Silver Screen, Silver Tongue: Wet Hot American Summer is Bucolic

wet010adBy Magellan

About the Film

Year: 2001
Cast: Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Showalter, Marguerite Moreau
Director: David Wain
Rotten Tomatoes: 31%

About the Word

Definition: bu·col·ic [byoo-kol-ik] adj.– of, pertaining to, or suggesting an idyllic rural life.

The Review

Summer, for all it’s worth, is officially over. It’s Labor Day weekend, the last day of August, “Back to School” season is upon us, and I just watched Wet Hot American Summer, a now-annual tradition of mine that I didn’t get around to until today. Sure, you could argue that the equinox isn’t for another twenty-something days, but I don’t know anybody who relishes those first couple weeks of September the way they relished those same weeks in July. Things just aren’t the same.

But, I’m sure you’re wondering why I would sit down and watch Wet Hot American Summer every year, beyond it having the name of the season in the title. After all, it’s ostensibly just a heavy-handed pastiche of summer camp movies with a few absurd, surrealist moments to grab for laughs and qualify it as a “comedy.” And, judging by its score on Rotten Tomatoes, any critic worth his or her salt will tell you that it doesn’t even deserve that distinction. So why watch it once, let alone once a year? Well, I could throw the whole “comedy is subjective” argument at you, but it goes deeper than that. I like to return to this film for the same reason that college students like to go home for the summer: it’s a chance to feel like things haven’t changed.

For me, the charm of Wet Hot American Summer isn’t in the jokes themselves, but in the way that this cast brings them to life. The movie takes place on the last day of summer camp, and features a skilled set of comedic actors playing the camp counselors: Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, and Michael Ian Black to name more than a few. Not to mention Janeane Garofalo as the camp director and Christopher Meloni (from Law & Order: SVU) as the creepy cafeteria worker. These are actors that moved on to great things in the world of comedy and film, and it’s great to see them back in their salad days, hanging out and having a good time. Just looking at the movie and its reception among the general populace, you can tell that it wasn’t any of these people’s cash cow, but rather a labor of love.

Scenes in this movie hit and miss, but that’s not a bad thing. Jokes told with friends hit and miss too, with some punchlines landing and some falling flat. It doesn’t matter, though, because when you’re with friends you can just hop back up on your feet and keep riffing. This movie has that same friendly, casual energy about it, as if it knows that it doesn’t need to try being funny, that it can make any joke it wants, play with the characters however it wants, because the entire cast already loves the final product. And, it’s that laid-back, summer-camp vibe that makes this movie so likable and easy to revisit. It’s what lets me forgive and even love some of its more outlandish, surrealist segments (such as the “going into town” montage, where the counselors go from eating ice cream to shooting heroin in a matter of minutes, then return to the camp and remark that “It’s always fun to get away from camp, even for an hour.”). In fact, half of the joy of this movie is using it as a way to sit back and have fun with your own friends, supplanting usual, high school “remember-when”s with “Remember when Ken Marino’s character was being chased by Joe Lo Truglio’s on a motorcycle, but Lo Truglio couldn’t get past that random hay bale in the road?” or “Remember when Paul Rudd’s character threw that tantrum when he was cleaning up his plate?” or especially “Remember when Christopher Meloni’s character talked to that can of vegetables and then had a dramatic training montage with Michael Showalter’s character?” It’s a movie that worms its way into your reminiscences and becomes a part of the world and the state of mind that you call home.

