Locke | Review

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By: Duncan Chalmers

There’s an odd little sub-genre of films where the protagonist is isolated in a confined space, forced to contact the outside world via a telephone. The primary examples, Phone Booth and Buried,developed tension with an ever present threat of death. Although on the surface Locke seems to fit comfortably into this group, further consideration distinguishes itself. Here the suspense derives from human emotion; our conflicted relationship with the character’s situation.

As soon as Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) steps into his vehicle, the entire film is confined there as he makes a two-hour drive to London. The film’s narrative unfolds through a never ending string of  conversations he has over his cellphone. The writing has an intelligent restraint, subtly revealing details to bring us out of our initial ignorance.

We come to understand that Locke is a construction supervisor, and that the next morning he is responsible for overseeing the largest ever concrete pour in Europe. Despite this, he is driving in the opposite direction towards an undisclosed location, eventually revealed to be the birth of a child he fathered in a one-off affair.

These two events provide the fundamental structure of the film’s plot. Locke’s choice to attend the birth threatens the outlook of his life, both in his career and family. All of the conversations deal with this in some way, from Locke attempting to explain his decision to furious employers, to struggling to support his emotionally devastated wife.

What makes this film really flourish is the unorthodox character at its centre. Locke seems to be driven by an unyielding sense of pride and honour. Even after being fired from his job he feels an overwhelming commitment to the success of the construction project.The underlying motivation behind his obligation to the unborn child is also revealed through some bizarre yet intensely powerful conversations.

None of this would have been possible if not for the riveting performance at the centre by Tom Hardy. He breaks free from the physicality that has defined his previous roles, achieving what is likely the greatest performance of his career thus far. Through a combination of striking subtext and body language we are able to fully feel the pain, anxiety and frustration that his character is experiencing.

What makes Locke so successful compared to similar films is the way that everything has purpose. Ivan Locke is not trapped in a situation that manipulates the audience for suspense, that suspense comes from his decision to be in that situation. You clearly understand the actions and responses of the characters, even when they often conflict with each other.

Director Steven Knight embraces the limitations he applies to himself, and through his intricately crafted shooting and editing, proves that you can create a truly cinematic film without many of the stalwarts that have come to define the medium.The result is an incredibly fascinating viewing experience; the best film of the year so far.

 

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4 Quick Things

Okay, so this post comes in four parts. It’s really just four things I think are worth sharing, so this one’ll be pretty quick.

Tegan and sarasiamese

1.)  Is it just me, or does, “Back in Your Head,” by Tegan and Sara sort of sound like, “We are Siamese if you Please,” from  Lady and the Tramp. Think about it! The harmonies, the tone, even the tune is vaguely similar. Frankly, this comparison makes me like Tegan and Sara much more.

2.)  “If This Dance Catches On,” by the Mounties is probably my favorite song of the summer. I struggled to choose between some other good songs until I discovered this one, and realized how catchy and musically stimulating it is. I love how it plays around with a bunch of different sections, which makes the tune sound like a journey rather than a destination, because it’s always moving somewhere. It is a testament to the song’s creativity that I always get a different section of it stuck in my head, because they’re all good in their own way. Considering it only has around 8000 views on YouTube, it is certainly worth checking out.

3.)  So, R. Kelly did a remix of Phoenix’s, “Trying to be Cool” (Here it is). I still really have no idea what I think about this, but it’s definitely worth listening to. I just find it so unexpected. Why this song? I mean, I like Phoenix quite a bit, but what made R. Kelly of all people decide that this was a song he would work on. I’m pretty sure it works, but I’m still not positive. R. Kelly even said in a post-Coachella interview that he thinks Phoenix have a similar vibe to The Beatles (maybe because they’re European and there are four of them?).  Let me know what you think (or don’t…)!

Yesterday, Jake ranked all the Pixar movies. Here’s my list:

toy story1.) Toy Story
2.) Up
3.) Finding Nemo
4.) Monsters, Inc
5.) Toy Story 3
6.) The Incredibles
7.) WALL-E
8.) Toy Story 2
9.) Monsters University
10.) A Bug’s Life
11.) Ratatouille
12.) Brave
13.) Cars
14.) Cars 2

– Kevin

The Filmography: Pixar Animation Studios

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Founded in 1986 with Steve Jobs as majority shareholder, Pixar Animation Studios is responsible for some of the best films of the last 20 years, from Toy Story in 1995 to this year’s Monsters University. Future editions of this ongoing feature, “The Filmography”, will focus on a specific director and what makes their singular vision so special, but for the inaugural post I thought I would take a look at Pixar because all of their films are connected practically as much as any one director’s, and The Pixar Theory got me thinking about what those connective tissues are (although less on the conspiracy theory side of things). “The Filmography” will allow me to take a look at a filmmaker’s complete oeuvre and draw conclusions based on thematic recurrences, visual identifiers, or other unique qualities, while also letting me go into personal tangents when I want to.

Pixar has always fascinated me. Collectively, the company’s fourteen films have made almost $8.5 billion worldwide, with an average gross of $597 million. Most of them have been as successful critically as they have been commercially, having won a total of 27 Academy Awards (including Best Animated Feature statues for Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3 and Brave) and seven Golden Globes. They have a pedigree in animation filmmaking that goes unmatched, only rivalled by Japan’s Studio Ghibli. They ushered in the era of computer-generated animation and routinely best all competitors in technical artistry, emotion and humour. Their movies appeal to all age groups and genders equally. They make damn good entertainment.

I decided to look at Pixar’s development and output through three different eras: The CGI Revolution, The Golden Age, and The Slide. If all you care about is my personal ranking of all the films, scroll to the end.

THE CGI REVOLUTION

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  • Toy Story, 1995 (dir. John Lasseter)
  • A Bug’s Life, 1998 (dir. John Lasseter)
  • Toy Story 2, 1999 (dir. John Lasseter)

For a time, Pixar was more notable for its technical advancements than anything else. A fervor was raised in 1995 with the release of the first-ever feature length computer-animated film, Toy Story, which focused on Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) as enemies eventually turned friends. With filmgoers so used to the classic animation of Disney films like Aladdin and The Lion King, Toy Story was a revelation – and the fact that the script was so witty and intelligent felt like the formation of something truly significant. It became a cultural force that is still felt today, spawning two sequels and an endless amount of merchandising (it’s no accident that Pixar’s first foray into filmmaking was based around such an easily merchandisable concept).

More than that, though, Toy Story is an incredibly personal film for me. It’s no longer my favourite of the company’s films, but it is by far the one I have watched the most and that I hold closest to me. As a child, I watched this movie at least once a day for about a year and a half, and continued to watch it often for years afterward. I can’t really say what it was that attracted it to me so intensely and passionately when I was younger, but rewatching it now has its own rewards. Although the animation doesn’t hold up in 2013, it is hilarious (“You uncultured swine!”), emotional in the right places, and thoroughly engaging without a moment’s pause. It also introduced a theme that Pixar has returned to countless times: friendship, and the ability to find it in the unlikeliest of places. Pixar is all about unusual pairings and the intricacies of how bonds form, as in Carl and Russell in Up, Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, and Remy and Linguini in Ratatouille. But it all started with Woody and Buzz, and the development of their relationship throughout all three Toy Story movies is the deepest thread between any of Pixar’s films.

