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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ranking the Marvel Movies
In keeping with my recent thinking on Referendums and such, it's worth noting another edge case. Like Pixar, a new Marvel Universe movie has, of late, yielded a general referendum on the state of the overarching franchise (rather than just a simple review of the latest movie). All the cook kids have been posting their rankings, ranging from the absurdly comprehensive, to official, indisputable rankings, to unofficial, disputable rankings.

For my part, I'll only be ranking the official Marvel Universe films (so no Spider Man or X-Men movies, etc...) and with the added caveat that every one of these movies has achieved a certain level of base competence that is pretty solid. The fact that they are all connected helps strengthen and reinforce even the "bad" movies, and the all tend to be fun. Another thing worth noting is that these all seem to be infinitely rewatchable, which isn't the only or even primary measure of a movie's worth, but it is one of the things that I think ties these movies all together. Let's get this party started at the bottom of the heap:
  • Iron Man 2 - This movie is a total mess, groaning under the weight of an ill-advised multi-stranded plot, with multiple villains, too much Avengers prep work, and an otherwise limp story. In this movie, Tony Stark is basically a jerk, and not the lovable kind he is in all the other movies. I kinda hate the whole "poisoning" plot thread and Tony's lame attempts to hide it all. The friendship with Rhodes never really works, and that party scene is severely lame. I did revisit this movie somewhat recently, and must admit that it's growing on me. I no longer hate it, but it's still a mess. I have grown to really enjoy Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell's performances, even if their plot is a bit on the incoherent side. I could see this potentially taking a jump up one rung on this list, but that's pretty much the ceiling on this one.
  • The Incredible Hulk - This is a movie I want to like, but it ends up pretty low on the list because it's the one Marvel movie that everyone always forgets is part of the universe. Plus, while I enjoyed Edward Norton's take, Mark Ruffalo completely owned the character in The Avengers, which makes this movie a bit of an oddity. On the other hand, there's nothing really dramatically wrong here, and it's got some fun action at the end.
  • Iron Man - I'm a little surprised that this one is as low as it is, but on the other hand, I was never as in love with it as everyone else, even at the time. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is a revelation in this role, and that's the one thing that really keeps this movie afloat for me. I'm not a huge fan of the opening of the movie, but the second act is fantastic (in particular, the sorta buddy-comedy aspect of Tony working with Jarvis on the new suit). Alas, the finale is a bit strained. I actually really liked Jeff Bridges here, but as with a lot of origin stories, he's given short shrift. Upon rewatching, the ending sits better with me and the movie is still a fair amount of fun, so I'll give it that much credit. It's also worth noting that for its time, it really did represent a shift in comic book movies, which were in danger of getting mired in grimdark. This came out in 2008, the year of the excellent but pretty dark The Dark Knight and the decent but super-dark Watchmen. Batman is allowed to be dark and brooding, because that's his schtick, but it seemed like the comic book movie was burning itself out, and Iron Man (particularly the second act) made comic book movies fun again. It may not be my favorite, but it is probably one of the more important films on the list.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger - Upon first exposure, this was my favorite of the pre-Avengers films, but on subsequent rewatches, I got a little tired of the montage-heavy second and third acts. That being said, this has, by far, the best origin story in the Marvel universe films. The first act of this movie is superb, and while it does slowly trail off into montages and a rather odd climax, I do like Red Skull as a villain and the present-day ending piece is a nice setup for The Avengers (this was the movie that immediately preceded that film, and it does an excellent job leading into it). In general, I'd consider this on par with Thor, and the two movies sorta go back and forth for me.
  • Thor - I expect that this movie would be way lower on most other people's lists, but for whatever reason, I tend to connect more with the Thor movies than most everyone else. Maybe it's the fish-out-of-water comedy or the Shakespearean theatrics, or perhaps just the charismatic lead performances from Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. The romance with Natalie Portman is a bit rushed, and I understand that it doesn't work for some, but it worked fine for me (there is something similar going on with Thor's friendship with Stellan Skarsgard's character). The ending is definitely a weak point, but that is an affliction that all the phase 1 Marvel movies (pre-Avengers) suffer from (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Captain America all have lackluster third acts). Something about this movie just works for me.
