The Best Villain of the Year So Far

It still makes me happy that Benedict Cumberbatch is the actual name of an actual human being. I’m always happy whenever he’s in a movie because it gives me a chance to savor saying that wonderful name.

But, as Star Trek Into Darkness reminds us, the dude is a damn good actor. Most of the roles he’s played (at least all the ones I can think of off the top of my head) have been in more good-guy roles. He was appealing and likable in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I’ve heard he’s great in the BBC Sherlock series, though I’ve never seen it.

But in Star Trek Into Darkness, JJ Abrams’ spectacular sequel to his excellent and well-received 2009 Star Trek film, Cumberbatch is pure menacing evil. He seethes with silent fury in every scene he’s in. His character is shrouded in mystery for most of the first half of the film, and the aura of menace built up around him pays off marvelously once we actually get to meet him. Let’s just say that the dude knows how to make an entrance.

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It’s satisfying too that the payoff delivers. It’s always a bummer when there’s a lot of buildup and not enough payoff, so credit is due to Abrams and his screenwriters for knowing to reward the audience for their patience. There is a twist regarding the true identity of Cumberbatch’s villain, but I won’t spoil it. There was also a villainous twist in Iron Man 3, but in my opinion the one in Star Trek makes a bit more sense.

The rest of the movie is great, too. The special effects are top-notch and the rest of the supporting cast is solid. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto still have great chemistry, and Simon Pegg is hilarious as Scotty. Not all of the supporting cast gets much to do (Sulu and Chekhov feel particularly underused) but they’re still fun characters and it’s good to see that a movie with a cast this large still holds up pretty well plotwise. The plot seemed a bit convoluted to me, but I’m not exactly up on my Star Trek lore.

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Abrams and Co. have taken some flack for these movies, pretty much all of which I feel is unwarranted. I’ve heard complaints that he uses the Star Trek universe as nothing more than a vehicle for yet another sci-fi franchise, or that he pumps up the action and skips out on the story character elements. I think all of this is crap, Abrams is one of the finest action directors working today. To date he’s directed four films: Mission: Impossible 3, Star Trek (the first one), Super 8, and Star Trek Into Darkness. In my book he’s four for four. All four of those flicks are awesome. Give me the work of JJ Abrams over the work (and I use that term loosely) of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich any day of the week.

Trek 2 is not a perfect film, the ending to me felt a bit abrupt (one moment the movie is in full-throttle mode, the next it’s over) and some of the supporting cast feels underused. But these are minor complaints in the scheme of things when the overall product is this good. Go see Star Trek Into Darkness for the perfect example of blockbuster summer entertainment done right.

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Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

I Miss the 90’s

When I was a freshman in college, one of the common curriculum classes I had to take had this final project that was very open-ended. The class itself was pretty informal, and the final project was to get in groups and do a presentation on…well, pretty much anything you wanted, as long as there was an interactive element to it. One group did finger-painting, my group did T-shirts, and there were a couple others. Like I said, pretty open-ended.

One of the groups I remember the most was this group of easygoing folks who got up and talked about how awesome the 90’s were. Classic Disney movies, Third Eye Blind, GoldenEye on Nintendo 64…good times. In addition to being a fun, lighthearted project and a nice bit of relief during the stress of finals week, it was a great reminder of how the 90’s were just a great decade to be a kid in.

I was born in 1988, (also the same year Die Hard came out, though I was of course ignorant of this at the time, having just been born) but as this group pointed out, I am not a child of the 80’s, I am a child of the 90’s. I was born late September of 1988 anyway, so I was only around for less than two years’ worth of the 80’s. I am a product of the 90’s, through and through.

And I gotta say, I have a lot of fond memories of the 90’s. One of my earliest moviegoing memories is of seeing Aladdin in the theater, which is still a great movie.

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I watched it a while ago and busted a gut for like five minutes laughing at this. Crazy Hakim’s Discount Fertilizer is totally on Facebook by the way. Seriously, Google that.

Beauty and The Beast in 1991, Aladdin in ’92, Lion King in ’94, Pocahontas in ’95, Hunchback of Notre Dame in ’96, Hercules in ’97 and Mulan in ’98…Disney doesn’t make ‘em like that anymore. Did you know that Disney’s upcoming Lone Ranger movie starring Johnny Depp with a bird on his head has a budget of $200 million-plus? Unbelievable. Probably won’t have one-tenth of what made Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King and Mulan so magical.

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SERIOUSLY. There’s a BIRD on his HEAD. Even Depp looks like he isn’t quite sure how it got there. And why is his face white? Did the bird poop on him?

But getting back to the 90’s, they were awesome (Hell, people forget that The Matrix came out in 1999, even). Everything these days is so messed up, it always seems like we’re only a few days away from the next political scandal or school shooting or natural disaster. In the 90’s, things were simpler. Things seemed more…hopeful, somehow. Nowadays it’s all doom and gloom. The economy’s in the toilet, war, famine, disease, disaster, etc. etc. etc. The 00’s (oughts?) and the 10’s (teens? I don’t really know the proper abbreviation for the last few decades) are just so damn depressing in comparison.

