Friday, May 27, 2016

Lady Dynamite, Masters of None, and Comedians Playing Themselves in Peak TV

"Lady Dynamite" is so zany and out there that it was a little difficult to get a grasp on it when I first watched it. Ironically, my difficulty with the material wasn't because there's nothing like it on TV but because I saw traces of nearly everything else on TV: The cutaways of "30 Rock", the awkward attempts at social justice statements from "Master of None", the use of a comedic veneer to mask trauma that's shown on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", the 4th wall randomness of "Man Seeking Woman" or "Family Guy", and the feminist celebration of woman as proudly dysfunctional adult from "Broad City". 
Welcome to Peak TV: Where the overabundance of innovative voices on TV makes it harder to stick out and a comic voice as original as Maria Bamford is penalized for not coming out on the airwives five years ago.
Besides the myriad of recognizable influences there's the obstacle that Bamford's show can loosely be classified into the most overused genre on television: Comic actors playing thinly veiled versions of themselves trying to make it in showbiz inevitably providing a satirical take on Hollywood along the way. It started with "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the idea has gotten so saturated that it seems like the go-to template for anyone wanting to stretch their act into a TV show if they don't want to put much energy into the pitching session. The genre is starting to rapidly sour with unique acts like subversively sexually explicit music duo Garfunkel and Oates and hyperobsessive pop culture freak Billy Eichner getting shows that add zero value whatsoever to what started out as great acts.  
The good news here is that any initial complaints about the show are a lot less valid after a scattershot pilot that's loaded with every gimmick imaginable. The show gradually starts to even out and make more purposeful decisions over when to break the 4th wall. By the fifth or sixth episode, Bamford starts to deploy these gimmicks with a mastery that makes "Lady Dynamite" one of the most wall-to-wall enjoyable shows on TV.

It helps to separate the show from other entries in the "comedians playing themselves" genre in that Bamford isn't trying to advance her show business career at all. At times, she seems blissfully ignorant of exactly how well she's doing (her faux sister Susan is alarmed at how much she makes at a studio session as if she heard it for the first time). In another episode, she turns down Judd Apatow because in that particular episode, her new focus on life is about doing as little as possible in life. After a few episodes, one can better make the argument that this even if it's a clichéd genre, Bamford's work is the ultimate personal statement: Maria Bamford is simply figuring out her life and way of expressing it on screen as she goes along.

It also helps that so many of the plots are loopy enough to match Maria Bamford's personality: Her uncertainty is matched by characters that either swing towards an extreme opposite (Mo Collins as pushy childhood friend Susan, Ana Gasteyer as Karen Gillam, Annie Mumulo as a highly aggressive dog trainer) or similar aimlessness (Fred Melamed is highly enjoyable as an agent who reeks of casual desperation, in the second episode she dates a bisexual recovering meth addict who can't distinguish the difference between bisexuality and polygamy).

Masters of None

In the era of Peak TV, shows are being given out like cars to the Oprah studio audience and one consequence is that while there are a lot of great comic voices out there, not everyone is exactly qualified to sustain an audience as the lead of a television show. Whereas Maria Bamford can will her way through a hackneyed premise on sheer personality, Aziz Ansari (assuming he doesn't have the acting abilities of Peter Sellers up his sleeve) would be questionable as a lead for a high-concept series.
It's not that Ansari isn't a deservedly successful comedian. He was an excellent addition to the mix on "Parks and Recreation," he is a successful author, and has a worthwhile stand-up show worth watching. There's just very little variation from Tom Haverford to "Master of None" lead Dev and that character was originally created as a foil to the altruism of Leslie Knope.
What also doesn't help is that it seems like Aziz Ansari's vision for his show is as bizarrely uneventful as the in-universe pitch for "Seinfeld." Yes, technically things happen, but it seems as if the show's goal is to drain as much dramatic tension as possible so that the show is as close to nothing as possible. In other words, Aziz/Dev just wants to be chill but there's a such thing as overdoing it. The show also doesn't seem to have any game plan for making you laugh: The long-term setups lack comic complexity and the short-term jokes are more at a dramedy-level than an actual comedy.  
Oddly enough, the show did get great reception but I suspect that has more to do with the increasing prevalence of the social justice movement among TV critics. Ansari is a minority that's not often seen on TV and his episodes tackle such hot button issues as tokenism in casting, sexism, and the issues that come with being the children of immigrants. In some of these cases, the show comes off as overly preachy because Aziz's take on those issues is the only memorable thing about the episode.
For contrast, "Fresh Off the Boat" is a show I immediately latched onto because of the unique cultural perspective of a minority family. I could see people being attached to Dev for the same reasons, but that doesn't excuse such a show from phoning it in everywhere else.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tweeny-Bopper Fare: Lost and Found Studios Review

I have great regrets that of all the TV that I've watched lately, this is the only one I had time to review. Hopefully, more stuff to come.
“Lost and Found Studios” is about a group of teenagers in an “elite music program” of people of indiscriminate age in an indiscriminate mid-sized city, with an indiscriminate means of paying for it all.

