The Truth About News

The newspaper business. People know about the first word but often forget about the difficulty of the second word. The newspaper does its damndest to deliver the important news of the world to the general public, but it still needs business to pay its hard-working reporters and circulate to newsstands. News needs to sell papers just as much as it needs to be informative, not as a means of capitalism but sustainability. Of course there’s the concern of certain news stories being too shocking or revealing that it might scare people away, especially people with money. Imagine having a story so shocking that it could literally unravel over 30 years of trust and prestige built by the American government, and said government is practically holding a newspaper hostage until every other newspapers promises to betray their duty and not report news. Which word does one protect: the newspaper or the business?

 

This is the debacle of The Post, a poignant and powerful look at the tug of war between a newsman and a businesswoman. The former is Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor of The Washington Post who is tired of the Post playing second fiddle to everyone from The New York Times and The Washington Daily News with better stories than his reporters offer. The latter is Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of The Post who jumped into job after the paper’s previous publisher, Katharine’s husband Phil, committed suicide in 1963. It’s now 1971 and Kay is about the take the company public on Wall Street to ease financial worries when longtime friend and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tells her one night that the Times is going to run an “unflattering” story about him the following morning. The story is the infamous leaking of the Pentagon Papers: 7,000 pages of classified government secrets detailing how the Vietnam War was a lost cause but America would rather send men to their deaths in Army helmets than admit defeat. Bradlee is pissed that the Times got the scoop and wants his reporters to find the pages for follow-up coverage, while Graham is struggling to make her voice heard in boardrooms full of stuffy businessmen determining what’s best for business. Bradlee’s reporters (Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, David Cross) are getting closer to finding the papers and pulling back the curtain of the White House even more, but Graham and Bradlee butt heads over if the Post can handle being on President Nixon’s hit list if they publish more stories.

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There are two obvious comparisons to be made with The Post: 1976’s All the President’s Men detailing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, and 2015’s Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s crack team of investigators revealing years of sexual abuse by priests of the Catholic Church. Those two movies focused more on the reporting side of journalism, the muckrakers who spent months on end chasing dead-end leads and chipping away at the facts to find what the world needed to know. While The Post does highlight the tireless effort of reporters Ben Bagdikian, Meg Greenfield and Howard Simons, it’s more about the chains that profitability holds on newspapers. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s tight script expertly balances the obvious need to report the truth and the equally-obvious fear of the government effectively shutting-down the Post after ordering the Times to stop publishing stories about the papers. Also unlike Spotlight and President’s Men, The Post is a much flashier version of the story courtesy of director Steven Spielberg. While The Post is no blockbuster spectacle, Spielberg’s love of background spotlights and the faded color palette typical of serious Spielberg movies from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) are ever present. Whereas the filmmaking of President’s Men and Spotlight were more grounded, The Post is a glossy Hollywood production. Fortunately, Spielberg is well-aware of the material he’s working with and leaves most of his eccentricities at the door. The filmmaking doesn’t distract the audience from the story being told and the drama isn’t blown out of proportion, it’s presented for the audience to feel the weight of the story.

 

Further making The Post an event is the presence of Meryl Streep. Ever since her speech at last year’s Golden Globe awards calling out Donald Trump and announcing her support of protecting journalist, practically all eyes have been on the acting legend and her performance in the movie. Now we can breathe sighs of relief because Streep is in top form here, fully embodying the dual-persona Kay Graham had to take on at the time. In front of the Post’s board members, Graham was patient and unphased by the subtle sexism of her male colleagues. Even if she’s talked over in conversation or talked down to, she keeps a brave face and is able to establish her own presence in every room she walks into. Privately, she’s still a touch unsure of herself as a publisher in the middle of the Pentagon Papers controversy with friends in the Nixon camp (especially McNamara in a heated confrontation). She knows publishing stories about the papers is the right thing to do, but she’s pressured into fearing for how Washington elites might feel about the Post adding to the damage of the Nixon administration, lessening the worth of the paper and her family legacy (her father bought the Post in 1933). Graham is the underdog of the story and Streep plays her without a hint of asking for sympathy.

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The rest of the cast basically revolves around Streep, but that doesn’t mean they slack off. Tom Hanks, America’s dad in Hollywood, is a fine choice for the Bostonian grump of Ben Bradlee. It’s actually fitting for smiling everyman Hanks to spend his golden years playing hardened bossmen cracking wise while national history is going on in the background. Even more impressive is the supporting cast: Bruce Greenwood, an expert supporting actor who’s played everyone from John F. Kennedy to a captain of the Starship Enterprise, is incredibly compelling as a man simply stuck in the middle of the worst possible situation a high-ranking government official could be. Despite him actively trying to close the leaking of his own handiwork (McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers), he’s not a villain but more of a victim of the incompetence of past presidencies fully-experiencing an unprecedented situation. For the rest of the cast, it seems as if Spielberg has spent the last decade watching every great TV show and picking out who made the best impressions in the smallest amount of screentime, hence solid performances from Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods.

 
If it weren’t for the political and cultural context, The Post would probably not be as big of an event as it currently stands. It would be a simple reminder that Steven Spielberg remains untouchable as one of the greatest film directors in film history, he knows how to pick his actors and said actors bring their A-game on screen. But now, it is a much-needed reminder of the delicacy newspapers take in informing the American public. There is a crushing pressure to find the sources needed for a story and frivolous work that goes into researching and crafting a story. But even after a story is done and a newspaper is ready to go out, there is still that final moral dilemma of “is this story right,” meaning right in terms of accuracy and right for the readers. In the era of #fakenews, The Post is a reminder how no matter what (or who) the circumstance is, journalists know when to cut the crap and make the country eat its vegetables. It’s meant to show how the effort of listening and taking a stand against lying can be the start of something more, something greater. The best example of this is The Post’s ending scenes: The first being a recorded phone call with President Nixon sounding stressed from the Post’s further investigation of the papers, and the second being a security guard investigating a break-in at the Watergate Complex, the kickstart of the Watergate scandal.

3.5/4

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Top 25 Albums of 2017

Boy oh boy, what a year it’s been. 2017 has basically been the dour, elongated sigh after the shock of 2016. That sour demeanor has been felt in the music industry as well, as many of the most popular and acclaimed albums have been made by heartbroken singers, angry rappers and anxious youths trying to take action. Despite the low-key attitude of the last 365 days, there are always some outstanding pieces of music to dive into. Since I ashamedly missed out on doing a list last year, I decided to bump up my list and highlight 25 albums that stood out and helped make 2017….tolerable.

 

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25. Washed Out – Mister Mellow

There’s always been the sense that Ernest Weatherly Greene Jr., better known as Washed Out, was building towards something. Potential was there right from the start of his breakthrough single “Feel It All Around,” with its luscious synthesizers and hazy vocal melodies. Since then, he’s kept building on that potential and expanding his chillwave sound. With Mister Mellow, he finally gets his chance to organize and craft all the colorful sounds in his head on wax. He may start off overwhelmed and frantic on “Burn Out Blues” before finding his warm and soaring groove on “Hard To Say Goodbye” and even partying with his demons on the manic “Instant Calm” and the two-step of “Get Lost.” No matter how many synths and drum beats hit on the dance floor, Washed Out always finds the melody in the madness.

 

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24. JMSN – Whatever Makes U Happy

Simplicity is underrated in today’s music industry, and no genre uses simplicity better than neo soul. Case in point: the fifth studio album of one Christian Berishaj, better known as JMSN. The Michigan singer/multi-instrumentalist is a man who understands that songs of love, lust and the vices we abuse to feel something similar to the former two (see “Drinkin’”) are best presented with minimal excess and a spotlight on the voice telling the story. Backed by pitch-perfect snare drum kicks, acoustic guitar and choir-like background harmonies, JMSN makes sure that his bluesy, achy vocals don’t sound the tiniest bit fake on the heartbreaker “Love Ain’t Enough” to the spooky cowboy jam “Slide.” The album cover, with JMSN posing legs crossed and face stern, speaks for itself: He’ll do whatever you ask of him, so what do you want besides what’s real?

 

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23. Rex Orange County – Apricot Princess

One of the many surprises on Tyler, the Creator’s new album Flower Boy was the adolescent droll of Rex Orange County, a 19-year-old South London resident that best showcases young love and awkwardness probably because he still can’t legally drink in the U.S. That doesn’t stop him from sounding love drunk on his debut LP, which sounds like if Beck ever made an album of midnight lounge music after getting his first kiss. The title track effortless fades from string-backed piano ballad to a swinging conga groove about a boy who wants nothing more than to hold his dream girl’s hand. At the end of the 40 minutes of lo-fi piano pop, Rex throws his heart on the table and promises his girl that throughout all of his self-loathing, he just wants to know that she’ll be there. It’s his sincerity in the vocal delivery that sells him as a legitimate hopeless teenage romantic.

 

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22. Liam Gallagher – As You Were

Hey look, it’s the best Oasis album in over 20 years! Haha, I’m totally the first person to make that joke! But seriously, the younger (and more irritable) brother Gallagher finally drops the overblown stadium rock of Beady Eye and gives the world what he was born to make: an attitude-laced British rock record. The bluesy swagger of “Wall Of Glass” is so great and Liam so effortlessly struts his nasty vocals it’s amazing he didn’t lead with his right after brother Noel went AWOL. Liam may be a bit older now and his singing is certainly an acquired taste, it’s hard not to hear the passion and effort he puts into pulling off heartfelt ballads like “For What it’s Worth.” Liam finally gets his own solo spotlight, all he had to do was take it for himself.

 

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21. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band 

Imagine if The New Pornographers decided that they wanted to sound like KISS in their glorious, 1970s heyday. Sound weird but kinda awesome, right? You’re in luck, because Louisville’s own White Reaper are here to make rock great again. The quartet’s second album is 32 minutes of unabashed pop rock that everyone from Jack Black to Richard Linklater wishes they could jam out to. The guitars riffs are razor sharp while the background synthesizers glisten, and the vocals from frontman Tony Esposito are so grimy and growling that even Iggy Pop would offer him a cough drop. “Judy French” is the best Cheap Trick song in 30 years with its chugging riffs and scorching guitar solo, while “Crystal Pistol” is so party-ready that Motley Crue are probably pissed they didn’t write it first. Every single track here belongs in a treasured teen comedy in any decade, inspiring youthful spirit to run free. The kicker? None of it sounds dated, with production that’s crisp but not overblown. White Reaper sound awesome on a record, but the energy and sonics on this probably sound way better in a bar three beers in with fists pumping in the air.

