30 May 2008

Odivido

It occurred to me today, when I caught sight of the word “palindrome” at the edge of a website in one of the advertisements, that this word was poorly coined. “Palindrome” has a logical etymology, derived from the Greek word palindromos (“running back,” “again”), but what a missed opportunity for irony! The word for palindrome should itself be a palindrome. Ancient Greek has too many words in the English language already, we should at least surrender this one to the forces of sly humor.

Therefore, I propose the following new term for “A word, phrase, verse, or sentence that reads the same backward or forward.” (Thank you, American Heritage Dictionary)

ODIVIDO (pl. SODIVIDOS)

Please make an effort to use this word instead of the archaic and humorless “palindrome,” and eventually it will come into common usage and replace the ill-chosen older word.

For some examples of sodividos, trip over to this website: odividolist.com (they still haven’t transitioned to the new name on the site, but give them time).

I particularly like this odivido I found on the site: “A dog! A panic in a pagoda!”

28 May 2008

Oh Boy, Oh Boy

If you ever need cheering up some day, this video will solve the problem.

27 May 2008

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Caution: There will be “spoilers” in this post about the newest Indiana Jones film. However, considering the movie’s predictability, I can’t in good conscience use the term “spoilers” without ironicizing the word with quotation marks. As I’ve already done twice.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (“Indy 4” to most viewers, but hereafter Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to me—I’m not into lazy shortcuts when it comes to movie titles) is defiantly and proudly the fourth best of the series. This comes as no shock to me, since Steven Spielberg has long ago moved away from his role as the populist genre filmmaker, and handily been replaced by Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, et al. George Lucas, of course, lost his touch and audience’s trust well over a decade ago (perhaps longer depending on how critical you’re willing to be), so as I walked in to see the first Indiana Jones film in nineteen years, I was prepared for it not to recapture the old joy.

It doesn’t. But for the first half-hour, it genuinely promises to go someplace different. These opening salvos show the filmmakers genuinely interested in engaging their new setting of the late 1950s. The golden era of adventure is done, the movie serial is dead, and the last of the pulp magazines have expired; welcome, Dr. Jones, to the eon of flannel suits, Elvis, the military-industrial complex, communist witch-hunts, saucer-sighting scares, and the mushroom cloud. The film’s most striking image has Indy staring up at the wrath of the atom blooming over the American Desert. The power of the Ark, the Grail, and the Shankara stones are nothing compared to humanity’s own burgeoning power in a frightening new time.

At that moment, I really believed that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had found something to call its own.

But once the story shifts into Peru and the search for the titular object, Spielberg and Co. crawl into a safe zone and give the viewers what they think they expect. Chasing the artifact, vine-covered ruins with deathtraps, mobs of angry natives, a vehicular chase, Indy getting wailed on by a big bruiser who then meets an accidental end, swarms of creepy-crawlies, and the villain destroyed by the power of the artifact. It’s the same old, same old, and lacking any startling moment that will stand out for viewers in the long term. From this point on, the film offers passable entertainment and little more. Only Shia LaBeouf, playing the sidekick and substitute action star “Mutt” Williams, really shines. LaBeouf’s ‘50s greaser prevents Harrison Ford from having to get engaged in action shenanigans he clearly couldn’t carry in his senescence, but he also provides an energy that the rest of the cast desperately needs. It’s sad that a fine actor like John Hurt doesn’t get much to do but babble, and Ray Winstone’s character could have been sliced from the film without anybody noticing. As for our villains, they hardly register. Cate Blanchett’s Russian villain is a cartoon gag, not a potential menace. I never felt that she could really lay down the hurt the way that Toht or Mola Ram could. Her big moment of torture: she forces Indy to… gasp!… look at the crystal skull for a couple of minutes! Oh, the horror! Life in Siberia must have been awful under taskmasters like Spalko.

I’m willing to cut Harrison Ford some slack. He’s a bit sleepy as Indy this time around, but at least he’s playing to the character’s age without making a fuss over it. This is how I would envision Dr. Henry Jones Jr. in early retirement, and if it doesn’t mean excitement, at least it isn’t ridiculous. I won’t cut Karen Allen much slack, since I hotly anticipated the return of Marion Ravenwood, the best of Indy’s female sparring partners, only to find Allen flat and seemingly disinterested. This isn’t the same Marion, and I don’t see why Indy would marry her at the conclusion, except as a way to transition Mutt into possible sequels as the new hero.

The finale goes for broke with special effects and noise, and I’ll grant it superiority to The Last Crusade’s sleepy wrap-up, but look how far behind it is compared to the first two: the Ark’s crispy Nazi and face-melt barbecue, and “Caution: Bridge Out.” The signature big action set-piece is similarly a snooze, and even Last Crusade has this CGI-heavy jungle chase beat solid. It has too much in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark’s legendary truck pursuit, and lacks the creativity of the runaway mine cart in Temple of Doom. The sequence plunges into a piece of looniness involving monkeys that must have come from Lucas’s fiat. Steven, you should have least stood up to George on this point: no Ewoks! Perhaps you had to make this sacrifice to prevent George from inserting Jar Jar Binks.