It’s one of those shows where it seems like I'm putting more thought into it then the people who created  it. Does Mr. T's exclusive program consist of letting kids just hang around his studio all day and what's in it for him when studio time is at such a premium? Does the program offer instruction other than Mr. T sternly crossing his arms and playing referee in disputes? Why do the parents (especially those of introverted Eva) trust Mr. T?

But that’s ok because to try to answer these questions would involve icky things for this tweeny-bop genre like involving parents and as the kid with the red headphones learned when his mom crashed his audition, parents are not allowed! The creators of this show know that it’s a cash cow for tweeny-boppers so long as they populate it with an array of diverse vanilla personalities and produce a queue full of songs on iTunes where they can get a juicy second stream of revenue. On this note, it’s curious who the combined song writing talents of a group of some two dozen kids produces songs in the exact same genre.

The characters are all filled out by uniformly mediocre actors (they’re likely teenagers so I’m not expecting big things) but it’s also curious that the adults on screen (John and Luke’s piano teacher’s widower) exhibit that same lack of ability.

Which begs the question (One I’m still trying to figure out as I write this): Why did I gobble up all fourteen episodes  if I was able to see through it so immediately?

My initial answer was that I thought it might give some insight into modern-day songwriting and working in a studio and there’s a certain amount of that there. On the whole, though, the show is just plain hooky like the songs themselves. The story is both written and acted broadly for a teen audience, but it wasn’t enough to detract me from wanting to know what happened next.

If I had to pinpoint one factor that kept the first season from getting drab, it’s that the show had some edgier plotlines than one might have expected. One of the main characters, John, is dealing with the death of his mother which puts a dark twist on what  is the season’s only major romantic pairing (which is pretty curious in its own right since this show is playing to a demographic that thrives on hookups in fiction). Another, Clara, gets outright depressed and nasty despite the fact that it seemed like the show bible was “keep all the characters uniformly bubbly and cheerful.” Eva, a noticeable introvert, seems to hide some insecurities that begs one to want to know more. Leah (who perhaps has more screentime than anyone else), starts out as a ditzy girl blind to an unrequieted crush, but she’s gradually revealed to be a villainess of high proportions.

Whether, these plotlines might have been stuff that slipped through the cracks or were part of the grand scheme of things, it takes the show above standard teeny-bop fare.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

2015: Year-End Top 30 Actress Power Ranking

This is my Power Rankings series where I rank actors and actresses on a mix of commercial and critical bankability. The measure is on the odds that casting this actress in your film will make it a critical or commercial success. It's based on December 31, 2015 as I originally wrote it then and haven't gotten around to posting it. Check out the last power rankings I did three years ago for reference.

Fair warning: A proper noun or two might be spelled wrong. 

The top four:

1. Charlize Theron

2. Cate Blanchett
3. Jennifer Lawrence
4. Kate Winslet

There were four clear contenders for the top spot. The two K/Cates (Blanchett and Kate Winslet) are the go-to actresses for auteurs and they have both displayed a seemingly endless range for Oscar-caliber acting in the last twenty years. Blanchett is penalized a little because she’s so chameleon-like  that she doesn’t have any star persona. Winslet is penalized a little because she wasn’t on any particular hot streak before Steve Jobs (which got her an Oscar nomination but it was a film which no one really saw) as evidenced by the disaster that was Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.

Lawrence is on fire (as Alicia Keys can attest) with two franchises she’s successfully helmed and more Oscar nominations than any 25-year-old really needs. However, she could be in danger of being ghettoized if she chooses to do all her non-tentpole films with David O Russell. For non-DOR fans, she is in danger of falling off their radar as the lack of success Joy had in finding an audience showed. There’s also some debate about whether she can master an older woman but that’s based on whether you think she pulled Joy (I'm in the camp that she did).

That leaves Charlize Theron who has been recognized as a high-caliber actress for a dozen years now, has the hardware to show for it, and has a certain edge to her screen persona that sells. By sheer talent and appeal, I am comfortable calling her the biggest star in moviedom today.

5.      Meryl Streep-Universally considered the best actress of her generation, Streep continues to take risks and interesting choices while also doing broad appeal films like Mamma Mia, Lemony Snicket, It’s Complicated, Prime, and some might say Ricki and the Flash (in theory, this film should have had broad appeal). She’s aging gracefully and is a threat to get an Oscar nomination pretty much every year.

