman) looks at husband Bill (Tom Cruise) and says: "There's only one thing left for us to do." Bill replies, "what's that?" Alice finishes, simply: "Fuck." Mirror this with the final, heavily-ironic and hopeless scene of Magic Mike (which many critics have predictably misread as upbeat and a cop-out) in which Mike asks Brooke, perplexed, about breakfast: "They don't open for seven hours." Brooke responds: "Hmm. What could we do with seven hours?" For a movie littered with F-bombs, Soderbergh chooses to forgo a final utterance. His omission might be the most salient and disturbing of them all.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Box Office Predictions for The Amazing Spider-Man

The July 4th weekend starts early this year, with Sony's reboot (and Marc Webb directed) The Amazing Spider-Man hitting North American theaters at midnight, July 3rd. The estimated 215 million dollar budgeted tentpole Blockbuster looks to pick-up where (or, rather, re-up) where Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire's record-setting franchise left off, casting Andrew Garfield (of The Social Network fame, primarily) as the photographer-turned-web-slinger and Emma Stone as the central love-interest (I feel comfortable in making that assessment being the extent of her role). If the credentials seem a little underwhelming, they should, and thus far, Sony has to be sweating bullets at the early box office indications. Not having cracked the Top 5 on Fandango a mere four-days before release is a potential disaster for a 200+ million venture (also with reports of non-existent midnight sales), especially when the flick has only a short window (roughly 17 days) to make some money before The Dark Knight Rises smashes any-and-all competition in its way. The marketing has focused heavily on the visuals and character arcs - not a bad choice, but with two other superhero juggernauts (the other being The Avengers, of course) book-ending the summer slate, The Amazing Spider-Man seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Spidey might get tangled in his own web of irrelevance, especially since the reboot has done little to differentiate itself from Raimi's original. Reviews have been mostly positive (if only modestly so), but many critics are indeed pointing out the sense of deja vu that will inevitably linger over this reboot's head, coming a mere decade later following the first entry. The lowest total haul for a previous entry was Spider-Man 3's 336 million. Webb's version is much more likely to follow the dreaded path of Superman Returns, it would appear, and could struggle to clear 200M total domestic (though it will likely be able to clip that mark).

Official Box Office Predictions for The Amazing Spider-Man

Midnights: 2.5M
Opening Day: 18.3M
Opening Weekend: 56M
First Six Days: 95.5M
Total Gross: 211M

Monday, June 25, 2012

Box Office Predictions (June 29 - July 1)

Now that Brave has beaten the strangely lowered forecasts many prognosticators (but not this one) levied its way (it’s too geared towards girls, it’s coming too close on the heels of Madagascar 3, the Scottish accents will throw some viewers off, etc.), it’s time for the adults to take back the cinemas (or, at least, to try). Arguably three (but at least two) heavy-hitter comedies open against one another, all looking to stake out terrain of their own, catering to disparate, if not quite divergent demographics. Of course, we will be looking at Ted, Magic Mike, and Madea’s Witness Protection, as well as the dramedy People Like Us, that’s decided to stick it out on this crowded weekend for reasons unbeknownst to me.

The debate about this weekend has revolved around Ted and Magic Mike, two hard-R comedies, each of which predominately appeals to either men or women, respectively. The former is Family Guy­-creator Seth MacFarlane’s directorial debut – and it’s fairly easy to see that this will be the victor of the new releases. Adult audiences have been craving a raunchy, original hit for months now, as The Dictator and That’s My Boy comprehensively failed to do the trick, especially the latter, with its tired premise and aging star. Ted’s marketing campaign has been outstanding, unveiling a Red-Band trailer that aptly showcases the boundaries MacFarlane is willing to traverse, while highlighting the charisma of leads Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis. Moreover, Universal’s immediate decision to move Ted up two weeks following the retreat of G.I. Joe 2 should show the studio’s understandable confidence in their unique, destined-for-success laugher. Given these factors, Ted should open with about 38 million for the weekend.

Many prognosticators believe Magic Mike will be the weekend’s breakout hit, what with the presence of hot-boy Channing Tatum, whose last few films have done absolute gangbusters, and its male-stripper premise, that promises to show more male skin than the entire oeuvre of Sasha Baron Cohen (and that’s saying something). However – before one hastily assumes these factors equate an enormous weekend, a few other factors need to be considered. Magic Mike is essentially an Indie, an art-house entry with a mainstream coating. Sporting a budget of five million bucks and helmed by Indie-wunderkind Steven Soderbergh (whose last two films earned Cinemascores of B- and D+, respectively, despite outstanding critical reviews), there’s cause for concern in terms of both financial viability and, eventually, weak WOM. Of course, the latter won’t affect the opening weekend too strongly, but those expecting a gross in the 30-40 million range are simply premature (pardon the expression) and forgetting one thing – Americans are prudes and often shun nudity-heavy films (especially male). Needless to say, the film will be straight-male kryptonite (at least for the insecure) and will rely heavily on women neglecting their shame and showing up in droves for some beefcake action. Of course, many will, but the expectations shouldn’t go overboard. Magic Mike will likely have a weekend in the 23 million range.

Otherwise, Madea’s Witness Protection is likely to do well, but experience a blow from: the other, higher profile openers, a tiring of the character’s stale antics, and a summer release – Madea’s first. Expect her lowest haul yet, hovering around 18 million from about 2000 theaters – still an impressive number. People Like Us also stakes out 2000 venues, but is unlikely to come anywhere close to Madea’s take. It should fare better than last weekend’s disaster (no pun intended) Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, however. 7 million is likely.

Ted and Brave should stay neck-and-neck for the weekend crown.

Official Weekend Predictions 

Rank Title Gross Drop
1 Brave 37.5 -43%
2 Ted 37.3 NEW
3 Magic Mike 23.5 NEW
4 Madea's Witness Protection 17.8 NEW
5 Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted 13 -34%
6 People Like Us 7.2 NEW
7 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 5.9 -64%
8 Prometheus 5.1 -48%
9 Snow White and the Huntsman 5.1 -37%
10 That's My Boy 3.6 -52%

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Breakfast (Chiddy Bang, 2012) -- D

