Friday, January 30, 2009

Greatest On-Screen Arnold Moments

I think it's safe to say the world most likely won't see another personality like Arnold Schwarznegger again anytime soon, if ever. I don't even know if we'll ever see another era of film so dominated by that icon of the 80's, the "action star". And of all the action stars there were, there was none bigger than Arnold. From weirdo foreign bodybuilder to actor to household name, his journey is the sort of tale you couldn't make up.

I know, I know. It's STILL weird to think of him as a United States governor and the man was in lots of poor movies like Twins, Jingle All The Way, The Last Action Hero (what should have been a tribute fell far short) and of course, Batman And Robin (you can take a moment to scream with rage here, I'll wait). But even these travesties cannot tear down the great things he did in other movies.

So together let's celebrate the five greatest on-screen moments of the best action star of them all, Arnold Schwarznegger.

5. It's A Man, Baby! (Total Recall; 1990)
One of Arnold's quirkiest moments combined with the slam-bang action we'd come to expect from his movies. No one could forget this one. Traveling to Mars on a search for answers and with deadly enemies pursing him, Arnold's memory-altered character, Douglas Quaid knows that it will be difficult to elude the hi-tech security at the airport-like Mars terminal. So using a little technology of his own, Arnold quite convincingly disguises himself as an obese woman, right down to the voice.

He's discovered anyway and the reveal is fantastic and surreal, with the fake face sort of melting off him while the body jiggles and shakes. To see Arnold, who by 1990 was well-established as one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, emerge from the guise of a large woman in a dress is all kinds of trippy, funny and just cool.

4. Assault On Val Verde (Commando; 1985)
After the huge successes of the Conan movies and The Terminator, Commando is the film that really launched Arnold into the stratosphere and cemented his reputation as a huge action star, probably surpassing Sylvester Stallone by this point. So the entire movie is just him killing guys in every way imaginable, doing it all in his own unique, macho style, spouting one-liners at every turn and piling up the property damage.

This movie has tons of great moments but I decided to just stretch one out into Matrix's subtle infiltration of fictional island dictatorship, Val Verde. And by "subtle infiltration" I of course mean Matrix single-handedly mowing down dozens and dozens of soldiers before strolling into the final confrontation with the leather-bound and not so intimidating villain, Bennett.

If you're watching the movie for the first time you just can't believe it as this sequence just keeps going on and on. Arnold encounters a group of soldiers, shoots the hell out of them and blows them up and then it happens all over again. And again and again. They just keep coming. And they keep dying. I've read that Matrix is shown killing no less than 81 people on screen. I've also read somewhere that 128 people are killed on screen with several dozen more off-screen deaths implied. Whatever the math, Matrix made the term "one man army" as literal as you're probably ever going to see it.

3. "I'll Be Back" (The Terminator; 1984)
I don't know if anyone suspected anything at the time, but this simple 3-word line would go on to become one of the most famous bits of dialogue from any movie ever and also forever be associated with the man who uttered it. We're so used to it by now but I'm going to try to analyze it as if it's fresh so that we can better understand why it made for such a great moment.

Really, the terminator's stark declaration of his intentions to the desk clerk of the LA police station on its own really has no impact at all. It's what follows directly afterward that makes it so significant. Here we have a killer cyborg doing its best to blend into normal humanity but it's not so advanced that it can do this convincingly through anything but the most basic of human interaction and conversation. Which is partly why it was so fitting for Arnold to take this role - everyone knows he can't suppress his accent and in 1984 this was even more of an issue. So it's pretty funny to have this big, really foreign-sounding guy trying to blend in in Los Angeles in any situation, let alone the situation the terminator is in.

The Terminator only has a small handful of simple, straightforward lines - Arnold was initially reluctant to take the role for this very reason - he felt he needed more dialogue so he could learn to speak English more naturally. But fate played out the way it did and it was definitely for the best. So you've got this huge, awkward-looking (and also pretty scary) guy strolling into a police station one night and robotically (at least he has an excuse) asking for information they say they can't give out. So he stares at the clerk for a moment before simply stating "I'll be back" and walking out. The very next shot is of him crashing a car through the front of the building then embarking on a shooting spree killing 16 cops in the process of tracking down our protagonists. Obviously, it's this juxtaposition of a very basic line with crazy, deadly action that makes it so memorable and great. So great in fact that the line would go on to follow Arnold for the rest of his life (he even says variations of it as Governor for California tourism ads) and no one is complaining.

2. Forget Aliens - It's Dutch VS Predator (Predator; 1987)
A wonderful combination of stuff that had worked earlier for Arnold - sci-fi elements as in The Terminator and a single hero overcoming insurmountable odds as in Commando - Predator makes Arnold the good guy again and pits him against something kind of similar to the terminator he once played. It's another great movie that Arnold fits wonderfully into and there's lots of great scenes again but let's get to the moment - Dutch's final confrontation with the extra-terrestrial predator.

Possibly for the first time we have a hero played by Arnold matched up against an opponent that is actually more formidable than he is. Even with its advanced technology aside, the predator's 6'8 frame made even Arnold seem less than imposing. And the final battle came down to one-on-one with technology mostly being left out. Dutch has to rely on his more primal skills to defeat the predator, rigging crude traps in the jungle as well as fashioning a bow and arrow. Through these efforts, he does manage to disable one of the predator's greatest advantages - its cloaking device. But still the predator comes on.

We learn the creature has a sense of honour and it challenges Dutch to a final bout of unarmed combat....and then proceeds to kick the shit out of him. Here we get to see Arnold take quite a beating but not go completely down. Dutch finally takes out the predator with one of his leftover traps but it's really the spectacle of seeing one of Arnold's characters being physically overmatched and still overcoming that makes it one of his greatest on-screen moments.

1. "Hasta La Vista, Baby" (Terminator 2: Judgment Day; 1991)
This line is significant for almost the opposite reason that the "I'll be back" line is; after playing an emotionless, merciless killing machine in the original film, Arnold reprises his role as the same emotionless, merciless killing machine but this time he's on the side of good. His interactions with the boy he's programmed to protect, while awkward, eventually do lead the audience to at least almost believe that possibly there is more to the terminator than nuts and bolts. That maybe, just maybe, he does have something that passes for a soul. And even if you don't believe that, it's just funny to see this mechanized murderer learn to speak more "naturally" at the behest of a twelve year old boy.

So now instead of just uttering the simplest of lines, some flavour has been added to his dialogue. And the greatest use of this is the spectacular defeat of the T-1000 - a nemesis shown to be even more powerful and relentless than the original terminator. Because really, the terminator, if he is just a bunch of nuts and bolts, well then, he didn't HAVE to say that line when he finally took that shot; he didn't even HAVE to say anything. But he did say something. And what did he say? The cool line that the kid taught him. So you get the feeling that the terminator has learned something after all, that he's somehow evolved past his rigid programming and formed some sort of personality.

We should all well remember that Arnold Schwarznegger is probably best known for his portrayal of the terminator and that it wouldn't be so significant, memorable and, dare I say, great, if he hadn't managed to inject some style in there. In the world of cinema, an emotionless robot is one of the most beloved and popular characters. And only Arnold could have pulled that off.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Movies Featuring Giant Robots (That Michael Bay Pretends Don't Exist)

If you've been paying attention to the entertainment news lately a small incident might have slipped passed you. We all know Michael Bay, acclaimed producer of such films as "Armageddon", "Pearl Harbour" (both of which he also directed... oh the talent!) as well as the man who has bastardized just about any horror film you've loved in the last 25 years. Somewhere in his career he managed to direct two films that were actually fantastic; "The Rock" and, of course, "Transformers".

In a bout of being a complete baby, Bay recently took a jab at director McG while, promoting his upcoming film "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen". He stated, "Okay it's time to turn up the heat on 'Transformers - Revenge of the Fallen'. We've waited low in the weeds letting all the summer movies get their stuff out. We've seen the great year-end movies, and watched the upcoming clips of the upcoming summer fare. We've seen certain movies coming out even try to duplicate Transformer size robots in their ads. Please, come on." Oh, indeed Mr. Bay. Come on. He is referring to the McG helmed flick coming out this summer, "Terminator: Salvation", which has shown that some massive terminators will be featured in this highly anticipated film.

Rather delightfully, McG responded, "It bothers me to tell you the truth. Ultimately, our large robots have nothing to do with the 'Transformers' robots. I say with respect, giant robots have been the theme of film for a real long time . So we want to do everything we can to create separation..."

Well, I'll say, with every ounce of disrespect implied that, Mr. Bay, you're an enormous ASSHAT and you, in fact, did not create GIANT ROBOTS. Here's some instances of films that, unless you live in Michael Bay's fantasy universe, did indeed sport large mechanical beings, of the robot variety.

