Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last but not beast -- Beastly (2011)

Squarely aimed to appeal to Twilight fans looking for more Paranormal Teen Romance, Beastly is a modern retelling of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” set in a posh New York prep school. While the idea of taking a classic fairy tale that has already received a pretty definitive update and melding it with pretty girls wanting sullen boys seems colossally wrongheaded, Beastly honestly isn’t as bad as it could be. That’s not to say that it’s not absolutely gosh-awful, because it is, but it’s gosh awful in exactly the right ways and wraps in a wonderfully slight 86 minutes, making for a delightfully gaudy and trashy slice of “teen” entertainment, as perceived entirely by marketing.

Beastly, as its title suggests, follows the story of the Beast, played by Kyle Kingston (Alex Pettyfer), an obscenely wealthy and vain son of a famous, parentally-distant newscaster (Beastly’s angle is to blame Kyle’s jerkwad nature on his daddy issues, which it works tirelessly in the first half of the movie before dropping entirely in the second). Kyle wins the presidency of some thinly-described school club, and celebrates by publicly humiliating the piercing- and tattoo-laden school “witch,” Kendra (Mary Kate Olsen. Yes, that Mary Kate Olsen), for being a pug-fugly heifer-face, or something to that effect. Kendra responds by turning the pretty boy Kyle into an equally piercing- and tattoo-laden creature of so-called ugliness, though by allowing him to keep his washboard physique and slender build, Kendra effectively makes Kyle a Suicide Boy.

Billboard Dad, this ain't.

Of course, Kyle and his father will have nothing to do with his new, alternative look, and he’s given a private condo overlooking the Hudson, so that he may be spared the humiliation of being seen by other, equally-shallow classmates. In fact, the only person who showed Kyle any non-fake affection before his transformation is the humble, down-to-earth Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens), who attends the prep school on scholarship, tipping the audience off that, because she’s not of privilege, she’s an actually decent human being. Kyle seeks Lindy out and saves her from a murderous drug dealer, letting her stay under his roof until the whole thing blows over. At first, Lindy doesn’t take to him, and balks at his attempts to buy her affection with increasingly-expensive gifts, but as he opens his heart to her, she begins to see his kinder and gentler side, and then it’s all over but the crying (which a friend of mine actually did during our most recent viewing).

You may have noticed my many oblique references to the many material goods featured in the movie. This is because Beastly is, first and foremost, lifestyle porn. I was honestly blown away by the constant name-dropping of expensive brands like Dolce & Gabbona, Prada, and more, as well as the pie-in-the-sky wealth on prominent display by nearly every character, including and up to Kyle’s sky loft condo, which must cost more in one month than I make in one year.

Love conquers all, especially if you're a bad boy with Jay-Z levels of expendable income.

The second thing Beastly is, or wants to be, is a movie about the Teen Experience; it valiantly attempts to punch up its workaday screenplay with modern, “hip” flourishes, and could not sound more forced if Diablo Cody stuck her head in midway through and began rambling on about Sonic Youth and her hamburger phone. Characters—grown characters—arbitrarily start speaking in “teen”-sounding neologisms (describing someone as “tool-y), and several important, plot-related shots are predicated on text messages, darting across the screen in a see-through montage promising dramatic heft (“Can’t be there 2nite. :(” The heart reels).

Combining white privilege, American teenagers, angsty romance, and wrapping it in a fairy tale guise sounds like the most surefire recipe for disaster that Man could possibly invent, but for some twisted, indefensible reason, it kinda worked for me. The over-the-top wealth and gratuitous “teen” vernacular works well with the fairy tale story, helping solidify the notion that the whole movie is a folk tale, but a modern one. Beastly doesn’t feel anymore “real” than Beauty and the Beast must have sounded to its original audience, but its heightened, exaggerated telling works well for the story, in the same way a pet-stained rug can, in the right venue, straight-facedly be presented as modern art.

In the weirdest, peanut-butter-and-sardines way, Beastly kinda, sorta works, though having a few drinks before viewing can't hurt.

In terms of the acting, there’s nothing abrasively “bad” about Beastly, though I’m certain there’s little that can be truthfully described as “good.” Both Pettyfur and Hudgens bring little insight and depth to their characters (beauty isn’t the only thing skin-deep), but their aggressively bland performances truly, honestly contribute to the above fairy tale stylization. More active and altogether interesting are Kyle’s blind tutor Will (Neil Patrick Harris) and live-in maid Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who both act as cyphers for Lumiere and Mrs. Potts from the Disney version, respectively. Since both actors realize that most of the audience will not care one iota for their collective existence, they give comically broad performances that don’t necessarily gel well with everyone else in the movie, but still entertain nonetheless.

For reasons my brain will never, ever feel good about, I actually enjoyed Beastly, in a sort of avante garde, tongue-in-cheek way. I will never own it on DVD, and my enjoyment and recommendation comes with a big ol’ asterisk, but if seen for what it is (or, perhaps, what it isn’t), Beastly is a satisfying, amusing exercise in the realm of so-bad-it’s-hilarious filmmaking.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Now groove, sucka! -- Sucker Punch (2011)

In Sucker Punch, the main protagonist suffers from a dissociative identity, in one moment occupying the persona of a 1920s bordello girl, and in another, becoming a badass super soldier garbed in fetish-y schoolgirl gear. How interesting, then, that the movie also suffers from a dissociative identity, unable to decide if it wants to be a look into the struggles of an oppressed young woman rebelling against the system, or an elaborate effort to see how much stereotypical nerd-wank director Zack Snyder can cram into the space 110 minutes, which is easily twenty minutes longer than it should be.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. For Sucker Punch certainly isn’t the worst film I’ve seen this year, and, at a stretch, “works” the way I think it intends to. When all is said and done, though, Sucker Punch simply doesn’t satisfy me, and what should be a fantastic piece of escapism instead glides past my interest like a sparrow into a closed window.

The main plot of Sucker Punch concerns Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young woman put in a mental institution after the death of her mother by her slimy, sleazy stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). Stepdad bribes an orderly (Oscar Isaac) to have her lobotomized in five days’ time; that the orderly is only too happy to oblige is because, I dunno, video games didn’t exist in the 1950s and he needs a break in the monotony every once in a while.

After a yet more exposition, the setting changes, revealing that the mental institution is, in fact, a 1920s bordello, and Babydoll is the new arrival. Babydoll is told that she is to work in the bordello, dancing until the High Roller (Jon Hamm) comes for her in five days’ time. After a set of lessons, Babydoll discovers that her dancing is so wildly captivating, it locks everyone watching into a trance, and she soon uses her newfound abilities to concoct plans of escape. Helping her along the way are overprotective Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), tomboyish Rocket (Jenna Malone), sweetheart-type Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and introverted Amber (Jamie Chung).

They're like the Spice Girls, but with more heavy artillery. And misogyny.

What makes Sucker Punch unique, and what comprises its entire hook, are Babydoll’s dances themselves, which are not actually shown to the audience, but are instead interpreted as a series of elaborate fantasies involving World War I trenches, bipedal mechs, towering castles, zeppelins, zombies, Vulcan cannon-wielding samurai. It’s an impressive cocktail of otaku imagery, and the film’s biggest draw.

