Saturday, February 01, 2014

50 Shades of Smartass: Chapter 13

You know you're in trouble with this chapter when, in the opening paragraph, Anastasia is worried about tomorrow's dinner with Christian because "I'm worried that perhaps I've been too negative in my response to the contract." What? What? WHAT? The contract where Christian asserts total dominance and control over you in every aspect of your life, even when you're not with him at all, to the point where you're not even allowed to touch him or look him in the eye? That contract? You're worried you've been too negative about that contract? I'm worried that no one could ever be negative enough about that contract.


But no, she's worried. And she's also trying to get through a conversation with her mom, who can't come to Ana's graduation because her husband got injured and she has to take care of him. I'm not suggesting the only reason that's happening is because that's what happened to Bella's mother in Twilight, but, you know, this novel is an incredibly shitty rip-off of Twilight, so draw your own blindingly obvious conclusions.

(Also, isn't it convenient that she's not going to get to meet Christian? I mean, I know EL James couldn't be setting this up, but I'm still holding on to this hope that Christian is actually the stepfather that Ana never met and doesn't know anything about, and this is all some kind of twisted revenge scheme or something, because if you're going to write something this fucked up, go big or go home.)

I've mentioned it before, but I need to mention it again: Anastasia is a total bitch to everyone she knows on a personal level. I think she's just got that kind of narcissistic social disorder where she loves validation but can't stand attention, and sees having any personal relationships as a burden unless they're completely on her own terms and at her own whim. First, she seems desperate to get off the phone with her mother, whom she called to distract her from thinking about Christian. Then, she calls the one stepfather she thinks of like her father, Ray, and tells us all about this special connection they have and how much she loves him, but also describes their conversation as "mercifully brief," because nothing says you think of someone as your rock in the storm like wishing they'd get off the phone after you called them about your graduation plans. Then she has Paul at the store hounding her for a date; he actually doesn't believe her when she keeps telling him she already has a date, which is unbelievably offensive--to her credit, she thinks so, too, but I wish she'd just called him on what an asshole he is--and then he's actually exasperated with her when she says she has a date with Christian Grey. And then she has Kate just standing around and being supportive and saying things like "Boy, you scrub up well" and "Just keeping it real" and not really acting like a person. I kind of hope in the movie Kate's played by Danny DeVito, but the way he played Joey Buttafuoco on Saturday Night Live, because that's all I'm getting anymore. Ana gets annoyed because Kate calls her "hot," because supportive friends, ugh, what a drag, right?

Ugh, ugh, ugh. Fuck.

Before the dinner, Christian sends her an email with the dictionary definition of the word "submissive," which is kind of hateful and doesn't actually apply to the kink he's pretending to have in order to have an excuse to torture women. This isn't discussing the terms of the contract, this is just being rude. She sends him the definition of "compromise," but she should really be sending him the definition of "dismissive," because he's still not taking her concerns seriously. Ana actually does something smart here and tells him she'll be driving her own car to their dinner, and he gets really huffy about it, because duh, he's trying to cut her off from escaping, because he's an abusive asshole.

(Side note: there is a metric fuck-ton of extraneous detail in here about Ana getting ready for her date. Does no publishing house hire editors anymore? Every book isn't Stranger in a Strange Land. As they meet for dinner, we're on page 214 of 514. there is no reason for this. A better, more succinct writer--maybe one who's actually researched what they're writing about--could probably have pulled off this entire novel in less than 300 pages. The Bell Jar is 288 pages. The Catcher in the Rye is only 220. But those were literary masterpieces written by talented people. I see no reason why this story--which is only the first third of a larger story!--needs 102 more pages than Dune to say nothing.)

So Ana goes to meet Christian to discuss her objections to the contract, and it's all manipulative bullshit again.

She tells him the contract is legally unenforceable, and his reaction is basically "Well, duh," but it's pretty clear he was going to let her think that it was. He also dismissively says "If you don't like it, then don't sign," even though every time she says she might not sign he has a little hissy fit and then shows up at her apartment saying he wishes he could beat her and that would fix everything. (Even in this chapter's email exchange, he laments to Ana--who has not agreed to anything yet--"Do you ever think you'll be able to do what you're told?" Fuck you, pal.)

