29 November 2011

War of the Months: November

Well people, it's the Fourth Tuesday in November, which means the penultimate installment of the War of the Months, NMW's year-long look at the best and brightest flicks to ever premiere in each month of the year. Today we take a gander at November, the Month of Turkeys, Politicians, and Shopping. It's actually a pretty exciting month. It's also generally the month wherein some quality flicks return to the Box Office after the terrible October and September months. Let's take a closer look:

One of the long line of movies where Common's character isn't important...

November: Month of Christmas

It's a weird trend but more and more it seems that November is a month for preparing for Christmas. As Black Friday shopping hours get pushed farther and farther forward so that Thanksgiving Day is now basically a Shopping Day and with the advent of yesterday's Cyber Monday in recent years past, it's all about getting the goodies ready for Santa Day. At the same time it's a time for more and more Christmas movie premieres, which is bizarre and terrible in its own right. There should be no Christmas preparation until after T-Gives. The rest of the month really should be devoted to Thanksgiving Preparation, instead! Thanksgiving is such a wacky holiday. Why do we still celebrate this obscure gathering between Pilgrims and Native Americans? Because Turkey tastes amazing, that's why.

November is also a fairly traditional month. Not a whole lot has changed in the past twenty-five Novembers. 1988 featured broad, big family fare like The Land Before Time and Olivier & Company as well as a Christmas movie, Scrooged, and 1989 featured the franchise installment Back to the Future Part II. 1990 featured Oscar-primed Dances with Wolves, fulfilling the four distinct kinds of November movies: Broad Animation, Christmas Movies, Franchise Installments, and Oscar bait. It's really a month that has something for everyone, and that hasn't changed in decades.

November Box Office: Gaining Returns

November is a pretty decent month at the Box Office, averaging a bit above August and the second highest-non-summer Month of the year behind december. The greatest November on record is 2009, primarily because of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, but also with strong blockbusters like 2012 and A Christmas Carol, but also due to the huge sleeper hit The Blind Side.

It's November, buddy. Bundle up.
Twilight virtually rules November. How...has that come to be? It basically occupied a niche that Harry Potter had held for the past decade - that early holiday, family viewing come-together period of November. Of course, Twilight isn't really family viewing...at all. November works for these big franchises with many quickly released and sometimes simultaneously filmed movies. It's a good seasonal pit-stop before the Summer Months come around again. That is, it allows franchise follow-ups to be released with ideal timing that neither over-saturates the public's appetite nor lets them forget.

That said, seven out of the Top 10 November Releases EVER have been either Twilight or Harry Potter, the top again being New Moon at $142,839,137 back in 2009. Other big films in this month really demonstrate November's status as a Box Office Alternative to Summer. It's a bit cozier month and it's a bit friendlier for Family Releases such as The Incredibles (2004), Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008), and Monsters, Inc (2003). There are also a few big Blockbusters like the latest Bond Flicks, where November has become pretty traditional, as well as Charlie's Angels (2000), The Matrix Revolutions (2003), and National Treasure (2004). This trend is actually much older, incorporating films like Alien: Resurrection (1997) and Starship Troopers (1998) as well as the late Arnold films End of Days (1999) and The 6th Day (2000). Finally, November will occasionally see the big Blockbuster release that is trying to get some Oscar notice, because it fits in well with the season. This includes American Gangster (2007) and 8 Mile (2002).

