Nov 222013
 
Hunger Games 2

Stanley Tucci and the rest of us have a good time watching Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games 2: Halfway There.

Top Line: Hunger Games 2 is in every way a step up from its predecessor.  The stakes are higher, the danger greater, the effects much, much improved.  It spends too much of its runtime getting to the actual Hunger Games, but what’s there is quite a bit of fun.  The above trailer is exactly what you’re getting, right down to the fact that the games are hardly in it.

Who (probably) should see this movie: People who liked the first one.

Who (probably) should not see this movie: People who didn’t like or haven’t seen the first one.  (Duh.)

Box Score:

Runtime – 2h:26m – And very brisk about it.Actual Start – Showtime + 14 Minutes – Only four trailers, which kept this number down.

Thursday Night Demographics: Packed house of, as one would expect, mostly girls and women under the age of forty or so.

MPAA – PG-13 – for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and languageWhat It’s Got: Pretty much that.  They got away with some blood and gore in PG-13 (mostly during the fog and flogging scenes), which isn’t easy to do these days.  Most of the deaths are still perfectly clean, but it wasn’t completely sanitized.  I’m not sure what “thematic elements” means, maybe they don’t like stories about poor people revolting against rich people?

Should Be Rated: PG-10

Companies With Fancy, Pre-Credits CGI Logos:

  • Lionsgate: A suitably over the top constellation of stars.
  • Color Force: Just a quickly spreading logo, but why there’s some kind of weird double “m” in the middle was beyond me.
Three Stars:

  1. Jennifer Lawrence:
    Add “carrying a franchise” to her heavyweight movie star resume.  She’s fantastic and has real range.  It’s not for nothing that they end the movie on a close-up of her.  It’ll be fun to see how much they use her in X-Men 5 next summer.  Hers is now, by a decent margin, the biggest name in the cast.
  2. Jena Malone:
    A sarcastic, ass kicking hot chick?  Did Joss Whedon sneak onto the set or something?  Has one of the most fun parts and is clearly having a ball playing it.
  3. Jeffrey Wright:
    Chews his scenery like it’s a nine course meal, politely and with wit dryer than a martini.
Worth Seeing In Theater (Baseline: 2):

  • +2 Good movie.
  • +1 People gon’ be talking.
  • +1 CGI is way, way better than the first one.
  • -2 Nothing eye popping or anything.

Final Score: 4

Worth Seeing Eventually (Baseline: 5):

  • +5 if the Hunger Games franchise is something you enjoy.
  • -4 if it isn’t.

Final Score: 10 or 1, pick ‘em

Bechdel (Baseline: 5):

  • +5 Passes easily, obviballs.

Final Score: 10

IMDb Sez:

Director:

  • Francis Lawrence:
    His only other two similar directing gigs were 2005’s failed but entertaining Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine and Will Smith’s 2007 remake of The Omega Man, I Am Legend.  That last one is a good point of comparison to this movie.  It’s very entertaining, but the ending is a little disappointing.  (As far as IMDb is concerned, he’s no relation to Jennifer.)

Writer:

  • Simon Beaufoy:
    Versatile screenwriter with credits as diverse as The Full Monty, 127 Hours, and Slumdog Millionaire.
  • Michael Arndt:
    Wrote Little Miss Sunshine, and then worked on Brave and Pixar’s existentially depressing Toy Story 3.  Also had a hand in that crappy Tom Cruise Oblivion movie.
  • Suzanne Collins:
    Wrote the books, just has credit for the novel here.

Rotten Tomatoes Sez:

All Critics: 90% Top Critics: 88% Audience: 94%

Notes:

  • For once I’m going to say that everybody is grading a little soft here.  This is a good movie, no doubts about that, but it’s got one rather glaring problem that can’t be overlook and drags it down.
  • Namely that in a two and a half hour movie called “Hunger Games”, they spend maybe forty minutes in the actual game arena.  In the book, they get into the games before the halfway point, and the actual games themselves are exhausting and brutal.  Here they get to the games much later and they’re over almost before they begin.  I understand why they did this, they have to get all the political background in to set up the third and fourth movies, but it’s disappointing nevertheless.  The second book is the best one, and that big “who can I trust?/what’s really going on?” action set piece that is the Games is its crown jewel.  It really should’ve gotten more screen time here.
  • Neither of them is on screen nearly enough, but Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman are enjoyably evil and oily with each other.
  • Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson are great in comic relief roles, and this movie certainly needed some.

Bottom Line:

Hunger Games 2 is just what a sequel should be: bigger, louder, and generally more fun than the original.  Having defied the evil dictator and miraculously survived the first movie, our heroine finds herself in the spotlight and the reluctant symbol of a nascent revolution.  That’s all well and good, but the decision to have it take up two thirds of the movie was a costly one.  The film is more political thriller than action adventure, which is a shame because the book provided a great arena and many excellent moments of humanity facing death and each other that didn’t make it into the movie.  It also means that the ending feels more than a little clipped.  The reality of the arena is just becoming apparent when – poof – it’s over.

The plus side of that decision is that the political thriller stuff is actually very good.  There are heart wrenching moments as we see the cruelty of Donald Sutherland’s evil Capital government on full display.  There are heart warming moments of defiance and bravery as people fight back.  And there are allies in unlikely places, other fighters who are real characters instead of background decoration, and plenty of eye candy for one and all.  This is Jennifer Lawrence’s movie, but her supporting cast is rock solid, especially fellow Hunger Games combatants played by Amanda Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, and Sam Claflin.

So Hunger Games 2 is a lot of fun for what it is.  The downside is that it’s the second of four planned movies, and that leaves it feeling a bit too much like the middle part of a mini-series than a big, kickass Hollywood extravaganza.

Movies Deemed Commercially and Demographically Similar Enough to Merit Trailers Before Title:

- Divergent – Check out this SAT question from 2063 I just found: “Harry Potter:Percy Jackson::Hunger Games:[BLANK]”.

- I, Frankenstein – Two Face is a heroic Frankenstein with six-pack abs from the producer of Underworld?  Oh, January dump movies, you are so horrible.

