Reviews for Normal People

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Review: Is Sausage Party a Masterpiece? — August 17, 2016

Review: Is Sausage Party a Masterpiece?

Remember The LEGO Movie?

Of course you do. That’s not really what I’m asking. Remember the reaction when The LEGO Movie came out? What was remarkable about the film was not that it was good (which it was, extremely so) but that it was The fucking LEGO Movie and it was good. Sure, there were signs beforehand that it might be okay, but it really took a lot of people off guard just how subversive it was. It wasn’t just LEGO: The Movie, it was a commentary on the very idea of a LEGO movie.

I think of Sausage Party as this year’s LEGO Movie. Of course, I’ve always been a defender of Seth Rogen as an artist, but this seems like a film that everyone can agree is pretty good. And like LEGO, it does subvert itself in a sense. In addition to skewering the Pixar formula, it examines the very idea of an R-rated Pixar movie, and what that might look like. In addition, it’s actually a really clever (if often comically blunt) work of satire, examining the idea of organized religion and a lot of fundamental aspects of global society.

But it’s not just one of Rogen’s increasingly gonzo third-tier-ironic film concepts. A ton of passion and effort went into this movie. Stories are told of how every line was examined and beta tested and rewritten to make sure it was an optimal balance of funny and inappropriate. The animation is phenomenal. On a budget of a skimpy $20 million, this film strikes an amazing mix of breathtaking realism and hilarious caricaturism.

And yeah, as many have been quick to point out, it has a lot of jokes that would offend certain constitutions. Literally every character represents one stereotype or another. But I think this was an interesting and very deliberate move, to reflect real-world groups of people and how they view one another. The prejudices add to the film’s commentary on how our society is kind of fucked up from the start, and how animated films, especially from Disney and Dreamworks, tend to exploit traditional stereotypes to reflect groups in broad strokes. Really, aside from an ill-advised Nazi joke at the beginning, every line serves a purpose.

The cast is also great. Special props to Edward Norton, who is truly unrecognizable as a Woody Allen type bagel named Sammy Bagel Jr., and Salma Hayek, who plays a very endearing lesbian taco. Nick Kroll is also great as the film’s surprisingly scary villain, a literal and figurative douche.

Overall, I give Sausage Party an A. There are a few lines that don’t work, and it’s definitely not for everyone, but you’ve got to admire the sheer passion that went into it.

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Review: Critical Suicide Squad — August 5, 2016

Review: Critical Suicide Squad

Okay, let’s do this. Suicide Squad. Hoo boy.

Here’s the problem with this movie. Frequent readers of this blog will know that I liked Batman v Superman. I saw it twice. I liked it just as much the second time. And now, I understand a lot of the criticisms for the movie, but I still appreciate it. I don’t know if my praise for the movie is legitimate, or if it’s just a facade built around visceral, inexplicable enjoyment of a shitty movie. But regardless, that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

With Suicide Squad, I don’t really know what to think. People I tend to agree with seem to think it’s good, but the critical consensus is that it’s bad. Some people say Margot Robbie is the best part of the movie; some say she’s the worst. Some people say Jared Leto is great; some say he’s lame; still others say he’s trying too hard. Let me see what sense I can make out of it.

I think ultimately, one of the main problems with the movie is expectations. The trailers went for roughly the same vibe that Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool had, so naturally, people assumed that the movie was going to be lighthearted, if a little grittier, and funny. There was even a pretty well-publicized rumor that the movie was undergoing extensive reshoots to add more humor to the movie after positive reactions to the trailer. None of it mattered, though, because the movie is not funny.

I don’t mean it’s poorly-written. It’s a bit stereotypical at times, but it definitely has some good quips. But that’s just it, they’re quips. It’s only funny in the same way that every modern superhero movie is funny. Funnier than previous DCEU movies, yes, but definitely not a comedy.

It’s not really an action movie, either. Once again, there is action, and it is pretty good, playing to all the characters’ different personalities and fighting styles, but it hardly feels central to the film. There’s really only two or three big action scenes in the movie.

