‘Jurassic World’, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, and the New-Age of Blockbuster Promotion

Remember the days when we learned about new movies coming out by watching previews at the theatre? Yeah, me neither. History lesson: movie promotion used to be a pretty simple, rinse and repeat process. Get a solid trailer to show before films that share a similar audience, have posters hanging all over the place, maybe give out toys with Happy Meals, put your star on Letterman or Leno, and finally bombard the television with short trailers in the weeks leading up to the films release.

Those were simpler times, the 2000’s. But the internet has shifted from a convenient tool into the fourth necessity for life (food, shelter, water, internet…clothing is not a necessity in my opinion). Movie studios have had no choice but to find creative new ways to promote their upcoming releases, and it’s more complicated than simply coming up with a cute hashtag and giving a trailer to Itunes.

Whether it’s creating an interactive website where fans can complete tasks and find hidden clues (The Dark Knight, Jurassic World), announcing your slate of releases years in advance (Marvel/Disney, DC/Warners), or being so damn secretive it almost comes as a surprise when the first teaser trailer actually comes out (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), something has to be done other than the classic promotion cycle I explained above. Marvel went as far as to promote their future releases with post-credit scenes attached to their current ones.

To see just how far this has gone, I suggest visiting the official Jurassic World website. Two weeks before the trailer came out, this website was active and driving fanboys like me crazy. This a popular tactic nowadays. There were some photos and a little bit of information, but much like the trailer, not enough to give anything away. This makes sense for a movie like Jurassic World, where half the mystique surrounding it is the question of what dinosaurs will be used.

The teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I’ve included below, is similar in the sense that it provides enough to have fans licking their lips but doesn’t actually give anything away. Teaser trailers didn’t used to show any footage from the movies. They were mostly just some titles, music, and a catchy tagline. Star Wars reportedly just wrapped principal photography this month, so the fact that they’ve already shown us some clips, albeit extremely brief and non-enlightening ones, says a lot about how things have changed. The movie won’t be out for literally over a year. Doesn’t matter. Disney wants you to circle December 18, 2015 on your calendar well in advance. Just like with all the upcoming Marvel releases, I already have.

If you ever go see a movie in IMAX, they often are preceded by an entire scene scene from an upcoming movie. The Star Trek Into Darkness producers chose to show the films entire opening before IMAX showings of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The same thing happened with The Dark Knight Rises, which had its opening shown before before Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol.

These promotional tactics are aimed at obsessive movie-watchers, like me, more so than the casual movie-goer. Twitter and cell phones cameras have made it nearly impossible for a movie to go into production without everyone knowing about it. The studios have realized that, and countered by playing along.

Oh, and toys. Both Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are likely to sell a lot of toys. My parents donated all my old dinosaurs and Star Wars guys to charity. It’s a nice thought, but damnit, I want to have Darth Vader fight Spinosaurus again. Even though I’m pretty sure I used Darth Vader so much I broke his thumbs, which renders the toy useless.

I’m out. Happy holidays. This year, I’m thankful for Chris Pratt.

Jurassic World comes out June 12th, 2015. Star Wars will be released on December 18th, 2015.

 

“Hollaback Girl”, “Yeah”, “Ignition (Remix)”, & the Essential iHome Party Playlist.


I’m an old soul, I suppose. My definition of a great party isn’t flashing lights, over-priced vodka, and a rotating cast of self-promoting DJ’s (by the way, follow me on Twitter). A great party to me consists of a gang of people crammed into an apartment or house, enough people to make the fire marshal sweat. A great party to me has so much Coors Light spilled on the floor that it’s straight-up moronic to wear a nice pair of shoes to said party. A great party to me consists of a phone plugged into cheap speakers and those cheap speakers turned up so loud that they literally shake because they can’t handle the bass.

The music at these parties generally doesn’t consist of what is regarded as good party music nowadays. I’m not going to get into the EDM thing, but that, and it’s various subgenres, is what’s considered “party music” in the year 2014. I can live with that. But damnit, if I get passed the aux cord, I’m always prepared, I have a slew of songs I’m choosing to set the place of that don’t fall under the ever-growing EDM umbrella.

Here, in no particular order, are eight of those of those songs with some bonus picks at the end. Beware: It’s a lot of mid-2000’s rap/R&B/pop.

Let’s start with the obvious one.

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“Yeah” by Usher (feat. Lil Jon & Ludacris)

Year: 2004

Producer: Lil Jon

Line everybody knows: “Take that, and rewind it back, Urrrsher got the beat to make your booty go SMACK!”

Play this if: You’re going for a middle school dance vibe, like the dances where all the girls group up on one side of the room, boys on the other. Those damn chaperones never let us grind, anyways.

Is it a stretch to call “Yeah” the greatest song ever recorded? Maybe. But it certainly belongs at the top of any iHome party playlist. Usher, who is essentially PG-rated R. Kelly, brought in Lil Jon to bring the crunk and that resulted in a number one single that ended up being the second biggest hit of the decade.

Nothing makes me happier than hearing Usher mutter “peace up, A-Town” at the beginning. Whenever I hear that I know I’m in for four minutes and ten seconds of pure nostalgic enjoyment. Though, I must say that Ludacris spending $300,000 on a pinky ring seems rather fiscally irresponsible.

Let’s stick with Lil Jon for a minute…

 

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“Get Low” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz (feat. Ying Yang Twins)

Year: 2003

Producer: Lil Jon

Line everybody knows: See above gif

Play this if: You want to hear a bunch of drunk girls scream the words from above gif.

This song puts all other booty anthems to shame. This song is one of the great artistic achievements of the post-modern era. This song is so raunchy and enjoyable that if Nicki Minaj ever heard it, she’d quit music and enroll in web design courses at her local community college.

This song is so great that one time I had to pee really bad but when “Get Low” came on I had to hold it in for a few minutes to ensure I witnessed the antics that were about to unfold.

As Dave Chappelle once elegantly addressed, the basically unedited version of this song got a ton of radio play because many white people didn’t know what “skeet” meant back then.

 

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“1, 2 Step” by Ciara (feat. Missy Elliot)

Year: 2004

Producer: Jazze Pha

Line everybody knows: This beat is automatic, supersonic, hypnotic, funky fresh. 

Play this if: You’re trying to prove to somebody that once upon a time, an artist named Ciara actually existed.

Apparently, Ciara is now 29 years old and still makes music (crazy to think she was 19 when this came out). I was not aware of this. I am aware, however, of this songs repeated-play ability. It’s a pretty simple dance song but it’s so recognizable to everyone my age that it works.

By the way, shoutout Missy. She always brings it on her guest appearances. And for someone who doesn’t necessarily have the perfect body for a hip-hop dancer, she boogies pretty hard in her videos.