 6.      Scarlett Johansson-Although she’s never been Oscar-nominated, she’s come close enough a few times that she’s considered high-caliber. She also has several Golden Globe and BAFTA nominees and has been an established actress for a dozen years. She’s a certifiable action star and has made boundary-pushing choices through films such as Lucy, Her or Don John’s Addiction. And yes, the plot of Lucy was pretty ridiculous, but it was an edgy choice on her part.

7.      Julianne Moore-She’s hot because she just won an Oscar, but even so, she consistently brings the goods. She’s been in romantic comedies, art house films, and adaptations BUT she goes down a couple pegs from Top 5 because her best performances are often for obscure films. She won an Oscar for Still Alice but did anyone see Still Alice? Free Held, Maps to the Stars and, in the past, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio didn’t even get wide-scale distribution.

8.      Amy Adams-The female answer to Leonardo DiCaprio. She has the make and temperament of a character actress but she has shown the ability to hold her own as a lead (she out-acted Jennifer Lawrence  in American Hustle) and her filmography is so full of good films, she can rival John C Rilley or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as contemporaries.  Man of Steel brings tent pole credentials and so did Enchanted (although that was back in 2007). She also has done comedy like Talladega Nights or The Muppet Movie and was pretty game to get her hands dirty .

9.      Naomi Watts-How often she appears in film is relative but her talent alone groups her in the top tier. Like Nicole Kidman, she’s chameleon-like in accents and although this is three years ago, The Impossible was very DiCaprio-like in terms of the rigor of the shoot.

 10.  Rooney Mara-Although her filmography is relatively short (not as short as Hailee Steinfeld or Saiosre Ronan), she has made strong marks in everything she’s in. Even small supporting roles in Social Network or Her garnered attention. She has about a 50% chance of winning an Oscar for Carol but even if she doesn’t, she will likely be back.

11.  Keira Knightley-Authentic English actors and actresses always get a boost in bankability because so many period pieces (even things not explicitly set in England like Troy or Merchant of Venice) require an English thespian. On top of that, Knightley is hip and cool and has a modern sensibility. She could easily fit into a Diablo Cody or Noah Bombauch work (Begin Again or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World might not have been written explicitly by those two but they were in that mold). Plus, she can swashbuckle AND sing. 

12.  Anne Hathaway-An Oscar winner at the right age to play a wide range of parts, her public persona is a bit polarizing. She did action in Get Smart and sang in Les Miserables. Even though she’s been on SNL, her comic chops are not particularly strong in my opinion.

13.  Rachel McAdams-Introduced to Hollywood in a villainess role in Mean Girls, she’s tackled a wide range of parts working with Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Thomas McCarthy and kicked ass in Sherlock Holmes and a Most Wanted Man. Turned a best supporting actress nomination in a competitive field this past year and is a very strong romantic lead.
14.  Sandra Bullock-The female counterpart to Matthew McConaughey in that she was seen mostly as a romcom type of actress with a bubbly personality but her 2009 Oscar gave her a makeover and the follow-up Oscar nod in Gravity gave her a lot more leverage in being taken seriously. 

15.  Emma Stone-This might just be me  but I have trouble not seeing her as a teeny-bopper sor tof star even though we’re apparently 5 years removed from her high school roles in Easy A and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She’s had a respectable turn in the Help, starred in two of Woody Allen’s most invisible films and her big Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman (which I’m pretty sure would not have materialized if she wasn’t acting in the eventual BP winner) was still that of a teenager. I think it might still be a while until she’s taken seriously as an actress who can play 30+. 

16.  Judi Dench-If you need a senior citizen, she’ll work in nearly every film, but it's worth noting, she’s getting to the age where her acting days are limited due to failing eye sight.

17.  Jessica Chastain-Two Oscar noms in the past five years and a very close call last year for a nominaion as well. Not to mention she’s been in four Best Picture nominees-The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty, Help, and Tree of Life- in that time period as well. She’s also won a Golden Globe and two NBR awards. With Interstellar, The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty, and a Most Violent Year, she has a very good track record of interesting film choices

18.  Helen Mirren-Very versatile actress who not as old as she looks (she’s 70), although she gets relegated to senior citizen parts (though she is considered a cougar of sorts). She still gets awards buzz here and there (Woman in Gold and Trumbo in this year alone). Also worth noting: Woman in Gold got $33 million domestically at the box office. Extremely impressive for a film no one’s ever heard of. 

19.  Alicia Vikander-It’s hard to properly rate someone who’s been in the public spotlight for exactly one year. Man from Uncle, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl ere all great performances and she could even win an Oscar and just won a SAG award, but it’s just one year. The longer you’re in the public eye the better chances you have of working up a fan base.

20.  Nicole Kidman-The first time I wrote a list like this in 2009, she was #1 and she’s still just as good but a lot of her films are not wide-release. Her best role in the last half-decade, Paperboy, was mostly enjoyed ironically by people. The Oscar campaign for that role was something along the lines of  “Let’s give an Oscar nom to someone in a bad movie for once!” 

