The Culture Cast with Zack and Nick

Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!

The “New” Black Captain America

There was some minor news the other week about how Marvel Comics was going to replace the current Captain America, Steve Rogers, with his long-time crime-fighting partner Sam “The Falcon” Wilson (who was recently played by Anthony Mackie in this past summer’s The Winter Soldier). Since it was revealed on the popular The Colbert Report, other news media outlets have reported that Captain America was now going to be black. Overall, there has not been much controversy over this change, which I speculate comes mostly from the fact that the “new” Cap is an already established character, and that it seems to be a natural evolution of where this current storyline was heading. In other words, it makes sense.

Falcon new look as Captain America.

Falcon new look as Captain America.

But despite what the news outlets are saying, this is not the first time Captain America is black. Comic fans will automatically point to the 2003 mini-series, Truth: Red, White, and Black, in which readers learn of Isaiah Bradley, a black man who also functioned as Captain America during WW2. However, Bradley still wasn’t the first. Truth is there was another black Captain America published before that. And he was Sam “The Falcon” Wilson.

Bradley was not the first published black Cap.

Bradley was not the first published black Cap.

Wait…is Marvel retreading ground? Yeah, comic book companies do that a lot. Chances are the Marvel editors (and seemingly all comic media outlets) had forgotten about this relatively obscure story. But don’t worry loyal readers. I’m here to tell you all about it!

In the late 1990s, Marvel Comics launched a second Captain America comic subtitled Sentinel of Liberty. SOL was largely an anthology series that told a variety of Cap stories from his past (and, in one instance, his future). In issues 8 and 9, Cap and the Falcon are trying to calm increasing race tensions in Harlem (Falcon’s home turf). Things are not going well and making problems worse is a white supremacist group claiming that Cap supports their beliefs which the Harlem residences believe sight unseen. This group also has an African American working for them in order to further their agenda (for reasons left mostly unexplained). Things continue to escalate, and Cap is seemingly killed in action.

Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty - Issues 8 & 9

Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #8 & #9 (1999)

These issues have a big ‘70s vibe with the racial tension (which the Cap comics of that era dealt with in some capacity with the Falcon character). They never address when it takes place (as comics are always in the perennial now), but they give hints of 70s décor (with a novelty Nixon prop in the background of a costume shop).

Anyway, turns out Cap was really captured by the bad guys (never explained how since it was very apparent that his body was turned into ashes – COMICS, Everybody!) and, under mind-control, starts to train their henchmen. But, we don’t learn that until the end of issue 9.

In the meantime, since the Falcon earlier commented on how Cap doesn’t see color (a phrase rightfully ridiculed in 2014, but completely fine in 1999) and that symbol of “Captain America” is for everyone, he dons a Cap costume and continues the fight in Harlem. It doesn’t go as well as Falcon-Cap doesn’t have the fighting prowess as the original Cap and, even worse, is attacked by his fellow African Americans (they, apparently, don’t see color either).

"Deal with it."

“Deal with it.”

Eventually, Falcon-Cap finds his way into the lair of the white supremacist group and discovers their ultimate plan: to create an airborne virus that only attacks people of color. In other words, if someone is black, they’re toast. If you are white, you are fine.

Yep. You read that right. The story doesn’t go into what happens to Asians or Hispanics. Presumably they are targeted too (white supremacy after all). This is a plot development that is so incredibly goofy that it can only work in any “serious” nature in comics.

In the end, the virus is a dud as it too doesn’t see color and kills anyone who inhales it. So much for white privilege. Falcon-Cap ends up saving the day and the original Captain America. Falcon then goes back to being Falcon and Steve Rogers resumes his role as Captain America. All is well in the world.

From Captain America #333.

From Captain America #333 (1987)

Under the pen of Mark Waid, I am not sure how serious this tale was meant to really be. On one hand, you have some good stuff with race relations (with some light black-exploitation for good measure), but the story is trying to emulate the ‘70s without it being the ‘70s. I’m not sure it works in that regard. For a straight up adventure, it works just fine.

But, really, none of that matters. What does matter is that Captain America was black long before now. And Sam “The Falcon” Wilson was that black Cap. His new gig as Cap really isn’t all that new.

I wonder if they’ll even reference this adventure.

~N

What Went Wrong?: Vol. 50 – Spectacularly Ill Advised Buddy Cop Edition

The buddy cop comedy/action film is, at this point, old hat for Hollywood. Even after being perfected by Lethal Weapon (and its eventual sequels) way back in the late 80s, every once in a while someone tries to update the genre anyway, usually to mixed success. A few outliers include the Rush Hour franchise, which was huge for a few years, as well as last year’s The Heat, a Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy “comedy” that was one of the worst films I saw in theaters last year. Something about pairing up two people who do not ostensibly go together just has some kind of special appeal to Hollywood, I guess. I’m not necessarily opposed to the buddy cop genre, but let’s be honest here – it is almost entirely played out.

CopoutposterDespite this, in 2009 Warner Bros. gave Kevin Smith, who is not particularly known for directing action films, 35 million dollars to make a Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan buddy cop film titled A Couple of Dicks, a film title that was funny the first time I heard it, but grew tiresome after that (much like Homer Simpson’s barbershop quartet The Be Sharps). Smith was forced, however, to change the title after Warner Bros. decided it might not be a good idea to have the word Dicks on a theater marquee. The best thing he could come up with then was Cop Out, another incredibly dumb title. The difference between the two was that while A Couple of Dicks was momentarily clever, Cop Out was always dumb.

