Monday, August 31, 2015

"Straight Outta Compton" is Powerful, Provocative, Relevant

A rap group as powerful and influential as N.W.A. deserves a film just as bold and exciting. Biopic Straight Outta Compton does them proud.

Director F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton tracks the formation of rap group N.W.A. and how its members revolutionized the music industry through gangsta rap. Primarily focused on three members of the group – Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) - the film follows how each man grew and changed through both success and tragedy and what their music meant both for themselves and society.

Portraying a group as incendiary as N.W.A. can be a difficult task for biographic filmmaking. Clean up the image of the band and its members too much and you ignore the truths about each rapper and the world they were bringing to the attention of the mainstream. Glorify the crime and violence that surrounded them and you send a mixed message about what ghettos and gangs do to the people involved. But Straight Outta Compton manages to show many different sides to what gangsta rap was about during its rise in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as we not only see N.W.A.’s members find success through giving a voice to their struggles, but also the serious issues that the white and privileged didn’t think about at the time. Or now.

Most crucially, Straight Outta Compton calls attention to vital issues in a similar way to the actual music of N.W.A. Viewers are given a look into how police brutality and racism led to desperate situations for African American communities. The anger and freedom expressed through rap shoved these issues in the faces of everyone everywhere, which many simply could not understand. Rather than try and understand the real world situations that led to N.W.A.’s songs, people protested, journalists questioned, and the police tried to shut them up. But N.W.A. did not back down. On the flip side, Straight Outta Compton also shows the violence and anger that permeated the music industry surrounding N.W.A. through the gang ties of its members and other rappers in the industry. By bringing affiliations with them, the death and aggression that they were rapping about followed them into the studios.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Greatest Batman Stories: Under the Red Hood

Death and resurrection in super hero stories can be egregious, cliché, eye roll-inducing, and even alienating to fans. But if done right, it can result in some of the genre’s most powerful stories.

One of the most controversial deaths in the history of Batman comics was the murder of Jason Todd, the second person to hold the mantle of Robin, by The Joker. While the young Robin was killed after being beaten by a crowbar and caught in an explosion, it was actually fans who offed the character, as they were given a choice by DC Comics to call in and vote for whether Todd would live or die in the 1988 storyline known as “A Death in the Family.” So when the death votes won, the character was killed. Due to the grim and life-changing effects the death had on Batman, it was thought that Todd had become one of the few comic characters who would stay dead.

But it wasn’t to be! In 2005’s “Under the Red Hood” story arc, the character returned as a villain seeking vengeance against Batman. While the comics were controversial, they threw an interesting development into the saga of Batman, who sought to unravel the mystery of his new enemy while being confronted with one of his greatest failures. Although controversy and some storytelling setbacks kept the comic storyline from being truly spectacular, the 2010 Warner Bros. Animation film Batman: Under the Red Hood is a pitch perfect retelling of the story that not only tops the original comic version, but stands toe-to-toe with any Batman film – live action or animated.

Directed by Brandon Vietti, starring Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Jensen Ackles as Jason Todd, John DiMaggio as The Joker, Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing, and written by Judd Winick, Under the Red Hood is thrilling, emotional, and a must-see for any Batman fan.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Comics You Should Read: Blacksad

Over the years, comic book writers and artists have proven the unique versatility of the medium and its power to blend vastly different genres. In doing so, powerful new narratives and captivating storytelling techniques can be explored in ways that may not be possible through film or novels. One perfect and thoroughly exciting example of that power is writer Juan Diaz Canales and former Disney artist Juanjo Guarnido’s Blacksad – a hardboiled and mature detective series done in the anthropomorphic animated style of classic Disney films.

Beginning in 2000, the series follows John Blacksad, a black cat private investigator who solves all manner of heinous crimes in a 1950's America populated by anthropomorphic animals. As of 2015, five volumes have been published, with each being approximately 50 pages in length and following standalone tales centered on Blacksad. Rather than being published in a monthly format, the series, originally published in French, is continued through these irregular volumes, which surely gives time for Guarnido to craft his incredibly intricate pages.

Blacksad’s cat-like nature is the perfect pairing for his slick, cool, and deadly persona. But the animal choices are telling for every character who walks into the story, as their real world characteristics are used to play off stereotypes or highlight the nature of a very specific character. Policemen are frequently depicted as Bloodhounds, German Shepherds, or other hunting dogs while sleezy criminals like hitmen or thieves are most often reptilian or amphibian. When paired with the frequent bloody violence and mature themes of the stories, these Disney-like characterizations are upended for something incredibly intriguing and often shocking.

Make no mistake, Blacksad is for mature readers due to its content. While it may not be shockingly gruesome or feature gratuitous content like other comic books that try and push their maturity levels, this is still on the level of an R-rated crime film. While the juxtaposition of a bright animation style artwork with dark plots may give the impression that Blacksad is a parody, it truly is not. Rather, Diaz Canales and Guarnido take their creation very seriously, while still knowing how to lighten the mood through bits of comedic levity. It’s this intense approach to the noir stories that gives the series its brilliance.

Monday, August 10, 2015

12 Film Sequels That Never Should Have Happened

It’s the nature of Hollywood to capitalize on the success of a film with a sequel that brings back the characters and world that audiences loved the first time around. While there are plenty of fantastic sequels that either respected the achievements of the original or even went on to top it, there are far more that took a nosedive. In some cases, terrible movies were follow by films that were somehow even worse. Whatever the case may be, there are countless sequels that should have never been created in the first place. Both audiences and franchises would have been better off without them.

