Wednesday, July 30, 2014

C Is for Clodhoppers

One of the things I've always thought was interesting about Jim Henson is that he never really set out to become a puppeteer. He wasn't really that interested in the art of puppetry. In fact, there were times in his life when he rankled at his reputation as "the Muppet guy." He was interested in so many other aspects of art and entertainment, and wanted to do so many other things besides just doing the Muppets. And yet, when he realized that puppets were his way in to the entertainment industry, he studied everything he could about them, went to Europe and delved into the art and history of the form, and became very interested in finding new ways to create puppets that would advance the art.

The Clodhoppers began their short life in 1972, designed for a Broadway show that never happened. The performer's feet are the puppet's feet, and then the performer controls the head and hands (though you'll notice the hands don't really have any movement; I wonder if the performer just sort of angles the arms). The performer dresses all in black against a black background and the right lighting, and that's how you get a chorus line of Muppets.

The Clodhoppers, like most of Jim's ideas, didn't just get thrown in the bin when their planned appearance didn't work out. Instead, they made their debut in the 1975 TV special Julie Andrews: My Favorite Things. They then appeared on two episodes of The Muppet Show. Here's their most prominent appearance, dancing in a sketch with Valerie Harper (performing "Nobody Does It Like Me," from the musical Seesaw) on a first season episode.



They later appeared as a Dixieland band on a third season episode in a sketch where Cheryl Ladd danced with Timmy Monster. They appeared one more time, in 1997, in a sketch on the Paula Abdul episode of Muppets Tonight, and were never used again.

They're not very sophisticated, true, but they're an interesting experiment in puppetry. Not all of Jim's experiments were truly great, but they were always intriguing and they almost always led to advances in the operation of creatures and puppets. Jim's imagination was limitless.

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

PIRANHA (1978)
For some reason, I'd just never seen this Roger Corman-produced horror flick before. Joe Dante is one of my favorite directors, and here he and screenwriter John Sayles craft a Jaws rip-off that has a lot of goofy charm in large part because it's not trying to do anything more than just be a by-the-numbers horror flick. It feels more like a movie some people made on the weekends with friends, just enjoying the silliness of the whole thing and then casting greats like Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele, Keenan Wynn, and my beloved Dick Miller. It doesn't feel like a cheap rip-off--even though it basically is--because it feels like the people making it are just enthusiastic about making movies. I don't feel that in a lot of movies these days. And hey, Phil Tippet and Rob Bottin worked on it, too. This is my generation of filmmakers. ***1/2

VERY GOOD GIRLS (2014)
Two friends want to lose their virginity in the summer between high school and college. It's pretty to look at, but boring and empty. Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen are the girls, and they are completely miscast. They've obviously been cast because they were never in typical teen movies, and writer-director Naomi Foner wants this to be a more profound, measured movie. But there's a timing issue here; Fanning and Olsen are 20 and 25, and I just saw Elizabeth Olsen playing a mother in Godzilla two months ago, so they both seem beyond their roles. They've played wise-beyond-their-years so many times that it's very hard to buy them as awkward teenagers navigating a summer romance; though Olsen makes her character a little more believable (she's clearly the better actress here, and she's underused), they mainly come across like aliens who don't understand this human world around them, and have decided to cope with it mainly by staring off into the distance (though their faces do look lovely on camera). The guy who is their object of their affections, Boyd Holbrook, is believable as a crush object. Unfortunately, the movie makes him a romantic lead, and he's not capable of it; he's like if they sucked the personality out of Ryan Gosling and now we're just left with a pile of shrugs and mumbles and condescending, dead-eyed looks. So Dakota likes him and starts sleeping with him, but doesn't tell Elizabeth, who likes him and wants to sleep with him, and then there's stuff with their miscast parents and it just sort of sits there. It's weird how every story beat seems calculated for maximum effect, and yet the girls are just steady and boring the whole way through, completely disaffected in a very, very dull movie. **

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Marvels: Fantastic Four #22

"The Return of the Mole Man!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & George Roussos
(January 1964)

The Mole Man was the first villain the Fantastic Four ever faced, way back in the first issue. Back then, I didn't think he was much of a villain, but I liked that he was in the grandiose tradition of movie serials. This time, he proves much more capable of menacing the Four.

