Fighting Hollywood's Super-Relapse

Amos Posner

Director-driven fare is back in Hollywood vogue, and one of the great joys of this new auteurist era is watching it spill into comic book adaptations.

Everyone likes to say that we are currently in a golden era of comic book movies, and for good reason. Spider-Man and X-Men have each provided two outstanding offerings, and this June marked the arrival of the best Batman movie to date. So before you go ordering your Sour Patch Kids in bulk and buying confetti to celebrate the end of the Joel Schumacher era, you might want to reconsider: there's a whole lot of tunnel coming at the end of this light. Up until a few weeks ago, the future looked brighter than it does now. Director-driven fare is back in Hollywood vogue, and one of the great joys of this new auteurist era is watching it spill into comic book adaptations.

Great filmmaking is about creating cinematic worlds for the viewer to inhabit. Never is this more important than when dealing with comic books. They come prepackaged with distinctive universes all their own, rich in history and eccentricity. So it's no wonder that a certain symbiosis is found between strong, serious directors and the illustrated serials found on local drugstore racks. And it is equally unsurprising that movies about high-flying dudes in colorful spandex fall flat when placed in the wrong hands. Spider-Man succeeded because Sam Raimi understood that the story was about the exhilaration and adversity of adolescence transitioning into adulthood. X-Men triumphed because Bryan Singer kept the story grounded in the history and psyche of the outsiders, both hero and villain. And Sin City worked because Robert Rodriguez realized that the graphic novel was already cinematic, and needed someone to carefully translate its mood and aesthetic to the screen for such a sensibility to shine through.

Looking at these successes, as well as the superlative character drama of Batman Begins from Memento helmer Chris Nolan, one might smile and think Hollywood should just keep farming the arthouse edges of the mainstream for future comic book masterpieces. Sadly, such thinking would be wrong. With just one peek behind the scenes at the next adaptations coming down the pipeline, you realize there's good reason to be pessimistic.

If this bleak future has a face, that mug belongs to Mark Steven Johnson. The benignly mediocre writer, responsible for Grumpy Old Men and Jack Frost, made his debut behind the camera with 1999's unremarkable Simon Birch. Unfortunately, he's now best known as the filmmaker behind 2003's Daredevil, a movie whose title character ironically reflects the director himself: a man with no vision who screws everything up.

Johnson's main qualification to take on Daredevil was that he was a fan of the comic books growing up. Of course, this was probably one of many childhood dreams he shouldn't have followed, like being an astronaut or a pirate. With his screenwriting background, Johnson might have better focused on character development and narrative efficiency. But instead, he poured most his effort into campy, overblown action that was devoid of style and overburdened with special effects. Ham-fisted, and littered with continuity errors, the silly movie barely crossed $100 million at the domestic box office, despite an $80 million budget. But apparently bad experience is better than no experience at all in the eyes of some studio execs. So what is Mark Steven Johnson up to right now? Why, he's getting ready to take on another comic book based action epic, a big-screen adaptation of Ghost Rider starring Nicolas Cage.

More frustrating is the back-story to the new Fantastic Four movie. After the daring Steven Soderbergh showed some initial interest, Peyton Reed of the flawed, but inspired Down With Love was attached to direct. Reed wanted to take an approach that mirrored the central uniqueness of the Fantastic Four: their status as superhero-superstars. Doug Petrie, a former writer on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer who worked under Reed, told MTV, "The big reason I got hired was that the scripts that were done before, by pretty big-name guys, were origin stories. [The other scripts] were very big on 'these are astronauts that go to space' for the first, like, half-hour. It was something like Armageddon. I just kept saying it's got to be like [The Beatles'] A Hard Day's Night."

Reed was dropped from the project when Down With Love failed commercially, stripping the project of an imaginative director with a unique vision. Panicked into an about-face, producers handed the reins to Tim Story. Best known for the modestly winning Barbershop, Story's last outing was the terrible Taxi, a movie that saw leading man Jimmy Fallon get out-acted by four supermodels and a car. Last Friday Story's finished product arrived and was exposed as — you guessed it — an origin story initially dealing from an Armageddon-like astronaut angle.

But while Story's Fantastic Four is a disappointing start to a potentially interesting franchise, the producers of X-Men have gone ahead and steered their previously wonderful series deep into the bowels of mediocrity. When Bryan Singer left the franchise to tackle the struggling Superman dynasty, producers replaced him with Matthew Vaughn, the inexperienced but stylish director of English crime flick Layer Cake. Vaughn left X-Men 3 last month, much to the delight of fans who worried that someone with only one film to his credit couldn't handle such a big project. To replace him, they brought in someone more established: Brett Ratner. But given Ratner's body of work, it seems that using him to compensate for Singer's departure is about like treating a gunshot wound by stabbing it. No director in the last decade has amassed as crushingly bland a filmography as Ratner, from the Rush Hour movies to After the Sunset and The Family Man. He was even slated to direct Superman, which makes the swap with Singer kind of prophetic. But while established directors like Singer, Raimi, and Nolan bring experience and style to the comics, the problem with Ratner's style, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is that there is none.

20th Century Fox really should have learned from the Harry Potter movies. The first two installments were helmed by the very straightforward Chris Columbus. Once a built-in audience was established, the producers took the opportunity to bring in the darker and more daring vision of Alfonso Cuaron. The result was the best film of the series so far. The producers of X-Men should have similarly realized that bringing on a caretaker director to replace the funny and exciting work from Singer will disappoint audiences in a way that taking any kind of real chance would not have. It's Burton to Schumacher all over again.

To be fair, aiming for auteurs hasn't been a universally successful gambit for the studios. We won't be seeing a Hulk 2 anytime soon, mainly because Ang Lee, one of the greatest directors of the last twenty years, couldn't make his vision gel into an adequate flagship film. And Hellboy didn't quite perform up to the expectations set by its budget, in spite of its thoughtful handling by the always-engaging Guillermo del Toro. Yet handing X-Men off to Ratner, giving Fantastic Four to Story, or letting Johnson direct anything at all remotely super hero oriented all mark steps backward toward that sorry state we just emerged from. We're currently blessed with a particularly engaging and sensitive generation of directors who can handle action, from Raimi and Rodriguez to Doug Liman and Kerry Conran. There's no excuse for settling for vanilla flavored filmmaking.

Comic book movies offer a chance to tap into an almost endless well of characters, storylines, and motifs, then deliver them to a wider audience that hasn't experienced them before. But producers need to keep getting the source material into the hands of those creative and inventive individuals in the business, less they fall into the trap of safe conservatism offered by people like Story and Ratner. Otherwise, this Renaissance will revisit the Dark Ages sooner than you might think.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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