Sunday, June 30, 2013

Art Imitates Life: Character Descriptions

Sometimes, if I'm with a group of people for an extended period of time, I like to start writing a character description for them. I try to get very specific details, while also keeping it ambiguous enough that when I pick it up later, I don't write that exact person into it, but I get a close approximation that more freely allows me to bend the character to my will. If I write a character too closely resembling someone in real life, I am hesitant to deviate from who that person is, how they think, and what they feel. They begin to dictate the story I write, rather than me being the final storyteller.

Two years in a row, I taught NCT's comedy camp with camp director Mike. For 10 days in the summer, we met with kids, aged 12-16 as they were taught improv and sketch comedy. They end up being rather fun, but it is also a rather funny, and often frustrating age. That range may seem close together, mathematically, but emotionally and psychologically, they are worlds apart. And it's not just necessarily girls and boys, the whole maturity thing, 12 is vastly different from 16, personalities are fully formed for some of them, while others are still coming out of their shells or have yet to break out.

It's an interesting group dynamic to observe.

Anyway, in occasional downtimes, I started writing little descriptions of the campers, just to remember them for later.

Ben is a gangly, awkward presence, who is busy not paying attention.
He pays so little attention in fact, that he has yet to realize he's gay.

Jacob really revs up that stereotype of a "neurotic Jew."
Every event, every decision, every word, every thought, is in a complete state of panic.

Liam is a chess player, one step ahead of everyone, but so afraid of the edge he walks, that he hides in a fog of idiocy.

Ross is nobody's friend.
And by that, I mean, many people don't like him, but no one really understands why.
For the most part, he creates his own context.

Kira has an unrealistically strong grasp on reality.
She clings to it like so many children grasp blankies.
The jokes made around her must be set in this reality or she fails to see any humor in them.

Remy is a natural-born leader, people are drawn to him.
But he is constantly smiling like he knows something all the rest of us don't.

Aaron is anti-social, hyper-realistic, angry, neglected.
Every interaction is a confrontation, every reaction is a strong defense to a fabricated attack on him.
Everyone is constantly afraid of "The Snap."

Nate and Noah, two brothers, obviously dragged here, sit together and get along, despite the age difference that suggests they shouldn't be like this.
They sit back and observe.
From these two quiet minds come the truths and insights of a generation.

Addison is well-mannered, quiet, well-behaved, perhaps a little repressed.
He laughs a little at the jokes he shouldn't know, and makes references only the adults understand.

Owen is an old man.
His mind operates at the speed of his mouth: deliberate.
He likes explaining everything to kids his age, mostly as complaints.
He remembers simpler times that he did not himself witness: primitive objects and closer families.
His physical and mental shortcomings are that of the elderly.
He is twelve.

Sam is an enigma.
He knows things he shouldn't, like how to make cocaine.
His immaturity and lack of interaction with other kids means his definition and reference for humor is dictated, solely, badly, by the internet.
People's lack of understanding for his world frustrates him only momentarily, before he returns entirely to it.
He does not understand simple concepts, like that people have names.
Here, in one individual, does the line between social disorder and demonic possession run thin.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Why I Don't Want A Captain Planet Movie (And Neither Should You)

Growing up in the 90s, we had no shortage of cheesy shows. Captain Planet was chief among them. It was more than chief. It was mega-chief. It was MASTER CHIEF. See what I did there.

There's been recent talk of a movie adaptation of this prototypical, middling 90s fare. As much as I love nostalgia, as many insipid things as there are from the 90s that I still love regardless, and as much as I actually enjoyed the Cap as a show, the movie is going to be a big-budget waste of time, no matter how it's spun. No amount of time and effort and care could make this a good movie, and let's be honest with ourselves, no amount of time, effort, or care will be put into trying to make this a good movie anyway.

I know people who are excited for this movie, and I have to believe that these are the same people who were sad when Joel Schumacher didn't continue after Batman & Robin, and were pleased rather than dismayed to remember there's only been two G.I. Joe movies so far, and list Episode II as their favorite of the prequels, because they find the love story "effective" and "powerful" and Hayden Christensen "believable."

I don't usually like to impress my beliefs upon people. But this is just one of those instances where I must insist that I am right and everyone and everything else is wrong. Beyond the simple reason that they will ruin your childhood, yet again, there are bigger reasons Captain Planet in particular will fail. Do not allow Hollywood to convince you Captain Planet will be any good. It won't.

Here Are 5 Reasons Why Captain Planet The Movie Is a Bad Idea (And You Should Be Afraid Of What It Means For Movies)

1.) The internal logic of the show itself is inherently flawed.
Here! These will make you look disco-fabulous!
You wanna talk about comic book movies being a mess because they didn't make stronger choices about what in the long mythology of those superheroes was going to be incorporated or not and how? Imagine making a movie based on a show which, from its outset, has internal logic flaws so blatant, it destroys its own premise?
You hear it right at the beginning with that voiceover. "Gaia, spirit of the earth, decides the best way to use her near-omnipotence is put the fate of the earth into the hands of five teenagers for no particular reason."
What? Is that not what it says at the beginning of every episode? My bad.
So Gaia, a spirit, a god, has the power to create the rings that summon Captain Planet, so therefore, she has the power to create Captain Planet. Now, she can see all the peril of the Earth all at once, why wouldn't she just summon Captain Planet herself and send him where he is needed immediately?
Without the rings, Captain Planet is free to move about the earth himself, and we could actually have a superhero movie, which is far less egregious. But they're not going to do that, so we have these kids, who serve as less than a plot device.
The Captain is not a mecha, he's not controlled by the children and their wills. He doesn't have to recharge by returning to the rings, he gets restored by sunlight that comes through unaffected by greenhouse gases, or clean ocean water, or, I'm assuming, by rubbing gluten-free, non-processed pasta on himself.
Why is a powerful, magical being adding a middle man to unleashing a powerful, magical hero? Alright, logic aside, we know it's to add characters to the ensemble, particularly kids, because it is after all a kids' show. But that leads us to the second problem...

2.) The Planeteers are the most unbelievably useless ensemble in the history of cartoons.
There were two other very dominant ensembles on TV around the same time as the Planeteers, and two other analogous examples I want to talk about as well.

