Wednesday, April 26, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Janet


This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

First, a prologue. This post ran here in a slightly different form last year. That was before I'd started the '90s series here, and since then I realized this piece fits well within that framework. I've edited it a little (very little, in fact) and am slotting the revised version into this series. It just seems appropriate; it's looking back at a time when Janet Jackson ruled the airwaves, in this case I'm really focusing on the Rhythm Nation 1814 years, so '89, '90, maybe '91. That album rarely left my tape deck or Walkman, and the videos were ingrained in my memory from repeat viewings on MTV. One thing I didn't edit is the overly precious use of second person in the narrative. When you read "you" here, I'm really talking about me, but also you, or us, or anyone else who loved Janet back then. I'd grown up on her music. Soon after this I'd transition fully into my teenage/young adult rock-snob years *groan* but this period in pop music was glorious. I haven't lost any love for that era's music since.

*****

Have you ever wanted to hug a pop music icon as much as you wanted to hug Janet Jackson in, say, 1990? She exuded warmth, soul, and acceptance. Hell, years before that you wanted to save her on Good Times. Oh, Penny! Little did you know, she didn't need saving.

Look at the videos for "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" or "Escapade"—her smile shines brighter than a thousand suns. She practically radiates happiness in those videos. Certainly she could be as serious as a heart attack—"State of the World" and "Rhythm Nation," for instance—but she was still always fun. Those songs set up residence in your heart and mind, never leaving. Back then you marveled at them as they premiered on MTV; each one more insanely catchy than the last.

Name a better pop love song from the last twenty-five years than "Love Will Never Do." See, you can't. What's often forgotten now is how heavy her songs were during her prime—the beats on "Love Will Never Do" practically blast you off your feet; "Rhythm Nation" is pure epic R&B jam, but also entirely unlike anything pop music had seen before. It explodes out of the speakers and never hits the brakes. Props to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, in full effect.


A poster of Janet from the "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" video hung on your bedroom wall during most of high school. That smile, always beaming out at you when you entered the room. That smile, it always seemed even more incandescent to you after a particularly rough day in the teenage trenches. In the song Janet knew that in theory love is fine, but in reality it simply would never do without that most essential ingredient: you. What more could a listener want to hear? Sometimes silly things like pop music get you through certain points in your life, but it's only after that you fully appreciate them. Years later you felt you'd outgrown Janet's music, her poster. You were a fool.

During a Presidential debate last fall, that perverse misogynist, that habitual sexual predator, the current Cheeto-in-Chief *shudder* infamously muttered "nasty woman" at his opponent. Memes of Janet and her song "Nasty" popped up online in an instant. It was as if a nation needed Janet and her nasty grooves again. Gimme a beat. It's time to give a damn, let's work together. By listening to her you could cleanse the toxicity from your system that had infected you over this long and grueling election cycle. You had deluded yourself into thinking you were fine without her over the years. Then you started spinning her songs again. It was obvious that for a decent chunk of time, when she and you were younger and full of electricity, there was simply no one better in popular music. For your money, she was the best there ever was at what she did and you'll endorse her every day of the week.

They said it wouldn't last. What did they know, anyway.

#VoteJanet

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Reading It, Part 2


Reading It after dark, while the kids are sleeping soundly, has certainly enhanced the horror inherent in King's story of children either being abducted or living in fear of being abducted. Actually, it's the parents' fear that is most palpable throughout, even though they receive comparatively little "screen" time so far (three-hundred pages into the book). The kids understand on some level that they should be scared of the bogeyman terrorizing Derry, but as kids are wont to do they're also attracted to this horror, feeling a need to investigate it/It, to see it/It for themselves.

Following Bill, Ben, Eddie, etc., as they play outside, building dams and avoiding bullies, I can't help but think back to my own childhood. While these tales of childhood take place in the late '50s in the book, and I grew up in the '80s, there seems to be more in common with a child's existence in those decades than there is between the '80s the now. Helicopter parents, if they existed at all in the '80s, were rarer than today. Gen X latchkey kids ranged far and wide across our neighborhoods and towns, riding our bikes everywhere without much fear of consequence (what if we got lost and couldn't find our way back home?), always exploring, always looking for more adventure.

As the parent of twin toddlers now, that absolutely terrifies me to remember. When I swap out myself for my kids in these memories, my first thought is, "Oh, hell no." Then I try to reason with myself: kids have to be kids, they need a certain amount of freedom to grow and mature, and some balance between advocating for safety and allowing for exploration must be achieved by parents if they want their children to grow up to be free-thinking, productive adults.