But before we get there, let's talk about this issue's big development: Sue's expanded powers!

Finally, Sue has more active powers. I've been impatient to get here, because we've really explored the limits of Reed and Ben's powers, and the various writers have been really creative in exploring what Johnny can do just with heat and flame. But Sue has only had this ability to turn invisible so far, which comes in handy more often than not, but when it doesn't, she barely has anything to do (awesome judo flips against Doctor Doom aside).

Now she can create invisible force fields which are hard enough to stop the Thing and can totally withstand the Human Torch's flame. She can also turn other objects (and people) invisible. The only limit is that she can't do all of these things at once, but it's exciting watching her grow.

Stan & Jack have a lot of fun with this one; the first third of this issue is people coming in and complaining about the Fantastic Four and the various dangers and nuisances they create (having an ICBM on the premises, experiments with radioactivity, destruction of public property), and being driven off by Sue's new powers. The complaints get so irritating that Reed starts to consider moving their headquarters out of the Baxter Building, only to find an island for sale off the coast of New Jersey.

The island itself turns out to be little more than a rocky outcropping surrounded by a barrier reef. And, anyway, the whole thing is just an elaborate trap set by the Mole Man!

Still hungry for revenge on the world, the Mole Man has been spending the years since we last saw him building huge hydraulic platforms under the largest cities on Earth. How? Shh, never mind. The Mole Man's also been ruling an underground race of creatures who must be incredible engineers. I'll allow that, but where is he getting his resources from? It's just... what? Doctor Doom, sure, but the Mole Man? Guy living underground because he's so ugly and with no super powers of his own? I just... let's move on. I'm just saying, if you saw it in a movie and they never answered these questions, you'd be frustrated.

Anyway, he plans to pull New York City and Moscow underground at the same time so that both the US and the USSR, thinking it was a "sneak A-bomb attack" by the other side, will start World War III and decimate the population. (Trust me, guys, if it was an A-bomb, you'd have heard something.)

Mole Man is smarter this time, separating the FF into a series of traps designed to kill them. Mr. Fantastic is trapped in a room with walls made from non-porous plastic, so he can't thread through them. Invisible Girl is stuck in a room where everything is a hologram illusion. The Human Torch is in a cold environment with ice growing around him, and the Thing is dropped onto a gigantic cotton mound that he can't punch his way out of.

Of course, they all find creative solutions--Mr. Fantastic expands his body until the walls are smashed, Invisible Girl uses her new powers to make the holograms invisible and finds the door, the Torch smashes a circuit panel with an icicle, and the Thing finds an outlet tunnel where cotton was being piped in to suffocate him--and then have to rush around in the dark trying to reunite, defeat the Mole Man, and escape. While being chased through the tunnels and back to the surface, Reed has time to rewire the Mole Man's circuit board so that when he tries to destroy New York and Moscow, he actually destroys his own island.

And once again, Reed leaves Mole Man to die in an explosion.

Stray observations:

:: See this guy?

No one uses his name, but that's Officer Francis Muldoon, Fred Gwynne's character from Car 54, Where Are You?

:: One of the groups that comes to the Baxter Building to complain is the Women's Canasta and Mah Jong Society. I love Reed's harried "I tell you what, ladies! Why don't you write me a letter?"

:: The Mole Man's minions are the Moloids, though they're not called that yet. They have a neat, very Kirby design. I remember in the story "Beauty and the Beast," back in Incredible Hulk #5, underground ruler Tyrannus had minions that looked a little similar. The design was just too good not to use again.

:: This is the first time the Thing yells "It's clobberin' time!"