 

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20. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Who Built the Moon?

Sorry Liam, age before beauty. The eldest brother Gallagher and his collection of psychedelic, scissor-using musicians have seemingly made good on their promise of mixing soaring stadium ballads with epic rock anthems. Credit goes to producer David Holmes, who gives Noel and the Birds a huge sonic tapestry to paint their heartfelt anthems. “Keep On Reaching” sounds like an energetic gospel anthem with its background choir and heavy organ, while “She Taught Me How To Fly” sounds like peak New Order with its driving bass line and electronic flourishes. Whereas brother Liam seems firmly trapped in the era of his heroes that never made it past 1969, Noel has seemingly taken all of the lovable things about rock’s classic era and updated its sound where it can exist in 2017 without seeming dated.

 

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19. Beck – Colors

Beck may be in his late-40s, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t cut loose. On album 13, generation x’s favorite “Loser” plays the brightest and most energetic songs of his entire career. A tight 11 tracks without a single lull, Beck indulges in hand-claps, synthesizers, vocoders and a boosted production. Even with his past awkwardness with pop music, “I’m So Free,” “Up All Night” and “Dreams” embrace sunny guitar rock and dance pop into a unique blend of radio-ready alt rock. And for those pining for classic Beck, “Wow” is the man in freaky funk-rap form over a warped beat. While most of his contemporaries have either burned out or faded away, Beck keeps finding new ways to reinvent and reinvigorate himself for the music landscape he finds himself in.

 

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18. Miguel – War & Leisure

Miguel could’ve sat back in 2017 knowing “Quick to dead the bull like a matador” was the coolest line in any song this year. But he decided to complement “Sky Walker” with another stellar slice of thumping R&B. Miguel takes elements from his last studio album, the rock-tinged Wildheart, and mixes it with electronic funk and soul. The guitar is actually the most prominent instrument heard in the background of War & Leisure, played with reggae scratches on “Banana Clip,” plucked on the Latin-infused slow jam “Wolf,” or strummed like disco king Niles Rodgers on “Caramelo Duro.” Also like his previous hallmark album Kaleidoscope Dream, warped electronic effects fuel each song with a drug-filled haze. But of course the star is Miguel himself, managing to be both a classic R&B vocalist with range and someone who can easily insert himself into the modern urban music landscape of trap-R&B (“Sky Walker”). He uses his vocals to build the sexual tension in “Harem” to its climax (probably a literal climax in his case) and can actually sing rap bars on par with J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar on “Come Through and Chill.” Prince may be gone, but his aura is being honored with pride by Miguel.

 

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17. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

Look, the only person who wanted and needed another LCD Soundsystem record is James Murphy. He jumped the gun at his band’s peak and, in a petty form of panic, decided to call it quits. It was brief, but beautiful to have LCD Soundsystem around. Six years later, they’re back and things are not so beautiful in the world anymore. Don’t worry though, Murphy is not ignorant about the world around him. Everything about American Dream is meant to be dark, haunting, borderline depressing with low-droning synthesizers, scratching guitars, and Murphy’s vocals that range from awkward squeaks to ghoulish low notes. Murphy doesn’t trust the “other voices” in his head and surrounding him, he knows he’s too old and too frazzled to “change yr mind” and can’t stop asking his former business partner “how do you sleep?” And through all this sadness and misery, there’s still plenty to dance to. “tonite” is arguably the more robotic sequel to “Losing My Edge” with its European discotheque dance beat, while “call the police” is that rare indie rock stadium anthem that Murphy always pulls out of his ass every now and then. We didn’t need LCD Soundsystem back, but that doesn’t mean we don’t mind checking up on them every once in awhile.

 

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16. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music

Every single rapper’s mantra may be “money cash hoes” and it might get boring to hear on all their songs after a while. But nobody in the rap game makes flexing sound so fun and wear it so good like the artist formerly known as Tity Boi. After dropping SIX mixtapes in the four years since his last studio album, 2 Chainz returns as a champion of the underground who still rolls like a king. It doesn’t matter what beat he’s given, from the guitar-backed slow burn of “Saturday Night” and “It’s a Vibe” to Codeine-laced southern trap of “Blue Cheese,” “4 AM” and “Good Drank.” Chainz steps up and drops bars like a wizard of words that’s part goofy, part brilliant (“You know what they say/Me and my safe, got a friendship,” “My side chick got pregnant by her main dude and I’m offended/I called, she ain’t pick up, I text her back, b***h you stingy”). It’s a miracle that a blockbuster album 16 tracks long this stacked with rap elites (Drake, Nicki Minaj, Migos, Travis Scott, Gucci Mane) is so thoroughly entertaining. And it’s all because of the effortless vibe 2 Chainz brings on bar none his finest album to date.

 

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15. Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold

The second he stepped onstage with Foo Fighters at Wembley Stadium nearly 10 years ago, Dave Grohl ran all the way to the center of the 115 yard grounds just to get the entire crowd hyped for rock and roll. What made anyone think he and his band of bearded badasses could sit still for five minutes, let alone a “hiatus?” On album no. 9, the Foos sound more rejuvenated and loose than ever before. Under the loud and crisp production of Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Adele, Sia), the Foos get to make music for intergalactic death races (“La Dee Da”) and jump from a harmonious country ballad to fist-pumping prog rock on the same damn song (“Dirty Water”). Unlike 2014’s Sonic Highways, where the band tried shoving different genres into their unique unity, you can hear each member entwined with each other on Concrete and Gold. Pat Smear’s guitar sneaks up on “Arrows” to a quiet roar, while Taylor Hawkins gets to collapse the mountains with his drums on “The Sky is a Neighborhood” and Nate Mendel’s fuzzed-out bass leads the charge on “La Dee Da.” Concrete and Gold is being able to see the engine roar in an awesome muscle car: when you see the parts work together, it makes you admire the machine all the more.

 

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14. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom

2017 has been a great year for female rappers, arguably the best year they’ve ever had. Cardi B became one of the biggest stars in music out of nowhere, Nicki Minaj reinstated her clout without dropping an album, and underground artists like cupcaKKe started getting buzz. But the one who made an impact on 2017 with a compelling, cohesive work was 34-year-old Rapsody. The North Carolina wordsmith dropped her second studio album without any use of social media savviness or sex appeal. She needs neither, as her delivery and flow is as cocky and nasty as the typical gangster rapper. On “Power,” featuring a solid guest verse from Kendrick Lamar, Rapsody rides 9th Wonder’s heavy beat to drop bars about the things that make others powerful and how they can be easily exploited (“I know my blackness powerful and they don’t like that/I know some n***as sold theirs, sit back and watch ’em tap dance”). Even with her tough attitude and clear desire to step up to the big names of rap, she’d rather have respect and connection with her peers on “Nobody” (“It’s all Hip Hop, you can’t divide what ain’t different/Don’t like all underground music, I don’t hate all music that isn’t/I was just making it clap to Wacka Flacka last Christmas, Clap!/Clap for a n***a wit her rappin’ a**”). If there was ever someone to further legitimize the rise of the female rapper, Rapsody could definitely be the one to break down the door.

 

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13. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains

What a weird year it’s been when Josh Homme makes a better dance-rock record than the co-founder of DFA Records. Though Mr. Homme and his scuzz rock scalliwags might’ve cheated a bit by having super producer Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars) turn the knobs on Queens of the Stone Age’s seventh album. It’s odd to say that a Queens of the Stone Age album “swings,” but Villains has a greater focus on groovy guitar licks and funky bass lines instead of pummeling riffs and constant propulsion. Even when they put the pedal-to-the-metal on “Head Like a Haunted House,” there’s still a swinging dance groove built into the punky headbanging brought by the speeding riffs and the rolling drums. No matter how druggy and pummeling QOTSA have sounded in the past, Homme has always had a sneering sexual swagger in his vocal delivery, like the worst possible sleazebag your daughter could bring home from the bar. Villains finally gives him the music best suited for his singing, from the mutated reggae of “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” as Homme keeps searching for self-destruction (“I chase the gates and drift ad nauseam/Driven by feelings I cannot hide”). And then there’s “The Way You Used To Do,” which manages to have the same groove as Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” and yet sound like the sexiest thing QOTSA has ever done because of the guitar-bass interplay and Homme’s moaning vocals (“When I first met her she was seventeen/Seventeen/Jump like an arsonist to a perfect match/Burned alive”). In the words of the late great Bon Scott, lock up your daughter and lock up your wife: Queens of the Stone Age are horny again.

 

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12. Hey Violet – From the Outside

Are there any more great pop bands in music? I mean bands that explicitly write and perform catchy pop songs as a band with real instruments and actual personality, not whatever Maroon 5 have been cruising on for the last five years. Maybe because pop has been so lifeless and droll in recent years that it needs a little youthful spunk to make it fun again. Enter Hey Violet, a collection of Hot Topic models that can actually write songs and play instruments pretty well. Their debut album is chock full of sugary-sweet pop-rock that mix pop-punk energy with funk, electronic, alternative, and youthful exuberance. Sometimes all of that in one song, like the bouncy ex-girlfriend anthem “Hoodie” or the ballsy kiss-off “Fuqboi.” Hey Violet seems well-versed in the flavors of music taste, jumping from stadium anthem “Break My Heart” to the sinful funk of “Brand New Moves” then even to the spooky romance of “Like Lovers Do.” From the Outside replaces a flowing atmosphere with outstanding personality from each member in each song. Casey Moreta’s guitar and Nia Lovelis’s guitar and drum attack power through “This Is Me Breaking Up With You” and “Unholy,” while Miranda Miller cooks up some great electronics on “Where Have You Been (All My Night)” and “My Consequence.” But the cherry on  top is frontwoman Rena Lovelis, who pulls off the attitude of brat, seductress, introvert and intellectual compared to others her age. While “Guys My Age” might seem like dubstep dribble, but Rena’s confident vocal performance creates an aura of its own. These are the future leaders of our pop music, party on.

