Saturday, February 13, 2010

Captain America

With director Joe Johnston out doing press for The Wolfman, there's been some news coming out about his plans for Captain America (or as they're still unfortunately and unnecessarily calling it, The First Avenger: Captain America). Here's some of the news I've been enthused about:

It looks like the movie is completely set in World War II, which is awesome. You save the modern stuff for the eventual Avengers movie (which I'm hoping will basically combine the plots of Avengers #1 and #4, with the team being formed to fight the Hulk, and Captain America being recovered in the modern world and leading the team--seems like a no-brainer to me; shame there apparently won't be an Ant-Man or Wasp, though). The Red Skull is going to be the villain.

Casting-wise, Johnston says he wants an unknown or someone with less experience, which is much better than some of the idiot casting choices I've heard bandied about, like Will Smith or Brad Pitt. Best name I've heard so far: Ryan McPartlin.

You know, I forgot he was on Chuck. I really don't like Chuck. I remember McPartlin from that Fran Drescher sitcom he was on a couple of years ago. That's right, I liked a show with Fran Drescher better than Chuck. Anyway, he's got geek recognition and he really seems the heroic type; I think he'd be a fine Cap. I'd love to see this happen.

Worst name I've heard so far: Chad Michael Murray. Apparently he (as well as McPartlin) has tested for the role. Dear God, no. If you need someone to self-consciously pretend to be a teenager and romance a 17 year-old in a high school while looking creepy and half-stoned, Murray's your guy. But he's not Captain America. Not at all.

The other awesome news about Captain America is that the Invaders are going to be in the film! According to Johnston, they're going to be in the entire second half! Man, I wonder which characters will appear in the movie? I know that the Sub-Mariner is at Fox as part of their deal for the Fantastic Four movie rights, which immediately sucks, but could they still use the Human Torch? After all, it's a completely different character; it's not the Johnny Storm Torch of the Fantastic Four. And really, wouldn't it be nice if they could get the Sub-Mariner anyway, since it's the Golden Age version?

Can you imagine? Captain America, Namor, and the Human Torch, fighting Nazis and destroying Panzers? And Bucky and Toro, the Flaming Kid? (And yes, I do hope they add Bucky in; I know we're all supposed to be too cool and cynical to accept something like that, but it's a matter of getting the tone right, and I trust Johnston with that. In 1996, I was in a theater with a bunch of terrified children and horrified parents who thought they'd come to see a light and fluffy children's adventure called Jumanji, which turned out to be really intense.)

But since I'm not holding my breath for Namor or the Torch (although, couldn't they just rename him Toro and have him be the same character?), and Johnston says there will be six of them, here's who I'd like to see: Union Jack, the Blazing Skull, the Whizzer, Miss America, the Thin Man, and the Blue Bullet. Will I get to see them? Eh, who knows?

But the anticipation of just who and what is really making me excited for Captain America!

We Are the Fail

I'm not into the Olympics, so I missed this on TV, but this morning I watched the new version of "We Are the World" on YouTube. And wow, it is ridiculous.

Now, let's be honest, it's not like we're talking about a cover of a classic here. It's "We Are the World," a song so cheesy and overly earnest that it floats all the way up to profoundly silly. Now, I like the song, but I like it on three levels: one, as great cheese; two, as a reminder of a time when I was more easily wowed by things that silly (I was 9 when the original was released); and third, as a game where I try to pick out the singers 25 years later just by listening to the voices.

This new version... well, maybe I'm just filtering the original through having been an undiscerning kid at the time, but the 1985 original seems more filled with, I'll just say it, legitimate music stars. Okay, granted, there are a lot of singers in the original who are brand new and could probably have been called flavors of the month, like Cyndi Lauper or Huey Lewis, who were pretty new at the time. But it also had real heavyweights in there, real music stars: Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bob motherfucking Dylan. I mean, even for me as a 9 year-old, this felt like the entire music industry. I knew who all of these people were; these were people who were taken seriously.

