I Just Fixed Superhero Movies For You

Originally posted 07/18/11 on NerdPuddle.com

Hey Hollywood. It’s me again, yelling into the void. I hope this gets to you okay. I was thinking about this earlier, and I’ve been watching a bunch of your superhero movies, and I dunno, I could be wrong, but I think your conventional wisdom is broken. So I thought I’d try to help out a little, because some of your media empires won’t get great mileage when you’ve got cracked conventional wisdom leaking bad ideas all over the place. Anyway, here you go.


When Superhero comics introduced the practice of telling origin stories, they typically came later in a comics run, after it had been proven that the character was worthy of an origin, after growing and maintaining an audience through a series of compelling, popular adventures – then you’d get an origin story that helps shine a new light on why the character acts the way they do, and it would deepen their motivations. The problems with starting your superhero film series with an origin story are several:

1) Everyone knows what’s going to happen. The origin story is so rote at this point you might as well watch a pile of cliches fuck a checklist for 2 hours.

2) Your superhero spends most of the movie bumbling around like an asshole and complaining about how hard it is to live with all these kick-ass powers that most viewers would gleefully murder their fellow man to obtain.

3) The origin story ends just before the superhero you paid money to watch actually becomes the superhero you paid money to watch. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an unfinished handjob – frustrated masturbation with no release.

That’s another good reason to skip the origin story: The 2nd film in your series is typically the one everyone wants to see in the first place. Spider-Man 2. Hellboy 2. X-Men 2. Blade II. The Dark Knight. And while Batman Begins (and Iron Man) are good examples of an origin story done well, The Dark Knight renders everything that happened in Begins utterly irrelevant. All that “world building” that people say Nolan needed to do? It’s done in Dark Knight’s opening bank heist, the gangster meeting the Joker crashes, and the rooftop meeting between Batman, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon. Everything you need to know about how Nolan’s version of Gotham works is told to you in those three scenes. Hell, Batman Begins probably works better if your first viewing comes after you watch The Dark Knight – much in the way classic origin stories worked.

Here’s the best reason to skip the origin: The finest superhero movie ever made doesn’t even have one. Now, I’ve heard people argue that The Incredibles is an origin story – that it’s the origin of their formation as a superhero team. And yeah, that happens at the end of the film, but that’s not the point of the movie in the slightest. The formation of a superhero team is a result of the story, not the story’s engine. There are no origins for Bob and Helen Parr, and the film is not concerned with why Bob does what he does, or what event made him decide to be super. There are no flashbacks to what gave Frozone his talents, no moment where Dash is learning how to do what he does. The film doesn’t need to, nor (thankfully) wants to waste time explaining why all this fantastical shit is happening. It gives its audience credit enough to be able to roll with it. It’s been about 70 years since the first superhero hit the scene. There’s no reason to spend 2 hours explaining to an audience how superheroes work. I think we’re pretty comfy with the general concept. You can stop bolting training wheels onto your movies now.


Another reason The Incredibles works as well as it does? It’s animated. It’s inherently counterproductive to adapt a fantastical story by desaturating it, draining it of its magic, making it greyish brown and altering its iconography because it would otherwise “look silly.” That silly look is a huge part of why it works, and you’re putting a tremendous strain on your suspension of disbelief by adapting the artform to a medium that automatically has huge problems translating those strengths. It’s why Bryan Singer had Wolverine comment on the fact the X-Men were wearing what looked like sleeping bags made out of leather tires. Sure, Singer managed to come up with a look that worked for his movie, but at the cost of a million unnecessary headaches.

Also, it costs way more to facilitate this watered-down translation to live-action than it does to faithfully animate it. Take Superman Returns’ 200 million dollar budget, cut it in half, and let George Miller direct an adaptation of Kingdom Come, with character design and art direction that closely matches Alex Ross’ aesthetics. Most of the time you saw Superman do anything in Superman Returns, he was animated anyway. If one of the biggest appeals of superhero stories lie in its visuals, why limit what you can do with those visuals by tying it to our reality, when you can more easily bend that reality by painting it entirely in the world of animation?

Animated films (and I don’t mean the cheapjack straight-to-video movies where a decent script is hamstrung by arbitrary 70-minute runtimes, oversimplified art direction and 12 fps animation during dialog scenes) are huge business. Go on and take a look at the receipts for anything Pixar or Dreamworks Animation has put out in the last 15 years. The “they’re just cartoons” argument obviously doesn’t hold the weight it (unfairly) used to hold.

And yet the automatic argument is that people basically think animated films “don’t count,” that they’re somehow lessened because usually, they’re family films. That this would somehow be a negative if applied to a superhero movie. Now, setting aside the visceral, kinetic thrills and emotional impact found in movies like Toy Story 3, or How To Train Your Dragon – shouldn’t most superhero movies be family films? Why aren’t they considered as such, either by the people who watch them or the people who make them? It’s the same mindset that allows for Transformers movies – based on a series of toys that are still aggressively marketed towards children 6-10 years old – to feature main characters not just murdering their enemies, but dismembering, disemboweling, decapitating and even urinating on them.

Another reason other reason animated films “don’t count” is that there’s no movie star faces right up front, no Robert Downey Jr smiling from inside a tin suit, no Heath Ledger creeping everybody out from behind a faceful of scars and greasepaint. But this is yet another case of “conventional wisdom” that doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny. In fact, going animated makes it easier to tap Hollywood’s dying reliance on movie stars to sell tickets.

Casting a big name as a superhero is often counterproductive because it’s hard to see the superhero, instead of a movie-star in a silly suit. For example: Let’s say we adapt Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier (and I mean really adapt it, not neuter both the story and Cooke’s art for a DVD release) If we do it live action, it’s gonna cost upwards of 250 million, and while we might want Jon Hamm or George Clooney to be Superman, it’s going to be too distracting to see either of those guys in the tights. But if we animate it, we can do it for 100-150 million, it looks fucking GORGEOUS, and now we can hire Clooney or Hamm. We get their talent, their acting ability, their legitimacy – just not their potentially distracting, immersion-breaking faces, and we still get to stick their name on the poster. Also, going animated means you don’t have to hire some pouty, babyfaced kid because by the time they finish out the 5 film contract you locked them into, they’ll be pushing 40 and be too old to continue playing ageless demigods.


This sort of goes for all moviemaking, not just superhero movies, but superhero movies seem to suffer the most from having really slapdash, lazy scripts that lay bare the swayback skeleton sagging under the weight of a thousand cliches. I never understood why the films that cost the most are the movies that frequently have unfinished scripts being rewritten on the fly during shooting. You’d think that before moving forward on a production equaling the gross national product of about 15 countries combined, you’d want your story tight.

But I think the reason superhero scripts are often lacking is because the people paying for the production are sort of ashamed of these silly movies with these silly concepts and these silly superheroes wearing all this spandex and underwear. And the shame comes because, again – the idea of playing it straight while aiming it at a family audience doesn’t ever really enter in. So you’re staking your career, your industry reputation, on your ability to make something as inherently corny and goofy as Green Lantern be “cool,” whatever that nebulous word means for this year, for people who take great pleasure in smashing their now dirty, cracked childhood playthings together until they break. And the whole endeavour doesn’t alleviate feelings of infantility, it highlights them even further, making the suspension of disbelief into a sisyphean task.

