Film

The Billionaire (Super Hero) Boys Club

At the core of every mega-hit is something strategic: simplicity.

With its unbelievable worldwide box office take over the last 19-plus days, Joss Whedon's version of The Avengers has joined an exclusive club of mega-hits. While Tinseltown used to gauge success via the magical $100 million ceiling, the recent revision toward a more international approach has produced something far more significant. Now, boffo is measured in billions, with a 'B,' and with only 11 other entries in that elite company, it's clear that a nerve of sorts has been hit. The Avengers is obviously more than just a comic book driven action film. From its proposed feminist perspective to its amazing hero moments (especially those given to the otherwise underserved Hulk), it's the very definition of a phenomenon...

...except, it isn't really. Oh sure, any time you can proclaim an amount ten times the original reflection of cinematic triumph, you are breathing rarified air. Similarly, Whedon's ability to meet both fan expectations and the needs of the novice suggest something far more potent. Yet it's clear, considering the wealth of new markets being lumped in as part of the total, that the movies that don't make a billion are true question marks. While everyone argues that movies like this translate across the obvious language barriers, there are still cultural divides to overcome. No, there is another reason why The Avengers has crossed that mighty money threshold, and it's sitting right under your hands.

That's right, it's all the web's fault... or triumph. Indeed, as the multinationals and pundits love to argue, the Internet has made the world a helluva lot smaller. It has given information and access to parts of the planet otherwise left out of the mix while connecting people and product in ways unheard of a mere decade ago. Think about it, before the sizable social network advantages of Twitter, Facebook, et. al., community was measure in comments. Blog posts were the town crier while mainstream hubs like Yahoo and AOL acted like the nightly news. Before long, word of mouth was not only measured in conversations, but talk backs and trolls. Soon, a feeling of togetherness spread beyond the personal into the professional, and finally, the product.

As a result, you can now pitch to everyone who is a potential viewer. Before, there were gaps in the marketing schematic. You couldn't tell patrons in heavily censured Communist countries or residents of remote regions about your latest release. Instead, you had to shuffle talent out amongst the rabble, hoping the chance to see Jean-Claude Van Damme was enough to drive unsuspecting butts into seats. Back pre-WWW, advertising was driven by personality, not posts to your profile. That's why suspect stars like Arnold and Sly survived in the '80s and early '90s. They were larger than life individuals, able to translate said onscreen presence to places like Malaysia and the former Soviet Bloc. Now, all you need is a server, a PC set-up, and the ability to spend endless hours scanning the web. Before long, you're practically Harry Knowles and the entire Ain't It Cool News staff.

Still, that doesn't quite explain how Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland makes it to $1.02 billion while a superior experience like Inception barely breaks $820 million. This is, perhaps, where content finally comes into play. People are still confused over Nolan's puzzle box of an entertainment. Yes, it's science fiction, but the moral isn't based in future shock cannibalism or evolutionary nuclear annihilation. Instead, Inception deals with the flaunting of reality, something not necessarily translatable across various language barriers. All they can rely on is loads of iconic eye candy and loud than bomb explosions. Indeed, at the core of every mega-hit is something strategic - simplicity.

What is The Avengers really other than a group of good guys battling a metallic intergalactic menace? Similarly, Avatar is the reverse, with the aliens acting as the victims of humanity's insatiable greed. In fact, if you look at the 11 other movies that have made over $1 billion at the box office, at least eight have a similar storyline. Only the perplexing Pirates of the Caribbean sequels (not the first film, oddly enough), the aforementioned take on Lewis Carrol, and the doomed shipboard romance between Kate and Leo can legitimately opt out of the formula. In fact, it appears that those anomalies are just that, flukes formed out of a kind of calculated mass hysteria. Without Cameron or Depp attached, it looks like many on the list have to rely on being the final installment in a proposed trilogy.

Of course, the difference between The Avengers and most of its fellow entertainment tycoons is that it had a rocky journey toward its triumph. Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were solid, but Thor, Captain America, and the two attempts at The Hulk were all mixed in their artistry and appreciation. Add to that Whedon's weird legacy on the big screen (he's a whiz when it comes to TV: Buffy, Firefly) and you've got concerns. This is the man who scripted Titan AE and Alien Resurrection, after all. And don't count The Cabin in the Woods just yet. Even with the overlap with The Avengers, that horror homage is still struggling to make it past $40 million.

What's readily apparent, then, is that translation is everything. If an idea can be easily absorbed, explained away in a sentence or two (humans battle monsters for control of a kingdom) and expressed in visuals that turn everything into an world of wonder, most everyone alive on the third rock from the Sun can accept it. Add layers of complexity and you slowly reduce your speed toward ultimate ticket sales bragging rights. In fact, if anyone says they have the Billionaire Boys Club for film figured out, they're lying. John Carter was an equally epic effort and it will go down as one of 2012 biggest disappointments. Similarly, Wrath of the Titans was a terrible sequel, but it sure had lots of spectacle.

Clearly, one needs to be both psychic and lucky to become a member of this particularly privileged group. Hype cannot predict payoff, especially when you consider that even the brightest international stars dim in the wrong arena (right, Ms. Jolie?). In baseball, a hit can come after many times at bat, the numerous pitches and appearances at the plate all gravy once the rock sails over center field. Sure, we like a single, but a home run is so much more satisfying. Somewhere, in the hallowed offices of the studio suits, there are bean counters making mountains out of weekly release molehills. When an Everest arrives out of the fog, it flummoxes everyone. The Avengers will continue to break records as 2012 plays out. How and why it does so will also remain a partially solved mystery.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

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Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

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