Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy Birthday, Beautiful

Taylor Swift's music and some of the things she's said have really helped me get through a tough year, and it's been a hell of a couple of months for this fan.

Xmas: Tumblr Finds III

Friday, December 12, 2014

This Week in Neat-O

Here's some neat stuff that I saw this week. Most of it is video links, so here's some stuff to look at this weekend.

:: Wanderers, a short film by Erik Wernquist that imagines our future among the stars and uses the voice of Carl Sagan.

:: The 2014 installment of DJ Earworm's annual United State of Pop mash-up. Dig the slower vibe this year.

:: Nick Offerman's musical ode to whisky.

:: Here's a new Jupiter Ascending trailer. I'm surprised at how much I want to see this movie. And in this trailer there are more shots of that flying lizard man, which is totally my kind of thing.

:: I'm far less certain about Strange Magic, though... Great visuals, but...

Just wanted to say that I really dig Scarlett Johansson's sexy new haircut.

:: There are a lot of Star Wars #1 variant covers. 45, apparently. Not even sure if I'm going to read the comic, but loving the excitement.

:: I liked last week's James Franco-hosted Saturday Night Live more than I've liked most of the episodes this season, but even so, they seem to have cut two of the best sketches in dress rehearsal. The problem with the show is the lack of a point of view and a general unwillingness to take on anything edgy or relevant. So it's too bad they cut this Ferguson sketch and this spot-on VH1 parody. Just fire Colin Jost and we'll call it even.

:: TCM Remembers, 2014.

Xmas: "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #25. The Jackson Five Christmas Album is one of my all time fave Christmas albums (hmm... new list idea?), and today is gray, slow, quiet, and depressing, so here's something upbeat!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #55

"On the Trail of the Human Top!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(May 1964)

Once again, Hank and Jan face the Human Top. Once again, he's too fast for them. Once again, Jan actually has very little to do.

Sorry, but I'm a bit jaded with these Hank Pym stories.

So, the Human Top escapes from jail and goes right back to robbing banks. Giant-Man and the Wasp arrive too late to do anything about it, so they--get this--take a leisurely stroll back to Hank's lab. The Human Top, having spotted them, tracks them and busts in, stealing Hank's belt, which has all of his size pills in it. Are we doing something about the pills? It just seems incredibly inconvenient to have to carry those around.

The Top traps Hank in a closet, captures Jan in a jar, takes a giant-size pill and spins off to wreak havoc. Hank has to contact the ants so they'll bring him his spare belt and pass an ant-size pill under the door. Able to escape, he becomes Giant-Man, fights the giant Human Top, and captures him by having the ants cave in the roof of an abandoned building.

And that's the end.

Stray observations:

:: Once again, Hank Pym is hanging out with his fan club. Dude, I'll give you that there could possibly be a fan club for Giant-Man with an incredible amount of access to your HQ if you'd just stop hanging out with your admirers. It's pretty vain and a little desperate.

:: I actually hadn't noticed until now that they took the point off of Jan's headpiece.

I miss it. It was kitschy in a Space Age way.

:: There's so little substance here that Stan & Dick can devote an entire two pages to showing us how Hank has rigged a pulley system outside the window so that, as Giant-Man, he can just leap out the window, grab onto it, and just lower himself to the ground to save time. Then, like a jerk, he sits on a city bus and waits for the Wasp to catch up so he can do the whole "what took you so long, slowpoke?" brag. How about some respect for public transit schedules, mac?

:: Once again, Giant-Man's giant size is an impediment to doing anything; he actually has to shrink down to Ant-Man in order to get through the city crowds.

:: Hank has a way with compliments.

Um... thanks?

:: The Human Top has it right: "Being big is for the birds!" It really hasn't been as useful as Hank thinks it has been.

:: "How does it feel to see your name in print?" "Wonderful, dream man! Although I'd much rather see it on a wedding license, you big, blind, wonderful goof." Oy.

:: My favorite thing about this issue is Dick Ayers' art. I didn't love his Giant-Man stuff at first, but this is the first time I haven't missed Don Heck.

Well... let's move on.

Next time: the Evil Mutants again.

Xmas: Peanuts, 1971

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

V Is for Vendaface

There's really not much to say about Vendaface. He's a vending machine for faces. What I find interesting is that he was apparently only meant to be used one time, but Muppet Show producer David Lazer said it would be impractical to use such an expensive Muppet only once... so they used him three times, instead.

In his first appearance, he doesn't even vend any faces!



This next sketch is probably the one that was filmed first, and the one that Vendaface was built for.


I like this sketch. It reminds me of some of the Muppet bits like "Inchworm" and "The Coffee Break Machine" that I've had up here, the kind of stuff Jim Henson was doing on various talk shows. He did those over and over, perfecting them before they finally were put to rest on The Muppet Show. But this one was only done once, and Jim doesn't even perform in the sketch--the Anything Muppet is Frank Oz, and Vendaface is Jerry Nelson.

Vendaface appeared one more time, in this little filler bit with Statler.