Bet you didn't think a rainbow could kick your ass, huh?
So first, you had The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. They were teenagers too, each with distinct personalities, occasionally compelling internal conflict, and were entrusted directly with power to affect the outcome of a battle. The central idea of MMPR was that young people can be important and do extraordinary things as long as they apply themselves and believe in themselves. We weren't hit over the head with it, but we were reminded that the Rangers outside of their crimefighting, still went to school, maintained jobs, and were all accomplished martial artists. (Well, except Kimberly. She liked to just push Putties with her legs most of the time.)
Trust me, they're all different!
The other, were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Again, they were teenagers, with distinct personalities, a very compelling internal conflict (siblings are always better at it), and were taught to believe in themselves and each other to overcome any adversity. The central idea of TMNT was not heavily emphasized, favoring instead a more general good vs. evil. But in movies, which also came out in the 90s, stressed teamwork and family, and to always think ahead.
Both ensembles were plenty capable individually, as seen throughout the series, but they were always strongest together. The team-up was always the best of all possible strategies, but it always timed out well, leaving space for more individual moments, such as Tommy and Kimberly falling in love or Leonardo and Raphael fighting out their differences. But when it counted, they could get the job done either way.
Then you have these guys:
Linka doesn't even know how to stand in the fucking frame.
Five special young people, my ass. Explain to me when in the series we saw their individual talents exhibited, what made these guys the chosen Planeteers? In an ensemble, they are strongest together. Individually, they have their personal contributions, but together they work in a functional system.
The Planeteers do not. Not only do they not have any individual powers (their rings are very weak manipulators of their respective elements, like handicapped Earth/Air/Water/Fire Benders) but they also lack individual personalities. None of them are particular smart, they have no natural leader, there's no strategist, and there's no reluctant hero. On top of that, Captain Planet exists to do everything. As we already discussed, he's the real power. The Planeteers are placeholders. But their uselessness exceeds even that.
The members of the ensemble also function apart. That's the basis of some of the internal conflict sometimes, as well as the basis for some of the villain's plots where they attempt to destroy the team from within. One of the team decides they are above the team, that they can go it alone and this pride is their downfall. That could make for an interesting movie: Dissent amongst the Planeteers.
It would, except for one problem: the Planeteers cannot form Captain Planet unless they are all in the same place, at the same time, and conscious and able to put their arm up in the air and scream an element. No Planeteer can elevate themselves above the others because none of them can go it alone. Some could argue that this makes the ensemble argument stronger, but it's quite the opposite. Captain Planet is above the ensemble already, and he's the necessary hero, because the internal logic of the show has only served to create 5 useless characters.
And that's made even more evident by the fact that they have no personalities whatsoever. They spend half the time fighting for no reason, and the other half idiotically splitting up to see if they can help, knowing full well that the person who can help the most cannot be summoned without all of them in one place.
The only plausible movie plot is having the kids taken separately by five different villains who somehow alter the rings for evil purposes, and the rest of the movie is our wait to finally seeing the reunion. But I honestly feel like there's no effective way of doing that; it only serves to highlight the fact that this is not an ensemble, this is a superhero who's weakness is the fact that he has to be called by 5 kids who possess no means to help themselves.

3.) Not that it matters how terrible the good guys are anyway, because the villains are all third-tier Batman villains at best.
It's like the Village People if they weren't terrible,
but also weren't a singing group.
Hoggish Greedly. Sly Sludge. Looten Plunder. Duke Nukem.
These names strike about as much fear in my heart as Calendar Man, and Killer Moth, and Crazy Quilt. And they're just as useless.
We're passed the point of pure good vs. evil. What made the villain so interesting in Skyfall was a slight sympathy we shared with Javier Bardem's character. What gives Darth Vader a wonderful arc as a villain is that Luke fights for his good side. What makes Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs both unsettling and compelling, easily one of the most compelling and dynamic movie villains of all time, is that he's well-spoken, intellectual, and even reasonable when it comes to his crimes. He understands morality but reasons around it. He's not irrationally compelled to kill, nor is he on a psychopathic killing spree. These villains have dynamics, complexity, they are compelled to do something because for them the ends justify the means, and there is a greater good.
The villains of the Captain Planet universe though, by their very nature, must be doing evil for evil's sake. They are either selfish or extremely short-sighted. And how can you enjoy a villain that's either of those things? The answer is you don't. The villain loses credibility, the hero's struggle suddenly becomes idiotic, the movie becomes a chore.
And that's what would happen if you put any of these villains at the helm of a Captain Planet movie. I can't stand when my villain is an idiot. In Jurassic Park: Lost World, they bring a T-Rex to Los Angeles. What exactly did they think was going to happen? I'm supposed to buy that that entire movie universe believed that was going to go off without a hitch?
How am I to believe an entire universe is okay with someone who looks like Doctor Blight or Verminous Skum walking around, believing that they aren't a villain? It calls for some comic book sized suspension of disbelief. So let's meet it on that ground.
Lex Luthor of Superman is extremely intelligent, charismatic, and driven not by evil, but by what he believes is right. Again, he believes in a greater good.
The Joker of Batman is an agent of pure chaos. He kills and terrorizes indiscriminately but is very impossible to catch because of his unpredictability and his lethality.
None of the villain characters fall on either end of this scale. They're not written deeply enough. They have a one-track mind which in itself makes no sense. Their choices are harmful to the environment, and ultimately the place where they live, which means they are ensuring their own eventual destruction.
If there's one villain I can't stand more than the villain who's an idiot, it's the villain who, when the hero says, "But you'll die too!" the villain says, "Fine with me!" More often than not, this is the writer of the piece essentially saying to his audience I can't be bothered coming up with a compelling antagonist. And we deserve better.
Could we get better from an eco-terrorist based rogues gallery?
Well, maybe. Take Looten Plunder, for instance. He's an unethical businessman meant to explain the dangers of capitalism.
Now that would be an interesting villain in today's political and financial climate. We have companies with the unbounded ability to exist as dangerous monopolies, to eliminate competition through legal acrobatics, to cut corners and manufacture shoddy products with safety oversight, and a general neglect for human life and the ramifications on the world as a whole, all with profits being the absolute bottom line.
This is a real conflict, topical, relevant. You could have a very devious Plunder character, head of a technology manufacturing company, all the with unethical business practices, the public scandals, the political tie-in, and everything that's hot-button right now.
But then we are expected to believe Captain Planet flies in and saves the day by...closing down these factories and...what? Standing there until Plunder goes through all the paperwork to change everything?
The problem is, you can't go for a more dynamic villain without a more realistic representation of pollution or consumerism, or any of these evils, because the hero doesn't lend itself to that kind of rogues gallery. Captain Planet's not an ethics lawyer. 
No movie plot could build enough credibility in a realistic context so that we can suspend our disbelief over all our problems being solved by a blue guy who flew out of five kids' power rings.

Wait. ...Duke Nukem?

4.) So Just What Exactly Can A Captain Planet Movie Be About?
You can't go darker and grittier with Captain Planet. The villains don't lend itself to that. The hero doesn't lend itself to that. So we have to pretty much take everything as is and attempt to basically do an episode in an extended format. Worked great for the Power Rangers, that's for sure. And by that I mean it was horrible.
We know, but never seem to actually learn, that just because something works in one medium doesn't mean it will work in another. A TV show could lead to a great movie, but that doesn't mean it will. I'm nervous about an Arrested Development movie. I can tolerate those characters half an hour at a time. I love those characters. I love it as a TV show. Can they make me stick around for an hour and a half or more? I just don't know. Then again, it can work. The Simpsons was translated as is to the big screen. It operates like one long episode. But that's because the Simpsons are dynamic characters, the plot serves the characters rather than some sort of external message, and while it's formulaic, it's not with its unpredictability.
What surprises could you possibly expect from a Captain Planet movie? How could they play with that show's inherent formula? How can you effectively split up the Planeteers without it being a self-imposed choice or that's not annoying? How do you place obstacles in the way of Captain Planet without it being cheesy? You can't. In one episode he gets weakened because Sly Sludge literally sprays him with sludge. And they have to find a water hole to clean him off. Oh yes, this has summer blockbuster written all over it.
And like I said, the grittier, darker trend of late doesn't work for Captain Planet. But "As is", doesn't work for Captain Planet either.
Considering the trend, it's going to be a live-action adaptation, which asks a lot of its audience in terms of suspending disbelief. Accepting the Man of Steel in a modern context is one thing. Accepting Captain Planet is quite another, and one that I don't think a movie can do. Is there a screenwriter out there dying to have their Captain Planet movie idea produced because they know how to do it? More to the point, is there a screenwriter out there who even has the slightest idea for a Captain Planet movie?

