Saturday, December 06, 2014

80s Revisited: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Written, produced and directed by John Hughes.

I just don't see it.

I think I first saw this movie on HBO when I was about 12, in 1988, and I didn't much care for it. It was one of those things I filed away in my brain as "maybe I'll get it when I'm older" and moved on. But for years, I saw it grow into--here in the Midwest, at least--a beloved holiday classic. When I worked at Hollywood Video, people would come in begging for this movie every Thanksgiving; we had to get extra copies of it. Roger Ebert put it in his Great Movies collection and compared the movie to enduring classics like Casablanca. It was a box office hit when it came out. People in Chicago love it. So, I figured it was finally time to sit down and see what all the love is about.

I still don't see it.

I don't know what it is, but this movie just doesn't work on me. It comes off to me as stiff and formulaic, and I'm not sure what the point of it is.

Steve Martin and John Candy star as two businessmen in Manhattan who want to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving in two days. Martin's Neal Page is stiff, precise, structured, and anal retentive. Candy's Del Griffith is obnoxious, disheveled, and a people-pleaser. These two end up traveling together on a roundabout, snow-delayed journey to the Windy City that tests both men.

This is classic road picture stuff, but for me the slapstick of the gags never really came through. Hughes is much more interested in peeling back the layers of both men, and that's where I guess the picture got hung up for me. I thought John Candy did a great job of making Del more than just a comedy type. He and Hughes together create a man who has hidden depths, hidden pain, and a seemingly endless reserve of empathy, even for someone who constantly hurts him the way Neal does.

In Steve Martin, though, I feel like the character Neal never really rises above a stock comedy type. The film never really sets him up as, say, having to become more empathetic, or having to learn to go with the flow in uneasy situations. He's just kind of a dick and stays that way through the first two acts. Are we supposed to root for him? Or are we supposed to think he's getting what's coming to him? Or are we just supposed to laugh at how everything goes wrong because travel is so inherently unpleasant? I have to admit, that's a kind of comedy situation that I've always found more frustrating than anything else.

I liked parts of it. Their first night in a motel together is a classic little scene. I enjoyed it so much that for a while I wished the whole movie had just been set on that one night, in that one location. For me, it was really the only scene that balanced the gags with Hughes' attempt to give the characters more nuance. (That scene where Neal tears in on Del and his boring stories and John Candy's face just falls proves my contention that Candy was an underrated actor. Unfortunately, since Steve Martin had been so one-dimensional up until then, it made it even harder for me to like his character.)

I also loved the "Mess Around" sequence (Candy in that scene reminded me a lot of my Dad) and Steve Martin's great flourish with the F-word at the rental car desk. And I love the post-credit gag. I think I laughed harder at that than anything else in the movie.

Overall, I just don't see it. I just don't understand why this movie is so beloved. I'm not saying it's bad or that people are wrong to like it... it just doesn't work on me and I'm genuinely not sure why that is. I do think there wasn't as much catharsis as I hoped there would be. Thanksgiving was always so stressful and uncomfortable for me so I don't really find any inherent humor in it. I'm not sorry I watched it--frankly, I'm still sorry, 20 years later, that John Candy died, and I love watching him. I thought this was one of his best performances.

But it's just not for me, I guess.

Xmas: Tumblr Finds II

Friday, December 05, 2014

This Week in Neat-O

I hear Santa hides the really good toys near his uvula.

:: If you have an hour, or you're cooking, or cleaning, or whatever, and want to throw on some music, here's a Genesis concert from 1973 with enhanced HD audio. It sounds fantastic. This is when Peter Gabriel was still with the band, and it's either something to play and get lost in, or for serious prog rock fans like myself. For example: the band plays for an hour, but they only perform five songs, including a version of "The Musical Box" that's almost 15 minutes longer than the version on Nursery Cryme. The rest of the songs are from Foxtrot (they close with the full 37 minutes of "Supper's Ready") and Selling England by the Pound. Fab stuff but, I get it, not for everyone.