What might make this easier would be to use the stories that captured audience imaginations in the first place. Don’t just reheat a loose amalgam of story details and slap that up onscreen – pick a classic story, and adapt it. Weird pseudo-sequels to 30 year old movies that incorporate “real-world” elements like bastard kids and absentee fathers didn’t help Superman out any. But Mark Waid’s Birthright is sitting on bookshelves, shining like a diamond, a Superman story that could potentially outshine even Donner’s 1978 classic. Why isn’t it getting picked up? Maybe it’s that an “original” story built around generic aspects of more succesful stories means you don’t have to pay the original writer or put them in the credits and send them residuals checks. But now that you’re saving hundreds of millions by no longer awkwardly translating your superhero story to “live-action,” you can afford to spend a couple extra shekels on an aspect of the production where your money goes the farthest – the story.


Part of the reason Thor and Iron Man work as well as they do is because those movies let their superhero have fun being a superhero. And it is fun. It should be. Maybe the purest example of this is, again, in The Incredibles – Dash is running from a bunch of henchmen who are trying to decapitate him with hovering UFO-style aircraft featuring a giant spinning blade. And his escape route is blocked by a large body of water. He has no choice – he has to go into it. And so he shuts his eyes and braces for impact – only it never comes. He looks down at his feet, a Road-Runner-ish blur moving across the surface of the water. And he starts giggling at how awesome this whole thing is.

Most Superhero movies feature a pouty, sad, angsty people to whom powers are not a blessing, but an annoyance, and those powers are employed very grimly, our heroes’ facial expressions less “Yeah, this kicks ass” and more “This lemon tastes like farts.” I’m not advocating that superheroes be grinning idiots constantly elbowing their useless sidekick friends like “Hey, aren’t I awesome? How awesome am I?” but superpowers shouldn’t always be the horrible, soul-crushing burden they’re often portrayed as in live-action adaptations. Have some fun, dammit.

So, yeah, there you go. I guess maybe you can print this out and stick it to the fridge or something, with one of those cutesy fridge magnets like a ladybug or a bottlecap, so next time you guys are like “Hey, lets make a movie about a dude who wears his underwear on the outside,” and someone goes “Yeah, those are cool. I’m gonna go to the fridge and get a beer, you guys want a beer before we start spending a shitload of money?” You’ll see this on the fridge and be like “Oh shit, that’s right, we gotta do something about our conventional wisdom because you can’t make every superhero movie like Nolan made Batman,” and maybe people won’t get burnt out on crappy carbon-copy superhero movies like the ones you keep making.

Published in: on 12/06/2011 at 5:48 pm  Comments Off on I Just Fixed Superhero Movies For You  
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5 Reasons The Academy Awards are Pretty Much Worthless

Originally posted at Cracked.com 03/2010

The Academy Awards are like the Super Bowl for geeks. The betting pools, the bean dip, the coma-inducing length, it’s pretty much the same silly spectacle, but with a couple significant differences 1) The spectators are wearing stained couture purchased from TFAW.com instead of Eastbay.com 2) The Super Bowl actually has worth as an indicator of quality.

In an effort to shade the pageantry with a modicum of perspective, I present some of the greatest Oscar fuckups in the past 25 years. This is a gentle reminder to you, the discerning reader, that if you treat the Oscars as some sort of authority on what makes a film great, you’re doing it wrong. Why look to the Academy for any sort of validation of your tastes when it’s constantly doing shit like the following:

The Circle of Ineptitude: Best Actor (1974, 1992, 2001)

In 1974, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson were in their prime, and turned in two of the most iconic performances in the history of American cinema—Nicholson as J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. It’s the acting equivalent of Magic vs Bird in the 84 NBA Finals.

But your prime is not necessarily a good place to be in the eyes of the Academy. The Academy might only hand out one “lifetime achievement award” each year, but where you are in your career, and how “due” they think you are (more on this bullshit later) seems to matter just as much as your work in the movie tattooed on the base of the goofy gold dildo you win for “Best At Being in Movies.”

That’s why the 1974 Academy Award for Best Actor went to Art Carney for playing an old fart on a cross country trip with his cat in Harry and Tonto, a movie you’ve almost definitely never seen.  This is the acting equivalent of giving the MVP in 1984 to Kurt Rambis even though Bird and Magic are standing right fucking there.

Carney was a good guy, who’d had a solid career on stage and screen. But he probably would have been just as happy being featured in the “Dead Famous People We Love More Than Dead Key Grips” slide-show they do every year.  We wouldn’t begrudge him his moment of recognition if The Academy didn’t operate in something I call “The Circle of Ineptitude.”

See, skipping Pacino in 1974 meant that come 1992, he was “due.” So 18 years after the initial transgression, the Academy gave Pacino the Oscar for doing a Yosemite Sam impression in Scent of a Woman. This in turn screwed over Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, who they ended up rewarding in 2001 for the Wayne Brady inspiration he became in Training Day.

The problem is that actors, and the people who direct and write for them, tend to take Oscars seriously. These days, Pacino shouts every line of dialog in an inexplicable Cajun accent, because that’s what they finally gave him the statue for. When the barometer for artistic success in your industry doesn’t even really care if you’re all that good at what you do, then why should you? It’s no wonder the two best actors of a generation would end up lazily goggling at each other in shit like Righteous Kill.

Genre Snobbery: Best Picture 1981, Best Actress 1986

Everyone remembers the slick bit of larceny that opens Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy leaves a bag of sand on a podium and yoinks a golden statue in its place. That year at the Oscars, Chariots of Fire pulled the same trick, snaking the statue out from under Spielberg, leaving him looking all sad panda with a sack of sand in his hand. This theft is a good example of the genre snobbery that makes phrases like “Oscar Bait” even possible. All anyone really remembers from Chariots of Fire is the scene where a bunch of dudes in John Stockton shorts sprint along the edge of a beach. If that’s all it takes to win an Oscar, where’s the Best Picture for Rocky III? If it can’t even legitimately win the Oscar in the category “Best Homoerotic Coastal Track Meet,” how the hell does it end up winning Best Picture over what is arguably the finest example of pure cinema Spielberg ever created?

A little bit more of that genre snobbery, mixed with some patronizing grandstanding to look “understanding:  Marlee Matlin turned in a great performance as a feisty deaf janitor who gets boned by William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God, but what Sigourney Weaver did with James Cameron’s ALIENS is nothing short of a miracle. Think about what Ripley was on the page after Cameron was done with her—A strange riff on Rambo (which he’d just rewritten) as a repentant mother looking to redeem herself as a parent. He stuck this characterization into the middle of a movie about drooling, fanged penis monsters that shit eggs with face-raping catchers mitts inside of them. And Weaver made it one of the single most influential performances in the last 25 years, obliterating the restrictions on what a woman can do in a movie, and paving the way for characters like Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers and Beatrix Kiddo, among many others.

Anti-Balls Bias: Best Picture (1990, 1994) Best Actress (2000)

There seems to be an unwritten rule in the Academy that says roughly this: “The statue we’re giving out doesn’t have any balls – neither should the movie we give it to. Therefore, if your movie is oogy, icky, yucky and potentially grody, you can forget winning best picture.” Even though some of the most powerful and beautiful films in American cinema are ruthlessly violent, physically and emotionally (Raging Bull, which lost to Ordinary People, which is a very good film but is also pretty fairly summed up as Mary Tyler Moore is Mean: The Movie) The Academy would rather your film have all the edge of a fucking doily.

In 1990 the Academy rewarded a boring love letter to the Noble Savage fallacy, Dances With Wolves, snubbing Goodfellas, and making Martin Scorsese wait another 16 years in the Circle of Ineptitude to finally collect his little gold man for The Departed. Whereas Goodfellas is a major influence on a multitude of directors and arguably the finest mob movie ever filmed, Wolves has all of two lasting contributions to cinema: Mary McDonnell’s performance/presence, and a basic plot James Cameron stole for his 3D fetish-porn movie. Afterwards, Costner completely lost his fucking mind, bringing us both Waterworld and The Postman, leaving the rest of his filmography looking like the latter’s post-apocalyptic wasteland. His broken, pockmarked career is small consolation in the face of this injustice.

