Saturday, May 16, 2015

An Object at Rest

This student short animation about the life of a stone over millennia is my favorite piece of animation so far this year.

Friday, May 15, 2015

This Week in Neat-O

:: Here's a Tumblr that exposes the rampant sexism in the film industry: Shit People Say to Women Directors (& Other Women Working in Film).

:: The Carbonite Maneuver, a fun, nerdy 1985-style fake trailer for a Star Wars/Star Trek crossover.

:: Red Sonja .gif animated in Filmation-style. I'd love to see an opening sequence animated like this.

:: Surprisingly interesting: the oral history of Big League Chew.

:: The preview for Netflix's Between--about a small town where a mysterious illness kills off everyone over the age of 22--goes in the maybe-but-probably file. I am home alone with nothing to do a lot.

:: The fan-made opening sequence for a Black Widow movie is pretty great. I would definitely watch this movie (I see the creator has Red Guardian in mind for a villain), and Brad Bird is a decent choice for director after Ghost Protocol. Lots of people debating on how we "deserve" a Black Widow movie, but I'm one of the people who'd kinda rather see a Netflix series and the 13 hours of character development we'd get with it. That's just a personal choice, though.

Interesting the credits for Clark Gregg and Ming-na Wen, too. Do you think they'll ever acknowledge that Coulson's alive over on the movie side. And with the Caterpillars file in play, how will season three of Agents of SHIELD play into Civil War? Stuff to wonder about for next year. I don't like some of the moral choices from this past season--look, we just want to take all the members of one population and index them on a list, how has that ever gone wrong in history, right?--so I'm curious where we go from here.

:: Everybody's all pissed off about the Supergirl trailer, but I really dig it. I'm surprised, but I'm actually looking forward to this. I love my geek stuff, but I am so over the so-called "geek community." When I was in high school, I barely knew anyone who was into comics or science fiction or fantasy. And you get told that bullshit about how fandom is a safe space because we're all outcasts and we all know what it's like to be outcasts, but no. It's just as full of bullies and know-it-alls as anywhere else. So now I have to endure being told constantly why my enthusiasm is wrong and why I shouldn't like anything I like, and it just makes me feel more alone in my nerdiness than before. The internet really sucks.

Someone has a good satirical take on the MRA outrage here.

:: Speaking of DC, should I be watching Arrow and The Flash? I see what they're doing sometimes and it makes me interested. I mean, they did Gorilla Grodd. Are they actually embracing the comic book silliness that DC Comics won't? I saw the trailer for Legends of Tomorrow and, I mean, Rip Hunter's on it, for gossakes. I saw Smallville a couple of times and I always hated it when I did, so... Torn.

:: Black Angel, the Roger Christian-directed short film that originally played in UK theaters before The Empire Strikes Back, unseen for 34 years!

:: You can play as the dinosaurs in Lego Jurassic World! Ahhh, I can't wait for this game!

:: Lego Star Wars: R2-D2 Unrestrained

:: Thank you, Ed Cumming, for your defense of another thing I love that the internet wants to stop me from enjoying: Jar Jar Binks.

:: Well, in spite of myself, I'm getting damn excited about the fall's upcoming The Muppets sitcom. I love the tone of the preview, and I love the mockumentary style they've gone with.

I think it's a great idea to go with this style; after all, what was 30 Rock but an adult version of The Muppet Show? I know some people are resisting this idea, but I think it's perfectly fitting, and I never really thought about it before, but this might be why Muppets Tonight ended up tanking. Some people just want The Muppet Show again, but you have to remember that The Muppet Show was spoofing variety shows, which were the dominant format on TV at the time. Today, the variety show is dead (Saturday Night Live keeps dancing on its grave), but we've had no shortage of mockumentary format single-camera sitcoms, so now the Muppets are spoofing today's dominant TV format. This is a brilliant idea. Frankly, it was a brilliant idea when Bill Prady pitched it a decade ago, and I'm so glad we're going with this now.

Yeah, I'm excited.

Bill Barretta is one of the creative leads on this, so I have hope that his characters will be around, particularly Pepe. (And, of course, he plays Rowlf, but I love his originals. Have you noticed that Bubba the Rat is getting more play lately? It's like having some of that missing Johnny Fiama energy back.) I'm also gratified to see Walter in the promo.

Long shot, but could we bring back Digit?