He natters on about trust, which they've had no real time to build up, and honesty, which he seems to be confusing with being direct. He's been very direct about what he wants from her, but he hasn't been honest about it--in fact, he's very closed about it. Hell, when she starts to ask about his past submissives, he steers the conversation away from that (possibly because EL James has no clue how Doms and subs meet and doesn't want to do the research), then pulls her into a private dining room (cutting her off from the outside world again), her glass of wine in hand, and starts getting pissy about her eating habits again, because he always has to re-establish control over her instead of just talking to her like a goddamn person.

(Another side note: EL James describes the table as "all starched linen, crystal glasses, silver cutlery, and white rose bouquet." Of all of her idiotic writing habits--and there are many--this is the one that pisses me off the most. Everything is "all" some stuff because I don't know how to describe it so I'll just be vague. This whole thing feels like it just takes place on an empty stage in an empty theater surrounded by smoke and fuzz and shadows.)

This is the wrong venue for a serious conversation about limits and role-play, because Ana is constantly getting distracted by the wine and trying oysters for the first time and, you know, how hawt Christian is. She's constantly giddy and incredulous over the idea that he's actually attracted to her, because that's her schema to deal with. He's always directing her to eat and subtly reminding her that she's not really in control, and every time she gets all heady with wine and lust, he talks about another point in the contract, so it comes across so smarmy and calculated, like he's trying to trick her into thinking they've really made compromises. The only things he actually compromises on are her food and exercise. He does give her her weekend off, but manages to weasel in a mid-week visit on those weeks.

"Obey me in all things. Yes, I want you to do that. I need you to do that. Think of it as role-play Anastasia." It's not role-play if it's constant. If it's constant, it's her life, and you don't get that.

The thing Ana can't get over and the thing that's making me so disgustipated with this book is that Christian doesn't want a real relationship. He doesn't want to date her and get to know her and go out and do stuff with her and then also engage in SM play at specified times. He only wants this master-slave thing that he keeps incorrectly referring to as a Dom/sub thing. Dom/sub is as much about nurturing as it is about the actual domination and submission. Has EL James ever heard of sub-drop? It's the endorphin crash that comes after BDSM, when the endorphin high runs out and normality actually feels depressing compared to the euphoric high of earlier. (They call it sub-drop, but it doesn't just happen to subs.) It can actually lead to serious depression or depression-like states, and depending on the intensity of the session, it can last for weeks. That kind of thing is why you can't do this 24/7. There's a nurturing, reassuring side that has to go with the come-down, and Christian is just not going to do it because he doesn't respect the biology and the emotions of it. He thinks this is all about his power. But no; it's about her power, too. The power is on both sides of the relationship, which is one of the things that can be so erotic about it; the difference is in how that power is wielded and given.

EL James has such a bad understanding of the dynamics involved and Christian just keeps trying to railroad Ana into accepting his bargain, saying things like "You'll get used to it" (which doesn't sound like a mutually agreed on decision to me) and explaining how wonderful it will be when she doesn't have to think for herself anymore, which is a complete misunderstanding of the D/s relationship.

Then, the unexpected happens: Ana, after calling out Christian for using sex as a weapon, actually asserts herself. He's trying to overpower her, so she tries to play his game. She acts seductive, and he's surprised by it. Taken aback, even. He desperately wants her, but she needs boundaries (good choice), so she turns him down and says she's going home. When did she become an actual person?

Christian tries to up the manipulation, first threatening to make her stay, then telling her he doesn't think she's submissive after all (because you totally misinterpreted her introversion as submissive, which is a mistake people make all the time), and then basically telling her that he doesn't know any other way to be in a relationship. EL James tries to make it all sad and poignant, but it just comes across like threats.

