Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2016

Movie Bummys: Best Performances of 2016

Top Five

5. Sasha Lane, American Honey: Lane has an easy story to root for; director Andrea Arnold found her spring breaking on a beach in Florida and cast her in the lead role in her next movie on the spot. She grew up on the poverty line in Frisco, Texas, a mixed girl in a white world, not too far from my own hometown of Plano. There are a lot of factors that made American Honey one of the year’s best movies: the soundtrack, Shia LeBeouf’s charisma, Arnold capturing the beauty in the struggle to even dream the American dream. But none of it matters without Lane, whose naturalism is more than a reflection of her amateur status. Sasha Lane is a star, able to convey charisma and vulnerability within a heart’s beat of each other.

4. Colin Farrell, The Lobster: Colin Farrell has had a very strange career for someone that has played along the edges of the A list, but The Lobster is the strangest and best thing he has ever done. The role received a lot of attention for how much weight he had to gain for it, but forget that for a second. Also, forget every other role he has played, because David in The Lobster is nothing like them. He is a schlub living in a world devoid of romanticism that requires an absurdist level of social norms. Farrell takes the absurd and makes it normal, ultimately making us believe that true love is worth whatever sacrifice it takes.

3. Amy Adams, Arrival: Amy Adams’s performance, like the movie it appears in, came out of nowhere. We have seen a lot of sides of Amy Adams: the bright innocence of Junebug and Enchanted; the hardened experience of The Fighter and The Master; the downtrodden oppression of American Hustle and Big Eyes. With Arrival, we see unconditional love, peace, joy. For all its obvious science fiction characteristics, the strength of Arrival is in the pure religion of Amy Adams.

2. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight: One of the shames of the Best Picture snafu on Oscar night this year is that now, when we look back at the movie and its performances, the first thing we will bring up is La La Land or Warren Beatty. My sincere hope is that people see the movie without comparing it to La La Land, largely because I want them to experience Mahershala Ali. Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer, in Moonlight, but he does not fit your stereotypes of what you think he should be. One of the most moving scenes of the movie is when the main character, Chiron, tries to understand his own sexuality by asking Juan hard questions. In the process, Juan has to face some hard truths about himself, and it’s one of the best examples of unspoken vulnerability I’ve seen onscreen.

1. Natalie Portman, Jackie: And this may be the best example I’ve seen. Before Portman in Jackie, I may have said the paragon of portrayals of real-life icons was Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, or maybe George C. Scott as General Patton. You could even make a case for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, even if the movie doesn’t quit live up to his transformation. But none of those actors exposes his soul the way Natalie Portman does here. We are familiar with Jackie Kennedy’s story following the assassination of her husband: the moment where she reaches out over the back of the car to retrieve the bits of her husband’s skull; that she remained in her pink suit, stained with her husband’s blood, during President Johnson’s swearing-in. But Portman takes us deep into the grief Kennedy must have been feeling. Not grief for a loving husband, though that too. But grief for her public identity as his wife, grief for a lost way of life, grief for the grand ideas that would die with him, and, yes, grief for her own loss of power and importance. Portman portrays Kennedy as far shrewder than popular history ever has. John F. Kennedy’s death would have been a tragedy had he never had a wife. But after seeing the event unfold through Portman’s eyes, Jackie Kennedy’s perspective feels like the only necessary one.

Another Twenty (alphabetical)

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Viola Davis, Fences
Agyness Deyn, Sunset Song
Andrew Garfield, Silence
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Andre Holland, Moonlight
Ralph Ineson, The Witch
Shia LaBeouf, American Honey
Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight
Ashton Sanders, Moonlight
Emma Stone, La La Land
Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch
Denzel Washington, Fences
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Anton Yelchin, Green Room

Past Top Fives

2015

Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria
Tom Hardy, The Revenant

2014

Michael Keaton, Birdman
Edward Norton, Birdman
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin
Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida

2013

Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby

2012

Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2011

Viola Davis, The Help
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Tom Hardy, Warrior
Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life

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Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2016

Music Bummys: Best Songs of 2016

Top Twenty: 20-11

20. Lizzo, “Good as Hell”: If you looked only to the radio in 2016 for empowering anthems, you missed out on one of the best. This banger (which featured on the soundtrack of the most recent Barbershop soundtrack) from the talented Minneapolis artist had one of the most ingeniously infectious choruses I can remember: “Do your hair toss / check my nails / baby how you feelin / feeling good as hell!”

19. The Weeknd, “I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)”: Decadent Weeknd has his charms (see: all of his last album, Beauty Behind the Madness), but I think I prefer in-love Weeknd. Daft Punk knows how to bring the best out of great singers, and Abel Tesfaye is at his lightest and happiest here.

