There is a scene around halfway through Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) where One Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), bon vivant, high-spirited thief, and ex-girlfriend of the Joker, enters a police station and fights her way through multiple officers, on her way to abduct a young pickpocket. Rather than leaving all-out carnage in her wake, Harley employs a serious of non-lethal methods: a beanbag gun, confetti bombs, and brightly colored smoke. (She also beats the shit out of a few of them, but no one appears to die.)
Normally, this would seem like another superhero movie hedging its bets, indulging violence while avoiding any real consequences—and to some degree, it probably is that. But Birds of Prey has an emphatic R rating (albeit seemingly more for the convenience of saying “fuck” as often as it wants than for its occasional gore), so these nontraditional weapons serve a purpose beyond appeasing the MPAA. The color-coordinated smokebombs and glitter explosions aren’t calling cards Harley Quinn leaves behind so much as the character art-directing her own music video as she goes along. Continue reading BIRDS OF PREY and the DC Movie Visual Aesthetic→
One of my pet peeves about the Oscars is the lack of clarity when people talk about the Oscars from a certain year; the “2020” Oscars will be airing in 2020 but they’re about the movies from 2019. If you say “the 2019 Oscars” and you’re talking about the year Green Book won, it is confusing. Because Green Book is not a 2019 film. Do not put that on 2019, guys.
Anyway, after the SportsAlcohol.com crew talked> about the actual best movies of the year, we went on to talk about the Oscars’ version of the best movies of the year. The two have some overlap but, as ever, they are pretty different things. In this fast and loose episode, we, uh, air some grievances, discuss SNUBS, and talk about popes.
We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:
I admit, this is a long episode. But look, Marisa, Sara, Jeremy, Nathaniel, and Jesse saw a lot of damn good movies in 2019, and we wanted to talk about them. So yes, this podcast is feature length, but I promise, we get into it right away, and we don’t stop until we’ve covered a whole lot of movies — our collective favorites, our divisive picks, our total outliers — as seen on our recent list of the best movies of 2019. Listen up and treat yourself! If you find yourself feeling attacked by our glorious opinions, just remember: It didn’t apply to you!
We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:
There are other lists that came out faster, but are any more accurate than this one? SportsAlcohol.com stands by its years–longtrackrecord of delivering not the first best-of-the-year list, but the best one. No other list aggregates the sometimes-disparate, sometimes alarmingly-in-sync opinions of Marisa LaScala, Nathaniel Wharton, Sara Batkie, Jesse Hassenger, and Jeremy Beck. So I won’t take up a lot of time with a fancy intro. You want to see how right we are about everything, and who am I to hold you up? Let’s do it! Continue reading The 20 Best Movies of 2019→
I was watching a documentary about the making of Toy Story a few days ago and was struck by the fact that photorealistic computer effects have been part of filmmaking for almost 30 years now. In this somewhat nostalgic mood, I found myself thinking about my favorite ways that filmmakers have used CG imagery; some explorations of the ideological implications of these then-new artificialities, but mostly just neat ways to wow the audience. I’ve written this list so I can talk about some sequences that I find interesting; their ranking here is arbitrary.
Some notes before we begin: I’m defining a ”computer-generated sequence” based on a vague threshold of how much of it uses computer generated imagery. Sadly, this means that something like the T-Rex attack from Jurassic Park or the T-1000 ambush from Terminator 2 don’t quite count.
I’ll also add that, because of the new enormous cost of creating CG imagery, the list is unfortunately homogenous: Mostly filmmakers working from within Hollywood, and as a result, mostly white and male. Sadly, we can’t look to modern studios to fix this issue of representation; on the rare occasion that women and/or people of color are hired for these movies, they’re not always allowed to direct their own set pieces. As this technology gets easier for those with lighter pockets to use, I predict that things will change in the new decade, and that we will see even more indie filmmakers telling interesting stories with CG.
How much would my bro-na fides go up if I admitted that one of my great thrills ever experienced in a movie theater happened during the Guy Ritchie movie Snatch, which I saw at least twice, possibly three times in the winter of 2001? I went along with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels as yet another post-Pulp Fiction, post-Trainspotting attempt to make guns and/or fliply executed violence and/or UK accents seem extra-cool. Sure, fine, a fun movie, though in the back of my head I admitted to myself that it wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped. But when Brad Pitt’s Irish-gypsy-boxer entered the ring in the final stretch of Snatch, accompanied by a blast of the then-recent Oasis instrumental track “Fuckin’ in the Bushes,” I was nearly out of my seat. It’s the kind of moment that the internet might well spoil and pre-digest today. In January 2001, I had no idea that Ritchie had one of my favorite Oasis tunes up his sleeve, using it with the exact same badass swagger as the movie a 20-year-old Oasis fan was already playing in his heart.
