30 July 2012

Summer Jam Week 12: A Pair of Ellies and Cher (not that one)

Well folks, we have a new layout around here and it's my pleasure to welcome many new visitors who may seriously have no idea what they're in for. Today, as we do every Summer Monday, it's time to list off the Hottest Summer Jams of the previous week. These tracks are so hot that it we can cool off and chill out by listening. It's just that effective. It's an exciting week, here with around a month to go - without wasting more precious Jam time, here we go:

Hot Track of the Week: "Want U Back" by Cher Lloyd

This jam has already done a number on English audiences and it's just now starting to bubble over in the States. For those of you uninformed, Cher Lloyd was the winner of one of the British Seasons of The X Factor (there's been like 8 of them so far) and turned 19 two days ago. The track has swagger, is egregiously bubbly, and is probably the most inconsequential teen pop anthem since Rebecca Black. Except of course for the fact that Cher Lloyd has a coalition of actual fans, not just detractors and ironic ones. I have also embedded here the U.K. version of the song, which features a rap interlude by this little man-boy named Astro. It's absolutely ridiculous and unsurprisingly completely absent from her U.S. release. I want to just wake up every day and thank Simon Cowell for giving Cher Lloyd to the world.

The Fro Knows: "Refill" by Elle Varner

Elle Varner has a unique voice in pop today, and she certainly hasn't yet crossed over into mainstream (a nice word for "White") audiences. She coos her way through this one, but doesn't lend herself to a very high degree of marketability, without which she'll never be a Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj. Still, she's exploring her niche well right now and this is a nice jam to groove to, especially when boning.

Let it roll: "Good Time" by Owl City ft. Carly Rae

Owl City is kind of a cool concept to think about if you take the band's name literally. A city full of owls - Futurama predicted this. Or maybe the Owls are running the city? Mice fear for their lives as the put-upon rival Eagles mount a bold comeback. Anyway, apparently a conceptually weird but coolly executed collabo with Carly Rae Jepsen is all that's needed to blast an otherwise mediocre band to major Summer Jam Status.

When Boy Bands Roamed the Earth: "What Makes You Beautiful" by One Direction

I like the idea that One Direction, whose oldest member is currently 20, goes out and woos tons of girls who are really hot but also really insecure. Think about who this song is targeted to - exactly the kind of girls with low self-esteem and fractured body images that will fall in love with and then buy albums from dudes who look like this and tell them they're beautiful. Wow, thinking of this, I suddenly have a problem with One Direction where I had none before.

Give that Butt a Break: "Give Your Heart a Break" by Demi Lovato

The pedigree of this one is heating up, especially after she is apparently on the same level as Britney Spears in terms of being able to judge and market poor talent. This is the second reference to The X Factor in the same post, what the hell is going on here? Oh right, despite the haters Simon Cowell is actually that good about creating buzz. If only anything he did contributed to society at large.

The First of Two Oral Sex References Today: "Whistle" by Flo Rida

The only rap entry for this week is Flo Rida, which is a shame because this is just about as pop-y as you can get while still pretending you're a hard rapper. Well, maybe we can stretch that a bit more. The State of Florida, as the beefcake is known to his most intimate fans, is a pop rap juggernaut, without any real interesting beats or anything intelligent to say, but damn, he's shit-hard catchy.

Flashing High: "Lights" by Ellie Goulding

This track has been around for a while and has certainy poked its head here and there this Summer, but all of a sudden this chick is everywhere and "Lights" is one of the hottest jams in the country. It's kind of a wild, wondrous, wacky song that in the end isn't actually that memorable or significant. Everyone's lives will move on next week if no one else hears it ever again. Still, here we go.

What a Dream: "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen

For your special Olympic pleasure, here is the American Olympic Swimming Team mouthing the words to "Call Me Maybe." Maybe that's why anyone whose name is Dana Vollmer or Matt Grevers has been shitting the bed these games. Either way, this jam has hit it, man, we might as well be all-Carly all the time from here on out. Is it just the joke at this point? Is it how insane and stupid this song is? Or do people genuinely like this girl? It's gone way above a Rebecca Black thing at this point, there is some credibility here and there is a good genuine fan base at work. For everyone else the track walks that line between excessively stupid and enjoyable. It's close to the perfect summer jam.

Next week...

There have been two fairly profile new releases lately, the first is Pink's eloquently titled "Blow Me," the other is the return of No Doubt, apparently, with their new uninspiring single, "Settle Down." Does anyone care about either? We'll tally it up and tell you next week. I'm also looking for the Chris Brown / Big Sean / Wiz Khalifa collabo to pop back up here. That's shit's legit. Finally, what more can Rita Ora do with Biggie's good name? A little less party and a little more bullshit, methinks.

What do you want to hear this summer?

28 July 2012

Further First Impressions: The Dark Knight Rises, Part 3: Bruce, Gotham, and Heath

Well folks, here we are again - for a film with this much clout and significance around it, we needed a third post. For our initial thoughts check this out, for our response to Bane, click here.

Batman Began: Setting a Context for the Nolanverse

This film is also very un-Batman like, perhaps most notably, because it is finite. This goes along with the Nolanverse vision, though, because the entire trilogy was meant not to be serial but tell a complete story of Bruce Wayne's life and times until the Batman is no longer necessary. That's always been his goal, ever since Batman Begins (2005). As he reaches this point in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), it's clear that his transformation into an inspiring symbol is complete. This of course contrasts with the ending of The Dark Knight (2008), where Harvey Dent's death is used for exactly the same purposes - except the fact that it's based on a lie makes it corrupted and unsustainable.

That's one thing I've always liked - how well these last two films were titled. The Dark Knight essentially represents the fall of Batman, our Knight in Armor who protects us as we fear him, though this could also refer to Harvey's status as Gotham's White Knight, who falls to become a false martyr, darkening Gotham's future. The Dark Knight Rises instead represents the final truth: the destruction of Harvey Two-Face's legacy and the rise of Batman's - a hero of self-sacrifice more true to the spirit of redemption in Gotham.

The reverberations of The Dark Knight haunt the entire sum of The Dark Knight Rises, which in part may attest to why some have viewed the latter as the inferior film. Batman's actions at the end of Batman Begins, however, also haunt The Dark Knight Rises, and this film seeks to wrap up a lot of those films lose ends, at least thematically (upon my last check the Narrows is still going nuts, and Bats never did get a handle on Scarecrow by Trilogy's end). The ending of The Dark Knight Rises is about as close to perfection as Nolan could hope to achieve with this specific iteration of Bruce Wayne.

Bruce Wayne deserves a happy ending.

He really does. There hasn't really been a moment of his life that hasn't been steeped in pain. Even when fighting the evil underbelly it was rare that Batman enjoyed himself. That's an important distinction in recognizing the significance of Nolan's finale - Batman never wanted to be Batman, he felt a duty to become Batman. I don't think the presence of the auto-pilot is a problem, Fox clearly set it up for Bruce to work out, and it's not surprising that he did. It's also very important that after one of the most trying strains on Alfred and Bruce's relationship that Bruce give Alfred just about the greatest gift he could - his own contentment. If, again, you remember back to Batman Begins, even as a Princeton douche, Bruce was moody and without peace. That's what both Alfred and Bruce desire - for the end of Batman and his tired soul to rest. The Dark Knight Rises executes this perfectly. And yeah, he should end up with Selina Kyle, she's just as insane as he is, and in this movie also has a restless soul that needs to find and settle with a companion.

Needless to say, there is a gaping, interesting, obvious hole in this film - a massive and tragic what-if question that looms over the entire thing. What if Heath Ledger's Joker could have had a presence here? Would he be relegated to a small but charming cameo such as Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow? Perhaps something like this? I'd like to think he'd either revel in Bane's chaos or be overcome with jealousy for not having been able to do it himself. I'm picturing the Long Halloween treatment, where he's overcome with anger and jealousy over the Holiday Killer who's getting more fame than he is. Nolan's Joker was always a bit more humble and even-tempered, though and it would have been excellent to see him tested against Bane just as Batman was - because the Joker too tended to have a confident plan and fought on his own ground. Bane upsets even the cockneyed order of the Joker.