- Noah – An under-thought, over-animated, religiously themed fable from Darren Aronofsky?  Shocking.

- American Hustle – Still looks watchable, though I am getting a little sick of this trailer.

WARNING: The comments section is a spoiler friendly zone.  By reading this with your inner monologue, you have waved any right to bitch about spoilers in perpetuity throughout the universe.

Nov 072013
 
kinopoisk.ru

On we move, to yet another look at how Hollywood product is set to fare here in good old Blighty. It feels like just five weeks ago that I last made a set of predictions, but it was actually more like six. How time flies!

Last time around, I fared reasonably well with my predictions. Let’s see if I kept up that track record with the most recent batch:

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Well, not really. My big mistake this month was to underestimate the ranges of openings: while the low-end titles opened around £90k, and the highest at £8.5m, I’d opted for a £200k/£6m range. When you follow the world of film as much as I do, it’s easy to be blinded into the idea that people have equal awareness of every film on release, but of course they simply do not.

The big surprise here has to be the great result for Bad Grandpa. It’s well on course to become easily the highest-grossing Jackass film in the UK; for whatever reason, I didn’t anticipate that. Awareness seemed to grow considerably in the two or three weeks pre-release, after my predictions, but excuses aside, it was still something of a shock overperformance to me.

Among other misses, Thor looks to be set for a far stronger turnout than its predecessor; Blue Jasmine did phenomenally, and still is, way ahead of Midnight in Paris numbers and garnering a far wider release, too; indies Girl Most Likely and Thanks for Sharing had serious difficulty garnering mainstream attention; Escape Plan turned out to not be all that much of an event; and The Fifth Estate utterly bombed, considering the exhaustive marketing.

It wasn’t all bad news, though. Captain Phillips is doing roughly in line with my expectations, that is to say rather well; the kid-flick-twinpack of Turbo and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 have also delivered along the lines of my predictions. Long legs for Prisoners and Baggage Claim, meanwhile, have seen weaker-than-I’d-expected opening weekends go on to live up to my total gross predictions; the opposite went for Machete Kills and Ender’s Game, where fine opening weekend dropped off very rapidly.

Onwards and upwards. Six more weeks of UK box office are waiting to be predicted.

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This coming weekend, the 8th of November, sees just one major release. But it’s a big one: Gravity, finally hitting UK cinemas a month after its US debut. A couple of months back, the 8th November was a relatively crowded weekend, but one by one, pretenders to Gravity’s throne have given up in pain – the biggest casualty, Last Vegas, has had its UK release bumped to 2014 – and with no major indies even attempting to release the same weekend, it seems arthouses and plexes alike will be dominated by the title. Buzz is through the roof, both online and in the UK press; trailers have been saturating the country’s cinemas for months. Britons are aware of this film, and they’re aware that it’s good. It’s going to open big. I’m going for an outpacing-the-US opening of £7m, and a £25m total.

[divider]

By contrast, the weekend of 15th November is utterly stacked. The Butler, The Counsellor, Don Jon, and Battle of the Year all get released, and with Gravity likely to still be pulling in the masses, they can’t all be winners.

The Butler looks like the safest bet. Riding positive word-of-mouth and mainstream media attention, it should appeal to the middle classes who enjoy awards contenders over both blockbusters and arthouse fare, in the way so many major UK titles do (Marigold Hotel, King’s Speech). In the minus column, The Help wasn’t a massive hit here, and this is comparable in target audience, but I’d still peg it as the strongest of the openers, and a £1.25m opening, £5m total seems doable, despite the shadow of Gravity looming large.

The Counsellor has done poorly in the USA, and I can’t see it doing great shakes here either. £600k opening, £2m total looks realistic to me. Don Jon is the great unknown; it’s had good reviews and been marketed a lot, but it’s 18-rated and the porn-focused subject matter is a tad niche. I’ll probably err on the side of the caution with an OK £500k opening, £1.5m total.

Limited release Battle of the Year looks like the bonafide bomb of the bunch, not getting a wide release, despite going nationwide in the USA. There’s no evidence of demand for this distinctly American take on the dance movie, and an opening weekend of more than £100,000 would be surprising; site average is bound to be sub-£1000. Total will unquestionably be below £250k.

A couple of relatively low-key UK titles also look set to get lost in the shuffle: Dom Hemingway, a black comedy starring Jude Law, and thriller In Fear will be battling for multiplex screens and audiences; I suspect they’ll be losing out to Hollywood product by miles, though they should at least beat Battle of the Year.

[divider]

The weekend of November 22nd looks pretty set to be dominated by one movie – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, sequel to the extremely popular The Hunger Games. That topped out with £23.7m following an excellent £4.9m opening; the anticipation is greater this time and the opening weekend, at least, looks set to easily outstrip that of its predecessor. Awareness is high, the fans are greater in number than ever – the books sold two million copies in the UK in 2012 alone – and all is set for a massive, overwhelming performance. I’m guessing a £9.5m opening, £28m total is on the cards here.

hunger-games-catching-fire-poster-630

The other openers this weekend are destined for also-ran status. Parkland, despite bombing in the US and featuring overwhelmingly American subject matter, gets a saturation UK release; it will certainly fall through the cracks, and I can’t see its opening weekend topping £200k, for a total around £400k. Luc Besson’s The Family should do a little better, thanks to the star power of Robert DeNiro, though it’s very likely to underperform vs the US; its domestic take of $36m suggests a £3.6m UK total, but I’m thinking more like a £450k opening, £1.25m total.
[divider]

The 29th November sees a diverse back of studio product arriving. Carrie finally makes its way to UK shores; missing Halloween really strikes me as a mistake, especially as there was almost no horror product in UK cinemas around the time. I expect it to perform roughly in line with most of the year’s high-awareness horror titles, and a £1.5m opening/£5m total seems reachable at this stage, for an audience relatively starved of the genre.

