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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The End of the Nostalgia Critic/Top 11 NC Episodes

   Sad to say it, but I kind of expected this day would come.  Last week, after the conclusion of To Boldly Flee, the online film celebrating the fourth anniversary of Channel Awesome and the That Guy With The Glasses website, Doug Walker announced that he and his brother, Rob, had decided to retire the character of Nostalgia Critic, the persona that has largely defined the burgeoning career of not only himself, but of all the other reviewers and entertainers for whom his website has become a base of operations. 

    Not that either the website or Channel Awesome as a whole are done, far from it.  While Nostalgia Critic would no longer be a weekly show, he said, he could bring him back for the occasional special, and his other personas (Ask That Guy, Chester A. Bum, and Video Game Confessions, among others) would continue as well.  In addition, he is already planning a new web series called “Demo Reels.”  Nostalgia Critic may be gone, but the career of Doug Walker, in all likelihood, is far from over. 

    However, this is still a pretty big moment.  It was the Nostalgia Critic persona that fueled his career in the first place, and the constant back-and-forth between him and Youtube over the NC videos that helped launch the TGWTG website back in 2008.  It remains to this day the biggest draw on the site, bringing in (according to Wikipedia)  over 100,000 views a week.  Many people know him only as the Nostalgia Critic.  Given all that, it is somewhat surprising that he would choose to end something that is still so enduringly popular. 

    Personally, I think the signs have been there for some time that he would eventually call it quits.  The first warning sign was the end of his review of “My Pet Monster,” where he has a mock phone call with the director of the film and is “ridiculed” for being an adult who watches children’s movies, after which he sadly stares out the window and a caption announces, “The End?”  The next was when I first saw the trailer for To Boldly Flee, and his somber voice-over describing how everything had been building “to this moment.”  So while I am very much saddened (and, yes, nostalgic) about the news that the character is pretty much retired, I can’t say I’m shocked. 

    I do find it rather poignant that he would retire the character shortly after my graduation though, since it was just a few months before I started college as a freshman that he launched the site, and I’ve been following him weekly for well over 4 years since then.  Now I understand how my senior friends from my freshmen year felt when “Scrubs” ended right as they graduated.  Like an old friend has gone away, a moment in time is gone.  And it’s not just because his shows were a fun, regular way to put off studying.  The Nostalgia Critic videos are one of the biggest influences on my own sense of humor, along with Zero Punctuation, Monty Python, and Mystery Science Theater.  They have also greatly altered how I view the internet and the possibilities it offers for movies, shows, and comedic creativity.

    There is something remarkably unique about the work of the TGWTG team.  For all the audiences that the site caters to, and the huge number of regular viewers they receive (over 1 million a month), it’s hardly a cash cow.  These people are paid by the ads they post on the site, but they are hardly raking in mounds of profits from their work.  And many of them, outside of the people who watch their videos, are hardly known, since some of them review VERY specific genres and subgenres of film, comics, and video games.  So they aren’t exactly obtaining celebrity status by doing this either.  They each put in hours and hours of effort to film, cut, edit, dub, and format all of these videos (and the amount currently on the site is staggering), often using little more than commercially available laptop programs and perhaps one decent camera and microphone set.  Their work is truly homemade. 

    And it’s that level of personal touch and devotion that, in my opinion, makes the site so special, and why their work has such an enduring effect on both myself and others.  Even though many of them use carefully crafted and maintained personas and characters for their videos, through every video and every series shines a strong and very evident passion for their subjects.  They do what they do not because it brings them profit or celebrity status, but because they just enjoy spending their time doing it.  Because of this, after watching so many of the videos of so many of the people on the site, you almost come to feel that you know these people personally, that you’ve really met them and talked about your shared interests with them.  I can’t help but think of Doug, Todd, Lindsay, Lupa, Linkara, and the others with a certain warmth and affection.  Not as friends, of course, but as comfortable, familiar acquaintances.  We live in a society where most television shows, news programs, and movies are increasingly impersonal and mechanical in how they’re made, formulated not out of a desire to create art and express passion, but simply to make money.  As a result, having a niche site like TGWTG where artists can bring their work and others can come to enjoy it just for what it is is special indeed. 

    Through the popularity of the Nostalgia Critic character, Doug Walker has created something genuine.  His work, and the world that he and the members of the site have worked to build over the past 4 years, inspires both myself and others to always remember that, no matter what, there are always ways to enjoy and express your passions in life.  And for that, I proffer my hat to you, Nostalgia Critic, and thank you for all the laughs you have brought us over the years. 