Gotham City: The Windy Apple

The character of Gotham City has always been nearly as important and influential as Batman himself in his truest tales. This is certainly evident in both Burton and Schumacher's efforts. The evolution, then, of Gotham throughout the Nolan Bat-films is interesting. I stole this from somewhere and forgot where, if someone can call me on it, I'll be glad: We only get to see the murkiest slums in Batman Begins, the narrows, the docks, and Hobo Alley. The Dark Knight introduces us to the shining blues and twilight of midtown and the innards of a few specific locations.

The Dark Knight Rises, however, truly showcases every lick of the city, from the Stadium of the Gotham Rogues, to the Financial and Court Districts, and all the mean streets in between (it appears that Bane allowed for trash pick-up during his occupation, he's so kind). Really, though, this time Gotham is inescapably New York. I mean, landmarks like Central Park, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Empire State Building couldn't be more prominent. There's numerous 9/11 connotations, from the President's solemn vow that the city will press on after experiencing prior hardships, the tattered American Flags draped on the building, and even a constant blanket of snow that encapsulates the city not unlike the cloud of ash that floated for months after that September day.

With all this, Batman has become a symbol embedded with the city. There may not be a better moment in this film as when the Army of Cops are shuddering in fear until the Batplane appears and provides the ultimate inspiration. It's the sense that things can't go wrong if Batman is here. I'm also glad, by the way, that Nolan found a cool way to upgrade Bruce's ride in each film - from the Tumbler to the Batpod to the Batplane.

Real World Tragedies

As far as I know no one is really talking about the tragedies that have surrounded the past two films in this series. The Dark Knight is forever tied to Heath Ledger, not only because his performance was astounding (and single-handedly moved him from a laughable chick-flick actor to a fanboy idol), but because of his untimely death in the months preceding it. Needless to say, it sparked an incredible interest in the film that was much more significant considering it was the last time Heath would be on film (except of course for Terry Gilliam's excellent Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus [2009], which remains feeling incomplete without its center star, even though Gilliam worked some creative new actors into the mix).

Likewise The Dark Knight Rises will forever be tied to the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado the night of its midnight premiere. Are these films just too intense for some minds to handle? No, that's stupid. They're just movies. Frankly, they're not even all that great movies, either, just a few notches higher than the typical Hollywood output, and they have enough cultural influence that stupid, tonally misplaced shit like this ends up happening.

It's strange that these films are forever connected to two massive tragedies. I wonder what Nolan must be feeling. I wouldn't make another Batman movie any time soon, if my name was Chris or Zack or even Martin. That said, this is certainly the most epic film of the summer (narrowly beating out Battleship [2012]), and I think its cultural significance is just beginning.

27 July 2012

The Road to a Blockbuster: That Ben Stiller / Jonah Hill Thing

Jeez, it's weird not thinking about Batman for 10 seconds here. It's another Summer Friday, though, even if it is the Friday after The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and that means it's time again for The Road to a Blockbuster - where Norwegian Morning Wood analyses the cultural, critical, and commercial potential for the latest Summer Tentpole Event. Today we see the release of The Watch (2012), which looks like a wildly okay teaming up of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and some other guy.

That's kind of a shame because it seems like the other guy clearly has some of the funniest lines in the film. Anyway, what's a bigger shame is that this film is coming out the week after The Dark Knight Rises, which means that it's going to do shit business. It was a brave move on their part, and the marketing has been somewhat successful in establishing the comic team, but less so establishing the wacky Alien Invasion premise.

What can save this thing is that it actually looks pretty funny. I'm very glad that R-Rated Comedies have been doing so well lately, because this seems like another hard-R effort, at least in terms of massive amounts of fuck words uttered and alien gizmos used on cows in bloody glory. It also seems like a return to form for Vince Vaughn, who is back doing a supporting role instead of inflating the ego that pushed his terrible post-Wedding Crashers (2005) career.

Ben Stiller's been present, but hit or miss lately. Tower Heist (2011) was a fairly mediocre effort, and he's more in Meet the Parents (2000) meek leader Stiller mode than his aggressive Tugg Speedman or insane White Goodman personas. Besides the other guy, the real star of this film could very well be Jonah Hill fresh off the reigning Funniest Movie of the Year. Some of the non sequiturs, though, like yelling at his mother or interrogating the punk kid seem forced and silly instead of based on character, which is kind of a red flag.

Finally, this film is tough to find because searches for "The Watch" result in plenty of wristband timekeepers and less so information, images, or video for the film. That's not really great search engine optimization from the marketing department and I bet that could hurt this flick's chances. I don't know, maybe they'll be okay. Even though TED (2012) came out a month ago it feels like it was sooner than that, and audiences haven't really been starved for comedies the past few weeks.

Still, this thing does look pretty funny, and it's always great to see an actor like Vince Vaughn drop some hard f's. For my part, I'm actually exhausted after the 3-hour emotionally draining journey of The Dark Knight Rises, not to mention the three related posts I committed afterwards. I'm more in a mood for a break, at least until The Campaign (2012) lands on us. This is an afterthought film, something to fill a weekend rather than something anyone desperately needs to see.

We can also talk about the Trayvon Martin shooting, which prompted some changes in this flick's marketing, most notably its move to a more ambiguous title from the earlier Neighborhood Watch. It never works out that a film comes out about shooting shady figures in the night right after one of the most widely spread racial profiling shootings in recent media. It shouldn't really affect the film from here on out, but it's worth a mention to remember what the hell we're actually on this world for - to help and understand our fellow chicks and dudes and, if we have the opportunity, to not shoot them. Will The Watch express this sentiment?

Who cares, it's a movie.

More First Impressions: The Dark Knight Rises, Part 2: All About Bane

Welcome folks once again to our second round of Impressions of Chris Nolan's epic masterpiece (maybe), The Dark Knight Rises (2012). A few days ago we talked about some of the cast and other basic elements, but in this post we're getting into the real gritty elements of Gotham and its wacky citizens. Needless to say, this is more of a discussion of the themes of the film than a review, so SPOILERS abound from here on out.

The first thing I want to address today is this film's relatively cold reception across the Internet. There hasn't been a tremendous amount of praise, in fact, the film has seen more detractors than anything in the reviews I've consumed the past few days. I believe there are two major reasons for this: 1) The expectations after The Dark Knight (2008) were astronomical, but this is unjustified because The Dark Knight is no more solid of a movie, save for Heath Ledger, and 2) The Dark Knight Rises doesn't have more plotholes than any other film put out by Hollywood, but because it's steeped in Nolanism and Realism, it's not supposed to.

Where I think The Dark Knight Rises succeeds, arguably more than any other film this summer (along the same lines as Prometheus [2012] in this regard...), is that it absorbs and holds its audience so intently that it becomes easy to go along with the story and expect the next beat emotionally, not necessarily logically. Whether or not that makes for a better film I'll leave for you to decide, but I think it ultimately makes for a mesmerizing film. It doesn't matter how or why Batman found the time to cover a bridge in gasoline and place the lighting trail right next to Gordon on the frozen river - what matters are the emotional and symbolic beats it creates as it thumps along in the present. After all - he's Batman, his sneaking back into Gotham doesn't need to be seen - it both adds to his mystique and frankly, isn't important to the core emotional stakes of the narrative.

The Bane Supremacy

In The Dark Knight Rises, the Joker served, as he often does, as the perfect antithesis of Batman. Instead of the monochrome dark colours Batman uses to hide, the Joker dresses in bright flashy suits, expressly to stand out. Instead of selling himself and his reputation out for the sake of order, the Joker is true to himself in his devotion to chaos. Even subtle things like when he throws the champagne over his shoulder and sips the empty glass represent the reversal he has in the world.

Not bad for a dude who eats everything through a straw
Bane exists in part an antithesis of Batman, but is much more a reflection of what Batman could have been. While he was kicked out of the League of Shadows for banging the daughter of its leader, he was still devote to its cause, and in a way, remained Ra's al Ghul's vision of what Bruce Wayne should have been. Things do get twisted, though, but it's much more intimate. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is a counter to Batman, but in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is a counter to Bruce Wayne. Bruce is wealthy and fairly aloof, Bane is in touch with the people and acts as a rugged guerrilla leader against the rich. They both hide out in caves near waterfalls, are excellent detectives and businessmen, and know the meaning of protection and sacrifice. There is some alter-ego inversion here though, Bane's mask is literally the inverse of Batman's - it covers only his mouth and lets his eyes and forehead show to the world. Batman covers his top half, eye shadow and all. As this author at io9 points out, Bane is thoroughly defined by his mask as well as his unmasking and breaking of Batman's. This is very much more Bruce's story than Batman's, though, and that's where it succeeds.

