Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Captain America

I was a little uncertain about going to see Captain America. He's always been very similar to Superman to me in that he seems a little too perfect and "All American hero" to really appeal to me. I've never read any of his comics or seen the older movies, I mostly only know him from his appearances in the X-men and Spider-man cartoons. However, since Marvel's films had made me care about both Iron Man and Thor, I figured they had a decent shot of making me care about Captain America too.

They did, in fact, do just that. Allowing us to see the scrawny yet brave Steve Rogers in the beginning of the film makes him seem like just an ordinary guy who wants to do good things. By the time he does become the super-soldier, you don't mind how ridiculously perfect he is because it's all about this man's journey.

The movie also manages to hold the line between a tribute to the era Captain America came from without feeling outdated or ignorant. I was continually impressed with the way it treated the other allied forces soldiers with respect and showed their heroism as well as Captain America. They also managed to pay decent tribute to the way the comics were often propaganda for the war in a way that made perfect sense within the film. At the same time, while the Nazis and Hitler are certainly mentioned, the true enemy here is Hydra.

The cast as a whole is pretty fantastic. Chris Evans manages to be nothing like the egotistical guys we're used to seeing him as, and Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, and Toby Jones are also great in their respective roles.

The story is not particularly unique, but that doesn't mean it lacks weight. I was very impressed with Joe Johnston's ability to create a film that was powerful and emotional with a decent amount of action as well. I thought the romance was also well handled, though stopping for a kiss when you've only got seconds to spare is just a little too cliche.

Out of this summer's other Marvel films, I'd put it behind X-men: First Class but right next to Thor.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Uncanny X-men #1

One of the comics I had originally planned to cover during my X-men marathon was, quite logically, the very first issue of X-men. While the title was not yet called "Uncanny X-men," the series would eventually evolve to have that name. In a couple months, for ridiculous reasoning, Marvel is cancelling this series and starting the numbering over. They claim it's because the team will be different, but given the very large number of times the team has changed, it's an excuse. They're pretty obviously trying to compete with DC's reboot.

But for right now, let's forget about all that and take a look at the issue that started it all.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Beastie Boys

I am about to compare the Beastie Boys to the Beatles. Wait! Don't leave yet! Give me a chance?

Since you are required to have a favorite Beatle, from the beginning of my awareness of the band, I used to say Paul. He was the cute one, after all. It was only in my adolescent years when I really started to get to know the band both through their personal history and discography that I sharply changed direction and was 100% John's girl. As a casual fan of the Beastie Boys, I picked Mike D as my favorite, once again based on his looks. Over the past few months, I've been feeding my hunger for new (to me) music by listening to the entirety of the Beastie Boys catalogue. It has come almost as no surprise to me that I am suddenly far more in Ad Rock's corner now.

John was the most outspoken of the Beatles, and with his high pitched voice and nickname of "the Kid," Ad Rock may be the wildest member of the Beastie Boys, so you would think I would have recognized what I liked about both of these guys from day one. I am moderately ashamed of my initially shallow tastes, but I suppose "casual fan" and "shallow" sort of go hand in hand, right?

I think the Beastie Boys caught my attention in my youth mostly for their music videos and the sense of humor they let shine through them. I wasn't a very big fan of hip hop back then, though even I knew that the Beastie Boys were something not quite normal for the genre, and I don't just mean because of their race. I've seen their music referred to as "alternative hip hop" and I think it works in regards to an "alternative to the norm" kind of sense. Hip hop punk might also be a decent description, as they originally started out as a punk band and both their sense of humor and their approach to the music seem to mirror that punk style quite a bit.

This quality of standing out from the pack has made them just as influential as The Beatles to both hip hop and the post-Green Day punk scene, and they were also one of the first bands of their generation to speak openly about political and social issues. They've evolved in their music over the span of their history, and I'm going to break that down for you now.

License to Ill


Their debut album is probably their best known, and there's a lot of good reasons for that. In my opinion, however, the one song on this album that is the most well known and quite possibly your favorite of theirs, I really, really don't like.

Freshman year of high school I attended the first dance of the year with a friend. When the DJ started playing "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)" she began shouting out the lyrics along with many others in the gym. I must have had a really confused look on my face, because she turned to me and said "It's a really old song." This is the point where I get peeved about something that was created since I was born being referred to as "really old," but even beyond that, I was already familiar with it. I had seen the video on MTV as much as anyone else had. I just didn't see why it was such a big deal. I still don't. It makes me happy to know that the Beastie Boys themselves feel about the same way and have not performed this song live since 1987.

The album contains quite a bit of sampling, but this is sampling done right - a quick riff stolen from another song that makes you go "I know that!" rather than just stealing an entire chorus and rapping over it (like a certain Bad Boy would later do). More than anything, it's the sense of humor that really makes me love this album. This is the Beastie Boys at their rudest, and especially knowing now where they end up, you can't get offended by it. Normally hearing a guy shouting that he wants a girl to "do the dishes" and "clean up my room" would earn a smack from me, but the song is just so cutesy I find it hilarious. I also couldn't help but chuckle every time I heard them claim to own a gun. What can I say, I just can't see three skinny Jewish boys like them secretly packing heat.

