31 May 2012

The Five Degrees of Superhero Comic Films

It's no stretch to say that the past cinematic decade has been dominated by Superhero and Comic Book films. 2012 offers three huge properties at once - The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises. Since we're about in the middle of all these flicks, it seemed like a good time to dig into the patterns of quality a bit deeper. These films can range from the spectacular to the terrible - why is that? For the purposes of this article, I've limited the scope to 21st Century mainstream superhero comic book films.* Let's begin:

The Unwatchable:

There are many Superhero movies that are just so infuriatingly bad that they are rendered unwatchable. They aren't any fun at all and there is nothing to be gained from watching them. This happens for a few reasons. We can start with Ghost Rider (2007) and Punisher: War Zone (2008). Both are classic Marvel Anti-heroes who have never done that well on screen. They both are deserving of massive gory violence and unrelenting action instead of the camp and brooding they received. The tone of either is tricky to pull off, and they're more suited to comic media.

Next we have a pair of failed DC adaptations, Jonah Hex (2010) and Green Lantern (2011). The Green Lantern's stock has been rising in the comic world with an excellent string of titles, tho poor casting, marketing, and plot doomed the film. It's something that tried to overreach its boundaries - a massive galactic cast of characters works over a franchise or better yet, a 50-year narrative history, but not forced into two hours. Jonah Hex is more like Ghost Rider - a very difficult tone that just wasn't pulled off.

It's sad that two heroine films, Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) are some of the worst films ever made. While Elektra isn't really an interesting character, Catwoman can certainly be appealing - but this maybe is not the most practical way. I mean, there's still ways to display tits and be functional. Lastly, two X-Men films, The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) are so egregiously bad that it makes me want to punch babies all day. The problem with all these films isn't with their pulp origins. Much more has been done with less, and much more comic-y films have been made - they just lose so much quality from inferior filmmaking, flimsy narratives, and disservice to fans. We'll talk more of that later.

The Enjoyably Silly:

A step up from the Unwatchables are the Enjoyably Silly flicks. I've split these into two categories: A) Enjoyably Bad and B) Enjoyably OK films. There's a fairly subtle difference. The Enjoyably Bad films include both Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), which are really pretty shitty, but for the most part honour its source material, play into its camp, and deliver a pretty fun couple of hours. Likewise, there was nothing wrong with the original Punisher (2004), which didn't take itself as seriously as its sequel, but had a likeable cast (Tom Jane, naturally), and was fun enough. Lastly, this year's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012) was more of a Ghost Rider film than the 2007 original, and allowed itself to be as manic, insane, and self-aware as Ghost Rider is supposed to be. None of these flicks are very good, but none of them strive to be more than they are.

The Enjoyably OK films include the recent Marvel Avengers franchise kickers THOR (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and The Avengers. All of these are certainly quite a large step up from something like Fantastic Four, but none really reach the status of the best Comic Book Films out there. They're all well-made though, are masters of their tone, and have some of the most solid, engaging characters of any film on this list. Still, they don't rise above their origins are remain excellent adaptations of another medium rather than great films.

The Ones that take themselves too seriously:

Comic Book films are tricky. I have just disparaged a handful of great, fun movies for remaining in the Pulp World, but trying to completely leap out of that world is also a fatal move. It's an important distinction - in order to be considered good movies on their own, Comic Book Films need on some level to acknowledge and revel their own silliness (and sometimes stop there, which is fine, it will make tons of money), but also try to be something more. Often though, this attempt to be something more is either ridiculously unsubtle, doesn't fit with the scope of story, or botches character development, so no one really cares how important the film pretends to be.

The first such of these films was Daredevil (2003), which is generally underrated in the Superhero Film Pantheon, because it comes close to being a pretty good film, with an articulated origin story, gritty tone, and cast (c'mon, Ben Affleck isn't that bad, is he?). Despite these successes it never figures out what it wants to be and trips over itself constantly. There are many more famous examples, including both versions of the Jolly Green Smasher, Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008). Both films fail to realise that the "Other Guy" is far more interesting than Banner, though I don't think Ang Lee gets enough credit for trying to elevate the character based on many Banner storylines from the comics. One reason why the Hulk was such a star of The Avengers was because it's the first film to get him right - summing it up in two words and a grin: "Hulk - smash."

There's three more here. First we have Superman Returns (2006), which again is a pretty good film and probably one of the better in this category, but it kept trying to be some kind of Immortal Story imposed on a remake of Richard Donner's film. For all the pomp, Superman doesn't do much other than lift things for two hours, and he doesn't inspire the world-changing hope he tries to, even if the film tells us different. There's also Spider-Man 3 (2007), which failed to follow up Spider-Man 2 (2004), which spoiler, is our pick for the Best Superhero Film Ever. Again, Spider-Man 3 could have easily fallen into the Enjoyably Silly group, and that would have been fine. It feels a lot like a comic book, with random thugs, and villains and huge cool battles. The problem is that the film tries to make us care about everything. There's too many layers forced on the audience and none of it pretends to be as ironic as it should be.

 Let's talk about Iron Man 2 (2010) for a second because its category was hard to place. It's certainly an enjoyable film with some really cool action sequences, difficult stakes for the growing Tony Stark, all while definitely having fun with itself. At the same time, though, there's all these really out of place dark sequences like Tony's accidental drunken rampage and it approaches the consequences of his competition and control of industry. The tone and themes get jumbled, and it tries to leap over the moon while being ridiculous. It doesn't work.

The Intense Brooders

There's no other real category for these two. Chris Nolan has elevated Batman over all other franchises through his two films that are steeped in realism, trying desperately to forge a psychological profile for someone who would actually dress up as a bat and hunt crime, as well as the practical consequences for doing so. Neither film is actually that perfect classic though, mostly due to both of their Third Acts where the story starts unraveling from a psychological profile into a weird Microwave Chase in Batman Begins (2005) and the somewhat forced Boat Decision in The Dark Knight (2008). The problem with these films is that they refuse to acknowledge the obvious - the idea of a Batman existing is still equally insane to any other superhero out there, and understanding and buying into that idea is the same as any other crazy thing that happens in these movies. It tries so hard to ignore this basic fallacy that it fails at becoming the purest form of Superhero Movie. Still, these things are great films in their own right and do succeed in surpassing their roots.

The Cream of the Crop: A Middle Way

Out of all this junk then, we come to five films that really exist in between the dichotomy between fun and crazy and serious, authentic films. These are the kind of classics that can stand against the best of any other action film out there. Three of them are X-Men, two Spider-Man and one Iron Man.

The first two X-Men films worked in part because they were breaking new ground. There was nothing like them that came before and they were thus unhampered by the pressures, tropes, and standards that they would actually create. X-Men (2000) actually does a fantastic job of bringing the team together, particularly Wolverine and Rogue, and though there are low points (whiffed potential with Storm, Cyclops, and Sabretooth in particular), it introduces and honours the greatest villain of all time and is also simultaneously able to make fun of its origins hokier elements and retain the authentic characters and narrative.

Its sequel, X2: X-Men United (2003) does everything its predecessor does, but better. It introduces better characters, better villains, and then splits up and tests the group established in the first film. This is all while having very emotional as well as some incredibly cool and clever sequences. X-Men: First Class (2011) is one of the few successful period Superhero films and it again hits the balance between a fun and engaging movie as well as being full of complex themes and characters. Both of these are exceptional films that neither trip over their own inherent silliness or get lost in their ideals.

Iron Man (2008) gets a solid mention here because not only was it instrumental in proving that The Avengers could work, it did things that no Superhero film had done before it, from the irreverence of its protagonist, the real-world political application of superpowers, and all with a classic B-Lister. If Iron Man had been anything like Ghost Rider or something else, it would indeed be a bleaker future for the Superhero film.