 

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11. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights 

On the cover of Julien Baker’s second studio album is an explosion, or better yet a release of dark colors spewing out of something small. It’s pretty easy to assume that said release is coming from the pint-sized Memphis native’s heart and soul through all 42 minutes of this quiet slice of heartbreak. Even though Baker is the star of this album, both her aching vocals and her echoing guitar, she’d rather not have you see her fragile and alone. She doesn’t know the depths of her own loneliness (“I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone/Is it real or a dream, which is worse?”), the difficulties others have with a private fight (“I know that you don’t understand/’Cause you don’t believe what you don’t see/When you watch me throwing punches at the devil/It just looks like I’m fighting with me”) and how the only one she has to conquer is herself (“Am I a masochist/Screaming televangelist/Clutching my crucifix/Of white noise and static”). Baker thrives on the combination of her music grim yet glistening atmosphere, her believable vocal performance that puts other whispering indie rock singers to shame, and just the blunt honesty of her lyrics. Turn Out the Lights is more of a concise diary entry than an album with Baker trying to mend all of her wounds in one sitting and feeling the weight of it all. But that doesn’t mean she still won’t try (“And damn it, we are gonna figure something out/If it takes me all night to make it hurt less”).

 

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10. Remo Drive – Greatest Hits

Emo rock gets a bad rap that feels (mostly) unfair. The idea of a bunch of kids from a small town swinging their guitars around while screaming into their microphones about the joys of middle America lost on them seems totally justified. Perhaps its only when these bands become more successful and start believing their hype is when it gets to the ridiculous levels of say, personalized eyeliner, that emo music loses its value or believability. So you’d better get to know Remo Drive fast before someone offers them a deal to soundtrack the next movie adaptation of a John Green book. The Minnesota trio’s debut album excels in a combination of melody and blunt force trauma that would earn salutes from Nirvana and The Promise Ring alike. It’s impressive to hear the strong wall of sound from the simplicities of a low-tuned bass and fuzzed-out guitars, not to mention Erik Paulson’s aching growl on vocals. Greatest Hits is an excellent snapshot of the working-class guitar band stuck in the midst of cynicism, rebellion, arrogance and self-loathing. The danceable drum beat and propulsive guitars of “Eat S**t” are a joy to behold even when the band talks about the struggles of friends growing up while Paulson is “stuck in the habits I formed when I was fifteen.” Even when Remo Drive try to be snarky to upper class girlfriends on “Art School,” their humor comes at their own expense (“Art school/Colored hair/Too cool/For me but that’s fair”). But Remo Drive are about feeling, like the true sentiment of “Yer Killin’ Me” (“You make me want to start rolling/Fat a** blunts ’til I start choking/Anything that’s bad for me”). Even with hands in their pockets and their heads staring at the floor, who said emo couldn’t be fun?

 

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9. Rina Sawayama – RINA

If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to turn of the century bubblegum pop with its automated acoustic guitar, skittering blips of electronics and start-stop vocal delivery. You also know that you’re ashamed to be listening to nearly 20-year-old albums by *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears unironically while clamoring to have the sound be old enough to be retro and cool again. If this applies to you, say hello to Rina Sawayama and her debut EP. The 27-year-old Japanese born, London raised singer is a connoisseur of both Total Request Live-era pop and modern-day indie dance music. Like a well-aged wine, RINA is awash with the tastes of olden days: “Ordinary Superstar” is a classic slice of 80s pop rock with its chugging guitar riff and bright synthesizers, “Take Me As I Am” is a perfect splice of Britney’s “Overprotected” and her curly-haired ex’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Tunnel Vision” is a lovely duet with Shamir that harkens back to peak-Toni Braxton. As a singer, Sawayama follows the teen-pop singing style of moderately-high pitched aching and inflecting syllables in the hopes to have a more memorable chorus. But while the Jive Records family sang about boys and girls and trouble with said boys and girls, Sawayama instead sings about the trials and tribulations of single life in the social media age. “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” is where the EP closes and is also its highlight, a bittersweet dance jam about making friends through the screens of her laptop and phone (“I am connected/I am the girl you want to watch…Came here on my own/Party on my phone/Came here on my own/But I start to feel alone”). What with TRL back on the air and Britney and Backstreet officially deemed legacy acts, why can’t Rina lead the charge for the 90s nostalgia?

 

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8. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog 

It’s almost fitting that 27-year-old Mac DeMarco has an appearance that makes him look like someone’s dad who’s about to paint a neighbor’s house, since he has more maturity and heart than his cigarettes and duck-bill hats would suggest. His third album, This Old Dog, is his softest and most tender album to date, about a man with his hands in his pockets trying to have a hand in a world he doesn’t recognize. While known as a guitar virtuoso, DeMarco’s kooky slide guitar is replaced with soft pluckings of an acoustic guitar while quiet organs and low drums fill the background. While it still has hints of the stoner vibe heard in his previous album, This Old Dog sounds more restrained and focused on getting DeMarco’s experience across to the listener. The star of This Old Dog is not DeMarco the musician, but DeMarco the man contemplating what the years have done to him (“For he can’t be me/Look how old and cold and tired/And lonely he’s become”). Regardless of the loneliness, age, and time that has passed DeMarco, he remains a chain-smoking soft-spoken optimist (“Don’t feel like all the time you put in went to waste/The way your heart was beating all those days/And suddenly it beats another pace”). This Old Dog confirms that DeMarco has more to him than goofball charm: he’s a legitimate songwriter and storyteller, especially when he gets personal. While the next step will be seeing if he can break out of his own musical bubble, at least he still knows how to be a human being.

 

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7. Jay-Z – 4:44

Humility is not a word commonly associated with one Sean Carter. Even when he tries to rap about his first-world problems, it’s hard to sympathize with him when he’s rapping on a golden throne. But after being emasculated by his own wife for cheating on her on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of last year, Jay-Z decided it was time to really look at himself in the mirror and address his faults. The result is the most minimal album of Hov’s entire career: 10 songs at 37 minutes long with one producer (No I.D.) and plenty of room for Jay to question his worth and the world around him. Right from the get go, it’s obvious that Jay is not in the best mental state (“Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you/You’ll never be enough, let’s just keep it real, Jay Z”). He’s thinking about how the suit-wearing industry buffs he signs deals with are no different from the conniving murderous drug dealers he once knew on the streets (“Caught Their Eyes”), and how “The Story of O.J.” taught him that being truly successful as a black American is success you can pass down to generations instead of blowing it all on finer things (or a court case). But Jay is also looking inward to his own personal faults, like his inability to admit his mistakes for the sake of family (“You egged Solange on/Knowin’ all along, all you had to say you was wrong”) or how his youthful pride hurt someone who truly loved him (“Said, ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You mature faster than me, I wasn’t ready”). It’s on 4:44 that Jay-Z is heard not only using his poise as the most famous rapper on the planet for use outside of hubris for once, but as a rapper willing to admit how human he is. And in a way, that’s actually the boldest move any rapper can make. No matter how many bars Migos or Lil Uzi Vert dropped about their stacks or cars or women they sleep with, none of them can compete with the ballsy move of rapping about how he cried over sleeping with another woman.

 

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6. Thundercat – Drunk

Ever get so hammered on beer and good booze that you start thinking about how the little things in your life are actually so much more important? Ever think those conversations are so deep and profound that they could actually be interesting enough for mass consumption? Well you’re too late, because Thundercat beat you to it. The big man with the big bass dropped a 23-track opus about the hazy thoughts in his head all set to exceptionally-crafted lo-fi funk. What makes Drunk stand out as being more than a fun funk novelty is the way Thundercat and co-producers Sounwave and Flying Lotus stick with its spacey and quite-beautiful atmosphere throughout the album. While Thundercat’s bass is the prominent instrument throughout the album (as it should be on the smooth grooves of “Tokyo” and the freestyle freakout of “Uh Uh”), the boom-bap drums of “Jethro” or the futuristic synths of “Jameel’s Space Ride” that help keep the album on such a sonic high. Thundercat also proves himself a damn good lyricist, managing to turn inner wonderings of what life would be like as a cat (“Everything the light touches/It’s where I will roam/My roar would be so powerful/I would scare off everything”) into a heartfelt slow jam. And then there’s “Friend Zone” a hilarious bop about all the things Thundercat would rather do than being shut down by his crush (“Because I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway, hey/I’m all about my Johnny Cage/If you’re not bringing tacos I suggest you start to walk away/B***h don’t kill my vibe”). Outside of his name and choice instrument, Drunk is a wonderful testament to Thundercat’s unique personality.

 

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5. Paramore – After Laughter

Paramore is dead, LONG LIVE PARAMORE! It’s been a little over five years since Franklin, Tennessee’s favorite band were waving the flag of emo rock they used to carry with “Misery Business,” “Crushcrushcrush” and their megahit “Decode.” Not that it’s stopped them from becoming one of America’s biggest rock bands, switching to a more explorative outfit with their 2013 self-titled album that mixed fist-pumping alt-rock (“Fast In My Car,” “Now,” “Anklebiters”) to genuine pop-rock (“Ain’t It Fun,” “Still Into You”). If Paramore was the band throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck, their fifth album is the band’s next phase fully-formed. Again co-produced with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who first worked with the band on Paramore, After Laughter is 12 tracks tight with bright, bouncy, jangly alt-rock with only one track breaking the four-minute mark. Hints of The Strokes, The 1975 and Vampire Weekend are heard throughout the album thanks to the production highlighting the individual instrumentation of the album. Returning drummer Zac Farro brings a heft of energy with his rolling bass drum lines on “Grudges,” “Pool” and “Idle Worship,” while Meldal-Johnson’s electronic flourishes on the keyboards and synthesizers turn “Fake Happy,” “Forgiveness” and “Fake Happy.” The MVP of After Laughter is guitarist/co-producer Taylor York, leaving his own stamp on each song with super-catchy riffs both strummed (“Caught in the Middle,” “Rose-Colored Boy”) and plucked (“Hard Times,” “Told You So”). And despite changing her hair from a fiery orange to an atomic blonde, frontwoman Hayley Williams remains one of rock’s most captivating lyricists and singers. It’s refreshing to hear her flex her vocal range from the quirky yelps on “Hard Times” and “Idle Worship” to the soft harmonies on “Forgiveness.” But Williams is exceptional when the lights go down and gets the spotlight to herself, and the album’s centerpiece is the acoustic ballad “26.” With York’s soft plucking and a lovely string arrangement in the background, Williams coos about depression hanging over her head like a rain cloud and trying her damndest to hold onto hope. Corny? Sure, but Williams and co. sell it with simplicity and the earnestness of the performance. What makes After Laughter all the more revelatory is how involved the band sounds in this process. This isn’t a career move for longevity’s sake, this is a band evolving together into a sharper, spunkier machine. Warped Tour might be gone, but Paramore is forever.

