Pop Culture Picks – April 2017

This month: bullets fly, Gorillaz return, and we’re reunited with the galaxy’s favorite bunch of a-holes.

With our latest Pop Culture Picks, we’re branching out beyond our titular fields for the first time. With the arrival of Gorillaz’ highly-buzzed fifth album bringing a merciful end to their hiatus, we enter the music world… Heaven help us. Also featured! Marvel Studios’ debut 2017 offering is a largely superior sequel, while the divisive Ben Wheatley returns (quite literally) all guns blazing. Let’s dive right in.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


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Selected by Minty (@mintsanity)

I’ve always felt there was something missing from James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy. For years I couldn’t put my finger on it, but a recent re-watch revealed why. It lacks the character depth that made the heroes in other Marvel ventures (Iron ManCaptain America: The First Avenger) so endearing. That’s not to say this bunch of A-Holes aren’t likeable – they crack jokes, kick-ass and make noble sacrifices like the best of ’em – but there’s something a little superficial about their appeal. Mainstream moviegoers fell in love with Chris Pratt’s abs, Groot’s adorable face, eye-popping colours and a winning nostalgia-drenched soundtrack concept (arguably ripped straight out of Boogie Nights). Outside of Star-Lord’s mommy issues and Rocket’s PTSD outburst (both handled brilliantly, I might add), there wasn’t a lot of depth to be found underneath their exaggerated personalities – and any further depth attempted (Drax losing his family) was quickly undermined for laughs (Drax being a full-blown idiot). We’re left with 1-2 well-developed characters, a cute tree, a loud walking punchline, a disappointingly dull female presence and some truly terrible villains (later reduced to punchlines themselves). Call me resentful of all the widespread adoration (because I am), but that’s hardly worthy of near-universal praise.

Three years later and we’re treated with a sequel that promised to ignore character flaws and double down on all the superficial cuteness, wildly OTT antics and nostalgic musical cues. Except… it didn’t?

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 retains most of the style, humour and flair from the original, while adding in a great deal more substance. Too often blockbusters have taken the shortcut to meaningful character moments, audaciously implying or declaring their heroes to be a “family” without putting in the necessary leg work. Vol. 2 goes about actually earning it. Gunn may be working with a much larger ensemble this time, but nobody feels as short-changed as before. There’s depth across the board – from Gamora & Nebula’s warped sibling rivalry, to the thick-skinned parallels between Yondu & Rocket, to Peter Quill’s daddy issues (this boy really never got the parental support he needed, did he?). Even the various antagonistic figures feel more fleshed out than the shouty-pouty-Ronan. They aren’t immune to playing victim to all the hijinks and hilarity, but here it’s more consistent tonally.

I’ve given Groot a rough time here, considering he is probably the most entertaining part of both films, so I’ll track back to the original GOTG‘s one truly masterful moment: the big tree’s big sacrifice. Even without that genuine emotional attachment to the characters he’s saving (many of you would even argue his actions here is what forms that attachment), it still hits – hard. The product of that event was Baby Groot – a marketing goldmine that could have very quickly gotten very annoying (think Minions). It is to Marvel and James Gunn’s immense credit then, that Baby Groot neither feels overused or under-utilised, delivering a small fighting dose of heart, humour and adorability in just the right amount.

Oh, and if you think the first movie’s finale was compelling, you ain’t seen nothing yet.


Gorillaz – Humanz


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Selected by Puff (@_staypuffed)

Look. Humanz fits neither into film, television or comics; it’s the latest album from Damon Albarn and Jaime Hewlett’s musical creation Gorillaz. But their scope has always been cross-platform: a combination of music, artwork, interviews, short films and more all enrich one of the boldest bands of the 21st century. Five years on since their last release – the Converse-commissioned ‘DoYaThing’, a collaboration with James Murphy and André 3000 – and over six years since their last record, The Fall, their silence has been difficult. Gorillaz are one of the most important creative forces in my life. So the prospect of anything new? I’m already happy.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not Humanz lives up to the anticipation it’s amassed; the album is preoccupied less with triumphantly returning than it is capturing Albarn’s (allegedly anticipated) reaction to a Donald Trump presidential win. His answer? Throw a party, invite all your new friends and see what happens. On early listens, this leans towards the sketchier end of Gorillaz records. It’s increasingly clear that Albarn has overloaded with collaborators, leaving his vocal input rather faint. The sounds – as eclectic they may be – land a little softer than, say, Demon Days. This party offers less of a punch than one might expect, especially based on the evocative track listing. Whether this is a negative, or just something to adjust to, we’ll have to see.