I don’t give too much credence to the IMDB top 100 list. Those rankings are created by the same people who get in fights in YouTube comments sections over whether Team Jacob could beat up Teen Wolf. But for the longest time, the #1 movie on that list was The Shawshank Redemption, and even snobby, elitists like myself had to admit, you can make an argument for it. But it’s hard to say it’s the best film of all time when it might not even be the best film of 94. Pulp Fiction didn’t just deconstruct genre filmmaking, it obliterated it in a coke-fueled fury, stabbing convention in the chest with a giant needle, rebuilding the noir as a candy coated cyanide pill cut with cayenne pepper, attached to a ball-gag and fitted to your unsuspecting head.

Of course, neither movie won Best Picture – that went to Bob Zemeckis’ Boomer-friendly fantasy film with all the bite of a bowling ball, starring Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, the living personification of Hollywood’s favorite Oscar-Bait cliché: The Magic Simpleton.  It’s hard to imagine such a saccharine turd could have been shat onscreen by the same guy that brought us Used Cars, but not only did it happen, he won Best Picture for it. Excepting Cast-Away, he never made a decent movie again.

By the year 2000, Julia Roberts made a lot of people a lot of money in Hollywood, but she’d somehow missed out on winning a Best Actress award since her breakout in Pretty Woman. But the film she was in, Erin Brockovich, was like cutting the crusts off Silkwood and cooking it in an Easy-Bake Oven with the heat set to “feel-good.” Her main competition, Ellen Burstyn, already won her statue back in the 70’s for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, so it was safe to snub her portrayal of Sara Golfarb in Requiem for a Dream. Didn’t matter that Burstyn turned in the performance of her fucking life:  Not only was Roberts “due,” but Requiem was about ugly people, doing gross things, not pretty people smiling like someone shoved a carrot up Mr. Ed’s asshole.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being on the Academy: Best Picture (1989, 2005)

Accusing the Academy of making decisions for political reasons isn’t necessarily a critique. Movies are cultural events, and if the zeitgeist makes an “issue movie” more potent, there’s no reason that factor should be removed from the equation. The problem is how bad the Academy tends to fuck up the math.

Do The Right Thing is generally considered one of the most potent American films about race. It’s one of only five movies ever to have been selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry during its first year of eligibility.

The film’s climactic race riot came three years before the entire city of Los Angeles followed suit. At the time of it’s release, Spike Lee’s film was a wakeup call to a pop culture landscape that spent the ’80s convincing itself that racial tensions were a thing of the past. Sure, racism still existed in ’80s movies, but only as a setup for snappy one liners from the darker half of a buddy cop duo.

The Academy’s choice for Best Picture in 1989 was Driving Miss Daisy, an ode to the quiet dignity of a black servant (Morgan Freeman) who spends the majority of his life eating the shit shoveled 24/7 by a wrinkled sack of racism in a sundress. Daisy was 48 Hrs. for the arthouse set—which means the film has less pulse than a bowl of oatmeal. Daisy got the award for being a palatable examination of race, an issue that was on people’s minds that year. It just happened to be on people’s minds because a much better movie had sounded the alarm.

Regardless of the issues, Do The Right Thing is a better looking, better edited, and better acted film. Even if Lee’s movie had never existed, Daisy was still worse than Born on the Fourth of July and My Left Foot, two nominated movies that hurt themselves by splitting the “sentimentally handicapped” vote. However, Daisy had no such problem since Do The Right Thing wasn’t even fucking nominated.

The Circle of Ineptitude extends to issues as well as actors. In 2005, the Academy finally proved they were willing to reward a movie that acknowledged the issue of racial tensions. Of course, Best Picture winner Crash was a ridiculous (and insulting) fairy tale about race relations in Los Angeles that most people had already forgotten by the time the Oscars rolled around. Two far better and more politically relevant movies, Brokeback Mountain and Capote, were both overlooked, presumably for splitting the gay vote.

The Clusterfuck of Dunces: Best Picture (2001, 2003)

All the previously listed fuckups combined like some sort of Voltron made out of dipshits to make the 2001 and 2003 Academy Awards completely irrelevant. Witness the 5 car pile-up of idiocies that occurred when the ballots were cast: Ron Howard was “due” after Oscar favorite Apollo 13 lost to underdog Braveheart, which the Academy decided had just the right combination of historical inaccuracy and treacly romance to overcome the Anti-Balls Bias. This snub put Howard in the spin-cycle of the Circle of Ineptitude, which finally spat him out  in 2001, when his movie A Beautiful Mind was up against another 3-hour epic, The Fellowship of the Ring, a stirring film about emotionally vulnerable little people with funny accents stabbing each other in sweeping green pastures. Fellowship was, in hindsight, the best of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and would have been considered the favorite for Best Picture were it not for the rule of Genre Snobbery.

It didn’t matter that Howard’s version of The Magic Simpleton was a badly bowdlerized adaptation of a profoundly complicated man’s life, nor that said adaptation was written by the unrepentant hack who shit out Batman and Robin. Opie got his statues, leading to the 3rd Hobbit movie—the one with the 30 minute pillowfight—sweeping everything it was nominated for in 2003 as a make-up move.

And that’s a perfect microcosm of why you shouldn’t give a shit about what movie wins an Oscar. The passage of time reveals a movie’s true quality, not the number of gold statues it won. Citizen Kane didn’t need the Best Picture, neither did Raging Bull, or Dr. Strangelove, or Rear Window, or Star Wars.  I’m not saying don’t watch—absolutely do! It’s entertaining, it’s fun… but it’s calorie-free froth. Just keep that in mind while you’re watching the circus, and you’ll have a better time all around.

Published in: on 12/04/2011 at 5:53 pm  Comments Off on 5 Reasons The Academy Awards are Pretty Much Worthless  
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Uhhh….The Sound of Pure Condescension

Originally written for The Nerd Puddle – July 26th 2011

For as mainstreamed and matured as geek culture has become, there are still bits of social awkwardness and discomfort that cling to this phenomenon like a square of toilet paper on the bottom of nerdkind’s shoe. And while the nerds have risen and major media is shining all sorts of spotlights on us, its hard to dodge that a large part of what makes a nerd a nerd, is basic social ineptitude. Not too many essays are being written about that. Not when being a nerd is a good thing now. In fact, as the saying goes, the best way to find The Nerd in any room is to listen for the guy telling everyone that they’re not cool enough to be a Nerd.

And another dead giveaway, especially in any online conversation? The Nerd is the one who begins every single disagreement, correction or otherwise contentious statement with a variation on this three letter preface:


Sometimes it’s “umm…” sometimes it’s prefaced with a “so…” Sometimes they add a “yeah” to the beginning as a bit of a verbal flourish, an unintentional homage to one of cinemas blandest assholes, Bill Lumbergh. More creative types will add a dash of artistic flair by using ascii art to depict raised eyebrows or off-kilter looks before adding that single, drawn-out guttural noise.

Here’s the thing: it makes you sound like a giant dick.

It does. It’s maybe the most nonchalantly condescending thing you could do. And I know – as someone who has a long history on the internet of getting in petty fights with people over the dumbest shit imaginable – a little something about condescension as a weapon. Condescension as a means to assert empty intellectual superiority over someone who has a wrong opinion about a fictional universe that you’ve spent entirely too much time playing in; Time spent not learning valuable social skills that would alert you, if you cared about honestly communicating your ideas, that the worst thing you could do is preface anything you’re going to say with that empty-headed, dismissive noise.


