Friday, May 29, 2015

This Week in Neat-O

:: How Movie Studios Exploit Video on Demand Services

:: Tough Pigs took a tour of the new Sesame Street set.

:: ILM Celebrates 40 Years of Creating the Impossible. Just a neat, minute-long sizzle reel of some of Industrial Light & Magic's visual effects, posted by the company. The kind of thing I love to watch eight times in a row.

:: It’s Terrifying To Think That In 1,000 Years, All Of Us Will Be Forgotten Except For Me, an editorial by Bill Paxton.

:: The Honest Trailer for Armageddon nails it. But how the hell did I never think about Liv Tyler's real dad singing that song? The animal crackers scene just became 10,000x creepier!

:: I'm probably the only one, but the red-band trailer for American Ultra looks funny to me. I had no idea what it was about--I'll just see anything with Kristen Stewart in it, as you know--but I think the idea of a stoner take on The Bourne Identity is kind of hilarious. Here's hoping it's better than 30 Minutes or Less, anyway...

:: It's the end of an era: Rick Baker is retiring and he's having a big damn auction to celebrate. Boy, I'd love a Gremlin, but I will never have that kind of money. Also, it's happening right now! You can livestream it! Go! Go!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #56

"The Coming of the Magician!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(June 1964)

There's a tiny, incremental gain in the continuously delayed love story of Hank and Jan this ish: he's actually decided it's okay to be in love with Jan and has an engagement ring all loaded up and ready to go. (A flawless diamond with a full 58 facets.) Unfortunately, when he goes to ask Jan for her hand, he gets nervous, and she takes that as a sign that Hank just "never thinks of marriage," so she decides to make him jealous by announcing her plans to go out to a party being thrown by social register member Sterling Stuyvesant. She even says that she thinks Sterling might propose.

Does this make Hank jealous? Indeed! Does it work in her favor? Of course not! He throws the ring across the room after she leaves and curses himself for a fool for even thinking she'd be interested in marrying him. He does the typical man thing of assuming she must want someone wealthier, and decides to throw himself into his work.

Did Hank wait too long to assert his interest in her? Yeah, I think so. He spent a lot of time in denial about his feelings, pushing her away whenever she brought up the subject of being together. But I don't think her attempts to make him jealous have really spurred him on or emboldened him the way she seems to think they will. It's pretty stupid. I think Stan Lee has forgotten by this point, but Hank is a widower and he's older than her, and now we see that he feels like he might not be what she wants because "I'm just a scientific adventurer," so the jealousy approach is just all wrong.

I kind of like this new shade to Hank because I think it humanizes him a little more. He's never lacked for confidence; hell, sometimes he comes across as just massively egotistical. So it's nice to see him second-guessing himself in some way.

Well, Hank's reverie is not to last, as a new villain emerges: the Magician. Dressed in top hat and tails, complete with cane and highly twirlable mustache, he comes to Sterling's party and robs everyone (after hypnotizing them) and even kidnaps Jan after she changes into the Wasp. The Magician is the latest in a seemingly endless series of lame Ant-Man/Giant-Man villains. How lame? At one point he sets one of his bunny rabbits on Ant-Man, declaring "Nothing can outrun a highly trained rabbit!!" As a rabbit owner, I wonder what the hell a highly trained one is. I mean, Princess is litter-trained, sure, but I've also literally never been able to stop her from ripping up pieces of carpet, chewing through wires, or getting into grocery bags. I think if Ant-Man showed up, she'd run in the opposite direction. One time, she got freaked out and hid under the chair because I put my glasses on the floor for a second so I could rub my eyes while I was petting her. Jeez, she runs and hides if I do yoga in the living room! Anyway, this rabbit rushes off when Ant-Man changes into Giant-Man.

Cornering the Magician involves a typically elaborate (and page-filling) set-up, something Hank Pym has always needlessly specialized in: he fakes a fancy society yacht party, knowing that the Magician will show up. The Magician has an airship that he secretly flies around in (because it's the same color as the sky, apparently no one notices it), and he's keeping the Wasp prisoner in a glass case like Tinker Bell. Hank frees her and she deflates the airship, sending it into the harbor, but Hank is nowhere to be found.

"I've killed the only man I've ever loved!" she laments, until suddenly Ant-Man appears, gliding down to her on a paper airplane in what is admittedly a pretty cool moment. Stylish, for Anty.

So, I guess we're finally on the same playing field. Jan loves Hank, Hank loves Jan... do they get married now? I honestly have no idea when that happens, but I do know they're fighting Spider-Man in the next issue, so... curious to find out what happened to the engagement ring. It sounded pretty expensive.

