Thursday, September 27, 2012

Missed Chances: "The House With a Clock in its Walls"

When I was a kid I often rode my bike a few miles to the little library in the town where I lived.  There I perused the stacks for hours before coming home with a nice selection of books.  I can still remember often seeing John Bellairs' The House With a Clock in its Walls on the shelf and I recall reading the summation of the story on the back of the book but for some reason I never took it home... until now.

It's never too late to have a happy childhood so I decided to take a look at the story and see how it read to an adult... and the results were quite surprising...

The basic plot is that young Lewis Barnavelt's parents are killed and so he is sent to live with his uncle, Jonathan, in the town of New Zebedee.  Lewis also meets Jonathan's best friend and next-door-neighbor Mrs. Florence Zimmerman.  The boy quickly finds himself adjusting not just to a new home but also to the discovery that his uncle Jonathan is a minor wizard and Mrs. Zimmerman a much more powerful witch!

To complicate matters Jonathan's house once belonged to an evil wizard and witch and the faint ticking of a clock can be heard throughout the house but the clock it belongs to cannot be found!  Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman believe this clock is a final curse left behind by it's former owners -- a curse that could spell the end of everything!  Lewis must learn a few hard life lessons along the way to solving the mystery and saving the day before the clock strikes doomsday!

One of the first things that strikes you in reading this book is how straightforward everything is.  Bellairs presents his characters with a kind of frankness and honesty that makes them feel real.  They have certain quirks and eccentricities but nothing that makes them seem any more off-beat than that aunt or uncle every family seems to have who is the 'odd' member of the family (and usually the one who is the life of the family get-togethers).   Lewis's Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are also, unlike most adults in children's literature, not useless, or completely stupid.  Certainly they try to disguise some of the truth from Lewis but only in an attempt to keep him from being frightened.  They act out of caring and love not idiocy or selfishness.  And Lewis himself is believably shy, insecure, and desperate for friendship in his new situation.

Even magic in the story is presented rather matter-of-factly which transforms it from the realm of the mystical into something that seems everyday -- of no more matter than flicking on a television set or booting up a computer.  It is surprisingly refreshing in this post-Harry Potter realm of youth literature.

On the whole, if you've never introduced this book to the kids in your life (be they yours or someone else's) then do so.  Have no fears about the book reading as something out of time or out of touch with modern life.  There is an honesty here as well as a really solid adventure that moves at a measured pace and builds to a climax.  With all of the youth literature now being committed to film it does make me wonder why no one has placed this story in front of a camera yet.  The House With a Clock in its Walls is tailor-made for the big screen.  As it is, set it loose on the big screen of imagination and watch the whole thing play out.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Showcase Presents: The Brave and The Bold, vol. 1

Okay... this one is going to require a little bit more of a history lesson than my last review.  And you know how much I love history...  No.  Really.  I love this stuff.  If you don't, skip down below the cover image where I will get into the volume proper.  Otherwise settle in.

Remember a couple of posts back when I said I'd get into the reason why DC called their black and white reprint line Showcase Presents?  Well, here's where I make good on that promise.

In 1956 DC Comics launched a title called Showcase which was a 'try out' book.  The title would feature new characters or old characters with a new spin put on them.  DC would then gauge reader reaction to these characters and if they did well enough they were then launched into their own solo titles.  It should be made clear that this wasn't a one-shot deal -- a character often appeared several times in Showcase before DC made a decision on whether they would go on to solo stardom or disappear into the archives.

Showcase was essentially *the* comic that launched the Silver Age.  Most comic book historians (yes, such people exist) date the start of the Silver Age to the first appearance of the revamped Flash in 1956.  And where did the Flash premiere in 1956?  On the pages of Showcase.  So DC choosing to call their black and white Silver Age reprint series Showcase Presents has a significance to both the history of DC and the history of comic books in general.  It's a nice touch that, to be honest, I like a little better than Marvel's comparatively bland Essential title (which is also a little disingenuous now that I think about it.  I mean, "Essential" implies that it's the kind of 'best-of-the-best' or the stuff that's vital to understanding a character and, really, every character out there has some long stretches of stuff that was kind of the comic book equivalent of jogging in place.  And I would hardly call that "Essential"... but I'm getting off track)...  What, I'm an historian I like it when people tip their hats to history!