But there's this whole undertone of saying goodbye to this, where neither one of them seems sure they'll ever see one another again. He wants her to spend the night; she says she won't if she can't touch him. She wants a real relationship, he doesn't. This isn't a high tragedy. It's just life. You had some great sex, now move on and have sex with another man. Or a woman. Or yourself. There are so many possibilities in life; you don't have to just bind yourself to this one man because he's hawt and he gave you a couple of orgasms.

What's disappointing, actually, is that in this one bit of this one chapter, Ana almost seems to know that. I think she'd be amenable to some of the D/s stuff if she could also have a real relationship with him. And she really seems to know that it's not going to happen. So, seriously... just walk away.

This is what makes Christian Grey such a giant asshole: he claims he's all about teaching her and testing her limits and trust and honesty, but he doesn't want a relationship. And I don't mean a dating relationship or even a friendship... I mean the actual relationship part that goes into being a Dominant. I mean that nurturing, respectful part I was talking about before. He doesn't want the responsibility of it. We keep hearing all about her responsibilities to him, but what about his responsibilities to her as a caring, respectful Dominant? He doesn't care. He has no interest in her well-being, only in what she can do for him.

Jesus, guy, hire a professional sub and leave this gal alone.

This is like reading Twilight, only all of that novel's emotional and verbal abuse is supplemented by the physical abuse that merely seemed like a constant threat in the other book.

Ana gets home, finds an email from Christian basically guilting her into signing the contract, but in a way that makes it clear that he's not going to compromise any further. Ana cries herself to sleep, thinking about all the times Christian has warned her to stay away, and the way, at dinner, he said "This is all I know."

"And as I weep into my pillow silently, it's this last idea I cling to. This is all I know, too. Perhaps together we can chart a new course."

Girl, no. That's some co-dependent shit. It's not up to you to fix someone who's broken. Seriously: walk away.

Well, congratulations, novel. You actually made me feel sorry for Anastasia Steele. Too bad I know she's going to try to make this work. Idiot.

Friday, January 31, 2014

There Were Singing Vegetables! And Chickens!

Here's the only Superbowl ad that matters: an ad for the Toyota Highlander featuring Terry Crews and the Muppets!


And because no Muppets appearance is long enough (seriously, not ever), Toyota also released a music video of the full song from the commercial, "No Room for Boring," which features a sax solo, more Muppets, and Sweetums in a bubble bath. You know: important stuff!


Thank you, bingo ladies!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Marvels: Fantastic Four #16

"The Micro-World of Doctor Doom" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(July 1963)

Even with a book as great as Fantastic Four, it's been a long wait to see their greatest foe again. We haven't seen Doctor Doom for six months, since he switched bodies with Reed Richards in Fantastic Four #10. In that issue, he was defeated when he stood in front of his own shrinking ray and shrank down into nothingness. A gruesome end, if in fact you thought for a second he was dead. But this is Doom; of course he's not dead. He may not always have a plan, but he can always find a way to control the situation.

So where has he been? Well, let's get to that.

The big mystery this issue is that the Fantastic Four have been shrinking. The Human Torch bursts into the Baxter Building one afternoon to discover that the other members of the team have shrunk down to the size of toys. It turns out that all four of them have, at various times, suddenly been shrunk down, only to be restored moments later. Just what the heck is going on?

Reed's idea is to get in contact with Ant-Man, who gives him samples of his reducing and enlarging gases to experiment with. Things calm down for a while, until the four of them start hearing--at random times--a woman's faint voice telling them to beware of Doctor Doom. Reed had assumed that Doctor Doom was dead--after all, he hasn't been heard from in a very long time--but before he can even formulate a theory, the FF start shrinking again. They all take the enlarging serum as they're shrinking, which somehow stabilizes the process and brings them right down into a micro-world: the Micro-World of Doctor Doom!

Doctor Doom, always planning, shrinks the FF even further, then tells them his story: the reducto-ray in issue 10 shrunk him so far down that he entered a microscopic world called Sub-Atomica. Through his genius, he became court scientist to the King and his daughter, Princess Pearla, until he was able to build another shrinking ray and shrink down the King and Princess, take them prisoner, and make himself ruler of Sub-Atomica. Ever since then, he's been toying with the FF, changing their size, until he could capture them.