5. Voyage Into Space (1970)
This will be the first of several entries on this list that will feature Japanese films, because, as we all know (or should) the Japanese came up with everything cool before anyone else did.

This film is actually a conglomeration of several episodes of a TV show that aired on American International Television in the early 70s. It was called "Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot". The show was originally aired on TV Asahi, in Japan, from October 11, 1967 to April 1, 1968 as Giant Robo (Jaianto Robo) and spanned 26 episodes. Yes... the show was called GIANT ROBO (and in some cases actually GIANT ROBOT in the US).

In the show a terrorist group known as Gargoyle (Big Fire in Japan), headed by an alien emperor of some sort, are kidnapping the world's scientists to create giant monsters, with which to then attack the Earth. Through a fantastic little slip of serendipity a young boy, Johnny Sokko (Daisaku Kusama in Japan), ends up crashed on a remote island, because one of Gargoyle's monsters happened to attack a ship he was on. Bet they were sorry about that! On this island, he eventually finds one of the many giant monsters being made by a scientist, Dr. Lucius Guardian. This brilliant mind of science, that has managed to create a giant, virtually indestructible, robot decides it's a perfectly good idea to give control of this masterpiece to the young child, and then the hilarity ensues.

This film (and show) has a cult status due to it's cheesy plot, look and violence. Most children's shows that were brought to US shores from Japan were heavily edited due to their violent nature, but "Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot" somehow managed to escape censors. As a result, it's a giant robot film that, although you may not know of, is still a classic.

In a side note, another giant robot that is very similar in appearance to Giant Robo is Jet Jaguar (based on Mazinger Z, which I'll explain later). Jet Jaguar was the creation of a young Japanese boy in 1972, from a contest hosted by Toho (the production company behind Godzilla). Originally named Red Arone (changed at the last moment to Jet Jaguar), he was going to star in his own film, "Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon", but after some screen tests in the early stages of the film, Toho didn't think he could carry the film on his own, and made the film into a Godzilla flick (Godzilla vs. Megalon). That's enough about Godzilla, however. He'll turn his ugly head further on into the list.

4. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
"Sky Captain", as I recall, was one of the first massive movies to be filmed entirely on a green screen lot. I also believe it was to be a trilogy of films starring Jude Law as well as Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi.

Regardless, this film, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow", follows the story of reporter Polly Perkings (Paltrow) and Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Law) as they battle the evil Dr. Totenkopf. Guess what Totenkopf uses as a weapon against humanity?


The giant robots that are seen in this film actually pay homage to "The Mechanical Monsters", a Superman episode (1945), which was also homaged in Hayao Miyazaki's "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" (or "Castle In The Sky" in the US).

In the film the giant robots attack New York City, circa 1939 (alternate timeline, of course), as well as major centres all over the globe. As a result Perkins and her old flame, Joe Sullivan, end up on some wacky Indiana Jones-esque adventures through the US and Nepal to stop the evil doctor and his legion of robots.

3. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
No, I don't mean the recent 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves. I haven't seen it, but I'm sure it contains massive robots. I'm talking about the original 1951 film. Now, all of you that have seen it might be thinking, "The robot in that isn't very big." Yeah, well he's bigger than normal, damnit, and it's my list, so he counts.

The robot I'm referring to if, of course, Gort. Always loved that name. The film follows Klaatu, a being from space that descends to Earth in a flying saucer carrying a message of peace to all people. He is met with the aggression that only Earthlings can dish out, and the movie follows him attempting to find a forum to deliver his message. In the end we find out that since we have discovered nuclear power and made our way into space, the other space-faring beings in the Universe are afraid. Our violent nature has them worried, so Klaatu's come to warn us of a group of GIANT ROBOTS that they've created in the Universe's defense. Should we step out of line, they will destroy Earth, so we'd better be good... or else.

Like I said, Gort's not several stories tall or anything of that nature, but he is definitely supposed to be bigger than your average human being, and I think he fits into the giant category. So suck it up, and lets move on to much bigger things.

2. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Also known as Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster and Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster, this was Toho's 14th film in the Godzilla franchise.

This film is of major cult status, and I'm going to explain why by simply stating the premise. Please make sure you're properly seated before reading this. A prophecy is made that when a black mountain is seen in the sky that a monster will appear and attempt to destroy the world. However, when this occurs a red moon will set and two suns will rise, one being an elliptical illusion from the west, and that these two suns will fight to save the world. Seems like some deep, symbolic, stuff, huh?

Well here's the story. Several archaeologists uncover a statue of the protector of Okinawa, King Caesar (how much you wanna bet it really is him?). Around this time a massive black could appears in the sky and Godzilla hops out of Mt. Fuji and starts tearing shit up. For some reason the people that believe in the aforementioned divination don't think Godzilla is the monster said to destroy the Earth. Eventually the real Godzilla shows up and we find out that this impostor is, in fact, a GIANT ROBOT created by... wait for it... Alien apes from the Third Planet from the Black Hole. Yes, I know, ingenious!

So, anyway, King Caesar is summoned and helps Godzilla in destroying Mechagodzilla and saving the world.

Just to put this out there, even though I'm not listing the rest of them, there were at least four more films featuring Mechagodzilla, a GIANT ROBOT, that I can think of. Those are "Terror of Mechagodzilla", "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II", "Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla" and "Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S." Don't forget the previously mentioned "Godzilla vs. Megalon" starring Jet Jaguar, who would come back in Godzilla films, "Godzilla Save the Earth", "Godzilla: Unleashed" and "Godzilla Unleashed: Double Smash". That's a lot of giant robots!

1. Tetsujin-28 (2005)
This one is the big one, guys. Translated from Japanese (see I told you, all things cool) as Iron Man #28, "Tetsujin-28" is, quite literally, the grandfather of all giant robots. If you're still wondering what this is, that's because in North America, "Tetsujin-28" was known as "Gigantor".

To begin, the film I'm speaking of wasn't released in North America, as far as I know. I think the UK had a release of it through Manga Entertainment, but that doesn't matter. The film is based on the massive anime and manga created under the same title.

Tetsijin-28 was a manga written and illustrated by Mitsuteru Yokoyama in 1956. Guess what else this guy created? Giant Robo! You get that Bay? This guy created GIANT ROBOTS! Well, technically no, but still. I think it's safe to say that they are as pervasive in our culture as they are due to his work. The manga's story was that the Japanese had developed a giant robot to turn the tides of World War II. Tetsujin-28-go was the 28th, and finally successful attempt. When it is finally finished, however, the war is over, and the robot comes under the control of a 12-year old boy (son of the developer) and is used to fight criminals and other enemy robots. As you can see, Johnny Sokko was heavily hinged on this earlier work.

This was the first manga to ever show a giant robot and, of course, became a huge anime in 1963 (which would cross borders to the West as "Gigantor" in 1980 in a colourized format, around the time of Astro Boy). It spawned a sequel, "Tetsujin-28 FX", which is further into the future and follows the son of the original boy and his own new giant robot, as well as some anime movies and the live-action film.

The story of Tetsujin-28 has inspired so many Japanese mangas and animes that it's almost impossible to imagine. The creator of Mazinger Z (Tranzor Z in the US), Go Nagai, has claimed that Tetsujin-28 was the inspiration behind his 1972 anime. Mazinger Z (told you it'd come up later) was the first ever mecha anime to be developed. If you know anything on the subject, then you know that mecha are giant robots that are technically vehicles. Human occupants pilot these mecha, which is why I didn't include them into the list. That being said, in my mind, these fit in as GIANT ROBOTS, so I just wanted to list a very small fraction of the mecha animes out there, inspired by Mazinger Z, which in turn was inspired by Tetsujin-28:

Robotech (aka Macross - film being produced now, starring Tobey Maquire), Voltron, Patlabor, Gundam, Power Rangers, Escaflowne, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Evangelion, Aura Battler Dunbine, Force Five: Aired pre-Voltron - five different Japanese shows (featuring giant robots) that were aired during the five weekdays in the US. The shows were Danguard Ace, Starvengers, Spaceketeers, Grandizer and Gaiking (US titles).

There have also been countless films, many of which are actually live-action, that star mecha, such as:

Robot Jox and Robot Wars (semi-sequel to Robot Jox), the latter of which was actually directed by Stuart Gordon (Re-animator, From Beyond). Also there's The Returner, Crash and Burn, Gunhed and (technically) the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds (although the giant robots were piloted by aliens) which subsequently has been adapted in many different formats, including a blockbuster movie by Stephen Spielberg, starring Tom "Crazy Man" Cruise. Hell, there's even a show with mecha in it that starred puppets called Starfleet (similar to shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet).

Oh, and let's not forget TRANSFORMERS, a cartoon/anime that first appeared in 1984! You didn't even make up Transformers, Bay, let alone GIANT ROBOTS!