Free Birds also opens this weekend. Usually, US animated flicks are a slam-dunk at the UK box office, Seuss aside, but Thanksgiving isn’t too marketable here for obvious reasons, and US numbers have been very weak indeed. It does have the benefit of a uncrowded marketplace, Cloudy 2 and Turbo both having been on release for well over a month by this stage, but there’s no school holiday to tie it in with either. I’ll say a £1.5m opening, £6m total is do-able – roughly in line with the US.

The great unknown of the weekend is UK/US co-production Saving Mr Banks, one of the year’s major awards contenders. The plot – P.L. Travers meets with Walt Disney during their production of her Mary Poppins – should connect well with UK audiences, an exhaustive preview screening and promotion schedule has been underway, and awards season buzz should propel its long legs right up into the new year. A solid £2.5m opening looks right, and an excellent £14m total seems achievable.

The Best Man Holiday also opens “wide” here this weekend, but it’s unlikely to get past £500,000 total.
[divider]

The 6th of December sees one of the busiest lineups of the year, and in my opinion it’s likely that one title might be held back – it’s going to be a bloodbath otherwise. Still, as it is, we have six major US titles competing for audiences on that date.

FROZN_014M_G_ENG-GB_70x100.indd

Frozen is by far the weekend’s safest bet. Solid early buzz helps, but what really matters is that Frozen is a Disney movie, likely to appeal to both boys and girls, seasonally appropriate, and facing little holiday season competition. The absence of the usual US-UK delay will only assist things. Tangled opened to £5.1m on its way to £20.5m, while Wreck-It Ralph did £4.5m OW, £24.3m total. Matching those figures seems very likely. £4.5m OW, £25m total.

Adults face a surfeit of options this weekend, by comparison to families. Homefront, the Jason Statham/James Franco team-up action flick, looks best placed to perform well: Statham remains marketable here, and good reviews plus the presence of Franco should draw some middlebrow crowds to. A fine £1.5m opening, £5.5m total seems doable.

Getaway, the Ethan Hawke thriller that bombed in the US with just $10m total back in September, is direct competition to Homefront, and seems likely to lose that battle. Even assuming a saturation release, £300k opening and £750k total sounds right to me; I can’t see the Christmas setting providing much assistance.

Arthouse audiences have a couple of options this weekend, too. Nebraska, which is going straight to saturation release here, seems likely to prove the most tempting; I can’t foresee strong natiowide performance, given the unusual tone of the picture – and the fact it’s black and white – but I can see it holding on in arthouses for a long, long run. £1m opening weekend, £5m total. Those looking for something a little darker may find solace in Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy, though success here may depend on how many multiplexes can find room for it. I can’t personally see it brraking out, and I think it’ll do around £250k opening, £1m total (assuming 100 sites) and £500k opening, £1.5m total (assuming 300 sites).

And finally, there’s Black Nativity, which will likely only be placed in areas of the UK with a considerable black population. It should manage solid screen averages, but its total gross is inherently limited; these urban ensemble movies with African-American casts rarely make it past £500k here, which seems to me to be Black Nativity’s upper total limit.
[divider]

After the busy weekend prior, the 13th of December sees only one major cinema release, but it’s a doozy: The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. The first in the trilogy did very good numbers last festive season, racking up an £11.6m opening on its way to £51.7m, and winding up the year’s fourth-highest-grossing release. Can the sequel live up to its predecessor? In my opinion, probably not quite, unless outstanding reviews come along for the ride. Last year’s was a mild disappointment to many, the HFR wasn’t much of a sell either; naturally there’s still a massive built-in fanbase but I think we’ll see a slight dip this time around. I’m guessing a £11m opening, £42m total is about right.

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-poster-1

The only other wide US release is The Christmas Candle, a Christian Christmas movie, of the type that don’t usually earn a UK theatrical release. Its grosses will almost certainly be negligible, sub-£250k total.
[divider]

And that’s all for now. I’ll be checking in again before Christmas, as the awards season contenders get underway, with some guesses as to how America’s prestige pictures are going to fare here.

[divider]

More from the week that was is taking the week off, but it’ll be back soon.

Nov 012013
 
Ender's Game

 Alright, nerds, you wanted to see the Battle Room on screen.  Happy now?

“Well, Kang, it seems the Earthlings won.” – Kodos
“Did they?  That board with the nail in it may have defeated us.  But the humans won’t stop there.  They’ll make bigger boards and bigger nails.  Soon they will make a board with a nail so big it will destroy them all.” – Kang 

Top Line: Ender’s Game is a pretty decent science fiction movie while also suffering from every single problem a novel-to-movie translation can possibly suffer from.  It flattens and neuters characters (up to and including the two leads); it’s generally much dumber, and the ending is bobbled horribly.  If you haven’t read the book, you’re in for a fun little tale.  If you have read the book, especially more than once, be prepared for weak tea.  The above is pretty much the whole movie and includes a few examples of the many ways it falls far short of the book.

Who (probably) should see this movie: People looking for an above average science fiction flick and people who’ve read the book and can enjoy this for what it is.

Who (probably) should not see this movie: People who read the book and were hoping for a great movie.

Box Score:

Runtime – 1h:54m – It somewhat oddly paced, but doesn’t drag.Actual Start – Showtime + 12 Minutes - Lowest in a long time.

Friday Morning Demographics: ~40, pretty big crowd

MPAA – PG-13 - for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material. What It’s Got: Everything is very tame, violence wise, and I’m not really sure what “thematic material” means.

Should Be Rated: PG-8

 

Three Stars:

  1. Asa Butterfield:
    The kid holds his own against Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford, so that’s not too bad at all.
  2. Harrison Ford:
    Grumble grumble, death of mankind, grumble grumble.
  3. Ben Kingsley:
    I would leave it to actual Kiwis to determine whether or not he got the accent right, but he brings a real presence even without the Maori face tattoos.
Worth Seeing In Theater (Baseline: 2):

  • +2 A few big screen worthy scenes.
  • -1 Not that many, though.

Final Score: 3

Worth Seeing Eventually (Baseline: 5):

  • +5 If you’ve read the book more than once.
  • -2 If you’ve read it not at all or didn’t care for it.