On paper, Sucker Punch looks like a breezy, breathless mash-up of everything Zack Snyder thought was cool when he was twelve—an empty-headed thrill ride meant to blow away the audience with its eclectic universe and bombastic action. In execution, though, it buckles under the weight of its own mythos, laboring far too long on affairs in the bordello, and generally acting as though the audience did not attend for the express purpose of watching a fishnet stocking-clad B-52 pilot shoot a dragon in the face with a small-arms handgun.

Seriously, for a movie that sells itself as a fantastical voyage into a patchwork quilt of fan service, it spends a healthy chunk of time (too much, in fact) on the plight of Babydoll and her four cohorts. Ironically, even with the extended character moments, the film’s treatment of Babydoll and co. never becomes meaty enough to become emotionally invested in; each girl has only one or two personality traits, and are difficult to distinguish between after a spell, leaving me to differentiate between them by their different hair styles.

None of the central cast makes much of an impression, creating confusion when they become buried under a mountain of CGI.

Hell, even the much-vaunted fantasy sequences are hard to get worked-up about after the novelty is worn out, due to its lifeless execution. Tearing through a wave of Helgastian soldier with the help of steam punk gadgetry and Modern Warfare-style guns-with-scopes should be damn invigorating, but instead feels tired, drifting from one shot of mind-bending action to another in the sleepiest was possible. Without the ability to sell themselves as fun or entertaining, the movie’s bread and butter—its set pieces—end up feeling like so much cinematic masturbation.

Which is a shame, because the action and scenarios are all outstanding ideas. Perhaps it’s because I, like Snyder, was also once a twelve-year-old boy, and can appreciate how Awesome is the notion of throwing together so many disparate elements of nerdy iconography. And while I feel like the fantasies could have been more exciting, Snyder does a good job of keeping the action clear, refraining from the jump-cuts and shaky-cam that many contemporary action flicks use as a crutch.

The film's over-the-top, nonsensical style is commendable, whenever it isn't suffering from its milquetoast action.

I also can’t fault Snyder for what he wanted to accomplish with the bordello bits, either. Wall-to-wall CG shots of pretty girls using martial arts and heavy firearms could get pretty tedious, pretty fast, and I dig the literal notion of creating a fantasy in order to cope with a difficult situation, but most of the chatter about escape and the High Roller drag the movie down like so many pounds of cinder blocks. Ultimately, Sucker Punch turns into one big game of Why So Serious, plodding where it should be springing, and effectively sucking the joy out of what should be a bats@%# crazy good time.

In truth, perhaps that’s the reason why I’m most frustrated by Sucker Punch. This is a movie I should be hard-wired to like, but its desire to be both a dour character study and phantasmagorical action flick bogs it down. Perhaps it’s worth renting in order to experience the film’s many flights of fancy, but don’t be surprised if you start inventing coping-fantasies yourself.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Give it away Now: Spoilers in Video Games

Naturally, this post contains SPOILERS about several popular games and movies. However, most of them are from properties at least ten-years-old (aside from the Batman: Arkham City plot point that inspired this article), so there’s a good chance you’ll be alright if you read this.

Last week, on Friday, September 30, Kotaku published a preview on Batman: Arkham City, a recap of author Kirk Hamilton’s experience with a build he was playing at PAX. Upon release, the article was met with cries of dissent and barely-stifled indignation. The reason: the article’s headline and accompanying graphic revealed that, during the first act of Batman: Arkham City, the Joker dies.

Sifting through the comments, one can easily pick out a common thread between them: there should have been more warning, the twist shouldn’t have been so obvious to people who may not have wanted to read it, etc. The developers were cool with Hamilton writing about the event, so it’s not as though he was out of line regarding what he should or shouldn’t have said, but Arkham City fans appeared to think differently, at least in regards to how the article was titled.

This post isn't a complaint about Kotaku's decision-making in publishing, nor is it meant to put Kirk Hamilton on blast for his Arkham City article (which, incidentally, is a well-written and informative preview focused largely on the game's play mechanics). Instead, I want to take a larger look at spoilers and their place in the gaming press.


If you follow the gaming press, there's a good chance you come across many small spoilers every day. Every preview on The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, every review of Resistance 3, every editorial about the latter half of Rage contains potential spoilers, spoilers of where you'll visit and what you'll do when you get there. More often than not, these are minor, relatively harmless spoilers that won't upset any but die-hard dry-runners (I remember hearing a Game Informer podcast where an editor reminisced about some readers complaining when they mentioned that you would get missiles in an upcoming Metroid game. Come on).

Different, though, are major spoilers about certain, plot-crucial moments. More often than not, they're warned about ahead of time, but sometimes, like in the God of War 3 episode of G4's Feedback, they can come out unexpectedly. There’s a joked-about “Spoiler Statute of Limitations” that says revealing twists for older games is fine (e.g. “Aerith dies at the end of disc one” isn’t a party foul anymore anymore), but discussing major story elements of games that are new are off-limits (particularly, games that haven’t come out yet).

Oddly, some story elements first considered spoilers end up perfectly acceptable to talk about as the series goes on. When Assassin's Creed first released in 2007, several publications ended up bending over backwards to avoid discussing the Desmond portions of the game, instead conveying that the title was a period piece, and not set in the near future. Now, Desmond's role in the series well-known, and is an often-discussed aspect of the series.

Back in 2007, everyone pretended that this was a historical fiction series. Now, it's generally accepted that Assassin's Creed is straight-up sci-fi.

Why do folks get so worked up about spoilers? For me, it denies me the opportunity to discover the material for myself, and to react to it within the context of the game/movie/whatever. Granted some spoilers don’t phase me too badly (“No, I am your father”), because these moments are often integrated into the public narrative of the piece (is there anyone who doesn’t, at least partially, think of The Sixth Sense as “the movie about where Bruce Willis is dead”). New games/movies/etc. don’t have the opportunity to establish their identity yet, and certain big moments, when taken out of context, can detract from both the individual moment’s impact, and the impact in the larger context of the experience (e.g. the nuke scene from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, or the scene in Andrew Ryan’s office in BioShock).

Games still function even if the story is spoiled, though. Even if I were to find out what happens at the end of Dark Souls before finishing the game, I can still enjoy the title as a journey, having fun with the combat and world-building, and taking in the game as an experience. Perhaps this is why the gaming press is less concerned with spoilers: at the end of the day, games are meant to be played. Compare this to movie press: the average film-goer attends movies on the basis of their narratives (compared to, say, the sound design or the cinematography), so it behooves critics to reveal as little about the fine details of the film's plot as they can (less, in fact, than many trailers). A video game, on the other hand, lives and dies by the strength of its gameplay, and ancillary plot details won't steal the fun from solid game design. Some games suffer more than others by having their story spoiled (I would personally punch anyone who ruins the ending of Alan Wake for me), but the actual gameplay itself often compensates for a less-compelling narrative.

Even if I knew how the story ended, I could still enjoy the gameplay.

Part of why I think this Batman story has been so harshly attacked is because video games so often lack quality, spoiler-worthy narratives. Some game stories are as predictable as the sunrise: Mario will always rescue Peach, the Pokemon trainer will always defeat the Elite Four, and that plucky girl you met up with at the start of your quest is probably a princess in disguise. Batman is an unusually character-driven property, and Arkham Asylum provided an involving story that well-utilized nearly every character involved. Fans were likely hoping for similar involvement in the story, and became agitated at the apparent flippancy with which a perhaps-major story point was revealed.