All I have to say to you, Michael Bay, is this: There can only be one Highlander. Check and mate.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Most Overused Plot Devices

I'll be speaking within the context of superhero comics, of course. And since Marvel is what I know best, that's obviously where the bulk of my examples come from. I'll state right here and now I am fine with all of these things. Hell, I enjoy them most of the time. But the fact is they're way overused which substantially hurts their quality and waters down their impact. These kinds of devices will continue to be used in the comic world and I'm not against that. It's just that I wish they could come up with some different ideas now and then so that these sorts of events become at least somewhat more spaced out. With such things occurring so damn often, they hardly ever feel special like they're supposed to and thus they go from interesting and entertaining to predictable and repetitive.

5. Giant, Multi-Title-Spanning Events
I love these. I spend tons of money on these. But they're happening every few months now and not only can my wallet not take that, my brain can't either. Not that it's ever too complex or confusing - not for me, I live for such stuff. It's just that I can remember what it felt like to see The Avengers, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four plus other heroes all interact and appear on the same page back before it was happening every other Thursday and it was cool and exciting. But now that it is happening every other Thursday, it's no fun anymore. I no longer get any thrill from seeing Mister Fantastic collaborate with Iron Man or Hank Pym. Now it's like they're always tripping over each other. I can remember when there was actual tension between the Avengers and the X teams - now they might as well attend group picnics together. It's just no fun if every major (and minor) character in the universe have all met each other multiple times. It's cool that some characters have a history together but it blows when they all do. "Cool! It's Gambit talking with the Silver Surfer! What a collision of worlds! What? They've met four times before? Aw..." We need some serious separation here so that when everyone does come together, it will actually feel meaningful and special again.

4. Villains Turning Good/Heroes Turning Bad
One's a story of redemption, the other's of a fall from grace. Both can be powerful and arresting. But not if fifty percent of the characters go through it. And many of them switch and then switch BACK. Some even then switch AGAIN. Argh, that's stupid. I realize comics share many things in common with soap operas but the whole "good character goes bad" and "bad guy goes good" really pushes them into that realm. This is a very bad thing. And sometimes a character that's really cool one way is utterly ruined once they're changed. There are varying levels of "good" and varying levels of "bad" and this is good - it keeps things from being black and white and ridiculously simple. But for the characters who really are one extreme or the other, it's completely retarded to have them change their ways. No one wants to see Sabretooth turn good. Luckily, despite his attempt at "rehabilitation", he didn't. That was nice to see. But we've seen Juggernaut go good for real and it's LAME. I'll admit that most of the time, it's bad guys turning good and others just waffling back and forth (*cough*Scarlett Witch*hack, cough*) and a good guy turning bad is a little more rare and interesting. But I'm just waiting for Jubilee to go on a killing spree or Dr. Doom to become the Young Avengers mentor or something.

3. Loss/Return/ Radical Change of Powers
Although my first example doesn't actually apply to "powers" I'd just like to point out that Marvel just looooves randomly giving Professor Xavier the ability to walk again only to later take it away. It seems every time his affliction doesn't conveniently fit into a situation, the writers just lazily invent some reason for why his legs can work again. And then they cripple him all over again. But it happens all the time with powers too. Almost every major character has gone through at least a short spell of not having any powers so it's barely ever intriguing when it happens to someone nowadays. And if they don't lose their powers, then their powers simply change in some stupid way. Did anyone actually enjoy seeing Ms. Marvel go all cosmic as Binary? Didn't think so. And isn't it totally neat-o the way so many mutants just keep mutating so that their powers change again and again? Uh...NO. Ripping out Wolvie's adamantium and having him go all feral was painful but at least they changed him back eventually. It was a big risk and it's ok that they took it, I guess, but maybe it would have meant more if other characters weren't also constantly experiencing fluctuating abilities. M-Day (look it up) took away the powers of ninety percent of the mutants on earth - how long's that gonna last?

2. Alternate Timelines/Realities
I LOVE these. It's fun to see the world we're used to distorted and changed around. Good guys and bad guys reversing their roles. Or certain obscure characters suddenly being important and certain powerful characters now rendered insignificant. Also in these storylines, writers have the freedom to actually kill lots of characters since the effect won't be permanent and doesn't touch the normal continuity. When you've got dozens of super-powered individuals engaging in fierce battles, it's only to be expected there would be some casualties. So this also raises the stakes and makes everything seem more meaningful. By now, I realize I'm just repeating myself though. I LIKE alternate universes. I just don't like it when there's a new one every week, for all the same reasons I've included on my other entries. It just isn't very novel to see some character twisted and changed around a certain way only because he was basically due after not being changed that much the last couple of times.

1. Death/Return of a Character
Not much to say on this one. In the world of comics, no one who dies can ever be assumed to be really dead. Not with the dozens upon dozens of characters who have been killed and resurrected over the decades. Jean Grey has croaked so many times it's become a joke. And some of the coolest and most meaningful deaths were totally trashed by having the character return at some point. Elektra comes to mind. I'll give certain characters like Moon Knight a free pass because his very origin is based on coming back from the dead. But even then death should be used sparingly. And I'm cool with some characters' return being explained by abilites that maybe make killing them not straightforward. It's cool for mystical characters like Ghost Rider (again, they still shouldn't push it). But how many times have we seen a character die in an extremely convincing manner like having their frigging head blown off, then a big display of their corpse, followed by a bunch of issues showing other characters being impacted by this death, discussing it over and over and coming to terms with the FACT that this person is truly gone forever, that there is no magic loophole this time, only to see said character later return anyway? I'll tell you: WAY TOO MANY FUCKING TIMES. They say in the Marvel U, only Uncle Ben is absolutely guranteed to never come back. I wonder how long before they break that.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rick Moranis' Most Entertaining Roles

Through the 80's and 90's Rick Moranis appeared in several films that I cherished while growing up, and his characters always stuck in my mind even when he didn't take center stage. If you were making a movie in the 80's and you needed a awkward yet lovable nerd/goof, he was the guy for the job. I think it would be impossible for him to play an unpleasant character. But at the end of the 90's his roles tapered off and the only thing he's done of notice in the last 10 years has been voicing a moose in Brother Bear. A family tragedy led Moranis to retire from acting and focus on raising his children, and I can certainly respect that. Still, I can't help but wish he would reappear in movies every now and then; bring back some of the simple charm of 80's comedy. So here are the characters that showed us what a funny and likable guy Moranis could be.

5. Bob McKenzie (Strange Brew, 1983/ SCTV, 1981-83)
Along with Dave Thomas, Rick created and played the embodiment of Canadian stereotypes ... and that was the point. They deliberately combined every negative stereotype possible as a way of protesting government requirements for Canadian content on SCTV. So we ended up with two stupid brothers drinking beer, wearing toques, and spouting the essential "eh's". The skit was a surprise success and even resulted in a movie about the two "hosers". While the movie isn't great comedy, the characters deserve recognition for practically copyrighting these stereotypes and giving us a great example of Canadian comedy - the willingness to laugh at yourself.

4. Wayne Szalinski (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, 1989)
As far as family movies go, this is essential viewing (you can skip the three sequels). Rick plays a scientist who builds a Shrinking machine in his attic (how cool is that?) and when it unexpectedly starts working the machine shrinks both his two kids, and two neighbour kids. Without realizing, Szalinski sweeps up the children and throws them out in the trash. While the movie focuses on the four kids traversing the now jungle-sized backyard to get back to the house, it alternates with Szalinski and the other parents desperately searching for them. Moranis is perfectly cast as the nerdy father and he is great alongside the sports-lovin' father next door (played by the under appreciated Matt Frewer). A good-natured scientist desperately working to find recognition with an experimental machine and nearly obliterates four children. Sounds entertaining to me.

3. Louis Tully (Ghostbusters, 1984)
In one of the best movies of the 80's and one of the greatest comedies of all time, Moranis plays nerdy accountant and neighbor, Louis Tully. Although he's essentially a secondary character, he steals the show at times when he is unexpectedly pulled into the paranormal mayhem of the movie. It's hilarious when he is chased down by a dog-beast and possessed to become the "Keymaster", and then begins to track down the "Gatekeeper", played by Sigourney Weaver. Woah, Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver ... sexy? Well, it's funny if anything and the movie wouldn't have been the same without him.

2. Dark Helmet (Spaceballs, 1987)
Okay...for starters, this character is hilarious without him even opening his mouth. Rick Moranis fused with Darth Vader is awesome. That's like combining Voldemort with Gilbert Gottfried. He's a bumbling villain who is always trying strike fear in his enemies, but can barely manage to breathe in his oversized helmet. There are so many great scenes with this character, like when he launches the ship into ludicrous speed, plays with his dolls, and has a light saber duel with Lone starr. Moranis was the ideal choice to play the evil pipsqueak commander, and his lines are among the funniest. I dare you not to laugh when he curses in this film ("Come back, you fat, bearded bitch!").