Toy Story also introduced perhaps the most widespread of Pixar’s themes by having Buzz grapple with his own identity. Buzz starts out so sure of who he is and filled with such confidence, purpose and ego, but once he discovers that he truly is just a toy, he goes into a deep depression and refuses to cooperate with Woody. After this identity crisis, Woody gives Buzz his purpose back by proposing Buzz’s real reason for living is to make Andy, their owner, happy. Buzz finds what he’s meant to do and becomes sure of himself once more. Woody goes through a similar internal ordeal, feeling rejected by Andy with the arrival of Buzz but eventually realizing that he doesn’t have to be the centre of Andy’s universe forever. The search for one’s identity has stuck with Pixar ever since, most recently with Merida’s rebellious phase in Brave and Sulley and Mike’s existential crises during the climax of Monsters University.

Toy Story 2 is really about the solidification of the bond between Woody and Buzz, showing the value of companionship and loyalty. The whole thing feels a little rushed (likely due to the film’s compressed production schedule), but the film is even more focused than its predecessor on teamwork, a theme that extends to every Pixar film, including A Bug’s Life as Flik works with his circus troupe of outcasts to stop the evil grasshoppers (these synopses sound even more ridiculous in writing). I always forget about A Bug’s Life. I don’t mean that as a slight against it, because it’s a perfectly fine movie, but it is simply less memorable than most of Pixar’s films. Anyway, the studio’s first three films put them on the cinematic map as not only animators capable of spectacular visuals but also storytellers able to share sophisticated and humourous tales of discovering one’s identity, making lasting friendships, and working together to get things done. Now it was time to add a little more magic.

THE GOLDEN AGE

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  • Monsters, Inc., 2001 (dir. Pete Docter)
  • Finding Nemo, 2003 (dir. Andrew Stanton)
  • The Incredibles, 2004 (dir. Brad Bird)
  • Cars, 2006 (dir. John Lasseter)
  • Ratatouille, 2007 (dir. Brad Bird)
  • WALL-E, 2008 (dir. Andrew Stanton)
  • Up, 2009 (dir. Pete Docter)

This period of Pixar’s past gave us so many riches, with creativity sparking and energy high. Despite the minor speed bump of Cars in 2006 (pun intended), it seemed that Pixar could do no wrong. The movies were making more money than ever, collecting cash and critical praise to seemingly ever-climbing heights. What is truly impressive was Pixar’s ability to maintain this for so long, and on an almost yearly basis.

This era, more so than the previous one, introduced a common narrative point of having the protagonist be a curmudgeonly (or at least eccentric) guy who reluctantly employs the help of others, only to come to cherish the companionship they develop (a quality surely present in Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, and later on in Brave and Monsters University). The obvious example of this would be the grieving, elderly Carl in Up who has more or less shut himself in following his wife’s death (as far as I’m concerned, the montage of their relationship is one of the two strongest things Pixar has accomplished – more on the second later). At first, he acts irritated with the boy Russell, but slowly accepts him as accompaniment on his adventure and, in the end, a reason to go on. These relationship dynamics are essentially mirrored in Finding Nemo, with Marlin desperate in his search to find Nemo grudgingly taking Dory along, until the experience brings them closer as they work together using each other’s strengths to get to Nemo. Even Lightning McQueen realizes through the friends he makes in Radiator Springs that winning isn’t everything.

For the first time, family becomes a major theme in this era. The Incredibles follows a family of super-powered people trying to dealfinding_nemo with the challenges that this burden can bring, especially when forced to hide their abilities and live a suburban life. Brad Bird was Pixar’s first outside director as he brought much of the crew behind The Iron Giant with him, along with that film’s thesis of “You are who you choose to be”. The Parr family choose to reject their suburban lives and embrace who they really are by effectively applying their abilities, and let the chips fall where they may. Finding Nemo is also closely tied to family, with the early loss of Nemo’s mother and the immediately obvious boundary between Nemo and Marlin. Throughout his adventure with Dory, Marlin gradually starts to take more risks and feel some adrenaline rush (“RIGHTEOUS! RIGHTEOUS!”) and therefore loses some of the overprotective tendencies that caused much of the tension between him and Nemo. Marlin, Nemo and Dory end the film as some sort of strange pseudo-family, much like Carl and Russell at the end of Up and Mike, Sulley and Boo for much of Monsters, Inc. Coupled with Pixar’s love for the unlikely friendship, this appears to suggest a preoccupation with finding relationships in unusual places and how significant they can be in our lives.

It is also during this period that Pixar began to stray into more explicitly adult themes and intentions. If you thought Nemo’s mother’s death was heavy, you might want to avoid the opening to Up, a movie that deals directly with loss and its consequences. As we watch Carl and his wife, Ellie, age together, we quickly grasp how strong their relationship is, their quirks and dreams. It is a terribly effective sequence, making Ellie’s death all the more tragic and heartbreaking. We see Carl mourn and our sympathy for him grows, allowing us to understand his grumpy behaviour and self-imposed isolation. This makes his devotion to seeing the dream he and Ellie shared coming true impossibly touching. WALL-E, on the other hand, has plenty of emotion and isolation (the wordless opening half hour leaves me awestruck), but is also notable as being the first time Pixar has gotten blatantly political. Andrew Stanton’s film condemns humanity for its greed, wastefulness and laziness, depicting us in the future as enormous blobs interacting only with a screen directly in front of our fat faces (I am the problem). It shows how our negligence and pollution end up destroying our beloved planet, so enamoured are we with consumerism and technology, and ultimately gives a bleak view of where the human race is headed. All of this underneath a robot love story!

Ratatouille is one of Pixar’s most underrated features, in my opinion, with its unlikely duo, the dedication to living your dream (another common theme), and the gastronomical pleasures to be had. “Anyone can cook,” was Gusteau’s motto, and it applies to Remy and also to every child watching. Children are always asking themselves who they are or who they want to be, and in these formative years, Pixar is there to tell you: Kid, be whoever you want to be, because anyone can cook.

THE SLIDE

Monsters-University-Winds-of-Change

  • Toy Story 3, 2010 (dir. Lee Unkrich)
  • Cars 2, 2011 (dir. John Lasseter)
  • Brave, 2012 (dir. Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman)
  • Monsters University, 2013 (dir. Dan Scanlon)

There had to be a comedown eventually.

In recent years, public sentiment has begun to shift, at least somewhat, concerning Pixar and their consistency. It started in 2006 with Cars, a mediocre and bland story about a hotshot car voiced by Owen Wilson learning about the simpler pleasures in life and the value of sportsmanship and loyalty. At the time, the general reaction was that no company can go through so many hits and not expect a miss every now and then. This feeling was assuaged by the company’s next three films following Cars: Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up. Okay, we all thought, Pixar is back on their game. These are three original and well-crafted tales full of life and wit. Toy Story 3 mostly impressed (the scene of the toys in the incinerator, while vaguely manipulative, is the second of the two strongest things Pixar has done, by effectively pulling off such a daring move). It may be a threequel and therefore inherently lacking in originality compared with the last few films, but it had such heart, levity and drama that our faith held strong (I include it in The Slide because it is more indicative of Pixar’s recent path, being their first sequel since the 90s and ushering in two more sequels in the three years since its release).