For me, it ultimately comes down to choice. Sometimes, I don't mind when I find out crucial details of a game's plot in advance, especially if I don't plan on playing through it, or I'm not particularly invested in the game's story (e.g. Gears of War 3). However, there are other times where I'll go to absurd lengths to protect myself from dreaded "thpoilerth;" when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows first released, I spent most of the two days it took me to finish the book in my room, cut off from communication in case my friend's manager at Pizza Hut stole his phone and texted me a list of which characters died (something my friend warned me he would do and, in fact, did).

My point being: spoilers are far less offensive when I choose for them to be spoiled. If I choose to go on Wikipedia and read about the plot of a game I don’t have time to play, I am willing to incur any penalties or cheapenings that happen if I do decide to play it. However, if someone on the street were to walk up to me back in 1997 and blurt out that Sheik is actually Zelda in disguise, I’d be more than a little ticked off. I should be able to choose if I want a major plot point revealed to me ahead of time, and not a moment before.

On the other hand, I think I would have preferred to know that I wouldn’t be playing as Snake the whole time.

[Originally appeared on, October 7, 2011]

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Oh, Oh, It's Magic -- Magic: The Gathering: Duel of the Planeswalker 2012

I've been a fan of collectable card games for over ten years, ever since I bought my first booster pack of Pokémon TCG cards. I'm not sure if it's my latent Montanan predilection for gambling, or because my affection for board games has never truly gone away, but collectable card games have always scratched a gaming itch I can't find anywhere else. Unfortunately, CCGs require two things I, for the most part, lack: an involved community with whom I can play my cards, and a large chunk of disposable income for accumulating new cards.

Fortunately, Stainless Games has me covered with their series of Magic: The Gathering games of Xbox Live Arcade. With their two Magic titles, Duel of the Planeswalkers and Duel of the Planeswalkers 2012, Stainless provides a refined Magic experience, eschewing the deck-building that can be intimidating for some (i.e. me) in favor of pre-built, balanced decks, while still allowing for a degree of customization, and retaining the series’ deep rule set and satisfying gameplay.

I cut my teeth into the original Duel of the Planeswalkers back in 2009. The turn-based, strategic combat helped ease my mind when I was stressed, and it even helped me through a post-hangover New Year’s Day. My excitement turned palpable when Stainless announced a follow-up title, Duel of the Planeswalkers 2012, earlier this year; it eventually released on June 15, 2011. I held off buying it at the time because I was playing through DotP’s third DLC pack, and didn’t want to overwhelm myself. When it finally showed up on the Xbox Live Deal of the Week for half price earlier this week, though, it was unavoidable: I purchased it immediately, and have been loving it ever since.

Yeah, they're just cards, but use your imagination, and it looks like this.

The most immediately-noticeable thing about Duel of the Planeswalkers 2012 is the updated UI. Stainless has cleaned up a good deal of the mess from the original Planeswalkers, streamlining the HUD that shows your cards, life, and what phase of your turn you’re in. Stainless has also made the proceedings go back faster; Plainswalker 2012 has far shorter loading times than the first title, and on a whole, the game seems to clip by faster than its predecessor.

The new cards look exceptional as well, highly detailed for your zooming pleasure (let’s face it, half the fun of magic is checking out the awesome artwork on the cards). The decks from Duel of the Planeswalkers have been heavily overhauled for their appearance in Planeswalkers 2012, largely keeping the same theme, but adding new cards to the mix. Stainless has also added a few new, more unique decks, like a Black/Blue/White artifact deck, or a Blue/White Creature Deck.

Of course, graphical polish and new cards aren’t the only things Planeswalkers 2012 has to offer. The game’s single player campaign has been given a dose of player choice, allowing gamers to occasionally choose between two different deck types to play against, or offering a host of puzzle-like one-on-one challenges. In addition to the main campaign, there’s a revenge campaign, which simply re-orders the AI opponents, and a new Archenemy campaign, which pits three players against one super powered one. It’s neither the deepest nor the most original single player game, but it’s a step-up from the previous iteration.

Clashing art. Go with it, alright?

I haven’t had time to check out the multiplayer yet, but my enthusiasm for online Duel of the Planeswalkers died after one-too-many folks who bailed on my game when it looked like they wouldn’t win. Bummer.

For gamers who like collectable card games, now is a great time to pick up a digital iteration of the best one out there, and for 400 Microsoft Points ($5), it’s an absolute steal.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

We'll Be Right Back, After These Messages

As you have no doubt realized by now, I have been less-than-punctual in my delivery of my Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge entries. I could give a full explanation of why my performance has been so slack, but there's a good chance it would sound something like HOWL HOWL GARGLE HOWL GARGLE HOWL HOWL HOWL GARGLE HOWL GARGLE HOWL HOWL GARGLE GARGLE HOWL GARGLE GARGLE GARGLE HOWL SLURRP UUUURGH COMPLAINING, so I'll instead refrain.

I have, though, taken steps to open up my free time, so I fully intend to get back on the wagon with posting, if only to expedite progress on my nearly-ten-months-old Disney blog series. Look forward to future praises, grousings, and general words on cheap Blu-rays, songs, and, yes, even video games.

End of line.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 16

Day 16 - A Sequel Song

Occasionally, certain songs become popular enough to warrant a follow-up. The need to create a song with thematic ties to another, earlier song makes absolutely no sense to me, but it's been around for a good chunk of time in pop music. Sometimes the relationship is explicit to the point of being tedious (e.g. "The Devil Went Back to Georgia"), and sometimes you hardly even know it's there.

Kelly Clarkson - "My Life Would Suck Without You"

Hands up: who here knew this was a sequel song? Without looking at the Wikipedia page? I sure as hell didn't; why would I? Lyrically, it's a standard, if rather catchy, getting back together anthem. But no, dear readers, it's not just any getting back together anthem, but instead is the follow-up to her massive 2004 hit "Since U Been Gone."

Why make a sequel to a song that went number two nearly four years prior to "My Life's" release? We may never know, but I can take a guess. Clarkson's 2007 album, My December, was a grandiose, epic piece of Evanescence-y alt-rock, and despite garnering largely positive reviews and eventually going platinum, it never posted the same numbers as her previous album, Breakaway, nor did it produce as many hit singles. After such an experimental (and controversial) project, I imagine the label wanted to return to something a bit more secure--from this, we retread the familiar ground of one of Clarkson's biggest singles, written by one of the most successful pop songwriters of the last generation. I have literally no proof to support any of this, but it makes that most sense as to why "My Life" sounds so incredibly different from every other song on All I Ever Wanted.

Anyway, "My Life Would Suck Without You." It's a catchy bit to pop-rock, carried by a simple, driving guitar line, constant (if artificial) drum and cymbal track, and an occasional swooping synthesizer. All of this is augmented by Martin's titanic-sized hook that peaks in all of the right places, and Clarkson's soaring vocals, as passionate and energetic as anything one can hope from the most successful alumnus of American Idol. It's a perfect track for white-girl car-dancing, which I've indulged in occasionally, and I'm not even a white girl.

