Friday, October 18, 2013

80s Revisited: Predator

Predator (1987)
Directed by John McTiernan; written by Jim Thomas & John Thomas; produced by Lawrence Gordon, Joel Silver and Jon Davis.

Sometimes it's weird to me to think just how violent the movies were that kids were into when I was a kid. In the 80s, we didn't really have superhero movies; we had The Terminator, Aliens, RoboCop and Predator. (You know, the Dark Horse Comics lineup.) I saw this movie when it first came out on video, when I was 11 or 12 and Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest stars in the world.

This is a nifty little movie: clear plot, progresses forward briskly, has occasional character development (and distinct characters), and is surprisingly lean. One of the big criticisms of this movie is that the plot is thin, but I think of it as a lean plot: it's a simple chase picture, but it's a fun flick. What it delivers is pretty much exactly what it offers, and while that may not elevate it into a classic (at least not for me), it's by no means a bad movie.

What I thought about a lot this time is how much of a science fiction version of Vietnam this one is. I know, it's super-obvious, but I was a kid back then, and even with the flood of serious movies about Vietnam at the time (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket) and wish-fulfillment fantasies about going back and winning Vietnam (Rambo: First Blood Part II) and even a cartoon and comic book heavily influenced by Vietnam (G.I. Joe), it just didn't occur to me that this is sort of a microcosm of the American experience in Vietnam: soldiers go into the jungle, but their faith in their superior military prowess doesn't stop them from getting murdered one by one by an enemy that knows their way around better than we do. To add insult to injury here, it's one creature with more advanced technology and a better concept of stealth. It's an alien here (and a great Stan Winston creation at that), but you could seriously take the alien out and just make it someone with better weapons and it would be almost the same movie.

(Roger Ebert, by the way, criticized this movie because he didn't believe that an alien race with advanced technology would go to all the trouble of sending one person here just to hunt Arnold Schwarzenegger in the jungle. I think Ebert subscribed to the notion that any race that becomes advanced enough to travel in outer space must have left its baser aggressions and worst instincts behind. But I think there's real stock in science fiction plots that feature a species that has advanced that far and has awesome technology and uses it simply to give in to its worst instincts. I mean, we have the power to traverse the globe and to create powerful weapons and sometimes we use these marvels just to go shoot elephants in the face. It's that kind of universe sometimes.)

(Also, in a completely different aside: this is the kind of G.I. Joe movie I've always wanted to see. Just watching it again last night, it came flooding back to me how much this reminded me of reading the G.I. Joe comic book: a bunch of Vietnam vets having a hard military battle with ninjas and science fiction elements. Of course, because it's based on a toy, they'd never make a G.I. Joe movie that violent or adult, but come on, does anyone under the age of 30 even care? Jeez, Hasbro, you were the one who wanted to make a toy line about Vietnam vets and ninjas fighting terrorists.)

I liked this one; it's a solid action flick with a great creature and a terrific cast for this kind of movie. Carl Weathers is never not awesome, and Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham are certified badasses. I saw Sven Thorsen in an uncredited role, and that always makes me smile. I remembered a lot of the classic lines, of course, because this movie has a few of them. There's not a ton to say about it, it's just fun if you like this kind of thing.

The only problem I have with this movie: the score. It's over-scored. Alan Silvestri is doing that variation on the Back to the Future score that he did pretty much all the way through the 80s, and it tries too hard to give the illusion of movement. It's like someone saw this in editing and thought the movie was just too slow, so it needed a score that was constantly on the move, tricking you into thinking that it's just constant action. It's distracting, honestly, and it doesn't allow the suspense to build the way it should. It's a move that betrays a lack of confidence. Frankly, the movie doesn't need it; it would work fine with a softer score that just punched up some of the action scenes. There are entire conversations that would work better with silence or the sounds of the jungle in the background.

Other than that, terrific movie.

New Muppets Holiday Special!

I'd heard the rumors, but now it's been confirmed that ABC will air a new Muppets special on Thanksgiving night, 28 November, called Lady Gaga & the Muppets' Holiday Spectacular. I'm extremely excited for anything featuring the Muppets, and even the news that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is going to be on it can't dull that excitement for a couple of specific reasons. One: more Muppets. Two: I've seen promo pics, and Pepe the King Prawn is in it, which I was getting a little worried about given his tiny cameo in The Muppets. Three, the Swedish Chef, Animal and Beaker are definitely performing "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bells." Four, RuPaul is appearing. Five, there's going to be a special preview for Muppets Most Wanted. And six, KRISTEN BELL IS GOING TO BE IN A SKETCH.

