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Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness, and Foals: What Went Down (Release Date: 8-28-2015)

        On the surface, Ontario-based R&B singer/lothario The Weeknd doesn’t have a whole lot in common with indie arena rock mainstays Foals. The former’s star has been in constant ascent ever since dropping the House of Balloons mixtape way back in early 2011, Abel Tesfaye’s brand only taking a minor hit when his studio debut, Kiss Land, failed to impress two years later. The epic English five-piece also released an LP in 2013, and while Holy Fire received a kinder reception from critics and fans than KL, it barely made a ripple in the pond of popular music, failing to build on the break-out success of their previous record, Total Life Forever. Both artists seemed destined for fame and popularity as recently as four years ago, experienced some hiccups along the way, but are ready to get back up on the horse with a pair of albums that met the world this last friday. The lining-up of their release dates and career trajectories is odd, enticing food for thought, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg where this strange comparison is concerned.

        When it comes to notoriety, there’s really no contest. Tesfaye, the man who records as The Weeknd, received a leg-up when he was shouted out by Drake, and then featured on the fellow Canadian’s finest disc to date, Take Care. He’s been plugging away at cracking into the mainstream ever since, and while his feature on Ariana Grande’s Love Me Harder represented some important steps forward, 2015 has seen the guy morph into a household name. Riding on the coattails of February’s S&M-Lite box office smash 50 Shades of Gray, Tesfaye first achieved significant airplay with Earned It, a languid, throw-back ballad tricked out with violins, cellos, and pianos, an offering more suited to a lounge singer than an R&B star. The song kicked in the door for a pair of other, more successful singles, the rising tide known simply as The Hills, and the pro-drug use anthem Can’t Feel My Face, a track that has torched the radio since it’s early summer release, proving nearly inescapable ever since. After previewing his Lana Del Rey duet Prisoner last week, we’d already heard about a third of Beauty Behind the Madness before the album even dropped, leaving the other ten tracks to fill in the gaps.

And for the most part, those songs are content to do just that. Often is aimless at best, Tesfaye’s salacious lyrics and nonchalaunt delivery mistake repetition for seduction, with some chipmonk-soul thrown in for good measure. It’s immediately followed by Acquainted, a track that somehow stretches out to a near six-minute trudge wherein the Weeknd endlessly reiterates that he’ll “be touching on your body.” That last sentence alludes to the two biggest problems that plague Beauty Behind the Madness: the one-note, exhaustively hedonistic lyrics (more on that in a minute), and the elongated runtimes of the individual songs. Only three of the numbers here clock in under the four minute mark, and it comes as no surprise that the shortest track is the only one possessing immediate Top 40 radio staying power (Can’t Feel My Face). Everything else feels stretched to the breaking point, as if Tesfaye’s producers convinced him that the only way to craft an epic was to mercilessly draw it out.

        The priorities of What Went Down, the new LP by Foals, could hardly be more dissimilar. Almost 20 minutes shorter in length than BBtM, Down remains taut and tense from first note to last, a blustery storm of a record that reveals Holy Fire as an album of growing pains, rather than the failure it might have seemed at the time. Their previous offering exposed their interest in returning to the power chord-driven, distorted fret work that personified popular rock music in the 90’s, but their latest doubles down, employing volume and mania to alluring effect. This prioritization results in an album that can sometimes feel lost in time, like a fashionista breaking out the old duds after waiting only 10 years, as opposed to the seemingly requisite 20. Thankfully, guitarist/band leader Yannis Philippakis is just as adept at picking strings as he is at strumming them, creating a unique push-pull between specificity and chaos.

        Lead single Mountain at My Gates is not only a great song, but also perfectly relays the dueling polarities described above. For almost three whole minutes, that slick, slippery guitar-and-drums interplay presents itself as the tune’s primary weapon, a butterfly knife that’s eventually traded in for a machine gun outtro, wherein Philippakis' desperate pleas perfectly match the crazed fuzziness playing out just below. Night Swimmers plays the same trick, remaining nimble for the majority of its runtime before being overtaken by thunderclouds in its final minute. Only the title track and Birch Tree allow themselves to drift all the way to one side or the other, WWD playing out like a second-tier Foo Fighters cut, while BT finds the band embracing dance rock to a further degree than ever before. They’re fine songs, but Foals is at their best when their duality is on full display, a fact of which they seem increasingly aware.