Now, if you're expecting this series to be like the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon you'll be sadly disappointed... or happy depending on how you felt about that particular cartoon.

That animated series was inspired by this comic book series but the two are really polar opposites... as you will soon see...

The Brave and the Bold as a title originally began in 1955.  At the time of it's launch, however, it was used to tell stories about non-superhero characters.  Over the next decade or so The Brave and the Bold went from stories about knights and Robin Hood to another try-out book for new characters to finally being a 'team-up' book.

For the first few issues of it's team-up days writers basically mashed together any two heroes in the DC stable at that time.  For example, Green Arrow could team up with the Atom or Aquaman could team up with the Flash if the writer had a good story to tell.  That, however, quickly changed as the popularity of Batman, thanks to the 1960's TV series, swept the country.  The Brave and the Bold suddenly and pretty much irrevocably changed to being a "Batman and...." team-up book as each issue Batman teamed up with another DC hero.  So what DC is here calling Showcase Presents: The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 is actually only those issues of the series where they started featuring Batman.

So how is it?...... a little weird, and a slice of history.

The writer responsible for most of the content in those days was Bob Haney.  Haney was one of those 'work horse writers' who populated the Silver Age.  Guys like Gardner Fox and Haney churned out story after story.  They were often simplistic, thin on characterization, and started and finished in a single issue, but guys from this era really cranked the stuff out.

Haney created a number of characters but the ones he would probably be most familiar for today were Sgt. Rock and the Teen Titans.  Of course, he didn't create the individual characters who made up the early Titans -- Robin, Speedy (Green Arrow's side-kick), Aqualad (Aquaman's sidekick), Kid Flash (guess who's sidekick), and Wonder Girl (again, guess who's sidekick) -- but it was his idea to put them together in a team-up story and the idea took off to the point where they soon had their own title which Haney was scripting.

But we're here to talk about the stories in this volume.

If nothing else you have to give Haney his due in the difficulty in scripting these stories.  Think about it, you have Batman -- a basically normal guy with no real superpowers and only a beltful of gadgets -- and he's often teaming up with heroes who far outpower him.  For example, Wonder Woman -- who has super strength, super speed, and the ability of flight.  In trying to put these two together in a story you have to come up with a villain and a situation which is powerful enough to cause difficulties for Wonder Woman but yet vulnerable enough that it would be believable for Batman to be helping out instead of just getting swatted out of the way like an ant.  It can be a delicate balancing act and it's one that Haney mostly manages well.


I mentioned that the stories here are "a little weird" and I mean it.  I'm a fan of Silver Age stuff.  The wacky pseudo-science gives me a chuckle and the clunky dialogue and bad attempts at topical stories and teen angst and street slang are hilarious but that stuff here, in these stories, just never quite clicks.  There is a bit too much silly science and bad slang that it just pulls you too far out of the story.  In addition, there are some examples of the casual misogyny of the times that makes me cringe.  One story in particular in which Batman tries to lure the villain Copperhead into stealing a priceless artifact by making Copperhead think he's too distracted by Wonder Woman and Batgirl fighting for his affections to guard the city.  The twist being that while Wonder Woman and Batgirl were at first pretending in order to help Batman flush out Copperhead at the worst possible moment they really fall for him!... And then just as suddenly fall back out of love with him at the end... for no good reason... except that they're women and that's just what women do don't you know.  Ugh!