 

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4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Every now and then, some up-and-coming rapper makes enough of an impression on impact to be referred to as the new “best rapper alive.” Sometimes it lasts, sometimes it doesn’t. Point is, being called the “best rapper alive” is merely a buzzword to put in articles and on t-shirts. Yet ever since his breakthrough in 2012, Kendrick Lamar has made a helluva case to to be called the best rapper alive and have it actually mean something. DAMN. is not only Lamar’s third consecutive release since 2015, but it also serves as a warped and more-aggressive follow-up to his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Nearly everything about DAMN., from its song titles in all caps to the darker musical production, is meant to highlight a man crashing into modern times confused and confrontational at the same time. A repeated line on DAMN. is “nobody prayin’ for me,” showing Kung Fu Kenny trying to find who in the rap game and the real world he can truly confide in now that’s fully exposed in the mainstream. “FEEL.” is a heightened and more focused slice of Kendrick’s paranoia through a low-fi rap beat and Kendrick growing more bothered by the second (“Feel like my thought of compromise is jaded/Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it/Feel like I ain’t feelin’ you all/Feel like removin’ myself, no feelings involved”). As he did on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick is also bothered by his celebrity and how he should properly use his influence on the frantic “XXX” (“He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?….To the spiritual, my spirit do know better, but I told him/”I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:/If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”). He’s still proud of his street origins and has no problem calling out Fox News for using his people and neighborhood to frame agendas on “DNA,” and has no problem with brag rap on “HUMBLE.” The bottom line of DAMN. is that even at his most focused and most emotionally woke, the best rapper alive is well-aware of the dangers of being called the best rapper alive. He doesn’t want your titles, only your attention.

 

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3. SZA – Ctrl

For the last 20 years, the music industry has been trying to successful and continuously splice R&B and hip-hop. There have been success stories: Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, The Roots, Beyonce, Drake and Frank Ocean. But the problem with this synthesis is that it hasn’t been consistent: D’Angelo took 14 years to make another album, we’re STILL waiting on that next Lauryn Hill album, Drake’s synthesis is mostly hit and miss, and Frank Ocean wants to be as mysterious with his album releases as D’Angelo and Lauryn. Even Rihanna, one of the most successful artists of the new millenium, bounces between pop and rap and R&B like a pinball between the machine’s flappers. The thing that makes a successful R&B/hip-hop combination is consistency, and no one has made a more full-formed idea of how the two genres could live in harmony together than New Jersey’s Solána Rowe. Making her astonishing studio album debut as SZA on CTRL for Top Dawg Entertainment (Kung Fu Kenny has taste, eh?), Ms. Rowe’s intent and personality is one of the most immediately fascinating and likable in a long time. Her singing is a near-flawless combination of rap god bravado and seductive soul as she both begs for true intimacy and brushes off any flakey behavior. She’s so brazen, she even admits to cheating on her boyfriend as a reason for leaving said boyfriend on the FIRST DAMN TRACK. From there, SZA does everything from mock thirsty womanizers (“Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me?/Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?”), using Forrest Gump as a metaphor for the value of waiting for sex (“Y’know, Jenny almost gave it all up for him/Never even pushed for the p***y”) to being open about how the wandering eye of men hurts her (“Beep beep, why are you lookin’ around, you lonely?/I feel you comin’ down like honey/Do do you even know I’m alive?”). SZA’s lyrics are merely the perfect icing on the cake, as the base is full of hazy future-soul music mixed with trap drums and low-synthesizers. SZA is game for all of it though as her voice rides effortlessly on any beat placed in front of her. She has the flow of a rapper on par with the albums guest stars (Travis Scott, Kendrick, Isaiah Rashad) and yet the singing performance of someone not overstaying her welcome yet still retains a strong presence. Not only is CTRL the best debut album and best R&B album of the year, it presents the best new personality for the modern music scene to have blossom in it. SZA fits perfectly in 2017, but imagine what she could do in the next five years?

 

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2. The xx – I See You

Picture this: you’re at a house party. It’s crowded, loud and you came by yourself. You rub elbows with everyone there and laugh with friends, but you’re mostly likely going home alone. Then there’s someone across the room standing alone with a red solo cup in hand. You want to talk to her, she might want to talk to you. Neither of you know, but that glance across the room makes you want to do something. And even if there’s loud party music playing for the room, the two of you are probably hearing The xx’s third studio album in your heads. A darker, more gothic experience than the trio’s previous outings, I See You also sounds like The xx’s first complete album. Aside from the two dance tracks “Dangerous” and lead single “On Hold,” which stand perfectly well on their own and in the album, I See You is full of deeply intimate and romantic lovelorn anthems. “Dangerous” sets the tone with its low-thumping, propulsive drum beat, followed by the double-dose of gothic, skeletal romance of “Say Something Loving” and “Lips.” The classic xx sound appears on “A Violent Noise” and “Performance” with the lightly-plucked guitar strings and the delicate voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. I See You also showcases new sonic clarity in the production of Jamie xx as he puts Croft and Sim’s vocal performances front and center and lets the music merely act as color for the stories their lyrics say. The xx’s message is that much of love is a “Performance” (“I do it all so/You won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks”) and no matter how much it can seem “Dangerous” (“There are voices ringing over/They keep saying, ‘Danger, danger’/I can’t make them take you under”), the little moments of love are worth the major drawbacks. On “Brave For You,” featuring one of Croft’s finest vocal performances, there is a sense of so much struggle and strife in knowing about someone and what their faults could be. But something keeps her going (“There are things I wish I didn’t know/I try my best to let them go”).

 

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1. Lorde – Melodrama

It was near-impossible to count out Lorde. The New Zealand indie-pop singer/songwriter had too much mystique in her presence and yet such boldface honesty about modern culture with her breakout song “Royals” that it was hard to believe she could end up a one hit wonder. What would she do next? How would a teenager hit with such immediate exposure adjust to it all? How would her music evolve? What else does she have to say? We may never know her immediate agenda after “Royals” hit big, because life had different plans to make her truly come out of her shell. After a breakup with her longtime boyfriend, Lorde is isolated in the spotlight with the world waiting for her reaction. The result is both volatile and gorgeous, intimate yet boosted to be heard in stadiums, sad at the start but incredibly satisfying. So it’s Lorde, but fully-formed. It fits that the cover for Melodrama, her long-awaited sophomore album, is a painting of her in her bed possibly longing for the night to end as the album is a very intimate affair. She’s lashing out at her ex seeing other people (“I know about what you did and I wanna scream the truth/She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar”), trying to make new friends with unstable people (“Don’t know you super well/But I think that you might be the same as me”), but is as messy and confused as any 21-year-old. From the massive sound of Melodrama (co-produced by Jack Antonoff), Lorde’s one night at a party looking for some kind of relief from her heartbreak might be the most revelatory night of her life. “Green Light” opens the album with an incredible punch of piano and bass drums, “Homemade Dynamite” is swamped with dropped-down drums and synthesizers, “Supercut” sounds like classic 80s new wave boosted for the EDM scene and “Perfect Places” is the album’s closing rebellious anthem. But like all great performers, it’s when Lorde has a song entirely to herself that she truly brings magic. And the album’s centerpiece and arguably the most captivating moment in pop music this year is “Liability,” a stunning piano ballad where reality comes crashing down on her (“The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy/’Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore/And then they are bored of me”). If that’s what she once was, Lorde is now the pop star of the future: down-to-earth in her experience yet forever hovering above us all in her musical landscape.

Tommy Betrays Tommy

Before going to see The Disaster Artist or before diving into the crazy journey of The Room and its creator Tommy Wiseau, you need to know one thing right off the bat: Tommy Wiseau is a failure. The writer/director/producer/star of one of the worst movies ever made should only be praised out of sheer irony, because he is bad at all possible elements that would make him successful in Hollywood. The Room is incredibly entertaining because of how perplexingly awful it is, it’s like a Lifetime Original Movie with the entire cast on valium. So matter how much other people talk about Wiseau with appreciation and sympathy in their voices, or how Wiseau’s weird aura is somehow charming to see, just remember that everything Wiseau does is a failure and the fact that he is worthy of a sympathetic award season biopic is unfathomable. And the fact that The Disaster Artist doesn’t want to truly put Wiseau’s feet to the fire keeps it from being a truly great movie.

 

The Disaster Artist is based on the book of the same name co-written by The Room’s co-star Greg Sestero. The movie chronicles young Greg (Dave Franco) in his journey to become an actor with high hopes but weak inspiration (he says the movie that changed everything for him was Home Alone). He’s nervous in front of crowds and has trouble remembering lines, dimming his chances of truly making it. Then he meets Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) wearing a pirate’s jacket and three different belts at the same time, grinding his groin on a community theater stage reciting A Streetcar Named Desire. To others it’s ludicrous, but to Greg it’s fearless, and Tommy finally befriends someone who believes in his madcap ambition. They move to Hollywood together but struggle to get their big break. Then, in an act of defiance, Tommy decides he’s going to make his own movie. So what if he’s never written a screenplay before? Or directed a film before? Or acted professionally? It’s all about the human spirit, along with the seemingly endless well of money Tommy has to finance the project he calls The Room. But the more the movie is made, the more everyone involved (including Greg) sees Tommy’s incompetence and truly odd behavior.

 

Despite its biographical base, The Disaster Artist is a comedy through and through. The structure of the film is a rags to riches story, a classic underdog tale that shows the success of a guy everyone counted out. But because said guy is such a fascinatingly strange personality is what makes The Disaster Artist such a farce. Without any prior knowledge of him, Tommy Wiseau looks and acts like a character Mike Myers made up when he was on Saturday Night Live and every possible reason why this movie works relies on James Franco’s dead-on performance as Wiseau. Everything from his voice, his accent, his body language and his mere presence is miraculous and hilarious, much like Wiseau himself. Even when the movie becomes a bit predictable, it’s Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau that’s carries the movie and is flatout one of the best acting performances of the year. On the polar opposite spectrum is brother Dave, who looks and acts nothing like Greg Sestero. Not only does Dave not have Greg’s height or facial structure, but he doesn’t even seem like he’s trying to mimic his character. It’s merely Dave Franco with a wavy blonde wig and occasionally a beard, no effort or difference from any other movie he’s in. It’s one of the most blatant examples of Hollywood nepotism ever and the Franco brothers being the stars of this movie leaves no room for any of the supporting cast (Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Paul Scheer) to make an impact.