The boys are pretty much known for name dropping themselves constantly. This is something that really used to annoy me back when rap was in its heyday, but apparently I've become immune to it. I suppose another way to look at it is this: think about most bands you know, and how many of them you can actually name every single member. Obviously your favorites you know them all, but most other bands you probably just know the lead singer or the particularly skilled guitar player. On the other hand, even if you're just a casual fan of the Beastie Boys, I bet you know all three.

Some of their rhymes on this album are better than others. For instance, I have to applaud the use of the word "pagoda" just for the sake of name dropping Abe Vigoda. Who would even think of that? On the other hand, there's also a lot of repetition. MCA tells us that he's "got a license to kill" and then rhymes it with "it's time to get ill" at least twice on the album. They also bring up Whitecastle in almost every single song. You'd almost think they made a deal with the company.

The Beastie Boys made an attempt to draw their own Beatles comparison at this point by covering "I'm Down." The song takes samples from the chorus of the Beatles song and features their typical over the top lyrics during the verses. Michael Jackson flat out refused to give them the rights to release it. I found the track on YouTube and I have to admit I'm inclined to agree with MJ on this one. It's just not very good.

The album, however, is made up entirely of songs that could be singles on their own, and I think Rick Rubin is the one we can thank for that. The man is legendary for a reason. It's not unlike the way George Martin guided the Beatles on their first few albums to create those pop hits. The Beatles didn't really start to take control until around Rubber Soul, and it was only after leaving Def Jam that the Beastie Boys were able to start really experimenting more with their sound and create something very different.

Paul's Boutique


On paper, this album should be all kinds of awesomeness to me. It's the Beastie Boys being produced by the Dust Brothers. I absolutely love the Dust Brothers work on the Fight Club soundtrack. Beck's Odelay and Guero, also produced by them, are my favorites of his discography.

On the first listen through, I really liked it. Some songs were weaker than others, but there's just so many layers to the sampling that it's a literal feast for your ears. On repeated listenings, however, a lot of this didn't really hold up for me. While "Shake Your Rump" and "Hey Ladies" are probably two of my favorite Beastie Boys songs, and "Sounds of Science" and "What Comes Around" aren't too bad either, I find myself with an urge to skip through most of the rest.

What the album is really missing is a "Paul Revere, Part Two" that would explain to us how the King Ad Rock got mysteriously dethroned since the last album.

Despite my personal feelings, this is probably their most critically acclaimed album, and I think that anyone who is a fan of music should give it at least one listen through. If you can't be bothered to find the whole album, at least check out "The Sounds of Science." Having been denied a cover, they decided to get a little more daring and push the rights of fair use by sampling multiple Beatles tracks on the recording.

EDIT: Six months later I now feel completely differently about this album.  I think it just took more time for me to absorb some of these songs.  "High Plains Drifter," "Looking Down the Barrel of Gun," and "Shadrach" are all now among my favorite by the group.

Check Your Head


It's about this point that I started feeling really discouraged going through these albums, but fortunately I know better things are on the horizon. I didn't include their original punk album on this list because it was not label released and honestly, what I've heard of it is not very good. Check Your Head is a sort of return to those roots, featuring the boys playing their own instruments on this album along with the sampling. Unfortunately it has the feel that they were practicing their instruments and just hit record, because what we end up with is a lot of funky bass grooves and no real rapping on top of them. "So Whatcha Want" and "Jimmy James" are pretty much the only songs on the album that are worth listening to, in my opinion. I keep seeing "Pass the Mic" listed as a hit in places, but I had never heard of it before, and Mike D actually commits the sin of rhyming a word with itself on it. The word is "commercial" and while you could probably stretch that to have two meanings and make it work, he doesn't.

Worst of all, the guys attempt to sing on some of the tracks. While I think they have fantastic ability in terms of rhyme and rhythm, their actual singing can be pretty painful to listen to. While I don't care for this direction, I applaud them for pushing the boundaries and trying out new things they hadn't before. There aren't many rappers out there who also play their own instruments, much like the Beatles were one of the early bands to actually write their own songs.

Ill Communication


This album was a bit of a return to popularity for the Beastie Boys, in large part due to the music video for "Sabotage." It was simply inescapable on MTV for a long time, and I don't recall ever complaining about seeing it. The video is hilarious and the song has such a great bass riff. As for the rest of the album, it's a mixed bag. It's got some really great rap songs ("Sure Shot," "Root Down," and "Get It Together"), some really terrible punk songs ("Tough Guy" and "Heart Attack Man"), and some more funk based grooves that don't feel like they belong on the album, in my opinion. The worse of it is their insistence to run nearly all their vocals through a very heavy filter, thereby making them unintelligible. A song like "The Update" sounds like it may have some important message to get across - however I can't understand a word of it, so I can't tell you what that is. This filter problem also existed on Check Your Head. The Beastie Boys have released remastered versions of these albums through their website, but without listening to them I don't know if this was improved upon or not.