1. Seymour Krelborn (Little Shop of Horrors, 1986)
One of the strangest musicals, hell, strangest things ever put on the screen. Despite having watched this film dozens of times, I still have trouble wrapping my head around how a film like this can even exist. Rick plays Seymour Krelborn, a poor timid guy who was raised as an orphan by a florist in run-down city neighborhood. He works and lives in the crummy shop, secretly longing to be with the shop assistant, Audrey, and working on raising exotic plants. He comes across a strange plant that grows rapidly when fed blood, and soon things get out of hand. And it's a musical! Seymour is a great character, a true underdog who is pushed around his whole life, and somehow ends up with the girl and being a hero. Even though he participates in some dark activities in the film, you still can't fault him, because his intentions are always sincere. Moranis sings surprisingly well and it's pure entertainment when he breaks into song with a giant man-eating plant. Basically Seymour sums up the style of Rick's acting and the characters he portrays; a simple kind-hearted guy who often finds himself in difficult situations, yet never gives up. You can't help but root for that.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cole's Favourite Flops

Everyone likes at least a few movies that aren't considered popular by the world at large. Lots of people, like myself, like many many movies that aren't popular. But this list is going to cover those movies which may have eventually found some popularity with some audience. The criteria here is simply based on the film's initial success (or lack thereof) at the box office. Just like tons of awful movies are big hits in theatres due to factors such as their marketing campaign or expectations based on the subject matter or cast or whatever. And it works the other way with good movies that bombed initially. While I don't think any of these movies were necessarily overwhelming financial disasters, I know that they were far from hits when they first were released.

Note* Blade Runner is technically my favourite flop of all time but while it was definitely a disappointment at the box office, it actually enjoyed at least a moderately successful opening weekend most likely due to Harrison Ford's star power at the time. When I wrote this list I felt this was enough to keep Blade Runner off it although it was technically a theatrical flop.

5. The Frighteners (1996)
Peter Jackson co-wrote this one with his wife and Robert Zemeckis was slated to direct. But I guess as the project evolved, Zemeckis decided Jackson would be better suited to direct and fell back into the role of producer. With Jackson, then a complete no-name in the North American film industry at the helm, it's no surprise the movie didn't generate much hype. And the marketing campaign wasn't well done at all - this was partially due to the film's tone which was difficult to market in the first place as it was a comedy starring Michael J. Fox but also a legitimate horror/thriller film. Jackson would later complain that the poster, which didn't really let people know what the movie was about, and the release date, the opening day of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta definitely hurt its chances at the box office.

But it's a great movie if you actually watch it. I don't know how to not enjoy any performance by Fox and the plot and characters are unique and entertaining. It's darkly funny with some pretty intense sequences. The tone can be difficult to figure out at first as the plot progresses from quirky to almost disturbing at points but I really feel like it flows well and isn't all over the place. A special treat is actor Jeffrey Combs as eccentric (and I'm putting it lightly) FBI agent Milton Dammers - he steals every scene he's in.

4. Empire of The Sun (1987)
The first real box office disappointment for director Steven Spielberg, I'm not entirely sure what sunk this movie. The performances are good, the plot, pacing and settings are all good. I can only figure that when audiences saw Spielberg's name, they were expecting another epic movie full of action. He pretty much exploded onto the film scene with Jaws in 1975 and followed it up nicely with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The eighties gave way to more hits with the first two Indiana Jones films and E.T. However, right before this movie he did direct The Color Purple which was a somber drama, so I don't know what people were expecting.

In any case, Empire of The Sun was far from a success and twenty years later, it seems largely forgotten. Which is a shame because you've got thirteen year old Christian Bale proving he had great acting talent right from the start and when is John Malcovich ever not good?

The story follows a British boy who'd been living in Shanghai, sufficiently sheltered from all hardships as well as the local culture when World War Two sees the Japanese invade. He becomes separated from his family and has to learn to survive on his own, eventually landing in an internment camp. It's a long movie and the pace is kinda slow but I think the performances should keep people interested. It also features some really emotionally powerful moments like the kid saluting a team of Japanese kamikaze pilots. The score is quite fitting and I really believe the movie tells an important story. It's too bad more people didn't take notice of it.

3. Dark City (1998)
The best example of noir sci-fi since Blade Runner and no one seems to be aware of it. I don't even remember it being released in theatres so it couldn't have had too much marketing behind it. A year later, The Matrix would come out and enjoy all sorts of commercial success using a lot of the same elements present in Dark City. And it starred KEANU REEVES for christ's sake.

Anyway, I think Dark City is a lot slicker and more well-done. There are no huge action scenes but that wouldn't fit into its tone, which is....well, dark. What begins as a story of a man's search for his identity over the background of a series of grisly murders evolves into an intriguing sci-fi film with steam-punk influences.

I really like the look of this film and the director's cut does correct a few small editing problems while the performances all fit the tone quite nicely. It's also interesting to see Keifer Sutherland in a role that's such a departure from how we're used to seeing him. The plot reminds me of an anime in lots of ways and I ask you, how can that be a bad thing?

2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
I suppose it shouldn't be all that shocking that the first major theatrical release of a Japanese anime in North America wasn't a blockbuster. But they tried, they really did. The cast was a pretty all-star affair with the likes of Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes (fresh off Romeo + Juliet) and Gillian Anderson (riding the crest of her "X Files" fame). Also there was Billy Crudup but I could include that guy in a list of unappreciated and unrecognized actors.

Although for whatever reason, this movie never had the feel of other Miyazaki films to me, it was certainly right up there with the others as far as quality goes. Beautiful animation, beautiful music, a sweeping, epic story with environmental and spiritual themes AND a voice cast that North Americans could all recognize. And it still flopped. I can only figure that the majority of the movie-going public just couldn't wrap their brains around the idea of seeing an animated movie that wasn't a happy Disney creation with singing animals. But there were TALKING animals - so come on, what do you want? By the next decade, anime was much more universally accepted and appreciated but I guess Mononoke just had to take the hit for being among the first.

1. Mallrats (1995)
After the critical success of indie film, Clerks, many considered Kevin Smith's next offering to be a step backward. And it didn't fare so well commercially either. I can devise why though. I actually remember the previews for this movie when it came out and they just made it look like a romantic comedy. And, in a sense, it is a romantic comedy. But it was also a Kevin Smith movie and people just didn't know what that meant back then. A few years later, American Pie would revive the pretty much dead wacky sex comedy genre but in 1995, people just didn't know what to think of this movie.

It's not even a sex comedy - it's just...well, a Kevin Smith movie. And it's hilarious. It's about two recently dumped slacker types trying to forget their troubles at the local mall when a bunch of crazy events ensue. But after Clerks, critics wanted something more clever and audiences looking for a romantic comedy didn't know what to make of Jay and Silent Bob and the excessive use of the word "fuck". Years later, this movie would be appreciated for what it is now that Smith has a series of "Jersey" films in his repertoire, and it found its audience on video. Just like all the movies on this list, Mallrats proves a great film doesn't necessarily require box office success to be great. It just would have helped a lot.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Franchises That Have Been Run Into the Ground

I love video games. Everyone here at Five-O-Rama does. We're gamers. We, games. A lot. What was I talking about? (glances at title) Oh, right. As much as I love games and as much as I love certain series of games, I really hate seeing their quality take a giant nosedive as a result of a plethora of shitty sequels. What sucks about game developers (who are bright and talented people) is that they work for terrible, savage people known as publishers who, unlike the developers, do not love games. No, what they love is money. So if a certain game sells very well, then the evil publishers get the clever idea to make a sequel for it. Then another. Then another. Then a ridiculous spin-off that shares absolutely nothing in common with the original game except some variation of its title. The next thing you know, what started as a cool first-person shooter or spy-action game has degenerated into a bunch of lame card battles.

This horrific phenomenon occurs because the asshole publishers know that in the world of retail, quality only counts once - the first time around. After that, all that counts is the name. Attach that name to any piece of garbage and it will sell like hotcakes. This is all that matters to the wretched publishers, while the developers, stretched to their limits, hang their heads in shame with the knowledge they are no longer creating great games. And we, the gaming public, suffer the disappointment of seeing a game series we once loved turn into junk and waste our hard-earned money. Here are some of the very worst offenders.

5. Medal of Honor
The original game was for the Playstation and it was cool. This is the series that brought World War Two shooters to the forefront and at first, this was a good thing. The sequel (which was actually a prequel story-wise), Medal Of Honor Underground, was also very good. One of the best things about these games was the really cool and realistic sound effects. They helped make for a very intense and immersive experience. Three different versions of a sequel called Medal of Honor: Allied Assault then came out on computers and it wasn't bad but although the graphics were far superior to the Playstation games, the gameplay wasn't quite as good.