Since then, things have seemed less clear. In 2011, Pixar released their emptiest film, the first time that merchandising and consumerism seemed to play a larger role than storytelling. That film was Cars 2, which I avoided upon its release and only watched recently for the first time in preparation for this piece. I had, of course, heard all of the negativity directed at it, but was hopeful that it would surprise me and that I would be able to highlight it here as misunderstood or under-appreciated. Unfortunately, that was not the case. It is a vapid and soulless experience, with very few redeeming qualities as it blurs the line between art and commerce. I’m only so harsh on it because I know what Pixar are capable of, so to watch Cars 2 becomes a crushing endeavour.

Brave is, thankfully, an original story, but it suffers from conventionality and blandness. It is a well told story, but one that feels far too much like something that could be considered second-rate DreamWorks Animation fare. It is commendable for being the first Pixar film to have a lead female protagonist, an about-time accomplishment, but that doesn’t save the film from being less than special. Monsters University provided a small respite from all this negativity, however. I know many found it to be pointless (hard to contend with that), but I found myself enjoying it the entire time, something that neither Cars, Cars 2 or Brave can claim. That’s a pretty low bar to meet, but I also thought it was fairly hilarious, beautifully animated and features that deep, existential climax I mentioned earlier. It’s not the stuff of the Golden Age, but it’s more than serviceable.

* * *

Pixar Animation Studios are not down and out. The Good Dinosaur comes out next year, a story about what would happen if ratatouille_2dinosaurs never went extinct as Arlo the Apatosaurus goes on a quest to restore peace to his community (the official plot synopsis even mentions an “unlikely companion” in a human boy named Spot). After that in 2015 comes Finding Dory and Inside Out, an intriguing tale taking place inside a young girl’s mind as different emotions (Anger, Joy, Fear, Sadness and Disgust) try to keep the girl functioning. We’ll see what these new stories end up being like. It is worth it, I think, to put our faith in Pixar, despite recent missteps. Bringing us so many laughs, tears and dropped jaws should earn that much. They tell stories that want to teach us, children and adults alike, about how valuable a good friend can be, how crucial teamwork is, how to accept yourself, how to wrestle with identity, how to never let go of your dreams.

“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” – Anton Ego

* * *

Personal List

  1. WALL-E
  2. Toy Story
  3. The Incredibles
  4. Ratatouille
  5. Finding Nemo
  6. Monsters, Inc.
  7. Up
  8. Toy Story 3
  9. Toy Story 2
  10. A Bug’s Life
  11. Monsters University
  12. Brave
  13. Cars
  14. Cars 2

– Jake

Not Like Anything That You’ve Seen Before, Ever: An Interview with Matt Zoller Seitz

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Matt Zoller Seitz is a busy man. He is the TV critic at New York magazine, he is the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, and he is the author of an upcoming book being published by Abrams in October called The Wes Anderson Collection. As you might have guessed, it is a sort of compendium on the filmmaker, with loads of content sure to delight any Anderson fan. Seitz is one of the most trusted and insightful critics working today, always having something unique to say and with a wonderful way of saying it, too. I had the excellent pleasure of speaking with him over the phone about Wes Anderson, the book, Netflix, Breaking Bad and more. It was a great conversation and Seitz was very nice, despite the early hour. Check it out.

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Arbitrary Analysis: I’m pretty groggy right now.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Yeah, me too.

AA: Okay. I guess the first thing, why Wes Anderson? I was looking at the Amazon page for the book, and it talks about how he’s an auteur with all his aesthetics and everything, is that what drew you to doing a whole book about him?

MZS: No, it’s a little more complicated than that, I mean, for one thing I think he’s a major director. I think he’s as stylistically unique a director as Hitchcock or Scorsese, so there’s that. But on top of it there’s this whole personal backstory, which is that I met him in 1993 when I was a film critic for the Dallas Observer, just starting out, and he was a filmmaker just starting out. Nobody had heard of him, nobody had heard of me. His short film, Bottle Rocket, was in the USA Film Festival in Dallas and I was writing about the festival and they gave me a stack of VHS cassettes of all the films that they were gonna show and I watched them all, and the one that really stood out was Bottle Rocket.

I singled that one out for praise in the little capsule that I wrote, and if I remember correctly I think I wrote mostly about Bottle Rocket and the other films were kind of an afterthought. That turned out to be the first review that he got of anything he’d ever done as a filmmaker, and I don’t remember if he got in touch with me or if I got in touch with him, but that film got into development at Columbia Pictures as a feature film. And I just thought he and Owen Wilson were really, really talented guys, and I was constantly looking for local people to write profiles of, so I wrote a profile of them a few months later, I think it was when they had gotten the greenlight to develop this thing as a feature. Then I wrote a cover story about the making of Bottle Rocket [the feature version] where I followed it from beginning to end, and that was published in September of 1995. I think that was the longest cover story that had ever been published at the Observer at the time, it was almost like a little book it was so long.

Wes Anderson, on the set of 'Moonrise Kingdom'.

Wes Anderson, with actor Jared Gilman, on the set of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’.

And then I stayed in touch with him, you know, when I moved to New York and he moved to New York, we’d have lunch occasionally and I interviewed him a few more times, him and Owen Wilson, but always for subjects that had something to do with things they were obsessed with. It was like with the 30th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, I did a piece on that and interviewed them, and when Charles Schultz retired I interviewed them for that. Schultz is a gigantic influence on Anderson’s films. I did a video about the influence of the animated Peanuts TV specials on [his films], I do some side-by-side comparisons to the films and those cartoons.

So we just had all these personal sort of connections, I guess you’d say. When The Royal Tenenbaums came out, weirdly enough, Wes shot some scenes from that on the street where I was living in Brooklyn, and my house is in the movie. The scene where Gene Hackman and the grandkids are running around by the schoolyard there’s a shot where they throw water balloons at the gypsy cab and the cab comes to a full stop right in front of my house. I knew they were shooting on my street but I didn’t know they were shooting on my block, since the day they did I was at work in Newark and my wife was working as a secretary in the basement of the church which is in the background of the shot. That was a big surprise to me and I didn’t find out about it until I was watching the movie in a screening at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 2001 and when the cab screeched to a halt in front of my house, I actually pointed at the screen and yelled, “That’s my house!”, and the other critics in the room said, “Shhhh.” [Laughs]

There’s all these weird personal connections and affinities but over and above that I just love the guy’s movies. He’s a unique director and one that people imitate, often badly. He’s made an impact. I did a series of video essays in 2009 that studied his style and it was called “The Substance of Style”. Wes saw them, I hadn’t spoken to him in many years at that point, he saw them and wrote me a really nice note, saying “Hey, thank you for taking the time to study my movies this closely, I liked the series a lot, let’s get together some time”, you know. Not too long after that, Abrams Books called me up and an editor there, Eric Klopfer, said “we’re looking to do a book about Wes Anderson and I just watched the series of video essays so what do you think about writing a book about Wes?”. So that’s the long version of how the book came about, and that’s an epic answer, but that’s it.