I envision this conversation taking place between the two head creators during pre-production:
Spielberg: Come on George, we can’t have a big flying saucer appear at the end of the film.
Lucas: No, folks love that stuff! Especially little kids!
Spielberg: I like having some science fiction, but isn’t that too far-fetched?
Lucas: Nah, It’ll be neat. And we won’t have to rely on actors or anything. Just computers.
Spielberg: I sort of like working with actors.
Lucas: And we’ll have tall skinny aliens with enormous heads and thin necks.
Spielberg: I’ve done that before. Three times actually. Can’t we try something diff—
Lucas: Now, about the monkeys…
Spielberg: Yeah, I wanted to have some words with you about that. And these groundhogs…

Like my fictional Spielberg in the example, I enjoy the addition of aliens (or “transdimensional beings,” which amounts to the same thing) to the adventures of Indiana Jones, since it jells with the genre movies of the day. But stepping over into a full-blown spacecraft lifting up from the Amazon takes us too far from the ‘dirt and trucks and moving stone walls’ style of the other films. It’s too much, and done with such mechanical execution that it’s a touch boring as well.

John Williams gets a chance to trot out some chestnuts from his musical repertoire. “Marion’s Theme” from Raiders of the Lost Ark makes a pleasing returning; more pleasing than the character’s return. The “Ark” motif pops up in the Area 51 segment, and surprisingly the “Grail” motif from The Last Crusade has several key moments, used to denote the Jones family legacy of father-son-grandson. I’m glad to see that Williams still has the chops after all these years.

Although cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is one of the best in the business, his diffused and fantasy-themed photography looks substantially different from Douglas Slocombe’s “old Hollywood” sharp-edged style from the first three movies. It doesn’t look right, and doesn’t give the old Indy vibe. (Slocombe retired after The Last Crusade.)

During the eighties, Indiana Jones was a ruling box-office figure. But this Summer, he’s a laid-back and disappointing visitor in a land claimed by Iron Man and Batman. (Interestingly, Batman made his big-screen assault on popular culture the same year that The Last Crusade came out.)

Finally, I now feel comfortable with the assertion that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is the second best film in the series. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull clinched it for me. “Prepare to meet Kali… in hell!


Oh, and you betrayed Shiva.

23 May 2008

Book Review: Lighthouse at the End of the World

Lighthouse at the End of the World (1905)
By Jules Vern. Translated by William Butcher.


Back to Jules Verne. I hope I didn’t stay away too long for your Gallic adventure tastes.

One of the author’s last novels was Lighthouse at the End of the World, which was published the year of his death, 1905. The version published by Hetzel, however, contained significant revisions from his son, Michel Verne. Until this edition from the University of Nebraska Press, Jules Verne’s original manuscript was never available in English. The editor points out that many Verne scholars prefer Michel’s versions, but Jules Verne “has a moral right to have his version available.” I personally don’t care if Michel Verne’s version is “better.” I’m interested in reading Jules Verne, not Jules and Michel Verne. So I welcome this publication, and again give big thanks to the University of Nebraska Press for saving yet another genre classic. If you’re interested in the Michel Verne edition, you can still easily find it used.

19 May 2008

Pre-Crystal Skull comments

I need to get this out of the way before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hits the theaters.

Where do I stand on the relative quality of the second and third of the Indiana Jones films? In other words, do I prefer Last Crusade or Temple of Doom? (Everyone knows Raiders of the Lost Ark is the apex of the series. Someone who tells you otherwise is lying or is a paid Nazi spy.)

The answer might surprise you, since it’s the minority opinion. The answer surprised me when I finally admitted it. However, here it is: I think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is superior to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. To put it another way, I prefer bug-food, hearts getting ripped from chests, and big rollers crushing Indian swordsmen to goofy humor about Hitler, an out-of-control tank, and Sean Connery blowing apart the back of his own airplane.

No, I don’t think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a poor film. I enjoy it. But its comic shenanigans are the most forced of the three, the jokey elements interfere with what should be serious action sequences, its plot plays out over too wide a canvas, and it seems more aware of itself than the purer first two. I’m afraid that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will take on those titles in a few days. With nearly nineteen years of hindsight, the new movie can only get more self-conscious and comedic, especially if Lucas’s hand is as obtrusive as I hear.

As for Temple of Doom, it has the strongest connection to pulp literature of the three: that’s why it’s brazen anti-PC attitude actually works for me. Imagine trying to make a film today where the Imperial British are the heroes in India. Ludicrous! But that’s what a pulp author of the 1930s would have done in the pages of Adventure. The mysterious Thugee cult planning to rule the world with zombies from their ancient temple—that’s great, that’s honest-to-goodness Norvell Page or Lester Dent nuttiness. It’s the most Doc Savage of the films, especially that mine cart chase and the flood of icky insects. The bridge battle and the conveyor belt fight? As close to the old serials as any of the films ever got, and both very exciting. And it’s nicely telescoped into one location, with the exception of the opening in the Chinese nightclub. (And I love that for its jazzy style and art deco.) Okay, female lead Capshaw is disposable. And really annoying. Really really annoying. It’s a lesser film than Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I must admit I like more than the unfocused Last Crusade.

