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Sunday, Jun 15, 2008

Dear Marvel Comics:


Get ready. If rumors are true, and you are indeed lowballing Jon Favreau out of participation in Iron Man 2 (a story now supported by both Ain’t It Cool News and IESB.net), you’re signing your company’s industry death warrant. Now, you might think that statement is a little harsh, but let’s look at the facts, shall we. Driven by a desire to see your characters treated with respect and reverence, you branched out into production to secure said status. After deciding on Iron Man as your first project, you hired Favreau, let him push the unproven Robert Downey, Jr. into the starring role, and held your breath for the results.


And what did you get in return? Well, the film is headed toward $600 million worldwide, is destined to be the must-own Christmas DVD extravaganza of 2008, and the film has an astonishing 93% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes (by comparison, last year’s There Will Be Blood sits at 91%, while Oscar winner No Country for Old Men is at 95%). To get 192 critics to love anything, let alone yet another comic book superhero adaptation speaks volumes for the talent involved. Granted, you had the foresight to think outside the cinematic standard, to avoid the typical names that went with the genre. And NOW you want to play cash games? You’ve got to be joking.


Let’s look at things realistically. If you screw this up, if you fail to put Favreau back in the director’s seat, you risk quite a bit. Now, you could argue that you’re taking an Alien approach to the franchise, letting a new vision come in each time and replace the previous one. Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe that there’s another James Cameron or David Fincher waiting around the next corner for your call. And for the sake of argument, you could dump Favreau, hire some heretofore unknown filmmaker, and create the next artform sensation. But in a commercial dynamic where “what have you done for me lately” is typically answered in dollars and sense, you’re about to kill the fatted calf - and, apparently, for no other reason than penny-pinching.


As the song and sentiment suggests, money does indeed change EVERYTHING. As Harry Knowles pointed out in his view of the situation, had Iron Man been a bomb (or to give you some credit, a marginal hit), this conversation would be moot. In pure Ang Lee style, you’d sit back, lick your angry stockholder wounds, hope you can survive another few years, and mandate a franchise reboot at some point in the future. Of course, now that it’s a big fat hit, everyone thinks the coffers are congested. Paydays become massive where once they were minimal, and expectations run higher than your rehabilitated star in his ‘80s glory days. So we can assume that you are smart businessmen and recognize a rip-off when you see it. Opportunism follows any formidable achievement. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise.


Naturally, Downey must get his money. Of all the brilliant strokes of cinematic genius within Iron Man - and there are many - hiring the troubled celeb as your Tony Stark reeks of pure creative karma. He needed a chance to prove his always undervalued mantle, and you wanted a face to carry the franchise. At a recent screening of your next offering, The Incredible Hulk (more on this in a moment), a cameo by the billionaire weapons manufacturer got the loudest applause of the evening. Apparently, audiences love Downey, so he’s truly a priority. One assumes he’s locked in for the long haul.


The situation with Favreau is the same, and yet different. No one would argue that he was an A-list Hollywood director. Made was well received, Elf was a Will Ferrell inspired hit, and Zathura remains an unfairly marginalized future family film classic. And while he appears to be a genuine nice guy, devoted to his craft and eager to work with the fans and insiders to forge an artistic and commercial triumph, he could be a bastard to be around. There’s no doubt he wants to get paid - that’s why he does what he does. Clearly, to undercut him so, you must think his participation is unimportant.


Frankly, that’s just failed logic. Again, you could find someone else to make your next Iron Man movie (and guide an eventual Avengers epic), and this new voice may be just as valid or even more viable than Favreau. But let’s remember where you came from for a moment, shall we. Tony Stark was not the best known of your Marvel membership, nor were fans clamoring for his adventures. Many in the mainstream marketplace were already sick of comic book films when Iron Man was announced, and Favreau truly worked his butt off to raise the profile of this potential underachiever. You took a risk and opened the film well before Summer actually started, with school still in and your mandatory teen boy demo fretting over more than what movie to see. And now you’re sitting on a multi-BILLION dollar franchise.