Post name change, negative buzz continued to surround the film, particularly after the initial trailer was released in late 2009. The trailer was met with almost universal disdain, with criticism leveled at the unfunny jokes, the lazy riffing, and yet another bored Bruce Willis performance. When Cop Out was finally released in theaters late February 2010, critics unleashed vitriol not seen in quite some time upon it. The film scored a terrible 19% on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes and abysmal 31/100 on Metacritic. Reviewers criticized the film’s laziness and poor script (it should be noted that Smith only directed and did not write Cop Out) as well as Bruce Willis’ terrible performance, which marked perhaps his eighth or ninth lazy/disinterested/boring performance in a row.

So, umm, what else went wrong? Well, for starters the film didn’t exactly light up the box office. Though it opened somewhat strongly with 18 million dollars, the film closed with about 44 million domestically and didn’t even double its budget worldwide, meaning it likely never turned a profit for studio Warner Bros. Furthermore, controversy arose in the aftermath of the film when it was revealed that director Smith feuded constantly with Willis on set. In an interview with podcaster/comedian Marc Maron in early 2011, Smith claimed that Willis would not even so much as sit for a poster shoot, and if not for the interventions of Tracy Morgan, that it could have gotten much worse between the two. A representative for Bruce Willis later claimed Smith smoked way too much marijuana on set, a claim Smith essentially owned up to.

In the aftermath of the various Cop Out controversies, Smith essentially retired from mainstream filmmaking. In addition to the Willis feud, Smith also unnecessarily provoked the ire of film critics when he claimed he would no longer hold free reviewer’s screenings for his films. This particularly rankled legendary film critic Roger Ebert and caused the reviewer community to claim Smith was both dishonest and disingenuous. Since Cop Out’s release in 2010, Smith has not directed another widely released film. His 2011 film Red State, which was widely panned but at least met with some positive critical notice, was available on video-on-demand. His next film, Tusk (another horror title), will be probably be distributed on video-on-demand once again later this year.

Kevin Smith has a fairly large and vocal fan base, but he has seemingly alienated everyone else around him. He hasn’t had a hit film in years, his films no longer appear in theaters, and even the movies he has made with big name actors (Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan, Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks) have done mediocre business at the box office (2008′s Zack and Miri Make a Porno was Seth Rogen’s first mainstream flop). 2010’s Cop Out drew Smith’s harshest reviews ever, failed to launch at the box office, ignited significant controversy, and has ultimately failed to endure, largely due to poor direction, a tired and cliché script, and an incredibly lazy Bruce Willis performance. Smith likely thought he had a Rush Hour-sized hit on his hands, but Cop Out ended up being one of the worst films of 2010, ultimately appealing to no one at all and essentially ending Kevin Smith’s mainstream directing career.

-Z-

I Saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I don’t think 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes could possibly have been less anticipated. Ten years previous, Tim Burton’s adaptation of the 1968 Charlton Heston-starring classic sci-fi film left viewers befuddled and angry. Thus, a prequel film starring James Franco (who is not necessarily known for his prowess in action/sci-fi films) from an unknown director dumped into the dregs of August didn’t exactly inspire confidence from studio Fox. The film, however, was surprisingly well reviewed and went on to big box office success and fan acclaim. I doubt many thought it would be possible to resurrect this decades-old franchise, but Fox managed to pull it off.

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A follow-up film was immediately put into production, with Andy Serkis reprising his role as Caesar, the charismatic super-intelligent chimpanzee and leader of the apes. Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) was hired to direct and Austalian actor Jason Clarke was tapped to play the lead human, with Keri Russell and Gary Oldman in supporting roles. Unlike the first go-round, the hype surrounding Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a tad more palpable. Many thought Serkis deserved an Oscar nomination for his work in the first film, and the prospect of another amazing Serkis performance as well as a bigger budget and bigger scale were obviously enough to draw audiences in (the film opened with a massive 73 million dollars last weekend domestically).

I caught Dawn of the Planet of the Apes last Saturday night, and while I definitely liked it, I also have quite a few reservations about this film. It’s taken me almost a week to write this review. Dawn is a complicated film with an incredibly ambitious yet limited scope. It’s also an incredibly violent film, filled with murder and warfare. It is quite possibly the hardest PG-13 rated film I’ve ever seen and certainly the hardest since The Dark Knight in 2008. It is a dystopian future in this film with very little hope. This is a film where even the protagonists (particularly Caesar) make difficult decisions that are not easy to admire. No one comes off smelling like roses in this film, which makes it a very different kind of summer blockbuster, where the good guys win and everything is black and white.

Dawn is also a very long film. It is nearly a half hour longer than the film that preceded it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing except that Dawn is a nearly joyless and hopeless affair. Every short measure of success met by our protagonists is almost always shortly erased by a setback. Take, for example, Caesar’s decision to let the humans, led by Malcolm and Ellie (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell), into ape territory to repair a hydroelectric power plant. This decision is not taken lightly by Koba, the second-in-command bonobo monkey, who protests that Caesar is a human sympathizer. On the human end, Carver, a member of Malcolm’s repair group, smuggles a shotgun into ape territory, which immediately creates distrust between the groups. A powerful and trusting decision by Caesar leads to two betrayals.