  • Iron Man 3 - After Iron Man 2, I was not sure what to expect out of this, especially coming off the high of Avengers. I was pleasantly surprised to really enjoy this movie. I know in the comics, Tony Stark has struggled with alcoholism, but that's not something that would really work in movie form. In Iron Man 2, they tried to get at it by making Tony a total dick and calling his little chest reactor poisonous, but that clearly didn't work. Here, Shane Black rather cleverly substitutes PTSD as Tony's problem, and it fits (perhaps not as perfectly as some would like, but it worked for me). One couldn't ask for a better kickoff to Marvel's Phase 2, and what you see here is a higher degree of competence and indeed, confidence. This is one of the more even movies in the whole enterprise.
  • Thor: The Dark World - Again, this is probably higher than most would put it, but it does represent an across the board improvement over the first film, and given my feelings on that film, you can see why this one would be this high. The broad humor works really well here (excepting the pantsless Stellan Skarsgard, a rare miscalculation in an otherwise solid movie), along with some reversal fish-out-of-water elements. Like Iron Man 3, you can see Marvel's confidence really coming across here. I will admit that I have not rewatched this or Iron Man 3, so perhaps I'd flip-flop them, but for now, I'll stick with Thor.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier - I just saw this last week, so maybe I'm a little too high on it, but I don't think so. Marvel is really making this stuff look easy. I can't get over how well this film balances all of its disparate elements. It's extremely well paced, it's got an amazing amount of action, but for the most part, it's not repetitive (there's a little shaky cam here, and I normally hate that, but the situations were all excellent enough that I didn't really mind). There's a big conspiracy (consciously evoking those paranoid thrillers of the 70s) uncovered here that will have huge implications to the universe, and I love that they went there, but it's the little things that really got to me. In particular, I love that this movie continues the blossoming of Black Widow as a fully realized, charismatic character. Her introduction in Iron Man 2 was hackneyed and underwritten, but she came into her own in the Avengers, and shows even more here. Likewise with Anthony Mackie's Falcon character, who has a great introduction and comes across well for the rest of the movie. I love the little character interactions in this movie, and they get at why these Marvel movies are doing so well. They're just so much fun, and this movie is a prime example. This is a remarkably even movie, and again, indicative of the confidence of Marvel in this second phase.
  • The Avengers - Right now, this movie is hanging on to the top slot by a hair. It's certainly got some flaws. It takes a little while to get going, and I've never been a fan of the sort of Thor vs Iron Man fights that happen in this movie, but Joss Whedon managed to make it work, and while there are plenty of things that I'm not particularly in love with for this movie (the helicarrier, the fact that Hawkeye is mostly sidelined, etc...), it also reaches the highest-highs in the entire series. Unlike the rest of Marvel's phase 1 movies, this is one that gets stronger as it goes, and the big action scene in the finale is actually worth the buildup (unlike the rest of phase 1 movies). Also of note, the aforementioned Black Widow really shines here, and is given really distinctive and important talents. Also, Mark Ruffalo's Hulk is a total revelation. Again, it's the little character interactions and showcases that just work so well here. Most of the characters get some great marquee moments, and there are single lines here that just work so well that any flaws in the movie just sorta melt away. I mean, come on, when the team is finally assembled in New York and Iron Man asks Captain America to call their play (which is pretty cool in itself), and Cap starts handing out orders and finally says "Hulk: Smash." Perfect, and the movie is filled with similar moments. It's definitely not as evenly constructed as the second phase Marvel stuff, but it does have the highest peaks, even if there are plenty of valleys.
So there you have it. Who knows, all this stuff may swap around with future movies or rewatches (of which, I will probably do a lot of). Plus, I'm really looking forward to some of the weird stuff that's coming down the pike, like Guardians of the Galaxy and even Ant-Man.
Posted by Mark on April 13, 2014 at 08:37 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Weird Book of the Week
And the hits just keep on coming. I don't specifically go out and hunt for weird stuff, somehow it just finds me. Last time on Weird Book of the Week, we pondered the age old question: How Green Were The Nazis? (It turns out that they were not as environmentally friendly as they claimed.) This time around, we'll stick with the Nazi theme (indeed, Nazis seem to be a common theme amongst Weird Books/Movies of the week).