This movie enters your memory and lives there the way real summers do. When I watched this movie earlier today, I was surprised by how many of the slower moments I had completely forgotten, while certain other moments (like Elizabeth Banks trying to make out with Paul Rudd while her face is coated in barbecue sauce) remained indelible, as if I had experienced them myself, mere hours before. Every time I watch this movie, it becomes more idyllic and perfect in my mind’s eye, as the less-than-perfect scenes are filtered out, and my favorite scenes are strengthened and exaggerated. That’s just how fond memories work, really. We’ve all had things from our childhood stick in our mind, like a place that we really enjoyed visiting, or a game that we’re sure had much better graphics when we were ten. Granted, I didn’t watch this movie when I was a kid, but it almost feels like I did. When I watched Wet Hot American Summer today, I wasn’t watching it with fresh eyes. I was remembering the next moment before it happened, and so was the movie itself.  The entire cast and I were equal storytellers. They weren’t part of the movie, but part of the discussion of “remember-when.” Watching Wet Hot American Summer will never again be a present, vivid experience. It will forever be a grainy picture of a joke that made me spew water out my nose at the elementary school lunch table, an echo of a steady stream that I used to dip my feet in as a kid, a waft of crisp, summer air blowing through my backyard. This film is a memory on the screen, a reminder of halcyon days, of calm, careless perfection free from criticism and judgment. Wet Hot American Summer is bucolic.

Here’s the trailer for the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RByrRpURS5s

And this is a great scene with Paul Rudd: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ND7yJ7sMosk

Another one with Ken Marino: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POuH8MGZrJw

No discussion of this movie would be complete without my favorite training montage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0_WJDige0s

 

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Frames of Preference: Beautiful Lifestyle

Beautiful LifestyleFew album covers represent the music within as accurately as George & Jonathan’s Beautiful Lifestyle. The songs shift between smooth techno rhythms and blaring chiptunes anthems, and the beats evoke an almost trance-like state with their repetition. The colors, blur, and eye-catching design of the cover feel perfect for George & Jonathan’s upbeat style (“Little Marcus” and “Dubstep Daycare” will get pretty much anyone to wag their finger to the beat). There’s very little that sounds like Beautiful Lifestyle, and it’s got the style and optimism of 8-bit video games in spades.

Take Our Word: Eighties

The Breakfast Club movie imageThe Word

With our second consecutive month of content coming to a close this weekend, we here at Pop Modern decided to forgo our usual, topical approach to this column in favor of something a bit more sentimental. Sure, the three of us were all born in the early 90’s, but it seems like nowadays all of pop culture has an ingrained affection for the 80’s, so we’ve seen enough movies and listened to enough music to feel like we were really there, rocking some leg warmers and catching reruns of Miami Vice. So if you have nothing better to do this weekend, why don’t we all live out a fictional version of things that happened to people we don’t know thirty years ago? It just seems like a wholesome way to pass the time.

The Recommendations

Allen

Die Hard: Though John McTiernan may be in the news these days for some unsavory reasons, his 1988 film Die Hard will always be what I associate his name with. It tells the story of John McClane, divorced cop played by Bruce Willis, and his mission to subdue the terrorists holding the employees of Nakatomi Plaza, his ex-wife’s workplace, hostage. Although it’s been praised almost universally since it was released for being a brilliant action film and it’s actually taught in film classes as the quintessential example of three act structure, none of that is why I love it. What most people don’t seem to address is that Die Hard is an incredibly simple, base premise. The idea that an ex-cop can single-handedly take out a crew of terrorists (barefoot, I might add!) is actually incredibly dumb. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film at all. More that it goes against everything that the average film critic tends to love; the characters are fairly one-dimensional, it can be summarized in a few sentences, and it doesn’t have the trademark weirdness or deep message of independent film. It’s a well-shot, well-written, patriotic action film that isn’t afraid to pander to the lowest common denominator. And it does so with so little irony and so much craft that it has become a staple part of the Christmas movie marathon that so many Americans like to indulge in every year. In a world of ironic action films and overly dramatic thrillers, it’s nice to know that you can rely on a macho 80’s action hero to save the day time and time again.

