Friday, June 12, 2015

This Week in Neat-O

:: My favorite of Disney Junior's Muppet Moments so far. Very cute.

:: Speaking of Muppets, here's Cookie Monster in another Crumby Pictures parody: Jurassic Cookie.

:: An oral history of one of my all time favorite movies, The Right Stuff.

:: A Complete Guide To The Mythical History Of Westeros

:: Why Franklin Richards Is The Most Ridiculous Character In All Of Comics

:: I haven't seen Tomorrowland, and I'm not sure if I'm even interested at this point, but when I do see it, it will probably be long after it's been on DVD. io9 has an interesting article (spoilers if you're being careful) about the film's supposed optimism.

:: The trailer for The Martian. I have mixed feelings about it. I read the book a second time, and it actually reads as much more exciting if you skip over all of the stuff that doesn't take place on Mars until the action climax. It's much more remote, much more a story of survival, if you don't have all of this stuff going on outside of it that breaks up the tension. It's the same in this trailer; all of the stuff with Matt Damon on Mars is fascinating and exciting, and all of the stuff with Jessica Chastain or on Earth is dull with people staring off, feeling the precious importance of the plot and their place in it, and I'm just not into that.

:: Teasers for Disney's Zootopia (which is super-obnoxious) and Pixar's The Good Dinosaur. I once thought I'd never get tired of Disney and Pixar, but that certainly did not prove to be the case.

:: Undecided on The Man from UNCLE, though I'll probably watch it when it comes on HBO. Some of the vibe I'm getting off it is reminding me a little too much of Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman as poor excuses for The Avengers. (Plus, I found Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes tedious.)

:: Lego Jurassic World is finally here, and Lego Avengers is coming! I need money!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Christopher Lee 1922-2015

It was very sad to find out this morning that Sir Christopher Lee, my favorite actor, has died. I knew he couldn't live forever. I've just never been entirely okay with that.

My love for Christopher Lee goes back to when I was six years old and went to see The Last Unicorn with my Mom and sister. That was one of those great movies that scared me as much as it delighted me, so it shocked its way into my consciousness for the rest of my life (and it's been one of my favorite movies ever since). I was afraid of the Harpy and the Red Bull, yes, but I was fascinated by old King Haggard. Being so young, and it being an animated movie, I didn't realize for some time that the mellifluous voice acting those self-interested, sad lines in such a wistful way was Lee's. But that's where he made his first impression.

Over the years, I didn't really see him in much, except for his wonderfully mad turn in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, another of my all time favorites. I honestly think the only movies I saw him in when I entered my Film Buff Phase in high school were The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and 1941. I didn't ever see any Hammer movies until I was about 20 and Becca and I just started seeing as many of them as we could. I loved him immediately, particularly in The Mummy, and from there I just started seeing movies simply because Lee was in them. And he's been in so many movies I've loved: The Crimson Pirate, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles, She, Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Devil Rides Out, and, of course, especially The Wicker Man and his turn as Mr. Midnight in the musical The Return of Captain Invincible. And of course the Hammer Dracula movies. (My favorite, besides the first one, is Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.) He's the only thing I love about one of the worst Bond movies, The Man with the Golden Gun.

I loved to watch him act. I loved to hear him sing. I have his first album, and the Tolkien Ensemble album he appears on. I was so excited in the early part of this century to be able to see him on the screen nearly every year for a couple of years in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies, in addition to others, and most recently in the Hobbit movies. I've read his autobiography three times. His real life--particularly his experiences in World War II--was as exciting as any movie he was in. This man has been such a constant of my adulthood and the entertainment I consume, and now there'll never be anything new.

But he lived to be 93 and he kept working until he died. And that's amazing. He's left behind a body of work that will delight me the rest of my life. There are movies he's made that I've yet to see. Sir Christopher Lee was in movies for decades; he made movies for two decades before I was even born, and I still got to see him in new movies in a movie theater when I was in my twenties and thirties. It's been such a privilege to have.