Now, take all of what I’m saying here with a grain of salt. I was a kid in the 90’s, things are always easier when you’re a kid (at least in hindsight). So I think it’s safe to say that my outlook in my formative years was perhaps a bit more rosy than it is now. I mean sure, people who know me would tell you that I’m not always a ray of sunshine, I get depressed and uncommunicative sometimes (sorry, Mom). But when I’m in a good mood I like to think that I’m a decently fun guy to be around. I know the 90’s had its fair share of political turmoil and natural disasters and whatnot (like Columbine in 1999) but my point is nothing more profound than that it was just a good time to be a kid.

In a way, I feel kinda bad for kids these days. I can’t imagine the 00’s are anywhere near as much fun to grow up in as the good ol’ 90’s were. I could very well be wrong, I don’t have kids or anything (that I know of…JUST KIDDING MOM. Really). I had a great childhood, and the easygoing, fun-loving spirit of the 90’s was a big part of that. The facts that I had (and still have) a wonderful family and a great home and went to a good school all helped too of course. But the 90’s just had this…quality to them. After all, how could you not love a decade that produced such awesome TV series like The Pirates of Dark Water…

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THIS SHOW WAS AWESOME. And Amazon tells me it is now available on DVD. I must buy it immediately. Damn shame they never finished it.

Or Gargoyles…

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Seriously, this title card is so badass it could be the cover of a DragonForce album.

Or what I still consider to be the Greatest Animated Television Series of All Time, Batman: The Animated Series?

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Also one of the greatest versions of Batman in any media, and you can even see its influence in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. There’s even an episode where Batman has to stop Scarecrow from poisoning the Gotham water supply with fear toxin…sound familiar anyone? Mr. Nolan did his homework.

But what got me thinking about the 90’s anyway? Well, the party most directly responsible is a band called Nine Days and an album called The Madding Crowd, which just for fun I popped into my CD player in my car (yes, I still listen to CDs while I drive, call me old-fashioned) while on my way home from an appointment yesterday and promptly fell in love with all over again.

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The title of the album is a reference to a novel called Far From the Madding Crowd by an English novelist named Thomas Hardy, whom I know nothing about but apparently had a brilliant mustache:

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JUST LOOK AT THAT ‘STACHE. Magnificent.

Anyway, someone please tell me I’m not the only one out there who remembers this Nine Days album. The actual CD is out of print but I’m pretty sure you can still find it on iTunes. There are just so many great damn songs on this album. Who could forget the song “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)”, a chart-topper from 2000? Yes, the album did technically come out in 2000, but in encapsulates that fun-loving spirit of the 90’s so well that I will always associate it with the 90’s. “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” is one of the songs that got me started listening to music in the first place, along with Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind, an anthem of the 90’s if ever there was one (people say it’s a drug song but who cares? Just try not to tap your foot to that beat).

What I love about “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” in particular is that it is a song about love. “This is the story of a girl/ who cried a river and drowned the whole world/ and while she looks so sad in photographs/ I absolutely love her/ when she smiles.” I love these lyrics. They’re open to interpretation, sure, but to me this is a song about love, about hanging in there when things are tough.

And the thing is, people don’t write lyrics like this anymore. These days it’s all a bunch of rappers going on and on about how they make more money that you and get more girls than you and all this other crap which is all utterly meaningless, and these people make millions, and I just don’t understand it. in the 90’s (okay early 00’s, Mr. Nitpicker) you had other songs from Nine Days like “If I Am”, another wonderfully hopeful song. “You should never let the sun set on tomorrow/ before the sun rises today.” Beautiful. Now you can’t even watch the video for “If I Am” on YouTube without an ad for Rihanna staring at you from the side of the screen.

Sigh. Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era, but then I listen to songs like “If I Am” and think that maybe I wasn’t after all.

“The answers we find/ are never what we had in mind/ so we make them up as we go along.” So true, Nine Days.

So true.

The Surprise of WTF: Iron Man 3

Remember the guy in Predator with the glasses? Who tells the dirty jokes and was the first of Ahnuld’s crew of badasses to be eviscerated by the Predator? I think his name was Hawkins? He was played by a fellow by the name of Shane Black, best known for writing Lethal Weapon. The story is that he was working on the script for Lethal Weapon at the time Predator was being filmed, and producer Joel Silver wanted him around so he could review the script, so I guess they just decided to give him a supporting role while they were at it.

Now, twenty-six years after the release of Predator, along comes Iron Man 3, the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was directed by none other than, you guessed it, Shane Black. Yep, that nerdy-looking dude from Predator who got eviscerated before anyone else directed and co-wrote one of the biggest films of the year (seriously, Iron Man 3 made somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 million dollars over its opening weekend, second only to The Avengers, which coincidentally was the last movie Iron Man made an appearance in).