Many times, the hook for the weird thing of the week is purely visual. A book cover or poster or whatnot, but this time, it's all about the title: Call Me Mumbles: Subcommandante Mumbles vs. The Dinosaur Nazis. I mean, you know right away if you want to read this story (which, actually, is only about 40 pages long, making it a short story or novelette or something like that). But if you were on the fence, this brief description might also help:
He expected boredom, or maybe a Taliban attack. He didn't imagine Dinosaur Nazis. But then, who ever does?
Who indeed? But I get it, that's a terse description, perhaps you'd like some sample awesome? Here are the first lines in the story:
Call me Mumbles. Why, you ask? Because I fucking told you to.

I was humping up this hill in shitbagistan; heavy load and thin air. I could hear the cherry private wheezing behind me. Wanted to tell him to stop fucking breathing, but it just wasn't worth the effort.
If you're not on board by now, I don't think this is for you. Me? They had me at "Dinosaur Nazis" (or probably even just "Subcommandante"),
Posted by Mark on April 09, 2014 at 10:56 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #15: Barleywine
A sort of companion to my Russian Imperial Stout (which I named Bomb & Grapnel), this is another beer I'm hoping to clock in at ~10% ABV. As with the RIS, I'm going to brew up a full 5 gallon batch, then split the result into two secondary fermenters. One will simply condition, the other will get an addition of bourbon soaked oak cubes (just like the RIS). At packaging time, I'll bottle some of each, then a blend of the two. With the RIS, the blend actually came out the best, though maybe the bourbon oaked one will hold up better over time (alas, only one way to find out).

For the recipe, I used one of my favorite barleywines as a guide, Firestone Walker's §ucaba. Fortunately for me, Firestone Walker is pretty open with their ingredients. Unfortunately, they're not quite as open with their proportions! So I took a swing, and made some tweaks along the way:

Brew #15: Barleywine
April 5, 2014

0.5 lb. Crystal 40 (specialty grain)
0.5 lb. Crystal 120 (specialty grain)
0.5 lb. Munich Malt (specialty grain)
0.25 lb. Chocolate Malt (specialty grain)
9 lb. Briess Golden Light DME
0.75 lb. Turbinado Sugar
2 oz. Bravo hops (bittering @ 15.5% AA)
1 oz. East Kent Golding hops (flavor)
1 oz. East Kent Golding hops (aroma)
2 oz. Oak Cubes: Hungarian Medium Toast
16 oz. Bourbon (Eagle Rare 10)
Wyeast 1028 London Ale

Barleywine Ingredients

I'm shooting for something in the 10-11% ABV range here. Now, §ucaba is 12.5-13.5% ABV, but as I understand it, this is difficult to obtain for mere mortals like myself. Something about the laws of physics not operating the same in Firestone Walker's warehouses? Whatever, the point is that this recipe isn't quite the beast that §ucaba is...

I tried to keep my specialty grains reasonable as well. I think one of the reasons my RIS had such a high FG was that I included too much in the way of unfermentable sugars. So I toned that down here. I also added a small simple sugar addition, which should help keep that attenuation in check. Fingers crossed.

For the hops, it seemed pretty straightforward. Bravo for bittering and East Kent Goldings for late kettle additions, just like ┬žucaba. This puts the beer firmly in English Barleywine territory. According to my calculations, the IBUs should be somewhere in the 40-50 range, which is actually a little low, even for an English Barleywine, but then, §ucaba clocks in at 42 IBUs, so I'm actually on track.

