Saturday, December 28, 2013

50 Shades of Smartass: Chapter 8

Well, I was going to take the week off from this... and then I saw that we're finally getting to the sex.

And it is... it is really fucking boring.

I guess I expected it would be hilariously bad and stupidly funny. But no. No, it's just really boring and dull. There's not even much to make fun of, because it's like watching paint dry, and pretty much exactly that funny to talk about.

But first: back to raging asshole Christian, totally angry that the girl he's known for, like, a week never explained to him that she's a virgin before. And, of course, somehow she feels guilty. This doesn't bode well. Then she's just getting all goofy inside because he thinks she's beautiful, and then he's getting over the top angry, demanding to know how she could possibly still be a virgin at the age of 21, as if that's really a rare thing. Ana being a virgin at 21--anyone being a virgin at 21--is totally believable. What isn't believable is how little she actually understands about how sex works. We'll get there.

She's worried that he's going to send her away, and he even gives her the chance to leave if this is too much for her, but she really just loves and craves approval and attention too much to leave now. She's a special snowflake; one of those girls who is uncomfortable with attention because she doesn't know how to handle it, and yet seeks it out constantly because she wants the validation. (Again, Tumblr experience talking.) She admits to us that she doesn't want to leave. And I don't think he really intends on letting her, anyway, since as she's supposed to be deciding, he's bombarding her with more of his idiot comments about how he wants to bite her lip and how distracting she is and then he says "We're going to rectify this situation right now."

The situation of her virginity.

It's not an experience. It's a situation. An obstacle for him that he needs to rectify so he can prepare her to be used as a tool in the near future.

Then we get this from him: "I want our arrangement to work, but you really need to have some idea what you’re getting yourself into. We can start your training tonight – with the basics. This doesn’t mean I’ve come over all hearts and flowers, it’s a means to an end, but one that I want, and hopefully you do too."

I love that little afterthought: Oh, er, hopefully you do, too, but I don't really care that much, after all, I'm trying to get you to sign your consent and autonomy away. But it's okay, because she's totally internalized that stereotype so many novels keep pushing about how abuse and entitlement are actually romance. (On a side note, please, please, please do not tell your young daughters that when boys push and hit them on the playground that it means the boys like them.) She doesn't realize that none of this is actually about her, it's just... well: the key line in all that is "it's a means to an end." So romantic.

Her response? "I flush... oh my... wishes do come true."

I've used this phrase so much it's lost all meaning, but I will never say it about anything else ever again: this is the worst-written piece of shit I've ever read in my life.

So, Ana has to be de-virginized before she can be his slave, and she gives her consent... and remember, if she signs the contract--and she's already told us that she will--this is going to be the last moment where her consent ever matters.

This is all so wrong.

And what makes this especially pathetic is that Ana makes literally everything Christian does romantic. She romanticizes every inhuman, abusive thing that's wrong with him. Actually, in her eyes, there's nothing wrong with him. She refers to him again as a "monster" because he likes to torture women, but she doesn't internalize that in a way that actually matters. She's just a little nervous because her [classic British literature] romantic fantasy is getting rougher than she wanted, but she's still going to go with it no matter what.

So, anyway, they go into his bedroom, where she describes his bed, which is somehow both "ultra-modern" and a four-poster, which are two things that don't exist in the same place. An ultra-modern four-poster? Jeez, what's his decorating style? Tudor Art Deco? You don't know. You don't know anything about anything.

"Finally, after all this time, I'm going to do it, with none other than Christian Grey."

Finally? I thought you said you never wanted to have sex before.

He takes off his shirt and shoes and it takes forever, because she's working up to it, and Christian's so super hot, you guys, holy hell, he is so damn hot, like we get it, alright. And he's all "Do you have any idea how much I want you" and "Do you have any idea what I'm going to do to you" and ugh, can we just get to this, please?

Let's gloss over some of this next stupidity. The sex really is just super-boring "insert tab D into slot V" kind of functional sex, written by a woman who clearly doesn't like to think about healthy sex too much and looked up a bunch of chaste online descriptions to use. It doesn't read like anything a normal person has ever felt about sex ever in their lives. It's about as exciting as watching a dog hump a cardboard box.

So, since a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll intersperse some of my general reactions to what's happening.