Black was an interesting choice of director for a megabudget blockbuster like Iron Man 3, since his only previous directing credit was 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a fantastic little neo-noir (also starring Robert Downey Jr.) that flew under the radar when it was first released but has since developed something of a cult following. I love Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s easily one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. It’s hilariously funny, has some fun action scenes, the leads have great chemistry, and it pays homage to one of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler. I need to do a full write-up of it sometime because it’s bloody brilliant and is also a Christmas movie! I meant to write about it last Christmas but ran out of time, so maybe I’ll save it for next Christmas…or maybe I won’t.

But back to Iron Man. 2008’s original Iron Man is widely regarded as one of the best superhero movies pretty much ever made, and with good reason: it’s smart, funny, well-acted, action-packed, and has a lot of heart. 2010’s Iron Man 2, while (in my opinion) hardly being the catastrophe people sometimes make it out to be, couldn’t help but feel a bit flat in comparison. The good news is that Iron Man 3 picks up the slack and moves along at a more brisk pace than the somewhat lackadaisical second installment. The not-so-good news is that the story is, well, kind of all-over-the-place.

In the aftermath of the events of The Avengers, our hero Tony Stark has been plagued by anxiety attacks and nightmares following his near-death at the end of that film. To combat this, he has taken to holing up in his lab/workshop and building suit after suit of badass Iron Man armor. His latest creation, Mark 42, is remote-controllable and Tony is able to summon it from long distances to attach to his body piece-by-piece. This is actually a really cool idea and the movie gets a lot of mileage out of it, both in terms of gags (like various armor pieces flying towards Tony’s sensitive male areas at high speeds) and action scenes (including a standout sequence where Tony thrashes a roomful of thugs with only part of his armor).

There’s also a new terrorist threat on the loose in the form of the Mandarin, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, and a sketchy businessman named Aldrich Killian (people named Killian are Not To Be Trusted) played by Guy Pearce. For some reason that currently escapes me, the Mandarin has a serious vendetta against Tony, which leads to the spectacular destruction of Tony’s awesome mansion (this is not a spoiler, it was in all the trailers). From there, things get a bit…weird.

There’s only so much I can say about the plot without giving too much away, so all I’m going is to say is that there is a big plot twist regarding…well, I can’t say what the twist involves because to say even that would give away too much. Suffice to say that there’s a really big plot twist, and it’s a bit weird.

I’m honestly pretty torn about the big twist. Those of you who have seen the film will know which plot twist I’m referring to, and the way I see it there are two very distinct ways of viewing it.

In one sense, it’s a great twist because it is completely unexpected. It’s noteworthy that there was nothing whatsoever in the film’s extensive advertising to suggest this particular plot twist, and when it happens it is genuinely surprising. It’s impressive when the makers of one of the biggest films of the year are able to so completely pull the wool over viewers’ eyes.

On the other hand, it’s a terrible plot twist for all of the same reasons that make it a great plot twist. It’s jarring because it comes out of nowhere, and seems really out of place, and completely contrary to what the audience was expecting. Now that I’ve had a few days to think it over, I’ve decided that it is admittedly a clever and thoroughly unpredictable twist, but at the same time it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated by it.

Sigh. That’s the thing with big plot twists. They’re either brilliant or they suck. Or they’re both at the same time. It’s kind of confounding from a storytelling perspective.

So where do I go from here? Well, I’ve read some complaints of the film by people who think that there wasn’t enough actual Iron Man in the movie, since (mild spoiler alert) Tony himself doesn’t spend a whole lot of time in the Iron Man suits. This is mostly true, but I thought there was plenty of Iron Man in the movie (or Iron Men as the case may be), even if Tony himself wasn’t always wearing the suit (and if you think about it, there really wasn’t a whole lot of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises).

I think Shane Black said something about how the movie kind of pondered if there was more to Tony Stark as a person and a hero than just the suits, and I think there is something to that idea. Iron Man 3 is almost more of a Tony Stark movie than an Iron Man movie, but, you know, I’m actually pretty okay with that. There are some fun action scenes where Tony has to rely on his brains more than his metal muscle, and these scenes are a fun and important reminder of just how smart and resourceful Tony is.

Despite some of the more jarring plot elements (and there are more and more of them as the film progresses), Iron Man 3 is still a fun and enjoyable movie with lots of great moments. It’s hard not to get a kick out of Downey’s buddy-chemistry with Don Cheadle, and watching them bicker and shoot at bad guys also brings to mind a couple of famous movie cops in another Shane Black-scripted action flick. Downey is as likable and cocky as ever, and Gwyneth Paltrow gets more to do as his lady love than just get captured and look nice (both of which she does). The rest of the supporting cast is solid, the special effects are top-notch and the film moves along briskly and is certainly never boring. There is also a post-credits scene well worth sitting through the end credits for.

Iron Man 3 is a film that perplexed me a bit as I left the theater. I had a lot of mixed emotions about it at first, but now that I’ve had some time to mull it over I think it’s a better film than I initially gave it credit for. There is a certain degree of WTF that I didn’t expect, but it’s a fun, well-made film and I will see it again. If you didn’t like it the first time you saw it, I’d really encourage you to give it another try. First impressions aren’t everything.

Surprise WTF rating: 7.66666(repeating), because why not.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.