Still. There are very real terrors in the world for parents to worry themselves silly over. With It, King plays off of those fears in powerfully visceral ways. He has a knack for bringing us inside the heads of his characters, and especially the young protagonists of so many of his books. King lulls us into a sense of comfort with the familiar nostalgia of childhood life. Then, he unleashes a giant, menacing black bird hellbent on eating a young victim, and all reason and ability to remain impartial fly out the window. Especially at ten or eleven o'clock at night and after a long day.

Do I think my children are in danger of a serial murdering clown who can manifest different shapes based on each person's own fears and anxieties? No, of course not. But in It, Pennywise represents the accumulated history of awful things that parents have long feared would cause harm to our children—drugs, heavy metal, sex, pedophiles, car accidents, razors in the Halloween candy, you name it.

Kids sometimes possess a naivety that can help them to face these fears. As adults we start to lose that ability, that courage to face down what scares us, because by then we simply know too much. So far, It is exploring how the innocence of youth can bolster our courage—sometimes stupidly so—even in the face of a creepy clown peering out at us from down in the storm drain.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Nicole Kidman—A Star is Born

Nicole Kidman lit up the screen in '90s films like Batman Forever.

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Nicole Kidman rose to prominence in the 1990s, her star shining brighter with each passing year of the decade. This isn't to say she was the most popular actress of the decade—that honor likely goes to one of America's sweethearts, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, or Sandra Bullock—but Kidman's unique talents and serious acting chops came to the forefront during those years in a series of challenging roles. The Australian actress was laying the foundation for a terrific career that continues to this day.

Kidman's started acting in Australian films during the 1980s. On the cusp of the '90s, she drew critical raves with her performance in the tense thriller Dead Calm (1989). Then, alongside her husband Tom Cruise, she starred in the trashy but fun Days of Thunder (1990), the maudlin and forgettable Far and Away (1992), and the confounding classic Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Of the three films she made with Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut left the most lasting impression, for several reasons.

First, it was the last film from legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick. He died soon after showing the studio his final cut. Second, Kubrick chose Hollywood's then-current King and Queen, Cruise and Kidman, to star as a couple pushing back against the boundaries of their staid marriage. Critics had a field day with this added layer of meta-commentary. Cruise turns in one of his strongest performances to date as the naive husband, while Kidman imbues her role as the trophy wife with both smoldering resentment and barely contained eroticism. As in most of her work, she goes all in with the material, baring body and soul in the process. She's remarkable here, really scorching the screen.

Kidman, framed in classic Kubrickian style. Note the Edward Hopper feel to the composition.

Kidman didn't need Cruise's star power though, as she went on to chose a series of intriguing roles throughout the decade that only further cemented her as a serious talent. 1995 was a particularly big year for her, showcasing her talents in two vastly different films: Joe Schumacher's campy box-office smash Batman Forever, and Gus Van Sant's searing social commentary-cum-crime-comedy To Die For. It certainly doesn't hurt that her sex symbol status with movie audiences reached DEFCON 1 levels in '95—she was about to go nuclear.

She's ferocious in both films, attacking the material with an insatiable appetite and reckless abandon. As sultry psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian in the silly popcorn flick Batman Forever, she chews the scenery with such gusto that her jaw must've been sore for weeks after production ended. She practically devours Val Kilmer's Batman every time she's on screen. Then, in To Die For, as aspiring news anchor Suzanne Stone, who will do anything—or anyone—to get what she wants, Kidman is electric. Its no wonder she was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actress for the role. Yet again she dominates and manipulates the men on screen, seducing them into submission.

In films like To Die For, Kidman's characters often dominated weaker men.

She may have excelled as a femme fatale, but Kidman was far more than just a sultry starlet. Throughout the '90s, she methodically put together an impressive body of work across a disparate array of films. It was clear that she respected the art form and put in the time and effort to make her performances memorable. Even if her fans swooned with every magnetic smile or flip of her long cascading locks, they ultimately respected her talent above all else.

All of these hyperbolic statements about Kidman's talent do serve a purpose: to underscore how on fire she was during those years. I didn't even mention her work in Malice (1993) yet, a deliciously nasty and subversive little film that I recall fondly—who can forget Alec Baldwin as the narcissistic surgeon, delivering that memorable line, "I am God." I was already familiar with Kidman when I saw Malice, but that's the role that made me sit up and take notice. It's a layered performance, full of notes and textures. Ultimately, what made Nicole Kidman such a star in the '90s was her determination, her commitment, and her willingness to pour all of herself into a role. She still does this today. No matter the film's quality, genre, style, or budget, you can count on Nicole Kidman to bring the heat.

The look: Kidman's trademark smoldering intensity, from Malice.