16 May 2008

Man of the West Is One of the Masterful Westerns

Man of the West (1958)
Directed by Anthony Mann. Starring Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Lord

I received my newly released DVD copy of 1958’s Man of the West on Tuesday and sat down to watch it last night. Because the movie has not been available on any digital format until now, this is the first chance I’ve had in many years to re-watch one of my favorite Westerns. (I refused to see it viciously cropped on VHS. You just do not do that to a CinemaScope film. That would be like sawing off both ends of Picasso’s Guernica so it will fit better in your bathroom.)

The film did not disappoint my grand memories of it. I’ve seen many more classic Westerns since my last viewing of Man of the West, and the experience has further deepened my appreciation for the feat that director Anthony Mann achieves here. Mann directed a string of superb Westerns during the 1950s, usually with his favorite star, Jimmy Stewart, as the lead. Man of the West is not only Mann’s best foray into the Western, but it’s his best film, period. When you consider that he also directed El Cid, Winchester ‘73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Railroaded, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The T-Men, that’s an impressive statement.

13 May 2008

Re-Cap, Part 9: Power Records Presents . . .

I remember issue #168 of Captain America and the Falcon vividly from childhood. This isn’t because I read the issue when it came out (I was less than a year old at the time) or that I read a reprint of it, but because it was featured as an audio dramatization on a Power Records LP that I owned and played on my portable kiddie record player.

Power Records was an imprint of Peter Pan Records, which made those book-and-record sets for children (come on, you know you had one). Power Records aimed at older children with their series of superhero audio dramas; instead of a read-along with a narrator, the superhero stories feature full casts and sound effects. They have huge nostalgic value for a lot of folks my age. There are websites dedicated to them, and the records sell well when they pop up on eBay. Of those ones I owned as a child, the Captain America story contained on the Amazing Spider-Man and His Friends album was my favorite. The story it told was, “. . . And a Phoenix Shall Arise!”

Which comes, almost verbatim, from issue #168. Except for a few cuts, mostly to excise continuity with the previous issues, the audio dramatization follows Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella’s script word-for-word. The overly-descriptive style of comic book writing of the day, with characters loudly proclaiming what they were doing as they did it, fit ideally to the audio drama format, so few changes were needed. It even keeps the narrator box that reads “look to the next panel,” which makes no sense at in an aural dramatization.

The boys at Power Records made a smart choice, since “. . . And a Phoenix Shall Arise!” is an excellent one-shot story that had a lasting impact on Captain America and the Marvel Universe. It introduced the villain who would later destroy the Avengers Mansion and found the anti-hero team the Thunderbolts. Meet Baron Helmut Zemo, son of the late Captain America adversary Baron Heinrich Zemo. For this one instance, he goes under the codename “Phoenix” and wears a silly flame-based outfit. For his subsequent appearances, he’ll wear variant of his father’s mask to hide the horrible scarring he suffers at the end of this issue.

12 May 2008

Re-Cap, Part 8: The Fury of Yellow Claw

Captain America and the Falcon #161–#167 brings in a mess o’ overlapping conflicts for our two heroes. What writer Steve Englehart really does excellently in this run of issues is intertwine the various running plots with a steady stream of adversaries. The bad guys come and go, some easier than others, but the background drama keeps building.

Let’s see what we’ve got here for running stories:
  1. Cap still has his super-strength, and Falcon still feels inadequate because of it.

  2. An ad campaign is attempting to besmirch Cap’s reputation.

  3. Cap’s World War II lover, Peggy, returns, but her amnesia makes her still think a life with Cap is possible. But he’s in love with her younger sister Sharon.
The last item begins in #161 and #162, “The Macabre Secret of Sharon Carter!” After Cap and Falcon call a temporary reinstatement of their partnership following the ruckus of the last issues, they have to track down Cap’s missing girlfriend. Cap just can’t take her “Dear John” letter at face value, and wants some answers! This leads to the Carter estate and an encounter with Doctor Faustus, a way cool villain (last seen in issue #107) who uses psychology to damage his foes. It turns out that Doctor Faustus has Sharon’s older sister Peggy, Cap’s love from the Big One, captive and hopes she’ll crack watching all the torments that he puts Cap ‘n’ Co. through and give him some means of breaking the hero. You would think he would just kill him since he has him captive, but I guess Faustus just isn’t that sort of guy. Our heroes win through Faustus’s mind games and hallucinations, and the mentally damaged Peggy is free for the first time in years—but now we’ve got the problem mentioned above. How can Cap tell her that he’s in love with her sister?

