Song of the Summer 2014 Contender: Waves

St. Louis is currently being swallowed by a cloud of humidity that reduces us all to sweaty messes within fifteen minutes. That must mean it's time to start sifting through the combatants in the annual Song of the Summer contest! To be clear, although this type of contest is all over the media landscape, this particular contest is taking place entirely within my heart. What the public at large thinks won't win the day here. So thankfully, it doesn't matter if "She Looks So Perfect" gets the most radio play; since I think it's an idiotic track that comes off as a slightly-douchier One Direction song, it won't be in the running.

What will be in the running? Well, let's start with "Waves", by Sleeper Agent. Since I don't listen to a lot of radio, I should attribute the source where I first found out about these songs, and in the case of "Waves", it's my friend Robin, whom I traveled to Hawaii with. Some of the reasoning behind this choice should be pretty damn obvious. It's high-tempo. It mentions California and the ocean, and... OK, fine. The lyrics aren't the cheeriest thing in the world, but listen to how peppy it is!

Now imagine listening to that song while you're cruising down a Maui highway with the windows open and the sea air wafting in. How can you resist? While it's a strong contender, it can be be a bit melodically repetitive - this singer doesn't have much of a range on this one. Still, I really enjoy it, and there's no denying that it captures the mood of a Song of the Summer perfectly. Even if the highway I'm cruising down now is in the flatlands of Missouri and it's way too sweltering out to open the windows, this is still a song I'll be listening to all season.

Song of the Summer Odds: 3:2

The Path of Minor Planets

See what I did there? With the title? Oh, forget it.

For me, a lot of television shows are about pure entertainment. I'll occasionally watch news, politics, or some other sort of show with educational content, but I leave most of that to the realms of documentary films and non-fiction books. It was a different story when I was a kid; I was all about educational shows. Sesame Street was the gold standard, of course, but as a child in the '80s through high school in the '90s, there was no dearth of incredible shows to immerse myself in. Mr. Wizard's World, 3-2-1 Contact, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Square One TV, Beakman's World, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, Reading Rainbow... These shows were not only grand fun, but were built on a solid foundation of helping their young viewers soak up the basics of math, geography, science, and literature.

That type of show is mostly extinct now, and the world is a worse place for it. We've entered a long stretch of years of anti-intellectualism (not coincidentally kicked off when our country was being helmed by George W. Bush), and not just in the arena of shows for children. News shows yielded to shouty pundit shows. Bravo stopped showcasing opera and started showing vapid, fighting housewives. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo airs on a network once known as The Learning Channel. The History Channel produces Ancient Aliens. So while we're in a Golden Age of scripted television, when it comes to factual content, the world has never been darker.

Until now! I was a little too young to take in Carl Sagan's original 1980 Cosmos: A Personal Voyage miniseries, but there is little doubt that the updated version, the 2014 miniseries Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey will appear on my top five shows of the year. It would be almost impossible to describe how fine a line this show had to walk. In more enlightened times, a scientist could go on TV, present a consensus agreed upon by 99.9% of the scientific community, and leave it at that. Now, of course, one must actually debate the merits of creationism or the lack of climate change or other such bullshit. Somehow, host Neil deGrasse Tyson managed to calmly, politely, yet assertively present the facts and hypotheses of our universe's scientific past, present, and future without ever getting polemic about it.

But even leaving the unfortunate politicization of science aside, Cosmos was just a ripping good show. It described the inner working of the universe, from the most distant stars to the tiny cells within our bodies. Its production value was breathtakingly gorgeous. It went out of its way to highlight the forgotten geniuses of our past (many of them women), who were responsible for some of the most important scientific achievements to date, but whose names never filtered into the popular consciousness.

In fact, the only bad thing about this show is that since Seth MacFarlane produced it, I am now forced to take back 75% of all the mean things I've ever said about him and his work. Excellent work, sir. Cosmos was not only an entertaining show, but a wholly necessary one. As far as I know, there are no plans for a second season, but if the healthy ratings for this all-too-brief miniseries signifies a return of the days when audiences embraced shows with actual educational content, the stars will certainly be shining a little brighter for me.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: A+

Shorties #13

It's time for an all-movie Shorties! Once in a while, I'll find myself with a couple of spare hours and knock something out of the Netflix queue, or I'll follow up on a recommendation, or I'll be hanging out with someone who's watching a movie, and I'm taken along on the ride. These little bits of cinematic detritus get collected as the side dishes of the entertainment world, but that's not to say they're unimportant. Several Shorties wind up being more enjoyable than the tentpole movies that get far more attention. Let's hit it!