        Maybe they should produce the next Weeknd record, because adding a little variety Tesfaye’s schtick would undoubtably be for the better. Everything on his new album feels covered in molasses; even when he essentially does a Michael Jackson track with In the Night, the instrumentals sound as if they’re plodding through a swamp. And while The Weeknd’s voice will never be less than impressive, his lyrics have become monotonous, disheartening, and, perhaps worst of all, unbelievable. In a strange way, the backgrounds here are what make Tesfaye’s words less appealing, not the syllables themselves. The title track on House of Balloons possessed real stakes and tension, What You Need sounded like the guy was on the drugs he was singing about, and The Birds Part 1 is downright desperate. While his distinct type chauvinism remains unmoved after all these years, the increased fussiness of the production no longer truly suits them; “Say it louder, say it louder,” he belts atop the soft, twinkling guitar of Shameless, “who’s gunna f*** you like me?” This arrives only a few tracks after spraying lewd comments after egomaniacal declarations all over the smooth jazz of Tell Your Friends. As an enormous fan of Yeezus (and House of Balloons, for that matter), allow me to clarify that vapid vulgarity doesn’t necessarily bother me in lyrics; nonsensically pairing it with boring, unvaried production does.

        Philippakis isn’t exactly Robert Zimmerman himself either, but his shamelessly grandiose linguistic gestures are a perfect match for the shamelessly grandiose sonics produced by him and his bandmates. The guy simply can’t help himself for opining on the “new day,” a friend with “a pile of broken wishbones under (their) bed,” and, most embarrassingly, “being the only cowboy in this town.” But here’s the thing; when Philippakis boards “a redeye flight to nowhere good,” as he does on album highlight London Thunder, the song itself raises to the occasion, inflating into something both enormous and cathartic. What Went Down is not the Foals of Total Life Forever; that band was interested in echoing space, slow builds, and elating intricacy. Their newest incarnation is powered by brute force, and though I might still like the old one a tad better, the power of their latest LP is not to be denied. I almost couldn’t recommend The Weeknd track Losers highly enough, but What Went Down wins this match up by a landslide. You’ve already heard almost everything good on Beauty Behind the Madness; do yourself a favor, and spend this upcoming week with the Brits.

Beauty Behind the Madness: C-
What Went Down: A-

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

HypeCast: Most Anticipated Films for the Rest of 2015

       Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. Today we discuss our most anticipated films for the rest of the calendar year, describing each with agonizing detail that was, of course, throughly researched. Before we get to the list, Tyler recommends a pair of recent theatrical releases, American Ultra (which he likes more than anyone else), and The Gift (which he likes about the same as everyone else). The 'upcoming films' conversation features Collin wildly over-estimating his ability to talk Tyler into things, a sudden and unanticipated reference to Robert Zemeckis' Simon Wells' lavishly budgeted children's film mega-flop Mars Needs Moms, and, yes, yet another reference to The Happening. Also, be sure to check out the part where Tyler explains his initial viewing of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer: trust me, you absolutely will won't regret it. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-7:17---American Ultra
7:18-12:18---The Gift
12:19-14:24---Favorite Childhood TV Shows
14:25-17:36---August Releases
17:37-36:52---September Releases
36:53-57:19---October Releases
57:20-1:09:46---November Releases
1:09:47-December Releases: Part 1
1:10:57-1:14:06---Tyler's Inspiring/disgusting interest in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
1:14:07---1:21:10---December Releases: Part 2

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Beach House: Depression Cherry and Destroyer: Poison Season (Release Date: 8-28-2015)

        "Tender is the night/For a broken heart" Victoria Legrand croons on Space Song, a stand-out from her band's impending LP Depression Cherry, her voice as full of ache as it is of hope. In this instance, as in innumerable others, Legrand finds a sad sort comfort and a luxurious discontent in the nocturnal hours, an paradigm that Dan Bejar wants nothing to do with. "Tender is the night," he refutes, "that sweeps you up in its folly." The lyric is taken from Sun in the Sky, a song by Bejar's band Destroyer, and derives from their upcoming record Poison Season, an album that will meet the the world on the very same date as that aforementioned, sad-sack Cherry. This linguistic/time-frame convergence would be interesting enough in and of itself, but the juxtaposition becomes that much more enticing when you consider how each line works as a thesis statement on its accompanying album. While Beach House is busy locating the warm, gooey center of devastation, Destroyer is playing maestro, and massaging your eardrums from every possible angle.

        Don’t get me wrong, not everything about Poison Season is all kittens and butterflies; within the opening few seconds of the disc, Jesus is already beside himself, with Jacob in a state of desolation. Bejar’s lyrics are often consumed with such melancholic thoughts and personas; from the protagonist of The River despising “the direction the the city’s been going in,” to Bejar himself, “raising a toast to the world of scum around us closing in,” the lyrics on hand, while mostly preoccupied with storytelling, are frequently wrought and tortured. The music they ride atop, however, never quite gives into the gloom and doom that it's been saddled with. A myriad of instruments and lush sonics come to define the album far more explicitly than Bejar’s words ever could, PS often envisioning itself as a specific sort of smooth jazz album.