A Tale of Two Batmen

Where I think some people have complained too is that this feels like a very un-Batman-like movie (see also my analysis of a very un-Spider-Man-like movie, Spider-Man 3 [2007]). Batman has gotten old. He's basically the Kurt Warner of Superheros now, back for one last hoorah (Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, no less. Nothing like seeing Ben Rapistberger's fat jowls in IMAX). While this has happened, though, he's still retained his Bat-mentality, which has grown cocky and arrogant over the years. For most of Batman Begins (2005), Bruce was this terrifying menace to the criminal underworld, who used intense planning, preparation, darkness, and ninja skills to advance his goals. In The Dark Knight, criminals have gotten wise to Batman's tactics, and while he's still effective, only the Joker openly admits that he's their major problem. Bruce has still done things that no other mortal man should be able to do, and through Gordon and his manipulation of Harvey Dent's Legacy (as well as the boner he still carries for Maggie Gyllenhaal), he feels like he triumphed.

"How were my sloppy seconds, Mr. Wayne?"
His lackadaisical attitude can be seen early on in the film. He's reached the point where he can't even defend himself against Catwoman and doesn't even seem like he cares. When Bane comes along then, Bruce naturally underestimates him. In his own mind he has grown into the Legend that he hasn't quite earned yet. He doesn't train for his fight with Bane, nor does he control where they battle. In fact, he very handily half-asses it and lets Catwoman lure him into Bane's lair fairly easily. Here's where we're even more un-Batman-like: just about every fight in the Nolan Trilogy has been a close, intimate flurry of punches, where Bruce gracefully disposes of enemies quickly and efficiently. The camera is close up and rushed to enunciate this effect. For his fight with Bane, though, Wally's camera is noticeably pulled back, which emphasizes the weakness and misplacement of the fight. Batman isn't Batman here - and that's the point. Bale growls and screams but in broad light and juxtaposed with the prepared might of Bane he just looks like a pathetic little man. He gets his ass kicked. Now, setting his spine with a straight shot to the back, that may be stretching it, but c'mon, he's Batman, he has to be a little awesome.

Moving on to some of the later fights, it's also strange to see Batman fighting as part of a huge group, as well as in daylight. This whole franchise, arguably, is about the layers of control Batman is trying to place on Gotham. He is usually able to control the situations he's in, even when he takes down the Joker in the construction site. Bane forces him to come out in daylight to confront him and forces him into an atypical fight. This feeds into more of Bane as an alternative Batman as well - while Bruce wraps himself in darkness, secrecy, and haunts the night, Bane flaunts himself to the people in the sun. He's Day-Batman. The fact that Bruce eventually triumphs over Day-Batman basically attests to his final awesomeness.

Let's Get Political: Bane Capital vs. the 99%

With all this talk of Bane's populism, we might as well talk about the politics of this film. It's eerily prescient how much the flick calls on the Occupy Movement and the rallies against the 1%, even though it was filmed months before the Movement took hold (almost hard to believe it's that recent, to be honest), and written quite a while before that. That being said, there is an interesting contradiction at work here: What use are Bane's politics if he doesn't believe them? Or does he believe them?

I also loved how he ripped the photo perfectly in half
Bane's essential statement is a familiar one: Rise against the rich and powerful people of the world and put the power back into the hands of the commoners. It's a story that's been richly retold since the French Revolution, and Bane's brown flak jacket actually recalls that image. Bane's dictatorship is really interesting, though - while he is clearly in absolute and unquestioned control of the city, he cares less about running the courts, deciding anyone's fate (but Batman's) or crafting any kind of cult of personality around himself. His reign is equal parts totalitarian and anarchic.

So what's going on here? Clearly it's Bane's final plot to sulk behind Talia al Ghul and blow up the city, including himself, her, and everyone else. Why delay that for five months while creating total chaos in the name of liberation? Does Bane actually believe any of this stuff?

My guess is that he does. Some of his side comments and the loyalty he invokes in his henchmen are too strong (See, "No brother, they're expecting one of us in the wreckage," "There's no money for you to steal here" / "Then what are you doing here?" and "What a lovely voice."). I think this is a matter of Bane again trying to be Batman, but in reverse. Batman deals in deception and "theatrics," which Bane promptly denounces and disarms. Amidst the secrecy and conspiracy around Harvey Dent, Bane instead claims to be the liberator, and he doesn't hide much from his adoring fans or the public at large. That is, except for his primary goal, which is to factually destroy the city. The way he sees himself, though, is as a liberator. He may have thought he could have earned a statue somewhere as the dude who took a stand against the opulence of Gotham and was blown up for it when the detonator landed in the wrong hands. In this sense, Bane is still politicised, but he's also just a douchebag.

I'm not really sure if this theory holds up, I would welcome some others to explore his contradiction.

I think that's about it for tonight, stay tuned for more in 24 hours.

24 July 2012

First Impressions: The Dark Knight Rises, Part 1: Bane is Vader and Batman is Rocky

Here we are at last folks, our impressions of the Best Film Summer 2012 has to offer - The Dark Knight Rises (2012). In a summer filled with such great films as Prometheus (2012) and Battleship (2012), it may be surprising that all could be genuinely topped with this installment. It almost makes you furious how good Nolan is, and just when we begin to doubt him or think that he can't top The Dark Knight (2008), he blows us away here.

I might get flack for that. I do think this final installment is better than Christian Bale's Sophomore Bat-Outing, but that's only because when The Dark Knight is stripped of Heath Ledger's Joker, it becomes a very weak film. That said, of course Heath Ledger elevates that film into something more, but Rises was a more complete film, allowed us to reflect on both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins (2005) in new lights, and provided an immensely satisfying conclusion to the Nolanverse. There are plenty of SPOILERS to come, but c'mon - it's Tuesday, you really haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises yet? Get off your ass and go!

There's clearly a few different ways these impressions can go - we need to certainly talk about the plot, characters, and other technical aspects, as well as its position both within its own franchise world and its cultural context. Let's start basic and then get weird.

Batman Inceptions

Needless to say, Christopher Nolan has found a cast he likes a lot. The Dark Knight Rises employs just about the entire cast of Inception (2010), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy for starters. To be honest I was really waiting for Leo to strut his way through Gotham at some point.

Gordon-Levitt is here, and it's obvious from the point when he visits Bruce at his home that he's turning into a Robin-like character. I'm not quite sure why Nolan feels he has to distance himself so much from much of the mythology - avoiding the names Robin and Catwoman, as well as even things like the Batplane. I suppose all of these invoke too much of the camp realm, which is a dangerous line for any superhero to cross, let alone the Batman. As Harvey Dent said,
"You either die brooding, or live long enough to see yourself become campy."
See, I just don't understand why Nolan didn't bring in Shia LaBeouf you know. In ten years I think we need a Shia-as-Indy and a Jordon-Levitt-as-Batman crossover film that will just destroy fanboy hopes and childhoods for generations to come. I will always point out, by the way, this post, and check the time, a full 22-minutes before the midnight premiere, where I called Gordon-Levitt playing Robin and Cotillard playing Talia al Ghul. The casting was just too perfect. I may have actually loved this film too much because I sat there while watching the whole thing stewing in my own justified crapulence and overconfidence in predicting fairly obvious outcomes.

We can move on to Tom Hardy's Bane, who is not getting the credit he deserves as an incredible role, likely because just about no one can follow in the footsteps of Ledger's Joker. I'll give a lot of credit to an actor who basically only had his eyes to express his motivation, and Hardy is just as expressive as he needs to be. I also had virtually no problem with his voice and I never thought it was an issue, dating back to last December's trailer. In fact, his voice was one of the most captivating aspects of his performance. Watching this film in IMAX, Bane's voice boomed above everything else in the film. It was frightening, imposing, and dominating - a perfect reflection of the character and what he is trying to do in this film. The accent is vaguely foreign, mysteriously Scottish or something which attests to his role as an outsider, a rogue mercenary international who is coming to upset Gotham, the ultimate American City and Batman, its ultimate hero (more on both that cultural point and the duality between him and Bats later).