Another criticism I have of this film is in Gary Oldman’s villainous character Dreyfus. Dreyfus is the leader of the band of humans and it is largely his idea to get power plant up and running. However, he also refuses to believe that the apes present a serious threat to the humans. The problem with this character is that he, like Carver, is almost too stupid to live in this environment. He should certainly be able to see the threat the apes exhibit to the humans, and this threat should lead to a certain amount of fear and respect of the apes’ culture. But he continually refers to them as nothing more than animals, despite the climactic battle at the end of the first film demonstrating otherwise. Dreyfus also disappears for long stretches of the film and is never very particularly threatening or upsetting on-screen. I’m not sure if the problem is particularly with the script or with Oldman himself, but I’d be willing to guess it’s more of a scripting issue.

With so much going on in this film, it is easy to forget how small the scale is. I don’t really have a problem with this, although to be honest I was expecting the scale to be a bit more epic, especially considering the fact that Fox doubled the budget of Rise for the second installment. Even though Maurice and Caesar claim to not have seen the humans in a few years, it is shortly after revealed that the humans are still bunkering down in San Francisco, where a pocket of a few hundred humans has tried to re-establish society. I have a hard time believing that Caesar would not have known about this. The apes are highly intelligent with keen senses – they would have known about the humans immediately.

The best parts of this film for me are the relationships between Malcolm and Caesar and Koba and Caesar. Malcolm and Caesar become unlikely allies and even friends, eventually gaining a mutual respect and admiration for one another. On the other hand, Koba and Caesar go from being respected friends and comrades to enemies, as Koba attempts to upend ape society in order to destroy the humans and become leader and near dictator of the apes. Koba is an amazingly accomplished character, perhaps even exceeding Caesar in some respects of characterization. Koba’s motivations are almost always understandable, which is a testament to the better aspects of the script as well as Toby Kebbell’s fantastic motion-capture performance coupled with the amazing special effects (which are even better here than in Rise). Speaking of motion-capture, Andy Serkis remains amazing as Caesar.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an incredibly complicated film with deep, thoughtful themes and conflict. It is simultaneously ugly and beautiful. It is difficult to watch but also immensely entertaining. Nearly one week after viewing Dawn, I am still having difficulty parsing out whether or not I liked the film, really liked the film, or loved the film. In some ways, I’m still not sure what I watched. It is an incredibly heavy film that I would almost compare to something like Apocalypse Now. Fox has taken an incredible gamble with this franchise, and it appears to have paid off not only for them but also for critics and audiences. I am incredibly interested in where things go for here. I’m not sure how the creative side behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes can top themselves with the next installment. What an ambitious accomplishment.

-Z-

I Revisited Day of the Dead

When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember reading about the 1978 zombie movie classic Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s masterpiece sequel to his 1968 cult classic and critical favorite Night of the Living Dead. I had seen Night many times over, perhaps due to its status in the public domain. I had never seen Dawn, however, but reading about it really piqued my interest. The concept behind a small band of survivors holding out in a shopping mall during the zombie apocalypse is still something that still fascinates me, even after eventually taping the movie off of Cinemax or something during the summer of 1998 and subsequently wearing out the tape (I eventually bought a VHS copy from Suncoast and then a DVD from Amazon). Even if, in subsequent years, zombie movies became overly ubiquitous and cheap looking, I still loved Dawn of the Dead.

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It would be a few more years before I got a chance to see Day of the Dead, the 1985 follow up to Dawn and the second sequel in the series. I knew that Day existed, but I had never seen it commercially available to view and none of the rental stores in my hometown carried it. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then it could be exceedingly difficult to get information about certain movies. Then, in about 2000 or so, a Video Update rental chain opened in my town (only to close about three years later unfortunately). The new store carried Day of the Dead, and there was of course much rejoicing. I remember the night I first watched it. I gathered a few people in my buddy’s basement, we ordered pizzas, and we geared up to watch what could only be the most amazing follow up to the best zombie film ever made.

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I Saw Transformers: Age of Extinction

There is no more divisive a director than Michael Bay. Whether he makes films that are legitimately good (Bad Boys, Pain and Gain, The Rock) or films that are horrifyingly bad (Pearl Harbor, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Armageddon), Bay is, generally speaking, an Internet whipping boy. He gets flack for having brainless, explosion-laden films. His movies make hundreds of millions of dollars despite rarely finding critical acclaim. He works with some of the most hated and controversial, fairly or unfairly, actors out there (Martin Lawrence, Nicolas Cage, Shia Labeouf, and Megan Fox have all drawn the ire of audiences at some point in their careers). But I actually really like Michael Bay. He’s not pretentious. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a middle-aged man who constantly feels the need satiate his inner twelve-year-old. And I can appreciate that.

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Bay’s Transformers series of films have always been incredibly silly. Featuring farting robots, humping robots, and jive-talking robots, it would actually be quite fair to ask Mr. Bay if he even knows what a robot is. The films are also incredibly loud, filled with nonsensical plots, and largely a collective excuse for violence and crude sex jokes. But again, I actually kind of like them. I kind of like the awful second one as well, which for all of its faults features a genuinely rousing third act (Devastator was worth the price of admission alone). For these reasons, I kind of liked Age of Extinction, the latest film in the series, as well. It is just as loud and just as dumb, but it is also really glorious in its horrifying PG-13 violence and headache-inducing special effects. At least in Bay’s films you can actually see where the enormous budget went. Age of Extinction is not a subtle film at all.