November Quality: That's Super

November tends to be a pretty good month for critically appreciated movies. It's situated well for mainstream films to appeal to a wide number of audiences and gain buzz before the year ends. It's also a good opportunity to films that have done previously well on circuits or small releases to gain momentum through either wider releases or DVD buzz. November's Top 10 is, then, as follows:

#10: Plains, Trains and Automobiles - 11/25/1987
#9: Walk the Line - 11/18/2005
#8: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - 11/30/2007
#7: Toy Story - 11/22/1995
#6: Cape Fear -11/13/1991
#5: They Live - 11/04/1988
#4: No Country for Old Men - 11/07/2007
#3: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -11/19/1975
#2: Raging Bull - 11/14/1980
#1: Network - 11/27/1976

It's a steep list when No Country for Old Men ranks fourth. Raging Bull here was released on this date in 4 theaters and had a wider release a month later, but it felt right here. Other Best Picture Winners that have been released in November include Rocky (1976), Terms of Endearment (1983), Dances with Wolves (1990), The English Patient (1996), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The King's Speech (2010). Other prestigious films include Finding Neverland (2004), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Cinderella Man (2005), I'm Not There (2007) and The Road (2009).

Buddy the Elf, what's your favorite color
Some of my favourite comedies of all time have also been released here that cannot go without mention. These include Space Jam (1996), Dogma (1999), Out Cold (2001), Just Friends (2005), Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005), Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006), Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), Role Models (2008), and of course, The Muppets (2011).

Like I said earlier, November is Christmas Month. It has seen the release of three of my Top 5 Christmas Movies to Watch Instead of Talking to your Family along with the aforementioned Scrooged, Home Alone (1990), The Santa Clause (1994) and Jingle All the Way (1996). Wonderful times.

Finally, other notables include one of the best Rocky Films, Rocky IV (1985) as well as what some consider one of the best films ever made, Babe: Pig in the City (1998). November also launched two huge revivals in the 1990s, the first was Disney Animation through Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) and the second was James Bond through the excellent GoldenEye (1995).

That's a lot of good movies! So cut open that bird and hit the theater this month - you won't regret it!

24 November 2011

Movies We're Thankful For

Hello folks, I hope your Thanksgiving is magical so far. The stuffing should be flowing out of that bird's ass, the mashed potatoes flowing like wine, and the wine flowing like beer. It's also the time of year that we express our gratitude for the wonderful things in life. There are a few cinematic events to be thankful for, of course, and today we give remembrance. Naturally, very little thought was put into this list.

We're thankful for Taxi (2004), for killing Jimmy Fallon's career. The current reigning king of Thank You Notes really only ended up in his talk show position because his career as the next big SNL star to translate into movies came to a screeching terrible halt with this abysmal Queen Latifah vehicle. Thank goodness though, because Jimmy can't really act anyway and is much better at just playing himself off of celebrities as well as making great song impersonations. His stint on Late Night allows him to do that and thankfully, he'll stay out of film for quite a long time.

We're thankful for Downfall (2004), for creating endless Hitler Memes. I've never seen Downfall, but I have seen plenty of parody videos of that sucker on YouTube. In fact, the only moments from this film If I've learned anything, it's that Hitler's final days were hilarious. There are far too many excellent uses of this simple set-up to list here but the Internet has done that a few times already for us. I also enjoy this one where he reacts to Pokemon, Rebecca Black, and Jay Leno. What's great is that director, Oliver Hirschbiegel is in full support of the parodies and believes they actually support his intentions in making the flick. Wunderbar.

We're thankful for Get Him to the Greek (2010), for showing us how funny P. Diddy can be. I've gone over this before but it still surprises me. How did this happen? In a movie with two of the hottest comedians today, Jonah Hill and Russel Brand the absolute break-out character is played by P. Diddy. Now, there wasn't a whole ton of buzz after this flick came out, but whenever we think of this flick, all we can imagine  is covering our houses with fur so it looks like a fuckin' werewolf.

We're thankful for The Wicker Man (2006) for everything Nic Cage does. This has got to be one of the most unintentionally funny movies of all time. From punching grown women in bear costumes, bee torture and otherwise inexplicable scenes that only Cage could pull off, this film has it all. We're thankful for these scenes because they pick us up whenever we're down. Half out of the sheer hilarity of it all but also due to the proud fact that we had nothing to do with making this movie. Or paying to watch it. Give it up for Cage.

