Friday, July 18, 2014

Happy KBirthday

As always, Happy Birthday to my luscious KB, who turns 34 today. I think this year I won't say that we should celebrate our birthdays together some year. Well, except I just kind of did. Dreams die hard.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Birthday Cake

Since I was home alone most of the day, I baked myself a birthday cake. Turned out wonderfully; since I started baking a couple of years ago, I've gotten quite comfortable with cakes. This is one of those mixes with pudding in it, so it's nice and moist. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting has been my favorite since I was a kid. I made the frosting, too, from butter, sugar, cocoa, etc. Becca surprised me with the candles and the garnish there. Not bad at all.

Still not good with pies, but when it comes to cakes, I'm actually confident now.

Well, It's That Time of Year Again

It's my 38th birthday today. I'm trying not to make any plans. I'm going to be alone (yet) again and last night was a very Generalized Anxiety Disorder kind of night, so I don't want to back myself into yet another depressing birthday. Just going to take it as it comes and maybe enjoy something or other. I plan on baking a cake today, at any rate.

Also, 38? What the actual hell? How did this happen?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Is for Arnold

Note: For this round of ABC Wednesday, I'm going to highlight a different Muppet for each letter, hopefully some of the lesser-known Muppets and milestones in Muppet history.


This is Arnold the Munchos Monster. And as you can see, he's the last step on the road to the Cookie Monster.

This little guy began life as most Muppets did: as a Jim Henson doodle.

Here, he's the Wheel-Stealer, a creature that first appeared in a commercial concept for General Mills Canada in 1966. Jim Henson was making a good amount of money then from commercials, but for whatever reason, General Mills Canada decided not to commission Jim. (I can't be sure, but my guess would be it had to do with ownership of characters; Jim steadfastly refused to give up ownership of the characters he created for commercial ad campaigns.)

Check out the unaired test commercial on YouTube. It has that zany Henson charm. I don't know who's performing any of the characters, except for Jim Henson performing the announcer. Sounds like it could be Frank Oz.

Jim wasn't one to simply give up on characters if they didn't work the first time, so the Wheel-Stealer (now without a name) next showed up in a classic piece of film: The Coffee Break Machine.

The Coffee Break Machine was a training film for IBM. You can watch this little gem on YouTube as well, with Jim performing the monster as well as acting as the voice of the machine. It's classic Henson: a near-obsession with gadgetry and technology, a love for overly complicated words, an appreciation of the inherent silliness of machinery (and the way it tries to compartmentalize the human experience, as well as how easily it can be destroyed), and it all ends with an explosion.

Though the film was made for IBM's private use, Jim liked the bit so much that he performed it in 1967 on one of the Muppets' many Ed Sullivan Show appearances. And guess what? That's also on YouTube! And the monster appeared there, too. (The bit was too good not to immortalize on The Muppet Show, so they did it again in 1977, although it starred the Luncheon Counter Monster--performed here by Richard Hunt--with a machine voiced by Jerry Nelson. And you can watch that, too. What did we ever do before YouTube?)

Well, finally, the monster--now named Arnold, with his teeth removed and recolored a nice shade of blue--made his commercial appearance in a short series of Munchos ads in 1969. According to Muppet Wiki, Frank Oz is performing Arnold here, although he's voiced by Jim Henson.



Here's a second commercial, now with Frank Oz doing the voice and performing him more or less the same way he would perform the character as Cookie Monster for decades.


Apparently there was a third ad, but if it's out there, I can't find it.

And that's really the short life of Arnold. Munchos wanted to commission Henson for more commercials, but by the middle of 1969 he was working on Sesame Street and had become much busier. Arnold moved to the new show, too, and was given a new name. But he was the same lovable, anarchic monster with a ravenous appetite.

The rest is hungry history.

Cookie Monster is, by far, my favorite of the Sesame Street Muppets. But once, he was a monster named Arnold, and he loved him some Munchos.

I hope you enjoy these posts about Muppets, because there's 25 more after this one!

Film Week

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

HOMEFRONT (2013)
Silly action flick with Jason Statham fighting drug dealers in rural Louisiana. It's bad, but fun bad. Fitting that Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay, since it feels like an unmade Rambo movie. Really, isn't that the next step for Rambo? American crime? The drug war at home? I dunno, but it was so silly and impossible to take seriously that it became a fun waste of time. And then Winona Ryder unexpectedly showed up. And James Franco was the main bad guy, which was sort of ridiculous in an awesome way. ***

COTTAGE COUNTRY (2013)
Bizarre movie about a soon-to-be-engaged couple (Tyler Labine and Malin Akerman) who go up to his family's cabin for the week, and are interrupted by unwelcome guests, family problems, murder, and their own weird neuroses. It doesn't completely work, and I'm not sure how to describe why. It kind of looks like it's supposed to be a comedy, but it's definitely kind of a horror movie, too. I'm just going to stop now, because my opinion just isn't going anywhere. It's not "meh," but it's not "hmm" either. **1/2