21.  Saoirse Ronan-I tend to group her, Haile Steinfeld and Carey Mulligan together in the same boat. Women who got Oscar noms at young ages and subsequently got set up with expectations as the next big thing. Of the trio, Ronan has had the biggest cult. She carried Brooklyn to a Best Picture Nomination this past year.

22.  Kristen Wiig-Some might disagree but I would maintain she wasn’t as well-known on SNL as Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Those three were known as Hollywood royalty. Wiig had the most screentime of anyone on SNL in her later years, but there was a good chance if you didn’t watch SNL during those years, you wouldn’t have known she was on. Since leaving, she’s had a game-changing megahit in Bridesmaids, has taken value-added supporting roles in nearly every comedy to come out. She has also won critical acclaim in a wide variety of indie films.

23.  Emily Blunt-This is more wishful thinking because somehow I don’t think Blunt is quite A-list yet, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t. I don’t even understand why she wasn’t nominated for Sicario. She can play a brooding, introspective star, she can do dramedy (Sunshine Cleaning, Devil Wears Prada), she did period (Young Victoria), and she has edge. 

24.  Reese Witherspoon-Wild was one of the best performances of any actor last year IMO and she deserved an  Oscar, but she’s so ingrained as the ingénue that it’s sometimes hard to see her outside of that typecast. Even Walk the Line had her playing a version of that Southern Ingenue. It’s also been well over a decade since she became a tentpole star with Legally Blonde.

25.  Claire Danes-Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, James Gandolfini and Kyle Chandler have enjoyed extremely successful movie careers since their star-making TV roles have ended. I predict when Homeland ends, Danes will be an A-lister in the movies.  As far as I can gather, she’s only been in one film in the 2010s (a Sundance entry) but that should change when Homeland ends. Anna Faris and Kerry Washington are two others I believe will explode in film when their TV shows end. 

26.  Carey Mulligan-Her casting in the Great Gatsby when it was hyped up in the pre-production phase says a lot about how prized she is among casting directors. She’s the right age to be cast in young women roles. Garnered some Oscar buzz this past year for Suffragette.

27.  Marion Cotillard-Being from England is a big plus. Being from nearly every other country is an impediment, but Cotillard has done extremely well for herself acting in such high profile films as Public Enemies, Midnight in Paris, and Inception and shone in MacBeth this year. 

28.  Kerry Washington-She had a long career as a character actress (Ray, Mr and Mrs Smith, Last King of Scotland) before being cast in a highly visible TV show which should give her a big boost when Scandal ends. She’s even done great work in the movies while on Scandal (Exhibit A: Django Unchained) 

29.  Rosario Dawson-Dawson amasses a lot of longevity points: She’s been in consistently good roles for the last 13 or 14 years throughout multiple genres. With a supporting role in Daredevil, she's dipped her toe into prestige TV, but she still has plenty of time on her schedule to be in the next big thing on screen.

30.  Ellen Page-Has a hip and cool edge (Whip It, Juno) but could use a better agent. Her latest film, Freeheld, did not get great distribution but she's visible enough that a comeback isn't out of the question.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Favorite Songs for their Lyrics Part VII

This is a series where I look at songs I like for their lyrical value and use my fancy degree (in overthinking song lyrics) to analyze the hell out of them. Why is it not called "best songs"? Because I don't believe music itself can be subjectively analyzed as good or bad. Different melodies hit people in different ways. I also apologize that I don't have very sophisticated tastes in music to choose songs from. I don't really listen to anything that's not directly in front of me and on the Top 40 radio station.

I Want to Dance With Somebody, Whitney Houston (1987)-The classic ballad hides a lot underneath the surface. It seems as though the narrator just “wants to dance with somebody,” but the verses expose just how much aching she’s feeling over not having met that somebody yet: “I’ve been all right up to now, it’s the light of day that shows me how, but when the night falls, my loneliness calls.” In other words, the narrator is feeling starved for love on a nightly basis when the workday ends. It paints a vivid picture of a desperate person but it’s also startlingly true of all of us: Being lovesick rarely comes up when we’re swamped at work or engaged in a string of errands.

Speed of Sound (2005), Viva la Vida (2008), Coldplay-Sure, a sampling of Coldplay’s singles (I’ll openly admit that I’m only familiar with Coldplay songs that have played at least 40 times on the radio ) show their share of fluff (“Yellow”) and when it comes down to it, Chris Martin consciously trying to be the best band of all time is off-putting. However, there’s a feeling in some of Coldplay’s songs that these guys are at least two or three rungs higher on Manslow’s hierarchy of needs than your average teeny bopper singing about a girl’s beautiful soul. “Viva la Vida” is a song that mixes a hodgepodge of biblical references (the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the “Keys to the Kingdom” allegory, St. Peter at the gates of Heaven) with mythology from various wars and revolutions (the Greek legend of Damocles, the beheading of Louis XVI in the French Revolution, etc) to fashion an epic tale of monarchical power and faith. “Speed of Sound” is a more meditative number about seeing the grandness of the universe and wondering whether he can achieve his potential. He also talks about the limits of understanding or learning everything he can. A sign in Japanese, for example, is a barrier of sorts.