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Directed by James Franco as well, The Disaster Artist shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary with mostly handheld camera work and very little artistic flourish. The purpose being that Franco wants you to be on the journey with Tommy and Greg since you and your friends probably have so many questions about it. Sadly, the making of The Room and the motivation behind it remain a mystery created by Wiseau’s incompetence. Aside from the comedic timing of Franco’s performance as Wiseau, the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars) seems very pedestrian and doesn’t go any deeper than the basic mystique of Wiseau. It might be forgivable considering the movie is based on Sestero’s account, but that should’ve been a springboard to something deeper or at the very least more outlandish. Because of the lack of visual ingenuity or deeper dive into the source material, The Disaster Artist only feels as interesting or memorable as something like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

 

But the real thing that cuts the movie out from its legs is the ending (SPOILER ALERT). The movie’s climax is the premiere of The Room, where dozens of cast, crew, and pedestrians fill a local theater to see this interesting new movie. Right from the start, everyone in the audience can see it’s bad. Actors sink in their chairs, the crew is baffled, and the rest of the audience is damn-near repulsed. Then everyone starts laughing at the absurdity they’re watching onscreen while Wiseau sheds a single tear realizing everyone is mocking his vision. He leaves the theater is shame until Greg convinces him that the laughter is sincere, meaning The Room has successfully done what it was meant to do: to entertain. Tommy then comes back into the theater running down the aisles to cheers and high-fives, thanking everyone for liking his “comedy film.”

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*ahem* NO.

 

First off, it’s different from what happened at the actual premiere. Secondly, it actually betrays everything that made The Room popular and iconic. The Room did earn cheers and applause at screenings, but not right away. It played late at night on little-seen TV channels and small-town indie theaters, film festivals and got around by word of mouth. The Room is one of the most fitting descriptions of a “cult classic” in movie history, and for some reason The Disaster Artist either doesn’t understand that or chooses to ignore it. Instead, it gives Wiseau the corny Hollywood ending Wiseau has always wanted for his career. Hurray for him, but it makes this weird and unpredictable story end on a safe and boring note. It would’ve been much more interesting to see how Sestero and Wiseau went on with their lives after The Room failed and how they came to grips with not only accepting being attached to one of the worst movies ever made but embracing it wholeheartedly. That’s what people like about Wiseau and Sestero: they get the joke and are just appreciative that people get some sort of joy of it. If anything, the cult success of The Room and its stars’ acceptance is a true form of humility. The ending of The Disaster Artist is practically rewarding someone for their unhinged abuse of power to please a madman.

 
To be clear, The Disaster Artist is not a bad movie. Far from it, as it’s chock full of legitimate laughs and behind-the-scene details on one of the greatest cinematic question marks. But even the career highlight performance of James Franco as Tommy Wiseau can’t block out how The Disaster Artist ends like a propaganda piece for Wiseau. It could’ve told the full-on truth about The Room’s success and that would be a more fitting tribute for him, but instead pacifies the near 15-year campaign for Wiseau and his creation to be taken seriously and given its true victory. So much like Wiseau himself, The Disaster Artist is a failure.

2.5/4

Injustice For All

Ever since Man of Steel came out four years ago to mixed reviews, fans of the DC Extended Universe have been steadfast in defending the films of the Superfriends. A common defense used by these devotees, especially when comparing them to the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been that the big-screen adaptations of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and co. are “dark,” “gritty,” “mature” and the most commonly used of all, “real.” They see the MCU movies made for little kids to sell toys at the Disney Store (which they’re not wrong on that part) while the DCEU is for grown-ups with smart, deep and complex storylines about what would happen if superheroes lived in the real world.

 

Now with Justice League, the grand superhero team-up of DC Comics that finally hits theaters this weekend, I hope to see those same DCEU fans out in droves to see it. And I hope to see them on social media defying the “biased” critics who’ve called their movies “poorly-made” or “convoluted” or “depressing” or just plain “awful.” Those fans who’ve insulted or talked-down to those who even have a moderate distaste for the DCEU, protested negative reviews or who’ve straight-up bullied those that have seemingly missed the point of these complex masterpieces of filmmaking. I can’t wait to see how do a complete 180-turn and vehemently defend one of the most saccharine, safe, glossy and goofy pieces of schlock trash I’ve ever seen. Sorry boys and girls, holding your capes close and your comic books closer, but Justice League sucks……hard.

 

After the traumatic events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, specifically the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), the world hangs it head in gloom. But Batman (Ben Affleck) still fears a greater danger on the horizon, so he and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) trek the world looking for more superheroes to recruit. They find the skittish introvert Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the cocky dude-bro Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the sullen Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). This team’s assemblance is perfect timing, as the ancient intergalactic conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) arrives on Earth to collect three Mother Boxes that, if combined, could destroy the Earth.

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It really is stunning how terrified Warner Bros. and DC are of Disney and Marvel Studios. They set such high expectations for Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice and when those became two of the most divisive blockbusters of the new millennium and not meeting the financial hopes the studios had in mind, they had no problem showing how desperate they were to be liked. The studio was deeply committed to the grim visual aesthetic of director Zack Snyder but after his takes on Superman and Batman didn’t rake in a billion dollars each, it had no problem putting Snyder on a leash. Justice League shows that WB and DC are so terrified of losing money and merchandise to the Marvel mega conglomerate that they gave up on the “dark gritty realism” of Snyder’s vision and told him to shut up and make a movie with the intelligence and imagination of a G.I. Joe cartoon.

 

Like Dawn of Justice, Justice League doesn’t look or feel like a Zack Snyder movie at all. Say what you will about his style, but it’s significant and unique: he builds dramatic heft through his eye for visuals, loves him some slow-motion effects, and shoots his leads with the bravado of the Greek Gods. Here, he doesn’t give his movie any room to breathe between scenes or build any sense of dramatic weight. Characters just show up in scenes without any grand form of reveal or presentation, no thanks to the choppy and disorienting editing. It’s as if the movie thinks that The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman already had their own solo movies before Justice League so there’s no need to give them any kind of heroic debut despite it being the ACTUAL CINEMATIC DEBUT of all three characters. It’s quite clear this movie was edited down from a longer runtime, seemingly out of fear of losing the audience’s attention or the fact that the movie wants to get itself over with as soon as possible. The visual style transition, compared to the previous DCEU films, is also jarring. Whereas the previous films had the characters blend in with the muted colors and grey backdrop, here the color tones on the characters are amplified to a bright glow, making them stick out from the mostly green-screened backgrounds all the more.

 

It’s a sudden and forced whiplash in both filmmaking and story structure. Oscar-winner Chris Terrio (Argo) is once again stuck with trying to juggle the introductions of multiple new characters, their interactions with each other, establishing them as individuals, creating a cohesive plot and making our lead superheros likable. While in Dawn of Justice he was stuck with David S. Goyer’s grim and convoluted structure, the studio mandate for a lighter tone and brisker pace needed for Justice League scored rewrites by none other than Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Firefly). While Whedon subbed in behind the director’s chair for reshoots after Snyder stepped down for a family emergency, the former Marvel man’s fingerprints are all over the script. There are more quips and jokes this time around and spread to all characters, making this feel much more like an action comedy than a hefty action epic. Though much like recent Marvel films Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok, the movie’s desperate need to get belly laughs from the audience undercut many dramatic moments. And fun is in higher demand this time around, as the movie’s story is horribly paced without any smooth flow or transition. While I understand most of today’s iPhone generation have the attention span of gnats and can rarely stand a movie longer than two hours, Justice League needs two-and-a-half hours to set all of its dominoes up properly. Instead, the movie’s plot twists, character development, action and emotion whiz by without any time to hit home.

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If it feels like there’s more to talk about on the technical side of things than on the performance side, that’s the right feeling to have when it comes to the cast. Ben Affleck, arguably the leader of the pack, is moseying along to pick up the rest of the cast and give little speeches here and there about the importance of hope and impending doom and such. He was the lone bright spot in Dawn of Justice as the older, war-torn Batman, but there’s just not enough here for him to sink his teeth into. Gal Gadot, who fully blossomed into her shield and sword earlier this year, is a much stronger presence as Wonder Woman and the only one who has a complete and important character. Ezra Miller is borderline annoying as The Flash, a petulant wimp who gets the occasional funny line and a rather-rushed “zero to hero” character arc. While spazzy comedy is something entwined with The Flash’s character, Miller has less charisma and more childish energy that doesn’t build a strong screen presence. Newcomer Ray Fisher is still very green as he doesn’t bring much charisma or screen presence either, despite being a partially-crucial part of the plot. Steppenwolf is by far one of the weakest villains in superhero movie history with bored motivation, unspecified abilities and bland fight scenes with the heroes. Surprisingly, the ace of the bunch is the once-Dothraki lord Jason Momoa as the macho King of Atlantis. While it’s questionable as to how faithful his portrayal of Aquaman is to the comics, he oozes the charisma of a classic adventure hero in his ambivalence to the doom around him. While the other heroes are trying to be loose and funny, his quips and coolness is the most believable.

 
But through all the quips, the impressive hero costumes and the chaos of the climactic final battle, Justice League is desperate to be liked with nothing tangible to grab onto. It’s boring, bland, rushed, stupid and devoid of any sense of great cinematic skill or fun. While it doesn’t induce as much anger as Dawn of Justice or annoyance as Suicide Squad, Justice League is one of the most disposable action blockbusters ever made. And that might be its biggest sin: this is the first-ever live-action movie team-up of the DC Comics superheroes. This should be a sweeping epic with dramatic weight and inspiring moments instead of a cold and calculated exercise in Marvel-envy. It feels like WB and DC see movie fans as whiny children they need to pacify instead of sticking with their own formula. They’d rather try to make a Marvel movie than follow through with what makes their movies unique and just make efforts to improve. So after four years of championing some of the most divisive and hated comic book movies in some of the worst ways, I have to ask: don’t you want more?