I had high hopes for the first sequel to appear on the then next-wave of systems, Medal of Honor: Frontline. I played the PS2 version and it was painfully average. Maybe it was just a hiccup, I thought. But then, about two seconds later, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun came out and it was just as bad. Then TWO MORE sequels came out (still for PS2) and I didn't even bother with them. There was also a version for Game Boy Advance, another sequel on computers, and one for the PSP. As things stand today, there is ANOTHER PSP game (which is also somehow on the Wii) and the first (of what I'm sure will be many) on the PS3. No less than nine different developers have created a Medal of Honor game to date and that number is sure to go up. I just don't care anymore.

4. Army Men
Created by the fabled 3DO Company, I've never played a single game in this series. But the original concept seems pretty cool. You get to control various units of differently coloured warring factions of little toy army men as they battle in cute environments like living rooms. At first, there were just four different groups you could play as: Green, Tan, Blue and Grey. The Green were sort of the good guys, sort of American. The Tan were bad, representing the old Axis Powers from WWII. The Grey were sort of in between, fighting whoever. And the Blue were kinda like the French and mostly suited to stuff like espionage.

But as the sequels mounted, more and more stuff was added. When the dust cleared, in addition to these original four factions you had: Red, Black, Orange, The Galactic Army, The Aliens, Malice's Tans (although they only appeared in one game), The Cult (um, not the band), Bugs (not really a separate faction, just enemies to everyone) AND Major Malfunction's Toys (only appearing in one game). Wow, that's a lot more complicated. Now I'm sure at least some of these sequels weren't bad and actually brought some cool new stuff to the series but come on. How many games were there? To date, there are twenty-four separate Army Men titles spanning the PC, Playstation, Game Boy Color, Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, PS2, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo Gamecube, XBox, Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS. Is it just me or is that a lot? 3DO of course died out years ago but other developers and publishers jumped in to carry the ball. Hurray.

3. Mortal Kombat
Here's a big one. The original game actually wasn't too special. It was popular almost entirely because of its gimmick - over the top blood and gore in a fighting game. That was something that hadn't been done before. But Mortal Kombat 2 came out and had more than just a gimmick going for it. It was actually a very good, deep fighting game and remains one of the best of any generation. Unfortunately, that remains the high point of the series as later titles barely added anything at all. In fact, Mortal Kombat is famous for repetition. This is most notable with its palette swapping. If you don't know what that is, let me break it down for you: Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile. You know those guys - three different characters with different moves BUT they all look exactly the same except for being different colours. They're just the same sprite recoloured three times. And they didn't stop there. Soon to follow were: Smoke, Ermac, Noob-Saibot, Rain and Chamaleon. OK, that's EIGHT freaking characters! They did the same with four female characters then had three more guys all based on the same cyberguy sprite: Sektor, Cyrax and a cyborg version of Smoke. When all is said and done, three palettes were used to make FIFTEEN DIFFERENT CHARACTERS. And in Mortal Kombat 3 (Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 - the same game with a few very minor changes soon followed) and beyond, characters' fighting style only really differed as far as special and finishing moves went. Everyone used the same basic moves. It made for one cookie-cutter experience, let me tell you.

There haven't actually been a trillion sequels but even when they tried to mix things up a little, it just didn't work. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance tried to bring some originality to the series, adopting new fighting styles. And one of them (maybe that one, I don't remember) featured weapons but it wasn't very cool. Some lame spin-offs followed that tried to be action games, the first of which was Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. This game actually sold well but I can assure you as someone who played it, it was really quite terrible. It was supposed to be the first in a series but that never happened, thank christ. Over the years Mortal Kombat seems to have completely lost its identity but it's still going, with Mortal Kombat VS DC Universe being released just last year.

2. Mega Man
A brilliant series almost destroyed by lame spin-off material. I love the core series, Mega Mans One through Eight to death (although Six does kinda suck) and I'm told Nine, which I haven't played yet, is quite cool.Then the X series came out in 1993 and it was also very cool. But they just kept going with it and the games ranged from rockin, to very good, to average to LAME. And it seems as if portable systems was the worst thing that ever happened to the series. First, on the old Game Boy, they just released versions of the original games that were tweaked to combine two games into one with slightly different level designs. I don't know why they did this but it wasn't that bad. But soon a horrendous spin-off called Mega Man Battle Network crashed out of nowhere onto the Game Boy Advance and reduced Mega Man to something like a Neo Pet. They made six thousand of these games and are still making them, I think. They tried going 3D on the Playstation with Mega Man Legends, this time turning Mega Man into a non-sexy Tomb Raider. Mega Man Zero was similar to the X series (except starring Zero) and the games were actually pretty fun although, if you ask me, really unnecessary. I'll level with you and admit I don't even know what the hell Mega Man ZX or Mega Man Starforce are but I really don't think I want to know.

All these new series keep adding stuff that just isn't Mega Man. All I want is fun level design for side scrolling shooting action with fun, original boss fights. And if they've exhausted that I'd rather Capcom just drop it instead of continuing with all this crap. But Mega Man is more than just a franchise in the world of video games - it's become an institution and the games will continue to generate cash long, long after the quality disappeared. Mega Man 9 leaves me hopeful for a revival but I'm not gonna hold my breath.

1. Pokemon
Is anyone really surprised? In the world of video games, the Pokemon series is the biggest whore of them all. What's most tragic about this is that the first games were actually pretty decent. They started out as fun little RPGs full of interesting monsters you could collect to fight for you. A nice, simple concept. But they became so insanely popular in both Japan and North America that the demand was just so staggering that it's not shocking the quality would dry up. Pokemon Red and Blue are the originals in North America with Yellow being similar to those two but focusing more on the popular TV Series (don't get me started on THAT). So then you've got sequels that follow the same principles with mostly the same elements of gameplay: Gold, Silver, Crystal, Ruby, Sapphire (I think there's an Emerald in there somewhere but that might be something different). In between this there were spin-offs: Pokemon Pinball and an adaptation of the trading card game. There was some battle-arena-type game for the N64, Pokemon Stadium which would give way to a sequel of its own. Then there's a whole bunch of shit that came when I had long since lost track of the series: Pokemon Dash, Pokemon Puzzle League, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon (seriously) and then more sequels to the spin-offs, including Pokemon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire and Pokemon Puzzle Challenger. Then they made REMAKES of certain games with even more confusing names all the while shitting out more stuff like Pokemon Ranger (I have no idea what that is) and Pokemon XD: Gale Of Darkness.

Although the series isn't as insanely popular as it was when it first arrived over here about eight years ago it still just keeps going and going, presumably because the games (plus all the other crap I haven't mentioned) keep selling and selling. I own a few of the first games and I've actually enjoyed them. But now I just pray for the day when all this finally goes away.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sweetest Cereals That Fueled Our Childhood

There are simply a ridiculous amount of cereals in the Western market and I believe every child had a fondness for a particular cereal while growing up. Not to say that cereal is only for children. I still joyfully cram them in my face to this day. Anyway, it's difficult to narrow down such a huge array of choices, but here goes.

5. Frosted Flakes
I would call this cereal the grandfather of sweet cereals. It's not a balls out chocolate/ honey/ candy explosion, but it's known all over the world for being sweet and delicious. If you grew up in a home with strict flavor-Nazi parents who only allowed you to eat 'Dusty Corn Wads', or 'Oaty Circles of Oats', this is likely the one cereal that could have slipped through on occasion. Its name conjures up images of frosting, and it's basically 'Corn Flakes' with a coating of pure goodness. Eat one bowl and you're buzzed for school.

4. Lucky Charms
Why is this cereal on the list? One word: marshmallows. Or ... at least some dehydrated laboratory experiment that tastes like marshmallows. This cereal took a plain oat shape formula and added two things that kids love: candy and bright colors. Sure, those bright colors turned your milk an unsettling gray-blue, but what the hell do you care? You have enough to worry about keeping your spoon steady as you hit that second bowl. The ever changing roster of marshmallows is hard to keep track of, and I won't attempt to sort it out here. Whenever new shapes were introduced, they eventually phased out the older ones, so the marshmallow ratio wasn't growing. Different shapes, same sugar high. It was just the thing to get your day started. You got a joyous leprechaun on a box, a milky circus in your bowl, and you're eating marshmallows for breakfast. What more do you want?

3. Cap'n Crunch
I'll admit that this cereal wasn't common in my home growing up, but I still enjoyed it when I got my greedy hands on a box. Originally this cereal was based on a brown sugar and butter recipe that people used to pour on rice for breakfast. How that eventually turned into a naval commander waging an endless battle in the name of crunchiness, I'll never know. Whatever the case, this cereal has got some kick to it and is deceptively sweet. You think you just eating a jagged version of 'Corn Pops' and then bam! you're in a diabetic coma. You and the captain make it happen. And by "happen", I mean "become jittery and addicted".