Anyway, as I was saying, not only are the stories a little too silly but they also tend to have plot holes you could drive a tractor-trailer through... sideways.  Take, for example, a story featuring Batman teaming up with WW II soldier Sgt. Rock.  The story mostly takes place during WW II where Bruce Wayne is acting as a secret agent on a mission to find and destroy a mysterious Nazi secret weapon.  The problem is that Bruce is recounting the story in the then present day of the 1960's -- where even if he had been in his early 20's during WWII it would now put him over 40 -- and he is drawn in the comic as not looking a day over 35.  Not only that but Bruce has never been allowed to age over about 37 except in the case of the version of him on the parallel world of Earth-2 but this story never says it's and Earth-2 story so....  I'm confused!....

And you probably have no idea what I'm talking about.  Suffice it to say the timelines just don't work here.

So, you might be asking after I've rambled on this long, is there anything GOOD about these stories?  Well, yes... and here's where the 'slice of history' thing comes in.

After the Silver Age came what most comics historians call the Bronze Age.  There are some arguments over where it officially starts and ends but it's roughly the 1970's through the mid-1980's.  As the 1970's saw a lot of social changes and a lot of pop culture changes as well comic books followed suit.

For example, the 1970's saw a rise in a new breed of horror movies.  There was a fascination with the occult in pop culture and we see those influences start to creep in amongst these stories.  And here Haney managed the change rather well.  We see him begin the volume with bright, very Silver Age stories with silly, gimmick-y villains and we see him finish with more weighty stories about evil and family and villains who blend in with everyday life -- as well as some who wear the mask of upstanding citizens. 

We also see reflected the changes wrought in characters -- Early on we see the more Golden Age version of Green Arrow but towards the end of the volume we meet a new, more modern GA with a new look, a new costume, and a new attitude which includes questions and doubts about his superhero career.  Likewise, we have that rather stereotypical story with Wonder Woman acting a bit like a 'silly female' but later we run into the 'new Wonder Woman'...  I guess I have to explain again...  At one point The Powers That Be felt that Wonder Woman should be depowered in order to relate more to 'ordinary women'.  It was a move that, reportedly, editorial thought would go over well with the women's movement in the country at that time.  It didn't.  Still, it lasted for quite a few years.  During this period Wonder Woman renounced her Amazon heritage and with it all her powers -- no more super-strength, speed, flight, nor even bullet-deflecting bracelets.  Instead Wonder Woman learned martial arts from a blind mentor named.... (I can't believe I'm writing this)... I Ching.  I wish I was kidding.  Wonder Woman was even given a new, white, 'action costume' that had more than a nod to Emma Peel of the British Avengers fame.  Anyway, we see that change in the character reflected in the stories in this volume.

In shortwith The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 you can actually see the Silver Age turning into the Bronze Age of comics and I, for one, find the changes and they way they happen here, to be fascinating.

The other thing to mention is some of the artwork.  There are some big names here like Ramona Fradon and Gil Kane and Mike Sekowsky but the biggest deal is the swath of stories toward the end of the volume featuring the art of Neal Adams.  Moody, heavily shaded, dynamic, at times creepy and at times psychedelic, Adams' work heralded a new art style which would soon sweep the comic book world and kind of reflect the Bronze Age as well.  This is some of Adams' first work for DC but he would go on to become regular artist for Batman for quite some time and is still considered one of the premiere Batman artists.  His style has become classic and almost remarkably you can see here that, despite only just getting started at DC, his style is already almost fully formed.  Even with the color stripped out his stuff is gorgeous to look at.  Heck, with the color stripped out it looks in some ways even better as it emphasizes the noir touches to his work.

So, enough is enough and it's time for a roundup...  The first time I read this volume I loved it.  I loved all the strangeness and the wildness of seeing Batman team up with characters who were not necessarily a natural fit for him -- like Plastic Man or the Metal Men.  On a recent re-reading though the flaws hit me and I found myself all-too-willing to put the volume down and not come back to it for a few days.  It didn't drag me in and compel me to read the stories.  The silliness and the plot holes were just too front-and-center and they disturbed my reading enjoyment too much.

