31 December 2020

All Glory to 2020: Best Movies!

Okay people, here we go! Our official list for the GREATEST FILMS of the YEAR 2020 CE. This immutable list will be chiseled in stone for all eternity, never to be changed or altered in anyway. As is tradition, here is our revised 2019 list filled with movies we caught up on and saw last year. It's radically different. Here is the original list we had.

2019 Revised List:

Godzilla: King of the Monsters
The Dead Don't Die
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Knives Out
Uncut Gems
The Lighthouse

Now that we've gone through that, let's talk about the list of films that definitely won't change in a year's time. We limited this year to films we've actually seen - there has been so many possible weird indies that have slipped by us. I thought about faking it. I always fake it. Nah, not this year. 2020 is a year for genuine rankings! Nomadland will wait!

#10: Mank

I was not super into Mank when I first saw it...and still aren't exactly excited about it, but there are some great bits here. Is it weird to think that David Fincher is too in love with his own father's script - it feels very personal almost to the point of inscrutability. It honestly has barely anything to do with the writing of Citizen Kane (1941), it feels more like an indictment of Depression-era politics, alcoholism, and its own private takedown of William Randolph Hearst. It's also noir without quite being noir and a character study without quite getting into the meat of the character. Still, the acting is all phenomenal. It's one of those films where Gary Oldman should get the long-deserved Oscar that he already got a few years ago.

#9: David Byrne's American Utopia

I am not a huge fan of concert films, but this just so happens to be THE GREATEST CONCERT FILM OF ALL TIME. That may be slight hyperbole, but it's certainly fun. That distinction obviously goes to Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006). Still, David Byrne finds a way to create an incredibly engaging experience by removing all barriers between the audience and the band members, giving each a distinctive personality and dance routine through the innovative use of wireless microphones and instruments. It all fuels Byrne's music that escalates between modern protest songs, classic rock, and unyielding positivity for a torn nation. The only thing holding it back is the fact that I'm not really into concert films at all.

#8: Deerskin

Hahaha. I don't know, folks. I put this on my anticipated films list last year and watched it pretty much because of that. It is an assuredly weird film, a little slow, quite incomprehensible, but if you roll with it, it can be rewarding. Sort of. Jean Dujardin hasn't done all too much since his breakout in America in The Artist (2011), which is getting to be a long time ago. He does an even better job here as a man obsessed with a deerskin jacket and their quest to eliminate every jacket in the world. Yes, that is the actual plot. It's amazing. It's such a subtle descent into complete madness. There is a logic to it, though, and again, if you can roll with it, it's a fun ride. Just don't through rocks at kids' heads.

#7: Palm Springs

This was one of the most satisfying movies of the year, and possibly the funniest. There were some critics out there that called it a Groundhog Day (1993) rip-off, but time loops are its own genre at his point, from Triangle (2009) to the recent Happy Death Day movies. Anyway, Samberg shows previously unseen depth of acting and Cristin Milioti has a star-making role (if she wasn't one already. I don't know where she is). There's a nice twist where we enter when Samberg is far along into the loop, which is a perspective we don't get too often in these things. It counter-balances Milioti's experience and the character work as she progresses and pushes both of them out of the loop is nuanced while being immensely consequential. It's also genuinely funny. This was a great trip.

#6: Bad Education

This was a little different - an HBO movie, but a movie is a movie, right? Especially this year. Hugh Jackman somehow finds a roll he's never had before, but still does a great job. It's nice to remember that he's an actor sometimes. Allison Janney is incredible, although she isn't quite in the film as much as advertised. Everyone else, from Ray Romano, to Geraldine Viswanathan puts in great work. The latter especially from here to Blockers (2018) has done great work as an up and coming actress. The corruption at the heart of this film is also insidious, contemporary, and constantly engaging. I didn't have huge expectations going in, but this is an extremely competent adult drama that is so rare these days. It was a great experience.

#5: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Speaking of adult dramas, there was perhaps no better than The Trial of the Chicago 7. We're dropped into the apex of 1960s counterculture, and what's striking most is the realization of how much of this dream has failed. It also highlights how many different viewpoints existed simultaneously, which still feels like a significant issue in uniting disparate sections of the political spectrum against the one true enemy - injustice! It has very true poetical vibes, racial vibes, judgmental vibes - I really enjoyed it. It's also a showcase for great acting, from the genuine hilarity and inspired casting of Sasha Baron Cohen playing Abbie Hoffman to the subtle notes of consistent character actor John Carroll Lynch and titans like Frank Langella and Michael Keaton showing up and doing their thing. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II continues to be the best part of anything he's in. And Mark Rylance! This was a lot of fun.

#4: Color Out of Space

I'm surprised I haven't seen this on more lists. Maybe because it's completely bonkers insane eldritch horror that's nigh-incomprehensible, anchored by a Nic Cage performance suitably Nic Cage. But there's a lot of good stuff here - the uncontrollable inevitable horror that destroys every part of your life - the upended family unit, idyllic nature's shift, lost community members, the failure of authority. Why isn't this the definitive 2020 movie? It is a little reminiscent of Annihilation (2018), but it's more opaque, without ever being inaccessible. There's also this undercurrent of failed investments, the idea that this family had been doomed by poor judgment before the color ever descended. I typically judge films by how much they stick with me, and this one I kept thinking about for months and still will.

#3: Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee's second film on this list - who knew 2020 would be such a year for him to shine? I mean...actually were we surprised that one of our most distinctive and prolific Black filmmakers shines in a year filled with racial turmoil? Da 5 Bloods when I saw it was a shoe-in for one of the best films of the year and I'm actually surprised that it's fallen down a little bit for me. It's a monumental look at a very specific black experience but also finds a way to show how universal that experience is. It's a great achievement to weave threw these two narratives simultaneously

#2: I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Yeah, this is a tough one. Going again with the films that stayed with me, this is one that had my headscratching for years. Or months or however long this year has taken. I've wanted to watch it again to pick up on all the details and nuance with the added benefit of knowing how it ends - it's actually remarkably straightforward when you know what's going on - it's that figuring out of what is going on that's the tough part. It is quite a marvel of film structure, I was continually checking the time stamp. Partly because it can come across as painfully boring, but you need to lean into the madness and realize that every scene has acute but significant purpose. I want to watch it again, but it's a tough emotional journey to go down. In essence, an incredible use of cinema that left a big impact on me.

#1: Buffaloed

I didn't think it would come to this, and I guarantee no one else picked Buffaloed this year, but in the end I just liked it more than anything else. It spoke to me more than any other movie. Part of that is assuredly my Western New York heritage, as well as my keen focus towards the current giant con of debt collection. It's ultimately a dark comedy about starting a small business, but it's flavor is so specific in ways that definitely won't speak to everyone, in fact I would suggest it would not speak to most people. I do think the accents are over the top, it's like The Departed (2006) for Western New York. It's an underrated accent that most movies should adopt. It's also consistently hilarious. Zoey Deutch gives a career-defining performance and Jai Courtney plays a delectable villain. Jai Courtney is underrated, I'm saying it - how many baffling crazy person roles does he have to take?

There were a few close calls this year. I really enjoyed The Platform and thought about it a lot, but ultimately it just wasn't there for me. Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm is a strong contender for the most 2020 movie every made, but it too just barely missed the mark for me. Finally, the following films are all great candidates that I just didn't get to this year. Will they change my mind a year from now? Super effin possible!

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Promising Young Woman
Extra Ordinary
Black Bear
Sound of Metal
Personal History of David Copperfield
One Night in Miami

Have you seen any of these? Am I totally wrong? That is 2020 for you. Also, Sonic was unashamedly great, not even joking, I really loved it, folks.

30 December 2020

All Glory to 2020! Music and Songs!

We are almost there, folks. We are rounding the corner on 2020 and everyone is very sad to see this year pass us by. Do you remember Murder Hornets? It's like not even the tenth most insane thing this year. Music was fun, though. I wouldn't call this a better year sonically from the past few years, but there was plenty that I enjoyed. The #1 should be obvious, but let's do this anyway!