Die Hard‘s got a pretty fantastic 80s-as-hell trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qxBXm7ZUTMYou can buy it on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Die-Hard-Bruce-Willis/dp/B000O77SRC/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1377555828&sr=8-3&keywords=die+hardKeeping up with our 80s theme, here’s the segment on Siskel & Ebert where they reviewed the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNM7yG5X9IQJames

London Calling: Here at Pop Modern, we occasionally suffer inaccuracy for the sake of a good article. While The Clash album London Calling came out in the UK in 1979, the album didn’t come out until 1980 in America, so I feel confident in my decision to put the album in with the 80’s. Considered one of the best punk bands of their time, The Clash melded styles of rock, punk feeling, and lyricism to create an incredible, diverse album. With hit songs ranging from the manic “London Calling,” to the aimlessness of “Lost in the Supermarket,” and the rebellious, anti-authority “Guns of Brixton,” the songs are incredibly diverse, yet remain skilled within their diversity. The themes that The Clash tackle are controversial, from police brutality and the meaningless nature of life to consumerism, yet the issues are given a more adult look than their contemporary bands. The album is one of my favorites of all time for the technical skills of the band members combined with the frenetic energy they give through emotional performances.”London Calling”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vHvzybkqfo

“Guns of Brixton”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqcizZebcaU

“Lost in the Supermarket”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsrEAWcAvRg

Magellan

Heathers: When most people think of 80’s films, they think of classic John Hughes fare: The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off come to mind. But I’m not here to talk about those movies. Instead, I’d like to champion Heathers, a movie that I can’t exactly say I liked, but a movie that I find interesting and worth a watch, nonetheless. It’s a Winona Ryder vehicle that seems to run a familiar plot. The local high school is under the thumb of a popular clique (a group of three girls, all named “Heather”) and our female protagonist (Ryder) plays along, until a lovable rogue (played by Christian Slater) shows up to disrupt everything. It seems like typical 80’s stuff until an incredibly dark turn within the first twenty minutes. From then on, the movie is both a parody and a dark manifestation of the Hughes-style school of filmmaking that spawned it. Personally, I was a bit put off by this movie when I first watched it, but then again I was expecting something much more innocuous. I would recommend watching this film, if only to see how it deconstructs the world of 80’s high school movies.

Here’s a trailer for the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTmpKgocyYg

And here’s a clip to showcase the movie’s specific tone (I’d just like to note that on both of these videos, the top comment is about Mean Girls, and the second is about shoulder pads): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ-3rikUQ34

The Round-Up

So there you have it, the scant nuggets we’ve sifted from the roaring resurgence of 80’s culture over the past decade or so. It would seem that the three of us have been drawn to the darker, grittier aspects of the decade, which aren’t always brought up or thought about in discussions of 80’s popular culture. It’s a much more complex and seedy decade than people tend to think, tinged by shady money dealings and Cold War paranoia. Of course, sometimes it’s just fun to forget about that kind of stuff and bop your head to some overly synthesized 80’s tunes. That’s why this week’s Round-Up is a smattering of some of our favorite songs from the decade. Strap on your shoulder pads and enjoy!

“Come On Eileen”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVxcwe7EcaY

“Don’t You (Forget About Me)”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdqoNKCCt7A

“Down Under”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfR9iY5y94s

“Easy Lover”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkRKT6T0QLg

“I Love Rock N Roll”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3T_xeoGES8

“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbNlMtqrYS0

“Tainted Love”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEh5pWjcWCg

Frames of Preference: Moon

MoonThe plot of Moon is an insane ride, a ride which I would be remiss to spoil. The movie concerns a man who is alone on the surface of the moon seeking to finish the duration of his time at an energy facility. The movie plays with the idea of loneliness and the nature of isolation, as well as the true nature of what it means to have only one’s self as company.  This image shows the loneliness on the surface of the moon as the rover faces the Earth, and the yearning for normalcy and human contact on a surface that is so close to earth, yet so far away.

Flix Fix: The Coen Brothers, The Modern Millers

By James

The first Coen brothers movie I ever saw was No Country for Old Men. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, it is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, and tells the story of a man from Texas who finds a load of drug money. The movie, released in 2008, won Oscars for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screen Adaptation, and Best Supporting Actor. This is the legacy that awaited me when I started on the works of the Coen brothers.  Their films are set all over the United States, from the hokey criminals of Raising Arizona, to prohibition mobsters in Miller’s Crossing, to the Hollywood screen writers portrayed in Barton Fink, to the wilds of Minnesota in Fargo, and the Depression-era South. The list continues through different states and time periods, ranging from the 1800s to present day.