The Brave and the Bold, vol. 1 is probably worth a purchase if you're an amateur comic book historian like me.  It is still worth a look though so if you can pick it up at a discount or better yet at your local library go ahead and then skim through it hitting the better stories and the Neal Adams art.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Essential Captain America, Vol. 1

And after a brief delay, here we go...

First up is Essential Captain America, vol. 1.

A little background before we begin...

Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941, published by Marvel's predecessor Timely Comics.

With the dawn of WW II Cap was not alone in the patriotic style heroes who graced the pages of various comics from various publishers and, like most of those heroes, he didn't survive much past the end of the war -- disappearing by the early 1950's.  There was a brief revival of the character in 1953, refashioned into a patriotic Commie Basher to try to appeal to the 'Red Scare' days but this not only didn't work it provided a hiccup in the character's history which Marvel eventually had to deal with... but that is for another day.

In 1964 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby dusted the character off and gave him a prominent place with Marvel's still-rather-young superteam The Avengers.  With Cap seemingly catching on with readers it was time to give him his own title... sort of... which is also where we come in with this volume.

Cap actually began appearing in a title called Tales of Suspense which was a kind of two-in-one comic at that time.  Half of the comic was devoted to stories featuring Iron Man and the other half to Captain America stories.  The two heroes traded off monthly on getting the cover image and lead position in the comic.  Eventually, both Cap and Iron Man proved popular enough to be launched into their own series'.  The stories in this volume cover the years 1964-1968 and cover the transition from Tales of  Suspense to Cap's solo title with all of them being written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby.

So how is it actually?

Not bad.  There are a lot of Silver Age conventions here -- villains who give big monologuing speeches and insist on keeping the hero alive and around in order to 'gloat over their victory', clunky dialogue, and really, really, seriously bad pseudo-science (really).  At the same time, the stories are action-packed and move along at breakneck speed without any padding or long, drawn out, story arcs. 

On the flip side, that breakneck speed doesn't really allow for too much character development -- particularly for the villains.  The villains are villainous and we may get an origin story for them but they don't really become fully rounded characters here.

The other thing that sets these stories apart is a clear view of what was called "the Marvel style" at that time.  Marvel is credited with giving it's heroes faults, failings, and foibles and also with giving them soap opera style stories in the Silver Age.  With Cap this is manifest by him brooding about being a "man out of time", and feeling responsible for the death of his partner, Bucky, and also losing the love of his life in WW II and then in the modern era being drawn to a woman who resembled his lost love only for them to be kept apart due to him being a superhero and her being a S.H.E.I.L.D. Agent.

The problem is that, to a modern reader, these elements are a bit overdone.  Cap remarks on his "age" and how he should be an "old man" like other WW II vets are but at the time this comic was written WW II was only about 20 years in the rear view mirror!  The "old men" who were his fellow vets were likely only in their early 40's through their early 50's!  About half the cast of the recent Avengers movie were over 40 and I doubt any of those actors would have thought of themselves as "old men"!  Modern, changed attitudes about age have made a lot of Cap's meditations on the subject seem whiny.

And speaking of whiny... Cap's brooding about his past probably seemed novel and invoked sympathy in readers of the time but here the dialogue comes across as kind of emo.  This is exacerbated by the fact that, in the 1960's, comic books were almost exclusively sold at newspaper stands and on drugstore spinner racks.  As such, comic book fandom was seen as a bit more casual thing and writers felt like they couldn't take it for granted that a reader picking up a comic book may be that familiar with Cap's backstory.  As such, the issue of Cap's lost partner, Bucky, had to be brought up again, and again, and again.  This makes Cap seem as though he's wallowing in the tragedy... particularly if one reads a big block of these stories in one sitting. 

I will say this, though -- when Lee and Kirby began writing Captain America stories in the Silver Age they set those stories during WW II -- allowing them to write all-new tales of Cap and Bucky as a team for readers who were probably not old enough to have read the original stories in the 1940's.  This had the benefit of allowing readers to get to know the character of Bucky and thereby possibly feel the tragedy of his death a bit more.