I'm not really sure they got their money's worth out of this guy, since it's really just one joke and the middle sketch is the only one where the character was necessary. He only showed up once more on the show, in a third season one-off gag as Vendawish.



Thin stuff, really.

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

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

THE WILDCAT (1921)
This is an odd movie, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. Ernst Lubitsch directed this movie, and it's hard to describe, but here goes... There's this German lieutenant who is making his way to a new posting, when he's captured by a group of bandits who live in the snowy mountains. The leader of the bandits has a daughter, Pola Negri, who is... well, she's the wildcat of the title, and she's got this sort of natural, untamed sexuality that's not overt, but it's definitely there. She sort of falls for the cartoonishly suave lieutenant, and when he gets to his new post, she follows with some of the other bandits and tries to rob the place. Meanwhile, the lieutenant's new superior--a buffoon with a frankly amazing mustache--is trying to build a romance between the lieutenant and his daughter. Most of this is played for laughs and directed as though we're watching a children's movie. Some of it is a burlesque, or a child's panto, but there's an undertone of sexual commentary (the lieutenant plays like the ultimate Weimar symbol--handsome, but not manly) and anti-military satire. The sets are amazing. The whole thing looks like it takes place in an elaborate dollhouse, but this movie is honestly worth it just for the art direction and the wonderful sets. I don't think it works entirely, but Pola Negri really holds the attention. It's... it's an odd movie. ***

THE NAVIGATOR (1924)
Buster Keaton and Kathryn McGuire as two spoiled rich kids who end up lost at sea on a drifting steamship and have to fend for themselves. There's a theme here that modern technology has made things worse because we depend on it too much and don't know how to do without it. Hilarious, of course, with my favorite bits being Buster attempting to make breakfast and the underwater scenes with Buster in a deep sea diving suit. **** Co-directed by Donald Crisp, an Oscar-winning actor whom I always love, but who I didn't realize until I saw this was also a director. He started out assisting DW Griffith and between 1914 and 1930 he directed over 70 movies!

THE LAST COMMAND (1928)
Excellent Josef von Sternberg silent picture about a Tsarist Russian general (Swedish actor and future Nazi mouthpiece Emil Jannings, in the performance that won the first Oscar for Best Actor) who escapes the Revolution and becomes an extra in Hollywood... only to find himself cast as a general in a movie about the Revolution by a director (played by William Powell). This is another one of those movies I've always wanted to see and never had before, but that I'm so glad to have finally experienced. Beautifully made. ****

KIKI (1926)
Norma Talmadge is Kiki, a Parisian newspaper seller who wants to be a chorus girl. When she gets her chance, she's a disaster, but manages to worm her way into the home of the show's producer (Ronald Colman), whom she's fallen in love with. More annoying than it is romantic, and the comedy is awkward. Very rooted in a sort of casual misogyny. **1/2

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950)
Wow, what an irritating movie. I kept trying to like it, but to no real avail. It can't overcome the inherent racism and sexism of its time period, and I just sort of hated the story, which I would describe like this: talented girl instantly falls in love with pretty man, shows him up, agrees to mute her talent so he'll take her under his wing, chases him for months, tries to improve herself in every way to live up to his standards so he'll love her, loses the guy when she shows off just how talented she is, sings an uncomfortably racist song about Native Americans, then deliberately loses a contest so that the guy will love her again, somehow lives with herself, the end. It doesn't help that this musical has some of Irving Berlin's most truly annoying songs in it, and that it stars Betty Hutton and Howard Keel. Keel is a block of handsome wood as usual, but I almost like Hutton's energy, even though it's like the sort of overly-smiling yell-acting that showy children tend to do. Very twee about Native Americans and backwoods folk. But very pretty to look at, and I liked Louis Calhern and Keenan Wynn. When have I ever not liked Keenan Wynn? **

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

80s Revisited: Home Alone

Home Alone (1990)
Directed by Chris Columbus; written and produced by John Hughes.

Every year, I see both complaints and professions of love for this movie on Facebook page, and after seeing it for the first time in, honestly, probably about 15 or 20 years, I have to confess: I quite enjoyed it.

I haven't seen Home Alone in years. I first saw it in the theater in 1990 with my Mom and my sister Jayne, and seeing it now, I've realized it's something of a time capsule. Let's be a hundred percent here: we carry our own experiences and baggages into whatever movies we see. It's dishonest to say that reviews are completely objective. Sometimes we love things because they remind us of a time, or a place, or a person. And sometimes we hate things because of that, too.

I'm not saying this as some kind of wishy-washy defense of a movie that I know a lot of people hate. I'm saying it because those esoteric reasons have a great deal to do with why I loved watching it again.

I remember when this came out and destroyed the box office. Number one movie for 12 straight weeks and, for a time, the third-highest grossing movie of all time. It spawned an entire genre that my wife once derisively nicknamed the "It's That Kid!" movie. And there was a hastily thrown together sequel that rather missed all of the elements that made this first movie work.