2. Sugar Crisp
For any American readers I'm talking about 'Golden Crisp', but I'll be using the name it still goes by in Canada. So you want a sweet cereal? Try this one on for size, it's got 'sugar' right in the name. More than 50 years ago some fellow realized that puffed wheat on it's own was wretched and found that, after running it through a donut glazing machine, sales began to pick up. This stuff is so good, just thinking about it makes my teeth hurt. The magazine Consumer Reports found that Sugar Crisp has an astounding sugar content compared to other cereals (more than 50% by weight). But kids don't care, we all loved it even though our parent warned us it's unhealthy. But who are you gonna listen to? Your parents, or a stoned cartoon bear?

1. Cinnamon Toast Crunch
Maybe it comes as a surprise to find this in the number one spot, and maybe I don't care. This cereal is mad sweet. Just look at it! It's so encrusted with cinnamon sugar it's actually sparkling! With its copious cinnamon and sugar, this cereal wasn't only a rockin' delicious breakfast, it also also makes a great snack right out of the box. But any kid knows that fishing one handful out of the box is gonna leave your forearm coated with sugar. Like any good sweet cereal, the last bowl is made up of crumbs and sugar sand, with all traces of wheat and rice long gone. If you add milk to the final bowl of a box of 'Cinnamon Toast Crunch' then you get a sucrose mud that borders on being crack. Eat enough of this liquid candy and you'll wake up days later in the woods amidst a detailed replica of the Vatican made from twigs. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but it was cereals like this that gave us the energy to do many productive things on a Saturday. While some poor kids sat in the dark, crying, and eating their 'Muslix', others were chowing down cinnamon swirls and designing tree houses.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Songs with the Saddest Melodies

Note the distinction here. This is NOT a list of the saddest songs. Such an endeavor would require effort beyond anything I'd want to conjure up here. There are dozens if not hundreds of songs that are both universally accepted as sad as well as just sad to me personally. Such songs are an effective fusion of sad sounding music and melancholy lyrics which could cover anything from personal loss to tragedy to fond old memories to rejection, isolation, coming of age and so on and on and on and on.

No, THIS list simply points out those sad songs that come across as such without the aid of the lyrics (the words, I mean - the vocals are still important). That is, the tune and melody has to tug at the heart strings all on its own. If I still haven't done a proper job of explaining what I mean here, perhaps the list itself will make everything clear.

5. "Thank U" - Alanis Morissette
The first single off the album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998), I really couldn't tell you if this song is meant to be sad based on its mostly incomprehensible lyrics. But the instrumentation picks up the slack. Really for me, this song is established as sad the moment that stark little line on the keyboard comes in right at the beginning. Morissette's own vocals do seem to stem from a sense of perhaps yearning mingled with bittersweet memories but it's also because the vocals aren't overpowered by the instruments that this comes across so well. The drum beat throughout is as simple as it gets (a la Ringo) and the guitars never intrude on the main melody. Another reason "Thank U" makes this list over others is its ability to convey sadness without ever slipping into a minor key. The song is written in C Major and relies on chord changes from that to G and F major. That's pretty cool.

4. "Red" - Treble Charger
There are two recordings of this song. The first on Treble Charger's debut album nc17 and then it was rerecorded and somewhat changed (mostly the drums) for 1997's Maybe It's Me. I've always considered "Red" to be one of the great mostly unknown songs of Canadian rock. And what makes it so great is its super sad riff. The opening features the guitar almost haphazardly doodling a simple melody, barely rising above the vocals and later the subdued bass and drums (no bass and drums in this part of the second version). But where the sadness really starts is at the end of the chorus, just after the vocal part. During said vocal, the guitar merely plays two or three chords, each struck only once then sustained for a long time. But when the vocals finish, that's when one of the saddest riffs of all time kicks in. The guitar solo (superior in the Maybe It's Me version) after the second chorus fits perfectly but still doesn't measure up to the overall tone established by the chorus part. The song ends with an extended run of this part. The sustain is used just perfectly as the notes wail out mournfully, almost making it seem like the guitar is a singer belting out a tale of woe.

3. "Walk Away Renee" - The Left Banke
In the world of popular music, strings were never put to sadder use than in this little masterpiece from the late sixties. The Left Banke, the only American entry on this list, pretty much invented the genre of "baroque rock" with their inclusion of violins, lutes and harpsichord alongside the more traditional rock band instruments. I don't think I can put into words the sense of melancholy and sadness that is brought forth through the song's strings, which mostly carry the melody. Throughout, Steve Martin's voice is tinged with regret and charged with romantic defeat and the lyrics, while certainly fitting enough, are really inconsequential. The flute solo makes the best of that instrument's strengths, staying out of the high register and hitting us with the low notes - it's short and to the point while deeply haunting. Even the symbol crash leading into the chorus somehow resonates in a sad way.

2. "Leave it Alone" - Moist
From probably my favourite album of all time, 1996's Creature. From the opening bassline - if you want to even call it a bassline as it's just a single note (E) being repeated in slow rhythm - you know this is going to be a sad one. Those who know the song know the lyrics and it's not my job to discuss them here. A soft, simple guitar riff gradually starts in over the bass, at first not really synching up with it. This continues for a few seconds until the two instruments do find a balance and harmony. Just at this moment, David Usher enters with the first verse, the second half of which is when the drums come in (as usual on this list, a very simple beat) From there, the guitar part underlines the vocal, weaving in and out with it but never overpowering it. The chorus continues the evolution but it still comes very gradually and even when the piano comes in and things finally get loud to enter the chorus, the sadness only increases - this isn't subdued mourning anymore - it's a full out crash of emotions as both David and the guitar reach new heights. It's all so powerful and beautiful but still it's actually the next part that makes this song make the list. The guitar riff expands on what it did in the chorus to produce a melody that has stuck in my head from the moment I first heard it over ten years ago. It's used to form the bridge and then fused into the final chorus to lead the song to its ending. All the other instruments work great support but it's really all about the guitar here as the song concludes and we're left with that melody echoing in our brains, ringing out a sadness that could mean almost anything to anyone.

1. "Whiter Shade of Pale" - Procol Harem
There have been dozens of covers of this song but only the original will do. Of course it's that hammond organ part that defines the entire song. The lyrics are actually pretty random and meaningless - the sadness is conveyed completely by the music on this one. The vocals, while not saying anything to really stir up emotion, are still sung in the proper manner to compliment the instrumentation. As is par for the course, there is a slow, simple drum beat in the background that rarely distinguishes itself, only rising into some quick flourishes at the end of various vocal lines. I've seen footage of it being played live and the guitarist and bassist do appear to be playing but I can barely hear them. These guys weren't baroque rock but this song was certainly baroque inspired - I've read the organ part was influenced by Bach. But it is one hundred percent original and it's the best example of a melody just dripping sadness from every single note. There's no bridge and the main riff remains fairly constant throughout. It doesn't matter - tunes don't get any sadder or more haunting sounding than this.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Interesting Movie Battles Where a Character Fights Himself

Alright, for clarification, I'm not talking about movies where a character is struggling with some inner turmoil, or is personally conflicted with a decision. I'm specifically talking about when characters are physically attacking themselves, in some form. Let the battle begin!

5. Jet Li vs. Jet Li (The One, 2001)
In this generally crummy movie Jet Li plays a character that is out to kill alternate universe versions of himself to become the ultimate ... thing ... of the stuff. I don't know, it's not all that important. An action star playing multiple parts in a movie is nothing special; Jackie Chan teamed up with himself in Twin Dragons, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has dealt with his fair share of clones, but in this movie we have a true head-to-head rumble between Jet Li and Jet Li. While the film is forgettable, the final fight is probably the one thing you would identify the movie with, and it finds a place on the list as a result. Also, if you think about the choreography, editing, and special effects required to make the fight work as well as it does, I think some amount of credit is due.

4. Good Ash vs. Bad Ash (Army of Darkness, 1992)
I love this movie, for being delightfully weird, creepy, and hilarious. The fight I'm referring to occurs when our hero, Ash, swallows a mini version of himself and shortly after a full sized evil Ash begins to grow out of his shoulder. I told you it was weird. The two of them tussle for a while until they separate. What makes this fight so awesome is that it's quickly brought to an end when Good Ash shoots Bad Ash in the face with a shotgun, then proceeds to chain him down, cut him up with a chainsaw, and bury him. When Bad Ash emerges again as the main villain I don't really see that as a continuation of the fight but just a different enemy. Anyway, the fight is ridiculous and a must see.