18. Chance the Rapper, “Blessings”: There are great songs on Coloring Book before “Blessings”- all of them, really. But everything on this 5th track- from Jamila Woods’ irresistible hook to Chance yelping “Good God!”, from Nico’s proud trumpet solo to that final question asking if you’re ready for the blessing- fits perfectly into its title’s promise.

17. Angel Olsen, “Shut Up Kiss Me”: Alternative music took a backseat in the music media to pop and R&B last year, but there were still plenty of gems worth celebrating. Olsen’s insistent chorus burns itself into your mind, as powerful a statement of sexual desire as indie punk has to offer.

16. Young Thug, “Kanye West (feat. Wyclef Jean)”: I first heard this one when it was called “Elton John”, which seemed appropriate given the plaintive piano that features so prominently. Not sure why he renamed it to “Kanye West” other than that the chorus of “wet wet” sounds kind like “West West”, but it does feature Kanye-level inventiveness in every bar.

15. Beyoncé, “Daddy Lessons”: Over the last four years, Beyoncé has embraced her music being seen as culturally significant, rather than just pop music. “Formation” was the clear statement, but Beyoncé performing the defiant “Daddy Lessons” on the CMAs with noted rebels Dixie Chicks was her most successful act of protest on the year.

14. Chance the Rapper, “Same Drugs”: I was initially more taken with the upbeat songs on Coloring Book, but the melancholy “Same Drugs” grew on me over time. Chance has said it isn’t even about drugs, which feels right; it’s really about the loss that comes with time as you move out of youth.

13. Migos, “Bad and Boujee (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)”: I didn’t take “Bad and Boujee” seriously until Donald Glover dubbed it the “best song ever” at the Golden Globes. I still don’t take it seriously, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been able to stop listening to it.

12. Bon Iver, “22 (OVER S∞∞N) – Bob Moose Extended Cab Version”: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a song combine anxiety with hope so beautifully. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has been public about his struggles with anxiety, and I like to think creating this song was a balm for him.

11. Chance the Rapper, “All We Got (feat. Kanye West & Chicago Children’s Choir)”: This celebration song isn’t just a joyous ode to the gift of music. It also has 2016’s best lyric: “I was baptized like real early / I might give Satan a swirlie.”

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10. Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”: I wonder if I’m supposed to grow out of songs like this. I’ve been worried lately that I’m becoming a cynical person. But the way my heart soars during this song’s chorus gives me hope that my soul has not been calcified by the world just yet.

9. Lecrae, “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)”: It is easy to be skeptical of famous people claiming to be victims of their fame, but “Can’t Stop Me Now (Destination)” is something different. Lecrae, who is the most successful “Christian rapper” in the genre’s short history, raps about his depression following not only the police killings of black Americans but also the widespread evangelical dismissal of those killings. A lot of introspective rap feels forced and full of self-help platitudes, but Lecrae’s best song since “Church Clothes” in 2012 finds him at his most natural and humble.

8. Car Seat Headrest, “Fill in the Blank”: If “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” gives me life-affirming hope, “Fill in the Blank” affirms the hope in my cynicism. Frontman Will Toledo yelps about a world telling him he has to be okay, that because of his privilege, he has to be happy. But this is a song that exists in the real world, and it’s okay not to be okay.

7. Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”: The track’s co-producer, Raphael Saadiq, turns everything he touches into golden funk. But let’s give credit where credit is due here; this is a vocal performance that few could pull off. Even as Solange plunders her own psyche to try to understand why she feels left behind and pushed aside, her voice is unbearably light until it isn’t, until she hits the word “cranes” with just enough strength to make you wonder where it all comes from.

6. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”: Critics can be forgiven for overrating art after its creator has passed away. That is not what happened with Cohen’s “You Want It Darker”. Cohen’s voice is hardly singing on this song, but it is hypnotizing, and the accusations he lays before God here are chillingly real.

5. Chance the Rapper, “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)”: “No Problem” ultimately may be about the threat of record executives telling Chance what he can and can’t do. But it came to stand for something far more interesting than that. When Chance burst into a stuffy boardroom with 2 Chainz and Weezy on Ellen, their energy was so infectious that the video became a sensation, even by Chance’s standards. On his tour, fans dance and sing along to every song, but “No Problem” becomes a verifiable dance party. In a year where the country desperately needed joy, Chance’s music promised a club where joy was possible. “No Problem” was the bouncer.

4. Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means”: There’s some question surrounding works of art involving white people wrestling with problems involving race. I’m not here to tell any person of color what they should or should not feel about white people entering black spaces. All I can report is how I feel, and I feel that “What It Means” is one of the most affecting songs I heard last year. Patterson Hood has always been an incisive songwriter. “What It Means” finds him grappling with the terrible truth that he doesn’t have answers for why his (and my) race keeps treating other races like shit.