We're thankful for There Will Be Blood (2007) for giving the Aughts its catchphrase. "We're gonna need a bigger boat." "E.T. phone home." "Show me the money." "I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!" Maybe the immortality of this line among those others is stretching it a bit, but there's still not a whole lot in the 2000s in terms of memorable lines from great movies. P. T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood would have been the best picture in any year or any decade that didn't also feature No Country for Old Men (2007) and a strong case can be made for it nevertheless. The line is delivered with incredible bravado by Daniel Day-Lewis during the film's most emotionally gripping scene which just cements its status as a beautiful catchphrase. We all know milkshake sales mysteriously rose in reaction. Also SNL had its way with it.

We're thankful for Bound (1996) for filling the spank bank. There's only one scene we're really interested in while watching Bound. It's the one where Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly rub parts. It's a steamy time for everyone in the family to enjoy this Thanksgiving night. To be fair towards the ladies we can hand them Heath and Jake from Brokeback Mountain (2005). Now those boys know how to rock a tent.

We're thankful for Funny People (2009) for forever clouding our Adam Sandler judgment. If you remember Judd's quasi-flop but probably his best film (if not a little long and with a plot that boils down to a character study of just a bunch of stuff that happens), it seemed to signal a different direction for Adam, that he had become self-aware of the kinds of terrible movies he had been starring in. Perhaps after this film Adam would go on to more serious roles, or at least ones that didn't play to the lowest common denominator. Untrue. Oh well. But I still hold out hope that there is some sanity left. No? Alright.

Finally, we're thankful for Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), for being the greatest movie of all time. I've already said why and also watched it while making this list. I told you I did not put a lot of thought into this. Still, I would agree with myself, even when sober.

Happy Turkey!

10 November 2011

Because it was on TV: The Magical World of Beavis and Butthead

I don't know why it happened. I don't know how it happened. Somehow for some reason Beavis and Butt-Head has returned to television. In 1993 when MTV first put the program on the air it seemed to fit in well with its counter-culture offerings that appealed to a Generation X that was seeking identity. In the fourteen years since MTV aired the last episode of its original run though, the station seems to have changed dramatically. It's filled with sappy True Life episodes, strange scripted shows that do not remotely come close to emulating the current youth experience and of course, Jersey Shore. Beavis and Butt-Head no longer feels synchronous with this kind of programming. Or does it?

In 1993 MTV's biggest shows included Yo! MTV Raps, The State, The Jon Stewart Show and The Real World. I suppose things have changed quite a bit, haven't they. MTV somehow in the past decade turned itself around from an alternative rock and grunge fueled edgy counter-cultural station to a postmodern, overly ironic, Twilight-catering counter-cultural station. They've always had these vestiges of their former punkness though, like Human Giant and the Jackass or Celebrity Deathmatch specials that pop up here and there. It's difficult to see where this audience went though. MTV no longer caters to Fuck-You Culture.

At any rate, amidst the inexplicable permutations of the television world, Beavis and Butt-Head took over the Thursday Night, 10 pm spot immediately after Jersey Shore concluded and wouldn't you know it, it's a fantastic hit as well. It makes me feel like I actually don't understand any demographics at all. I usually just look at myself, I'm a young, low brow male interested in counter-culture and anti-social programming with a lot of humour - at 10 pm on Thursdays Cable sees Beavis and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia compete head-to-head but there isn't really a winner and loser. They go 1-2. I can only surmise that everyone in my demographic must do the same as I do - DVR one of the shows and watch it immediately after the other finishes.

But this sidesteps the greater point - why is the same MTV audience who turns into Jersey Shore refusing to turn off Beavis? Or is MTV winning back the viewers it has been turning over for the past decade? I would guess that it speaks to the Jersey Shore audience more than the Beavis audience. We need to understand what is really happening here. The simple fact is that people turn into Jersey Shore to make fun of it and then turn into Beavis and Butt-Head to watch them make fun of it (See also). It transitions from sympathetic viewing to empathetic viewing.