        Horns are perhaps the LP’s primary tool of instrumentation, trumpet blasts powering the blustery bliss of Dream Lover, sauntering with utmost confidence while an acoustic guitar does the grunt work on single Times Square. Not to be out-shined by their orchestral mates, violins take the reins on the lovely drift of Hell, while the two intertwine on the outtro of Archer on the Beach to languid, elating effect. Everything here goes down easy, and even when a song opens with a degree of tension, such as on the aforementioned Hell, lightness and levity breakthrough before the one minute mark has even come to pass, like the sun bursting through a thicket of clouds on a downcast day. Much of this comes from the author’s diminished interest in that old familiar six-string; guitars are hardly ever allowed the spotlight here, their sound likely proving too direct for the dichotomy Bejar seeks too create between his woefully pessimistic yarns, and his billowy, pillow-soft sound world.

        But don’t feel too sorry for the most popular instrument in Western music, because Depression Cherry welcomes it with open arms. Not that any Beach House track could rightly be described as a ‘rock song,’ but lead single Sparks is their closest yet, a jagged guitar riff slicing through the all-consuming haze that’s always embodied the band’s output. Alex Scally’s fretwork proves similarly cutting on Beyond Love, and while headphones are almost required to hear his ax near the end of opener Levitation, its buzz is deep, guttural, and surprisingly agitated, defecting from the track’s overpowering, otherworldly mist. Anyone interpreting this as some sort of identity-altering shift in the two-piece’s decade-long career might want to walk that one back. Beach House doesn’t change so much as they subtly revise, and the serrated nature of Scally’s guitar play here is akin to the improved production on Teen Dream, or the return of the tinny drum machine sound on Bloom. It goes without mentioning that Legrand’s lyrics are wistful, longing, and saddled with that strange type of listlessness that somehow reads as romantic. With each new release, the band pumps the breaks, or pushes slightly harder on the gas. Either stopping or flooring it would be against their very constitution.

        As such, all of their signature loveliness is once again on display. That trusty slide guitar rears its comely head once more, swooning all over Space Song, gracefully putting the album to bed on closer Days of Candy. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the expertly plucked strings of PPP for Teen Dream closer Take Care, while the ruminating line that defines Wildflower’s chorus is more than just a little bit familiar. One wishes the band didn’t love that crappy drum machine quite so much, as most of Depression Cherry’s percussion meets the ears like one of those pre-programmed beats you can play on a lower-end keyboard with the pushing of a single button. The one instance of live drumming can be found on the aforementioned Sparks, and the pounding of a tactile instrument gives the track much of its power, only to be followed by seven straight tunes that revel in rhythm-section artifice. The same could be said of Bloom, however, so if you weren’t out then, chances are you won’t be jumping ship now.

        That sense of rewarding loyal listeners by staying true to themselves, along with a general attention and prioritization of beauty, is the truest connective tissue between these two offerings. It’s hard to imagine anyone previously averse to Bejar’s work as Destroyer suddenly being won over by Poison Season, and downright impossible in the case of Depression Cherry. The former will always be a goofy, wordy storyteller prone to melodrama and rich layers of varied instrumentation, while the latter will eternally sing of youthful longing while concocting lo-fi dreamscapes in the most mellowed-out fashion imaginable. These are artists who’ve built up steady followings over their respective careers, and now appear to have little interest in expanding their fan base beyond what they’ve already amassed. This isn’t laziness, but rather infinite refinement, and all you really need in order to know how you’d feel about these two discs is your own pre-existing thoughts on the artists who created them. Bejar, Legrand, and Scally are mountains, not oceans; the world of music might change around them, but the three of them are staying put.