So, not just Muppets, but Kristen Bell and Muppets.

Kristen Bell.

And Muppets.

Kristen Bell with Muppets.

It's things like this that make it hard not to believe in an ordered universe. Something's listening to me.

Damn, I'm so excited to see anything with the Muppets, and a holiday special is just the kind of thing they're great at. The wait for Muppets Most Wanted is killing me a bit, so here's something to look forward to!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Marvels: Journey Into Mystery #89

"The Thunder God and the Thug!" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(February 1963)

This has to be Thor's most filler-y story yet. Even within the story there are pieces of filler, because the story is so slight that it can't stand without a few pages (and this whole thing is only 13 pages long) of additional material.

The main story is basically this: Mob boss Thug Thatcher is being led to prison for selling substandard steel, but his men rescue him, resulting in a gun battle in broad daylight. Thug is hit with a bullet right outside of Donald Blake's office, so Thug's men kidnap the doctor and take him for a ride to perform impromptu surgery on Thug. Then Don changes to Thor, chases Thug for a while, saves Jane Foster from him when he tries to use her as a hostage, and then chases him up a building that's being constructed. Thug threatens to knock a bucket of hot rivets on the crowd below unless Thor stops chasing him (because heaven forfend these NYC lookie-loos just get their asses out of the way). Thor agrees, but Thug is a victim of his own substandard steel when the building frame collapses. Thor catches him, and it's back to prison for Thug Thatcher.

So, besides how uninteresting the story would normally be for Thor tangling with commies or gangsters, there are a lot of weird, added asides. For example, the story opens with Thor returning from some great feat or other, but he can't go back into Blake's office because the crowd is watching. What's an Asgardian to do? Well, Thor heads into a closed dress shop, uses material lying around to dress the mannequin as Thor, and then throws it miles away so people will think Thor's flying off and won't suspect he and Donald Blake are the same person. There's also a retelling of Thor's origin (I guess technically of Donald Blake-as-Thor's origin, I'm still not a hundred percent sure how they share the body, really--they're the same person but not really... Captain Marvel is so much easier, there it's just magic powers). And then there's this bizarre aside:

Jane's domestic fantasies of Thor are kind of hilarious in an Archie Comics kind of way, but also sort of weirdly insulting. I mean, this is what Larry Lieber thinks a woman would fantasize about when it comes to Thor? Serving him and looking after him? I don't know, maybe I'm jaded by Tumblr, because over there when women talk about wanting to polish Thor's hammer they usually mean something completely different.

One of my biggest problems with a lot of these early Marvels is that where Stan Lee is at least trying to turn Sue Storm into a three-dimensional character in Fantastic Four and trying to find Betty Ross's character in The Incredible Hulk, Larry Lieber is over here writing Jane Foster as "The Girl" in the Thor stories, and doing it with basically a third-grader's understanding of how girls think. And to be fair to Larry, some of the writers that will be populating the bullpen soon aren't even going to go with that level of nuance!

I'm also a little uncomfortable with the ending, where Thor asks Odin to help him out by taking Thug's girl Ruby and completely wiping out all of her memories of Thug Thatcher. Because it's not her fault that Thug was a nogoodnik and now she'll be free to find someone else to love and all of that. That's not how a person achieves personal growth, Thor. I mean, I know you think you're doing something to help, but it's maybe not so good that you think a light magical brainwashing is something helpful for women. Just saying. I mean, I'm no feminist scholar, but I feel like there's an ethical issue here. Don't make me get into a whole privilege discussion over a not-that-great story.

Next time: the return of the Wizard could be cool.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Superman 75th Anniversary

I know everyone's posting it (and I know people are complaining about the inclusion of the maligned Man of Steel movie, I'm already bored by it), but of course I had to have this great short up here. I love this. This is from Bruce Timm and Zack Snyder. I hope a day comes when Superman is fun again.