I wish I was as vital at 38 as Christopher Lee was in his 80s and 90s.

You're one of my heroes, sir. Thank you for all of it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Film Week

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

It's surprising today to see a movie involving the Afghanistan War that's not so jingoistic. It's a character piece, but it's still very much a comment on the cost of war. Michelle Monaghan stars as a field medic who returns home from her tour of duty, only to find that the bond between her and her five year-old son doesn't exist anymore. She finds it hard to acclimate herself once again to a civilian life, and harder still to open up to anyone about it, and finds herself trying to force things. (It's hard for me to watch her lose her patience, especially with her son, because it reminds me both of my own problems with patience, of my mother, who was similarly impatient with me when I was five.) It's a compelling movie, and Michelle Monaghan gives probably her best performance in it. ****

Netflix recommended this Nicholas Sparks movie after I finished Fort Bliss, I guess because it also stars Michelle Monaghan. One day I'll probably make it all the way through a Nicholas Sparks movie, but Saturday was not that day. Since this one packs almost every romantic drama cliche into its first 15 minutes, I don't feel like I gave up before any surprising twists. *

The fourth film directed by Tommy Lee Jones, but only the second that I've seen. Hilary Swank stars as a woman living on the frontier in the 1850s Midwest, a spinster active in her farming community. She takes on the job of transporting three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) who have gone insane to a church back east. To help her, she recruits a man who is about to be lynched for claim jumping (Jones), and most of the film deals with their hard eastward journey. The movie is totally unsparing about the harshness and difficulty of the journey and of the time period, and none of the characters are either completely idealized or completely demonized. Swank and Jones in particular offer complex portrayals of people who are by turns hopeful, pragmatic, opportunistic, and desperate. It is haunting, at times uncomfortable, and totally unsentimental in its depiction, particularly in its depiction of the pressures women were put through in this time. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography gives us a horizontal, endless frontier, an unforgivingly bleak backdrop that has no reassuring illusions about the Old West. I realize I've made it sound tedious and hellish, but I could not look away from this movie. ***1/2

V/H/S (2012)
A found-footage horror anthology with the conceit that all of the footage exists on VHS tapes. The various filmmakers have different levels of fun with the format. It shouldn't really work, I think, but it does. I think it probably helps watching it on a TV at home; if you look at some of the reviews, a lot of the negative ones call it unwatchable because of its shaky home video quality. But it delivers exactly what it promises, and most of it works. I know my wife was creeped out by it for days after. ***

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #14

"The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(July 1964)

The first appearance of the Green Goblin, Spidey's second-best enemy (yeah, I said it, as I've said it before), does not disappoint. In fact, it's packed pretty full, so let's just get to the thing and run through it.

So, we start with Green Goblin, who is unusual among Spider-Man's villains in that we don't actually know who he is. One of the things I dig about The Amazing Spider-Man is that it's kind of a horror comic, and his villains have mainly been people who were transformed by a scientific accident into some kind of monster, the same way Peter Parker was transformed into Spider-Man. We saw, way back in Amazing Fantasy #15, how that kind of sudden surge of power can go to someone's head and turn them into an arrogant creep. Spider-Man's heroism comes from choosing instead to wield his power responsibly rather than for his own gain. In fact, when he does try to use it for his own gain, it never works out... this issue is in that same tradition.

But Spider-Man's villains are often villains because they use their powers for selfish reasons, or to hurt people, or oftentimes just to try to kill Spider-Man. But we're usually privy to their origin stories. When we first see Green Goblin--right away, actually, because Stan's just that excited to get to his new creation--he's in the shadows, but not in his costume. But in the second panel, he's wearing that iconic costume and riding his flying broomstick, all set up and ready to embark on a life of crime. So, obviously, even if you knew nothing else about the Goblin, it's obvious Stan and Steve are setting his identity up to be a big mystery.