Hello Nasty


This was the album I was looking forward to the most. As much as I enjoyed "Sabotage" and its video, "Intergalactic" is pretty much my all time favorite of theirs and "Body Movin'" is also pretty great. I was surprised to find out that the album version of "Body Movin'" is actually quite different from the Fat Boy Slim remix we're so familiar with. The remix is much, much better, as the chorus on the album version is sped up Chipmunk style and the music on the verses is just all around lacking. Beyond the singles, the punk songs seem to have been dropped, but we've still got a mix of slow jazz and rap songs. The slower songs have Ad Rock once again attempting to sing on a couple ("Song for the Man" and "Instant Death"), and even he must know he's not very good at it because it's really not much more than flat, melodic speaking. Three others songs have three different female vocalists("Song for Junior," "Picture This,"and "I Don't Know"), all of which are extremely high pitched and unpleasant to listen to, much like Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney's appearances on Beatles tracks. However if you skip these five songs (out of twenty two total) you've got a fairly solid hip hop album. "The Move," "Putting Shame in Your Game," and "Three MCs and One DJ" in particular stick out but there really isn't a bad one. They've mercifully lost the filter and we can hear them rap again!

To The 5 Boroughs


I honestly didn't know this album existed until I started going through their discography. This is a post 9/11 album, and since the guys are from New York, it's logical that the album is essentially a tribute to their hometown. The good news is that this album is 100% rap. The bad news is that since this album was released in 2004, there's a couple of "George W. Bush sucks!" songs which make it extremely dated. For whatever reason, despite its own name drop, the Beatles' "Revolution" does not feel anywhere near as dated to me. "Ch-check it out" and "Triple Trouble" are still really good songs, and overall it's a solid hip hop album if you don't mind your musicians getting political.

The Mix-Up


Possibly in response to their last album being nothing but rap, this album is all instrumental. They apparently originally had plans to bring in various up and coming vocalists to sing on the album, but scrapped that idea. The music is similar in style to the jazz and funk songs they had on past albums, but much more polished in sound. Personally, there are very few times when I choose to listen to instrumentals - vocals and lyrics are pretty key for me when it comes to music. The exception is mostly when I'm writing, because I don't want the artist's words mixing with those in my head, so to speak. I could certainly listen to this while writing, as none of the music is chaotic or unsettling. Since I absolutely hate pretentious attempts at describing the feel of music, I'm just going to recommend that you check out some samples of this album and see if it fits your own personal tastes. I also once again have to applaud their willingness to take risks and put out something completely different, and to also learn from their past experiences that this kind of music does not necessarily mesh with the rap songs.

Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two


And now we're up to date. This album was actually a birthday present to me, or at least that's how I like to think of it whenever albums or movies are released on my birthday. Once again we have a nearly 100% rap album here. It's still nicely varied though, as some have a more alternative Rage Against the Machine style and others are more straight up hip hop. My biggest complaint is that it feels too short. There are a total of sixteen tracks, but three of them are under one minute in length and a good portion of the others are also under four minutes. The vocal filters have also returned. It's not so bad to make them unintelligible, but I'd much prefer to hear them clean. The strongest songs are "Make Some Noise," "Too Many Rappers" featuring Nas, and "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win" featuring Santi Gold. Dare I compare this increase in collaboration to Billy Preston playing with the Beatles? The one glaring exception to these additional vocalists being an improvement is "Crazy Ass Sh*t," which features Mike D's sons rapping on it. While I'm sure he and his wife find that absolutely adorable, all I can do is groan and skip through the track the moment I hear it.

Coincidentally with this album's release date, this whole adventure started because of my birthday. At my thirtieth birthday party while feeling quite intoxicated, I announced to the room, "I'm going to sing 'Sabotage' in Rock Band now. Anyone who wants to play with me, come on." If you own the first Rock Band game and have ever played Vocals, you probably know "Sabotage" as the one song even someone who is tone deaf can perform. It's all rapping and you don't have to hit a single note. You do have to get the words/rhythm right, but once you have that down you can gold star the song without much trouble. Rock Band fanatic that I am, somewhere along the way I decided to enhance the experience by also trying to sound like Ad Rock. The party was the first time I had actually done that in front of people, and they all seemed to enjoy it.

Free MP3 Download!

Jak has been a long time Beastie Boys fan, and not long after the party he said to me, "I'm going to cover 'Sabotage' and I want you to do the vocals." He and I have discussed doing something together for ages now, but this is the first time we've really done a song together and it was a lot of fun. It feels incredibly weird to hear myself via a recording like this, but I think it came out pretty good. You can download the song by right clicking on this link. I hope you enjoy it!

As if that wasn't enough, I also have a video for you.

Brass Monkey Taste Test

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Evil Dead

Back in my "I can't watch horror" days, I knew The Evil Dead was something to avoid. Lots of gore, zombies, the occult - it was sure to give me nightmares. After sitting through the first two George Romero zombie films and the extreme gore of the Hatchet films, I thought I was prepared and this was going to be a walk in the park. Perhaps it was because I watched the film alone on a dreary night, but boy was I wrong.