Also not updated is this clear predecessor to Hank Hill
What's great about this show is how blatantly its creator, Mike Judge has striven to make it stand out even more in its new time period. The show is absolute nostalgia. The animation is not updated, nor are the central characters' AC/DC and Metallica shirts. I wonder if half of the regular MTV youth audience now even knows what Metallica is (besides a whiny old rockband who doesn't like people stealing their music). Beavis and Butt-Head watch new music videos and shows on their rabbit ear TV and still continually search for porn, seemingly unaware that hell, they could get it on their phones now if they wanted to. It has hit the ground running since its departure; it almost dares its viewers not to watch, to instead change the channel to something brighter, faster or cleaner to look at (perhaps the atrocious Good Vibes program that follows it).

Beavis and Butt-Head follows this slice-of-life reality. The viewer gets the impression that in between the given escapades in an episode the characters just go back to their house and watch television. It's a daring concept that works because of the brutal hilarity that follows. The characters are so suffocatingly dumb that they are immune to pain or humiliation on the path towards their ignoble goals - typically some form of scoring with chicks. What's more surprising than the program's return to the airwaves is that it could return so authentically to its original premise.

So get ready for some anti-MTV action that in a grand ironic sense is...MTV action tonight at 10 pm EST - it's Beavis and Butt-Head.

09 November 2011

The Long Halloween Vol. III: Chaos Never Dies Day

Welcome again to the Third Installment of the Long Halloween, Norwegian Morning Wood's year-long look at each month's special holidays and great movies they might correspond with. Now, November movies have always been tricky. You've got Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) for Thanksgiving, and that's about it. This year's Tower Heist (2011) actually has a nice Macy's Parade theme that could work into future viewings but this year we're checking out the more obscure Monthly Holidays.

The obvious secondary November Holiday is Veteran's Day on Friday, during which you need to watch Saving Private Ryan (1998) as ABC or TNT used to air uncut. I don't know why airing the film uncut honoured our Veterans, I guess hearing a couple more fucks just really drove home those wonderful war memories. No, today we're honouring a much more obscure holiday called Chaos Never Dies Day. It's a day when you're supposed to go nuts and believe that your life is ruled by chaos with no direction or determinism. Fun stuff.

So for a while I thought about citing The Dark Knight (2008). Actually I immediately thought about Jurassic Park (1993), then thought of mentioning The Dark Knight and then back to Jurassic Park. Either way, let's check out their statements on Chaos:

In The Dark Knight Heath Ledger's Joker professes to be an absolute agent of chaos. He exists only to upset the established order of the society he lives in (although Gotham Society was already on the edge of crumbling before the arrival of Batman). There's no backstory, no alias, no motive other than to as the movie puts it, "watch the world burn." That's one issue with The Dark Knight, it describes its own themes in language so adeptly constructed that it's hard to pull new insights from it.

Anyway, the film loses some points because the Joker loses. Kind of. His surface goal, to demonstrate a city that has lost its mind, cementing himself as the agent of chaos doesn't play out the way he supposed it would. With that turn he tries to fix it himself, which really struggles against the chaos and freewheeling anarchy he is trying to create. However, his "ace in the hole," Harvey Dent (damn you, Jonathon) succumbs to the chaos. In the end in order to prevent pandemonium Batman takes the blame, preventing chaos from ruling the day.

Not so in Jurassic Park. The film is about life and chaos and the uncontrollable nature of nature. The more mankind tightens its grip the more life breaks free (and woman inherits the earth). Every rule that the humans attempt to put on nature is broken. The fences are broken, the kitchen's raided and hell, the big bruisers even change their sex just so that they can have some babies.