#8: "Wolves" by Big Sean ft. Post Malone

Big Sean has come out more and more as one of our true hip hop artists and this dropped with a mild splash this Fall. That's the deal with many of these songs. I quite often feel like I was the only one who enjoyed them. This is solid, though and in a year of great movements in hip-hop, was one that shined above the rest.

#7: "Rare" by Selena Gomez

Does anyone remember "Rare"? This was not a popular song and no one liked it or knows it, but it dropped in January and I still really dig the rhythm. I feel like I am a stealth Selena fan. She is an underrated performer in the modern pantheon of pop divas. It's ultimately an okay song but I listened to it over and over in isolation.

#6: Supalonely" by BENEE ft. Gus Dapperton

This is such a fun song that belies such an unyielding sadness. It sounds like a 2020 song, hastily made, brilliantly executed, full of exuberance and a wry acceptance of a terrible fat. There is an angry irreverence here that's really satisfying. It was a moderate hit this past summer and proved to be one of the songs that lasted.

#5: "Tampa Bay Bustdown" by Yung Gravy ft. Chief Keef, Y2K

I don't know about Yung Gravy, I do really dig his sound but he also leans ridiculously into douche territory. He's right when he says he doesn't make rap, he makes smooth jazz. It's a distinctive sound that pleases my ears. There's a lovely hick quality to this tune that also flows like smooth jazz. I could listen to this over and over for some reason and it's a lot of fun.

#4: "Claws" by Charli XCX

Charli XCX is also an underrated contemporary pop diva. Everyone is - there is no longer mainstream cultural ubiquity. I didn't get too into this when it first came out, but she snuck her way into my ears this year. This was one of the first really noticeable quarantine videos, part of a rash of clear green screen efforts. She bends it to her will so well here, though, and the fun is crystal clear. Her album I didn't rate very high, but it was also a solid outing.

#3: "Kings and Queens" by Ava Max

This was a great year for Ava Max, perhaps my favourite breakout artist that had a really big 2020. She had quite a few great hits, but "Kings and Queens" leads the pack. It's been around for a long time as well, debuting in the age of QuaranQueens, remaining in the mix all summer, and still appearing on radio up through today. I still get pumped when I hear it and that's a good thing.

#2: "The Pink Phantom" by Gorillaz ft. Elton John & 6lack

I've been a big Gorillaz fan since their eponymous debut album and they had a steady stream of releases this summer through their latest effort, Song Machine. Most were not that good. Some were really good! This came out towards the end of their run and is my favourite. "Desole" is a close second. Bringing on Elton John is inspired, as it often is.

#1: "WAP" by Cardi B ft. Megan Thee Stallion

Megan Thee Stallion also had a breakout year, but this was a monumental song and in many ways, life-changing experience for all of us. Not only is it a legit good song, but equally ridiculous in subject matter, but also not because there are hundreds of songs about big dicks. It's the number one song across the board for everyone, fueled by so many remixes, each better than the last. The Monster Mash is the best. It literally changed my life, people. This is the best song ever.

Runners up:

"Pussy Fairy" by Jhene Aiko
"Boy-U" by Fennec
"Do it" by Chloe x Halle
"Circle the Drain" by Soccer Mommy
"Laugh Now Cry Later" by Drake
"Midnight Sky" by Miley Cyrus
"Good News" by Mac Miller
"The Box" by Roddy Ricch
"Rockstar" by DaBaby
"Mood" by 24kGoldn
"Murder Most Foul" by Bob Dylan
"BANG!" by AJR
"Holy" by Justin Bieber ft. Chance the Rapper

Also, of course, "Blinding Lights", our 2020 Summer Jam King deserves some credit.

I should also include most songs from Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, and Run the Jewels, but it's hard to pick just one. I say, just listen to those albums! It has been a fun year, we got "WAP" out of it, so that's really all we need. Onward, to 2021!

29 December 2020

All Glory to 2020: More Movie Stuff

We are knee deep into recapping time now, folks. Normally we churn out all sorts of fun things like actor, actress, hero, villain of the year, but as with everything, 2020 just feels so weird. Does this devolve into Bad Boys for Life (2020)? Or Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)? I'm not sure what scenes to even through on here - we really lacked all those big moments and superlatives that a normal year holds. Let's try this anyway - I think there are still some notables to discuss about what the hell happened this year...

Note, we're going to talk a lot of 2020 here - in the interest of avoiding repetition, every movie we talk about is a 2020 release unless otherwise stated!

Actor of the Year

We have a few candidates to go through. There seemed to be moments this year where actors would shine. For instance, Pedro Pascal is currently in two huge parts of pop culture, The Mandalorian and Wonder Woman 1984. Sacha Baron Cohen was a focus back in the fall with Trial of the Chicago 7 and Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm emerging simultaneously. Pete Davidson in addition to steady SNL work had two movies of somewhat acclaim, Big Time Adolescence and King of Staten Island, but neither really made a huge cultural impact. Tom Holland had an excellent role in a not that great movie, The Devil All the Time and then voice work in Dolittle and Onward. That's all good, and they had their moments, but it also just didn't quite feel like he was showcased.

No, we decided to give this year posthumously to Chadwick Boseman. His ghost literally haunts Da 5 Bloods, which was a big deal when it dropped and remains on many best of lists seven months later. His final film, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is also stellar performance. He was able to make these two huge culturally important films spread out through the year, while still building on a big legacy from Black Panther (2018) and the final two Avengers films. He also passed away very shockingly after a long but discrete battle with cancer. It's still maybe the 2020 death that hits the hardest. It's his year.

Actress of the Year

This was a tough one. There are many great candidates. Octavia Spencer had sort of the Tom Holland route, and we mean literally, she leant her voices to the same projects in addition to appearing in The Witches and the min-series Self-Made. Mackenzie Davis is surely on the rise, appearing in three films this year, but none of them were a huge cultural impact. The Turning, Irresistable, and Happiest Season, for the record. Aubrey Plaza is similar, sharing the screen in Happiest Season while adding the critical favourite, Black Bear.

We came down to two actresses - I lean towards Jessie Buckley because she is the most fascinating person to watch in two fascinating pieces of media, I'm Thinking of Ending Things and the anthology series, Fargo, and surely she will be cast in many more great roles after this year. Still, both of those pieces of media are very niche and she hasn't quite gotten the exposure that really warrants Actress of the Year. Therefore we need to give it to Elisabeth Moss, whose turn in The Invisible Man was fantastic, and thankfully, something that may have been overshadowed in a fuller year gets to shine. We really don't appreciate horror actresses enough. Ask Toni Collette! Moss added Shirley to that and the year is complete.

Scene of the Year

There is quite simply a lot I did not get to see this year that should be contenders, like the tracking shot from Vast of Night or the singalong Paris Hilton scene in Promising Young Woman. This might require a revision at some point. There's some good stuff, though. The end concert in Bill & Ted Face the Music, the final song in Eurovision, Giuliani in Borat. I think I'm going to go with the final scene in Trial of the Chicago 7, though, when Eddie Redmayne reads the names of everyone killed in Vietnam. In a movie filled with amazing things that actually happened, this actually didn't happen, but it's still a powerful capper to a powerful film.

Music Moments

We've mentioned a handful, I might give it to Bill & Ted. Is it really bad that my favourite tie-in song is "Speed Me Up" from Sonic the Hedgehog? I literally put this on my playlist. I don't care about your judgment. That was an incredibly fun movie. Sonic is totally the hero of the year.

Other Random Thoughts

It was definitely a weird one. But I don't think we can totally dismiss the entire year. There was a lot of good that came out that we can't even get into. We just need to dig a little deeper. We have Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, every scene containing a new revelation from Bad Education, and our best hero may be Tom Holland from Onward. Villain is the eponymous Invisible Man, right? Or maybe just men in general? Or racism? Rudy Giuliani?

Something is certainly missing this year, which should be obvious to everyone. We simultaneously had wider distribution than ever before thanks to a plethora of streaming services that greatly increase wide access to films. That's great! But it's also a cautious time. Studios aren't very psyched to roll these dice. The immediate result is that the films released, despite being more available, were also more niche. We lack a shared culture in 2020 beyond Bad Boys for Life and Sonic. The implications of all this don't amount to much right besides a bummer, a gap in our collective experience. We'll see what this all means on down the line.