Issue #163 introduces one of Captain America’s most frequent villain teams, the Serpent Squad. This collection of snake-themed supervillains (or at least ophidiform, as an eel isn’t a snake) will appear in many permutations over the years, but this first group is a bit understaffed and underpowered: Cobra (originally of Thor’s rogues gallery), Eel, and his brother Viper. Viper is turning into a wonderful goofball, spouting silly Madison Avenue slogans as he fights. He also starts the evil ad campaign against Cap when he calls up a sleazy friend in the business and asks him to go on the attack against the good captain. Apparently his friend doesn’t need any payment, just Viper’s suggestion, to go ahead with this. The first indications of this won’t appear for another two issues… and it will eventually spiral into the Secret Empire storyline. The Serpent Squad attacks while Cap and Falcon are still at the Carter’s mansion. Cap gets his hands scorched from the Eel’s electrified costume, and still manages to best most the Squad with both hands bandaged and useless.

The next issue sets up the Yellow Claw story, but is otherwise an experimental stand-alone with guest artist Allan Weiss bringing a shady, grotesque style to what’s essentially a horror story. Horror comics had turned into big business for Marvel in the early 1970s, and the influence crept into the superhero titles as well. Falcon heeds a letter for help sent from an old friend now serving time in prison. It’s a trap, however: the prisoners have all been turned into werewolves waiting to feast on Captain America! Their leader is the sultry Deadly Nightshade, and she captures Falcon and injects him with the serum so that Cap has to face a very hirsute and angry version of his partner. Yellow Claw makes a quick appearance at the end when its clear that Nightshade as botched the job for which he hired her. Nick Fury and SHIELD show up in time to discover that, indeed, their old adversary had returned. (Oh, and Falcon recovers from the werewolf transformation. Didn’t want you to worry.)

This brings us to the three-issue arc starring the evil Yellow Claw. Yellow Claw is an adversary in the “Yellow Peril” style: sinister Asiatic world-conqueror. Sax Rohmer popularized this type of villain with his Fu-Manchu novels, and the pulps mined the trope for everything it was worth (the Shadow had his fill of them, most famously Shiwan Khan). By the 1970s this cliché was turning unfashionable, but Marvel still trots out one of its oldies for another go-round. Yellow Claw predates the Marvel Silver age, first appearing in his own magazine in 1956, under the Atlas imprint of what would eventually settled down as Marvel Comics. Yellow Claw ran only four issues, but Jack Kirby drew three of them, and some of the characters would cross over into SHIELD in Strange Tales during the Silver Age. A robot version of Yellow Claw designed by Doctor Doom menaced the boys in SHIELD in 1967, but it isn’t until this run in Captain American and the Falcon that the real Yellow Claw resurfaces.

And does he ever bring the pulp! Cap fights giant killer spiders in #165, a scorpion-like nasty and re-animated mummies in #166, and escapes a classic death-trap in #167. Yellow Claw resurrects his traitorous niece (a story element from the old Yellow Claw comic) and imbues here with the spirit of an Egyptian Queen so she will faithfully serve him, and together they plan to rule the world! [Cue insane evil laugh. I don’t want to bother to try to phonetically to spell it.] Yellow Claw tries to takeover the SHIELD Helicarrier, but it turns out his niece has gotten just a bit overambitious for his own good.

In the midst of all this, Peggy still moons for Cap, Steve Rogers gets evicted from his apartment and has to crash at Sam’s place, and newspaper ads are trying to drag our hero’s name through the muck.

However, we have to take a short break from further developments in these ongoing plots: the next issue is a one-shot with guest writer Roy Thomas that introduces one of the Marvel Universe’s most important villains.

Last episode: Cap Meets Solarr

Next episode: Power Records Presents . . .

Fairly good baby scan

This is a 3-D scan of my future niece/nephew in the womb with eight to nine months to go. (Some people are still pretending that we don't know the baby's gender, but I have a pretty good idea. Still, I'll play along.)

08 May 2008

Re-Cap, Part 7: Cap Meets Solarr

I didn’t mention in my last Captain America write-up about the artwork of Sal Buscema, who settled in as the mag’s regular artist. He quickly turned into one of Cap’s definitive artists, and his work feels much more appropriate than the darker and shadier artwork of previously regular Gene Colan. (I always associate Colan with Daredevil, for whom he was ideal.)

On to the next issue, #159. We’re at the end of the Silver Age of comics, so we’ve got plenty of oddball villains popping up. The cover introduces us to Solarr, but never explains that extra ‘r.’ Perhaps it’s there just to distinguish his name from a regular word in the dictionary, ‘solar.’ (Not that such logic stops Porcupine.) On the cover, our radiant baddie shouts: “I’ve harnessed the power of the sun! Now nothing nothing can stop me! Nothing!” Well, what about darkness? Silly supervillain.

Solarr receives his backstory in a one-page flashback, showing him as a hippie who got stranded in the desert and suffered an incredible heat-stroke that somehow gave him superpowers. I would wager that he is probably a latent mutant (the Marvel Database confirms this), but let’s just forge ahead. Solarr tries to rob the New York Stock Exchange and gruesomely incinerates some innocent bystanders. Cap arrives and figures out that Solarr must regenerate in sunlight to use his fiery abilities. Cap then dumps weather-proofing paint on him, and that’s the end. For all his megalomaniacal boasting, Solarr proved easy to beat.