:: Here's something weird: a 1979 pilot for a sitcom set in space called Starstruck. Arthur Kopit wrote this. Someone who worked on it and had a copy on video posted it to YouTube and gave some background to it on Reddit. It doesn't really work, and there's some real miscasting, and it's very much from that post-Star Wars period of trying to copy its success, but there's no money to do it justice, so it looks more like McDonaldland than anything else. What a weird idea for a sitcom. See it once to say you saw it. I adore one of the puppets. The one with four arms.

I love this Jurassic World fan art by Manuel Unda. (via)

:: This blog post says everything I've been trying to articulate for years about exactly why I don't like Stephen Moffat's tenure as Doctor Who showrunner (and some of the problems I have with Sherlock).

:: Here's a video of a Superman action figure that flew to the edge of space and back. For reals.

:: This is a real treat: you can read the opening paragraphs from Jessica Max Stein's Funny Boy: The Richard Hunt Biography right here. I'm really excited to read this book!


:: And last, here's a Kool-Aid commercial I ran across from 1965. It features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd and was directed by Tex Avery.

Xmas: Peanuts, 1970

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Xmas: "What Christmas Means to Me"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #23. I do love Jessica Simpson's Christmas album, ReJoyce (which she recorded for her late grandmother, Joyce, hence the styling of the title). It's the only album where she really gets to sing in the style she does live, instead of having to fit into the pop mold. (Not that she's far off from it, but there's a difference between her jazzier live shows and her hideously autotuned second album, for example.) Her version of this old Motown song might not be the best one--I'm not sure anyone's even capable of recording a version of a song that's better than Stevie Wonder's version--but it is the track I go to each year off this album. So, this is the beginning of my annual Christmas music posts.

Christmas songs are one of my favorite parts of this season, so I'll be putting these up on Sundays and Thursdays this year.

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #53

"The Black Widow Strikes Again!" by Stan Lee, Don Rico & Don Heck
(May 1964)

Tony Stark's latest invention is an anti-gravity device that he's basically built accidentally. Oh, he was trying to create one, but out of frustration he arranges the circuits in random order. The device works successfully, but Tony drops it and the wires fuse together, so he can't analyze the patterns, he doesn't remember the formula, and he can never replicate the device. So he's got one anti-gravity device that he can sell to the Army.

While Tony's demonstrating the device to a general, a hiding news photographer grabs a picture and rushes off to leak the news, which our old friend Nikita Khrushchev reads about in the USSR. And so, hiding in a place called Pittsville, does Madame Natasha, the Black Widow.

She's still hiding in America, afraid to return to the Soviet Union after her failure last issue to recover Professor Vanko. But now he worms her way back into Tony's good graces with ease, manipulates him into giving a demonstration of the device, and steals it rather easily. She uses it to rob jewels before contacting Khrushchev himself and offering him the device in exchange for her safe return to the Soviet Union. She goes about destroying Stark plants with the device while Soviet agents come to meet her. But the Soviet men who come for her take the device away and try to take over her operation.

Tony just happens to be flying by in his Iron Man armor when one of the red agents, Stansky, is trying out the device by lifting a car into the air. Iron Man picks the car up and throws it into the building where Natasha is hiding, Natasha uses the device on Iron Man, then destroys the entire building, then lifts a mountain and fights off tanks until Iron Man finally uses a proton electric charge to destroy the anti-gravity device. He saves the Soviet agents, but Black Widow gets away again.

I've never read any of these older stories with Black Widow, and I'm very interested to see how this character, something of a cliche and a rip-off of the Dragon Lady from Terry and the Pirates (you can see Myrna Loy or Gale Sondergaard playing the character in an old movie), turns into the action heroine we all know and love.

Stray observations:

:: This is the second of two issues scripted by Don Rico under the pseudonym "N. Korok."

:: Only one issue after Anton Vanko's heroic sacrifice, and we've all moved on a little too easily for my tastes.

:: "Like all Americans, he is sympathetic, and therefore weak!"

:: Pepper Potts spends all of her page time angry that Madame Natasha can turn Tony's head. This character barely registers for me so far.

:: After Madame Natasha steals the device, there's an editorial declaring Tony's loyalties to the country in doubt. Every time one of his projects get stolen or ruined, someone's saying that Tony's sabotaging the American defense effort on purpose. That's a lot of paranoia. This has happened at least three, maybe five times now.