And when used in text, it’s even doubly condescending/infuriating. Because you’re making a conscious choice to stick your shitty, insulting attitude into the discussion. In a verbal conversation, there’s an out. You can say “I was just trying to think of how best to form the sentence so as not to start a fight,” or “I was just looking for the right word,” which is in fact a thing that happens. People aren’t the quickest on their feet, verbally, and so that comma sneaks in there. .

But in text? There’s no excuse, and there’s no way to misinterpret that. That sound didn’t accidentally get typed into the keyboard. Those three letters and that ellipses? There’s a lot of meaning packed into that one syllable, and it is all mean-spirited and snotty as hell. It is a noise that is at its purest when coming out of a tilted-up nose, steered and sneered downwards at the intellectual plebe so tiresome you can barely make the effort to form an actual word in order to articulate your annoyance at how uneducated and misinformed they could dare to be.

“Uhh…” is the sound of ill-gained entitlement, of someone who feels unfairly burdened by a counterproductive job nobody asked them to do.  “Uhh…” is the sound of someone who hasn’t yet learned that no matter how much they know, they still don’t know shit, and all they’re doing is sounding the call for someone smarter to come and kick their brain in the nuts. “Uhh…” is the sound of faux-superiority for dilettante poseurs.

You open your dialog with “Uhh…” or “Umm…” and you’re being a dick. You are. There’s no way around it. It doesn’t make you sound extra clever, it’s not funny like the shitty little comedy-relief sidekicks on your favorite childhood sitcoms made it look, it’s often just needlessly insulting, and beyond that, it’s lazy. If you’re going to insult someone’s intelligence, do it. Don’t just moo at them.

I understand the itchy need to correct people on the internet; I’m a nerd. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a dick about it, and in fact, you’ll probably end up making your point more clearly, increasing understanding and – most importantly – making more people agree with you about how right you are if you look at what you just vomited into the bottomless pit of the internet, and before you hit “post,” delete every bleating, stupid, time-and-space wasting instance of the condescending, conversation-killing brainfart that goes “uhh…”

Unless of course, you are the kind of insecure, socially inept, overcompensating nerd that needs to be a dick about things all the time. In which case, thank you for making such predilections easy to identify and scroll on by.

Published in: on 11/29/2011 at 7:38 am  Comments Off on Uhhh….The Sound of Pure Condescension  
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“I think it went under that porch. I don’t think it’s coming back out.”

I used to work at a radio station called KUFO. It was a “heritage” station, which is radio-speak for “It’s been around for a real long time.” It enjoyed a sustained period of success in Portland, and then it faltered, and then it declined. I rode on the back of this confused colossus for 5 years. I had a fair amount of fun doing it. It shed me and my friends a couple years ago. We fell and we landed and we got up and went in different directions. We ended up in better places. We were replaced by fleas and parasites. They bit at the hide of the colossus until the skin broke. Tired, it fell to all fours, crawled under a porch, and this morning, it died.

I’m not happy to see her go. She could be pretty fun in her heyday. I guess the same goes for radio in general. Her death was inevitable, really. It’s probably not too long before the FM band gets sold off like the UHF band was, and AM signals are relegated to emergency broadcasts and traffic-only information stations. Sooner rather than later, the landscape will go dark and gather moss, and the whole thing will be fondly remembered in the amber hues of warm nostalgia.

There’s a bunch of ruddy-faced angry white men standing above her corpse now, yelling about God visiting earthquakes upon the East, shouting about Wisconsin sending messages to an outsider-President. For a city that was once known as “Little Beirut,” that is home to the one of the nation’s few openly gay mayors, that treats visits to its own 5 story tall bookstore in the same way 6 year olds treat visits to Disneyland – this seems an odd choice.

But what the old girl had become in her last year was none too inviting either. The station always had an element of the juvenile to it. A youthful recklessness in its best moments, an ugly crassness at its worst; but when it was good, it accurately reflected the face and the voice of her listeners. At some point in the late 90’s, Portland, a city that had always suffered a slight lack of identity, started fumbling towards one. Unfortunately, KUFO had lost her footing, and couldn’t keep pace as she had before.

The ability to adapt got harder and harder. She became seen as trashy. Nobody could tell who she was talking to anymore. She was affecting accents, posing, getting sloppy drunk in public and acting for all the world like if she opened a window and poked her head out, it wouldn’t be Portland outside. She was doing kegstands at a party made up of generic people, at the orders of generic people, for an image of youth that had long since been abandoned by the young.

The old girl didn’t have to go out like this. There was still some life left in her, sparks and guttering flames of inspiration. I saw it when I was there, briefly. For all the drama and trauma, it was a genuinely fun place to work for a time, before wiser heads started falling into packed boxes full of desk clutter and office accoutrements. There were people in that building who tried to steer her back towards something resembling relevance in the community. But “relevance” and “radio” are not words that are so easily married anymore. The rewards were deemed not worth the effort.

While I was there, I mostly enjoyed myself, and enjoyed the opportunity to reach out to a listenership and connect with them. It was a fun party. I got kicked out unceremoniously, but in retrospect, it was a good time to go. At least I wasn’t there when it ended. I feel bad for those, like Brent and Noah, who were still putting in the work, still showing up for their shifts and doing 3 to 4x the work listed in their job descriptions, to make up for ever-shrinking budgets. They were still clinging strongly to her side when she snuck away from her party and began stumbling for that porch.

I’m not happy to see her go, but I am happy to have been part of her existence, if only for a short time. I was part of an on-air tradition that includes people like Bill Prescott, Tawn Mastery, Al Scott, Tom Turner, Tim Savage, Dan Bozyk, Lisa Wood, Rick Emerson and of course, my Captain, Cort Webber, who stood on the shoulders of this poor, dead colossus for longer than any of us did.

Maybe in a couple years I’ll see some scraggly teenager rocking a washed out T-shirt with some permutation of the logo plastered on it. Sure, they’ll probably be wearing it ironically, but I’ll still smile. I’ve got some good memories attached to that logo.

She had a good run.

Published in: on 03/15/2011 at 3:12 pm  Comments Off on “I think it went under that porch. I don’t think it’s coming back out.”  
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In Remembrance of The Rick Emerson Show

Originally posted May 22nd, 2008, after Emerson’s Eleven, the last official Rick Emerson Listener Party.

For further clarification, I was still employed by CBS Radio at the time of this posting, and this Listener Party was the first (and last) Rick Emerson Roast, conducted under classic Roast rules: No cameras, no recordings, whatever happened behind those closed doors, stayed there.

It is also notable for being the event wherein I met my wife, although I don’t REMEMBER meeting her, nor does she remember meeting me – we were both a little (greatly) intoxicated at the time of our meeting, and although we’ve been told by separate parties that we talked for almost a full half-hour in a corner of McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom shortly after the party ended, neither of us remember the discussion, or anything outside of the fact that we met. We had to schedule a date 2 weeks later simply to meet again for the first time. It obviously went well.

So here now, in the style of latter-day James Ellroy (for Lord Knows what reason), is my recap of what many consider the last, and greatest, Rick Emerson Listener Party.

Wake. Stumble. Coffee. Viso. Computer. News Stories. Realization hits: I don’t have to look up news stories, I don’t have to go to work. Our benevolent boss has decided a best -of show would suffice for our on-air presence to ensure that Rick’s roast gets the injection of bile-flavored mediocrity it deserves.

Messageboards. Blogs. Battlestar. Bicycle. Pushups. Situps. Sweat. Shower. Closet. Contemplation of Clothes. A tornado of tailored tryouts, tossed on the bed. The Blue? The Grey? The sweater? Sweater with the Suit? You’ve turned into Clinton from What Not To Wear. What’s wrong with you?