This review will be full of spoilers. I think most of you who will read this already have seen the film or will never, ever see the film just because, but for the exceptions to the rule, here's your warning.

The film starts off innocently enough, shaping itself up to resemble the slasher films that were becoming so common around this time period. Two guys and three girls head up to a cabin for the weekend. I thought the mismatched number was a little odd at first, but we eventually find out the single girl, Cheryl, is Ash's sister. The beginning tries really hard to set Cheryl up as our final girl - she is uneasy about the isolated location, she has creepy visions while sketching in her notebook, and she is absolutely against them listening to the tape the former residents of the cabin left behind. Unfortunately it's almost impossible to go into this series blind by now, so even if you haven't seen the film you probably know as well as I do that Ash is the real survivor and champion of this film series.

The names of the other three characters are largely irrelevant. Basically you've got Cheryl, Ash and his girlfriend, and Ash's friend and his girlfriend. The tape they find in the cellar along with a really creepy looking book, which just happens to be The Book of the Dead. The tape contains a man discussing finding the book in the cabin, and then reading an incantation aloud from it. When it gets to that point on the tape, Cheryl freaks out and insists they turn it off. I don't blame her. I sympathized with Cheryl a lot because that's pretty much exactly how I would act in that situation. I can't listen to Coast to Coast AM when I'm driving in the middle of nowhere late at night because it creeps me out too much, so someone casting spells or speaking in creepy languages is an no no in a dark, secluded cabin.

Cheryl moves into one of the other rooms to be alone, but unfortunately for her it is too late, the demons have been set free. They call her out into the forest and use the trees to rape her. I had heard about this scene before, so the moment she stepped outside the cabin I knew it was coming. That doesn't mean I was prepared for it. The way it is shot keeps it tense and creepy and rather uncomfortable to watch. While the effects in the film as a whole are rather cheap, that doesn't mean they aren't effective. Since talk of a remake is under way, I severely hope they don't plan to do this part CGI, if they include it. I can't imagine that looking real enough to work.

Once Cheryl escapes from the trees, she once again does the sensible thing in insisting that Ash bring her home right away. Unfortunately the shaky bridge they used to arrive has been broken and it's too dark for them to find a new way. Of course it's probably for the best because Cheryl has already been infested by a demon. She turns into a zombie (Wikipedia calls them deadites, but that term is never used in this first film and to me they're just angry zombies) and promptly stabs Ash's girlfriend in the ankle with a pencil. She really digs it in there and blood gushes all over the place. Cut to me squirming in my seat and shouting while I pull my ankles under me. The group manages to trap Cheryl in the cellar where she will taunt them in a really creepy sounding voice for most of the rest of the film.

The other girl who isn't closely related to Ash gets possessed and also becomes a zombie, coming after Ash and her boyfriend. There's this really horrible moment where her boyfriend tries to cut her hand off (I think because she was wielding this rather creepy looking dagger - who knows where she got it from) and she responds by biting into her own wrist and eventually (and I do mean eventually, it's a really drawn out scene) pulling her hand clean off. She squirts milk as well as blood, because apparently these zombies are partially created by the Weyland-Yutani corporation. Her boyfriend has to hack her to pieces with an axe before she stays dead, and he decides to leave because he can't take it anymore.

Shortly afterward we find out Ash's girlfriend is also now possessed thanks to that stab to the ankle. She taunts him in a similarly creepy voice that Cheryl has been using. From here the movie became quite frantic as Ash, left alone with the zombies, struggles to kill them even though they are two women he loves. While I certainly can understand that problem, I couldn't help but think Ash got a little stupid at this point. It had already been established that you had to hack them apart to make them stop, and everyone else who had been attacked turned, so when Ash chooses to just bury his girlfriend and leave his horribly scarred by trees friend on the sofa, I couldn't help thinking he was acting a little stupid.

There's lots more gore as Ash beheads his girlfriend with a shovel, kills Cheryl with a shotgun and manages to poke his friend's eyes out. He finally thinks of throwing The Book of the Dead in the fire as an attempt to make it all stop. While some of the zombie make up was starting to look a little cheap by this point in the film, this ending sequence uses claymation and once again manages to creep me out to the extreme. I watched all that stuff ooze out of them and made a mental note to watch something fun and innocent before bed so it wouldn't become nightmare fuel for me. As if that wasn't enough they also made sure to have some roaches climb out of all of that to creep me out even further.

When all of that finally ends, Ash is safe... or is he? Horror movies ending on cliffhangers have sort of become cliche by now, but I like them for the same reason I like the way Stephen King stories don't always end happily. Ultimate evil can't be defeated that easily.

When I take my notes for my reviews, I sometimes have some that I can't incorporate into the review but I really like anyway. I thought it might be fun to make a list here for you to see my thoughts as I watched the film. This isn't all of them, just a sample.