Final Score: 3 or 10, Pick ‘Em

Bechdel (Baseline: 5):

  • -3 Ever read the book?  It’s like that.
  • -1 And made worse because the two biggest female roles, who are quite intelligent and capable in the book, get just as shoddy a treatment as all the other minor characters and become little more than wallpaper.

 

Final Score: 1

IMDb Sez:

Director:

  • Gavin Hood:
    His second time in the big chair for an effects extravaganza.  The first one?  Wolverine 1.  Ruh-roh.

Writer:

  • Gavin Hood:
    His first time behind the keyboard since 2005′s Tsotsi, which I didn’t see but which was well received.
  • Orson Scott Card:
    Wrote the book, and many other books, and tracts about the evils of homosexuality, Barack Obama, and other nutty things.

Rotten Tomatoes Sez:

All Critics: 63% Top Critics: 52% Audience: 76%

Notes:

  • As a stand alone movie, I’d say the audience has the better sense of things here.  It moves at a brisk clip, the story is still pretty cool even when you strip away the themes and deeper ideas that make the book so beloved, and the ending is cool enough that it can withstand the somewhat ham handed handling here and still be pretty neat.
  • As an adaptation, however, even the Top Critics are being too kind.  This is so much dumber, shallower, and outright less interesting than the book as to be an almost cautionary example in how not to do something.  Case in point, Harrison Ford is the big movie star here and he gets top billing, but his character, Colonel Graff, is a background character in the book.  He’s an important background character, to be sure, but here they’ve got him practically in every scene because, well, he’s the movie star.
  • It also does that annoying thing adaptations do where it crams in scenes from the books even though they aren’t explained and don’t make sense in terms of the movie.  So, here’s the part where Bean flies on a tether in the Battle Room, except that Bean gets all of six lines in the whole movie, the tether is never explained, and events move forward from there almost as if it hadn’t happened.
  • Similarly, most of the minor characters in the book are given cameo spots at best.  There’s Alai, Dink, Petra and Valentine, but only for the briefest of moments and never for more than a quip.
  • The book has been called “unfilmable” by more than a few people, and there’s ample evidence here that it’s true.  The book repeatedly makes the point that Ender is always smaller and weaker than the rest of the kids, it goes along with the fact that humanity is smaller and weaker than the aliens.  But on screen, all of the kids are roughly the same size and age, and Ender even towers over one of the bullies who dwarfs him on the page.  The movie tries to keep some of the spirit of the book, but fumbles it like that far too often.
  • We’ve been spoiled with some very good CGI this year (Gravity and Pacific Rim being the two standouts, but with several other beautiful films along for the ride), and when called upon for spectacle Ender’s Game does its best to keep pace.  But there’s nothing here that will take your breath away, and the space and zero-G stuff pales compared to Gravity.

 

Bottom Line: If Ender’s Game were an original screenplay for a kids movie, you’d have to say it’s clever and inventive and very well done.  But it isn’t an original, it’s the long talked about adaptation of a science fiction classic.  That’s something very different, and on that score Ender’s Game flunks every test it’s given.  The backstory is needlessly altered.  Characters are crammed in just so we can say they were there.  The central themes – empathy, friendship, trust, violence as imperfect solution, talent vs. authority – are watered down or excised completely.  Great lines are misunderstood, and mutilated in the process.

For example, in the prelude to the final battle (much of which is in the trailer above), Bean reminds Ender and everyone else that “The enemy’s gate is down”.  In the book it’s a grim joke from one exhausted child genius to the others about the insane lengths to which the grownups are pushing them, a frequently repeated line that reminds them all of what they’ve been through.  In the movie it’s almost a non sequitur.  It’s said only once before then, and the kid saying it has barely had enough screen-time to register as one dimensional.  It’s famous in the book, so it has to be in the movie, but it doesn’t fit with the story the movie is telling at all.

The underlying story of Ender’s Game, that cool take on the alien invasion scenario, is strong enough that the movie version is pretty good for what it is.  But it lacks the depth and magic that made the novel a multi-generation classic.  Oh well, they can always try again in thirty years.

Movies Deemed Commercially and Demographically Similar Enough to Merit Trailers Before Ender’s Game:

I was late as hell and the movie started shockingly close to its actual start time, so I missed all the trailers.  Whoops.

WARNING: The comments section is a spoiler friendly zone.  By reading this with your inner monologue, you have waved any right to bitch about spoilers in perpetuity throughout the universe.

Oct 282013
 
Strings Attached

“You haven’t dealt with women for a long time, have you, Sergeant?” – Mrs. Krabappel
“Are you asking me out?” – Sergeant Seymour Skinner

In this column I watch all of the new network premieres and see if they pass the Bechdel test, a test which asks if a work has two women who interact with each other. I then modify the test to apply to people of color (the “Troy and Abed test”) and to queer people (the “Will and Jack test”).

The Tomorrow People (The CW)

This new supernatural drama premiered two weeks ago, but failed every test with its first two episodes.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: In episode three this series finally just barely passed one test.

Dracula (NBC)

This new drama about Dracula premiered this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: There is one major person of color in the cast.

Grimm (NBC)

This supernatural procedural returned for its third season this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: This show has a couple of reasonably prominent ladies and that’s about all it has going for it.

The Carrie Diaries (The CW)

This Sex and the City prequel returned for its second season this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Pass
Will and Jack: Pass

Notes: This show features an interracial couple that doesn’t involve a white person and just introduced bisexual Samantha Jones.

Oct 212013
 
REI-alliances-trlx_b5cbcba28_CWtv_720x400

“Chicks, man. They’re one of life’s greatest mysteries. Them and plants.” — Rory

In this column I watch all of the new network premieres and see if they pass the Bechdel test, a test which asks if a work has two women who interact with each other. I then modify the test to apply to people of color (the “Troy and Abed test”) and to queer people (the “Will and Jack test”).

The Tomorrow People (The CW)

This new sci-fi show premiered last week, but it failed all three tests so I watched it again this week.