:: The letters page is a goldmine of future professionals. Future X-Men artist (my personal favorite X-Men artist) Dave Cockrum especially likes the Angel and the Sub-Mariner. John Lasruk says he has 500 comics, and I wonder if it's the artist John Lasruk. His bio says he was born in Toronto, and the letter is from Downsview, Ontario, so maybe. If so, that's pretty neat. Wayne Howard from Cleveland writes a poem praising Marvel, and I'm pretty sure that's this Wayne Howard, the legendary African-American comic artist who mainly worked at Charlton and also got a "created by" credit on Midnight Tales that set an industry precedent. Jack Harris praises Kirby's art but doesn't care for Dick Ayers' inking and thinks the Fantastic Four are cosmic heroes, not superheroes; I'd love to think that's Jack C. Harris, the DC writer and editor who wrote Wonder Woman and edited two of my favorite late-seventies books, Firestorm and Black Lightning. And there's another letter from Roy Thomas, who complains that he's spending $1.95 a month to keep up with Marvel's great comics. Wow, you couldn't even buy half of a comic for that nowadays.

:: Stan also takes the time to reassure one reader that Thor is a legendary god, not a god in a religious sense. I'm kind of surprised, given the time period, no one's brought that up earlier.

:: There's also some more talk about just how many readers don't like X-Men. Stan thinks it will be Marvel's most popular book within a year. Would you like to try for several more than just one, Stan?

This was a, pardon the wording, fantastic issue of Fantastic Four. Yeah, it's still clinging to the formula, but the formula allows for a lot of character development, and developing Sue's powers is an exciting (and necessary) change. I still don't think much of the Mole Man, but he proved a much more effective villain in this one.

Good stuff, man. Good stuff.

Next time: Thor's showdown with Mr. Hyde.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Song of the Week: "Let's Do It"

Songs for Becca #18, because she loves Eartha Kitt. This clip, from 1970, is for me because, holy socks, Eartha Kitt is amazingly gorgeous in this one. That wink at the camera at the end of the song... you're killing me, Ms. Kitt, you are killing me from 44 years in the past. This is one of the sexiest things I've ever seen.

Marvels: Avengers #3

"The Avengers Meet Sub-Mariner" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Paul Reinman
(January 1964)

So far, The Avengers has managed to avoid settling into a "business as usual" routine. It's one of the most exciting things about this book. Exciting as it is, the formula has set in on Fantastic Four and you know more or less the way an issue is going to go. The Avengers has managed, in the first two issues, to feel epic, and I love that about it. I kind of dread it becoming a regular monthly book. Right now, I like that appearing only every two months makes it special. You need a reason for Marvel's mightiest to band together. Loki riling up the Hulk was a reason. The Space Phantom was a reason. And now, Hulk and Sub-Mariner teaming up is a reason.

In the previous issue, the Hulk was driven away when it became clear that the rest of the team (particularly Iron Man, jeez) were never going to trust or respect him. From panel one of this issue, Iron Man is practically demanding that the Avengers go out and find the Hulk, because "there's no telling what he'll do!" Tony seems like the kind of guy that's always up for rounding up certain groups into camps when a crisis breaks out. Iron Man sends an image projection of himself around New York, looking for help from the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men for help locating the Hulk.

The Teen Brigade also pick up the message, which sets Rick Jones on a search. It doesn't take long to find him; the Hulk has returned home to the desert. When Rick finds the Hulk, he's actually helping a farmer pull his jeep out of a lake. Rick takes Hulk to that old desert cave of theirs, where the Hulk can step on a platform and bathe himself in gamma radiation to turn back into Bruce Banner. Hulk is reluctant, but turns back and settles in for some sleep.

But then, something happens...

Though no one uses the word, this is the first time stress turns Banner into the Hulk. He makes the transformation and emerges, in Rick's estimation, "stronger than ever." He busts his way out of that steel-reinforced cave pretty easily, and stalks off into the desert.

Rick alerts the Avengers, and Iron Man just can't wait to get out to the southwest and start beating the shit out of the Hulk again. The other three make their way out, but Iron Man gets there first, and the Hulk isn't holding back at all. This is probably the best evidence to the reader of what Iron Man's Mark III armor can withstand, because the Hulk gets the drop on him with a massive fist. I mean, the best Ant-Man can do is use ants to slowly destabilize the ground under Hulk's feet, which really doesn't help much.