We end with a pair of great movies, Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004). Like X-Men and its sequel, Spider-Man gets a lot of the wackiness right while maintaining Great Responsibility. It laughs when it should but it also has some big stakes that center around its protagonist. Spider-Man 2 cranks everything up a notch, making things personal, bringing Peter Parker's relationship with Mary Jane to a head, threatening New York City itself, and providing a mentor/student conflict much more engaging and genuine than similar beats in Iron Man or Batman Begins. It's the best we got and should be the model for all other Superhero films to come.


The big question then, is what will The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises be like? From the looks of it, it seems like The Amazing Spider-Man has mastered its dark yet vibrant and funny tone that makes up so much of Spider-Man, but if it can't enjoy itself or has a plot that falls apart (or a villain that looks as shitty as this...crap), it won't reach Cream of the Crop Status. The Dark Knight Rises is destined to be a Brooder, but basically if it can have an intensity and a coherent third act it may just be the best we've ever got.

*Ok fine, if you want to know about Blade, it descends from Enjoyable to Unwatchable through the course of the franchise, and Hellboy brings itself up to the Cream of the Crop with a second installment that improves upon a very good first installment.

29 May 2012

First Impressions: Battleship

Oh, Battleship. What an OK game to play in my youth. I'd shout "B5!" and someone else would answer back "Miss!" And that was all there was for centuries. In the last few weeks though, we've seen this simple and fairly stupid game get a $209 million movie treatment, replete with Aliens, protagonists struggling to find their way, and of course, Rihanna. I, however, will not join the bandwagon in condemning this film - I actually sincerely believe it is one of the better films of Summer so far, an underrated gem that whose reputation will grow with age. Like Starship Troopers (1997) or Josie and the Pussycats (2001) before it, this is a hiddenly subversive film that mashes together Sci-Fi and Action film tropes, liberates the story from their need, and rests itself on higher ground than many other more common Blockbusters. For sure, plenty of SPOILERS will start here so if you are one of the half-dozen people out there who actually still plan on watching Battleship (2012) and enjoying it for yourself, leave now.

Pilgrims and Indians

Let's start with the big picture - the Alien Invasion. Except of course for the fact that this isn't an Alien Invasion at all. Numerous times in the film characters allude to the parallels between the Aliens touching down and the first European Settlers coming to America. Unable to work through their differences, the Europeans and some tribes of Native Americans went to war, which with their technological superiority, the Europeans came out triumphant. This is the major fear of the characters involved in Battleship - that their planet will be overrun by Aliens seeking to conquer them. This is naturally the built up suspicion from a lifetime of ingesting Sci-Fi stories like Battleship's contemporaries such as The Avengers (2012) and Men in Black 3 (2012).

That's not really the case here, though. The Aliens do not attack any humans unless the humans are aggressive first. It's also notable that humanity contacted them first, and when they arrived they are met with gunfire, suspicion, and destruction. They're also not an all-powerful race with super-strong armor like in the Transformers franchise, even a WWII Battleship puts some sizable dents in their best ride. Because of this, their communication ship goes down when it crashes into a satellite, accidentally landing in the middle of Hong Kong. This is misinterpreted by the humans as a threat, but really, the Aliens lost an integral part of their operation - probably their only ticket home.

We're conditioned to believe that these things are bad. The Aliens, though, are actually not all that different from Humans in their design, they're big fleshy, pale-skinned dudes with eyes and noses and lips and teeth. They don't mean to harm other than when defending themselves (and perhaps giving Oahu a little Shock and Aww) and they act fairly like a stranded group of survivors would. Think of a little Black Hawk Down (2001) and you can understand what these things are trying to do - it really upends the whole premise.

Within this idea there have been complaints that Battleship rips off a ton of source material, from Transformers, to Titanic (1997) and Pearl Harbor (2001), it's easy to see that it's playing with tropes rather than trying to steal from them and stand on its own. It outright makes fun of its own dialogue and the zaniness of the first half-hour establishes Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) as the opposite of any "Destined Hero." In fact, the ending does the same.

Speaking of Taylor Kitsch...

This poor guy has know starred in two of the biggest flops of the year, if not some of the more famous of all time. What kind of career is this cat going to have? It's not like he hasn't done a great job. He plays well into that reluctant but brilliant rebel, sort of like a dirtier version of Chris Pine's Kirk from Star Trek (2009). He has a nice dose of irreverence, attitude, and capability that makes him a unique and engaging star.

Still, neither John Carter (2012) nor Battleship had any faith in his star power even though he's at the center of both films, not the effects and hackneyed legacy, to which the marketing of both hitched their wagons to. That's one of both these flicks' major problems - they're pretty good, entertaining, cinematic originals because the spectacle tried to outrun the story, even though the story was pretty solid in both. This of course leads us to...

The Marketing Failure

The issue with Battleship doesn't lie in the film itself. It lies in a marketing campaign that was so totally off base that it laughed away any serious attention. It didn't put anyone in a frame of mind to critically examine a new kind of action film with a cool premise and an authentic array of characters. There's a bit of irony here. The world expected a rip-off of Transformers films and avoided this one - although people never seemed to avoid that series at all. This is yet ironic, because Battleship is far more original than any Transformers film because it had to invent its own narrative material. This puts it above other Hasbro adaptations like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) or even the possible Candy Land movie.

This was another hurdle that the film just couldn't get over. The problem here is that apparently no one realized the ridiculousness of associating the film with a toy. When Transformers (2007) was first made, it wasn't just the toys that it built its franchise on, it was thirty years of animated movies, cartoon shows, and comic books, as well as some of the most recognizable characters from the childhood of Generations X and Y. This doesn't work the same way with a game that had no previous association with Aliens and thus the juxtaposition is rather jarring to just throw at a potential audience, seemingly with full seriousness. As mentioned, this isn't really the case, and nothing about the "Invasion" is typical, and this should have been a selling point. It wasn't.

With all this nonsense though, the filmmakers actually did work in a lengthy scene that connects rather directly with the original Board Game. It's a fairly ingenious connection and has some of the most tension, character development, and human success in the film. Isn't that curious? While disparaging the source material, almost all critics have agreed that the only scene that actually calls back to the source material is by far the best in the film?

There's also Rihanna. Oh, Rihanna. She isn't used for sex here, although there is plenty of unsubtle Male Perspective and boobie shots, mostly of Brooklyn Decker. I don't know why Rihanna is here and it's kind of funny and weird and awesome whenever she's on screen. Still, she doesn't take away from the film at all, and does what she needs to do, even if her speech about her father's Alien Prediction kind of comes out of left field and is never really revisited. Sequel in Barbados, anyone? If this film got her a role in Fast Six, that's OK with me. Just answer me why we didn't get a kick-ass Rihanna tie-in song for the Summer instead of Tom Morello's stuff?

This is also by and large a proud Navy film, and after years of highlighting Marines or the Air Force or SEALS, isn't it about time these boys (and girl) got a solid action flick? They even incorporate some of the Navy's most relevant history when John Carter recruits a horde of WWII vets for the final Alien Battle.

OK, So it was pretty goofy.

There is some pretty bad dialogue. It's kind of insane to see all these 90-year olds fighting Aliens on the USS Missouri. The acting is never really great. I don't really know what the point of Brooklyn Decker's hike up the mountain was other than to provide exposition, telling her bf John Carter what to blow up. There also seems to be some ignored significance in having the American and Japanese Navies unite to work in tandem right across the bay from Pearl Harbor. There's a lot of stuff that probably shouldn't be happening.

All of this contributes to the fun, though. None of it really gets in the way of the story, and every character is extremely likeable instead of frustrating. There is tension enough to panic for the characters, but never so much that it becomes indigestible. It's one of the more perfect Summer Movies that has hit theaters in a long time. Above all else, its subtext is intriguing and does things for its genre far beyond something like The Avengers, which seems awfully cliched in hindsight. I said it. I would take Battleship over The Avengers.

Let the Internet hate me forever.

28 May 2012

Summer Jam Week 3: Carly Rae, Drake, and T.I. make a Memorial Day Splash

As the Final Summer chugs along we come to Memorial Day. With the sun shining and beaches open the hottest tracks of the season are just getting ready to blow. We still have quite a ways to go but there's been a nice upsurge of some great tracks.