For me, the Coen brothers represent the best in American film. While other directors rely on settings in foreign countries to give the audience an escape, the Coen brothers show the stories of Americans. The sheer range and variety of their work allows for a huge plethora of stories to be told throughout American history without ever overlapping. The Coen brothers have never needed to recover one of their stories, as they have so many stories to tell.  While they may reuse actors like John Goodman, John Turturro, George Clooney, and Francis McDormand to tell these stories, at the heart of these films lies the adventure of this country that many now take for granted. The Coen brothers instead try and tell the story of the average man, much like Barton Fink, in his eponymous movie. They actually seem to love America and, in producing their movies, they seem to want to share that love with the rest of the country.

In addition to their devotion to the country, the Coen brothers have advanced film through their careful cinematography. Each movie is shot distinctly and carefully, as every solitary frame fully reveals the movie it came from. Each film is carefully scripted and shot to enhance a sense of reality. True, the reality may not be the reality that we inhabit, but each movie tries to be as true and honest as possible. The brothers don’t try to hide their actors, instead opting to focus on their stories. This really needs to happen more often. While watching one of their pieces, a viewer can really get a sense of the love and care that the brothers use to approach their movie. The audience instinctively latches onto the reverence that the Coens have for film, and the excitement fuels the ride through the scenery, be it the Midwest or L.A. Their comedy and the dramas are equally appealing for this very reason, as the films are both developed thoroughly and completely.

Perhaps the equal appeal of the comedy and dramas is what makes the pair so interesting. The brothers always pair the two genres together. Their films seem to come out in these pairs: Barton Fink was written at the same time as Miller’s Crossing, and Burn After Reading was written at the same time as No Country for Old Men. No matter what, the two of them seem to find comedy in darkness and darkness in comedy, mixing their seriousness and their farce through films such as Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou. The point seems to be that life is neither completely funny nor sad. Within every aspect of the story the two genres mix. Whether these are the common threads of life that tie us all together or the common connections that Hollywood movies make, I really cannot say, but I chose to believe that the brothers capture one of the essential pieces of life: nothing is ever clear. There is never any comedy without some tragedy nearby, and there is no drama so depressing that we cannot laugh at ourselves.

Arthur Miller was widely considered one of the greatest modern American playwrights. He took a look at the conditions of people throughout different times and places of the United States, from Salem during the Witch Trials to the 1950s, his modern times. One of the biggest things that Miller started was the modern tragedy. These works did not focus on kings and lords who started in a position of power, and were brought down low by arrogance, but showed instead, the plight of the common man, resplendent in his life, who is brought down lower than he started.  The Coen brothers capture Miller’s spirit. Their concern for the common man drives them across America in search of that one true glimpse of simple life, bringing them face to face with not only the best of comedy, but the saddest of tragedy. Playwriting may be a less popular art, and American theatre may have inexorably drifted away from plays to the cinemas, but the spirit of the great American plays still lives on in the works of the Coen brothers, because they still maintain the same perspective that Miller did. In the end, the Coen brothers create works as great as they are because they care.

Frames of Preference: L.A. Noire

L.A. NoireOne of the most original gaming experiences I’ve come across in a while, 2011’s L.A. Noire is a game featuring a rich world that I’d very much like to revisit. From it’s inventive (if stressful) interrogation and dialogue system to its clues and hidden secrets, L.A. Noire is a game that fully immerses the player in the world of 1940’s Los Angeles. It feels like you’re in a film noir movie, helped in no small part by the game’s incredibly detailed facial animations. This screenshot is testament to how lifelike the characters in this game look, from the precise rendering of the actors’ faces to expertly designed period costumes.