This is all to say that I have a soft spot for Guy Ritchie, mildly bad boy of the UK film scene and eventual blockbuster director for hire. Though the disastrousness of Revolver and Swept Away (the latter as yet unseen by me, so maybe it’s merely a financial disaster) indicated a downward trajectory swifter than the likes of Robert Rodriguez or Kevin Smith, Ritchie pulled out of his talespin with two hit Sherlock Holmes movies, enjoyably forgettable and forgettably enjoyable; made a genuinely zippy wannabe-blockbuster out of The Man from UNCLE, made a compellingly misguided wannabe-blockbuster out of King Arthur, and a similarly misguided but actual blockbuster out of Aladdin. Aladdin was his biggest global hit by like a billion dollars, but now Guy Ritchie is back, baby, with The Gentlemen: a bit of the old ultraviolence, chaps, in that it is mostly about mostly-English hoodlums punching each other, shooting each other, threatening to punch each other, or threatening to, well, you get the idea.
The thing is, Ritchie has been back before; RockNRolla was his supposed return to form in 2008, a gangster tale with the humor and cheek sapped out. The Gentlemen isn’t quite so dour–there are laugh lines aplenty, capably delivered–but there’s a certain hardness at its center. Not hard-boiled, mind, but something calcified, with some of the dead-stiff philosophizing that turned his Revolver into a barely-walking corpse. Weirdly, that sourness is owned and operated by one Matthew McConaughey, whose presence is typically both more pleased and more pleasing. Here he plays Mickey Pearson, an American expat living in England, making his living as an ambitious and successful weed impresario. But Mickey is ready to exit the business and spend more time with his beloved wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery)—though she seems plenty occupied by her car-customization business. (Telling, that she commands a fleet of all-lady mechanics… who have about a minute of combined screentime, almost as if Ritchie is admitting that he understands how women could easily be a bigger part of his world and wants to make the conscious choice to keep it to one per picture.)
Mickey is getting ready to sell his various secret growth and distribution centers to Matthew (Jeremy Strong), but he’s also fielding some interest from Dry Eye (Henry Golding), at the behest of Dry Eye’s older boss. But the negotiations are framed by Fletcher (Hugh Grant) a sort of freelance bottom-feeder who approaches Mickey’s right-hand man Ray (Charlie Hunnam) with information that requires Fletcher to spin a long, tangled narrative for context (which he has also conveniently provided in screenplay format). A lot of this stuff revels in the fun and needless complications of Ritchie’s earliest films, guided along by Fletcher’s rococo insinuations and occasional rhapsodizing about the magic of shooting on film rather than digital. (OK, Guy.) Though there is some violence, a lot of the movie is talk, and it’s a fun one to listen to, even if Ritchie’s insistence on putting racial slurs in the mouths of his characters (who are racist, to be sure, though not in especially interesting or important ways) is suddenly the most authentically Tarantino-esque thing about him. It’s all just more shit-talk for Ritchie, and a lot of it is disreputably entertaining; Henry Golding is a lot more fun as conniving gangster than a himbo, which is to say the Colin Farrell principle applies here. Twice, actually, because Farrell himself makes an appearance as the requisite Irish boxer, trying to keep a pack of teenage hooligans on the relatively straight and relatively narrow. When he fails, they make YouTube music videos of themselves performing a grime number whilst robbing one of Mickey’s illicit dispensaries.
Watching this amusingly wacked-out sequence, it struck me that 20 years ago, the gang of YouTube hooligans (or their pre-YouTube equivalents) would be more prominent characters in a Ritchie movie. Here, they’re colorful support, wrangled by Farrell, but far less important to the narrative than characters with vastly better-appointed homes and gardens. Hunnam—not even the kingpin, but his main henchman—begrudgingly entertains the sleazy Fletcher with a smoke-free backyard barbecue, grilling fancy steaks. Instead of scrappy strivers and lowlifes, Ritchie sympathizes with the richer criminals—especially McConaughey’s Mickey, who whinges on about how the lion must (get this) “be the lion” in order to, uh, be the lion. The metaphorical lion, in the metaphorical jungle. Just a slight calibration and this guy would be the pompous jackass
McConaughey lends him some baseline rooting interest, and that’s his job as an actor. But what’s Ritchie’s excuse? Why is he making a cheeky gangster caper that amounts to an enormously wealthy, white, not-even-English dude who makes time for grotesque revenge on a tabloid editor? (Eddie Marsan is in this, too; guess who he plays?) Obviously English tabloids can go fuck themselves, but I’m not sure McConaughey’s character has any high ground that the movie doesn’t hastily and arbitrarily pile up for him. (He deals exclusively in weed! He’s not like a regular drug dealer, he’s a cool drug dealer.)