#1: Penelope: This 2006 Christina Ricci film is the epitome of a Laundry Movie. It's a fairly generic morality tale about loving-the-person-within, in which the title character is cursed with a pig nose until she finds true love. Ricci and James McAvoy are a pleasant calm eye in the middle of an overacting storm. Everyone else, from Penelope's parents to the shallow suitors who don't fit the bill, are far too hammy. It was a perfectly fine way to spend a couple of hours, but certainly not something that I'd ever hasten to recommend to others (Grade: B-)

#2: The Last of Sheila: Some movies are entertaining because they're good, but some movies are entertaining because they're interesting. 1973's The Last of Sheila was talked up on a movie website I regularly read, and I thought to myself "Eh, what the hell? I like mysteries and puzzles." While it didn't sweep me up in cinematic grandeur, there's no denying that this was a pretty weird and wonderful experience. All of the characters have secrets simmering under the surface, and when an eccentric game-master brings them all to the surface, the game turns to murder. This taking place in the '70s means that the shameful secrets are treated with an oddly high or low level of reaction, but overall, it was really fun, and unlike other murder mystery movies, this one actually drops clues that observant viewers can pick up on. (Grade: B+)

#3: It's a Disaster: I have to dance around a fine line with disaster/apocalypse movies. I generally love their premises, but they can be too gory or too silly or too lots-of-things. A lot of self-winking end-of-the-world flicks came out a couple of years ago: I mostly enjoyed This is the End, ignored Rapture-Palooza, and have been trying to decide if I want to tackle Seeking a Friend for the End of the World or not. One of the ones that slipped through the cracks was the 2012 movie It's a Disaster - an omission I corrected one weekend I was studiously avoiding cleaning the apartment. Four couples meet for one of their usual Sunday brunches. One of the couples is brand new, and the woman (Julia Stiles) is introducing her new boyfriend (David Cross) to her friend group. It's a tense gathering of people who mostly don't like each other, and the situation is not improved when news that the city has been attacked with a biological weapon reaches them. Sealed into the house, their interpersonal problems intensify. I liked that the entire movie takes place within the confines of the house, and we never see what's actually going on out there. Being trapped with no real way of acquiring news would be one of the scariest parts of such a societal breakdown, and those fears definitely afflict the characters. But, woof, what a set of characters. There isn't really a single one to root for; it's an assemblage of unpleasant people who shouldn't be friends, and you kind of wish they'd shut up and just die already. This is one of those movies that has a terrific concept, but fell apart in the execution. (Grade: C)

#4: Urbanized: I get geeky about the weirdest topics, and one of them is an interest in urban design. What makes a city succeed or fail its citizens? How does something as simple as a bike path or a series of light bulbs enhance the lives of a city's denizens? How do you balance the endless and constantly shifting needs of a populace? The 2011 documentary Urbanized does an admirable job of exploring a lot of these questions. I've mentioned before that I really liked director Gary Hustwit's previous documentary, Helvetica. The follow-up, Objectified was also informative, if not as entertaining, but this third one easily springs back from that limitation. Interviews with architects, designers, politicians, and others provide multiple perspectives about the challenges of designing city services and attractions, from parks to public transportation to roadways. The movie doesn't pull punches when it comes to cities that do things wrong, either. The film goes along at kind of a slow pace, but the fascinating subject matter more than makes up for it. (Grade: B)

#5: The Big Wedding: This 2013 movie is not one I would have picked for myself, but was willing to give it a whirl when I was staying with some friends who wanted to watch it. Oof. This is one of those farce comedies, in which Robert De Niro and ex-wife Diane Keaton must pretend to still be married, in order to...impress their adopted son's biological mother at said son's wedding. This is obviously not happy news for De Niro's longtime girlfriend Susan Sarandon. Topher Grace and Katherine Heigl round out the cast as De Niro and Keaton's insufferable children. I'm using actor names instead of character names, because the characters are so two-dimensional as to be almost non-existent. No cliche is too hoary for this movie, from the sexy foreigner who exists only to titillate the virginal son to the whooooooooa-we're-falling-in-water bit of comedy that stopped being cute in 1982. I haven't even gotten to the part where Robin Williams is allowed to let loose with spastic insults as the wedding's priest. In case I haven't made it clear yet: I wasn't a fan of this one. (Grade: C-)

The Calm Before the Storm

I've been racking up some summer blockbusters recently, and one of my longstanding hypotheses is getting truckloads of supporting evidence by the day: When it comes to action movies, the biggest determinant of whether or not it's worth seeing is everything but the action. Anyone can throw some money into CGI monsters or massive explosions. Americans (me included) seem to be reaching a point of Spectacle Fatigue, in which no amount of impressive visual effects is enough to carry the movie on its own. As leveling cities and killer lizards become more and more humdrum, filmmakers might soon realize that it's becoming increasingly important to - gulp! - actually write a decent story.