 

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“Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly

Year: 2003

Producer: R. Kelly

Line everybody knows: The entire hook, it should be studied in schools, honestly.

Play this if: You need instructions on how to handle the after-party.

There’s nothing more I can say about this song other than it’s incredible how out of all of R. Kelly’s hits, this is the one that has lasted and remains the most relevant. Has anyone ever heard the original “Ignition”? Is it actually a song?

The remix has lasted because it’s catchy hook makes it a perfect iHome party song. If this comes on at a party and somebody doesn’t recognize it and immediately start singing and/or dancing, well, that says more about them than it does this song.

I can’t say for sure whether or not R. Kelly pulled the ol’ golden shower on a teenager. I can say for sure that the dude knew how to write a hook.

 

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“SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake

Year: 2006

Producer: Timbaland

Line everybody knows: I’m gonna guess it’s “I’m bringing sexy back”.

Play this if: You need to remind everyone that JT is the king of kings and nothing in the world will ever bring people as much joy as JT.

“SexyBack” was about 7 years ahead of its time and still went #1. JT and Timbaland said “twerk” on this song, TWERK! Did anybody know what twerking was in 2006, or at least anybody who would be listening to top 40 charts?

Thank god JT makes music again. Wait, JT is god, so I guess, thank JT that JT makes music again. He took a seven-year hiatus from music after FutureSex/LoveSounds (which is our generations Thriller or Purple Rain by the way), and the music industry was stuck struggling to find the next white(ish) pop star who could break down genre lines. Bruno Mars? Nope. Anyone from American Idol? Nope. Michael Tolcher? HELL NO.  There is only one JT.

That’s a lie. There are, by my count, at least five different JT’s. I’ll list them since I have nothing better to do.

(1) “Disney/N*Sync JT”. (1999-2004)

(2) “Post N*Sync/pre-FutureSex/LoveSounds JT” that struggled to find the balance between what made him famous and what he really wanted to do musically By the way, JT officially exited this phase and became a badass with the whole Super Bowl thing. (2004-2005)

(3) “FutureSex/LoveSounds JT aka my favorite JT”. The hip-hop community embraced JT’s transition, and everyone forgot he was once in a boy band. (2006)

(4) “Crappy actor JT”. He was actually in The Love Guru, however, he was decent in Alpha Dog. (2007-2009).

(5) “Surprisingly good actor JT”. The Social Network, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Friends With Benefits are proof. (2010-2012ish)

(6) “Current JT aka basically the same as 2006 JT”. JT came back strong with two albums in 2013, a tour with Jay-Z, etc. (2013-present)

 

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“Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani

Year: 2005

Producer: The Neptunes

Line everybody knows: This song taught an entire generation how to spell “bananas”, so that one.

Play this if: You want to hear everybody make a joke about how this song taught them how to spell “banannas”. Wait a minute, damn you Gwen!

The decision to leave No Doubt was probably a wise one by Gwen Stefani. She had so much individual star power that marketing her as a band member just didn’t make sense. Her solo debut (which contains this song) was a smash hit.

As for “Hollaback Girl”, well, I’m more of a “Sweet Escape” guy myself, but this seems to be the one the masses enjoy.

 

50

“In Da Club” by 50 Cent

Year: 2003

Producer: Dr. Dre

Line everybody knows: Go shawwwty, it’s ya birthday

Play this if: You need a song that can pump up the dance floor but also one simple enough so to allow shitty dancers like yours truly to just bounce and bob their heads a little bit.

“In Da Club” is the perfect hip-hop single. It’s got a catchy hook, some impressive rapping, and an amazing beat. If 50 would’ve been gunned down after releasing Get Rich or Die Tryin’, he’d probably be remembered with the likes of 2pac and Biggie. No joke.

Personal story: I was in like 6th grade when 50, at the peak of his fame, came to do a show in Durham, NH of all places. I begged my parents to let me go. They did not. I still haven’t forgiven them. I probably should, considering they pay my tuition and have supported me despite my constant screw ups, but I haven’t.

One of my buddies older sisters actually went to the concert and got a knife pulled on her. I thought this was the coolest thing ever in 6th grade. I would’ve done anything to get a knife pulled on me at a 50 Cent concert.

 

hey ya

“Hey Ya!” by OutKast

Year: 2003

Producer: André 3000

Line everybody knows: Shake it like a Polaroid picture (even though nobody knows what the hell that is)

Play this if: All these other songs fail and everyone is mad at you so you need to cheer them up.

It’s scientifically impossible to listen to “Hey Ya!” with a frown on your face. Try it, go ahead. If you have a friend who recently lost a dog or something, send them a link to this video. You’ll be doing them a major favor.

Like many artists on this list, ‘Kast probably has a few songs that could be here instead of “Hey Ya!” (most of their hits, from “ATLiens” to “Roses”, have held up), but this one is the most recognizable. It’s the most danceable. It’s probably the most innocent (though Dre manages to slip in a subtle dirty word). This isn’t anywhere near the best song the duo has released, but it’s the best fit for this list.

OutKast put the pop music industry in a stranglehold when they released Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2003. They haven’t gotten back together in the studio for an album since, and that’s a major reason why mainstream hip-hop has taken a turn for the worse.

That’s all I have, folks. There are countless songs that could be included on this list but these are what I feel are the true essentials. But here are some bonus picks:

“Party Up” by DMX

Basically anything by Beyonce

“Smack That” by Akon (feat. Eminem)

“Ayo Technology” by 50 Cent (feat. Justin Timberlake)

“Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira

“How We Do” by The Game (feat. 50 Cent)

“Gold Digger” by Kanye West

“Promiscuous” by Nelly Furtado

“Tipsy” by J-Kwon

“Lean Back” by Terror Squad

Eminem at 40 (or the Fully-Expected Virtue of Arrogance)


Before I get into my usual subjective ramblings, I want to make one thing clear. I’m a big Eminem fan. Like a really big Eminem fan. Like a “walkman bumping my explicit copy of The Marshall Mathers LP that I, at the age of 10, illegally bought at Best Buy while my parents where looking at refrigerators” Eminem fan. I was listening to Slim Shady religiously before I was even old enough to actually comprehend what he was saying. I loved the sound of the music, loved the aggression, loved the constant use of the word “fuck”. It scared the hell out of my parents.

Eminem scared the hell out of everyone’s parents. That’s why he was so awesome.

Fast forward about 15 years and you have me, a diehard Shady fanboy, questioning the artistic integrity and maturity of the rapper who got me into rap music in the first place. If you follow music blogs, you’ve probably heard of the latest controversy surrounding Eminem. It’s not even a controversy really, it’s just sad.

