Pomo Picks

Pop Culture Worth Your Time: Mortal Kombat, Melissa McCarthy, and More

The content in our queues, from a promising new HBO trailer to a trip down SNL memory lane.

By Aurora Biggers, Margaret Seiler, Gabriel Granillo, and Conner Reed March 11, 2021

Josh Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet performing at Austin City Limits in 2018. The band's new song, "Heat Above," made a big impression on PoMo intern Aurora Biggers this week. 

As the suspiciously good vibes continue and spring sinks its hooks into Portland, our media diets at Portland Monthly have taken a turn for the joyful. Here's what we love this week, from a schlocky, promising trailer to a ’70s-tinged banger, and beyond.

Down with Love

When the New Yorker's Richard Brody released his absolutely nuclear list of the 21st century's best performances over the weekend, I latched onto a mention of Down with Love in his entry about Jennifer Aniston. I knew it as an underloved gem from the aughts that paid homage to Doris Day technicolor romcoms—one that featured Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor fresh off a pair of acclaimed musicals, and one where David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson played a straight couple (imagine). Gay people on Twitter loved it. Everyone I follow on Letterboxd had given it at least four stars. Exactly the kind of fluff I wanted in 2021, The Year Where I Watch Stuff That Makes Me Feel Good for Once.

Reader: I cannot count the ways that it delivered. The score, by Hairspray and Smash scribe Marc Shaiman, is pure MGM delight. The production design is bright, slick, and painstaking, and almost every single costume made me sigh out loud. The dialogue is zippy, hilarious, and cute without ever quite curdling into cloying. And a jaw-dropping third-act monologue from Zellweger shoots the film into the stratosphere, cementing it as an ideal double feature with the hallowed likes of Gone Girl or Phantom Thread

The fact that Down with Love has not yet become a stage musical is beyond me (McGregor and Zellweger perform a stellar duet over the closing credits), but let me state in writing that it is my most profound wish when we revive the corpse of Broadway. —Conner Reed, arts & culture editor

"Heat Above" by Greta Van Fleet

When Greta Van Fleet released their new song “Heat Above,” I was in the throes of pandemic exhaustion. The song release notification popped up on my phone, and in the first few seconds, I was obsessed. The bluesy rock band has been criticized as a Led Zeppelin knock-off, but in this song, the sound is all their own. 

Introducing new-to-the-band instruments—including an organ and strings—the single marries a dirty bass line with ethereal production flourishes. In the official video, the band performs the track clad in white bodysuits, silver crystals, and celestial headpieces (think the Heavenly Bodies Met Gala). The space they're in, possibly an airplane hangar, feels purgatorial, especially as lead singer Josh Kiszka belts, “Can you hear that dreadful sound? Fire still burning on the ground!”

The song is at its best, though, in this live performance—decked in a ’70s-style costume, Kiszka's delivery may actually send you to heaven. In a press release, the band says the song is, “theatrical, eloquent, and exaggerated. This is a dream in the clouds, a moment of peace in the storm.” “Heat Above” is a taster for the band’s sophomore album, Battle at Garden’s Gate, set to drop April 16. —Aurora Biggers, editorial intern

Melissa McCarthy on SNL

I didn’t start watching Saturday Night Live till middle school, when weekend bedtime just sort of went away. But NBC’s tendency in recent years to air new episodes live coast to coast—and thus at 8:30 p.m. Pacific time—along with easy streaming access to the archives means my early-to-bed children are already hooked on this key element of American pop culture. They shout the cast names before the announcer can say them in the credit sequence, they can tell Alex Moffat from Mikey Day (can you? be honest), they are properly obsessed with Ego Nwodim, and they always yell at the TV toward the end of the credits because they think Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang should be listed as “stars” instead of being relegated to merely “featured” status.

Their real SNL hero, though, is not a cast member at all. It’s Melissa McCarthy, five-time host and frequent guest performer. At 8 and 12, my kids have never watched Gilmore Girls (which they dismiss as “something only Mommy likes,” a label they also attach to the Chicago Cubs, just to torture me), The HeatSpy, or Bridesmaids—though we really should have a family viewing of that one, especially since I rented the DVD in 2012 to try to induce labor by laughing to coax the now-8-year-old out of me. (I think it helped.) No, they love McCarthy for her appearance as a buck-toothed bodybuilder in one of the Lawrence Welk Show sketches with Kristen Wiig and her tiny doll hands; as former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (that pause as the live audience realizes who’s playing Spicer may be the only good moment of the Trump presidency); as a ranch-chugging taste tester in a Hidden Valley focus group (“H-V-R! H-V-R!); and, in a spoof of Rutgers’s Mike Rice, abusive, bat-wielding, bread-throwing basketball coach Sheila Kelly.

They are aware she’s done other things. They have a vague memory of the Ghostbusters remake. I’ve pointed out Ben Falcone in the Thunder Force trailer (McCarthy and Octavia Spencer’s superhero Netflix comedy, out April 9), so they’ll be ready to play Spot the Husband when they finally graduate to her full film oeuvre, just like they’ve played Spot Stan Lee in the Marvel movies. Thunder Force may be the first time they watch her in something more than a six-minute sketch. I hope they can handle it, but if they laugh so hard they pee, or puke, or fall down, or make a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch explode all over themselves, well, that’s something a McCarthy SNL character would do, so I guess that’s only fitting. —Margaret Seiler, managing editor

The Mortal Kombat Trailer

Much of my childhood in Norwalk, California, was spent at two places: a computer café (remember those?) called Red Zone and the A&W Restaurant right next to it. After spending hours (literally) camping out on Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat under the moniker Big Daddy (seriously, the early aughts were weird), my brothers and I would hit up the A&W for chili cheese fries and root beer floats. At this A&W, there was a little corner with a handful of arcade games. Our favorite: the original Mortal Kombat.

For the uninitiated, Mortal Kombat is an insanely violent fighting game where fighters with names like Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, Lui Kang, Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, and others, beat each other up in a life-and-death tournament. The winner lives. The loser—well, let’s just say they don’t live no more. And it’s not just that they die, it’s that they die by “fatalities,” which are obscenely gruesome death sequences that have often become talking points for many a politician and pearl-clutching parent who cries wolf about “violence in video games” any time there’s a school shooting. Despite these campaigns, Mortal Kombat has proved to be an immensely successful franchise, with a series of games, two film adaptations from the 1990s (let’s not talk about Annihilation), an animated series, comics, a low-budget YouTube series, and more. Most recently, HBO Max released a trailer for a new take on franchise.

The trailer for the new movie, directed by Simon McQuoid, gives us a lot to chew on, which is why I’m still talking about it even though it’s been like a month since it was released: a new character named Cole (boring name, but OK), an origin story for Jax Briggs’s metal arms (hint: it ain’t pretty), a quick look at Emperor Shao Kahn and the rivalry between Sub-Zero and Scorpion. (We even get Scorpion’s famous “Get over here” catchphrase before the trailer ends.) What I’m enjoying right now is that the film seems to dive into the franchise’s fantasy elements, exploring different realms in the Mortal Kombat universe while also maintaining its knack for over-the-top violence smashed together with brash humor. It’s pretty ridiculous, and I’m all for it. —Gabriel Granillo, digital editor
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