GOOFY'S GRANDMA (2014)
I think I'm never going to not shower the new Mickey Mouse cartoons with love. Great reveal at the end of this one, too. ****

ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)
So boring as to be unwatchable, which is a shame, because I loved it when the same director and star made Drive, one of my favorite movies of 2011. Nice cinematography, though. *1/2

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #48

"The New Iron Man Battles... The Mysterious Mr. Doll!" by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko & Dick Ayers
(December 1963)

Boy, Iron Man really has some of the lamest villains in the Marvel Universe right now, doesn't he? This issue, he faces Mr. Doll, an off-brand Puppet Master who dresses in a homemade jester costume. He has the power to shape and reshape his clay doll into the likeness of another person, and when he does, that person feels whatever pain he wants them to. So, voodoo, basically, although no one throws that word around.

Iron Man runs into Mr. Doll at the castle-like home of a business associate, steel tycoon Charleston Carter. Tony Stark comes calling when Carter cancels a steel contract and sees this Ren Faire cosplayer wandering around the grounds. Capitalist playboy square Stark certainly doesn't like the looks of some kind of hippy wandering around a rich guy's house, so he changes into Iron Man and tries to assess the situation. Turns out Mr. Doll is using his powers to get Carter's entire fortune for himself. When Iron Man tries to intervene, Mr. Doll quickly changes the doll's features to look like Iron Man and starts inflicting pain on Iron Man.

In fact, the pain is so bad that Tony barely makes it back home in time to plug himself in to the wall. He's basically driving home in full cardiac arrest, then blacks out the second the recharge starts. He decides it's the suit that's to blame--it's too bulky, too heavy, and seems to need recharging more and more often, which puts a huge strain on his heart. He begins experimenting with metals and makes this issue's big change: a lighter, more efficient suit.

This is the Iron Man Mark III armor. It's introduced over three full pages, so you can tell Stan's excited about it. Steve Ditko designed it, and I like it much, much better than that Mark II armor he's been wearing since his second appearance. This is what I've been waiting for: a suit that's more form-fitting, more dashing, ultramodern. My biggest complaint, if you remember, about the Mark II was that too many artists (particularly Kirby) made it look like this gigantic trashcan that was too bulky to maneuver in. Don Heck was really the only artist that drew it so it looked more svelte, more like a suit of armor than a deep sea diving suit. The Mark III looks much more like a superhero and less like a guy doing an EVA in space.

The Mark III is more powerful and, because it's lighter, can carry more transistor attachments. The yellow bits over the arms and legs are form-fitting and have the strength of ductile iron. Interestingly, each part has its own back-up power battery in case the main unit fails. The boot jets are standard now. To me, the best part is that the bulky helmet is gone and now Tony has a face mask that gives him a fuller range of vision. He can turn his head! He also says that having more of his expression visible will give him an edge in fighting crime, but I don't know. Besides, whenever Ditko draws him, he always tries to give us glimpses of Tony's eyes through the suit, anyway.

Mr. Doll, having taken the fortunes of three of the richest men in New York, has his sights set now on Tony Stark, so when he attacks he finds Iron Man waiting for him. Mr. Doll once again inflicts pain on Iron Man, but since the new suit is lighter and has less of a strain on Tony's heart, Iron Man is better able to resist pain.

The battle that follows is mainly just Tony trying to resist the amount of pain he's in. He actually goes into another room and disconnects his chest plate in order to slow down his heart rate so the pain won't bother him as much. Then he whips up some device, reattaches the chest plate, faces down Mr. Doll, uses his device to change the shape of Mr. Doll's doll into Mr. Doll himself, and then Mr. Doll collapses in a heap of pain and agony.

It was really a story to introduce the new suit, and in order to do that, you have to create a villain capable of defeating Iron Man. Which they did, but Mr. Doll didn't seem like much of a menace beyond being able to inflict pain. And, in the end, I'm not sure the suit did much to turn the tide.

Mr. Doll can change his doll's features quickly each time he sees Iron Man. It's not a good thing for that to happen in our first outing with the Mark III. I've made this joke before about Tony hastily attaching things to his suit in order to fight villains, and how it either makes the villains look slow and inefficient or it makes Iron Man look kind of lame and slow. So we're given a full three-page build-up to this new, more powerful, lighter, faster, more efficient suit, and the first thing that happens is that Mr. Doll quickly reshapes his doll to look like the Mark III and starts inflicting pain. So, really, is the new suit just as slow as the old one, then, or...?

Sure looks cool, though. That is a cool-looking suit.

Stray observations:

:: There's some wacky business with Tony and Pepper Potts hiding out in what's basically Tony's panic room. She gets the idea that Tony's madly in love with her and throws herself at him in a way that she's going to be ashamed of later. Tony slips out through an escape hatch so he can get in the suit and fight Mr. Doll. And then he promptly forgets that she's locked in that room...