Hot Track of the Week #1:"HYFR" by Drake ft. Lil Wayne

This is a pretty legit song considering it comes from the usually talentless Drake. It's got a fairly chill smooth beat and rhythm and a pounding cheer for a chorus that you can really call out and get into. The vid is where it gets weird - apparently Drake has had the most insane Bar Mitzvah ever, with champagne flowin, bitches blowin, and everything crunk. Works for me - I've never been more excited to hallel.

Hot Track of the Week #2: "Love this Life" by T.I.

T.I. hasn't really done anything substantial since he hit it big and suddenly his hard, street-centric verses seemed so shallow (sort of like DMX). His jail time didn't help his lack of good output (although he still appeared on a fair number of songs somehow). This track is pretty cool though, a sensitive soothing chorus you can jam too with a steady beat and competent rhyming filling the rest of the song. I think "HYFR" has a better chance of blowing up but this a legit song for the Week.

The New Rockers: "Gold on the Ceiling" by The Black Keys

It helps that this track has shown up everywhere from commercials for Dark Shadows (2012) to Battleship (2012). What doesn't help is that these flicks have absolutely bombed. If only The Black Keys could have gotten into The Avengers (2012)...Oh well, they're track is still lively and jamworthy and as the only really rock track on the Week's List, it's worth another listen.

Crapfest of the Week: "Payphone" by Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa

Maroon 5 has completed their descent from an emerging super rock group like Green Day to a shitty pop-rock outfit like Train. The video is atrocious, and it seems more and more that they're just a load of crap. That said, they're gaining popularity and this track is blossoming. Even Wiz's verse seems disjointed and lacking of his normally majestic flow. Nothing here works.

Oozing Summer: "Wild Ones" by Flo Rida ft. Sia

This track comes back after being absent last week and tho it's been out for a while it's still making a good dent in Summer. It's a great track to jam to before a party or even after a night of heavy Summer Drinking. Flo Rida is made for Summer Tunes and Sia really oozes all over the chorus, making it better than Flo ever could. I'm glad he realizes that he can't sing choruses for shit and consistently gets chicks who sound really hot, all the way back to Ke$ha.

Finally an Appropriate Season: "Starships" by Nicki Minaj

"Starships" finally landed on the map this week, and with a month full of movies that featured alien invasions it's about time. With a little better timing this should have been the greatest Summer Jam of all time. It's an incredibly fun and engaging tune, one where Nicki lands and shouts at everyone that she's a fucking superstar already - in case no one had gotten the picture already. She's all-encompassing - pop, hip-hop, club and beach banger - you got to give in. Still, if this song was going to be big, it'd be big by now, although who knows, maybe the sunshine the next few months will give it some new life. I also have no idea what the hell this fucking song is about.

Still Going Strong: "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye ft. Kimbra

This may have faltered a bit this week, but there's no doubting that Gotye's signature song is still one of the biggest in the nation. It's also getting to be an excessively old track but then again, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" had a similar meteoric rise last year and plunged deep into the Hottest Months. Needless to say, things are looking good for the Aussie Gotye.

Hey Boy, I Just Met You! "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen

Undoubtedly the Song of the Week, Carly Rae has taken over. This song is so stupid yet catchy, poppy, and bippy. It's unstoppable. It's the kind of song that everyone somehow knows instantly. The lyrics are so insipid, easy to remember and digestible, it lodges itself in your brain, burrows deep down to the cortex and refuses to let go no matter how much Slayer is played. It's such a puppy love high school song, fitting for all the proms, Memorial Day on the beach, and whatever else those youths do these days. I'd say it has a bright future - unlike all those new graduates.

Next Week...

There was certainly a bit of a shake-up this week but I don't think anyone mentioned here beyond the Hot Tracks of the Week are going anywhere. We'll keep an eye on the Biebs as well as Wiz's other new emerging track, "Work Hard Play Hard" for sure.

26 May 2012

2011 - 2012 TV Season in Review: SNL

The 2011 - 2012 Television season was long and tumultuous.There were plenty of crappy new series and old ones that just wouldn't die. Suffice it to say that we're all grateful for the addition of New Girl into our lives for all of these reasons. But we're basically here just to chat about the 37th Season of SNL because 1) I watched the whole thing and 2) due to its insane hit-or-miss nature it's fun to categorize. Let's go through it starting with the Worst Episodes of the year, the Best, then the Best Sketches. We'll skip the Worst Sketches...because there's not enough room on the Internet to name them all.

Best Episodes

It's tough to make a good SNL episode. No matter what happens there's going to be a high amount of terrible, cringe-worthy sketches, as is the nature of the production. Still, at times the Hosts are used exactly as they should be, typically they're willing to go all out and play up whatever the writers think of. Here are the Top 5 for the year:

#5: Steve Buscemi / The Black Keys - 12/03/11

Key Sketches: Batman Digital Short, Dateline, Coach Bert, Sex Ed Couples Therapy

Buscemi is one of the greatest character actors of all time and he finally got a chance to host SNL in the wake of his success being a leading man on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. He played exactly well enough into old, creepy, and funny consistently that made this episode work.

#4: Melissa McCarthy / Lady Antebellum - 10/01/11

Key Sketches: The Lawrence Welk Show, Office Flirt, Taste Test

Perhaps better than any other host this year, even the ones with past SNL experience, Melissa McCarthy perfectly integrated herself into the cast. Still riding the Bridesmaids (2011) success pretty high, she was a natural onstage engaging in the wackiness, and more importantly, willing to absolutely throw herself into the most bizarre premises, devoting herself to selling these insane characters. From giving Kristen Wiig an equal in The Lawrence Welk Show to an undying love for Cool Valley Hidden Ranch dressing, she went above and beyond what many hosts have ever done.

#3: Maya Rudolph / Sleigh Bells - 02/18/12

Key Sketches: Baby Blue Ivy, What Up With That?, Super Showcase, The Obama Show

Maya Rudolph always seemed like more of a contributory player than leading focus during her run on the show, but she came back and took charge, killing it in almost every sketch of the night. She was also willing to give it her all, from anchoring the increasingly silly "What Up With That?" sketch to a high point in writing observation with "The Obama Show." The "Super Showcase," though, was somehow the funniest of the night, with little more of a premise then funny voices.

#2: Josh Brolin / Gotye - 04/14/12

Key Sketches: The Californians, America's Next Top Empire State Of Mind Parody Artist, Laser Cats 7, Woodridge High, Prom

I didn't think that this episode would be beat this year. From a bizarre appearance by Steven Spielberg to another outlet for Jay Pharaoh's impeccable Jay-Z impression (tho it's clearly getting harder to fit in his talents), this was very low on the awful sketches. This actually had little to do with Brolin, though. The sketches were more high concept like the slow-motion high school hallway or re-hashing the dated but still chucklable "Empire State of Mind" parodies. The two best of the night, though, "The Californians" and "Prom" worked just because the core cast involved had wacky voices. Sometimes that's all you need.

#1: Mick Jagger / Arcade Fire, Jeff Beck, Foo Fighters - 05/19/12

Key Sketches: The Lawrence Welk Show, Secret Word, Karaoke, Lazy Sunday 2, So You Think You Can Dance At An Outdoor Music Festival, She's a Rainbow

The season finale was an incredible high note for the show this year. Not only was it an adequate send-off for some of Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig's best characters it was a perfect ending for Kristen's tenure. How many people can leave their jobs being serenaded by Mick Jagger? Mick was somehow perfect in everything, clearly a seasoned pro at performing live. It touched on just enough Rolling Stones history to not be corny but play up the idea. The only major gripe is a wasted use of a Steve Martin appearance, but one of the few people who we can accept that from is Mick.

Honourable Mentions: Channing Tatum, Jimmy Fallon, Eli Manning

Worst Episodes

#5: Charlie Day / Maroon 5 - 11/05/11

I was really looking forward to this episode but it didn't really pan out. There wasn't really anything good for Day to do and they didn't play into his image beyond a Danny DeVito appearance during the monologue - but it wasn't anything substantial. It always felt on the edge of being awesome but never crossed it.