For the oak cubes, I chose Hungarian Medium Toast (supposedly less intense than American oak, but more intense than French oak) and started soaking them in bourbon a couple months ago. I think one of the issues with the RIS was how long I kept the oak in bourbon, so hopefully the additional time will yield more complexity and less char (among other harsh tannins, etc...) Depending on how this goes, I may also keep this batch in secondary for an extra week as well (so 3 weeks primary, 4 weeks secondary).

Firestone Walker's house yeast is rumored to be similar to Wyeast 1968 (London ESB, same as WLP 002), but that has relatively low attenuation and low alcohol tolerance (which is yet another reason to question the laws of physics at FW). I ended up going with Wyeast 1028, which has a much better attenuation range and one of the higher alcohol tolerances (11%, which should work here). Also, since this is a big beer, I did a yeast starter. I've had trouble making starters in the past because I never took into account how much water is lost to evaporation. This time, I managed to get it almost right. Started with 1250 ml of water and 1/4 cup malt extract, and ended with about 900 ml of 1.042 wort (slightly high, but right around the 1.040 I was shooting for).

On brew day, the Original Gravity ended up at 22.3 Bx or 1.094, slightly lower than I was shooting for, but it should still be fine. I installed a blow off tube instead of the airlock, as I'm anticipating a pretty active fermentation.

So that just about covers it. This one should take a while, so I anticipate doing one more batch of something before the heat of summer makes brewing a bit more difficult. I'll probably do something sessionable that I'll keg, like a 4% pale ale or maybe a light saison for some summer drinking fun. Next up on the big beer front would be a Scotch ale, which may also get the oak treatment described above (though it'll likely also be lower in ABV)...

(Cross Posted at Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on April 06, 2014 at 04:44 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Again Referendum: John McTiernan Edition
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned how some newly released works of art seem to initiate a referendum on the whole of the artist's oeuvre. This was occasioned by the release of Wes Anderson's latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel (which I have since seen, and which is fantastic, among my top Anderson films), but I came across this curious case recently, which marks an interesting case of the referendums. Jonathan V. Last lays down the gauntlet:
Proposed: John McTiernan is the most under-rated director of his generation, having helmed three instant classics (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, The Thomas Crowne Affair), one of which is in the running for Most Influential Movie of the Decade. Even his middling work (Predator and Last Action Hero) is really, really good.
First thing's first, I object to the notion of Predator as a "middling" effort. That three movie run from Predator to Die Hard to The Hunt for Red October is nothing short of astounding, and there are a rarified few directors who can boast a similar run of classics. I'm less sanguine about Last Action Hero, though I will grant the notion that it was a movie that was way ahead of its time, probably deserves its increasing cult status, and is definitely worth a revisit. I really enjoyed both Die Hard: With a Vengeance and The Thomas Crown Affair, though I should probably revisit those films as well.

His work after The Thomas Crown Affair seems a bit lacking, but the general explanation there is mounting legal troubles which basically sidelined him for most of this century. This is basically one of the reasons that Last cites for McTiernan not getting the respect he so richly deserves.

The other reason he cites probably also plays a role:
McTiernan eschewed any particular visual style and instead concentrated on economy of storytelling. There are truly great visuals in his movies (see the opening series of shots in Thomas Crowne where the camera zooms down on the Met from space; a shot which seems cliched now, but predates Google Earth by nearly ten years) but these visuals don’t have any particular signature to them. Instead, you can tell a McTiernan movie by how skillfully it moves the story, builds tension, and uses every knife it lays out on the coffee table.
This is dead on, though perhaps a closer analysis of his work would reveal some signature moves. But I would add that he's a director that doesn't call attention to his filmmaking. Similar to how some of the best movie scores blend into the background while still playing an integral role, McTiernan's clear visual style hits all the right notes without forcing you to notice them. This isn't to say that great directors with bold styles can't produce great works, just that this is a different kind of greatness.

In terms of the commonalities I found in this sort of referendum, McTiernan may not qualify for the "singular vision" criteria (though I suppose it's arguable), but he most certainly does qualify for the "relatively small filmography" criteria. What's more, it's a really interesting filmography. He's got multiple classics, a growing cult film, and several films that were legitimately "middling" (but in those cases, they are often better than they have any right to be - I'm looking at you The 13th Warrior).