The problem I have with Bane in this film is that during the ending much of his mystery is revoked. He goes from being the ultimate cunning antagonist of Batman to again, a mere pawn, the Vader to Tali al Ghul's Emperor, if you will. He stands meekly, crying and defeated as Talia drives the dagger into Bruce's side. It takes away much of the air of the last two hours of his conquest, and he goes down like a punk. Still, that in-the-moment feeling of tension, fear, and dread during much of his reign of terror is hardly comparable in films of this genre (even the ones that tried really hard) and he's at least a step up from his Batman & Robin (1997) incarnation.

By the way, Bane is quite literally Vader-like. Both are the big bads for most of the series until we meet the higher power at the end. On a much more literal level though, both of them cannot survive but for Black Breathing Masks, and both choke their lieutenants when they screw up or displease them.

Michael Caine is barely in this film compared with some of the other Nolan Bat-pictures, but his role is essential and in a handful of minutes he reminds us why he's one of the greatest living actors. Alfred isn't just some dude mixing Bruce Wayne's martinis and washing his Green Lantern underpants in these films - he's his closest friend, confidant, and a paternal influence on some of his more rash decisions. The scene when he leaves in protest is not only a powerful, defining moment in both characters' relationships, but he proves to be right when an unprepared Batman gets his ass stomped by Bane.

New Frenemies

There are a few moments in this film that try to establish what I'd call a "Pencil Scene." You know the one. For Bane it's the first plane scene, although that could be likened rather to the Joker Bank Robbery. For Catwoman, though, all her initial scenes are immensely clever and captivating, from her theft of Mama Wayne's pearls, to her escape and exploitation of scared girl tropes when her deal goes bad. They're scenes that hook and establish character in unique and awesome ways.

I would say that this may be the first film ever to capture what Catwoman should be and I'm excited for it. Michelle Pfieffer's version in Batman Returns (1992) was more focused on the character's desperation and unreliable mental state, while Halle Berry's version in Catwoman (2004) just didn't make any fucking sense at all. Anne Hathaway here makes Catwoman a reflection of Batman - and the resulting sexual tension makes the character and their relationship more interesting. More importantly than that though, she straddles the line between hero and villain in a way that mirrors Batman himself - she's only arguably more honest with herself about it. She's a kind of character you want to root for, and much of that is Hathaway's contribution.

Can we also say for the record that in this movie we finally wave goodbye to Bruce's bat-virginity? I mean, it's possible he has a few wild nights at Princeton, but come on, this is how it's done - bucky naked by the fire, a newly minted bum of Gotham. Get some butt, Bruce. Why does Talia do this? Who knows. It was probably to fuck with his head. Or she was just horny, who cares, but it's good to see Bruce finally getting some tail after chasing Maggie Gyllenhaal for years. That thing is gross.

Things that Go Bump in the Day

Moving on to Batman himself, this was Christian Bale's first film since his Academy Award win in The Fighter (2010) (except for this Chinese film, apparently) and it's clear that he's upped his game, which usually seems to be the opposite for Academy Award Winners. This film focuses more on his journey while The Dark Knight focused more on Dent and Joker. In that way it's more of a continuation of Batman Begins.

In fact, it's interesting that this film does return to much of the original's stakes - the League of Shadows, the Legacy of Ra's al Ghul, the cleansing of Gotham, as well as an individual's quest to become a symbol and find courage within himself. It's not unlike Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) going back to the Nazis in the desert, or Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001) going back to the States.

The Dark Knight Rises is a mixture of plot elements from both Begins and TDK, though - with Batman re-training himself both physically and mentally to become the Batman again (yes, it's basically Rocky III [1982]), but facing a polarizing enemy with machinations to play the city against itself. The key here, though, is how far the city falls and how much Gotham truly realises that it needs a Batman.

Next Up we'll discuss the film's political implications (even if Nolan says it has none), the duality between Bane and Batman, how much fun the Joker would have had in Bane's Gotham (or how pissed he would have been), and the real-life tragedy that has surrounded this film series.

23 July 2012

Summer Jam Week 11: Rihanna, Cashin Out, and Let's Throw in Some Batman

Folks, it's been a tragic couple of days in the Entertainment world. The shootings in a movie theater in Colorado have marred the premiere of the Summer's Biggest (and probably best) Film. It's a terrible act and for what it's worth, the heart of Norwegian Morning Wood goes out to the victims and their families.

How are we supposed to talk about bubbly ridiculous pop hits amidst this sobering tragedy? We have to move on while acknowledging its magnitude - lest the psychos of the world win. Needless to say, this is Bat-Weekend, and the impact of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is already rising above any other film before it in recent memory.

Hot Track of the Week: "My Homeis Still" by Lil Wayne ft. Big Sean

This is a bizarre vid, but certainly bouncing enough to make a good run as a Summer Jam. It's not really that memorable of a track, but Big Sean lays down his typical thing the way he should here. More than anything it seems to be an ode to Wayne's love for purple drank and having desolate goofy panda parties. Sounds like Summer to me.

Cheddar Burning: "Cashin' Out" by Ca$h Out

This song is perhaps egregiously stupid, but is picking up some buzz, perhaps because of how many times Ca$h Out screams his own name, which is also a call to action. What does that mean, cashing out, actually - like, exchanging your chips at a casino? Or paying your bar tab? No one really cares about the meanings of rap slang anymore. Well, I guess they never did. I just hope he changes his name for each subsequent single he releases in what will certainly surely be a long and illustrious artistic career.

Summer Smoochems: "Tongue Tied" by Grouplove

This track is hanging in there as a nice Summer Melody. It's held on fairly well for an track that's more alternative than it is pop, and its idle make-out anthem fits a summer bang session perfectly. Still, the song isn't really that huge, and by no means is it guaranteeing Grouplove, who has had some nice songs, a bountiful future, not even into next week.

If Foreheads Could Kill: "Where Have You Been" by Rihanna

This jam has been around for a while but really seemed to peak this week into relevancy. It's not that exceptional or distinctive for a Rihanna song, but it does its job in that it has found its way innocuously into the background of our lives just about everywhere. It won't last that long or get too huge, but for now it's a nice addition to the Rihanna oeuvre.

Blowin Up: "Whistle" by Flo Rida

Flo is turning out to have a pretty decent year, even if none of his songs are reaching the status of "Low." I mean, Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) was a powerful force back in the day. I still think Flo Rida's career is pretty interesting. He barely has a brand personality or a really distinctive following like rappers like Kanye, Snoop, or hell, even Soulja Boy. He still fills a gap in the market, though.

White Folks Cough it Up: "Till I Die" by Chris Brown ft. Big Sean & Wiz Khalifa

The most in-demand track of the moment, "Till I Die" remains the get high anthem of the summer and presents the goofier side of Chris Brown. A ruse to hide his status as a Woman Beater? Very likely. The flow of this jam is so crisp and the party-fueled lyrics infused with a quite a bit of wit makes it a worthwhile hit. It hasn't really reached spectacular jam status yet, but it ought to.

WiFi Hotspot: "Payphone" by Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa

The fusion between hip-hop and pop rock provides interesting precedent for future collabos, but this song still sucks. It's possible that Adam Levine peaked with "Iran So Far Away." All I know is that I'm getting sick of trashing Maroon 5 every week (read: I'm running out of criticism), and this jam needs to peter out. That's unlikely to happen any time soon, though.

Call for a Good Time: "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen

Somehow this little Princess of Canada has truly landed here in the States. The jam is everywhere and at this point is really looking like the Champion of Summer lest something drastic takes place. Not only that, but her sophomore effort on Owl City's track is also picking up. It's a big question right now whether she becomes a low-level pop starlet like Demi Lovato, a living joke like Justin Bieber, or can transform the enormity of this jam into a successful career. My guess is we'll know by Fall.

Bonus of the Week:

Because who doesn't want to rock out to a bit of one of the best-scored blockbusters in decades this week? Higher points for headbanging in an Desert Hole Prison to Bane's Chant.

Next Week...

We're getting to the End of July already, and believe it or not, that means that Summer is moving quietly towards its conclusion. Considering this is the Final Summer we'll ever have before the World ends in December, are we really going to let Carly Rae Jepsen take the reigns? Meh, why not. There's plenty of room for some hits to grow yet and we'll see how it all ends up shaking out.

