Friday, March 20, 2009

Watching the Watchmen Ten Years Too Late

Zack Snyder's adaptation of the Watchmen, the "Citizen Kane of graphic novels," does not seem to be packing the punch it possibly should with critics or ticket-buying moviegoers. Why? I have my own theory, but more on that in a moment. I personally liked the film. I purposely chose not to reread the graphic novel before seeing it (it had been about five years since I read it the first time), so I could come at it with a fresh perspective. I decided to reread it after seeing the movie, and I very much approve of the changes Snyder made from the source material. The slight alterations in dialogue and the new ending all seem to be in favor of the characters. But enough about my opinion. I'm here to hypothesize why Watchmen isn't the the end all be all of comic book movies that the graphic novel is made out to be for comic books. After letting it simmer in my head over the past two weeks, I have come to the conclusion that Watchmen is in need of a time machine, or perhaps more appropriately, an alternate history.

Moore's Watchmen was a product of its time, a reaction to and pastiche of the comic books and politics of the 1980s. A "truly faithful" adaptation might have done the same for its own time period, yet Snyder's film seems to circumvent any real influence of the 2000s. Aside from the mostly stellar CGI, made possible only by the last decade of technological improvment, Watchmen more accurately reflects the aesthetics of the 1990s. The fight scenes, for instance, with their emphasis on physical, agile combat and slow motion visual effects, more accurately recall the action sequences of 90s movies like The Matrix (1999), Blade (1998), or anything by John Woo than the quick-cutting, handheld, "realistic" sensibilities of more recent films like The Bourne Identity (2002) or Batman Begins (2005). Heck, even the attempted rape scene resembles a bout between ninjas. Also, rather than sending up the countless superhero movies of the current decade, Watchmen seems more overtly fixated on parodying the Bat-films by Joel Schumacher. Ozymandias' costume is clearly a play on the outfits from Batman & Robin, complete with nipples. Thematically, perhaps this is appropriate, as Ozy the "mask killer" is nearly responsible for the death of costumed crimefighters, just as Batman & Robin almost killed the superhero genre. Furthermore, the song ironically used in the initial Watchmen trailer, "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" by Smashing Pumpkins, comes straight from the Batman & Robin soundtrack. Where are all the Dark Knight references? How about an homage to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man or the X-Men films? Why so nostalgic?

Even the politics of Watchmen, with its alternate Cold War history and countdown to doomsday, only superficially connect with any sort of particularly relevant post-9/11 sentiment. Say Snyder's Watchmen was released in 1999 rather than 2009. The political aspects of the film, much more relegated to the background as compared to the graphic novel, would not necessarily be lost. The apocalyptic component could just as easily play to a potentially paranoid audience during the Y2K scare as a post-9/11 audience. There is also a level of cheesiness to the film that seems out of place in today's "lactose intolerant" culture of irony (please forgive the metaphor. I had to). The over-the-top fight scenes are more likely to inspire rolling eyes than oohs and ahhs. In terms of visual design, Ozymandias' Antarctic lair resembles the styrofoam pyramids of The Mummy (1999), not the impressive set pieces of Lord of the Rings (2001). Even lines like Silk Spectre's "You're such an asshole" didn't seem to play as well to my fellow audience as it might have a decade ago. It appears people were much more open to cheese in the 90s (see action-packed, one-liner-ridden, top-grossing blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997) or any of the movies from the previous Batman franchise).

Perhaps the ironic culture of today has moved to a position in which it is simply over the type of film that Snyder's Watchmen is, a fun action movie with a little cheese on top. Released in 1999, it might possibly have been the masterpiece an adaptation of the original Watchmen should be. Besides, it could have beaten Sin City (2005) and 300 (2007) to the punch with the whole direct translation of a graphic novel trend, and might have seemed more innovative and less tired. Instead, the film has opened to a lukewarm response by an unforgiving society with a low tolerance for camp. Watchmen's opening titles, without a doubt the best sequence of the film, suddenly take on new, extra-cinematic appropriateness. "The times they are a-changin'" indeed.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Contemplations on "Breaking Bad"

Rapidly becoming the best show on television:

Breaking Bad started its second season last week. This show has received tremendous critical acclaim but little notice outside of Hollywood's insular community. Bryan Cranston won an Emmy last year for his portrayal of Walter White, Breaking Bad's antihero protagonist. I think it's currently The Best Thing On Television, though I am admittedly not a television-watcher. I generally only watch one show at a time (though I don't count 30 Rock or The Daily Show/Colbert Report). So really what I mean is I only have time for one one hour drama at a time. For the past four years or so, that's been Battlestar Galactica, but now that it's (finally) ending, Breaking Bad looks like the replacement.

Briefly, what I find so captivating about the show:
  • It has some of the best acting I've seen on television (nearly on par with The Sopranos).
  • It has a fantastically tragic protagonist, whose moral ambiguity is perfectly channeled by Cranston.
  • The series is Shakespearean in its tragedy (though not its scope). You know almost exactly where its going, but you're still rooting for the characters, nonetheless.
  • It's set and filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which gives the show a very realistic yet alien quality. We're all used to seeing television set in Los Angeles and New York (and more recently, Vancouver and Miami), but the desert geography of Breaking Bad feels altogether new.
I've posted the second-season premiere episode which I encourage any to watch. But a word of warning: if you haven't watched the first season the episode won't make much sense. If you like what you see, I encourage you to purchase/steal/borrow the first season (which is a mercifully-short seven episodes).

Coming up from Yours Truly: Reflections of Galactica (a very personal essay that I will write after the show's finale a week from tomorrow), my Watchmen review, and some musings on theatre and acting.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Stray Thoughts, Fringe Opinions #9: 20th Century Fox's Announcement That Their DVD Rentals Will No Longer Contain Special Features

Fuck you, you money-grubbing pieces of shit.

The full turd here.

Potent Quotables

(An erratically maintained feature in which we share resonant quotations and pay homage to the most durable of all SNL-"Jeopardy" categories)

"This writer, he was going on about the lyrics to Champagne Supernova and he actually said to me: 'You know, the one thing that's stopping it being a classic is the ridiculous lyrics.' And I went: 'What do you mean by that?' And he said: 'Well, 'Slowly walking down the hall/ Faster than a cannonball' - what's that mean?' And I went: 'I don't fucking know. But are you telling me, when you've got 60,000 people singing it, they don't know what it means? It means something different to every one of them.' "

-Noel Gallagher, interview with Times Online, 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Eyes: '08 Edition (Volume One, Issue One)

Personal favorites from the cinema of 2008. Kind of in a descending order though only slightly...

Paranoid Park (dir. by Gus Van Sant) "Best Film of the Year"
A cinematic poem to innocence and the loss of. A hyper-culmination of the style developed and explored in Van Sant's self-proclaimed "death trilogy" (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days), Paranoid is much more kinetic than his previous three films and benefits heavily from an emotive soundtrack and beautifully steady visuals. These images float onscreen and possess a lyricism sorely lacking in today's cinema of "realism."