#4: Lindsay Lohan / Jack White - 03/03/12

Why did Lindsay Lohan host? While she was present for the immortal "Debbie Downer" sketch years ago, she hasn't really contributed to...well, anything in society since 2004. She was able to make fun of her image a bit in the "Scared Straight" installment, but nothing else really worked except for the Digital Afros sketch, which she had nothing to do with.

#3: Katy Perry / Robyn - 12/10/12

I always wonder if it's an insult when the Host is a musician and he or she is not asked to also perform. Anyway, Katy was featured in many of the more tired of SNL's recent sketches and proved again that there's not much she can do beyond stand around and have big tits. The best part that came out of the episode though, this clearly this recreation of the Robyn video by Taran Killam.

#2: Anna Faris / Drake - 10/15/11

Anna Faris' presence was barely felt in this episode. It was as if she wasn't there yet there were still sketches that centered around her inability to do much. As an actress she's best when she goes full-weird (like in Just Friends [2005]) instead of talking low and screaming (like in everything else). Quite a disappointment.

#1: Will Ferrell / Usher - 05/12/11

How could this have happened? Will's gig back in 2010 was epic but nothing seemed to work this time around. Will was never threw himself into it as much as he used to, which may have been the fault of some uninspired writing. It was as if the show's creators forgot they had Will, not some run-of-the-mill performer. By far the most disappointing episode of the year.

Honourable Mentions: Daniel Radcliffe, Jonah Hill

Top 13 Best Sketches

Fairly arbitrarily, here are our pics for the Best Sketches of the season:

#13: Drake Interview

As soon as Drake refuses to do the Racist Interview we knew we'd be watching this a lot. Its best moment may be the flash of Kristen Wiig with an eye-patch, though. She was one of the most versatile SNL players because she could play the put-upon mom, the sex symbol, and the weirdo with an eye-patch all to perfection.

#12: Kardashian Divorce Special

Making fun of the Kardashians is pretty easy but SNL takes it up a notch. From Wiig's Kris Jenner budding into everything, Samberg's perfectly retarded Kris Humphries impression, Jay Pharaoh's understandably perplexed and rational Lamar Odem and of course, the trio of anal bleached sisters themselves, the sketch captures in two minutes the ridiculously shallow Kardashian cash cow.

#11: Andre the Giant Gets an Ice Cream

Jason Segel doesn't have very many famous impressions, but his Andre the Giant is pretty good and had to be included here. It's perfectly bizarre, intriguing, and an essential punchline-less non sequitor. It works.

#10: Bridal Shower Gifts

Emma Stone's hosting wasn't that great but she really played against character here and her escalating realization of how far off base she is with these gifts is great to watch. I'd like to see a sequel where Nasim Pedrad's grandma experiences the full extent of Fred Armisen's Human Toilet.

#9: V-Necks

This is a great true observation that morphs into an insane premise. V-Necks are tough to pull off and require a lot of male confidence. Here that turns into an almost Zoolander-esque walk-off with Ben Stiller. His character's weird creepy voice and devotion to Satanity pushes it over the edge, as does Vanessa Bayer's increasingly weird noises.

#8: Clint Eastwood Chrysler Commercials

There were three of these, the first, and possibly least funny of which is posted here. It does everything an SNL celebrity impersonation should do - take a small public perception and blow it absolutely out of proportion so that it encompasses the entire character. We all felt the same way that Bill Hader's version of Clint felt after his Super Bowl commercial, and that just drives it home all the more.

#7: Super Showcase

I mentioned this earlier, I have no idea why, but I find this hysterical. There are many subtle things, such as Vanessa Bayer incorrectly guessing "Beef" when the answer is "Nine" as well as veterans like Wiig and Hader cracking up for no reason other than having a great time on stage. There's nothing to laugh at here beyond Maya Rudolph and Wiig talking weird, but it somehow fits the premise so well.

#6: Lazy Sunday 2

What is likely Andy Samberg's final Digital Short was also one of his best. It's appropriate, as he claims, to end his fake rap penmanship on the New York streets where he began it. It's also by and large a much better song than the original Lazy Sunday in terms of the new beat that comes in halfway, as well as the flow of Samberg and Parnell. Parns in particular owns this, putting more gangsta angst and emotion into the song than I previously thought he was capable of. Samberg's willingness to be simultaneously the background weirdo, at times the straight man, and more often, the unquestioned commander of Digital Shorts will be missed.

#5: The Californians

I have no idea why this is funny. It's basically a Californian melodrama mostly about debate over local directions. Still, something about the way every performer throws themselves into this insane world is captivating. It's also easy to believe that real Californians live like this. In that sense it's a much more New York view than an LA view. East Coast 4 lif.

#4: Taste Test

This should be known as THE Melissa McCarthy sketch. Her character is incredibly well developed within a few minutes, while also being hilarious. Her desperation increases throughout the sketch as she seeks $50 to "get out of some jams." The audience simultaneously sympathises with her yet is able to step back and laugh at her pathetic insanity. It of course tops off with McCarthy downing a bottle of Hidden Ranch, which is enough worth the price of admission.

#3: Text Message Evidence

The Eli Manning Episode was met with skepticism but ended up being one of the better of the season. Eli seems to never be able to prove himself no matter what success he has. This sketch is largely a pretty normal sketch but that's where the hilarity is. The amount of deadpan readings and facial expressions show both how stupid and pathetic late-night text flirting is, but we all do it shamefully, anyway. It's certainly one of the sketches that can be quoted whenever one thinks of getting with that cute girl who may also be in a coma.

#2: She's a Rainbow

An epic end to Kristen Wiig's tenure on the show - isn't it a shame that Paul Brittain didn't get such a send-off? This may even top Jimmy Fallon's 2004 departure sketch and was clearly the emotional high-point. It's moments like this that reminds us why SNL is a little more than just any other sketch show, or any other show of any kind for that matter. It's a family show. A fairly dirty irrelevant show for sure, but one with some sincere emotional connections beneath the veneer of wackiness.

#1: Who's on Top?

This sketch perfectly reveled in its stupidity. It has a terrible premise that it acknowledges and tires to defend, while simultaneously accepting its awfulness. Alec Baldwin's character is hapless, as well as the only player into the game. Bill Hader's host subverts many game show tropes ("Only 45 more minutes!" "You can walk away now, OR lose it all!"). More importantly, it's a really funny sketch with a clear high concept that sucks in and spits out the viewer and the best of the year.

Looking Ahead

 SNL is losing three huge names this year, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, and Jason Sudeikis. Samberg can be credited both with reinvigorating the show and massively spreading the popularity of YouTube in the middle of the decade. Wiig was the absolute glue of the show and Sudeikis...Sudeikis worked very well although he was always a bit too wry to ever really take the leadership position he needed to. All three have done their share of movies and out of the three, Wiig has the most definted voice. Sudeikis, though he's been strong in his 2011 trifecta of Hall Pass, Horrible Bosses, and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, doesn't really have his character yet. Samberg has his, but it's a little too weird for mainstream audiences, or at least to carry anything longer than a two-minute music video.

I don't fear for SNL, though. Its most talented performers right now may be its newest: Jay Pharaoh, Taran Killam, and Kate McKinnon are all set to be stars when used properly. With the other Big Three out of the way, they might just get that chance.

25 May 2012

The Road to a Blockbuster: Three Men in Black

Today we see the release of a few films, the biggest of which is Men in Black 3 (2012). I imagine, however, that years from now we'll be surely more interested in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which seems to capture some of the spirit from his earlier classics like Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). But our focus in these things are the loudest, trashiest attempts to jockey for a position as the Top Dog of Summer - so how does MIB3 stack up?