That wraps it up for the actual superheroics part of our tale, which only appears as an excuse for a return to the drama between Falcon and Cap which took a rest during the Sgt. Muldoon problems we just went through. Cap suddenly has super-strength, an unforseen result of the antidote he used to cure himself of Viper’s poison mixing with the super-soldier serum in his blood. Falcon suddenly feels inferior as he watches his partner best five robbers all on his own, and he doesn’t get a chance to join in the brawl with Solarr. Feeling himself useless, he goes to talk to Leila for advice.

And who’s Leila? I guess we had to get around to talking about her eventually. She’s Sam Wilson’s love interest, although she prefers the Falcon identity. (Ah Leila, if only you knew.) Sam often finds her obnoxious, and it’s probably because she’s mouths ‘70s blaxploitation clichés at him. She’s into black power, spouts Angela Davis philosophy (and hair), and rides Sam for being an “Uncle Tom” because he does social work. Of course, when he goes to her in the Falcon guise to ask for help with his relationship with Cap, Leila advises him to go solo because Cap will eventually make him his “native bearer.” Sam can’t really believe that—because it’s not true—but with Captain America on a literal power trip, he’s more swayed by Leila’s arguments than he would like to admit.

Despite the dated nature of Leila’s character, the drama Englehart develops here is solid and doesn’t feel one bit forced. I’m intrigued to see what will happen next with Cap’s super-strength, since I know it won’t be permanent.

I love it when old comic books date themselves with a topical pop culture reference
Thug: He ain’t human no more!

Cap: Oh no, I’m plenty human. I watch All in the Family just like everybody else.
Another major storyline begins at the conclusion of the issue, when Sharon leaves a “Dear John” letter on Steve Rogers’s door and walks away with her bags packed. Englehart’s end teaser promises the “Macabre Mystery of Sharon Carter” starting next issue.

Last episode: No, Not the Porcupine!

Next episode: The Fury of Yellow Claw

Re-Cap, Part 6: No, Not the Porcupine!

I took a break from “Re-Cap” after Steve Englehart’s tremendous arc involving Cap meeting his crazed 1950s incarnation. I knew there was no way the immediate follow-up could match that, but I can’t stay away from Silver Age comic fun for long, so back I go. . . .

To start 1973, we have a three-issue story commencing in #157 that brings a conclusion to a simmering plot about police corruption and Steve Rogers’s superior on the police force, Sgt. Muldoon. A few years back, during Stan Lee’s time as writer and Gene Colan as artist, Cap started to work as a cop as an alter ego, but the job never took off in the comics pages, probably because the busy nature of a police officer’s life makes it difficult for someone to also parade around as a costumed superhero. As issues went past, less and less attention was given to the police job, and this storyline finally puts to rest the supporting character of Sgt. Muldoon, an irascible semi-comic character who was always getting on Rogers’s case. The wrap-up isn’t at all what you might expect—but that doesn’t make the story more interesting.

On the super-villain side, there’s a pack of second-stringers who are instigating a “crime wave” at the behest of the mysterious Cowled Commander. At least, that’s what the magazine tells us they’re doing, but we never really see this massive criminal flood that’s supposed to crack-up the police force. Cap and the Falcon first encounter the Viper (no relationship to the future Madame Hydra identity—actually, she kills him so she can take the name without worries about a lawsuit), a former adman who somehow decided he’d rather dress in a snake costume and throw poison darts than work Madison Avenue. Makes sense. This dope somehow gets the best of Cap and Falc, leaving them poisoned and dying on a rooftop and the end of #157.

In #158, Cap gets the antidote (that idiot the Viper left it on the roof, of course) after straining for three pages, and this kicks off another story strand about how mixing the poison, the antidote, and the super-solider serum in Cap’s blood gives him super-human strength. This will extend beyond this story, and I wonder where they plan to take this development and how to eventually forget about it. Muldoon, suspended because of the suspicion of corruption, now claims that it must be Steve Rogers who is corrupt, because he never shows up to work. Muldoon and other angry ex-cops kidnap Rogers in his civilian identity, and then the rest of loopy villains participating in the Cowled Commander’s mellow “crime wave” take to the streets. It’s a squad of winners: Plantman, Eel, Scarecrow, and the fearsome Porcupine!

So as #159 begins, we have a villain squad that an under-performing kindergartner could take out trying to paralyze the police force. This quartet had recently battled the X-Men while working for Count Nefaria, and got their clocks soundly cleaned. I sort of dig Porcupine because of his goofy outfit—he looks like a Pagoda made of haystacks—but the writer and editors clearly know these fellows are the C-squad. Even the esteemed Cowled Commander, their boss, calls them “clowns.” If the Cowled Commander had managed to get the DC Scarecrow instead this contortionist who trains crows, they might have had something to work with.

At last, when Cap and the Falcon finally confront the Cowled Commander, they find he’s none other than . . . The Red Skull!