The fight is pretty great; for six pages, Iron Man, Thor, and then Giant-Man try to conquer the Hulk with no luck. The Hulk even throws a train car at them and makes them look incompetent.

Giant-Man, of course, looks the most incompetent.

Watching Giant-Man clumsily smack into stuff will never get old or unfunny, this I vow.

The Hulk manages to slip away and hide in the back of a gravel truck, then makes his way to the Gulf of Mexico and swims out into the Atlantic Ocean. He tires eventually, but is rescued by a passing ship. They let him aboard, where he recovers his strength. It's a refreshing change to see people showing the Hulk any kindness.

A small, rocky island catches the Hulk's eye, so he decides to make that his new home. Slipping off the ship, he swims ashore, only to find someone waiting for him.

We haven't seen Namor since Fantastic Four Annual #1, when his invasion of the surface was thwarted and his people abandoned him. Since then, he seems to have been trying to figure out how to get revenge on the surface-dwellers, and this is how he plans to do it: use the Hulk. They fight at first, but come to an understanding: the most powerful beings of the land and sea, they will drive humanity to its knees... and then, secretly, each one plans to eliminate the other when it's over.

Sub-Mariner takes the Hulk to Gibraltar and challenges the Avengers to a fight. The battle is joined readily; almost immediately, Namor takes out Iron Man with a blast of emery dust, which makes Iron Man's joints stiffen instantly. He just pitches forward, and Giant-Man has to let Thor do all the fighting so he can set up a pump to get the dust out of Tony's suit. Wow, the Iron Man armor never looked so useless. One second into battle and it's an expensive paperweight. When he does get back to the fight, a single punch from Namor damages the transistors that keep the shrapnel away from his heart, nearly crippling him.

All told, Iron Man is surprisingly ineffective in this fight. Namor's just that good.

Giant-Man may be tall, but Namor is much stronger--so far, Giant-Man's 12-foot height hasn't turned out to be much of an advantage for him or the Avengers. And Stan can't think of anything useful for the Wasp to do in the battle at all. Namor and Hulk begin things with a Howitzer shell, and Iron Man begs Thor not to smash it because "It won't affect us, but the explosion might injure the Wasp!" Jan then falls to a soundwave created by the Hulk hitting a rock wall, barely avoids getting trampled by her own teammates, and then just clings to Giant-Man's shoulder, where she's not seen again until the battle is over. Stan also has a tendency to refer to the Avengers as a trio... which I guess they are, if you don't take Jan into consideration at all. Jeez, why not just make her the Avengers' secretary and leave her at home, Stan?

That just leaves Thor doing all of the heavy lifting, literally. Namor is convinced that the key to battle is to get Thor's hammer away from him, and he's nearly right. Of course, neither Namor nor the Hulk can lift the hammer...

..but they come very close to having the hammer out of Thor's hands for sixty seconds. Imagine if he'd turned into Don Blake right there. Hulk probably would have just killed him. No more Thor to worry about.

It really does seem like the Hulk/Sub-Mariner team-up is going to emerge victorious, but then something happens. The Hulk has been so weakened by his attempts to wrest control of Thor's hammer that he turns into Bruce Banner. Banner, unnoticed and in a panic, runs for his life, leaving Namor to battle the Avengers.

Iron Man comes back with his big finishing move, which is to use his repulsor rays to pin Namor against a rock wall. Namor is still fighting, but has been away from the water long enough that his strength is ebbing. The force with which Iron Man is pushing Namor into the wall cracks the wall itself, and water begins to seep through the cracks... which drips on Namor and restores his strength. He breaks free, but the Avengers let him escape.

I'm not sure if this is really victory for the Avengers or not; feels more like a draw to me.

Stray notes:

:: This the first time we've seen Bruce Banner since Incredible Hulk #6, nearly a year ago, which is also the last time we saw the gamma platform. Do you suppose he's been Hulk this whole time? How traumatic.

:: Upon hearing the news that the Hulk is loose again, Hank and Jan immediately shrink and take a flying ant out to the American southwest. And, again, I am just mystified. How long does Stan Lee think it takes flying ants to cross several states and roughly 1500 miles? It would take a car about 30 hours to get there.