The original Men in Black (1997) was a phenomenon and has really stood atop the Sci-Fi Comedy charts unchallenged since its debut. It had a near-perfect mix of comedy, action, and horror as well as chemistry between likeable stars, an engaging high concept and iconic imagery, characters, and gadgets. It's simultaneously a successful Buddy Movie, Sci-Fi Movie, and Comedy Movie. One of the only other films that it could be compared to really in tone and genre is Ghostbusters (1984).

So where did this franchise go? After a great animated series that captured the weirdness while adding layers to a sleek and complex universe and then a truly terrible film sequel, there hasn't been much else to it. Will Smith has been one of the last great movie stars, from Independence Day (1996) all the way up to Hancock (2008). He hasn't done shit since Hancock, though, and MIB3 is more than a test of his Box Office Power than the test of any Star's Box Office Power. Johnny Depp already shit the bed this summer with the failure of Dark Shadows (2012). Outside of those two the list of A-Listers who can guarantee a big opening is getting slim.

Steer here with your asshole...
So what are MIB3's chances of echoing the cultural force of the first installment? About the same as Tommy Lee Jones actually turning into Josh Brolin. The schtick here is adding time travel to get Will Smith back to the 60s and a Brolin playing Lee's Agent K to perfection. Beyond that and shots of what appears to be The Entity, there isn't a whole lot more buzz here. For all his blockbuster prowess, Will Smith actually generally doesn't do that many sequels and for good reason. His films are usually far more successful as stand-alone pieces. There's not much more to go in the story beyond the end of I, Robot (2004) or I Am Legend (2007) beyond the absolute ridiculous. Men in Black was actually the one movie universe that could actually work episodically, as it's essentially a procedural. A pretty weird procedural to be sure, but one nonetheless.

What the hell
But there was no desire for this. No one cares about MiB anymore. I feel like every Blockbuster this summer will be measured against The Avengers (2012). That is, can any film do both the business The Avengers has done and be as marketable, palatable, and enjoyable. Besides a bizarre re-teaming of the two leads of No Country for Old Men (2007) playing Agent K, there's nothing here that screams must-see. It's a desperate cash-cow rather than an organic convalescence. Not that any Blockbuster is an organic convalescence, but there are certainly more appropriate and interesting places to revive a decades-old franchise than sending Will Smith back in time to apparently save Tommy Lee Jones and also prevent an invasion by giant Jellyfish.

Still, this is the kind of smartass character Will Smith played early in his career before he became really brooding in I, Robot, I Am Legend, and Hancock. It's a welcome return because it's what he did so well in Independence Day, the earlier MiBs and Bad Boys, and of course Wild Wild West (1999). Now that I've been able to mention every huge Will Smith action movie ever I can say that MIB3 may be forever known as the first of these that didn't do spectacular business in the past decade. I actually think The Avengers is still sucking up quite a bit of the market.

21 May 2012

Summer Jam Week 2: Demi Lovato, Neon Trees, & Gotye still reigns

Well folks it's Week Two of Summer already and that means that we've had plenty of recycled jams already. This week's Hot List includes a little bit of just about everything, from the Bieber to the Black Keys, this is it, baby. We're getting to the end of May - a time for College Graduations, Weddings, and embarrassing Memorial Day party shenanigans. Since when did Memorial Day transform from a day honouring the memory of fallen service men to an excuse to open the pool?

Hot Track of the Week: "Give Your Heart a Break" by Demi Lovato

Demi Lovato is a cute little thing with a decent set of pipes, but she exists in this weird Pop slit between deep indie chicks and superfluous bubblegum. She's Sara Bareilles light. This track is bouncy enough to entertain for a few minutes but it doesn't have the catch of a true summer jam. Still, it's hot this week.

Puberty's a Btich: "Boyfriend" by Justin Bieber

This is some hardcore shit dropped by the Biebs. I get excited when I first hear this track, mostly because I mistakenly think it's the Whisper Song. Biebs brings his shit though, and this song is surely a set above some of the other crap he put out that was more innocuous. I don't think Bieber has really made it to mainstream pop yet, although his willingness to get in on his own joke is reassuring.

Weird, Indistinguishable Lyrics: "Mercy" by Kanye ft. Big Sean, Pusha T & 2 Chainz

This is an up and coming Rap Track with two classic Kanye tropes: 1) vocalizations integrated into the beat and 2) way more collaborators than necessary. It sounds like his mom is yelling at him or something, and the whining is fairly ridiculous. I don't really think this track could dominate summer, it's too much of an investment.

Crappy, Peppy, Flighty: "Love U Betta" by Neon Hitch

This song has been cropping up here and there more often recently. It's a heavily synthesized track that would seem forgettable if not for the fact that once you hear this before 9 am it's guaranteed to be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. I don't think Neon Hitch is the next big thing, but this song will do for the moment.

Rock's Rightful Throne: "Gold on the Ceiling" by The Black Keys

The Black Keys may be the greatest thing in Rock right now, and every track dropped off El Camino (2011) seems better than the one before it. This is absolutely jam-worthy and is a great choice to rev up a party with some brews and headbanging fun. Rock is always more transitory for Summer Jams, though, Pop tends to dominate. With the rest of this list featuring Rock or arguably Rock Artists though, that may be shifting.

Jamming to a Guilty Pleasure: "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees

"Animal" was far more addicting than it should have been and the Neon Trees seem to be at it again with "Everybody Talks." It's a fairly awful song and its Pop/Rock cocktail really shouldn't be as popular as it is. Still, this song is incredibly fun and more important for Summer, you can turn your brain off to listen to it. It probably won't go very far.

Gotye.se: Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye

It doesn't appear like this guy's going anywhere. I've got to think that he's worn out his welcome by know but that doesn't look like the case. It's bizarre that some of the biggest recent artists have all been unknown crossover hit-makers, but maybe that shouldn't be all that surprising. Gotye's a weird dude though, and proudly doesn't really give a shit. I do actually think that this song is merely adequate until Kimbra comes in and elevates both the vocal and lyrical content.

Oh to be Young and Stupid: "We Are Young" by fun.

Will there be a prom this weekend that doesn't play this song? I think not. Still, although this is a pretty good song, it's tough to dance to and isn't really the dumb head throbbing track it should or could be. It has this regality and honesty to it that ironically makes it tough to play on nights that resemble the lyrical content. It's more of a before or after party song, an idea of generational pride that isn't all that practical in the moment.

Next week...

The Summer Cocktail is still mixing and swirling but I can't foresee the Top Two shifting all that much for the next few weeks. There are fresher jams out there though that only need a little traction to become the next really big thing. Stay tuned, true believers!

18 May 2012

The Road to a Blockbuster: The Dictator and Battleship try to Avenge

In this, the last Summer in History, we've already seen a sureproven Blockbuster. The Avengers (2012) has set the bar awfully high for any other film to challenge it. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012) may come close, but everyone else is playing an awfully tough game of catch-up. Opening today are two films that are trying awfully awfully hard to become the next big thing - The Dictator (2012) and Battleship (2012).

Sacha Baron Cohen seems poised to nail a final stake in all the good acclaim he's been riding since Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006). The key with that film was the wit and irony it had along with the immaturity and gross-out humour. Brüno (2009), arguably starring a funnier character than Borat, lacked the solid narrative of Borat (yes, somehow this is true) and thus the gags were hollow. The Dictator seems like an interesting, controversial premise with a lot of potential. It lies at the apex of bad taste, and reviews so far haven't been all that terrible. That said, it seems almost out of date coming after a year where we saw the deaths of Kim Jong Il, Osama bin Laden, and the movie's most obvious inspiration, Momar Gaddafi.

But we've never really cared about the quality of a film. The bottom line makes Hollywood go round, and will this film be palatable enough to engage a wide audience and ensure a mark on comedy for years to come? Will we look forward to late Saturday night unedited airings on Comedy Central around 2015? Those are the questions we want to get after - Will this thing be a Blockbuster?