"The muscles inside the deepest, darkest part of me clench in the most delicious fashion. The pain is so sweet and sharp I want to close my eyes, but I'm hypnotized by his eyes staring into mine."

Pain? In your pelvic muscles? If you've got pain in your pelvis, you should not be engaging in sex, you should be consulting a medical professional.

"'I like brunettes,' he murmurs, and both his hands are in my hair, grasping each side of my head."

Who gives a shit? Why would you even say that during sex?

"Seeing him on his knees in front of me, feeling his mouth on me, it's so unexpected, and hot."

Like, in what way? I can't believe I'm asking this, but could you be more descriptive about what this person is actually feeling? First-person narrative's a lot harder to get right than you thought, isn't it?

"'You smell so good,' he murmurs, and closes his eyes, a look of pure pleasure on my face, and I practically convulse."

They don't even have all of their clothes off yet, by the way.

"'You're very beautiful, Anastasia Steele. I can't wait to be inside you.' Holy shit. His words. He's so seductive."

She has no idea how to describe the sensations involved in having sex, nor the feelings it elicits. I don't understand how you bored housewives are getting off to this, because it's the worst pathetic attempt at writing sex. It's like it's written as one of those Doge memes. Such sex. So seductive. Much tingle.

She's approaching this whole thing like it's all naughty and titillating, but it's so perfunctory.

Then she says she's never masturbated, never even touched herself "there"before. He wants to watch her, and she doesn't even understand what he means by it because the concept of masturbation is wholly alien to her. Bullshit.

BULLSHIT, I SAY.

And then he's just all over her breasts. Paragraph after paragraph of playing with her nipples, because EL James is still working herself up to having to use words other than "there" or "deep inside in my most secret places" to discuss the vagina, and that's scary, so we spend paragraphs on her sensitive nipples.

She's so magical that she can apparently come just from having her never-before-touched-apparently-never-even-by-her-or-a-doctor-or-something nipples paid attention to. Which, you know, some women can, but it's pretty rare, and it's really only there so James doesn't have to discuss things like insertion or, you know, SEX. She's timid and trying to delay it by getting lost in the arousal, but it's just... it's so boring, you guys. It's so goddamn boring.

"His teeth close round my nipple, and his thumb and finger pull hard, and I fall apart in his hands, my body convulsing and shattering into a thousand pieces. He kisses me, deeply, his tongue in my mouth absorbing my cries."

Well, that's her orgasm, then. Her first ever, apparently. She doesn't really get much time to enjoy it, because he's babbling about how responsive she is and how he can't wait to control her and she's thinking things like "Holy cow" and how he's touching her. Can you guess where? "There."

"His hand moves down my waist, to my hips, and then cups me intimately..."

Can someone explain to me what the platonic way to cup someone's crotch is? I'm asking for a friend.

"He kneels up and pulls a condom onto his considerable length. Oh no... Will it? How?"

Don't you have the internet, dummy? You're a 21 year-old in the 21st century. A college fucking graduate.

"'Don't worry,' he breathes, his eyes on mine. 'You expand, too.'"

Her childlike naivete is doing whatever the opposite of turning me on is. Frankly, my penis has crawled inside of my lower intestine and I'm retroactively apologetic and filled with shame towards every woman who's ever had sex with me.

Also, he keeps calling her "baby" over and over again, and it's really gross. I just want it to stop. When he does it, it feels condescending and icky.

"I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity."

Nope.

"And as he comes, he calls out my name, thrusting hard, then stilling as he empties into me."

Make this stop.

"Two orgasms… coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow."

Every time I think James has hit her worst metaphor, she keeps going.

"''You are mine,' he whispers. 'Only mine. Don’t forget it.'" Except she isn't, because she hasn't signed that contract yet, although admittedly that's probably just a formality by now. She describes his power trip as "heady," "seductive," and "intoxicating." Yeah, stripping you of your consent is so erotic. Hey, Robin Thicke wrote some lyrics about that and threw them over a Marvin Gaye track and it was literally the most popular song of 2013, so I guess... Wow, think about that. Think about the popularity of "Blurred Lines" and 50 Shades of Grey and think about what it is society is telling us about its collective sexual maturity.

"'See how you taste,' he breathes against my ear. 'Suck me, baby.' His thumb presses on my tongue, and my mouth closes around him, sucking wildly. I taste the saltiness on his thumb and the faint metallic tang of blood. Holy fuck. This is wrong, but holy hell is it erotic."

