Hard to believe that Johnny Carson left The Tonight Show 20 years ago, after an amazing 30-year run. For Americans between 1962 and 1992, Johnny was not unlike a grown-up bedtime story – for we watched him from our beds, and he was the last thing we saw before nodding off. Whether he was killing in his monologues (or dying, and simply letting silence and a blank stare get a second chance at the laugh), or poking fun at Ed, or doing Carnac the Magnificent, or offering us an endless parade of unforgettable, and often legendary guests, Johnny Carson truly was the King of Late Night.
David Letterman reached that 30-year pinnacle this year (granted, on different networks), and, to my way of thinking, he is Carson's TRUE heir to the late night throne. The less said about Jay Leno, the better.
PBS.org recently posted a documentary on their American Masters page, entitled American Masters – Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. I just finished watching the 2-hour program, and it was so good, and nostalgic, and entertaining, I decided to plug it here. (I tried embedding it, but something went awry.)
The copy from the PBS page reads as follows: Quite possibly the biggest star that television has ever produced, Carson commanded, at his peak, a nightly audience of 15 million viewers – double the current audience of Leno and Letterman – combined. Rarely giving interviews, Carson chose to remain a very private man whose public persona made him an American superstar. He once revealed, “I can get in front of an audience and be in control. I suppose it’s manipulation. Offstage, I’m aloof because I’m not very comfortable.” American Masters Johnny Carson: King of Late Night explores this dichotomy and enigma, unearthing clues about Carson’s childhood, early days in the business, and personal and professional life.
After spending four years setting us up with Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America – with savvy post- credit teasers in each, reminnding us The Avengers Initiative was underway – Marvel Pictures have finally assembled their Avengers and released them on a voracious public already a’drool with anticipation. This team of big muscles and even bigger egos, have been thrown together in a film that could have been (and should have been) a train wreck of superheroic proportions. That it works on so many different levels is a testament to Marvel’s visionary creative team, a cast that compliments each other (even when they’re at each other’s throats), and a writer/director who obviously knows his iconic characters, as well as how to bounce them (quite literally) off of each other. Simply put: Marvel’s The Avengers is spectacularly entertaining, MORE than the sum of its parts, and hands down the best “ensemble” comic book movie ever made.
The plot does assume that you’ve seen all of the previous films but, even if you haven’t, shouldn’t be that hard to decipher. Loki, Thor’s adopted brother, comes to Earth via the Tesseract – that glowing cube used by Johann Schmidt/ Red Skull in Captain America – and immediately starts either killing those he meets, or enslaving them with his glowing staff. Loki (Tom Hiddleston – who for some reason is MUCH better, and more threatening here than he was in Thor) wants to subjugate Earth and rule over its inhabitants as King. An alien being known as The Other, has charged Loki with bringing him the Tesseract, and in return, promises him an army of Chitauri (basically reptilian badasses) to assist him in conquering Earth.
What is one to do? Especially if one is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)? Answer: assemble the Avengers.
That this team does come together to fight this global threat is a given. That they spend the first two thirds of this film fighting each other is unexpected, a pleasure, and seriously ups the ante of the original threat. Can these notorious loners ever put aside their egos long enough to form an alliance? Well, Iron Man and Thor have egos …
Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is still a corn-fed boy scout, a man very much out of time (he doesn’t get a lot of the modern-day references thrown at him, but it’s funny when he DOES), and someone who still very much acts like the patriotic, nerdy-but-buff World War II badass that he is. That he eventually takes charge of this team (and that the others LET him do this) is a pleasure to watch. (Also, if you ever wondered what would happen if Thor’s Hammer met Captain America’s shield … wonder no more.)
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is still as narcissistic as you want him to be, and his quips about the others are some of the funniest in this film. I don’t want to spoil any of them, but I can’t resist quoting at least a couple. For instance, he refers to Thor as both “Point Break” and “Shakespeare in the Park,” and at one point asks him, “Dost thou mother know you weareth her drapes? ” Now THAT’s funny! RDJ knows this role quite well by now (he is much better here than he was in IM2, thanks to Whedon’s script), and seems to have been anticipating this film as much as the rest of us.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doesn’t show up for the first 40 minutes or so, but when he does, when this film finally starts letting these disparate characters bounce off each other (and BOUNCE they do), this film kicks into gears you didn’t even know it had. When this hammer-swinging, lightning-charged, Asgardian God of Thunder (who does look like he should rideth a surf board) first shows up, ready to kicketh his brother’s ass, his struggle is made that much more powerful by the fact that we know he still loves his brother. And speaking of Loki …
Tom Hiddleston (if I didn’t say this before) is a much bigger threat than he was in last year’s first Thor film. He seemed kind of wimpy in that movie to me, but here, with a new glint in his eye, an evil smile (to rival Jack Torrance, the Joker, Hannibal Lecter, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange), and a longish flip-style haircut, he literally oozes charismatic menace. Especially when he is holding hundreds of people hostage, and threating to kill them if they do not “kneel before him.” Whether or not Whedon meant to remind us of General Zod in Superman II (it reminded me of this), the line fits Loki, and he seethes it with perhaps even better venom than Terence Stamp did over 30 years ago.