I can't take this new version seriously. And it's not just because of the people who are in the video, although, come on, these are really the great music stars of today? Josh Groban? Adam Levine? Pink? Enrique Iglesias? But it also has to do with the tone of the video, which is way, way more self-important than it was in 1985. In 1985, naive though it was, the people involved seemed to really believe they were doing something to help hunger in Africa. And they were doing it by contributing their time and talent to something that could make money for a charity, which I respect, because I'm sick of seeing people like Sean Penn and Bono trying to insert themselves into the role of activist-prophets while really giving up nothing and contributing even less. But this new version of "We Are the World," even with the same people--Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie--at the helm, was just a little too smug and self-congratulatory for my taste. I didn't feel like I was watching people who cared as often as I felt like I was watching some massive publicity stunt designed to show you how much these people want to appear to care about others.

Hell, the song even has a rap break added into it that declares that America has done so much to help the needy in other nations, and now we're doing it for Haiti, as if charity singles have solved all of the problems of the world. Oh, America, aren't you wonderful?

A few stray observations here:

:: Giving the first line to Justin Bieber just made me laugh hard. I barely even know what this kid is, but he looks like he's 9 and he sounds like he's 4. You really want me to take this seriously, but you start off with this baby-faced, chipmunk-voiced little girly boy who is so painfully over-earnest that the only thing I can do is laugh at him? Not a great way to begin, guys.

:: I really hate the sound of Josh Groban's voice. And following him with Tony Bennett just seems weird, like they trotted out the token old guy.

:: Even seeing her for just a couple of seconds, Mary J. Blige is incredibly self-important.

:: The decision to leave Michael Jackson in the song I could almost live with, since he co-wrote the original song. But leaving in his footage from the original video felt over-the-top and, honestly, disrespectful to the people who performed in the original song. Is this to help Haiti, or is this yet another fucking tribute to Michael Jackson? Guys, he's not getting any deader, you can scale it back now. Quit deifying him!

:: Barbra Streisand seems like a weird, out of place choice. They keep throwing in people like her and Tony Bennett in a way that feels like they're desperate to add legitimacy to it, so that you know that among the Nick Jonases and Miley Cyruses and Fergies, there are, I don't know, Real Music Establishment Folks. It's a scrap, somehow. I mean, maybe that wasn't their intention, but it just comes across that way. But a lot of music greats, like Gladys Knight, Heart, and Brian motherfucking Wilson are just relegated to the chorus, and they can all sing circles around Usher or Enrique Iglesias or Akon and T-Pain and their vocoders.

:: I like Wyclef Jean, but his vocal affectations just seemed out of place. Too many singers were calling attention to themselves with their vocal shticks. Seriously, when Celine Dion is actually one of the people who seems the least pretentious about their voice in your video, there's a huge problem.

:: I truly despise Jaime Foxx at this point. I am just so fucking sick of him telling us how cool and smooth and genuine he is. It's bad enough that he really thinks he has a legitimate music career, but him breaking into his Ray Charles impression is just so over the line and tasteless. Seriously, you leave Michael Jackson in, but have a Ray Charles impersonator? Does Foxx actually just think he's Ray Charles now? It was just a "Look at me, I'm so clever and funny" moment in something that should have been about helping people, but instead felt like it was about how awesome America is and how awesome these singers are for recording this song.

:: Seriously, there's a fucking rap break! It just kills the thing. And I actually like LL Cool J and thought it was neat to see him rapping again, but it was just so out of place and only there to shoehorn in guys like Swizz Beatz and William. Oh, and of course Kanye had to get in there, too, because nothing important can ever happen without Kanye the Self-Anointed adding his legitimizing presence to the whole enterprise. Seriously, when you're leading up to Kanye West, and giving him basically the Bob Dylan part of the song... No. Just no.