Depression Cherry: B
Poison Season: B+

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

HypeCast: Straight Outta Compton

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. Today we discuss Straight Outta Compton, the VH1 Universal Studios biopic on the legendary hip hop provocateurs N.W.A. Before we get to the movie, however, there's a requisite 'clean up on isle 5' when it comes to the great movies we missed and inaccuracies we promoted in last week's podcast (OK, maybe Collin more so than 'we,' but who's counting, right?). We then move on to the movies that Tyler has been fortunate enough to see in the last couple of weeks (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, It Follows, and Enemy), as well as Collin torturing himself by actually watching all eight episodes of True Detective Season 2. I swear we actually talk about Straight Outta Compton, a film whose accomplishments are as immediately evident as its faults. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-4:55---Mistakes made in last week's 'Best and Worst Movies of the 2000's So Far' HypeCast
4:56-9:35---Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
9:36-18:45---It Follows
27:15-39:50---True Detective Season 2
39:51-1:05:56---Straight Outta Compton
1:05:57-1:14:19---Rambling/Padding the Runtime

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Straight Outta Compton (Release Date: 8-14-2015) and Dr. Dre: Compton (Release Date: 8-7-2015)

        Andre Young is the most important individual in the history of Hip Hop, it's not even especially close. The near-billionaire first met the world at the age of 23, multi-tasking as a rapper and, more importantly, a producer on N.W.A's seminal debut album, Straight Outta Compton. While his battering-ram flow has remained popular since the moment America first lent an ear, his work behind the soundboard is undeniably his greater contribution, playing puppet master behind some of the genre's greatest and most memorable moments. In other words, Dr. Dre is a curator first, and an artist second, far more interested in promoting Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Beats headphones than he is hearing his own voice on wax. It makes perfect sense that he would enjoy producing a movie about the rise and fall of N.W.A, pulling the strings from behind the curtain make everything work juuuust riiight. It's equally unsurprising then that Dre would pick this moment, after a 16-year hiatus from busting rhymes himself, to finally drop his final solo album; in the span of fewer than ten days, Young is not only introducing us to his origins, but also ridding out into the sunset, the kind of career bookend that unthinkably few are ever afforded. Needless to say, this has been Fuck Wit Dre Day  week.

        And yes, you did read that correctly; there's finally a new Dr. Dre disc. Having contributed only two solo LP's over his nearly three-decades-old career, the tectonic plates started shifting when the MC's old running mate Ice Cube got on Philadelphia's Power 99 radio station and announced that Dre had just finished an album inspired by his experience working on the film. This news, of course, rode in on the coattails of years of anticipation for Detox, Young's stated follow-up to 2001 that never quite saw the light of day. Those who find it strange that the mogul would scrap such a feverishly anticipated offering in favor of a disc he apparently rushed through in far less than a year need to take another look down at those tea leaves; by leaving his fans waiting for so long without ever previously forsaking the project, the Doctor had painted himself into a corner. If Detox was anything less than a cold hard classic, rap enthusiasts the world over would never forgive him. In flipping the script and turning his latest and climactic release into some semblance of a soundtrack, Dr. Dre accomplishes something that seemed impossible as recently as the end of July; a clean escape from all those metric tons of pressure, and some breathing room to boot.

        Thankfully for any fans of his pre-existing catalogue, Dre makes sure to inhale. Compton is far more sprawling and ambitious that one could have possibly expected, spanning 16 tracks and pushing past the hour mark, swapping out one musical styling for another on a countless number of occasions. For a guy often cited as the father of G Funk, a mold of beat-making that emphasizes simplicity and a lack of clutter, the instrumentals here are startlingly dense, revealing subtle nuances upon repeat listens. The deep funk of All In a Day's Work's bass line powers the track from first moment to last, riding out on a nifty, skittering drum beat. For the Love of Money employs that rat-a-tat clicking sound that defines much of southern hip hop to slowed-down, stop-and-start perfection before handing the keys to a spanish guitar. Compton plays out like the hip hop album version of the Oscar Ceremony, where no expense is ever spared, the production is grandstanding and bombastic, and just about any sound or thematic shift seems possible at anytime. The variety and intricacy may prove off-putting to fans of Dre's typically stripped-down aesthetic, but those capable of keeping an open-mind on such a completely closed subject will get a rush out of Compton's uncompromising indulgence.

        In many ways, this is also true of Straight Outta Compton, a film that nearly requires some level of fandom out of its audience to pull it over the finish line. The movie opens in 1986, and focuses almost exclusively on the group's three most prominent members. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is the money man, having accumulated some modest funds through his life as a drug dealer before unwittingly becoming the fourth rapper in the legendary group's arsenal. The words he utters first flow through the pen of a young Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), the group's poet laureate of profanity who, at least in the film's iteration, is not as present on 'the street' as his rhymes would suggest. The same is true of Dre (Corey Hawkins), a music nut who prefers a pair of headphones to a handgun, and a soundboard to a mic. After Eazy puts up the money to print the group's first single, Boyz-N-the Hood, the collective is approached by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a decreasingly relevant music manager who sees the revolutionary appeal of N.W.A upon first listen. With his help, the group sky-rockets to both fame and fortune, a pair of devilries that quickly turn them against one another.