I was not expecting Bruce Campbell to sound so nasal.

So gross!!!! Biting off her own hand? Hacking her to pieces with the axe? Eeeeewwwwwwwww

Can they please just kill Cheryl? She's scaring me.

Hello chainsaw. You'll be famous later.

Oh God, not the eyeballs!

So. Much. Gross.

So, am I being a total wuss? Or do most people find this film genuinely scary? I think the zooming camera angles through the forest and the close up shots of Ash scared and alone really help build tension throughout the film, and the gore and zombies are exactly the kinds of things that used to keep me awake at night as a kid. It's probably worth mentioning that I tend to get creeped out by mannequins, anatomically correct robots, dolls, zombies... basically anything in the Uncanny Valley department. Regardless, I can't help but respect a film that is as old as I am but still manages to give me all kinds of chills.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Batman Character Spotlight: Dick Grayson


Sometimes I feel like less of a Batman fan and more of a Dick Grayson fan. As much as I love the Dark Knight, I don't think I would be so heavily endeared to him and his many incarnations if it wasn't for Dick. I fully expect a lot of giggling in the peanut gallery for this post, but sometimes you can't help the unfortunate name you've been given, alright?

As I said before, it's Batman the Animated Series that is my ideal Batman, and so logically, that is where my ideal version of Dick Grayson also resides. And at the age of 13, I fell in love with him hard. His looks, his sense of humor, his abilities, he was the perfect guy as far as I was concerned. I hated Barbara Gorden out of simple and pure jealousy. She couldn't have him, he was mine!

There's no doubt that a large part of what created those passionate feelings for me was the two part origin episode for Dick, "Robin's Reckoning." It is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of what made this show so great. Apparently I am not alone, as it won an Emmy.

The episode begins with classic Batman and Robin - Robin makes jokes to try to keep the stakeout they're on from being too boring, while Batman is all business. When the criminals finally arrive, Robin excitedly springs into action and continues to crack jokes while taking down the foes. The mood changes dramatically, however, when one of the hoodlums mentions a name. It means nothing to Robin, but clearly Batman knows it. He promptly orders Robin to leave, and once the kid is gone, he threatens the hoodlum to tell him everything he wants to know.

Robin is angry and confused by being shut out by Batman, but unlike Jubilee, he's not whining about it. He takes matter into his own hands and uses the detective skills that Batman has taught him to get down to the bottom of it. The name is an alias for Tony Zucco, the man responsible for Dick's parents' death. This segues into a flashback scene where we see exactly how it occurred. The death scene is appropriately heartbreaking and shocking without being graphic, and the pain in young Dick's voice often brings tears to my eyes.

Dick's origin really is perfect for a self insert character. He shares a similar tragic past to Batman, meaning they can have something in common, but he's also got a really cool life. He gets to grow up in the circus, and when that comes to an end he gets to go live in a huge mansion with a rich guy who leads a secret life as Batman. Not a bad consolation prize for being orphaned.

The main storyline of this episode is actually very similar to Robin's story in Batman Forever, and may go a long way in explaining just why I loved that film at the time. Dick wants revenge, but Bruce wants to find Zucco first. We find out through the flashback sequences that Dick once did the very same thing as a kid. In that instance, Bruce had a choice between catching Zucco or saving Dick's life, so Zucco got away. Now that Dick has grown up, he assumes that Bruce is afraid he will go too far and try to kill Zucco - but in reality, Bruce tells him he couldn't bear the thought of losing him, and he kept him home to keep him safe. It is incredibly touching and sweet. The voice talents of Kevin Conroy, Loren Lester, and Joey Simmrin (who plays young Dick) cannot possibly be understated here. They sell this entire episode and make you feel for these characters.

It's no wonder to me that all this had such a deep effect on me and made me so attached to the character. I also have the novelization of this episode in the form of Shadows of the Past. I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's a short quick read, but an excellent adaptation of both this episode and another, "Appointment in Crime Alley," which touches a lot on the death of Bruce Wayne's parents. I used to read it repeatedly.

Coincidentally, the time that I started reading Batman comics was also when the Prodigal storyline happened. That was when Dick Grayson took over as Batman for the first time. In that instance, it was meant to be temporary. I loved this story for two reasons - it was great to see Dick's mindset in being under the cowl and what that meant to him, and it was also great to see him interact with Tim Drake. This interaction remained after Dick returned to being Nightwing in the comics, at least for a little while. I got bored with most of the Batman comics shortly after this storyline ended, but I kept collecting Robin. I don't think I would have accepted Tim Drake half as much as I did if it hadn't been for the solid interaction between the two of them - very similar to a brotherly relationship. I plan to review both the Prodigal storyline as well as some of those Robin comics at a later date.