19 July 2012

The Road to a Blockbuster: The Dark Box Office Rises

Okay folks, here it is - basically the moment this summer that everyone has been waiting for - perhaps the only film of the year more highly anticipated than That's My Boy (2012), duh, I mean The Avengers (2012) - The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Here at the Road to a Blockbuster section we've been analysing the critical, cultural, and commercial potential of each big release this Summer, and needless to say, The Dark Knight Rises ought to take all this to 11. Everyone's at fever pitch for this one, and ultimately there may not be much more to say than what everyone knows! We'll find something.

Zubat Rises
I don't know what it is about Batman that makes him just about the most popular superhero ever. No other comic book dude has had such a series of legendary adaptations in TV, Animation, and big blockbuster films. Four of the six contemporary Batman films have set Opening Weekend records in their day (Batman [1989], Batman Returns [1992], Batman Forever [1995], and The Dark Knight [2008], for those counting), and this is the only film that comes to mind that could possibly upset The Avengers mind-blowing $207 million it pulled down last May. No matter if it breaks a single record or not though, it's a foregone conclusion that this is going to pull down some serious coin.

We ought to compare it with The Dark Knight, though. This should be the ultimate litmus test of whether or not TDK was fueled mostly by the presence Heath Ledger's Joker and the actor's tragic death months before the premiere. Bane is an intriguing villain though his history and the buzz over his presence doesn't nearly match the Joker's. Catwoman here is interesting as well - is the intrigue of the Nolanesque Selina Kyle treatment enough to get an unbelievable amount of people in the seats? I'm actually more interested in finding out (and currently convinced) that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is secretly playing Robin and Marion Cotillard is secretly playing Talia al Ghul.

Still, in an age where we just saw the release of a Fourth Ice Age movie, there's something comforting about a finite resolution to a film franchise. Of course, this is exactly what Spider-Man 3 (2007) was and look how that turned out. The thing of it is, even though Warner Bros. is clearly going to clamour for more Batman and a reboot of the franchise 5-10 years down the line (possibly sooner) is inevitable. The problem with this is that the Nolan Batman is so definitive for so many people out there. He's tapped into something that inherently reflects the time period it was made (whether it's the War on Terror or Bain Capital...), but this is an iteration of the Dark Knight that has connected with people on such an intense level that any other interpretation is almost unthinkable.

This, in itself, is somewhat unbelievable considering how much fans honoured Keaton's Bruce and Nicholson's Joker and held those shoddy Burton films as unsoilable pieces of art. In this light maybe it's possible that the Nolan Batman flicks will eventually become an afterthought as the next visionary auteur takes the reigns.

Nahhh, that's unlikely.

Hey! Lookin' pretty retarded!
By all consideration this is huge, though. And it's not huge like diving masks and bologna tie-ins. There's a kind of elegance and class that Nolan's films exude. It's an integrity that people buy into - ultimately more so than the kind of Candy Popcorn The Avengers and its feeders puff on. It's kind of a shame because, ultimately, through everything this is still a Hollywood Superhero movie, which I think people lose sight of easily. There will clearly be a strong Oscar campaign going along with this, especially after the snub of The Dark Knight essentially led the Academy to expand its nomination process to accommodate the occasional crazy stupid mainstream film that sidles its way into the minds of rabid fans. This shouldn't happen - the idea of Batman is still as silly it was when George Clooney played him gay in Batman & Robin (1997). Just because Nolan and crew are excessively self-serious doesn't make the character any less ridiculous.

I might get some flack for that. Actually here's the best beat-by-beat scenario:

  • Ragged from 8 years of non-stop crime-fighting and running from the police, Bruce "Bat-Crazy" Wayne meets the unstoppable Bane who rallies the 99% against the 1% of Gotham in obvious political allegory
  • Bane kicks his ass, breaks his back
  • Bruce is nursed back to health by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway, who fight crime in his absence
  • Tempted by Hathaway, Christian Bale eventually falls in love with Gordon-Levitt
  • Nolan shows everything.
  • The Legend Ends

  • Post credit scene involves a 25-minute Hathaway and Cotillard marmalade make-out session.

Incredible. At some point Catwoman says "I don't get into cars with strange men." Batman replies "This isn't a car...and I'm a homosexual."

Anyway, it's fairly clear that this is going to be a huge critical, cultural, and commercial event across the nation. These Batman films always seem to be integral parts of our culture and sources for endless discussion, debate, and quotes by fans, both virgin and otherwise. Even shit films from this guy like Batman & Robin are centerpieces for cultural debate, even when that debate is how bad it fucking was. Nolan, though, is one of the few dudes out there who is still making classic, awesome original films (see: Inception [2010]). He's gotten to the point where his name alone is selling a film, and his name attached to his own long Batman pedigree is plenty of fuel for increasing his cheddar supply. He's inspired an almost Raimi-like level of trust that in no way will be ruined by his third outing.

Stay tuned for many more Bat-posts this weekend, including a lengthy debate whether or not Nolan should have included a canister of Bat-Shark Repellent, because hey, you never know. Bane's the kind of dude to have a Giant Shark Tank.

16 July 2012

Summer Jam Week 10: Katy, Demi, Carly Bring a Mid-Season Titshow

Hey folks, it's time once again for us to recollect the hottest Summer Jams of the past week. Every week this Summer we're tallying up the most Jam-worthy tracks to see who is all in all, the Final Summer Champion - that one track that we'll always remember as being the Jam of 2012, the Final Summer. Now, this week we've already had a very special Mid-Season Hot Review highlighting some of the freshest jams out there, but none of these are really that popular to be counted amidst the True Spicy Jams. In fact I'm quite sure I've gone out on a limb with many of them. Here are your True Megajams of the Week:

Hot Track of the Week: "Scream" by Usher

Check out the aforementioned Hot Review for many more tricked-out jams but for the core list, we're giving you a little dose of the Ursh this week. The only thing you really need to know about this track is that it sounds just like every other Usher song ever made and might as well have come out years ago. Usher can be fantastic when he really steps out of bounds, usually in collabos such as "Yeah," "Same Girl," and "Hot Tottie," but this kind of shit is the worst kind of cookie-cutter pop R&B bullshit.

I Am Iron Woman: "Titanium" by David Guetta ft. Sia

Guetta again hides behind the true talent - a voice like Sia's. We're living in the DJ Era, folks, it's up to us to not support this level of douchery. Would it kill you to play a little Foghat, Guetta? Just mix it in, bro. This song does kind of suck, to be honest, I'm not really sure if I'm supposed to dance to it or smoothe to it or what, but it's popular and it's here to stay.

Give Your Fart a Break: "Give Your Heart a Break" by Demi Lovato

I don't feel like Demi gets the recognition she deserves as a true decent pop artist. It's probably because she's a brunette. And the fact that her songs kind of suck. She is cute though, in the sense that it's kind of tough to figure out what race she is. Also it's great to sing about giving your Fart a break - because Farts are hilarious! Moving on.

Just Blow: "Whistle" by Flo Rida

It's nice to see the great state of Flo Rida gets another song gaining some ground this summer. Florida is the nation's leading authority on Hip-Pop that Doesn't Suck, but it's still frustrating that he seems like the only one trying to be creative about being really dirty. Okay, he's not totally subtle, but moreso than Usher at least. See, you can't just come out and announce to the word that you're craving a blow job, you just gotta ask a baby to whistle a bit. She'll come. She'll do it. Also, anyone notice how hideous Flo Rida is without his sunglasses? Keep them on, dude.

Any Night: "Some Nights" by fun.

Infuriating punctuation aside, fun. has a vid for this song, inexplicably set during the American Civil War, but it's serving to increase the profile and potential of a great Summer Jam. I mean, Guy Pierce really gets into this. Guy's having a big year, actually - from his TED talk to an unrelated appearance in Prometheus (2012), the epic film, possibly one of the all-time greats, Escape from Space (2012), and now a younger version of him is the lead singer of this crappy but zeitgeist-seizing pop-alt band! What a time to be alive.

There's gotta be at least seven dollars worth of change here: "Payphone" by Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa

Sometimes I catch this track on the radio and I think to myself "Whoa, what's this new Wiz song?" because A) I don't listen to this enough to recognize his verse and B) It's the only nasty part of the jam. I've never seen a band descend more into terrible territory than Maroon 5, but at least we're talking about them. They're certainly pumping up the overexposed buzz for Overexposed. With Steve and Jen leaving American Idol to focus more on their own music careers (which have only been rejuvenated thanks to Idol), will Adam leave The Voice to do the same? All I know is that I don't really give a shit either way.