Goodness knows how legitimate it is as a sequel song (though apparently Max Martin wrote it explicitly as a sequel to "Since U Been Gone;" kudos to him for not having the gall to call it "My Life Would Suck Without U"), but it's a damn fine slice of late 2000's pop all the same. Who knows what the future will hold for Stronger, but as long as Clarkson keeps her ear for tight, energetic anthems like this, I'll be happy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (25/50) -- Tangled (2010)

Of the over 50 films part of the Disney Animated Features canon, Tangled led me on the biggest emotional rollercoaster. I first caught wind of the project back in 2009, when it was titled Rapunzel, and, indeed, there was a Rapunzel teaser trailer that made its way onto the Blu-ray release of The Princess and the Frog. What happened from there, no one can truly know, but here’s what conventional speculation and Wikipedia tell us: The Princess and the Frog was a mild box office success, rather than the titanic megahit it was supposed to be, and Disney execs got a bit gun shy. The Princess and the Frog was marketed as a back-to-roots labor of love, similar to projects released in the 90’s; since that didn’t seem to work, Disney decided to give audiences a new vision of its Rapunzel project. From this bit of decision-making came one of the worst promotional campaigns I’ve seen in film, now titled Tangled, with trailers that made the movie out to be a hip, snarky take on the classic fairy tale, a la Shrek.

My antipathy for Shrek doesn’t run as deep as some in the blogosphere, but if there’s one thing that absolutely does not belong in a Disney project, it’s snarky, hipper-than-thou “attitude.” Granted, it’s not like Disney hasn’t attempted hipness, but the Disney Animated Features brand has lived and died by its sincerity, and even its most irreverent projects have had a strong emotional core. Fortunately, Tangled, turned out to be one of the most sincere projects seen from Disney in quite some time, with strong characters, a good story, and the sense never to posture as “above” the material.

Old-fashioned, yet still fresh, Tangled is an absolute goodie.

Tangled begins with a narration, where we learn about a centuries-old witch named Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) and magical flower that keeps her young. The local queen is expecting a child, though, and needs the flower to deliver the baby (in lieu of Rampion, I suppose), so the flower is found and given to her, and she safely delivers a happy baby girl. Gothel, however, steals the child, whose hair now possesses the flower’s healing power, and raises her in an old, obscure tower. Brokenhearted, the king and queen begin a tradition of releasing a series of paper lanterns every year on the missing princess’s birthday, as a way to remember her, and to find her if possible.

Cut to eighteen years later. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is now a beautiful young lady, content with living in her tower, but for one thing: more than anything, she wants to see the lights that appear in the sky on her birthday. This would require leaving the tower, which, to Gothel, is completely out of the question. After a large row that ends in Gothel angrily telling Rapunzel that she can never, ever leave the tower, Rapunzel appears defeated in her desire to see the lights in person.

Ah, but enter Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a crafty thief who has just stolen a crown belonging to the lost princess. After ditching his accomplices, the Stabbington brothers (Ron Perlman, Armie Hammer-style), Flynn hides himself in a non-descript tower… where he is promptly knocked over the head and captured by Rapunzel. Rapunzel offers Flynn a deal: if he will take her to see the lights, she will give him the crown. What follows is a bit of a road movie, where Rapunzel and Flynn learn about themselves, and grow closer together.


Prototypical Disney tropes and quippy dialogue meet in the best way possible, kinda like Rapunzel and Flynn in this scene.

I mentioned in my The Princess and the Frog write-up that Princess had an old-but-new approach to Disney filmmaking, a self-conscious throwback to the pictures of the Disney Renaissance, peppered with newer narrative ideas and details. Tangled, by contrast, has a new-but-old take on its conventions as a Disney feature; while it’s built with new-fangled, gorgeous CGI and 3D effects, it’s made with a much more traditional (and, frankly, much more Disney-esque) story progression, cast of characters, song style, the whole nine. I think it’s this sheer, unadulterated Disney-ness that gave Tangled such success; Tangled is the second-highest grossing Disney feature in the United States (after The Lion King and Aladdin), and gets the jollies of more people I personally know than any other Disney film of the past ten years (though The Emperor’s New Groove comes close).

And yet, for a movie so unabashedly sincere, Tangled is incredibly funny in a completely 2011 way. Small, slick lines creep their way into the dialogue (“Frankly, I’m too scared to ask about the ‘frog.’” “‘Chameleon.’” “Nuance.”), and it has a penchant for quotable deadpans like few other films in the Disney canon (“You should know that this is the strangest thing I’ve ever done!”). Tangled never tries to be above its fairy tale material, though, and gracefully treads the line between clever and smirking (as opposed to many of its contemporaries, which go for out-and-out troll face).

Good lines about in Tangled
"Oh mama, I have got to get me one of these."

Helping to sell the humor is Tangled’s cast of well-rounded, enjoyable characters. Rapunzel operates straight out of the Ariel school of strong female protagonists, but she’s given the chance to develop her character more often than not; I love her little “Eeep”s, and the scene where she rebounds between ecstatic and remorseful (“Best day ever! … I am a terrible human being.”) is one of my favorites. Flynn is a suave, Han Solo-esque rogue who isn’t quite all that he seems (original as sun in the desert, I know, but it works for him), and Levi gives an extra “aw, shucks” charm to him. Mother Gothel is a powerful diva of a villain, equal parts dangerous and drama queen; I also love her faux-motherly relationship with Rapunzel, and she manipulates her through guilt without Rapunzel’s knowing. Even the by-now-requisite animal sidekicks manage to stand out, using silent comedy to the best possible effect. Pascal, the chameleon, uses small, specific movements to sell his character’s humor, which Maximus, the horse, performs in huge, broad strokes—in a way, it’s almost like having Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the same movie.

Speaking of non-vocal parts, I want to use this paragraph specifically to talk about Rapunzel’s parents, the king and queen. Both the king and queen are rarely seen in in Tangled, but they have one of my favorite scenes in the movie—it’s near the two-thirds mark, just before the first lantern is about to be released to the kingdom. The queen (whose resemblance to Rapunzel is remarkable) comes to fetch her husband. She fastens his cloak, meeting his eyes with a weak, sad smile, and we see a single tear fall from his cheek. Though the filmmakers do nothing to explicitly spell it out, we are able to glean exactly what is going through the king and queen’s mind: that what has been alluded to as a yearly festival is, in fact, a painful and vivid reminder of how, eighteen years ago, their only daughter was taken from them, and that time has done nothing to dull their hurt. Dear readers, it lasts all of twenty seconds, and it is HEARTBREAKING.

Their screen time is very brief, but the king and queen both create a lasting impression, at least for me.

Moving on. The animation in Tangled is absolutely gorgeous. In particular, the film makes delicious use of color, particularly the deep greens of the forest and royal purples of the kingdom. There are also a multitude of small details that help give the world its place, things like the textures on Rapunzel’s wall and Pascal’s scales, the small floating particles in the water, and the individually detailed hairs on Rapunzel’s head (they even get disheveled during a scene of conflict). Character animation is stellar as well; everyone looks soft, and different from other CG animated pictures. Lastly, Tangled makes perhaps the best use of 3D I’ve seen in any movie, and though I don’t feel like I’m less involved when I watch it at home on 2D, I sure wouldn’t mind paying to see it in 3D again.