It's kind of frustrating to me that at the time I was collecting, Nightwing didn't have his own book. He got a one shot where he rescued Alfred and then a mini series, but his ongoing title didn't start until after I had stopped collecting. Being such a huge part of both Batman's universe and even the DC Universe as a whole thanks to his leadership of Teen Titans, it didn't seem fair for him to get pushed aside like that. I collected a few Teen Titans back issues to get my fix, but I wasn't too crazy about a lot of them. His failed wedding to Starfire in particular bothered me, as I felt like I really didn't know the hothead character being shown in that book. He wasn't the Dick Grayson I knew and loved.

I know shortly after I stopped they did in fact give him his own ongoing title which lasted for quite a while. I've read a few spare issues here and there, but am otherwise largely unaware of how good or bad they are.

I have been enjoying Dick's recent return to playing Batman though, especially his relationship with Damien. It doesn't seem right to demote him back to Nightwing like they plan to do in the upcoming reboot, but at least he'll still have his own title.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Crow


For me and my group of friends in high school, The Crow was one of those things that helped define our generation. If someone around you told you they liked the movie, you knew you had found a friend. Like anything of such popularity, it was only a matter of time before it also became a little played out. At my sophomore year Halloween dance, you probably could have made a game of counting Crows, there were so many guys there with their faces painted up. I remember my boyfriend at the time largely scoffed at it, announcing that it was now completely played out. I was inclined to agree with him, but I still watched the movie quite frequently on my own time.

A large part of its notoriety and popularity was related to Brandon Lee's death on set. A combination of the tragic accident combined with his own father's early death was just too good a story and so this otherwise unknown actor became instantly famous even before the movie was released. You have to wonder if anyone would have really noticed the film at all if he hadn't been killed by that blank bullet on set. Do all generations have these tragic heroes that they cling to? In my youth alone I remember girls fawning over not just Brandon but also Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley. I imagine a lot of this started with James Dean.

Personally, I think the movie still would have been a cult hit even without his death. The dark tones, his outfit, the music, the stylized violence – this movie was made for the counter culture to eat up and the mainstream to hate. In my junior year “morality” religion class, this movie was used as an example by a group of students trying to prove that the media was glorifying violence and leading our young minds to sin.

Perhaps because it was such a huge part of my teen years, I don't think I've watched this movie since then. I think the poorly done sequels had somewhat turned me off to the film and I simply didn't think about it very much anymore. For whatever reason it recently came back into my memory and I was anxious to see if it still held up with anything more than nostalgia for me.

The movie starts with the young Sarah narrating for us. The main issue with that is that her voice is rather gruff for an adolescent. She seems to have a permanent frog in her throat. Fortunately, the narration only occurs at the very beginning and ending of the film, so it doesn't get too annoying. She tells of the legend that crows carried souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead, but sometimes, if the soul had unfinished business, the crow would guide them back.

Eric Draven has been thrown from a window and his fiancee Shelly has been brutally beaten and raped and is now near death. She dies thirty hours later. Sarah is friends with them since her own mother doesn't have much time for her. The great Ernie Hudson plays a cop at the scene of the crime who is moved by what has happened – so moved that his insistence to get evidence eventually gets him demoted. You see, this is a corrupt city where gangsters run the place and justice is rarely served – essentially, Gotham City. One year after the event, nothing has been done, so the crow guides Eric Draven back to get his revenge. But first, shoes! No kidding, the very first thing the crow does is guide a very confused Draven toward a perfectly good pair of combat boots sitting in a dumpster. After that, it's time to catch the four men who attacked them that night, and eventually take down the big bad boss they work for.

Beyond being able to see through the crow's eyes, Draven also seems to be able to absorb memories both from people and objects. This is done in a very stylized fashion, as when he makes physical contact with something, we see what he's seeing, tinted in various colorful tones. Stylized, in fact, is the main word for this entire film. Nearly everything is tinted in blacks, red, and grays, dimly lit with a look of grime all over them. I've never read the comics this movie was based on, but from what I've seen, this does a pretty good job of mimicking their black and white gritty style. Basically, imagine Sin City without the benefit of nearly as much CGI, and personally, I think it is better for it. Perhaps it's because of when I was born, but I love movies like this. The influence of Burton's Batman films is evident, and the director, Alex Proyas, would revisit this style again later with Dark City.

The music is just as stylized. The score has an epic feel, and the movie is littered with songs from bands the likes of Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Helmet, Rage Against the Machine, and Rollins Band. I don't know if I'm correct on this, but to me this is the beginning of the time when movie soundtracks could sell as popular albums. I wasn't going to get Nine Inch Nails' cover of “Dead Souls” anywhere else, and therefore I had to have it. The Cure song, "Burn," is forever linked to this movie for me thanks to the scene that plays in the film. Depending on your taste for this type of music, you may either feel like this makes the film extraordinarily dated or classic. Obviously, I fall on the classic side of things.

The violence is, in my opinion, fairly tame, and will definitely seem like absolutely nothing compared to modern standards. While Eric is a ruthless killer, all of his victims are portrayed as true evil and none show any sign of remorse for their crimes. Most of the actual violence happens off screen and we are only shown the after effects. Most of the gore is pretty fake and therefore not really brutal. The worst scene, in my opinion, is when a character gets their eyes poked out by the crow, and in typical fashion it is worse because of the series of cuts that show us little and therefore leave a lot to our imagination. I think the most glorified violence is some of the shootouts, which have a kind of John Woo style to them. It's extremely ironic given the nature of Brandon Lee's death.