Most importantly from a movie perspective, this virus has forced what had been coming for a long time - a complete shift in distribution methods. Studios are still hanging on to theater chains, and rightly so, but the future is in streaming. I personally love the theater, going out is still one of my most personal zen experiences I can have. But unfortunately the truth is on the wall at this point - we're shifting towards home entertainment. COVID-19 has made what should have been a long, slow, painful, yet manageable shift into a rapid destructive tornadophoon that has blown up the world, but the end result is the same. We will need to adapt.

2020 was an extremely pivotal year for our culture - we will see if we get any blockbusters beyond the burn-off that current studios need to get off their slate. But for real - would anyone have a problem with a return to fiscally responsible, character-driven mid-range action films and adult dramas? This could lead to some really great pieces of cinema for years to come. We'll see if anyone gets the lesson.

28 December 2020

Best Movies Seen for the First Time in 2020!

Our final ultimate end of year Movie List is coming soon, but we have another fun tradition around here - our picks for the Top Ten films seen in the Calendar Year 2020, regardless of original release year! The merit of this exercise is certainly contentious - it's certainly a personal list based on happenstance, but it's also a way to acknowledge ancient films I have either finally caught up and saw this year or a significant amount of 2019 clean-up. Hopefully you can take this as a way to check out some hidden gems or just what I liked from this past year. These were all new to me! Here we go.

#10: Paths of Glory (1957)

I'd like to consider myself a Kubrick fan, but I have missed out on many of his earliest work from the 1950s, which was actually his most prolific period, at least in quantity. A lot of it has been undervalued as most think he started with Dr. Strangelove (1964). I wanted to watch Paths of Glory just to be a completionist for a director I'd like to claim to be a fan of, but it really blew me away. It's half a war movie, half courtroom drama, and surprisingly applicable to the injustices, corruption, and mistrust of authority that we're seeing today. Kubrick finds the humanity in the hellscape of war and Kirk Douglas anchors this super underrated film.

#9: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

I watched this and want to watch it again but also definitely don't want to. It's far too long and dense, but it's also one of the most thematically rich films of the year. I would like to sum up the courage to check it out once more with a better understanding of the film's endgame. It stuck with me quite a bit afterwards and it's certainly on my list of best 2020 films, where we'll dive in a little deeper, but needless to say, it was good enough to rub elbows against the best films of any year.

#8: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

This film had good buzz coming off the end of last year but it never made it on my list. It's a little hard to access, you have to be into period lesbian artist dramas, but it is truly a masterpiece that had me thinking and digesting for a long time after. It is subtle, but also twisting and turning, with wide debate as to what the actual woman on fire is, literal or metaphorical. I immensely enjoyed this, it's beautiful shot and crafted both on and behind the screen.

#7: Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

Okay, so I dipped into some old creepy cult classics this year and I watched the Elvira movie on a whim and just loved it. It's fast, crisp, witty, and well-paced, with a significant subtext about being your own individual woman and taking pride in confident sexiness. It's a great relevant film for 2020. It's the kind of flick I knew I'd be coming back to at the end of the year no matter what. It just came out of no where for me. I've never been an Elvira stan or anything, but I appreciate her niche, even if it's more an evolution of Vampirella. That's a whole other story. Elvira is so much more ironic and meta, but also very genuine to who she is and what she represents. It's all fantastic.

#6: The Frighteners (1996)

This had been on my list for a while since I'd like to also be a Peter Jackson completionist, but I really didn't know too much about it. It's clearly the best non-Back to the Future movie Michael J. Fox has ever done and he plays against type really well. It's continually surprising with effects that hold up decently well (or at least decent by mid-90s standards), and even some that made me scratch my head today. It's a really tight story with well-balanced elements of humor and macabre, mostly thanks to Fox's impeccable charisma. It's amazing that we never had more vehicles for him.

#5: Color Out of Space (2020)

There have been a lot of Lovecraftian adaptations over the past century, and many more if you count the significant influence he has had on pop culture. He was also a white supremacist, which complicates every part of his legacy. Well, it's not often that a film can capture the unknowable horror of Lovecraft, simply because our imagination triggered by the written word is a much more simultaneously vague and leading bear to poke. Somehow Color Out of Space does the improbable and leads us down a mystifying wormhole of psychological terror and body horror. It's a lot of fun. There's no movie that I screamed "WHAT?!" at my screen more this year and I really enjoyed it.

#4: The Dead Don't Die (2019)

Jim Jarmusch made his vampire film with Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which was okay, but his attempt at a zombie film was endlessly captivating. It's deeply meta in satisfying ways, goofy on its face, but lamenting a serious emotional subtext underneath. It's the best cast film maybe ever, but most importantly, it verily and truly doesn't take itself seriously. At all. And this never cheapens the proceedings, but enhances them.

#3: Buffaloed (2020)

This flew super under the radar this year, but I really enjoyed it as the funniest film of the year, and maybe the best. It's a movie all about the scams of the shady world of debt collection set in Buffalo, NY. Maybe it's the fact that I am originally from Western New York, or that the subject matter fits the rust belt area, and quite frankly, the slowly depleting middle class nationwide, but the whole thing was a lot of fun, led by what should be a career-catapulting performance by Zoey Deutch. Unfortunately I don't think anyone saw it. Go see it!

#2: 1917 (2019)

More catch up on last year's films, the final two slots go to movies I got in after the buzzer sounded for last year. I really think 1917 lived up the hype from last year - it should have been a contender for Best Picture, which at the time felt undeserving, but I've completely reversed my stance. I suppose that makes me angrier at its loss now. It joins a hundred years of movies trying to capture the feeling of war, but it still feels like a fresh take - using its medium to create the impact of desperation, friendship, loss, and constant life on edge. It was also a massive technical achievement, which has gone undersung.

#1: The Lighthouse (2019)

In any year where you see The Lighthouse for the first time, The Lighthouse is going to be the best movie of that year. Beyond the perfect performances from Dafoe and Patterson, one of the greatest character actors of all time as well as from who could become one of our greatest actors, the black and white cinematography, commitment to period speech and stylings, and genuinely trippy descent into madness, this is just a fun time for everyone. Bring the kids! But don't touch the gulls!

Well folks, that is our list for this year. Looking back at our midway analysis, unsurprisingly, my Top 4 at the midpoint all stayed the same, but I found The Frighterners retaining itself in my brain and moving up the list. Stay tuned as we will continue to unleash our Best of 2020 lists over the next few days. I will admit that this is always a weird one, but stay tuned!

26 December 2020

All Glory to 2020: Albums

Well folks, it's time once again to countdown the Greatest of Everything for the Year. 2020 was a fun one, huh? We will see the true impact of this cultural shift for years on down the line reverberating through pop culture, but the year itself gave us a handful of true triumphs. Music is the easiest popular art to churn out in a pandemic - you can play instruments and make beats alone in your quarantined hotel. It's a lot easier than say, a feature film or television series. We had fun tracking which music videos were clearly made in quarantine and which ones were churned out from a natural backlog.

As is usual, we aren't exactly music savants around here. But we like music and had fun with this this year. We'll break down the entire industry into three big mega-genres and give our top picks. Here we go!

Pop Album of the Year:

Folklore by Taylor Swift

So, this was a tough one - I'm not sure if this is even pop or could be considered for our rock category. Tay Sway endures a lot of haters, but for all the complaints she still actually demonstrably evolves and matures as an artist and defiantly continues to find ways to break apart our expectations of her. When this surprise album dropped over the summer I listened to the entire thing back to back in one sitting. I really never do this. Each song dripped with emotion, soothing, fierce, pungent, and calming. Summer 2020 was a bad time. This was a nice relief, but never in a way that ignored the strife we were going through. I digged it from the moment I heard it and knew it would be here at the end of the year.