5.) Finally, maybe most important of all, what really is the message of Captain Planet?
Sesame Street is a successful and long-running children's program for many reasons. One of the most important is that it deals with real-world issues in a frank and honest way, but in a fantastical context. Big Bird loses his nest after a hurricane hits Sesame Street and this episode aired after the events of Hurricane Katrina. Children who were forced to evacuate because of national emergencies were learning from Big Bird how to deal with those feelings.
And here again, the internal logic of Captain Planet fails to deliver a clear message of environmentalism. The Captain is not battling against a shady corporation, or real world problems like oil tankers and global warming. Many of these real world problems are either much more complicated than simply adding a villain's face to them, or just lack a villain. Global warming is the entire human race's fault, not a specific person. How is Captain Planet supposed to fly in and bring us to justice? What kind of a message are we sending when you show real world villainy like an ill-equipped factory with cheap labor being taken advantage of, being closed because Mr. Green Hair made a smart-ass pun and throws a giant rock in front of the door so you can't go inside anymore?
That doesn't solve anything. The real world solutions to problems like these are myriad and honestly, kind of boring for a movie.
The message of the show, well-intentioned though it may be, is lost in the attempt to also make a cartoon show that producers thought would be appealing to kids (appealing enough to buy the action figures, anyway).

With that in mind, the movie has one of two outcomes: it's a typical, though lame, superhero clash with some hokey, shallow environmental sentimentality pasted on top of it, as the show essentially was, or it's a heavy-handed, preachy, and simplistic morality play starring actors as plot devices, with a typical, though lame, superhero clash inexplicably shoehorned into it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Covering The King of Pop

A few days ago, I did a post about some of my favorite cover versions of songs of The Beatles. Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson

Personal feelings aside whatever they may be, and I don't disagree he became quite an interesting public spectacle in his final years, Michael Jackson was and is an inspiration to me.

First of all, he stands as the first music artist I discovered on my own. I was about 8 or 9 when I first heard Billie Jean, saw the music video on MTV in fact, and it changed my life. Up to this, my parents had essentially been responsible for my music education: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary among others.
MJ I saw channel-surfing one afternoon, and it was so unlike anything I'd ever seen, I was moved and intrigued.

Second, MJ inspired quite a lot of my early aspirations. He inspired me to dance, he inspired to sing, he essentially inspired me to perform. I saw the attention and the devotion he commanded, and I wanted that.

Finally, I do believe there was a purely good spirit beneath it all. He was a kid who grew up in the spotlight and we all know that is rarely any good for a family, he was the youngest, but clearly a special talent. There was a lot of pressure on him constantly. He never really had a chance to grow up, he never had an authority figure around him to say no, and he was such a genius no one would have been able to rein him in anyway. There is a part of me, and part of that young kid who wanted a performer to look up to, that still believes, wants to believe, has to believe, he was a good guy, a spirit too big for this world, and a tortured genius who only longed for acceptance.

Cover versions of Michael Jackson are decidedly more difficult. This is a testament to the singularity that was Michael Jackson. Like The Beatles before him, it's not outside reason to mark that an entire generation of performers were directly influenced by Michael.
There is a reverence but also an intricacy to his music that makes it difficult to duplicate. On top of that, Michael was the consummate performer. He sang and danced and left his heart on the stage every performance.
That voice is unmatched. He was raw, gritty, poignant, soaring, vulnerable, and invincible. He had a strong falsetto, some soulful lower notes, and great musicality. Find videos of even Bruno Mars, arguably one of the strongest contemporary voices, avoiding singing Billie Jean because he says, "It's too high."
And he danced. It's hard to do a cover of an MJ song if you're going to remove the dance element for one reason or another. There are plenty of people who could dance as well as Michael. He had eight or nine of them on his tours who could keep pace with him every performance. Directors referred to those dancers as extensions of Michael. But you need only watch videos to see the difference, see the distinction of Michael. It's more than an x-factor, it's a certain anger. He dances into the ground, there's a lot of earth-dancing to his movement, much more than his dancers, it's what they miss. They're busy duplicating intricate footwork or the upper body. They miss his anger. MJ danced out a lot of his frustrations that he never really voiced.

I could go on and on with my love of the King, so let me just skip straight to the point. Here are some covers I absolutely love of my favorite songs of the Immortal King of Pop.

Song: Smooth Criminal
From: Bad
Famous for: The Lean in the Moonwalker movie version.
My Thoughts on the Song: It's hard not to love this song. Jackson channels so much Astaire in his demeanor, outfit, and footwork. That driving bass, with the unforgettable hook, the lyrics that no one really understands, and the unforgettable choreography. It stands as probably the most iconic part of the Moonwalker film.
Cover by: Alien Ant Farm
From: Anthology
My Thoughts on the Cover: The cover is actually a pretty faithful arrangement, just grungier, a little metal. It's easier to understand the lyrics in the lower key. The video contains a lot of references to various MJ iconography, including the lean, and the light up sidewalk from the Billie Jean video among others. It strips away a lot of Jackson's theatrics, tastefully, to make the song a pretty cool rock anthem.

The Song: Beat It
From: Thriller
Famous For: That jacket, first of all. The Eddie Van Halen guitar track, second of all. And the West Side Story-inspired choreography, third of all. It all makes for quite an unforgettable track, which is hard to do considering it came from Thriller, famous for its title track, Billie Jean, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', and P.Y.T.
My Thoughts on the Song: The video is pretty unforgettable, but it's honestly one of my least favorite tracks from MJ. I never liked the concert versions of it, and it just doesn't build like some of his later, more mature tracks.
Cover By: Fall Out Boy
From: Single by the band
My Thoughts on the Cover: I actually rather prefer this cover to the original, sacrilegious as that may be. I think Fall Out Boy adds a great touch to it that makes it their own, and kind of cleans up the song for me in a way that improves it. John Mayer performs the Van Halen solo. Excellence.

The Song: The Way You Make Me Feel
From: Bad
Famous For: I think it's one of the most iconic dance sequences of any music video, it's one of the famous MJ girls, and the video's a liiiiittle bit stalker-y, but so much fun I guess, that it's forgivable.
My Thoughts on the Song: My favorite track from Bad, and probably my favorite track of Michael's ever. It's just a glorious sound he produces on it, and the arrangement really is so much fun. MJ didn't do a lot of up-tempo "love" songs later on, and this one stands as one of the few memorable.
Cover By: Stevie Wonder, joined by John Legend
From: Live performance from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert.
My Thoughts on the Cover: Even Wonder, with that stellar voice, struggles a bit to nail these high notes that came so easy to the soaring voice of MJ. However, I like the funky synth arrangement, joined by some capable backup singers as well as Legend on piano. In the second verse, about a minute and a half in, something extremely special happens. It's a vulnerable moment, where Wonder ceases to be a performer, and becomes simply a man who misses his friend. The consummate professional, he comes back and nails the song. It's that moment though, that makes the song for me.