The Fantastic Four fight back--I love how they handily fight Doom's soldiers, even though they're the size of dolls--until, of course, Doom captures Sue and they have to surrender. The FF are put in a prison tank with the King and Princess Pearla (who is immediately attracted to Johnnny, like every extradimensional gal), which sits at the bottom of a lake of acid. Pearla was the one trying to warn the FF about Doom, whose plan is to marry Pearla, sell the Fantastic Four as slaves to the Lizard Men of Tok to gain their allegiance, and go about conquering the rest of the micro-verse.

Now, as much as I don't like the device of Sue always getting captured, she's the one who comes up with their avenue of escape: Reed turns their prison chamber into a floating capsule to get through the acid (since, obviously, as Sue says, the walls themselves are resistant to the acid). When they get back to Doom's chamber and enlarge themselves back to Doom's size, they discover that Ant-Man has followed them into Sub-Atomica, and Sue frees him, too, and she's even the one who grabs Doom's gun and tries to kill him with it. If not for a well-placed escape door--come on, it's Doctor Doom--she would have ended this whole adventure right away.

But instead, Doom gets away; he rushes to his secret enlarging ray and decides to wait in the Baxter Building for the FF to return. While the Four and Ant-Man restore the King to the throne and then head into the enlarging ray, we're all set up for an epic showdown between the world's greatest heroes and the world's most diabolical villain... next issue!

Stray observations:

:: Why is Reed's first idea to call in Ant-Man? It was established in Tales to Astonish #43 that the public doesn't know that Ant-Man can change his size, so how would Reed know about it? This story kind of treats it like Reed's in on it a little, and Hank gives him samples of his reducing and enlarging gases, so, you know, even if Reed didn't know before, he does now.

Really, Ant-Man only appears here to publicize the big retool from Tales to Astonish #44 and more firmly establish his place in this shared Marvel Universe. I think that only leaves Thor and Iron Man as the major Marvel characters who have yet to crossover with anyone else, though that will obviously change. Incidentally, the Wasp only cameos in this story, appearing in one panel. Ant-Man tells her to stay behind. So the job of being ridiculously girly falls to Sue, who fawns over how cute Ant-Man must be at normal size. Jeez.

:: Another question about Reed calling in Ant-Man: he says it would take too long to develop his own shrinking serum, but he whipped one up pretty well for Kurrgo back in Fantastic Four #7. For that matter, why not just use the reducto-ray Doom invented in FF #10 that sent him to Sub-Atomic in the first place? I wonder why they need to go to all the trouble of an Ant-Man crossover.

Oh, on an unrelated note, buy Tales to Astonish, kids, Ant-Man's cool now.

:: When you think about it, Sub-Atomica's kind of a silly name for the micro-world. I mean, how do they know they're in a microscopic world? Would we?

:: There's another scene in here where Reed finds a serum to change the Thing back into Ben Grimm.

Except for Ben accidentally calling Alicia "Sue" (which makes Reed's troubled look unintentionally hilarious), I do really like how Alicia always reacts so poorly to times when Ben is "normal." She wants the man she fell in love with. And I love how Alicia's love is what's made Ben more comfortable with being the Thing. He probably feels more accepted by her than his own friends, honestly. No wonder he's always at her place. Here, Ben even tells Reed to lay off trying to "fix" him and instead work on something to restore Alicia's sight. So Ben's found some measure of peace, and that makes me very happy.

:: Speaking of Sue, she gets to do some actual science in this issue! She's trying to find a combination of sprays that will mask her scent, so animals won't be able to find her when she's invisible. Seems like a handy idea. It's nice to see her experimenting with her powers.

:: My favorite moment of bickering:

Get to work, Johnny.

:: The letters page this month features a lot of readers who are quite angry about Fred Bronson's letter back in Fantastic Four #12 suggesting that the Thing be kicked out of the mag! Gregg Smith of La Jolla, California, even suggests Fred just watch Ding Dong School, instead. Ouch! Readers also declare their love for Spider-Man and Thor, though Tom Dietz of Kent, Ohio, feels that Steve Ditko's art isn't very good (he's wrong). There are a few letters from female readers, too... where did this BS about how girls don't like comics come from? They may not stay with comics--my sister, who read a lot of X-Men as a kid, didn't--but girls read comics, okay? If you think otherwise... yeesh.