The whole thing was a joke. And I wasn't expecting anything good to come from this, but I am disappointed in two people whose talent I've never denied: Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones. They both have so much more taste and more commercial instinct and more sheer talent than to come up with this slapdash, ramshackle, crumbling structure. Maybe if they'd written something new it would've come off better; simply covering the original "We Are the World" seems pretty crass in itself. I think of other charity songs like "Sun City" or "Voices That Care" or "Do They Know It's Christmas?" or Disney's recent "Send It On" and, well, let's face it, none of them are great songs, but they were all written for specific moments in time. There was at least something genuine and caring about them in a small way. Simply trotting "We Are the World" back out just isn't good enough, is it?

And granted, I was only 9 when the original came out, so if there was anyone saying what I'm saying now (and I'm sure there were), I wasn't aware of it. They actually had us watch the making-of video for "We Are the World" in school, so it seemed like a huger deal than maybe it was. But the new video just sort of proves that the creativity and the longevity isn't there in the music industry anymore. There's no one comparable these days to Bruce Springsteen or Stevie Wonder or Willie Nelson or Michael Jackson.

What a failure this was.

UPDATE 10:53 AM: Oh, of fucking course this was directed by Paul Haggis. This is just the kind of pretentious drivel he thinks passes for sincerity. No wonder I hated it so much; this is Crash all over again.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Note to Travolta: This Is How You Help

I had forgotten that Harrison Ford was a pilot. He's also a huge supporter of Operation Smile, and at his own expense, he transported 20 surgeons and nurses and medical supplies to Haiti. Actual, real medical doctors and not those sham, sciencefictionologist faith healers that Travolta and the "church" of the divine alien were flying over and that, as far as I'm concerned, actively stop people from getting the medical help they need, as well as clogging up the incredible amount of air traffic trying to land with actual help. Scientology is nothing more than a racket, and sending down "specialists" who think they can heal a person with a touch is unconscionable.

You're doing it right, Harrison Ford. And looking at that smile, I can see doing good makes you feel good. And we need more good.

How to Train Your Dragon

I'm seeing commercials for this on TV now, and I actually really, really want to see this movie. Yes, the downside is its DreamWorks, and I do plan to wait until I don't have to watch it in 3D, but we're talking Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois as writer-directors, and they were the guys who wrote and directed Lilo and Stitch, one of my favorite animated movies ever. And just look at that amazing dragon! So fresh, so different, and yet so traditionally a dragon.

I'm just surprised by how much the little kid in my jumps up and grabs my heart and begs to see this movie every time I see a commercial. My inner kid and I, we love dragons. And I hope this doesn't end up being a letdown, like Dragonheart was.

But then I see it's Chris Sanders, man, and the dragon looks so Chris Sanders-y... I have to see this.

Happy 30th Birthday, Christina Ricci!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

There Was an Earthquake, Apparently

We got a phone call at 5:30 this morning from Becca's Mom asking if we'd felt the earthquake.

Yeah, apparently there was a 4.3 scale earthquake just one town over. Seriously, the epicenter was just a couple of miles away in Sycamore. It would take me about 20 minutes to drive there from where I sit right now.

Weird. We didn't feel a damn thing. Just slept right through it.

On the WGN News this morning, there were phone calls coming in from people who felt it miles away from here. Becca's Mom lives south of us (the earthquake was north of us, but only just north), and she felt it. But here? Nothing. Hell, there were students in one of the dorm towers who felt it, and I can see that from my window.

My Mom called this morning, too; she lives almost an hour away by tollway, and she felt it, too. Woke her up around 4 or 4:30 this morning. Seriously, there were people hours away who felt this thing. People calling into the news from places like Romeoville and Geneva, which aren't exactly a stone's throw away, saying that the quake knocked over furniture or pictures. And here we are, practically at ground zero, and we feel nothing?

It's just really weirded me out, is all. I mean, Becca likes to display action figures. She's got action figures set up that I've knocked over just because I walked on the same floorboard as them from across the room. We have picture frames and clocks hanging on our wall. And when we were told there was an earthquake, we looked around and nothing had fallen over. Nothing was even out of place. The picture frames were still straight. And Thumper didn't freak out because something was off, and he's afraid of the dark, for goodness' sake.