Top Tracks: "seven", "invisible string", and the #1 pick - "betty"


Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa

Dua had a breakout year - she has of course been on the scene for years now but she finally launched herself into the stratosphere by taking over summer, as well as churning out hits in the vacuum created by a noticeable absence of other pop divas. I was skeptical putting this album on, but I found myself hooked immediately. Her singles were all excellent bops this year, but some of her deeper tracks bring the pop reckoning as well. I could listen to this on loop every day - it may not be very 2020 but it's still a worthy entry to the Pop Pantheon.

Top Tracks: "Cool", "Levitating", and the #1 pick - "Good in Bed"

Rock Album of the Year:

Summerlong by Rose City Band

I had never heard of these folks before this year, but they sound like the Allman Brothers mixed with a little Hendrix, and the Black Keys. It's all pretty relaxed rock that's still upbeat and fun. I dig their sound a lot and from the first track knew I was hooked and they'd be someone I'd be following for a while.

Top Tracks: "Reno Shuffle", "Wildflowers", "Morning Light", and the #1 pick - "Only Lonely"


Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple

It's wild that Fiona Apple felt like dropping a 2020 album, but not only that, one of the most universally praised 2020 albums out there, a possibly year-defining album. I heard a lot of hype about it and was blown away when I started listening. It's full of grinding edginess and anger, but all fueled by a sense of clear righteousness over loss. It's fantastic from start to finish. It should maybe be #1. I just liked the Summerlong vibes a little better. We've put a lot of Top Tracks for this one. It's my article, I can post what I want.

Top Tracks: "Shameika", "Fetch the Bolt Cutters", "Under the Table", "Cosmonaut", and the #1 pick, "Relay"

Another Runner-up:

Pain Olympics by Crack Cloud

Yeah, there were a few Rock Albums that really intrigued me this year. This is also a new artist to me, but I loved everything about this. The sound counters the soothing quality of Rose City Band, which serves to calm us down after a tumultuous year. This and Fiona are on the other side - angry righteous catharsis for all this bullshit.

Top Tracks: "Somethings Gotta Give", "The Next Fix", and our #1 pick, "Ouster Stew" which reminds me of David Byrne

Hip Hop Album of the Year

RTJ4 by Run the Jewels

Listen, I don't automatically give RTJ album of the year. Only twice - I notably wasn't super into 3. But yeah, they get the nod for overall album of the year again. This was another highly anticipated drop that I listened front to back as soon as I could - they of course released songs with a slow drip drop over the summer. I don't think you can acknowledge this year without hip hop. It was a year for social justice and revolution - personally I still don't think anything we accomplished will stick, but this was the kind of protest music we needed.

Top Tracks: "out of sight", "holy calamafuck", "the ground below", "a few words for the firing squad", and our #1 pick, "walking in the snow"


Untitled (Rise) by Sault

Sault is a musical collective that dropped two untitled albums this year - the critics have leaned more towards Black Is, which is the more lyrical of the two, but I found myself gravitating to Rise. I give in to the beats, baby. There were many politically conscious albums dropped, but few had top to bottom excellence like this. Most celebrated hip-hop this year was concentrated in singles. I can throw this on and be complete, though.

Top Tracks: "Fearless", "The Beginning & the End", "Uncomfortable," "Little Boy," and our #1 pick, "I Just Want to Dance."

So, that's it, folks. What did you think of the Music of 2020? Stay tuned - the world is ending!

23 December 2020

Pirates, Drama, and the Mad Science of Donkey Kong Country!

Happy Festivus, everyone! This may be a bit of a departure from our usual allotment of banal pop culture news and end of the year countdowns, but in December 2020 there is one major thing on my mind - all three Donkey Kong Country Games debuting on SNES Online through the Nintendo Switch. Today I capped off my playthrough with a 103% capper of Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble, and as I captured the final Banana Bird and the giant egg fell on Baron K. Roolenstein (SPOILER!), I paused to think about how far I've come. Let's take this detour.

It's hard to remember how big Donkey Kong was in the mid-90s. Far from a Mario side character, he was a genuine video game hero on his own right, and in 1994, Rareware's ACM graphics, story, attitude, and gameplay combined for a perfectly crystalized and realized moment in pop culture and gaming. Also, I enjoyed the monkeys riding rhinoceroses. Oh, it's Rambi, I can't not call everything by its proper name.

A natural jungle scene of a Gorilla riding a rhino, smashing beavers

I was extremely obsessed with this series. It contained such intricate world-building, named characters, goofy baddies, and loveable Kong protagonists that really appealed to the little animal loving explorer in me. I surprisingly worked backwards - even though I played 1994's Donkey Kong Country at a friends' house, the first game I owned was DKC3, and I actually owned the rest in reverse order - DKC2: Diddy's Kong Quest, then years later, the original. A lot of this was simply timing and parents who didn't quite know which game to buy. Needless to say, I started aging out of this, but there was something bigger on the horizon.

The next generation of consoles was emerging towards the end of DKC's heyday, and although Rare successfully made the leap to the N64 (many would say that was their true golden era), Donkey Kong 64 was a disappointment to many, and heralded the great dark years of the 2000s. That was reversed a little with the Donkey Kong Country Returns series but I have trouble with those games, almost only because I am so used to the SNES rhythm and timing.

I recommend you head over to the incredible DKVine for more historic details about this whole era and background info. The Kongversation is the only podcast that I regularly listen to. This site has actually been a huge influence on me and the websites I have run, up to and including this one. So, there's that for you.

So let's get into some reactions. This time I played each of these games in order. I got 93% in 5 hours 15 minutes in DKC, the full 102% in DKC2 in 5:36, and then the max of 103% on DKC3 in 5:46. You may very well wonder why I was so lacking with the original. Well, maybe because it's not so much of a nostalgia trip as the other two for me so I lacked both the desire or the knowledge of where every nook and cranny of bonus was. Also I just got really annoyed at some of the long, troublesome, Expresso-heavy bonus requirements. I had never fully beaten either of the sequels, though, so I was proud of that. Yeah, I heavily used artificial save states. I don't care, I really just wanted to complete it. Totally fine with that. Totally, totally completely fine and I sleep wonderfully every night.

The first DKC is immediately groundbreaking, mostly due to the huge graphical leap. But it's also a game of surprising depth and variety hidden behind a simple facade. On the surface it's merely about a Gorilla trying to get his bananas back from a crocodile. Rare upped all this by naming the crocodile King K. Roll and his Kremling Horde, creating this subtext of this incarnation of Kong trying to live up to the name of his grandfather, the original arcade Donkey Kong (here known as Cranky Kong), and giving the main character an inexplicable necktie.

You can play it like a Mario game where you hop, skip, and bounce your way through each level. But there are more advanced techniques available. On the first level you can find your way through the treetops through some genuinely difficult roll jumps. The prizes are extra lives, which seems so antiquated nowadays. That's the greatest thing dragging this game down - all bonus levels are mere ways to gain lives, which is important within its own context, but there are also easier ways to rack them up. Exploration can be its own reward, and that's the more important core facet here that will preserve going forward.

Everything about the original feels so raw and unpolished, though. That's maybe just because of the subsequent sequels are so refined, structured, and organized. DKC has bonuses at random, without any rules as to where they could pop up. There are even bonus rooms within other bonus rooms. The bosses are straight up sized up versions of normal enemies without much personality (they also all have the same, banana-filled boss room). The stage variation isn't that crazy, and gets very repetitive towards the last few worlds.

Still, it inexplicably ends with the King sailing in on a pirate ship for the final dual. This would prove to be foreshadowing the straight up pirate theme of DKC2. These games are all about expectations, though. Nothing about DKC on first play feels off. The Animal Bonus Tokens do interrupt gameplay, and the difficulty is outstanding, especially as the levels progress. The faults only really become clear when my personal vote for the greatest video game of all time, DKC2 drops a year later.

It seems like it should be such a small thing, but converting the entire enemy horde into blatant pirates works so well. It adds so much more danger to everything going on, in addition to dropping the both the protagonist down and bumping the environments up. In DKC the Kremlings are invading Donkey Kong Island, so the Kongs are defending their home turf. In the sequel, Diddy Kong is an unproven hero venturing off into a foreign land full of danger and mystery, the odds are stacked against him.