Tangled also happens to be an excellent-sounding film. I consider myself a small Alan Menkin fanboy, and his score for Tangled is exceptional, especially the way he uses the score to punctuate gags and action moments. The songs aren’t stone-cold classics, but are more than pleasant, and while I don’t expect to find someone on the street humming “I’ve Got A Dream,” I could certainly understand if they wanted to.

I was pretty terrified when Tangled came out, but since then, it’s not only assuaged my doubts, but also has moved on to become one of my absolute favorite Disney films; not bad for a movie that just came out less than a year ago. Excellent characters and humor, fun songs, and a story that is all-but-guaranteed to leave a warm, gooey feeling inside the viewer, Tangled comes highly recommended, and is an absolute must-see for folks who are worried that Disney has lost its touch.

Top Three Songs
  1. “Mother Knows Best (Reprise)”
  2. “When Will My Life Begin”
  3. “I’ve Got a Dream”

Favorite Scene
  • Rapunzel first leaves the tower

Favorite Character
  • Pascal

The Jar Jar
  • Old Man

How I Watched It

With all of the prosal love and kisses I gave Tangled, you’d better believe I snagged this one the first day it was available. Tangled comes in three flavors: a single-disc DVD, a double-disc Blu-ray plus DVD, and a four-disc 3D Blu-ray that comes with the 2D version, a DVD copy, and a digital copy. My Samsung is not 3D-compatible, so I was more than happy to save ten dollars and buy the double-disc edition.

As expected, Tangled looks bloody fantastic in high definition. Colors are bright and saturated, and the small details I mentioned earlier are easy to spot with the enhanced resolution. I couldn’t use the surround sound with my review, but I have no reason to believe it would be anything less than at-least-pretty-good.

For a film that just came out last year, there is a surprising lack of bonus features. Included are several surprisingly-lengthy deleted scenes, a few alternate openings to the movie, and a small making of featurette, “Untangled: The Making of a Fairy Tale.” The featurette is hosted by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi, and is all of twelve minutes long, and though it does have a few interesting bits, it’s too kid-centric and EPK-happy to be of much educational use to anyone.

To be honest, I’m a bit bummed by this release’s supplemental extras. Perhaps it would make more sense if Tangled had flopped at the box office, or if it was made a while ago, but Tangled was the 10th highest-grossing film of 2010, and the third-highest-grossing Disney film domestically. I suppose they figure the kids wouldn’t watch them anyway (they’re probably right), but I would love for more info about Tangled, especially since it has such a long and complicated development history.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 15

Day 15 - A One-Hit Wonder

The term "one-hit wonder" is a bit annoying, because it is terribly vague. Is it only an artist that had one, and only one, single? Perhaps an artist that only had one single in the Top 40? Maybe the artist had other singles, but they were all overshadowed by their grand uber-single. It's a rich tapestry. Regardless, today's entry is on a band primarily known for one, and only one, ultra-ubiquitous single.

Crazy Town – “Butterfly” 

I was ragging a bit on the 90’s the other day; I’ll add a few more qualifications onto it. I don’t think I’ll mind too heavily when 90’s nostalgia comes back in, but I think, musically, I’ll be much more receptive to tracks from the late 90’s and early 00’s (The Offspring, Coolio, Good Charlotte, etc.) than from the early 90’s (Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, Milli Vanilli, etc.). There are a few reasons for this, the largest one being that I did not listen to much music from the early 90’s, and thus have no prior attachment (another smaller one: I hate that stupid keyboard sound). Ah, but the late 90’s, now we have some semblance of awareness on monsieur Testerman’s part (hell, I’ll even be cool with Cleopatra).

One late 90’s song that I will be receptive to entirely without irony is Crazy Town’s number-one hit, “Butterfly.” A staple of middle school dances and house parties everywhere during the days of Palm Beach County, “Butterfly” is one of the only songs I can think of where the rock/rap genre of music actually sounds fun. Consider: Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit (gah, those names), Saliva; all were angsty buggers with copious amounts of yelling thrown into their lyrical flow. Great for dudes who were into ostensibly heavier music (like me), but not so awesome for folks who were already sold on the concept of “constantly sounding angry.”

“Butterfly,” on the other hand, has a playful, light delivery, and its white-boy cadence sounds much more appealing since it lacks any pretensions of being “hardcore.” The song’s instrumentation is pretty damn catchy too, with its slightly-hypnotic bass line and dreamy guitar riff acting as the melodic center points. Coupled with the turntable interlude and serviceable drums, and it’s perhaps the most conceptually-pure form of the dreaded late 90’s rock/rap, and its lack of drop-D chugs make it all the more satisfying.

Lastly, and I’m giving it its own paragraph to mark its importance, is the chorus. If the success of “Butterfly” can be attributed to any one element, it’s the chorus, a smooth-as-1999-will-permit series of corny lines that gel into one big, satisfying slice of Just Go With It (as opposed to Just Go With It). Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but singing along with “Butterfly,” especially with other people, feels incredibly cool (it also feels incredibly stupid, but the two emotions create a nice synergy together).

Crazy Town, for all intents and purposes were never heard from again. They released a follow-up album, Dark Horse, in 2002, and a total of four more singles, but none of them ever charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently they are fixing to release a new album for the first time in nearly ten years. If they end up touring to promote it, I bet I can guess at least one song they’ll play at their show.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 14

Day 14 – A 10’s Song

Alright, we’re about a year and a half into the new decade, which doesn’t leave with much to write about (unless you were clever about this challenge and picked a theme). Still, I’m nothing if not persistent, so here we go!

Kanye West - "Power"

An innovative producer and creative wordsmith, Kanye West is one of my favorite rappers of the past ten years. However, because of his rather unfortunate penchant for acting like a jackass, I find that his music is best enjoyed in a bubble, willfully ignoring his comments about George W. Bush vs. black people, or his musings on exactly which music video is the greatest of all time. 

"Power" was Kanye's first single released after his self-imposed exile following his notorious interruption at the 2009 VMAs. I had a good deal of interest vested in this song when it first came out; not only to see what the reaction to it would be, but also whether or not it would be any good. I had given his previous album, 808s & Heartbreak, a pass, and I was ready for some new content (Kan-tent?) that I could actively care about.  Fortunately, "Power" came through.

Like most of my favorite Kanye West songs, "Power" has some stellar production work. "Power" samples what sounds like Native American chanting and mixes it with huge-sounding drums and a warble-y guitar, giving it a hugely unique sound, and one that stands out many modern rap songs in that pop space. Lyrically, it's a return to Kanye's more specific, personal writing style that was prominent on his first two albums, and while lines that are very particular to Kanye West make it hard to forget exactly who is performing the song, I do enjoy some of his lateral thinking punchlines ("Everybody, we rollin'/With some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands").

My only gripe with the track (apart from how pleased Kanye sounds with himself during most of the song--then again, we are talking about Kanye West) is the two-minute outro portion of the song, which takes a perfectly radio-friendly hip hop single and extends it into over-indulgence. In fact, I have this problem with nearly every track on the album this song comes from, My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy (ugh, even the title is self-consciously overbearing). Most of the songs say everything they need to in 3-4 minutes, then stick around anywhere from 1-5 minutes for the apparent sheer, unadultered hell of it (seriously, there's no reason why "Runaway" needs to be nine minutes long). It's this faux-epicness that keeps me from giving it more than two or three casual listens.

