Thursday, July 9, 2015

It's Time to Move On

StarGazer

        After much consideration, WordMaster and I have decided that the time has come to close up shop at Wicked Stupid Plotless. Originally started by our friend C.E. Jenkins, this blog has been a blast to work on, a casual outlet where we could express our opinions and thoughts on our favorite subjects, and posting here has helped me make me a better, more mature writer. When we first launched this blog four years ago, we were fresh-faced kids entering college, but now that we have both graduated, it seems appropriate to start charting a new path.

        Although we won't post on this blog anymore, all of our posts will remain up for reading, and we both plan to still write. I am starting a blog at lovinglyderivative.wordpress.com, where I will focus on territory similar to what I discussed here (i.e. pop culture with an emphasis on movies and TV), while you can find WordMaster at theauramusings.wordpress.com/.

        Thank you for reading, and I hope you will follow us on our new ventures.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Magic Mike XXL Does Its Thang

WordMaster


             Magic Mike was essentially an art house movie. Endowed with a modest $7 million budget, the 2012 Channing Tatum vehicle was branded a “surprise hit” when it grossed $167 million worldwide and garnered warm critical reviews, including sincere (if ultimately futile) Oscar buzz for costar Matthew McConaughey. Interestingly, though, the reason Magic Mike gained legitimacy with critics also served as the basis for audiences’ most vocal complaint: for a film whose popular appeal stemmed almost entirely from the promise of hot, naked men, it’s a rather serious affair, dealing with the then-ongoing economic recession and drug addiction. Or, as Tatum succinctly put it, people wanted “less story. Less plot. Just dudes’ things.”

             On that front, the sequel delivers. Appropriately titled Magic Mike XXL, it costs twice as much as its predecessor ($14.8 million, still economical compared to most high-profile summer flicks these days) and throws restraint out the window. To say there’s a story here would be lenient. The first hour or so teases us with a flimsy narrative about coping with disappointment in life, but any semblance of genuine conflict dissipates by the time Mike and co. arrive at the exclusive club run by Jada Pinkett Smith’s suave emcee Rome. At this point, the film, helmed by frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Gregory Jacobs, sheds its semi-respectable guise and reveals itself as a full-blown musical, a parade of exuberant dance and song numbers (the latter courtesy of Matt Bomer and Donald Glover) punctuated by snippets of dialogue. The soundtrack is seductively frothy, with tracks as varied as the Backstreet Boys’s “I Want It That Way” and Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” competing to get lodged in your head.

Pixar Lets Audiences in on Its Secrets in Inside Out

StarGazer


        Inside Out is vintage Pixar. After spending a few years mired in an adolescent funk, the studio has emerged with a take on the coming-of-age story that’s as clever as it is poignant and that suggests a newfound sense of maturity. For his follow-up to, well, Up, director Pete Docter, along with a pitch-perfect voice cast and Pixar’s usual team of genius animators, explores the uncertainties of growing up and the complex interplay between emotion and memory by delving into the mind of an 11-year-old girl. The result is a film of such piercing yet exquisite intimacy that writing this review seems like a fruitless endeavor, since no words could adequately convey that feeling. The sensation of watching Inside Out lingers long after details about the plot and particular jokes begin to fade.

        Pixar’s latest work is most reminiscent not of any Disney or animated movie, but of last year’s Boyhood. While Richard Linklater’s flick offers a more anxious and ambivalent outlook on life, an attitude concisely captured by Patricia Arquette’s wrenching final line, both movies are as much about parenting as they are about being a kid, in part because their makers are unavoidably coming from that perspective, and with their white, middle-class, presumed-to-be-heterosexual protagonists, they largely adhere to popular imaginings of childhood as happy, suburban havens of innocence. These romanticized depictions are so often reproduced by Hollywood they’ve taken on an almost mythic status, seemingly grounded more in a particular set of ideals than in reality.

        However, both Inside Out and Boyhood have more on their minds than nostalgia. By making the children at their centers distinctive and well-rounded enough to feel like individuals instead of archetypes, they sidestep many of the potential pitfalls and clich├ęs that frequently doom coming-of-age tales. You don’t have to share Riley’s passion for hockey to relate to the meaningful role it plays in her life, just as you didn’t need to agree with Mason’s teenage existential musings to recognize that they are his way of making sense of the world around him and cementing his own increasingly independent identity. These movies succeed, in other words, because they understand that art taps into universal sentiments – namely, people’s capacity for empathy – most effectively when it portrays specific, not vague circumstances; they simply tell their own stories rather than attempting to cater to all possible audience members.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Looking for Justice at the 2015 Emmys