Bechdel: Fail
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: There were a couple of women of color thrown in to this episode but the main action is so white male centered that I’m afraid I’ll be watching this for the long haul.

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (ABC)

This new Once Upon a Time spin-off premiered last week, but it failed all three tests so I watched it again this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Pass
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: As you can see, the representation got a bit better this week. Still, the only dark-skinned person in the main cast is the bad guy.

Supernatural (The CW)

This fantasy show about brothers hunting demons returned last week, but it failed all three tests so I watched it again this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Pass
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: This episode was obviously the result of deliberately trying to get some stronger female characters. The effort is much appreciated.

Reign (The CW)

This historical drama about Mary Queen of Scots premiered this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: This is a truly female-driven show with a lot to say about the sexual agency of women.

Oct 182013
 
Afrikan LuV EP

 

As a latecomer to the Cameroonian musical scene, hip-hop has been on a gradual but steady rise in an over-congested milieu where, according to Kangsen Feka Wakai, “for at least two decades, it would play fifth fiddle to Soukous, Makossa (in all its apparitions), Bikutsi, and Bend-skin.” This change is due to a number of factors, some of which include: social media, music channels on cable, Nigeria’s Afropop boom and a “rediscovery” of the power of Pidgin English (creole) as the language of the masses.

If there is one thing New Bell Music has secured for itself, it is the fact that it will go down in history as probably the most avant-gardist record label in Cameroon with its savvy handling of social media, experimental artists and deft emcee. New Bell Music is a record label founded by Jovi Le Monstre, erstwhile co-founder of the innovative label MuMak, and it represents artists such as Reniss, Jovi, Rachel Applewhite and Shey. New Bell Music’s first project is an explosive Afropop EP by singer and songwriter Reniss titled Afrikan Luv, released on September 1, which once more places Le Monstre as one of Cameroon’s most accomplished emcees.

The release of this album is a refreshing addition to the gospel genre in Cameroon, dominated by Nigerian songs which have flooded the market, producing copious lackluster offshoots which do a great disservice to our creative potential in this age of digital music where innumerable potential listeners are just a click away. Reniss has come a long way since the release of her first single “Fire”, which was met with a lot of enthusiasm on YouTube and today has about 9,325 views. “Fire” is the product of a confident young artist who is not afraid to experiment with music, and the result is a dexterous use of language which easily mixes and switches codes from English, Pidgin to Mankon, a feat which is evident early in the song when she says:

 

The people know I’m blest

Ma ting dem don di waka

Ma papa go gi mi swagga

Wuna di try ma patience…

 

Hot on the heels of “Fire”, and just as significant, however, was her second single, “Holy Wata” which is the kind of export-friendly song that could be played in a club and on a gospel radio station without any qualms, with its synthesizing of the mbira sound which has come to be known as Le Monstre’s trademark, and the video has about 16,000 hits on YouTube.

The first time I met Reniss was during Tito’s photography expo at the French Institute in Yaoundé, where she was in the company of her mentor Jovi, and February 16 (who is gradually becoming a household name in Cameroonian videography). She was radiant and spoke about her EP which wasn’t out then, and emphasized the fact that it was going to be free.

Afrikan Luv is an EP steeped in the Afropop genre and despite its innovative edge, it is “safe” music in that Afropop has come a long way from being marginal music. Afropop is a catch-all term encompassing the rich variety of contemporary African music styles, typically urban, electric dance music. Many have argued that Afropop is the heir to Afrobeat, a multi-instrumental genre incorporating traditional Yoruba music, jazz, highlife, funk, and chanted vocals, popularized by Fela Anikulapo Kuti in the early 70s, with an interplanetary impact whose influence can be felt in artists like Paul Simon, James Brown, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra and Beyoncé.

In a piece from The New York Times, Jon Pareles opines that Fela is a figure to rival Bob Marley as both a musical innovator and a symbol of resistance, and Pareles further says that it is by virtue of his (Fela’s) relevance that a Broadway show dedicated to him was produced recently in the US (and much later in Nigeria) to make him accessible to the US mainstream music audience. The success of the show is evident when he says “The show has moved from a widely praised Off Broadway production, last year at 37 Arts, to the larger and more mainstream realm of the Broadway musical — from 299 seats to 1,050.”

Nevertheless, several music watchdogs have not wasted time in decrying the mediocrity of Afropop, which is mostly a hybrid genre with a lot of western influences, lamenting its comparison with Afrobeat and condemning as fallacious the claim the P-Square is the heir to Fela’s throne.

A host of artists collaborated on Reniss’ EP, from Jovi Le Monstre, who produced the album, to Sadrak and Krotal among others, and the ambitious nature of the album is seen right from the start, with the explosive title track “Afrikan Luv”, which shows that Reniss deserves to be mentioned by music critics in the company of Chidinma and Tiwa Savage because of her unique talent, and her performance during Flavour’s concert was just an apercu. The song combines African traditional rhythms and western beats in a unique paean.

The album explores love (not the immoral kind contemporary Bikutsi revels in, but rather a more sincere and unconditional one), faith, complication and on almost every level, it flaunts its Africanness— thematically, linguistically, synthetically and stylistically.

Track 3, “I’m Ready”, easily stands out in that it is the most R&B of all the sounds on the EP and one of the best songs. Its maturity is reminiscent of “Fire”, her debut single which showed her as a promising talent. The song is a meditation on faith and tribulations with a soothing melody that aptly matches its subject. While many inexperienced debut artists flaunt their novice status by trying too hard to be showy, the track shows Reniss’ voice as a natural voice which impresses without effort. In “The Apple”, Reniss’ voice croons a tale of temptation which draws on antediluvian themes and once more she comfortably switches language codes when she says:

 

Once you bite the apple

Na so ya eye di shine, you di see good and bad

Once you bite the apple,

You go know sey black no be white

Na so da ting di sweet for mop, and when you try you no go stop

 