0/4

The Dumb Avenger

 

And now, a dramatic reenactment of a meeting at Marvel Studios discussing what to do with the next Thor movie:

“Ok so people kinda haven’t liked any of the movies we’ve done with Thor but we gotta make a third one because everyone gets a third one.”

“Well, we haven’t given Black Widow a mo..”

“So how can we make people like a Thor movie?”

“What if we made him like Deadpool?”

“Or Star Lord?”

“Or Tony Stark?”

“So………make him sound like a tool?

“YES!”

“BRILLIANT!

“….we could still do a Black Wido..”

“THOR!”

 

Thor: Ragnarok opens with the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) wrapped in chains cracking wise with a giant flaming demon monster, who warns him of the impending doom of his homeworld of Asgard known as “Ragnarok.” After swiftly defeating said monster (while still cracking wise), Thor returns to Asgard to see his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) running rampant in the absence of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But right as Thor seems to be reeling things in, he and Loki learn they have a long-lost older sister: the Goddess of Death known as Hela (Cate Blanchett), who looks to enslave Asgard and reclaim the kingdom’s throne. She starts by exiling Thor and Loki to an offbeat planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who uses a liquored-up ex-warrior (Tessa Thompson) to capture Thor and force him to compete a gladiator fight. Fortunately, Thor’s opponent is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who Thor needs to help him escape and save Asgard from certain death.

 

The first and most glaring thing to know about Thor: Ragnarok is that it is, without question, a comedy. Yes, it has action scenes that incorporate fist-fights, swords and spaceships on top of the typical mythic lore tied to Thor’s lineage. But make no mistake, director Taika Waititi (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is entirely going for laughs. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn if they three screenwriters on Ragnarok just wrote the movie based on his offbeat style and sarcastic direction of actors. Ragnarok is also very much style over substance, not that it’s entirely a detriment to the movie. Waititi and his team of set and costume designers crafted a visual treat in the worlds and people of both Asgard and the junk planet bursting with color and personality. Waititi’s direction isn’t stifled either, as those familiar with his work will recognize his choice for the movie’s breakneck pacing and punchline-driven editing. Even the music, done by Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh, is brighter and more fitting to an 80s sci-fi film than the typical bombastic Marvel music (the use of “Immigrant Song” doesn’t hurt either).

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Ragnarok gives Thor a much-needed touch of levity, but that doesn’t mean the movie is all the way in the clear. There a plenty of laughs in Ragnarok, but the movie’s total attention to comedy ends up undercutting any kind of stakes or drama the movie might had. For a plot that revolves around the Goddess of Death and the destruction of an entire civilization, there seems to be no sense of urgency or threat coming from the characters. The movie’s addiction to belly laughs also undercut any moment of drama or heft, which are seen and even needed in superhero movies. Even something as disposable and pointless as Spider-Man: Homecoming had proper dramatic moments that made me invested in what was happening outside of an episode of Degrassi guest starring Spider-Man. It also makes Ragnarok feel like it’s running in circles during its 130-minute runtime where most comedies, especially action-comedies, are pretty brisk and run under two hours. Perhaps because this is a Marvel movie featuring one its premiere characters that it passes the two-hour mark, but there are scenes that feel stretched out.

 

There are plenty of characters meant to fill those spaces with varying degrees of success. Like most comedies, a lot of the highlights come from the supporting players. Mark Ruffalo may never get the chance to have his own solo Hulk movie, so he makes the most of his human appearance in Ragnarok as Thor’s stingy neurotic sidekick. Even his CGI alter ego gets big laughs as the dopey lughead sidekick. Despite his role being a glorified cameo, Jeff Goldblum is a delight as he eloquently waves his arms around in his half-invested but charming Goldblum-ness. The real star is far and away Tessa Thompson, a proven ace in drama (Creed) and comedy (Dear White People) that finally gets her blockbuster breakout. Not only is her character given the strongest arc of the movie, but Thompson’s snarky delivery and brazen presence onscreen holds any and all attention.

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On the flipside of that is a handful of big names wasted, chief among them being Cate Blanchett who tragically suffers from Marvel villain syndrome. Hela merely shows up with little fanfare and gets very little screentime to establish her presence, which is a shame because Blanchett seems to be having the time of her life as the gothic death goddess. Even when she throws every sword she can conjure at the final fight, it’s only a reminder of how weak of a presence she was in the movie. Same goes for Karl Urban, who plays Hela’s right hand man that I don’t feel like naming since it would take longer than the time he was onscreen for. The great Tom Hiddleston, reprising his role as arguably Marvel’s greatest villain, is merely another comedic sidekick that yucks around with Thor and given nothing else to do. And then there’s Chris Hemsworth as our titular character. While admittedly more relaxed and totally willing to roll with the looney nature of the movie, Hemsworth’s presence feels lessened by the fact that he’s saying one liners. It worked better when he was the fish out of water still speaking the exaggerated Asgardian English in the Avengers movies. Here, his lines are so generically comic that it might as well be coming from Chris Pratt or Robert Downey Jr.

 
Bottom line, Thor: Ragnarok is a fun, funny action comedy that I most certainly will forget about by next week. It’s certainly the best of the Thor movies and it’s nice to see Marvel let a director have his full vision with a movie (poor Edgar Wright). It just seems like another pitstop in Marvel’s crafted business plan. Compare this to something like Marvel’s own Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or even Logan, two of the flat out best movies of the year. Those movies thrived on having legitimate emotion and heart tied to them, giving gravity to important scenes even in scenes that would be considered over-the-top or comical (especially in the case of Guardians). Ragnarok is certainly funny, over-the-top and successful at being a comic book movie. But no matter how shiny and funny it is, it’s about as meaningful and legitimate as a funny-looking hand puppet.

3/4

A Good Man Makes A War

If you listen closely throughout all the gunshots, torpedoes, bombings, and ocean waves crashing on the shores of the beach in Dunkirk, there’s one sound that’s a constant throughout the movie: a ticking clock. Whether there’s a moment where young British soldiers are staring out into the ocean wondering if they’ll ever make it home or when those same soldiers are desperately trying to escape a sinking ship, the seconds are ticking away in the background. What’s it counting down to? A victory? A loss? An attack? A death? It’s rare that something as simple as a tiny ticking sound is basically the centerpiece to a $150 million dollar war movie, then again it’s made by the same guy who used a spinning top as the “gotcha” moment of a summer blockbuster that made over $800 million.

 

That man is producer/writer/director/movie theater enthusiast Christopher Nolan, now on his 10th feature film after covering every possible major-movie genre from crime thriller to superhero action to intergalactic sci-fi philosophy. Since he’s not likely to ever try a screwball comedy or whimsical animation, the only thing left for him to do was a war movie. Thus we have Dunkirk, the story of how over 300,000 English soldiers made a desperate escape from the titular beaches in the north of France after being surrounded by German troops in 1940. Instead of rallying together for a last stand against the enemy, a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) do everything from using an injured soldier to weasel their way onto a medical ship to stealing an abandoned fishing boat just to find a way home. It’s not like their higher-ranking officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) have any better plans, almost certain the enemy will break through the remaining blockade and any moment. All the soldiers have left to rely on are a handful of Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) and civilian boats piloted by loyal citizens of England (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) to protect and save the soldiers.

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Christopher Nolan is, above all else, a technician. He prefers practical effects over CGI, he uses IMAX cameras to shoot on 70 millimeter film, he researches the physics of space and wants his sets to actually spin for scenes. He doesn’t want audiences to watch movies, he wants audience to be IN his movies while sitting in their seats and he’ll do as much as he can to make that happen. Dunkirk is no exception, it might actually be the most immersive movie Nolan has ever made. Right from the opening frame, Nolan puts the audience right behind the soldiers walking aimlessly through an abandoned small town seeing the enemy propaganda showering over them. Then guns go off, and Nolan makes you run with soldiers with proper use of handheld camerawork. But Nolan knows when to hold his camera for the audience to take in the same vision as the soldiers are: lines of soldiers standing in the sand waiting for a ride home or a bomb to be dropped from the sky. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) juggle handheld and standard camerawork effortlessly, using the handheld sparingly to let the audience inhabit the fear and anxiousness of the soldiers. But even with his stoic shots, Nolan doesn’t stick with the standard. The audience gets to hang off the side of a British Spitfire plane in the middle of a dogfight and the inside of a sinking rescue ship as the water is filling the lower deck with soldiers clammering over each other. He even puts the audience underwater, asking them whether or not a soldier should drown in the ocean or reemerge into an oil fire to be burned. No matter the scenario, Nolan wants the audience right in the line of fire, not to nauseate people but put them in the mindset of the characters.

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One of the key elements of Dunkirk is its atmosphere. No, Dunkirk is not a typical World War II rally cry movie. From the get-go, there’s the feeling of dread and hopelessness in the movie. It’s as if every character involved knows he’s going to die. It’s never actually said, though, as Nolan’s screenplay is very sparse with dialogue but the action does all the talking. It’s easy to call Dunkirk a bleak movie, but it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with muted colors or overtly dour music. Even with the imagery of men swimming aimlessly in the ocean or one soldier simply walking into the ocean in defeat, it simply adds to the tension of the movie. Not only is there that constant ticking in the background, but Hanz Zimmer’s score that builds a creeping sense of danger to each scene. Zimmer mostly goes for a slow burn, almost recreating the sounds of the metals in the bombed ships breaking with loud but low-pitched horns and haunting choir vocals in the background. And even though the colors of grey and dark blue are prominent throughout the movie, the colors don’t dilute the movie. On top of that is a strong use of natural sunlight and practical explosions to make the movie more realistic. Dunkirk prides itself on being as realistic as possible, not overly dark or reaching for heroic patriotism.