        If that sounds just a little too similar to a cautionary tale you'd see on VH1's Behind the Music, that's because it absolutely is. The script, as written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, is a slave to the music biopic formula: they start at the bottom, attain wild success in the first hour, are driven apart by sex and money, and eventually come to realize that nothing should stand in the way of their bond. My apologies to anyone who thinks I should have included a spoiler disclaimer before that last sentence, but ruining the narrative minutia of Straight Outta Compton is sort of like ruining the grand finale of a maze you'd find in the Sunday paper; you might not know exactly how it arrives at its final destination, but both the start and the finish are apparent at first glance. This adherence to rhetoric also assures that the picture, just like all of its genre contemporaries, is decidedly more engaging and exciting in its first half.

       Not everything on hand is cliche. Director F. Gary Gary is clearly interested in both stylistic flourishes and pocket-sized character moments, even as the film's narrative engine constantly forces him to move on from places and ideas in which he might otherwise stay. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a consistent Darren Aronofsky collaborator, packs the flick with vivid imagery, swooping in and out of rooms and conversations, honing in on certain moments to the point where the frames become almost hypnotic. While in the theater, these instances were frequent and alluring enough to distract from all the common-place aspects that color in the margins, but the movie starts to fray at the seams as soon as you give it time to settle. The films high points, like Eazy's first foray into the studio, or the group's ill-fated Detroit concert, will prove irresistible to the bored TV watchers who encounter SOC when it begins its assured endless rotation on almost every cable channel below 100; they'll find it equally easy to grab the remote when all the standard issue elements reappear.

        Turning away from Compton is entirely more difficult, do in large part to the revolving door of rappers on hand. Given that this is the final offering from hip-hop's most accomplished talent scout, all of Dre's most famous finds can be located on the track list. Ice Cube largely sleepwalks through his verse on Issues, though Snoop Dogg has hardly ever sounded as hungry as he does on One Shot One Kill. Eminem, an MC who's never sounded anything less than starving, bites down hard on Medicine Man, and Kendrick Lamar, present on three different tracks, continues his mind-bogglingly triumphant 2015 by almost stealing the album from Dre himself, all while putting the screws to Drake on more than one occasion. The cast is rounded out by a slew of lesser-known artists, but much of what your ears fail to recognize is actually Dre himself. Young nearly sounds like a different person on a few different tracks, spitting Kendrick's lyrics on Genocide with unforeseeable aplomb, almost desperate sounding on the second half of Darkside/Gone. Possibly the album's best moment, however, comes when the legend takes the stage all by himself, on the illustriously produced closer Talking to My Diary.

        Talking is the only track from Compton actually employed in the film that supposedly inspired its creation, likely because it's also the number most concerned with Dre's story and legacy. Gary's film is positively obsessed with deifying its subject manner, to the point of stripping the outfit of some of their most essential elements. N.W.A was, at their core, a five-pack of shock artists and provocateurs, so when Jackson proudly intones that, "Our art is a reflection of our reality," it's difficult not to think of Eazy-E informing us on 8-Ball Remix that, "Police (are) on (his) drawers/ (he) has to pause/ 40 ounce in (his) lap/ and it's freezing (his) balls." This is not meant as in insult or diminishment; N.W.A threw a wrench into the machine of popular music that's still messing with the system unto this very day. The movie would just rather you think of these five men as visionaries with a salacious streak than trouble-makers who eventually became capable of branding themselves and altering the musical landscape in the process.

        Doing so would require 'a take,' something for which Straight Outta Compton is desperately starved. Yes, the two-and-a-half-hour film is smartly paced, exquisitely acted, and features some of the best sound design in years, but the need to make an epic robs the movie of any real focus. Contracts are signed after one conversation, future wives are met suddenly, and being proposed to the next time they arrive on screen; there's simply too much story here to satisfyingly cram into 150 minutes, forcing even cursory fans of the group to pine over just how tremendous an eight-hour mini-series might have been. There's certainly enough gas in the tank, and perhaps the cinematic rendering of N.W.A's career will be rounded out by the inevitable film versions of the lives of Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. The rapping career of the real-life Dre needs no further fleshing out. Compton might not be the jaw-dropping achievement that Detox was supposed to be, but the album ensures that Young can finally ride out into the sunset with his head held high, no doctor required.