That's wrong? That's nothing. If you think that's really naughty and weird and dark, you are not cut out to be the submissive in a BDSM relationship. You just aren't. (It's also not really that erotic, either, but whatever.)

The blood is from her losing her virginity. Can we stop perpetuating that, writers of terrible fanfiction? Not all women bleed when they lose their virginity. Lots of women break their hymens before they even have sex, anyway, just from physical activities like sports, strenuous exercise, or, hell, falling on the playground. What I'm saying is, when you lose your virginity, even if it does bleed, it's generally not like the gory animal slaughter that's described here. You'd think Christian was going to have to throw out his mattress. I despise this fanfiction cliche. You can tell who knows nothing about sex, because the authors think that a hymen breaking is like the hotel hallway in The Shining and when men come they shoot directly into a woman's womb. You know nothing about anatomy. Add that to the long list of things you don't know anything about, EL James.

Then he starts thrusting into her again, saying things like "I want you sore, baby." And then it finally gets hilarious.

"'You. Are. So. Sweet,' he murmurs between each thrust. 'I. Want. You. So. Much.'

Wut?

"'You. Are. Mine. Come for me, baby,' he growls."

Are you... are you really happy with that?

Am I supposed to be picturing William Shatner here?

Alright, well, then he's "spent," and then Ana falls asleep for a while, and then things get even more pathetic. She wakes up, and he's not there. Where does she find him? If you answered "Sitting at the piano in the dark, lit only by a solitary light, playing a melancholy Bach melody," then congratulations and I'm sorry, but you know your romance novel cliches. She's transfixed by his playing, seeing him as this sad, lonely figure, despondent and childlike in the darkness. She really thinks she's having this Gothic romance happen to her, instead of just being quasi-raped by a total creep who wants her to give up her free will so he can use her like a sex toy. Yeah, you are just having the best life.

He orders her to go back to bed (again, author's word, "order"), and they go back to their bloody sheets together. She reaches out to touch his chest, and he practically jumps back and puts on a shirt, because of his sexy, highly erotic terror of intimacy. Oddly, if nothing else, I feel like this should be the biggest red flag in this whole chapter. It just shows you exactly how things are going to go. Let's forget the sex, which was pretty forgettable, anyway. Let's just look at what's actually happened versus what Ana thinks has happened.

She thinks she's caught Christian in a vulnerable moment and gotten a glimpse into his beautiful, tortured soul.

In actuality, she's caught him in a sullen, despondent moment, and he's responded to being caught that way by flinching at her attempt to create an intimate bond between them.

Did you not read the contract, you idiot? He doesn't want a girlfriend.

Instead of reassessing all of this, she's merely touched by how sad he is.

Oh, jeez... you think you're in Beauty and the Beast, don't you?

Well, you're not.

My 10 Favorite Movie Posters of 2013

10. I've been looking at this for a while, and I think what makes it stand out to me is that the drama of this poster reminds me of my childhood love of Transformers: The Movie.

9. As usual, the posters for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug are a morass of character posters (as are most of the posters we get for most movies these days...) of quality that runs the gamut from moderately photoshopped to Dear-God-Why-Doesn't-Ian-McKellen-Look-Human? Of all those character posters, this was the only one I really liked, I think because the photoshopping is forgivable (Elves are supposed to look more perfect), and because it feels like I'm seeing something different and new in presentation. One of the things I really liked about the first film was the way Thranduil came across as so completely other. It was fascinating to me. I really can't wait to see him in this one. (Tomorrow, I hope.)

8. I love the design-y aspect of it. Plus, the identification of each character by what they wear is pretty much how the characters in the movie look at their lives. A rare poster that actually says something about the movie rather than teasing you with spectacle.

7. I wish I had any hope that the movie was going to be anywhere near as gonzo as this poster. Robert Rodriguez stopped making good movies even before the first Machete. I'm not even interested in seeing them anymore.

6. Nicely provocative and confrontational image for a provocative and confrontational film. Also love the neon 80s colors.

5. I have nothing deeper to say than "This is just really neat."

4. Obvs.

3. I would love to see a science fiction movie--Dune or no--that just feels like this movie poster. I feel like we never got enough science fiction on film that looked like it did in 70s comics and 80s Moebius drawings. I want more visual and psychological grandeur.