3. Charlie vs. Hank (Me, Myself, and Irene, 2000)
When Jim Carrey acts out opposing personalities duking it out in the same body, the result is pure entertainment. It's hilarious to watch this brutal fight play out, and it's really an impressive display of physical comedy as Carrey punches, slaps, and chokes himself, even carrying himself around after fainting. As the fight continues, he throws himself around, knocks himself through a window, spits in his own face, and even pummels himself while driving to then hurl himself from the moving car. It's awesome, check it out.

2. The Narrator vs. Tyler Durden (Fight Club, 1999)
To those of you who haven't seen this movie yet, stop reading and go watch it already. What the hell are you waiting for? The big spoiler I will unleash at this moment is that The Narrator (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) are actually the same person. In the final scenes of the film Pitt is revealed as Norton's alter ego, and the struggle to stop Tyler Durden ensues. In an underground parking lot, the two of them (or should I say one of him?) have a fight where Norton's character get punched, kicked, clothes-lined, and thrown down a flight of stairs. The film shows us the fight sometimes as the two actors fighting, and sometimes as Norton fighting alone. Basically the whole movie is the Narrator harming himself, whether it's chemical burns, car crashes, or beating the ever-living shit out of himself in front of his boss. By the end of the movie, the Narrator's only way to kill Durden is by turning a gun on himself, though not in quite the way you'd imagine. The Narrator gives/takes a ton of abuse in this movie, and the showdown between him and his second personality is a startling bit of cinema.

1. Ash vs. The Hand (Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, 1987)
If you're bummed out that I'm using the same character again for this list, I have this to say: One, this fight isn't from the same movie, and it's a completely different sort of fight, and two, Ash is one of the greatest characters in movie history and his ordeals and triumphs deserve recognition. The fight is basically between Ash and his hand after it's infected with "evil". What plays out in the kitchen of that little cabin in the woods was one of most insane things I ever saw growing up, but I loved every second of it. The hand, with a mind of it's own, attacks and violently smashes anything it can reach against Ash's head. Ash is knocked out, and the hand proceeds to drag him across the floor in order to reach a butcher knife. Before it can get there, Ash suddenly pins the hand to the floor with a knife, starts up a chainsaw with his teeth, and cuts off his hand while delivering the line "Who's laughing now!?" It's an unreal fusion of comedy and gore that is impossible to forget. Even though, once separated from his body, the hand continues to cause mayhem, it's that single moment of revenge and self mutilation that wins the top spot. From the moment that Ash cuts off the hand, it changes him from horror movie protagonist to total bad ass. The fight in the kitchen wasn't just interesting, it was hardcore.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Greatest Russian Defencemen

If a junkie like me is gonna do hockey lists, I'll have to keep them interesting. Keep in mind I'm taking into account the player's entire pro career here, not just the NHL. At least a couple of these guys distinguished themselves moreso internationally. The years they spent as a pro will be included in brackets. I tried to not make it all about stats but sometimes the stats tell the best story. Not a single one of these guys has ever won the Norris Trophy. Yeah, sometimes I use the "s" and sometimes the "c". Whatever.

5. Dmitri Yushkevich (1988- )
I am dead serious. This guy is a warrior. He hasn't played in the NHL for the past six years but it's not because no one wanted him. It's his choice to play in Russia. I know his numbers aren't flashy and that if I argue he's a defensive defenceman you'll point to his career minus twenty-one on the plus/minus. But...when you're a top-pair d-man on a weak team (like he was in Florida, LA and, initially, Toronto) your plus/minus is going to suffer. And I can tell you this: when this guy was patrolling the blue line for the Leafs (often paired with fellow Ruskie, Danny Markov - a very similar player), they weren't letting in six goals a game. His plus twenty-five for the Leafs in 98/99 is extremely impressive.

He scored a decent amount for a non-offensive type (often in the 25 point range) but his role was shutdown guy. And he did it all - blocked shots, killed penalties and played physical (but didn't take dumb penalties - he never had more than 88 minutes over a season). He was tough as hell too, often playing through injuries. He was on the Russian Olympic team twice - 92 and 98. Some might accuse me of coming up with this list just to put Yushkevich here - well, maybe I did.

4. Sergei Gonchar (1991- )
With 185 NHL goals and counting, Gonchar is the best goal-scoring rearguard in Russian history. He's got six seasons with 15 goals or more (including two with over 20 and only ONCE dipping below 10) and topped 50 points eight times (over 60 in his last two, so he's not slowing down with age). Strangely enough, the one year he had under 10 goals, he had 5, then scored 7 in the playoffs (97/98). He WAS the power play for years in Washington with his cannon from the point. But he wasn't just a big shot like Sheldon Souray. He's a dynamic skater who can rush the puck well and make slick passes (430 NHL assists so far) as well. And because of his offensive talent, his defensive play is the most overlooked part of his game.

But while not a shutdown guy by any means he's always defensively sound (he's a plus fifty-two in his career so far). He's played in two Olympics (98 and 02 - don't ask me why he wasn't there in 06), two World Championships and two World Cups. He's also been named to the NHL second All-Star team twice. He's not physical but not soft either - the guy takes hits just fine and hasn't had many injuries over his career. The one thing I'll never understand is how during the lockout in 04/05, when he played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, he somehow only scored 2 goals in 40 games. Weird.

3.Vladimir Konstantinov (1984-1997)
No, he's not just here because of the accident. No pity points on my lists. Konstantinov was an even tougher customer than Yushkevich, and his PIM's reflected that, amassing well over a hundred every season in the NHL and a fairly high amount in the Russian Super League before that. And unlike most defenceman, he was an effective agitator, skilled at getting opponents off their game.

I've got to include him here mostly for his amazing defensive capabilities and toughness but his stats also show some offensive talent. While his point totals were never high due to never putting up many assists, he did have some goal-scoring ability hitting twelve in 93/94 and fourteen in 95/96. Now 95/96 was of course the magic year where the Red Wings did everything but win the Cup, recording over fifty wins with a bunch of players having high scoring totals. Besides the career high in goals, "The Vladinator" as he was sometimes called, posted an eye-popping plus/minus of plus 60 - the highest in a decade.

He first distinguished himself as a teenager at the World Junior Championships in 87 during the infamous Canada/USSR bench-clearing brawl that got both teams kicked out of the tournament. He's remembered as the only Russian who really knew how to fight. In his last season (96/97) he was runner up to Brian Leetch for the Norris. He won the Cup with the Red Wings that season and then...well, you know the rest. I don't wanna talk about it.

2. Sergei Zubov (1988- )
One of my favourite little trivia questions to ask hockey people is which player led the New York Rangers in scoring the year they last won the Cup (1994). Everyone says Mark Messier. When I shake my head, they snap their fingers and say, of course, Brian Leetch. When I tell them no again some people try Adam Graves (he did score 52 goals that year) and after that they say, alright, who? Guess you know who now. Zubov put up 89 points that year - a total he's never come close to matching since but he's still been one of the most consistent offensive defencemen of his generation. He's a really underrated guy, actually. A Cup with New York after leading them in scoring, then a point-a-game season in his short stop in Pittsburgh then the backbone of the defense corps of the Dallas Stars for over a decade (with another Cup in 99).

He's slick, he's smooth and he's smart. Doesn't possess an overpowering shot but he's got a knack for getting it through traffic and on net. No one in the NHL runs a power play from the back end like Zubov, not even Gonchar. A very similar player to Niklas Lidstrom, really but with no where near as much recognition. Injuries have plagued him in recent seasons but whenever he plays he's a difference maker. Always good for at least forty points when he's healthy and he even hit seventy pretty recently (o5/06) and he's an extremely impressive +152 over his career thus far. His playoff stats are just as good as regular season too. The second-best Russian born and trained defencemen ever and no one ever talks about him.

1. Viacheslav Fetisov (1978-1998)
Referred to as no less than "The Russian Bobby Orr", it should be no surprise that he tops this list. He may not just be the best Russian defenceman - he's arguably the best Russian player, period. Unlike the other members of this list, Fetisov's best stuff really came before he hit the NHL. He was part of the first wave of Soviets to defect to play hockey in North America. He and Igor Larionov are seen as brave pioneers for that reason but it's what he did on the ice that counts here.

For ten years in Russia, he was far and away the best defenceman they had, making up a part of the famous "Green Unit" on the Russian Red Army team and was a huge reason for their dominance on the international stage. He was nearly a point a game player for nearly four hundred games in Russia and the guy has won EVERYTHING - 2 Olympic gold medals and a silver; seven golds, one silver and two bronzes at the World Championships; and gold in a Canda Cup and the World Juniors (he and Larionov are the only two players of ANY nationality to win all those in their career).