Still, I dig "Power" overall. The production is great, the chorus works, and the song just feels good. It's also one hell of a trailer song.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 13

Day 13 – A 2000’s Song

The Aughts (are they seriously called that?) are still pretty fresh to do musical post-morctem on, but I will say this: the early 2000’s pop music scene was pretty well-saturated with rap. Granted, it’s not like rap has really gone away since then, but it seems like, between ’02 and ’05, a constant revolving door of new Yung Schmos or Lil Shawtys had a new single tearing up the charts. We’ve since segued into more dance-heavy territory, but I’ll never forget the period of time where the best way to dance was simply to pull your pants up and lean back.

Chingy – “Right Thurr”

Remember Chingy? Probably not. But if you listened to the radio during the summer of 2003, there’s a good chance you’ve heard him, and his breakthrough single “Right Thurr.” “Right Thurr” is an ode to a lady, a lady who Chingy hits on repeatedly through the course of the song, though where she stands in relation to the lyrics is a bit dubious (One line: “I’m thinking ‘bout snatching you up, dirty, and make you mine.” The very next line: “Look at her hips, look at her legs, ain’t she stacked?”). The production is nothing special, with only a slightly acid-sounding synthesizer giving it any character at all, and the lyrics are pretty inane at best (“I swooped on her like an eagle swooping down on its prey”).

What, then, made “Right Thurr” so popular that it managed to climb all the way up to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100? Bugger if I know. If I had to posit a guess, though, I would submit that “Right Thurr” benefited from The Ke$ha Effect. The Ke$ha Effect (in addition to sounding like a 3D IMAX concert movie) is what happens when a song is so dumb, listeners start taking to it ironically, only to become caught up in the song on a legitimate level. The difference here is that while Ke$ha can be reasonably defended on a musically creative level, I’m not sure how adamantly I can come to the aid of “Right Thurr,” a song whose primary appeal is dumbness for the sake of being dumb, without any clever behind-the-scenes design decisions.

I remember liking “Right Thurr” during the height of its popularity, but time has not been kind to it. Nor, indeed, to its artist; though he is apparently still active and working on a new album, Chingy hasn’t had a Top 40 single since 2006’s “Pullin’ Me Back.” It’s just as well, I suppose—after all, not everyone can be Ludacris or Jay-Z.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 12

Day 12 – A 90’s Song

I briefly skirted by my mild antipathy for 90’s music during Day 11, so I think I’ll clarify my position today. I don’t hate 90’s music or anything, I’m just not a very big fan. I enjoy Native Tongue hip-hop from groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep, I appreciate the developments happening in pop music near the turn of the century, and I have no doubts in my mind about the quality of 90’s country music, but that’s about where my enthusiasm ends.

For one thing, I’m not a big fan of the R&B movement that happened during most of the early 90’s. For some reason, groups like Boyz II Men and artists like Mariah Carey never caught on with me, and most songs put out during this time sound terribly dated today—while songs from Boston and Steve Miller can arguably stand toe-to-toe with modern rock ‘n’ roll artists, I wouldn’t think twice about wanting to put a song from someone like Janet Jackson up against one from someone like Beyonce (hell, I wouldn’t put it up against one from Kelly Rowland).

Second, I’m not a fan of grunge. Perhaps it’s because I’m a pop music fan, and grunge runs almost counter to the idea of pop music, but artists like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam simply don’t have enough melody for me to care about them. Not to mention their slightly unorthodox vocal stylings.

Blink-182 – “Josie (Everything’s Gonna Be Fine)”

You know what was good in the 90’s, though? Pop punk. Granted, it was a different breed than the more emotionally-tinged tunes of Fall Out Boy and Jimmy Eat World (your mileage may vary), but the basics were there: fast-paced, energetic songs built with an attention to melody. The 90’s begat many-a decent pop punk acts, including The Offspring, Good Charlotte, and Green Day, who arguably ushered in the whole movement altogether.

Helping lead the post-Green Day pop punk charge was a certain trio called Blink-182, who, in a sea of similar acts, managed to differentiate themselves and achieve both fame and forture as follows: while most late-90’s/early 2000’s pop punk groups wrote bratty, snarky songs about, I dunno, how girls are chubies, or something,* Blink-182 wrote bratty, snarky songs about poop and penises. Again, your mileage may vary.

Occasionally, though, Blink produced semi-romantic love songs, shedding much (though not all) of their sophomoric sensibilities while hanging onto their knack for a good hook. “Josie” is one such track. Really, it’s a very sweet, earnest song about a guy who likes his girlfriend, which seems much more original when delivered vis-a-vis Mark Hoppus’s blazing-fast bass-playing and Travis Barker’s signature spazz-drumming. The verse melody is pretty hummable (notable, especially compared to other modern pop punk songs), and “Josie’s” mixture of romance and unbounding energy make it feel like a can of Monster bought for Valentine’s Day.

Pop punk is a different landscape than it was during the second Clinton administration, but I still enjoy “Josie” and all of its rough edges—similar to the song’s protagonist, “Josie” takes me away to a better place.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 11

Day 11 - An 80's Song

Aw yeah, this is where it's at. It seems like contemporary culture is awash with 80's nostalgia (Hot Tub Time Machine, Conan the Barbarian, etc), and as long as that means it's cool to blast songs from Eddie Money, Rick Springfield, and The Outfield, cashing in on the memories of baby-boomers can only be a good thing (though I also dread the inevitable 90's nostalgia wave of the late-2010's and early-20's, during which we'll doubtlessly see the revival of grunge, Married... with Children, and JNCOs). Anyway, here's an 80's gem I discovered during one of my regular Helena trips last year (thank you, Greg Kihn).

The Scorpions – “No One Like You”

One reason why I like 80's music is because of its preponderance to flat-out “go for it.” This is particularly true with the Glam Rock movement (Hair Metal, for those keeping score at home), with wicked-hot licks, shredding guitar solos, and soaring choruses; and no one made better Hair Metal songs than The Scorpions. There were bands that made “better” music, as well as groups that certainly were more “metal,” but, to me, nothing screams “The 80’s!” more than titanic riffs from the likes of “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” “Big City Nights,” and “Dynamite.”

My favorite, though, is “No One Like You,” a track that reaches the same giddy heights of “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” but shows far greater indulgence to my music cred, because it is slightly more obscure. From the outset, the song kicks open the door with a squeal-y, gnarly-sounding riff that morphs into a dual-guitar harmony, reminding me of the SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron theme song, and being all-the-better for it. Also, as a fan of instrumental start-stops, I like how the guitars drop in and out of the song, providing greater dynamics and sound-variety.