Like the Oscars when they nominate a movie and not its director, you clearly believe Favreau had a minimal role in Iron Man‘s eventual success. Either that, or you’re just cheap. The current buzz supports the latter position. Okay, so you like to watch your money. That’s cool. Well, let’s review box office revenue in the post-millennial marketplace, shall we? Spider-man was a massive hit. Its sequel did similar business. Sure, Part 3 suffered, but then again it also sucked. Something similar happened with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The initial movie was a massive hit, the second film secured those returns, as did number three. And in both cases, the same director (Sam Raimi and Gore Verbinski, respectively) helmed the sequels. So clearly you will make money with Favreau handling Iron Man 2‘s duties…and remember, Downey is your wild card.


Let’s talk about the actor for a moment. Clearly, he will be loyal to the director who went to bat for him. And if you can Favreau in favor of someone else, there will be no outward protest, “hold out”, or non-contractual production snafus. Downey will do his job, collect his paychecks (both upfront and back end), and eventually retire happy and very well paid. But this doesn’t guarantee his pleasant participation in any future projects. The minute his term runs, any feelings he has for Favreau will come out in the new negotiations. And let’s not forget the still unproven nature of Iron Man as a continuing character. He is still a quasi-unknown icon, unlike Batman or Superman with a wealth of myth and numerous high profile supervillians waiting in the wings.


But perhaps the biggest factor you’re failing to calculate into this mix is the fans. They don’t call them ‘geeks’ for nothing. Indeed, they will fret over the smallest detail and use the updated bully pulpit of the Internet to air their numerous fetish-like grievances. Get on their bad side - and one senses you already have - and they will make you pay. Not necessarily at the box office, as viewership tends to remain sheep to the aesthetic slaughter, but where it really counts: perception and pre-release publicity. If the fanboys fail to support your decisions, you can guarantee at least two years of vitriol (Iron Man 2 is slated for 2010). They will build consensus, draw up outside strategies, gain the support of their like minded webmasters, and take you to task over everything. And if one recalls correctly, they were the reason you branched out into production in the first place, right?


The Incredible Hulk won’t save you - not this time. While it may be a more satisfying version of the material than what Ang Lee offered five years ago, it will not be an Iron Man sized success. Clearly, Louis Leterrier is a lot of things - capable action director, someone the difficult Edward Norton can work with - but he’s no Favreau. His version of the Marvel Universe still seems unfocused, not quite in sync with what you and your company have in mind. In fact, it would be safe to say that The Incredible Hulk feels more like the outside looking in adaptations that Iron Man gallantly avoided. In the end, you’ve probably got another hit on your hands, but don’t be looking to Rotten Tomatoes to verify its creative merit.


A word to the wise: open up the pocket books and pay the man. Avoid the months of hate that will be harvested on your behalf. Prove to those who still sit on the fence over supporting your talent takeover that you’re not the heartless misers the media is making you out to be. Unless you are clued into something we sideliners fail to grasp, taking Jon Favreau out of the franchise’s future seems absolutely insane. Remember - you need him much more than he needs you. He can ride his Iron Man cred directly into any high profile project he wants (even more so if the film becomes the #1 hit of the Summer, which appears more than likely). Do the right thing and all will be well. And here’s hoping you’re prepared if you don’t. Seriously.


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Sunday, Jun 15, 2008
New releases for the week of 2008-06-16...

It’s hard to say whether anyone’s actually marked their calendars for anything that’s coming out this week, save for the somewhat anticipated (not to mention a little bit dreaded in some circles) Guitar Hero on Tour for the Nintendo DS.  Yes, it’s Guitar Hero; yes, it looks as though the DS peripheral will actually be somewhat functional (though it still looks a bit like a hand cramp waiting to happen); and yes, the track list could be worse.  Still, every look at this week’s releases inspires gravitation toward a different release, something that’s making itself known on both major portable systems this week.  You know what I’m talking about: It’s none other than Space Invaders Extreme.


Acid trip color schemes also help.

Acid trip color schemes also help.


Now I’ll be the first to admit that updating a classic game with modern graphics and color palettes and then slapping the word EXTREME on the title is more than a little bit tacky.  Still, everything I’ve seen of Space Invaders Extreme is that it will be the exception to the rule.  Rather than an uninspired update, you see, Space Invaders Extreme looks like a re-imagining of the entire concept of Space Invaders.  Not only are you a little ship at the bottom of the screen blasting away at wave after wave of 2D sprites, you’re fighting organized waves, sprites that flip from 1D to 2D (like Super Paper Mario minus one dimension), and a few giant invaders.  All of it is in front of a new musical backdrop that actually manages to incorporate the in-game sounds to create a tapestry of noise that just feels right.  The early impressions that I got from it were that it was like Space Invaders meets Lumines, and I don’t know how a combination like that can possibly fail.