Best in Realism
Rachel Getting Married (dir. by Jonathon Demme)
This film depicted life as both euphoric and tragic (as opposed to the one-sided Synecdoche, New York which seemed unfairly obsessed with the latter). Although Anne Hathaway recieved most of the attention for this film (deservingly), its Bill Irwin's performance as the eager yet helpless head of the family that I found the most heartbreaking. The scene in the kitchen, packing the dishwasher is simultaenously the emotional peak and nadir of the film. Witness the American family trying to be whole once more in the aftermath of divorce, family tragedy, drug addiction and general disfunction. With Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio!

Happy-Go-Lucky (dir. and written by Mike Leigh)
Another great realist film that follows the blissfully positive Poppy, an elementary school teacher in London, as she attempts to hold on to her self-prescribed naivete in the face of psychotic driving instructors, child-abuse and the homeless. Beautiful in its highs as well as lows.

Best in Vampires
Let the Right One In (dir. by Tomas Alfredson)
What a strange little film. A beautiful story of adolescence and young love accented with scenes of intense horror and violence. The ending is one of the most perversely satisfying endings of any film I've seen in a long while.

Best of Hollywood
Milk (dir. by Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant returns to the populist cinema of Hollywood to make a movie about the political life and death of a gay politician in San Francisco. What a guy. Like Elephant and Last Days, most of the audience knows how Milk ends but Sean Penn and Josh Brolin's performances doubled with Van Sant's visual poetry elevates the script above its trappings as a standard biopic. A bar raid shot from outside with a gradual zooming single take not only captures the hysteria better than a handheld, choppily-edited sequence would but also shows the thought put in to even the smallest of details.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. by David Fincher)
Forrest Gump makes me cry. I don't think its a coincidence that Button also wrecked me. I mean REALLY wrecked me. Good thing I saw this alone because it was embarrassing. I can't even remember the last I was this emotionally devastated by a picture. A subdued love story (no grand emotional peaks or valleys) was boring to many but I found it quietly beautiful.

Iron Man (dir. by Jon Favreau)
I saw this film on opening night in packed Paris theater and it was one of my proudest moment as an American abroad. No one does spectacle like Hollywood. And no one does snark and charm like Robert Downey Jr. U S A!!! U S A!!! U S A!!!

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (dir. by Nicolas Stoller)
The funniest movie I saw all year. Its taken me a while to warm up to Jason Segel (I found him annoyingly whiny and pathetic on Freaks and Geeks [perhaps it just hit a little too close to home?]) but he was great in this (though still pretty pathetic). I'm working my way through How I Met Your Mother currently and find him hilarious there, as well. Wheelz seems disgusted by the idea that Segel is a "star" but I'm happy see his average mug on billboards across town. Nice counterpoint to all the Clive Owen posters.

Best de l'Amour
Wall-E (dir. by Andrew Stanton)
A beautifully felt picture that glued a stunned smile to my face for the majority of its runtime. The Hello, Dolly touches were particularly affecting. And that ballet in space was quite magical. Though it deserved a better third act, the perfection of the take-off made forgivable the stilted landing.

Slumdog Millionaire (dir. by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan)
The "Its His Destiny" answer at the end made me scoff but it was a fun ride. Danny Boyle's cool.

Best in Joints
Pineapple Express (dir. by David Gordon Green)
Has gotten better with each repeat viewing. More Undertow than George Washington as far as Green goes but that's not a slight. Tim Orr's gorgeous cinematography floats through scenes of awkardly realistic violence until the end where Seth Rogen is fucking flying around the warehouse. Little touches like the young overweight Hispanic girl in a swimsuit staring at James Franco crying into a sandwich and the weightlifting neighbor of Rogen's girlfriend show that Green still has an eye for the beautiful oddities of life. The walking through the forest interlude stands as the most poetic sequence in the film.

Smiley Face (dir. by Greg Araki)
A strange and hilarious picture that would surely benefit from a good joint. While its still good sober the unspeakably bad cinematography tires the eyes and the mind. Anna Farris continues to impress, throwing herself into these silly roles with such reckless abandon.

Best in Comebacks
JCVD (dir. by Mabrouk El Mechri)
Jean-Claude is incredible in this movie and its a shame it didn't get as much attention as the other comeback role this year. But this isn't so much a comeback as a realization of the skills that Van Damme has. He's funny, sad and beaten by the end of the film and vulnerable in a way no other star was this year, except maybe ...

The Wrestler (dir. by Darren Aranofsky)
A nice piece of realist filmmaking that shows Aranofsky roping in his style in order to let Mickey Rourke dominate the screen. He goes out on top with the only family that stands by him - his fans. The last shot of this movie was one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking endings of any film this year (though JCVD's was pretty devastating also). We leave Rourke soaring through the air, knowing full well he's falling just as much as flying.
I need to work on being more concise. Next time.

Greatness Regained

Friday, March 6, 2009

Watch That Man: Zack Snyder, Pater Noster of Geek Cinema

or, An Early Watchmen Review

Zack Snyder is very good at playing in someone else's sandbox, and he's even better when he's not behaving himself. His Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake had a wry sense of humor absent from the heavy-handed satire and genre slavishness of George Romero's own latter-day zombie efforts. On the other hand, his adaptation of 300 (2006), while a stylistic and technological triumph, hewed too closely to the truncated, juvenile Frank Miller source material to be interesting beyond all the spurting blood and slo-mo sex. It would be an immediate inductee into the Bland People's Favorite Movies Hall of Fame, if such a place existed (right alongside Wedding Crashers and Fight Club).

Approaching "Watchmen" (2009) might seem like "300" times ten, especially considering Synder's constant assertions that the film would look as much like the graphic novel as possible. Furthermore, Synder's demeanor at Comic-Con 2008 last July matched that of a man under an enormous amount of pressure, giving rambling non-answers to simple questions and being intimidated by a room of 6000 geeks who were nonetheless easily placated by a couple minutes of "exclusive" footage. But his deer-in-the-headlights performance also suggested a man completely consumed by making an enjoyable film out of a massively frustrating project with a two-decade turnaround.

My knee-jerk opinion is that Watchmen is quite good--very good, in fact, and better if you have read the graphic novel. But Synder's real coup is that he has made a film that will both intrigue and confuse Watchmen newbies, sending them to their nearest bookstore where Alan Moore's magnum opus is already flying off the shelves (Moore generally acts like a bridge troll whenever his material is adapted for film but I'm sure he enjoys the boost in his bank account). It is an odd movie in that the plot is nonexistent for nearly an hour. When that plot finally does creak into motion, it kind of pales in comparison to sixty straight minutes of character development. Like I said, this is an odd film--that is, odd for a purported action blockbuster--and I certainly didn't mind that the exposition upstaged the climax. The Watchmen are the only compelling reason to see this movie, which would otherwise resemble an expensive, R-rated Fantastic Four threequel.