The hipster/rap quotient is significantly, insufferably upped by the debut album from Chiddy Bang, its colorful, but childish album cover displaying various spines of cereal boxes exemplifying their puerile, insignificant aims. Bubble gum doesn't quite begin to explain it - making it difficult to simply write-off the sugary-sweet (more precisely, sour) combination of beats and rhymes by members Chidera Anamege and Noah Beresin as simply innocuous, the smiley/corny sound and oddly self-absorbed duo pervert and confuse R&B/Rap ethos with nursery rhyme pandering. Breakfast is primarily for rookie listeners who don't require some form of thesis or recurring conviction from their artists. Dismal and incoherent from track to track, one is likely to find more consistency on the latest NOW album, whatever number that equally disgraceful gladhanding series has reached. Each track presents a challenge to get through. Chiddy Bang is the unbearable offspring of R&B-lite and Sundance Indie interests, as random as it is self-absorbed - yet the duo's empty pastiche prizes exactly those qualities. "Randomness" is valorized and self-congratulatory "cleverness" emerges. A quality, worthwhile album these qualities do not make. From the titular track, to "Mind Your Manners" (with children screeching "THERE IS NO ONE LIKE ME," enough to make Gaga's "Born This Way" a preferable anthem), to "Ray Charles" ("I'm feeling like Ray Charles/you couldn't find me even if you had a radar/I get out the mouthwash if you talkin' shit/got my black shades on/smoke until it's gone") to "Run It Back" (the track might as well be called "Running Back," the goofy, potpourri lyrics are inconsequential), Chiddy Bang consistently and proficiently takes a shit on decent rap, meaningful lyrics, and adulthood. As such, their encouragement and perpetuation of "arrested development" ethos is something to be despised and castigated, rather than just ignored. Their efforts amount to little more than a well-produced Kidz Bop album. That adults willingly listen to this pap is frightening.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mysterious Phonk (SpaceGhostPurrp, 2012) -- A-

SpaceGhostPurrp is the Apocalypse - not just in his nihilistic, misogynistic, and misanthropic lyrics (which admittedly abound on nearly every track), but through an evocation, sonically, of a waste-land, his beats looping, pinging, and dissipating almost immediately after the bass drops. He is the anti-club jamz, the anti-radio friendly, the anti-R&B - but don't let the string of anti's fool you into thinking the Miami-based rapper's Mysterious Phonk is simply a posturing contrarian. Much like Odd Future (it's not surprising that a future collaboration between the two was just announced today), the rapper's tracks simultaneously embrace a past and present - in SpaceGhostPurrp's case, his influences are heavily and clearly drawn from 90's gangsta rap, but infused with a contemporary ambient ambivalence, making its paranoid (that's even a title for one of the tracks here) foundations all the more frightening and palpable. Beginning with "Mystical Maze," in which Purrp's pessimism pierces with every line ("I always try to smile but the world is fake/the world is a house with a yard full of snakes") and most pungent in "Suck a Dick 2012" and "Get Yah Head Bust," there's never even a momentary diversion from the menacing, demon-filled psyche that Purrp consistently puts on display. In what is undeniably one of the album's most essential tracks, "The Black God" lays down Purrp's unwavering convictions: "I got to have the world in my hands/I'm a God, I'm no longer a black man." Purrp's mix between orchestral intrusions, electronic interludes, and hard drum/bass lines solidify his musical eclecticism and proclivity for varying the means for relating his proposed tyranny. Mysterious Phonk is both a frightening and frighteningly sophisticated debut for a 21-year-old artist who, one senses, hasn't even begun to unleash his true demons, much less the depths of his varied talents.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Box Office Predictions (June 22-24)

If last weekend taught us anything, it's this: the moviegoing public will not simply devour any half-assed, lame-brained concoction Hollywood thinks they will. As evidenced by the hilarious underperformances of That's My Boy and Rock of Ages (predicted on this site by yours truly one week ago), execs must retreat to the drawing boards to figure out exactly what went wrong. No need for that ladies and gents - I'll tell you right here. Box office success does not have a simple equation. You can't just take popular property + A-list-stars = hit (in the case of Rock of Ages) or bankable star + raunchy material = another 100M (in the case of That's My Boy). Audiences are beginning to become wearisome of pandering, irrelevant features in the age of "event cinema" and "post-high concept" comedy. I say "post" because the era of the star-driven comedy has ended - no longer do audiences seek name actor + clever idea; rather, they seek a more organic, thorough-looking execution of less-traversed properties. Those desires will be reflected in the high opening grosses of Magic Mike and Ted next weekend, two comedies broken from the new, profitable mold. For this weekend, however, the field is wide open - and a cultural mainstay is back on the trail, sniffing blood, and looking for the kill.

Of course, I'm talking about Pixar and their new animated feature Brave, showcasing the animation oligarchy's first female protagonist, with an adventure narrative that (like Snow White and the Huntsman) will likely cross-over with young boys, as well. The PG-rated flick signals Pixar's first original effort since 2009's Up and the 4000+ estimated theater count should reflect how much faith Disney has in their modestly well-reviewed (unto this point) property. Reviews should stay in the mostly praiseworthy realm and following this past weekend's debacle, Brave has essentially got the marketplace to itself. The only way this sure-fire hit could get tripped up is if audiences are experiencing bow-and-arrow fatigue following The Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman. If one wants to make that argument, fair enough, but this prognosticator isn't buying it, since the gorgeous looking animation offers a varied visceral experience, that's also accessible and appropriate for young girls. Look for no less than 70 million this weekend.

Trying to "stake-out" some territory of its own is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, an R-rated adaptation of the novel by the guy who scripted Dark Shadows and directed by Timur....yeah, the Night Watch/Wanted guy. A producer credit from Tim Burton means little these days (ask the aforementioned Dark Shadows) and replacing Johnny Depp with Benjamin Walker (who?) surely demarcates the coffin-bound territory this doomed-from-the-start horror-comedy will ultimately find itself in. Reactions against the film have been overwhelmingly negative, from outright laughter while the trailer plays in theaters, to "looks like the stupidest fucking movie ever" type-comments in bars and restaurants. Again, to Hollywood execs - campy, hot property book + visually minded director = total financial disaster. Don't be surprised if this thing ends up in the single digits. For now though, I'll say 12 milllion-ish.

Some other movie opens this weekend called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a dramedy starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightly about a meteor hitting the Earth and killing everyone. Yeah, good luck with that.