Stan also takes the time to tease Marvel's newest character, Dr. Strange, who will appear in Strange Tales #110 (which will be not my next Marvels post, or the next one, but the one after that) and solidifies the name Marvel Comics Group as the homebase for all of these great heroes.

And then there's a plug for the next issue, of course. This is the first time in Marvel history when a story has ended on a cliffhanger to be resolved in the next issue, and brother, it is worth it!

But first, in the next Marvels: Thor and Loki unite!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

C Is for Creatures

When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was make creatures for Jim Henson.

Or make models for movies.

Or design creatures for George Lucas.

Or work for Industrial Light & Magic.

Or work at Disney.

One of those.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I've just finished Jim Henson: The Biography and am currently reading The Making of Return of the Jedi. I don't think there are two things that influenced me more as a child than Jim Henson and Return of the Jedi. Those or Disney; I've been revisiting some material about Walt Disney's involvement in the 1964 World's Fair, which has always been fascinating to me in large part because of the animatronic dinosaurs the Imagineers created for the Ford's Magic Skyway exhibit.

I've said before, I'm a pop culture kid. Movies and cartoons were what captured my imagination. When I was 6, I went to see The Dark Crystal, a movie that still fascinates me to this day because of its technique and special effects artistry. A whole world, in live action, with zero human presence to it... it's off-putting, for sure, but it's also astounding. A couple of months before I turned 7, Return of the Jedi came out, which for me was the creature movie of all time. I was obsessed with Jabba's throne room for years. When an action figure would come out that was actually in that sequence of the movie, I had to have it. I remember digging a hole in my Mom's garden to double as the Sarlaac Pit and re-creating that sequence. I would spend hours setting up figures and trying to photograph them from different angles to see which ones were best. I got models of the throne room for my birthday and tried to make them as accurate as possible. I really, really wanted my own little creature workshop to make these weird and amazing things.

Almost any movie that came out with creatures or robots in it, I was fascinated by, even if it was a bad one. Animatronics fascinated me. I used to sit for hours reading Starlog and Cinefex and books about Industrial Light & Magic or Disney or the Muppets. Leonard Nimoy used to host a show on Nickelodeon about the making of science fiction and fantasy movies, and I devoured all of these episodes about how they made Star Trek III or The NeverEnding Story or Return to Oz... I was trying to build my own life-size Jack Pumpkinhead for years, but it never worked out for me. I used to watch a special about the making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit over and over and over again.

I was certain I was going to work with puppets or creatures or models or something. I wanted to be involved in that in some way. I wanted it so badly that I didn't even talk about it that much with people, because I thought if I talked too much, it might never happen. But then, it never did, anyway.

Part of it was, well, those problems that still hold me back but that I never identified until last year in therapy. I didn't feel supported in my goals; they seemed too far away, and so many people in my life were telling me that I couldn't really do anything. Even my parents were discouraging. You always hear that story about how young Kevin Clash cut up his father's expensive jacket to make a puppet, and instead of screaming at him, his parents ended up being supportive; my Mom once screamed at me because I used up all the tin foil trying to make a model of the Tin Woodsman based on WW Denslow's drawings.

Another part of it was CGI. I couldn't totally understand CGI, because I never ended up being very good with computers. I felt like I understood special effects less after that, and I was giving up on the whole thing and not doing very well in school, anyway. I know part of that was this thing I had and continue to have where I give up on things I want to do because I "know" I'll fail at them, so I don't try. I still got really excited about the making of certain movies--particularly Jurassic Park, Dragonheart and The Phantom Menace, all of which I still have big books about the making of--but it no longer seemed like something I could do and I just accepted over time that it was a dream that I had to let go of.