But Gorillaz have always been adept at transitioning between wildly different styles. It’s the same here. We slip between tones, such as with the double bill of ‘Andromeda’, a thumping album highlight featuring D.R.A.M., and the more tragic ‘Busted And Blue’. The fluidity between genres is not only consistent with other Gorillaz projects, but also reflects the shifting emotions of this inciting moment. His writing has created few instant favourites here, but the dense arrangements wriggle into your mind, nestling there and persuading you to return. ‘The Apprentice’ (featured as a bonus track on the deluxe edition) is a particularly delightful example.

This adjusted approach isn’t just a sonic one. While Gorillaz, as a concept, has always tried to emphasise its four animated members – Stuart ‘2D’ Pot, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs and Noodle – Humanz feels like the largest step away from the illusion. It invokes unity and humanity in dark times. It reminds us that, deep down, these bizarre characters “are still human” (as 2D asserts on ‘Hallelujah Money’). The album’s title, too, shifts the focus away from the fabricated band members to the physical artists, while still retaining Gorillaz branding with the (admittedly silly) “z” suffix. It’s too early to determine how Humanz will fit into the wider Gorillaz oeuvre (I definitely have my issues with it), but I’m relieved that it’s finally here.


Free Fire


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Selected by Jeremy (@SauronsBANE)

Newcomers were likely introduced to director Ben Wheatley through 2015’s High-Rise, an ambitious (if somewhat unpleasant and inaccessible) effort aimed at satirizing British class differences and social politics. While it’s fair to say the results were divisive, one thing is clear: Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump have a particular interest in dissecting the foibles and overwhelming shortcomings inherent in society at large. It’s precisely this thread that carries through to Wheatley’s Free Fire, a far more welcoming and audience-friendly production dealing with very similar themes.

On the surface, it’s as simple as it gets: a tentative gun deal set in a 1970s Boston warehouse threatening to go south at any moment, two nervous and mistrustful parties, a pair of trigger-happy instigators, and a whole lot of gunshots and bloodshed. Underneath… well, I wouldn’t exactly make the claim that Free Fire is secretly full of depth and meaning that takes a discerning mind to see. It’s fun and hilarious and breathlessly entertaining, and watching actors such as Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and a gloriously hammy Sharlto Copley interact with, double-cross, curse and shoot at each other is well worth the price of admission alone.

But what soon becomes apparent ends up being the purposeful absurdity of it all, although the inciting action is anything but absurd. In fact, it’s almost too unpleasantly real when you consider the otherwise light-hearted tone – it’s a minor issue that crops up occasionally, along with the maddeningly unclear geography, as Wheatley takes things to their logical, yet violent extremes. And yet, there’s still a steady undercurrent asking us, “Is there actually a point to all this? Is all this mindless violence really worth it?” 

The answer, of course, is a resounding no. This is a movie about bad people squaring off against even worse ones, where the only sensible way of making things right involves frontier justice, in which survival simply means making better use of the business end of your revolver than the other guy. “How can you think about money at a time like this?!” screams Copley’s delightfully repugnant Verne at one point in the middle of all the bullet-riddled mayhem. That line, from that character, and delivered at that point in time only serves to highlight what Wheatley’s driving at here: people will do the most shameful, hypocritical, inhumane, and morally reprehensible acts you’ll ever see for the most basic, selfish reasons.

Is this a cutting-edge observation that’ll profoundly change your life? Probably not; and not surprisingly, it’s a message that’s consistently handled better by Quentin Tarantino himself – no, Wheatley never really manages to escape the fact that this is essentially a Tarantino-lite affair. But as an unapologetically irreverent exercise in watching tensions increase, mayhem erupt, and violence beget violence, Free Fire is as good as it gets. It’d be downright criminal to let this one pass you by.


That wraps up our selections for April. As always, we’re eager to hear what you enjoyed watching and reading throughout the month, so feel free to tell us below or on Twitter, @MoviesTVComics.

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