Interestingly, in reading through this Essential volume you see Lee and Kirby dropping the WW II era stories suddenly in favor of writing stories of Cap's adventures set in the 'modern era'.  In fact, they drop this right in the middle of a story arc and simply hand wave away the end of the arc.  Apparently the WW II era stories were not striking a chord with readers and Marvel was receiving requests that they write stories about Cap in the then current time.  To a modern reader this change is kind of jarring and not extremely well done.

And any discussion of this thick tome would not be complete without a discussion of the artwork.  Jack Kirby was not nicknamed "the King" for nothing.  His artistic style would become justifiably famous and would go on to influence any number of other artists.  With the color stripped out of the Essential line it allows us to see and appreciate Kirby's line work.  Unfortunately, this volume features Kirby's work before he had quite reached the apex of his style.  You can see an evolution throughout the four years of comics backed into this volume but by the end he's still not quite where he would be.  Also, the more prosaic, superhero-style stories do not give him much chance to cut loose with some of his more imaginative designs.

As you can see in the panel above, taken from towards the end of the volume, Kirby is starting to branch out and the dynamism of his figural work is growing as well, but he's not quite there yet.  Wait till we get to the Thor stories... Kirby's work is gonna blow your socks off...

So, after this long, rambling post what's the final verdict?

If you want to see the roots of Captain America this is a pretty good place to start.  Since Marvel has never really had a company-wide reboot as DC Comics has most of these stories are all still in continuity with only a few little changes over the years. 

The WW II era stories are interesting but I have to admit that the modern era stories have a bit more weight as they start moving Cap forward in character development.  The tales, however, tend to be kind of bog-standard superhero fare with nothing terribly groundbreaking... yet.  The 'soap-opera' elements are also a bit clunky and corny by modern standards.  One can also use the volume to trace the evolution of Jack Kirby's influential art style.

On the whole, if you can tolerate some old-fashioned comic book writing styles and some ludicrous pseudo-science there are some good things to be gained from Essential Captain America, vol. 1.  Although I would, perhaps, recommend that you read it in bite-sized chunks rather than in marathon reading sessions.  I think some of the problems of plotting and writing do not become as annoying that way.  And hey, if nothing else, it's over 300 pages of comics for $20.  That's a pretty good bargain for several weeks' worth or more of reading entertainment.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"All in Black and White for... Well, probably not a Dime"

Several years back publishers DC Comics and Marvel Comics began publishing massive tomes filled with old issues of their comics.  DC called their line Showcase Presents (the reason behind said title I'll get into later) and Marvel titled theirs Essential.  The feature of both titles was to make old issues available to the public in an inexpensive format.

Both the Essential and Showcase lines featured all the issues featuring a particular character in chronological order and each book usually ran (and still runs) to something over 300 pages... all for about $20.  How can they offer so much for so cheap (and believe me, that's cheap)?  Two simple things -- the comics are printed on cheaper paper than the heavier, glossy stuff that modern comics and trade paperbacks are printed on (the stuff that Essential and Showcase use is kind of a step or two up from newsprint.  And if you aren't careful and store your copies of these away from heat and direct sunlight they will start to yellow like old newsprint.  Let's just say I'm careful but I've seen others who were not so).  The other thing is that the comics are printed in black and white.  The original color comics are scanned and the color digitally stripped out and then the art digitally touched up a bit to make sure it's clear.

Now, for some, this is heresy of the first order.  Some because it changes the original format -- that comics were *meant* to be seen in color.  Some because they simply hate black and white art in all forms... color snobs who won't even see a black and white movie.

For me... it depends.  For some comics, stripping away the color doesn't really impact the story any and for the most part I'm buying these books to get the stories.  And for some comics stripping out the color actually allows you to better see the original artist's line work better and you come to a greater appreciation of their talent and skill.  For other comics, however, stripping away the color does ruin things because you might discover that the line work was not very good to begin with and the color hid the flaws.  Or it may be a case where color was an integral part of the characters and the stories and removing the color ruins that.  A good example of this latter is the character Green Lantern.  The character has always been defined by his glowing, green energy constructs and his weakness to things colored yellow.  So taking the color out of a Green Lantern story... kind of takes away what is, for me at least, part of the very character and story. 