I had the good fortune to be part of a screening that featured post-movie Q&A with the director, which I'm not sure the audience fully appreciated perhaps due to the length of the film and the general lack of geek cred. Though he doesn't reference it much anymore, Synder comes from the world of commercials. The best bits of Watchmen are, predictably, the ones that are most like mini-music videos (the opening credits are ingenious). We heard all about his storyboards and development process and other such pablum that one hears during these sessions. One fact Snyder mentioned, though, that probably doesn't make the junket circuit is that he is the father of six(!) ranging from 15 to 8 years old. He might be touted as a "visionary filmmaker" (front-runner for most misleading statement of 2009) but he is also a bona-fide, advanced-level Dad.

For some reason I find this crucial to understanding the movie. In Watchmen, way underneath all the sex and violence and depravity and darkness, beats the heart of a middle-aged parent with the keys to his comic book Corvette. Synder doesn't so much adapt the book as appreciate it from a distance. His touch may be too deft and fail to fully capture Moore's sense of paranoia and misanthropy, but in the best of all comic book movie worlds, the appeal of Watchmen's impossibly dark narrative to an amiable uber-father is a welcome development for moviegoers still struggling to get over the experience of being Schumacher'd.

My Year in Music - 2008 (Volume One, Issue One)

It's March and I'm doing my year-end music roundup. Sue me.

1. TV on the Radio – Dear Science,
Dear Science, is so distant and disjointed that the raw sentiment underlying Tunde Adebimpe’s melodramatic vocals isn’t merely tolerable— it’s downright enjoyable. Everything fits on this album and nothing is out of place (though I’ll admit the second half is nowhere near as stellar as the first). Some people get it, some people don’t. What can I say, I’m one of the former.

2. Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer
THE overlooked album of this year’s “Best Of…” roundups. Re-branded from ‘Hottest New Band’ to ‘Yesterday’s News’ in a Pitchfork minute, Wolf Parade seem to have been dumped into the “Been There, Heard That” bin along with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and countless other once-hyped groups. Yet At Mount Zoomer is even stronger than Apologies to the Queen Mary; the songwriting’s as tight as ever, while the over-the-top Arcade Fire-esque histrionics that marred the group’s first record have been drastically toned down by both Boeckner and Krug.

Why, then, was At Mount Zoomer largely ignored by critics? Could it be that these supposedly rational arbiters of taste are just as susceptible to trends and fads as the rest of us? ‘No,’ they’d likely say, ‘that’s not it at all… on a different note, have you heard this band, Vampire Weekend?!?’

3. No Age – Nouns
Striking a perfect noise:melody ratio, Nouns is the sort of new take on old-fashioned rock and roll that would make Iggy Pop (or at least the ever-gyrating skeleton that now bears that name) proud. And they’re a two-piece! As someone who loved Death From Above 1979 enough to overlook the fact that You're a Woman, I'm a Machine was really one song rehashed eleven times, I’ve got to applaud another duo that can rock.

4. David Byrne and Brian Eno – Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Great album from one of rock’s greatest musical pairings. Byrne’s voice is starting to go, however, which definitely isn’t a good thing—“The River” and “Strange Overtones” are perfect examples of the effects that age can have on vocal chords that were already stretching thin 30 years ago.

5. Randy Newman – Harps and Angels
Now 65 years old and resting comfortably in Pixar’s sizable pocket, Randy Newman still manages to be as snarky and satirical as ever. God bless him for that.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Advertisements for Ourselves

Greetings Earthlings,

Just wanted to take a little server space to promote the various other weBLOGS contributed to and run by our talented, rotating and thoroughly unpaid staff. 

McWriter aka McNasty aka Andrew McNally aka Big Baby Jesus contributes to Bring Back The Hindenburg which one might assume is an online petition. One would be wrong, but not entirely so.

RHK aka Ryan Kasmiskie aka Some Guy on the Internet runs and contributes to various, equally great blogs, including the scathing 'DT' Digest and the informally brilliant Copy of a Copy

Urbansprawls aka Daren Sprawls aka Pope Urban II aka the Holy Crusader runs and contributes to ONE worth-your-time site, the painfully personal Fake Pictures 

The cryptically-named Daniel Borders-Ashe aka DBA aka Draconian Bad-Ass aka Heir to the Borders Fortune only contributes to Anamorphic Analysis but he's a double-major and a semester behind. He does, however, follow Ryan's Copy of a Copy as any fully sentient being in this God-forsaken hellscape should.

Charles B. aka C. Benimoff aka Palme D'Or Recipient The Wind that Shakes the Charlie runs and contributes to the nearly unpronounceable Snorple's Shpigglewog and its comparatively conventional sister site  Snorple's Wagglewaggle

Cam Siemer aka Cam Siemer aka Cam Siemer aka The Unutterable runs and contributes to the truly tremendous Splash Page Cinema, a rare oasis of critical thinking in the endless swamp of comic-book movie weBLOGS. 

and finally,

Flem aka Phlegm aka Charlie Fleming aka the all-new, fully automated Flembot 3000 only contributes to Anamorphic Analysis but the days of a hostile creative takeover are close at hand.

So if you have any spare time (and if you're reading this you must definitely do) be sure to check out one or all or none of those sites. Anamorphic Analysis strives to be merely the first among equals and a home base for various free thinkers as well as those who merely think they are free.

Thanks for your time and happy reading, true believers.

(And to all you Mailer fans tolerating this post's reference to the great man's 1959 tome Advertisements for Myself, look out for an upcoming post on the absolutely batshit and occasionally inspired cinema of Beyond the Law, Maidstone, Tough Guys Don't Dance, et. al.)

Waltz With Bashir (Volume One, Issue One)

Overall Grade: A-

At once relentlessly depressing and strangely numb, director Ari Folman’s animated documentary (for lack of a better categorization – this movie defies it) about the first Lebanon War is a difficult experience to digest. Waltz With Bashir is the tale of Folman’s own investigation into the role he as a soldier in the war, particularly during the Falangist massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. For such an important event in his life, he remembers disturbingly little and sets out on a quest interviewing fellow ex-soldiers in hopes of resuscitating his repressed memories. To his chagrin they remember almost as little as he can, a testament to how effective our mental rose-colored sunglasses can be at blocking out “the bad.”

What Folman does find out comes in scattershot surreal stories that resemble nightmares more than they do actual events: soldiers firing nonstop from their tank for hours on end in the dead of night, a Falangist camp decorated with the preserved organs of Palestinians, a Lebanese child firing grenades in the middle of a serene orchard, etc. The creepy Richard Linklater-esque animation captures the nightmarish atmosphere better than any camera could. The fantastical imagery keeps us at an emotional distance, lulling us slowly into Folman’s world at an almost relaxed pace until the full scale of death and devastation becomes clear. Only at the very end does the animation give way to live footage, stunning Folman and us with the “realization” that none of these renderings were nightmares but in fact frighteningly real events.