Yeah, I still dream about making a robot sometimes, like I tried to do with an old vacuum cleaner as a kid (and got yelled at for), but these days I'm happier watching my wife make art and supporting her dreams. Nothing makes me happier than making it easier for her to create.

But I still like to read about the making of movies, and to revel in my beloved creatures and robots and monsters and Muppets.

ABC Wednesday

Jamie Lee

Film Week

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

BLUE JASMINE (2013)
Excellent film, but it's very hard to watch. It's Woody Allen sort of reconstituting A Streetcar Named Desire, as we watch Cate Blanchett's Jasmine--reeling from the suicide of her incarcerated husband (a Bernie Madoff type) and the loss of her elegant lifestyle--slowly experience a psychotic break from reality. I think the idea of how we choose to experience reality and how it informs our identity is probably the most interesting question filmmakers really have left to deal with, and it's fascinating watching Jasmine try to build herself back up in the lower class world of her adopted sister (a very sympathetic Sally Hawkins, whose character is in some ways always looking to trade up as well, but who also touched me with her optimism and attempts to be understanding). It's a complex picture, and it's not always a satisfying one, but it was hard to look away from Jasmine as her shock at being rejected by the world she's desperate to inhabit weighs more and more heavily on her mind until it just sort of breaks. Cate Blanchett is remarkable. ****

HER (2013)
Interesting film about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his operating system, an AI designed to be intuitive, have a personality, and learn (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). I've never really liked a Spike Jonze movie ever before, so I was surprised how much this pulled me in. I think it's because I've seen a very small number of films that really, truly understand loneliness in a profound way. It's also interesting to see a filmmaker dealing with the reality construct in this way. We all talk to our stuff; we imbue them with personalities in our mind. In some ways, an OS you can converse and even carry on a relationship with seems like an inevitable next step; how many of our things are already voice-activated, anyway? The world often seems to be getting more and more insulated; it's easy and even preferable to cut ourselves off from experiencing our lives and our selves as part of a community when we can do it virtually instead. If we stop valuing human contact so much, why not an AI designed to befriend us? It's really fascinating how the film handles these questions with drama and honest emotion, in a sensitive way rather than making a joke out of it. One of my favorite movies of 2013. ****

BAD MILO! (2013)
I thought this was a really interesting idea; it's a monster movie, sort of in the tradition of a Ghoulies type of movie, about a man (Ken Marino) dealing with overwhelming stress at work and home. It turns out there's a monster that lives in his stomach (Milo, a really neat little creature) who comes out and kills when the stress it too much to bear. It's a fun movie, not entirely a comedy, but it's a very interesting symbol to me. It's really about the stress and anxiety of our modern lives, given a physical manifestation that takes the form of extreme gastrointestinal issues. Fascinating. ***

ASS BACKWARDS (2013)
Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael wrote and star in this film about two deluded women traveling back to their hometown to participate in an anniversary version of the beauty pageant they lost when they were kids. These women are poor, basically jobless, have no direction, and are extremely unrealistic about their lives and prospects. Their journey home is episodic, but each episode peels back a layer of the extreme delusion they live in. It's another movie about constructed reality, but it's a fresh perspective (for me), because it's from the point of view of two women who (unusually, I feel, for an American comedy) aren't repeatedly punished by the film for being so inside of themselves. I don't think everything works, exactly, but I like the way the two of them learn something important about themselves and that that's the point, rather than having to change everything about themselves in order to comfortably conform. Wilson and Raphael are very comfortable in the characters; I wonder how long they've been holding on to them. They work both as comedy and as a commentary on entitlement. ***

CARRIE (2013)
I liked this more than I expected to; it's not the retread I was expecting. It's the same story, but it takes a different approach to Stephen King's story. Where the Brian De Palma classic was a horror movie, this one takes on the operatic qualities of a high tragedy. I've read some criticisms where people felt the bullies in the movie were exaggerated in their evil, but honestly, substitute teach at a high school for just one day, and you're going to hear and see a lot of the same things. What really makes this work are the performances of Chloe Moretz as Carrie (very sympathetic and likable) and Julianne Moore as her mother (a kind of uncomfortable mix of menace and delusion). I enjoyed it. It had something to say on bullying, though the third act more or less becomes an action movie. ***1/2