The Song: Black or White
From: Dangerous
Famous For: The music video stars George Wendt and Macauley Culkin in the opening. Jackson dances with a multi-ethnic cast. The main part of the song ends with a face-morphing shot that incorporated new technology for the time. The coda to the video is Jackson morphing from a jaguar to dance in the street by himself, on top of a car, most memorably.
My Thoughts on the Song: Definitely one of my favorite hooks, and of course Jackson's choreography is just a lot of fun. The rap segment is appropriately cheesy for the time that it came out of, and the lyrics occasionally make close to no sense, but Jackson's essential message of us all being human shines through, and its enthusiasm and joy that carries this track.
Cover By: Adam Lambert
From: His first live performance for American Idol.
My Thoughts on the Cover: There really is no reason to watch American Idol beyond the 5th season. The surprises are gone, the interesting talent is gone, and the novelty of the show is long gone. One bright spot post-5th though, is this young man from San Diego. He has a powerhouse voice that very nearly won him the competition, and he should have, because musically, he was superior and far more entertaining than the eventual winner of that season. He also took more risks. Black or White is not a major risk by any means, but it's a difficult song to cut 1:30 out of (about the average length of an American Idol live performance), and it's Jackson. Like Whitney, Stevie, and Mariah, the judges worn contestants over and over that if you're going to cover something by these four, you better bring it. Unlucky for most of the contestants, it was Michael Jackson week, but Adam shined through. The effortless range on the boy's voice is something to behold. The performance starts about a minute in:

The Song: Remember the Time
From: Dangerous
Famous For: The music video stars Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson. It also contains one of the longest Jackson dance sequences, shot perfectly I might add, next to the iconic Thriller sequence. On top of that, it contains pretty much every Jackson motif: Jackson's character is magical, the Jackson girl, cats, a chase sequence, and comedy.
My Thoughts on the Song: A favorite for sure, it's a subtly refreshing track, and actually pretty different from the rest of the album, which is much more typical of late-era Jackson.
Cover by: YouTube star, acapella group with the handle: duwendemusic
From: The internets.
My Thoughts on the Cover: Jackson seems to be a favorite of theirs to cover, and this one is my favorite. The beatbox and the bass voice are phenomenal, and the three backup voices are excellent. The main guy's got a pretty typical R&B smoothness, which is fine for the track. Not sure if the style would work for any other Jackson song, but it works for this one.

And finally...
The Song: Human Nature
From: Thriller
Famous For: It's a recognizable track when you hear it, but I'm surprised few people realize it's Jackson when I first tell them.
My Thoughts on the Song: It's my favorite Jackson ballad: the love, the quiet sigh in his voice, the ethereal backing. It's one of my favorite sequences in the This Is It movie. Jackson know how to play a hold.
Cover By: John Mayer
From: The Jackson funeral.
My Thoughts on the Cover: Mayer strips down Human Nature to its wonderful melody. The performance is a loving tribute to a great artist. I'll let the video speak for itself.

And finally, I think it only fitting to end with the master himself. There's so many, many videos I could put here, but this one is among the best. First of all, it's two of Jackson's most memorable songs, and second it's at the Grammy's. This is a 10-minute sequence. It's probably the greatest 10 minutes the Grammy's has ever seen. If they had truly great performances on the telecast like this still, we'd all still be watching it. Watch the moves, listen to that voice, particularly the improvs for Man in the Mirror. Hear the appreciation. There's still no equal.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Randomosity of New York City: Three Tales of the Heart

This afternoon, I met a woman named Yolanda.
The night before, I met a man named RJ.
And during the train ride home tonight, I met a cool girl named Lily.

Yolanda, in her mid-60's, was visiting New York on a lark to see a friend in Queens. She'd just come here three months ago for this same friend's wedding. She's grown up all her life in L.A. She prefers New York but doesn't want to move.
RJ, I think about 67 he told me, I wasn't quite sure because of his Indian accent. He had been here 7 years, it was an arranged marriage to an American-born Indian girl. He loves New York, America, and denies any sort of native Indian heritage, but his wife wants to see India and he doesn't even want to bother with a trip.
Lily, 19, not-native New Yorker, she moved here because she was in love with a guy. Now she's running.

Yolanda needed to charge her phone and I was minding the gate at the Delacorte in Central Park.
RJ saw me checking my subway map for fun on my phone at the Broadway Junction and needed to know if the J train went to Delancey.
Lily sat next to me on the train because I was the only one without headphones on and she needed to use my phone to call someone.

RJ hates his wife. Sometimes. He forgets things about her, things they talked about.
He says "it's because I didn't know them myself! I didn't hear it on a date, or discover it by accident."
They told each other as much as they could about themselves in the hours before consummating their marriage. It's like cramming for a test, you remember nothing.
He tells me it annoys him when he feels like he doesn't know her at all. I tell him that might be just what happens in every marriage, it may happen to you more frequently, though. Then there's moments where they'll remember they talked about this before, during that "cram session."
"It's the deja vu," he says, "But almost with a different person!"

"He's like a different person!" Lily tells me, after I finally get her to open up about why she had been crying, evident by her puffy eyes, and I could tell just by the way she was coughing.
Lily came to New York when she was just 18, didn't finish high school, didn't see the point. She'd found love, and in her mind that was way more important. His name's Rob, and he's "in between jobs" and he sometimes "drinks a bit."
Then 'a bit' turns into 'a lot.' Then 'a lot' turns into 'also with some drugs.'
Lily didn't even know what the drugs were, she just knew she didn't like them when she tried them.
"Only once, though. I swear to Jesus, I only tried them once!"
"Did he hit you?" I ask rather tentatively.
She doesn't answer. Her silence suffices.

"Just once, just once before I die," is how Yolanda qualifies her desire to see Asia before she dies. She's never been. It's the only continent she's never been to.
"Except Antarctica, you know...Ice."
No desire to meet the penguins? I ask her.
"They're just birds. You've seen one, you've seen them all."
It's a remarkably dismissive statement for a woman who not five minutes before was telling me the importance of seeing the world, the merit of my recent move to New York from San Diego, and the beauty and wonders Europe has to offer.
But "What do I say?" she says. "I hate birds."
Yolanda, like I said, is a woman from Ecuador. But that's not completely accurate. We trade full ethnicities. I don't reveal my adoption, but I tell her my mom's full Filipino, with some Chinese, some Spanish in there. My dad's from Malaysia by way of Singapore, and a lot of Scottish and the British Empire in him. She was born of the islands: one grandparent from each: Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and Hawaii. Her English is good, but she stumbles a bit as she muses:
"I am all of these, and nothing of these at the same time."
She talks about how her heart belongs to Ecuador, though she was told it belonged to one of these four places all throughout the intersection of her life with her grandparents.

RJ keeps asking me about my girlfriend. At first, I don't tell him much, but the more he opens up about his marriage, I open up about her. We're far apart, this long-distance relationship gets strenuous sometimes. It's complicated, and yet with her it's not. It's very simple. We just understand each other.
Despite somewhat of a language barrier (he tells me I talk fast) he says we're really similar. It's a weird sort of parallel. He says he feels far away from his wife sometimes, but for whatever reason, they do just understand each other. He says it's complicated for him because he tries to resist it. He can't believe the possibility he's in love with this woman. I say that it's kind of the same thing for me, in that I resisted for a bit from falling for this girl, only because I was leaving soon, I didn't know what that was going to do, and I didn't know what was going to happen.
I feel like he's starting to believe in the idea that no love is perfect, we all struggle.

I feel compelled to say this to Lily, though I know her situation is far and away something different. She needs to move, she needs to be free. She's finally realizing that. She was supposed to come home to "their" place tonight (although, she tells me, he never let her actually move in. He helped her find a place to live in Harlem, but he didn't want her to feel "trapped", ironically enough).
She was riding the train, then hopped on a different train, then stood around Columbus Circle for an hour, before happening upon my train, where she happened to get on my cart, and I just happened to be slow putting in my headphones.
I was taken aback by her simultaneous frankness and guardedness. Like talking about my girlfriend with RJ, Lily doesn't want to explain everything at first, but she up front tells me her name, and that she's having one of the craziest nights of her life. But I tell her I can see she's been crying and she immediately cuts back, "I was not crying. ...Pollen."
But she soon tells me, walking around the Circle, she realized she feels trapped. And it's her own fault.
I tell her it's not. It's his. People are capable of doing unspeakably horrible things to each other.