When evaluating political documentaries like this, it is important to set aside the good intent of the filmmaker and look at the film objectively. Just because a documentary shedding light on Darfur is the only film of its type does not automatically make it a good documentary. Intent does not override quality, and making a legitimately effective and focused documentary about a complex humanitarian disaster such as this is no easy task. Folman has defied these odds, his work on Waltz is utterly impeccable. The visuals, particularly of Folman’s reoccurring beach nightmare, are exquisite and haunting. The unorthodox animation adds additional creepiness to the interviews, not less. Most importantly of all however, the story stays focused on Folman’s emotional journey. Many documentaries such as this get bogged down in peripheral detail and political intrigue, here we never lose sight of the human element. Every section is centered around that specific soldier’s tale and remains deeply personal throughout. A few make side-mentions of Ariel Sharon, the Lebanese Prime Minister, others, and leadership errors they made, but it never slips into tangent territory.

The deeply personal nature of the soldiers’ experiences and how sharply the film focuses on them has the side effect of eliminating much of the “bigger picture” and associated facts. We are never told why Israel is at war with Lebanon, who exactly they are fighting apart from generic “terrorists,” what the scope of the conflict is, etc. For this reason, Waltz can be easily misinterpreted as an anti-Israel work full of distortions (the hardly-subtle Holocaust analogy being the most provocative to people who would think this.) In other documentaries the dearth of information might be a fatal flaw. In Waltz however, it is a benefit. A deep and detailed objective analysis of the conflict is not the point here. This film is an examination of how individual people deal with trauma. It is a psychological piece more than it is a historical one and in that respect Folman succeeds resoundingly. Waltz With Bashir is at the very least a heartfelt mourning on the horrors of war. When it’s at its best, it is a disturbing tale of humanity’s worst natures executed in a way rarely if ever before seen in world cinema, certainly never before by Israeli cinema.

(repost from "70 Faces," USC Jewish student magazine, linky coming soon)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Don't Blame it On Jamie Foxx (Volume One, Issue One)

Two new (and insane) music videos were released this week: Jamie Foxx's "Blame It" and Lil Wayne's "Prom Queen."

Hype Williams presents: Jake Gyllenhaal, Ron Howard, Forest Whitaker, and Samuel L. Jackson in "Blame It (featuring T-Pain)." Besides the "headliners," if you watch the video carefully, you'll be able to spot Clifton Powell, Ced the Entertainer, and Quincy Jones. And without further adieu, here's the video in all its glory(?):

My first reaction upon watching this was something along the lines of, "What the hell? And is this for real?" Well, obviously it's for real. It is the official video for the song. It was debuted on BET last week, and the two VJs hosting the show took it very seriously: "If you don't know who Ron Howard is, IMDB him, man... he's a big dawg!"

But what to think of the video? Directed by Hype Williams, one of the preeminent music video directors of the last two decades, "Blame It" was unquestionably very thought out. Hype's been responsible for many of the most famous hip-hop videos, period. Some of my personal favorites of his are M.O.P.'s "How About Some Hardcore," Wu-Tang Clan's "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta Fuck Wit/Shame on a Nigga," Tupac's "California Love," and Kanye West's "Heartless." I won't bore you with any more of his very extensive videography, but I encourage anyone unfamiliar with his considerable contributions to the music video as an art form to, you know, Google him.

So, this begs the question: is "Blame It" self aware? I am ashamed to admit that at first I was unsure. On my first couple viewings, I was struck by how harmless and goofy the video is. And yet everyone is taking themselves so seriously. Is this supposed to be taken seriously? Was I missing something? Well, yes, I was. This is Hype Williams we're talking about. He basically invented the hip hop video. And this video is rife with hip hop video cliches. Lots of eye candy, lots of celebrities just hanging out, nice cars, nice clothes, expensive alcohol... T-Pain and Jamie Foxx even get into a step line towards the end of the video. As soon as I realized this, I had my answer. Of course this video is self aware. Jamie Foxx and Ron Howard and everyone else know how ridiculous this video is, and so they sell it for all it's worth. Jamie Foxx even dances in a panda suit (which gives the entire video a very psychedelic quality, if you ask me).

There's no question that "Blame It" is a much better video than the song behind it. But that's okay. The video makes up for everything the song lacks. It's nice to see that some people in Hollywood still have a sense of humor about themselves.

Lil Wayne's latest video is a completely different story. "Prom Queen" is the first single off his upcoming rock album, Rebirth. In the video, Lil Wayne is spurned by his high school's prom queen. He goes on to become super famous, and then he gets the last laugh. I really don't have much to say about the video or the song itself. They're both awful. Apparently Lil Wayne has been taking guitar lessons from (of all people) Kid Rock. Apparently he collaborated with Fall Out Boy and Avril Lavigne for this upcoming album. Apparently Lil Wayne is whack as hell. But don't take my word for it:

I think this video, especially when set next to the comparatively brilliant "Blame It," represents a new low in Lil Wayne's career. Maybe some day he'll go back to what he's best at -- cutting underground mixtapes.

I welcome your thoughts on whether you think "Blame It" is self-aware or not. I also welcome your thoughts on Lil Wayne's sad downward spiral.

My Year in Film & Music: 2008 (Volume One, Issue One)

Top 10 Films of 2008

1. The Dark Knight - Yeah, yeah.
2. The Good, the Bad, the Weird - A Korean gem I was fortunately able to catch at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival. It's a film that knows how to be silly without being stupid, which a lot of mainstream American comedies seem to be incapable of. Since you're all probably tired of seeing pictures of The Dark Knight, I chose the poster for this movie to headline my list.
3. The Wrestler - The ambiguity as to whether Rourke's pain is real or not during the wrestling scenes adds so much to the emotional weight of this movie. Heartbreaking and inspiring.
4. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - Probably the best film to come out of the Apatow factory, if you ask me.
5. WALL-E - While it does seem to get a little too caught up in its almost-heavy-handed environmental message near the end, it's hard not to completely fall in love with it.
6. Bolt - This movie is so unloved, and I don't get it. Sure, it borrows from The Truman Show and Toy Story, among other things, but it has heart and sincerity, something many CGI films lack these days. It also doesn't depend on pop culture references for laughs.
7. Pineapple Express - Another one that everyone seemed disappointed in. I laughed all the way through, and was impressed at how different of an action movie it was, clumsy, paranoid, infantile (in an entertaining way).
8. Happy-Go-Lucky - Despite being a comedy, this film is incredible at building tension and discomfort.
9. Speed Racer - It is simply misunderstood.
10. Slumdog Millionaire - I may not love it as much as others, but it warms the heart and Danny Boyle deserves the recognition he has received.