Film Week

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

Excellent, gripping Egyptian film about a lame young man who sells newspapers in a train station. He's obsessed with a beautiful cold drink vendor (the stunning Hind Rostom). She's engaged and selling drinks illegally; he's fallen in love with her boisterous, carefree spirit, and is desperate to take her away. Her fiance is a luggage porter attempting to unionize his co-workers. There's a lot of tension at this train station, and that tension comes to a head in the most desperate way. A masterful film that I'd never even heard of before last week. ****

Melodramatic film about white slave trafficking. Meant to be a shocker, but other than its desire to expose a very real problem, it's not that involving. ***

DOG SHOW (2013)
A couple more new Mickey Mouse shorts, one featuring a zombie Goofy. As always, ****. These are wonderful.

Powerful Luis Bunuel film about children trapped in the cycle of desperation and poverty in Mexico City. There are a number of surreal shots and sequences, but Bunuel counters those moments with a truly visceral social realism and moments of idealism that are sadly overpowered by harsh reality. Excellent stuff. ****

The story of how the fashion house weathered the murder of Gianni Versace, with particular investment in the downward spiral of Donatella (Gina Gershon). Not as full-blooded as I wish it had been (it has that breezy, TV movie slickness I'm all too used to from Lifetime), but I like the approach: instead of focusing only on Donatella's drug addiction and how she pushes the people around her, it focuses largely on what can happen to a family after a sudden, tragic death forever alters the family dynamic. Gershon is actually quite good; it's not as over-the-top as the ads make it seem, but with a little more grounded an approach, it could have really been something more. Colm Feore is also quite good as Santo Versace. ***

Wow, that little girl from Charles in Charge that isn't Nicole Eggert has had a surprising amount of work done. Potentially interesting Lifetime flick about a teacher carrying on a sexual affair with her student that either needs to be much more hilariously lurid or much more of a thriller. But it's... sure there, I guess. **

HALLOWEEN: Peanuts, 1966

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #11

"A Visit with the Fantastic Four" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(February 1963)

This is the first time there's ever been two stories in an issue of Fantastic Four. Though the cover promises an adventure with the Impossible Man, the issue actually starts with a kind of neat, offbeat story directly aimed at the reader who can't get enough of the FF and wants to know more about these strange characters.

Stan and Jack have really done a great job of establishing Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben as celebrities in their own universe. They're mobbed by fans and autograph-seekers, honored by the UN, and even have a comic book about them by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby!

The story begins, meta-style, with a line outside the newsstand of people waiting to buy the new issue of Fantastic Four. Kids play as the characters on the street, and when the FF walk by in their street clothes, they provide the kids with demonstrations of their powers. We also get the first appearance of Willie Lumpkin, the amiable old mailman, bringing the FF another round of fan mail. (If there's one thing I actually liked about that mess of a Fantastic Four movie, it was Stan's cameo as Willie Lumpkin.)

We also see here how the FF have their own private elevator to take them up to the top floors of the Baxter Building. Their belts have an electric signal that activates the elevator only for them. I still don't know who else would want to work out of that building, though, since we've already seen Doctor Doom lift it into the air on two separate occasions (once all the way into outer space).

The stuff with the fan mail is fun. I mean, they're not having organic conversations, it's all fan service, but it's also a neat nods to a burgeoning fandom. We learn about how Ben and Reed met--college roommates, where Reed was a brilliant science student and Ben was a football star. Then the two both served in World War II, Ben flying for the Marines over Okinawa and Guadalcanal, and Reed working behind the lines with the French Resistance as an OSS operative. Sue was the girl next door that Reed dreamed of marrying (a scene which allows Sue to remind the reader that, in the words of Reed, "there's still the shadow of Sub-Mariner between us").

There's the inevitable recap of the origin, of course, and there's also a bit where Reed uses a cream to (temporarily, again) turn the Thing back into Ben Grimm. And there's also the first Yancy Street Gang prank.

Classic. Already graduating from that harassing letter they sent him in #6.

The big emotional turning point in this is when Sue reveals that she's been sent letters telling her that she contributes nothing to the team and that she shouldn't be a member of the Fantastic Four, echoing a number of sentiments in the letters column. Here, Stan has an angry Reed directly remind the reader of Sue's part in defeating the Skrulls and the time she saved them from Doctor Doom's airless chamber. I don't know if I'm a fan of Reed comparing her to Abraham Lincoln's mother, though...