Oh, wait, no he’s not. For once, the mysterious mastermind isn’t the Red Skull. It’s Muldoon. Yes, indeed. Muldoon decided that the only way to get back the police department’s reputation was to create such a huge crime spree that public pressure would demand cleansing out the bad cops, and the good cops would swoop in and fix everything.

Muldoon, friend: if you want to create a crime wave, don’t hire Plantman and Porcupine to do it!

I can guess what happened here: writer Englehart didn’t know what to do with Muldoon, a leftover plot device that he inherited, so he knocked him out of the storyline by making him the villain. It’s an outrageous twist, since Muldoon could never use the subtlety of planning required for a masked mastermind, but if it means we can now move on to other plots, I’ll hang with it.

During all this, we discover that the Viper is the Eel’s brother. I don’t know why that’s important, but it pops up anyway.

Next up: A one-shot featuring the villain Solarr! And some developments in Cap’s relationship with Sharon Carter. (She’s in these last issues, but not in a significant way.) Will we find out more about Cap’s strength boost?

Last episode: Captain America vs. Captain America

Next episode: Cap Meets Solarr

“Keep watching 1982!”

Let us now return to the glorious movie year of 1982, when all your genre dreams as a child came true. And a few nightmares as well.

The big money-grabber of the Great Year was E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Although beloved in its time, it has never picked up an actual following and seems much less prescient and powerful a film now than many other contenders from that year that have turned into genre favorites. Specific example: another alien invader who got trapped on Earth a mere three weeks after E. T. started looking for change to phone home. The Thing.

The Thing was nominally a re-make of the Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby 1951 movie, The Thing from Another World—a favorite movie of director John Carpenter’s—but it really leap-frogged over the old movie to the source material, the 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. Campbell is one of science fiction’s most influential figures in his capacity as editor of Astounding during the 1940s and ‘50s. He brought about the a wave of great science fiction authors with his shrewd story choices and firm editorial hand. He was also an accomplished author himself, as “Who Goes There?” and the short story “Twilight” demonstrate, although he turned toward nonfiction when he became a full-time editor.

The 1951 movie version of “Who Goes There?” abandoned many elements of the novella for purely budgetary reasons. The protean alien creature couldn’t be realized with the effects work of the 1950s, so it was turned into a hulking humanoid supposedly made of vegetable matter—and played by a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness. It’s an enjoyable film and one of the early classics of the atomic age science-fiction flap, and it gave pop-culture one of the most memorable paranoia lines of all time: “Keep watching the skies!” (Other contenders: “You’re next!”, “It’s a cookbook!” and “Soylent Green is made from people!”)

Nobody, however, could have anticipated what a gruesome and imaginative horror show John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) had in store with the remake. With make-up effects from Rob Bottin, who had done impressive air-bladder transformations for The Howling the year before, The Thing ended up an enthralling fantasmagoria combining claustrophobic paranoia and shivery special effect set-pieces.

What’s so impressive to me about The Thing today isn’t the visual effects, even though they remain incredible feats, but that it manages to be engrossing while putting almost no focus on characterization. The team at Outpost 31 in the deeps of Antarctica receives nothing in the way of back story or baggage. Nobody talks about their kids, ex-wives, how they chose to work in the Antartic, what they’re trying to prove, their motivations, etc. And it works. It works beautifully. The characters come through in the subtlety of the performances without the script have to spell everything out for the audience. The men of Outpost 31 plunge into the nightmare of “Who among us is still human?” and we follow them without question.

It’s a gutsy choice, this character minimalizing, but if the central conflict is strong enough, the cast is superb, and the visuals have visceral shock power, it can work. And in The Thing, it works. You couldn’t very well go wrong with a cast that includes Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley.

The Thing is also a rare case, for me anyway, of gore that enhances the movie experience because it exists for reasons other than to nauseate the audience. I’m no gore-hound; I like horror with subtlety of fear and the unknown rather than relying on dismemberment and eyeballs hang out of skulls on stalks. In The Thing, however, the twisted sequences of the alien creature assimilating and transforming have such imagination that they turn into dark fantasy art. This alien is truly alien, the next logical step from the bio-mechanical beauty of the beastie from Alien.

E. T. beat The Thing in the short-term box office, but in the science-fiction community, we all know who finally assimilated and propagated.

07 May 2008

Man of the West is almost here

After a long, needless wait, director Anthony Mann's greatest Western, Man of the West, will arrive on DVD on Tuesday! Get it now. Don't make me tell you twice.

05 May 2008

Iron Man fights with repulor rays!

Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, Leslie Bibb.

Yep, summer’s here all right: A $100 million opening for a comic book superhero movie. Get the hot dogs ready.

I’m happy to say that Iron Man opens the suntan-lotion season of film-going most pleasantly. It doesn’t rival Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2, but it’s far superior to the recent drab parade of other Marvel adaptations, like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Ghost Rider.