Unfortunately Unseen (in alphabetical order)
Gran Torino

Paranoid Park
Rachel Getting Married
Revolutionary Road

Male Performances of the Year

1. Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
2. Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler
3. Robert Downey Jr.Tropic Thunder
4. Song Kang-ho - The Good, the Bad, the Weird
5. Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man

Female Performances of the Year

1. Sally Hawkins - Happy-Go-Lucky
2. Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
3. Melissa Leo - Frozen River
4. Anjelica Huston - Choke
5. Samantha Morton - Synecdoche, New York

Top 3 Albums of 2008

1. The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath - The first half of the album perfectly captures the band's explosive stage presence, something they've gotten progressively better at doing with each album, while the latter half contains a weirder, more emotional and "cinematic" collection of songs, the kind that makes this band special to me.
2. Portugal. The Man - Censored Colors - Catchy, emotional tunes that easily get stuck in your head and heart.
3. Blitzen Trapper - Furr - My favorite musical discovery of 2008. They sound right out the 60s or 70s, as if they could have been playing on the same stage as the Grateful Dead. They also win for best band name.

Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2009

1. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
2. Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
4. Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
5. Cold Souls (Sophie Barthes)
6. The Road (John Hillcoat)
7. Funny People (Judd Apatow)
8. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
9. Moon (Duncan Jones)
10. Dragonball Evolution (James Wong)

My Year in Film: 2008 (Volume One, Issue One)

As with my Top 10 music list, this is a repost. I've made a few more changes to this one, though. Particularly, I've clarified my thoughts on Gran Torino.

So, without further adieu, my top-ten films of 2008 are:

1. Che – Fantastic. The first half of the film was the best cinema I’ve seen since There Will Be Blood. The second half was a bit of a disappointment (compared to how incredibly perfect the first half was), but I still can’t decide if that’s a bad thing. After all, the first half of the film illustrated the Cuban Revolution and Guevara’s success as a military leader, while the second half is about his failure and eventual execution in Bolivia. For its sheer grandness in scale and vision, Soderbergh deserved a nomination for Best Director. This film should have won Best Picture. Oh wait, it wasn’t even nominated. What the fuck, Oscar?

2. JCVD – The closest “second place” possible. I almost put JCVD first, and maybe it should be. It’s certainly the most entertaining film I’ve seen in a long time – more than any of the “big studio” films that came out this year, certainly. Should have won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, if not Best Picture, as well. Oh wait, like the film above, it wasn’t even nominated.

3. Vicky Christina Barcelona – Woody Allen’s best film since Small Time Crooks. Better than Match Point. Way better than anything else he’s done this decade (except maybe for Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, which I haven’t seen). Barcelona depends upon the performances of its lead actors. Bardem is fantastic, and Scarlett Johansson is pretty and confused, like her character is supposed to be. Rebecca Hall, who plays Vicky, delivers an even better performance than Johansson. And then there’s Penelope Cruz. OmigodPenelope. What can I say? Beautiful, manic, crazy - an amazing performance.

4. Slumdog Millionaire – So what if it’s derivative? So what if it is basically a bunch of clich├ęs? Danny Boyle pulls it all off without any of the (rather unsurprising) plot points seeming tired. And how ‘bout that Dev Patel? What a guy. The soundtrack was pretty cool too.

5. Waltz With Bashir – Not as amazing as all the reviews led me to believe, but still very affecting. It’s a documentary about the 1982 Lebanon-Israeli war. More specifically, it’s about the director’s experience as an Israeli soldier who witnessed (and it could be argued was complicit in) the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees. Rather than simply document his travels and interviews on film, the director (Ari Folman) animates the stories that are told. Every time a “character” tells his story, the audience sees the memories interpreted through flash animation. I was constantly reminded that even though I was watching a “documentary” and the people talking were supposedly telling “true stories,” everything was colored by the perspective of the person being interviewed.

6. WALL-E – Ahh! Global Warming! The first half or so, the part that was almost entirely devoid of dialogue, was great. This is a children’s film? Oh yeah.

7. W. – Imperfect, just like its subject. Josh Brolin’s performance was marvelous, though. He didn’t attempt to “play” Bush; he created a character that was informed by Bush’s personality and actions, and then made a new, and yet very similar, person.

8. Gran Torino – I recently re-watched A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. As I watched Clint Eastwood's seminal performances in these two films, I kept thinking back to his most recent film. Seen in contrast to the "bad boy" persona with which Eastwood established himself in Hollywood, I began to appreciate his characterization in Torino even more. I don’t care what people say about some of the other performances (and many of them were bad – the Priest? Blech.), Gran Torino was just Clint bein’ Clint. Part "The Man With No Name" and part "The Thoughtful Director of Such Films As..." Eastwood married his two personas - the badass and the auteur - into one character. And I'll see a movie like that any day.

9. Milk – Not as great as everyone seems to think. I was actually a little disappointed in Sean Penn’s performance. It was certainly good, and from everything I’ve seen and read a very good impersonation of Harvey Milk, but it just seemed so… routine. Don’t get me wrong, I liked his performance, I just wasn’t wowed. I thought Brolin, who was fantastic, upstaged Penn. What a year Brolin had, huh?

10. Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D – The second most fun I had at the movies all year (behind JCVD). Tyrannosaurs! Lava! Brendan Fraser! God I love 3D movies. Almost as much as I love Brendan Fraser.

Honorable Mention:

Iron Man – Robert Downey, Jr made this film (I mean that in the metaphorical sense, not that he actually directed it or anything).

Tropic Thunder – Robert Downey, Jr also made this film (once again, metaphorical). Also, I think this may be my favorite Matthew McConaughey performance ever. And Tom Cruise was pretty funny, too.

Pineapple Express – What can I say? Made me want to get high. One might say it was highlarious. Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Most Overrated:

The Wrestler – Mickey Rourke gave a good performance, but the film itself is pretty terrible. The camerawork is lazy, it just looks bad, and none of the other performances are inspired or even good. Also, it pisses me off to see Rourke get all the accolades for a really personal, honest, and brave performance when Jean Claude Van Damme did the same fucking thing (and did it better) with JCVD. Too bad there isn’t a big studio pushing Van Damme’s performance, or maybe he’d be winning the Oscar tonight. Props to Marisa Tomei for looking damn good, though.

Burn After Reading – Oh surprise! The Coen brothers made another overrated movie! Pardon me, I’ll be watching Fargo, or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or Lebowski again, and remembering how good they used to be.

Wish I’d Seen Them Because They’d Probably Be on My List Somewhere:

Man On Wire
Revolutionary Road
Synecdoche, New York
A Girl Cut In Two

And Finally – The Most Overrated, Ridiculously Popular and Critically Acclaimed, I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-The-Second-Highest-Grossing-Film-In-American-History:

The Dark Knight – Okay, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this movie. I really did. I had fun. But it was A) too long and B) pretty amateurishly directed for an action movie and C) not the best superhero movie of the last decade (*cough* Spider-Man 2 *cough*) and D) was so frustratingly and insanely popular! The one thing that Oscar got right this year was not nominating TDK for Best Picture or Best Director. Yes, Heath Ledger’s performance was phenomenal. But that was the only phenomenal thing about the movie.

So there’ya have it. My quickly-put-together thoughts on the year 2008 in movies. Hopefully now that the writer’s strike is well behind us, we’ll start seeing an upswing in the general quality of movies. Though if the first quarter of 2009 is any measure, that’s too much to ask.