2. I feel like this is the perfect continuation from my favorite poster of last year. Last year it was taking that step into the world outside your door; leaving your comfort to find yourself and learn the real value of that comfort. This one's got a similar sense of foreboding and courage all at once. Finding the strength to take the next step. I really hope next year there's another one of these to make a thematic triptych.

1. Speaking of grand adventure: this is pretty much perfect. Whatever the movie quality, this poster is impeccable. I'd love a copy of this to hang in my living room.

Honorable mentions:

Last year I had another poster on my main list which was just a big character poster with Vanessa Hudgens, too. Kind of hoping for one of Baby V every year. And speaking of previous years, here they are: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #15

"The Fantastic Four Battle the Mad Thinker and His Awesome Android" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(June 1963)

This issue's villain is the Thinker (at least, that's how he's referred to by the other characters). As you can see, he's extremely smart and thinks he's got the rhythm of life figured out with his calculations. He's gathered all of the local crime bosses for a meeting in which he unveils a plan to make himself the king of the independent nation of New York. His plan is almost admirably elaborate; he even plans to appoint ambassadors to the US and other nations to open trade agreements and negotiate foreign aid. There's only one obstacle to overcome: get the Fantastic Four out of the way.

That proves to be exceedingly easy, probably because this is another one of those times when tensions in the group seem to be running hot. All the Thinker has to do is give them other opportunities to follow, and they all jump at the chance. When Johnny's cousin Bones asks him to put on a show in order to save his financially struggling circus, Johnny practically leaps at the chance to be a circus star. (And, honestly, if there was never a small part of you that wanted to be a circus star, you and I had wildly different childhoods.) General Electronics Ltd. wants Reed to head their electronic research. A wrestling promoter wants to make Ben Grimm "the biggest wrestlin' attraction since Strangler Lewis!" And a producer wants Sue to be the star of his new science fiction movie. Everyone gets an opportunity, and after a tense stand-off, the four say an emotional goodbye and agree to take a break from this super-heroing thing for a while.

So while they're all on their vacations, the Thinker is able to start a crime wave and take over the FF's headquarters for himself. None of the Four are really very happy with their new endeavors and cut them all short, returning to New York to find the Baxter Building covered in crystal, its elements transmuted. The Thinker appears before them as a hologram, challenging the FF to come in and take their home back, even opening the door for them. Then, the FF have to face weapons created from Reed Richards' own scientific notes, culminating in the Awesome Android.

The Android's pretty neat; again, this is something from Reed's own notes which he never put into effect. It's slow, but powerful, made from Reed's DNA experiments and unstable molecules, an organic body that can mimic some of the FF's powers (such as the Thing's super-hard skin) with a computerized brain. I can't wait to see more of this guy. (Also a nice touch: it's really Sue that defeats the Android.)

Everything is actually going according to the Thinker's calculations. Until he loses.

And I don't know... I feel like the way Reed wins is a little bit of a cheat.

See, earlier in the issue, the lone crime boss who didn't join up with the Thinker calls him a fraud: "Anytime somethin' happens, you say you expected it! You're just a phony!" (Which, incidentally, describes how I feel about more than a few Ant-Man stories so far.) But Reed's victory also comes out of nowhere. See, his inventions just stop working, and as Reed lectures the Thinker about not taking into consideration that every calculation will always have an x-factor--a random human element--he explains that he's "always" had a fail-safe in place. So he called Willy Lumpkin, intrepid mailman, and told him to ring the buzzer at exactly four o'clock, which would trip a circuit breaker that would turn off all of Reed's equipment ("as a precaution against any enemy taking over my lab").

So it feels like another one of those "I knew it all along" situations. To be fair, it also seems realistic, and it does seem consistent with Reed's explanation, but I'm not sure it's not a cheat. It feels a little like a cheat.

Stray observations:

:: The FF come running when Reed signals them with the flare gun in the beginning of the story. Johnny literally leaves his date by the side of the road to fly off. Sue has to run out of a hair appointment at "a chi-chi beauty parlor on Fifth Avenue." Ben wins, though, because he was apparently about to hurl a bulldozer at members of the Yancy Street Gang who were heckling him from a roof. It's actually hilarious ("I'll toss you a little bouquet!"), but Ben, being arrested for murder isn't as much fun as it looks on TV. (Reed, for his part, was in the middle of playing God--literally; he's been experimenting with DNA and has worked his way up to the creation of single-celled organisms.)