Green Goblin's first task it to hire the Enforcers, whom you may recall are not exactly my favorite Spidey villains. Nonetheless, Ox, Montana and Fancy Dan probably are fresh out of jail and looking for some revenge. His muscle secured, Goblin heads off to Hollywood to get in contact with movie producer BJ Cosmos, who is looking for a scary film to follow up his hit The Nameless Thing from the Black Lagoon in the Murky Swamp. BJ Cosmos is an amazing character whom I could only hear in the voice of Roger C. Carmel's Harcourt Fenton Mudd.

When the Green Goblin literally flies in his window telling him that a movie about Spider-Man would be (not in these words, sadly) boffo socko box office, Cosmos immediately envisions dancing girls and Tony Curtis starring as Spider-Man. "Or maybe one of the Beatles!" But Goblin promises to deliver the real Spider-Man, and has Cosmos fly to New York to hear him out.

It doesn't take long for Spider-Man and Green Goblin to meet, and they don't even fight. Goblin just tells him to go to the Ritz Plaza Hotel and meet BJ Cosmos, and Spidey suspects it's a trick but it more or less just like "Yeah, okay, why not?" Cosmos offers Spidey $50,000 to star in a movie where he fights the Green Goblin and the Enforcers. Spidey agrees as long as there are no interviews, no publicity, no visitors on set, and "no phony romance build-ups with starlets!" Cosmos agrees; "but you'll break a million Hollywood hearts!" Consumed by the thought of what $50,000 could do for Aunt May, Spider-Man signs his contract.

Peter gets a lucky break when J. Jonah Jameson sends him to Hollywood to get exclusive photos, but Betty Brant sure isn't happy about it (nor about the attention Liz Allan has been giving him, she adds). In true Marvel girlfriend fashion, she angrily assumes Peter can't wait to go meet Hollywood starlets. And Aunt May actually sheds a tear over Peter leaving, since he's so fragile and all, but lets him go with a rather begrudging, guilt-tinted "I suppose I can't keep you tied to my apron strings forever!" Has anyone ever really talked about how passive-aggressive Aunt May can be sometimes?

Well, we get out to the California desert to shoot the movie, and of course Spider-Man's walked headlong into a trap, and of course the Enforcers immediately attack him, and of course his Spidey- Sense didn't warn him at all that he was being ambushed. That thing is so damn selective.

Even though it's the Enforcers and I still think they're lame, the fight scene that follows is impressive. Steve Ditko is really flexing his muscles on this one, going for larger panels but always keeping the action clear. It's so exciting watching his skill level rise and rise. Spider-Man's distinctive poses and body language get better and better. The Enforcers are just as hard to fight as they were back in Amazing Spider-Man #10 when they all attack at once, but this time Green Goblin is flying above the action and throwing stun grenades at Spidey. In desperation, Spider-Man uses his webbing to kick up a cloud of dust, using its cover to take shelter in a nearby cave.

Goblin and the Enforcers follow Spider-Man into the cave and roll a gigantic boulder over the cave mouth, trapping them all inside together, but it actually works to Spider-Man's advantage, as he starts picking them off one by one. But the Goblin's stun grenades are really noisy, and that noise awakens... well...

Yes, it's the Hulk, who has been unseen since Avengers #5. This is the first time these two have ever met, and thought Spidey at least tries to reason with the Hulk about what's happening (something neither the Avengers nor the Fantastic Four have ever taken the time to do), Hulk's been burned too many times before and refuses to listen, attacking Spider-Man in his rage.

I guess things were getting too easy in that cave, because now we've got another of those fight scenes where Spider-Man is easily outmatched. The Hulk is simply too powerful and too resilient--at one point, Spidey just punches Hulk right in the face and nearly breaks his own hand--and Hulk can rip through Spidey's webbing like paper. For all of Spider-Man's talk about having the proportionate strength of a spider, he's just marking time until the Hulk finally finishes him. Spider-Man, luckily, is actually faster than the Hulk, but his real advantage is that's smarter. Thinking fast, he uses the Hulk's strength against him, maneuvering the jade giant so that he smashes the boulder that was covering the cave mouth, allowing Spidey to make a hasty escape. He takes one last swing at the Green Goblin before hiding from the Hulk and leaving the Enforcers for the cops.