:: "You saved us! I... I do not understand!" "That's the trouble with you commies! You just don't dig us!"

:: Iron Man is definitely taking top billing these days. The cover still says "Tales of Suspense," but now, underneath, in bigger and bolder letters, it says "featuring the power of IRON MAN."

Not as good a story as last issue, to be honest--you can tell by my rather unenthusiastic synopsis that I'm not so into it. But in the next one, the Mandarin comes back, so hopefully we'll get something exciting.

Normally I skip the "Tales of the Watcher" stories, but this one does bear on the Marvel Universe itself, so here's a little bonus...

"Tales of the Watcher: The Way It Began" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Paul Reinman

In this story, we find out more about the Watcher, his people, and his mission to observe.

Long ago, "aeons before the birth of your world," the Watcher's people lived in peace and harmony, in floating cities. Their high morals and advanced intelligence had done away with war and theft, and their scientific knowledge had eradicated all disease on their world, giving them a virtual immortality. (Quick question: wouldn't this eradication of disease then mean that the Watcher couldn't produce antibodies, thus making him fatally susceptible to each disease he encounters on an alien world?)

The Watchers have it so good that the Watcher's father, Ikor, proposes that they go out into the cosmos and share their knowledge with other people, traveling as beings of pure energy after absorbing antimatter isotopes. Their first stop is a planet with the wonderfully skiffy name Prosilicus, a relatively primitive world. The Watcher teach the Prosilicans about nuclear energy, and then leave them to observe a multidimensional eclipse, something that happens only once every billion years.

When the Watchers return to Prosilicus, its civilization has been wiped out, and few Prosilicans remain alive. Those that still live admonish the Watchers for their "gift," which was used to fight a nuclear war. Ikor then vows never to give enormous power to people who aren't advanced enough intellectually to use it wisely, rather creating something like the Prime Directive in Star Trek, a policy of non-interference and observance.

And that's why the Watcher only watches, and cannot interfere in events.

Stray observations:

:: It's worth noting that we've only seen the Watcher interact with the Marvel Universe twice, and he interfered both times--once in the fight between the Fantastic Four and the Red Ghost on the blue area of the moon, and again to warn the Fantastic Four about the power of the Molecule Man.

:: This story, scripted by Larry Lieber, frames the Watchers as the oldest beings in existence in the Marvel Universe... at least as far as we yet know.

:: The Watcher himself remains unnamed, and will not be named until 1975. We also don't know the name of his people based on this story. I assume they weren't originally referred to as Watchers. In fact, they aren't now; I'm only referring to them that way. I don't think we've ever learned what these people are called.

I have to say, I like that we've gotten some background on what the Watcher is all about, but the tone of this story is so much of its time. Here come the white guys with their knowledge, only to realize they must hoard their knowledge away from the primitives, lest the primitives destroy themselves with it and the white guys feel guilty, because the primitives just aren't smart enough to handle knowing stuff like the white guys are.

One way to read it, is all.

Next time: the return of the Human Top.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

U Is for Uncle Deadly

Back when I had things like a job and disposable cash, I bought the Muppet Show action figures made by Palisades Toys. I still have them all in a box in my library room. One of my favorite figures is their Uncle Deadly figure, which is made with such care and detail you'd think that Uncle Deadly was a much bigger part of the cast than he ever was. But he was just so dynamic, funny, and fascinating to look at that he looms large in the imagination.

Uncle Deadly's first appearance was on the great first season episode of The Muppet Show that starred Vincent Price. Here's a sketch that was, sadly, cut out of the Disney DVD set because of rights issues: "You've Got a Friend." You can see Deadly--here an assistant to Vincent Price--among all of the Frackles and Heaps and Ghosts.

Jerry Nelson performed Deadly as just kind of creepy, with a raspy voice, but two episodes later, Uncle Deadly skulked around the Muppet Theater as The Phantom of the Muppet Show, a legend that Kermit doesn't believe in until he meets him face to face. Then, the Phantom tells Kermit that he was a Shakespearean actor who played Othello there, and was killed on opening night... by critics. He now haunts the Muppet Theater to stop anyone from performing there, until he's reached out to by the episode's guest star, Twiggy. After that episode, he drops the Phantom shtick and becomes a benign member of the cast, popping up in bits. Here he is, for example, as part of the cast singing "Consider Yourself" with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Uncle Deadly appeared sporadically, not really having a major role until he got a song all to himself in the second season: "Sheik of Araby."