So why am I going on about all of this?  Well, let's just say I've been on a run lately and I figured it might be a good time and place for me to share some of my observations about some Silver and Bronze Age comics, characters, and stories.

"All in color for a dime!" used to be a selling point of early comic books but here we're going to be looking at "all in black and white for about $20". 

We've Gone Off the Rails!

Yes, sorry, sorry, sorry, the Compound Geekery Blog has gone off the rails as of late due to me doing other things which I wasn't really inspired to write about.

I am endeavoring to fix that....

Stay Tuned.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"He'll Have to Sit and Watch Them All and We'll Monitor His Mind"

And now we come to the final installment in the MST3K season 4 overview. 

Invariably during every season there are episodes which can mostly pass without comment -- "good" but not "great".  In the midst of these episodes though there may be a terrific host segment or a short film which outshines the feature film it is paired with.

So this post is where I highlight those things.

First up:

'The Rainy Day Holo-Clowns':  This one actually starts in the third host segment of episode 405 -- Being From Another Planet.  The gang would continue it in the opening to the following episode Attack of the Giant Leeches.  The second half -- in which it turns out the 'holo-clowns' have been up on the hexfield viewscreen for three weeks -- is the funnier bit as Joel frantically tries to finally shut the system down and the holo-clowns start to have their own nervous breakdowns.  And yes, that's Mike Nelson as one of the clowns -- the other is Paul Chaplin, a writer on the show.  This was Chaplin's first on-screen appearance.

Next: 'The bots try to convince Joel he's crazy' from episode 409 The Indestructible Man.  The movie and the short are a unremarkable and unmemorable but this opening host segment is a hoot.  It wasn't too often that the bots tried playing tricks on Joel but when the gang brought one out it was usually a good one.  On top of that, this segment does beg the question -- was Kevin Murphy pupeteering Crow instead of his usual Tom Servo?  And was Trace Beaulieu handling Tom Servo instead of Crow?

This next one is a short instead of a host segment.  Apparently a tourism film to promote the Canadian National Exposition or something Johnny at the Fair chronicles the exploits of young Johnny (who else?) as he runs around the expo meeting famous people and getting free rides and free food while his parents search for him frantically... well, as frantic as you can get in a 1950's film designed to convince people to come to the expo.  Wait...  was 'come to the expo and lose your kid and then have a lousy time while you freak out looking for him and imagining the worst' really the message they wanted to send?  Anyway, as you can imagine, Joel and the bots have an excellent time making fun of little Johnny's adventures and the riffing for this short is a lot more fun than the movie it's paired with -- episode 419's The Rebel Set.

We're back to host segments for 'Grumpy Hugh Beaumont'.  Back in season 2 the gang tackled the snoozer film The Lost Continent and the host segments for that one were livened up by a visit from Leave it to Beaver's dad Hugh Beaumont (Mike Nelson)... as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse.  Well, in season 4 Hugh returns courtesy of episode 420 -- The Human Duplicators.  Hugh may no longer be a horseman of the apocalypse but he's decidedly older and grumpier... much to Joel and the bots' dismay and much to the delight of the viewer...  Sadly, I can't find an embeddable copy of this video so just check out the third host segment for the episode -- you'll be glad you did.

And here we have another short which was far funnier than the film it was paired with...  Circus on Ice is... well, I'm honestly still trying to figure out WHY this short film was created in the first place.  It doesn't seem to fill any tourism function and it's not really educational and it's past the days of the old newsreels when they would splat just about any odd thing onto film but no matter it's original purpose here it becomes comedy gold.  Joel and the bots indulge in quite a bit of dark humor and some risque riffing but it's hysterically funny -- far more funny than the weird and nearly incomprehensible Monster A-Go-Go it's paired with.