Want to see this rule in action (so to speak)? Go see Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past in rapid succession, like I did. Both are mega-budget extravaganzas. Both rely heavily on special effects. Both take existing properties and attempt to spin a new story off of them. But only one of them really succeeds, because it takes the time to actually care about what's taking place on screen when giant robots/monsters aren't attacking. I saw Godzilla first. I guess Two Other Monsters But Then Godzilla Drops By For A Few Minutes didn't fit on the posters. This movie gets a few things very right. It can be difficult to represent the scope and scale of just how insignificant puny humans are when gargantuan monsters are roaming through the streets, and Godzilla pulled it off better than any other movie I can think of. You truly get the sense of being no more than an ant when compared to the beast causing casual devastation across the globe. So, big points for that. Bryan Cranston is typically great in everything he appears in, and Godzilla is no exception. His increasing hysteria and frustration in trying to warn people of impending disaster, only to be turned away, is wholly believable. And, since this is a monster movie, I should mention that the monster fights are pretty cool. So it's got that going for it.

What's wrong with Gozilla? Everything else. All of the humans are two-dimensional nothings, and the movie shows zero interest in having their reasoning or reactions approach reality. The main character (the trailers would have you believe that Bryan Cranston is the main character -- he is not) is seemingly the unluckiest man in the world, consistently showing up in the one location that killer monsters are converging upon, and he shows absolutely no interest in that point. He purportedly wants to protect his (boring) wife and (more boring) child, yet casually tells them to hang out in a disaster area and that he'll come fix things, because...reasons. He shows no emotion upon being the sole survivor (and let's face it, the cause of) his compatriots' deaths. Fuck, even Blast Hardcheese at least had actual motivations. Nobody acts like an actual person, and nobody is worth rooting for. And if you think that character is being sacrificed in service of plot... Nope. Plot holes abound. In one scene, we cut away from our "hero" in mortal peril on a demolished airport tram. When we rejoin him, he's fine-and-dandy, and off to another adventure. What happened in between? Good question! Godzilla has had a rough go of it lately, and while this movie wasn't terrible (and I'd watch it a hundred times before I'd revisit a single frame of the 1998 crapfest), it was a decided disappointment.

But then, I went to see X-Men: Days of Future Past, which totally rejuvenated me. This movie had a lot working against it. It involves time travel, and in doing so, must weave together the storylines of the original X-Men trilogy and X-Men: First Class, plus tell a new story of its own. Which it then proceeds to do, almost flawlessly. In the future, mutant-hunting robots known as Sentinels have all but wiped out not only mutants, but humans who have DNA that would prospectively produce mutants. The world has fallen into chaos, and in desperation, a small band of survivors goes for a Hail Mary - they will send Wolverine's consciousness back to the '70s in order to unite Charles Xavier and Magneto (who are enemies as of the end of First Class) so they can stop Mystique from assassinating the head of the Sentinel program. That assassination is what secured the Sentinel funding, so by preventing it, they hope they can alter the timeline.

Note that I haven't mentioned anything about mutant powers, and it's not because they're not on full display. It's because this movie put effort into crafting an actual story with stakes and shifting relationships. It's not just an excuse to watch Wolverine slash at stuff and Magneto levitate some bullets. As a result, it's a fantastic flick, where the verbal fights are as compelling as the super-powered ones. The cast certainly helps. The elder versions of Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) are well-matched by their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence is an emotionally powerful Mystique. Peter Dinklage is a superb antagonist. Each of the secondary characters gets a chance to show off as well, and actually use their powers in concert with each other, demonstrating cooperation that not enough team movies display. And if you're just looking for pure fun, the Quicksilver setpiece in the middle of the movie is one of the most amazing scenes I've seen in a long time.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have a few problems. There are some third-act issues that don't make much sense, but never to the point that they derail the movie. Magneto's motivations (and even the scope of his powers) sometimes shift too suddenly. And this one isn't even a complaint with the movie itself: I've had it with post-credit stingers. Mark it, this was my breaking point. No longer will I sit through fifteen minutes of a hundred visual effects artists, craft services, weapons wranglers, and set painters so that I may be treated to a ten-second scene that doesn't make any sense. We're done. I'm sure the internet will inform me of any cool ones I should look up later. In general, though, Days of Future Past is just about everything I could hope for in a summer action movie, and why? Story. Imagine that.

Godzilla: C+
X-Men: Days of Future Past: A-
Copyright © Slice of Lime