I don't really think so. The film has reeked of desperation for weeks and it seems ill-timed to become a classic. With this kind of thing to be really shocking and funny it inherently needs to be an excellently constructed film. Instead, the plot seems well-worn, insipid, and uninspired. The key to attract audiences should be the opposite. Baron Cohen has committed to the character for sure, but the film has been pushed on audiences rather than offered for them to accept it. The buzz period has been long and arduous and when the anticipation transitioned from mysterious weird photos and a general irrelevance to actual joke and plot revelations hype cooled rather than fired up. This is not ideal. After the same jokes have been played over and over again (you can think of them immediately - Admiral General Aladeen shooting his way to win a track race, throwing garbage at a cab, and then appearing to want to bomb the Statue of Liberty in a helicopter), it seems like all the funny is drained out. All in all, the best thing may be the Soundtrack - although once you understand the postmodern joke of it all, there's not much more to that, either.

We've also got Battleship this weekend. Finally! This is perhaps one of the more insane films of all time. From the first trailer line, "From the Hasbro company that brought you Transformers" we all started preparing for the ridiculous. This is a movie, yes from the same company as Transformers, that appears to completely rip-off that franchise, particularly Dark of the Moon (2011).

I want Rihanna to star in Avengers 2 as Moon Knight.
I've never seen a movie make so much out of nothing before. Sure, it's a difficult hurdle to get over the fact that it's an entire film based on this, but they've ramped up the crazy here like few mainstream flicks before it. Why are there aliens attacking from the sea? I guess the planet is mostly ocean, it should make sense, really. This is truly a landmark Blockbuster, though, if it succeeds it will prove that the incredible stupidity of a franchise like Transformers is wholly transferable to any Summer Tentpole. This is a dangerous idea. In all likelihood though, this will cave to The Avengers, and that kind of big filmmaking will win the day. Hopefully.

Battleship has tried to hard to be a Blockbuster. It's been advertised for months and months and forced itself into everyone's minds in part due to how absolutely terrible it looks. Now, making old 80s cartoons like Transformers and G.I. Joe into really cool thrill-ride action films works because there's always been that potential there. The realistic depiction of the robot-on-robot fighting in Transformers (2007) is kind of how we all pictured it when we mashed our toys together. This doesn't really work with Battleship. You can't make this board game suddenly cool with pegs and grids and be dark, edgy, and cool. That's retarded.

Still, there had better be some kind of "You sunk my battleship" line. Otherwise, what's the point, really? It seems like a film that is going for it all - excessive stupidity, meaningless stakes, an incoherent plot, and a complete disregard for convention, class, or authenticity. With this we may hope for a truly postmodern Blockbuster - one that doesn't care about its product at all and exists only as a conduit for studios to take an audiences' money while giving them nothing in return. That is kind of exciting. Still, the stupidity of both of these movies will hold them back while there is still something like The Avengers available to audiences to experience.

Both The Dictator and Battleship open today - go check 'em out and see if I'm right.

14 May 2012

Summer Jam Week 1: Spring holdovers Kelly, fun., Gotye kick off Summer!

Hello once again to that Immortal Column, the Road to the King of Summer Jam 2012. This will be the last installment of this series, obviously, because this is the last Summer we will ever have. That said, this is the First Week of Our Last Installment, and as it's been for many years before, it's full of some fairly old tracks. I mean, some of these songs first dropped in like...March 2012. Yeah really. What's next, a post about The Hunger Games (2012)? Pfft. Sure thing, gramps. Here are your tracks for the week 05/07 - 05/13:

Hot Drop of the Week: "Mind Your Manners" by Chiddy Bang ft. Icona Pop

We're kicking off each week with the freshest track I've heard that has a good shot at blowing up some spots. Chiddy Bang has a ridiculous name and a lot more talent than he's showing off here. A version of this track actually dropped in 2011 to little to no fanfare at all. It seems to be picking up some airplay now though, and is certainly fresh, digestible, sunny, and positive. Sounds like a good Summer Catch to me, but since it's already failed to catch on once it's certainly a gamble. Tally ho!

Inoffensive Pop Rock: "Glad You Came" by The Wanted

Besides naming their big track after what I told my girlfriend last night, The Wanted is a band bereft of talent. It's almost as if they can't sing along to the beats of their own song. Still, this seems like it's been ever-present on the radio for weeks and that's bleeding into Summer. It certainly shouldn't last that long, nothing about this track is memorable.

The Wanted's Doppelganger: "Feel So Close" by Calvin Harris

More of that pop rock crap, "Feel So Close" is no greater a song than "Glad You Came" but it is a hell of a lot catchier. Calvin Harris' voice dips and ducks around this song, even if the lyrics are horrendously generic. Again, there isn't a lot to differentiate this from the rest of the pack, but it does tend to lodge itself in your brain.

The Spritely Little Bitch: "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepson

Hearing Carly Rae Jepsen gives me this image of a Rebecca Black who can actually sing. Well, sort-of sing. It seems like such a teeny-bopper track, one better for the end of school rather than the Throes of Summer. It should be a fitting Graduation and Prom song for all those kids out there, then fizzle sometime when it really starts heating up.

Flo Rida's Winning Streak: "Wild Ones" by Flo Rida ft. Sia

Flo Rida is the perfect Summer Jam Master. His pair of big hits this year (the other being, "Good Feeling") have been a bit more substantial to them, which is cool. That said, I still had to look up "Good Feeling" to remember what it was called. That's the trick with Flo Rida - does anyone remember any of his tracks a month after they stop playing? Go lift some more weights and trim that beard, buddy.

Somehow, the Pop God: "Somebody That I Used to Know" by Gotye ft. Kimbra

This is the weirdest pop hit in years, almost reminiscent of how Foster the People created this huge mainstream upsurge from this drastically new and different sound in 2011. Gotye is a cool dude and completely disinterested in the extent of his pop success. I actually haven't gotten to rant about this dude as much as I've liked, including one of the Greatest Music Videos of All Time, its ridiculous amount of YouTube hits (208 million and counting), and how someone thought this song would be improved by adding a drum track. That kind of confounds me - this needs no "improvement."

Girl, Where'd that Weight Come From? "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" by Kelly Clarkson

I like this song. I think Kelly sings her heart out, proves why she's been the only relevant Idol in the past decade, and assures the world that she can take a break and then come back and make some hits. But seriously girl, do some sit-ups or something. Those lunch lady arms are atrocious, are you trying to pull off some Adele shit? Even if the burgers don't kill you, they aren't making you stronger. I'm not trying to set some impossible Pop Standard for women here or anything, and I think that kind of pressure is grossly unfair, but what happened to Miss Independent? This your health girl, what are you, 30? She's still got her sass, though, which is important.

The Next Huge Rock Band? "We Are Young" by fun. ft. Janelle Monáe

Oh fun. What a grammatical nightmare you guys are. It's so irritating typing fun. in the middle of a sentence, there's no proper noun convention and a misplaced punctuation that completely interrupts any clause, it's atrocious. That said, some have already christened this group of douchebags as the future of Rock and Pop. That's just not true. It's an admittedly good song with some very distinctive vocals, but I think these guys are lucky, not talented. This ought to chug along for a while more, it's the kind of song that's tough to get sick of, and there's no reason they can't continue their rise for a bit.

Next week...

This year's installment is certainly more art than science. Gone are our precise calculations in favour of a more freewheeling, easy-going system of whatever feels right, baby. We'll see who charges ahead, but all of these tracks are fairly stale. I'm waiting for Nicki to make her move, but I think "Starships" just didn't break at the right time. Unfortunately, there really isn't that much more on Roman Reloaded (2012). We've also got Bieber and a really awful Maroon 5 song to pay attention to. The Season's wide open.

08 May 2012

More First Impressions: The Avengers - Pulp Roots and a Balmy Future

Well folks, The Avengers (2012) is still rocking strong and is clearly the #1 thing in America right now. We should take a moment to mourn the loss of the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch, though, who has clearly had a tremendous influence on this blogger. It's been a crazy couple of days for sure. But - back to the biggest film in the country.