3. Rihanna, “Work (feat. Drake)”: Rihanna has always played along the edges of dancehall, and on “Work” she dives right in. There are lighter songs, bouncier ones with catchier hooks in her discography. But “Work” drills into your mind, finding its purpose in its repetition. Of all Rihanna’s singles, it’s maybe the most effortless, the truest to who Rihanna has been all along. There’s no forced techno beats, no pop hooks manufactured in a studio lab, no pretense of any sort- just the beat and Rihanna’s insistence that all that matters is her voice.

2. Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles (feat. Gucci Mane)”: Probably most famous for its backing of the ubiquitous mannequin challenge meme that thankfully is no more, “Black Beatles” is bigger than a stupid video sports teams did to look hip. On Rae Sremmurd’s 2015 debut, SremmLife, they tapped into the trap aesthetic for a potent slice of party music. SremmLife 2, and “Black Beatles” in particular, had different aims. There were still party songs, but overall, Rae Sremmurd were out to deconstruct the scene, rather than celebrate it. “Black Beatles” drips with malaise, even as it wallows in rock star hyperbole; the tension between the two is what separates the song from anything else with the “Mike WiLL Made-It” signature.

1. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam”: This song still sounds incomplete to me. I don’t mean that as a negative. I mean that Kanye and his multiple collaborators appear to have tapped into a musical reservoir, and this song’s 5 minutes do not feel like they’ve plumbed its depths in the slightest. Kanye is always ahead of the curve. Whatever style he invokes on his albums, that seems to be the direction hip-hop writ large takes for the foreseeable future. “Ultralight Beam” ushered in rap’s newfound appreciation for gospel music. That’s not to say that gospel had no place in hip-hop’s history before this; that would be asinine. But “Ultralight Beam” is pure gospel with a little bit of rap. Kanye is barely even on this record; “Ultralight Beam” only technically qualifies as a rap song because Chance the Rapper drops a fire verse midway through. No, “Ultralight Beam” isn’t a rap song; it’s a prayer.

Another Thirty

The 1975, “If I Believe You”
Aaron Lewis, “That Ain’t Country”
Alicia Keys, “Blended Family (What You Do for Love) (feat. A$AP Rocky)”
ANOHNI, “Drone Bomb Me”
BJ Barham, “Unfortunate Kind”
Bon Iver, “00000 Million”
Brandy Clark, “Big Day in a Small Town”
Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
Chairlift, “Crying in Public”
Chance the Rapper, “How Great Thou Art (feat. Jay Electronica & my cousin Nicole)”
Charles Bradley, “Changes”
Childish Gambino, “Redbone”
Christon Gray, “Follow You”
Courtney Marie Andrews, “Irene”
David Bowie, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Drake, “Fake Love”
DRAM, “Broccoli (feat. Lil Yachty)”
John Legend, “Penthouse Floor (feat. Chance the Rapper)”
Justin Timberlake, “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!”
Maren Morris, “My Church”
Margo Price, “Hands of Time”
Michael Kiwanuka, “Black Man in a White World”
Miranda Lambert, “Vice”
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
NEEDTOBREATHE, “HARD LOVE”
Parquet Courts, “Berlin Got Blurry”
Rihanna, “Love on the Brain”
Sho Baraka, “30 & Up, 1986 (feat. Courtney Orlando)”
Tegan and Sara, “Boyfriend”
Whitney, “Golden Days”

Past Top Tens

2015

Leon Bridges, “River”
Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
Blood Orange, “Sandra’s Smile”
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Alessia Cara, “Here”
Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”
Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now (with Justin Bieber)”
Miguel, “Coffee (F***ing) (feat. Wale)”

2014

FKA twigs, “Two Weeks”
Strand of Oaks, “Goshen ’97”
The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes”
John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”
First Aid Kit, “Waitress Song”
Sia, “Chandelier”
Jackie Hill Perry, “I Just Wanna Get There”
Taylor Swift, “Out of the Woods”
Parquet Courts, “Instant Disassembly”
Sharon Van Etten, “Your Love Is Killing Me”

2013

Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”
Disclosure, “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Jason Isbell, “Elephant”
Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”
Drake, “Hold On, We’re Going Home (feat. Majid Jordan)”
Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”
Beyoncé, “Rocket”
Amy Speace, “The Sea & the Shore (feat. John Fullbright)”

2012

Jimmy Needham, “Clear the Stage”
Trip Lee, “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”
David Ramirez, “Fire of Time”
Lecrae, “Church Clothes”
Usher, “Climax”
Andrew Peterson, “Day by Day”
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, “When We Were Young”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Christopher Paul Stelling, “Mourning Train to Memphis”
Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