And I do think this movie works, even if it's totally convoluted. The movie has to work hard to put Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) in that house by himself. The whole family is over, and Kevin makes a scene at dinner on the night before everyone's leaving to spend Christmas in Paris. As punishment, Kevin is sent to bed early in the attic bedroom (his bed has gone to the visiting aunt and uncle), and ends up alone up there. A wind storm then knocks out the power and the phones, so no one wakes up on time. In the rush to get to the airport, a neighbor kid is accidentally counted, no one wakes up Kevin, and the kid wakes up to an empty house. Having wished his family gone forever, he thinks his wish came true. And meanwhile, a couple of crooks (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) are robbing the homes of vacationing families, and Kevin won't go to the cops because, in a panic, he accidentally stole a toothbrush and he thinks the cops are after him. Kid logic.

So, no, it's not a plausible movie, something a lot of critics got really annoyed about at the time. Viewing it nearly 25 years later, that doesn't count against it for me. Its heart is so firmly rooted in a kind of 1940s Christmas movie where emotional manipulation it the point and plausibility is, at best, a tertiary concern. It takes place in a fantasy version of reality that little kids sometimes think and maybe wish is true. But that fantasy version of reality feels right, because I can remember feeling like the world was the simple place this movie insists it is. I was 14 when this movie came out, and it felt right to me that, yeah, when I was 7 I would have done what Kevin does: go through everyone's stuff, watch forbidden movies, and eat elaborate desserts.

The movie's slapstick is balanced by Kevin's growing anxiousness to have his family back and his increasing guilt at them not being there, which he assumes is a Christmas wish come true and which he comes to regret making. I don't want to say it's emotionally sincere, exactly, but, like George Costanza, the old man gets to me. I like the bits about family and about fear and grudges and regret. After all of that, the Three Stooges slapstick of Kevin's elaborate confrontation with the robbers and the emotional outpouring of the ending are a catharsis. It all works. It's the kind of movie where I know my strings are being pulled, but they're being pulled in such a way that I don't mind. You can see the gears, but they add up to a nice effect and it's not done in a smug or soulless way (like in the sequel), so who cares?

But the really esoteric reason I have affection for this movie is the time in my life it comes from. Christmas 1990 was one of the worst times in my life. It was my freshman year of high school, we had recently moved out of the house I grew up in, and my parents had gotten divorced a year earlier. My Mom took my sister and I to see this at a sneak preview the week before its general release. There's nothing better than seeing a movie at a packed house with an audience who is really enjoying what they're watching. And my Mom loved it so much. It really came at a time when she needed to laugh as hard as she did. To have something to watch as a family and get such a good time out of was something we desperately needed to have that Christmas. And we did.

As a result, Home Alone has become an essential Christmas movie for Mom. We bought it for her on VHS the next Christmas. And she always loved it, even as I became a jaded and cynical teenager and was "too cool" for it. It took me until well into adulthood to realize that the reason she loved that movie so much was probably that it showed a family at Christmas who fought and took each other for granted and made gigantic mistakes, but who were reunited and were just grateful to be together. It was the kind of message she needed at a time when she was feeling guilty, feeling like a failure, because her life had changed so quickly and her children were so unhappy.

So, yeah, it's a silly movie. I know there are people who are annoyed by it. But I smile and I laugh and I cry and I think of my Mom and of how we survived a really terrible time in our lives, and the question of how convoluted and implausible the movie is becomes moot because of what it makes me feel.

Xmas: Garfield, 1978

This reminds me of how my cat Sam used to get into the tree. I saw him get a running start and leap into the tree, which of course then pitched forward onto the ground. My Mom screamed about it.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Muppet Monday

Xmas: Calvin and Hobbes, 1986

No kidding, my sister and I once woke our parents up at 3 in the morning because we were so excited about Christmas morning. They actually let us look at our "Santa Claus presents" and then made us go back to bed.

When I got a certain age, I stopped waking up before 6--between 6 and 7 was always my usual wake-up time. But one of my favorite Christmas memories is of being at my Dad's on Christmas morning and sitting in my bedroom, reading because no one else was up yet, and then hearing Ellen (who was about four or five at the time) open her bedroom door, see the presents, gasp with wonder, and then RUN to my door and yell "Aaron! Aaron! Santa came!"

In later years, I'd head out to my Dad's early for Christmas morning rather than staying overnight, and I was always surprised that I woke him up when I'd get there around 6. Like, don't the kids get up really early, unable to contain their excitement? Nope, apparently that's just anxious little me. Ellen and Audrie didn't get up early on Christmas day, so Dad and I would just hang around and argue about politics while I drank coffee and leafed through the paper, waiting for everyone else to get up.

So, full circle: went from waking Dad up early to... waking Dad up early.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Song of the Week: "This Christmas"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #24. Diana Ross recorded this cover of the Donny Hathaway song in 1974, but it went criminally unreleased until 1993. I have no idea why we were deprived of this for two decades, but it really sets the mood for the holiday season. I dig Motown Christmas music. Did you see that there was a recent poll where people picked the 80s as the best decade for Christmas music? That... is insane.