I've lost track of when he is getting out of jail, but IMDB already has his next film listed, called Red Squad (about the DEA hiring a team of mercenaries to take on a Mexican drug cartel). Will the release of this film warrant the same sort of referendum that the likes of Wes Anderson receives? I suspect that Last is correct and that McTiernan is underrated, so I don't think the referendum will be as universal as it is for Anderson, but I think it very likely that it will be common, especially if the movie is great. I suppose time will tell...
Posted by Mark on April 02, 2014 at 10:59 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Weird Movie of the Week
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we took a look at a horrific/touching tale of redneck polka ditties. This time, we've got a werewolf who is also a cop, for reals:
That tagline ("Dirty Harry... Only Hairier") is glorious. And the plot description, courtesy of Shock Til You Drop (more fantastic imagery at that article as well, including one where wolfcop is give a come hither look whilst holding a revolver and standing on a pentagram), sounds just about how you'd expect:
It's not unusual for alcoholic cop Lou Garou to black out and wake up in unfamiliar surroundings, but lately things have taken a strange turn. Crime scenes seem oddly familiar. Lou's senses are heightened, and when the full moon is out, he's a rage-fueled werewolf. Wolfcop is one cop's quest to become a better man... One transformation at a time.
As I mentioned last time, my record for actually going out and watching these Weird Movies of the Week is somewhat appalling, but this is one that I will almost certainly see (depending on release and distribution details, which are somewhat spotty right now).
Posted by Mark on March 30, 2014 at 09:32 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Link Dump
More links from the depths of the internets:
  • The bones of old decisions by Clive Thompson - Or: why we're still using a qwerty keyboard, despite the fact that the original reasons for laying our keyboards out this way have not been relevant for, like, 50 years. This is not a unique twist of fate either, it's a common issue. Technological lock-in is a bitch.
  • I'm Sorry - An apology by an awesome person.
  • It's a Sarlaac in your Toilet - Mother of God.
  • Trolls are People Too - This is a neat story about someone who engaged with a troll rather than write them off or castigate them (the two typical responses). I don't know the details of the particular situation other than what's in the linked post, but I'd wager that this dude isn't what I'd consider a troll. Perhaps I have an overly specific version of a troll (friggin' jokee, amiright 4kers who read this blog? (apologies for the near incomprehensible inside joke, but there's like two people who are either laughing or getting ready to punch their monitor right now...)) It's probably something I should dedicate a full post to, but most of the people we call trolls these days don't seem like the trolls of yore. I'd just call them assholes myself, because "Don't feed the trolls" doesn't really apply to anonymous drive-by lackwits posting on some random blog. Terminology evolves over time, but if you're going to make troll mean something different, you need to also make sure you change up the way you deal with trolls. Like I said, fodder for a longer post that I'll probably never get to. You're welcome.
And that's all for now.
Posted by Mark on March 26, 2014 at 11:15 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sometimes, when certain artists release a new work, a lot of the critical response seems to be more a referendum on the whole of their oeuvre than a straightforward review. I suppose this is something of a natural tendency, and I'm sure it happens often, but there are some artists for whom this approach seems to be the overwhelming default. This is probably best described by using some examples:
  • Wes Anderson - This post itself is mostly a reaction to all the reviews of Anderson's latest effort, The Grand Budapest Hotel, all of which, without exception, devolve into a discussion of Anderson's career and style and try to place this new film somewhere on that continuum. To be sure, Anderson does have a distinctive style, an almost defining sense of quirk, like it was built in a lab and weaponized. Weaponized quirk.
  • Pixar - I've mentioned this before in my review of Brave, but when there's a new Pixar movie, people love to take that opportunity to do things like rank the Pixar films or ask trolling questions like "has Pixar jumped the shark?" and other such ponderances. Indeed, the recent announcement of two sequels, Cars 3 and Incredibles 2, has lit off the debate over whether or not Pixar is totally out of ideas (though plenty of excitement surrounds Brad Bird's return from the realm of live action). I suppose you could argue that Pixar isn't, in itself, an artist, but for whatever reason (perhaps John Lasseter's heavy involvement does warrant such though) everyone treats the studio as one entity.
  • The Coen Brothers - Perhaps less so than the other two examples, but you still often see folks attempting to summarize or otherwise put the Coens in a box when talking about a new release. This is another situation where you often see people ranking all the Coens' movies, usually on the occasion of a new release. In this case, even while the Coens' often take far ranging ideas and mash them together, you also see people trying to genrefy their catalog into their more broadly comedic releases (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, etc...) or their more serious pieces (which, to be sure, often contain some form of their off-kilter humor, stuff like Fargo or No Country for Old Men).
So what is it about these filmmakers that seems to necessitate a referendum (or at least, a trip down through their filmography)? Well, all three kinda represent a singular vision. Wes Anderson did bring a certain brand of quirk to the screen in such a way that many have tried to imitate, and yet, I feel like no one has ever really come close to actually duplicating his vision. I feel like you could almost certainly pick out an Anderson picture without knowing ahead of time who made it. This is perhaps less so when you get to Pixar, but it still works - no one was making movies the way Pixar did (now that they're sequelizing everything, I'm not as sure). And the Coens have some rather strange streaks that are almost impossible to imitate (though I suppose some of their films are more distinctive than others).