StarGazer

        HBO aired the finales for its spring lineup this past Sunday, which means that the 2014-15 TV season has officially ended and the race for the Emmys is about to kick into full gear. While the actual nominations won’t be announced for another month, there’s no better time than the present to make the case for the shows and people I hope to see recognized come July 16. As I’ve mentioned in my previous Emmy wish-lists, these aren’t predictions, and given voters’ past tendencies, I imagine the majority of them have next-to-no chance of happening, but one must never despair when it comes to pop culture awards, not even in the face of inexplicable FX snubbing and Downton Abbey love. Until the final verdict comes out, possibilities for surprise abound, so if they know what’s good for them, voters should take a peek at this list:

Drama

The case: Mad Men for everything
The argument: It’s hard to think of Matthew Weiner’s iconic show about the ad industry in the 1960s as an underdog or long shot, but in recent years, its reputation as an awards darling hasn’t exactly matched with reality. Most awards bodies, like the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild, seem to have forgotten about its existence, last recognizing Mad Men in 2013. Even the Emmys, which often seems to lavish the show with attention out of rote habit (see: the continued noms for Christina Hendricks and Robert Morse despite the lack of actual material for both actors in the latest seasons), only gave it four nominations, and no wins, for the stellar first half of its seventh and final season. Add in the fact that not a single member of its large, hugely talented ensemble cast has ever won an Emmy, and maybe you can understand why I’m a bit nervous about Mad Men’s prospects, though it will presumably benefit from not having to compete with Breaking Bad anymore.
        It would be easy to argue that Mad Men deserves Emmy recognition simply because it’s Mad Men and it only seems proper to give such a seminal work of art one last hurrah. However, the show is too good, its merits too many, for me to resort to such a shallow, sentimental appeal. While the last seven episodes weren’t the strongest of its run, they still provided plenty of indelible moments, from Joan threatening to burn it all down to Peggy sauntering into the McCann-Erickson offices and Don driving off into the sunset, and a fitting conclusion to the saga of Don Draper and friends. As impeccably crafted as always, Mad Men stayed true to its ambiguous, elliptical nature, preferring hard-won, frequently temporary victories over immediate gratification. The dissolution of Sterling Cooper put all of the show’s major characters at crossroads and, as a result, proved to be the perfect storyline to drive home the series’ core themes of identity, change, expectations versus reality, and the unstoppable march of time. Layered performances by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and January Jones in particular ensured that Mad Men’s impending absence would be deeply felt.
The evidence: “Time and Life” (ep. 11), “Lost Horizon” (ep. 12), “Person to Person” (ep. 14)


Me to the Emmys, probably 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire and Humanizing the Void

WordMaster

             You could be forgiven for dismissing Halt and Catch Fire as second-rate Mad Men. You might even be right. After all, the sophomore AMC drama created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers is hardly the masterpiece that Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed, seven-season meditation on the American Dream was even in its youth, and its resemblance to the latter borders on suspicious at times.

             To start with, it’s a period piece, though 1980s Texas doesn’t quite have the exotic, jewel-toned glamour of ‘60s Manhattan. Joe MacMillan, the central protagonist played by Lee Pace, is basically a mid-level Don Draper – a debonair, silver-tongued genius tormented by his enigmatic past; he even ends the first season by ditching his job and disappearing into the backcountry, a move not dissimilar to Don’s cross-country odyssey in the last act of Mad Men. At one point, Cameron sums Joe up with the barbed observation: “You’re just a thousand-dollar suit with nothing inside.” Sound familiar?



I mean, come on.

Speaking of Cameron, she’s the Peggy Olson of Halt and Catch Fire, an idealistic young prodigy who the hero takes under his wing; her alternately affectionate and resentful interactions with Joe recall Peggy and Don’s volatile relationship. Donna initially occupies the obligatory neglected wife role, though unlike with Betty Draper, the other characters soon learn to recognize and appreciate her value, and in a pleasantly surprising reversal, the second season has positioned Gordon as a bored house-husband while Donna gets absorbed in her work. Both shows even include amusing side-stories involving typically straitlaced women trying marijuana.

Yet, after a rather uninspired beginning, I found myself thoroughly enjoying Halt and Catch Fire as I binged the first season on Netflix (for me, “binging” means consuming 1-3 episodes a day, which I guess for some people is known as “watching TV”). I couldn’t help but succumb to Lee Pace’s haughty charisma; the dysfunctional, frequently hostile relationships; the pleasure of seeing Donna upend everybody’s expectations, including the audience’s; the coolly retro soundtrack and credits sequence. As much as I love Game of Thrones, there’s something to be said for a show that creates tension out of lost computer files.