2011

Adele, “Someone Like You”
Cut Copy, “Need You Now”
Gungor, “You Are the Beauty”
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
Miranda Lambert, “Oklahoma Sky”
Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Otis”
Matt Papa, “This Changes Everything”
Over the Rhine, “Days Like This”
Gary Clark Jr., “Bright Lights”
Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest”

One Stands Out Among Spider-Man’s Villains

One Stands Out Among Spider-Man’s Villains

The villain often makes the movie. This has especially been true of the Spider-Man movies in all their iterations. As Spider-Man’s cinematic villains have dipped in quality, so have his movies. Even if the movies had other redeeming qualities, if the villain sucked, those qualities went out the window. Luckily for this year’s installment, Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest villain may be the wall-crawler’s best yet.

Michael Keaton, who plays Homecoming’s Vulture, is certainly better than any of the baddies from the last two Spider-Man movies. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) featured a toothless (not literally) Lizard that failed to get at the inner conflict between the monster and its human alter-ego, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) featured not one but two lackluster villains. One, Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin, was a rehash from the older movies. The other…well, the less said about Jamie Foxx’s Electro, the better. The movies themselves were not all bad. Director Marc Webb, previously best known for the inventive (500) Days of Summer), crafted a fun romance between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who had real chemistry. But that quality relationship was lost in the mess.

Even the original Sam Raimi movies were hit and miss with their villains. The most glaring example of a miss was 2007’s Spider-Man 3, a veritable villain binge with Venom (Topher Grace), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and the Green Goblin (James Franco) all competing for screen time. None of them were interesting; all of them were annoying, and all were responsible in some part for Spider-Man 3‘s lasting infamy as a truly terrible superhero movie. However, Spider-Man 3’s flaws often obscure how good Raimi’s first two movies were.

The original Spider-Man in 2002, along with 2000’s X-Men, were basically reinventing the cinematic language of superhero movies. They were reacting against the camp of the 1990s Batman movies and attempting to catch the genre up with the changing tastes of an audience with less patience for cartoonish effects. Bryan Singer was a natural choice to introduce the X-Men into a world that needed a balance between style and realism, after the neo-noir The Usual Suspects had made such an impression a few years before.

Sam Raimi, on the other hand, was a strange choice for the director of the Spider-Man movie. He was best known at the time for directing the Evil Dead horror comedy series, which had just started to reach cult hit status. Other credentials included Darkman, a fantasy movie about revenge; The Quick and the Dead, a Tarantino-penned Western; and For Love of the Game, the Kevin Costner baseball movie that isn’t Bull Durham or Field of Dreams. This is hardly a ground-shaking resume for the potential director of a blockbuster. But Raimi’s love for the Spider-Man comics won him the job over the likes of David Fincher, Ang Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan.

His passion for the comics is evident in how lovingly he treats Peter Parker’s origin story. Re-watching Spider-Man now, it is remarkable how much time Raimi devotes to every detail of the saga. Not only does he cover the radioactive spider-bite and the death of Uncle Ben, but he creates ample space for a hilarious scene of Parker’s short-lived career as a professional wrestler, which is a detail that barely gets a few frames in the original comic. Raimi also spends several scenes with Parker (Tobey Maguire) figuring out just how his powers work, including a clever segment in which Parker tries out a bunch of different hand signals to discover just how his webs shoot from his wrist.

But the true signifier for Raimi’s deep love for the Spider-Man character lies in how he developed the movie’s villain, Norman Osborn, or the original Green Goblin. Osborn is well-cast, with Willem Dafoe finding a happy medium between devilish and fatherly, and Raimi plays out the dynamic between Osborn, Parker, and Harry (Osborn’s son and Peter’s best friend, played by Franco, pre-Goblin), as if he is making a first-class family drama. But Raimi’s commitment to telling every detail of this story is a double-edge sword. The Green Goblin costume, though less silly than the comics’ version, is still pretty dang hokey and not a bit scary. And while the action involving the Goblin on his glider might have played better in 2002, it’s kind of rinky-dink now. If Raimi had not played his chips so heavily on his villain, his first movie may have been a little stronger.

2004’s Spider-Man 2 does not have that problem at all. Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius (a.k.a. Doctor Octopus) was the best Spider-Man movie villain before this year, and it has not been close. To be fair, Molina’s performance is lifted up by the quality of the movie around it. Spider-Man 2 has a case as the best superhero movie of all time. The first movie set up the “with great power comes great responsibility” theme, but Spider-Man 2 forced Peter to decide between having a good, normal life and truly using his powers for the greater good. The action setpieces are amazing, the themes come out effortlessly through the dialogue, and the movie features several indelible cinematic images, including grateful New Yorkers passing Spider-Man’s limp body to one another as a Christ figure and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) fleeing her wedding with her white dress bundled up in her arms.