Here's everything we know about the show so far.

:: One last thing; you might remember Rob Pratt's short animated film Superman Classic, which was one of my favorite things of 2011. Pratt is back with another incredible short: Flash Gordon Classic. That had to be the capper to this week's session.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #54

"The Mandarin's Revenge!" by Stan Lee & Don Heck
(June 1964)

This issue is mainly set-up with a cliffhanger ending, but it's interesting to see the Mandarin again.

Once again, Tony Stark is called to the Pentagon to answer for equipment failure. Seems his state-of-the-art missiles are losing guidance and crashing. After hitching a ride on an ICBM to Vietnam (in armor, of course), Tony is able to deduce that the Mandarin is using his rings to knock his missiles off course, so he takes the fight straight to the Mandarin for a re-match.

From there on, it's all-out action as the two face off. The Mandarin is still Iron Man's best and deadliest villain, even in only his second appearance. Not only because of his ten rings, but because he's a scientific genius. Oh, and he knows karate. That's always the thing Tony's worried about, because a well-placed karate chop could get right through Iron Man's armor... somehow. This is during that period of time when Western writers acted like karate was pure mysticism and could do anything. Actually, we're still in that time period, aren't we?

Iron Man really taunts Mandarin during the fight; I think Tony would just love to kill this guy and end it. The Mandarin is actually impressed that Iron Man is standing up to him, and makes Iron Man an offer: "Agree to become my ally--serve me--and together we can rule the world!"

Iron Man refuses, of course, so the Mandarin uses his rings to blind Iron Man, then capture him with steel cables. With his transistors losing power after a hard-fought battle, Tony is helpless. As the Mandarin begins to lower dynamos that will end Iron Man forever, Tony regrets that the last time he saw his friends, he was kind of a jerk...

As a wolf howls outside and the Mandarin gloats, the dynamos close in...

To be continued.

Stray observations:

:: According to the Marvel Database, this is still the Mark III armor, but Iron Man has a new riveted face plate. I miss the old one with the "horns." That was my favorite, and it's already over. I think that was five issues. Dang.

:: This issue makes it clear that Tony would like to be with Pepper if he could, but refuses to expose her to the dangers Iron Man faces. He even rants when he's alone that he's jealous of Happy's attention towards Pepper, which gives us this nicely dramatic panel:

I just want a big wall painting of this.

:: Happy, to Pepper: "You're just angry because I always play so hard-to-get!" Pepper: "You're about as hard-to-get as the common cold!"

:: "You oughtta join the villains' union, cornball! You sure talk like one!"

"Tales of the Watcher: Hands Off!" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Chic Stone

Last issue, we got the origin of the Watcher--after his people interfered in a civilization and gave them the means to destroy themselves, his people made a vow never to interfere again. This issue, the Watcher's vow is tested when he observes a planet sending its radioactive waste into outer space, regardless of whether or not it could endanger other worlds.

For decades, the Watcher follows the radioactive waste through the cosmos, until it finally heads into an inhabited system. The Watcher laments his dilemma very dramatically, but ultimately decides he must hold to his promise never to interfere. Just then, a star goes supernova and sends a planet hurtling towards the inhabited worlds. But, to the Watcher's surprise, the planet hits the asteroid of radioactive waste, destroying both the asteroid and the planet. Had the Watcher interfered and destroyed the asteroid, his powers would have been temporarily weakened and he couldn't have stopped the planet.

So the Watcher learns a valuable lesson about not interfering. I guess. I mean, it could easily have gone either way, right? I think what he really needs is a lesson in being okay with the fact that you can't control every possible outcome of every situation. He even takes the credit, too: "By keeping my vow, I have saved an entire civilization!" Slow down there, pal. That civilization just lucked out, is all.

Stray observation:

:: The Watcher's dramatic turmoil and his overwrought lamenting reminds me of what's going to come in the first Silver Surfer series.

Next Marvels: a characteristically lame villain for Hank Pym.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Film Week

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

I really felt I needed to see this when it first came out, nearly a year and a half ago, but it took me this long to finally watch it. I guess there were just so many people fighting about it back then that I needed some distance before I could see it fresh. You know what it's about, so I won't re-hash it, but I will say again--as I said when I first heard of this project--that it's something I would have been much more interested in seeing a documentary about. It's very much the Disney Movie Version of the making of Mary Poppins, and as such it treats the making of Mary Poppins as one of the most important events of the 1960s. Though I enjoyed some of the movie, I did have a lot of problems with it.