Oh, and before I go:

Best Male Actor – Benicio del Toro OR Jean Claude Van Damme. I can’t choose between the two. Del Toro for his sheer brilliance in recreating Mr Ernesto, and Van Damme for an incredibly personal and moving performance. Too bad neither of them are even nominated.

Best Female Actor – Penelope Fucking Cruz. See my above comments on Vicky Christina Barcelona. And she won an Oscar this year. So - see! I agree with the Academy on one thing!

My Year in Music: 2008 (Volume One, Issue One)

A repost of the top ten list I published on Facebook a while back, but with a couple new additions. McNally - you were right. Justice's studio album was '07, so that's off the list.

Top ten lists always seem sort of arbitrary, especially in the world of music. Every year there are innumerable albums, EPs, and mixtapes released that it is virtually impossible to catalogue all of them. To write a top ten list that somehow "sums up" the world of music for the past year is a Gordian knot, if I've ever seen one.

That being said, I have attempted to make a list that represents the best of several of the popular genres, although my particular interests (cough hip hop cough ) are certainly apparent.

Without further ado:

1. The Roots – Rising Down: Poignant. Interesting. Relevant. A near-perfect album. ?uestlove and Black Thought are certainly on a roll of late. Game Theory was a near-classic, and Rising Down reaches even higher points. Better than Do You Want More?!!!??!. Nearly as good as Things Fall Apart. "Criminal" is one helluva song.

2. Oasis – Dig Out Your Soul: What Eric said, basically. "Waiting for the Rapture" is so fucking rockin.

3. Portishead - Third: Eerie and mysterious and ethereal and haunting. It's impossible to describe this album in anything but synonyms. I've listened to it half a dozen times now and I still don't have any idea what it's about. But the orchestration and instrumentation is incredible. Get back to me in a month and maybe I'll know what the songs are about. "Silence" and "Threads" are perhaps the best opening and closing tracks of any album this year.

4. David Byrne & Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today: I didn't discover this album until after Wheeler and Kasmiskie sung its praises. It's pop music at its very best. "Home" and "Life is Long" are personal favorites, but the best song on the album is certainly "Everything That Happens."

5. B.B. King – One Kind Favor: Certainly not B.B. King's best material ever, but it's pretty damn good. I think it is his most consistent studio album. "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" and the triumvirate of "Blues Before Sunrise," "Midnight Blues," and "Backwater Blues" are reflective, groovy, and oh so bluesy.

6. The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age of the Understatement: Epic. The title track is this year's best single, and also this year's best music video.

7. T.O.B.I.A.S. – Magyver: The West Coast is back. T.O.B.I.A.S. stands for "Takin' Out Bustas in a Second," and his debut album is just like this MC's hyperbolic name: tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly original. Also incredibly well produced for an underground self-published album.

8. TV On the Radio – Dear Science: I'm not familiar enough with TV On the Radio's previous work to give any sort of intelligent blurb about this album. All I can say is that I enjoyed it. A lot.

9. Q-Tip – The Renaissance: After nearly a decade, Tip's back with a new album. Considering how long this was in coming, it should have been an industrious, meticulously crafted effort. But it wasn't. The Renaissance is fresh, interesting, and nearly as fun to listen to as a Tribe album. But Q-Tip alone is no Tribe Called Quest, as much as he'd like to think so. The Renaissance is good, but it's not flawless. There is no strong through-line, and many of the songs sound interchangeable, though with different lyrics. But twelve new Tip tracks are always welcome.

10. Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak: I originally thought that 808s was Kanye's worst album. I was wrong. It's his second worst album (behind Late Registration). But Kanye's second worst album is still pretty damn good, and for every bad song on his new effort, there's a song like "Robocop" and "Heartless." The dude cut the album in like three weeks and it should have been a halfhearted, predictable effort. But it was just the opposite. And as much as I hate the auto-tuner, Kanye uses it better than anyone.

11. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular: God this is a great album. One of the best (if not the best) side ones this year. "Weekend Wars," "The Youth," "Electric Feel," and "Kids" all blend perfectly together. In fact, like 808s, the album is better than the sum of its parts. Each track is so complimentary to the next. It's reminiscent of - but not beholden to - Britpop before its downfall, and yet MGMT is decidedly modern. If Justice, Blur, The Gorillaz, and Radiohead had a wild orgy, MGMT might pop out nine months later. Or something like that.

12. Beck – Modern Guilt: Nothing on this album can compare to the catchiness of "Girl," but Beck continues to make great music, Scientology notwithstanding.

13. The Streets – Everything is Borrowed: A return to form. No Grand Don't Come for Free but way better than Hardest Way.

14. Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III: Lil' Wayne only makes the list on the strength of the mixtapes he produced between Tha Carter II and this latest effort. I'm getting really tired of hearing Lil' Wayne on every cookie cutter T Pain, Akon [insert crappy "rapper" here] single. Weezy can be an incredible MC. His flow is wicked. He also makes songs like "A Milli." I may give up on the man if his next album isn't far better.

15. The Cool Kids – The Bake Sale: A good debut. The Cool Kids have perfected a spare, minimalist sound that is at once reminiscent of 80s hip hop and a modern efficiency. What remains to be seen is if they can go anywhere from here.

16. Dizzee Rascal - Maths + English: I only put this last because I'm not very familiar with the Rascal. I haven't heard his first album, which I hear is better than this one. Maths is silly, scatological, and like any good hip hop album, has a track entitled "Suk My Dick."

So, that's it. My top ten(ish) albums of the year. It's certainly not all-encompassing; I hear Vampire Weekend and Lucinda Williams both had great albums, but I never listened to them. Plush finally released Fed in wide-distribution, but I didn't hear that, either. Girl Talk's latest disappointed. T.I. had an album that was alright, but just alright. Snoop was Snoop -- if only "Sensual Seduction" had been that instead of "Sexual Eruption," and if only he had made more songs like that for Ego Trippin'. Nas has further proven his irrelevance, but Illmatic is still fucking awesome.

If anyone is looking for a book to read, I fervently suggest The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. It's the best Science Fiction novel of all time. And the novel's protagonist is one of the best characters ever written. Check it out. Andrew McNally did, and he claims to have loved it. I dunno... you'll have to talk to him about that. But yeah. Great stuff.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Rankings Never Die Tomorrow with a Golden Gun

Part Eins: Bond Actors

1. Sean Connery

Perfect blend of danger, suave and MAN in all caps. Connery defined Bond and set the standard for all who followed and the fact that he had five of the ten best flicks to his name did not hurt. Diamonds Are Forever never really happened...
  • Best Moment: The original utterance of "Bond, James Bond." in Dr No. In just three words he has the character nailed. He is James Bond.
  • Worst Moment: Clumsily fighting two gymnastic champion femme fetales in Diamonds Are Forever, entirety of Never Say Never Again not withstanding. He hasn't aged well here and the result is painful to watch.