Jeremy Renner is fine as master archer Hawkeye (though he is under Loki’s control for a good chuck of this film), and Scarlett Johansson is equally good as Black Widow (in fact she is MUCH better here than she was in IM2). Originally I wondered why these two were included in this incarnation of The Avengers (weren’t four enough), but after viewing the film, I actually couldn’t imagine this story without them.
As for Bruce Banner and the Hulk (and yes, I saved this for last on purpose), after middling returns and critical apathy for 2003’s Hulk with Eric Bana, and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton, Marvel decided to reboot this character one more time for The Avengers. The choice of indie- actor Mark Ruffalo may have been a head-scratcher to most, but this is casting know-how at its most savvy. Ruffalo makes for the most satisfying Doctor Banner since Bill Bixby portrayed the character on TV in the 1970s and 80s. In fact, Bruce Banner in this movie, with his humble mannerisms, genius IQ, and knowing sense of humor, is just as compelling as his green- skinned counterpart. He takes a joke well (love it when Tony Stark pokes Banner in the side, and immediately peers into his eyes to see if they change), and has finally learned how to (somewhat) control the Hulk. When he does make the change, he is also capable of more than just thoughtless rage. I wouldn’t call this a thinking man’s Hulk, but he is definitely smarter, funnier, and knows how to both smile for the camera and knock someone out of a snapshot. Also, thanks to brilliant CGI, this Hulk actually looks like Ruffalo, which helps immensely in identifying this creature as the dark id of someone we care about. The audience with which I saw The Avengers cheered more than once when the Hulk worked his magic. Especially when dealing with Loki. This movie was already a huge pleasure, but watching the Hulk steal it made it even more so.
As a fan of the films leading up to this, I had pretty high expectations. That those expectations were not only met, but exceeded, is pretty amazing. Writer/director Joss Whedon (already having a pretty good year with the critically-lauded theCabin in the Woods) proves he was not only the man for the job, but possibly the only man for the job. He has crafted a film that is intelligent, funny, emotional, action-packed, and chock full of all the summer tentpole movie goodness that audiences could want. And then some.
After a record-shattering opening, this film is already a smash hit. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. (The folks over at DC have got to be crapping bricks at this point, trying to figure out how to get a Justice League movie going.) All I know for sure is that this film is supremely entertaining, and I plan on seeing it again soon.
If I haven’t made my point yet, The Avengers is a relief, a wonder, and (yes) a marvel.
Where does one begin to write a spoiler-free review of The Cabin in the Woods? How can I encapsulate this story – frankly, the most original, funny, and entertaining horror movie I have seen in years – when half of its charm is in the discovery itself. I don’t know, but here I go.
The Cabin in the Woods starts in verrrry familiar territory, as five attractive young people pile into a camper and head into the wild to spend the weekend at the titular location. These five are archetypical: Curt the jock (Chris Hemsworth), Jules the slut (Kristen Connolly), Holden, the sensitive smart guy (Jesse Williams), Marty the stoner (Fran Kranz), and Dana the virgin (Anna Hutchinson). The disparity of these personalities is part of the joke: birds of a feather generally do flock together, unless of course a film needs a rather motley crew to bounce interestingly off one another as in The Breakfast Club.
We’ve been here many times before, especially in the 1980s – whether in the Friday the 13th films, or Sleepaway Camp, or, most notably, in Sam Raimi’s first two Evil Dead movies. TCITW pays homage to all of those, and then some, but doesn’t beat us over the head with too many obvious pop culture references. There are nods to previous horror films, to be sure, but many are so geek specific that if you DO get one of the obscure allusions, you will probably feel pretty special, or hip, or geeky … you know … like the other two people laughing in the theater because they got that joke, too. The film plays on our awareness of horror film tropes (especially what may lurk in a dark cellar), but does so with style and intelligence, without letting the joke spoil the suspense. While the Scream films of the 90s brought a hip awareness to their slasher proceedings, TCITW goes infinitely further in turning its own genre on its head. And boy is that putting it mildly it mildly.
This film goes places I not only did not see coming, but that I have never seen in a film of this type. I spent the first half trying to figure out the mystery of what was going on. Why DO we keep cutting away to those guys in ties (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, who damn near steal the movie), who work at a facility that may or may not be doing some high tech surveillance work? This is not a spoiler – the movie opens with this dorky duo. In fact, for the first few minutes, I thought I had walked into the wrong theater. By the second half, I was watching in slack-jawed awe, saying to myself, Holy shit, are we really going THERE? Only to discover that not only are we going there, we are going well beyond THERE. Where is THERE, you ask? No place you don’t want to go – you just don’t know it yet. But, the less you know about that … hell, the less you know about the entire movie, the better.
Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, it goes to the next logical place that you never thought of. There isn’t a Big Twist Ending pasted on at the end – no Shyamalamadingdong here. From the opening frame to the last, this film’s complex plot is well thought out and slowly revealed. And how often does THAT happen in a horror film? Or IS it a horror film? Or a deconstruction of a horror film? Or is it science fiction? Or … I’ve said too much already.