Jovi’s verse on this track shows his ability to adapt to various musical genres and subjects, evident in his self-censorship on the track, as well as the whole album, and the absence of ego tripping ( a phenomenon which reappears twofold in Jovi’s latest single “B.A.S.T.A.R.D”, when Reniss sums up what he is saying in the following chorus: “Bastard kind chap inside bastard kind style/ Bastard kwa coco inside mbanga soup/ Jovi na bastard grand, inside bastard kwat/ Man na bastard fine chap inside bastard fine jap), but Jovi’s most memorable verse on Reniss’ album is on the track “LuV LOVE LauV” where his pidgin lyrics soar to impressive heights when he talks about hustling, saying:

 

Mola you wan die

Na pumu you wan see

Man whe yi go try

Na fo ground whe yi go sleep

Wu commot quartier na sika ngeme

Like you go kwata go ask ma reme

Wu be don decide fo remain kankwe

From Molyko right down to Mamfe

 

Pidgin English has always been popular in Cameroonian music and the post-independence popular culture pantheon is full of timeless songs whose notoriety reverbed in discotheques from Paris to Barranquilla. With musicians like Lapiro de Mbanga who composed and recorded what Index on Censorship has described as “a long list of biting texts on the socio-economic realities in his beleaguered country”, to Prince Nico Mbarga, whose song “Sweet Mother,” released in 1976 has sold more than 13 million copies, and Nneka’s remix of the song featured as a bonus track in her 2008 album No Longer At Ease. But the list barely ends there, because others such as Super Negro Bantous played a very “relaxed” highlife in pidgin (though they, like Wrinkers Experience [“Fuel for Your Love”] were mistaken to be Nigerian because they were based in Nigeria).

However, it is Lapiro de Mbanga who stands out because he used pidgin, a language the masses understand to express his political militancy and denounce the status quo as far back as 1985. Nevertheless, Lapiro doesn’t entirely sing in Pidgin. His approach to language in his music is a sort of linguistic pluralism and the mboko-pidgin he uses draws from several regional registers and street codes while his French flouts standardization. According to Peter Vakunta, Lapiro’s “diction remains in synchrony with the speech mannerisms and patterns of the people whose plight he bemoans.”

Not all circles valorize the unifying power pidgin has in Cameroon because pidgin has always been surrounded by controversy. In fact, the highest opposition to Pidgin comes from some members of the elite who look at it with contempt leading to its “quasi-criminalization”, a phenomenon which Dibussi Tande has decried in the following premise “the persistent attack on Pidgin English in Cameroon cannot be taken at face value because it points to a more insidious phenomenon, i.e., the steady destruction (deliberate or inadvertent) of Anglophone culture and identity.”

A lot of contemporary African musicians have gospel influences, whether or not they consider their brand of music as gospel.  After almost losing their lives in a fatal car accident in December 2001, Mafikizolo, a Kwaito trio from South Africa, released an album based on how thankful they were to be saved by God titled Sibongile. Other African musicians who have in one way or the other been influenced by gospel include Goapele, Nneka, Lira, Swahili Nation and Maurice Kirya among others.

Reniss’ emergence is no accident. Afropop’s huge fan base in the generation of MTV Base has no limits, and the fact that her songs are meditative, party-friendly and danceable songs can only increase her visibility, which, when added to her talent and social media exposure creates a mélange that makes her EP a relish.

 

Oct 172013
 
robbiewilliams-ego

Robbie Williams is one of Britain’s most popular singers. He eschewed boyband stigma following his time in ’90s teenyboppers and ballad-peddlers Take That to carve out a career of his own, and has successful straddled popular success with middlebrow critical recognition since then, to greater and lesser extents. (He’s currently on a something of an upswing; 2006′s oft-derided Rudebox is probably the nadir).

Across a seventeen-year solo career, Williams has racked up eight number-one albums here (from a total of nine to date; the lone outlier made it to #2), two number-one compilations and a number-two live album. He’s garnered a mighty twenty-nine top-ten singles, seven of which made it to number one. He’s been the subject of intense, exhaustive British press coverage, sundry addictions, women and his rivalry and subsequent patch-up with Take That frontman Gary Barlow among the most popular red-top stories of the late ’90s and early ’00s. And he’s still a major draw; his most recent number one track, “Candy”, was released just last year, and garnered him saturation TV and radio play.

And yet he’s seen almost no success in the States. Wikipedia doesn’t even list a USA column in his discography, so infrequently has he troubled their Billboard charts. One of the most famous people in Britain is an also-ran in the US, vaguely remembered for “Angels” and probably not much else.

It’s not for want of trying. A 1999 deal with Capitol in the US saw Williams and co seek American success. The Ego Has Landed was the first release there, a “best-bits” compilation of his first two UK LPs; in theory, an album of ready-for-radio-play material and no also-rans should’ve been a runaway hit. Alas, it wasn’t to be. (It was a tactic also pursued by similar-era teenyboppers Steps, to similarly limited success.) While the LP eventually went RIAA Gold it didn’t produce a solitary hit single – Angels came closest, at #41 – and major radio stations and TV channels didn’t really embrace the music (beyond that funky Millennium video).

Subsequent years, and attempts, saw the same results. Robbie Williams claimed disinterest in pursuing the country further, and that’s somewhat borne out by a lack of tour dates on the continent post-’99, but his next two albums did get CD releases there, and the videos still hit MTV and sisters – albeit in very limited rotation. Sales dropped even lower, though, so for a half-decade, there were no US releases; 2009′s Reality Killed the Video Star saw Capitol give things another go-round, but it only hit #160 on the Billboard 200. Williams even resided in the US for much of the 2000s, so promo was simple and practical; it mattered not a jot.

I’ve discussed the reasons behind some artists seeing greater success in the UK than the US before. But Williams is different: a UK artist that actively tried to conquer the US, and failed. Meat Loaf and Blondie are American artists whose values and stylings happened to jibe more with UK tastes, but they’re still recognisable names at home; Williams’ situation is rather different, a man who’s seen phenomenal success at home, but to whose charms an entire, demographically-similar continent are immune.