Why the hell would we be completely unaffected? Don't get me wrong, I'm happy for our good fortune. It's just... weird.

This is almost how I felt when there was that shooting over at the university, which is also very close to me. Earthquakes are very rare in Illinois, though not unheard of. I've been in small earthquakes before, and I know how they feel. But it just seems like this is twice now that I've been close to disaster--no, wait, three times, because there was the tornado that passed over our apartment complex and touched down just a couple of miles away but didn't do anything here but shake the ground a bit and knock our power out for an hour or two. Three times I've sat here (or slept here) and been close to a tragedy or near-disaster and barely even realized it.

I hope luck isn't finite...

Film Week

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

In 1999, Julia Sweeney released a film of her concert God Said, Ha!, which was in no small part about her Catholic faith and how it helped to get her through her brother's debilitating and ultimately fatal cancer. So I was surprised to see that, nearly a decade later, she had a new concert film that detailed her loss of faith in the Catholic Church and, eventually, all forms of religion. I found her journey similar to my own, though hers took place later in life than mine. I, too, read the entire bible (the first time was just after my high school graduation) and found it hard to reconcile the church's messages of morality and compassion with the horror stories (none of them uplifting) in the bible. One of the things I liked about Sweeney (other than her total honesty about something so personal) is that she rejects the term atheism out of hand because it describes her lack of belief in religious terms. I actually don't like describing myself as an atheist, partially for the same reason, and partially because I don't like being associated with a certain judgmental arrogance. Not that I haven't indulged in that myself--I don't like religion and have never been shy about saying so. I truly appreciate anyone who can see the world for what it is and see the beauty in the random chance without being scared of the idea of an unordered universe where all morality comes from ourselves and our community without assigning it a consciousness rooted in nightmarish tales of genocide. This was excellent. Take my advice here; if you don't believe in God and there are people (family members, for example) that you want to make understand why you don't, show them this film. It's honest without trying to offend, which is something all too rare in today's politicize-everything world. **** stars.

Beautiful, minimalist film about an Iranian man who drives around trying to find someone who will bury him after he commits suicide. It's a contemplative movie, but not a dull one, as each man has different thoughts on the nature of life and whether someone should choose the moment of their death and why someone might want to. It's not an argument for or against suicide, but simply a discussion about something very complex. It doesn't try to offer a pat, definitive answer as to why one should or shouldn't choose to live or to die. I was very moved by it. **** stars.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Beaker's Ballad

A brand spanking new Muppet video, and one which gets right to the disillusionment and mean-spiritedness which is YouTube.

My 15 Favorite Pokemon

I'm honestly not really sure why I'm making this list. Becca and I used to watch Pokemon back when it first hit American TV in the late 90s, and we watched it pretty much up until we moved here in 2001. I always maintained that it was a neat show and a good show for kids--it taught the value of competition, hard work, loyalty, friendship, teamwork, good sportsmanship, etc. In fact, I remember being the one who convinced my stepmom to let Ellen, who was something like 6 or 7 when the show came on, watch Pokemon; she'd heard it was all about violence, but it wasn't. Not at all.

Anyway, I've been seeing a lot of First Generation Pokemon stuff on Tumblr lately, and it brought back good memories of going to the movies and watching TV with Becca, back when we both lived with our mothers and would escape into such things as a way of being alone together. So glad I found someone who is as much a big kid as I am. So, just because I know she'll dig it, a list of my 15 favorite Pokemon.

15. Slowpoke
He's just adorable. I admit, a lot of my Pokemon likes are based on cuteness. But he's just so dopey and hilarious. I think his special ability is Downs Syndrome.

14. Growlithe
I can't even remember what he does; he's just a neat cartoon dog.

13. Poliwrath
Yeah, baby! He's like an angry frog that punches people! That's everything I want to be!

12. Teddiursa
It's the cuteness. Plus, I once read a horrible fan fiction story online about a girl having sex with her Teddiursa, which read like some kind of terrible child abuse story that was apparently supposed to be adorable, and it really freaked me out, so now I just want to protect this little guy from creepers.