Unfortunately, I don’t think over-the-top metal antics like The Scorpions could work nowadays; there’s too much of a temptation to be ironic, or to position one's self as “better than” the material (minus The Darkness, but every rule has to have an exception). Part of what makes bands like The Scorpions so great is how sincere they are—if he says he’s gonna rock you, you’d better be damn Skippy that he’s gonna rock you, pretensions not included. Still, even without additional entries in the Glam Rock sweepstakes, songs like “No One Like You,” “Holy Diver,” and “Run to the Hills” are still quite rockable to this day. Do yourself a favor: find the nearest drop-top you can, and blast this song while it’s still summer.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 10

Day 10 – A 70’s Song

Can you dig it?!

Or perhaps “jive turkey”?

There must be some sort of 70’s slang that I can use incorrectly here to cover for my lack of a compelling introduction. At any rate, today we’re covering a song from the 70’s, a decade notable for spawning a number of hit movies and TV series that were later remade in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. But I digress.

The Knack – “My Sharona”

Nana NANA na NA na NA nana NANA, nana NANA na NA, NAAA NANAnaaaa.

You're welcome.

“My Sharona” is a song whose popularity has always surprised me. Granted, I think it’s totally awesome, and it’s one of my favorite songs from the period, but it’s been both parodied covered a good deal more than I would have assumed fashionable for a near-one-hit-wonder from the late 70’s. The music snob in me wants to make a crack about how what’s good and what’s popular not often being the same thing, but he can go eat one; “My Sharona” is good because it’s good.

Aside from its iconic guitar lick that I so graciously transcribed in the first paragraph, “My Sharona” has a few tricks up its sonic sleeves. For my money, I love the tom-driven drum part; it gives the song a slightly-off-kilter, but still-driving energy, as well as makes it sound pretty distinct. The vocals aren’t exactly American Idol-caliber, but they have a raw edge that works well with the completely unsubtle sexuality pervading the track. Finally, I know I talked about a guitar solo being a deciding factor in a song for me last time, but damn, the time from 2:47 – 4:15 is pure fret-tapping magic.

And before you ask, I totally was NOT introduced to this song by that one Harmonix game, okay? Weird Al’s “My Bologna” came way before that.

As a side note: I hear that there's a part in Super 8 where the kids arbitrarily break into an acapella rendition of “My Sharona.” Yet another reason I'm sorry I didn't get to that movie while it was still in theaters.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 9

Day 9 – A 60’s Song

The times, they are a-becoming different, here at Diversion 2.0. Today, we’re checking out a song from the sixties, a decade of extreme edginess that sounds way tamer now than it was then.

The Beatles – “Can’t Buy Me Love”

I wanted to avoid putting a song from The Beatles here. I really did. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of love lost between me and sixties Motown doo-wop groups, at least to the extent where I have anything significant to say about them. Then again, I don’t have a heck of a lot to say about The Beatles either, other than I enjoy their earlier, pop-oriented acts more than their experimental flights of musical fancy. At least I’m more familiar with The Beatles than, say, The Isley Brothers.

I first heard “Can’t Buy Me Love” when I was twelve, off of the 1 compilation released during the same year. 1 was my first exposure to The Beatles, partly because my mom listened primarily to country music over all else, but mostly because I was a clueless bugger who liked to play Super Nintendo. I’m not head-over-heels in love with The Beatles like most of the English-speaking world, but I can appreciate a good hook, and The Beatles were nothing if not full of good hooks.

“Can’t Buy Me Love” is one of The Beatles’ earlier pop recordings, and is one of my favorites. I dig the quick-ish tempo, which gives it more energy than something like “From Me to You,” and I like the melody just a smidge better than other songs at the time. The guitar solo is good fun too, and, in my opinion, pushes it over the top from other songs in The Beatles’ early catalogue. And, of course, it’s fun to play on Rock Band.

New life drinking game rule—while reading Diversion 2.0, drink every time the term “Rock Band” is mentioned.

Anyway, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Beatles Rock Band, Harmonix’s tribute to The Beatles and their career, which commercially undersold and doubtlessly failed to pay back the astronomically expensive cost to license fourty-seven Beatles songs, as well as three full albums for DLC. Shame, though, for it was a goodie. I split this game with a few friends in college, and we had several good nights of ordering wings from Pizza Hut and jamming to the likes of “Helter Skelter” and “Day Tripper.” Then the disc got misplaced. Bugger all.

To wrap up, I’m not a huge fan of The Beatles, but I respect how influential they’ve been to the modern music scene, and admire the incredible staying power their songs have had. You know who’s better, though? The Be Sharps.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 8

Day 8 – A 50’s Song

We’ve entered the decade-creeping portion of the challenge, where we’ll look at songs from each of the X0’s up until present day. Spoilers. Anyway, I decided to start with the 50’s, since it was the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and I figured more people have Elvis on their iPod than Glenn Miller.

Barrett Strong – “Money (That’s What I Want)”

My 50’s musical exposure isn’t incredibly deep, and I sometimes need a little something extra if I want to discover new tunes from that era; the proverbial spoonful of sugar for my medicine. In the case of “Money,” I caught it on an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures, during an episode dedicated mostly to animated music videos (to music whose copyrights had coincidentally expired. Hmmm…). The song was sung by Montana Max, an egotistical little twerp whose lust for cash knows few bounds; thematically, it makes a ton of sense.

There’s nothing super special about “Money,” other than a catchy melody and fun guitar line. I certainly enjoy the old-fashioned, bluesy song structure, and dig the guitar riff used during most of the song, but I’m a bit perplexed by the absurd amount of cover versions made of this song. Maybe they thought it was cool because The Beatles did it too?

Whatever. “Money” is a fun bit of 50’s rock ‘n’ roll with a good hook, decent instrumentation, and an old-timey charm; and despite it being in constant rotation at my work’s muzak station, I still enjoy listening to it. Go figure.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 7

Day 7 – A Song from a Movie Trailer

It’s happened to all of us at one point or another: sometimes, a trailer comes along that’s better than the actual movie it’s promoting. Killer editing tricks and careful pacing can help to do the trick (it also helps if the actual film in question sucks), but, for me, the best trailers are the ones with the best music. Good trailer music can provide a solid foundation for the trailer to rest its action on, or it can jump to the front and overwhelm everything with its sheer majesty. Today’s entry definitely occupies the latter camp, and is one of the better trailers that I’ve come across for a movie I haven’t seen.

Coheed & Cambria – “Welcome Home”

A few years ago, an odd duck of an animated feature called 9 released in theaters, doing kinda okay at the box office before quietly exiting the public consciousness. I’m not sure why the film didn’t do well in theaters (or what it did to deserve placing second behind I Can Do Bad All By Myself), but it sure wasn’t because of the trailer. Opening with sparse narration, 9’s trailer does little to contextualize itself, riding instead on the imagination of its visuals, rhythm of its editing, and the classic stand-by sensation that s@$# is going down.

And then there’s the music. I am positive that the trailer for 9 would not be half as fricking sweet if it weren’t for the lead single from Coheed & Cambria’s third full-length release, Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (yeah, I know). Goodness knows what compelled them to write it, but somewhere along the line, the Nyack, New York prog-group decided that they really, really wanted to make an epic metal song, and that it had damn well better include the biggest riff they could possibly create. It’s this riff that powers nearly all of the trailer’s use of “Welcome Home,” and its titanic hook and giant symphonic backing give it a reaching, epic feel that most tentpole trailers would kill for.