Not only that, but Space Invaders Extreme even has a peripheral of its own, the “Taito Paddle”, which you can use to guide your ship.  It also works with the newly-released Arkanoid DS.  Take that, Guitar Hero!


I'll admit it: I'm kind of looking forward to this tiny monstrosity.

I’ll admit it: I’m kind of looking forward to this
tiny monstrosity.


Elsewhere, it’s a pretty quiet release week, as most of the gaming community tries to recover from the behemoth release that was Metal Gear Solid 4.  Wii owners get Rock Band (huzzah!), PS3 owners get Fatal Intertia (whoopee?) and the gamers that simply won’t let go of the PC are the recipients of a little thing called The Political Machine 2008, which is unfortunately not a remake of The Incredible Machine with a bunch of obvious metaphors.  In this one, you get to be a campaign manager, which would surely have me drinking brown liquor out of the bottle in a matter of days.  This edition has Obama, Clinton, and McCain as candidates. 


What are you looking at this week?  Leave one in the comments and let us know.  The full release list (and a trailer for Space Invaders Extreme) is after…the…JUMP!


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Sunday, Jun 15, 2008

This week I finished reading Markus Zusak’s I am the Messenger (2005). It’s worth the read but the first Zusak I’d recommend is definitely The Book Thief (2006). These books are two completely different animals.


image

The protagonist of I am the Messenger is called Ed Kennedy. Ed is a good-for-nothing 19 year old taxi driver who is well on his way to making nothing of himself somewhere in Australia. He has several friends who are good for not much other than playing cards, drinking, and sniggering their way through a bank robbery. Things get a little weird, however, when it turns out that the bank robbery was planned with Ed in mind. Someone wants to turn wishy-washy Ed into a hero.


Playing cards start showing up mysteriously, one at a time, for Ed to find. Aces. And there are short lists written on them, like clues he has to figure out. Suddenly, Ed has a purpose, and luckily though his purpose is far-fetched and frankly bizarre, it manages to drive the novel through a series of odd characters, each of whom need something from Ed. He manages in every case to solve the puzzle of what these people need in their lives.


Several of the characters, like a teenage girl who runs barefoot at dawn, and the elderly owner of a decrepit, old fashioned movie theater, are downright beautiful. Other encounters are less savory, like the abusive rapist or the two angry teenaged brothers who constantly beat each other up. In every situation Ed must figure out how to help these strangers move on with their lives. And in the end not only does Ed sort out his own purpose, he helps his three stagnating friends find out that life is worth living as well.


Zusak handles violence as well as beauty deftly. His simple, elegant observations about the world of the novel are a pleasure to read. Ed’s journey from general layabout to unlikely guardian angel is proof that with good intentions anyone can make a difference in the life of a child, or a stranger, or a close friend.  It’s no wonder that I am the Messenger won the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year award in Australia.


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Sunday, Jun 15, 2008

While Friday was on point, Saturday left thousands exuberant and others –- well, a little bit pissed off by the end of it all. Notoriously the day for everyone to put their lives on the line for consumption of drugs and one heavy dousing of alcohol, this was the year to do it if you were planning on it -– the weather lay overcast above the throng of thousands in their finest.


Mastadon

Mastadon


To kick my ass in to gear, there was no other possible way to start my day than seeing Atlanta metal gods, Mastodon. There were times during this set I thought the entire tent was going to come crashing down while the bass-heavy notes were shaking my insides left and right. That could also have to do with the fact that I ended up in a mosh pit unintentionally (two mosh pits so far at Bonnaroo, it’s the beginning of a new era) and ended up with a handful of blood smudges on my wonderful white shirt from those that had a little more anger pent up than me at the time. Premiering new songs (hopefully from the upcoming record they are working on with Brendan O’ Brien) and spending time backtracking their catalogue –- there was no evidence of disappointment at this show. It’s possible that because I’m in a somewhat newly acquainted metal stage in my life that Metallica and Mastodon up to this point had been the most successful shows of the weekend. It’s also possible that these audiences are finding a new appreciation for the genre while they usually aren’t exposed to it in this environment. Mastodon fan or not, you left this show fucking shook up -– and it was beautiful as can be.