Official Weekend Predictions:

Rank Title Gross Drop
1 Brave 72.6 NEW
2 Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted 17.7 -48%
3 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 12.3 NEW
4 Prometheus 10.1 -51%
5 Snow White and the Hunstman 6.8 -49%
6 That's My Boy 6.3 -53%
7 Rock of Ages 6.2 -57%
8 MIB 3 6.1 -40%
9 Avengers, The 5.9 -34%
10 Seeking a Friend for the End of the World 4.7 NEW

Sunday, June 17, 2012

People Hear What They See (Oddisee, 2012) -- A-

A complaint often levied against many-a Hip-Hop album is the incessant need to have three or four different rappers/artists on every track. Even someone like Kanye West, whose My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is roundly considered the greatest genre blending album of the past decade (or among them) brings in two or three different voices on almost every track. The same can't be said for Oddisee, whose People Hear What They See is comprehensively his, featured solo on every track, with a remarkably measured, diverse sound as the album progresses. Soul, Rap, R&B - the DC area based artist flows with a socially and politically minded foundation that's as listenable as it is thoughtful - an especially difficult feat given the artist's solo nature. To take the Kanye comparison further - compare Oddisee's American Greed side-by-side with Power, which even got play in the trailer for David Fincher's The Social Network. Kanye's track gets national, worldwide publicity, while Oddisee's similar, perhaps even more streamlined sound and piercing lyrics ("when George Bush took the oil from the soil/I was in front of the counter buying some milk from the Arabs") seems to go unnoticed. The ethnic ironies pile up as Oddisee challenges conventional notions of racism, imperialism, and commodified politics, all while suggesting his comprehensive musical diversity is equally subversive, confrontational. Commentary is Oddisee's game: listen to "Set You Free" when he says: "We livin' in the age of the microtip/think, real life is like your flicks/we used to watch for the doctors workin' for the villain to insert shit into your fingertips/danger is, those flicks desensitized us to the ideas it could exist/well done Spielberg and Lucas." Rhymes, rhythm, and message synthesize with Oddisee's proclivity for layered-musical narrativity. Without pandering or simply reifying his aims for object political gain, Oddisee continues to establish himself as a preeminent lyricist of his generation, even if the mainstream refuses to acknowledge as much.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hive Mind (Ital, 2012) -- A-

The opening track to Ital's Hive Mind features the first words of Lady Gaga's smash single "Born This Way" on a recurring loop. The Gaga track has become something of a cultural phenomenon, to say the least, if not an outright anthem for many people who've been bullied, wronged, or made to feel different due to any number of possibilities, thus explaining its widespread acceptance. It is an empty anthem, without recourse to meaningfully dealing with difference, instead valorizing rebellion against hegemonic norms, but devoid of significance beyond its knee-jerk convictions

That's a long way to say that Hive Mind is likely to remain one of the most perceptive releases of the year, if mainly for its auto-critique of the Gaga ethos. Putting the opening line "It doesn't matter if you love him" on a loop, which stutters, stops, and ultimately, disintegrates, Ital (aka Daniel Martin-McCormick) uses the recurring words as a precursor to his hard, raw, 4x4 beat, which pumps out an experimental blend of tech house, techno Dubstep, to steadily climaxing and ravishing effect. By the end of the seven minute track (and throughout, really), Gaga's words sound like they're schizophrenically collapsing on itself, as a cyborg glitches and stutters when a wire has been cut. Gaga is the central nervous system shortage of a culture, according to Ital's maddening mix. By the time the beats stop at the end of the track, Gaga slows, her voice dies, and finally we're left with nothing but a piercing, screeching white noise.

The remaining tracks, while not up to the same level of cultural commentary, retain Ital's emphasis on experimentation, post-humanism, and synth-industrial-ambient evocations. Eerie, in a track like "Privacy Settings," epic with "Floridian Void," or provocative with "Isreal," in which muffled, African-Americn voices make indiscernible proclamations (though "the internet has become a space for evil" is understood), there's little ambient ingenuity Ital hasn't unveiled, each track drastically different from the last, culmination in a brief, but masterful display of intellect and affect, congealed.

Evolution (Paul Van Dyk, 2012) -- C+

The problem with most EDM artist albums is that they are, inevitably, too damn long. Clocking in at 77 minutes, Paul Van Dyke's (PvD) Evolution isn't so much a Darwinian exercise for the international mainstay as it is a degeneration into various attempts to stay relevant, especially on a Dubstep(?) track like "Rock This" that sounds fine (like standard issue Dubstep, that is), which becomes precisely the problem with much of PvD's latest - unfocused, wavering, screeching, hokey vocals abounding, it's the product of an artist trying to satisfy newcomers rather than honing in on what he has built himself on. Staying true to origins doesn't necessarily exclude "evolution"; in fact, the album's title would be apropos were PvD going Trance heavy, rather than offering a potpourri of the EDM realm. Not surprisingly, the best tracks come from his collaboration with Above & Beyond crony Arty, whose youth (he's 21) and blossoming popularity (along the equally talented Mat ZO) shows that there remains a large chunk of the EDM apple that aren't simply bandwagon, Skrillex/Guetta drones. "The Ocean" epitomizes what PvD should be after with his self-ascribed evolution - regaining the sounds and emotive chords that appeal so strongly to Trance enthusiasts - simultaneously bittersweet and hopeful - the intruding piano before the bass line drops a juxtaposition of past and future, making the track's ethos wholly "present," speaking through its metered integration of affective stop-and-start progressions. Following it up with "Eternity," on which vocalist Adam Young screeches "I know you'll be waiting when the moon beams come down and kiss me," PvD's latest is a mess of beauty, muck, and, above all, misplaced convictions.

Cypress x Rusko (Cypress Hill and Rusko, 2012) -- D

EP's like Cypress x Rusko, merging hip-hop, dubstep, and electronic (of the nauseating Skrillex variety) should be, on some level, provocative, risk-taking, and bracing in their sonic mix-ups, variations - a five-track EP like this must hinge on impressing with its fluent transitions and amiable maneuvering of different sounds: it should be a synthesis. Neither Cypress Hill or Rusko display interest in any of these things here - a pandering, unendurable melange of Cypress lyrics that range from silly ("When the shots go off...EVERYBODY GET DOWN!) to painful ("We came here to get you high" x10), the tracks and sophistication will only be satisfying to the lowest common denominator fan, whose qualifications are simply that "I can dance to it." Rusko deserves more criticism here, since the 25-year-old should be making music (much less releasing albums) that push the envelope, experiment with various beat progressions rather than churning out beats and hooks he could (and likely did) write in his sleep. It's more understandable for Cypress Hill, whose career now hinges upon 4/20 friendly shows and catering exclusively to their spliff-smoking fans. Nevertheless - neither party should be allowed to make more music until they check themselves. For a five-track, official release, Cypress x Rusko is inexcusable.