:: To get to the Hulk, Don Blake closes the office early so he can go change into Thor. When he announces his intention to close, Jane thinks to herself "Oh, Don, if only you didn't pamper yourself so! If only you were more rugged!" Ugh, Stan. The goddamn Hulk is running around angry, and you still can't bring yourself to skip Jane's constant admonition of Blake, can you? Even in the single panel in which she appears? It just devalues Jane as a character, alright? Stop. Just stop.

:: Also, no more of this:

Ugh, a thousand times, ugh. Women are either flirts or nags, I guess.

:: Iron Man says he doesn't want to kill the Sub-Mariner, he just wants to reason with him. I have yet to hear him say anything about reasoning with the Hulk, just saying.

:: Overworked Stan once again accidentally identifies Bruce Banner as Bob Banner. It's kind of funny, because he's Bruce in the first half of the issue, but Bob in the second. Welcome back, Bob.

This was a great issue, my favorite Avengers comic so far. I love it when the Hulk shows up, but the Avengers are done with the Hulk for now; it'll be a few months before we see him again in Fantastic Four #25.

But our next Marvels will take us to Fantastic Four #22, where the Marvel Universe's first-ever villain returns.

Sunday Hottie 495

MING-NA WEN

Saturday, July 26, 2014

#1 Songs on My Birthday: 1976-1986

So, Roger did this post, and I'm borrowing the premise from him because it seemed neat-o.

It starts with this list of #1 songs going back to 1959. You can go there and discover what the number 1 song was on your birthday. Roger did that and decided to make a series of posts.

Here's the idea: I list three songs per year--the song that was number one just before my birthday, the song that was number one on my birthday, and the number one song after. I'm going to link to the song of my birthday. As Roger explains it, the goal is to decide whether I'm happy with my birthday song. He challenged himself but not listening to the adjacent songs, so I shall do the same. If I know what they are, would I have been happier with those songs? I dunno, but any excuse to listen to music and noodle around online when I should be doing other things is a-ok with me.

Starting in the year of my birth, 1976...

5/29/76 Diana Ross "Love Hangover"
7/10/76 Starland Vocal Band "Afternoon Delight"
7/24/76 The Manhattans "Kiss and Say Goodbye"

I don't know the Diana Ross song. I'm sure I've heard it but just can't recall it. Look at the dates, though: that song must have been exceptionally popular, it was the number one song for over a month. I've never heard the Manhattans song, either. I like "Afternoon Delight." It's kind of fitting that I was brought into this world when America's number one song was not only really cheesy, but a cutesy ode to daytime sex. I don't know, I can't help it. It's that kind of happy cheesy that makes me feel good because it feels like nothing is that serious.

7/9/77 Alan O'Day "Undercover Angel"
7/16/77 Shaun Cassidy "Da Doo Ron Ron"
7/23/77 Barry Manilow "Looks Like We Made It"

Ugh. I've heard this one before, and it's not for me at all. This is an example of a bad kind of cheesy: overly cute covers of songs from the previous generation. I don't know why those almost always sound condescending to me. Shaun Cassidy doing "Da Doo Ron Ron" with those orchestral overdubs... No, please. As bad as it is, the Barry Manilow song is worse (it sounds like a Lionel Richie song that was left out in the sun so long that the sincerity melted out), and I've never heard the Alan O'Day song, but if these two are anything to go by, it's terrible.

6/10/78 John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John "You're the One That I Want"
6/17/78 Andy Gibb "Shadow Dancing"
8/5/78 The Rolling Stones "Miss You"

Jeez. This is like going through my Mom's collection of 45s so far. Damn, "Shadow Dancing" was a big hit. You know, "Shadow Dancing" was the uncoolest kind of thing to like when I was a kid, but it's got Barry Gibb all over it, and I can't bring myself to dislike it. Damn. My Dad would be rolling his eyes right now. Okay, I'm happy with this one. Incidentally, "You're the One That I Want" is the only song I like from Grease besides the title song, and I also like "Miss You," the Stones' concession to disco.