:: I do love Reed's attitude when he's trying to explain the emergency signal to a bickering, combative Ben and Johnny: "Suppose you both button up for a while and give me a chance to explain!" We don't stand on formality at the Baxter Building.

:: The Thinker imagines himself as King of New York.

This gettin' to be a condition with villains.

:: Sue says this will be her first major Hollywood role. But remember, she played herself in that movie about the FF that Namor produced, which is a real thing that happened.

Her movie looks kind of fun, though!

:: Speaking of Sue, her reaction upon being challenged by the Thinker is priceless: "Good grief! Another power-mad genius for us to contend with!" She's so over it.

:: I love the way the Awesome Android was later re-purposed as Awesome Andy, the office assistant in She-Hulk.

:: In this issue, Stan publishes a list of Fantastic Four fan clubs. I didn't recognize any of the names of the presidents, but I like seeing Stan reach out to the fans.

:: The letters page is mainly complimentary, though the responses to #11 are split: most fans seem to love "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" (though Ginger Church of Denton, Texas, thinks Reed smoking a pipe at 17 is ridiculous), but no one has any kind words for "The Impossible Man!" Ah, well, I loved it, anyway. Stan also gives a shout out to Ronn Foss' Comicollector fanzine (which will merge next year with GB Love's The Rocket's Blast and run until 1982, first under Love and then under James Van Hise), confirms that there will be a Fantastic Four annual, and announces the return of Doctor Doom in the next issue!

And there's a moment that's ironic in hindsight. In response to a fairly long letter from Roy Thomas (then 23, and his second letter published in the pages of Fantastic Four--the first letter being much more brief), Stan has this to say:

They'll be paying you for your words soon enough, Roy!

A very good issue of Fantastic Four, but not one of my favorites. That ending just felt a tad gimmicky, and the tensions between every one just made it a little bit of a drag. Still, small complaints for this one; it's still Marvel's best book.

Next Marvels: our 2014 begins with Thor and radiation.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Happy 80th Birthday, Caroll Spinney!

Today is the 80th birthday of an early Muppeteer--in fact, he's one of the longest-serving Muppeteer still working with Muppets! Happy Birthday, sir!

(By the way, what's going on with I Am Big Bird? I hope that's still going to come along.)

Film Week

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

FRANCES HA (2012)
Surprisingly touching film about an aspiring dancer who can't get her shit together. It does in 86 minutes what Girls keeps trying to do and doesn't always get quite right--and it's a show I actually like quite a bit, but I think the movie has a stronger grasp on similar themes of modern alienation and drift. The film's keen grasp of character--and Greta Gerwig's warts-and-all performance as a character who isn't always likable--elevate this film from trappings that I'm growing increasingly impatient with (the idea that talking about nothing is cool, the fascination with obnoxiousness, the way people in New York are somehow automatically more interesting; the film sees through a lot of that). But 90% of this comes down to Gerwig's excellent performance, which is precise and honest without being precious. A critic in the Village Voice said that director Noah Baumbach has mastered being personal without taking things too personally, and that's really the approach that makes this work. I feel like in the hands of others this would've been a film I'd found impossible to take seriously. It's not perfect, but it's spirited and honest in a way that counts. ****

AFTER EARTH (2013)
I dug this skiffy flick about a father and son trapped on an uninhabited future Earth. Will Smith, Jaden Smith and M. Night Shyamalan aren't my favorite people in the world, but I was intrigued by the premise and the way the film dealt with fear and being able to manage and control it. (Which probably isn't too surprising, given my anxiety and panic disorders.) Is it really a scientology flick? I've seen people with varying opinions on that. It seems like a tenuous connection at best to me; the film seems more concerned with mastery of emotional responses in a crisis situation rather than analysis of unconscious engrams or diatribes against psychology. If that's really in there, it's not effective as scientology propaganda. What I saw was just an interesting, good-looking science fiction adventure with some interesting themes about fear vs. danger and how complicated father-son relationships can be. There are some elements I found deeply silly (every animal on Earth has evolved to kill man, a creature that hasn't lived on Earth for a thousand years?), and I'm not a fan of Jaden Smith's acting (though, to be fair, constant near-panic is a pretty hard thing to watch without getting anxious and annoyed), but it was more engrossing to me than a lot of the recent carbon copy science fiction blockbuster wannabes. Not essential, but surprisingly good. (Interesting, biology-based tech, too.) ***1/2