Up & Away (Kid Ink, 2012) -- C

Up & Away, Kid Ink's debut studio album, suffers from yet another case of repetitious, attempted hit making, where almost every track sounds like it's been tailored for radio play and conformity to contemporary popular beats/sounds in order to get recognition. As such, it doesn't sound genuine and, at its worst, is a pale imitation of various popular rappers. A little Drake here, Chris Brown there, Wiz Khalifa over here, Usher over there, Kid Ink sounds at every turn like he's at a loss for any distinct voice/style of his own. The first four tracks (especially "Is It You") contain nothing of note - rote and pedestrian in its description of how Ink is "tryin' to get paid/blow up like the World Trade" are hilariously non-sensical (it's too stupid to be offensive) and with beats that hit like they're straight from the assembly line. A track like "Drippin'" is a refreshing departure from the album's other trappings, minimal, deep bass, anchored by Ink's terse swagger - it's the type of sound he should pursue further, instead of insisting upon being an amalgamation of other, more distinct artists.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rollin' Stone (Stevie Stone, 2012) -- C+

Is Stevie Stone's head supposed to look so disproportionate to his body on the album cover for Rollin' Stone? That may be the most interesting thing that comes to mind while listening to the Tech N9ne stamped artist's latest album as it spins through its limp string of posturing, swaggering tedium, with each successive track cementing another case of workmanlike hip-hop. Stone's debut New Kid Comin' had some nice bangers on it, but nothing too notable. Here, it's still the case, as there's little that distinguishes Stone's sound - not wild enough to be dangerous, his voice a little too indistinct to warrant attention, and his lyrics almost indiscernible (and certainly non-descript). A track like "Keep My Name Out Your Mouth" nicely demonstrates this - it sounds pretty good. It bangs. However, it doesn't really bang in any special way - compare it with the string of speaker-burners on Waka Flocka Flame's latest, and it's merely ordinary. The following track titled "Oneness" explains it well enough - the same problem permeates every track, lacking anything beyond the reasonably "hard" persona Stevie Stone (he needs a harder name, though) has created for himself. I must say though, that "My Remedy" is the exception here, Stone's intro almost channeling the guttural poetry of Iggy Pop. The bright spot isn't enough to validate the rest of the album, though Stone undoubtedly has a fair amount of presence, but remains one of many artists who has yet to deliver on the obvious potential.

Express Yourself (Diplo, 2012) -- B

Diplo continues to be an invaluable presence in the ongoing project of hybridizing electronic and hip-hop, his latest EP Express Yourself, clear from the onset, of these intentions. A combination of Moombahton, Pop-lyricism, laser-kissed hooks, and full-on party beats, the combinations are always infectious, if ultimately a little one-note. Diplo releases a new mix every month via Sirius entitled Blow Your Head and, in many ways, each and everyone of those mixes is more impressive than Express Yourself, mainly because the transitions during the live mix epitomize Diplo's diverse, rambunctious attitude toward dissolving genre lines. Fredric Jameson has recently argued that it is no longer the author or the originator that creates meaning, but the curator, juxtaposing and combining works created by others to host an "event." Diplo's sonic events are just that, which makes the tracks on Express Yourself play like a test run, a warm-up for the actual mixes - although the massive sound on something like "No Problem" is enough to make one argue the contrary - that's a big track, for sure (My Name is Kay kills the vocals). If you're new to Diplo's masterful orchestration of music, voices, ambient sounds, electro-blast confections, Express Yourself is a fine place to start - just don't let it be the last you hear from this master of the decks.

Live From the Underground (Big K.R.I.T., 2012) -- B+

It may initially seem a stretch to compare Big K.R.I.T.'s debut studio album to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - but in many ways, Live From the Underground is more of a straight rap/funk/electro hybrid of West's eclectic masterpiece, only with far less naval-gazing. More Wu-Tang or Too Short (especially on hard-hitting rap tracks like "What U Mean" or "Yeah Dats Me") than Lil Wayne, K.R.I.T. clearly has an interest in past and present, his electro-cool beats on "LFU300" or the sci-fi coda on "Yeah Dats Me," emblematic of the latter, a wise choice combining lyricism with a diverse range of sounds. "Don't Let Me Down" is K.R.I.T.'s slow-jam anthem ("It's hard to celebrate for others when you're dying poor"), yet it isn't chained by such a label, since the sound and the lyrics often don't easily align - in that way, K.R.I.T. isn't an immediately accessible rapper, nor is Live From the Underground definable as any one specific thing, with one mission  in mind. Listen to "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," a staggeringly thoughtful track about lost adolescence, offering the warning: "Be a better man in the world of negligence/Pedophilic malvolence, don't trust your reverend." Poignant without pandering, K.R.I.T. clearly knows his stuff and can fairly easily maneuver between sounds and genres. Holding the album back slightly are early tracks like "Cool 2 Be Southern" and "I Got This," neither of which is very convincing (especially the former, as K.R.I.T. never explains exactly why the track's title is the case) and, with the latter, is far too generic for a talent as varied and tangible as K.R.I.T.'s ultimately thoroughly impressive debut indicates.

Triple F Life: Fans, Friends, and Family (Waka Flocka Flame, 2012) -- B

Triple F Life: Fans, Friends, and Family, Waka Flocka Flame's follow-up album to Flockaveli (a speaker-blasting masterpiece) is less an extension of the rapper's initial efforts, than a stumbling degeneration into unlistenable, commercial pop-rock-rap. At least, that could best describe the album's first half. Critics of Waka don't seem to get what makes him special and, on his studio recordings, one of the best bass-heavy, minimalist rappers around. His music is not meant for thematic dissection or lyrical poignancy. Instead, his music is meant to be heard, felt - Waka is about cadence, repetition, and ambiance. In a sense, he is Rap's equivalent of Trance - lean, mean, hard - when he's at his best, anyway. His best can be seen on Flockaveli tracks like "Hard in Da Paint," "Bang," "Fuck da Club Up," and "Grove Street Party." Waka is about a mindset, a tone, rather than being "real hip-hop," whatever that means. His "crunk" origins are elevated by his raspy, deep voice, which makes even the most risible lyrics (“Pay for what girl?/You better pay for this dick”) sound reasonable.