The following 12 film sequels are entries into franchises that should have never existed, even though many do bring some laughs do to how bad they are. For the sake of keeping my sanity, these are all sequels that were released in theaters, so straight-to-video sequels are out of contention, even though most of them should be burned in a deep dark pit.

Alien 3

How Did It Continue the Story? Set after Aliens, Ellen Ripley finds herself jettisoned onto a prison planet with the only survivors of the previous film brutally killed at the very start. It seems as though 20th Century Fox decided bleak and brutal was the best way to keep going.

How Did It Ruin the Series? While Aliens was an action-packed explosion that opened up the world first created by Alien, Alien3 was a bleak affair that killed any sense of fun found in the series. Instead, the series took a massively dark turn when the beloved Hicks, Newt, and Bishop were all immediately killed off in order to make protagonist Ellen Ripley suffer as much as possible. At actress Sigourney Weaver’s insistence, her hero was killed off at the end in a sacrificial molten metal bath. The series has been trying to course correct through cloning stories, prequels, and spinoffs ever since.

Blues Brothers 2000

How Did It Continue the Story? Coming out in 1998 (?), Blues Brothers 2000 brings back one Blues Brother 18 years after the 1980 original. Since star John Belushi had died in the time since, they decided to kill him off in the film and replace him with no one worthwhile.

How Did It Ruin the Series? Blues Brothers was a single comedy musical spun off from a Saturday Night Live skit for nearly two decades. Blues Brothers 2000 turned it into a franchise built on a cash grab made long after Belushi’s death. No one was interested in seeing this film and the overall bad quality of the entire production meant even fewer people were interested in seeing a belated follow-up that no one asked for. Simply put, Blues Brothers 2000 was a cash grab that only tarnished the name of a cult classic without actually making any money.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Onward and Upward

After more than 200 posts and two years spent regularly publishing reviews, lists, analysis, and more, it’s time for a change. Writing on a regular basis has helped challenge me and grow my skills in more ways than I ever expected when I first set out to write this blog. While writing has always helped me pursue my passions, express my ideas, and find fulfillment in ways that a typical job cannot provide, there are many more pursuits that I have been delaying. There’s no time like the present to pursue new and exciting ideas, so putting it all down in writing right here is my commitment to this new idea.

No, that doesn’t mean I won’t regularly publish here. What it means is that I will be scaling back my writing on this blog for the foreseeable future to once per week instead of twice per week. In its place, I will be working on creating the art that I love rather than only analyzing it. While I won’t lay out any concrete ideas, I will be dedicating the extra time this gives me to new forms of writing. There have been many ideas I have been cultivating in my head for some time now and the only reason I haven’t brought them to life is due to a lack of time and my general nervousness about the entire matter.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Many Costumes of Superman

Superman is one of the most enduring comic book characters of all time. For more than 75 years, The Man of Steel has been one of DC Comics’ greatest heroes. From starring in countless comic issues to being the star of numerous movies and TV series, Clark Kent has been battling evil and inspiring audiences for generations. While he may be the hero that inspired literally thousands more to come to life in his wake, Superman has possibly changed the least out of any enduring superhero.

From his powers to his attitude to the John Williams theme song that scored his adventures for decades, Superman has been a stalwart character that rarely alters at his core. Most vividly, it is Superman’s costume that has stayed largely the same for decade after decade. Everyone knows what Superman looks like. Red cape, blue spandex, red briefs, and giant red and yellow “S” emblem displayed proudly on his chest. For the most part, it is a look that has only undergone the most minor of alterations for generations.

However, even Superman has a change in fashion every now and then. While it may be Superman’s most recent appearance changes that have caught the public eye, the Kryptonian hero has actually altered his looks many times. While he may not constantly be changing like fellow DC hero Batman, who seems to undergo an alteration every year, Superman does have many outfits in his adventuring wardrobe.

The following costumes are the major changes in appearances for Superman over the years. Specifically, these are supersuits worn by the Man of Steel in comic books that are part of canonical storytelling. That means no Elseworlds stories, alternate timelines, or one of the many different worlds that make up the Multiverse. This is the one and only Big Blue Boyscout himself.

The Golden Age

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1938, the hero who would inspire decades of comic book characters was created with a very large portion of his look, personality, and powers already intact. In particular, Superman’s look was created to resemble the characters who were already popular in pulp magazines and comic strips like Flash Gordon. Siegel and Shuster also took inspiration from circus strongmen, who used tight-fitting spandex outfits to accentuate their muscular physique. In particular, this is where the hero’s shorts found their genesis, which is a look that would come to define the appearance of countless superheroes and would help break up the general colors worn on the printed page. And while the red, blue, and yellow that make up the character’s iconic look are all here, there is still something very rough about his appearance. In particular, Superman’s S Shield is more like a policeman’s badge, although this would soon begin to change.

The Man of Tomorrow

Like many characters created at the time, it took several years for Superman’s permanent look to be nailed down. In particular, The Man of Steel would go through many different minor tweaks in 1938 and 1939 as his appearance was changed from issue to issue. The police badge shield was quickly removed in favor of a triangle symbol with a red S that jumped out more thanks to color contrast, although it seems almost squished into the shield. In addition, Clark Kent's heroic persona was given long red boots that added more dynamic color, and a yellow belt that added to the texture of the costume. At the same time, the Fleischer Studios cartoon serials playing in theaters showed Superman with an S symbol containing a black background and also first gave the character the ability to fly. Combined with the live action serials happening at the same time, the character of Superman soon became ubiquitous, necessitating a permanent consistent look.