A polemic 2003 Salon article has some ideas about why Williams never really caught on in the States. They’re not particularly pleasant towards the man, describing him as  “imitation American”. The intimation, of course, is that American isn’t likely to embrace a rip-off of its own brand. They might have a point; Williams has expressed love of the US on many occasions, and that’s not really endeared him to either us or them. And his personality is a little narcissistic – but, with genuine respect, I can’t fathom that as problematic when it comes to tackling the USA, wherein so very many of the best-known celebrities care about themselves and themselves alone.

robbiewilliamssingswig

Two guesses which one features the Sinatra cover, first doesn’t count.

Elsewhere, though, they’re even wider of the mark. His “lack of great talent” is “democratic and reassuring”? Please. We like the underdog, sure – so does the States, mind – but we don’t allow people to coast on good vibes for upwards of two decades. Look to one-and-done talent show winners for evidence of our Everyman support, but not to one of the most successful chart acts of the past twenty years. Our sympathy pockets aren’t that bleeding deep.

No, I think Robbie’s failure to break the big time across the pond comes down to something simpler. Cheekiness. Cheekiness is a characteristic that has no readily-apparent US equivalent. It’s an attribute of someone who’s a little bit impudent, a little bit playful, a little bit naughty. It can be loosely sexually-charged, but it’s just as readily associated with a misbehaving child “answering back” vaguely wittily. It has the uncanny and unmatched ability to prick pomposity, and every last Briton grows up with an in-built understanding of the concept.

NSFW video

The distinct Britishness of cheekiness is a matter on which the BBC wrote about just this past week.  It’s a mostly-good article, and I recommend reading it, but it skims over one of the key elements of British personality: our ability to poke fun at ourselves. While we’re a quiet, reserved people (on paper, at least), our comedy is notably self-effacing and modest. We embrace those who break through the glum, detached British facade and poke fun at our foibles; we love the cheeky ones. (Fuck, we even got a novelty pop band called The Cheeky Girls to number one, though the less said about that the better.)

And Robbie Williams is the living, breathing embodiment of ‘cheeky’, his insouciant wit and sauce nonpareil. Salon derides his attitude as Americanised but I’d say it’s closer to a harmless, bantering lad in the pub – the “cheeky chappy”. The kind of guy the majority of Britons feel some degree of affinity towards, even if he does grate from time to time; he’s got the romantic, “Angels” side yet can still act like an absolute wanker on stage – what’s not to love?

robbie_williams-gal-ego

It’s worked with much of mainland Europe; while Williams’ biggest market remains, comfortably, the UK, his cheeky brand has been imported into Germany, Austria, Sweden, France and Ireland. Picking up fans in those countries has been a relative breeze, as those countries have embraced “cheeky” elements of British culture much more readily in previous years. But at this stage, hope for Williams breaking it into the US mainstream is vanishingly unlikely. His personality doesn’t quite fit in with the majority of major US talents: he’s not got the altogether brash cool of most hip-hop stars, and he’s lacking the (attempted) emotional sincerity of most major US pop stars. To a US audience, he’s probably something of an odd duck; “cheeky” isn’t something America embraces, loves, or aspires to be. I suspect that has played a key role in his limited success there: a personality he can’t just turn off; a country that just can’t quite jibe with it.

But in the UK, he continues to fit right in, detractors be damned. I’m not a major Williams fan but much of his work is above-average for the sector and genre, and his singles have real lasting power; “Millennium” remains on regular rotation in the UK thirteen years into the 2000s, and I continue to rate “Come Undone” (above) and “Strong” (below) as two of the strongest pop records of recent years. He’s a bit of a tosser sometimes, but he’s our tosser; luckily we’re pretty happy with that, seeing as the USA have given us little choice in that particular matter.

More from the week that was:

  • At the box office, it’s been a relatively quiet period, as weak multiplex fare debuts to sub-£1m, week after week. This past weekend’s best-grossing release was Turbo‘s previews, but they don’t “officially” count until next weekend, so Prisoners can enjoy its third week at the top. It’s been holding very well to date, looking like a genuine word-of-mouth hit amidst a sea of mediocrity. Kudos, too, to Blue Jasmine: with around £3.5m to date, it’s easily Allen’s highest-grossing and most widely-released title to date, hitting saturation levels this past weekend (its third on release).
  • They’re the exceptions, not the rule, though. Cast a glance over last weekend’s releases: the UK-US co-prod The Fifth Estate was the weakest “best opener” in years, while Baggage Claim, Machete Kills and European co-prod Romeo & Juliet bombed by every account, all missing the top ten.) This weekend should see the tides turn, though, as Turbo gets its official release alongside the heavily-buzzed Captain Phillips and the admittedly-bad-looking Escape Plan. More details at Charles Gant.
  • Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD has been doing good business for the UK’s Channel 4. 3.2m for ep 1, 2.5m for ep 2 – very, very solid for that channel, double what the slightly offbeat network would usually expect in that slot.
  • London’s hosting three NFL games at Wembley Stadium next year, up from two this year. American football is still very much a niche product here, rarely garnering mainstream press coverage, but anecdotally, it seems the number of UK fans is rising at a decent clip, as this move would suggest.
  • Miley Cyrus is number one on the UK albums and singles chart this week; yay. Eminem‘s new track had to settle for second.
Oct 142013
 
Daily Caller Boob-O-Stat (14 October 2013)

Boob-O-Stat: 4

Date: 14 October 2013

Most Recent Change: -
Current Streak: -

Status of Tucker Carlson’s Erection: Nourished

Summary: Today’s addition is the completely unsurprising “8 pinups wearing milk and only milk”.  It is exactly what it sounds like.  In other amusing Daily Caller foolishness, I present this:

Madonna-Whore

There is practically nothing more right wing than a beauty queen who’s pro-life, doesn’t “believe” in divorce, and thinks you should wait until you’re legally bound to someone before you fuck them.  They praise her for all that, and then right below is a story about a young woman who posed for Playboy in college and then got fired from her teaching job, which they write up strictly so they can run a picture of her and call her their “favorite Spanish teacher”.  That these two stories, right next to each other, don’t strike them as wildly incoherent is really all one needs to know about them.