Thus, it's troublesome to see Waka get tripped up on tracks featuring Drake, Trey Songz, Tyga, Flo Rida, Nicki Minaj, and B.O.B - folks who don't belong anywhere near the "down-south gutter music" Waka has established himself on. Luckily, wading through the commercial trappings, the second half of Triple F gives Waka his footing, from "Cash" until the surprisingly eloquent (well, for Waka anyway) Outro, all of them immersive, streamlined, sonic bangers. It's unfortunate Waka decided to leave off "Foreign Shit," and bonus tracks like "Inky," which does not appear on the released album, much to my chagrin. Not to mention the phantom collab with Tyler the Creator, which would have been titled "Faggot." With those three tracks added and the subtraction of "Round of Applause," "Get Low," "Fist Pump," and "Candy Paint and Gold Teeth" - Triple F would be an outstanding successor to Waka's focused, unwavering debut. As a venture towards more commercial terrain, Waka seems of two minds about his future, and it shows, as the aforementioned tracks almost sink the album. Below are my notes/thoughts on individual tracks:

1.            Triple F Intro
“They want to see me dead and locked up.” Little saxophone. Perhaps as poignant, sentimental as Waka can get. 4/5

2.            Let Them Guns Blam
“Let them Things Blam.” “I go Kanye/Jay-Z ham.” Dark, repetitive, the hip-hop equivalent of Trance. Not so much what he says, as how he says it. Waka is scary, “Friends turned to enemies/enemies turned to friends/eat you like some busy-bees/kill you and your best friend.” Speaker-banger, akin to “Hard in da Paint.” 5/5

3.            Round of Applause
Starts with a burp. Sums it up pretty well. Album’s most commercial track – Waka becoming more commercial, going over into pop/R&B rather than straight “down-south gutter music.” A very silly song. 2/5

4.            I Don’t Really Care
A better mix of Waka style and hip-hop, harder than it is commercial. The album didn’t need both this and "Round of Applause" and this one is preferable to maintaining sinister overtones. 3/5

5.            Rooster in My Rari
“Pay for what girl?/You better pay for this dick.” Waka’s chaotic, reckless style on display here, though less metered than some of Flockaveli’s better examples. 3/5

6.            Get Low
Eww. What is a track like this doing on a Waka CD? These pandering attempts to cross-over and become more pop/commercial are embarrassingly transparent and an insult to those Waka fans that understand Flockaveli’s brilliance. Tyga and Nicki Minaj have no place on a Waka album. 1/5

7.            Fist Pump
“See my life is like a movie…action.” Too many songs about getting drunk in da club, rather than intimidating fantasy tracks about young male aggression, in the form of minimalist hooks and beats. Even some guitar here at the end. A mess, hodgepodge. 2/5

8.            Candy Paint & Gold Teeth
“Strip clubs is our culture/we some big spenders.” Orchestral, guitar, beats mix. Interesting that Waka is going for a varied sound, but it isn’t really working here. “Soul food, dinners dinners dinners…” 2/5

9.            Cash
Chaotic, unrelenting, mean, hard. “Grind for dis/hustle for dis.” 5/5

10.          Lurkin
“Brrrrrat!” Like Cash, this is what Waka fans want to hear. An impressive encapsulation of not just the track’s title, but the menacing ambient supplements that back Waka’s shout/rap style. As such, these best Waka tracks attain a 360 degree space, where it seems like the music, noises, and voices are coming from front-back-side-to-side. A paranoid, bangin’ classic. 5/5

11.          Clap
Dark, scary, silly. Waka’s horror story – just listen to the creepy hook/beat. Fits nicely with "Break Her" from Ferrari Boyz. One of the best tracks Waka has ever released. 5/5

12.          U Ain’t Bout That Life
A fairly disposable Waka track. Still, the kind of sound one expects when spinning a Waka disc. Not bad. 3/5

13.          Power of My Pen
A hilarious song – if only because Waka doesn’t realize it is his voice and cadence – not his pen – that has made him a millionaire. Sounds pretty dope though. 3/5

14.          Flex
“All dis Ice on me left my heart cold.” A hard, multi-verse track. 4/5
15.          Triple F Outro
Would be cloying did it not seem genuine…well, as genuine and sentimental as Waka can get. Not exactly poetic, but considering what happened to Slim Dunkin and whatnot, it’s hard not to cut Waka a break. 3/5

Monday, June 11, 2012

Box Office Predictions (June 15 -17)

Upon us is perhaps the least interesting box office weekend of the summer. Assulting, insulting, ear-screeching, retina-melting excuses for cinema open across North America, as two of contemporary filmmaking's most prominent villains (Adam Shankman and Adam Sandler) spew their latest concoctions in the faces of masochists willing to pay for such souless, empty exploitation of their sensibilities and wallets. Shame on anyone who goes out and offers their funds to facilitate further projects by these real-world vampires.

Rant over, this Father's Day weekend greets Rock of Ages and That's My Boy, both of which appear, from a distance, to offer moderate box office potential, given the pedigree of their villainous figureheads...respectively. However, upon closer inspection, we can see that each is looking to land in the shitter. Rock of Ages looks to follow the success of Mamma Mia and Hairspray, though one wonders whether 80's hair-bands and Journey covers are something people beyond American Idol freaks are willing to pay for, much less flock out to see on opening weekend. The cast offers some promise, but trailers, promos, and clips look horrendous and reviews are sure to be awful - middling. Look for the musical to open just over 20 million.

Adam Sandler's last three films have scores on Rotten Tomatoes of 3% (Jack and Jill), 19% (Just Go With It), and 10% (Grown Ups). Following the career of Eddie Murphy, Sandler's descent into pathetic kid-fare has undoubtedly produced much ill-will amongst adults towards the once revered comedian (at least for Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore) and his last five or six films, though some have been successful, have reached a tipping point where adults must now choose to go see Sandler's R-rated latest over forthcoming comedies Ted and Magic Mike (unless they are going to see them all). The addition of Andy Samburg is negligible, so it would be surprising to see That's My Boy reach any more than 20 million.

Rank Title Gross Drop
1 Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted 33.2 -45%
2 Rock of Ages 20.3 NEW
3 Prometheus 19.4 -62%
4 That's My Boy 18.8 NEW
5 Snow White and the Hunstman 10.1 -56%
6 MIB 3 7.8 -44%
7 Avengers, The 6.2 -45%
8 Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2.9 -12%
9 Moonrise Kingdom 2.5 166%
10 What to Expect When 1.4 -48%

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012) -- C+

Prometheus is the defining film of Ridley Scott's career - at least, it can be seen as a microcosm for the director's wildly hit-and-miss oeuvre, which extends from seminal sci-fi like Alien and Blade Runner, to bombastic yawns Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven, and finally outright laughers, such as American Gangster and Thelma & Louise. Prometheus is, indeed, all three - seminal, bombastic, laughable, a high-and-low session of aesthetic wonder, opportunities squandered, and a narrative that vacillates between compelling and inert. In aiming to achieve many things, with his return to the film which essentially put him on the proverbial filmic map, rather than hone in on one, Scott comes up with much to chew on, though it often tastes like goop rather than a congealed, well-formed entity. Blame this on Scott, first and foremost, since his serio-pretentious style (brooding characters, darkly lit mise-en-scene, mostly humorless) is only productive when he has material to match - he is not a satirical filmmaker, making it more difficult to cut Prometheus much slack - at this point in his career, Scott doesn't deserve any.