Try the plaid vest. You look like Dobie Gillis in the plaid vest. Throw the jacket over it. Put the fedora on. Ah yes. Goodwill Fashion Show in the house, ya’ll. This’ll work.

Pack the bag. Have a snack. Hit the door. Hit the street. Get hit by the heat. Fucking HELL it is hot as balls out here. Hit the store. Hit the fridge. Viso in hand. Viso on counter. Wallet in hand. Card not in wallet.

Eyes wide open. Fear and Frustration frothing in stomach. Hit the door. Hit the street. Hit the house. Hit the phone. Hit the couch in frustration because I got hit with a stolen debit card. Bracing for hit to bank account via guy who hit my wallet hitting store. Hit never comes. No pending transactions. I kill the card. No cash in hand. Can’t buy drinks with MAX tickets. Good thing I’m cute and we’re getting comped drinks in the green room. I start again, sweatier, saltier and stressed. Time shoves down on my shoulders along with sun. I run my roast routine repeatedly till it’s rote. I ride electric rails silently.

Hit work. Hit desk. Grab check. No time to cash it. Check-in at Crystal Ballroom comes in 20 minutes. I’m 20 blocks away. I can make it. I’ll look like a crackhead, but I’m from Salem. I can swing that. Check doesn’t have bonus on it. Wallet groans. Lost card. Lost bonus. Lost time. So much lose in such a little man. Little legs light out for large ballroom. Sun dropping in sky. Stomach dropping in guts. Sweat dripping down back. Showtime approaches.

Ballroom. Staircase. Expansive and Empty. Pre-show prep being carried out. Emerson approaches. Cap’n comes with. I’m almost calm. I’m amongst friends. Aaron Duran and Scott Dally apparate out of nowhere. Aaron looks like Asian Curtain Factory exploded. Ascot assaults eyeballs. It’s perfect. It’s glorious. I anticipate comedy gold. Scott sticks to key details. Scott says “Free Beer in Green Room.” Scott says “Storm Large in Green Room.” Scott steers us to the stairs swiftly.

Green Room. Rock Stars. Nickel Arcade tuning guitars. Emerson Starship getting dressed. Storm Large by the sink. Storm Large sizzling. Storm straightens her hair. Straight legs jammed against side paneling. Smartass comments stream like overflowing sink. Fucking stunning.

Sarah Dylan smiles. Tim Riley surveys. Peter Carlin studies. Byron Beck stares. Lasciviously. Leering. Laser-like. Lisa Desjardins laughs. Ladylike. Adorable. Accomodating. Bearing loaves of bread and brie. Bread is broken between Lisa and I, building beds in our bellies for the booze to bury itself in. She doesn’t yet understand. She will be loved by the throng. The standing O will be long. Loud. Loving. She doesn’t quite understand the wave about to crash into her. She will. She drinks. I drink. We toast. We nosh.

Rick zips in. Rick zips out. Eyes dilated. Unblinking. Getting dressed one article at a time, one person at a time, like a car on an assembly line passing under robot after robot. Tie. T-Shirt. Overshirt. Jacket. pants. Socks. Built brick by brick. Geek Deity: By Lego. Emerson Starship prepares behind closed doors. Bon Jovi is Belted as a form of bonding. The roasters recuse themselves and reverently listen. Ritchie Bristol runs around, redolent in his reek.

5 minutes. Pictures popped. Flasks tipped back. drinks mixed. Jokes like javelins, spearing and spiked, readied. Muscles tensed. Rick zips in. Rick zips out. Mouth moves. Statements staccato. Syllables shot at speeds almost incomprehensible. silence achieved. The starting has started. We start off. Green Room abandoned.

The Hallway beckons. The Long Walk. The Stage. The air vibrates. The air is visible. The air is like a kid’s Crayola watercolors. Run under a sink, swirling overhead. I can see the sound of the crowd before I see the crowd. I see Aaron Duran, Storm’s arm crooked in his elbow. I see Carlin’s face drain of color. I see Byron smirk bemusedly. Carl Click. Pink Clad and Solid. A statue. Surprises lurk under that strained cummerbund. I stick by my Captain. I see the crowd itself.

Holy fuck.


It’s like a tidal wave of humanity crashed and beached 1200 people inside the building. They roar. I’m in a lion’s mouth. I’m in a whale’s stomach. I’m in a bear’s den. 1200 teeth waiting to close down on my neck. My first attempt at stand-up comedy, everybody. I look to my Captain. He looks like he killed a Hasidic street-vendor. I look like I beat up a bum. I can’t see his eyes, he’s hidden them behind sunglasses. He is so much smarter than I am. If he’s shook, he doesn’t show. I lock it down. We go last. Let it loom.

Click claps. Corrals the crowd. Focuses their frothing. Unleashes Rick, Ritchie, Sarah and Tim. Unleashes the Crowd. The noise pushes my chest back. Lifts my arms. Pounds my hands together. Lifts my cheeks. I’m smiling. Videos are projected. Laughs roll out of the roiling humanity below. THAT’S what winning this crowd will sound like? It’s terrifying and terrific all at the same time, intoxicating. I chase it with whiskey. I might as well be pounding water.

Rick introduces Lisa. Screams steamroll the stage. Her eyes lose their ability to blink. She understands now. She smiles so wide the sides of the structure stretch to accomodate. From Such Great Heights we can only stumble: Scott and Aaron take the stage. Sark is in charge. Cutty Sark. He sits silently on the podium. Surveying the slip-sliding string of jokes stumbling off the stage. Time stretches. Storm snatches up a mike, snipes a headshot from the dais. The crowd lurches to life.

Byron brings his best. A tale of teenage trysts. Rick Emerson as gay hustler. Fisting is key. Wrist deep in young lust, Byron tells the tale. Twitters and titters. The chair Rick is resting in was made for squirming. He obliges under the lights and the rain of revulsion splashing the stage from Byron’s script.

Carl Click: “It says on Scott Dally’s Bio Page at Film Fever Radio that he loves sci-fi, movies, video games, and Duran Duran. No wonder your wife left you a couple months ago.”

Brains on table. Heart in ass. Roast has officially begun.

Peter Carlin writes Rick’s obituary. Sweats like perp under hot lights in box downtown. Sweats more than that. I’m afraid he’s going to dissolve. He’s making me thirsty. Whiskey goes in. Breath comes out. Whiskey goes in. Sarah stands up. Flask comes out.

Script goes down. Drink goes in. Script comes up. Laugh goes out. No slips, no stutters. Knife slides in. Edge of notecards serrated and heated. Laughs lubricated by liquor leave easily. We’re floating on an ocean of drunken goodwill and quality comedy. The stage sails this sea steady and sure.

Storm Large: “Rick Emerson Raped Me. It’s not funny. Oh sure. Rape is funny. Shut the fuck up.”

I have murdered 2 Viso’s. 600 megs of caffeine course through me. Their plastic corpses rest in peace. Cap’n commisserates. The combo of Cutty and caffeine is oddly calming. The bar is high but attainable. Nerves no longer knocking. Jangling. Nerves now thrumming. Humming. Just in time for Cap’n to be Called by Carl Click.

The Band plays Battlestar to bring us out of our seats. He is a bear facing the bear den. He is one of them. He will lead them to the acrid honey he is about to spray all over their eager heads. I know what’s coming. I smile to myself. The lights overhead sink into his suit. He is an assassin’s silhouette.

Cort: “And look at the who’s who of who the fuck cares that you were able to pull together to shamelessly fame-whore themselves for you tonight. You’ve got the gay guy from that newspaper that nobody reads.