    I am currently contemplating doing some retrospectives of my own on the Nostalgia Critic (Doug will be doing his videos over the coming months), including formal reviews of the three full-length anniversary films Channel Awesome has done thus far.  Currently I am in the process of putting together a list of the “classic” Nostalgia critic episodes, consisting of my 30-40 personal favorites of the 284 “official” episodes listed on the Nostalgia Critic page.  For length’s sake, however, I will save that for a follow-up post. 

    So to conclude this preliminary article, I offer to my readers my own Top 11 Nostalgia Critic Episodes list (possibly to be followed by a Youtube counterpart).  Why Top 11?  Because he went one step beyond, and so should we.  Thanks Doug. 

The Top 11 Nostalgia Critic Episodes: 

11. Pokemon: The Movie- April 20, 2008
10. Top 11 Most Awkward Christopher Walken Moments- March 30, 2010
9. We're Back!- August 12, 2009
8. Top 11 Villain Songs- February 23, 2010
7. Good Son- February 13, 2009
6. Casper- October 20, 2009
5. Top 11 Nostalgic Mindfucks- February 24, 2009
4. Siskel and Ebert- November 10, 2009
3. Batman and Robin- May 23, 2008
2. The Room- July 13, 2010
1. Nostalgia Critic MUSICAL REVIEW: Moulin Rouge- November 29, 2011

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nolan and the Batman Franchise: What Now?

   Well, Rises has come and gone.  And just like that, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, 8 years in the making, has come to a close.  And a pretty definitive one at that.  Despite the (SPOILERS) open-ended nature of that final shot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt rising up in the cave, Chris Nolan has stated he will never again direct a Batman film, meaning that his stamp on the franchise is officially over. 

    And what a stamp it is.  Whether you love them, hate them, or just don’t give a damn, it’s impossible to deny the influence this trilogy has had on both the Batman universe and the entire genre of superhero movies.  All three were massive box-office successes, and The Dark Knight is still considered by many to be one of the most definitive superhero movies ever made.  So now that it’s done, what are we left with?  What legacy (or legacies) does Chris Nolan leave the Batman universe? 

    Origin Story:  One of the first things Nolan did with the trilogy was to provide a solid, detailed, and *relatively* reasonable origin story for the caped crusader, something that no previous Batman movie had attempted (I speak of movie origin stories here, not ones in the comics, if there are any).  It’s interesting, it’s engaging, it’s fun to watch him slowly get the hang of skulking around Gotham at night, and, perhaps most importantly, it really gets us interested in Bruce Wayne.  A constant problem with Batman is that his villains are often so much more fun than he is.  And while Heath Ledger definitely steals most of the show in The Dark Knight, by giving us a strong background for Batman in the first film, he helps give viewers an understanding of (and sympathy with) Bruce Wayne as a person, which, in my opinion, carries strongly through the other two films. 

    (More) Gritty Realism:  This particular trend in the Batman universe had been going on for several decades prior to the Nolan franchise (Burton’s films were particularly influential in this regard), but Dark Knight and Rises both raised the bar for gritty realism even higher with their dark tones, tragic story themes, and brutal (if noticeably bloodless) violence.  Both films (especially Dark Knight) are filled with heavy references and allusions to our own post-9/11 society, making Gotham and its struggles with super-villains-turned-terrorists hit just a tad closer to home.  Any effort to launch a new Batman franchise (and there will be another, sadly) will almost certainly be judged on how well it matches the tone set by this franchise. 

    The Joker:  I’m having a hard time trying to think of a movie franchise as deeply influenced by the death of a main actor as this one.  Not only was Heath Ledger’s performance genuinely ground-breaking for the character of the Joker (and well worth the Oscar nod), but his sudden and tragic death prior to the release of the film elevated it to an almost sacred level in the minds of the public (even though it technically wasn’t his LAST film appearance).  Unfortunately, it also partially crippled Rises from the get-go, because no matter how well Nolan wrote the character (and no matter how good a replacement he found), there was no way he could include even a mention of the Joker without pissing off legions of audience members, convinced he was trivializing the “last act” of a great actor. 

    There is no shortage of opinion that this hurt Rises considerably.  The briefest of mentions are made to the crimes of Harvey at the tale-end of the last movie (and some passing references to the “Dent Law” that followed), but aside from that, all of Dark Knight may as well have fallen into a Dark Hole in the nether regions of space.  Despite this obvious, but painfully necessary, omission, I still really, really liked the movie, but even I can’t help but imagine how much more Nolan could have done with both Bane and the overall plot if he could have thrown the Joker into the mix as well. 