11. Ditto
What is it that's so compelling about this guy? I just... I just can't look away.

10. Mankey
Part monkey, part pig, all awesome. And they're so mean, like monkeys should be, damn it!

9. Snorlax
He just reminds me so much of my wife, because she loves to sleep. We used to joke about that all the time.

8. Haunter
Now that's what a ghost should look like: an evil motherfucker.

7. Cubone
Just look at the guy. How can you not love that? He was always so testy, cracking kids on the head with that bone. Loved it.

6. Onix

5. Squirtle
I just love him. That's it, really. Just love him.

4. Pikachu
Well, come on. He's effing Pikachu, isn't he?

3. Psyduck
I have amazing empathy for Psyduck. Not only because he's a duck (and I've yet to find a fictional duck I didn't like), but because he's just so bad at what he does. He's always messing things up, and it triggers my outsider empathy. I get it, Psyduck. You tried. You'll do better next time.

2. Charizard
He goes right to the part of me that's wanted a dragon ever since I was too young to realize just how impossible that would be. And he's all temperamental, which I can relate to. I sort of think of him like the Incredible Hulk of Pokemon.

1. Bulbasaur
He's a dinosaur, he's a little guy, he's a plant (kind of), and he was always so shy and distrusting. I think I saw a lot of myself in Bulbasaur. He's my favorite. There you go.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Snuggy D-Lux

The logical next step for the backwards-robe-wearing herd.

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Song of the Week: "American Nights"

I love the Runaways, and all of this stuff about the upcoming movie just makes me want to hear them more. Here they are, live in Japan, 1977. One of my favorite bands ever.

Essential Marvels, Part 1

Lately I've been reading a lot of old comics. I don't know why, except that many of the newer comics just aren't doing it for me. I love superhero comics, but with Marvel and DC seemingly hellbent on destroying anything I could ever love about both of their universes, I've been heading back to the earlier days, and I've been enjoying myself a lot more than I have been with the cynicism and desperate attempts to be cool and modern that are being shat out by both companies right now. (With occasional exceptions, I admit, like the wonderful All Star Superman.)

Since I've always loved Marvel characters, I decided to go back to the beginning of the Marvel Age and sat down with The Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1. It's always a trip to go back and see the goofiness, sexism, and "science hero" beginnings. Much has been made (and deservedly so) of the epic pairing of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as well as the idea that Marvel Comics hit with an audience by presenting heroes for whom everything didn't come easily. (Although I'm not sure that's accurate--it reminds me of the idiot perception now that there's no drama for Superman because, supposedly, he's invincible--there's no question that Lee and Kirby's heroes here are flawed human beings who view their powers in different ways, and not always as a gift or a responsibility.) I hadn't read any old issues of The Fantastic Four in a very long time--this covers the first 20 issues--and it was as fun as I hoped it would be. And it's not that there wasn't angst--brother, there was tons of it--it's that the angst didn't consume all of the drama and action. You have Ben Grimm's constant anger and the villainy of Dr. Doom (and he is a great villain; every Doom story here is a classic), but what you don't have is the melancholy that comes from characters sitting around heavy-handedly pondering themselves.

What surprised me was the level of sexism here; at one point, Invisible Girl's hobbies are listed as "baking" and "reading movie star magazines." Sue Storm's major drama is that she's torn between Reed Richards and Prince Namor, to the point where she even has a hidden 8x10 of Namor behind a bookcase! You can tell Lee's written romance comics for years (and would up until, I believe, the early or mid 70s), but his attempts to marry that to the science fiction stories don't always work. They're not really jarring moments, but they do make me roll my eyes and laugh at something very dated. And Lee does try to balance it out by making sure that Sue is shown as useful and important to the team, despite what was apparently a large number of fan letters complaining to the contrary.