Daniel Craig

Lacks the purr and a bit of the suave but gets the rest right. The only other Bond actor besides Connery to bring a real, tangible sense of danger to the room.
  • Best Moment: The torture scene in Casino Royale: "You're going to die scratching my balls." He maintains Bond's wit and personality throughout a scene that should theoretically be too gritty and disturbing for a Bond film, successfully selling a reimagining that could've easily gone awry.
  • Worst Moment: More the writers' fault than his own, but leaving Mathis in the dumpster during Quantum of Solace stands out as a moment I didn't buy.

. Pierce Brosnan
His attempts at icy smooth sometimes came across as bored and thus boring and he had lackluster material to work with more often than not. That said, Brosnan owned when he had a good scene and/or was on a role. Also probably looked the part better than anyone else.
  • Best Moment: The death of 006: "For England, James?" "No. For me." Brosnan's cool and collected execution of this badassery seals GoldenEye's spot as a truly great 90's action flick. It is also the best example of his style. Where Connery, Dalton and Craig might have growled the line with ferocity, Brosnan just lets it slip as if it were casual conversation and it works perfectly.
  • Worst Moment: Fencing with Madonna in Die Another Day.

4. Timothy Dalton
Like Brosnan, he's a talented performer who was just given utter crap to work with and made the best of it. The difference however is a simple one: he's not as well cast as Brosnan and his material was even worse. He was however quite a bit fiercer than his counterparts, bringing a welcome edge and seriousness to the franchise following two of Roger Moore's lowest points and deserves credit for that.
  • Best Moment: Reacting to MI6-Ally-of-the-Day's death by way of malfunctioning sliding doors in The Living Daylights. When he winces and crushes that balloon with his hands, Bond's anger pierces through the screen in a way not seen in at least nine movies.
  • Worst Moment: "I gave him the... boot!" Lame pun, Dalton knows it, is bad at one-liners to begin with and fails to sell this particularly bad one. The humorous side of Bond was always Dalton's weakest point.

5. George Lazenby

Oh George Lazenby, what shall we do with thee. Not a trained actor in the slightest, Lazenby was plucked from modelling in Australian clothing? commercials to replace fed-up Connery at a time when nobody had yet proven that Bond could survive Connery's departure. He's a MAJOR contributor of awkward in the otherwise well-crafted On Her Majesty's Secret Service but tries hard, effort coming across here and there. Being a professional martial artist he's also probably the most physical of the Bonds, giving the film's fist fights and ski chases an unusually visceral feel. With a few more films he might have become the best, but alas we have only the one to judge from.
  • Best Moment: The end of OHMSS. Lazenby's strong suit, despite his lack of acting training, is in selling the film's more sensitive tender moments and when that lone tear rolls down his cheek after the attack, we buy it.
  • Worst Moment: "Bond, James Bond." If you thought I was giving Connery too much credit for his ability to sell this line, like "oh, how hard can that be?" ... get a load of this. Instead of icy cool and badass it comes across as bubbly and cocky. I wanted to punch Lazenby when he said it, not root for him. Sigh. Dalton couldn't say it either.

6. Roger Moore
Smooth and witty but so flippant that he is impossible to take seriously, assuming he's even taking the role seriously. He's not particularly interesting to watch either - most apparent in the otherwise glorious The Spy Who Loved Me in which his lack of edge is a clear weak link. When he tries to be funny he usually isn't and when he tries to act dangerous or angry he just comes across as robotic.
  • Best Moment: Kicking the henchman's car off a seaside cliff in For Your Eyes Only. This is one of the only times where his edge seems real.
  • Worst Moment: Seducing Mayday in A View to a Kill. She's so young and beautiful. He's borderline geriatric. It's ridiculous. Honorable mention to the slapsticky firetruck chase in the same film.

A Few Notes on Formats and Titles

Sorry to lure you all in with the brash sexiness of this post title, but in this economy  dignity is expendable. Speaking of which, there will be extensive coverage of the motherfucking #1 film of the century, The Expendables, in due time. On to the notes!

-Our goal here at Anamorphic Analysis is to provide you with the coherence and insight of in-depth magazine writing while at the same time getting our thoughts to you as quickly as possible and hopefully continuing the conversation with you in the comments section. Our unabashed goal is to be a cross between Cahiers du Cinema, NME and Twitter, but not fucking worthless and a waste of everyone's god damn time like Twitter. Just...frequently updated. 

In order to achieve this we will be outlining each issue of Anamorphic Analysis beforehand and allowing the reader to retroactively piece together the strands of where we are intellectually and aesthetically each month. The internet. Interaction. You get the idea. Issues will be roughly monthly and volumes will be quarterly. This sort of organizational superstructure will hopefully become less cumbersome as time goes by  and you wish to consult prior issues or specific posts. 

This is not to say, however, that spontaneity is excised from the journal or that every entry will be a 12-paragraph eyestrain. Although we set outlines for each issue, there is an open-structure to the whole enterprise and cinematic and/or musical revelations should be shared while still warm. There will also be varied blog posts within and between issues touching on any sort of idea or opinion a writer has and at whatever length he or she has the inspiration to construct. We're also still coming up with ideas for semi-regular features, panels and roundtables which leads directly to:

-Brand new (although not eternally new, so it goes...) features such as: 
"Stray Thoughts, Fringe Opinions" a soon-to-be-staple of the weBLOG which is hopefully self-explanatory

From the Vaults: Radiohead's Greatest Unreleased Songs

The Long and Winding Road to Cultural Literacy: Super Ape by the Upsetters 

A Britpop Primer (with apologies to the A.V. Club)

Review of "The Explosive Cinema of Bruce Conner" event at REDCAT

"Paul McCartney: Hiding in Plain Site" essay

An absolute clusterfuck of all sorts of shit on post-modernism 

"Appetite for Deconstruction" - A possibly-regular panel in which various objects of adoration, disgust and/or (dis)interest are nerdishly picked apart by our contributors 

as well as...

"Underappreciated Appreciations" a twice-an-issue column in which we give the overlooked and undervalued a public salute. Expect to see such diamonds-in-the rough as: Brendan Fraser, Anna Faris, the early films of Abel Ferrara, Oasis in the 21st century, Bowfinger, Minus the Bear, the recent films of Terrence Malick, "Spider-Man: The Animated Series," the Chicago Cubs and much, much more!

- Finally, I'd like to lay out the significance of our title, for plebians and Ph.Ds alike. So in the tradition of all great academics and intellectuals, allow me to turn towards Wikipedia: "With an anamorphic lens the picture is optically squeezed in the horizontal dimension to cover the entire film frame, resulting in better picture quality. When projecting the film, the project must use a complimentary lens of the same anamorphic power to stretch the image horizontally back to its original proportions." So the idea is to grasp the richness of the "big picture" while reformatting it to our own aesethetic idiosyncrasies (or evil schemes). 