6/30/79 Anita Ward "Ring My Bell"
7/14/79 Donna Summer "Bad Girls"
8/18/79 Chic "Good Times"

Disco is really in full force here. All three songs are pretty good, but nothing that I'm really in love with. Just an unobjectionable group of music.

5/31/80 Lipps Inc. "Funky Town"
6/28/80 Paul McCartney "Coming Up"
7/19/80 Billy Joel "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"

Dang, I missed out on Billy by two days! That would have been my pick. I like all three of these songs, but the Billy Joel song is my favorite of the three. I linked the live version of "Coming Up." The song was the lead-off single of McCartney II, but the record company loved the live version with Wings and it was included as a B-side, but was arguably more popular on the radio than the A-side. It sounds better and fuller.

5/16/81 Kim Carnes "Bette Davis Eyes"
6/20/81 Stars on 45 "Stars on 45"
7/25/81 Air Supply "The One That You Love"

Ugh, I hate this frigging thing. I always have. That early 80s medley craze is just cloying, cutesy and irritating. I always forget it's so Beatles-heavy, which makes it even more lame that they did a pandering "Beatles Medley" separately. No. Just no. I would take either song over this one, and when Air Supply is the better alternative, you know things are bad. Honestly, I'd pick the Kim Carnes song, even though it's not even my favorite version of "Bette Davis Eyes." (I like Jackie DeShannon's Dixieland/swing-inflected original.)

5/15/82 Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder "Ebony and Ivory"
7/3/82 The Human League "Don't You Want Me"
7/24/82 Survivor "Eye of the Tiger"

At last, New Wave is here, and this song is a New Wave classic. I love this one. Much to my wife's annoyance, I also love "Eye of the Tiger," but "Don't You Want Me" is so great, a long-time favorite, and now one of those songs that make me incredibly happy just because it takes me back to being a carefree kid. I really hate "Ebony and Ivory." Anvilicious, as they say on TV Tropes.

5/28/83 Irene Cara "Flashdance... What a Feeling"
7/9/83 The Police "Every Breath You Take"
9/3/83 Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This"

This song has been stalking me for decades. For a while, I heard this literally everywhere I went. And if I didn't hear it there, I would hear it on the way there. Look how long it was number one; now that, kids, is a song of the summer. It's a good song--actually, all three are songs I like in a great year for pop music. But I do like "Flashdance" best. Because of course I do, it's the cheesiest one. But awesome-cheesy.

6/23/84 Duran Duran "The Reflex"
7/7/84 Prince "When Doves Cry"
8/11/84 Ray Parker, Jr. "Ghostbusters"

YES. I love this song, I love this album, I love Prince, this is perfect. This is a great summer for music. That feeling I discussed before, of a song making me incredibly happy because it takes me back, is what I sometimes refer to as "my 1984 feeling," because that was a really fun year for me. Or my "Raspberry Beret" feeling, because that's the happiest I've ever felt listening to a song. That's my "I need to feel better NOW" song. I can take or leave the Duran Duran song (it's no "New Moon on Monday"), but I love "Ghostbusters." But if you can get Prince on your birthday, you take him.

(Note: I didn't even bother with a link because good luck trying to find a Prince song on YouTube.)

7/6/85 Phil Collins "Sussudio"
7/13/85 Duran Duran "A View to a Kill"
7/27/85 Paul Young "Every Time You Go Away"

Now here's a Duran Duran song I love. Possibly the last one I love, and I love it. The other two songs I can take or leave. Actually, "Sussudio" I might just leave.

7/5/86 Billy Ocean "There'll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)"
7/12/86 Simply Red "Holding Back the Years"
7/19/86 Genesis "Invisible Touch"

Aw. man. I missed "Invisible Touch" by two days. That's a serious contender for my favorite album of the 1980s. That would be my pick of these three. The Simply Red song sounds kind of nice and nostalgic now; it got played for seemingly years, and it was just so depressing that I got very tired of it as a kid. Then again, times are about to get really depressing for me, so maybe I just consider the song too emblematic of a time when I felt too often the way this song feels. Can't really hold being "too effective" against it, can I?

Next Saturday, I'll do another ten. Check out Roger's original post!