THE TO DO LIST (2013)
Aubrey Plaza stars as a teenager who graduates high school and decides to explore sex so that she doesn't start college as a virgin. It's a fairly predictable teen sex comedy that is really only different from a lot of these movies in that it stars a girl instead of a boy. Actually, there is one element I appreciated, which is that Plaza's character sees sex as a choice--her choice--rather than something she does because of societal pressures or some other agenda. I saw someone call the movie "fake feminism," but I feel like the character feeling empowered enough to shape her own personal change on her own terms makes it actual feminism. It's not "fake" just because the movie's not making a grand point about it. I didn't think it was a great movie, but that was mainly because I didn't find it that different from a dozen other movies I've seen before rather than any cynicism about empowerment. I like Aubrey Plaza and I thought she was good in it. It's actually got a pretty good cast, but the movie itself is nothing special. **1/2

DAYDREAM NATION (2010)
Interesting, original film about small town angst. Kat Dennings plays the new teenage girl in a small town marked by overwrought symbols of uncertainty like a constantly-burning industrial fire and a vague, stalking serial killer. Kat, adrift since her mother died, begins an affair with her teacher and finds herself in a love triangle with one of her fellow students, a stoner whose friends are smoking cleaning products just to see what happens to them. The pressure builds and builds; it's interesting how the film is a coming of age drama that plays like a thriller; it takes people who are really just longing for love, acceptance and purpose, and magnifies their emotional turmoil into high drama. Very nuanced and sharp, bleak and existential, and very ambitious. It's not a hundred percent successful, but I appreciate that it tries to be something different and novel, and it has a firm grasp of its characters. It's logic is like an apocalyptic version of magical realism. It's more poetic than logical, but it was nice not knowing where it planned on going as it was winding its way through the narrative. ***1/2

FRUITVALE STATION (2013)
Tense, assured film about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man who was killed by a transit cop on New Year's Eve 2008. It's a devastating film, opening with Grant's murder, and then showing us his last day alive, inexorably leading to a confused and sudden death that we know is inescapable. Director Ryan Coogler makes an interesting choice, then, to show us just how casual the day is, rather than imbuing every action with deep symbolism (though there are moments, of course, such as a scene with a feared and neglected pit bull or a moment where Grant throws away a bag of weed in an attempt to change his life). It's restrained; a quietly emotional attempt to put a human face on a tragedy that succeeds. It's very powerful. ****

Fruitvale Station is a widely acclaimed film, but I want to take a moment here to mention something that's bothering me in some of the negative reviews I've read. Kyle Smith in the New York Post said it was manipulative, which is a legitimate criticism, but then went on to write an entire separate, angry article that was really just an overreaction to the racial themes of the film. The film is unapologetically frank about being about black and Hispanic people who live in a world where white culture is still considered the default. (There's one scene that really stood out to me where Grant--played by Michael B. Jordan, an actor I really like--tries to buy a birthday card for his mother, and the cards have white people on them. That gave me something to think about; that's an experience I've never had and never had to think about, which is how privilege alters your perceptions.) I know it's hip to say that racism doesn't exist anymore or that we're past it, but that's bullshit; it's institutional and not acknowledging that only perpetuates it. Smith's angry review--in which he says that because Grant's death was accidental, it "was no more pregnant with lessons for society than if he had been hit by a bus"--and his companion article, which blasts the filmmakers for not mentioning that Grant's time in prison was for possession of a handgun, attempt to say that race had nothing to do with Grant's death. I think it's impossible to separate race from the incident, because I don't think the transit cops would have dealt so fearfully and angrily with a group of young white men. I've seen cops deal with white and black students here in my college town, and the difference is marked. A lot of cops approach black kids like they've been trained to assume that all black kids carry weapons and are dangerous. To its credit, Fruitvale Station is more frank about this than manipulative. Any attempt to wave the racial aspect away is just an uncomfortable reaction to a genuine problem in society. I also don't appreciate Smith's attempt to bring up Grant's handgun conviction, which has literally nothing to do with the circumstances of his death, because it sounds like what he's saying is that because Grant was a poor black man and possibly a thug that somehow makes his accidental murder less sad. That's ridiculous and wrong.