Yolanda would agree with me. She doesn't want to get too much into it, but she keeps checking her charging phone. I never feel like she's disengaged from our conversation, she keeps up the back-and-forth between us, but I can tell there's something important on her phone. She's checking in with her son, who's watching her mother at the hospital. He insisted she go on vacation, but her mother took a turn for the worse and Yolanda is the executor. But her brothers, who are there at the hospital, want to pull the plug. They're trying to convince Yolanda's son, to convince her.
It all feels really horrific to me, even in just the sparse details she explains to me, but she seems rather calm about it.
"They were always bitter, growing up too. I can't believe they act so much out of hate."
I can't believe it either.

Lily is calling her estranged father, who lives in Jersey. She has just one friend, an acquaintance really, in Brooklyn, so she'll spend the night there, but she wants to see her dad, make amends, and is hoping to stay with him.
"I just...I just know you can protect me."
I look at Lily at that moment (I don't like watching people on the phone, it feels too private) and I see a flash of what Lily might have looked like, at half her age. A scared little child, simply asking for her father.

RJ gets a call from his wife while he's on the platform with me.
He laughs, because he expects it's because she's come up with a new, compelling argument for why they need to go to India.
What he confesses to me, what he never told his wife, is that before he moved, he was studying to be a lawyer in India. "She cannot win no matter what rhetoric she uses!"
It sounds manipulative, but he says it with this odd affection. I see his eyes light up for a moment when he answers the phone. And I imagine that I see a flash of RJ on his wedding day, the first time he got to see his wife, the woman he was going to spend the rest of his life with, and I imagine that she is beautiful, and despite not knowing her before, I imagine that same light illuminates behind his eyes as he takes her in for the first time.
And he laughs, and I can hear her laugh a little.
He answers her patiently.
It ends with, "I will see you soon."

As does Yolanda's text message to her son. "Tell her, 'I will see her soon.'"

As does Lily's phone reunion with her father, who tells her, "I will see you soon."

RJ, the reluctant romantic, gives me a strong handshake and a genuine smile before he heads down the platform.
Yolanda, the world traveler, gives me her number and says, "Call me when you are in LA. I will have a place for you to stay. Don't go back to San Diego. Don't ever look back." She collects her stuff, hugs me, and walks off into the Park.
Lily, the enlightened runaway, tired but relieved, returns my phone. We sit in silence all the way to my stop. I stand as the train slows, and just before it stops, she stands and hugs me. It is a deliberate hug, as if she debated to herself whether to hug this stranger. She can't look at me, save for a moment, in which I smile at her, and she manages a smile, and I try to sum up every possible important thing I could say to her in that moment with a simple and sincere, "Good luck," the voice of Yolanda echoing in my head to never look back. I stay and watch the train roll off into the night.

Sometimes, I stop and wonder what purpose crying serves, other than sadness, but it is for moments like this, standing on that platform, a cool breeze blowing through the greatest city in the world.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A quote from one of my heroes: the great Carl Sagan

Pictured: Earth: Top beam, only one on the right.
"We succeeded in taking this picture from deep space, and if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.
Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and, I might add, character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish this pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."
~ Carl Sagan

Saturday, June 22, 2013


A couple days ago, I finally got to see the much-anticipated Venice, the new musical at the Public playing in the Anspacher, which is now double-featuring with the extended run of Here Lies Love, just across the lobby at the LuEsther.

I really wanted to like Venice, I really was giving it an honest chance. And in several moments, it does meet my expectation, even exceeds it, but I really wanted these two musicals to be a one-two punch combination for the Public, especially with how the performances are stacked on Saturdays. I discovered several audience members were finishing at one show to catch the other.

Unfortunately, I think the best way to put it is that Venice just isn't as fully realized as Here Lies Love.
In a dystopian future, a divided city known as Venice is under rule by the Westbrook Corporation, widening the gap between the rich and poor. Two brothers stand on opposite sides of the divide, Markos Monroe, a military general for Westbrook, and Venice, named after the city he is fighting to reunite from below. Two lovers likewise stand separated, the aforementioned Venice, and childhood friend Willow, who is engaged to Westbrook, but at the outset of the story returns to Venice's side, in hopes of opening the borders, and because she doesn't love Theo, who wants to attend the wedding of the two lovers anyway because he actually does love her. All this is fodder for the manipulative Markos, who is the true villain of the tale. The proceedings are overseen by a character named the Clown MC, with other roles by the able ensemble, such as Markos and Venice's mother, a Venice pop star known as Hailey Daisy, head of security Michael Victor, and Markos' wife.

So it's basically Othello, though Markos' motivations are a bit more Richard III than anyone, the love story is Romeo and Juliet, set against a backdrop of revolution and a struggle for power. The way the plot unfolds though, is characteristic of the play as a whole: nothing fully develops into anything worthwhile.

The music is mostly hip-hop, but there's some good rock beats and some pop anthems thrown in, with Willow (played by Jennifer Damiano) and her songs being my favorites. Haaz Sleiman and Leslie Odom Jr. are great as the brothers, both more than capable of singing what they're given, Odom being the slightly more dynamic of the two, but that's also because he's the far more interesting character.

Like I said though, none of the characters really do all that much, and everyone loses steam pretty fast. Markos' motivations become more unclear as the play unfolds, and characters that start with high credibility fall fast, like Venice and Theo, and characters that started mostly uninteresting stay that way, like Willow or Markos' wife Emilia. As interesting as Hailey Daisy is in the show, this fun mix of Madonna and Nikki Minaj, she feels rather shoehorned in, as does Anna, the ghost of the brothers' mother, who in her appearances adds nothing to the motivations of either character. Save for a few moments, none of the characters transcend the dialogue they are given. They are flat characters talking about dynamic ideas in a flat way. We must have a revolution! But why? None of the characters can answer you. This isn't to say the cast isn't talented, or fun to watch, I just feel they're working more as devices than people, as if the answer to every 'why' is "because it was written that way."

Every other element falls in to a similar line; I want to like it all, and a lot of it I do, but the elements don't add up to an interesting show, it's just completely lacking in cohesion.

To start with, I never for a moment believe Venice is a city in a class struggle. The set, while sparse, never suggests anything more than what it is: scaffolding. And the costuming, while interesting, at least for some of the characters, doesn't have much contrast between the have's and the have-not's.

The music is all absolutely very interesting, but it can get a little monotonous, particularly the hip-hop narrations, which all sound like the same track, and feature some pretty liberal slant rhymes. I'd be fine with that, but we've already seen on Broadway writers capable of good rhyme in the hip-hop dynamic, like Lin-Manuel Miranda for In the Heights and the last couple Tony Awards.

And that pulls me into my essential point: Venice's parts are interesting to look at and listen to because we've seen it all before: It's adapted Shakespeare, the set looks like Rent, of which I have the same complaint because I'm not willing to suspend disbelief over it, the hip-hop narration is In the Heights, although Matt Sax, who plays the Clown MC and also wrote the piece, is borrowing the idea of an idiosyncratic caricature of the writer as narrator is Passing Strange, two men in conflict over a woman is The Trojan War, and the whole thing plays out like a war comic, or a political thriller. Again, the characters are simply moving parts, not people I'm interested in listening to. The deus ex machina is even more forced than it should be. Markos doesn't stay true to the Iago characterization. Nobody is communicating on a personal level, just big ideas and concepts, and there is mistrust on every level for no particular reason. It's everything we've seen before, but it's not brought together well.