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The cover. Click to enlarge to see it in all its beauty.

AA: So what exactly can we expect to find inside the Collection, is it an assortment of goodies from Anderson’s films, pictures and that kind of thing?

MZS: It’s built around a book-length interview with Wes. So it’s me talking to Wes about his artistic development over 20 years, and we go back to his childhood and adolescence a little bit, but mostly it starts with the Bottle Rocket short and feature and then we just work our way forward through his films. It’s also heavily illustrated with screenshots from the movies and behind-the-scenes stuff, some of which has never been seen before anywhere. We commissioned a lot of illustrations that are sort of tangentially related to Wes’ movies, like the cover of the book, for example, isn’t from any Wes Anderson movie, that’s sort of meant to represent the totality of Wes Anderson’s universe, and we have some other things in the book that are like that. Interspersed among this book-length interview are critical essays by me about each of [Anderson’s] seven films, and those are basically reviews, I guess you would say, of his movies and that’s also new because this is the first time I’ve published reviews or critical examinations of [his films]. So that’s the book.

It’s somewhat of a weird book, honestly, because it’s very analytical and gets pretty deep into his influences and how they manifest themselves in his films, but there’s also a lot of personal anecdotes. And we wander off the beaten track a lot, like there’s parts where we’re really not talking about his movies, we’re just talking about movies, or we’re talking about fiction, or music, or weird personal stuff. Like in the Darjeeling Limited chapter, he goes on for quite a long time about the experience of traveling abroad and how that sort of opened his horizons as a filmmaker, and we don’t get to Darjeeling Limited until fairly deep into the chapter. At that point, it’s mostly about his development as a person. So you can kind of tell as you’re reading it that this is a book by a guy who actually knows the director personally and [they] have been acquainted for a while. There’s a degree of comfort here that maybe you might not get if I was just walking in cold.

AA: So it’s more of free-wheeling conversation type of thing.

MZS: Yeah, definitely. In some ways, maybe a little too free-wheeling. [Laughs] That’s part of the charm of it. We go off on a tangent for like three or four pages about the use of music in movies which is kind of fun. And that’s basically just two guys talking, and there’s other things in the book like that.

Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman in 'The Darjeeling Limited'.

Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman in ‘The Darjeeling Limited’. Courtesy: Fox Searchlight.

AA: I want to ask about Anderson’s critics, because you obviously love the guy, but a big criticism of Anderson is that he has no inventiveness as a filmmaker and how every movie is kind of the same, at least stylistically, so what would you say to that?

MZS: I don’t really know what people want from a guy. That just seems dumb. [Laughs] Honestly, because what great filmmaker or artist can you not say that about? All his movies look the same? Well, I kind of feel like all of Kubrick’s movies look the same. All of Orson Welles’ movies kind of look the same. The directors who make movies that look completely different from one film to the next tend to be hacks that have no style, that’s been my experience. If somebody has a strong personality that comes out in everything that they do…I think what throws people about Wes is that his style is so simple. There’s maybe like 15 or 20 shots that he does, over and over, and there’s particular moods and modes that he has that he shifts into that you see again and again. But to me, that’s simplicity, that’s like when you read Ernest Hemingway and there are few adjectives. Wes doesn’t overcomplicate things, and that’s one of the things that makes him stand out. And all you have to do as far as I’m concerned to appreciate Wes’ uniqueness is to watch his films and then to watch Juno or Garden State, which could’ve been called, “Wes Anderson Called and He Wants His Style Back.”

AA: [Laughs] Yeah. I think we’ll switch gears away from Wes just for a second. There’s this big debate in TV criticism right now about Netflix, like I was reading the recent article in Time about Orange is the New Black where it talks about how this way of distributing TV seasons all at once is liberating but also causes this confusion over how you talk about these shows. I want to get your take on whether this is a good shift, a bad one, or just something new?

MZS: Well, I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think that every TV show needs to be made in the way that Netflix is making shows but I really like the way they’re making shows. Although I should say, to be specific, that I like the fourth season of Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black, because those are shows that are not TV shows that happen to appear on Netflix, they’re shows that were clearly made with Netflix in mind, and the way they’re telling the story is very unique, in that they’re jumping back and forth amongst different characters, and in the case of both of them, through time. And they’re doing them at a greater length than they would do if it were just airing on television, because they would be afraid that they would lose the thread of the story, and confuse the audience. The reason that they’re able to make those shows in that particular way is because they know that people are gonna be watching, sitting there with their remote control in hand, and be able to watch 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 episodes in the same sitting.

Taylor Schilling and in 'Orange is the New Black'. Credit: Jessica Miglio/Netflix.

Taylor Schilling and Yael Stone in ‘Orange is the New Black’. Courtesy: Jessica Miglio/Netflix.

AA: And just binge.

MZS: And they’ll remember what happened because they’re not waiting a week. That’s kind of major. Shows that air on a traditional broadcast network or cable channel, they have to split the difference, they can do complicated storytelling but they can’t do so complicated that when they pick up a thread that they dropped four episodes ago, the audience goes, “Who’s that guy?” or “Where are we? I’m confused,” and you can’t have that. So I think it’s an evolutionary advance, at least if you’re doing it right.

AA: Okay. So what has been some of your favourite TV of the year so far?

MZS: Arrested Development. Orange is the New Black. I’d be shocked if Breaking Bad wasn’t on there [once it’s finished], because it’s been on there every season since its been on. [Laughs] Behind the Candelabra, the Soderbergh film. Justified, probably. The Americans is tremendous, that’s the best new show to come along in a while, I think. Rectify on the Sundance Channel, I really liked because it was so quiet and subtle and almost like a stage play, which is unusual for television. Top of the Lake I thought was great. It’s a really good year, in fact I would say this is the best year for scripted television since I became a critic. I mean, there’s so much stuff. In a year where I’m wrestling with whether or not to put Mad Men in my top ten, what does that tell you?

AA: I kind of have to ask this. What would be your favourite Anderson film?

MZS: My personal favourite Wes Anderson film, the one I think about the most, is The Life Aquatic. I find it almost overwhelmingly powerful. It’s so strange, it’s such a strange mix of tone. To some degree all of his movies are, at least since The Royal Tenenbaums, which was the first Anderson film that veered between comedy and tragedy. I think the swings are even more extreme in The Life Aquatic, and the story is a little more focused on one thing, which is mortality. The climax with the jaguar shark on the bottom of the ocean floor is tremendous, that’s still my favourite ending of any Anderson film.

Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray in 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'. Courtesy: Beuna Vista Pictures.

Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’. Courtesy: Beuna Vista Pictures.

I like all of his movies. I think The Darjeeling Limited might be his most structurally perfect film, and I think not too many people would agree with that, but if you really study that thing and you look at what every scene does, it’s kind of a marvel of precision. And then, of course, Rushmore…I mean, hell, man, I could talk about his movies all day, that’s why I wrote a book about him. [Laughs] He’s made I would say three or four films that I would consider perfect, which is a pretty great batting average, and the ones that are less than perfect are not like anything that you’ve seen before, ever.