Slipped but Strong: "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen

Carly's still all over the place and any challenger is going to be fairly hard-pressed to oust her as Queen of Summer Jam 2012 at this point. Is that such a bad thing? It's clearly bubble gum pop but positive and catchy as shit. There's certainly more problematic pop culture that tweens could be obsessed with besides some innocuous flirting. Let's just hope the dude Carly gives her number to doesn't come back and rape her! Moving on.

So She Hates Fame Now: "Wide Awake" by Katy Perry

I can't think of anyone else who likes fame and attention more than Katy Perry. It's bizarre to me then that her latest hit seems to be a negative reaction to this and she also made some public statements this past week that she wants to spend some time out of the limelight. That would be fair and understandable to anyone else, but this is Katy Perry, who just came out with a movie that did fairly reasonable, but offers a personal (highly doctored) look into her life story (it was pretty easy) and this, her newest, hottest jam from a track not off Teenage Dream. It seems far fetched that she would step down with all this going on, but who knows, maybe we need to give Big Boobs here more credit than she deserves at this point. Anyway, she's #1 this week.

Next Week....

So we have a tremedous amount of new fresh jams this week and it's possible any one of them busts out. I'm betting the most on either Olly Murs or the tight collabo between Wiz "Nobody Beats Me" Khalifa, Big "Jazzy Jeff" Sean, and Chris "Woman Abuser" Brown on "Till I Die." For the moment though, the game is Katy's - we'll see if Carly feels like upsetting that Big Boobed Balance.

15 July 2012

Summer Jam Mid-Season Hot Review

Well folks, we're in the midst of July and just rounding the 10th Week of Summer, it's fairly unbelievable. The Summer Jam Week 10 Champions will be seen tomorrow, but for now we have 8 New Super Fresh Jams to unload for your mid-season pleasure. These tracks are on fire, baby, and ironically enough, they can chill you out during these blistering Sunny Days. Let's get jammin:

Ghost Tracks: "How We Do (Party) Remix" by Rita Ora ft. Notorious B.I.G.

This track may be blasphemous to some and well it should be - as far as pop starlets go, Rita Ora is fairly talentless and she took over this Biggie classic a few months ago before someone came up with the bright idea to mix the original B.I.G. back into it. The best part of the track by far is Biggie's first couple of voices, the rest is fairly garbage. But it's hot! Party and Bullshit!

One Hot Shit: "One Thing" by One Direction

This Jam has already done well in the UK, but it's just now making its rounds in the states. It's interesting how that market for squeaky clean boy bands is back again, although *NSYNC and Backstreet were always quite a bit harder than this. Somehow that's true. One Direction is a bit too manufactured to ever really hit it huge authentically, but for now this is a steady follow-up hit to "What Makes You Beautiful."

Cardiograph Jamming: "Heart Skips a Beat" by Olly Murs ft. Chiddy Bang

This has the potential to be a pretty big jam if it can gain a little traction. It's a fairly fresh sound, even if it reaches that status by sounding a lot like an 80s song. I think it's the amount of synth and the rhythm of the bridge that sounds like just about every 80s melody ever. Still, it's a new artist (in America) with more original clout and crossover appeal than the Carly Raes and One Directions of the world. Jam on!

The Queen Wants Her Throne: "Princess DIE" by Lady GaGa

We should hand it to GaGa, she doesn't even have to actually release a single, just perform a track like this in Melbourne and start generating some buzz. Both her lyrics and image have certainly grown in sophistication since her "Just Dance" days (tho I may argue differently), and if she does give this track a proper release there's no reason the heartfelt ballad can't get huge.

Disinterested Pop Goddess: "National Anthem" by Lana Del Rey

For all of GaGa or Katy Perry's claims to "weirdness," none of them hold a candle to how batshit crazy Lana Del Rey actually is. It's hard to believe she ever gets real mainstream acceptance, but she makes pop music her plaything in refreshing ways and maintains a level of ambivalence towards her own fame and success that's both frustrating and liberating. Nevertheless, this is a cool and engrossing track that's worthwhile for a Summer Chill-Out Session.

The Ass-Kicked: "One More Night" by Maroon 5

Apparently one terrible single wasn't enough for Maroon 5 this summer. "One More Night" is surreal - it's like that dude who was passionately belting out "She Will Be Loved" eight years ago is doing the same thing but underneath a sell-out veil of cheesy pop instead. Oh wait, that's exactly what is happening. At this point I'm curious if they are gaining as many fans as their losing, or if their losing fans at all - after all, Maroon 5 was never that elegant of a musical experience.

Another One: "Both of Us" by B.o.B ft. Taylor Swift

B.o.B has another hot single this week, and you've got to think that he might be saturating a disinterested market. Still, I'm interested, and this is another jagged fresh track from one of the best new voices in hip-hop. The addition of Taylor Swift is a good one, more and more rappers need to give up on singing their choruses and focus on collabos that work to the benefit of the song, like they do here. Taylor's presence on a B.o.B song would seem promising, but none of the stuff off Strange Clouds has seemed to catch on, which is bizarre because that album is sick as hell.

Three Kings: "Till I Die" by Chris Brown ft. Big Sean & Wiz Khalifa

This is a nasty song. It's about time these three rising superstars got together and made an assault upon Summer. Everything about this video is ridiculous, from Chris Brown reassuring us that he's the biggest douchebag on the planet, Big Sean's best Jazzy Jeff impression "Quit hoggin the blunt-" and Wiz just high as fuck along for the ride. Big Sean's fame is still up in the air, and society's forgiveness of Chris Brown is highly questionable, but Khalifa here tends to elevate this from forgettable smoothie jam to something that ought to be recognized, as he usually does. I also like how hard Chris Brown is trying to be hard - you're a woman beater, Chris, we don't care if you got a shitty grill and look mean, you're still just an asshole.

13 July 2012

The Road to a Blockbuster: Ice Age - Inconsequential Drift

It's Friday again, so needless to say, we have another weekend at the movies to assess. Every Summer Friday we've been taking a look at the possible and probable critical, commercial, and cultural impact of Hollywood's New Wide Releases. This week all we have is Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), and much like Madagascar 3: Butt-hurter (2012), it's another installment in a series none of us can believe is still in existence.

It's tough to believe that the first Ice Age film was made 10 years ago and has since become 20th Century Fox's flagship animated property. Dreamworks had Shrek and then the Madagascar series, Disney of course has all the Pixar goodness, and Universal is finally growing something with Despicable Me bubbles, but Fox really puts its energy into Ice Age, and for good reason. It is startling similar to Madagascar - somehow each film is still good for just under $200 mill a pop, and tho Ice Age (2002) looked like shit, it tripled its budget and allowed its sequels to steadily grow and look a bit better, although they're still on the cheap, going for $80-90 million according to Box Office Mojo.

So yes, this is the fourth installment for some reason, and almost unbelievably, the creators keep thinking up stuff to do with these guys. The first film dealt with the core Mammoth, Sabretooth Tiger, and Ground Sloth finding a human baby, the second one dealt with the Ice Age ending, and the third saw our heroes trapped in the secret underground Land of Dinosaurs. Wait, the Ice Age ended in the second film? And they've made two sequels set in the Ice Age since then? This is true, that's great. Ice Age: Continental Drift deals with pirates; obviously that was the natural way to go.

There's a few really interesting things about the Ice Age franchise. First of all, it stars Ray Romano, Denis Leary, and John Leguizamo, who are all B or C-Listers in Hollywood at best, at least in terms of their movie careers. Leary may have the highest profile out of all of them, but he got there by intensely adult comic performances in things like No Cure for Cancer, The Job, and Rescue Me - yet that's all dwarfed by the cash an Ice Age film can pull down from little kids. Leguizamo is known for what, The Pest (1997) and The Happening (2008)? Maybe throw in Super Mario Bros. (1993), obviously. Finally, Ray Romano has had a Jerry Seinfeld-like career: one massive hit TV show, NOTHING ELSE and then animated voice work. It's actually startling to realise how good Ice Age looks when contrasted with Bee Movie (2007) though. These three dudes have come together for four movies now to create Fox's greatest animated franchise of all time - what the hell?