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WUNDERSTONE (2013)
Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi as David Copperfield-type magicians who become jaded with fame and then replaced by Jim Carrey, playing a Criss Angel analogue who represents the new face of popular magic. Not a bad idea for a movie, really, but neither the script nor the director seem very sympathetic to their characters; they don't seem to love magic so much as think it's silly ground to mine for an Austin Powers-type comedy, so it just doesn't work. It's muddled, the characters are mostly unsympathetic, a lot of plot points seem to have gone missing, the big trick at the end that's supposed to be a triumph is just idiotic, and Alan Arkin is criminally underused. And it follows the exact same beats as you would expect from any movie, really--guy is really good at something, then he loses his passion and becomes jaded, then he's replaced by someone new or better, then he finds a mentor who reconnects him with his original passion, he learns humility, and then he wins again. That was basically Roger Ebert's formula for Tom Cruise movies. **

LIZZIE BORDEN TOOK AN AX (2014)
Is it just me, or is that an awkward title? Christina Ricci stars as Lizzie Borden, who did that thing with the forty whacks. This is a Lifetime movie, so I don't know why I expected more, except that I was surprised by how good Flowers in the Attic was last week. This went kind of nowhere. It was just the period piece version of Lifetime's seemingly endless series of films about how someone beautiful is accused of something and it makes everyone angry that she might get away with it because she's so beautiful. There's no real character to Lizzie, there's no motivation, nothing happens for any narrative reason, and there's absolutely no insight. Characters move around and say stuff and it looks pretty, and Christina Ricci is actually pretty compelling as Lizzie, but just imagine how great she'd have been if she'd been given an actual character to play. It's just... there, doing nothing but undeniably existing. **1/2

ROCK OF AGES (2012)
An absolute embarrassment from start to finish. Most of the cast is either sleepwalking or trying too hard as they badly, badly, badly sing pretty much exactly the 80s songs you would expect in a musical about... something or other. It doesn't really have much affection for the era or the scene it thinks it's praising other than fashion and snippets of rock songs. Tom Cruise is particularly awful as a legendary hair metal rocker; it doesn't do much for the movie as stunt casting, and when was the time you ever saw Tom Cruise in something and thought it was amazing how he just lost himself in the role? Even when he's good he's just Tom Cruise. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, in the leads, could be replaced halfway through with a hatstand and floor lamp and you'd be hard-pressed to notice. * star, pretty much just for Mary J. Blige's voice.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Junk Mail

I needed that today.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #3

"Spider-Man Versus Doctor Octopus" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(July 1963)

This is the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man that features one book-length story rather than two stories, and the format suits Spidey much better. This is also the story that introduces Spider-Man's greatest arch-enemy. Yeah, some people will tell you that the Green Goblin is Spidey's greatest foe, but I'm one of the many who disagree: it's Doctor Octopus all the way.

Doctor Octopus is the first foe Spider-Man's faced that's capable of doing more than just confounding and embarrassing him. He's faster, he's stronger, and he's a better thinker. When we first meet the man, he's Dr. Otto Octavius (here spelled "Octavious"), a brilliant scientist at an atomic research center who uses a device he created that gives him four metal arms; that way he can manipulate radioactive materials while hidden behind protective shielding. But when something goes wrong (the explanation we're given by a panicking tech is "the radiation meter has gone whacky!"), the explosion fuses the arms to his body and to his mind. We're also told in no uncertain terms that his brain has been damaged by the radiation, making him more bitter and, I guess, evil. One of the Marvel Universe's greatest super villains is born!