With the film in ruins, BJ Cosmos instead is excited about trying to get the Hulk to star in his movie, instead, with a hundred dancing girls and Doris Day singing the theme song to The Honey and the Hulk!

As for Peter's $50,000? Sorry, kid. Read your contract next time.

Enjoy your bus ride back to New York, ya bum.

And what of the Green Goblin? He, too, returns to New York City, where he takes of the costume, hiding from the reader in the shadows. He had planned to get Spider-Man out of the way and then set up a worldwide crime syndicate with himself at the top. Now it's time to wait for another opportunity, as he promises us, "the world hasn't heard the last of... The Green Goblin!!"

Stray observations:

:: I've always loved how many of Green Goblin's "powers" are basically Halloween pranks. He's not using pumpkin bombs yet, but he can shoot sparks out of his fingers, which seems more irritating than threatening. It looks like he's just probably got one of those friction dealies like on those old toy spark guns.

:: At school, Liz Allan is still fawning all over Peter, and is worried while he's gone that he hasn't written to his classmates. (Liz, you all treat him like garbage, why the hell would he write?) Flash Thompson, still on the outs with Liz, is pretty angry that Peter's making time with Liz--which he isn't, really, as Betty's still his main squeeze--threatens Peter to back off, leading Peter to taunt "You've got about as much chance with her as Khrushchev has with J. Edgar Hoover!!"

:: Liz goes further when she's alone arguing with Flash and calls Peter "a dreamboat! He's sensitive, intelligent, and articulate!"

:: During their fight, Hulk says to Spider-Man "You think I'm a brainless fool! If only you knew the truth!" Peter finds it intriguing, but is too busy to follow up. I have no idea who the first of the superheroes is to discover the Hulk's real identity, but I'm curious to see who it will be. Reed Richards, probably. Guy's a genius.

:: I like that Steve Ditko doesn't give the Green Goblin an expressive face. Mostly the Goblin's expression is a matter of the angle or the amount of shadows he's in, and I really, really like that. It makes him a little scary. I remember when Sam Raimi's movie came out with the Green Goblin wearing the helmet and so many fanboys crying into their sweaty palms about how they didn't like having a Goblin whose face never moved and thinking, uh, you know that's still just a rubber Halloween mask he's wearing, not elaborate makeup and prosthetics, right?

A fine, fine issue of The Amazing Spider-Man; lots of fun and excitement, doesn't take itself too seriously, introduces a wonderful new villain, and it has the Hulk. Can't wait for next time!

But first, since my scheduling on these has been erratic, I missed a milestone. This is my 152nd Marvels post, which means Tales of Suspense #54 was my 150th! So, then, here are my 20 favorite stories from the last 50 issues we discussed (not counting this one because numbers.)

1. "The Hulk vs. the Thing" (Fantastic Four #25)
2. "Captain America Joins... the Avengers!" (Avengers #4)
3. "Unmasked by Doctor Octopus!" (Amazing Spider-Man #12)
4. "Turning Point" (Amazing Spider-Man #11)
5. "The Avengers Take Over!" (Fantastic Four #26)
6. "The Invasion of the Lava Men!" (Avengers #5)
7. "The Avengers Meet Sub-Mariner" (Avengers #3)
8. "The Search for Sub-Mariner!" (Fantastic Four #27)
9. "The Man Called Electro!" (Amazing Spider-Man #9)
10. "The Master Plan of Doctor Doom!" (Fantastic Four #23)
11. "The Fangs of the Desert Fox!" (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #6)
12. "The Return of the Mole Man!" (Fantastic Four #22)
13. "The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants!" (X-Men #4)
14. "At the Mercy of Baron Strucker" (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #5)
15. "The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain" (Amazing Spider-Man #8)
16. "Return to the Nightmare World!" (Strange Tales #116)
17. "Trapped: One X-Man" (X-Men #5)
18. "Beyond the Purple Veil!" (Strange Tales #119)
19. "Giants Walk the Earth" (Journey Into Mystery #104)
20. "The Origin of Daredevil" (Daredevil #1)