AA: So how did Michael Chabon get involved? [Chabon wrote the book’s introduction] He’s one of my favourite authors so I was curious about that.

MZS: Well, as it turns out, I wanted to find somebody to write an introduction, and I don’t know why I thought of him. I didn’t know if he liked Wes’ films, I just knew from his fiction that he seemed like the kind of guy that would. And it turned out I was right about that. Wes didn’t have anything to do with it, so it was kind of a wonderful coincidence that it turns out that he and Chabon kind of know each other. So I said, “Hey, guess who’s writing the intro to the book,” and he goes, “Oh I know that guy!” [Laughs]

AA: So my last question: How’s Breaking Bad going to end?

MZS: I don’t know, I’ve been debating that with my daughter for the last two months. I don’t know if Walter’s going to die or not, I’m starting to feel like he has to die because the show is a tragedy and in a tragedy things don’t end very well for the hero. I just can’t see it suddenly reversing course and then he somehow saves himself and everybody forgives him. And since this is the kind of show where people who do bad things tend to be punished. So I feel like it’s kind of the end of Walter’s suffering. I’m not exactly sure what that means but, it’s going to be painful.

Bryan Cranston in the final season of 'Breaking Bad'. Courtesy: AMC.

Bryan Cranston in the final season of ‘Breaking Bad’. Courtesy: AMC.

AA: Okay, well on that note…

MZS: [Laughs] I wouldn’t be surprised if they went in a direction like The Shield, which is to say maybe more of a whimper than a bang. But a bang wouldn’t surprise me either because it’s Breaking Bad and things blow up. In any event, I think that it’s going to be a good ending. It won’t be disappointing, I know that. I have enough confidence to know that. They give you what you didn’t expect, but it’s equal to what you did hope for. You sat there all day fantasizing about what they’re going to do next, and then you see it, you go, “that’s better than I imagined”. There aren’t a whole lot of shows or movies that you can say that about, usually what you come up with on your own is more interesting than what they give you. That’s the hallmark of a really great show.

The Wes Anderson Collection comes out October 8. Pre-order it on Amazon here.

– Jake

Best of 2013 (So Far)

As the halfway point of 2013 has come and gone, it is customary to take stock of all the entertainment we’ve encountered so far and determine what’s worthwhile. We decided to have some AA writers pick one thing from a list of categories (Film, TV, Album, Song, Video Game) as their favourite of the year so far, tell you why, and maybe mention some other notable things. Take a look, share your own, enjoy, don’t enjoy, see if I care.

FILM

Jake

My favourite of the year so far is, without question, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. In some ways, it was very misunderstood. tumblr_mpwkdxOHcr1rrsipro1_500Based on the marketing and the general vibe of “Disney girls gone wild”, expectations were shattered for many filmgoers who went to see it. I can’t help but feel like this was by design, at least partly because Korine just enjoys fucking with people. The actual movie is a surreal and hypnotic masterpiece of social commentary paired with obnoxious glorification, willfully presented as a collection of ideas not necessarily organized in any way and intended to disturb, entertain and interpret however you see fit. Korine himself succintly described it as a “pop poem”, and it’s a beautiful one at that (horrifyingly beautiful, really). Also well worth noting is Shane Carruth’s long-anticipated follow-up to Primer, the cerebral and sublime Upstream Color. You don’t have to get it completely (you won’t), you have to just give in and let yourself experience it (multiple viewings are recommended). A science-fiction film that’s less about answers and more about what brings people together and what identity actually means. With the gorgeous cinematography and muted but nuanced performances, it’s absolutely essential viewing. I was also pleasantly impressed with giallo homage Berberian Sound Studio, James Wan’s terrifying and atmospheric The Conjuring, and Rob Zombie’s continuing quest to make his music career obsolete with The Lords of Salem.

Kevin

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Warm Bodies: Even though this film didn’t get particularly good reviews, I thought it was a unique and thoughtful rethinking of traditional genre films. I enjoyed seeing how the comedy was derived from the problems associated with mixing romantic comedies and zombie films, because it made the film feel self-aware and intelligent. It was pretty well-acted (especially by Nicholas Hoult, who played the lead) and well shot, with some pretty funny moments sprinkled in throughout. Aside from the film being a bit predictable, I thought it was a very enjoyable 97 minutes of cinematic fun.
Monsters University: I thought this was a great movie (in comparison to average Hollywood films), but only a decent Pixar movie. What I mean by this is that it was very enjoyable to watch and I never really felt bored, but looking back on it, I realized that nothing unexpected or particularly original ever happened, compared to other Pixar movies. The whole film essentially just followed a typical coming-of-age film’s plot, and then added in a bunch of monster themed stuff (which was awesome, funny, and heartwarming). Overall, I enjoyed watching this movie, but I think it should have been better. Billy Crystal and John Goodman were still perfect in their characters (Mike and Sullivan).

Duncan

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2013 has been a solid year for film thus far. Yes, the hollywood blockbusters may have been especially bad this year, despite surprise favourites Iron Man 3, and the funnest film of the year so far, Fast & Furious 6. But the real star of this year has been the independent releases, where the lovely Frances Ha, and not fully accomplished but still haunting, The Place Beyond the Pines have stood out. But for my money the best movie of the year, hell the last 3 years, is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Following up on two fantastic predecessors, Midnight is the strongest and most engaging in the “trilogy”. I don’t think I’ve ever been so involved in the lives of two characters before. I’m ecstatic when they have their amazing sequence long conversations, and I’m heartbroken when it begins to fall apart. There’s room for people to call the film a gimmick and exploitive, but frankly I don’t care. If Linklater broke some unwritten rule when he produced this film then so be it, I don’t want to watch movies in a world with rules that keep films like this from me.

TV

Jake

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I’m going to ignore my own rule because there’s just too much great TV. For pure entertainment value, nothing beats Game of Thrones, which probably just had its best season yet and delivered one of the deepest gut punches any piece of entertainment has ever given me with the Red Wedding. I’m not quite finished it yet, but Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is phenomenal and will hopefully reach even more people than House of Cards did, with its stellar writing and diverse ensemble cast, making it ridiculously addictive. I was skeptical when I learned that Netflix ordered a second season before even putting the first one on their service, but now I totally get it. They probably just wanted to see more, like everyone else. Then there’s Hannibal, which is easily the best show to premiere outside of cable in years with its stellar cast led by Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, beautiful imagery, mood and atmospherics, and great writing thanks to creator and dark mastermind Bryan Fuller. Girls avoided the sophomore slump with a messy but overall fulfilling season including great, glorious scenes like this one (“She’s too self-involved to commit suicide.”). Enlightened was cruelly cancelled after being cruelly under-watched and the whole thing still just makes me sad so that’s enough about that. Also, 30 Rock‘s final few episodes in January put the show out on top, providing an emotional but hilarious farewell; Archer remains the most under-appreciated comedy on television; Justified continued its solid run of clever dialogue, great performances and killer storytelling; Mad Men‘s sixth season left some feeling unsatisfied but I think it worked wonderfully, and deserves to be mentioned if only for finally giving us this; and New Girl was great and funny all season but especially deserves recognition for the expert handling of The Kiss. And despite its many flaws, damn it was nice to have Arrested Development back.