I don't think the movie is outright sexist, but I did see some aggressively male displays in the way Walt Disney tries to glad hand and outright steamroll over author PL Travers in his attempts to get his hands on her story. Her uncertainty about just handing over her novel for someone else to make their own version of it is too often treated as irrational and silly, which to me seems disrespectful. It obviously means a great deal to her; she took the time to write it. But the film too often seems like a long sales pitch, like we're really supposed to want this mean old woman to just stop being unreasonable and let the Great and Powerful Disney do whatever he wants to her book to tell his much more important, vastly superior story in order to set history on its proper course. So they set this pop psychology story in motion so that the "real" story will be about Travers finding closure to the trauma of her past through Walt's role as benevolent populist.

I think it worked to a point; I thought--and this was one of the many scenes made up in service to this story--Walt's pursuit of Travers to London was less dramatic than it was monstrous. At Travers' London home, he tells her about his boyhood and his paper route, and his overbearing father, and it's the one and only moment where they really connect, and I really liked that scene. That should be the scene where they really see each other as people and leave it at that. Her change of heart would have been much more believable if he had just told her the story and told her that's why he understood Mr. Banks and wanted to tell that story. It explains his single-mindedness when it comes to his version, and it unites them in that they both see Mr. Banks as representative of their fathers--his an overbearing, cheap workhorse, hers a fabulist who was actually an irresponsible alcoholic. But the movie keeps going, with Walt pouncing on her, cornering her, revealing that he found out the story of her past, and basically saying it's her responsibility to give up her story so that he can help her heal the wounds of her childhood, and I felt like that was way too far. That's what persuades her? It felt like such a violation.

And sure, in the movie, for these movie versions of Walt and Travers, Mary Poppins does help Travers get her closure, because in the movie it has to be this great, rocky partnership that led to this classic movie, but it bothers me that Travers cries at the premiere because the movie makes her remember the past, and Walt thinks it's the movie itself. I think the movie is reluctant to let us see Walt negatively, and certainly Tom Hanks' uneven caricature is meant to be lovable, but I just don't think he comes across as the hero of this tale. And even though we're supposed to be annoyed with how particular and reserved Travers is, I think Emma Thompson's performance imbues the character with human touches that keep her from becoming cartoonish. But I couldn't help reading it as a story about how men know best.

There's a scene at the airport between Thompson and Paul Giamatti as her driver that really was the heart of the movie for me. It was a lot more touching than all of the flashbacks and all of Walt's sales pitch and the trip to Disneyland. I wish there had been more of that--people connecting with one another--than there had been of the pop psychology and the Disney charm offensive.

As it was, I did like the movie, mainly on the strength of the music, the wonderful set design (this movie looks so damn good), and Emma Thompson's complex performance. It's basically bullshit, corporate self-aggrandizing legendarium, but I enjoyed a lot of the components. I just wish they had added up to more. **1/2

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ranking Al: #80-71

There's a bunch of polkas on this one... as much as I love Weird Al's polkas, I guess I consider a bunch of them to be middle-range.

80. "Polka Party!"
(Medley; from Polka Party!, 1986)
Weird trivia: this is Al's shortest polka, running a mere 3:15. It feels a little slight, but I think there was definitely some burn out after doing an album every year for four years straight. Here's the list of songs featured.

79. "Canadian Idiot"
(Parody of "American Idiot" by Green Day; from Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006)
Energetic and cute spoof on the stereotypical American view of Canada. More funny "this is what Americans think Canadians are like" jokes than in seven seasons of How I Met Your Mother.

78. "Foil"
(Parody of "Royals" by Lorde; from Mandatory Fun, 2014)
I've heard a number of covers of "Royals" over the last couple of years, and this one falls at the lower end of the spectrum for me. There's just something about the way this song is mixed that grates on me a little bit, and I think the parody lyrics are a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel. I'm trying to keep the songs separate from the music videos, but this one is really enhanced by a funny video with a few cameos.

77. "The Hot Rocks Polka"
(Medley; from UHF, 1989)
Fantastic idea to do a polka of nothing but Rolling Stones songs, but I think the idea is more fun than the actual execution. Here are the songs used. I love the banjo on "Brown Sugar." The "Miss You" section always makes me laugh out loud, and the opening riff of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" played on an accordion is hysterical.