On the song ‘Vegas’, from the upcoming Shady Records compilation/greatest hits album Shady XV (which actually isn’t terrible), Eminem raps “So what’s it gon’ be? Put that shit away Iggy / You gon’ blow that rape whistle on me?

On the cypher the label put out last week to promote the album he raps “Play nice, bitch, I punch Lana Del Rey right in the face twice, like Ray Rice / In broad daylight, in plain sight of the elevator surveillance / Till her head is bangin’ on the railing / Then celebrate with the Ravens.

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If Eminem dropped those lines in the early 2000’s you’d hear one of two arguments depending on who you were talking to. His fans would tell you he’s just joking around and to focus more on the rhyme scheme than the literal meaning of the lyrics (a fair statement). His detractors would call it offensive, and call him a domestic abuse/rape apologist (also a fair statement).

After the shooting at Columbine, Eminem was famously name-dropped by Bill Clinton in his speech about fixing the problems with the youth. That is power. A specific rapper being criticized by the President? Amazing. The Grammy’s were picketed because of accusations regarding Eminem’s homophobia. All he did that year was sweep the awards and do a live performance with Elton John. Again, amazing. Eminem was always surprising us just when we thought he couldn’t take it any further.

But now? In 2014? The reaction I’m seeing is “Really Em? Really? Iggy Azalea? Lana Del Rey?” Eminem is 42 years old. Dissing/threatening pop stars should be below him. We’re also in the midst of the internet age, where we have access to everything, and therefore are shocked by nothing. Not that early Eminem was “shock rap”, but his slurs at celebrities were fresh, funny, and original. Anybody with a Twitter account can clown on pop stars nowadays (follow me for semi-regular jabs at Nicki Minaj). Eminem’s vulgarity isn’t appealing anymore because we hear and see it every damn day just conversing with people or logging onto the internet.

Today, I’m sorry to say, that I don’t love Eminem anymore. He’s the most technically gifted rapper of all time and his early album stretch (The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show) remains possibly the most dominant run in pop music history. This can never be taken away from him. Eminem belongs at or near the top of any “best rappers ever” list. But much like Jay-Z, his musical legacy is starting to be tainted. The main reason being his last few albums just haven’t been very good.

em gif

This isn’t a review, however, and I’m not looking to argue with any fanboys (because I’m one of you!).

If you want to read insults and gags about pop stars, again, just google their names or check their twitter mentions. There is nothing notable about the two Eminem quotes I posted above. It’s just Eminem being Eminem. The problem is, there’s no place for that Eminem in modern day pop music. And these insults he throws at female pop stars are wildly hypocritical considering Eminem’s two biggest hits in the last 10 years have both featured Rihanna (an artist he once threatened to urinate on).

Eminem’s early jabs at pop stars were great because they were more about the pop music industry as a whole, something he viewed as growing soft and unintelligent, than any person in particular. And they were, for better or worse, quite clever and shocking. Look at the bars below (both off his magnum opus The Marshall Mathers LP). Also, keep in mind that these songs were released in the year 2000.

From ‘Marshall Mathers’

“anti-Backstreet and Ricky Martin / Who’s instinct’s to kill N*Sync, don’t get me started / These fuckin’ brats can’t sing and Britney’s garbage / What’s this bitch, retarded? Give me back my sixteen dollars”

From ‘I’m Back’

“So I just throw up a middlefinger and let it linger longer than the rumor that I been stickin’ it to Christina / Cause if I ever stuck it to any signer in showbiz / It’d be Jennifer Lopez, and Puffy you know this / Sorry Puff but I don’t give a fuck if this chick was my own mother / I’d still fuck her with no rubber / And cum inside of her and have a son and a new brother / At the same time, and just say that it ain’t mine”

Again, pretend we’re in the year 2000.

Shocking and original? Certainly.

Offensive and vulgar? Probably.

Technically impressive and catchy? HELL YES.

boromir

If you want to write Eminem’s entire discography off because you think he’s a homophobe, a misogynist, or a violent person…that’s fine. I can’t tell you where you should draw the line. Just know that if you do write his early career off, you’re ignoring the biggest pop star of the 2000’s. Note that his “Big 3” albums combined to sell about 55 million copies worldwide. He did have an impact, because he was everywhere.

It’s safe to say he doesn’t have that impact anymore. Yes, he’s still Eminem. He’s one of the most recognizable people on the planet, has a loyal fanbase, and still sells out every concert well in advance. But his place within the music scene has shifted from “angry drug-fueled kid who calls out anybody he thinks is full of shit” to “sober old man who name-drops in an attempt to stay young”. You can’t read it any other way, really. Eminem’s rhymes are still so complex that he raps circles around 95% of the current rap scene, guys like Rick Ross, but his subject matter makes it hard for casual fans to realize this.

Unless he’s on a song with Rihanna or being used in a Call of Duty commercial, Eminem has sort of disappeared. He’s making music to appease his longtime fans now (The Marshall Mathers LP 2 was self-referential to a fault). But unlike Em, those fans have all grown up a bit, and don’t seem to be too interested in the majority of what he has to say. This is because he doesn’t actually say anything anymore.

One problem is that Eminem realizes he is still a better rapper than basically anybody else. He feels he doesn’t have to change, which is why he made a song like ‘Rap God’ (which is incoherent nonsense, by the way). One thing Eminem might not realize is that his last FOUR solo albums have given music critics and hip-hop heads everywhere no choice but to question what would otherwise be an infallible legacy.

I’m not saying he needs to retire. Eminem has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t care about the fame/money and the only things that matter to him are music and his daughters. Plenty of legendary artists have aged gracefully, but they’ve changed in order to do so (Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Nas, just to name a few). It’s not even that Eminem needs to tone down his content, he just needs to be more mature when it comes to choosing what makes up that content.

rick-ross-precious

Back in 2002, Eminem dropped the classic ‘Till I Collapse’ off The Eminem Show. He started the song with this:

Til I collapse, I’m spillin’ these raps as long as you feel ’em / ’til the day that I drop, you’ll never say that I’m not killin’ ’em / cause when I am not, then I’ma stop pennin’ ’em / and I am not Hip-Hop and I’m just not Eminem

If Marshall Mathers doesn’t change his tune soon, he may have no choice but to stop pennin’ ’em. His fanbase is diminishing. His last solo album has sold 3.8 million worldwide (an incredibly disappointing figure for an Eminem album even when adjusting for the fact that nobody really buys albums anymore).

My generation, the generation that made Eminem a star, has changed. The popular music industry, everything from what’s acceptable to the way music is distributed, has changed. The rap game, no longer “black music” or “urban music”, has changed. So why hasn’t Eminem?