Picking up five years after the events of the third film (for those who don’t remember: Chicago is essentially destroyed in an all-out assault by Megatron and Sentinel Prime), Age of Extinction follows Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, who gives a genuinely good performance), an inventor who accidentally buys Optimus Prime, who he mistakes for a wrecked semi-truck. Upon reactivating Prime, Yeager learns of a sinister plot where the CIA, headed by the corrupt Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, perfectly cast a smarmy government goon) will, with the cooperation of corporate head honcho Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, who is also legitimately good), eliminate the Transformers (both Decepticon and Autobot) and create their own versions, which they can perfect, patent, and sell to various countries as military hardware. It is now up to Optimus, Cade and his daughter and her boyfriend (Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor), and a small band of Autobot heroes (with voices by John Goodman and Ken Watanabe!) to stop Attinger and Joyce and save the day.

The plots in these films are overly complicated and, as noted earlier, largely just an excuse for special effects and violence. Age of Extinction is no different, and it is probably the most violent in the series yet. Characters are horribly and brutally murdered, both human and robot. Perhaps the most disturbing scene involves the evil Transformer Lockdown (who is neither Autobot nor Decepticon) essentially napalming a character to death, until that character is nothing but an ash statue. I was pretty shocked at this brutality. Other instances of horrifying acts of violence include several spacecrafts crashing into Chicago and wanton mass destruction of the city of Hong Kong, where Lockdown makes brutal use of his alien technology. Last year, much ballyhoo was made about the mass devastation in films like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness. Age of Extinction isn’t quite as bad as those, but it’s notable nonetheless.

Though the film has been critically panned, there are actually quite a few positive aspects of Age of Extinction. These films have featured a surprising number of strong actors (Jon Voight, Jon Turturro, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand), and that trend continues here. Much was made about the replacing of Shia Labeouf, and while I am not a Labeouf hater the way most of the Internet is, casting Mark Wahlberg in the lead was a good choice. He gives a good performance here. As noted earlier, both Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci are good in their roles as well. Tucci ended up being one of the best parts of the entire movie I thought. He really gave what could have been a nothing role some real depth. The absolute best part of the film, however, has to be the addition of the Dinobots, particularly Grimlock. Seeing Optimus riding Grimlock into battle was actually all kinds of awesome. I kept waiting for the Dinobots to show up in the film, and when they do it is definitely worth it.

The film, however, has an enormous amount of flaws. Age of Extinction runs a butt-numbing 165 minutes, which is the longest film in the series thus far. Though I enjoy a good action scene as much as the next person (and the film has no shortage of action scenes I assure you), I also found them to be somewhat repetitive. A few of them lacked the stakes of the earlier films (I never thought any of the main Autobots were in much danger) as well. Additionally, I was about this close to getting a massive headache because of all the on-screen carnage. The film also tries to dupe its audience into caring at all about the budding onscreen love between Cade’s daughter Tessa and her love interest, daredevil racecar driver Shane, whose name I had to look up because he’s so bland. The film also had the opportunity to go really dark in tone (the plot basically involves corrupt, violent federal agents strong-arming and terrorizing innocent Americans), but it instead chooses to forgo a dark tone in favor of mostly lighter fare, much like the previous Transformers films.

Look, these aren’t great films. They are incredibly entertaining, however. They are event films designed to play well over the fourth of July holiday time frame and entertain people, mostly twelve-year-olds, on summer vacation. I don’t have a problem with that. A whole lot of people online like to make fun of Michael Bay because he chooses to mostly make big, stupid motion pictures and his movies make a lot of money (the guy has only one flop on his resume, 2005’s The Island). I don’t have any problem with the career path Bay has chosen. I thought his 2013 effort, Pain and Gain, was one of the best films of the year in all honesty. Though Age of Extinction won’t win any awards and probably won’t convert any new fans to this long-running movie franchise, I mostly enjoyed what was on screen, even if the 165-minute running time exhausted me. There are some genuinely cool moments in Age of Extinction, like Optimus charging into battle on the back of Grimlock, that were worth the price of admission for me. I have no regrets.

-Z-

Franchise Fracas! – X-Men (Part Two)

Continuing from Part One where I looked at the original X-Men trilogy and the first attempt to continue the franchise.

More walking.

More walking.

Seeing they made a misstep with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Fox knew they had to do something to right this train, so they turned back to franchise starter Bryan Singer. He (in a producer’s role) teamed with The Last Stand’s original director Matthew Vaughn and delivered 2011’s X-Men: First Class. Connecting it closely with the original X-Men film, Vaughn and Singer crafted an origin tale for Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and ultimately the X-Men. The film, though grossing lower than previous entries, was embraced by critics and audiences. While I enjoy the film, I do feel that it suffers from the same problems as X-Men: The Last Stand (likely due to Vaughn’s involvement), but that’s for another discussion.

I really appreciated that the film was able to reinvigorate the X-Men series without resorting to a reboot (which, by 2011, would have been the expected move). A sequel was soon in production with Bryan Singer retaking the directing reins. There was a lot of fan backlash with Singer back as director. Coinciding with the “revised” online opinions of the first two films, Singer was now oddly considered a hack where as he was previously adorned with Christopher Nolan-like love. It is reasons like this that I just don’t understand fandom. However, the angry neckbeards were pacified upon learning that the next film was going to be an adaptation of a popular X-Men storyline titled Days of Future Past, and would incorporate the casts of both the original trilogy and First Class.

This poster is awesome!

This poster is awesome!