 

With a sparse script like this, one would think that acting and character are not essential qualities. While the movie is less about the acting and more about the action involved. The actors are more so vehicles for the audience to see the plot move forward. Granted, no one here is phoning it in. Whitehead, Barnard, and Styles are merely pawns, but the stress and fear on their faces is legitimate. What they deal is moral complications, abandoning their comrades or forcing their fellow soldiers to be the one to stick their head out into the line of fire. The rest of actors fill their roles in fine, no one’s looking for an Oscar but are merely bit players. The human element of the movie comes from Rylance and his two young passengers as three English citizens simply doing the right thing for their country. Even after they pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who survived a u-boat attack whose visible shock is reason enough to turn back, they go forward accepting the terrible circumstances. Rylance, always a man of softer emotions, brings the most humanity to the movie when it’s needed.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk flies by like a bullet in a battle. Like the wounds of war, Dunkirk stays with you. It feels like an old school war movie made with the ambition of a true craftsman. People will debate where Christopher Nolan stands in the pantheon of modern filmmakers with his ties to blockbusters. Is he a true filmmaking auteur or just knows how to pick crowd-pleasing blockbusters? Is he the next Kubrick or the new Spielberg? He’s Nolan, a technician who sees the potential in applying artistic craftsmanship to the size and scope of blockbuster movies. The only franchise that Dunkirk is promoting is human history, and for someone to make that as exciting as Spider-Man and Wonder Woman is a true feat. Dunkirk and its different screening formats are examples of the power of film. Does that sound corny? Sure, but it’s nice to see and talk about a summer blockbuster made with the same hope for the medium of film that the Allies had that helped them win the war.

4/4

Symphony of Action

It should be said that 2017 has done very well with its franchise blockbusters. This year has given us, among other things, a fierce but fond farewell to an angry mutant with claws, a giant monkey in the backdrop of Apocalypse Now, and resolved daddy issues set to Fleetwood Mac in space. Even when it gave moderately-impressive efforts to the world’s most famous female superhero and everyone’s favorite nerdy superhero (for the SIXTH TIME), it was still nice to see Hollywood dropping the ball less than last year. Amongst the cavalcade of characters that have thrived this year, who would’ve guessed one of them would be those damn dirty apes?

 

War for the Planet of the Apes is the third installment in the rebooted Apes franchise, seeing the world ravaged from a virus that has killed off most of the human population and made the primate species hyper-intelligent. With the human race beginning to reemerge, the ape population (or at least the one in the woods of Vancouver) is constantly fighting with a rogue military outfit looking to make the gun-toting tribe of primates extinct. Led by the stern but compassionate Caesar (Andy Serkis), the apes plan to leave the woods and find a new home for themselves away from the war with the humans. Unfortunately the military outfit and its conniving leader, known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is planning a final assault on the apes. With the help of his ape comrade, a straggling ape (Steven Zahn), and a mute abandoned girl (Amiah Miller), Caesar races to The Colonel’s outpost to make a last stand for his kind.

 

While the rebooted trilogy started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes under director Rupert Wyatt, the new Apes franchise thrived with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes under director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In). Reeves expanded the bleak universe of the Apes movies to be able to build the characters of the apes while also using exceptional motion-capture technology to showcase immersive action. On top of building a narrative comparing the behaviors of apes and humans (SPOILERS: we’re not that much better), he also managed to make a thrilling action movie. In War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves doubles down on the dour atmosphere and environment by setting most of the movie in the frozen, desolate Canadian border. He and co-writer Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, The Wolverine) make the focus entirely on the journey of Caesar from reluctant leader to vengeful father to true savior. The screenplay seems to put Caesar as a vessel for the audience more than a character, coldly judging the faults of the war while trying hard not to devolve into the primitive species the humans think of him and his kind. He sees his ape brethren mounted as war trophies, imprisoned and turned to slave labor, but Caesar tries desperately to hold onto his soul.  It truly feels like a fitting completion to his story arc (as no plans for future Apes movies are in the cards at the moment) as he battles the darkest of days. The detail in the building of this movie’s universe is first-rate with imagery that’s reminiscent of Westerns, war dramas, dystopian sci-fi, and hardened action.

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That doesn’t mean Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin (Midnight Express, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) turn the color down or sour the imagery, as there are some truly gorgeous shots of the first ape vs. human battle in the forests and the apes trekking through the snow that recalls the gorgeous aerial shots of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. War for the Planet feels very much like a sweeping war epic, a cross between Spartacus and The Thin Red Line with action scenes that let the audience see every possible element clearly. Whether it’s the apes riding horses in the snow, throwing spears, or simply lunging for attack, the audience see it set up with tension and executed with grace, plus Michael Giacchino’s grand score doesn’t hurt. It’s all the more surprising that the action is actually minimal for a nearly two-and-a-half hour summer action movie. Aside from the breathless opening assault in the forest and the explosive climax, most of the movie is moved along by the journey of Caesar’s redemption.

 

It’s all motivated by character, which is all the more impressive considering those characters are made partly from computers. To the credit of the special effects team, the apes have never looked more real. Perhaps Reeves planned out so many close up shots of the apes for audience to applaud the team that detailed every inch of the digital apes down to their fur, highlighting legitimate emotions coming from the actors. The slightest shift of skin on the face of the apes looks all to real. Whether human or ape, the acting has a strong supporting cast. The motion-capture actors, including Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, and Michael Adamthwaite have great chemistry with each other and bring out genuine emotion with mere sign language. Even longtime clown Steve Zahn, playing a new monkey called Bad Ape, manages to bring the slightest touch of levity to the film (even if he overstays his welcome in the final act). Woody Harrelson brings the intensity as the villain with a chip on his shoulder. His dynamic with Caesar is less hero vs. villain and more cat-and-mouse, a hunter and his prey. Harrelson keeps his menace understated with a hint of passion, a man who truly believes he’s the second coming of the human race. But the heart and soul of this movie and the two proceeding it is Andy Serkis, fully-formed and more human than ever in his third turn as Caesar. This is not simply a role that Serkis is sliding into, but a life that he inhabits by picking up the weight of the previous two films and wearing it on his slouched sleeves. Caesar spends most of the movie looking haggard, beat-down, and on the brink of completely falling apart. But Caesar still lunges to the front lines and Serkis throws himself into every scene. It feels moot at this point to say that Serkis deserves a certain golden statue for his performance, but he should receive as many commendations as possible.

War for the Planet of the Apes is blockbuster movie-making done with a passion, more about character development than car crashes. Even with the extremely dour atmosphere, the movie has an incredibly powerful feeling with it. Matt Reeves has not made a summer blockbuster but more composed a symphony of action and emotion that syncs up when other movies have those elements clash. The entire Apes franchise has been so fascinating to watch evolve and mature into something with such prestige that if this is Caesar’s final curtain call, it’s hard not to applaud it.

3.5/4

Wright’s Killer Track

In the mind of Edgar Wright, music and movies go hand in hand. The British writer/director has become one of film’s culture most adored auteurs not only for his clever writing, creative comedic directing, and unabashed love for pop culture, but his incredible detail combining the action of scenes with the pumping energy of music. Everything from police paperwork to beating up an elderly zombie can be made special with the right music in Wright’s mind. So of course, an action movie about a getaway driver who only functions by listening to music constantly would be Wright’s passion project for the last 20 years. Most of the high points of his movies have been the musical montages that act as lively interludes to keep scenes going, like mini-music videos that cap off plot points. So why not make a nearly-two hour music video?

 

Baby Driver, Wright’s first feature in four years, takes place on the streets of Atlanta and opens with an excitable young man jamming out to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a suped-up Subaru. Don’t be fooled by the fresh-faced exuberance of Baby (Ansel Elgort), as he’s merely waiting for his crew to run out of the local bank with the loot and drive them through the streets at breakneck speed. His secret weapon: the tinnitus in his ears forces him to listen to music constantly to drown out any high-pitched ringing, but also makes him incredibly proficient at drifting between cop cars and maneuvering through traffic. This makes him the lucky charm of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a local crime boss Baby owes a major debt to. While he’s worked many jobs with Doc’s crew, ranging from the eternally romantic Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) to the hair-triggered nutjob Bats (Jamie Foxx), Baby finds something more when he falls in love with the angel-voiced waitress, Debora (Lily James). But just because Baby wants out of the game doesn’t mean Baby gets to walk away from the game.

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On a surface level, Baby Driver is a very simple story. It’s the classic crime story of the lone rogue who’s never been cool with a life of crime and just wants out. But just when he thinks he’s out, cue Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III. Usually Wright’s stories aren’t as straight-forward as they seem, there’s always something else going on in the background. Baby Driver is probably one of the more traditional stories of his career, no great plot twist or background commentary throwing the audience for a loop or defying expectations. But like other Wright movies, it’s more about the presentation than the product itself, and Baby Driver is certainly his most ambitious show to date. Somewhere between an inverted jukebox musical and a long-form music video, Baby Driver has nearly every scene perfectly synced-up with the eclectic soundtrack, which ranges from Beck to The Damned to Young MC. When the film rolls out its opening credits to Baby strutting down the street like Gene Kelly dancing to the title of Singin’ in the Rain, the street comes alive accentuating each little pip in Baby’s step. Wright’s editing duo of Jonathan Amos (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Paul Machliss (The World’s End) cut gunshots, car drifts, and even the mildest head tick to the beat of the drum. It’s a cute gimmick and impressive to see done at near-feature length, though it loses its luster near the end of the movie and it can become disorienting after a while.

 

But even without the gimmick, Baby Driver is still a damn good time. The action set pieces are fantastic thanks to their stripped-down nature. Mixing the cracking soundtrack with driving sequences not overly-cut while remaining fast-paced allows for continuous propulsion throughout the movie. At just under two hours, the movie flies by with almost zero filter distracting from the main story. That’s mostly in part to the great cast fully invested in the need for hammy action-talk and Wright’s typically funny dialogue. For this being Wright’s big American debut (Scott Pilgrim being technically Canadian), some of Hollywood’s best wanted in on the party and don’t disappoint. Jamie Foxx has never been such an impressive combination of menacing and funny before, leagues more impressive than his turn as Electro in the embarrassing Amazing Spider-Man 2. Kevin Spacey is a fine crime boss despite not leaving that much of an impression. The MVPs are the one-two punch of Jon Hamm and Lily James: the former as the smoldering henchman that brings the most charisma to the movie, and the latter being the sultry, 50s-era damsel that woos Baby. In fact, Hamm himself plays somewhat of a grizzly older James Dean wannabe. Oddly enough, the weakest member of the cast is the lead. Elgort certain has the energy and the young baby face (no pun intended), but his own moments of smoldering intensity seem like a joke that the movie isn’t in on. He’s also not bringing enough charisma to be fun to watch and looks like a pouting elementary school kid when he’s trying to be serious. Elgort is in an awkward position where’s he too old to be a cutesy teen heartthrob and yet still has the face of a Degrassi cast member. In his defense, he has some strong chemistry with James that culminates in a rather romantic scene where the two chat in a laundromat connected by Baby’s earbuds.