That’s an awful lot of morality parsing, I know, for a Guy Ritchie movie that aims for a form of cheerful amorality, and truth be told, I was able to roll with much of The Gentlemen. Grant is a delight! Farrell is a delight! Dockery, despite being someone who was on Downtown Abbey, is a delight! Hunnam, so often ill-used in bigger movies, has a commanding scene where he marches into a drug den full of posh miscreants and firmly retrieves one of them on behalf of their family. Half the cast is stylishly bespectacled for some reason. Moral correctness is not especially the point of The Gentlemen, and the movie’s ending even regains some its playfulness by suggesting just how much of this is storytelling for its own sake, more tangled-up screenplay fodder for Fletcher or Ritchie himself. But the cheeky thrill of self-reference (hey, is that a Man from UNCLE poster?) can’t match the Oasis-scored mischief of Snatch, which was self-conscious, sure, but a bit less self-regarding. And maybe it’s just wishful thinking, the fleeting idea that Ritchie might be self-effacing enough to see himself as desperately for-sale Fletcher—instead of the preening, bloviating Mickey. Sometimes, The Gentlemen gives the impression that Ritchie doesn’t consider this a return to form so much as an insistence that no number of flops would dare issue him a comeuppance.
In the past, SportsAlcohol.com contributors have submitted top-five lists of their favorite albums of the year, from which we’ve usually been able to derive an official site Album of the Year. This year, our choices were simply too disparate. But there were a few songs that kept showing up, again and again, and we were able to cobble together this official mini-list:
The SportsAlcohol.com Top 5 Songs of 2019!
“Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend
“Juice” by Lizzo
“Seventeen” by Sharon Van Etten
“The Best” by Self Esteem
“When Am I Going to Lose You” by Local Natives
“Harmony Hall” was a clear consensus favorite, so we had a quick discussion about why this particular Vampire Weekend song rose to triumph in this particular year.
Back when Carly Rae Jepsen was really blowing up, by which I mean gaining popularity with some of the more idiosyncratic and picky pop-music fans and/or nerdy music critics circa her middling-selling 2015 album Emotion, I, as a picky pop-music fan and nerdy movie-not-music critic, found myself trying to explain why I liked CRJ so much. (I challenged myself not to cite her haircut at any point in this exercise.) I landed on this: She is old.
Not old by normal standards—she’s five years younger than I am, and I’m still young, right? Right?!—but for a pop singer having her big (which is to say medium) 40,000-copies-in-six-months moment, CRJ was kind of on the old side. She was nearly 30 when Emotion came out; even when her actual megahit “Call Me Maybe” took the world by storm in 2012, she was in her late twenties, and a full nine years younger than Justin Bieber, the beloved pop singer who gave her a major commercial boost. Listening to Emotion, I had the distinct sense that this was a person who had lived with herself—her personality, her disappointments, her music tastes—a little longer than the barely-formed kiddos hailed as ingénues and prodigies at 17, 18, 19, the normal (which is to say insane) age for coming of age as a peppy new pop star.
That might seem absurd, because Emotion does include as one of its highlights a song called “I Really Really Really Like You.” By most standards and by her own design, CRJ’s musings are not overly sophisticated. She captures crush-rush and shruggy-emoticon break-ups and fleeting empowerment; she’s not introspective and melancholy and wry, like Jenny Lewis (to cite another singer I’d follow anywhere at this point). But the craft of Jepsen’s songs is often sophisticated, and that’s especially noticeable on “Want You In My Room,” a cut from her hotly anticipated 2019 record Dedicated.