Can anyone see The Dictator (2012) superseding The Avengers this weekend? I don't think so. Sacha Baron Cohen's latest is appearing more and more desperate as he's suddenly appearing everywhere as his character, Admiral General Aladeen. Note how this post is becoming more and more prescient - as the desperation boils over it's clear that the film hasn't yet integrated itself into the national consciousness the way the greatest of this year, The Avengers and The Hunger Games (2012) have. That is to say, once the hype machine gets rolling, there isn't a need for the blatant and jarring bits of self-promotion that irritate rather than buzz.

Where were we?

Comic Origins: Taking Inspiration by Piecemeal

The Avengers has a team have a somewhat ridiculous history after first forming in 1963. They originally formed not wholly unlike the film - Loki tricked the Hulk into a rampage and Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and Wasp united to fight him, eventually recognized Loki's mischief, took in the Hulk, and beat down the rogue god. Neat. So the Loki inspiration is certainly present in The Avengers, as is bits of controlling the Hulk (Loki's first main goal is to set loose the Hulk to destroy the rest of the Team on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Hellicarrier). Since then, The Avengers have taken on just about every major player in the Marvel Universe, including Spider-Man, Wolverine, and of course Iron Fist.

The important distinction is how S.H.I.E.L.D. comes in. It wasn't until many years later that the supersecret spy organization had anything to do with the Avengers - except for in the Ultimate storyline that Marvel pushed for at the turn of the century. The Ultimate Universe sought to re-boot many of their comic lines to make them more accessible to new readers who had no desire to wade through forty years of complex, contradictory history. Of course, as the A.V. Club points out, with titles like The Ultimates, Ultimate Comics: Avengers, Ultimate Comics: New Ultimates, and Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, this was still no easy task.

The Ultimates refers to a group of heroes that is more accurately reflected in the film. A Sam Jackson-looking Nick Fury recruits a bunch of ultimate heroes to come together in times of great crisis. This is really straight-up what the film is reproducing and within the context presented, is the only way for all these Alpha Males to work together. The Comic Tony Stark is a team player who recruits and defends and leads the charge (eventually becoming Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. no less). The Film Tony Stark would rather down some scotch and bang Gwyneth Paltrow. Wouldn't we all?

Anyone Else Had Enough of Massive City-decimating Alien Invasions?

This is an aside more than anything, but it seems like we've somehow emerged in a glut of big, crazy weird Alien Invasion films. And everyone is ripping off eachother's designs and no one seems to care. Remember that big chewy Snake Thing from Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) that munches through Chicago? Not all that different from the big squirmy Worm Thing from The Avengers that munches through NYC. From the looks of it, Battleship (2012) and Men in Black III (2012) will bring on more of the same crap.

It's that weird grotesque Alien Design that seems worlds away from more classic streamlined designs that we saw in Independence Day (1996) or to a lesser extent, War of the Worlds (2005). Instead now we have these intricate, squiggly looking things flying around, whether they be strictly machine as in Transformers, or actually organic as in The Avengers. In addition, the battles have become that much bigger - it's no longer outside the realm of possibility that an entire city (often somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard) will get wrecked.

We're in this age of mega-mega-budgeted blockbusters that have these new expectations of Box Office Returns. Cracking the billion-dollar worldwide is no longer a distinction reserved for anomalies like Titanic (1997) or long-awaited adaptations like Return of the King (2003). Just about anyone, from Alice in Wonderland (2010) to Dark of the Moon (2011) is game. With this in mind, filmmakers can set their sights a bit higher, and throw entire futuristic wars up on screen like never before. The results, hollow as they may be in a film like Transformers, look really rad, although they have quickly become repetitive in style.

Marvel's Future:

Ultimately this film is both an endpoint and a turning point for Marvel Studios. The Avengers was the culmination of many years of hard work, tie-ins, and massive crossover appeal. Its success, however, guarantees that not only will each Franchise continue on its own, but the central Avengers Series will also continue, single-handedly ushering in a new era of Blockbuster filmmaking, one where characters, when done properly, are not limited to any single film, which is liberating, frightening, and exciting to behold.

This film should be a landmark one for Marvel for introducing the Cosmic aspects of its Universe. Now, with Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) we got into this a bit, but that's something everyone would more rather forget. Instead, Josh Whedon filled this film with the Chitauri, a more obscure Interstellar Race than most casual fans are familiar with, but his reasoning is just that. The film also introduces Thanos. Nerd as I am, when Loki was talking to the Palpatine-looking motherfucker towards the beginning of the film with cryptic references to their Boss, I was secretly hoping that would turn out to be Thanos, but I didn't think the series had really gotten bold enough to go that far.

The introduction of Thanos and his love for Lady Death is a brilliant set-up for Avengers 2 (2015) or maybe even Thor 2 (2013). I have to think that a Galactic Threat of this magnitude would be in a film no smaller than the scope of The Avengers. It seems as if Marvel is fairly content with keeping its tie-in films a bit simpler while bringing together the big army battles for the core Avengers franchises. If that is the case, there's no way the mad Titan would appear in Thor 2. This also harkens the obvious - will the Silver Surfer return? Could Marvel finally get the rights to some of its other characters like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four? Or someone analogous that hasn't been used, like Adam Warlock, Quasar, Nova, or the Sentry? Why are there so many of these guys? Are we stuck with Dr. Strange, Vision, and Moonknight?! CAN I GET A BETA RAY BILL?! Shit!

There are plenty of Easter Eggs already in place to give Thanos plenty to do. In addition to his quest for the Cosmuc Cube, Thanos is closely identified with the Infinity Gauntlet, also seen in Odin's Vault, which Marvel has already showed off. There are plenty of possibilities.

The short answer is that Marvel can do just about anything they want now. They can dig up some more villains and heroes from their massive library, throw 'em together and presto - you've made a cool billion shmagooligans. Now, if DC can get their asses moving on a Justice League film, we'd be all set...

07 May 2012

First Impressions: The Avengers - Franchises Assembled

We've all been teased and waited for it for years - the biggest Movie Crossover Event of all time - The Avengers (2012) was finally released this weekend and it has dominated in every way it was supposed to. So far it has obliterated previous opening weekend records and is assuredly on its way to being one of the biggest films of all time - it would appear that Marvel's big gamble has paid off in spades. Let's dive into the more subtle (yeah, right) aspects of this film as well as the context of its release - SPOILERS to follow, we have much to discuss.

The Avengers does everything it needs to. It bypasses much of the exposition regarding its characters and trusts its audience to find its bearings while picking up a difficult story immediately. How are are these Alpha Dog characters going to get together and work with each other? The film seems to movie quickly at first, then stalls out, perhaps overemphasizing the difficulty of getting these assholes to work together when they all really know what's at stake.

A Giant Green Rage Monster Finally Done Right:

Impressively, most of the film was actually like this
The film does an excellent job of merging many of the successful elements of other character's films. From Hulk living in a shack in India to Tony Stark's NYC penthouse, the film gives equal time to everyone and it flows fairly naturally. The Big Bad here is Loki, Thor's brother, and it's clear throughout that even after all the crap from THOR (2011), he's still willing to forgive and forget. It's a shame that Loki is more of an asshole than ever. To see him finally get his ass whomped on by Hulk is comforting.

The Hulk has had a tumultuous film career. From Eric Bana to Ed Norton to Mark Ruffalo here, it doesn't seem like anyone had really gotten him right. Part of the success of The Avengers is finally achieving that distinction in two words: "Hulk - Smash." Ruffalo is a superior Bruce Banner in that he has this vulnerability and humility absent from Norton's performance while lacking the whining of Bana. It's also nice to see a digitized Hulk that not only has more of Ruffalo's face but is also a little chunky instead of the tight taught creation of The Incredible Hulk (2008).