And then you’ve got Byron Beck.

Sorry, Peter. That’s all I could come up with for you. Some cheap gay joke. That’s not to say you’re gay. Honestly I don’t know anything about you, because much like everyone else in Oregon, I don’t read the fucking Oregonian.

But speaking of cheap gay jokes, Byron Beck, everybody!”

Explosion. Stomping. Room undulating. Waving. It is ferocious. It is alive. It is a blanket made of barbs. It fits Cap’n like a glove. He wears the glove. He clenches it in a fist and keeps throwing blows. Rick can’t stop laughing. Cort can’t stop swinging. It’s perfect. And then it ends.

My turn. I tentatively approach. Lights like lasers setting my forehead on fire. Cap’n has killed. My job is to reanimate. And then headshot every last undead still laughing. I drop a line. I get a laugh. I drop another. The laugh grows. I tuck this barbed blanket under my chin like a kid wearing a towel and playing Superman. I fly. I dance. I hit the mic and bob back. Whiskey and Viso and Cap’n’s Confidence sludge through my circulatory. I spit punchlines and smirk mercilessly. Goddamn. GODDAMN. I jump up and land with both feet on the jokes on my page. I twist the balls of my feet on it like I’m putting out a cigarette. I step back one last time. I hug Rick. I take my seat.

The abuse is coming.

He flies to the mic. Animated. Like Disney on Crack and Meth at 66.6 frames per second. He shoots fire. He spits napalm. My skin bursts like the sun itself is under it, and I laugh like a loon. Sarah grabs a mic and leans back. leans into it. lets loose. Lazily. Effortless. Arrows from all sides, snarling and sweet-natured. I die like Boromir, smiling and satisfied. Bleeding on the leaves. Rick is a tornado of laughing death. A cyclone of comedy. The dais is wrecked. The Roast is over.

The whiskeys finally sink in. The walls turn liquid and blur. The hugs merge and linger. The congrats are exchanged, volleyed, accepted and humbly rejected. The Green Room is repopulated. It grew somehow. It’s larger somehow. Cavernous. Full of exhausted people. Exhausted comedy. Extinguished flasks. Extinguished Cigarettes. Extinguished expectations. Fears trampled. Anxiety stomped out. All that resides is warmth and success and glowing satisfaction.

Click collects claps on the back. Carlin clinks toasts and takes off. Beck and his beau bow out. Sarah sings Cher while surfing a sofa. Packages of porn and pizza are passed out. The ride ratchets down to 1st gear and rumbles along.

GODDAMN. What in the fuck just happened? Did this day just happen? Really?

I need a chicken sandwich and a beer. I gotta go to work tomorrow.

Published in: on 03/14/2011 at 12:20 am  Comments Off on In Remembrance of The Rick Emerson Show  

An Imaginary Conversation Between Two Guys Waiting for the Bus After Leaving a Movie Theater

Originally posted at Facebook, 11/14/2010

“How could you hate that movie?”

“It was garbage, that’s how.”

“It’s giant robots. Beating each other up. What did you want?”

“See, you just described the premise. Obviously I LIKED the premise because I paid to watch the movie based on that premise. The problem is that the premise of the movie got held down and assaulted in uncomfortable places by inept filmmaking, hence its being a piece of garbage.”

“Christ you’re pretentious.”

“Tell me you know what that word means.”

“It means you act like you’re smarter than you are.”

“So you, the person trying to defend this pile of shit beacuse ‘It’s robots beating each other up what did you want.’ are using words like ‘pretentious’ because *I’M* trying to sound smarter than I am?”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t have said ‘pretentious.’ I should have said ‘an asshole.”


“As in ‘You’re an asshole.”

“For what? For disagreeing with you about shitty movies?”

“No, for being a dick who ruins fun things by overthinking them.”

“I’m not OVER-thinking anything. It’s just basic run-of-the-mill thinking.”

“Come on. You expect too much out of this sorta stuff. It’s not Citiz-”



“Have you even SEEN Citizen Kane?”

“I’ve seen parts of it. He named the sled after his girlfriend’s vag or something.”

“No. And no. No no no. No.”

“Yeah, I thought that was weird.”

“Look, I don’t go to see giant robot punching alien invasion men-on-a-mission overinflated greasy B-movies looking for Citizen Kane, man. I’d be an idiot if I did that. Nobody does that. Nobody in the history of the world ever bought a ticket to Freddy Vs. Jason and expected to see some John Gielgud level acting.”

“Wasn’t he in that porno? With M from James Bond?”


“I heard Kevin Smith talk about it on Smodcast.”

“That was Caligula.”


“Helen Mirren.”


“Helen Mirren was in Caligula. Judi Dench is M from James Bond.”

“I thought Helen Mirren was the elf chick.”

“The what?”

“From Lord of the Rings.”

“Which elf chick?”

“The one that was like ‘look into this birdbath!’ and then Frodo was like ‘that’s some scary shit’ and then she turns into Jennifer Lopez and is like ‘I am a terrible queen!’

“That’s Cate Blanchett.”

“Oh. Oh yeah.”

“It’s understandable. British women all look the same.”


“No they don’t, jackass, I was being sarcastic. How the hell you gonna confuse Judi Dench with Cate Blanchett?”


“That’s like confusing Nightmare on Elm Street with Citizen Kane, WHICH, by the way, YOU HAVEN’T SEEN.”

“So what?”

“So you literally don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know that I had fun watching this movie, and you didn’t, because you were too busy thinking about running mills or whatever.”

“Next time, when you ask me about a movie, and I surprise you by giving a shit about what happens in it, don’t tell me I expected too much, or that somehow I’m an asshole for wanting them to make good on the premise of their movie that I spent like 10 bucks to sit through. It doesn’t have to be Citizen fuckin Kane, either. I wanted more out of that movie than someone sticking a camera in front of the premise and letting it sit there like a limp dick.”

“So you’re saying we should watch gay porn.”

“Fuck you.”

“So you’re saying we should MAKE gay porn.”

“Shut up.”

“Silent gay porn?”

“Shut UP”

“Gay Porn for mutes is a pretty niche market, dude.”

“Gay Porn had better acting than the garbage we just watched”

“So you DO watch gay porn!”

“I now understand why you had no problems with the Giant Robot movie.”

“You are the pretentious-est.”

“Your mom is pretentious. How about that.”


Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 5:55 pm  Comments Off on An Imaginary Conversation Between Two Guys Waiting for the Bus After Leaving a Movie Theater  

Review – Captain America: The First Avenger

Originally posted June 24th, 2011 at nerdpuddle.com

This was the year that JJ Abrams was supposed to inherit the crown: Spielberg’s crown, specifically. This was to be the year he harnessed the power of the beard, channeled his essence, and transported audiences back to the early 80’s. And most of the viewing public clambered on the S.S. Super 8 happily, leaving me on the dock to wave as they pulled away, jealous at their ability to take a ride I just wasn’t feeling.

This is not the year Abrams gets that crown.

Not while Joe Johnston is around. Not when he makes a Captain America movie like the one he just made. And if people liked the shot of nostalgia and emotion that JJ microwaved up in his mystery box, they’re going to lose their minds at how well Johnston upped the ante. Because this isn’t just a great set-up for The Avengers. It’s the best film to come out of Marvel Productions.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Johnston might have a more direct line to Spielberg’s brand of magic – he helped the man make that magic in the early 80’s as a member of ILM. Johnston helped storyboard Raiders of the Lost Ark, after all. A cursory look over his filmography (outside of Rocketeer and maybe parts of Jurassic Park III) doesn’t necessarily call attention to his ability to put on an adventure of that caliber.