Molina’s performance also does some heavy lifting though. Octavius’s arc, as he moves from hero to villain to martyr, mirrors Peter’s perfectly. He begins the movie as a mentor to Peter, bonding with him over science’s great achievements and over their shared hope for Octavius’s work in fusion. When he becomes Doctor Octopus in a freak accident (which precedes one of the underappreciated horror scenes), his newfound power fills him with a need for revenge and for power. Then (spoiler alert!), as he watches Peter sacrifice himself over and over to save his fellow New Yorkers, Octavius comes to his senses and gives his life to save the city.

The stakes in Spider-Man: Homecoming are not quite so high, and that is part of its charm. Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is not a genius like Doctor Octavius or a wealthy madman like the Green Goblin. He’s not the victim of a freak accident like so many of Spidey’s villains, and he barely has a bone to pick with Peter Parker, at least at first. Toomes is just a guy looking to make a better life for himself that stumbles across an opportunity in the alien technology left over from the aftermath of the first Avengers movie.

Toomes begins to sell off the technology that he is able to recover, and he uses some of it to create a flying suit to assist his team with both stealing and protecting the goods. Keaton has always had an everyman quality to him, and it works to his advantage as Toomes. Even when Keaton shifts expertly into a more sinister mode in one of the movie’s best scenes, it is frightening, but we understand where he is coming from.

That scene, where Toomes reveals his more sinister side, is the true climax of the movie. Up to that point, Homecoming feels a lot like a John Hughes high school movie, where seeing your crush at the school dance is the scariest part of life. Then Peter Parker ends up alone with Toomes (I will not spoil how), and Keaton’s shift toward threatening pushes Peter to confront that being a hero is more than just trying to be famous as an Avenger; it requires true sacrifice.

Keaton’s Vulture, like Molina’s Doc Ock, did what the other villains could not, even when their directors tried their best to stay true to the comics (like Defoe’s Goblin and Ifans’s Lizard). Toomes and Octavius bridged Peter Parker and Spider-Man in a believable way, so that what we watch in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming is the story of a person, and not just the spectacle of a comic book character. Some comic book movies are good, even if they maintain a cartoonish quality. But the best ones find a real note to play, and Spider-Man: Homecoming found one in Keaton.

Guardians and Logan Tell the Future

Guardians and Logan Tell the Future

One of pop culture’s truisms is that the book is always better than the movie. Anyone saying that has clearly not seen The Godfather. But there are far more examples of its truth than its counterexamples. Anecdotally, I remember the Harry Potter movies always finding the books’ fans (read: me) frustrated by everything the filmmakers had to leave out.

This is true of comic book movies too. Most people go to a comic book movie like Captain America: Civil War or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with simple measures of how they enjoyed them: they laughed, they were thrilled, they were intrigued by a plot twist or two. Fans, on the other hand, expect to recognize something special just for them. And often, they are disappointed. These characters have vast histories in continuities spanning decades; filmmakers can’t possibly pay homage to everyone’s favorite panel.

Marvel has been the best at the balancing act of combining fan service with actual quality, but even they can’t help but falter every now and then. In creating their own cinematic universe with Easter eggs and callbacks, Marvel has subtly undermined the very medium with which they create. Comics are naturally more like television in their episodic nature than movies, and Marvel (and DC, in their lesser efforts) have succeeded in making their movies more like television episodes, to their ultimate harm. Such an approach does not necessarily doom a franchise but can impede its path to greatness.

Guardians of the Galaxy did not have this problem in the slightest. The first movie had the advantage of a clean slate. Precious few were fans of the group in comics form. In fact, it was a miracle this group was getting its own movie in the first place. Upon release, it was a smash hit, mostly because it was a great piece of genre entertainment. Director James Gunn’s voice rang loud and clear through the ingenious action set pieces, the soundtrack choices, and the screenplay pitched perfectly between irony and earnestness.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not have the same advantage as the first. There are now expectations, though I’m happy to say the second installment thoroughly meets them all. It is as entertaining as the first and may be thematically deeper to boot, exploring more interesting territory through Kurt Russell’s Ego than any Marvel villain to date. If it is not as effortless as Vol. 1, Vol. 2 makes up for it with a higher level of emotional satisfaction.

Not being beholden to a beloved continuity is a benefit to the Guardians duo. It also foreshadows the future of comic book movies. Marvel has had an impressive run of fifteen (fifteen!) movies that have the trifecta of box office success, audience love, and relatively consistent critic approval. This achievement is all but unprecedented in Hollywood and is thus unlikely to continue forever. The constant after-credits stingers, the neverending waiting game of figuring out how everything is connected- the breaking point is coming, and there is no guarantee of similar success with whatever Marvel decides to do after they reach it.