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’ Review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 never had a chance. It was doomed before the cameras started to roll. It was doomed before they even settled on a director. Hell, it was doomed before the first draft of the script was even turned in. Not even a cast including talents like Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman could save this project from this impending doom.

In July of 2012, Lionsgate announced that the final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy would be split into two films. That book, a book that spent it’s first 40% or so going absolutely nowhere, may not have had enough compelling material for one movie, much less two. This decision from Lionsgate was essentially a foregone conclusion for a couple of years leading up to it. The final Harry Potter book was made into two films, and those two films combined to gross well over $2 billion. Peter Jackson/Warner Bros. took The Hobbit, a children’s book best enjoyed in one or two sittings, and turned it into three films that will combine for a runtime of nearly nine hours. The quality of Jackson’s return to Middle Earth can be debated. The commercial appeal cannot. Kiss my ass, Peter Jackson.

lilly meme

So Lionsgate had already seen proof that if you have hot commodity with a loyal fanbase, Collins’ novels certainly fit the bill, those loyal fans are going to flock to the theaters no matter what the hell you do. We, as fans, have shown the studios that we don’t really care about them making the best movies out of the books because we’re fine with more movies. I’m obviously not expecting Hunger Games fans to start a Panem-level uprising and refuse to see the movie (which had an impressive worldwide opening of $275 million), but what is essentially an overlong prologue doing $17 million in midnight advance tickets? Ummmmm….okay. It’s hard to blame the studio, especially considering Lionsgate is a publicly traded company that isn’t under the umbrella of one of the big five media conglomerates. At least we all apparently agreed that Divergent is lame and didn’t go see that.

As for the actual movie I’m supposed to be reviewing here, many of its problems stem directly from the book. So the diehard “see it at midnight” types will likely view it as the best entry yet, just like they failed to recognize that the third book was, frankly, much weaker than the first two.

In some ways, Mockingjay Part 1 is the best entry yet. The loaded cast is as good as ever and benefits from additions such as Juliane Moore, Mahershala Ali, and Natalie Dormer. Lawrence is again something to behold despite not having much to do. She carries the movie. With a lesser young star, and by lesser I mean pretty much anybody else, this movie would’ve fallen apart completely. The scenes of Katniss suffering from PTSD, or living in fear, or being unsure of her role all resonate nicely because Lawrence is a gifted dramatic actress. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman brought his usual charm to the screen despite also not having anything to do, as did Harrelson.

Back to Lawrence having nothing to do. It’s not hard to understand that an action movie needs its star kicking ass to work. That’s Newton’s third law, I think. In Mockingjay Part 1, Katniss spends the only two scenes that could even be argued as a climax sitting on the sideline. Whether she’s sitting in a bunk-bed or in mission control, Katniss does an awful lot of waiting around in this movie. This doesn’t seem like Katniss, and it seems like a waste of Lawrence’s star power (which is likely what sparked the decision to make this into two movies, suck every dollar you can out of her while you still got her under contract). I get that changing a popular book is tricky, but in this movie, it’s Gale (Thor’s less talented brother Liam Hemsworth) doing all the heroic things.

Another note on the use of actors. Sam Claflin was great as Finnick in Catching Fire, but apparently not great enough to actually get any meaningful scenes in this movie. When a book is flawed, IT’S OKAY TO CHANGE IT A LITTLE BIT. They have the legal rights and creative freedom to do so.

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I will give the writers credit for steering away from typical love-triangle conflicts the book relied so heavily on. Instead they use the times when the characters are not doing anything to focus on the very idea of revolution. There is some rather intelligent and intriguing dialogue throughout the film. They’ve done a good job of making this franchise smart enough for adults to enjoy, something Harry Potter never really had a chance at since it was entirely dependent on magic. Francis Lawrence, the director with no relation to Jennifer, does a nice job again as well. It’s not his fault they broke this is into two movies. When he was brought on for Catching Fire, which is by far the best movie and book in the series, he made everything bigger and darker. On top of that there are just some really impressive individual scenes that he must’ve been drooling over while reading the book.

For the most part, the special effects hold up (a major complaint with the first movie). The destruction that happens when Katniss shoots down a bomber was maybe a little too movie-like, but that’s really my only quarrel. There were a couple of phenomenal shots deep underground in District 13 that allowed you to see just how disciplined these people are.

The pacing is strange in this movie. They attempt to shoot so many scenes in a climactic manner (Katniss agreeing to become their symbol, the bombing, the rescue attempt) that all of them end up feeling like filler. The ONE CHANCE I thought this movie had was if it focused entirely on her struggle with becoming, and ultimate decision to become, the Mockingjay. Make it a character piece. They could’ve end the movie with J-Law storming into mission control and saying “I’ll be your Mockingjay”. That would’ve been dope. Instead, the studio is playing the role of mockingjay. And we’re the ones being mocked.

It’s hard to call this movie terrible and I won’t do so. But it wasn’t a good singular film. Maybe the finale will be amazing and we’ll all look back in a few years and call this necessary filler, but probably not. It’s the most financially successful prologue ever. It will hold over the appetite of diehard fans for another year. It will likely lead to even bigger box office numbers for the finale. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is doing exactly what Lionsgate wanted it to do. Unfortunately for us, their wants don’t seem to be making a good movie. And we’re allowing them to do it.

kanye

2014 at the Movies (So Far)

 

2014 has been a relatively disappointing year at the box office. Some superhero movies have carried the torch admirably, but Hollywood as a whole has struggled to find non-franchise hits this year. Interstellar (out now),  should certainly help that, and both upcoming franchise entries The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies have a realistic shot at doing over a billion. But there hasn’t been anything like Gravity ($716 million), Frozen ($1.27 billion), or World War Z ($540 million) this year.

Instead, 2014 has served as bridge year until Star Wars, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice come out in 2015. As we approach the holiday season, which will then turn into awards season, it’s important to look back at Hollywood’s hits and misses this year.

So I’m going to take you through all the movies I’ve seen this year, as quickly as I can.

Ordered by release date, as always, this is just my opinion. I’m not a critic, film student, or even an expert. I just really fucking like movies.

Before I begin I need to list some prominent movies that I’ve heard great things about but haven’t yet seen but surely will eventually, just so you don’t accuse me of forgetting something. Those movies (in no particular order) include: The Lego Movie, Nightcrawler, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Noah, Neighbors, Fury, and John Wick.

Alright, let’s dive in, but first, a gif of Chris Pine drinking wine.