This informs every part of DKC2. The ideology is fully realized, from the fact that both monkeys are small, so they literally can't defeat some of the bigger Kremlings, to the increasingly complex level design, which features more vertical, climbing levels, creative uses of innate abilities, and a fleshed out lost world that feels both earned within the meta gameplay as well as providing a functional story use.

There is a lot about the gameplay that succeeds. Each level typically has a core gimmick to explore and put a spin on, again and again until its most complex iteration is satisfied. Diddy's Kong Quest hits this high mark more than any other series. It introduces the concept in a safe way, tells the player how the mechanic functions, demonstrates the consequences of failure, and then introduces a greater challenge to test the player's mechanical understanding, reflexes, timing, and skill. It's quite wonderful.

The main game ends with the kidnapped Donkey Kong uppercutting K. Rool into a swamp full of sharks after one of the most difficult boss fights of all time. It's still not over, though, because in the Lost World, K. Rool returns and you eventually knock him into the Krocodile Kore and the entire island explodes. It's a long, somber note full of reflection on the vanquished evil.


I never got it, but this creates a really jarring moment when DKC3 opens with such lighthearted bouncing and merriment. It hits such a different tone that really sets it apart. As a kid it was my favourite because it was the first one I owned. It's by far the most complex, with its Brothers Bears and lengthy system of Banana Bird trades. It is also the most superior with its truly open world that evolves past the need to constantly progress in order to save. This all tones down the difficulty, but also greatly increases basic playability.

That tone is off, though. I always bucked back against the mainstream opinion that the third game was inferior, but I hate to admit it on such a narrow playthrough I've finally caved. The Kremling Horde just doesn't seem like an organized and coherent threat like it was in DKC2. Perhaps that's the point, that we're in neutral territory now, a land to the North wholly unfamiliar to both warring races. It's hard to have something to latch on to, though, and everyone's expressive personality takes a big hit.

Still, the level design is crisp and it has perhaps the best expression of "introduce gimmick," describe consequences, and then push to the limit. There are also far more vertical and "box" stages that really push the exploration. The cave levels, especially are twisty and turny and allow the designers freedom to go in any direction they feel like. The Kongs continue to break their limits, but pushing limits was always what rewarded creative gameplay in the first two games. There is less reward for showcasing pure skill in DKC3.

Finishing both games really through me for a loop, though. DKC2 had such a massive emotional upheaval. In three, your final blow to Baron K. Roolenstein doesn't feel like a climax at all. He just sort of putters like he were any other boss. And in the final battle aboard the Knautilus he literally just spins on the steering wheel and it ends. There is a fun inspired bit where the Queen Banana Bird drops an egg on him, but there is nothing akin to becoming a video game hero, vanquishing evil banana thieves, or a cathartic exercise rewarding you after a new territory well explored.

For the record as well, I really don't have a problem with Kiddy Kong - I always liked him. He adds a lot of gameplay variety and adds a new personality to the mix that pushes Dixie into more of a caretaker role. They also really favored Animal Buddy variety, but I was surprised to realize that Ellie, Squawks, Quawk, Squitter, and Enguarde were actually the only ridable buddies. Each of these offers complex mechanics rather than the run and smash Rambi or high jumps of Winky or Rattly. It's all fine, there is an argument to be made for pulling off complex features and another one for executing simplicity. The only gripe is that it's very reliant on transformation rather than merely riding, meaning levels can only be completed one way, instead of a supplement. There is of course, this as well.

DKC3 struck me the most by being relatively easy, especially compared to DKC. I enjoyed the boss fights, none of which are traditional, but it also feels like unconnected denizens of the Northern Kremisphere rather than an organized assault. It's a weird zone where I appreciate the creativity in gameplay but lament the loss of emotional story beats. I think of Squirt in Cotton-Top Cove, who just sort of ends when you splash its eyes out, versus Kleever who literally explodes in a fiery hell. There are exploding bosses, Bleak being the most notable, but that entire sequence feels like a big exception.

Now, I'm not looking for surface-level elements like exploding bosses, but it's a hallmark of how epic DKC2 felt versus how much more satisfied DKC3 is being mediocre. It's the little things. I would always love the high-altitude level end impact which gave you a Dixie Guitar Riff or Diddy Kong Boom Box. If you missed, there would be a basic but still positive jingle and you'd move on. It didn't penalize you in any way, but you would lose both the satisfaction as well as the extra riff. In DKC3 the basic jingle is the default. It's incredibly spiritually unfulfilling.

Also the simple task of beating a level so fast a bear gets angry and pounds his fists so hard a piece of driftwood is dislodged, creating a bridge to go a secret cave where you can input an audio code to release a banana that is also a bird

The DK Koins are similar - it's a fun challenge to capture each, but they are often easy to achieve. The Hero Coins in DKC2 were always about scouring the level to find every possible location. It rewarded exploration. In the third game it's more about rewarding puzzle solving, which is fine, but it doesn't always feel like a challenge well earned.

I don't feel good about doing this. I didn't want this to be a hatchet job on the first video game that I truly and deeply loved. But playing these games rapidly back to back illuminated flaws for the first time in my twenty-five year history with this series. And there are truly great things - the world design, level design, and gimmick design are top notch. I do wish that there was a little more coherence with the later levels, and it's weird to say, but it could have used another theme for the villains and levels. DKC sort of had army guys as a theme, the second one had pirates, DKC3 explicitly has nothing. They don't even lean into the mad scientist or Northern Expanse themes. Level-wise there are cliffs and pine trees and immense verticality which is fun, different, as well as provides that sense of always climbing, climbing, climbing.

What say you? Which game is your favorite? There is a lot more we can dig into here. The third one actually has far less hints, far less utility from Swanky Kong, and brighter, cheerier characters, for what that's worth. For me, it's all DKC2, which is the greatest game of all time. Either way, get your SNES on today.

10 December 2020

At One Moment We Looked Forward to 2020

Listen, folks....

This is going to be fun as hell.

Such auspicious predictions for 2020. This will go fast. Most of these films never came out or if they did, were in such limited release I didn't see them, or even if they were in my area, let's face it, I wasn't going to the theater. There are a lot of potentious predictions wider than the scope of this post - the death of blockbusters, the death of theaters, the move to streaming, and you know, whatever else. But let's look back on what we were looking forward to this year and salvage what we can with how things turned out:

2020's deepest revelation: Slavery is bad!

Wonder Woman 1984

It's fun how many Warner Bros films are on this list - who of course made the announcement that their entire 2021 slate would be released on HBOMax and in theaters simultaneously. WW84 is scheduled to drop Christmas Day, so I'll be watching it then - stay tuned for that reaction when it drops!

UPDATE: I watched this, it was definitely enjoyable and I liked most of the last half. It started ridiculously slow, though, and needed a good editor to trim it up. I still enjoyed it quite a bit as a nice Christmas diversion and quite frankly, the big silly blockbuster we needed to end this insane year.


This was delayed, and then debuted in theaters to more middling acclaim than a Chris Nolan film deserves, but it was also just really caught up in its times. It became a focal point for corona at the movies and a posterchild for blockbusters' inability to function with both limited theaters showing films and a public that didn't want to go out. I was summing up the courage to see it right as theaters locked down. So...TBA.


This is on HBO Max and I'm jonesing for it. I will update soon with thoughts.

UPDATE: Watched it, it was bizarre and fantastic and wonderful. It is by far not for everyone and it can border on incomprehensible if you let it. It's had next to no critical or cultural appreciation associated with its release, so not much of a splash, but if you're feeling frisky, I do recommend it.

Bad Trip

For some reason I'm only now hearing that this film was accidentally released on Amazon Prime for a brief time in April. How was I not on top of that?! Supposedly Netflix bought it for some later release, at which point I will watch it and report my findings. This is fun, guys.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

This got a release in late August and swelled to a massive 1550 theaters over Labour Day. I did not see it. Reviews are a little lackluster than I would have hoped for and despite being a big Iannucci fan, I've been dismayed at Avenue 5 and a re-watch of Death of Stalin (2018) that lacked a little luster. He might be showing some cracks.