I was told that he died from a blank bullet hitting him while standing on top of the table in the gangster's lair, though Wikipedia tells me that's not true. As such my feelings of that scene have always been tainted. Since the biggest shoot out of the movie occurs right after this point, it's kind of hard to feel excited about the bullets flying everywhere, even though this scene is incredibly well done. Perhaps this is why people complained of the violence in this movie – because I certainly don't see anything worse here than what I saw in Scarface which was made so many years before.

Brandon Lee is not the best actor, but his somewhat stoney delivery is well suited to a character who has been dead for a year and functions as an avenging angel. I feel like his acting gets stronger as the film goes on, though of course there's no way to know what sequence they were actually shot in. The most powerful moment comes as he confronts Sarah's mother and says to her: “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children.” That line and scene have always stayed within my memory.

I think the film slows a bit once the four murderer/rapists have been killed. This is largely because the big bad is a little overly hokey – he and his “sister” do just about every bad thing anyone can possibly do. Michael Wincott and Bai Ling played it just a little too over the top, to the point that you are rolling your eyes at them more than being disgusted by them. It's logical that Eric will defeat them, but it just lacks much emotional weight. An end climax that contains a sword fight on a rooftop is also just a bit too cliche. On the other hand, the final revenge Eric takes is quite fitting and well done.

While I don't think this movie is an absolute classic, I think its strengths outweigh its weaknesses and its still an enjoyable film. It is a must see for any fan of gothic style or dark superheroes. Sadly Hollywood doesn't seem to agree with me, as they're planning on making a remake of this film already. Apparently anything nineties is just too dated.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Monsters vs Aliens Challenge: Mothra

It almost seems wrong to watch Mothra before Gojira/Godzilla, but since Godzilla wasn't part of the challenge, he's going to have to wait. Technically, I've already seen Godzilla 2000, so this wasn't my first Japanese monster film, just my first of the original Toho films. I know I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but why do so many of these monster movies take so long to show us the monster? I know there were budget concerns, but once you build the monster, don't you want to have it on screen for as long as you possibly can?

The theme of Mothra is not the perils of nuclear war, as you might expect from a Japanese monster movie. It's actually all about not messing with nature for your own personal gain. The beginning of the film reminded me a lot of King Kong, as they discover an island full of all kinds of strange plants and people. I couldn't help but laugh as one of the characters, who was a linguist, took one look at a giant plant and immediately recognized it as mold grown to enormous size. His ability to understand the language of the tiny humans he finds, which are nothing more than high pitch squeals, was equally laughable, but at least made a little more sense given his background. The two tiny women are eventually kidnapped by a man who wishes to show them off for money, once again drawing the King Kong comparison. Unfortunately for him, and all of Japan, the "fairies" have a telepathic ability that allows them to call Mothra to rescue them. A reporter, a camera woman, and the linguist are out to rescue the little ladies and stop Mothra's rampage.

All the other natives of the island are normal size. They are supposed to be some variation of Polynesian, I think. They do a dance to help hatch Mothra from a giant egg. I actually thought this part was really fun to watch, though it does go on a little long. I found myself shouting "Just hatch already!" after awhile. When she finally does hatch, 45 minutes into the film, she is a caterpillar. I guess I should have expected that because of Insectosaurus in Monsters vs Aliens, but silly me thought that was just something invented as a joke for that film. Once hatched it doesn't take her long to destroy a cruise ship, but then we are subjected to very long scenes of her floating in the ocean while they waste their time trying to drop bombs on her. When she finally gets to land she barrels through some buildings before building herself a cocoon on the Tokyo Tower. Finally, somewhere around one hour and twenty minutes in the film, we see Mothra in her final form. Her wings are apparently powerful enough to create hurricane force winds and she uses them to cause even more destruction.

An unexpected highlight of this film was the music. While probably not for everyone, I really enjoyed the song sung by the little fairies who are played by Japanese singing duo The Peanuts. They're identical twins and their voices are very distinctive, especially as they sing together. I really enjoyed it.

As much as I was looking forward to seeing Mothra tear into things, I actually found most of the destruction less than satisfying. I knew it was going to be cheaply done, of course, but I felt like there was little to no tension there. A few more reactions shots from the crowd might have been helpful. The most tense scene is one where Mothra has broken apart a dam while coming to shore and the rising water is threatening to break a bridge apart. A couple is carrying their baby in a basket on their cart and don't realize when the basket slips off. One of the heroes runs out to save the baby just before the bridge falls apart. Beyond that we mostly get a lot of scenes of buildings breaking apart and crunched cars flying around. It's all very cute and certainly has a charm all its own, I was just hoping for a few more thrills.