I also was annoyed by the AV Club's review, which tries to pull the same attitude of the movie being too manipulative to make an "obvious" point about Grant not deserving to die, and "if America needs a movie to make that much clear, God help us." That's pretty disingenuous. I would argue that since the film about an unarmed young black man getting shot and killed was released in the same summer when people were arguing about whether George Zimmerman had the "right" to murder Trayvon Martin, America probably does need a movie to make that clear. That criticism is just misguided.

SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES (1939)
You expect a certain amount of casual ignorance regarding race in old movies. But between this and The Littlest Rebel, what makes me really uncomfortable isn't a casual racism, but a deeply earnest racism that tries to argue that historical racism was somehow necessary, and we'd all be better off if non-whites would just accept that. At least, that's how it comes across. Retch. I can just talk to my Mom if I want someone to condescend to me about when racism is somehow justified. *

THE BLUE BIRD (1940)
Just like The Wizard of Oz, but without the wit, charm, great performances, beautiful sets, or magic. Shirley Temple plays an ungrateful brat who goes on a search through fantastic realms for the blue bird of happiness. The film was Darryl F. Zanuck's attempt to do The Wizard of Oz with Shirley Temple in the role she missed out on, but it kind of highlights that, as charming as Temple could be, she wouldn't have been a strong enough performer to carry off that film. This one played a big part in derailing her career. I feel like I've already seen all the Shirley Temple movies I'm ever going to like, honestly. This certainly isn't one of them. **

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1945)
I've wanted to sit and watch this film every Christmas for the last 18 years--it's always on TCM--and I finally did. And I loved it. It's the sequel to Going My Way, a film I loved last year, and for much the same reason: it's a likable, emotional, well-made movie that's very easy to like and get caught up in. Bing Crosby again plays Father O'Malley, this time sent to a Catholic school that's falling apart. Bing is just fine, as he was in his Oscar-winning role in the first film, but this one's real weapon is Ingrid Bergman, who is wonderful as Sister Mary Benedict. What you'd expect in a movie like this, but genuine. ****

56 UP (2012)
This has been on my TiVo for a while, because I saw all of the previous films in this documentary series back in May and didn't want to pull the trigger on what should be the last one until 2019. This one was a bit bittersweet; a lot of the participants have been caught in the worldwide recession, and it's wiped out their dreams of retirement and made them worry about the chances of their children to prosper in a system that seems increasingly stacked against them. Some of them are genuinely angry about the way that system seems to have changed the rules at the eleventh hour. Still, it's affirming in its series of snapshots, showing us moments that add up to a life and how even when our plans don't work out, we can choose not to be victims. ****

Some Post-Xmas Peanuts

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas, Everybody

It's been a bit of a low-key affair for me this year, possibly due to the shortened period between Thanksgiving and today. I try not to get caught up too much in the craziness of it all, and right now I'm sitting here alone, playing jazz music and drinking coffee, and when my wife gets home we'll watch this year's Doctor Who Christmas episode. And then we begin the process of watching the Blu-Rays my Dad got us for Christmas. I finally have the Star Wars saga on Blu-Ray... I'm hugely excited to get to the viewing.

But really, the most exciting things about this Christmas have been the birth of my first niece, disengaging from live television so we didn't have to watch any obnoxious Christmas commercials, a surprisingly great episode of SNL, and not being sick with bronchitis like last year. Jeez, that was rough. Oh, and getting approved for Medicaid. That's going to be a help. Now I'm just looking for a good day to go and see The Hobbit...

Merry all things to all people. Here's the rerun of this year's Christmas content.

:: Song of the Week: "Good King Wenceslas"
:: Xmas: Peanuts, 1966
:: Xmas: "Santa Baby"
:: Xmas: Tumblr Finds
:: The Bear and the Hare
:: Song of the Week: "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"
:: Xmas: Peanuts, 1967
:: We Got a Ton of Snow Last Night; This Is Me Today
:: Xmas: "It Feels Like Christmas"
:: Xmas: Tumblr Finds II
:: Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas, Beautiful
:: Song of the Week: "A Christmas Carol"
:: Xmas: Peanuts, 1968
:: My Christmas Tree 2013
:: Xmas: "Aspenglow"
:: Xmas: Tumblr Finds III
:: Song of the Week: "The Christmas Waltz"
:: Xmas: Christmas Is Coming
:: Xmas: Peanuts, 1969
:: Xmas: "Christmas Is All Around"
:: Some Post-Xmas Peanuts
:: and a whole bunch of Christmas stuff since 2005 that may or may not still be there!