This particular Ice Age film also stars a ridiculous number of currently popular celebrity voices. Let's run down a quick list (click here for full): Jennifer Lopez, Peter Dinklage, Aziz Ansari, Joy Behar, Wanda Sykes, Nick Frost & Simon Pegg, Sean William Scott, Patrick Stewart, Queen Latifah, Nicki Minaj, and Drake. Yes, you heard those last two correctly. This film has more divas than Sean Combs' Birthday Yacht and a completely eccentric cast that would be incredible to meet at a party. Can you imagine? Patrick Stewart spiking the punch, Aziz Ansari spinning some Kanye tunes, Queen Latifah mud-wrestling with Peter Dinklage, and through it all, somehow John Leguizamo is killed. What a dream.

So how well as this insane film been advertised? The marketing has been fairly good, with them even ripping off other clearly more popular properties as can be seen above. It has lacked the incessant brain-melting catchiness of something like "Afro Circus," but that's probably a good thing. It does have the "'Taste my fury!' / 'Taste your furry what?'" thing, which is fairly sticky. All in all, it's done exactly what a fourthquel needs to do - remind us of the characters we liked, why we liked them, and shown them in a different element. There's no reason why this shouldn't be a pretty good success, even if it'll enter more of a cultural whitewash taken up by the other entries in this mediocre franchise.

The exact bank is going to be high, possibly à la the aforementioned Madagascar 3: European Shit Train, and make more money than any other before it. It's bizarre to think about. We've gotten to a point filled with Fast and Furious, Resident Evil, and Final Destination sequels that are supposed to be a "what the hell" kind of last fling that end up bringing home more cheddar than any other film in the series. There's simply no reason to stop making these kinds of films, or the Madagascar/Ice Age kind of films. There will always be a demand for stupid children's entertainment - and with a reliably entertaining and high-grossing cast of recognizable characters - why not? What's insane is that animation can go far longer than live action. Voices age slower than looks, and while Ray, Denis, and John may all be getting older, they can mouth these characters for the next twenty years while making themselves and everyone else a ton of money. Is there a breaking point? Do things get old? Hell no, eventually nostalgia kicks in and we all want another Mammoth/Tiger/Sloth story. Mammoth/Tiger/Sloth built this series and Mammoth/Tiger/Sloth will end it.

Actually, what makes these films worthwhile are the parallel stories of Scrat, the Sabre-toothed Squirrel. Scrat's tales liken back to a time of Wile E. Coyote - a hapless young mammal trying to just get his nut. They're the funniest and most interesting parts of these films, woven in and between the Mammoth/Tiger/Sloth journeys. Scratman, heed our call.

Ice Age: Continental Drift premieres today.

11 July 2012

First Impressions: TED

A few weeks ago now we saw the release of TED (2012), the first foray for auteur Seth MacFarlane into feature films. It was set up to be the R-rated comedy of the year, and despite being incessantly quotable, it doesn't quite reach that status. Along the way though, we have Family Guy permutations and possibly more Bostonisms than The Departed (2006). Mildish SPOILERS to come in this discussion of racist homophobic teddy bears, so shy away if the stuffing's not for you.

Seth MacFarlane is intriguing amongst the Hollywood elite. Can we call him that? He's at least as much of an auteur as someone like George Lucas or Tyler Perry, in that he basically creates original stories on his own that remain very distinctive. He exists outside of the typical entertainment spectrum; existing as a surrealist commentator more than a master of narrative. More than a novice of narrative, really.

This is really the key to MacFarlane. He's a master joke teller because he can say the worst imaginable things but with enough charm and a smile to make you like him. In fact, it's bizarre that he avoids so much live action, considering both how good he actually looks (for sure he's no Matt Groening), and how well he crafts a live presence. He's fearless, inimitable, and has insanely good timing. In fact, some of the jokes in TED are left to dangle in the wind as if he's trying to subvert the very medium of comedy, but this comes off more awkward than innovative. The greater issue is the aforementioned problem he has with crafting an interesting narrative or characters. Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show are all variations on the same kind of postmodern pop culture jokes, which is fine and can be hysterical, but it doesn't foster the kind of emotional investment required for more sustainable entertainment, such as film.

So here we have TED. It's an interesting intersection of film and television, to be honest. Not only does it contain MacFarlane as the voice of the eponymous Teddy Bear, but appearances from Family Guy series regulars Alex Borstein, Patrick Warburton, and Mila Kunis, as well as voiceover from American Dad voice Patrick Stewart. Beyond that though, the humour is very much in the vein of his television style, even including some breakaway gags. It's also painfully clear that MacFarlane can't move past the 80s (although he has some nice commentary on 90s-style rock singing), as vital elements of the plot revolve around Flash Gordon (1980) for some reason. There's also this weird love of Tom Skerritt. His inability to do any other kind of joke has become debilitating.

To some extent it's almost as if MacFarlane is making fun of his audience. Flash Gordon is relatively obscure, even if people know the name or Queen Song from Blades of Glory (2007), it's rare anyone gasped when Sam Jones was mentioned. MacFarlane's devotion to this kind of stuff positions himself over his audience - we laugh because we want to know and be included in what he thinks is cool. I don't know how MacFarlane did this, but it's an insane approach to an audience, tho his faithful eat it up.

Needless to say though, MacFarlane may have one of the best voices in Hollywood. He clearly understands how sharp and quotable that thick Boston accent can be, though when he breaks and does Stewie for a second, he loses that hold a bit, reminding us we're watching a film made by someone whose bread and butter was, is, and will forever be in Television. That kind of moment is worse than the commentary that Ted "sounds like Peter Griffin," because it's not inherently part of the joke.

Anyway, between this and That's My Boy (2012), the Boston travelogue is fairly heavy this summer. TED hits on just about every Bostonism - the thick accents, a climax at Fenway, the Bruins, and an adoration for Tom Brady. It also captures a lot of the racism.

This is a ridiculously racist and homophobic film. There isn't really anyone who isn't targeted. It's liberating to disregard any shackles of political correctness, of course, but I'm not sure the kind of strict homophobia to the extent that two males can't hug without reassuring themselves they're not gay is relevant anymore in our society. That's not to say it's an inappropriate joke, just a less funny one, because no one relates to that kind of feeling anymore. There is ultimately a lot of gay stuff in this film though, from the bizarre Ryan Reynolds cameo to Puddy's confusing gay fight club. I don't think that MacFarlane is personally intolerant and he is willing to make a good joke where many others wouldn't ("Yeah, whatever, thanks for 9/11"), but to some extent he's stuck in the frame of time and mind that he's clearly making fun of.

It's also strange to see a film cut down so many celebrities at once. Often directly by name. Hell, the film ends directly disparaging Brandon Routh and Superman Returns (2006). Other debasements are weirder, like a duck named James Franco and the debate over the race of Norah Jones. Of course that last one is to Norah's face, and I never realised how hot that chick is. It's also certainly not a coincidence that she just released an album, Little Broken Hearts. There, there's some more free marketing for you Norah.

Well, it's about time I get to the greatest actor of our time, Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg is usually at his best in comedies like this, The Other Guys (2010), and The Happening (2008). He does what he needs to do here, which is actually strangely similar to his role in The Fighter (2010). In that Oscar-winning film, Mark played the rock, the core, really the only sane individual surrounded by a sea of crazy Bay Staters. He's similar here, everyone around him is wild and crazy while he is actively trying to pursue his own dream life, while his loyalty to his closest relationship (Christian Bale in The Fighter, his Teddy Bear here) threatens to undermine that. I hope that was purposeful.

It's also cool to see Mark and Mila together again after Max Payne (2008). It's like Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves teaming up in The Lake House (2006) years after they did Speed (1994) - just a bizarre change of genres for a pair with good chemistry. The only disappointing thing is that Mila is more in Jackie-bitch mode than she has been lately in things like Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), The Book of Eli (2010), and Black Swan (2010).

In the end, you can look at TED many different ways. It is pretty funny, the timing of the jokes is interesting and I'd like to spend more time examining them, and their content should push the envelope. It has some great party moments, some nostalgia (if you know who Sam Jones is), and provides a general love letter to the City of Boston. If any of this appeals to you, you'll enjoy the hell out of TED. If you live in the world outside of New England, you may need to stick with 21 Jump Street (2012) as the best comedy of the year.