Not to beleaguer the point, but Prometheus tugs in-and-against itself throughout the duration of its fairly brisk 124 minute runtime. Beginning with a credit montage that revels in the sublime and nature, Scott ends on a well-built, perfect specimen of a man - though it's uncertain whether this figure is human or some sort of extraterrestrial. Eating what appear to be pills or rocks (the slapdashery has begun), the man chokes, disintegrates, and falls into a river. Queue the film's title, which then cuts to an archeological dig, where scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered "not a map - an invitation," that commences the titular ship's journey to uncover the origins of not just the "invitation," but potentially mankind itself - the crew believes they will find "engineers," aka the beings responsible for human creation. Along for the ride are resident cyborg David (Michael Fassbender), wise-cracking pilot Janek (Idris Elba), Mission Director Vickers (Charlize Theron), and another half dozen crew members who serve no purpose in the film other than to be killed-off (which, even at that, Prometheus struggles to cleverly deliver).

What follows is, more-or-less, Alien, certainly with some alterations and deviations, but the end result being essentially the same (at least, in narrative terms). Scott stages two or three marvelous set-pieces, the best of which involves Shaw and an advanced piece of machinery that can, within minutes, perform any surgery needed, on command. These ten minutes, from the set-up, to the reveal of exactly what necessarily has to happen in order for her to make it, is masterful on the level of genre thrills, taking a short premise and fulfilling its visual/tension potential. Likewise, the deceitful activities of David, helped by a brilliantly slimy and Hal-9000-esque Fassbender, intimate something deeper and looming - a promise the film never fulfills. Moreover - most disappointing is the flippant integration of discourse on Creationism vs. Darwinism, which Scott generally treats as mere filler for propelling the crew's inevitable descent into death, destruction, and mayhem.

Deft touches sporadically elevate the film; Scott's introduction to the ship comes via David maintaining the comatose crew and keeping himself occupied by watching films, like Lawrence of Arabia. "The trick is not minding that it hurts," is the famous O'Toole line and David seems quite keen on its psychological potential, even if Scott disregards these themes as soon as they've been established. Likewise, banter between Vickers and Janek is playful (Elba is excellent here), as is the film's deliberate, but never quite languid pacing. The first half of Prometheus gives the sense Scott is taking his time, having some fun, and building towards a funhouse of terror that will viscerally up-the-Alien-ante. Instead, characters are dispatched quickly and with little warning (why even include insignificant crew members if they aren't at least going to get an ingenious offing?) and the final twenty minutes play rushed, bored, and dutiful to the point of being risible. As a deliberate bait-and-switch of expectation, Prometheus is somewhat masterful, though said switch oddly achieves even less than the already middling promise asserted by the film's tense, high-octane trailer (we don't even get the music or the siren from it, just an often limp, majestic score by Marc Streitenfeld).

It's never fitfully clear exactly why the crew has set-off to begin with, and while such details are normally not all that important - well, here it's almost essential, especially since Scott's film should be comprehensively updating/commenting on not just its internal thesis for the origins of mankind but, in many ways, the origin of the contemporary sci-fi/action/horror film, all of which Scott's 1979 original helped to pioneer. Such commentary appears to be lost on Scott and scribes Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, who consistently settle for rote, routine thrills over establishing a series of shocking, dangerous set-pieces. Not much ultimately sets Prometheus apart from many a sci-fi, "monster in the house" film, except for the third act thud of frustration and missed opportunities.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Post-Continuity & Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012) -- B+

Much has been written lately on the idea of post-continuity in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema - a style that breaks from classical norms of standard composition (eye-line match, shot-reverse-shot, 180 degree line, etc.) and instead opts for a quicker-paced, more disorienting means of relating action and movement. Prominent filmmakers here would be Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and Paul Greengrass. The term, developed by Steven Shaviro, is a nice starting point for discussing the postmodern Action cinema, especially since its generic qualities tend towards form, in its foundation, perhaps more so than any other genre. However, many discuss the idea of post-continuity (or a break from classical forms) in a pejorative sense, as if this altered form is somehow inherently inferior to more traditional, archetypal continuity modes. Perhaps these objections are truly reverence for one aesthetic over another, as according to some standard of the "best" way to visually communicate information/sensation, but it strikes me as more Romantic than anything else, and done out of a desire to preserve hegemonic aesthetic qualities. Nevertheless, even in this observation, I am not trying to valorize post-continuity - it is necessary, however, to approach such films with far more rigor and critical investigation than nearly every contemporary film critic is willing to give and are so quick to dismiss. The same could be said, to a nearly equal extent, for film scholarship, as well.

Film criticism and scholarship have been constructed primarily under a nauseating emphasis and obsession with close-reading and narrative examination - you know, the same types of analysis and discussion that grew out of literature and theater centuries prior. These analyses often relegate form and visual style to supplementary (or irrelevant) facilitators for narrative progression, rather than a crux for establishing significance - in other words, form as the primary means of expression. Such a plea for a more thoughtful approach by critics/viewers to film form is not to say content should be overlooked or ignored, either - far from it. Yet, when considering form-emphasis films, such as Peter Berg's Battleship, any discussion would be remiss if it didn't attempt to weigh form and narrative evenly, if tending towards the former slightly more.

Battleship is a sophisticated synthesis of the two. It epitomizes the joy and energy that can be found when a director has invested interests in both as his modus operandi. Berg's narrative foci remain a subsidiary tool for his film's implicit questioning of excess via the sequencing of visual pleasures, be they tangible, in the form of gorgeous leads Taylor Kitsch and Brooklyn Decker, impressionistic in the grossly reduced, caricatured personalities of its characters (a sort of inverted minimalism), its fetishistic treatment of weaponry and artillery, or the consistent movement and foregrounding of objects/bodies while the camera either tracks, pans, tilts, or dollies. Certainly, said camera movements in-and-of themselves are not particularly compelling, but Berg matches his interest in discontinuity and flash editing with a textual, political conservatism that doesn't extend to nostalgia. Battleship may be a classical B-movie at heart and in spirit, but is visual presence is definitively postmodern, with a visual/textual interest in post-humanism to match. Berg consistently presents examinations of the human body, either through attractive leads, having a paraplegic as one of his protagonists, the generation gap between new and old, or the invading aliens, whose form and function as science fiction isn't as essential as an excuse to let Berg engage a comprehensive interest in athleticism, hybridizing the physical with astute attention towards both visual and sonic affect, all while maintaining a playful, but serious tone, where lead characters are often in real danger, some of whom don't make it out alive. In this sense (and not just), Battleship is certainly preferable to the false entertainment offered by The Avengers, which more-or-less plays it completely safe, from first to last frame. Berg and company aren't so eager to please. Their crassness of premise and ethnicity focused sense of humor seeks social relevance. Nor is Battleship shameful in expressing its unreserved reverence and adoration for military service. Wrapped in the guise of an alien-invasion Blockbuster, the potential pandering/propaganda would be disingenuous were the film's convictions and craft not consistently in the right place. Since they are, one suspects the critical bashing comes from both a mistaking (or ignorance) of the film's formal reach, but also a prejudice and cynicism towards the genuine, if slightly naive sincerity.