And that's unfortunate for such a talented cast, spirited choreography, some of the more pop-inspired songs are really good, and there's some parts that make it an interesting set. I just don't think any of it lends itself to the show's supposed central conceit.

Venice is a lot to buy into: you have to quickly learn the status quo of a futuristic dystopia full of people you don't know (and ultimately do not care about), a love triangle that from the outset you are confused by, an antagonist who is unrelateable, and a political dynamic based on miscommunications that seem careless rather than dramatic. The morals, the motivations, and the lessons are all unclear, and worst of all, the show ends its 2-hour-plus run by breaking the fourth wall, everyone dropping character, and telling the audience what amounts to "I hope you learned something."

No, sorry, Venice. I didn't. I wanted to. But I didn't.

Friday, June 21, 2013

I wanted these somewhere...

Once in a while, you need a little from asofterworld

don't be so foolish

"let's be the quiet realization that our time has passed."

"why not smile."

"it gives me sexual arousal."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Covering the Beatles

 Love them or hate them, the influence of The Beatles is hard to question and in my opinion, beneficial for everything that came after, regardless of genre, style, artist, or era. Personally, I have always enjoyed and been a fan of the Beatles, having grown up in a house that loved their music immensely, and always have them somewhere in my top 5 music groups.
I really do think a lot can be said about a person depending on their choice of favorite Beatles song (and if they're enough of a fan, their favorite album).
And I really hope you don't hate them. Even if you're not a huge fan, even if you think they're overrated, give them a listen. I recommend just sitting with Revolver. There's really very little to be disappointed about.

And if you aren't a fan, let me see if I can use this roundabout sort of way to convince you.

A lot of artists have attempted to cover the Beatles music and that can be very difficult with any song or music, much less theirs. Now there are songs undoubtedly powerful on their own, but there is so much more to it than that. Songs need a voice and a musicianship in some capacity behind it. Does a track like Bridge Over Troubled Water carry the same simultaneous bravado and vulnerability as it does if it's not Art Garfunkel singing it? Even the live performance of Simon & Garfunkel where Paul Simon sings a verse is moving, but it doesn't carry the same gravitas as Garfunkel alone, even 30-40 years later. Is there anyone who brings not only power, but also makes it look so effortless, like Whitney Houston does for I Will Always Love You?

Like these iconic songs, much of the Beatles anthology is indelibly linked to their performances: from Harrison and Starr's immensely talented instrumentation, McCartney's sense of pop and whimsy, Lennon's poetry and ambition, the evolution of their sound, the odd cohesion of four divergent personalities, the culmination of their respective influences, their willingness to find something new, and that unknowable x-factor that just endears the music to people. People can become wary of "treading on sacred ground."

That said, once in a while, a cover of a song comes along that is refreshing, interesting, and ballsy enough to stand on that sacred ground and perhaps, once in a great while, transcend the performer, make the song bigger than its creator.
What makes a cover good? What makes it worthwhile? Personally, I look for these qualities:
- I expect a certain amount of reverence for the original song. After all, there is a reason you are drawn to cover the song. You think it's awesome. I expect to hear just what you love about the song.
- I expect you to bring yourself to the performance. A cover is not a straight up reproduction of the song. We have the records to hear that. And no way you're going to surpass the original, so why draw the comparison? This isn't Rock Band. You can't duplicate the original performer. Don't try.
- Along the same line, but kind of different, I also expect the choice of the song to speak to you. Not every Beatles song is the same. There are ballads, up-tempo numbers, story songs, funk rock, folk rock, even some metal, and some Indian-inspired songs, and psychedelic and pure pop thrown in too. Speaking of karaoke, I can't sing every song. I have a wheelhouse of 5 songs I do, and I don't push it. I like these songs, I know I can do these songs justice, and bring something to them. I wouldn't do much with Lose Yourself or It's Tricky, but I know some people who can.
- Finally, I said ballsy earlier. If you're gonna cover a song...You just better fucking rock it. Kill it.

Here are my 11 Favorite Beatles Covers 

Originally on: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Originally sung by: Ringo Starr, as Billy Shears
Cover by: Joe Cocker
From: Woodstock, '69

Maybe Ringo's not too happy...
If you were a fan of The Wonder Years, you're at least somewhat acquainted with this performance. It's probably one of the most drastic remakes on the list, a slower time signature, some different keys, a vastly different arrangement. But it fits with Cocker's bluesy-rock style, and I love the contrast of the quieter verses with the soaring choruses. Cocker performed this at Woodstock, and part of its memorable arrangement is used for the version in the song, combining it with the original arrangement, in the movie Across the Universe. Starr sings solo very rarely in the anthology, so it makes sense that it would take a drastic overhaul to fit the song into a different repertoire.

Originally on: Please, Please Me
Originally sung by: McCartney, backed by Lennon
Cover by: Jerry Lee Lewis, backed by Little Richard
From: The album Last Man Standing

From the early pop days of the band, this song has been covered by everyone from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Led Zeppelin. But what I said earlier about fitting the artist to the song really fits here. The arrangement is brought into the piano roll style of Lewis and Richard, who bring an infectious zest to the track, and their voices complement each other well, in a way that improves on McCartney and Lennon in the original. You can hear some ridiculous piano playing from two of the best, and Richard's iconic falsetto "woo!" throughout. Also, I want you to note their age recording this. You think McCartney can still go after all these years, this album is from 2006.

Originally on: Second A-Side to Day Tripper
Originally sung by: McCartney
Cover by: Stevie Wonder
From: One of my favorite of his albums, Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Ebony and ivory.
What I love about Wonder's version is it's so decidedly his. The funky synthesizer, the harmonica solo, and that amazing voice, it sounds written for him. I'm not even much of a fan of the original, and that's what makes this cover so striking to me. It's okay, the same thing happens to me for a Wonder track: I prefer Red Hot Chili Peppers' version of Higher Ground to his original.

Originally on: Abbey Road
Originally sung by: Written and performed by Harrison.
Cover by: John Williams
From: George Martin's In My Life

No, not that John Williams...Although, you could've had me fooled, with the liberal use of horns and strings in the backing. But John Williams is a classical guitarist, and a damn good one at that. In My Life was created by George Martin, who many feel was the "fifth Beatle," he was producer, arranger, composer, conductor, and audio engineer for every single Beatles album. If anyone knows how to redo their music, it's him. Many of his tracks are pretty good, and there's even a Jeff Beck guitar cover of A Day in the Life, but I think it loses a lot of the nuance of the song without its vocal, and I think the McCartney portion suffers from the delivery. But this track is beautiful. It never becomes quite as upbeat as the original, but Here Comes the Sun is one of my favorites. The original too. I also think Harrison's exceptionally difficult to cover. His tracks are rarer amongst the Lennon-McCartney fare, but they're all amazingly memorable: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Within You Without You, and Something, chief among them. This track, like I said, is more laid back, there's more of an awakening feeling to it, rather than a celebration, and I think it brings a new meaning to the song.

Originally on: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band / A Hard Day's Night
Originally sung by: Lennon, on both.
Cover by: Elton John / Billy Joel
From: I only know it as a single. / I know it as a live recording.