 

pine gif

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Released: Jan. 17th via Paramount Pictures (Skydance Productions)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley

Box Office: $135.5 million (on a reported $60 million budget)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55% positive

My Grade: C

Chris Pine, despite being the current face of two of the biggest Hollywood franchises ever (Jack Ryan/Star Trek), still sort of flies under the radar. This is frustrating because he has legit acting chops and the typical leading-man chiseled face (not my words, I swear). Maybe he doesn’t ooze with personality and charisma the way other leading dudes like Chris Pratt or Channing Tatum do, but Pine is certainly a solid actor. Even a good performance out of him could not rescue this movie.

It’s not terrible. There are some extremely impressive action sequences and the stacked cast does a nice job, but this feels like a movie trying to become the next Jason Bourne franchise. The Bourne movies relied upon intelligent scripting, unique action sequences, and an undeniable A-lister in Matt Damon. Instead of forcing the audience to ask questions and stay glued to their seats to find out the answers, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit solves every mystery and plot hole by using computers in some way.

Some of the quicker action sequences lack the tightness that director Paul Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse brought to the Bourne movies. And ultimately, this movie just feels like the generic 21st century action thriller. Again, it’s not bad. If you like action movies and need to kill two hours, give it a play. But Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit failed to re-invent the franchise in the way many of thought it would when we heard the great Kenneth Branagh was taking the helm.

 

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Transformers: Age of Extinction

Released: Feb. 7th via Paramount Pictures (di Bonaventura Pictures)

Directed by: Michael Bay

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci (sigh), Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz

Box Office: $1.1 billion (on a reported budget of $210 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 18% positive

My Grade: D-

Before you laugh at me for actually seeing this nonsense, please note that I was dragged to it. And I was incredibly drunk.

I don’t care if the special effects in Transformers: Age of Extinction were impressive. If you spend over $200 million making a movie, it better have damned good effects. Besides, I’m more impressed by directors stretching a budget or making innovations in the field rather than simply just throwing another, more expensive, entry into an already pathetic franchise.

My complaints here are typical, and shared by basically everyone. There aren’t characters, the script feels like it was written by a 12-year old, it’s about an hour too long, etc. There’s obviously an audience for this type of movie seeing as it made over a billion bucks, but I am not that audience. And if you’re reading this, you probably are a movie buff as well, and therefore aren’t that audience either.

Michael Bay sucks. This movie sucks. It even managed to make me hate Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci (two of my favorites). I’m not a movie hipster. I enjoy a mindless action movie as much as anyone…if it’s a good mindless action movie. Nothing about Transformers: Age of Extinction is good, however.

 

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Released: Apr. 4th via Walt Disney Studios (Marvel Studios)

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson

Box Office: $714 million (on a reported $170 million budget)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89% positive

My Grade: B+

In a post-Avengers world, a world where the earthlings have already been exposed to extraterrestrial life, portals into other dimensions, and Chris Hemsworth’s pectorals…Captain America: The Winter Solider was the movie Marvel needed to put out.

Grounded in reality to an extent only surpassed in the mainstream superhero canon by Nolan’s Batman trilogy; Cap 2 dealt with themes such as institutional/governmental corruption, mass surveillance, and potentially world-changing weapons innovations. And it did this in an intelligent way without getting overly-political about. The box office smash still brought the impressive action, killer one-liners, and cross-movie connections that Marvel fans have come to expect every time they go to the theatre.

Cap 2 was directed by the Russo Bros, whose only real significant work prior to this were a handful of episodes for the outstanding TV sitcoms Community and Arrested Development. I have no clue how they got this gig but, as always, Marvel Studios head-honcho Kevin Feige made a great call.

Bonus points for casting Robert Redford in a movie that was in a way an homage to the espionage thrillers Redford starred in back in the day. The main complaint people had is that despite having “The Winter Soldier” in the title, that character wasn’t really that big a part of the movie. Though, thanks to the awesome Sebastian Stan, the scenes where he did make an appearance were great.

 

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Released: May 2nd via Sony (Columbia/Marvel)

Directed By: Marc Webb (hehe)

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jaime Foxx, Dane DeHaan

Box Office: $709 million (reported budget of $200 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 53% positive

My Grade: C-

“Only through the careful study of history can we assure that we learn from our mistakes in order to not be doomed by them over and over again.”

I just made that quote up, but it’s pretty dope, right?

You know how when something so tragic, so painful, so heart-breaking happens, you just try as hard as you can to delete it from your memory entirely? That’s what I did with Spider-Man 3. I had done a successful job of this until I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is a movie plagued by many of the same flaws.

The biggest two being that simply too much happens, and that the movie made a misguided attempt to be cool. First off, can we agree that three villains are too many for one movie? Second, can we agree that turning Peter Parker into a hipster, the cool kind though, is sort of lame? What’s strange is that the producers wasted the best actor in the cast, Paul Giamatti, in a role that got about five minutes of screen time. Unless he pulled a Brando, I don’t see why this happened.

The visual effects were a little too colorful and the music was a little too modern. Spidey probably isn’t going to appeal to the Bonnaroo crowd, so why try to? Jaime Foxx was also awful as Electro, and he continues to prove my theory that if he’s not playing Ray Charles, he’s a shitty actor/

For the record, going back to the last entry, I think the casting of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone were both good decisions. They, along with newcomer Dane DeHaan, are fine here. But the movie is bogged down by over-doing everything.

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Godzilla

Released: May 16th via Warner Bros. (Legendary Pictures)

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston

Box Office: $525 million (on a reported $160 million budget)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73% positive

My Grade: B-

It’s hard to be upset with Godzilla because it is what you expect it to be. It fulfills our desire to watch a monster wreck havoc, albeit a monster who was absent for the first hour of the movie. Gareth Edwards, who brought outstanding visual effects to the screen in the tiny movie Monsters (budget of less than $500,000), does not disappoint when it comes to making Godzilla look, move, and feel awesome.

I don’t really have a problem with the decision to keep Godzilla on the sidelines for so long. It was paced like the original and allowed the always-outstanding Bryan Cranston some time to shine, despite not really being the star of this movie.

What I do have a problem with is the real star of this movie. It’s not Cranston, it’s not even Godzilla. It’s Aaron freakin’-Taylor-Johnson. He was fine in Kick-Ass, but here, they cast him as the hero, the badass, and I just don’t buy it. Not only that, but in the scenes that require him to do real acting, he’s completely upstaged by whoever else is on camera (mostly Elizabeth Olsen) and it makes those scenes feel really awkward.

Aaron freakin’-Taylor-Johnson is in the next Avengers movie and is starring in the 50 Shades of Grey adaptation so I should probably get used to him being a big deal.

Still don’t like him though.

 

xmen

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Released: May 23rd via 20th Century Fox (Marvel/Bad Hat Harry)

Directed by: Jerry Sandus..I mean, Bryan Singer

Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage

Box Office: $746 million (on a reported $200 million budget

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92% positive

My Grade: C+

This is the movie this year that I disagree with the masses on. Most are calling it the best X-Men yet…I’d rank it 4th (behind 1,2, and First Class in any order).