I think another of the interesting ways Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man are so evenly matched is in their arrogance. You look back at these stories and you can see how arrogant Peter Parker really was; he's brilliant and he knows it, and he bristles with anger when the other kids make fun of him or J. Jonah Jameson dumps on him, and he's often thinking of how he might have revenge one day. He also thinks very highly of himself as Spider-Man. This story, in a way, flows out of Peter's hubris; when we first see him, he's very annoyed because, after the Vulture and those ridiculous aliens last issue, he feels like the petty criminals he's catching now are just too easy to beat. He wants a real challenge. Meanwhile, it's Doctor Octopus' hubris that drives him to become "the supreme human being on Earth." And the first meeting between hero and villain only occurs because Spidey simply wanders into a hostage situation while trying to get pictures of Octopus for JJ, assuming that the Octopus will be another pushover for Spider-Man. One of the last complaints Spidey makes before getting his ass handed to him by Doctor Octopus is "It's great being Spider-Man! I can do almost anything! The only problem is--my jobs are too easy! I'd welcome a little competition once in a while!"

What I always dig is the way Stan and Steve love to take Peter Parker and karmically smack him down for being such a shit sometimes.

Yeah, Doctor Octopus kicks Spider-Man's ass. Hard. In his arrogance, he thinks Doctor Octopus' long arms are too clumsy and slow, but they're actually fast, hard and powerful, and they can snap through Spider-Man's webbing when he tries to stick them together. It takes all of one page for Doctor Octopus to hand Spider-Man a demoralizing and thorough defeat. (I was going to say it took two pages, but the second page is mainly Octopus toying with Spidey and slapping him around before just chucking him out a window.)

Being an arrogant kid, Peter doesn't take the defeat very well, asking himself for the first time, "Is this the end of Spider-Man?"

Jack Kirby had Sad Hulk; Steve Ditko has Angsty Peter. Kind of kills me. Seriously, Peter is so upset that he basically kind of quits his job as a freelance photographer and mopes his way to school while Doctor Octopus--seemingly unstoppable--takes over his old lab and packs it with enough booby traps to keep the armed forces at bay.

What turns Peter around is a school assembly; the Human Torch puts in an appearance, demonstrating his powers to the school and giving a motivational talk in which he admits that the Fantastic Four have experienced defeats, but that the important thing is to learn from defeats, don't get discouraged, and never give up. His resolve reignited, Peter puts his costume back on and heads out to face Doctor Octopus again at his lab, handily defeating the booby traps and whipping up a chemical compound that fuses two of Octopus' arms together. There's a lot of great tension and suspense in Spidey getting backed into a corner, but he's able to work his way up Doctor Octopus' heavy arms until he's close enough to just punch the guy in the face, knocking him unconscious and trussing him up for the police to collect.

Spider-Man's victory here is hard-won, and this is always the best kind of Spidey story to me--one where he's so overwhelmed that his victory doesn't seem assured. I think I said this before: it doesn't bother me when he has multiple villains in movies because I always think of these early stories where Peter Parker's resourcefulness really comes from having to face overwhelming odds and crushing insecurities. And his victory is just that much sweeter, even popping in on the Human Torch to thank him for his talk (much to the Torch's confusion) and--even though the narration notes he didn't get any pictures for JJ--regaining his self-confidence. It's an exciting issue; the best issue of Amazing Spider-Man so far, and the introduction of one of the Marvel Universe's best villains.

Stray observations:

:: Can't say I was ever a fan of the spider-signal attached to Spider-Man's belt. This issue marks its first appearance.

:: Steve Ditko's art in this issue is just tremendously good and dynamic, but I especially love this seeming throwaway panel. That lighting effect is neat!

:: The first letters page is in this issue; mostly people are just really enthusiastic about the character, even more than they were about Fantastic Four last year. One reader recently got his stated wish that Spider-Man would last for the next 50 years!

Great, tremendous stuff, and one that really solidifies the tone for the series to come.

Next Marvels: At last! The return of Doctor Doom!

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Song of the Week: "Hands Clean"

Songs for Becca #2: This 2002 single from Alanis Morissette is one of my wife's favorite songs. I don't think she likes anything else at all that Alanis has ever done, but she loves this dark song, detailing an affair between a teenager and an adult man. The heaviness is offset by probably the catchiest pop hook Alanis ever wrote, which is kind of a genius way to handle the material. This song is 12 years old, but there's every chance it's still on her iPod.