It’s tempting to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst film, and yet it’s all the more shocking that it’s still a great movie. While it may be missing Wright’s quick-witted British humor and wackier plot elements, it’s still another showcase for one of Hollywood’s best directors alive. The technical prowess and attention to detail that Wright exudes is on display now more than ever, it’s almost the central focus of the movie. It’s certainly a film that requires repeated viewings to repeat every detail for film fans, along with being a breath of fresh air for summer action audiences. Wright has officially arrived in America, and his future is as open as the road Baby and Debora dream for themselves.

3.5/4 

Acceptable Wonder

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Warner Bros. and DC finally have a good movie on their hands, but that doesn’t mean the movie (or their cinematic universe) is fixed.

Alright, I’ll admit it: Warner Bros. and DC are brilliant.

 

The partnering studio/comic-book company took on the nearly-impossible task of trying to keep up with Disney and Marvel Studios by creating their own superhero cinematic universe. Since its inception in 2013, they’ve had three false starts with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Taking out any discussion of being faithful comic book adaptations and whatnot, those three films stand out as unique failures for being bad on basic filmmaking levels, from unnecessary zoom-ins and collateral damage (Man of Steel), to constant shaky-cam and confused character development (Dawn of Justice), and then terrible editing with unfocused tone (Suicide Squad). Ignoring the childish war for validation between Marvel and DC fans, the bottom line was that these were poorly-made movies that lowered the expectations of fans with every new installment. So now the bar has been set so low, not worst case scenario but low enough, where an action-adventure movie made with the most basic expectations of filmmaking is practically a godsend.

 

Yes, Wonder Woman is a fine movie, occasionally even a damn good one, but the concern is that it’s because on top of its flaws (which are obvious and gaping), the movie has very basic technical elements to it. Basically, we should’ve been getting this quality of filmmaking for the past four years. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets everything off on the right foot with the gorgeous island of Themyscira inhabited by the fearless female warriors, the Amazons. The spunky oddball of the Amazons is Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), sheltered by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), but secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana wants to explore the outside world, which fortunately comes right to her shores when U.S. Army spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on Themyscira after evading German forces as the real world faces World War I. When Steve tells the Amazons about the horrors of the Great War and they turn him away, Diana grabs a sword, a shield, and a powerful lasso to sail away from her home and join Steve on the frontlines saving the world.

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Most of the credit for Wonder Woman goes to Jenkins and her production team for crafting the best looking film of the DC Extended Universe. Everything from the lost paradise of Themyscira to the barren war zone of Belgium looks gorgeous, thanks to Jenkins’s smooth flow of directing scenes and cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s (Chronicle, Game of Thrones) fluid combination of colors that don’t flood the scenes. Jenkins’s is also an impressive director of action, staging a great beach-front fight between the Amazons and German troops with a much more appropriate use of slow-motion and imagery worth of freeze-frames (see Antiope shooting three arrows at the same time…in mid-air). Same can be said for when Wonder Woman makes her grand debut in costume on the German frontlines, where Diana disrobes into the iconic costume and charges into battle blocking bullets. Unlike the previous DCEU films, Jenkins understands that action scenes should build upon themselves with elevating threats and seeing Wonder Woman go from blocking a barrage of bullets to hip-checking a German tank like she’s Malcolm Butler are well-earned displays of heroism. It’s a shame that action goes completely off the rails with the film’s overblown climax that harkens back to the Doomsday fight in Dawn of Justice too much.

 

Like the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman’s major problem is its story. Written by Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg (who went on to write the screenplay), and WB/DC stalwart Zack Snyder, the origins of Wonder Woman is solid with her crafted by her mother and brought to life by Zeus. It’s a typical outcast-to-the-rescue story that’s slightly similar to that of Marvel’s Thor. In fact, Wonder Woman’s main story is an obvious mesh of two of Marvel’s earlier cinematic universe installments: the “mythical being adjusts to humans” elements of Thor and the “superhero faces the realism of human war” elements of Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman owes a lot of its plot elements to Steve Rogers, whether it be the shadow influence of an evil force on the war or the fate of certain characters at the film’s climax. It all seems a bit too familiar without adding anything new. For all the complaints people have that Marvel movies all looking and playing out the same, Wonder Woman feels an awful lot like a real solid Marvel movie.

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Even the title character has a thing or two in common with Marvel’s Asgardian god of thunder. But where Chris Hemsworth brought a sense of classic Hollywood charm to Thor, Gal Gadot brings a beating heart and emotional weight to the Amazonian princess. She starts off precocious and innocent as she enters the human world, but Gadot really shows how the horrors of war can impact those seeing it for the first time. Gadot really captures the moment where Wonder Woman goes from wholesome untouched metahuman to a true warrior who understands the gravity of war. It’s exactly what the DCEU needs: levity with a strong sense of what a hero sacrifices, and Gadot brings it. She’s got a great partner in Chris Pine, bringing his own classic-style Hollywood charm to Steve Trevor. Pine has always felt like a 50s-era actor that wound up getting big in the new millennium (sans his excellent performance in last year’s Hell or High Water), so he’s right at home being the charming American spy with his his coiffed hair and silver tongue.

 

The thing about all of the positive elements of Wonder Woman, i.e. developed characters, good action scenes, and structured filmmaking should’ve been in the DCEU films for the past four years. If anything, Wonder Woman deadlifts the bar for what the DCEU movies need to be. Patty Jenkins has come in to practically right the ship of the DCEU and her filmmaking standards should be seriously noted. Wonder Woman is not only a reminder of how superhero movies should be made but a platform to build new ideas for superhero movies in the future. Wonder Woman is wholly unoriginally and has big flaws, but its spirit and skill is something that should be (pardon the phrase) marveled.

3/4 stars

Stuck In Neutral

Let’s be honest: we’ve all been very generous to the Fast & Furious franchise. Six years ago with the release of Fast Five, the world saw that Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the gang decided to shoot the moon and turn their dated racing movie franchise into Ocean’s Eleven for dude-bros. Inexplicably, the world decided to fall in love with Fast & Furious more than they ever had before, and Fast & Furious returned the favor by throwing caution (and logic) to the wind for the sake of action set pieces that would make physics professors pull their hair out. With that said, these movies are actually a lot of fun! It’s taking all of the seriousness forced into modern action movies and chucking it aside for more macho posturing and car chases. Audiences know it’s all stupid and pointless and as humane as a Lil Wayne music video, and yet the franchise has made over $3 billion and counting worldwide. Even with the tragic death of one of its main stars, Fast & Furious is practically bulletproof. So even if we’re on movie no. 8, The Fate of the Furious, can it even be fairly judged anymore?

 
Maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt to try! Episode eight of the Fast & Furious saga has a new hook: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the chrome dome charisma vacuum with more emphasis on family than Stitch goes ROGUE! He screws over military badass Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to work with Cipher (Charlize Theron), a mysterious cyber terrorist who can hack into anything anywhere forever and ever. Cipher seems to be holding something over Dom’s head, causing him to reluctantly steal military tech. It’s up to Hobbs, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and former enemy Deckard (Jason Statham) to save Dom and stop Cipher from doing some form of taking over the world.

 
It’s important to note that Cipher’s plan is “some form” of taking over the world, since writer Chris Morgan (Furious 7, Wanted) didn’t bother to nail down what exactly Cipher’s point in the movie is. She gives vague exposition on wanting to hold world leaders accountable or something, but it’s entirely irrelevant to The Fate of the Furious. The movie, like all Fast & Furious movies before it, is all about action set pieces, exotic cars, glory shots of scantily-clad women, and close ups of the actors clenching their faces to look serious. The Fate of the Furious certainly hits all of those familiar beats, for better and for worse. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) proves his competence with handling the vehicular madness that’s expected of this franchise, but the excitement seems to have worn off. It truly says something about these movies when dozens of “zombie cars” zooming through New York City and a submarine blasting through a sheet of ice isn’t as ridiculously fun as it sounds. It’s nothing bad, but it feels routine at this point. The only option they seems to have left is strapping a rocket to their Dodge Chargers and racing in space (and you know they’d do it). In all honesty, the best action scenes involve Johnson and Statham, with neither of them involving cars or any interaction with the rest of the main cast.


That’s a telling detail and a bit of strange irony to this production, since Johnson and Statham are the two best parts of the movie. Their charisma together and experience in physical action scenes make for great banter between the two and some impressive action scenes. Statham rarely gets to be this loose, so it’s nice to see his comic timing mixed with the infinite charisma of the actor formerly known as The Rock. It’s a big help that they’re in the movie, along with a returning Kurt Russell charming his way through his little screentime. The acting chops of the main Fate of the Furious cast are well-documented as limited, and that’s no different this time around. It seems like a mistake to make Dom the emotional focus of the movie, as Diesel has not made his career off of his dramatic chops. As demonstrated in his other franchise entry this year (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Diesel thrives when he absorbs the charisma of other actors around him and works off of it. The problem here is that Diesel is riding solo for most of the movie’s 136 minute runtime, having to carry dramatic scenes practically on his own and mostly falling flat on his face. You’d think he’d have a little help from Oscar-winner Theron as the villain, but she must’ve gotten the memo of the limited acting requirement from this franchise and thought it’d be fine to phone in her performance. She speaks mostly in a whisper-tone and locks into staring contests with Diesel, clearly only cast in this movie so Vin could make out with the heroine of the other car-based action movie that beat his car-based action movie in the same year. Rodriguez handles the emotional moments a little bit better, but it requires minimum effort to pull off so it’s graded on a curve. The rest of the cast fill in their roles with little to no effort, and Gibson’s comedy relief getting more and more tiresome. Also, Hollywood needs to stop trying to make Scott Eastwood happen.

 
The Fate of the Furious has its moments and it remains fascinating to see how much money goes into the cinematic equivalent of shoving Hot Wheels into each other. But even on the grading curve of Fast & Furious movies, The Fate of the Furious feels very routine and somewhat uninspired. At least with Furious 7, there was the emotional weight of Paul Walker’s death and the inclusion of Statham to motivate the excitement of the movie. Here, attendance of this movie feels obligatory out of curiosity to see how this franchise is going to keep going. I honestly don’t know what else could be done at this point, but as long as Vin Diesel needs to be relevant, life will keep finding a way one quarter-mile at a time.

2.5/4 Stars