I get the sense that Dedicated received a relatively muted reception from some of the CRJ faithful—though anyone faithful enough to see her in concert could see the new songs greeted with appropriate rapture. It’s not quite as bouncy or immediate as Emotion, and feels a little more, well, yeah, mature. A little more MOR, if we’re feeling unkind. But the album’s many highlights reveal themselves; it just happens a little slower than it did on Emotion. And the great thing about “Want You In My Room” is that it’s not especially tasteful. CRJ kicks it off with kind of an exaggerated seductive-baby voice, giving way to sultrier-toned come-ons in the next verse, and then a robo-voiced chorus stating her desires plainly: “I want you in my room,” the voice I visualize as Robo-CRJ robo-sings. “On the bed, on the floor,” Regular CRJ adds. There’s a falsetto “I wanna do bad things to you!” and an invitation to “slide on through my window.” Continue reading TRACK MARKS 2019: “Want You In My Room” by Carly Rae Jepsen→
Technically speaking, Underwater, the new waterlogged creature feature starring Kristen Stewart, is a Walt Disney Company release. Disney inherited it when they bought 20th Century Fox, which had been keeping Underwater safely concealed on a shelf for a while now (it completed principal photography back in 2017). The last year has seen several Fox releases that might not have been greenlit post-Disney, but Underwater represents a particularly Fox-like type of movie that will almost certainly cease now that Disney controls their soon-to-shrink pipeline. As Underwater disappears from theaters, so goes the sometimes great, sometimes shlocky tradition of the Fox sci-fi/horror thriller.
Most of the big studios have some kind of sci-fi history, especially now that astronaut movies are all the rage. But beyond Fox’s initial forays into the genre (how are The Day the Earth Stood Still and Fantastic Voyage not on Disney Plus?), beyond even their distribution of the first six Star Wars movies, many of their longest-running movie franchises are sci-fi: Planet of the Apes, Alien, Predator. Sci-fi had such a strong foothold at Fox that even its more recent flagship franchise, the comics-based X-Men series (which has one more offshoot, New Mutants, coming out in April after its own stay on the shelf), often feels as much like a Fox series as a Marvel one—sometimes to the chagrin of Marvel fans, who have come to expect a certain level of consistency and quality control in their superhero movies. X-Men’s mix of genre highlights and major disappointments very much fits in with the Apes, Alien, and Predator sagas. Continue reading Will UNDERWATER be the last shlocky/awesome Fox genre flick?→
Track Marks is a recurring SportsAlcohol.com feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. As usual, we’re closing out the year by talking about a bunch of songs that we loved over the past 12 months.
Given that she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, it should be difficult for Taylor Swift to don the cloak of the underdog. But among her many gifts as a songwriter is a knack for immersion, the way she can use a sharp hook or a snappy phrase to instantly pull you into her filigreed worlds. Lover is a massive album (18 tracks!) that was massively successful (double platinum!), but when “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” kicks off, Swift is just another shattered teenage girl again; she effortlessly conjures a familiar high-school dystopia, the modest drums combining with her slightly breathy vocals to yank you back to a time of adolescent heartache. The lyrics are characteristically simple but evocative: She’s ripped up her prom dress, she’s running through rose thorns, she’s fending off whispers from judgmental classmates about how she’s a bad, bad girl. It’s The Scarlet Letter by way of Mean Girls.
Of course, “Miss Americana” is more than just another of Swift’s teen-centric fairy tales, like “White Horse” or “Love Story”; it’s also a cri de coeur in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?” she asks rhetorically while staring helplessly at “American glory faded before me,” and her despair is palpable. There’s even a whiff of gerrymandering/voter suppression (“The whole school is rolling fake dice”), but mostly she’s just left helpless and depressed, learning of the election results (via a football scoreboard, naturally) and then running for her life. When the bad guys are exchanging high fives, all that’s left to do is paint the town blue.
Here’s the thing, though: None of that political metaphor is essential to appreciating “Miss Americana” as a kickass song, a finely constructed ballad that builds to a soaring conclusion. Swift is such a phenom, it’s easy to overlook just how skilled she is, how she approaches her work with sincerity and craft. It’s there in the spondaic shouts of “OH-KAY!” that punctuate several lines, and in the light piano that pops up in the chorus, meshing with the throbbing synths. My favorite part of the song is the bridge, where backup singers shout the last word of each line: “And I don’t want you to GO! / I don’t really wanna FIGHT! / ‘Cause nobody’s gonna WIN!” That sounds like surrender, but listen closer; after three crushing repetitions, Swift suddenly inverts the lyrics, promising that she’ll never go, that she’s staying to fight, that she’s determined to win. It’s a lightning-quick flip—from compliance to defiance, from desolation to resolution—and it turns this once-despondent ditty into a roaring battle cry. So sure, maybe it’s tough to accept Taylor Swift as the underdog, but only because—as this intricate, ecstatic song proves—she doesn’t know how to lose.