Joss Whedon (co-writer and producer) and Drew Goddard (co-writer and director) have both come a long way from their days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And with this one film, announce to the world that they are forces with which to be reckoned. To date, this is the only film Goddard has directed, and even this has sat on a shelf since 2009, after MGM filed for bankruptcy. That may have been providential as … none of the five visitors who go to the TCITW was a known name in 2009. Cut to three years later and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) is on top of the world – especially with the imminent release of The Avengers. His name may draw some viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a horror film, but strong word of mouth will (hopefully) do the rest. Needless to say, 2012 is going to be a banner year for both Hemsworth and Whedon, who wrote and directed The Avengers. (Banner year for the Hulk, too, HA!)
Oddly enough, if there is a breakout performance in this film, it is not Hemsworth (though he is fine). It is Fran Kranz as Marty. Normally the “stoner” archetype in movies like this is played strictly for laughs or is portrayed as an annoying buffoon. Not so here. Marty does provide comic relief (his travel coffee mug is classic), but he may also be the wisest of all the visitors to this cabin. The Stoner Sage – haven’t had one of those on our screens since Jeff Bridges donned a robe, flip flops, and a White Russian. Also, if anyone ever decides to make a biopic of Dennis Hopper, Fran is your man. (For more on this talented newcomer, check my profile of him on Examiner.com.)
If TCITW does well at the box office, of course the producers will want a sequel. Or (shudder) a prequel. But I don’t think this is franchise material. I can’t say so without giving anything away, but I would be happy if this was simply the brilliant stand alone feature that it is, towering over its milked-to-death predecessors.
Three things regarding the trailer for TCITW: One – nothing in the trailer made me want to see this film. I went because the buzz on it has been out of the stratosphere. Two – the trailer at once tells too much, and not enough. The same damn trouble I am having trying to write an enticing, yet spoiler-free review. Three – don’t watch the trailer. I know some of you won’t be able to resist (that’s why I am not posting it here), but trust me, if you can possibly see this movie without ANY foreknowledge save what I’ve written here, DO SO.
Yes, it is only April, but The Cabin in the Woods is fresh, funny, original, intelligent, and the best time I’ve had at the movies so far in 2012. For the rest of this year’s films, regardless of genre, the bar has been set high.
We haven't really gotten a good look at Anne Hathaway as Catwoman from this summer's The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan's closing chapter of his brilliant Bat-Trilogy. From the few glimpses of her in the teaser trailer, and some blurry location shots taken by Pittsburghians, I've had my doubts as to whether Anne could ever hope to compete with Michelle Pfieffer (who we all know is the BEST Catwoman) as Selina Kyle.
But judging from this image (finally with ears!), released today by Warner Bros., it looks like Anne is going to have more than just Dark Knights rising. I've wondered how Catwoman would figure into the ultra-serious Nolanverse of Batman, and this just seems like a perfect fit … in more ways than one.
Now that the infamous musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie has come and gone yet again (apparently the revised stage show wasn’t much better than the 1988 version), I was conversing recently about this with David Squyres – who writes the excellent Stephen King blog: talkstephenking – and the subject came up of other King titles that could be reworked as musicals.
After all, this is a classic story of isolation set in an iconic Bad Place (the claustrophobic setting could be easily replicated on the stage), has over the top themes like malevolent ghosts and a murderous father (the better to go all operatic on your ass), and deals with dysfunctional familial relationships (always good musical fodder).
I could see it going something like this:
SHINING! – a musical in 3 acts based on the novel by Stephen King written and directed by Andy Williamson (HA!)
JACK (singing soft and sincere to his son) "I would never hurt you, Danny – nor slap, nor hit, nor sever. We'll be safe right here in The Overlook – forever and ever and ever!"
I can imagine many song titles and production numbers, like:
Ode to Mr. Ullman (Officious Little Prick) You Gotta Watch Her, She Creeps (The Boiler Song) Stay Away, Danny (Tony's Lament) Closing Day What's Up, Doc? It's a Long Way to Topiary Come and Play with Us, Danny Snow! Snow! Snow! All Work and No Play (Makes Jack a Dull Boy) White Man's Burden (aka Drinks on the House) Gimme the Bat, Wendy (The Bash Your Brains In Song) Let Me Out! (The Pantry Song) Bring us Your Son Take your Medicine (you damned little pup)! Redrum, Redrum Oh, Danny Boy! (pictured above)
I am only half kidding. (Or am I?) Like I stated above, given the over the top, operatic themes of this story, this might could actually work. What say you? Good idea? Or do I have bats in my belfry?
Are there any other King stories which would lend themselves to the musical stage? I'm thinking Misery is a no brainer … if only to hear Annie Wilkes belt out songs like Number One Fan, You Dirty Bird!, Hog Heaven, They Cheated Us (The Cockadoodie Car Song), and I Wanna Be Your Sledgehammer!
Thoughts? Leave a comment below.
For much more on The Shining, and ALL of its incarnations, read my article King, Kubrick, and The Shining. For further thoughts on this subject (including a similar musical treatment of King's The Stand,) visit this expanded article on my Examiner Pop Culture News page.