In a way, it turned out to be the perfect rebound, filling, however incompletely, the gaping hole left in my TV-viewing heart by Mad Men. For all the aforementioned similarities, I would argue that Halt and Catch Fire is not, in fact, a cheap knockoff of the seminal ad agency drama but a rejoinder, approaching the same problems – how are people shaped by society? Is happiness possible? What is our purpose in life? – from a radically different angle.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Some Reflections on Consuming Pop Culture in Isolation

StarGazer

        Last Friday night, I officially went into mourning for Jimmy Darmody. I’ve spent the last few months slowly making my way through Boardwalk Empire, the Prohibition era-set, Steve Buscemi-starring HBO drama that lasted five seasons before airing its final episode in October last year. Having never quite mastered the art of binge-watching, I sometimes go days, even weeks between episodes, so it felt like a small victory to finally complete the second season, even though I’d started the show at the end of February, which meant that it took me three months to watch a mere 24 episodes.

        The finale left me a bit emotionally distraught, as I knew it would. Yet even as I typed out that off-the-cuff tweet, the part of me that wasn’t numb with sadness felt ridiculous. After all, this was a fictional character whose abrupt demise had originally taken place way back in 2011, and while I managed to avoid hearing details of the specific circumstances, I’d been aware of this particular plot point virtually since it happened, giving me plenty of time to prepare. This foreknowledge naturally colored my viewing experience, but rather than spoiling it by taking away the element of surprise as I might’ve expected, it made me appreciate Jimmy’s overall arc as well as Michael Pitt’s performance more. The prospect of his ultimate fate loomed like approaching storm clouds, imbuing his scenes with an underlying sense of dread and melancholy, and what might’ve otherwise come off as an out-of-left-field twist incorporated for shock value instead seemed all the more tragic for its inevitability.

All I wanted was more of this ruthless swagger


        Deciding what TV shows to watch, once a simple matter of flipping through a handful of channels to see what’s on at the time, has become a rather trying occupation, one that requires careful planning and time management. More than any other form of entertainment, TV demands commitment, asking viewers to devote potentially years of their lives to following a single story that in all likelihood won’t even get a proper, satisfying ending. With the rise of new technology and the medium’s reputation, there’s a greater variety of quality shows than ever before. So, options must be weighed, priorities determined, sacrifices made. However, in the age of Netflix, HBO Go, DVRs and other alternate streaming/viewing avenues, what’s sacrificed is often not a particular show, but rather, the conversation around that show.

Friday, May 22, 2015

How Mad Max: Fury Road Succeeds by Embracing Genre

WordMaster

            Blessed is she or he who watches Mad Max: Fury Road and can write coherently about it. The latest entry in George Miller’s gasoline-fueled, apocalyptic series unfolds as a fever dream, an extended action sequence so relentlessly kinetic that the few periods of quiet and stillness feel downright unsettling. Even now, I’m not entirely convinced this is a real film that I experienced while conscious, let alone one that’s legitimately good.

            By all rights, a movie involving an electric guitar that literally spews fire should fall into the “guilty pleasure” category at best; to tell the truth, there were a couple times when I wasn’t quite sure if I was laughing with or at it. Yet this eagerness to revel in the ridiculous is ultimately why it works, along with the abundance of distinct female characters; the quietly riveting performances from lead actors Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult; and the mind-blowing commitment to practical effects over digital trickery.


If stuff like this doesn’t make you appreciate stuntmen and women, you’re hopeless.

I tend to be skeptical of the idea that there’s inherent value in deliberately over-the-top art. White House Down may be aware of its stupidity, but that doesn’t make it any less stupid or more fun to watch. Fury Road, however, is not over-the-top just for the sake of being over-the-top. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s highly interested in exploring the concept of madness, on both an individual level (see: the main character’s name) and a societal level (the dystopian community led by villain, Immortan Joe, revolves around a manipulative cult). The first ten or so minutes put us directly in Mad Max’s head, using various aesthetic techniques, such as rapid edits and sped-up motion, to produce a sense of mania and disorientation. As a whole, the exquisitely grotesque production design effectively captures a world in disarray, where there are no rules and nothing makes sense.

            At a time when Hollywood churns out big-budget spectacles like assembly-line products, the passion of Fury Road feels not only refreshing but vital. Here is an action movie that unabashedly adores action, staging scenes of destruction and mayhem with the mischievous glee of a kid experimenting with fireworks. Explosions, shootouts and armored cars collide in a frenzied, hypnotic ballet, set to the grand, cacophonous score of Dutch instrumentalist Junkie XL. It’s light-years away from the self-conscious irony of such flicks as 21 Jump Street and Guardians of the Galaxy, which seem faintly embarrassed by their own existence, and the slick yet soulless tedium that plagues so many tent-poles, like The Amazing Spider-Man, whose novice director Marc Webb was clearly more interested in making a sweet romance than the flashy extravaganza he was obligated to deliver.