Eventually, I'll combine these. Probably after another fifty. I'll do a top 50 of the first 200 or something. I don't know. Is anyone even on this journey with me anymore?

Next Marvels: Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil!

Monday, June 08, 2015

Muppet Monday

This is a real treat: the 1962 pilot Tales of the Tinkerdee, which didn't sell and never aired on television, but which has thankfully survived the years.

After Sam and Friends ended, Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl wrote this pilot for a series of cracked fairy tales, hosted by Kermit. (Kermit still wasn't technically a frog yet, although he gained his collar here; it's not a neck frill, but actually part of his minstrel costume.) No one was buying, unfortunately, but you can really look at this thing both as the culmination of everything Jim learned doing Sam and Friends as well as the beginning of the style Jim and Jerry would later use in their Muppet fairy tale specials like Hey, Cinderella! In a lot of ways, this is like a shorter version of that special and The Frog Prince.

Two great Muppet characters make their first appearances here: King Goshposh, the thick-headed king, performed by Jim Henson, and the witch Taminella Grinderfall, played by Jerry Juhl as something of a Muppet version of Zero Mostel. This special is wonderful, but Taminella's the best reason to watch: to this point in history, 1962, Taminella is the best Muppet character and the best Muppet performance, and Jim Henson felt the same way. It's also incredibly fun to watch Jerry as Taminella play off of Jim as Charlie the Ogre, appearing on camera (though his face is never visible). They're a sensational double act; Jim is only 26, Jerry is 24, and this is only their second year working together, but they already know what kind of comedy they want and are more than capable of getting it. And they make the most of some pretty good-looking puppets and a very low budget.

I hope you get a chance to watch this.

A couple of other things of note: the Palace Guard is actually Yorick from Sam and Friends in a suit of armor; and the Prime Minister (making his only appearance) has the same color scheme Scooter would later have.

After this, Jerry Juhl would write Rowlf's segments on The Jimmy Dean Show, and become one of the main Muppet writers through 1999. Jerry Juhl passed away in 2005.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Song of the Week: "All the Children Sing"

I know of literally no other person who likes this song, but I've had it in my head for a few days and I haven't featured Todd in this space since 2011, so here it is. This is the first track that leads off Todd Rundgren's 1978 album Hermit of Mink Hollow, an underrated album which his label sort of sabotaged by re-sequencing the tracks to put all of the poppier stuff on side one. No one's written much about this album, but considering that it came after some of his more progressive stuff (and some really cosmic stuff with his band Utopia), it is interesting to suddenly see him strip his sound down to much more pop-oriented stuff. Todd was always just ahead of the trends in music, and I feel like this album was sort of his answer to punk rock. Bebe Buell tells the story in her autobiography of how Todd laughed off the Sex Pistols when he first heard it, dismissing it by saying it was just doing Chuck Berry again. Still, after years of glam and prog and big, bloated productions dominating the record industry, Todd could at least see that stripping down a bit was the immediate future. After this, he went on a smaller, more intimate tour that resulted in his best live album. Back to the Bars. And his biggest hit off of this album was the pop ballad "Can We Still Be Friends?"

This song I mainly love for the spacey lyrics and the production, like the lead-off of a rock opera that never existed. There's a bit where he kind of lists a bunch of stereotypes that I dismiss as rather nonsensical, but I just really dig this song. The speed kind of grabs my attention.