And Marvel is the outlier in this business. Fox has had two solid runs with the X-Men movies, but the second chance they got with First Class is rare, and the third installment of this second run had the same problem as third installment of the first: bloat. Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies weren’t bad but they didn’t connect with audiences, and now they have turned to a partnership with Marvel to right the ship. Warner Brothers’s DC movies have been an outright mess ever since the Christopher Nolan era of Batman movies.

All of these movies had big ambitions to appease established fan bases with movies that embodied their characters. These characters have decades of development that cannot be packed into a couple of hours of entertainment. With Logan, Fox decided to do something different. While Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has been around since 2000, they set Logan years after the former movies in a world that looked very different. There are few if any mentions of characters or events from the past movies. Even the whole vibe of the movie is different, slower, than the other X-Men movies, with the possible exception of The Wolverine (also directed by James Mangold)./

By filming Logan as a standalone story, Mangold was freer to fill the edges of his movie with the kinds of details that give movies depth, like the Shane references or Nate Munson introducing Laura to pop music. This is in opposition to something that is now the norm in comic book movies: details that are basically commercials for future movies, like Tony Stark’s conversation with Peter Parker in Parker’s apartment in the otherwise great Captain America: Civil War or the hasty introduction of the future Justice League members in the dreary Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. These are the details of television shows, moving the plot from episode to episode, not of movies, which are self-contained stories in their ideal form.

Self-contained stories are the future of comic book movies. I am not saying that we are seeing the last gasp of franchises. Better writers than me have proclaimed the death of popcorn movies and the like. We will always have franchises- thus saith the Lord. But those franchises will not survive if they orient themselves around fan service and continuity. Avengers and Civil War (and hopefully Justice League) are exceedingly charming in their scope, but franchises need movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Logan, which are the incubators of that charm. The books may be better than the movies, but the movies can still be great as long as they remember that they are movies.

Father John Misty’s PURE COMEDY Is Just What I Needed

Father John Misty’s PURE COMEDY Is Just What I Needed

Negativity feels like it is at an all-time high right now. One has to assume that things may have been worse when, say, Europe faced the Black Plague or, you know, maybe, possibly, perhaps, in the pre-Civil War South. But everywhere we look, it seems like people think this is the worst it’s been.

I’m not immune to this; one look at Twitter, and I’m convinced everything is headed in the wrong direction. You could assume this is my own fault for following mostly liberal outlets, but the inability to see the forest for the trees is a bipartisan failing. Pessimism is for everyone, the great unifier.

Father John Misty’s Josh Tillman has a reputation in some circles for feeding off that negativity. When he broke out in 2012 with Fear Fun, he was riding a wave of goodwill from his four years as the drummer for Fleet Foxes. He garnered acclaim, but he also created skeptics. Tillman had adopted a cynical perspective toward pop culture and toward the world in general, limiting his fan base to the hipster world where counterculture is the culture. 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear rectified this to a certain extent, with its honest exploration of committed love, but Tillman still maintained a persona steeped in cultural ennui, continuing to alienate folk purists.

His new album, Pure Comedy, forces you to consider that maybe it’s not a persona and he really means it. That is, maybe the cynicism of Father John Misty is healthy rather than a façade, a means to satisfaction rather than the end of it.

I didn’t want to like Father John Misty. Cynicism is something I struggle with; I perpetually want to believe the best about people and the world despite the fact that I don’t. Listening to Father John Misty is like being forced to hear the thoughts that I try not to think.

But as my beliefs have strengthened in their conviction, listening to Tillman’s music is more rewarding if not less challenging. He’s always been funny and clever, but now I appreciate that rather than resent it. On “Total Entertainment Forever”, when he riffs on “bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift”, I hear it as the self-aware joke it is rather than a caustic remark. When he goes on to say, “No gods to rule us / No drugs to soothe us / No myths to prove stuff / No love to confuse us,” I’m confronting the fact that I too believe this is where we are headed as a society. Before, I would have refused to acknowledge it.