Nicole Kidman's '90s filmography:

Days of Thunder (1990)
Flirting (1991)
Billy Bathgate (1991)
Far and Away (1992)
Malice (1993)
My Life (1993)
Batman Forever (1995)
To Die For (1995)
The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
The Peacemaker (1997)
Practical Magic (1998)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Postscript: Kidman's ascension during the '90s continued early in the following decade when she was nominated for an Academy Award Award for Best Actress for Moulin Rouge (2001) and then won the award for The Hours (2002).

Monday, April 10, 2017

Iron Fist: A Postmortem

Danny, showing off his skinny jeans at Colleen's dojo.

Well, now. Marvel's Iron Fist on Netflix certainly was a major disappointment, wasn't it?

I'm a fan of the Danny Rand character and the mystical martial arts world he inhabits in Marvel Comics, which includes strong supporting cast members like Colleen Wing. I've read a lot of Iron Fist comics, so I was possibly more invested in this series than most people I know. So when the early buzz was terrible, my expectations started to plummet. It's wise to be wary of pre-release reviews, of course, especially in this case when they only screened the first six episodes of a thirteen episode series. Yet, in this instance, those early reviews were accurate. The show is a mess, and not an entertaining, b-movie style mess, but instead a convoluted and boring mess.

The first few episodes were so interminably dull that I seriously contemplating quitting after the second. Things picked up a little after that, with some decent middle episodes. Then it slumped again, then found decent footing for the final few episodes before stumbling across the finish line in a ludicrously stupid finale. For a show about a master of Kung Fu, there wasn't nearly enough Kung Fu! The fight scenes they did include were also pretty underwhelming, with a few exceptions. The now standard hallway fight scene was good, but even that paled in comparison to similar scenes from Daredevil. The rest of the fighting often felt rushed and unimaginatively choreographed and filmed. The long warehouse battle with a series of Madame Gao's Hand operatives was particularly bad. The Bride of Nine Spiders, who worked beautifully in the comics, was laughably awful here. In her Frederick's of Hollywood meets cheap Halloween costume, and spouting cringe-worthy dialogue, she would have been right at home in an episode of Silk Stalkings.

Finn Jones really struggled to make Danny interesting. He seemed more assured in the relaxed, more lighthearted scenes, but seemed directionless or to be trying too hard when he was called on to emote or be badass. I kept telling my wife he reminded me of a puppy: he was cute and it was hard for me to dislike him, but he seemed way out of his depth here. I don't blame him for all of this though; the writers saddled him with atrocious dialogue and inconsistent motivations. Finn was trying, that was clear, but he rarely pulled it off. That's a big problem; when your Iron Fist isn't very interesting, how good can your Iron Fist series be?

Jessica Henwick was a bright spot, kicking all sorts of butt as Colleen Wing.

A few of the actors did well with what little they were given to work with. Jessica Henwick as Colleen was equal parts strong, sardonic, and smooth. She was great in the action scenes, really selling Colleen's swordplay skills, and also handled the quieter scenes well. She didn't have a lot of good writing to work with, and was saddled with some stupid lines and character development, but she made the best of it. In other words, she was nearly everything Finn as Danny was not. Throughout, I kept daydreaming of a spinoff show about the Daughters of the Dragon, costarring the equally good Simone Missick from Luke Cage as Misty Knight. I'm sure we'll get a Colleen and Misty teamup within the upcoming Defenders series, but I'd much rather see an entire show devoted to just them at this point.

As the nefarious Harold Meachum, David Wenham was acting in his own alternative universe. The only actor who really embraced the silliness of it all, Wenham hammed it up throughout. He was downright hilarious at times, but over the course of the series his performance started to grate on me a bit. Still, he kept me hanging in there at times when the rest of the show was sagging badly.

Ward Meachum was one of the only characters with a clearly delineated and interesting character arc. Tom Pelphrey played the material straight, and really elevated his performance so far above this mess that it's a shame he wasted it on this. Ward went from stereotypical smarmy and selfish businessman to struggling abuse victim and drug addict to, finally, practically the hero of the piece. Whether he was reacting with subtle incredulity at Harold's insane scheming, or painfully opening up to his sister Joy, or just giving an eavesdropping dear ole dad the most hilariously emphatic double-bird salute I've seen in ages, Pelphrey was terrific. His constantly bemused  "WTF" expressions made Ward into an effective audience surrogate.