76. "The Alternative Polka"
(Medley; from Bad Hair Day, 1996)
A surprising number of the songs in here just take me back to early mornings commuting to work when I was 18/19. Here's the list. Sorry to let the nostalgia take over the entry a little, but I can't deny it's there. Al is a master accordionist in this one, especially during "You Oughta Know," and some of the snippets styled the way Al styles them sound better to me than the originals. God, "Black Hole Sun" was a drag. I always found it funny how he censors the lyrics (with wacky sound effects) for Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," but then sings "Am I paranoid, or am I just stoned?" for the big close out from Green Day's "Basket Case." The "am I just stoned?" lyric was always censored on the radio (and on MTV, I believe) with "yeah yeah yeah" back then.

75. "Confessions Part III"
(Parody of "Confessions Part II" by Usher; from Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006)
Al's continuation of Usher's song has a lot of trivial, strange, and even disturbing confessions, unloading secrets like faking illness to skip the office picnic and not sharing the Rice Krispies. Great production; turn it up and this one really fills the room in a satisfying way.

74. "My Bologna"
(Parody of "My Sharona" by The Knack; from "Weird Al" Yankovic, 1983)
When I was a kid, my Dad accused me of somehow adding in the belch myself. Hey, burping at will was a legit skill for a 10 year-old, Dad! The original song is one of those great pop anthems simply on the strength of how dumb and easy to enjoy it is (that's a compliment, I promise), but Al's version speeds it up and, of course, replaces the guitar lead with accordion to hilarious effect.

73. "Polkas on 45"
(Medley; from "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D, 1984)
The first of Al's polkas. It sounds a little thin, but only because Al doesn't have the fuller sound yet that he would use on later albums and polkas. I do love the bit where it slows down and he does a sort of lounge-y take on "Hot Blooded" and "Every Breath You Take." Here's the full list of songs used.

72. "Word Crimes"
(Parody of "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke featuring TI and Pharrell Williams; from Mandatory Fun, 2014)
It's so nice to get that music away from the misogyny of the original song... I have an English degree and I love language, so I enjoyed this one. It kind of sounds like a song an English teacher would use in a second grade class. But it came out into a world where little grammar martinets get off on correcting your grammar in the most attention-getting way all over the internet, so I maybe shouldn't have been surprised when the song sparked a small but intense debate on Tumblr about whether the song is supposed to be about grammar, or puncturing the attitude of people who want to correct your grammar in order to lord over you how much more conscientious they are about their spelling. (Or worse, the people who think typos only happen to dumb people and use that as a sign of their own intelligence.) Is Al parodying a tiresome attitude, or displaying it? Does it really matter? It kind of works either way. Certainly I've had people see a typo or a transposition and make fun of me, but I've also had people just point it out so that I can fix a potentially embarrassing error, one friend to another, doing me a solid. I guess it just depends on whether or not you're an asshole.

71. "It's All About the Pentiums"
(Parody of "It's All About the Benjamins (Rock Remix)" by Puff Daddy; from Running with Scissors, 1999)
Oh, 1999. The time of constant floods of AOL disc junk mail, when your company's IT guy thought he was the rock star of the office and dorky white guys treated processing power like it was the secret code to crack life itself. Huh, no wonder The Matrix was so popular. Call it the Dilbert Era. This song really takes me back to that weird, weird time. I don't have anything truly profound to say about it, but I do always love the way Al can make your average dork look like a guy who thinks he's a hotshot, something he'd do to much better effect in "White & Nerdy."

Until next time!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Muppet Monday

Well, I don't normally mean for this space to become a weekly round-up, but after last week's announcement that a new Muppet series is coming to TV (I'm guarded, but optimistic on that), there was a lot of other exciting stuff that happened when the Muppets came to YouTube LA.

It's easier to just link these, so here you go:

:: Miss Piggy's arrival.
:: Pepe taking charge.
:: 20 Facts About the Muppets.
:: Bunsen and Beaker explore the science of toothpaste.
:: That "Cool Kids" a cappella I posted last week.

And here's Josh Groban and Lindsey Stirling performing "Pure Imagination" with the Muppets and some pies in the face.