This growing appreciation for Tillman’s mind comes even at the expense of my own. I’m a Christian, so there’s definitely some cognitive dissonance at work when I listen to two of my favorite songs on the album. On the title track, Tillman lets loose his most passionate vocal delivery lamenting and laughing about the selfishness of man, but he also declares,

Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits

And on “When the God of Love There’ll Be Hell to Pay”, Tillman sings about the absurdity of a loving deity creating a world of suffering:

Oh, it’s just human, human nature
We’ve got these appetites to serve
You must not know the first thing about human beings
We’re the earth’s most soulful predators
Try something less ambitious next time you get bored

Maybe the real reason I’m so willing to embrace Father John Misty is because he’s created a style of music that I would want to make if I were at all musically talented. Tillman’s lyrical wit is what makes him such a singular artist, but there are definite touchstones for his music, somewhere back in the 1970s. There’s a little bit of Billy Joel’s voice when Tillman allows himself to really howl about a subject, but the closest analog might be Randy Newman. Newman knew his way around a chorus, but he’s also always had a penchant for wordy verses that somehow still manage to roll off the tongue.

The music is not my main draw to Pure Comedy though. Tillman’s philosophical perspective is so different from where mine is and yet so like the road I took to arrive at mine. I’m attracted to the experience of finding myself completely empathizing with Tillman’s cynicism but then having to remind myself, “Wait. I don’t believe that.”

This sequence used to repel me, which is only human: nobody has any perspective but their own, and it is hard work to try to understand anybody else’s, let alone accept it as valid. It helps that Tillman seems to be less above the rest of the human race on Pure Comedy than on past albums; his ire now appears to include himself and is all the sharper for it. And Pure Comedy isn’t pure cynicism. The perspective on which Tillman ends is that the only thing that makes this world worth it is each other. Surely he will forgive me some cynicism of my own, but that sounds like pure comedy.

The Fate of the Fast and the Furious Movies

The Fate of the Fast and the Furious Movies

Bigger is supposed to be better, and, on the surface, that appears to be true of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Each installment has a more ridiculous action set piece. Last movie, it was cars speeding through the window of one Abu Dhabi skyscraper to crash into the window of a neighboring one. This one has Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson grabbing a torpedo with his bare hands and altering its course on top of a frozen lake.

There’s no shame from the filmmakers with these outlandish scenes. Nor should there be! The Fast and the Furious is basically a different kind of superhero franchise, in which the avengers are a diverse group of lower-class nobodies who overturned the system to achieve the American dream. This franchise has single-handedly replaced the bar for what action movies should be going forward, so why should the filmmakers adhere to arbitrary rules about what they can or cannot do? Why shouldn’t they construct a heist in which the main gambit is strapping a ten-ton safe to two Dodge Chargers and careening through Rio?

That scene of kinetic bliss is from 2011’s Fast Five, which might be the purest iteration yet of the Fast/Furious saga. It featured Johnson’s introduction and Vin Diesel’s Dom recovering from the apparent death of his long-time girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). It was the first time the Family as we know it today was all together- Johnson’s Hobbs, Diesel’s Dom, Paul Walker’s Brian, Ludacris’s Tej, Tyrese’s Roman, Jordana Brewster’s Mia, Sung Kang’s Han, and Gal Gadot’s Gisele, minus Letty, of course, though her presence was very much felt. Five is where the series’ concept of Family truly solidified and became the fulcrum for every plot twist and car chase thereafter.

The Fate of the Furious (the eighth in the run that started with 2001’s relatively minor The Fast and the Furious) actually mirrors Fast & Furious 6, in which Letty returns with amnesia and is working against Dom’s crew. This time, however, cyber-terrorist Cypher (Charlize Theron) has turned Dom against his people. Pleas of “But family!” seem to mean nothing to him, and the Toretto crew has to team up with Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, introduced in Furious 7) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, the last movie’s villain) to track Dom down.

Cypher is an effectively cold-hearted villain with a terrible plan for Dom, and the estrangement between him and Letty is genuinely hard to watch. Furious 7 is the emotional peak of the saga, due to the perfect way the filmmakers handled honoring Paul Walker after his tragic death. This movie can’t compare to that, but what could?

Even so, it does seem like this franchise may be wearing out its emotional heft, after a trio of movies in which the “Family” trope became something almost real. In Fate, deaths in the Family lose some of their power. One member’s passing feels like a mere plot point, and Han’s death in Fast & Furious 6 becomes something of a loose end with the team embracing Shaw, who murdered Han as revenge for the Family putting his brother in a coma. Shaw’s induction into the team seems a little too easy and takes you out of the movie. However, it sounds like the filmmakers may address justice for Han later.

Nevertheless, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian JobStraight Outta Compton) has made The Fate of the Furious a thrill ride, and, even with my above questions, exploring the grief induced by Dom’s betrayal only strengthens the Family’s 8-movie history. The box office returns on this one have been lower than Furious 7’s, which produced a lot of hand-wringing by pundits about diminishing returns. There has also been a lot of hand-wringing from critics about a dip in quality. I saw one critic that I respect (and he’s not alone in this) saying Fate might even be the worst of the series, which is pretty much impossible when the series includes Tokyo Drift.