What I also loved was the adorable goofiness of it. Lee and Kirby were forging a relationship with a responsive audience as part of creating a brand identity, and if the comics themselves are anything to go by, it didn't take them long. This is the kind of thing comic book companies don't really do (or care about doing) anymore; I guess the idea that comics should be fun is out the window at the Big Two these days. I love that there's a story where the Fantastic Four go through their fan mail and take us on a tour of their facilities and demonstrate their hardware and powers. I'm not suggesting that this is something publishers should do now, I'm just saying acknowledging the fans and having fun with them goes a long way.

There are some classic stories in this volume (Ben Grimm as Blackbeard, Prince Namor attacking the surface world with the forces of Atlantis, the Super Skrull), and some that aren't really so classic (turning the Skrulls into cows, the Impossible Man), but I loved the whole thing.

I wish I could say the same for The Essential Astonishing Ant-Man Vol. 1, which ended up being torturous to read. Terrible villains, some really bad art (Don Heck, WTH?), awful writing, and rampant sexism (the Wasp just keeps on wondering why, why, why won't Ant-Man love her) made this one a downer. Somehow, it gets even worse when Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man. It just makes him a giant dick. Moving on...

I was surprised by how tedious I found The Essential Incredible Hulk Vol. 1. Stan Lee seems to have not known exactly who or what the Hulk was when he created him, and the volume really suffers from Lee and others desperately throwing story elements at the wall to see what sticks. First the Hulk only comes out at night, then he comes out whenever, then Bruce Banner is always the Hulk, then the Hulk is under the mind control of Rick Jones, then the Hulk can fly, then the flying is only leaping, then Banner can turn into the Hulk whenever he wants by dosing himself with gamma radiation, then the Hulk comes out whenever Banner's overstressed--but if the Hulk gets overstressed, he turns back into Banner. Will you guys just pick something and go with it?

There's also an inconsistency because of the art. The original run of The Incredible Hulk only lasted six issues before cancellation; then he became a recurring feature in Tales to Astonish (home of Ant-Man; what a joyless purchase that must have been). I'm actually not a fan of Jack Kirby's Hulk; he looks off to me. Steve Ditko's is actually worse, and there are a number of artists in here who also don't work. For my money, Bill Everett is the best of the Hulk artists in this volume. He really captures what the Hulk is all about to me.

The worst thing, though, is that Bruce Banner never registers too much as a character, and we're supposed to buy this love triangle he's in, where Betty Ross loves him, but Major Glenn Talbot, who is set on proving Banner is a communist traitor, loves Betty and wants her to see Banner for what he thinks he is. It's more romance comic melodrama, and it actually makes the book less readable.

The best of the four volumes I've read, hands down, is The Essential Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1. I'd forgotten just how compelling and involving the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man were. Everything Stan Lee had been trying to do in other superhero comics just clicks perfectly here. Peter Parker stands in for overworked, harried, unpopular teenagers every where, and his fights with supervillains are only a part of his struggle. He's also struggling for money, struggling with his fear that his Aunt May can't get by without him, and struggling with his guilt over his Uncle Ben's murder. Peter Parker is a fully three-dimensional character, dealing with real problems that make his life a constant uphill battle. The real genius is to put Parker in situations where his spider powers can't really help him; swinging on webs and crawling up walls don't help his self-esteem, his problems with his boss, or his aunt's mortgage payments. He's juggling so much, and it's a perfect understanding of and metaphor for teenage stress.

Spidey has the best villains of any Marvel superhero, so every one is creative and menacing, even potentially lame ones like the Enforcers. This volume also has the epic story "The Sinister Six," in which six villains team up to get the best of Spidey, and every superhero in the Marvel Universe makes cameo appearances. Steve Ditko's art shines.

About Ditko: he was so the perfect artist for The Amazing Spider-Man. There's a back-up story in here from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 drawn by Jack Kirby, and Kirby's Spidey is too muscular, too cocksure, too beefy. Ditko's Spider-Man looks like a teenage kid; he's lithe and even scrawny, simply bluffing and sometimes blundering his way through battles with villains. Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man art handily beats, for me, Kirby's Fantastic Four.

Gosh, these were fun.

I'm moving on next to Thor and Iron Man. Can't wait to enjoy more old Marvels!