"Notorious" Review (Volume One, Issue One)

Latest Music Biopic Notorious For All the Wrong Reasons

Towards the end of Notorious (2008), the latest in a torrential slew of Hollywood biopics, Sean Combs a.k.a. Puff Daddy turns to Christopher Wallace a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. and says, “We gonna change the world, Biggie Smalls.” Biggie retorts, “We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.” This is the dramatic beat in the film, the moment before the climax, but one cannot help but wonder: “what does that even mean?” And therein lies the problem. It doesn’t mean anything.

In fact, the intro tracks to Biggie’s two studio albums, Ready to Die and Life After Death do a better job at summarizing his life than Notorious. On Ready to Die, the listener hears Biggie’s birth as Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” plays. “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang plays next, as Biggie’s mother and (presumably) father argue about their son. Their argument transitions into “Top Billin’” by Audio Two. As “Top Billin’” plays, Biggie and a friend rob a subway train. Finally, “Tha Shiznit” by Snoop Dogg is sampled while Biggie is being released from prison. His last lines are, “I got big plans nigga… big plans.” The intro to Life After Death (which was released sixteen days after Biggie’s murder in Los Angeles) is less interesting, but serves as a nice bookend to his life.

Notorious follows the format of these two tracks almost exactly. A series of vignettes shows us Biggie grow up, sell crack on the streets of Brooklyn, go to prison, and then begin recording music. The rest of the film is devoted to Biggie’s meteoric rise to fame, his relationship with Tupac Shakur that (as we all know) turns sour, and ends, inexorably, with his death. What Notorious does in 123 minutes, Ready to Die and Life After Death do in a little over five.

To understand the problems with Notorious, it is important to recognize the film in a larger context – to understand its existence within the larger world of hip-hop cinema, musician biographies, and biopics in general. Although the “biographical film” has existed since the birth of cinema – Cyrano de Bergerac (1900) being possibly the very first – the biopic as a genre is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even more recent is the glut of music biopics, spurned on by the success of Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). The hip-hop biopic, though, has been relatively neglected. The only other film that comes to mind when thinking of hip-hop biographies is 8 Mile (2002). And 8 Mile isn’t truly a biopic, it’s a fictional story based on Martial Mathers a.k.a. Eminem’s early life. “Aha!” you may say, “but what about Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (2005), the 50 Cent biopic for which Terrence Howard received an Oscar nod?” Well, yes. Technically I suppose Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is a biopic. It’s even directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot – 1989). However, Get Rich is so utterly modeled after 8 Mile and so entirely forgettable that it hardly deserves mention.

Notorious is, then, a foundational film in many ways. So, what should be learned from this endeavor? Unfortunately, not much. And although Notorious is the “first” hip-hop biopic, it certainly does nothing new in the way of filmmaking choices. The real progenitors here are the filmmakers of Ray and Walk the Line, who perfected making the formulaic “hardships in early life lead to a spectacular rise to fame which leads to drug addiction and relationship crises which eventually leads to redemption” story palatable to awards-season audiences. Structurally, Notorious is no different than these films. And all of them, sadly, disappoint.

The problem with these types of films is that they do little more than “report” the life and times of their subjects. Ray, Walk the Line, and Notorious are like the biographies of John Glenn and Winston Churchill that we read in elementary and middle school. They show us what happened, but offer no analysis on why. There’s a lazy filmmaker at work here; rather than make narrative choices and attempt to glean insight into the minds of their subjects, the writers and directors prefer to create facile and methodic stories that fit into their formulas of what makes appealing cinema.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of these films is that they present their stories as fact. Notorious (which was executively produced by Sean Combs) paints a fairly saintly portrait of its subject. Biggie goes to prison, but he’s a victim of the system. He doesn’t have anything to do with Tupac’s robbery and shooting in Manhattan. He had already recorded the b-side “Who Shot Ya” (which provoked the East Coast-West Coast rivalry to new heights) before Tupac’s attempted murder. It was mainly Tupac’s fault that their beef was not resolved. Puffy and Biggie had nothing to do with Tupac’s murder in Las Vegas. And, of course, Biggie had patched things up with all the women in his life (his mother, Faith Evans, Lil’ Kim, etc) before he died. While some of these things are most certainly true, some of them aren’t, and several of them are still shrouded in mystery. There’s nothing wrong with fictionalizing aspects of a biopic; in fact, it’s nearly always essential to the narrative flow of the film. But Ray, Walk the Line, and Notorious never decide what these fictionalizations mean. Facts are changed, but the story continues along as if they hadn’t been.

When filmmakers decide to take a perspective about their subject and follow those ideas to a conclusion, their films are almost always more interesting to watch. Furthermore, films that do not attempt to tell an entire “life story” are more successful. Just as a biography of Winston Churchill that focuses on and analyzes specificities of his life is more interesting than the simplistic biographies of our youth, films like I’m Not There (2007) are also far more compelling. Though certainly not without flaws, I’m Not There is willing to do more than routinely describe. It takes Bob Dylan’s life and creates new characters and narratives from his actual experiences. Rather than pretending to be a total portrait of who Bob Dylan is, I’m Not There attempts to understand his various iterations and personalities through distinct characters, actors, and stories. There are plenty of films that are arguably even better at this (re)interpretation: in the music genre, Amadeus, and more generally, W., Che, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Notorious, like many biopics, gets a good performance out of its lead Jamal Woolard. In many ways his performance is very similar to Sean Penn’s in Milk. They both essentially impersonate other people, and they both do it well. Jamal Woolard looks eerily like Biggie, and he perfected Biggie’s slow, syncopated drawl. In fact, the most indelible scenes in Notorious are when Woolard is rapping Biggie’s words. Each time this happens, though, George Tillman, Jr (the director, whose presence is barely felt) chooses to cut the scene before the song is over. We only see Woolard rap part of “Juicy.” We only see part of his performance of “Who Shot Ya” to a hostile crowd in California. Making a film about a musician and choosing to avoid a lot of time devoted to seeing his performance in favor of focusing on the musician’s personality can work (see I’m Not There). In the case of Notorious, though, the rest of the film is bland and uninspired. There was nothing insightful in the scenes where Biggie was not rapping.

Hopefully, as movie studios gear up many more hip-hop biopics in light of the success of Notorious, they will choose filmmakers who are willing to make films that realize the unique opportunities that are present when operating within the cinematic medium. Ideally, these films will model themselves after Amadeus and I’m Not There, not Ray and Walk the Line. I don’t think this is very likely, though. Audiences have shown what they want, and that’s inoffensive and predictable films that have good performances, but do not challenge the viewer in any way. As I left the theatre after the credits for Notorious had rolled, I thought about what, if anything, I was taking away from the film. I could only think of this: “We gonna change the world, Biggie Smalls.” “We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.” In the greater context of Notorious, that exchange doesn’t mean a thing. But in retrospect, maybe it can be applied to what I’ve been discussing. If we, as audiences, demand better biographical films – films that challenge us – we can change the world of the biopic. We can change the world. But first, we have to change ourselves.