California Dreaming, Mamas and the Papas (1965), Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles (1987) (orig. Simon and Garfunkel (1966)-Both of these songs talk about how the change in seasons of a picturesque setting becomes a reminder for the narrator of how life is slow to move on. In “California Dreaming,” the narrator goes for a walk on a winter’s day and the brown leaves and gray skies are a catalyst for wanting to leave. In a meandering story style, he meets up with a preacher who seems to know better than the narrator himself that his efforts to escape this purgatory of sorts are fruitless (“he knows I’m gonna stay"). He also mentions that “if I didn’t tell her, I could leave today”). Although this isn’t a very fleshed-out part of the song (which only has 126 words including repetitions), there’s something oddly relatable there: It’s usually one or two small commitments that keep us from making a big move (at least that’s how it often plays out with me).

Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles/Simon and Garfunkel- Clocking in at 200 words, Hazy Shade of Winter is a bit more descriptive although it covers eerily similar territory. The sky is “hazy” instead of gray but the leaves are still brown and both these seasonal changes seem to depress the hell out of the narrator. In a very subtle way, “Hazy Shade of Winter” broaches the irony of how the joys of Christmas can invoke depression. The narrator instructs you (the subject of the song as it is in the second person) to listen to the Salvation Army Band and think about how what they’re doing is better than what you’ve got planned. Still, while winter is winter and gloomy, it’s the narrator who is in the springtime of his or her life (I’m not sure how that makes the subject feel better). There’s also a suggestion that the gloomy winter is part of a larger tapestry in a sort of ying-yang manner.

Better in Time, Leona Lewis (2008)-Leona Lewis was a big deal around 2008 with her ubiquitous song “Bleeding Love” which is a pretty depressing anecdote on how she keeps bleeding, keeps, keeps bleeding love. Whatever that means, no thanks. Her lesser-remembered second single of that year, “Better in Time” is definitely a more complete sentiment. The narrator is getting over someone and uncovers some pretty deep stuff about the process along the way: That pain and healing occur simultaneously (“It’s going to hurt when it heals too”), that the media makes love sickness harder (“How could I turn on the TV without something that would remind me”) and that things do get better with time. The most affecting sentiment from the song to me is “I’m gonna smile because I deserve to” as if she has to remember to give herself permission. It’s also a song with an interesting call-and-response pattern that symbolizes an internal dialogue.

The A-Team, Ed Sheeran (2013)-A valuable lesson to all you teeny boppers out there: Release a song that’s not about yourself as your first single and then you can spend the rest of your music career whining about your sex life and still have artistic credibility. “The A-Team” tells the story about a drug addict who doesn’t appear to be leaving bad decision land any time soon (prostitution is among the measures she’s resorting to). The song starts out with descriptive half-sentences (“White lips, pale face, breathing in snow flakes, burnt lungs, sour taste) which hint at a very sad character but the description brings an curiously undeniable sense of beauty to it. When he talks about how “she flies to the motherland,” it’s in keeping with the fantasy element. Sheeran Sheeran is very soft-spoken even as he sings the line “and they scream.”    My favorite line of the song is: “The worst things in life come free to us.”

Dare You to Move, Switchfoot (2004)- If music genres were determined by the content of a song’s lyrics, then “Dare You to Move” would be in the “You’re awesome, go out into the world and be awesome” genre along with  Kelly Clarkson’s “Break Away” or Katy Perry’s “Firework” but Switchfoot’s entry into the genre seems so enchantingly grandiose lyrically speaking.

The narrator talks to the subject as if he’s being born (or being reborn) as he welcomes him/her/you to the planet and to existence. Very little in the song can be taken literally. If you go the literal route with it, you’re bound to hit upon unanswered questions: What is “the fall out” exactly? Why is everyone watching you? Is this being addressed to an alien? Switchfoot is composed of Christian members who aren’t clear about whether their band identifies as Christian rock but that might be part of it. Look closer and you see that Switchfoot is even expressing doubt about the lyrics they write as they’re singing them: “Redemption has stories to tell” and “Forgiveness is right where you fell” are both prefaced by the magical word “Maybe.” The grandiosity of the imagery is contrasted by a mandate (or rather a “dare”) that’s pretty simple: To move. Action is better than inaction is the message and within the context of the song, there’s a drastic difference.