At least Happy's glad to see Pepper.

The Mark III gets a much better workout in next month's Avengers #3, which features the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner. Gee, after teasing that upcoming epic, I almost feel bad letting you know that our next Marvels is a Giant-Man story...

Next: Giant-Man and the Wasp face the Human Top.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Song of the Week: "Gold Digger"

Songs for Becca #17. Continuing Becca's hip hop summer with literally the only Kanye West song she can stand (and she loves this). I usually don't like to post censored/radio-friendly versions of songs, but since this is for Becca, she actually prefers this one. She just got used to the vocal rhythm of this one when they were playing it on VH1 and MTV every day for what seemed like a year.

80s Revisited: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Directed by Joe Johnston; screenplay by Ed Naha and Tom Schulman; produced by Penny Finkelman Cox.

This Disney flick just showed up on Netflix and I was enthusiastic to give it a re-watch. I don't remember the last time I saw it, but I'm sure I was in my teens. I was really excited about it as a kid, and I remember seeing it in the theater maybe twice in the summer of '89 (a summer which was dominated for me by Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but which had a lot of buried treasures in it). To be fair, I do remember that part of the reason I was so incredibly excited about it was that it had the first Roger Rabbit theatrical short, Tummy Trouble, attached to it.

Turns out I enjoyed the movie just as much in 2014 as I did in 1989, but from a different approach. In 1989, I loved it because I was 12 and special effects adventures were very much my thing. Let's be honest, they still are. But I loved it yesterday morning because it reminded me so much of being a 12 year-old who was excited about such things. Part of that is the special effects themselves, which are all outdated now, so they carry the charm of something older and handmade. When an ant fights a gigantic scorpion, the effects look like Ray Harryhausen. The big backyard sets which include the back of a giant Lego, kids hanging on to a bee in flight, a kid trying not to drown in his father's bowl of Cheerios; they're cheesy and fun and just quirky enough to be endearing. And the inventor's home... man, I'm a sucker for 80s movie homes with weird inventions all over the place.

What surprised me is that the movie refused to give in to its inherent quirky silliness and plays a lot of what happens pretty straight. Casting Rick Moranis--and god damn it, I miss Rick Moranis--and Matt Frewer as the two dads is pretty crucial, because they both add a lot of comic warmth to their roles. Though the movie itself and its effects are pretty clever and even witty, I attribute a certain lack of confidence in the characters to this being Joe Johnston's first movie as a director. He's a special effects guy--one of the original ILM guys who worked on the Star Wars trilogy--and the attention to the effects and the sets and the situation are top notch, but the characters can be a little flat, especially when the kids are trading one-liners. (Robert Oliveri, though, is pure gold.) But I also appreciate that the kids are genuinely worried about their situation; they're in an adventure movie, not a quirky comedy, even though the movie more or less acknowledges the silliness of the premise and occasionally has fun with it.

(Johnston's made some of my favorite adventure movies over the years--The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, and Captain America: The First Avenger.)

Another thing that struck me was the score. I have a troubled relationship with James Horner; he writes some great music, but mostly I just hear him repeating himself or outright ripping himself off. There are a lot of his usual go-to's in here, and I can even hear cues from a couple of his then-recent scores, like Willow and The Land Before Time. He also just blatantly uses Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse," which you've heard in a thousand Looney Tunes cartoons, and was threatened with a lawsuit over it which Disney had to settle out of court. He's also borrowing (or approximating) Nino Rota's score for Amarcord. And a LOT of Dave Grusin's The Goonies. The rest of the time, Horner sounds like he's doing a style parody of Danny Elfman, particularly the Pee Wee's Big Adventure score, to the point that I initially thought I had forgotten Elfman scored the movie before his credit came up. It's jazzy and bouncy and it works, but sometimes Horner's stuff can be distracting for precisely these reasons.

(Also, opening credits: I love it when the opening credits are a fun animated sequence.)

I just love that this story originated with Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. Disney actually made a Stuart Gordon movie. That's crazy and wonderful. Ed Naha, one of the writers, used to write a lot for Starlog and Fangoria, so I kind of grew up on the guy. Crazily, I most often associate him with RoboCop. He wrote the RoboCop novelization, but the bizarre thing is, I never read it. So why does that linger in my mind so much? He also wrote the novelization for Ghostbusters II... which I also never read. And hey, he wrote the movie Troll, which was my first-ever 80s Revisited post back in 2008. I guess that means this is the last one I'll ever do.

(Note: this is not the last one I'll ever do.)

So, I really enjoyed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, partly out of nostalgia, and partly because special effects adventure flicks with kids are just coded into my DNA because of when I grew up. (Come on, the kids make friends with a baby ant. That kind of thing just pleases me on some primal level.) Interesting how the dated quality actually helps it now. It could have used a little more gee whiz and a little more sadistic humor, but it's breezy and adventurous and I still dig it.