As is often necessary for visual contemplation, the narrative gets a standard template: Mid-twenty's fuck-up Alex Hopper (Kitsch) following the lead of older brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard). Stationed in Hawaii and following a competitive soccer match and bathroom scuffle with rival naval office Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano), Hopper's naval status is in jeopardy with Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), but also girlfriend Samantha (Decker) - who just happens to be Admiral Shane's daughter. A naval exercise "which is sure to be Hopper's last" turns live when five alien ships land in the Pacific and begin destroying various parts of the globe. The archetypal scenario is treated with dutiful irreverence by Berg, the first mistake made by anyone who criticizes this film for its narrative shortcomings. Instead of being concerned with "three-dimensional characters," Berg uses them as placeholders to communicate visually. Essentially, what follows are five stunning action set-pieces, three of which are instant classics for their relentless approach to warfare progression logic. Each one has two parts, a first and second battle essentially, hinged upon a turn, a transition between sequences, basically ten scenes in five movements. Think of Battleship as symphony - not difficult for the trained eye and ear give composer Steve Jablonsky's visceral, complimentary score. As example of said sophistication, an examination of the first said sequence is in order. Unable to identify a distant ship on their radar, Hopper, Petty Office Raikes (Rihanna), and Chief Petty Office Lynch (John Tui) set-out on a motorized raft to investigate. Leaving their ship and two others behind, Berg details the cinematic space with precision. The film's decision to for-go 3D conversion is further indication of its conviction, since Berg establishes the terrain with quick, economic bravado. The pieces are in place. Berg vacillates between continuity and discontinuity forms - he is interested in how each speaks the situation. When Hopper touches the ship and is shocked back into the water, Berg masterfully examines all of the essential characters and placement, zigzagging and cutting with a quickly paced meter, going from close-up immediately into swooping tracking shot, to quick zoom via a ship's telescope. The use of both diegetic and non-diegetic means for perception is varied, but consistent. When the alien ship fires their first rounds, the electromagnetic soundtrack sets into motion not just the fired bombs, but the viewer's spatial understanding of the digitized narrative space. Following the rounds as the fly through the air, Berg again details the terrain, only to end with the bombs hitting the target - expanding, exploding. Berg then cycles through this twice more, each blast getting progressively worse, just as his visual style gets progressively more intricate and excessive. Once the final bombs strike and explode (the fact that there are numerous bombs gives the "excessive" strand even more resonance), killing one of the headliners, the visual resonance matches and even exceeds the generic rule-breaking.

The end of scene one, movement one is followed by Hopper and company's return to their ship, faced with the decision to charge or retreat. Berg keeps the tempo high, but calms before his second, concluding storm. Ultimately deciding not to "ram it" after a heated few minutes of debate, the admission of defeat is literally catapulted in visual terms, as the alien vessel projects two, destructive devices and hurls them into space, landing on the coast of Hawaii and wreaking havoc on the roads, naval base, and baseball parks. Now - in a conventional sense, there is not very much "story" happening in this relentless, nearly twenty minute sequence. And yet, Berg's visual, symphonic approach says all it needs to, as a presence for sensory engagement, structured, and well-devised. Likewise, Berg continues these interests with a hand-to-hand weapons scene (an alteration from the previous sequence), a radar battle that ends in destruction, and a mano-y-mano ship face-off that nicely enunciates the film's interests, both new and old. Battleship retains a degree of irreverence and off-the-cuff filmmaking style throughout its necessary 131 minute running time - Berg needs the space to construct and revise his visual dialectics, be they more dialogic or affect based.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Box Office Predictions (June 8-10)

With Snow White and the Huntsman out of the way and starting as a moderate hit (even though it's sure to remain one of the summer's most inert films), it's time to clear the path of discussion for one of  three remaining "event" films - the first being, of course, Prometheus, Ridley Scott's long-awaited prequel to Alien return to science fiction following a two decade absence. Scott's latest is one of the more intriguing box office prospects of summer months, in that it's R rating, heavy sci-fi themes and imagery, plus relatively no-A-lister cast (except for Charlize Theorn, whose box office history is shoddy, to say the least) do not give an immediate sense that Prometheus will be able to pull the same sort of bank usually reserved for summer sci-fi. And yet, the counter-argument has been that it's precisely that peculiarity, the anomaly that sets it apart from the rest, which has been reinforced by a marketing/ad campaign that highlights grandiosity and intensity over narrative progression. In these ways - its box office status remains as enigmatic as the film itself (at least for those who've yet to see it). Certainly - the initiated will come out in droves, likely for midnight or Friday shows, so early signs could be relatively strong/impressive. One wonders, however, if average moviegoers are savvy enough to pick-up on exactly what Prometheus is, the pedigree that it possesses, and the cultural significant implicit in Scott's return to his original, half-masterpiece. 3D and IMAX should help (in fact, IMAX 3D should see many a sellout), but those prognosticators out there flirting with the notion that Prometheus can challenge The Matrix Reloaded's 91.7 million opening, the most ever for an R-rated weekend, are mistaking their own enthusiasm for the rest of North America's. Falling somewhere in-between Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Nolan's Inception, in terms of overall appeal, Prometheus is more likely to be a word-of-mouth hit, than an opening weekend smash. Opening in 3300 theaters, look for it to snag just over 50 million.

Also opening, though to much less fan fare and anticipation, is Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, Dreamworks Animation's third entry into their globally successful franchise. While it doesn't appear that anyone has really been clamoring for another go-round with a sarcastic troupe of talking animals, early reviews have been surprisingly enthusiastic, subsiding understandable knee-jerk cynicism that this is just a cash-in, not to mention the kiddie market has been long starved for a break-out hit. Although The Avengers and MIB3 crossed over into kid demographics, really little ones haven't had much of an option since Chimpanzee or Pirates: Band of Misfits, neither of which was a significant hit by any stretch. In fact, you'd have to go all the way back to March 2nd for The Lorax to find a widespread animated hit. A three month layoff is a long time in moviegoing terms and with schools finally releasing across the US, it might be time for the little ones to hit the multiplex. Whether they do it now, or wait two weeks for Pixar's Brave is the bigger question, but this known entity, plus its appearance to be quality product should ensure Madagascar's relevance, if not dominance, this weekend. Look for it to make just a hair under 60 million.