But before they could get to that, there was more Wolverine to be seen! 2013 saw the release of The Wolverine, a sequel of sorts to X-Men: The Last Stand. This is arguably my favorite of the X-Men series given the more character driven nature of the film. It is pretty surprising how strong the film ultimately turned out considering that it had several pre-production issues including director changes, late script rewrites, and continuous revising of the shooting schedule.

Directed by James Mangold, The Wolverine was met with an enthusiastic response from the fans. Surprisingly, critics were not as impressed with the movie only achieving a 69% Rotten Tomatoes score. This is something that really perplexes me as I thought the film would have ranked higher even with the slightly silly ending. But, Fox was happy with it to recruit Mangold to direct a third Wolverine movie starring Jackman.

Too busy?

Too busy?

Earlier this summer, X-Men: Days of Future Past was released and was a monster hit both critically and financially. Combining the casts allowed fans to get a trip down memory lane and push the X-Men story forward. The movie also did a pretty interesting trick in rebooting the X-Men franchise without actually rebooting it. Because they used Wolverine to change the events prior to the first X-Men movie, it effectively “erased” the events from those movies. Instead of disappointing audiences for feeling like they wasted their time becoming invested in the earlier X-Men films, Wolverine still remembers those events, thus they still have impact. I suppose it is somewhat appropriate that Wolverine is the only one who remembers considering one of the major fan criticisms of the X-Men movies is that they were too Wolverine-centric.

That being said, I am not sure that really needed to happen. Online fans complain that the X-Men films had terrible continuity, but beyond a few small things that no one other than the most anal of neckbeards would care about, the series holds up pretty well. I get why they did what they did as it does free the current run of prequel films up narratively.

As mentioned, the film was a box office success as it is the highest grossing X-Men movie thus far (though 2006’s The Last Stand is still the most successful domestically as of this writing). And, because the filmed wiped away a lot of the continuity from the prior movies, future films have the flexibility to do whatever they want and become serious contenders for the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.

What made these films popular to last nearly 15 years? Well, I think Hugh Jackman is a big reason. People love the guy and he is probably one of the most enthusiastic actors out there currently. It seems like he has such a passion for the Wolverine character and the films that it bleeds into his performance and the audience just eats it up.

Plus, these movies do have the edge of having something to say. Some of the films do better than others, obviously. But each have that message of discrimination and look at the issue with the appropriate shades of grey. They don’t really dumb down the situation (even the action-heavy The Last Stand).

Is this what is coming next?

Is this what is coming next?

And, with that, the X-Men series actually take risks with their movies. They dared enough to try new things (not all that worked, mind you), and was willing to break away from the source material in order to service the movie at hand. Characters have been killed off or given permanent changes. Plot points have played with audience expectations. Heck, even The Wolverine featured a mostly Asian cast – how often does that happen in a mainstream Hollywood summer blockbuster? Unlike other comic book movies (like the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the X-Men films were not afraid to make some bold choices for their movies.

So, what comes next? Already, there are two more X-Men films in development. Currently Bryan Singer is scheduled to return as director for a 2016 follow-up to Days of Future Past titled X-Men: Apocalypse.   In addition to a third (possibly final) Wolverine movie scheduled for 2017, there are rumors of spin-offs for the related properties of X-Force and Deadpool (yes, they are still trying to make this happen). Will these films continue the renewed success that Days of Future Past reignited? Anything is possible. I do have a slight fear that, given how Days of Future Past repositioned the pieces on the board, the X-films will lose some of what made them great in the first place and become just a series of soulless movies that play things too safe. I’d hate for that to happen, but I suppose we’ll see. And if that does happen, it will never take away the movies already made. And, for that, I am thankful.

~N

Franchise Fracas! – X-Men (Part One)

The X-Men series is a very complicated one. Since 2000, there have been seven films connected to it, making it one of the longest-running superhero franchises out there currently. Unlike other properties (like, say, Spider-Man) X-Men have yet to be completely rebooted – shocking in this day and age. But that said, the series is far from perfect and have had a lot of black marks against it, including some retro-active “reviews” from online commentators.

This poster is soooo late-90's.

This poster is soooo late-90′s.

2000’s X-Men is a fairly simple film. There is nothing offensive about it, but there is also nothing overly memorable about it either. I remember watching this movie back during the holidays of that year (I missed it in theaters), and, while I enjoyed it, I felt it just came short. One of things that I took away was the fact that the movie didn’t kill off the main villain, Magneto (Ian McKellen). Given that the big superhero movies up to that point were the Batman films and each entry more or less killed off the villains, the idea that the main bad guy could return in a sequel was surprising to me (and given that it is Ian McKellen, we are all thankful for that).

The film went on to receive high critical praise and dominated the box office. This was a surprise by many considering that comic book movies were at an all-time low, the X-Men were a mostly unknown property (to general audiences), and the cast was comprised of largely unknowns or actors under the radar (which is really strange to think from a 2014 perspective). 20th Century Fox was happy, and a sequel was commissioned with director Bryan Singer returning. The result was 2003’s X2 (an obviously studio-forced title).

The second movie went through a couple of  official titles.

The second movie went through a couple of official titles.

X2 improved upon its predecessor with a larger and more complex storyline, deeper themes, and a bigger scale. On the other hand, the film sometimes gets a little too big for its britches, and it slightly comes off a bit pretentious – mostly in regards to how too-serious the characters act and not embracing some of the goofiness the movie inherently has. That said, it is a minor criticism, and I do feel that X2 is the arguably the strongest film in the series thus far. At the time, people felt that the movie was one of the best superhero films out there.