But when asked to not only evoke the same mood and tap that same energy, all while adapting to film the real first adventure of an American icon, and while making that adaptation work as a de-facto prequel to next summer’s blockbuster tentpole? Johnston delivered the goods.

Like X-Men: First Class, the film is helped tremendously by the choice to make it a period piece. There’s an innocence and gee-golly-shucks-mister vibe to the period that Johnston and Chris Evans both nail perfectly. Evans begins the film as Steve Rogers, a 90 lb. weakling who just wants to join the Army and knock hell out of Hitler. Unfortunately for Steve, he looks like a mousefart would knock him over, and he’s lied on 5 different applications in the hopes someone will give him a break.

Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers at a World’s Fair type expo, arguing with his best friend Bucky Barnes, (Sebastian Stan) about whether its time to just give this dream up. The passion in Steve’s voice causes Erskine to intervene, declare the kid 1A, and send him to boot camp for training at the hands of Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) a crusty, smartassed sack of wrinkles and stinkeye.

What Rogers doesn’t know is that the bootcamp experience is merely a test to see if he has the heart to become part of the Super Soldier experiment, Erskine’s attempt to create an army of superheroes with the help of Howard Stark, Tony’s dad, played with echoes of Robert Downey Jr’s slick-talking ease by Dominic Cooper.

Erskine’s serum is responsible for the creation of the film’s villain, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) a psychotic Nazi who believes so firmly in the idea of harnessing the power of religious artifacts with which to rule the world, that he not only looks down on Hitler for digging holes in Egypt while chasing biblical rumors, he’s looking to murder and replace Hitler to create his own reich: Hydra. Weaving is essentially doing a lighter version of Christoph Waltz’s character from Inglorious Basterds, and he’s helped by Toby Jones as Dr. Zola, a bug-eyed toady who has his doubts about Skull’s abilities.

Rogers, now jacked to the eyeballs with 150cc’s of pure beefcake, still isn’t taken seriously in the slightest by Colonel Phillips, and is relegated to USO duty. He puts on a goofy (but pretty damned comics-accurate) flannel costume and tours the country trying to sell bonds. He feels he’s being wasted, but settles into his role and gains some swagger, so much so that I caught myself kinda hoping Evans would end up just rocking that flannel for the rest of the movie. Not since Christopher Reeve wore his spandex, has an actor so thoroughly made me forget how silly the costume was, totally selling the iconography through sheer confidence.

But after getting (rightfully) booed by actual soldiers during a stop in Europe, Rogers, supported by superior officer – and adorable love interest – Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) decides that its time to stop fronting at being a hero, and after learning of Hydra keeping American prisoners (including Bucky, and Dum-Dum Dugan’s Howling Commandos) 30 miles away from his location, he puts on a helmet, straps on his shield and goes to work.

Captain America is not a superhero film in the mold of most superhero films, which is to say, it doesn’t try to carbon copy Christopher Nolan’s approach on Batman Begins. Which, admittedly, worked great…on Batman. Captain America has more in common with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man: a hero who enjoys what he does, who has fun with his powers, and earns the goodwill of the audience via a charismatic lead performance, a performance that realizes the potential of a likable actor who never quite broke out the way he should have.

Except Captain America not only does all that origin story stuff better than Iron Man did it, but in half the time, leaving a full hour or so of Captain America getting to be Captain America, and save the world accordingly. And Chris Evans turns in a great performance. He tones down his smartass tendencies, and turns up the earnestness. He juts his jaw like a hero when he fights, and he grins like a little boy when he gets the win.

The film’s production design is nostalgic beauty; Plenty of warm sepia tones and vibrant colors laid over what appears to be a mostly CG-free film. Sure, there are moments here and there that can’t hide a more digital nature, but mostly, the film has a hand-painted, knocked-together charm that feels authentically retro. Alan Silvestri’s score, while missing a memorable theme, still manages to charge the film with that extra bit of “Hell Yeah,” pushing Johnston’s action scenes from “pretty decent” to “genuinely exciting”

That action rarely pulls punches, either. Cap doesn’t want to kill anybody, but when left with no option, neither side of the fight will hesitate to dust the opposition. And that’s not a euphemism: The Red Skull is harnessing alien power to create weapons that cause human beings in this film to explode, War of the Worlds style, into a pile of tattered clothes and ashes.

Johnston strikes a balance of beauty and kineticism, melded with a combination of melancholy longing and rousing heroism in the main character that leads to an ending that doesn’t go for the big crashing explosion of brass and low-angled iconography, but instead highlights the humanity of Steve Rogers. Captain America saves the day, but he had to sacrifice a lot to do so, and it’s that heart at the center of the film that transforms Captain America from just another superhero movie, to something other superhero movies will strain to measure against.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 2:32 pm  Comments Off on Review – Captain America: The First Avenger  

Review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

Originally Posted at Aint It Cool News 11/16/10

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I: Wherein Mr. Potter finally earns his comparisons to Tolkien and Lucas.

(Or, as the recently departed Dino DeLaurentiis might have said, “When the elf die, everybody cry.”)

I’ve grown to both love and loathe “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s a beautiful movie, the film that, for many a fan of genre cinema, proved a combination of emotional honesty from the actors and deft enough touch from the director could transcend a genre’s percieved limitations and achieve legitimate greatness. For all the eye-candy on display, it’s the performances people remember; The tightening of tired eyes, the slight lift of a smirk, the way foam-rubber ears waggle in disappointment and the sound of black leather crinkling into a fist.

“Empire” is also the unattainable ideal for a lot of those same genre fans, a cruel measuring stick pulled down from a shelf, for decades worth of gangly, eager younger siblings in cinema to stand next to, critical greasepencils marking them all as many inches too short. Even more unfair, the stick itself keeps growing taller with time, and people keep learning the wrong lessons from the film, slouching against the wall in a poseur’s attempt to be grimdark and badass. Some, punched in the gut by “Empire’s” power dragged their toybox selfishly behind them into adulthood, not only denying further generations a chance to play with those figures, but hot-gluing clay to their feet and making them rape and murder each other for 3.99 a 22-page issue.

Young Mr. Potter has not only found himself on the short end of that stick for 5 straight films, he had to simultaneously deal with literary critics constantly bringing up one of Lucas’ biggest theft victims inspirations, “The Lord of the Rings.” And of course Potter is compared to Tolkien; it’s a fantasy, it’s printed on paper, bound, and sold in bookstores. It’s a hard comparison to duck when about 75% of the paperbacks on the shelves have his name printed somewhere in a blurb on the back.

But then, with Peter Jackson’s masterful adaptation of those books, Harry Potter found himself squinting into the sky at two cinematic giants. And even with help from filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, it seemed Potter was doomed to finish his time at Hogwarts as yet another student of fantasy who couldn’t quite make it out from under that shadow, never earning those comparisons, in the same way many readers felt Harry never really earned the victories that Rowling wrote him.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is the truth to that lie, and the first complete realization of the series’ potential. It synthesizes the best parts of “The Two Towers” and “Empire Strikes Back,” and while it can (and should) be argued that it doesn’t stand as tall (it just doesn’t have the same scale or weight) it has definitely earned a place in the discussion, by taking the first half of a book many of its defenders acknowledge can be rightfully titled “Harry Potter Goes Camping For A Couple Hundred Fucking Pages Ugh” and from that, crafting a deliberate, beautifully desolate journey of self-discovery.