Official Weekend Predictions:

1 Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted 59.3 NEW
2 Prometheus 52.1 NEW
3 Snow White and the Hunstman 23.6 -58%
4 MIB 3 15.7 -44%
5 Avengers, The 12.5 -39%
6 Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 3.6 -20%
7 Moonrise Kingdom 2.4 267%
8 Dictator, The 2.3 -52%
9 What to Expect When 2.3 -47%
10 Battleship 2.1 -58%

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, 2012) -- C+

Australian festival hit The Loved Ones has been creating quite a stir within the horror underground (yes, that's right, there is such a place, the location of which will remain classified) for its purportedly gonzo premise and wicked sense of humor, glimpses of which can be gleaned from the film's trailer. Ultimately, the film is less gonzo than bozo, writer/director Sean Byrne's debut feature an amalgamation of horror films pased lacking any perceptible contribution to the genre other than the film's wacko killer (see poster, to the left). The film is rather disappointingly high concept too: High School stud Brent (Xavier Samuel) chooses hottie Holly (Victoria Thaine) over lonely Lola (Robin McLeavy) for the prom; this propels the latter into a plan to capture, torture, and torment Brent - we soon learn she has some experience in such matters. If one were to describe the film much further, it would be quite difficult, since Byrne only merges ideas (the trailer's claim that the film is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Sixteen Candles is true, but that shouldn't be a compliment) rather than genuinely using the premise as a battleground for thematic excavation. Superficially glossing over (and cynically undercutting) obsession, sex, and meaningful, youthful expression, Byrne is a geek - he likes horror for the zombies rather than what the zombies stand for. He's the type of guy that would ask a question like "Do you prefer the walking or running zombies?" Of course, this is pure speculation, but it's difficult to reach other conclusions based on the film's insistence upon scenario over significance. All the hammers to the feet, nail-gun's to the head, daddy-daughter incest gags, deformed mutants in the basement, and glib "prom night" jokes do nothing for thematic inquiry. The Loved Ones can't hold a power-drill to last year's The Woman, Lucky McKee's thorough, terrifying evocation of the misogyny that necessarily comes from patriarchy and capitalism. Unfortunately for The Loved Ones, Byrne doesn't appear to take his own film (and the genre) seriously enough - a oddly smug quality given the high levels of self-awareness. He does manage some interesting sonic play, ambient sounds and screeching slo-mo as means of cerebral encapsulation - but again, such work has been done better in previous films (especially French Extremism from the past decade). Ultimately, Byrne and his film are fraudulent, since true terror comes either in dialogic revelation or formal alteration. The Loved Ones doesn't have very much of either.  Here's a test: early in the film, Lola asks Brent to piss into a freshly-finished glass of milk. Refusing, she says: "You've got 10 seconds to go or Daddy's gonna nail your dick to the chair." If such a moment is "what horror is about" for you, then you can go ahead - enjoy. If not, best to (re)watch The Woman.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) -- A-

Small-minded viewers are likely to see Moonrise Kingdom and claim that "a lot happens in this film, and not a lot of it matters," or something to that avail, which has often been the knock on Wes Anderson, a master of finding significance in, what I'll call, "The Order of Idiosyncrasy." In his book Wes Anderson: Why His Movies Matter (shockingly, the only book-length analysis available of the prominent auteur), Mark Browning fails to locate what the title promises, often falling back on weak, unsophisticated arguments of tepid critical reception and his films "failing to find [an] audience" rather than getting to the crux of Anderson's internal logic. Perhaps none of Anderson's films better epitomize that logic than Moonrise Kingdom, in some ways an implicit rebuke to critics who find his work overly "naïve, mannered, pretentious and incomprehensible." Call it his Body Double, a film whose self-awareness is tightly sealed within the care, craft, and composure Anderson (like Brian De Palma) insists his films possess, leaving no room for speculation that anything and everything within (and outside) the frame isn't duly accounted for.

To the question of quality: Anderson's worth lies in his rigorous formal interests, which often speak louder and with more proficiency than his troubled, in-arrested development characters. In this sense, Anderson prizes contrapuntal means - efficiently, smoothly navigating the cinematic spatio-temporal matrix that contains figures of disarray. Moonrise Kingdom actively acknowledges this cinematic split (or it will for perceptive viewers) and, as such, is likely Anderson's best film. Significance resides in simultaneous interests, both textual and formal, but with emphasis on the latter as text - while his critics often get hung up on what he speaks, their arguments often neglect to address how he speaks; because of this, these knock remain unconvincing.

The film's opening is an Anderson tour-de-force, a rigorous spatial introduction to the filmmaker's view of youth, love, and kinesis. Anderson is an action filmmaker - there's always beauty in his movement, whether inter or intraframe. Scout Master Ward's (Edward Norton) inaugural breakfast march gets majestic treatment, the tracking and stopping not just a flourish, but inseparable from the social rigor Anderson and co-scribe Roman Coppola's warm, humanist script wishes to reflect. The economy of storytelling is reflected in one of many "Wes-tages," bursts of affected information that would play fetishistic if Anderson didn't consistently imbue them with his thoroughly genuine and meticulous artistry.

Sam (Jared Gilman) has abandoned his Scout troupe to be with Suzy (Kara Hayward), whose parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand) recruit the help of Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and, eventually, Social Services (Tilda Swinton) to sort the situation out. Anderson wrings profundity from absurdity, the film's best scene his insistence on not shying-away from his protagonists' youthful sexuality. With Bob Balaban as a direct-speaking Narrator, Anderson's filmic DNA recalls Dusan Makavejev and W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism's Carnivalesque aims, its sexuality tied to psychoanalysis, youth, revolution, death, and documentary. Given Anderson's filmography, especially The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, there is an inextricable coalescence of personal and political, asking through an intricate assemblage of personalities and personifications (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) what constitutes the brief, fleeting moments life offers, before corporeal deterioration no longer allows such bodily expression  (see also Makavejev's Sweet Movie).

Thus, to answer Owen Glieberman and Rex Reed, the critics to whom the above quotes belong, respectively, everything in Anderson's films matter, even if dogmatic, preconceived notions (Reed) prevent certain viewers from recognizing that Wes Anderson is one of the few cinematic Cowboys remaining, and, in many ways, the voice of his generation. Therefore, I will let Andre Gide say it better than I can: "Great authors are admirable in this respect: in every generation they make for disagreement. Through them we become aware of our differences." While true, one might say the cinema of Wes Anderson is more interested in locating our similarities - perhaps an even more admirable venture.