09 July 2012

Because the Web-slinger's Back: Re-examining Spider-Man 3

Well folks, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is doing pretty well in theaters, even if for all its "untold story" garbage in the marketing, nothing is really all that fresh in the final cut. Still, the hype is enthusiastic and exciting. with what's left from Spider-Man's A-Rogue's gallery (are we ever going to get a Rhino or Vulture movie...or better yet Stegron! Yep.) putting on quite the show. With all this, though, you almost get the feeling that all the flash, bright colours, quick cameras, and the back-to-High School setting is all to get us to forget how terrible Spider-Man 3 (2007) was - however, with some repeated viewings of late, I've started to develop my own hypothesis about this movie. Should there be a spoiler warning here? Ok, if you're one of the seven Eskimos who hasn't seen a lick of the first Spider-Man trilogy, go ahead and stop here.

First of all, I was able to catch the film a few times playing on F/X this weekend after reading this interesting article from Badass Digest. It's important to get into that critical frame of mind. Author, Devin Faraci suggests that Raimi is bucking against other "dark" superhero films by showing what classic nerd Peter Parker believes to be "cool" and "edgy," when in fact, these concepts are arbitrary and do not belong in a Spider-Man film. Within the film, every other character also rejects his behaviour, as does Peter eventually himself.

There's more to it than that, though. The first half of Spider-Man 3 is almost an experimental Spider-Man story, a fractured look at the character that also reflects Peter Parker's many doubles in this film. The first thing we need to understand about Spider-Man is that he is a dark character in that awful things always happen to him. The fact that he retains his responsibility, high spirit, and humourous attitude in the midst of the terrible things around him both makes him human and provides the foundation of his enormous popularity.

Anyone else want to see a Flash
Thompson Venom movie...starring this guy?
Nothing is supposed to go right for Peter Parker. After never fitting in in High School he gains incredible power, but must still keep it a secret. He's still picked on in class after becoming Spider-Man and when he tries to stand up for himself (see his fight against Flash Thompson in Spider-Man [2002], he's ostracised further). He's built not to ever get a break. His employer hates Spider-Man, his closest family hates Spider-Man, and truth be told, most of New York City typically hates Spider-Man (the films, obviously, do not portray the city this way). Nothing is supposed to be easy for the wall-crawler.

Peter is also characterised by continuous tragedy. Throughout the comic book run, he loses his parents as an infant, his Uncle Ben in his formative origin, the love of his life, Gwen Stacy as well as her father, his best friend, Harry Osborn, and even his Aunt May, his maternal figure. Spider-Man, perhaps more than anything else is about holding yourself to a great personal responsibility in the wake of a relentless stream of personal tragedy.

The first two Raimi Spider-Man films very much carry on this tradition. In Spider-Man, Peter Parker can't get anything done, his selfish acts (blowing off the library to win some money, letting the crook get away to smite the arena owner) come back to haunt him when he loses Uncle Ben to the same crook. Later on, just when Norman Osborn develops into a surrogate father figure, Peter loses him as well, to his own insanity and later death. The film ends with Harry Osborn swearing vengeance against Spider-Man and Peter rejecting Mary Jane, mostly because he doesn't want her to get kidnapped every couple of months. That doesn't work.

Spider-Man 2 (2004) really racks it up a notch. Peter's life on his own is terrible. He has a shitty apartment, never sees his friends, and is run ragged by working multiple jobs, studying at Empire State University, and slinging around as Spider-Man. Most of the film deals with how much everyone else hates Spider-Man, the stress of which is finally enough to cause him to lose confidence in his own powers. From there it continues the idea that Peter isn't meant to have a mentor, as another possible father figure, Otto Octavius again...turns insane and dies.

Spider-Man 3 is weird though. During the first half of the film, everything is going Peter's way. There's a lucrative staff position open at the Daily Bugle, the city loves him, he's with the girl of his dreams about to propose, and content with his life. This is a huge problem. It very much runs against everything Spider-Man is about - he has no personal problems. Like I said, though, this is an experiment; placing Spider-Man at the center of a very un-Spider-Man story. From here it's interesting to see how much Peter Parker fails. The movie is frustrating because it seems like he always acts like an unbelievable douchebag throughout the whole thing. The idea, of course, is that this is how a guy acts with sudden new confidence who has been screwed over his entire life. He doesn't know what to do with himself. The Black Costume exacerbates this, extrapolating his aggression, demolishing his meek nature, and ruining what it means for him to be Spider-Man.

Wisely, Harry knew he needed a mask
that could still show off his great hair.
As I said earlier, there are a lot of doubles in Spider-Man 3. The first, Harry Osborn lives a life in mirror and reverse of Peter. He is enormously wealthy in contrast to Peter's intense poverty, and while Peter has the redhead chasing him, Harry is left alone. They both lost their father figures who were instrumental in them becoming superhumans, the key difference being that Uncle Ben left Peter with the message of responsibility and Norman left Harry with a message of only vengeance. The thing is though, Harry has always wanted Peter's life, despite its financial hardships. He has always wanted a family that loved him and is intensely jealous of that. Harry finally catches up to at least Peter's super-power status, but remains a twisted mirror image.

For much of the film, after Harry has amnesia (Yeah. Yeah, that's a bad screenwriting problem. Maybe they got the idea from James Franco's presence on General Hospital), he's the kind of supporter and provider for Mary Jane that Peter should be, if only he had remembered this was a Spider-Man movie. The key to Harry's transition though is, again, his foundation. While Peter deals with loss through sucking it up, being humble, and moving forward without hurting his loved ones (see: Spider-Man's aforementioned ending), Harry doesn't deal with rejection well. He's still a spoiled brat. His powers spoil him to do things other people shouldn't do, instead of Peter's use of powers to let him do things other people wouldn't do. He becomes bitter and angry at loss. When the new Peter (with some Black Costume enhancement) finds this, instead of dealing with the situation he becomes confrontational. It's no longer about humility, it's about countering a threat.

Possibly Spider-Man 3's biggest flaw is that while they did the doubling so well with Pete vs. Harry there's no real need for the same thing with Pete vs. Eddie. Brock is a much more surface-level mirroring and isn't nearly as emotionally pitched a threat as the "main villain" as Harry is. His is a professional rival to Peter who is similar in many ways except, again, for the difference in confidence that comes at the expense of integrity and humility.

Eventually, Peter figures out what movie he's in. Instead of being a victim, he's actually the one to hurt his loved ones (blowing up Harry's face, shoving Mary Jane), and for that reason this doesn't actually feel like a Spider-Man story until the point where Peter swings into Harry's loft to ask for his help. It's the first time in the film, about 1 hour and 45 minutes in by the way, where Peter is likeable and humbly asks for forgiveness and help, a staple of normal Spider-Man tragedy stories.

Eating more brains may have helped round out the character, too.
The difference after this point is that while Peter finally acts like Spider-Man for the last half-hour, Brock carries over all the negativity, selfishness, and excess of power that Peter had experienced for the whole film. He has no regrets, because he too has been slighted by an overblown Spider-Ego. However, Eddie then mirrors Harry, because while they both hold understandable grudges, Harry also forgives his friend (which still isn't that justified by only a scene with Bernard the Butler, but hey, this can't be a 4-hour movie) while Eddie can only hate. He too has no base for which to understand how to use his power.

So, what's the point of all this? The pay-off to the whole fucking thing, the whole build-up is to that last half-hour where you're reminded what a great Spider-Man story can be. Peter is both forgived and forgives, he actually uses his intelligence to beat the big bad (the first time he does that in any of these movies), and he again suffers a great personal tragedy when Harry dies once again, his friend. Harry really sucks at fighting, by the way, I needed to throw that in there. He gets hit in the head and thrown around constantly - he should not be fighting Venom.

Needless to say, there a tremendous amount of problems with this movie, notably the lack of proper treatment for the threat Venom should have, the shoehorning in of a sympathetic Sandman story, and the throwaway use of Gwen Stacy as a floozy for Pete to make MJ jealous. It's an awful way to cram a lot into the last Spider-Man film, without really the foresight that there could be more like the current Amazing Spider-Man to do some of these characters justice. All in all, though, Spider-Man 3 remains a reaction not only to trite "dark" takes on characters, but also messes around with the typical Spider-Man storyline, and eventually rejects its own reaction and caves back into what makes Spider-Man stories great. It's something that Amazing can't do, even with all its insane merchandising.

If you also want to revisit Spider-Man 3, um...the entire thing is apparently on YouTube. Check that out before it's taken down very soon.
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