Even if this one is not quite as good as the last one, so what? It’s the eighth movie of a supposed ten in a franchise that has so far spanned eighteen years and will likely extend five more. The Fast and the Furious has already written cinematic history with its box office records, its diverse stars, and with the worldwide ardor it has received. If they want to make two more movies of controlled chaos that are utter garbage, more power to them. They’ve already changed the game. All I ask is that they stay true to this Family and that they blow my face off. For The Fate of the Furious, check and check.

Hurray for the Riff Raff Navigates a Story of Protest

Hurray for the Riff Raff Navigates a Story of Protest

Had Alynda Segarra released a perfectly innocuous album of folk music this year, critics still might have foisted the protest label on her. Segarra, who has been making music as Hurray for the Riff Raff since 2008, is of Puerto Rican descent. Any record she put out might have been mistaken for a referendum on the current climate for immigrants, even though Segarra is from the Bronx (and even though Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States…) and has made folk music firmly rooted in the New Orleans scene for her band’s entire existence. The color of her skin is now of political interest, whether or not she makes direct protest music.

With this year’s The Navigator, Hurray for the Riff Raff made something better than a protest album, something richer and deeper. We will always need songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Redemption Song”, albums like What’s Goin’ On and To Pimp a Butterfly, that address head-on the issues of the time. Directness is a virtue, but it has its limits. I’ve always been more partial to albums that tell a story and address issues through characters. Give me a Born in the U.S.A. or a “Fast Car”, works of pop art that paint pictures of the forgotten and beaten-down. These vivid lyrical images move me more than a lyrical jeremiad might.

The Navigator is a concept album about a Puerto Rican girl named Navita who seeks to escape her childhood hometown by enlisting the help of a witch. The witch’s influence eventually wears off, and Navita returns to her city and mourns the loss of her family’s culture. The album comes with liner notes mimicking a Playbill, and musical theatre’s influence can be felt all over the contours of The Navigator’s music. But as performative as this album is and as theatrical as the production sounds, it is hard to digest The Navigator as anything other than a reflection of Segarra’s real life.

On the first half of the album, in which Navita is attempting to escape her past, Segarra sounds like her old self, committed to the folk vibe she’s made her bones on until now. This could have been Act II of Hurray’s last album, 2014’s Small Town Heroes. Shades of Caribbean and Latin influences feel their way into the music, foreshadowing the album’s midway shift, but she’s largely focusing on the same Americana beats she’s trod over the last 9 years of her band’s existence, only with a new focus.

Segarra’s always had an eye on female empowerment (hear: “The Body Electric” off Small Town Heroes), and that’s no different here, though this time she’s exploring the theme through the power of story. “Living in the City” finds Navita shaking off chauvinism and the confines of growing up in a place a lot like New York. “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” explores Navita’s commitment to herself over the prospect of romance, knowing that one or the other will shape her life. They are powerful songs in and of themselves, but the through line of Segarra’s narrative imbues them with a shared catharsis, an empathy that a lot of girl power anthems sacrifice for a catchy hook.

The story turns around track 7, “Halfway There”, when Navita realizes the idea of escaping your past is a lie. By the next song, the fiery “Rican Beach”, Navita has returned home, and Segarra sings of the victims of white colonialism and the thievery therewith. It is a historical fact that every race has lost something to white people, and Navita is coming to terms with what her response to that should be. The song ends with a repeating mantra, “I’ll keep fighting to the end.”

The whole album is great, but the final five songs really clarify the album’s purpose for Segarra. “Fourteen Floors” has Navita return to where her childhood tenement used to be, and she finds a connection between the removal of her old home and what the system has taken away from her people. Segarra has been vocal about the folk music community’s failure to live up to their genre’s role as activists, remaining largely silent in the face of rising xenophobia. The first half of Navigator suggests Segarra feels complicit; the second half promises: no more.

The album’s climax, both narratively and musically, is the penultimate track, “Pa’lante”. That song title is important to the history of Puerto Ricans here on the mainland. It translates to “onward, forward.” It is a call to arms, a battle cry, but, one distinct to her culture. So much of the recent protests have been to call outside attention to long-standing injustices; “Pa’lante” is an encouragement to her people, a plea to “be something”, a prophecy meant to unite. As her will crescendos with the music, she cries, “From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, pa’lante!”

It would be a struggle not to feel of one mind with Segarra on this song and, by association, on this album. The Navigator tells a story that equates life’s value with moving onward and forward, and not with how much anyone or anything is holding you back. There’s a temptation on the right side of the aisle (especially the alt-right side) to find complaints of victimhood in any mention of oppression or injustice. The Navigator is a fine argument that one of the greatest forms of strength is admitting victimhood and still choosing hope over despair.