Which is very, very interesting. Within the last three or four years, the online opinion of the first two X-Men films have nearly reversed. They used to be loved by many. Now, they are considered some of the worst superhero movies ever made. This is utterly perplexing to me. Why such a turnaround? I have no problem with people revising their opinions, but the consensus seems to be that they were never good and that no one ever liked them – which is completely untrue. What happened? My theory is that that internet echo chamber is ridiculously comparing these films made nearly 15 years ago to modern standards. Does X-Men and X2 look cheap compared to things like Marvel’s The Avengers or Man of Steel. Of course they do! They had much, much smaller budgets and were a part of a genre that was not nearly as accepted as it is today. The success of those early X-Men movies allowed for the current wave of superhero films. I am not saying that gives Singer’s films a complete pass, but you really have to judge these things in relation to the time period they were released in.

The X-Men posters featured a lot of characters walking.

The X-Men posters featured a lot of characters walking.

After those two X-Men films, problems occurred. Singer departed the franchise to helm Superman Returns. Fox, not wanting to wait for him, turned to Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn did pretty much all of the pre-production work on a third installment before he bailed on the movie. Fox scrambled and hired internet-whipping-boy Brett Ratner to pick up the slack. The result was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.

I have a confession to make: I really like this movie. Oh, I know it isn’t perfect, and there is a noticeable drop in quality from the previous installments, but for me, it has just enough social commentary to give the film some weight with enough fun action and character bits to make it a really good popcorn movie. The internet hates this film. I mean hates it. I don’t think it really warrants it. They also hate Brett Ratner for it (well, it is one of many things they hate him for). I really don’t blame Ratner for

the outcome. If you look at everything involved, this really was Vaughn’s film. From my understanding, Ratner served as the midwife.

But, whatever one thinks of The Last Stand, it definitely signaled some bad times ahead.   Fox didn’t quite know where to go next with the X-Men. They got a trilogy out of it (which resolved many of the ongoing storyline threads), but they were not ready to reboot the property or focus on the “next generation” of characters. And why would they when they have the popular Hugh Jackman as fan-favorite Wolverine? So, with a huge stable full of characters, the next idea was to do spotlight films on specific characters. Under the banner of X-Men Origins, Fox entertained the idea of doing films about Wolverine, Magneto, Deadpool, Gambit, and Emma Frost (note: up to this point, the first two were the only characters so far featured in a X-Men film).

Most of these characters are barely in the movie.

Most of these characters are barely in the movie.

Unfortunately for Fox, the only Origins film made was about Wolverine (which did feature Deadpool, Gambit, and Emma Frost). Also unfortunate for Fox was that the Wolverine movie was…not very good. Even though it was directed by Gavin Hood (hot off his 2005 Oscar win), critics and audiences savaged it and for good reason. The film had an overly complicated story, nonsensical character motivations, and surprisingly terrible effects for 2009 (seriously, how do you screw up Wolverine’s claws for his own movie when it was done so well for three previous films?!). The film seemed as if it was structured by set pieces than an actual story suggesting that this really wasn’t Hood’s movie and, instead, was made by a committee of studio execs.  You can read more here.

Not helping matters was that the film was leaked to the internet weeks before its release date. To its credit, X-Men Origins: Wolverine did feature some really fun performances from Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber. But, it wasn’t enough to save it. I think the Culture Cast’s very own Zack is the film’s only fan.

The X-Men series was in the midst of some dark times, but as history has shown, the mutants were far from over. Since this Franchise Fracas entry proved to be too long for its own good, tomorrow, we will pick up with the rest of the X-Men franchise.

Trek Tuesday: Netflix

Netflix streaming is great. Especially for Star Trek. As of this writing, the service has every episode from all six series and seven of the 12 movies to watch at any time as many times you want. It is wonderful for a Trekkie (and extremely useful when writing this column).   There was a rumor earlier this week that Netflix was considering producing a new Star Trek television series. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, it is probably not going to happen. At least anytime soon.

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I am pretty sure that this rumor has been shot down by now. The Star Trek franchise already has enough confusing legal wrangling. Paramount has the rights to make new movies while CBS and Viacom co-own the rights to create new television shows. Adding Netflix in there would be another headache as, according to the first link above, CBS and Viacom have been known to not playing nice with each other when it comes to shared projects. While CBS has a friendly relationship with Netflix, Viacom has a relationship with Hulu. Even if Netflix might want to do a Star Trek series, there are other factors at play preventing that form really happening.

Plus, original Netflix series are still a very new thing. While there has been some initial success with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, it still is to be seen if this is just a flash in the pan or if this type of programming will have legs. I think more of a solid answer can be made within another year or two (perhaps the success or failure of the in-production Marvel series will be the determining factor).

But, let’s pretend for a second that Netflix will be doing a Star Trek series. What kind of series could they do for it to be successful? Sure, the current movies are popular, but how will they translate that popularity to the small screen? After thinking about it, I have come up with four possible scenarios.  Please note: this is pure speculation. I cannot stress this enough!

1)  A Star Trek series that features the cast of the current movies going on adventures. The probability of this is likely low. Even though the reputation of television have favorably grown within the last ten years or so, given that all of the actors involved are in demand and will likely not have time to do episodic television.