Next Marvels: enter the Goblin!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Film Week

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

Roman Polanski's first feature film. It's like a masterclass in film technique; it's tight, controlled, and economical. Its premise--a couple pick up a young hitchhiker and take him sailing--uses interesting camera angles and confined spaces to create a visual representation of the generation gap and explore the psychology of male rivalry. There are some sinister undertones that make the film so taut, and a simmering sexual tension. I'm honestly not sure Polanski ever made a better movie than this one. ****

Yet another white people movie where the young guy can't move on with his life because he's not as happy as he was in college when he could do that douchey, self-centered, soul-searching thing that suburban kids mistake for being really, really interesting. Josh Radnor (who wrote and directed) plays an adult who goes back to his alma mater to celebrate the retirement of his favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) only to fall in love with a bright student (Elizabeth Olsen). They correspond and write these spectacularly pretentious letters to each other where, among other things, they congratulate themselves repeatedly on engaging in The Lost Art of Letter Writing. Then, of course, she wants to lose her virginity to him, because he's just so fucking fascinating, and this is the kind of movie where the older guy has to counsel her on why she shouldn't do that, because this is that kind of male fantasy movie. It's fitting that the guy who played Ted Mosby made this, because this is the kind of pretentious bullshit Ted Mosby was always fobbing off about. When you play it seriously, it's incredibly tedious and full of itself. **

I'm not going to rate this, but I wanted to mention that I saw this short educational film that tries to dissect what the hippies are and why they use drugs. It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen, because notable marijuana-user Robert Mitchum narrates the film and has to say that drugs aren't the answer. That's hilarious. How did this come about? Did he get caught with drugs and have to make this as part of a community service deal? I mean, this thing is like Peter O'Toole making an anti-drinking PSA.

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)
Well, it's at least a little less jingoistic than its predecessor, but it doesn't have that film's technical brilliance. It takes place more or less concurrently with the events of 300, showing us Themistocles and the Athenian navy as they fight the Persian navy, led by a Greek woman named Artemisia. I enjoy the bizarre fantasy movie take on history, but was I supposed to root for the Persians? It's just that Eva Green is so incredibly good in this movie. She gives this riveting, gonzo performance as a woman fueled by revenge who will fight and kill anyone she feels like in order to get it. The Greeks--typically in any movie ever--are freaking boring and have interchangeable personalities. In 300, Gerard Butler at least had a sense of humor; he didn't play it staid and serious, he played it for the fun, fattening corn that it was. The guy playing Themistocles is the exact opposite, creating a real personality vacuum at the film's ostensible center. This one doesn't hit the pulpy highs you want it to, but if you like over-the-top action flicks, Eva Green is a reason to see this once. **1/2

DJANGO (1966)
Can't believe I've never seen this before. Great spaghetti western with Franco Nero as an ex-Union soldier who walks into a border town dragging a coffin behind him, and walks down a path of revenge. Exactly the kind of rough, pulpy flick I wish more people did well. The equivalent of a beautiful war poem written on the back of a crumpled napkin. ***1/2

Nice documentary about voice actors. I have always loved hearing voice actors talk about what their work is like and how they discover the voices of characters. That kind of thing is endlessly fascinating to me, and it's nice to see them highlighted in this documentary produced by John DiMaggio. ***

I've established in the past that I like these movies. This was sort of a spin-off but tied into the original in a very surprising way. Some great twists, and definitely a change in mood. The best thing you can say about a horror film, I think, is that it's effective, and this certainly was. ***1/2

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ranking Al: #70-61

70. "The Check's in the Mail"
(Original; from "Weird Al" Yankovic, 1983)
Al is always so good at poking holes in sleazy, greedy, insincere people; I've always felt like this was a missing number from the movie version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Al parodies those slick businessmen who delay payments, weasel out of litigation, and avoid you when they're trying to get away with something. "Don't try to call me, I'll be in meeting every afternoon, for a year, maybe longer, keep in touch, thanks for dropping by and have a nice day." I love how it builds in its craziness; "Why don't you leave a message with my girl or have lunch with your machine?" You can almost feel the flop sweat. (Aside: boy, does anyone say "the check's in the mail" anymore, even when derisively describing that attitude?)

69. "Slime Creatures from Outer Space"
(Original; from Dare to Be Stupid, 1985)
This sounds like a 50s alien invasion sci-fi movie that never got made, and that's fantastic. I would've been so happy if this song had shown up in Mars Attacks! I especially love how understated some of the lyrics are: "They're not very nice to the human race." I also like the nostalgia I detect in the song, celebrating a genre that was mostly dismissed as kiddie fare. This is like a Joe Dante movie in all the right ways.

68. "Here's Johnny"
(Parody of "Who's Johnny" by El Debarge; from Polka Party!, 1986)
Al takes the hit single from Short Circuit and turns it into a celebratory ode to Ed McMahon. Much like "Midnight Star" and "Mr. Popeil," it's a celebration of the wonderful weirdness of our culture.