Early in the third season, he played a villain menacing Miss Piggy in a short-lived series of Muppet Melodramas. Very short-lived, it turns out: there were only two. Here they both are on one three-minute video.

Jerry Nelson said that his performances as Uncle Deadly were meant as a tribute to John Carradine and his sometimes hammy performances in horror films. I've seen the character referred to as a dragon, but designer Michael K. Frith actually based Deadly's look on gargoyles.

Aside from a couple of appearances in group shots, Uncle Deadly didn't really appear in any Muppet productions until he was resurrected for 2011's The Muppets, where he and Bobo the Bear played the assistants of evil oil billionaire Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Now performed by Matt Vogel, Deadly has become a little less hammy and little more droll.

What's he been up to in between Muppet gigs?

Deadly and Bobo also had a cameo in Muppets Most Wanted, so I hope they continue to pop in. Uncle Deadly's a great little character, and a welcome member of the cast.

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

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

I keep inexplicably waiting for Robert Rodriguez's talent to come back, but at this point... It's too bad, because just from the plot alone, this seems like a movie I would enjoy the hell out of. The first half is basically Escape from New York, and the second half is like a demented version of Moonraker. But where I found the first Machete disappointing, this one is like watching Robert Rodriguez masturbate. All of his favorite tropes are here, but without the commitment or the wit that marked his earlier films. It wants to be a gonzo action flick, but without any sense of self-awareness to make it truly enjoyable. The main joke is that Machete is an indestructible badass... unless the plot requires otherwise. Meh. I always love Danny Trejo and Tom Savini, but the only actors who really get the tone here are Sofia Vergara, Demian Bichir, Mel Gibson and (returning from the first flick) Michelle Rodriguez. Everything else is stunt casting or eye candy. Too bad. **1/2

Boy, you can tell this movie just didn't work for me, because every other bad movie I saw this week, I enjoyed.

C.H.U.D. (1984)
Underground-dwelling homeless people mutate into bloodthirsty monsters when the government dumps radioactive waste under Manhattan. This gets the poker-faced earnestness right; it has no pretensions to being something like Jaws, but it gets the tone you have to strike for this kind of horror flick. A fun relic of that time period when everyone kept saying that New York was going to be a war zone in the near future. I especially liked Daniel Stern and Christopher Curry as the street reverend and cop trying to make the authorities see reason. ***

THE STUFF (1985)
Larry Cohen's movie about liquid ooze rising from the center of the Earth that gets marketed as a food and begins to control our minds... and the former FBI man who is hired to commit corporate espionage on behalf of the ice cream companies. Not the setup I'd have expected for a horror movie, but then this movie is a lot more funny and satirical than I expected. I love that the Stuff is never really explained at all; Cohen is much more interested in his main character, played by Michael Moriarty almost as a joke, like he's just there to test how far he can push his performance before it breaks any of the movie's seriousness. Goes off the rails a little during a military interlude, but a fun movie. ***

Beautiful Daphne Zuniga in her first movie as a college student pledging a sorority who is plagued by a recurring nightmare. Her teacher (James Read, a year away from North and South) thinks her nightmare might be a repressed memory. It pretends to be a psychological thriller about the mind, but really it's a slasher movie, and most of the movie takes place in a mall after hours while the sorority girls try to simultaneously pull an initiation prank and get laid, and a murderer stalks them. Dopey, over-the-top, 1984-syle silly fun. ***

Wow, even websites that don't do things like review Lifetime movies really went out of their way to bash this one. I get it, it's not hip to like or even hate-watch a movie based on an internet meme. I don't know, I thought it was funny. I mean, yeah, it was stupid, but I thought it was in on the joke, and I like the smartass way it deconstructed itself. And I like Grumpy Cat, and Aubrey Plaza was funny as Grumpy's voice. It had a bit of a Muppet sensibility to it. Not for everyone, obviously, as are most of the things I dig, it seems, but I really enjoyed it. ***1/2

Another spy caper for Bob Hope to get mixed up in. I love these Hope movies, they're like Looney Tunes cartoons. ***1/2

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #120

"The Torch Meets Iceman!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(May 1964)

It's an obvious idea to get the Human Torch and Iceman to cross paths--they're both teenagers, their powers are opposites--but the story here never rises above that obviousness. Hey, let's get these kids together. Why? I dunno, we'll think of something.