Stan took the letters seriously, and it seems to have bothered him that there were fans who didn't think Sue rounded out the team the way he did, and though the real solution would be giving her more to do--and putting her in situations where only her abilities can help them--his impassioned defense reveals how much he thinks this character is integral to the book. He just needs to start showing us through the stories.

In the end, the characters celebrate Sue's birthday with a surprise party, and Willie Lumpkin shows up with even more mail.

It's a fun few pages aimed at you, the reader, the FF fanatic, and it's a cute way to do it. I wouldn't want to see it in every issue, but there's a fandom building up here, and it's nice to see Stan and Jack taking some time out to celebrate it.

:: One stray observation: Willie Lumpkin was the star of a briefly-syndicated comic strip called Willie Lumpkin that Stan did with Dan DeCarlo in 1960. I just love that Stan threw him in there. (Did you ever read any of the My Friend Irma strips those two did together? That stuff always makes me laugh.)

"The Impossible Man!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers

This main story is a slight tale about the Impossible Man from Planet Poppup, who takes a vacation to Earth and ends up wreaking havoc on the place. There's not much more to it. Stan and Jack seem to have challenged themselves to create a character who could conceivably defeat the Fantastic Four, but decided not to make him intentionally malicious. Instead, the Impossible Man is more like a cartoon; he's just having a gas. He's on vacation, comes from a race of people who can turn themselves into anything they can think of, loves rattling the squares, and eats attention like it's candy. He's just having a good time, narc. He's... well, he's Bugs Bunny.

It's such a slight, brief story that there's no need for a play by play. The FF simply can't defeat him, but Reed realizes that the best way to cut off someone who needs attention more than they need air in their lungs is to simply not give it to them. Somehow he gets basically everyone in the world to stop paying attention or even taking notice of the Impossible Man, so the Impossible Man gets bored and leaves the Earth.

There's not much more to it than that. I thought it was funny. Like a little cartoon adventure.

Stray observations:

:: For reasons I can't quite define, I pictured the Impossible Man with an over-the-top voice provided by Jonathan Harris.

:: The fan reaction to the Impossible Man was so negative that the character didn't appear again until 1976. Even then, Stan--who, as I said, took the letters seriously--remembered the fan hatred so well that Roy Thomas had to convince him that it was okay to have the character show up (in an issue loaded with Galactus and the High Evolutionary at that!).

:: Regarding the letters page: I'm with Larry Tucker of Wichita Falls, who points out that Sue Storm has been captured four times and "would make a better action character than a hostage." Stan identifies the characters' ages: Reed and Ben in their late thirties, Sue in her twenties, and Johnny just 17. This runs counter to the way they cast every movie now. Have you seen the shortlist for the casting for the new reboot movie? Seems like they don't want anyone to be older than 24, which kind of takes away from the gravitas of the characters to me. There's also a letter from the "Save the Torch" campaign begging Stan not to kill off the Human Torch (which takes Stan by surprise) and a letter from Sherman Howard who I assume is not Sherman Howard the Star Trek actor, but how cool would that be?

All in all, not an essential issue, but lots of fun and lots of stuff for the fans. Even now in 2013, reading it is sort of like being in a private club of FF and Marvel fans. The enthusiasm for this sort of partnership between reader and creators is still infectious and inclusive. Anyone who loves comics is welcome. No Dan DiDios, Jim Lees and Geoff Johnses telling you what you want here.

Next time: Donald Blake, Mob Doctor.

Monday, October 14, 2013

HALLOWEEN: Verizon Commercial 2013

I realize I'm not sharing much Halloween stuff this year, but I had to sing the praises of this Verizon commercial. Not only is it a Halloween commercial, it's a Star Wars Halloween commercial! That just makes me exceedingly happy. I'm sure I'm just remembering this through the prism of being a kid, but I feel like there used to be more Halloween-themed commercials. I don't see many anymore--instead I see commercials with hipsters enjoying pumpkin spiced everything. And that's cool; I'm sure some people love having their donuts and coffee taste like Yankee Candles. But I also like to see the costumes and the trick-or-treating and the suburbs and the Halloween I loved as a kid. This commercial brought it all back and did it with a Star Wars flourish. I dig this. This is a commercial I'll stop forwarding on the DVR for. It's cute.

That baby-carrier alone is amazing.

This Season on Castle

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Song of the Week: "My Mistake (Was to Love You)"

This song's just making me feel good this morning. Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, 1973.