Aside 1: Have you ever really, really listened to "Who's Johnny"? Listen to the lyrics. That's not a cute song about a robot that gains self-awareness. There are some dark mind games going on in this song. The song's narrator knows his lover is cheating on him, but she's being coy about it, alternately throwing it in his face and acting like nothing's wrong. This is Emotional Abuse: The Song. Definitely did not notice that when I was 10.

Aside 2: This is my top song off of Polka Party!, which makes this the first album I've completed on this list. Wow. No song from Polka Party! will even be in the top 50! And at this point, this list is nearly impossible to make, because all of these songs are so great to me.

67. "Hooked on Polkas"
(Medley; from Dare to Be Stupid; 1985)
This is the first of Al's polkas I ever heard; in fact, Dare to Be Stupid is the first album (cassette) I ever bought with my own money (birthday money), and of course I was roundly teased by my dumbass, fun-hating peers for doing so. At their best, Al's polkas are a tour-de-force through a moment in the zeitgeist, with virtuoso accordion, capturing a time when we all liked a bunch of songs that we'll forget about in a year or two. Somehow, this one especially captures a time and place for me. Your mileage may very. (Here's the list of songs used.)

Note: I linked a live performance from 1985; every other video of it I could find was either "blocked in your country" or cut off the opening, which is some great accordion.

66. "Your Horoscope for Today"
(Original; from Running with Scissors, 1999)
A bunch of ridiculous horoscopes set to a spot-on version of third wave ska. Even a couple of members of Reel Big Fish play on this one. It's pleasant enough music, but kids, imagine what it's like to live in a world where every time you turned on the radio it just sounded like this. The lyrics are hilarious. I think my favorite of the horoscopes is "The stars predict tomorrow you'll wake up, do a bunch of stuff and then go back to sleep."

65. "Happy Birthday"
(Style parody of Tonio K.; from "Weird Al" Yankovic, 1983)
This song is exactly as cynical as I am, especially about my birthday. I don't know if that's exactly Al's point--although this is probably the closest he ever got to a genuinely snotty, sarcastic punk song--but I realize this song really reflects an attitude I've had about the world ever since... well, ever since junior high, I think. Also, a punk song with an accordion break is amazing.

64. "Livin' in the Fridge"
(Parody of "Livin' on the Edge" by Aerosmith; from Alapalooza, 1993)
There's rotten food in the refrigerator; Al's afraid to go in and just throw it out because it's so nasty. Yeah, I can relate. I think he explored the premise better here than he would later in "Trash Day," and with a better song, too. The scream is my favorite bit here.

63. "Twister"
(Style parody of The Beastie Boys; from Even Worse, 1988)
Short but sweet rap about the game Twister. Not much to say about it other than it's ridiculously funny and it doesn't overstay its welcome.

62. "Skipper Dan"
(Style parody of Weezer; from Alpocalypse, 2011)
An ode to a fine art major who dreamed of an acting career and now works as a guide on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland. This is a pretty poignant one for Weird Al; he obviously sympathizes with the song's narrator instead of making fun of him, and I like that. I think this would be painful if it were mean-spirited.

61. "Headline News"
(Parody of "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" by Crash Test Dummies; from Permanent Record: Al in the Box, 1994)
Boy, this song really dates me. This came out the fall after I had graduated high school in 1994, and comments on the media oversaturation of the Michael Fay, Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan, and Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt stories. That was a weird time; apparently we had nothing to worry about then, so we ended up talking a lot about these stories and exploited their personal lives. Just a few years later and they would have had reality TV specials. You guys can talk all you want today about how we make people famous for doing nothing, but I'll take a Kardashian or a Teen Mom any day, because they're easy to ignore and we don't have to pretend they're important news stories. Our society's always been pretty easily distracted.

Musically, the song feels like the culmination of Al's first era as a musician, a sort of celebration of the old and a bridge to the new. It's produced more like one of his older songs, with the accordion break and the sound effects and hand sounds, and its thematic lauding of our preoccupation with the bizarre. But at the same time, it sounds a little more cynical, a little more surprised that we're really wasting our time on some of this, as though the guy who gave us odes to Yoda and tabloids and the Pocket Fisherman even thinks we've gone too far. (When asked about the song, Al quipped "I wanted to write a song about these people because I don't think they're getting quite enough media attention.") The music video continues this feeling, with its sort of old-fashioned sideshow vibe (parodying the original Crash Test Dummies video) and its cameos. When was the last time you thought about Doug Llewelyn? You're welcome.

Until next time.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Song of the Week: "Androgynous"

Miley Cyrus is doing a series of videos called The Backyard Sessions to promote her Happy Hippie Foundation, an online digital support for LGBT youth and homeless teens. There's a whole playlist, and they're all exactly the kind of music I like to spend time with, but this is my favorite one so far: Miley, Laura Jane Grace and the great Joan Jett covering the Replacements' "Androgynous."