Luckily, the story behind it all, of the small people being taken advantage of and rescued, the reporter juggling his responsibility to reveal news to the public and protect the innocent, and the jerk of a man who kidnapped the ladies and finally gets his comeuppance, is all really well done and makes the wait worthwhile. It definitely made me want to watch more of these Toho films. Mothra herself has appeared in a total of 17 other films besides this one, and according to Wikipedia has the most wins over Godzilla!

You'll notice I refer to Mothra as a she. Technically, in the Japanese version of the film I watched, they refer to Mothra as an it, but I've mostly heard people reference her as female. Insectosaurus, on the other hand, is apparently male. He's also a lot wider than Mothra in caterpillar form. He's said to be a normal grub transformed by radiation rather than a mystical creature hatched on a hidden island, and obviously there are no tiny fairies. Beyond being the largest member of their ragtag group, he's used as the cliche sad moment in children's films, where they make you think a character dies. In Insectosaurus's case, he actually builds a cocoon around himself and becomes Butterflysaurus. Considering how long he was hanging out in the government facility, that is an extremely long larval stage.

I can't think of any references to Mothra in popular culture, though it's entirely possible that I'm just missing them. I think most of the popularity and fame go to Godzilla, so that you're far more likely to see a giant lizard being shown over a giant moth. I think it's nice that Monsters vs Aliens turned the tables a little bit and used her instead - otherwise I may never have watched this film.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

BioShock 2

It feels so odd to already be writing a post for the second game one week after the first, but here I am. I guess the extended holiday weekend is to blame for my being able to finish this game so quickly. I don't think it's related to the story being any shorter anyway.

This sequel is set in the same place but features different characters than the first game. It happens eight years later in the timeline than the original and is set in different places inside Rapture. This all helps you feel like you're playing something new rather than just retracing your steps. The gameplay also changes to fit the new storyline - rather than simply defeating Big Daddies like in the first game, you now are one yourself and can therefore adopt the little sisters. Once adopted, you use them to harvest Adam and you must protect them while they do so. Technically this task is optional, however if you were to ignore it you would be missing out on a large part of the game. You would also end up with the bad ending.

I think the new storyline does well in moving everything forward, but I'll admit I found it a little confusing. While I enjoyed the central villain, Sofia Lamb, her intentions and schemes were a little unclear to me. Perhaps I did not find enough of the audio recordings to fill in the gaps. I also felt like this game was not as creepy as the original. While the Gil Alexander part of the story was obviously trying to be reminiscent of the Sander Cohen scenes in the original, it just wasn't as strong. Perhaps the fact that you are playing as a Big Daddy and not your average common man also takes away some of the danger and fear. Either that or I was simply getting more used to Rapture's quirks.

I did however like the inclusion of more moral choices in the game - not only the ability to save vs harvest little sisters but being provided the choice of whether to kill people or let them survive. It's a nice subversion of games where we pretty much expect to have to kill nearly everyone we come across. To be able to take the noble choice and turn the other cheek is a nice one. On the other hand, I laughed with glee when given a new weapon in this game, a spear gun, as I watched my enemies get pinned to the wall, and was also able to remove the spears from their corpses for later reuse. Does that make me a hypocrite, or just a fan of modern horror?

I felt like the difficulty was unnecessarily increased for this game - you carry fewer first aid kits, for instance, and some of the weapons are not as effective as the ones from the first game. The upgrade system is also changed and forces you into making tougher choices early on. Perhaps most annoying of all, certain controls were changed. When the ending of the game can be changed based on whether or not you rescue or harvest a little sister, why would you reverse the controller buttons that do this?! I once had to quit and reload my game because I selected the wrong one out of habit from playing the first game. They also changed the button for using a first aid kit, therefore making it more confusing to stay alive.

In the first game I heavily relied on shocking my enemies and then shooting/hitting them, while in this game I found the shock did not last nearly as long and it was only until later in the game when I gained the ability to freeze people in ice that things got a lot easier. Maybe almost a little too easy at times, but remember I am playing on the easiest difficulty level. There is also no real final boss in this game, just places where you fight a larger number of enemies than you normally would.

You once again get to do a task that is a bit different from the rest of the game toward the end. It is not even remotely difficult, but the storytelling and atmosphere made it highly enjoyable.

There is also a multiplayer mode added to this game, but I am reluctant to try it out. It seems to copy most other FPS multiplayer modes and given my very poor skills at shooting I don't think I would last very long.

There is technically one more game set in Rapture for me to play - that being the DLC add on for BioShock 2, "Minerva's Den." I hope to be getting to that within a week or two. I'm not sure how I feel about the upcoming sequel, BioShock Infinite being such a sharp change in direction. I've come to really like Rapture and its underwater setting. My hope is that we'll eventually see a BioShock 3 that brings us back to Rapture, perhaps once again from a different perspective than what we've seen before.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

30 Days in 1 Music Meme

I had so much fun with the movie meme last month that I thought I would do another. I have a deep love for music even if I haven't talked about it much on here. I found this 30 day meme and decided to do it all at once, because really, why wait? Put your headphones on or turn your speakers up, and enjoy!

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