Three musicians walk into a bar...
First of all, I need you to take note of the fact that Lennon sings both of these. Even though he's more known for writing and performing the more abstract and poetic numbers (Strawberry Fields Forever, Across the Universe), he also had that rock edge and gravel in his voice, evident in A Hard Day's Night, but even moreso on Revolution, or Come Together. The contrast of the style is amazing to me, and how it takes two completely different artists to cover both these songs. Joel couldn't pull off the surrealism of Lucy like Elton can, and likewise, I think Joel has the working class sensibility and the much grittier piano rock to take Day's Night to a new level. They also each perfectly embody my first idea of reverence to the source. Elton's arrangement of Lucy is pretty straightforward, a lot of the instrumentation is cleaner in fact, and really the only added touch is the signature Elton reprisal coda (similar to Tiny Dancer, where he repeats one of the first verses, but slightly varied). Joel's version of Day's Night is fantastic. That opening chord is iconic, making it one of the most recognizable songs ever. Joel keeps it pretty faithful too, but like I said it's his vocal that makes it awesome. You can hear the angst of Allentown and My Life in it.

Originally on: Revolver (Seriously, listen to it).
Originally sung by: McCartney
Cover by: Aretha Franklin
From: Again, I only know it as a single.

"Let it be!" "I don't think so."
Eleanor Rigby might be one of the definitive Beatles tracks, and a lot of covers I've heard fall far short of its subtle sadness and haunt. So, what does Aretha do? Well, what she does best. Aretha, queen of soul, takes it in an entirely different direction, but, like only she could make it happen, it works. I'd like to imagine someone of importance told Aretha she couldn't change the lyrics to make it a first-person song, and Aretha pitch-slapped that guy. Pitch-slapped. Like getting bitch-slapped with that powerhouse voice. Aretha's version is full of sass and soul, and suddenly Eleanor Rigby is a no-nonsense broad who ain't got time for that.

Originally on: Opens up Abbey Road
Originally sung by: Lennon
Cover by: Michael Jackson
From: The film, Moonwalker and the album HIStory.

Give peace a dance.
I have an undying loyalty to the King of Pop. Considering he owned the catalog, I'm a little saddened that he didn't attempt more Beatles covers. But for his only effort, this one is a damn good one. It's so amazingly MJ. The arrangement's basically the same, but he makes that bass riff into a decidedly MJ dance bass, and that ridiculous vocal is to die for. People forget the harmony on "over me" isn't in the original. For me, there's enough of the original, and more than enough of the cover artist to stand as the definitive example of a cover, the gold standard to aspire to.

Originally on: Magical Mystery Tour
Originally sung by: Lennon
Cover by: Jim Carrey
From: George Martin's In My Life

They are the eggmen.
The celebrity tracks are hit and miss on Martin's album (I don't like Goldie Hawn's Hard Day's Night, Robin Williams' Come Together is serviceable) but Carrey is the one who unquestionably knocks it out of the park. I didn't think he could sing as well as he does, and he also brings some humor and character to the song which is quirky to begin with. Just for some of the vocal acrobatics alone that Carrey performs, this song is worth a listen.

Originally on: I had to look this one up, because I honestly didn't know... Never realized it wasn't on an album. It's a single. It was paired with Revolution.
Originally sung by: McCartney
Cover by: Wilson Pickett
From: Some sort of single

I know Pickett's voice from In the Midnight Hour, and a few other covers like You Keep Me Hangin' On. Pickett is an amazing, soulful voice. He turns up the notch on Jude, and it's like a church-going gospel experience. It's the male answer to Aretha's Rigby, is Pickett's Jude. The riffs are so natural, the soul is just there. And what else can I say?

Originally on: Help!
Originally sung by: McCartney
Cover by: Marvin Gaye
From: No idea!

Speaking of a ridiculously good male vocal...What happens when you take one of Lennon-McCartney's most covered songs about living in the past and regret, and then give it to probably the greatest male vocalist of all time, responsible for giving us I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Ain't No Mountain High Enough, Let's Get It On, Mercy, Mercy Me, How Sweet It Is, It Takes Two, to sing? You get this amazing cover. It's a singing clinic. Gaye has never sounded better, weaving in and out of a beautiful arrangement giving even more weight to the song than it had sung by a much younger Beatle.

Originally on: Rubber Soul
Originally sung by: Written and performed by Lennon
Cover by: Johnny Cash
From: The Man Comes Around, which features several covers, including the great cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails.

Finally, speaking of songs beyond the maturity of The Beatles when they penned them, this song stands at the peak of that. It is a popular song to use, with its poetic lyric of nostalgia, reminiscence, regret, and contentment. It's a song written by a young man, lifetimes away from knowing the full burden of these experiences and the very experience of recalling it all, but was mean to be performed by a guy like Johnny: broken, beaten down, hurt, exposed, and someone who understands the harsh realities of the world around him. Like Hurt, there is an amazing maturity that Cash brings to this cover. It makes the song so much clearer, and so much more tragic.
"Some forever."

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Where I come from, it stands for 'hope.'"

Superman could be speaking more for his livelihood as a pop culture icon than he realizes.

Let's be honest with ourselves for a moment. I am a huge Superman fan, and even I can admit: the movie franchise has spawned more bad movies than good (argue with me all you want, Superman II and III are not good Superman movies, and Superman Returns, while having an incomparable performance from Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, is almost unbearable because of everything else). Man of Steel had a very difficult task of rebooting a franchise that people had no faith could be revived. Indeed, many people still firmly believe that Superman himself is a faulted character. For all the flack Aquaman gets as a mostly useless hero, or two failed attempts at adapting The Incredible Hulk, or the abomination the Green Lantern movie was, or the abomination the third Raimi Spider-Man was, or the abominations the X-Men movies have been, it is the world's first superhero that catches all the shit for being a terrible character.

I've already defended Superman previously, so I don't want to dwell on it too much, but the idea that Superman is flat or boring or on the other extreme, too powerful, is an unfortunate confession by that viewer that they miss the point of the character entirely. The very essence of the character, the unlimited potential of his power, and the moralistic obligation to do good, is something more poignant and more pivotal to the character of Superman than it is to any other hero, even if the aforementioned Spider-Man is responsible for wording that dichotomy much more eloquently: With great power comes great responsibility.
And what do they matter, the adapted abilities of a spider, the imagination and will of a space ring, the combined genetic enhancements of the Homo sapiens superior, when compared to the limitlessness of a god?
But what the franchise as a whole has always had to do, striven to do, is make us care about the character of Superman, because he is a sympathetic character, because his struggle is all of ours.

Man of Steel, I think, sets out to do just that, and succeeds in every way possible.
Here's why:

General Zod
Every hero is only as good as his villain.
I think what makes Superman a more difficult character to write for is the limits of his rogues gallery. Lex Luthor is his intellectual equal, while Darkseid is his complement in strength. But what evil can compare to Superman? Reading the comics, you can't find too many memorable Superman villains. For a character of his enormity, his villains must be that much bigger to pose a credible threat.
In the second movie, the simultaneous threat and curiosity that was Zod suddenly made Superman more relatable: a man out of his element means something that is both familiar and dangerous. Terence Stamp also made the villain pretty memorable.
To bring him back as the initial threat, as Superman's first real test, with his powers yet unrealized, is extremely gratifying, and to bring even more nuance and subtlety to the character is a testament to the screenplay.
Michael Shannon's Zod is a man driven by a singular task: to revive his once-great people. His third act monologue to our hero is more of a summation than a revelation of what we already understand about the character: his motivations and intentions were good. He was an "ends justify the means" guy, he was genetically coded to sustain the existence of his people. It's one of those villains that makes you sympathize, as much as you try to resist. And this is the best kind of villain.

