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