I used to read The Invincible Iron Man comic when I was in junior high, and “Shellhead” was one of my favorite heroes at the time: the coolness factor of his sleek, impersonal armor made him hard to resist for any gadget-obsessed young man. Today, I find his comic book adventures almost unreadable: mired in techno-conveniences (whatever he needs the suit to do, it can do) and alter-ego Tony Stark’s near-fascist politics. The movie, fortunately, restores the Iron Man of my memories while adding enough modern perspective to feel fresh.

The character is one of Marvel’s major creations of the mid-sixties, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby up-ended the world of superheroes with their creative approach of attaching psychological realism to their outlandish adventures. Iron Man was a co-creation of Lee, his brother Larry Lieber, and artists Kirby and Don Heck. Heck drew Iron Man’s first appearance, in issue #39 of Tales of Suspense, and would soon turn into the character’s first regular artist. Iron Man continued as a feature story in Tales of Suspense, sharing the title for many issues with a Captain America feature, before getting his own title.

The original conception of Iron Man might be best described as “What if Howard Hughes turned into a superhero?” Billionaire engineer Tony Stark, a top defense contractor for the U.S., manufactures a suit of transistor-powered armor to help him escape from a Viet Cong warlord’s prison camp. Behold the mighty power of—transistors! Stark uses the Iron Man armor to help protect Stark Industries from espionage, and devises the cover that Iron Man is his “bodyguard.” These early stories were Cold War in tone, with enemies such as Soviets Crimson Dynamo, Black Widow, Titanium Man, and “yellow peril” dastard the Mandarin. But the military-industrial heroics of ol’ Shellhead make a good contrast with the street-heroics of Spider-Man and the science-fiction epics of the Fantastic Four.

Although these early comics are dated in the extreme, they have the wonderful hyperbolic Stan Lee style and remains a blast to read. Thanks to the Marvel “Essentials” line of inexpensive black-and-white reprints, they are easy to find.

The film version uses a similar origin for Iron Man, but has updated the geo-political map so that weapons-manufacturer Stark now gets caught by a Taliban-esque army in Afghanistan. Forced to construct a new missile for the organization “The Ten Rings” (a nod to the Mandarin, who fought using ten powered finger rings of alien design), Stark instead creates the bulky gray armor he uses to blast his way free. The story then shifts to a later era in the from the comics’ history—actually, the time period when I was reading it in school. Stark fine-tunes the armor into its crimson and gold incarnation, and then confronts competitor Obadiah Stane (re-imagined as his father’s business partner) and his huge “Iron Monger” armor. It turns out Stane has brokered deals for weapons with groups that might not share U.S. interests. Tony Stark, once the careless playboy, has had a change of heart—quite literally, since it’s now a miniature reactor planted in his chest—now that he’s discovered what his company’s weapons are really being used for.

The film’s super-weapon is Robert Downey Jr., who makes Stark an incredibly funny and constantly watchable figure. This is a rare “actor’s role” in a summer blockbuster, and without Downey along, the movie wouldn’t have much spark. Jeff Bridges does a good turn as Stane, and he’s always been one of my favorite actors, but this isn’t a villain-centered piece. Thankfully, our hero is up to the task, turning even minor scenes that should be nothing more than exposition into memorable ones.

The film does have some problems. Paltrow is pretty pale as requisite love interest Pepper Potts. My friend Brian pointed out that Stane seems to get his own armor constructed in about five minutes, even after learning that his team doesn’t have a fraction of the engineering know-how of Tony Stark. The best action scene in the movie comes at the midway point, when the first Iron Man suit busts out of the Afghan cave and wrecks some fun havoc. Iron Man later outruns missiles and planes and gets in a massive Los Angeles smack-down with Iron Monger, but they don’t have the jolt of this first revelation.

This is the inaugural film from Marvel Studios (Paramount is only serving as the distributor), and it promises more good work to come. Now let’s get on that Captain America film, shall we?

If you haven’t seen Iron Man yet, please stay until after the credits. There’s a cameo appearance and a future-franchise set-up that you have to see.

01 May 2008

Budget re-enactment

I’ve posted plenty of times today—but once more can’t hurt. And yes, I’m going to take another shot at Aliens vs Predator: Requiem!



I will move onto a new topic tomorrow. Promise.

Roar!

Of interest to film music lovers like myself: iTunes now has available for download the complete “suite” from Cloverfield by composer Michael Giacchino (who hit a homerun with his score for The Incredibles). If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute—Cloverfield doesn’t have any music, only that stuff playing at the party in the opening scenes.” You are almost correct: the end titles have an original orchestral piece, and for those of you wise enough to stay through the end credits, this was a jaw-dropping great homage to classic giant monster music. It consists of strident but minor-key military march and howling wordless female vocal, and makes for a hodge-podge of Max Steiner (King Kong), Henry Mancini (numerous ‘50s B-science-fiction movies), Bernard Herrmann (The Day the Earth Stood Still, the classic Ray Harryhausen movies), and most notably Akira Ifukube—maestro of Japanese monster classics. I think of it as the score to the “Other Cloverfield,” the more traditional 1950s and ‘60s big monster popcorn flick that didn’t opt for the post-modern YouTube approach to the story. It was a brilliant stroke to put this alternative view of the film via music over the end credits.