If anything, I’d say it’s a crime drama, which is definitely not what people expected. It thrives off the personalities of the squad members, their stories, and how they interact with one another. Jared Leto’s Joker takes on the bearing of a gangster or a Mexican drug lord, but with the horror elements of Enchantress’ portrayal, it becomes an odd mix of a gritty crime drama and a supernatural thriller. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Overall, it plays to David Ayer’s strong suits, and it generally fits better than you’d expect.

I actually liked a lot of the more divisive elements of the film. I thought Leto did a good job in terms of his performance. People have complained that he was only in the movie for about ten minutes. This is true, and frustrating, but I think what’s worse is that he really doesn’t do anything for the movie. Of course, he’s essential to Harley Quinn’s backstory, but in the plot of the movie, he shows up to save Harley, fails when his helicopter gets shot down (I think four helicopters get shot down in this movie), and is never seen again until the last goddamn scene.

Speaking of Harley, I thought Margot Robbie did a good job, too. I thought the way they chose to portray her was a little odd, though. This is a version of Harley who’s essentially a live action version of the one from the animated series, and thus, she’s still infatuated with the Joker. I don’t actually have a problem with that. But the weird part is that, while she’s developed this extreme case of Stockholm syndrome, the film doesn’t really portray it as twisted or dark. It doesn’t gloss over or make light of the abuse Harley faced, but it treats her as a sex symbol in spite of it. It’s weird.

Even though I liked a lot of the film, it does have its fair share of problems. Enchantress’ plan is stated very early on to be, and this is a direct quote, “to take over the world.” By the time the climax rolls around, she’s made a blue energy beam and a ring of trash in the sky. She’s just standing there for most of the scene. How is this helping her? What is she doing? Is she about to take over the world? Shouldn’t she be, you know, controlling people’s minds and stuff? Why is she just standing there?

Also, needless to say, “we have to team up to turn off that glowing blue energy beam in the middle of the city” isn’t exactly new ground. There are a few really original, creative, different moments in this movie, but there are others that I could swear I’ve seen fifty times this year.

Still, I think I liked the movie as a whole. It had a great ensemble cast (special shoutouts to Viola Davis, who was absolutely terrifying, and Jai Courtney, who was actually likable for once), and the characters were all pretty well-developed, aside from the one that shows up just to be killed off three minutes later. It’s visually kind of blah, but there’s definitely a few spectacular shots in it. While it can’t really decide on a style, it executes all the styles it tries pretty well. The score, courtesy of Academy Award-winning composer Steven Price (Gravity, The World’s End, Fury, Attack the Block), is absolutely phenomenal. When the movie delves into reality, dealing with abuse and family drama, is actually when it shines the most.

Overall, some things work, some things don’t. It’s a movie that I probably could’ve hated, but that my general optimism led me towards liking. I’ll give it a B.

Best Songs of the Month (July 2016) — August 2, 2016

Best Songs of the Month (July 2016)

July is a weird month for music. In May and June, folks are putting out their often failed attempts at summer jams, but by the time July rolls around, things are a bit all over the place. That’s why this month’s list includes prog-rock outfits, hip-hop legends, EDM super producers, neo soul starlets, and Broadway megastars. Even Smash Mouth had a new song out this month, although it wasn’t very good. Anyway, here’s some songs that are very good. First, the honorable mentions.

The Spark – GZA

This is a song by rap legend GZA about the formation of the universe. I think that’s all you need to know.

LABOR V2 – Jaden Smith

Jaden Smith released this new track in celebration of his eighteenth birthday. It’s not exactly his best work, but it’s got a great beat and a pretty solid verse. I’m always excited to hear from Jaden, and this song seems to imply that he’s got an album on the way. Nice.

Love Make the World Go Round – Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Broadway wunderkind (Can you be a wunderkind at 36? You can do anything on Broadway.) Lin-Manuel Miranda teams up with lifetime relevance award-winner Jennifer Lopez for a song to benefit the Latino LGBTQ+ community in Orlando after the devastating massacre at Pulse nightclub last month. It’s catchy, if generic, and actually really well-written, not to mention its great message.