    And as deep as Heath Ledger’s influence on Nolan’s trilogy has been, I am convinced that his shadow is going to loom large over the entire Batman universe for some time.  If there is another serious attempt at a Batman film series, it is inevitable that they will bring in another interpretation of the Joker.  How can they not, after all, when he is consistently Batman’s #1 arch nemesis?  I am convinced that, when that does happen, the inevitable cries of “How could they?” and “It’ll never be as good!” will surface, and the newer franchise will suffer as a result. 

      Bane:  Chris Nolan has always been about re-imagining concepts from the Batman comics in his own way, and out of all the characters he plucks from the coffee-stained pages of the printed universe, Bane definitely undergoes one of the biggest makeovers.  Although I have never read the comics (or watched the Animated Series), Bane was never (to my knowledge) considered a significant or important villain.  Here, however, he is given a powerful and threatening intellect to rival Bruce Wayne’s, an AWESOME accent (yes, I love his voice, and I am not ashamed to say it), and a connection to the League of Shadows.  What sort of effect this will have on the Batman universe as a whole probably won’t be felt right away, but I would not at all be surprised if a comic, graphic novel, TV series, or even a future movie franchise uses Nolan’s invention as a template for its own Bane someday. 

    Catwoman:  Another character to change pretty substantially from the Burton film version, Catwoman is never even named in Rises, just passingly referred to as the “Cat Burglar.”  Additionally, Nolan removed the bizarre sexuality of Burton’s Catwoman, making Selina more of a low-class version of Batman, albeit with *slightly* more questionable motives.  Yet another reinvention that could be the genesis for future takes on the character. 

    All-Star Performances from A Bevy of Great Actors/Actresses:
  Christian Bale.  Morgan Freeman.  Cilian Murphy.  Liam Neeson.  Michael Caine.  Tom Wilkinson.  Gary Oldman.  Aaron Eckhart.  Heath Ledger.  Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Anne Hathaway.  Tom Hardy.  Joseph Gordon-Leavitt.  Marion Cotillard. 

Need I say more? 

    Technical Perfection (IMAX style):  Thoughts and opinions on the individual films of the franchise aside, Nolan does succeed resoundingly in making Gotham bigger with each progressive movie.  This shouldn’t really be a surprise.  Nolan has always had a talent for making films that look amazing.  While earlier Batman films were hindered by lower budgets and lower technical capabilities, Nolan puts his love of IMAX-style film technology and big, moving cinematography on full display.  Using both high-powered cameras, old-style prop and set pieces for effects, and a combination of shots from several major US cities, Nolan managed to give us a Gotham that genuinely sprawled, setting yet another high bar for any director that tries a reboot. 

    Are these all of the ways in which Chris Nolan has altered or influence the world of Batman movies?  Probably not.  They’re just the ones that happened to pop into my head as I was writing this.  It’s always difficult to pinpoint exactly how a movie can influence culture, even years or decades after its release.  It’s especially hard for a franchise as defining and pervasive as this one.  For 8 years now, Chris Nolan’s Batman has been a pretty dominant presence in our culture, and will likely remain so for a long time.  They could even someday ascend to the level of the original Superman films in the public conscience, if a later reboot doesn’t manage to overshadow them.    

    None of these movies are perfect, of course.  I have discussed their varied flaws at length more times than I care to count, and I anticipate many more future nit-pickings.    That’s all part of the fun though.  They’re big, they are immensely entertaining to watch, and they take Batman in a lot of new and different directions.  It saddens me to think that a reboot is already being planned, but given how comic book heroes are part of our social conscience now (and, yes, how well they pay), I guess it’s inevitable.  No matter how good any later films are, though, this trilogy will always be “The” Batman movies in my mind.  After all, I didn’t become a Batman “fan” until I saw Begins, and, much like with Doctor Who, you never forget your first Batman.

-Judge Richard

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Kingdom's Tale: Historical Accuracy in Film

   As a longtime student of history, I have always felt a keen interest in how different films use and portray historical figures and events.  Movies set in particular time periods tend to follow two mains trends- those that deliberately try to accurately recreate particular events (Hotel Rwanda, Amistad, Gettysburg) and those that merely use those events/figures as a frame for telling a more universal, timeless tale (Amadeus, The Social Network, etc.). 

    These trends are subject to a rather unfortunate double standard.  Most filmmakers using history as a template are focused (as well they should be) on simply making a great film, and make whatever changes they deem necessary to tell the particular story they want to tell, without bothering to notate every one for the audience’s sake.  Unfortunately, many a film that doesn’t claim to be an accurate retelling of history is often slammed for those selfsame inaccuracies, by both critics and regular viewers.  On the flip side, it is unheard of for a film to be criticized for sticking too close to actual events.  A prime example of this is Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. 