Three By Three: Futurama Episodes

Futurama EpisodesThe Category

This is a bittersweet week here at Pop Modern, looking forward at what’s to come. Tonight, the penultimate episode of on of our most beloved television shows, Futurama, will air, followed by the series finale next week. Sure, the series has seen its share of finales, but this time it’s probably for good. To honor this show, the three of us have put together a list of our personal, favorite episodes. It was a hard bunch to compile, as the show has had so many hilarious outings, but we did our best. So, without further ado, let’s get to them. And to those of you who think that this introduction lacks a certain zest or pep, I bid you a fond “Bite my shiny, metal ass.”

The Choices

Allen

S7E23-“Game of Tones”: A recent episode from the latest season, “Game of Tones” almost feels like the epilogue to some of the series’ most emotional episodes. As a sonic boom-emitting ship approaches Earth, Fry realizes that he’s heard it before, so the crew’s first instinct is to have him explore his dreams and remember the source of the sound before it destroys their planet. For such a high-stakes scenario, it feels like a fairly restrained episode. There are plenty of jokes, but the main emotional focus of the story is Fry reconnecting with his parents through his dreams. As they delve deeper into his subconscious, he realizes that he can’t create what wasn’t there, and he has to leave them yet again on December 31, 1999. It’s a good episode for all the reasons Futurama is one of my favorite shows: it’s got heart, it’s genuinely funny, and it takes a science fiction premise, and makes it both plausible and dramatic. The ending of the episode brought tears to my eyes, and as Fry realizes that he can say goodbye to his mother, a chord struck in me that felt incredibly personal. It may not be the most famous episode, but it’s certainly one of my favorites.

S6E26-“Reincarnation”:
The season 6 finale anthology is by far my favorite of its ilk. Each story has something to say about the characters, and the art style’s are done so true to the source material that it barely feels like Futurama. In the “Steamboat Willie”-esque segement, Fry blows up a dimondium comet to prove his love to Leela, which was the main emotional through-line of season 6. In the 8-bit video games segment, the Professor essentially “wins” science, and realizes how little there is to life when there’s nothing left to discover. This gets at the heart of Futurama‘s ethos, and takes the humor and nostalgia of gaming to represent something larger. In the final segment, the gang fights off aliens with dancing, and the style is based on Japanese anime. This one doesn’t work as well comedically, but the final scene where the aliens approach the Earth in descending rows ala Space Invaders is truly memorable.

S3E04-“Luck of the Fryrish”: My final choice was between this and the classic “Jurassic Bark” episode. Both come from the “emotional payoff first, jokes later” era of the series, but they’re both done extremely well. In this episode, we learn what Fry’s family did after he was cryogenically frozen, and how Fry and his older brother Yancy the copycat. What starts as Fry remembering how annoying Yancy was ends with him digging up his brother’s grave and realizing that there was a lot of love between them, and he truly regrets not being able to see his brother again. For a show about time-travelling pizza delivery and crazy future stuff, a lot of the best episodes just hit so close to home, and show just how much Groening and co. care about this world that they created.

James

S3E20-“Godfellas”: The plot to this episode was relatively simple. Bender gets stuck in space, and becomes the god of a race of tiny people. The real highlight here is the tone of understanding that the show demonstrates. Rather than condoning or condemning religion, it opted for an encompassing view of the difficulties of power and of raising children. By interfering with the race of tiny people, Bender had altered their environment to an unlivable state. This episode impressed me in particular because of the how tactful it was. Not only had it brought up the issue of God, but brought it up in a thoughtful, tactful way. An impressive feat for a character whose catchphrase is “Bite my shiny metal ass”.

S6E10-“The Prisoner of Benda”: This particular episode is my favorite for non-obvious reasons. The plot involves a duke and a series of disputes between Fry and Leela. That part isn’t important. What is important is the fact that the Professor has created a body-switching machine. The machine will not allow people to directly reverse a body-switch, but anybody can inhabit itself twice. The problem is solved in the episode by the legendary geniuses, the Harlem Globe Trotters. However, in real life, the problem was solved by a PhD mathematician who wanted to teach math in a fun context. The proof for this previously unsolved problem was the first ever introduced to television, making Futurama a truly ground-breaking show.