What happens is that Johnny Storm ends up on the same Manhattan cruise as Bobby Drake, who has gone there to meet girls because "there are always a lot of swingin' teens on these cruises!" Bobby flirts with Johnny's girlfriend Doris Evans, only to be showed up by the famous Human Torch.

All of this is interrupted when pirates led by the Barracuda board the cruise ship to rob the passengers. So the Torch and Iceman spring into action, and that's pretty much the whole thing. Stan & Jack try to stretch out the page count by doing things like dunking Johnny in the ocean so he can't flame on, but it's basically fight-fight-rescue Doris from the bad guy-catch the bad guy-the end.

I think part of the problem here is that I don't really care about Bobby Drake yet. We've only had four issues of X-Men so far, and none of the characters have really been established well enough to make me care about them and their personalities. Stan's been shoving the characters into other books in cameos a little too overzealously. It's like he's trying to force us to accept the X-Men as part of the Marvel Universe without really doing anything to make them worthwhile. So far, the only character in X-Men that's worth anything is Magneto. And frankly I find Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch more interesting than any of the heroes.

Now, this story's alright--it's not as terrible as the one where Angel turned evil because of a nuclear explosion and fought Iron Man--but it's pretty by-the-numbers.

I did think it was cute when Iceman decided to sneak away from the cruise. He's not doing the ice slides all the time yet, so he improvises:

Back to your own title, son.

Now, on to the real reason to show up to Strange Tales...

"The House of Shadows!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

This month's Doctor Strange story isn't complicated, but it's very atmospheric and that's what I love in this series.

It begins with Doctor Strange showing up at a live television broadcast, where a reporter plans to enter a supposedly haunted house and spend the night there. The reporter gets trapped inside, and Strange has to work several magical spells simply to get into the house. It turns out that the house itself is alive, a visitor from another dimension who disguised himself as a house to observe humanity. Strange saves the reporter and banishes the house back to its own dimension, and then walks away as the spectators hurry out of his way.

Like I said, it's a slight story, but Steve Ditko's art is, as always, the main attraction.

Doctor Strange only has 8 to 9 pages each issue, so Stan & Steve can't afford to do anything too complex, but Steve always manages with his art to make things so mysterious and dynamic that everything seems like a miniature epic. It's really an art form unto itself, and Steve Ditko is the master of it.

Stray observation:

:: It's been interesting hearing that the upcoming Doctor Strange movie will start with Strange already established and known, instead of going with an origin. I think that's a good idea, but it also mirrors how these stories began in Strange Tales. When Strange shows up at the broadcast, people know who he is and wonder if he's there for atmosphere (they assume the whole thing is a ratings gimmick). Previously, we've seen police officers and crooks who already know who Dr. Strange is. It lends the character an air of authority that we didn't have to spend years developing.

Next time: the Black Widow returns! And the origin of the Watcher!

Monday, December 01, 2014

Muppet Monday

I was going to say that Kermit and Cookie Monster were an underrated comedy duo, but it's Jim Henson and Frank Oz, and all of their characters were fantastic together. Jim and Frank are one of the greatest comedy teams of all time.

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Heartfelt Thank You

I'm always surprised and moved when there's a donation. Thank you so much for that. I'm a little humbled and speechless here, but...

Song of the Week: "Messin' with the Boys"

Today is the birthday of Cherie Currie and Marie Currie, so here's the title track from their 1980 album Messin' with the Boys. I love this album; it kind of reminds me of the Cars meets Toto (which is fitting since Steve Lukather and Mike Porcaro play on this album). There's also a great video (embedding disabled) of the twins performing this on The Merv Griffin Show and being generally adorable before Merv comes out and starts perving all over them.

Thanks, ladies, for being so friendly to me and inspiring me and listening to me in times of crisis. You're my heroes.