“Welcome Home” is a continuation of the story established by concept band Coheed & Cambria, though recounting the song’s plot would require three more pages of back-exposition, so I generally take it at face-value. As an album opener, which it basically is, when you take out the two introduction tracks, it’s fantastic; the aforementioned riff kicks the listener in the teeth, and the length and grandeur of the song lets them know of how massive and sprawling this album will be. The immediate four songs help sell the entire rest of the album, but, for me, it all starts with “Welcome Home.” The fact that it’s playable on Rock Band certainly helps sell it for me, but I’m like that.

Huge guitar solos, grand-sounding choral parts, and a bloated run time give “Welcome Home” a feeling of majesty that isn’t often found in music today, but as well as it’s executed, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t deserve it.

PS - Because I can, here's the trailer:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 6

Day 6 – A Song from a Musical

As a kid who did a lot of theater in both high school and college, I have a healthy portion of sentiment reserved for the musical. And why not—the musical was generally the most fun to perform out of the shows we did, and netted in a larger crowd than the usual theater junkies, making it an even more communal and enjoyable experience. Some musicals get a free pass simply for nostalgia’s sake (even Paint Your Wagon…), but today’s entry is from a bar-none outstanding show, that only the most curmudgeon-y of audience members and bloggers could dislike.

The Producers – “Springtime for Hitler”

Prior to its rebirth as a stage production in 2001, The Producers was a Mel Brooks comedy from 1968 that, while apparently significant enough to make an AFI list and be inducted into the Library of Congress, was not especially well-remembered by many except for Roger Ebert, or at least not as well as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. All of that changed, however, when Brooks turned his first directorial production into a Broadway musical, delighting audiences and winning a record-breaking 12 Tonys (for what it’s worth). I would argue that The Producers the musical will live longer than its film counterpart, though I suspect it’s a generational thing.

Regardless of whether it’s on the stage or in the theaters, the crux of the movie is the designed-to-fail play that will (in theory) catapult Max Bialystok and Leo Bloom into fortune: Springtime for Hitler. Both versions feature a rendition of the song, with the play version seguing into another song before coming back home. I personally prefer the play version (and we can plumb even further depths of the meta trench, if we factor in the movie adaptation of the play), but either version is basically a bad-taste-a-thon of The Broadway Melody-era showtune tropes, a number that props one of the most evil men ever on a pedestal, fits him with a dunce cap, and invites the audience to laugh, clown, laugh. And I think it’s bloody hilarious.

If nothing else, “Springtime for Hitler” is an absolute earworm of a song, with instantly-catchy melodies. Brooks has shown a knack for riffing on Broadway pastiches for a while now—remember “I’m Tired” from Blazing Saddles?—but nowhere is he better than in the show’s title number, with a great, sunny demeanor cribbed from an infinite number of corny musicals. “Springtime” goes from straight Broadway, to jazzy, to a surreal faux-“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and it’s a hell of a trip the whole way. Small wonder it got so much acclaim.

Lyrically, “Springtime for Hitler” knocks it out of the park, with lines like, “We’re marching to a faster pace/Look out, here comes the master race,” and, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party.” The extended number in the Broadway version, “Heil Myself,” is pretty damn funny as well: “Heil myself, heil to me/I’m the Kraut who’s out to change our history.” Using the word “clever” to describe song lyrics can be a double-edge sword; “clever” can just as often indicate smirking, “ironic” words and messages, e.g. just about anything from Panic at the Disco. “Springtime for Hitler,” along with the rest of The Producers’ book, is the right kind of clever: words that are not only funny, but funny because they’re the only ones that will work, making them doubly-effective (Gilbert and Sullivan achieve a similar effect).

I will admit, I do have a soft spot for this song, and the whole show. I was in a production of The Producers during my junior year of college (where I played Carmen Ghia. Oh hell yes), and was at a particularly good-enough spot in my life to look back on the production with fond, rose-colored glasses. Still, even if I am incredibly biased towards this number because of personal experience, I feel confident in saying that “Springtime for Hitler” is a damn good tune, and one that makes me smile, even in dire times.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 5

Day 5 - A Song from a TV Series

TV and music have gone together basically since the darn thing was invented. Even before shows like Glee and American Idol took hold of America's jones for musical programming, we still had the theme song to Laverne and Shirley and Friends, and we've been humming them ever since. Today's entry is a celebration of music created for the boob tube, or, in modern terminology, the LCD flat panel.

The Simpsons – "We Do (The Stonecutters Song)"

The Simpsons has been a repository of quality tunes since its earliest days, from early dance-crazes to a recent send-up of that one guy who won the Oscar instead of Alan Menkin this year. If "We Do" somehow is not my favorite song out of a pantheon of quality music, it's definitely up there.

"We Do (The Stonecutters' Song)" comes from the season 6 episode "Homer The Great," where Homer becomes the leader of a Masonic secret society called the Stonecutters (get it?). The song comes after Homer is inducted as the Chosen One of the Stonecutters, and is sung as a celebration of what it means to be a member. "We Do" is basically a call-and-response drinking anthem, first asking who performs a certain (and hilariously banal) feat, and answering that "we do." Notable Stonecutter activities include:
  • Holding back the electric automobile
  • Deliberately obscuring both Atlantis and the Martians
  • Rigging the Academy Awards
It's quite a life, being a Stonecutter.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Revenge of the Thirty-Day Song Challenge - Day 4

Day 4 – A Song Written for a Movie

I’ll be honest: I really don’t understand movie soundtracks. I mean, they make sense when a movie is a musical, or when a movie prominently features songs on said soundtracks, but I never really get soundtrack albums that are filled with songs that aren’t anywhere close to being featured in their film counterparts (the Godzilla soundtrack is the most egregious example of this I can think of, but I’m sure there are others). Occasionally, though, a song that’s “inspired by” a film breaks through my wall of skepticism and reaches me—in very special cases, it even makes one of my mixes.

Paramore – “Decode”

For those on the unawares, “Decode” is the song that Paramore made for the first Twilight movie. While this should seem like enough to chase me away from the song entirely, the fact that it’s a Paramore song was enough to draw me into an initial listen. I ended up liking it. A lot.

According to Wikipedia, “Decode” represents the tension between Bella and Edward’s forbidden and bubbling-under affection for each other. Sure it does. When I listen to it, I hear an aggressive, urgent tune that almost seems to press the listener on all sides with sonic claustrophobia; the eerie key, off-time drums, and driving chorus make “Decode” seem much more energetic than its plodding pace would normally let on. Hailey Williams’ voice is smashing as always, and I deeply regret that it’s not a bonus track on Brand New Eyes, because it’s quite apparent that they were at least written during the same timeframe.

A story associated with “Decode.” During one of my vacations to Bozeman from school, I was visiting my current roommate at his former place of residence. I mentioned in passing that Paramore had done a new song for Twilight, and asked if he had heard anything about it. I knew that he was mostly into post-hardcore stuff like Bring Me the Horizon and Texas In July, though, so I figured he would have heard about it only in print. To my surprise, he looked over his shoulder to check if his housemates where anywhere nearby, and quickly closed the blinds.

“You never heard this in this house,” he said, and he produced a copy of the song from his iTunes.

Perhaps that’s not an indication of quality for this exceptionally good movie song from Paramore, but I still think it’s pretty damn funny.