Next would be a relatively small filmography. When combined with a singular, distinctive style, you get something that screams to be listed and ranked. This, I think, is why you don't always see a referendum on someone like Martin Scorsese. This is partly because Scorsese has been making movies for so long, partly because he has made a lot of disparate types of movies (I think he has a distinctive style, but he also isn't afraid to tread new ground from time to time). Of course, with something like The Wolf Of Wall Street, there were a ton of comparisons to Goodfellas (and to a lesser extent, Casino), but that makes a certain sort of sense, as the three movies are basically exploring the same ideas and themes, from slightly different angles. If those were his only three movies, you better believe that his next movie would be used as a referendum on his whole career. As it is, the guy has so much stuff, including several absolute classics, that no one feels the need to do so.

Maybe all of this means nothing and I'm just reading too much into a few reviews (and it's not like I read every review evar), but I think there's something here. And there's probably a bunch of other examples I haven't really thought through yet (Tarantino? Aaron Sorkin?), but I'll leave it at here for now. To be honest, I'm not even sure it matters that much, as the three examples above are all excellent in their own way...
Posted by Mark on March 23, 2014 at 07:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Weird Movie of the Week
The last Weird Movie of the Week was actually a book (a surprisingly common feature in this series), but today we have a bona fide weird movie, courtesy of Brian Collins (aka the guy who did Horror Movie a Day for, like, 5 years), who recounts weird movies he's watched on his birthday, including this gem:
2007: CALVAIRE (aka THE ORDEAL) (2004)
The one that started it all! Obviously I wasn't "burnt out" yet, as this was only a few weeks into HMAD's lifespan. It just so happened that I had the place to myself for a few hours and knew it was the kind of movie my wife would get upset by (i.e. it featured rape and/or torture), so I wanted to get it out of the way when I had the chance. And what a delight it was! Sure, the rapey stuff (male on male, for the record) is hardly fun, but any movie that features an entire bar's worth of rednecks suddenly dancing around to a little polka ditty is definitely worth your time. A film that works best without any inkling as to what it's about, though I will say it starts off like (too many) horror films - a car breaking down in a remote area. In the immortal words of Buzzfeed, what happened next will blow your mind.
So yes, it's got some rapey stuff (that's bad), but also redneck polka ditties (that's fun!), so I guess I'm in. I have to admit that my record in terms of actually watching Weird Movies of the Week is actually rather appalling (though I have seen several), but given Collins' note that the less you know about this movie going in, the better, I think this one might be a nice surprise.
Posted by Mark on March 19, 2014 at 11:40 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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