Interesting resemblance here...
What was wonderful about the old movies was the casting of really legitimate actors in what could have been otherwise laughable roles. Names like Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Terence Stamp, gave more legitimacy and gravitas to roles that suffer in the hands of lesser actors. (I'm looking at you, Kate Bosworth.)
Jor-El, real father to Kal-El, was an unexpected surprise for this film. He plays a much more significant role than you would expect but the payoff is worth it. And Russell Crowe, Academy Award-Winning Russell Crowe, a man whom I gave a lot of crap for in Les Miserables, makes Jor-El this amazingly compelling character. He serves as a true foil to Zod throughout, also driven by a singular purpose, but instilling his natural instinct to do good within his son, as well as emphasizing the importance of choice, echoing back to what I mentioned earlier: that Superman's alignment is a choice, and that is what makes it so important. 

Jonathan and Martha Kent
The Kents are as vital to the Superman mythos as Uncle Ben is to Spider-Man and the Waynes are to Batman.
But the Kents are ultimately not Superman's reason for doing what he does, and that is what makes his mission so much more important. By reducing the personal importance of the characters, it enhances the importance of the hero. It is all bigger than them, and they are aware of that. Despite that, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane bring some much needed heart and soul to Cavill's Superman, while they are never his sole motivation. They in fact, inspire him to be bigger and more important than themselves, and even himself.
Costner's "Pa Kent" echoes Jor-El, the importance of being who you are when you are most needed, and understanding the weight of choice, particularly in the idea that if the world is not strong enough to accept you, are you strong enough to accept you? He only holds back Clark in order to build him up for later, for when he is going to be most important.
Lane's "Ma Kent" exists to continue that legacy of Jor-El and her husband. She is both mother and enabler, and Lane rounds out the cast extremely well.

Lois Lane
Something I was surprised about, was the movie's tone. It's darker, more serious, more subtle. It's not Nolan's Batman trilogy, nor should it be. It's only semblance is attempting to bring a more realistic context for Superman to exist within. What makes the tone more curious is the choice of Amy Adams to play Lois Lane. I thought we were in store for some lighter fair, considering Adams is most known for Disney's live-action/animated hybrid Enchanted, than anything else. Adams legitimately surprised me, making Lane a fun character to watch and a serious character to mess with. There was a great balance of Lane's driven feminine side, with her more romantic side. It's hard to pull off, and I didn't think Adams would, but she did.

What I most enjoyed about this movie is that with the exception of the flashbacks, and even those add some amazing depth to the character, and we see hints of what he will become in them, Henry Cavill spends most of the time as "Superman." We don't get the bumbling, awkward Clark Kent, tripping over himself, and hiding from the world. We get the hero attempting to understand himself, realize his potential, and do what he does best: kick alien ass.
As an origin story, the movie works. And it doesn't have the frustrating condescension of pretty much every other beginning to the franchise, even Batman Begins fails to escape the excruciating pre-hero's path of self-discovery.
Man of Steel finds an effective way of doing this, all the while giving us the moments we would want from a Superman film: he rescues people, he holds back his powers only to unleash them later (two really good flashback scenes accomplish this: one more comic having to do with a confrontation in a small-town bar, the other one of the many childhood flashbacks, where Clark is again bullied by a schoolmate, only to leave behind an indication of his power). The latter elicited audible reaction from the audience I was sitting with, and was one of my favorite moments of the film. It only worked because of the build this character received.
Henry Cavill makes for an impressive Superman. He is a great actor, a believable muscle, has some great comic moments, and handles the Superman/Lane romance well. Overall, like I said, I buy him as Superman, something Brandon Routh never quite owned up to, despite his physical resemblance to the incomparable Christopher Reeve.
Speaking of Reeve, I'm convinced that they somehow digitally superimposed his face over Cavill's, or mixed it somehow, in one of the final sequences of the movie. There was just this moment, and it gave me goosebumps, where Superman is gearing up to something, surrounded in white light, and I swear to God, I could see Reeve's face for a few moments in the sequence. I can't verify this, but there was a definite jolt in my seat.

If I could've Live Tweeted during the movie (I would've, but I thought I would surely be seeing it in a mostly empty house, considering I saw it at midnight, but alas, the house was full) here are my thoughts throughout:
  • Despite Krypton's advanced science, technology, and intelligence, and that ridiculously complex sonogram machine, childbirth looks to be just as painful as ever. 
  • As cool as the sequence is, any time someone falls at a great pace, and is suddenly plucked out of the air, whether by a giant eagle or whatever, I can't help thinking that it must still hurt like hell to land on whatever rescued you.
  • Michael Shannon bears an uncanny resemblance to Quentin Tarantino.
  • Tarantino, stop trying to fight Russell Crowe! He's outboxing you! He was Cinderella Man!
  • I can't tell if Lara has an accent or a mouth full of cotton.
  • How DOES Superman shave? OR grow a beard!? OR HAVE 5 O'CLOCK SHADOW!?
  • When the whales woke up Clark, I really thought we were going to have an Aquaman cameo.
  • Oil rig rescue scene reminiscent of X-Men power plant evacuation scene.
  • Isolated truck stop bar fight scene reminiscent of X-Men Wolverine gets in a bar fight scene.
  • School bus scene looks like it was filmed where Twilight was filmed, using the same filter.
  • Cut from Clark underwater to Jonathan Kent reminds me that Costner was in Waterworld, and how angry I still am at him.
  • Do you think those people who were mad about Rue being black in Hunger Games (even though she was supposed to be) were mad about Perry White being black? I was just mad that Laurence Fishburne is not in, shall we say, "Morpheus shape."
  • Scene where two Zod heavies walk up to confront Superman on ghost town main street is reminiscent of Thor fights iron giant Lord Zed on ghost town main street scene.
  • Ah, Lexcorps cameo. Perfect.
Anyway, I got a huge kick out of the movie, and felt wholly justified in seeing it, a) at midnight b) by myself c) for 15 dollars and d) in a movie theater despite how scary it is to be in a movie theater anymore. I think comic book fans will enjoy it as a faithful and realistic adaptation of the character, fans of the original series will appreciate its more serious Donner qualities, skeptics will appreciate the movie's context, tone, and acting, and fans of the summer blockbuster will get the epic fight sequences that I argue surpass anything from the Avengers and its universe of solo films.

The comic book movie is enjoying a splendid renaissance right now, with a successful, dark, brooding Batman trilogy, an Avengers adaptation that could have proved too much to juggle and balance in heavier hands but exceeded expectation and included a worthwhile interpretation of the Incredible Hulk character, a more interesting Spider-Man reboot, and the promise of a better X-Men and a long-awaited Justice League team-up. The people behind the scenes care about the source material and are interested in making comics relevant to a movie-going audience, while the actors portraying these iconic roles are surprising and impressing us, truly embodying what we hoped they would be, or giving us what we didn't know we wanted.
Just remember, not so long ago, we were expected to buy these guys based on their roles as, clockwise from top left: Humphrey from Stardust, Matt Flamhaf from 13 Going on 30, Charlie Chaplin, Van Helsing, Human Torch, and Patrick Verona from 10 Things I Hate About You.
I don't know how long the renaissance will last, and like a housing bubble the whole thing could burst and Hollywood will distance itself from comic book action movies once more. Or, like the ill-fated Krypton of this new Superman, the resources will be drained, and there will be nothing left to adapt and Hollywood will move on. Either way, enjoy it while we have it, Nerds.
While a comic book death is rarely permanent, the death of the comic book movie is inevitable.