What the Hell Is This?

“€œThe boys are at war.  All is going as planned.€” – Bebe€™s Right Boob
“Yes.  Soon all the boys will be brought to their knees.” -€“ Bebe€™s Left Boob
“€We grow larger every day.€” -€“ Bebe€™s Right Boob
“€And stronger.€” -€“ Bebe€™s Left Boob

South Park, €œBebe€™s Boobs Destroy Society€ (2002)

The Daily Caller, a wingnut welfare operation masquerading as a fraternity newsletter wrapped in the barest fig leaf of journalism, has a dedicated section on the right hand sidebar of their homepage called ‘€œSlideshows€‘.  This is not uncommon among commercial media sites where pageviews are prized.  A slideshow takes little to no time to assemble, requires very little writing or editing, and the pictures used are licensed essentially for free.  Like soft drinks in the fast food industry, slideshows are high margin fluff.  And just like the bigger drink is an easy upsell, slideshows can be made more appealing with a little gimmickry.

The #1 gimmick in the slideshow juicing game is attractive women.  Put a pretty face and/or body in a thumbnail and both men and women are more likely to click it.  This leads to temptation of a non-sexual sort in that if tits and ass consistently garner the most pageviews, and your website runs on pageviews, then the way to maximize pageviews would be to maximize tits and ass.  Most publications resist this urge through some combination of prudery, respect for women, and embarrassment.  But not all.

This series catalogs the ups and downs of The Daily Caller€™‘s €œSlideshows€ sidebar.  Will we ever reach a perfect 10 out of 10 on the Boob-O-Stat and experience the horror of the Tuckergasm?  There’€™s only one way to find out.

Oct 142013
 
Broken Dolls

“If a cop comes up to me on the street like, ‘hey, what are you guys doing?’, I turn into fucking Ned Flanders. ‘Just walking down the street on a stroll, my friend. Let’s find criminals together. I’ll tell on anyone.’” – Jordan Peele

In this column I watch all of the new network premieres and see if they pass the Bechdel test, a test which asks if a work has two women who interact with each other. I then modify the test to apply to people of color (the “Troy and Abed test”) and to queer people (the “Will and Jack test”).

American Dad! (Fox)

This family cartoon premiered last week, but since its premiere failed all three tests I’m still monitoring it.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: This episode was a surprisingly thoughtful episode about female sexuality. It not only featured Stan learning to be more attentive to Francene’s needs during sex, but also pointed out that orgasm isn’t the only measure of female pleasure. It was a real surprise. More like this, please.

The Tomorrow People (The CW)

This new show about young people with genetic mutations premiered this week.

Bechdel: Fail
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: The one person of color in the cast has the smallest role and isn’t featured in the promotional posters. I’ll keep watching until it passes at least one test.

Arrow (The CW)

This Green Arrow adaptation returned for its second season this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: The representation on this show is okay. It is about a “superhero” on a murder spree, though.

Beauty and the Beast (The CW)

This show about a cop who falls in love with a man who sometimes turns into a beast returned for its second season this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Pass
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: This episode had three prominent women of color, including the lead.

Hart of Dixie (The CW)

This light drama about a doctor in a small town returned for its third season this week.

Bechdel: Pass
Troy and Abed: Pass
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: Although there was a fair amount of people of color with speaking roles in tho episode, only one of them had a significant role. The only mention of queer existence was someone asking a woman if she’s with another woman and her being offended by the possibility.

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (ABC)

This Once Upon a Time spin-off premiered this week.

Bechdel: Fail
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: This had the unfortunate message that if you show signs of mental illness and someone suggests you seek treatment, then they don’t really care about you. It also features characters from Arab stories but no Arab actors. I’ll keep watching until it passes at least one test.

Supernatural (The CW)

This fantasy show about brothers who fight demons returned for its ninth season this week.

Bechdel: Fail
Troy and Abed: Fail
Will and Jack: Fail

Notes: I’ll keep watching until it passes at least one test.

Oct 132013
 
Daily Caller Boob-O-Stat (13 October 2013)

Boob-O-Stat: 4

Date: 13 October 2013

Most Recent Change: -2
Current Streak: -2
Sideboob-O-Stat: 1

Status of Tucker Carlson’s Erection: Irritated

Summary: Nothing can quite express Red frustration better than “Who’s hotter: Janet Yellen or Miley Cyrus?”.  It’s dumb, jealous and just self aware enough to complain about things other people think because screw them.

 

What the Hell Is This?

“€œThe boys are at war.  All is going as planned.€” – Bebe€™s Right Boob
“Yes.  Soon all the boys will be brought to their knees.” -€“ Bebe€™s Left Boob
“€We grow larger every day.€” -€“ Bebe€™s Right Boob
“€And stronger.€” -€“ Bebe€™s Left Boob

South Park, €œBebe€™s Boobs Destroy Society€ (2002)

The Daily Caller, a wingnut welfare operation masquerading as a fraternity newsletter wrapped in the barest fig leaf of journalism, has a dedicated section on the right hand sidebar of their homepage called ‘€œSlideshows€‘.  This is not uncommon among commercial media sites where pageviews are prized.  A slideshow takes little to no time to assemble, requires very little writing or editing, and the pictures used are licensed essentially for free.  Like soft drinks in the fast food industry, slideshows are high margin fluff.  And just like the bigger drink is an easy upsell, slideshows can be made more appealing with a little gimmickry.

The #1 gimmick in the slideshow juicing game is attractive women.  Put a pretty face and/or body in a thumbnail and both men and women are more likely to click it.  This leads to temptation of a non-sexual sort in that if tits and ass consistently garner the most pageviews, and your website runs on pageviews, then the way to maximize pageviews would be to maximize tits and ass.  Most publications resist this urge through some combination of prudery, respect for women, and embarrassment.  But not all.

This series catalogs the ups and downs of The Daily Caller€™‘s €œSlideshows€ sidebar.  Will we ever reach a perfect 10 out of 10 on the Boob-O-Stat and experience the horror of the Tuckergasm?  There’€™s only one way to find out.