Still feeling Muppety? Some other stuff that came to my attention this week: Tough Pigs has rundowns of two episodes of The Cher Show that featured Muppet appearances; Mark Evanier has a video from a 1965 episode of The Tonight Show featuring two sketches (including "Inchworm"); and the unaired pilot from 1979 for The Orson Welles Show (thank you to Roger and to Garrett Gilchrist for this). This is a rough one; the Muppets don't come in until the 41-minute mark, but around 54 minutes Welles interviews Jim Henson and Frank Oz, too. It's weird show, and it's easy to see why it never aired. It's like an uncomfortable 75-minute version of that pea commercial recording session...

And hey, what the hell, my wife drew this last night:

Happy Muppet Monday!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Song of the Week: "Mama"

I really liked the Spice Girls. I just did. I don't know if I was just the right age to see through it, or if there really was this sort of cheery obviousness to the commercialism, but I liked that there wasn't a lot of effort that went into trying to hide or obscure that they were a product. I just enjoyed the product, plastic packaging and all.

Marvels: Strange Tales #121

It certainly wasn't my intention to take a--to the day--two-month break from this series, but now we're back.

"Prisoner of the Plantman!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(June 1964)

I thought Plantman was kind of a lame villain when he first appeared in the Jerry Siegel-scripted story in Strange Tales #113, but I have to say, I really love this new costume. It's somehow the lamest and most amazing thing I've ever seen. What a step up from his first appearance, when he just wore a trenchcoat, hat and mask. He's still just a guy who can control plants but can't come up with anything interesting for them to do, but theatricality goes a long way in super-villainy.

That's really all there is to say about this story; cute, but inessential.

Stray observations:

:: "One of the most fearsome foes the Torch has ever faced!" It wouldn't be Strange Tales if Stan wasn't breathlessly overselling it.

:: You know, I take back what I said about Plantman not coming up with anything for his plants to do.

I'm up for anything that's just generally making Johnny Storm's day a little bit worse.

:: I like that Plantman robs the hotel safe at the hotel across the street from Johnny's house. It's a nice change of pace from banks and jewelry stores.

:: So, the Human Torch's flame burns so hot that bullets melt before they can touch him, but he can get easily pelted with a bunch of acorns? Is that scientifically sound? I'm genuinely asking, I'm bad at science and I have no idea what the melting point of acorns might be and how relative it is to the melting point of lead.

:: More than any other Marvel Universe book right now, the Johnny Storm stories really do seem to be written for kids. Most of the banter during the Torch's big fight with Plantman is a series of "I'm gonna do this and finish you off!" "Nuh-uh, I'm gonna do this so you can't get me!" "I knew you'd do that, so I'm gonna do this!"

"Witchcraft in the Wax Museum!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

Another atmospheric Dr. Strange thriller. Baron Mordo tricks Dr. Strange into leaving his body in his ectoplasmic form, then hides Strange's body, knowing that if Strange isn't reunited with his physical form after 24 hours, the body will die and Strange's astral spirit will fade away into nothing. Good plan; it takes Strange over 23 hours just to find his body in a wax museum, only to find that Mordo has placed a spell on it so they two halves can't be made whole.

In the end, Dr. Strange has to take over a wax dummy and trick Mordo into taking his own ectoplasmic form, then feigning defeat before getting the upper hand, taking his body back and trapping Mordo outside of his body in turn. Strange, though, has vowed never to take a life, and reassures his enemy that the spell will only last 23 hours, giving him plenty of time to think about his misdeeds.

It continues to amaze me how good the Dr. Strange stories are. Stan & Steve show real artistry in such a short amount of space and with rather simple premises; it's like a masterclass in graphic storytelling. Marvel's just launched into one of their big events this week, and that always makes me long for the old days of compressed storytelling.

Stray notes:

:: Dr. Strange fights some really weird ectoplasmic allies of Mordo.

I want more and more of these kinds of weird things. I love this series.

:: Somewhat-related: wouldn't you rather see a Netflix series of Dr. Strange rather than a movie? I'd love to have the extra room to breathe here, to really create this mysterious world. And it seems to fit right in with some of the conflicts they set up in Daredevil which are obviously going to eventually tie into Iron Fist and probably the overall run up to The Defenders. Dr. Strange was a Defender, anyway...

Next Marvels (sooner than two months, that's for sure): the return of the Mandarin!