Shortly after, I had quite the change of pace over at Cat Power –- when her usual anxiety ridden self makes the most awkward stage movements of anybody since Ian Curtis. That’s just fine though, considering her voice is so damn sultry that one can’t help but swoon (not to mention she is one of the most extraordinary looking humans on the face of the earth). That’s not to mention she always puts together one of the most killer bands in the business, featuring backing bands that perfectly compliment her voice. I think it’s the only way she can really perform nowadays, considering her famed solo performances never quite went off without a hitch. [Download Cat Power set]


Cat Power - Tracks of My Tears


Lying in a hammock in the VIP area while taking in some of B.B. King’s stellar set was next on my list of priorities. Playing to a crowd that really felt like winding down, King brought em’ on home and layed it down with the usual showmanship that included call-and-response style conversations with his band and the audience. The man shows no signs of slowing down with age, and this performance put the fact that he has a record coming out in the fall on my radar.


B.B. King

B.B. King


Bonnaroo’s still relatively new Somethin Else’ Tent (named after the classic Cannonball Adderley record) highlighted New Orleans this year -– charging a $5 entrance fee for donations to the revitalization of the city taken down by Katrina. The thing that absolutely blows my mind is that Ivan Neville’s Dumstaphunk, a band full of artists from the ol’ bayou with the Neville stamp, was the damn giddiest I had been all weekend from an artist. Maybe packed with 150 people, everyone from the front to back got together for a common cause of funk and danced in the tent-formed-New Orleans style club. Anyone associated with the Neville family never fails to deliver the funk.


Sigur Rós

Sigur Rós


While I tried to muster up the strength to make it to Pearl Jam, it just didn’t quite happen. A long night was ahead considering Sigur Rós and Kanye West were scheduled to play back to back with late night sets, and chances were, my ass wasn’t sleeping. I was a bit apprehensive about how a Sigur Rós set would go over at Bonnaroo –- but other than a few technical difficulties, it was as close to perfect as it could get. Experiencing them in this environment, as odd as this sounds, the band finally felt human. After the technical difficulties, it broke down the audience between performer and audience, and made the whole thing a much more intense, emotional experience. They’ve changed their show for the new record, and have abandoned the giant screen for a more regal, straightforward approach, which could also help breaking down the aforementioned barrier. Everyone was dressed in their best attire and a horn section joined for cuts off their upcoming record, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. The new tracks, such as “Gobbledigook”, transfer beautifully live –- and in case you were wondering -– they make them just as epic as the previous tracks. It’s absolutely wonderful to see them head in a new direction, and it works for em’ –- the set felt completely organic and inspired.


This however, could not prepare us for what the hell Kanye was about to pull. Scheduled to come on at 2:45 AM, he finally took the stage after stalling, in Kanye fashion, until 4:15 AM. The glow in the dark tour seems like a totally watered down version of 2001: A Space Odyssey and was cheesy as get out -– but you pretty much had to go into the set not expecting too much. There was rumors spread that Daft Punk was going to show up (of course, untrue) and people seemed ultimately let down as the sun was coming up at the end of West’s set.


At the end of it all, everyone was a bit pissed off –- but what the hell else were you going to do at 5:00 in the morning, go back to your tent? Kanye’s show was of epic proportions, and although cheesy, that man’s confidence is arrogant, yet empowering. Anyone who can still be that big and attract that many fans at 5:00 in the morning, has some clout, and rightfully so. Pissed off or not, people stayed and are still going to buy his records -– so at the end of the day he wins.


So as I make my way into another day of Bonnaroo, Saturday remains another success, and Sunday may wrap up on the best festivals in its seven-year history.


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Sunday, Jun 15, 2008

There is a fine line between realism and the ridiculous. Put another way, when dealing with ethnic archetypes, it is easy to confuse truth with a tendency toward cultural insensitivity. Comedy is frequently guilty of such random racial profiling. Tyler Perry, for example, paints his portraits of African Americans in the broadest, most brazen strokes possible. On the one hand, his leads are usually troubled professionals plowing through personal problems direct from a soap opera’s story session. On the other, he relies on crass, sometimes crude social stereotypes to get that all important laugh - no matter how cheap or overbroad.