Kevin

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Game of Thrones: I was a late bloomer to the amazingness that is Game of Thrones, but in the last two months I’ve watched all three seasons, leading me to conclusively say that this is the best show on TV right now. Acting? Better than most films I’ve seen. Directing? Excellently shapes the many story lines into one fairly understandable package. Cinematography? Beautiful and rich. Red Wedding? Horrifying beyond belief. It is no surprise that Game of Thrones has received 16 Emmy nominations for season 3.
The Voice: Considering how many reality TV shows there are about singing, and how many of those have become quite terrible (*cough* American Idol *cough*), The Voice is really surprisingly good. I loved Usher and Shakira as judges, especially compared to Christina Aguilera, and I think their charisma and actual understanding of the modern music industry helped the show out immensely. Though I was unhappy with the results, I thought the level of talent on the show, as well the show’s format, was better than anything of its genre I’ve ever seen.
MasterChef: I’m a sucker for cooking-competition shows, and I think that MasterChef is the best of its kind. In this program, Gordon Ramsay is far less of an unapologetic dick, and actually lets his food do the talking sometimes. I think the contestants that the producers bring on the show tend to be more appealing and likeable, to the point where the viewer would actually want to see them succeed rather than fail. Season 4 continued to impress me with its original challenges and captivating story lines (which are admittedly somewhat formatted by the producers, and then relayed to the contestants).

Duncan

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It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to talk about the strength of a year of television over another. With the majority of shows coming out in a year being renewals of the previous season, there’s pretty good insurance of a year’s quality of programming. I certainly haven’t been keeping up with enough television to fairly make this judgment, but I’ll do so anyways. This year has seen the return of a few heavy hitters, Game of Thrones in particular just came off a very strong season. I ask you to look past all the hype of the big dogs, sorry Mad Men, for the show that has been the strongest this year. This is a little bittersweet considering the show’s untimely cancellation, but I believe it needs to be celebrated regardless. Enlightened delivered a season early this year with more narrative direction, as well as emotional strength. The show has a weird charm to it, and feels different than anything else on the air. Forget about Tony Soprano, never has a character made me feel so divided than Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe. This season also took the time to follow the supporting men in Amy’s life by spending episodes following Mike White and Luke Wilson’s (who was robbed of an Emmy nomination) characters. Screw the overpraised Girls, White and Dern have created the most consistent and powerful show in HBO’s line up, and nobody noticed.

ALBUM

Jake

Obsidian_album_coverMy favourite album of the year so far changes at least daily, if not hourly, so I thought that instead, like the TV section, I would mention a few that I really love. Baths are a band (or rather, person – Will Wiesenfeld) that I missed the initial buzz on, back in 2010, and only discovered a short time before the new album, Obsidian, dropped in May. But while Cerulean, the debut, was a collection of great electro-pop songs, Obsidian is Baths’ fully-realized vision. With deeply personal lyrics and a more expanded but refined sound environment, it is the type of thing practically made with my enjoyment in mind. Austra followed up on their excellent debut, 2011’s Feel It Break, an album that is very personal to me, with Olympia, a more collaborative and optimistic group of songs. Led by Katie Stelmanis’ beautiful opera-trained voice, their music still feels gloomy, it’s just surrounded by some more great beats this time. Then there is Yeezus. Kanye West‘s new album is that rare breed of “mildly disappointing only because it’s not perfect”, but then, that imperfection seems intentional. So despite the occasionally lazy lyrics and misogyny (and those two things are definitely intertwined), it’s still miles ahead of pretty much everything else. I’ve fallen out of love with some of this year’s “comebacks”, like Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk, but one that I still connect with is The Knife‘s Shaking the Habitual. Acting simultaneously as a feminist manifesto and experimental electronic album, it is full of ideas and good beats, too. I’ve also really liked the new albums from Vampire Weekend, Savages, Phoenix and Sigur Rós.

Kevin

WFTDWaiting for the Dawn – The Mowgli’s: This whole album (and the greater collection of work by this band) is pure joy. The Mowgli’s are an extremely positive band, with a very full sound (they are an 8-piece after all) and a tendency towards interesting instrumentation. I love that they have a guy who plays the melodica in a lot of their tunes because that’s just the kind of band they are (the weird kind). I also love that they are named after a character from The Jungle Book. Great band, uplifting album.
The 20/20 Experience – Justin Timberlake: As I’ve said before, this album is good, but not great. I stand by that, though it is still one of my favorite releases of the year. Timberlake shows a lot of his tendency to experiment with his music and sample beats and melodies from various cultures and countries, while still creating music friendly to American top 40 radio audiences. I love that he’s not scared of putting several eight-minute songs on the album, and that he truly shows a lot of variety in the style of his tunes. I just wish every tune was as good as “Mirrors”.
In a Tidal Wave of Mystery – Capital Cities: Capital Cities is a really fun indie pop duo who definitely generated some good press with the release of their EP in 2011, which featured, “Safe and Sound,” a completely dancey dance track. The band’s debut album is a collection of songs that are both catchy and intricate, leaving the listener grooving and thinking at the same time. “Kangaroo Court,” Is my favorite track from the album. The tune (and many of the other tunes on the album) features a prominent trumpet counter-melody, which is a nice surprise to see coming from a pop duo. This band will be big in the future (I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing…).

SONG

Jake


It is incredibly hackneyed by now to claim that any buzz band is “the next big thing”, but I really hope that CHVRCHES start to get a lot of attention when their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, drops in a couple months. Every song they put out, from The Knife-inspired “The Mother We Share” to the delightful earworm that is “Gun”, I love them more. But my favourite of the released singles and of the year so far is “Recover”, the type of song that you can listen to over and over and never get sick of it (trust me). This is electro-pop perfection, people. “No Eyes” is the standout track for me from Baths’ Obsidian, with its personal story of sex addiction and infectious beats. “Full of Fire” is perhaps The Knife’s greatest achievement yet. “Blood on the Leaves” may mix Nina Simone with a tale of alimony, but Hudson Mohawke’s beats and Kanye’s impassioned delivery make it the highlight on Yeezus. “Latch” is truly wonderful, but is also indicative of how great Disclosure’s debut album, Settle, is in its entirety. Others worth noting: “Hannah Hunt” + “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend, “Play by Play” by Autre Ne Veut, “Hurt Me Now” by Austra, “Now I’m All Messed Up” + “Closer” by Tegan and Sara, “Attracting Flies” by AlunaGeorge, “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore, “Black Roses” by Charli XCX, “Get Lucky” + “Giorgio by Moroder” by Daft Punk, “The Real Thing” by Phoenix, “Human” by Daughter, “Warm in the Winter” by Glass Candy, “She Will” + “Husbands” by Savages, “I’m Waiting Here (feat. Lykke Li)” by David Lynch and “Slasherr” by Rustie.