Dance, Dance, Fall out Boy (2005)-Despite being in his late 20’s when he wrote most of Fall Out Boy’s most well-known songs, Fall Out Boy lyricist Pete Wentz has a knack for capturing the adolescent experience with a playful and genre-savvy vibe.  “Dance Dance” tells the story of a hormone-addled teenager going through a date with the girl of his dreams to a school dance which happens to be a pretty horrifying experience because of the pressure he puts on himself. The great thing about the song is that it unfolds in real-time as he blows the opening line of his date in the first verse and admits to being weighed down with “words too overdramatic.” He then starts to alternate between being obsessed and invested like a kid in line at a video game arcade who is already “two quarters and a heart down.” He finally capitulates into admitting “I only want sympathy in the form of you crawling into bed with me.” In between this tale, the chorus treats dancing as a stress-inducing routine that collectively leads everyone to fall apart but there’s little doubt that the narrator is likely dancing and undergoing the misery needed to attain his goal. 

Hold My Heart, Sara Bareilles (2010)-I’ve noticed as I’ve done this that some songs feature a narrator evolving as the song goes on (Barenaked Ladies "One Week", The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends”, and  Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" are three random examples that comes to mind).

In this song, narrator has a habit of guarding her heart in relationships. She sees herself as bad news of sorts. She doesn’t know how to “see anybody by me getting hurt.” But in the relationship that’s the subject of the song, the narrator issues a distress signal of sorts to have insurance for her heart (“can anybody here to hold her heart”) because she doesn’t want to let go too soon of a good situation. However, the narrator gradually admits to herself that she doesn’t want to let go of the guy she’s with. The struggle in her is not about her specific habits but one specific guy who means a lot to her.

1979, Smashing Pumpkins (1996)-A song drenched with nostalgia about being young on the precipice of adulthood. The narrator is inviting the audience (“You and I should meet”) to join him in a vividly detailed point in time where he and his friends were care free. Words like “live wire,” “junebug” and “zipper blues” give the song a sense of (possibly regional or historical) specificity to the narrator’s experience. The narrator notes that while they “feel the pull” of the impending future and the adult responsibilities it will bring (he equates this future to “the land of a thousand guilts” and “poured cements”), the greatest thing about the moment is that they don’t care about what’s next in store. There’s a very strong duality about this moment that makes it memorable enough to sing about: The accrued experience of having conquered childhood while knowing that adulthood is about to kick in.

A historical footnote:   Although the song is titled “1979,” it doesn’t really sync with lead singer and songwriter Billy Corgan’s experiences in 1979. He was born in 1967. He later revealed that he chose to name the song “1979” because It was easiest to rhyme with.


All Songs I've Analyzed at this point:
Anna Nalick: Breathe
Avril Lavigne: I'm With You
The Bangles: Hazy Shade of Winter
Ben Folds: Landed, Annie Waits
Barenaked Ladies: Testing 1 2 3
Cat Stevens: First Cut is the Deepest
Charlotte Martin: Your Armor
Coldplay: Speed of Sound, Viva la Vida
Counting Crows: She Don't Want Nobody Near, Hard Candy, Rain King
Dave Matthews Band: Gray Street, #41, Dancing Nancies, Grace is Gone
Ed Sheeran: The A-Team
Fall out Boy: Dance Dance
The Fray: You Found Me
Foo Fighters: Learn to Fly
Gin Blossoms: South of Nowhere
Goo Goo Dolls: Broadway is Dark Tonight, Better Days, Here is Gone
Green Day: Wake Me Up When September Ends
Jason Mraz: On Love in Sadness
John Cougar Mellencamp: Jack and Diane
John Mayer: Clarity, 3 X 5, No Such Thing, Bigger than My Body, Why Georgia
Howie Day: Collide
Hootie and the Blowfish: Time
Leona Lewis: Better in Time
Lorde: Team
Macklemore and Lewis: Thrift Shop
Mamas and the Papas: Dance Dance
Matchbox Twenty: Downfall, All I Need, Let's See How Far We've Come, Black and White People
Michelle Branch: Game of Love
Nickel Creek: Green and Gray
Paramore: Ain't It Fun
Sara Bareilles: Bottle It Up, Fairytales, Hold my Heart
Sarah McLachlan: Adia
Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
Script: For the First Time
Sister Hazel: Your Winter
Steely Dan: Barrytown
Switchfoot: Stars, Dare You To Move
Sum 41: In Too Deep
Taylor Swift: Blank Space
Whitney Houston: I Want To Dance with Somebody
Zedd: Clarity

Be sure to click on the lyrics tab below for past editions of this series.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Every Film I've seen in 2015 Ranked:16-30 (Part II)

The Bottom Half of my 2015 Cinematic Viewing (The Better Half):

16. Bridge of Spies dir. Stephen Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Scott Shepherd, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda-A visually beautiful film and a nice compliment to Spielberg’s filmography. I’m happy with this film earning a Best Picture nomination as it was an interesting contrast to the other seven choices and this is superior to that subgenre of bland period piece that is made to win these kinds of awards (looking at you “The Queen”). That said, I felt like knocking it down a few notches because the historic character seemed tweaked a bit to fit the standard Tom Hanks persona so it wasn’t as much of an acting challenge. I also feel like the film could have been more kinetic even though the film’s fans say that is a complaint for the ADD generation.