It certainly didn't help Iron Fist that it came on the heels of the powerful and heartbreaking Logan and also ran concurrently with FX's mind-blowing head-trip of a show, Legion. Both of those Marvel properties (from studios other than Marvel) were outstanding because they had strong narratives, characters we could care about, and experimented with the superhero genre in ways we hadn't seen in film or television before. Comparatively, Iron Fist didn't know what it wanted to be. Was it an over-the-top martial arts romp, reminiscent of the kind Quentin Tarantino loves? Or was it the overly serious exploration of identity and loss that it kept aiming to be? It was only ever either of these things halfheartedly, and in limited quantities. Otherwise it was just a slog to get through.

Finally, people far more qualified than me have addressed the problem with casting a white actor as Danny. Yes, Danny is white in the comics, but there's so much more to it than that. Do a little searching online and you'll find some cogent essays on the issues at play, and why Marvel missed a golden opportunity. All I'll add to the conversation is that Marvel had a chance to correct the character's troubling 1970s white savior origins. Instead, they cast Finn Jones. 'Nuff said.

When it comes to Iron Fist, I think Ward speaks for all of us here.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Writing Roundup: Movie Reviews, a Q&A, and a New Theory


If I never do anything else worthwhile with my life, at least I can say I invented the Unified Theory of Jessica Alba. Put that on my gravestone, please.

I don't know where or how the idea struck, but it hit like a lightning bolt while reviewing the average but mostly forgettable Fantastic Four (2005) for The After Movie Diner.  Before I knew it, I'd formulated the entire theory. Based on an extensive use of the scientific method (i.e., watching movies), it maintains that there are five factors, or aspects, of any Jessica Alba performance that, inexplicably, combine to form something something...well, something. I won't spoil the rest for you; go read the review and find out.

And then read my latest review of another film that also happens to star Alba, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. I really enjoyed the first Sin City and I thought the sequel was a worthy followup. It's not as good as the first, but together they're a fun blast of comic book neo-noir silliness. And they provide further proof that the Unified Theory of Jessica Alba is really a thing! That's got to count for something.

A while back I also reviewed a much darker film, Rolling Thunder. This is a nasty, post-Vietman '70s grindhouse classic. Think a less artistic Taxi Driver meets Death Wish. Its tone and style are brutal and laced with dread. Also worth noting that, in a supporting role, young Tommy Lee Jones is electrifying as a live-wire vet just itching to get back into combat. It's nice to remember how great he was back then after having recently rewatched his gonzo (and not in a good way) performance as Two-Face in Batman Forever.

Lastly, I had the extreme pleasure of chatting with Jon Morris for Sequart about his new book, The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains. Jon runs one of the oldest comic book blogs on the Interwebs, Gone & Forgotten. This book and his last one (focusing on regrettable superheroes) are like his blog only in book form, with more of the same funny and intelligent commentary you've come to expect from Jon.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Reading It, Part 1


It's finally happening. I'm going to read it.

See what I did there?

After decades of dancing around this book while being a Stephen King fan and reading a lot of his other books, it's time to finally read It. With the movie hitting theaters this fall, it seems like the perfect time. I only saw parts of the old miniseries and I barely remember it all, beyond Tim Curry's scary clown.

So far, I'm only 55 pages in—only 1,100 more pages to go! As I continue, I hope to occasionally share some random observations along the way. Not reviews, just quick hits. This might take a while, I might not get to write about it often, and I'm not even sure it'll last—although I will finish the book! I think it goes without saying, these posts will be lousy with SPOILERS.

Just a quick introduction to my relationship with the King of Horror. Like many young kids, I was infatuated with King's books and their movie adaptations. I remember devouring Night Shift and Skeleton Crew when I was around 11 or 12. Pet Sematary crushed me a a few years later. I took a long break from reading King as a young adult but then returned to him about ten years ago. The Dark Tower series was an epic reading experience. Reading The Shining right after becoming a parent was equal parts traumatizing and cathartic. In short, I love King's work, unabashedly. Some if it's subpar, but that's rare. Most of it is consistently great. No one writes a ripping yarn like King. He has an innate way of exploring our very real fears in creative ways that reveal things about us that we might not have known previously. The man is a national treasure.

It starts strong. Pennywise shows up early and he's creepy as all hell. Also right off the bat, King wastes no time playing off our eternal fears of our children being hurt or abducted. Without revealing much, he sets the tone: something's not right about the quiet Maine town of Derry and the crazy clown hanging out in storm drains is just the start. Throw in the homophobic violence of the second chapter and it's a decidedly upsetting read so far. As you would expect, of course.

Clowns are terrifying. This is an indisputable fact. From Bozo to John Wayne Gacy to last year's rash of creepy clown sightings, they're the worst. I don't know the backstory of It but I wonder how much Gacy's serial murders influenced King's decision to write about a killer clown. No matter the inspiration, It is off to a satisfyingly unsettling start.