Straight Outta Compton: B-
Compton: B+

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

HypeCast: The Best and Worst Movies of the 2000's So Far

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. Today we discuss the very best and the very worst films of the 2000's thus far. The conversation first covers the many stinkers you've tried to forget over the years, including a handful of Best Picture nominees that Collin feels compelled to place on the very same tier as 10,000 B.C. and Transformers: Age of Extintion. Then we move on to the real winners, and end up focusing on the careers of David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino. We also ponder wether each of the films listed in the 'best' category has any chance at becoming a classic, and what exactly that distinction means. As a bonus, we get distracted by a pressing need to discuss 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Michael Bay's impending attempt to turn Scranton's own Jim Halpert into an action hero. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-25:13---Worst Movies of the 2000's
25:14-1:22:00---Best Movies of the 2000's
1:22:01-1:27:35---'That New Michael Bay Movie With Jim Halpert' and rambling

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ready to Rumble-The Return of Physicality to the Action Blockbuster

        As Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation draws to a close, espionage extraordinaire Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) finds herself not on the top of a falling high-rise, nor on the bow of an enormous spacecraft, but in a dark, dingy basement. Janik Vinter, an eastern European psychopath aptly nicknamed ‘The Bone Doctor,’ is waiting for her down in the dungeon-like setting, a handgun in tow. Faust, who’s just spent the last two hours proving that gymnastics can be just as lethal as literal firepower, makes quick work of disarming her assailant, prompting The Doc to produce a knife. The importance of this moment cannot be over-stated: not only is Vinter perhaps the first character in the history of cinema to be rewarded for bringing a knife to a gun fight, but the sequence essentially works as a statement of intent for the Mission: Impossible franchise, as well as any number of filmmakers who’ve tired of watching the world almost end at the climax of our biggest blockbusters. While many tent pole directors would still argue that bigger is always better, a growing number of helmers are making a case for the pairing down of the action/adventure flick. Summer 2015 has born witness to the burgeoning disagreement between two different camps of effects enthusiasts and mayhem makers: those who would rather zoom out, and those who would rather zoom in.

        The divide wasn't nearly so clear as recently as a decade ago, when the likes of the Lord of the Rings, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, the Harry Potter series ruled the day at the box office. Each franchise utilized innumerable computer generated effects, and favored moments of wide-shot grandeur as a means of conveying both scope and scale. But each also possessed action that took place in close quarters, with real actors wielding tangible props at one another with dangerous intent. The first Spider-Man film culminates in an abandoned building, Tobey Maguire and Willem Defoe staring each other down, the latter's tactile glider eventually causing physical, intimate damage. For all its prologued instances of wand-waving chaos, the Harry Potter flicks always sold themselves on their character moments, a scene set in a classroom often over-shadowing what happens in the Chamber of Secrets or Gringotts Bank. The Two Towers' Battle of Helms Deep, an elongated sequence whose formal stylings remain relevant and influential to this day, gains much of its might from using keyboard creations to emphasize the severity of the situation, while utilizing actual performers to bring it home viscerally. In each example listed above, there's a push-pull: the filmmakers benefit from the eternally-exponential advances in computer generated imagery, and yet manage, with a few exceptions, to not use them as a crutch. They saved that distinction for Michael Bay.

        Transformers, a mega-budget big screen adaptation of an 80's children's toy line and accompanying TV show, was an absurd risk on the part of Paramount Studios. Unless you're counting an actor known primarily at the time as 'that guy from Even Stevens,' the picture's biggest stars were Steven Spielberg (comfortably seated in his producer's chair), and Bay, already a punchline to many an avid film fan. The movie defied expectations and became the third biggest hit of the year, and it did so by pushing the pervasiveness of CGI further than we'd ever seen before in a live-action film. Now that Transformers has spawned two sequels, grossed billions of dollars, and forced most every critic and snob to throw their hands up in exasperation, it's easy to forget how revelatory that first entry really was. Hollywood had spent the first several years of the CGI boom practicing restraint and judiciousness. Bay had no time for either, and the repercussions of his wholesale commitments to digital wonderment can be witnessed on at least one screen of just about every multiplex in America. But the tide might be turning.

        If you'd have told me sometime near the end of April that The Avengers: Age of Ultron would fail to capture this summer's box office crown, I would have laughed in your face. The sequel to 2012's runaway success The Avengers, Ultron seemed poised to break all of its forbearer's records with even more city-leveling destruction, and artificial apocalypse-baiting. Instead, it was bested at every turn by June's Jurassic World, and while the reasons for the upset range from nostalgia, to scheduling, to the now-undeniable star power of Chris Pratt, I personally can't help but assign some blame to the physical disconnect that's coming to define the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When Ultron's titular baddie lifts the entire fictitious city of Sokovia into the air, you feel like you could too; the metropolis appears to weigh about as much as a marshmallow. And while Earth's Mightiest Hero's are witnessed saving the lives of several individual citizens, the film's necessity to keep zooming out in order to make sense of the action robs the sequence of any real tension. There's no argument to be made that Jurassic World leans less heavily of CGI than the latest Avengers joint, but it makes a point of keeping the danger in close proximity. With the exception of a maniacal scene in which a pack of loosed pterodactyls wreak havoc on the park's helpless customers, peril is only experienced by a handful of people at a time, with the hungry animals always a little too close for comfort. Ultron wanted to end humanity through an onslaught of earth-quakes and tidal waves; the Indominous Rex was just kind of hungry, and might accidentally do some damage to the exterior of the nearby Starbucks.