Untitled Judd Apatow / Pete Davidson Comedy

This turned out to be King of Staten Island and as it came together I was turned off. I have grown quite weary of Apatow making overlong stealth biopics of quasi-interesting comedians. Funny People (2009) is still solid, but still an absolutely brutal 146 minutes. This is an equally unnecessary 136 minutes. I know this not because I've seen the film, but because Pete Davidson really shouldn't be counted on to carry 136 minutes. I wish this would lean more into slapstick than the comedy / dramedy folks seem to like these days. Anyway, reviews were decent, and it did pretty well on VOD.

Godzilla vs. Kong

Delayed until May 2021, but will be on HBOMax, unless of course, the entire industry implodes on itself thanks to Warner Brothers or we have a vaccine by then. Either way I would love for Godzilla vs. Kong to emerge from the ashes as the last great blockbuster to ever exist. It will be high on our 2021 list.


Delayed until October 2021. Same deal as G v. Kong, still has a lot of potential, but a delay until October seems insane. I suppose it's good to have some kind of plan, even if that plan may change.

The Tomorrow War

Delayed until July 2021. It's weird that we should have been getting hyped for this around now, but instead we're almost in the exact same position we were a year ago. It was too far out to get rolled in the hype machine. It still might be good!

Other Crap:

We had a lot more we gave a skeptical eye towards. Let's do a quick rundown of delays:

New Bond: No Time to Die, delayed to April 2021. By the way, the six year gap ties the longest span of time we've had between Bond Films since 1989's License to Kill and GoldenEye (1995). That was due to a lot of behind the scenes shuffling and resting and this gap still has the same actor who was playing a weary Bond eight years ago. FOOD FOR THOUGHT.
New Top Gun: Top Gun: Maverick, delayed to July 2021. I think Top Gun (1986) is stupid. I said it.
New Ghostbusters: Ghostbusters: Afterlife, delayed to June 2021. 
New Bill & Ted: Bill & Ted Face the Music, this came out, it was okay.
New Coming to America: Coming 2 America, most cliched sequel title possible. Delayed to March 2021
Black Widow: Delayed to May 2021
Free Guy: Release date TBA
Last Night in Soho: Delayed to April 2021
Trial of the Chicago 7: Came out on Netflix, pretty good!
Antebellum: This came out, I've heard good things and bad things but have not seen it.
Mank: Just came out on Netflix, I need to watch. UPDATE: It was solid, not totally revolutionary, but I enjoyed it.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things: Came out on Netflix, pretty good!

This year was obviously rough, but I usually do watch more films than this! I can catch up on a few but 11 / 21 films I was anticipating were delayed until 2021. Should we just copy and paste for next year? Stay tuned, this will be a living Internet document because why not, I will update as I watch!

19 November 2020

The Auspicious Highs and Impossible Lows of Broken Lizard Films

 Somehow in the year 2020 I have been on a Broken Lizard kick. If you don't know what I'm talking about, first, I have no idea why you would click the article heading, but it's the name of the comedy group who made Super Troopers (2001), and then a ton more, mostly pretty bad films. I have been struck for a long time, though, wondering how a group could make two incredible instant-classic comedies and then also some of the worst, most forgettable comedies of the modern age. There is a larger question at play here, which eternally confounds me. How do the same artists make inconsistent work and what pushes one movie over the edge where another comes up short?

Broken Lizard is an interesting group to study, and for some reason, after searching the entire Internet (twice), I haven't found very many deep dives into their work. Perhaps they come across as too sophomoric and puerile to be worthy of deep study. Well, folks, that is what Norwegian Morning Wood is all about. It's literally in our website's title.

So, background time. Broken Lizard was formed by five men who met while attending Colgate University in 1989. It consists of Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Hefferman, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Eric Stolhanske. They're notable for not really ever breaking up or splintering off in the past thirty years, and while they each have their own sparse projects, most notably Chandrasekhar who has had steady director work in all of the great comedies of the 21st-Century and may be the closest we have to the "face" of Broken Lizard.

Their films include Puddle Cruiser (1996), which is their Hard Eight (1995), the small budget almost proof-of-concept type film that no one has really seen but directly lead to the aforementioned Super Troopers. I would never say that this movie became particularly mainstream, it's not an Austin Powers (1997) or Hangover (2009) level, but it's a significant cult classic in its own right and crushed DVD sales enough that it gave these folks a career.

A career they immediately squandered with Club Dread (2004). I will get into why each of these films work and fail soon here, but suffice it to say that Club Dread does everything the opposite of Super Troopers and I'm frankly amazed that they were allowed to make more movies afterwards. It is truly a crime against cinema. But then they churned out Beerfest (2006), and suddenly it seemed like Club Dread was just a blip and they were back in form. After that, however, they made The Slammin' Salmon (2009), which was okay, and then a long break until Super Troopers 2 (2018). And that's pretty much it.

There are other bits in here. They were all heavily involved in The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), which I would like to add to the discussion here because it feels quite a bit like all their worst indulgences, with studio backing. They also made a stand-up movie and produced Freeloaders (2012), which I do not know a ton about. It's hard to even find clips or info about this movie. The trailer looks very much in their zone, though, and I will have to admit to this gap in knowledge.

Cultural Context

Super Troopers came out during this time where the "Group of Friends" comedy was pretty big. There were a lot of movie that pitted teams of man-children against each other, which early Apatow leaned into and then capitalized by making everything more realistic and dramatic. Before that, though, we had Anchorman (2004), Dodgeball (2004), Team America: World Police (2004) - okay, that's maybe a stretch. But you can stretch this ensemble comedy into the teen realm with even the American Pie series, Road Trip (2000), and Mean Girls (2004), and even as far as Old School (2003) and Eurotrip (2004). I would even venture that the Jackass movies basically worked as watching a group of friends have fun with each other.

It was only natural then, that Super Troopers would catch on. The rapport is so instant and deep between all the core cast members, and despite the inherent juvenile dick and fart jokes, there are legit moments of wit and timing. It's continuously amazing that the biggest stars they got were Lynda Carter, Brian Cox, and Jim Gaffigan. I know, I know, Daniel von Bargen really reeled in the kids back in 2001.

The film works because it built on something we hadn't really seen since the days of Monty Python - the comedy troop movie based on genuine friendship that you can see all up on screen. It's crazily quotable but looking back it feels apparent that this was the first great burst of creativity for these guys and they didn't have much left in the tank afterwards. It's easy to riff on doofus cops in Vermont, but it is apparently tough to find another reason for all these disparate team members to work together.

Playing with the Formula

Broken Lizard has stated that they enjoy playing around with what characters they play in each movie, swapping personalities and roles. It's noble to play with but also extreme hubris that these guys consider the roles they take on to be acting challenges. There really aren't any good actors among them but instead of recognizing this, they force each other into roles beyond their capabilities. That's first apparent in Club Dread.

Going back to Monty Python, that group always knew their limitations. Graham Chapman was the only one who they felt could carry a movie, beyond that was John Cleese as a strong second, who was great at playing pompous authority figures. Eric Idle could do songs and cowards, Michael Palin had the most range and could do innocent put-upon bystander as well as a sleazy car salesman. Terry Jones I always considered just bonkers, who would throw himself the most completely into the insanity of a sketch or movie. Finally Terry Gilliam was really just a little troll man who drew the cartoons. It all worked out.

It's perhaps unfair to compare Broken Lizard to Monty Python, but it's where we are right now. We need to get into each actor in their own section, but for now, suffice it to say that when they play with their formula, the results get pretty rough. Chandrasekhar is the closest we get to a leading man from the group, but he only gets that role in Super Troopers. Club Dread is all over the place. It seems like they made an effort to make every character awful, maybe so we'd be both suspicious of everyone as well as not care when they died?

See, Club Dread is a murder mystery set on an island run by a Jimmy Buffett knock off played by Bill Paxton. Yes, even in the movie he is a Jimmy Buffett knock off. Broken Lizard plays the resort staff. This all seems like gold so far. But the big mistake is that they set themselves against each other - they are on the same team, but no one likes each other. And since this is a murder mystery, they (mostly) end up killed, so we lack the catharsis of them coming together. The formula actively works against their genre.