Let's take a look at these Hulks for a quick second. Here is the 2003 Bana version, The Fat Green Glob. Now, it doesn't look all that terrible considering it was nine years ago, and the film really isn't all that terrible, either, despite an atrociously slow opening and lots of weird stuff like those crazy Hulk-dogs that attack him in the woods. Next, we have the ripped-up Norton version, which wisely skipped an origin, and tho most of the cast was an upgrade, it didn't handle Blonksy that well and we just knew there could be more. Finally, the Ruffalo seems to find its way in the middle, and sure makes for an ugly mug. That's just the way we like it. Hulk does everything he needs to do - exist as a huge liability whenever Banner is around any other human but smashes it up when "the Other Guy" comes out. It was also assuring that this was finally a chance for Hulk to run wild - he needed to smash everything in sight and for once this actually helped the good guys.

Power Suits, Mjolner, and...Handguns?

Oh, humans.
Moving on to some of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents, it's more obvious than ever that Nick Fury as played by Sam Jackson is a huge shady dude, although he had some cool scenes, like shooting down his own planes when he needed to and telling off Powers Boothe and the rest of the Secret Council. Of course there was a shady Secret Council. Cobie Smulders didn't really seem to do much and was definitely the weak link in the cast. Clark Gregg shined as usual with a little bit more humanity and his death was surprising and shocking to both the Characters in the film and the audience, tho even in death he had some great lines.

Hawkeye spent most of this film in the throes of Loki, which called back to his history as a villain and took him out of the running against the other Avengers. If this hadn't been the case the film would have become even more muddled and it was a good call to do. Scarlett Jo on the other hand had some heavy lifting to do and her role was more prominent than I expected. She actually performed well and it was exciting to see.

The Central Trio:

Okay, how about the Big Three? The dynamics between Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man make up the core of the film and are the LeBron, Kobe, and Carmelo of the Marvel Universe. They all really lay it on the line and all get some serious wounds in the final battle. The Captain's selflessness and Boy Scout nobility are immediately apparent, seventy years after that kind of stuff was cool. It will be interesting to see where they take him in Captain America 2 (2014) after the events of this film.

Thor, Cap, the Iron Man

Thor comes in fairly later than the other characters, and it's a dream to see a battle both between him and Hulk (for no small reason that they are some of the only characters who can challenge each other), as well as between him, Iron Man, and Captain America. I mean, you have to see these dudes brawl with eachother, that's definitely part of the ticket price. I think all told we got to see Nick Fury vs. Hawkeye, Thor vs. Iron Man, Thor vs. Captain America, Thor vs. Hulk, Hulk vs. Black Widow, Hawkeye vs. Black Widow, and of course, Everyone vs. Loki.

In the end though, it's all Iron Man's show. Robert Downey, Jr.'s charisma led Iron Man (2008) and was a huge factor in assuring that these films would be profitable enough that this whole Crossover Universe would be possible. His questionable character is on trial throughout the film and it's deserving enough that he has a major role in defeating the nasty Alien buggers in the end and the major self-sacrifice.

C'mon Legolas
What's interesting is how some of the characters' ideologies have been flopped from their Comic incarnations. I've talked about this a bit before. The Central Theses of Iron Man and Captain America were central to Marvel's Civil War Storyline a while back. Iron Man has generally been an advocate for security and government registration while Cap favoured greater independent freedom. The Avengers neatly swaps these ideologies fairly naturally. We've gone into Tony Stark a little bit more in-depth before, check this out.

The more interesting dynamic within Marvel Comics has always been between Cap and Stark. They're really the Batman / Superman equivalent and the film somewhat gets into their arguments and reconciliation. Thor is surely another big character, though, but he has always had some distance from the rest of the group based on his more cosmic origins. His growth since THOR is apparent, the Thor that started his own film would have been much more reckless, instead his big beef here comes from his intimate connection to Loki, his brother.

All This from a God of Mischief?

Actually everyone in fairly equal share contributes to foiling Loki's plan, from Black Widow disabling the portal generator, Cap assigning roles through his natural leadership qualities, Hulk smashing Loki's face, and Thor taking him back to Asgard. Downey Jr. gets all the best wisecracks though, and the Black Sabbath shirt he wears throughout the film is another nice nod to his irreverence, as is the cool mid-battle scotch he tries to share with Loki.

Loki is the Norse God of Mischief, a Trickster God like Anansi the Spider, the Southwestern Coyote, or Bugs Bunny. No, no, that doesn't seem appropriate at all, right? Would a Trickster God ally with a massive Alien Army to conquer the Earth? I'm inclined to believe otherwise, but that's neither here nor there. Tom Hiddleston does some excellent work here, Loki is a tough line to walk between intelligent, cunning, and psychotic. He's a fearsome baddie and although he tends to be lesser known than some other villains, he's assuredly the best to be thrown at the Avengers right now. Red Skull could be a nice choice, but the Abomination isn't really that huge of a threat, and anything from Iron Man is crap. To present a conflict for the Avengers you really need someone with enough machinations as Loki and they nailed it.

There may be another villain suitable for this kind of Global Threat and The Avengers presented an incredible tease for him. For now, pick up some shawarma, we'll be back tomorrow for more.

05 May 2012

The Long Halloween Vol. III - Cinco de Mayo

Well folks, it's time once again for the Third Installment of The Long Halloween - Norwegian Morning Wood's monthly look at a different holiday every month and the proper pop culture ways to celebrate it. In our third year of pulling this crap we've descended into the Obscure Edition - highlighting the random, insane, peculiar holidays that may otherwise go unnoticed. With that said, today actually shouldn't be all that unfamiliar - welcome to Mexican St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo.

That's right folks. It's High Noon on Cinco de Mayo - time to substitute Coronas and Sauza for Guinness and Jameson and party with the steady beating Latin Heart in all of us. The celebration commemorates a great battle, and is known regionally in Mexico as El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla, meaning "The Day of the Battle of Puebla." The battle was a huge victory for the United States of Mexico that pushed the French out of the territory and halted their invasion plans.

Yes, apparently France tried to invade Mexico during the American Civil War, the result of which is Cinco de Mayo. Sometimes History really is fun. It really is a Holiday that should be celebrated my Americans as well, not only does it mark another defeat of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, but if the French were able to get a decisive win over Mexico they would have been in a better position to aid the Confederate States of America in their rebellion against the Union. ¡Viva la Mexico!

So what should we watch with our cervezas and tequila and this grand day? At first I thought Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) would be appropriate, but I really can't distinguish between any of the Mexico Trilogy on this day. Director Robert Rodriguez has contributed to the Mexsploitation genre with El Mariachi (1992), Desperado (1995), and the aforementioned Once Upon a Time in Mexico. All three are classic counterparts to traditional Westerns that more often paint Mexicans as scumbags or drug dealers. Well, there are still scumbags and drug dealers here but there are heroes and badasses, too. Antonio Banderas crafted an image and a career from these films, echoed throughout pop culture, naturally leading to Puss in Boots (2011).

It's tough to think of a proud Mexican film that doesn't involve either Antonio Banderas or Robert Rodriguez. Will Ferrell's recent Casa de mi Padre (2012) may do the trick, but you really have to be in on the joke to enjoy that one (I certainly did), and there's crazier, more Mexican stuff out there. Recently Machete (2010), and its pending sequel, have been explicit and blatant Mexsploitation events full of Mexican pride expressly contrasted with White American influence. To celebrate a battle that kept out Foreign White Influence, what better film than Machete? In the same vein we could look at Antonio's The Mask of Zorro (1998), which includes bar none the greatest movie scene of all time, seen below:

It may just be that I was getting my first boners when this film came out. It may just be that if I was Zorro this is the only thing I would do with my sword powers and I would do it all the time. Or it may just be the intense sexual tension so perfectly encapsulated, managed, and diffused, but it's probably just because Antonio and Catherine are both pretty hot. Oh, Mexico.

While we're on the subject, why not visit our fair friends south of the border with National Tourism Week that also begins today and runs until May 13th? You could go to Mexico like so many of our cinematic idols, from Josh Brolin's mariachi wake-up in No Country for Old Men (2007) to Martin Lawrence in another one of my all-time favorite movie scenes from Blue Streak (1999). Or if you want to limit tourism to our own damn country you could just plop in Vacation (1983), because Hollywood hasn't improved on that yet.

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