        People responded to comparative simplicity of Jurassic World's conclusion, as well as the vicinity of the danger. Ultron opened to $191 million over the course of its first three days of release, a figure that now represents 41.9% of its current total gross. World made more money out of the gate (a record $208 million), and yet that staggering number is only responsible for 33% of the movie's cumulative take, a number that will undoubtably shrink even further when the film finally stops making money. This would seem like an outlier if it weren't for all the other Summer 2015 offerings that reiterate the theory. Dwayne Johnson's end-times adventure San Andreas opened a whole tier above Mad Max: Fury Road ($54 and $45, respectively), but now they're virtually tied, owing to the fact that Andreas' opening salvo amounts to 36% of its haul, while Mad Max's makes up less than 30%. Despite all the digital wizardry on display in its ads, Terminator: Genisys was a dud on arrival, making it the exact opposite of the white-knuckled Rogue Nation, which sold itself on the merit of its practical effects, and managed to rake in a whopping $55 at the tail end of July. Word is spreading that Hollywood has finally returned to financing blockbusters that are made with more than the pressing of buttons and the clicking of mouses, and audiences are responding by opening their wallets.

        Tinseltown is a reactionary place, and the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, and (to a lesser extent) Jurassic World bode well for those who'd prefer to have their action scaled back a bit, but it's not as though the aforementioned films came out of nowhere. They were each lavishly budgeted, and studio heads don't exactly go around pulling out their check books for every movie they think would be kind of cool to see. Thank the movie gods, then, for the resurgence of the Fast & Furious movies, at once both the least likely and most important billion-dollar saga of the moment. The original, titled The Fast & the Furious, was a success upon its 2001 release, spawning a pair of sequels that each possessed less of the initial cast than the previous entry. They brought the whole gang back together for 2009's Fast and Furious, which opened to a then-staggering $71 million on its way to becoming the highest grossing entry in the franchise. At the time, it seemed like the return of stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker was the primary reason for the monetary spike, but hindsight offers an interesting alternate explanation. Having recently borne witness to Transformers, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and the putrid, fake-looking Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, audiences were eager to watch real cars crash, and not be force-fed yet another skyscraper crumbling to the ground. The fact that each subsequent entry since Fast and Furious has made more than its predecessor only solidifies the point.

       Those anticipating the whole-sale death of the massively-scaled action blockbuster would be wise to not hold their breath. The comic-book adaptation phase, now over a decade into its run of global domination, doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, and even if American audiences are tiring of the Transformers series, the rest of the planet is just getting started (the fourth film, Age of Extinction, is the second highest grossing film in the history of China). Rampant CGI and cataclysmic destruction are here to stay, but after nearly a decade of monopolizing the months of May, June, July, and August, they finally have competition in the marketplace. Our alternative option is still just trickling in, only a handful available in any given year, but their numbers are seeing a steady annual increase, as are their grosses. Physicality is returning to blockbuster season, so put down your doomsday devices and glowing blue macguffins, and be sure to pack a knife. Who knows; it might just come in handy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

HypeCast: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Southpaw

        Hello, and welcome back to the HypeCast, a film-centric podcast hosted by Collin Sherwood Elwyn and Tyler Mitchell. Today we discuss a pair of new theatrical releases geared toward the testosterone-fueled deification of their lead actors, Southpaw and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. The conversation covers Collin getting turnt-up over his love for the new Tom Cruise action flick, as well as Tyler struggling to offer much analysis on Southpaw beyond a verbal shrug. Before we dive into our main topics, Tyler describes a movie that no one has seen (An Honest Liar), while Collin wastes your time reiterating our mass cultural fondness for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Elwyn later compounds his sins by comparing Steve McQueen's masterpiece 12 Years a Slave to M. Night Shyamalan's unintentional masterpiece, The Happening. As a bonus, we go deep on the career of Jake Gyllenhaal for a glorious four minutes. Warning: a few naughty words are contained within. Continue at your own risk. Here We Go!