Kevin


Say It, Just Say It – The Mowgli’s: I already wrote about how much I like the album, and this tune is probably the highlight for me. It perfectly summarizes their tendency towards group-sung choruses and really happy sounding instrumentals (major chords FTW). It’s high energy, well sung, and well written. Though I’m unlikely to hear this one on the radio anytime soon, I’d definitely call it my top summer song, and hopefully the band can gain a bit more of an audience because they certainly deserve it.
I Want Crazy – Hunter Hayes: Yeah that’s right, fuck you, Jake.
Centipede – Childish Gambino: Donald’s back and clever as ever. “Centipede” is inventive, catchy, and experimental. It’s maybe one of his most ambitious tunes yet. Gambino’s singing sounds better than I’ve ever heard it before and his rap is definitely impressive. What I love most about this tune is that it shows a progression in his work. This is a different side of the guy we came to know in Camp, and after just one song, I think I like it.

GAME

Jake

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Admittedly, I haven’t played too much from this year. But two that I have played are perfect examples of extremes in the gaming industry. On the one side, you have Bioshock Infinite, a mainstream, big-budget game that proves how good blockbuster games can be. Although it has its issues (including a major narrative problem with the Vox Populi), it is thoughtful storytelling complemented by beautiful visual aesthetics and a real emotional connection that develops between the player and Elizabeth, your companion. And on the other end of the spectrum is the indie point-and-click Kentucky Route Zero. Although only two Acts out of an eventual five have been released (the first in January, the second in May), the first two have been enough to impress me substantially with this quiet but gripping tale of a truck driver trying to make his way through the mysterious Route Zero in order to make a delivery. Even working on such a small budget, the game manages to create a beautiful and enigmatic atmosphere, along with a focus on Lynchian storytelling, strange sense of humour and all. I’ve also just finished The Last of Us and really enjoyed it, despite how much it borrows from other franchises, particularly in terms of gameplay and combat. There’s also the fact that such an adult, depressing, deliberately paced and engrossing narrative must be coupled with a high head-count in order for it to be a blockbuster game, a quality shared by Bioshock Infinite (the games also share a deep bond between the two main characters, and you get very emotionally involved with both). In the end, though, this game’s shortcomings are beyond forgivable because of how production values and outstanding execution (not to mention a top-notch story with a perfect ending) can make all the difference. If I had to choose, it would be my favourite of these three.

Kevin

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Temple Run 2: I can’t tell if this pick is going to come across as a troll or not, but I legitimately love Temple Run 2. The original was a game changer (semi-pun?) for mobile gaming, and I think the sequel stepped up and delivered some key improvements, while maintaining the game’s original vibe.  It’s still chaotic and still frustratingly difficult, but now it’s far more visually appealing and offers several new obstacles. I’m stoked to see what they’ll come up with for Temple Run 3.

The Last of Us: I’m going to preface this pick by saying that typically most of the years best games come out closer to the end of the year (for Christmas and such). However, The Last of Us was great. Like, really, really, really great. The game is intelligent, violent, and heart stopping. My only gripe is that it sometimes feels a little linear, but that’s okay because it’s FUN.
Side note: Journey was the best game of 2012 because REASONS.

 

Inexplicable Double Review: The Conjuring & Selena Gomez

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To be honest, the primary motivation for this double review is because I’m too lazy to write two different posts. What am I, a miracle worker? That being said, I realized that these two things – The Conjuring and Selena Gomez’s new album, Stars Dance – do have something in common (stay with me). They both borrow heavily from their predecessors to the point of bloating themselves, although only one of them does it with finesse.

First, I’ll tackle The Conjuring. James Wan’s newest horror film is this time based around two real-life paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (played perfectly by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who take a look at the case of the Perron family. It’s 1971 and the Perrons have just moved into a new farmhouse in Rhode Island, and pretty quickly things start getting scary. The Conjuring has received a lot of attention for seemingly getting an R-rating in the States just for being too scary. According to executive producer Walter Hamada (who is, of course, trying to sell the movie), “When we asked [the MPAA] why, they basically said, ‘It’s just so scary. [There are] no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13.'” Maybe, but I can definitely confirm that this is a legitimately scary movie. The more time I’ve had to digest it, the more I realize how much I liked this movie.

What I most appreciate about it is how it expertly blends jump-scares with a generally creepy atmosphere and mood. Wan has been a grower as a filmmaker, starting with the first Saw movie, leading to 2011’s under-appreciated Insidious (although appreciated enough to warrant a sequel, which comes out in September), and The Conjuring is assuredly his best effort to date. Throwing a bunch of horror elements together (demons, ghosts, witchcraft, evil dolls, etc.) does end up making the film feel a little bloated, but it also avoids feeling desperate in favour of creating a chaotic environment with scares coming from every which way. Wan and his writers (Chad & Carey Hayes) have crafted a horror story with likeable characters worth rooting for (something so many horror movies omit), creative jump-scares (SPOILERS: (highlight to reveal)that sheet in the wind getting caught on an unseen body is so, so perfect in terms of playing on ghost imagery as well the outstanding execution, and the hide-and-clap game gave me my biggest scare with the hands appearing behind the mother…fuck /END OF SPOILERS) and that atmosphere I was talking about. All the best horror movies have such an iconic atmosphere (The Shining, Suspiria) and that sometimes gets lost. Here, the anticipation kills and the eventual release delivers, but often what’s not in frame is just as disturbing.

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It must be noted, because it’s important and because it’s the theme of this piece, that Wan pays homage to 1970s/1980s horror flicks, immediately apparent with the scrolling, old-fashioned title card. I’ve seen some critics refuse to refer to it as homage, and instead use “rip-off”. I don’t agree. Good horror movies take classic horror tropes and do something new with them, because otherwise your film won’t stand out and audiences will forget it as soon as they leave the theatre. I think Scott Tobias says it best in his conversation with Tasha Robinson about the movie: “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” And Wan, Tobias argues, does it very well.

I have to also admit that I wasn’t sure at first how I felt about the ending. It’s not a spoiler to say that you’re waiting for a last-second “Boo!”, like so many other horror movies have done, and it’s even set up so you’re anticipating one. It doesn’t come. Cut to credits. I wasn’t disappointed, just confused. The more I thought about it, though, the more respect I have for Wan’s choice to avoid the standard way to end your 21st-century horror film and instead leave the viewer feeling unsettled not from a last-ditch scare but in a deeper way from what they’ve just witnessed (especially since, spoiler, things aren’t completely resolved so the uneasiness remains //end of spoiler).

I love a good horror movie. The Conjuring is so well crafted and executed that I left the theatre feeling extremely satisfied. The performances are top-notch, there’s real stakes involved with an emotional resonance, there’s terrific scares, and there’s a creepy fucking doll. This is how you make a modern horror film.

Four and a half CREEPY ASS FUCKING DOLLS out of five.

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It was a bold choice to open Stars Dance with “Birthday”, because it is an absolute fucking mess. Still, it kind of sets the tone for the entire album since so much is just thrown together with very little cohesion and a lot of it is just ridiculous (I laugh every time she exclaims, “Jazz it up!”). It’s an absurd song, just with so many elements flung at you, and yet…it’s very catchy and fun. That is also pretty representative of the album as a whole: it’s a mess, but I kinda like it. Linking back to my theme, much of the music is clearly and shamelessly inspired by other pop acts. “Slow Down” is extremely evocative of Britney Spears. “Like a Champion” is like a weird Nicki Minaj reject as Gomez takes on an is-this-offensive? Jamaican accent. “B.E.A.T.” sounds like Ke$ha (I think it’s more deliberate here, and it actually mostly works). And most of the rest, including lead single “Come & Get It”, brings to mind Rihanna.