2) A Star Trek animated series. This could feature the same characters as in the movies going on adventures (but not necessarily the same actors doing voice over work). I’m honestly surprised that this hasn’t happen yet. Many superhero franchises do this between movies in order to keep interest with kids between movie installments. With Star Trek considered “cool” now, this could be a slam dunk. Then again, why use Netflix to deliver an animated series?

3) A Star Trek series that features a new cast of characters on a new ship. Would likely take place in the current JJ Abrams universe. This would likely be one of the stronger options, but would people care about a new crew? One of the problems with the Rick Berman era of Star Trek was that each series, regardless of quality, drifted further and further away from the more iconic elements of Star Trek. The “pop-culture name recognition” wasn’t there so much which led Paramount to do a rebooted Kirk and Spock movie series. Then again, people probably thought the same thing when The Next Generation premiered in 1987 and that was a runaway success. I guess it could be a rebooted The Next Generation. Speaking of which…

4) A Star Trek mini-series that serves as a reunion for The Next Generation crew. I’d say the possibility for that is a 50/50. On one hand, the JJ Abrams reboot series is going strong. Why go back to the past in a previous continuity to make things confusing for the casual viewer with characters that haven’t been seen since 2002? The theory being : go forward, not backwards. On the other hand, The Next Generation was pretty popular in its day. While not at the level of Kirk and Spock, Picard and Data are pretty strong pop-culture icons in their own right. Viewers might want to revisit these characters, and the actors seem pretty positive of their time with Star Trek. I would not be surprised if they were willing to sign-up for a reunion. Plus, it would be on Netflix instead of network TV, with the rest of The Next Generation a click away for new viewers to check out. The idea of confusing evaporates immediately. Things like Arrested Development or Star Wars: The Clone Wars suggest this can be successful.

These are just my ideas. If (and that’s a big if) Netflix does create a new Star Trek television show, what would you want to see? Sound off below!

~N

Getting Back to My Roots: Yoshiaki Kawajiri is Responsible for Everything

In their sprawling, hilarious Demon City Shinjuku review (which is more like a scene-by-scene synopsis) on an old episode of the excellent podcast Anime World Order, reviewers Daryl, Clarissa, and Gerald refer to director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, with tongues mostly in cheek, as being the man mainly responsible for the overall poor reputation anime suffered from in mid-90s. Works like the aforementioned Shinjuku along with the far more violent Wicked City and the futuristic Cyber City Oedo cemented Kawajiri’s status as a schlock legend domestically, but I would argue that none of his films were as important to the anime industry as 1993’s Ninja Scroll.

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Released domestically in 1995 by Manga Entertainment (seriously, who else?), Ninja Scroll was a massive hit. It became the best-selling title for Manga Entertainment, and its reputation quickly spread amongst not only anime fans, but also fans of cult cinema and martial arts/samurai films. I first watched Ninja Scroll around 1996, and I remember being enthralled and horrified by what I watched. I was finally able to buy a copy around 1998, and I remember showing the film to everyone who would let me. I probably shared Ninja Scroll with around 30 friends and family members (of course, I could only show it to the most hardcore of friends and family members) and of everyone I shared it with, to this day I can only recall one person disliking it (a friend who had been raised in a very conservative Christian home).

I have been watching a lot of anime recently, and I started thinking about Ninja Scroll in particular a few weeks ago. I owned a copy on VHS, but never purchased it on DVD. Sentai Filmworks, who acquired the license in 2012, re-released the film on Blu Ray disc in December of 2012, but I never bothered to pick up that release either. I kind of wanted to keep the film as a part of my increasingly forgotten childhood. How well would it hold up, anyway? It was a hyper-violent, misogynistic fantasy with ridiculous characters, typical Kawajiri character design, and a horribly hacky dub, typical of Manga Entertainment (though it does feature Kirk Thornton and Richard Epcar, two of the more talented voice-over artists in anime).

But I ended up seeking out Ninja Scroll anyway. I first checked Netflix, but no luck there. Then, I checked Amazon Prime, but the film is unavailable there as well. I was beginning to get a bit disheartened, because I definitely didn’t want to pay more than necessary to re-watch this film. My salvation lay with Hulu Plus for the most part, however. Checking the service’s anime collection, I was pleasantly surprised to come across Ninja Scroll. I was mildly disappointed when I discovered, however, that the film was in its subtitled version (I was kind of looking forward to hearing that cheesy dub to be honest) and that it was not in wide-screen format, meaning it wouldn’t fit nicely on my massive TV. But I was still happy to see it there in front of me with such little effort.

On my re-watch, it totally wasn’t hard to see what was so disgusting about Ninja Scroll that parent groups and politicians might look negatively on it back in the day. There are several elements of the film that are absolutely reprehensible, of course. Rampant and unrepentant misogyny overwhelms the film, as it does most of Kawajiri’s works. The grotesque rape scenes (there are two) are obviously distasteful. The film, though animated beautifully, is also mostly ugly in terms of color palette, with earth browns dominating the daylight scenes. Character designs are also a bit off-putting. Characters who are supposed to be handsome or beautiful just look lanky and weird to me. The film is also hyper-violent and ripe with death and dismemberment. This isn’t for the feint of heart.