Higher – The Naked and Famous

Indie electronic band The Naked and Famous are apparently pretty huge in New Zealand, but they never really made an impact in the US, aside from their 2010 sorta-hit “Young Blood”. Turns out, they’re pretty good, or at least this song is. It’s got a banging beat, great vocals, and pretty cool lyrics.

Dear Officer – V. Bozeman feat. Young Life

In one of the most powerful protest songs of 2016, V. Bozeman (Veronica on Empire) croons about police brutality over a sparse guitar beat. Young Life isn’t a particularly good rapper, but he makes an admirable attempt at speaking from the heart. It’s really a gut-wrenching, thought-provoking track if I’ve ever heard one.

Sexy (Where’d You Get Yours) – Kool & the Gang

That’s right, Kool & the Gang is back, baby! “Sexy” is the legendary funk group’s first single since their 2007 album Still Kool, and it’s an admirable one at that. It feels like K & the G in their prime, but it packs just a dash of modern flair and when you put it all together, it really feels like it wouldn’t be out of place on the radio today. And I love how goofy the premise is: Where did you get your sexy? The age-old question. Amazing.

Tiimmy Turner – Desiigner

Desiigner remains one of the more enigmatic figures in hip hop right now. We can all agree that at this point, he hasn’t really escaped the shadow of figures like Travis Scott and Future, but the question on everyone’s mind remains, is there anything else to Desiigner? I mean, after being signed by Kanye, getting features from the likes of Pusha T and possibly Eminem, and delivering a handful of surprisingly different freestyles and mixtape cuts, he’s gotta have something new going for him, right? Well, this song didn’t provide any answers, but it did show that he had more in him than just “Panda”. I’d venture to say that “Tiimmy Turner” is actually better than “Panda,” with an even catchier chorus, an amazing Mike Dean beat, and a brief dive into actually interesting lyrics.

Purple Lamborghini – Skrillex and Rick Ross

Skrillex finds himself back in his old habits on “Purple Lamborghini,” a song with all the screams and wub-wubs we’d expect from 2011-era Skrillex more so than his recent output. Still, when you put the beat together with Rick Ross’ unbelievable energy, the song is a certified banger. So far, this soundtrack has actually shaped up to be better than the movie it’s made for (Suicide Squad, which currently boasts a 37% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Dang! – Mac Miller feat. Anderson .Paak

Mac Miller is sort of a hit-or-miss rapper, but this funk-infused bop featuring 2016 hip hop MVP Anderson .Paak definitely leans more towards “hit”. And that’s pretty much all I have to say.

Chemtrails and Muslim Wars – Isa Muhammad

Isa Muhammad is a recently-homeless man and the newest signee to Rick Ross’ increasingly impressive Maybach Music Group label. After listening to the song two or three times, I think the title refers to his desire to eschew material things and talk about that real shit, which means A) he won’t exactly be a perfect fit at MMG, and B) he’s about to make a damned fool of himself. For now, he’s a really good rapper, and I’m excited to see where he goes next.

Anyway, here’s the top ten.

10) PICK UP THE PHONE – Lupe Fiasco feat. Sebastian Lundberg

Last month, I sort of missed the boat on another song called “Pick Up the Phone,” but I hope this one serves as consolation. After releasing his best album and then his best mixtape, Lupe decided to take some time off, become the world’s greatest Street Fighter player, and just straight-up lie for a bit. Periodically throughout the end of last year and beginning of this year, we’ve been promised three albums this year, a sequel to The Cool next year, a final album, no final album, and God knows what else. This song is apparently from an album called DROGAS Light, which might be the same thing as Drogas, the first of the three albums he talked about, even though he said that DROGAS Light wouldn’t have any singles. Some have critiqued this song for being too reminiscent of Lasers, his worst album, and while I understand those complaints, I think it’s a really catchy, inspiring song, and it has some ingenious lyrics (“I left my ego at the altar”).

9. FANTASY – Kari Faux

Kari Faux has been called the “rap game Daria” for her monotonous, self-deprecating snark. On this track, she takes on society’s notion of an ideal woman, droning “I’m no man’s fantasy, I never plan to be”. I love the sparse, slowly-escalating beat, which begins with a simple baseline and ultimately incorporates multiple drums, jazzy piano, a synth, and a saxophone. It’s a really interesting and well-executed track, combining Kendrick Lamar-esque instrumentals with her own unique voice and style.