17. Ant Man, co-written by Edgar Wright, starring Paul Rudd, Corey Stoll, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Bobby Cannavale, w/small doses of Judy Greer-I’ve pretty much reached my saturation point with superhero films but you can’t deny the originality about a superhero who goes microscopic. Some of the stuff (i.e. “I’m in a tight spot, time to go subatomic!”) seemingly comes straight out of a 1950’s B-movie (or at least the version that was gently parodied on that one episode of “Star Trek Voyager”), but hey, the film has a lot of built-in novelty with the special effects and action scenes. There’s a fair amount of going through the motion with the action scenes but the principals are game enough to carry the material.

18. Jurassic World, dir. Colin Trevorrow, prod. Steven Spielberg, starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent Denofrio, Irrfran Khan, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus-Was I wrong in expecting a Spielberg-produced film to have more of a pro-nature leaning? Spielberg’s past films that featured monstrous animals (i.e. the original “Jurassic Park”, “Jaws”, the Spielberg-produced “Super 8”) never really posits the beast as the villain but rather uses them as a metaphor for fear of the unknown. But Jurassic World’s baddie is cartoonishly amoral and it’s a mildly disturbing creative direction to take the series. Other than that, I didn’t find the kids as annoying as most critics did, I liked Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard’s chemistry, and Lauren Lapkus and Jake Johnson played admirable comic relief. The Lapkus-Johnson non-romance (rejection because she has a boyfriend) is the best lampshading of romantic conventions I’ve seen from a film in some time.

19. Pitch Perfect 2 dir. Elizabeth Banks, starring Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Skyler Austin, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Katey Segal, Adam Devine, Keegan-Michael Key- Not a bad film. Points are docked for originality, of course, but as sequels go, it fulfills its manifest destiny pretty well by knowing the original’s sweet spots and expanding upon them. Plot credibility, of course, flies out the window here to keep the cast in tact: A senior intentionally flunks three times just to stay in an a capella group, somehow the guy who ditched the group to sing back-up for John Mayer is back, etc.

20. Chappie, dir. Neill Blokamp, starring Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and the voice of Sharlito Copely-Not sure why the critics are hating on Blokamp here, but I found this to possess that same kind of regional cinema charm as District 9. It’s a moderately thought-provoking sci-fi concept about whether one can truly become sentient and if it falls short of answering that question, it’s because there really isn’t a satisfactory answer anyway (I’ve always  had the same complaint of Data on “Star Trek: TNG”). The film has some wickedly funny moments that are funnier than the film has any right to be and, for me at least, it worked.

21. Home, voiced by Rhianna, Jim Parsons, Steve Martin-These three were so adorable as an odd triplet of sorts on the press rounds that I gave in and watched this on Pixar. It’s about as good or as bad as you’d expect: A passable level of charm, some multi-level humor, and mildly impressive visuals.

22. McFarland USA, starring Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Carlos Pratt-A sincere and well-shot film but one that’s ultimately forgettable. That it was released in cinema’s graveyard season (January-April) is a good indication that it wasn’t particularly good but I had to see it for myself because I was an avid cross-country runner in high school. The efforts by the film to turn cross-country into an action sport come off more like Terrence Malick than an ESPN-driven style and (while there’s merit in the former), perhaps the latter might have made the film a bit more memorable. Marginally worth watching.

23. No Way Out, starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan-Times really have changed that critics and the vocal subset of movie goers who voice their opinions online no longer tolerate anything that’s politically incorrect. Hey, as long as you don’t retroactively move to revoke the Best Picture nomination for “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, I’m ok with highlighting the faults of something this ridiculous. At the same time, this was a year in which I saw a lot of politically correct films that are terrible in other ways, so this film is still pretty far from the bottom. It’s actually a narratively interesting film in the manner of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” or “Gravity” in which the outside world is painted through the peripheries of a single character’s journey. Also, the action is pretty intense in a good way.

24. Terminator: Genysis, starring  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Courtney Jai, Jason Clarke, JK Simmons-Although I didn’t experience Terminator until I was in my 20s, this was my most anticipated film of the summer. Even the bad reviews couldn’t steer me away because the franchise has such a great pedigree (intricate time travel scenarios, cat-and-mouse games with a an indestructible robot) but somehow the film found a way to mangle a can’t-lose situation. How? By attempting to tie into the plot continuity of the series while simultaneously erasing everything that came before it. I could listen to a defense of whether the new storyline makes sense but the film’s reasoning is just surface-level dumb. This is one of those situations where the only way to salvage a chance at an enjoyable viewing experience is to turn your brain off which is shame considering this is such a thought-provoking series.