You may have noticed that other than Wolverine I didn’t give the cast from the older movies, like the Patrick Stewart’s and the Ian McKellen’s, top billing. THAT IS WHAT FOX SHOULD HAVE DONE. Selling this movie as a convergence of both generations of X-Men casts was such a falsity. As I’ve said before, the real premise was to send Hugh Jackman back in time to hang out with the prettier, younger people from X-Men: First Class.

There was plenty to love about this movie. Fassbender, Dinklage, and Jackman were great as always. The climactic scene, if the horrible plot kept your attention long enough, was fantastic. The inclusion of Evan Peters as Quicksilver made for one of the funniest and most impressive sequences of the year.

But that wasn’t enough to distract me from the lame story, McAvoy’s constant over-acting, and the movie trying to suck every last dollar it could out of Jennifer Lawrence’s stardom. As a longtime fan of the franchise, not only was this movie not at all what I expected, but it was terribly disappointing. I understand that it’s difficult to have this big of a cast and give them all the attention they deserve. That’s cool, just don’t market your movie that way then.

The team will be back in 2016 and I’m at least one person who is hoping for (and expecting) a major improvement.

 

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22 Jump Street

Released: June 13th via Columbia/MGM (Media Rights Capital)

Directed by: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stormare, Ice Cube, Amber Stevens, Wyatt Russell….AND JIMMY TATRO

Box Office: $330.3 million (on a reported budget of $65 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84% positive

My Grade: B+

22 Jump Street was great for reasons that stretch beyond the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Tatum and Hill, but they really are the great comedy bromance of our time. In this sequel, we see their dynamic get a little more interesting than the typical “nerd and jock” contrast the first one relied on.

For those other reasons:

22 Jump Street is a predictable, overly-confident, more expensive sequel that pounces on every opportunity it can to make fun of predictable, overly-confident, more expensive sequels. It’s a movie that movie-lovers can appreciate. Add that to the fact that it also functions perfectly fine as a date movie or as a raunchy dude comedy, and it’s not hard to see why this franchise has been so successful.

There were some great action sequences and the script gave Ice Cube more chances to yell obscenities (which is always a good thing).

Many other recent R-rated comedy franchises, like The Hangover or Harold & Kumar, have faltered in handling sequels. Lord & Miller did not let that happen here, so it’s sort of disappointing that they’re reportedly only going to be producing the franchises third entry.

 

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Snowpiercer

Released: June 27th via the Weinstein Company (MoHo Films)

Directed By: Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, (spoiler alert) Ed Harris

Box Office: $86.7 million (on a reported budget of $39.2 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95% positive

My Grade: A-

I, along with most people, didn’t actually catch Snowpiercer on the big screen. But thanks to the Weinsteins, it’s been on Netflix for a while. Watch it. You’ll be glad you did.

Here’s the general premise void of any spoilers: the world ends because of a misguided attempt at combatting climate change, the only people left were those smart enough to get on a super-train (Snowpiercer), the train develops its own class system, Captain America attempts to lead the lower class folk up to the front of the train and confront the mysterious owner who only reveals himself in the final act.

Spoiler alert: Mysterious owner who only reveals himself in the final act is played by Ed Harris, because, OF COURSE. If there’s ever a mysterious figure to reveal themselves in the final act, it’s probably Ed Harris.

The movie unflinchingly explores some deeper themes than my premise implies. More importantly; it features some gut-wrenching moments, brutal but beautifully choreographed fight scenes, and a breakthrough performance by Chris Evans.

So about that Chris Evans guy. Holy shit. Director Bong Joon-ho, whose previous films are less accessible to me or you due to the dialogue being almost entirely in Korean, was initially hesitant to hiring Evans due to him being typecast as Captain America. But Snowpiercer needed a star in order to make any money outside of South Korea, and when Dicaprio’s reported interest never materialized, Evans was chosen. He shed some weight, grew a beard, and turned in one of the years best performances. There’s a specific tasty scene towards the end which certainly qualifies as an “Oscar scene” for him.

Snowpiercer manages to be smart and mindless at the same time. For every piece of political allegory there’s a not-very-realistic shot of someone getting their ass beat. Bong Joon-ho has made one of the best Sci-Fi/Action movies in a long time, and he did it keeping all his characters in one location. Impressive.

 

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Released: July 11th via 20th Century Fox (Chermin Entertainment)

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell

Box Office: $707.5 million (on a reported budget of $170 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90% positive

My Grade: B+

I was legitimately surprised when the last Apes movie was good. You know, the one starring James Dave Franco’s brother. So my expectations for this were pretty damn high. I’m a longtime Gary Oldman fanboy as well so him joining the cast shot those expectations through the roof.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with a budget almost double that of the last one, met my expectations. The motion capture was outstanding, and an upgrade on the already impressive motion capture we’ve seen in this franchise and in some of Peter Jackson’s work. Andy Serkis deserves to be viewed as every bit the artist other actors are. He is, undeniably, the best in the world at what he does. How many artists, in any medium, can realistically claim that?

Other than the motion capture, the movie features a genuinely interesting story and good performances by all the actors (Oldman is, as always, a scene-stealer). It’s hard for me to take some of the political statements too seriously because at the end of the days this is a movie about shotgun-toting apes riding around on horses but perhaps more so than any in the entire series, Dawn feels smart.

 

groot

Guardians of the Galaxy

Released: August 1st via Disney (Marvel Studios)

Directed By: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

Box Office: $765.3 million (on a reported budget of $170 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91% positive

My Grade: A

Before I salivate on the keyboard over this flawless film, let’s take a moment to look back at the months leading up to its release.

Marvel spent $170 million making (and probably another $50 million or so marketing) a movie about a bunch of superheros only the biggest geeks had heard of. This isn’t Iron Man or Captain America or something else that everyone who has grown up with American pop culture is familiar with. Making this movie took balls. And it paid off. For my money, it’s the best movie in the Marvel catalogue to date.

James Gunn was hired to direct/re-work the script. His unique blend of humor and self doubt is all over this movie. Not only is this clearly the funniest Marvel movie ever (the “if I had a blacklight it’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting in her line” is pure gold) and another visual achievement, it’s also Marvel’s most interesting character study. We fall for these characters. So however corny them all holding hands in the end may be on the surface, it really is the perfect way to conclude the first chapter of what will surely be a successful franchise.

Much of the credit for these characters being so fully-fleshed out despite the medium belongs to the cast. Chris Pratt, thanks to good turns in Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball as well as being the best part of Parks & Recreation, has been on the rise for a couple years now. He’s now a clear A-list star. Robert Downey Jr. is getting old. Pratt has become Marvel’s most valuable asset, and fans will be happy to learn he’s been locked up for a multi-movie deal.