Well, that's it for this Christmas. Be safe and happy, and thanks for being supportive and generally pretty froody. I'll have Film Week up tomorrow instead of today, and maybe the next Marvels on Friday, and then no 50 Shades post this weekend because I'm going to spend the last four days of the year putting up my useless year-end lists.

See you tomorrow! Ho ho etc.

Xmas: "Christmas Is All Around"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #23. I decided I'd share one more this year, since Wednesday is actually Christmas. This song is especially loved by my wife, and it's from one of our favorite movies. It was a funny goof, but like a lot of things Richard Curtis is involved in, what seems like a throwaway gag is actually full of genuine sweetness. It's still funny, but it's also become one of our Christmas staples.

Until next year, when the series resumes!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #43

"The Astonishing Ant-Man Versus the Mad Master of Time!" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Don Heck
(May 1963)

It's another Ant-Man filler tale--the last one before next issue retools the character--but this one's better than usual. In this story, the Ant-Man doesn't really have a villain to face. In fact, the villain here is really just an angry and misunderstood old man.

Although this story is sure to start with a couple of pages showing us how amazing Ant-Man is, the real main character in this tale is a scientist named Elias Weems. He can't wait for his grandson Tommy to come and visit, so he can take Tommy to the lab where he works and show him all the scientific research he's working on. He just wants the lad to be proud of him... which is why he feels derailed when his boss unceremoniously fires him for hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65. He tries to get another job in science, but is rejected for being too old.

Angry and in the mood for revenge on any society that would cast aside its senior citizens so mercilessly, Weems invents a ray that speeds up the atomic processes of organisms, giving him control over the aging process. I like that his first instinct isn't to make himself younger, but to make everyone else older so that they'll know what it's like. He tests his ray on a tree, then on an elephant in the zoo, and then on a young lady walking down the street, each time setting them back to their true ages. He's pissed off, but he's also conscientious about leaving lifeforms the way he found them.

His ray ready, he sends a letter to the police demanding control of the city or else he'll prematurely age everyone in town. He signs it "The Time Master." Ant-Man is able to quickly track down Weems (these stories never have the room for actual detective work), but Weems makes Ant-Man 65, takes away his helmet and sticks him in an empty flower pot. Ant-Man, now too weak to climb out, enlarges himself and, wearing an overcoat, walks down to city hall before shrinking himself again and trying to reason with Weems.

But what actually brings Weems back to his senses is the sight of his grandson, who is hit with the ray in the crowd and who ages into an old man. He's so upset that he drops his ray, which is about to smash to the ground before the ants catch it. Ant-Man reverses the ray and de-ages everyone, and then Ant-Man even speaks to a judge on Weems' behalf. Weems gets his job back, keeps his grandson's respect, and we all learn a lesson about not only appreciating our youth and strength while we have it, but also not making assumptions about someone's worth based on their age. That's not a bad couple of messages, I think.

I like how unconventional this issue is. It feels like it has something to say that connects with me as a reader, and that's honestly the first time I've ever felt that way about an Ant-Man tale. I'd love to see more of that. Maybe, you know, we could get some character-based stories now and again, because the premise has never been that interesting on its own.

Notes:

:: Ant-Man says that the public doesn't know that Ant-Man can change his size. I didn't realize that everyone was supposed to think that he was just an ant-sized person instead of someone who shrank himself. That seems like a weird, pointless secret to keep, but I guess it explains why he's always riding in and out on ants rather than doing something actually helpful, like driving somewhere and then shrinking. So, I guess they've explained it okay, even if I do think it's still stupid.

:: When the ants catch the falling ray, Ant-Man calls out "Quickly, my pets!" Hey, what happened to the ants being your friends, not your servants? Not cool, Hank.

In the next Ant-Man story, we'll see an overhaul of the approach, and get introduced to Ant-Man's partner, the Wasp! But next Marvels, the Fantastic Four face the menace of the Mad Thinker!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Xmas: Peanuts, 1969