Finally, we come to kind of a tough one for me.  You see the short Hired! -- obviously a training film created by Chevrolet pre-WW II to train it's sales managers -- actually originally came in two parts and the riffing team did use both parts.  Part one was paired with episode 423 Bride of the Monster and part two was paired with the next movie in line -- Manos, The Hands of Fate.  The riffing on the first half of Hired! is pretty good really but the riffing on the second half is superior in my opinion.  Still, I almost included the first half of the short here as well if for no other reason than the second half makes slightly more sense in context when you've seen the first half.  Also, because one of the host segments for episode 423 also makes more sense when you've seen the first half of Hired!  In the end, I'll leave it up to you if you want to seek out Hired! part one or not.  It's pretty good stuff but the real gem here is actually the host segment...

Joel and the bots take the events and characters from the short and turn them into a really great parody song medley.  'Hired! The Musical' is one of the best parody musical bits the gang has done in a good while as far as I'm concerned.  Mike Nelson outdid himself on the songs and Joel Hodgson manages to pretty well control his often wayward voice to turn in an acceptable singing performance.  Kevin Murphy's tenor is, of course, the scene stealer.  The gang manages to do a perfect parody/satire of a musical in less than four minutes -- that takes serious talent!

So, that's season 4 wrapped.  Onward from here!

Friday, June 8, 2012

"We'll Send Him Cheesy Movies; The Worst We Can Find"

And now it's time for my favorite MST3K episodes of the fourth season...

In broadcast order....

Teenagers from Outer Space: This is one goofy film and it is smack in the MST3K wheelhouse.  A cheesy, sci-fi movie made on half-a-shoestring budget with actors who fall into one of three categories: Can't act, don't act, or overact.  I have to admit that within the first few minutes of sitting down to watch this episode I thought I was going to be in for one of those mediocre slogs but the movie quickly picked up in absurdity and as it did Joel, Trace, and Kevin's riffing also picked up exponentially.  The movie -- the story of a group of aliens who come to Earth to find grazing land for their food source (basically a poor lobster probably bought at the local grocery store) only to have one of their number rebel to try to warn the human population that their planet is about to be turned into pasture land -- is unintentionally hilarious in its' own right but when you add the riffing it immediately reaches the level of comedy gold.  The riffing team are fast with the jokes and far more of them hit the mark than fall flat.  On top of all of that, the host segments are pretty good here -- the third one is a particular favorite of mine as the Satellite of Love is visited by an alien hot rod...

The Magic Sword: To be honest, this movie is almost mediocre.  It falls juuuussst under the line.  With a little more effort it would have probably missed being a riffing target.  As it is though Joel and the bots do a bang-up job tearing apart this story which rips off at least half-a-dozen fairy tales, folk tales, and myths.  The host segments for this one are also pretty good but the second one, where Tom Servo gives a mini-lecture on what life in the Middle Ages was really like warms my historian heart.  It's pretty spot-on, historically speaking, if a bit superficial.  What's even funnier, though, is Joel and Crow's reaction to having their light fantasy ruined by a dose of reality.  Check this one out.

Manhunt in Space (with a General Hospital short): *Sigh* in my previous post I covered why I didn't like the addition of chopped up General Hospital episodes as shorts.  Despite it's presence here I really dug Manhunt in Space.  Little bit of background -- the "movie" is actually several episodes of early sci-fi TV series Rocky Jones: Space Ranger mashed together to form a movie.  Unlike the clunky Master Ninja movies of last season though Rocky Jones, like Doctor Who was done serial style -- or story arc style -- with several episodes of the show being pieces of the larger story and often ending on a cliffhanger.  Because of this the Rocky Jones episodes actually work pretty well in movie format.  Also, this is another one that probably wasn't too fair to riff in all honesty.  The show came from the 1950's when almost all TV writing was pretty cheesy and clunky and on top of that the show was made for kids.  The worst crime this movie really commits is simply not aging well.  Despite my defense of the movie I still love the episode.  There are some really funny jokes here that had me laughing out loud and I really get a sense from the riffing team that there was also a certain amount of fondness involved even as they do tear into the film.  The host segments really aren't anything to write home about here though -- the feature film is the real... uh.... feature.