The rest of the Guardians deserve praise as well, as does Gunn, and Nicole Pearlman (who wrote the original script and was the first person who thought this could actually be a movie). Also, that soundtrack….

Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t going to win any Oscars. Film students aren’t going to study it. But who gives a shit? It was the most thoroughly enjoyable movie of the year. The numbers prove that more than just comic book dudes enjoy these movies. Guardians is the perfect blockbuster. In an era where so many blockbusters are held back by the same fundamental flaws, that says something.

 

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Gone Girl

Released: October 3rd via 20th Century Fox (Regency Enterprises)

Directed By: David Fincher

Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Ben Affleck’s penis

Box Office: $318.8 million (on a reported budget of $61 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86% positive

My Grade: C+

Spoilers galore coming up so skip to the next movie if you haven’t seen this or read the book and plan to.

I haven’t read the book, for the record. And I’m not going to. Many of my complaints about the movie revolve around the plot so it may be unfair to hold the filmmakers responsible.

Main complaint: How are we supposed to take any of themes about modern marriage from Gone Girl seriously when it’s clear that the wife is just A FUCKING CRAZY PERSON???? I mean, she slit Neil Patrick Harris’ throat while she was banging him. Neil Patrick Harris is most lovable dude ever. This makes no sense. What kind of a-hole would slits Barney Stinsons throat while banging him? This movie, that was entirely dependent on plot twists, unraveled as it went on. What started off as a legitimately intelligent and thrilling mystery became something else entirely, and not in a good way.

The positives: The entire cast was great. Affleck was fine even though his role didn’t require much. Rosamund Pike was intriguing even though her character wasn’t. Carrie Coon stole the show. Tyler Perry was actually funny and impressive in his lawyer role. We even got a brief cameo of Affleck’s bat-dong towards the end.

The first half of the movie was as tight and compelling as any Fincher film. The music, courtesy of the Nine Inch Nails guys, was awesome.

But again, the more the story revealed itself, the stupider this movie became. It’s a Fincher adaption of a beloved book so I understand why it did so well critically and commercially, but five years from now, is anybody going to remember this movie? I actually initially forgot about it when putting together this list, despite the fact that I saw it a month ago.

Here’s to hoping Fincher goes back to more unique material rather than simply picking whatever he sees on the best-sellers rack and Barnes-n-Noble or on his moms bookshelf.

 

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Interstellar

Released: November 7th via Paramount (Syncopy/Legendary Pictures)

Directed By: I forgot, someone please tell me again.

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, bearded Casey Affleck, (spoiler) Matt Damon

Box Office: $322.7 million (on a reported budget of $165 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72% positive

My Grade: B-

Before we get into this, let me disprove a myth. Interstellar is NOT a mind-bending psychological thriller. Neither was Inception. While both dabble in some intriguing concepts, they are ultimately rather typical sci-fi/action movies. Stop acting like they’re Memento or something. If you didn’t get this movie, that’s your fault, considering that like a third of the dialogue was boring-ass explanation.

Before you all call me a hipster for critiquing this movie, let’s go over what I liked. Visually, it was a spectacle (even if some of the shots seem like a direct rip-off of Malick’s Tree of Life). Hans Zimmer killed it again with his score (even though I thought the mixing was WAY off at times). McConaughey was great, as was Jessica Chastain, per usual.

There was simply too much explaining going on. I understand that the scope of this project was so large that some exposition was to be expected, but still, “show, don’t tell”, as the saying goes.

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I was also underwhelmed by both Hathaway and Caine, which is strange, because those are two of my favorites. In fact, once they got into space, the scenes on earth felt like a waste of time. Casey Affleck and Topher Grace were both laughably bad. I expect horrible turns out of Grace because, frankly, he sucks. But not Casey Affleck.

The movie completely fell apart in its third act, I don’t care what Nolan-fanboys say. Again, I understood what went down, I just didn’t buy it. Love is a powerful thing capable of traveling through time and dimensions? Okay, Christopher Nolan. Spare us the poetry next time. In fact, get David S. Goyer to write your next movie.

Bonus critique (spoiler): Matt Damon’s inclusion was fucking stupid and just an excuse to have one A-lister fight another A-lister. Once he got them to come to his planet, why they hell would he try to kill them all, knowing he wouldn’t be able to commandeer his way home? They were there. He was going back with them on the ship regardless of whatever they found on the planet.

On many levels, Interstellar was a crowning cinematic achievement. It deserves to be seen experienced in theaters. But it was flawed on just as many levels as well, too many levels to be considered a great movie. It’s one of Nolan’s weakest efforts.

 

birdman

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Released: limited on October 17th via Fox Searchlight (Regency/Worldview)

Directed By: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone

Box Office: $11.6 million (on a reported budget of $18 million)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94% positive

My Grade: A+

Birdman is, by a mile, the best movie I’ve seen this year.

General lowdown: A washed-up actor (Michael Keaton) who used to play a popular superhero attempts a broadway rendition of a classic short story (Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) to reclaim his former glory. Along the way he deals with some strange folks, including his recovering-addict daughter (Emma Stone) and a crazy actor (Edward Norton).

Side-note: for Raymond Carver fans, there are plenty of cookies and subtle references to his work in the script.

In its final act, Birdman becomes very weird. But it works thanks to the strong character development early on.

On a technical level, the movie is simply beautiful. The camera work is groundbreaking, it’s shot as if it was just one long, uninterrupted take, much like a play. The score from acclaimed jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez is perfect. When Birdman utilizes visual effects, it does so on a level equal to the big-budget superhero movies. It’s something to marvel at (see what I did there).

The script moves flawlessly from scene-to-scene and character-to-character while never loosing focus of Keaton and how all of the these things are impacting him. It’s littered with enough current pop culture references to make younger audiences laugh out loud, yet contains enough serious thought about life and art to intrigue the older, high-art loving types.

The entire cast is phenomenal. Keaton’s layered turn feels strangely personal, due to the fact that he was once Batman and has had a relatively quite career since then, and should vault him right into the Best Actor race. The same can be said for Norton. Emma Stone steps way out of her comfort zone to give the best performance of her young career. Hell, even Zach Galifianakis is great.

I’ve written too many words about Birdman already. Just go see it. Iñárritu has crafted a masterpiece, a movie that will surely be studied, imitated, and loved for years to come. It deserves all of the Oscars it will likely be nominated for.

Shit. Now I really want to go see Birdman again.

If you’ve made it this far (pushing 4,500 words now), thanks for hanging in there. Now go back to whatever you were doing, or go watch Birdman. Actually, just go watch Birdman.