Entering his thirties, he went to the NHL in 1989 playing for New Jersey then Detroit, winning two Cups with the latter. He wasn't quite as dominant as an NHLer but was still really, really good, putting up moderate to good offensive numbers and often mentoring his team's younger d-men. He's a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and currently the Minister of Sport in Russia. But now he's won his most prestigious accolade of all - the top of one of my "best" lists.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Most Annoyingly Overrated Super Heroes

For every quality underrated character, there's always a crapload of guys (and girls) who are way more popular than they deserve. Just as there's lots of actors, artists and, um, politicians who enjoy massive popularity while so obviously being lame, there's plenty of comic book heroes who have remained beloved by the masses even though smart people like me see them for what they really are - ranging from just not that great to totally weak. Feast on the top five, mortals.

5. Rogue
OK, I get it. She's hot. And with that southern accent, mildly exotic. She also works the whole strong female/ tough girl thing quite literally as she can juggle battle tanks. And then the coup de gras - you can't freaking touch her! Everyone's attracted to what they can't have (nevermind the fact she's not in fact, real) and if you lay an unprotected hand on Rogue's silky smooth skin, the least that can happen to you is you'll faint. It can also fuck up your mind, drain your life force and land you in a coma.

And I know Rogue has other things going for her besides the sex appeal but I'll never believe those other reasons account for her popularity. And when you come down to it, what is she? She's a haughty, southern hick with a stolen set of powers. I mean would we even be talking about her if she hadn't hijacked Ms. Marvel's powers while working for foster mommy, Mystique? Now Ms. Marvel's an actually cool character and in my opinion (which rules with an iron fist here, as you'll recall) waaaay hotter too.

I'm not saying Rogue isn't heroic. I'm not saying she hasn't done cool things or been a team player with the X-Men. I'm just saying she's really overrated - and here she is.

4. The Avengers ("classic" lineup)
I'm a New Avengers fan and laughed my ass off when all the fans of the old team bitched and cried about the whole Dissasembled storyline and then I laughed some more when they threw tantrums over the team's new lineup and direction. Here's one last parting shot for all you oldschool fans who can't embrace change: YOU HAD FIVE HUNDRED FUCKING ISSUES! So lock yourself in a closet and read those and shut the hell up.
And for those of you who are still here to read my list, the team was totally overrated anyway. Yeah, yeah, they had a lot of the big names like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. And sure, some decently cool members like Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Black Knight. But was the Scarlett Witch really that cool? (just how many times can she lose her mind?) Or the Vision? Is Hank Pym (Giant Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, Ant, the tooth fairy, Reynaldo and the artist formerly known as Prince) not incredibly annoying with all his name changes and on again/off again relationships?

And here are some other members of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Marvel's A team who always got top billing over the various X teams and everyone else: Swordsman, Hellcat, Moondragon, Living Lightning, Mantis. Wow. Those are some great heroes, huh?

And, really, I was never all that crazy about the big three of Cap, Iron Man and Thor anyway. They're kind of boring. And what the hell was Black Widow doing there? She's supposed to be a Russian secret agent and yet she practically ran the team at certain points. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the Avengers were always around and I do like a lot of them. But no way were they Marvel's premiere team.

3. Wonder Woman
I don't like picking on Diana, I really don't. Really, she's overcome a lot to attain such popularity. But I just can't let go of the facts that make her lame. I have to believe she rose to the top as a sex symbol and I get why it's not fair to pick on her for that as the vast majority of comic writers are men and the vast majority of female characters they created are sexy. But she looks like a dominatrix or something. Her origin is that she's an Amazon (from Greek Mythology). An Amazon Princess, actually. And here she is sitting at the big boys' table of the DC Universe. Good for her.

So what does she bring to the table, exactly? Well, she has power not far below that of Superman in terms of strength and invulnerability. Ok. Then she has these bands that she wears that can deflect bullets and lasers and....waitaminute, what the hell does she need that for if she's practically invulnerable? Aw, nevermind. Then there's her....Lasso of Truth. A magical lasso that forces those bound by it to tell the truth. Are you kidding? Wow, that's stupid. At least in the eighties and nineties she could actually fly rather than use her (takes a deep breath)...invisible jet. Yeah. And when she flies in it, she stays visible. So you just see her sitting there in an invisible cockpit as she soars through the sky. I'm sorry but that's just not cool.

Like most major DC characters, her origin story has been messed with and revamped numerous times but no version is very good. Basically it all comes down to various Roman gods giving her her powers. I'll admit I haven't read much with her and I'm unfamiliar with stuff like her personality but I still can't see her as being worthy enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Batman and Superman. It's not a sexist thing - it's a whenitcomesdowntoitshesreallyprettylame thing.

2. Spawn
Now we come to Mr. Style Over Substance, Todd McFarlane's super hero from hell. His origin is cool. His powers are cool. His look is really cool. And yet...
I respect what McFarlane and Jim Lee and those other guys did when they broke off from Marvel and formed Image. I think something like that was long overdue. Writers and artists should be allowed to retain creative control over the characters they create and they shouldn't be cut out on any of the profits said characters generate either. The Image guys were pioneers and their contribution to the comics industry will always be remembered and appreciated. Not to mention Image produced some pretty cool titles.

But Spawn was really the flagship and if you looked past all the hype and anticipation that had built up when Image started, you saw that there really wasn't much beneath all the flashiness. While McFarlane was part of a wave of artists and writers that ushered in a new era of creative control he was also a frontrunner in the wave of artists and writers who figured the comic buying public would buy anything if you made it look pretty enough, even if the characters and stories weren't so good. And Spawn looked great. But it really didn't read that well. It was awkward and contrived. The storylines were nothing new and the characters, while looking cool, didn't actually have much depth. Least of all our hero (or antihero - another unfortunate thing, really, as the early nineties saw WAY too many characters that tried to fit this mold - if EVERYONE'S a badass antihero then it's not really that cool. If every character plays by his own rules then there are no rules period and everything just runs together).

Yeah, he died. And he made a deal with the devil to come back. But he could never really be alive again and all he got to do was run around and see the woman he loved move on without him while he messed around with society's most dangerous and disturbing members and from time to time, some other agents of heaven or hell. Spawn had vast potential as a character and sold about a zillion comics but he just never read as good as he looked and what comics are truly about is telling a good story. And when it came to that, Spawn just didn't deliver.

1. Green Lantern (all incarnations)
This guy just baffles me. He's painfully stupid. Seeing him on the page with Batman and Superman and Green Arrow actually hurts me. Probably the best thing he ever did was when he teamed with Green Arrow for a book in the seventies but I still can't picture it being very good, critical acclaim notwithstanding. Although he did go on that crazy killing spree once...

Where do I start? He got his powers from a magic lantern an alien gave him from which he carved out a ring. What? He carved the ring out of the lantern? Why didn't the alien just give him a ring? Considering how loopy so many origins and powers are in the world of comics that probably shouldn't stand out as especially dumb. But it does. So he's got this ring that can do almost anything and it's often referred to as "the most powerful weapon in the universe" within the DC Universe. And what does he do with it? Not much, really. If you check it out you'll see him performing what looks to be clumsy feats of telekinisis only you can see it in the form of some green stuff. He makes retarded stuff like giant magnifying glasses and rubber bands. I'm serious. He can use it to fly, turn invisible, generate force fields and even warp through time but mostly he's about as effective as the Wonder Twins.

Here's some other fun facts: he's part of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic team of these bozos with rings. His main villains are called Sinestro and Parallax (I'll leave that one to you). And here's the best thing: he is the world record holder for the MOST IDIOTIC AND LAME SUPER HERO WEAKNESS EVER. Don't know it? It's yellow. The colour, yellow. It doesn't hurt him like krytonite hurts Superman, it's just that the ring, this object of untold power, cannot affect stuff if it is yellow. Yup. I'm not making that up. If you paint yourself from head to toe in yellow, the mighty Green Lantern can't do shit to you without manipulating some other non-yellow object. Not to mention the obvious point that if you can somehow take away his ring he's got nothing.

And yet here's this guy at the forefront of the DC Universe. Founding member of the Justice League. Always included in the biggest storylines. There was a Golden Age version of Green Lantern as far back as 1940 and there's been like four more since. Hal Jordan has basically been the main one and it's mostly him I'm picking on but every incarnation was lame.

Here's another fun tidbit: he has a freaking OATH that he recites. I can understand maybe way back in the Golden Age days but decades later, he still says the goddamn oath. And most variations rhyme. I'm not kidding. Here's what he spouts when he charges up (whatever the hell that means) his ring: "In brightest day, in blackest night, / No evil shall escape my sight/ Let those who worship evil's might/ Beware my power...Green Lantern's light!" Do I really have to say anything else at this point? To say Green Lantern is overrated as a superhero is the fucking understatement of the century. But he's here to stay. God help us all.