    Released in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven takes place in Outremer (the Christian Crusading states) in the late 12th century, depicting the growing conflict between Saladin (a Muslim general who had recently unified Egypt and Syria) and the restless knights and nobles of Baldwin IV, the Leper King of Jerusalem.  The film depicts the decisions leading to the real-life Battle of Hattin, which utterly destroyed the armies of Jerusalem, leading to Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem after a century of Christian rule. 

    The central figure in all this is Legolas.  I mean Will Turner.  I mean Balian of Ibelin, a recently widowed French blacksmith who is convinced by a man named Godfrey (played by Oskar Schindler) to come with him to the Holy Land.  Driven by doubts about his own faith, he joins Godfrey and begins to be trained as a knight.  As they travel (and after Godfrey is wounded in a fight) Balian learns that he is Godfrey’s son, and heir to a parcel of land near Jerusalem called Ibelin (he is later knighted before Gofrey dies from his wounds).  

    After his arrival, we see Balian attempt to navigate the twisted realms of Outremer politics and intrigue.  An uneasy peace between Saladin and Baldwin IV (portrayed by, of all people, Ed Norton) is threatened by the militant Templars, led by Raynald de Chatillon and Guy de Lusignan.  As the noble and moral figures of Balian, Baldwin, and their allies attempt to hold back the blatantly evil Raynald and Guy, they constantly discuss and debate the true meaning of faith, and how it can drive both the Christians and Muslims to acts both magnanimous and horrifying. 

    It is ambitious film, if nothing else, seeking to combine elements of action, old-school, Lawrence of Arabia-style historical drama, and heady religious discourse.  It has a powerhouse of a supporting cast (including Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Ed Norton, and David Thewlis), and tries to offer a genuine, sober look at the connections between extreme religion and conflict, and at how the driving forces of the Crusades, in many ways, live on in the Holy Land to this day.  In my opinion, it succeeds with flying colors, offering a potent tale of faith, radicalism, and redemption. 

    However, there seem to be many who disagree with me.  The theatrical release of the film has only a 39% percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 63 overall rating on Metacritic.  Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that Scott was forced to cut almost an hour of his original version for theaters, removing a considerable amount of depth from the characters.  His Director’s Cut, released later that same year, was the 194-minute version of the film he originally presented to the studio (20th Century Fox, if anyone’s wondering), and has gotten a far better reception from critics. 
    In addition to lukewarm reviews of the theatrical release, much criticism was directed at a perceived lack of historical accuracy in the film.  Depictions of Baldwin IV, Syblla, Guy, Raynald, and others are heavily fictionalized.  Orlando Bloom’s tortured, simple-blacksmith-turned-perfect-knight Balian is a far, far cry from the real Balian, who was much more politically involved in the succession conflicts following Baldwin IV’s death.  Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith specifically attacked an apparent bias against Christianity; the patriarch of Jerusalem is cold, cowardly, and unfeeling, and Guy, Raynald, and the Templars are almost cartoonish in their lust for Muslim blood (the shouted phrase “GOD WILLS IT” is their repeated chorus for most of the film).  Riley-Smith even went so far as to call the film, “Osama Bin Laden’s version of the Crusades.”

    As a historian myself, such sentiments trouble me.  Yes, the film is loaded with inaccuracies; most of the characters and events are highly dramatized, and the dynastic and political conflicts are made much more simple than they really were.  But, as I’ve said before, that’s sort of the point.  It’s a movie.  The point of a movie, first and foremost, is to tell a great story.  And to do that, a filmmaker seeking to use real events as a framework will have to dramatize certain things, simplify others, and leave some parts out entirely. 

    The funny thing is, in a way, historians must do the same thing.  History is nothing more or less than the story of everything there is- the ultimate novel ever written, the greatest film ever made.  As a result, historians are bound by the same constraints as filmmakers seeking to explore a certain event or historical figure; since we can never know everything about them- every motivation, every thought, every word spoken- the historian must conjecture, deduce, and sometimes flat-out guess in their efforts to understand why things happened the way they did.  We seek to be “objective.”  We try to reconstruct cause, motivation, and effect as accurately as possible, using every bit of information available to us, but in the end, our efforts are still just that- a reconstruction.  A replica.  A remake. 

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that there is little constructive benefit to damning a historical movie for inaccuracies that are as inevitable as those in “legitimate” history.  And if so many people are so misinformed about the past that a film can mislead them, then we historians aren’t doing our jobs properly.

-Judge Richard