Unlike with The Conjuring (I’m committing to this connection I’ve made, okay?), all of this comes off less like homage and more like a lack of ideas. It also creates the problem of establishing a singular personality for Gomez as an artist, with the result being a figure with so many influences taking over that there’s no real person left. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing in pop music (who is Nicki Minaj, really?), but it’s usually better when a pop artist has some sort of identifiable character (Lady Gaga has such control over her image that it’s fascinating).

As for the music itself, it gets kind of exhausting after a while with its onslaught of synths and drum beats (“Save the Day” has a chorus surrounded by Skrillex-esque beats, sans the excitement), almost as if the producers wanted to distract you from how hollow most of these songs are. Obviously, much concern was given to what are popular sounds in contemporary pop music, but that needs to be paired with good songwriting, and this album is decidedly hit-and-miss in that respect.

Here’s the thing. That all sounds horribly negative, and it is. But I still found myself enjoying a lot of Stars Dance. The back half, thankfully, is much stronger than the first half. Simpler songs like “Write Your Name” and ballad “Love Will Remember” are far more memorable and pleasing to listen to. Gomez’s voice is consistently more than capable, reliably up for anything and always sounding strong and smooth. “Undercover” reminds me of The Fame-era Lady Gaga, but in a good way, and its build-and-release structure really does it for me here (although not elsewhere on the album). The title track is sultry and slick, definitely a standout. The unfortunate thing is that too much of the album is focused on clamoring for what sounds are club-ready today and on making Gomez a blank slate lacking personality. There’s half a good pop album here, I just wish the rest had taken more account of who Gomez is as a performer instead of looking at everyone else.

6.5 cries of “Jazz it up!” out of 10.

Et Cetera

  • I’d like to re-state how good the performances in The Conjuring are, especially Vera Farmiga (maybe I should finally check out Bates Motel), and how crucial this is to making it all work.
  • Spoilers are such a difficult, complicated thing with reviews. Do you completely remove anything remotely spoiler-ish? Do you include whatever you want? I’ve tried to have it both ways by keeping them hidden, mostly because I can’t decide what the best course of action is.
  • Wan is back directing Insidious: Chapter 2, so after seeing this and the fact that he distanced himself from all the Saw sequels but wanted to handle this one himself, I’m very excited to see how it turns out.
  • You don’t measure how good a horror movie is based on how many times it makes you jump, but this movie had a higher count than most.
  • If I ever have kids and they want to play hide-and-clap, FUCK. THAT.
  • I wasn’t lying!!!!!
  • Stars Dance Highlights: “Stars Dance”, “Undercover”, “Love Will Remember”, “Write Your Name”
  • Selena Gomez is gorgeous. That is all.
  • Jazz it up!

– Jake

Monsters University and the Gradual Decline of Pixar

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Maybe that headline is a little bit misleading. Pixar is by no means out of ideas nor has it become a second-rate animation studio. But things haven’t been looking great lately. After WALL-E and Up, two original tales and a couple of the company’s best, came Toy Story 3, a truly wonderful addition to the franchise, but still a second sequel. Cars 2, another sequel but this time to a movie that no one was really asking for more of, was next, followed by last year’s Brave, which most people shrugged at. Monsters University is the prequel to 2001’s delightful Monsters, Inc., and while it doesn’t recapture Pixar’s glory days, neither does it further sully their name (pun definitely intended).

It’s unclear whether this story was really begging to be told. Mostly, it’s just fun to be spending time with these characters again. Pixar’s writers have always been adept at creating interesting and likeable characters and Mike & Sulley are two of their best. But spending time with old friends doesn’t really justify making another movie, especially in telling a college-set story that for the most part follows along with college movie clichés like pitting the outcast fraternity against the popular frat. This is the inherent problem with Monsters University, in that it is almost always a very good time, but overall feels inconsequential and more-of-the-same.

Of course, there are plenty of monster quirks to the college atmosphere. The locale itself is modelled lovingly on old-fashioned university buildings familiar to us humans, with beautiful architecture and detailed backgrounds (this is Pixar, after all, and it feels like a moot point to acknowledge how beautiful the animation is in a Pixar movie but seriously, it’s gorgeous). The school is stuffed with plenty of creative monsters and eccentricities like a winged-centipede dean (voiced menacingly by the great Helen Mirren) and the “Scare Games”, an Olympic-esque competition and the driving force of the plot as Mike and Sulley try to bring their outcast frat to victory in order to get back into the Scaring program (obviously). The whole voice cast is fantastic, from the returning Billy Crystal and John Goodman (who, both in their 60s, manage to convey youthful energy perfectly) to the lovely Aubrey Plaza bringing her trademark attitude to a Scare Games organizer.

qwed

The movie is also incredibly funny, something largely absent from Brave or either of the Cars movies. Charlie Day voices a member of the outcast fraternity (above, purple thing on far left) and steals the show practically every time he opens his mouth, but I won’t spoil any of his hilarious lines. There are many knowing nods to adults in the audience, like when the guitar-strumming idiot gets knocked over. Obviously, it’s easy as hell to enjoy Monsters University in the moment. It’s just when you start to think about it that its hold on you loosens. It is too conventional, lacking in originality, and the story itself doesn’t really have many places to go beyond the basic conceit. It achieves something that very rarely happens by being an absolute delight to watch the entire time and yet you come out feeling disappointed. You know what Pixar are capable of (at least next year’s offering, The Good Dinosaur, appears to be more concerned with originality) and so something like this, while highly entertaining, feels borderline lazy in comparison. There’s some good stuff in here comedically and visually, but aside from some questions on identity and self-acceptance and one raw scene taking place in a human-world climax, the emotion is usually kept at arm’s length, which is never how Pixar best operates. Monsters University is decidedly a good time and will probably be one of the best children’s movies of the year, it just feels like Pixar are no longer inspired.

Three and a half scream energy containers out of five

Et Cetera

  • Three and a half may seem high based on my critique, but the movie gains a lot of points in my book with how consistently engaging it is.
  • I think a huge amount of what you’ll think of this depends on how you feel about Monsters, Inc. First of all, a lot of it will just not make sense if you haven’t seen the original, but much of the emotional weight that the story does have relies on your knowledge that Mike and Sulley do become best friends but that Mike’s ultimate quest to become a scarer does not actually happen. If you never cared about the connection between these two characters, you still won’t (luckily, I did).
  • Although I am harping on the film for its lack of emotion, I have to commend it for effectively tackling the theme of picking yourself up after failing to realize your dreams. Mike doesn’t become a scarer, but still gets excited about working in the mailroom and ultimately partners with Sulley on the scare floor. Thinking about it now, the last few minutes are actually pretty perfect.
  • Aubrey Plaza pretty much gives anything she appears in at least a half-star. Just with her presence.
  • really hope The Good Dinosaur is just like The Good Wife but with dinosaurs.

– Jake