25. Hunger Games IV: Mocking Jay Part II dir. by someone other than Gary Ross, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Helmsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson-To be fair, I didn’t go into this film thinking it needed a reason to exist. Aside from the fact that splitting up the last part of the trilogy strikes me as the low road, The Hunger Games seems like a perfectly self-contained story. One could make the argument that Katniss and her empty gaze as she looks out the train towards an uncertain future is a poignant way to end a serviceable adaptation of a very good book. Why do we need to know all the details of what comes next? I still more or less maintain that the film would have been better off not existing, but if it HAD to exist (and my sister HAD to drag me to it), it wasn’t terrible (only moderately disappointing) but better stories have been told about dystopic politics.

26.  Rikki and the Flash, dir. Jonathan Demme, starring Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield-I still haven’t forgiven Demme for scaring the hell out of me when I watched ”Silence of the Lambs” as a kid. I’ve enjoyed some of his films since, but his problem is the opposite here: This film is completely and utterly boring. Demme uses a similar style to 2008 critical hit “Rachel Getting Married” but repeating the framework of the last film verbatim is like trying to use the same magic trick twice on the same audience: It doesn’t feel like this film has anything to say that hasn’t been said more profoundly with Jenny Lumet’s screenplay in RGM.

27. Staten Island Summer, written by Colin Jost, starring Graham Williams, Zach Perlman, Ashley Johnson, Bobby Moynihan, Cecily Strong, Mike O’Brien-You would think that the increased prestige of the home market that people would be doing innovative things with direct-to-video movies. So far, the stuff I’ve watched (I saw Coffeetown in 2013, Camp Takota in 2014, and this) has been equivalent to the stuff you’d see in the $3 bin at Target. In other words, the new class of  direct-to-video movies seems about a s good as the old class of direct-to-video films. Written by that SNL Weekend Update anchor whose been roundly criticized for lacking in personality, this film isn’t much of a step up for him. It aims low (which isn’t a good thing) and moderately delivers on that low mark, but considering the degree of difficult is so low to start with, it’s pretty forgettable.

28. Tomorrowland, dir. Brad Bird, starring Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy-One of my goals in writing about film is to argue that the state of moviedom would be better if we collectively acknowledged that George Clooney is overplayed. And yet, I am guilty of occasionally buying a ticket to a George Clooney film on my own volition because there’s a catch to trying to avoid a star you don’t like: The man works with some of the best directors in Hollywood in projects so promising, that even his unwanted presence can’t bring down a film to the point where I wouldn’t want to see it. The premise of a film about the future based on the world’s fair exhibits with Brad Bird at the helm seemed too good to resist, but I wish I made more effort. This is an incoherent mess with little interest in investing the viewer in what little coherence there is. And did I mention that the main relationship is with a grown man and his unrequited love for a robot who still looks nine years old?

29. San Andreas, starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Paul Giamatti-This falls to the list because the film’s reason for existence is just so paper thin. I might have been satisfied if the film didn’t pretend it as about anything more than things going kaboom, but devoting precious minutes to a B-plot in which Paul Giamatti plays a doctor of geology trying to exposition away something that makes no sense is a ridiculous gambit to try to turn exposition into meaningful drama. It would be the equivalent of adding a dramatic subplot to the Fast and Furious involving the guy who designed the fuel mix. Not that the A-plot has any meaningful characterization. I’m thrilled to see Alexandra Daddario and Carla Gugino get gainful employment in the films, but their chemistry with Dwayne Johnson is utterly unconvincing as a nuclear family. The only way I’d make an exception for a film this shallow is if it were directed by Roland Emmerich whose entire skill set as a director is restricted to blowing up cities in style. I can marginally tolerate Emmerich exploiting the same cinematic blueprint in marginally different scenarios but filmdom doesn’t have room for Emmerich and a no-name emulating Emmerich’s style.

30. Pixels, dir. by some guy who basically did whatever Adam Sandler told him to do, starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage-I was intrigued by the video game concept but silly me for not taking into account the squandering of a good thing by the black hole known as Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Production Company could take a winning idea and treat it with subtlety and comic intelligence. Twenty years after his departure from SNL, Sandler’s comic career is a prime example of what happens to a comic if a lack of studio interference and a steady (but not great) box office following inhibits a comic’s growth. I would argue that Sandler’s 8-year-old-in-a-grown-man’s-body shtick never held that much appeal but the rest of the public seemed to like him when he first broke out and even those supporters now agree his star wattage seems to be fading.