Okay, one more meme.

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SOULtober 2014: “Zak, you’re not black.” / What is Soul?

SOULtober 2014

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“Zak, you’re not black. Stop trying to be.”

I can’t even begin to count how many times some adult told me that growing up. Teachers, parents, coaches, whomever. I heard it enough that it’s permanently ingrained in my memory. At the time, I didn’t get it. I still don’t. I never associated any of my interests or actions with a specific race. The fact that a person even could associate an entire genre of music or a sport specifically with one race baffled my pre-teen mind.

I’m now 22, and I’m still white. It still baffles me. How, exactly, does one “try to be black”? Sure, I probably tilted my hat to the side a little more than anyone ever should during my teenage years. I let my pants hang down my ass a bit further than is considered proper. But who’s the racist, the kid with a backwards hat and baggy sweatpants? Or the adult who see the kid with the backwards hat and sweatpants and immediately looks at such outfit choices as a racial thing?

That's not me, for the record. I've always been really damn skinny.
That’s not me, for the record. I’ve always been really damn skinny.

My two favorite athletes growing up, Allen Iverson and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco, were quite vocal about their “blackness” and that scared some people. But I was a fucking kid, I didn’t think about that stuff. I idolized these guys because of their dominance in their sport and their charisma. I legitimately never thought to myself that race had anything to do with, really, anything. But what really made certain authority figures think I was “trying to black” was my taste in music.

I LOVED rap and do to this day. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Hip-Hop history. It’s sort of sad, actually. I was listening to rap before I could really even understand the lyrics. The sound of and emotion behind it just captivated me. I was this 10 year old kid who would walk around with his walkman, listening to rap CD’s I sometimes snuck off and bought at Best Buy on family shopping trips (shoutout dudes at Best Buy who always sold my 10-year old ass explicit CDs). My parents knew this and most certainly did not approve, even going as far as confiscating CDs I had.

But I’m a sneaky mother-shut it. I would grab a CD case out of my parents collection (usually Springsteen or Petty or something else they’d actually believe I was listening to), take the CD out and put it somewhere, then put one of my raps CD’s in the case. So I had would have the CD and walkman everywhere with me. They thought I was innocently riding in the back of the car listening to The Boss sing about American pride. In reality, I was cruisin’ with my head bangin’ listening to Ice Cube, Eminem, and Nas rap about quite the opposite.

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The years went by and I, sort of, expanded my musical horizons. I’ve always enjoyed every genre (including Soul). I just never really chose to listen to it on my own seeing as I was more concerned with expanding my knowledge of Hip-Hop while still finding times to listen to the classic rock anthems I knew every word to.

My newfound interest in Soul, however, has been sparked more by my disdain for some other current genres than anything else. I’m not trying to get into a whole thing, but the EDM/Rave scene was just never my thing. That’s not the music I want to dance to. It’s not what makes me happy. On the Hip-Hop ode to Soul “Slow Jamz” by Kanye West, Twista, and Jaime Foxx, the song starts off with Foxx saying…

You know, I was talkin’ to this girl. She was talkin’ bout the music all fast in the club, you know. She gotta drink water cause she’s thirsty. She danced like ninety-two-hundered songs back to back, with ain’t nobody really tryna find out what she feelin’

I feel like Foxx was talking about me. I AM THAT GIRL WHO NEEDS A GLASS OF WATER.

That’s a great music video btw…

So I’ve decided, instead of listening to the same 25 Kendrick Lamar songs I’ve been living off the last two years, that’d I’d go on this journey of cultural enlightenment. For an entire month I will listen to nothing but Soul. I’m setting out to touch on every era, subgenre, and region. Surely some great artists will get lost in the shuffle. If anything, I’m going to attempt to shed some light on some less-famous artists by todays standards. We all know names like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Al Green, etc. So while I’m sure I’ll cover them at some point, my ultimate goal is to find new soul music to enjoy.

This brings me to a question I need to attempt to answer right away…

What is Soul?

I don’t know. You probably don’t either. It’s a loaded question. Soul draws from and gave to so many different genres that many prominent artists and album can count as Soul while also counting as Gospel, Funk, Disco, R&B, Doo-Wop, Jazz, Blues, Psychedelic, Hip-Hop, or even Electronic. But in order to not get too out of hand this month, I need to establish at least a working definition. There are many different subgenres of Soul but we’ll get into that later. So I looked on the interwebs and got some key compositional and vocal components that are often associated with Soul music.

They include but are not limited to:

  • Often consists of handclaps, and sometimes the lead singer almost having a conversation with the background singers (referred to as call and response).
  • Key instruments often include electric guitar and bass, Hammond organ, keys, and horns.
  • Vocalist usually has vocal range that can encompass a wide range of human emotions, hence the word “Soul”.
  • Utilizes silence of “empty space” in the instrumentation

That’s really all I got. In the late 60’s Soul became something else entirely as artists ventured into different genres, but still fit into Soul. You don’t have to define an artist by one genre. Take James Brown for example. Referred to as “the godfather of Soul”, Brown began his career in Gospel and eventually gravitated towards Funk. Many artists struggle to find their sound within one genre. James Brown helped invent two.

Classic example of soul music, and a great fucking album.
Classic example of soul music, and a great fucking album.

Any music I go through will at least be considered somewhat Soul by sites such as AllMusic, Wikipedia, etc. I’m not setting out to define Soul, because I can’t.

While it’s hard to word a definition for Soul, it’s not hard to know it when you hear it. You can tell if something is Soul pretty easily. So while some of the music I cover will also certainly fit into other genres, some characteristics of Soul need to be present in order for me to spend my time with it this month.

I don’t really have a plan for this. I’m just going to listen to a ton of music share it, and write everyday. I’ll surely miss some important artists. I’m only a human being with a full course load and a Spotify premium account, after all. And not to be selfish, but this journey is about me. I’m trying to discover what I view as the essence of of Soul music. That may be very different from your point of view. I hope that some of you will follow my example and attempt to expand your musical canon, or just listen to a little bit of Soul music.

But if not, that’s cool. This gives me an excuse to do my three favorite things; listen to music, write, and argue with people on the internet. I don’t have a plan for this, but here are some posts to expect in the coming days:

“The Rise, Fall, and Re-Rise of Neo-Soul”

“Philly Soul: Highlighting contributions from America’s oft-forgotten great musical city”

“I got Soul but I’m not a Soldier: Soul music and the Vietnam War”

“Kanye West, Auto-Tune, and the lost art of Soul-sampling in Hip-Hop”

“Motown vs Atlantic vs Stax. ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN”

“Is the King of Pop also the King of Soul?”

Enjoy and as always, follow me on Twitter for more thoughts.