Until now, this piece—entitled “Roar! (Cloverfield Overture)”—wasn’t available commercially. The tie-in album from Cloverfield only contained the party music mix. Now you can get “Roar!” from iTunes in its full, un-cut glory—twelve thundering minutes of it! An it only costs a $1.99. For the past two days I’ve blared this nonstop, reveling in the old-fashioned style of film music that we don’t hear enough today. I’m hyped now to see what Giacchino will do with the upcoming Star Trek (not that anybody could ever replace the deceased Jerry Goldsmith).

The Alien steady decline

It’s franchise re-cap time. Now that I’ve suffered through Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, I can chart out the quality of the six films featuring the xenomorph aliens, the four from the main series and the two in the AVP series—which, we can hope, will remain at two.

It ends up as an easy chart to construct. This is a rare case in a long-running series where the quality declines in direct chronological order: the best film is the first, the worst film is the last. Making a list from best to last is therefore perfunctory, but I’m going to do it anyway, along with a capsule review.
  • Alien: Best science-fiction/horror of all time. Still disturbing and terrifying twenty-nine years later.
  • Aliens: Full-throttle military action, cool characters, good times.
  • Alien3: Gloom and doom, excellent character piece… but hard to digest for some.
  • Alien: Resurrection: Good ideas in search of cohesion.
  • Alien vs. Predator: Potboiler, better than you might expect.
  • Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem: I can’t see anything.

Can’t See: Aliens vs Predator: Requiem

AVPR: Aliens vs Predator—Requiem (2007)
Directed by Colin and Greg Strause Starring Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, John Ortiz

I never had enthusiasm for making a film out of the “Alien vs. Predator” concept that was popular in comic books and videogames. It seemed to lower the intelligent “Alien” series, which even at its worst (Alien: Resurrection) strove for science-fiction artistry, to paint-by-numbers grab-the-money-and-run humdrum. The “Predator” series—only two films—was already at this level, so it didn’t have that far to fall, but they didn’t have to take my beloved xenomorphs down with them.

2005’s Alien vs. Predator was exactly what I feared it would be, but now that I’ve had my requisite viewing of the 2007 follow-up, AVPR: Aliens vs Predator—Requiem (no really, that’s the actual on-screen title), that first film seems like a Jean Renoir movie in comparison. AVP:R is a pure franchise-killer, a mega-embarrassment that I doubt the resilient alien nasties will be able to overcome. I had hoped there would be a fifth stand-alone Alien film that would return to the intelligence of the original series, but it’s all dust now. AVP:R was despised and ignored on release, and rightly so.

Watching AVP:R brought to mind two classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 comments:
  • “I’ll bet if we could see that, it’d be real scary.”
  • “Who timed this print, Stevie Wonder?”
Apparently, the budget on AVP:R excluded the use of lighting… because I could hardly see anything in this movie. The attacks by the aliens or the Predator (yep, there’s only one) are visually incomprehensible. Repeatedly, I found myself yelling at the screen: “Can’t see!” This starts to reach a point of epic frustration and anger. You can make a film visually dark and suspenseful while still making it discernible; just ask Tim Burton and David Fincher. Just being dark doesn’t work.

However, there’s no relief away from the murky monster scenes, since the collection of humans is the most pitiful and faceless bunch of cannon fodder ever foisted on either series. The key question I kept asking during the actions scenes—“What’s going on?”—is mirrored by a question in the drama scenes—“Who are you again?” I only saw the film last night, and I can’t for the life of me remember who anybody was or what their relationships were to each other. I remember that one character was named “Dallas,” a sad reference to Tom Skerritt’s character in the original Alien. However, I don’t remember which person on screen was named “Dallas.” I think he was the kid who delivered pizza, and lived with an older guy who might be his brother. The movie wasn’t interested in clarifying this for me. And he liked this blonde girl. There was a sheriff, and some military woman who could fly a helicopter, and her daughter. And there were some other people too, and all I can say about them is they all had equally risible dialogue. However, I couldn’t cheer for the Aliens or the Predator to come kill them, because I couldn’t see any of that happen anyway. So every which way, I lose.

Some fans complained that Alien vs. Predator was rated PG-13 and therefore couldn’t deliver the gore. Requiem goes for the R and loads on more gore, but more gore doesn’t equal better suspense—and I couldn’t see it anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

Are there any good points to AVP:R? It’s short, only 86 minutes long. Tyler’s music isn’t bad, and makes nods to Silvestri’s “Predator” theme and the “Alien stylings” of Goldsmith-Horner-Goldenthal. The moment when the Predator strips off his weapons and offers to go hand-to-hand with the “Predalien” (a goofy Alien-Predator hybrid born at the conclusion of the previous movie) has a slight kick to it.

Sorry, that’s the best I can come up with. The sad part is, that’s the best the filmmakers could come up with as well. The “Requiem” of the title is unfortunately a meta-reference to the series. It’s dead.