It’s the same tiring tightrope act that a movie like Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (new to DVD from Universal) must maintain. Initially, audiences need to be engaged beyond a borderline black face burlesque, actors standing in for the senseless slander of the past. Yet there is no denying that, within said pigeonholes, some small amounts of truth exist. After all, fact is the reason that most farce works. It’s all about recognizeability. Luckily, writer/director Malcolm D. Lee understands this all too well. He takes his simple story about a family reunion (already a tired cinematic setup) and finds a way to work both truth and a BET comedy club mentality into a marginally successful, frequently funny outing.


When we first meet the title character, he’s a successful self-help guru, a media-made Dr. Phil type with a supermodel girlfriend and a lonely, disconnected son. Returning to the family home for the first time in years, Roscoe will have to face a few daunting demons from his past. His brother Otis and sister Betty still enjoy picking on him, and a long standing rivalry with adopted cousin Clyde remains bitter (if slightly unbelievable). Of course, once he steps onto the familiar Georgian soil, all the old issues reappear. His father remains aloof, his mother loving but unable to forge a lasting bond between the two. Similarly, Clyde’s conceited nature manages to transcend Roscoe’s La-La Land fame. And then there’s the high school sweetheart who still seems smitten with the man she once loved.


It has to be said that, for all its over the top tendencies, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins remains grounded in a way that saves it from outright racial disparagement. White audiences may wonder why Lee is allowed to flaunt seeming insensitivity the way he does, and at least two of the characters here - Betty, and the casually criminal relative Reggie - apparently push the boundaries of African American truisms. But as a director, the man behind Undercover Brother recognizes two things: one, casting will save you from even the most questionable artistic approach, and; two, wit mixed with even the wildest premise, if handled properly, always succeeds. Though he occasionally loses his funny business focus, Lee remains right on both accounts.


Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins has one of the best casts in a recent comedy, everyone from name star Martin Lawrence to supporting players Mo’Nique and Cedric the Entertainer proving their movie star mantle, while reliable names such as Michael Clarke Duncan, James Earl Jones, and Margaret Avery smooth over the rougher, racially charged edges. The story does skate around some quasi-controversial questions, however. Betty is viewed as a horny prison whore, using the Bible as a means to get “busy” with the local jail population. Reggie regularly steals, swindles, and smokes his way to pseudo-shiftless Southern comfort. While Duncan’s Otis invests the movie with a solid sense of responsibility and honor, Cedric’s Clyde continues the corrupt closet con artist elements the narrative claims to avoid.


Yet Lee keeps things concrete and likeable - at least most of the time. There are physical comedy elements that go way overboard in both their shtick and sensibility, like the time when Roscoe and Clyde literally destroy the family home while fighting. There is also an extended foot race sequence where the concept of sportsmanship is tossed out the window for bigger and bigger slapstick set pieces. If it weren’t for the actors involved, this would all grow tiresome and trite. But since the director establishes character early on, and finds a way to avoid most of the clichés inherent in his otherwise clockwork plotting, we forgive these indulgences. In fact, Lee is so skilled behind the camera that he paints purveyors of such purposeless pratfalls - like Perry - as the pretenders they are.


As part of the DVD, we see how carefully Lee constructed his comedy. Many of the deleted and extended scenes show where editing was required, while the outtakes argue for the ample improvisation skills of the entire cast. In the Making-of material, everyone seems really proud of being involved in such a stellar company, and we get the distinct impression that no one involved feels their race is being marginalized or attacked. Indeed, one gets the feeling that a good way to judge the inherent insensitivity in a film is to gauge how intentional the portrait really is/was. In this case, Lee looked to his past and the people he knows as a means of managing what some might consider an otherwise quasi-offensive screed.


Of course, this is all a matter of perspective. To the audience to whom this movie speaks loudest, claims of racism would be rejected outright. Similarly, anyone familiar with the burgeoning genre of urban comedy realizes that exaggeration and caricature are occasionally needed to help foster a sense of shared experience that many in America’s minority class openly embrace. In fact, while Judd Apatow walks away with all the cinematic humor saving accolades, Lee clearly deserves a place with the category’s rebirth. While no one is claiming that Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a masterpiece, it does prove that humor doesn’t have to de-evolve into hate to be witty and pointed. Indeed, as long as you have clear characters, and actors who can handle the necessary nuances, you should have something solid on your hands - and that’s exactly what this winning effort is.


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