The story continues from the last film with no reset, recap or hint of hand-holding. Harry, Ron and Hermione aren’t joyfully bumbling about their homes waiting to take the train to Hogwarts anymore. Voldemort has made his move, Dumbledore fell, the world has gone to shit, and large amounts of what’s left of that world is actively trying to murder Harry. With the help of his friends, he must find the remaining horcruxes Voldemort has hidden, and destroy them before finally facing the Dark Lord himself in a battle to the death. Unfortunately, Harry has not the first damn clue how to do any of this, and Dumbledore’s needlessly cryptic ass died before he could spell it out.

As an adaptation, the film is probably the best translation from book to screen. There’s a balance between Chris Columbus’ dry adherence to the text and Alfonso Cuaron’s faithfulness-be-damned success of tone. And, it cannot be undersold, that transformation of what felt like interminable years worth of feet-dragging prose, sludging through the woods, into something that attains legimately haunting – and yes, dark – beauty.

As a film, divorced from the source material, it plays a lot more like a penultimate episode of a long running TV series. That’s not to say it isn’t properly cinematic in scope – Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is striking. Nor do I think it is necessarily a negative; Consider the successes on television in the last decade, how thoroughly those successes have dwarfed the narrative ability of all but a handful of filmmakers working theatrically, and how viewers patience has been limbered up by weekends’ worth of powerloading series via downloads and DVD. The abrupt conclusion of Part 1 feels a lot like hitting a mid-season cliffhanger on disc 1, and finding out disc 2 hasn’t come in the mail yet.

And while the action is good (particularly Harry’s escape from his Uncle’s House, a quick shootout in a coffeeshop, and a mission to the Ministry of Magic that feels like Terry Gilliam took over David Yates’ chair,) and the atmosphere is great, it’s the acting that puts this film beyond the others. The supporting cast has always been reliable in these movies, and with a list that includes Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes and Peter Mullan, the only real complaint is that I didn’t see enough of them. I saw just enough of Helena Bonham Carter’s brand of bug-eyed overacting, though, and I guess I’ll just have to wait until Part 2 to finally get a substantial piece of work from Alan Rickman as Severus Snape.

What used to heighten that annoyance were the kids. They always tried hard, but the earnestness of that attempt would often overwrite the emotions they were supposed to be conveying in the scene. They were not only growing up in front of hundreds of millions of people, burdened with the weight of essaying modern-day heroes, they were learning their craft, one blockbuster movie at a time, throughout their adolescence.

They pay off that effort in this film: Daniel Radcliffe, who figured this shit out before his co-stars, exudes a guarded confidence in his performance. Rupert Grint has toned down his alternating between broad mugging and dour pouting, giving his comedy a lighter touch and his serious moments some real anger. And Emma Watson, owner of the most self-conscious eyebrows on earth, has finally tamed those jumpy little fuckers. But, in what I’m sure is a bit of a “bite me” to the complainers, one of the better scenes in the film ends with an eyebrow lift so perfectly exaggerated even Spock would have to grin.

The performances lend this film the weight that made the imaginary quote I attributed to DeLaurentiis a reality for some. It’s hard to watch Chamber of Secrets now (I could probably end that sentence right there) and see Dobby as anything but an annoying exercise in R&D for ILM. Sure, having Toby Jones do the voice lends the little shit some pedigree, but there is no way, before walking into that theater, that I believed a performance evoking real emotion could have come out of that floppy eared sack of wrinkles.

But then again, I’m sure there were plenty in 1980 who said the same thing about Yoda before watching him. I’m sure they were happy to have been proven wrong as they left the theater. Just as I’m happy that I don’t have to reflexively roll my eyes at the next fan I hear calling the newest Harry Potter movie “The Empire Strikes Back” of the series, because this time they’re right: It may not be “Empire’s” equal, but this is definitely the Potter standing tallest against that measuring stick.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:37 am  Comments Off on Review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I  

Review – Four Lions

Originally Printed in The Portland Mercury 11/11/10

FOUR LIONS humanizes terrorism.

Don’t misunderstand: This is a very different statement than “Four Lions makes terrorism understandable and sympathetic.” I mean to say that Four Lions does, in fact, humanize terrorism, by reminding the audience that human beings can be incomprehensibly dumb and clumsy animals. One has to be a special sort of idiot to think dressing in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume to suicide bomb a charity fun-run is going to win you any sort of heavenly reward, but this is the humanity Four Lions concerns itself with, and those are the sorts of terrorist plots incompetently employed, and these are the confused, chucklefucked faces of terrorism.

The Three Stooges seem to be a big influence on writer/director Christopher Morris’ film—along with British comedies like The Thick of It and The Office—and like those old Stooges shorts, Four Lions’ plot is just a skeleton to hold up numerous and brilliant gags. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is disillusioned about Western influence on Muslim culture; to combat it, he becomes the mujahideen equivalent of a Juggalo, a wannabe who can’t spare the time or the thought it would take to understand why he does the things he does. Omar gathers a group of his friends, and together, they try to strike a blow against the West on their own turf. They suck at it. Hard.

There is, of course, a political element to the movie, but the film isn’t too concerned with that, nor is it concerned with stepping down to focus on message moments, à la Matt Stone and Trey Parker. That would detract from the joyous reveling Morris takes in punishing the stupid for their sins against intelligence.  Every “threatening” video is rendered inert by innate buffoonery, every passionate piece of rhetoric is riddled with multiple “bro”s and “buddy”s. Imagine the Situation and Tucker Max as chavs, pretending to be Al-Qaeda for spring break, and getting their nuts stomped for it at every turn.

There is no sympathy to be found in Morris’ ruthless little farce, and the comedy benefits all the more for it. Almost every minute of this film is dedicated to subversion: Plots, expectations, and hopes are all kneecapped in a progression of toweringly stupid fuckups, strung together by slapstick set pieces that are jarringly funny. Four Lions is a rare beast: an understatedly absurdist feel-good satire about terrorists.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:36 am  Comments Off on Review – Four Lions  

Review – Monsters

Originally Printed in The Portland Mercury 11/11/10

THANKS TO ITS misleading title, Monsters is going to piss off a lot of unsuspecting viewers. Let’s be clear: This is not a movie about monsters, nor are there lots of monsters in it. It’s the anti-Cloverfield: The camera isn’t shaking, and there’s almost nothing interesting happening in front of it.

Here’s the one-sentence premise: A snotty photographer (Scoot McNairy) is under orders from his newspaper to retrieve the boss’ daughter (Whitney Able) from the “Infected Zone”—a decimated, largely abandoned strip of Mexico settled by giant interplanetary octo-crabs after a space probe crashed six years previous.

Now take that one-sentence premise, stretch it over 94 minutes, and subtract pacing, acting, tension, atmosphere, and almost all the monsters. What’s left is a film that moves with all the passion and energy of a stifled yawn.

Some will forgive Monsters’ many flaws by pointing to its price tag of $15,000. (I didn’t leave off a zero or two—this film cost less than a Toyota Prius.) And visually, writer/director Gareth Edwards pulls off a minor miracle; when the octo-crabs eventually do make their scant appearances, they’re convincingly Lovecraftian.

But Edwards doesn’t do poor Scoot and Whitney any favors: If you thought the privileged twentysomethings of Cloverfield were annoying wastes, you’re going to hate these vapid mannequins. Whenever garbage dialogue isn’t spilling from their heads, they’re hoovering the film’s remaining sense of wonder through their slack jaws, trying for “dumbfounded” and only getting the first part.

By the time its end credits roll, Monsters feels like nothing so much as a Blu-ray special feature—one in which we follow a couple of pretty idiots around for a 90-minute look at the sets of a monster movie, one where things will, eventually, actually happen. Now all Edwards needs to do is make a real movie to go along with it.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:35 am  Comments Off on Review – Monsters