Podcast Itinerary:
0:00-2:49---Opening and complete randomness
2:50-10:23---The 40-Year-Old Virgin
10:24-15:35---An Honest Liar
15:36-29:17---12 Years a Slave
29:18-34:38---The Happening
51:13-1:11:20---Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Monday, August 3, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (Release Date: 7-31-2015)

        Hollywood's annual summer blockbuster season isn't exactly known for showcasing crackling dialogue, but the last few months have turned that stereotype into a manifesto. The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the assumed champion of the 2015 box office upon its May 1st release, tried to jest, jab, and joke its way to the financial throne, only to be usurped by a flick with nary a clever line to its name. Inside Out, Pixar's magnanimously thoughtful, philosophy-spewing exploration of the adolescent human mind, is certainly a monetary success story, but it's presently being outpaced by those gibberish-spouting motormouths known as the Minions. The critical darling of the season hardly had time for anything besides the grinding of engines and the burning of gasoline, least of all being small talk. There's been a Silent Film quality present in many of our most treasured offerings of the last 100 days, and Mission:Impossible - Rogue Nation is here to carry that trend even further.

        Since the film does manage to make time for a plot, I suppose I'll go ahead and carve out space for its description. Picking up where 2011's gloriously imaginative Ghost Protocol left off, Rogue Nation finds Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise with a different name, Tom Cruise playing a character who's not named Tome Cruise, but is clearly based on Tom Cruise, Ethan Hunt (played here by Tom Cruise) still on the lam from the CIA. The Agency's director, played by Alec Baldwin, is hell-bent on dissolving the Impossible Missions Force from which this series gains its name, citing 'wanton brinksmanship' and 'disregard for protocol' as the group's primary characteristics. He has it out for Hunt especially, but so does The Syndicate, a mysterious group of terrorists whom Ethan's been tracking for months, getting closer and closer by the day. His investigation leads him to Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious, lethal beauty whose true allegiances she might even be keeping secret from herself. Cue that irrepressible, decades-old Mission:Impossible theme song, and so, so, so much running.

        Prior to Rogue Nation, I wouldn't have described myself as an avid Mission: Impossible fan. Yes, Ghost Protocol is an action picture that can confidently stand next to the best in the genre's history without batting an eye, but the third entry didn't exactly knock my socks off, and the first two are simply too far in my personal rearview mirror to state an informed opinion. All of this to say, the prospect of yet another MI picture was strictly a modest curiosity when the lights went down at my screening, and yet, less than 48 hours after walking out of the theater, I feel fully confident that I will never miss another entry. With the exception of a dragging 15-minute stretch that starts around the 80-minute mark, this movie slapped a smile on my face that was big enough to make my cheeks ache by the time it was finally over.

        If there's any complaint to be made about Cruise's newest savior-complex-enabler, it's to be found in the previous sentence, specifically in the word 'finally.' Rogue Nation is non-stop in a fashion that borders on insanity, and while its set pieces might not match the awe-inspiring glory of director Brad Bird's previous installment, the minutia of how our characters get from point A to point B is immediately more white-knuckled, and pulse-pounding. These are, of course, compliments for a movie that aims to serve as a roller coaster first, and a proper film second, but its 131 minute runtime insures that you feel at least slightly weathered by the time the credits roll. It's an odd complaint given that none of the individual sequences is anything less than captivating, but if we're picking knits here, the picture could have better maximized its impressive impact by trimming the runtime by just a hair.

        Other than that, everything is gravy. The convoluted plot, while immediately as thorny and undulating as each of the previous entries, is easier to follow than its predecessors due to writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's graceful deployment of plot points and pertinent information. But something tells me it's not his pen that will cause film fans to view the helmer differently upon viewing his latest film. Excluding that aforementioned 15-minute stretch, Rogue Nation is downright obsessive about not wasting your time, powering through one intense action sequence after another with its hands firmly on the wheel, and its foot pushing the gas pedal to the floor. Editor Eddie Hamilton also deserves credit for the rousing manner in which it all goes down, slicing through the mania without losing the audience for any prolonged stretches of time. The newest Mission: Impossible is a blast, filled with fun actors, technical prowess, and an emphasis on practical effects that's capable of dropping jaws while computer animated mayhem is busy drawing yawns. Sorry, no Tom Cruise think-piece here; you could google almost any other review of Rogue Nation and find innumerable explanations of how the film works in conjunction with the actor's damaged public persona. There's certainly a lot to absorb in that arena, but I want to keep this write-up clear and precise, as to not lose the only MI5 argument I personally feel any dire need to get behind: Rogue Nation is freaking awesome, and if you haven't seen it already, go buy a damn ticket.

Grade: A-