By the end nature has claimed the park. Chaos wins. The flowing forces of life do not allow room for bureaucracy, rules or arbitrary human judgment. The Hunter, Robert Muldoon despite his precocious set-ups to nail the Rogue Raptors is devastated by the chaotic nature of the jungle - danger can come from any direction. Even when it seems like Alan, Ellie and those unloved bastard children are doomed, Tyrannosaurus comes in and munches the Raptors. Nothing is predictable and as Rexy smashes the delicate skeletons set up by the humans she demonstrates her reign over anything Order could throw at her.

The more chaotic movie? Jurassic Park. Through this classic in the ol' VHS player today and sit back. Just be careful of the chaos outside.

04 November 2011

Modal Nodes: The Best Cover Songs

I'm not sure why I've been thinking about this lately. I think it's from hearing The Sundays' version of "Wild Horses" on the radio.It takes a lot to make a great cover song. An artist needs to truly bring something new and different to an established song that ultimately becomes as iconic as the original. It simultaneously needs to make the listener interpret the original a little different and stand on its own potential. There's a few easy ways to do this: 1) Rock band plays rap song, 2) Chick sings guy song or 3) Do Bob Dylan. There's only a handful of these that I'm going to talk about today.

"Free Fallin'" by John Mayer (Cover of Tom Petty)

Somehow I really like this version much more than Tom Petty's original. That's a tough accomplishment, especially because I like no other John Mayer songs. It's also strange because he almost gets into a little Dave Mathews voice and I despise DMB. Nevertheless he works the classic track over as a gentle ballad with a mourning, soothing quality that really dives into lonely nature of the song. It's uplifting though, there's this freeing quality of the way he sings the classic phrases a bit differently, but not terribly.

"Heartless" by The Fray (Cover of Kanye West)

I don't really get sick of alternative artists covering hip-hop (See also Hugo's "99 Problems" and Framing Hanley's "Lollipop") but this is probably the best. The Fray takes a largely AutoTuned song by the GREATEST RAPPER OF ALL TIME but it doesn't lose any of its emotional qualities (it improves on them in some ways) and it really doesn't force white rapping like some other tracks will. It's a truly transformative genre switching that's ultimately worth listening to on its own, which is the ultimate sign of any good cover.

"Smooth Criminal" by Alien Ant Farm (Cover of Michael Jackson)

As a friend of mine once said as he walked into a room where the original was playing, "What shitty version is this?" Alien Ant Farm has never really had another hit, except for that movie song, but they work it here. They're definitely part of that weird suburban middle-class punk movement whose motivations for being angry are always strange to me. It's half-punk, half-pop shit. So why is this better than Michael? I think it's as simple as replacing synth beats with some distortion guitar.

"It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" by The Animals (Cover of Bob Dylan)

There are plenty of covers of this track by many artists but The Animals' version is the greatest. It flows and oozes through the rhythm while Eric Burden's voice gives the track more authority than Dylan ever could. Still, the one-man Dylan effort is a classic track. The backing of The Animals gives it a tremendously greater amount of musical depth. And a voice that's tolerable to listen to.

"All Along the Watchtower" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Cover of Bob Dylan)

Naturally this is the greatest cover song of all time as well as the second Dylan on this list. Jimi took Dylan's words and molded them into an epic rock experience with blistering new solos, incredible instrumental depth and a hell of a lot of soul. This should be the template for every cover song to follow. It takes an original great track and improves on it in every way. It's a brilliant piece of music.

Notable Runners-Up:

Some bands such as Guns N' Roses and Limp Bizkit have made careers covering other songs (see "Live and Let Die" and "Faith"). There are also some great contemporary rock covers such as Lenny's "American Woman" or Eddie's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." I also thought about including The Gourds version of "Gin and Juice" but that's just a little too far out there. Entertaining though. While there are plenty of rock covers of rap tracks there doesn't seem to be that many that go the other way. Rap tracks are much more likely to sample a song (see um...see every rap song ever) but there are some notables such as Lil' Wayne's "Poker Face." Needless to say this list is incomplete - add your own favourites below!
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