So what is Ninja Scroll about, anyway? It is essentially a wandering samurai tale, as lead character Jubei (a cynical yet charismatic swordsman) is tasked with tracking down Himuro Genma and his Eight Devils of Kimon by government agent/monk Dakuan. Did I mention that Dakuan has poisoned Jubei, making his success all the more important? Jubei must track down a treasure pilfered by the Eight Devils of Kimon in order to restore peace to the shogun and keep Japan from falling into a civil war, or something like that. The plot mainly serves as multiple excuses for violent swordfights, erotic visits to hot springs, and forbidden love affairs. Jubei is joined in his task by Kagero (who is literally poisonous – sleeping with her or even so much as kissing her is enough to kill a man), who joins him after her own clan is wiped out by the Eight Devils of Kimon.

I’ve mentioned a few times that Ninja Scroll’s character design is ugly, and it is. It is also very unique in that each of the various devils of Kimon is wholly unique and interesting despite being very ugly. The first devil Jubei and Kagero face, Tessai, is kind of like a cross between the Hulk and Thing from Fantastic Four, only more interested in rape. Other characters include the mountainous and sleek Genma, who is the main antagonist of the film, and Benisato, a seductive snake-woman who attacks Jubei in a hot springs. My favorite devil is Zakuro, who uses explosive traps and has a wicked scar on her cheek. Yes, I find these characters to be really, really ugly (even main characters Jubei and Kagero are kind of hideous really), but the fact that they are so distinctive makes them pretty cool actually.

Ninja Scroll is also well paced, which doesn’t give it an opportunity to wear out its welcome. The film, which clocks in at a swift 94 minutes with credits, rarely finds time to rest. Kawajiri’s film jumps from place to place, moment-to-moment, boss fight to boss fight in a manner that at least feels mostly logical as you watch it. The plot, as noted earlier, doesn’t matter as it is pretty much just a vehicle for cool shit and violence. The overall quality of the animation (Madhouse does very nice work, including here) is very high and the plentiful fight scenes are mostly great, making the violence and cool shit all the more glorious. Some of the highlights include Tessai’s assault on Kagero’s clans, who are mercilessly eviscerated and the climactic battle between Jubei and Genma, which is probably the overall highlight of the film.

By 1996, Ninja Scroll had sold 70,000 copies, almost unheard of for anime. Along with Akira and Ghost in the Shell (another Manga Entertainment release), it became known as one of the coolest, most infamous animated films commercially available in America. These three films arguably helped create the anime boom of the late 90s on their own. Of course, Ninja Scroll became mostly well known for its ultra-violence, nudity, and bat-shit insane aesthetics. Re-watching the film last week for this feature, I have to say that I was engaged and enthralled overall by the film, even if I found it far more juvenile at 31 than I did at 16. I can’t help but like some aspects of this film, even if it is fairly reprehensible and partially responsible for the poor reputation of anime in the mid-90s. Some of the fights are still pretty awesome to watch, with Madhouse’s animation being really great. Ninja Scroll is kind of a dinosaur these days, but I can see why it would draw in so many people when it came out here roughly twenty years ago.

-Z-

The Gorehound Reviews: American Mary (’12)

It’s been awhile since the Gorehound got around to a truly disturbing horror movie. This movie, American Mary, has been a long time coming. The Screamfest release from 2012 is the story of a college girl trying to make ends meet and still become a great surgeon. It shows how passionate she is by the extra hours she puts into her studies. The movie has been around a while and hasn’t obtained much attention. It’s understandable because it’s very difficult to watch and this type of movie has little appeal to the general public. Body mutilation and surgical scenes don’t typically garner much attention, nor do they deserve the attention.

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The scenes are intense. Constant surgery, graphic scenes, an intense rape (aren’t they all?), and much nudity. I believe that the film fails in the inability to capture a message or motive. American Mary was mediocre for much of the film, but has some highlights. Especially the super-modified girls Ruby and Beatrice, who look as if made of plastic. These characters bring a movie up to cult status and offer significant potential for sequels. They have some screen time but not enough.

Ruby and Beatrice, highly-modified models who just love that plastic surgery.

Ruby and Beatrice, highly-modified models who just love that plastic surgery.

While the film was slow to start, it did offer promise. About halfway through, a rape occurs and the potential for revenge horror was high. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take off. It should be noted that the Gorehound LOVES revenge horror because it is so emotional and has so much potential. Perhaps the Gorehound was looking for something that wasn’t there. Anyways… there really wasn’t anything there in the first place.

American Mary is not a good movie. It is graphic and not very entertaining. Mary does not appear to be distraught by the rape and merely passes it off as if saying “I’ll seek my revenge eventually but I really want to be a surgeon so that comes first”. Where is the emotional trauma that she suffers? Why does the viewer have to witness the entirety of the rape but only views a portion of the dirty backroom surgery? It’s illogical and not appealing to watch.

ct-mov-0531-specialty-screening-20130531-001Katherine Isabelle, Mary, was the lead and wonderful. Earlier in her career she played Ginger from Ginger Snaps (2000) which is much more entertaining on every level. She is perhaps the string that ties all of the weaker elements together. We see her despair and struggle as a college student and see her confidence as she develops an increasing level of success and confidence. The strip club, where many scenes take place more on an administrative level, appears rough and tough in the beginning but becomes easier to bear as Mary becomes more involved. Similar to how a hotel room feels after housing there for a week. It’s still dirty after spending some time there, but you recognize it more and understand it more. The female dominates the male-dominated strip club.

This movie shouldn’t be watched with any other person whether it be family, friend, or significant other. In fact, don’t watch it yourself. Katherine Isabelle was the only highlight of the movie but could have been better. The Saw series is a much better alternative in that there is a central message at play for all of the destruction and all of the characters have personalities. 1/5

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