8. CLOSER – The Chainsmokers feat. Halsey

I sometimes find the Chainsmokers’ production to be a little grating, but this song has enough going for it that I can excuse their chirpy sound. It’s catchy as hell, the lyrics have a ton of plot, which I think is really cool, and Halsey delivers a pretty great vocal performance. It has potential to be a huge hit, and it has a certain quirky charm that we’ve been missing a bit on the radio this year.

7. FRIENDS – Francis and the Lights feat. Bon Iver and Kanye West

Hey, I’ll bet you didn’t know Kanye had a new song this month! Unless you follow Kanye on social media. Or Bon Iver. Or Chance the Rapper. Anyway, Kanye has a new song, and it’s super weird and fun and catchy and sweet. Also, the video features synchronized hipster dancing, an out-of-place stepladder, and Kanye wearing a really cool jacket. It’s pretty much perfect.

6. MR. INVISIBLE – Thank You Scientist

If anyone ever tries to tell you prog rock is dead, you look them square in the eye and you tell them, “Yeah, it kinda is. But while we’re talking about prog rock, check out this new song by Thank You Scientist. It’s really good.” It’s hard to talk about this song because it squeezes as much shit into seven-and-a-half minutes as it possibly can. From killer instrumentals to irresistible hooks, it’s just got everything going for it.

5. PERFECT. – Bibi Bourelly and Earl St. Clair

Church organs, trumpets, saxophones, drums, and bass work in perfect harmony to create this neo-soul ballad. It’s superbly romantic, but not in a cheesy way, and Earl and Bibi both deliver phenomenal vocal work. To paraphrase the song itself, it’s a little too perfect.

4. KISS THE SKY – Jason Derulo

In anticipation of Warner Animation Group’s non-Lego-Movie debut Storks, Jason Derulo brings us this infectious Michael Jackson-esque pop monster, with an eclectic beat that feels like some beautiful amalgamation of Pharrell and Quincy Jones, along with an infectious hook that’s bound to be blowing up the airwaves pretty soon. Does it have too much going on? Maybe. Is it trying too hard to make Derulo out to be our generation’s Michael Jackson? Maybe. Is he? Maybe.

3. HOLY KEY – DJ Khaled feat. Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, and Betty Wright

Kendrick Lamar actually dropped more than one show-stopping, unbelievably great verse this month, the other being on the “THat Part” remix. While that verse had over 100 rhymes in the span of 24 bars, this one ever-so-slightly edges it out by having slightly more impressive lyrics and at one point managing a 14-syllable rhyme scheme. Holy Key? Holy Shit. Also, the beat by Cool & Dre is absolutely phenomenal. Betty Wright delivers a powerful hook, and Big Sean’s verse isn’t half-bad either.

2. VRY BLK – Jamila Woods feat. Noname

From its oddball synth beat to its infectious chorus to Noname’s absolute flames to Jamila’s ingenious spin on the classic “Miss Lucy had a baby” rhyme, this song is just wonderful all over. It’s another celebration of unapologetic blackness and condemnation of police brutality, but rather than devastated and soulful, this song takes on an almost mocking tone, choosing to dismiss hateful people and celebrate black women with a pitch perfect pop tune. Still, the two maintain a fiery rhetoric through their lyrics, with thought-provoking lines like:

“Everything is casualty, a song I heard, the bullets sing
I know a couple babies gonna see ’em fly tonight
He wish he wasn’t magic, all he wanna do is be a passage
In a book titled ‘America the Savage'”

The point is, it’s an excellent song.

1. THIS BITTER LAND – Nas & Erykah Badu

This is the most beautiful song I’ve heard in years. The beat is beautiful, the lyrics are beautiful, and goddamn, Erykah’s voice is beautiful. It gives me goosebumps every time I listen. Nas is generally a pretty reliable rapper, but I think this is his best verse in at least a couple years. I have actually cried just from listening to this song. I’m serious. I feel like I could be overhyping it but it is genuinely phenomenal.