See, it's hard to have a comedy troop movie where someone dies every ten minutes. This has a number of ramifications. For one, their greatest strength is having the group working together and bouncing both jokes and ideas around. The inherent suspicion with this kind of movie negates that. They are also designed to be an ensemble with roughly equitable screen time and jokes. When they start dying, this also gets in the way of that, and in fact, a few have incredibly ignomious deaths. Finally, because of both of these problems, they are forced to infuse a lot of fodder and extra characters into the mix. This happened with The Slammin' Salmon as well - as much as it is genuinely good to get some periphery characters on screen, particular women, which they don't have a great track record representing, other characters tend to dilute their brand. It's hard to describe, but again, in a Monty Python movie it's very jarring to see non-Python actors in major roles.

This is why Beerfest and Super Troopers work. In those movies everyone is working together, on the same team, with the same goal (Farva notwithstanding, but in the end he's all Highway). Club Dread and Slammin' Salmon feature both non-Broken Lizard actors getting in the way and are primarily centered around them being rivals or antagonists. Okay, obviously the Python parallel doesn't hold up here, but in all these movies (except Beerfest, briefly), everyone is only playing one character and there are actual stories afoot. Not just a series of gags. I do sincerely love Python, and have watched most of their films this year as well as a matter of fact!

As we were getting into, Beerfest just shines. It's a more coherent film than Super Troopers, feels bigger, stronger, and taps into a simple premise - drinking games! International drinking games! Club Dread is simultaneously thin and everywhere at once. It's Jimmy Buffett island, but also murder mystery, and also a contrived love story that really stretches the hot girl and fat guy trope. Its protagonist ostensibly is Kevin Heffernan, but he's also a suspect, so he has to do suspicious things, so he's absent for large stretches of the film. It could maybe be Brittany Daniels as a Final Girl, but she's also not that. It's....it's just very weird.

Beerfest has a simple premise that allows the cast to make constant jokes. It lets each of the cast shine while also mixing it up with some randoms. It gives them a target to hit, insane villains to root for while you're rooting against, and also America. It's a sports movie! It's all very clear, and it keeps things breezy enough that they can pull of their surface level antics and mayhem. Soter and Stolhanske share roles as the protagonist, with maybe Soter shining a little better as the relatable every man and opening up his character more.

Despite really hitting their stride by going back to their tested formula with Beerfest, they decided to ditch all that for The Slammin' Salmon. It's their most polished movie visually and also features the most expansive cast. On the surface it also feels like a good premise - they are restaurant workers who need to raise enough money in one night to pay Michael Clark Duncan's gambling debt or else he will hurt them. It all lines up. But it also drives the troop into vengeful competition with each other which eliminates the team aspect that had worked so well in their more successful movies.

Salmon isn't nearly as bad as Club Dread. It's a coherent film and characters have arcs. Some of the jokes land and it's a fairly enjoyable experience. It trips itself up by its need to satisfy all the yarns it begins to spin. Each Lizard has his own thing and story to develop, some are done fine, others are dropped, and that's in addition to other ancillary characters working at the restaurant. It's also off that they aren't really at the same level - Heffernan is the manager, Soter plays dual roles as both Chef and busboy, while the rest are all waiters. I don't honestly know why this is off-putting to me. Maybe it's the need for that ensemble again - this time around Heffernan is the undisputed protagonist and everyone else feels lesser. And normally that is fine, literally every other movie is built this way, but the film is still trying to give everyone a character on equal footing. It's trying to have it both ways and it stumbles hard.

It also largely feels like a long sitcom premise. All of the set-ups are fairly hackneyed like accidentally eating an engagement ring, as well as the whole "Raise enough money to do something" conceit. All their movies are sort of like this, from Troopers saving the police station to Beerfest's winning redemption for America, but it's particularly egregious with Salmon.

I also don't exactly know why Soter playing two roles bothers me. Maybe because it would have been more fun if each individual had a different role in the restaurant that fit their strengths to help with the world building. Even though Soter plays both well, it's also underdeveloped. The cooks in Waiting... (2005) have more chances to shine with pure jokes than this. Oh yeah, also Waiting... (2005) fits this ensemble team trope of movies. Dang, 2000s. He gets the romance this time as well, but it's also just an afterthought. So they split his roles and gave them each less to do. It seems like they could have gotten rid of someone, probably Steve Lemme's character, who is incredibly bland (for arguably their most dynamic and energetic character actor). Make him the psychotic chef, get rid of all his sad sack storyline, he could dial up the R rating they love and everything would be better.

This brings us to Super Troopers 2. It was a long time in between projects that they had been cranking out every two or three years. A whopping nine years until their next true feature. Sure they had Freeloaders and their stand-up movie and Tacoma FD, but it does very much feel like they dropped off. Super Troopers 2 was largely crowd-funded through Indiegogo (I gave them $20). I am not aware of production parameters, but it's not like it's anything extremely edgy or dissimilar from their other work. Studios wouldn't touch them, though, possibly because all their films are pretty bad, possibly because they really aren't all that profitable.

Super Troopers 2, which I really think should be called Super Twoopers or Super Trooper Twoopers or something stupid is where my critique breaks down a bit. It's the gang together again, with a clear goal against a clear rival team. And the movie is funny, it doesn't try to live up to the lofty standards of Super Troopers and finds plenty of material to riff on, both building on the first film's gags and presenting new material. Something about it falls flat, though. I'm not sure why but after I watched it (I now own it forever, thanks Indiegogo) the first time, I forgot most of it immediately, despite laughing and liking it. I watched it a second time a few months ago and I still have difficulty remembering some of my favorite lines and jokes. I had even forgotten Rob Lowe was in it despite (SPOILER) him being the main villain at the end.

There are good moments. The bear scene is inspired, as is just about any Farva moment. We just don't have blowhard characters like this in movies anymore and it's incredibly freeing to relinquish any standards of self-control or decency. He's updated well, in the fact that he's still largely funny and not cringey. The protagonist shifts to probably...Rabbit? Maybe it's just them getting older - their cheeky shenanigans aren't quite as cheeky as they all start pushing 50. It's their third-best film, for what it's worth.

Jay Chandrasekhar - Leading Man

What I'd like to do here is go through each actor's character swaps and how they work (or don't) in their five respective films. Some of this is informed by Super Troopers, where most of the troop created their first impression, but some diversified enough in later roles.

Chandrasekhar is the only one with presence and dignity. He should have been their Graham Chapman and taken the leading roles in every film. Yet the only time he takes this position is in Super Troopers. Even in the second one he's neutered, and I mean that literally, he starts taking estrogen pills. In Club Dread he plays an arrogant British tennis instructor who doesn't have a huge impact on the story. It's amazing to me that they took their most charismatic actor and made him an unlikable side character devoid of purpose in their second outing.

Beerfest splits the middle. See, he's their best actor, which means sometimes they need him for the heaviest lifting, not necessarily the core of the film. He plays Barry Badrinath, a one-time legend, current day prostitute who has one of the most complete arcs in the film. He's able to be sincerely goofy, way out of the constrains that we need for a protagonist, but his presence is still used to show he's a big deal whenever he's on screen. Beerfest is just the best one of these films, we'll hear this over and over again.

He has sort of a dual role in Salmon. He plays Nuts, who is an odd fellow, and then has a split personality, Zongo who is crazy. It does lead to my favourite scene in that movie. He's good at this kind of character, but it's also a deep hole to throw your best actor down, especially when he isn't sharing director duties in this movie.

Kevin Heffernan - Fat Idiot

Heffernan is an odd duck. He plays the most unlikable characters, but also tries his hand at some of the most sincere. Rod Farva in Super Troopers is obviously an American icon. Loud, obnoxious, impulsive, prideful, he exists as a whipping boy for the department and Heffernan plays him outrageously well, maybe even better in the sequel, just because it's all the more jarring.

He takes a big left turn in Club Dread, playing confident, suave, calm, and dignified. As you might imagine, it's a whole lot less funny and he doesn't quite pull it off. As I mentioned earlier, he's trying to be our gateway into this world, but he's also simultaneously distant from the audience (again, in order to increase the suspense that he's a suspect) and capable of feats that stretch the imagination. He's practically a Mary Sue. It's all sorts of ridiculous.

