Lame-Ass: The Meaning of $19 Million

In a typical January to April malaise, Tinseltown is pegging you as a disappointment, and if the bottom line is the only factor used to determined such a dynamic, they are right.

Come on - you can't even beat a three week old 3D kids movie about dragons? How crappy is that? Seriously, Kick-Ass, what exactly is your problem? You are smart and funny, exciting and brilliantly anti-social. You are the post-modern geek zeitgeist personified - cinematically speaking - and provide enough moments of movie satisfaction (guilty or proper) to warrant a series all your own. Yet your first week in the trenches and the best you can pull is $19 million? 19 measly million? Avatar made that while James Cameron was taking a whiz. Something is wrong here. Something is very wrong and it's almost impossible to find a rationale. In a typical January to April malaise, Tinseltown is pegging you as a disappointment, and if the bottom line is the only factor used to determined such a dynamic, they are right.

Granted, you're only following a pattern set up over the last few years. Ever since Zack Snyder turned stylized homoeroticism into a lot more than 300 million at the box office, the studio suits have been looking for that breakout pre-Summer hit. They tried last year with Watchmen, and even though the revisionist superhero movie made some decent scratch, the lack of a Dark Knight-esque payday provided ample room for grousing. For every Cloverfield, there's been a Friday the 13th or a Be Kind, Rewind. Still, when dollars can be dug up and exploited, Hollywood is right there, cynical shovel in hand. The enthusiastic response Kick-Ass received early on just didn't translate across mainstream lines. Some may argue that those initially embracing the film were the very demo it was directed at (Comic-Con and Ain't It Cool News Butt-Numb-a-thon types), which made a wider appeal impossible. Others have pointed to the web-based tweet lovefest and screamed Snakes on a Plane.

Unfortunately, turning this excellent coming of age entertainment into another installment of Birdemic seems silly. True, it didn't set the turnstiles on fire, and it's destined to get lost in the firestorm of last minute macabre (the Nightmare on Elm Street remake is coming in 10 days) and the "yep, it's here" hoopla of Iron Man 2 and Summer 2010. Yet for everyone involved in the film, the backers and the beleaguered cast and crew, there's a real ripple effect that's destined, depending on the ultimate outcome, to taint their career trajectory. With its relatively low production costs and massive home video potential, Kick-Ass is not necessarily a flop. But when expectations are matched against actualities, there is bound to be more disappointment than delight. Let's start with the distributor who gambled, and more or less lost:

The Studio(s)


Starting from a position of positivity, Lionsgate should be happy that they ended up with Kick-Ass. In a better, more enlightened world, the film would be the beginning of an adolescent cinematic religion, rife with symbolism that could be safely mimicked and material capable of multiple viewing variations. Instead, those looking to bury the currently in flux film company will see the How to Train Your Dragon defeat as the last nail in its commercial crypt. Of course, this discounts the limitations of the hard "R" rating, as well as the knowledge that DVD and Blu-ray will have a much easier time finding an audience (last time anyone checked, Netflix and On-Demand weren't asking for ID). Some might suggest that Messageboard Nation has once again grossly over-exaggerated a film's final appeal, but movie marketers have been in the business a lot longer than some tech savvy 'Net geeks. The failure to find a wider audience is more Madison Avenue than MySpace.

The Source

The Comic Books by Mark Millar & John Romita Jr.

Unless you're talking about a work that's leaked into the literary consciousness (ala Watchmen), most comic books - and by complement, their creators - get little of a beneficial bump from a film's success or failure. Those who loved Kick-Ass on celluloid may not respond to the work on cellulous, and the pen and ink source does alter some of the stuff that makes the movie so much fun. On the other hand, the adventurous members of the already converted might pick up a copy or two of Millar and Romita's original and really enjoy its in your face, forward thinking approach to the genre. In either case, it’s a wash.

The Writers

Jane Goldman

Trying to tap into the current couture or meme is a tricky prospect. The more you focus on hormonally charged masturbation sessions and raging pre-tween violence, the less likely you are to cross over into Mom and Pop territory. Goldman gave her adaptation of Kick-Ass a John Hughes on TMZ patina, a supercharged Sixteen Candles where rampant bloodshed and explosions replaced Long Duck Dong. Sure, it's often hard to see the humor with all the body parts flying around, and those with their moral compass aimed squarely at "hypocrite" can't fathom the joy in watching a murderous Hannah Montana destroy the bad guys, but that's exactly what Goldman delivered - and since writers are almost never blamed for a film's flop sweat, Mrs. Jonathan Ross needed worry about future employment…at least, not for now.

The Director

Matthew Vaughn

This was supposed to be Mr. Layer Cake's commercial coming out. On the other hand, so was his weak-willed adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust. As a producer, he helped Guy Ritchie become a cause celeb (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) and a pariah (Swept Away). As a director, the jury is still deadlocked. His own take on the UK crime epic was pretty damn good, but he couldn't fit his take on the fairytale into any recognizable type. The result was a hodgepodge of ideas and approaches which failed to serve Gaiman's glorified Brothers Grimm. Kick-Ass is perhaps Vaughn's best, most consistent job behind the lens and yet he is once again viewed as under-serving the source. Of all the talent involved here, this fledgling filmmaker had the most to lose - and it looks like he struck out, at least in the eyes of potential employers.

The Stars

Jeffery Aaron Johnson/Chloë Grace Moretz/Christopher Mintz-Plasse

McLovin need not worry. He's got enough Superbad/Role Models juice left to propel him to even greater levels of dedicated dork typecasting. Similarly, Ms. Moretz will be cashing plenty of paychecks off the back of her Hit-Girl flack. Indeed, if anyone was a revelation amidst all the teen angst and good old Nick Cage showboating, it was the tiny gal with the potty mouth and the advanced weapons mastery. As for star Aaron Johnson, the soft spoken Englishman still has something to prove. He takes on the US teen persona perfectly and looks pretty good doing it, too. With a critically acclaimed turn as John Lennon in Nowehere Boy and long list of credits in his native Britain, he may not be destined for solid superstardom, but this isn't his last Hollywood hurrah, either.

The Franchise


It's all about money - and if Kick-Ass generates enough of it before it's smothered by Tony Stark and the rest of the heat-stroke spectacles coming down the motion picture pipeline, we could get the Red Mist-oriented installment the ending suggests. On the other hand, Vaughn and anyone else associated with the original may have to be sent packing. When you bungle an origin story, greenback wise, it's tough to get the follow-up call. Still, if the cast consolidates around its director and demands his involvement (and if contracts don't already exist locking everyone into their participation) we could get the further adventures of these precocious punishers. Again, it's all about the Benjamins, and as of today, it's not looking very good.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

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As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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Blending a dazzling array of musical influences and directions for more than two decades now, Thievery Corporation have come to represent one of the 21st century's boldest bands in both genre-blending style and lyrical impact.

The Halloween season is in full effect on this crisp Sunday evening in San Francisco that precedes All Hallows Eve by two days. With the traditional holiday falling on a Tuesday, music fans are out for as much costumed fun as they can get as evidenced by the costumed revelers here at the Masonic in the Nob Hill area. Thievery Corporation is in town, and the Bay Area "thieves" as the band's fans are known are ready to let it all hang out with one of the few bands in the music industry that isn't shy on telling listeners the truth about what's going on in the world.

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