S4E07-“Jurassic Bark”: Easily the most heart-wrenching episode, Jurassic Bark showcases emotion in a re-examination of Fry’s life. The episode starts when the crew discovers Seymour, Fry’s old dog. While we were originally given an impression of Fry’s life that showed no reason for him to stay in the past, Seymour the dog challenges that assumption. The episode shows their life together, and all of the fun times that Fry had back in the 20th century, linked to the dog. At the end, Fry mentions that he thinks the dog forgot him, but the montage of the dog waiting for his boy was heartbreaking, and showcased a depth of emotion that had yet to be explored.

Magellan

S3E01-“Amazon Women in the Mood”: The infamous “snoo-snoo” episode, this is one of those Futurama outings that doesn’t have the kind of emotional heft of a “Jurassic Bark” or a “Luck of the Fryrish,” but more than compensates for that with the strength of its jokes. The genius of Futurama as a show is its ability to support a breakneck rate of jokes per minute, and this particular episode is the pinnacle of that. It features strong character moments across the board (Zoidberg’s whole side-adventure of looking for a new shell after his decision of “So I molted, why not?” is great flavor), as well as great cultural jokes. The idea of going to an Amazon planet lets the show play with gender stereotypes, allowing it to make fun of women’s basketball while also, almost paradoxically, giving Leela and Amy a chance to shine. There are also several strong visual comedy moments, from the skeletons with shattered pelvises to the long shot of the men’s facials expressions repeatedly changing when they learn of their punishment. On top of that, this episode features my two favorite lines from one of my favorite characters, Zap Brannigan: “I find the most erotic part of a woman is the boobies.” and “She’s built like a steakhouse, but she handles like a bistro.” Really, a dozen people could watch this episode and walk away with two dozen different favorite jokes, that’s how dense it is.

S3E19-“Roswell That Ends Well”: I picked this episode to showcase the “sci-” half of Futurama‘s absurd, sci-fi world. “Roswell That Ends Well” begins with the Planet Express crew watching a star collapse, and the “red” radiation it emits interacts with the “blue” radiation created when Fry puts some popcorn in the microwave, opening a wormhole and sending the ship back to 1947. What I love is how unapologetic this show is about its twisting of science, basically saying “screw it, we wanted to make some jokes” with complete disregard for logic. It’s this flippant attitude towards the laws of physics that ends up creating one of the most memorable episodes of Futurama. From the Professor and Leela trying to be covert in a malt shop with their apocryphal slang, to the military running tests on Dr. Zoidberg, to Fry accidentally getting his grandfather killed in a nuclear blast and then having sex with his own grandmother, this episode puts the characters in hilarious, insane situations that no other show on television could reproduce.

S4E18-“The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”: This is my personal favorite episode of Futurama, and I suspect I chose it for the same reason that many people would pick “Jurassic Bark” or “Luck of the Fryrish”: it’s a perfect blend of comedy and heart. The story revolves around Fry trading hands with the Robot Devil (my all-time favorite Futurama side character) so that he can play beautiful music to win Leela’s love. Everyone’s given a chance to shine, even Hedonism Bot, who’s thrown a few choice lines throughout. The whole thing culminates in a dramatic opera, wherein the Robot Devil forces Fry to trade their hands back, and in so doing lose his musical talent and Leela’s affection. He does so begrudgingly, but Leela still sticks around and listens to the rest of Fry’s music, rudimentary as it has become. It’s a beautiful note to end on, and given that this was the first “series finale” that the show had, it’s not surprising how pitch-perfect of an episode was produced.

The Conclusion

Lamenting the omission of your favorite episode? Lrrr didn’t get properly represented? Lost as to why we forgot Nixon’s head, or Calculon, or any of the other great side characters? Lachrymose behavior won’t get you anywhere, let yourself be heard down in our comments section. Lay into us, enlighten us with your favorite Futurama episodes.