In Beerfest Heffernan plays Phil "Landfill" Krundell and his secret twin brother, Gill. He's more charismatic here, but he's also still a bully. It's like a toned down Farva, and it's exactly what the film needs to get everyone on the same page. He's also possibly the one most interested in Beerfest as personal redemption for his own drinking-related problems (it all sort of works out). Of course, SPOILER, having Phil die in the last quarter and to be replaced by Gill is a really cheap writing move, but it somehow works here. We get all the needed dramatic weight of Phil's death but then the movie can just keep moving forward with Gill. There are plenty of cheeky nods about it..

In Salmon he's our main dude. He also directed this movie, stepping in for Chandrasekhar. His character (and if you haven't figured it out, I haven't looked up any times. It's no coincidence that I remember everyone's name from Troopers and Beerfest and not the other two) is the restaurant manager who is married to the Champ's (Michael Clark Duncan) daughter and wacky shenanigans ensue. There's just not a lot there - Salmon purposely makes its characters pretty bland and it's rough.

Steve Lemme - Fun Dude

Lemme has one of the weirder wider ranges of the Lizard troupe. He plays Mac in Troopers who is just an agent of chaos and the most fun-loving member of the group. Then he switches to a Puerto Rican diving instructor for Club Dread who is a lothario with the ladies. He pulls it off well enough but it misses some of Lemme's energy. Also, like everyone else, it doesn't have enough weight to keep the movie going.

He makes his most significant left turn in Beerfest where he plays Charles Finklestein as a bookworm Jewish scientist, and the farthest from Mac he can possibly be. He seems to really relish these supporting character roles and he really gives it his all here. He is not Jewish in real life, and so it's a little awkward to be playing in Jewface. There are certainly some stereotypes at play but the rest of the characters support him and don't bring up his Jewish heritage in a negative way. It gets really hard to parse some of this stuff out, it's a bit of an Apu Simpsons thing, so make of that what you will. As a white Christian (not practicing) dude I'd rather leave its racism up to the people it's possibly racist against. I will go with what you decide, Jews of America.

I already mentioned his role in Salmon, it's completely uninteresting, he comes in very late into the movie, seems like he'll be a big deal, and never is. He's basically a failed actor because he had a nose job after he got his big break as a crime-sniffing detective (I may be thinking of The Fifth Sense) here. He has an arc....I guess? But it's forgettable and insignificant. As you can tell, I forget his character's name.

Returning as Mac in Super Troopers 2, he feels a lot more dialed back. This may be in reaction to Thorny, Farva, and even Rabbit getting a bit zanier. It's not too tame, but he doesn't hit the heights he did on the first film. Lemme's strength always seems to be the dynamic energy he brings to the roles, when that's stifled, he suffers.

Paul Soter - Everyman

Soter is an interesting situation. His role in Troopers is ostensibly to be the love interest, and he plays the kind of everyman well, the guy who can just sort of be normal amidst all the chaos around him. It's a tough character to pin down. He plays pranks like the other officers but isn't quite as confident, witty, or dynamic as anyone else. He is a great supporting character actor.

Club Dread sees him as Bill Paxton's drug addled nephew, and really amps up his douchery. After playing the nice guy in Troopers he is really unlikable here, akin to Chandrasekhar's Putnam. See, I remembered one name. Is Putnam right? He doesn't jibe well with anyone and it's just hard to root for him on any level.

This is reversed in Beerfest. He's the closest we get to a protagonist, as he's in the first scene and we are mostly following his journey. His goals and attitude is what drives the movie, but he is also able to get out of the way and let the other characters come in and be insane. He's a lot like his Troopers character here - just kind of a normal dude who wants people to be united and have fun. He's supreme glue.

When they discovered this it didn't last long. They split him up in Salmon and turned up his assholeness for the chef and his doofiness for the busboy, and gave him a love interest again, but he totally does not earn it by being a buffoon the whole time. It's pity love at best. It just gets real rough. He is not all that different in the second Super Troopers, although his relationship with Ursula is downplayed and as a result he has less to do. Soter does better when he's playing a nice guy, although to his credit, makes a great douchebag. It really depends on the type of movie he is in, and as we've mentioned, the teamwork movies just tend to work better.

Eric Stolhanske - The Young Psycho

They are all the same age, I don't know why they made Stolhanske Rabbit the rookie in Super Troopers. Maybe just because he looked the youngest and couldn't grow a moustache. But he plays wide-eyed and bushy tailed well. There is honestly not much to him in Club Dread, although he is SPOILER revealed to be the murderer, so there's that. However, they cloud his motivation and none of it really makes sense. Before that he was just kind of an asshole, again, just more fodder.

He's paired with Soter in Beerfest as the other Wolfhouse brother and he's the more cynical and hesitant one. He also gets knocked out for most of the finale as he has to get blind-stinking drunk to remember where the secret underground tournament was being held. He's still active, though, and brings some ferocious energy to the final moments. And gets an arc!

As usual, Salmon just goes in the opposite direction. He plays an unrepentant douche who is the worst character on screen at any given moment. He ends up losing the contest and gets the shit kicked out of him, which is fun, but also makes me wonder why he always ends up with these horrible roles where he's punished by the end of the film.

In the Troopers sequel he's Rabbit again, despite being much older. Apparently they never had another rookie. He is more the lead of this film and gets the love interest and it actually has some nice growth for him beyond a punchline. It makes it so that Lemme is the only actor who hasn't been the lead, but there is clearly a debate on the ensemble here.

The Conclusion and Future

So, Salmon cratered, but really the whole idea of this kind of movie fell apart. The Hangover had that "bunch of dudes hanging out" feel for sure, and that was monstrously huge, but it's also clear how quickly that fell apart. I wish I could say what the predominant comedy style of the 2010s was, but it was largely absent. You have the Jump Street and Neighbors movies - is it nostalgia? Making fun of the generational gap? It's really hard to say. But the latter half of the decade it felt like comedies petered out entirely. Everyone loved Game Night (2018), which really wasn't that great. What's the best we have? Blockers (2018)?

Anyway, this kind of studio formatted comedy was never going to work for these guys. They slipped past their prime without much of an exit strategy as to what do when they became too old for this kind of juvenile schtick. There's no dramatic background to fall back on here. I think in general we have moved away from these kind of team ensemble comedies to smaller knit escapades and buddy films. Apatow swept in at the tail end of Broken Lizard's run and made bank with the "friends hanging out" dynamic, but injected so much more realism instead of absurdism. It's just a very different flavor.

Broken Lizard really does feel like it's from a different era. I need to get into this more, but women are not treated well in these films, they are objects or rarely seen wives or girlfriends. Salmon arguably has the best female roles in that they are real people with real agency and desires. Club Dread features plenty of women, but they're completely unrealistic and conform to a lot of juvenile cool girl stereotypes. Troopers has Ursula, who is a good character in her own right, but it miserably fails any sort of Bechdel Test. Beerfest is largely devoid of any women character not used as a sex object or male motivator. Troopers 2 has some decent female roles and is maybe up there with Salmon. They've toned down that early 2000s R-rated boob obsessed comedy a bit.

Which brings us all to The Dukes of Hazzard. I actually watched this for the first time this year. If you haven't seen it, everything you think may be true about it is true. Knoxville and Sean William Scott are fun but don't have too much chemistry together. There really isn't much of a plot. It's a little hazardous when dealing with um....Southern Heritage. And Jessica Simpson exists as the most blissful sex object of all time. All the Lizards make cameos, Heffernan probably has the most significant, followed by Soter.

But why? Why does Hazzard fail where Beerfest succeeds? I think it's in the heart. Hazzard just feels empty and rushed, juvenile without a drop of sincerity. Beerfest is juvenile, but it's also self-aware enough to know that at the end of the day it's all about redemption and triumph through trauma. There just isn't more to Hazzard beyond Jessica Simpson's tits.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into Broken Lizard. It endlessly fascinates me how they can make two perfect movies, one okay sequel, and two pretty awful ones. I am curious to see what they churn out next, but I also do feel like their window is over. What do you think? Is it all racist?

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