Review: Nerve Endings — August 1, 2016

Review: Nerve Endings

Okay, so I have a few problems with Nerve.

How are the challenges decided? Pretty much all the movie says about it is that the watchers decide, but how? We never see where the watchers go to submit a challenge, or how it’s decided if it’ll go through or not. Do the watchers just vote on each challenge, or is there some Nerve council that has the final say? The film does its best to dodge the question of who actually runs Nerve, but the other option seems less feasible. There’s at least 100,000 watchers, from what I remember. Probably more. Is there any limit on how often they can submit dares, or when they vote, or what dares are accepted? It seems like a game that, at least in real life, would get sexual pretty fast without some kind of filters. It would stand to reason that the watchers would get to vote on whatever dares they wanted to vote on, but the final dare at the end of the movie forces every single player to vote on it. Was that just because it was the final one?

And another thing about that voting: Samira Wiley’s character says that she and her friends in the secretive underground hacker’s club have access to a legion of bots that can sway the voting and overpower the entire watcher community. So, in reality, the watchers don’t decide the dares in Nerve; a group of maybe a dozen people do. And one of the people with access to this machine that can control the entire outcome of the game is already friends with Vee (Emma Roberts). So, with that in mind, what was the point of all this? How were there any stakes to begin with? It’s like if the electoral college was one guy and you were his friend and you decided to spend $11 billion running for president.

Also, here’s a good question: How big is this game? It seems like a relatively new invention, given that its target demographic is just starting to find out about it. However, at the end we see that middle-aged men and middle-school girls already know about it, so what gives? We also know that it happened at least once before, a year ago in Seattle, but is this an annual thing? Is it a regional one? Is this the first New York Nerve game? And it’s said that after he snitched on the “Seattle incident” around a year before, Dave Franco became a prisoner of the game. So, what did he do for a whole year? Was he just playing Nerve in different cities? Did the game relocate him to New York? Why would they do that? How much freedom did he have in the time between Nerve games? This is all predicated on the notion that Nerve games happen more than once a year, which the movie strongly implies is not the case.

Then again, we have no idea how long the game lasts. It’s clear that Sydney’s been playing it for at least a few days, and Machine Gun Kelly seems to already know the game inside and out, but somehow Vee is able to start playing in the afternoon and nearly win the whole fucking game before daybreak. It’s also very unclear how she and Dave Franco became the two finalists. There was no tournament going on up to this point, and when Machine Gun Kelly bogarts the show it’s implied that there are still other people who haven’t lost yet. Was the whole game just counting down to that point, and whoever was in the lead at that exact moment would be the finalists? That seems unfair to the people who’d been playing the game for months, given the fleeting nature of popularity in the internet age.

The ending also doesn’t really make much sense. I won’t give any spoilers away, but it’s strongly implied at the end that there’s another Nerve, or the game is starting to build up again or something. Vee and Franco kiss, pull back to reveal someone’s filming it, Nerve music starts playing. What the fuck? Whatever that was, it definitely couldn’t have been Nerve, because Vee and Franco had no idea they were being filmed, and also they weren’t being dared. Is it trying to say that the movie itself was some sort of meta-Nerve? How much power does this game have, anyway? The movie basically says they’re in cahoots with police in multiple cities, but like I said before, it seems like a pretty new game. Do Vee and her mom ever get their money back? When the cop asks Vee if they’re doing anything illegal, why doesn’t she say, “Yeah, theft. Kidnapping. Probably murder.” Instead she just stands there like a fucking doofus, which leads to people knocking her out and leaving her in a shipping container by the Long Island Ferry, something that the cop must have witnessed that is definitely illegal. Where do they get all the money from? Sure, only one player actually gets the money in the end, but there’s still gotta be a point where thousands of players are getting thousands of dollars that don’t seem to come from anywhere except the game’s $20-a-day subscription fee, some of which must go to paying programmers and bribing multiple police forces and building fucking coliseums for their final dares. The final dares can’t always be murder, right? What if the final dare is to go skiing or hijack a concert or something? What would they use that arena for? If MGK has been playing for so long, how come his final challenge only gets him $50,000?

Anyway, I liked the movie. Good suspense. Great lighting. I give it a B.