Fire Maidens of Outer Space: Oh man, this one... this one is solid gold.  Not gold leaf, not gold plated , solid.  Gold.  The riffing is top notch and in fact is the *only* thing that makes this movie watchable (more on that later) and the host segments are a rarity on a number of levels.  Up until close to the end of the show's run the gang rarely did linked host segments which, all together, told a whole story.  This is one of those rare occasions.  Not only that but the host segments are all genuinely funny and they all work together to present a perfect satire of, of all things, Aliens.  Even more rare, the host segment action even spills over into the theatre riffing!  All of this is terrific because the movie is epic fail on every level.  There are wide swaths of stuff which is not explained and makes no sense, the plot doesn't go anywhere, and worst of all NOTHING HAPPENS!  This movie is lethally dull.  And I mean that.  It should come with biohazard stickers and a Surgeon General's warning.  Unriffed this movie could put a person down so hard it would make Sleeping Beauty's 100 year rest look like a nap.  It is a testament to the writing and riffing talents of the whole team that they can pull this movie up and shove it over the top.  I've seen the host segments alone available on YouTube strung together so you can see the whole 'story' but I'm not linking to it nor embedding it here because everyone should go watch the whole thing and not just the host segments.

Attack of the (the) Eye Creatures: This one is almost too, too, easy.  There are movies made on the cheap and then there's THIS thing.  Ye gods...  Almost the entire film is shot day-for-night -- because it's cheaper.  The sets are whatever they could find locally -- with a presumed military base looking like a grade school -- because it was cheaper.  The alien costumes are just cheap with industrial zippers clearly visible in the back and wobbly heads and then they're so cheap they don't actually have enough alien costumes to go around and in one scene one of the "aliens" consists of a black turtleneck, black pants, and sneakers.  This is yet another one that simply makes fun of itself.  Why should we, however, expend the effort since Joel and the bots do such a good job of it?  Again, the riffing is great -- but the guys would have had to have been dead to not do a good job when the movie practically gives them the jokes.  They still manage to get creative and go places with the riffing that I never would have expected and that makes this one fun.  The host segments are... not real great here.  In fact, there's only one a truly like -- Tom Servo wants to know what it would be like to "make out".  You can zone out during most of the host segments but don't miss the riffing on this movie.

Manos, The Hands of Fate: Yeah, you all just KNEW this one had to be in here, didn't you?  This one often is called the best episode of the Joel era and some claim it the best episode of the show period.  Others consider it wholly distasteful.  It is... well... one for the books.  As much as I called Fire Maidens of Outer Space epic fail filmmaking this one is even more so.  The difference is that Fire Maidens was made by people who should have known better while Manos was made on a bet (not kidding) by people who had no real clue.  In some ways it maybe isn't fair to riff it -- Joel and the gang have long said and still say today that they won't riff on amateur films or student films basically because they're done by people who are still learning or who don't know any better and Manos is pretty much an amateur film.  It did have some theatrical release though and did end up in a video syndication package so... yeah... it barely makes it fair game.  It's just so completely... bizarre a film -- badly shot, badly edited, badly lit (check out all the moths which swarm around the obvious spotlights), bad dialogue badly delivered, weird characters and a plot that makes little sense -- that it actually might make difficult riffing fodder rather than easy fodder.  There are some moments in the film which seem to leave Joel and the bots nearly speechless or else their only reaction is simply to laugh.  Despite the movie, maybe because of it, the gang do a great job at the riffing and produce genuinely entertaining host segments and along the way turn Torgo into a star.  If you've got the fortitude definitely check this one out -- this time I think the Master would approve...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"But His Bosses Didn't Like Him So They Shot Him Into Space"

That's right, I'm back with more MST3K! I know, I know, I've been slacking on the blog but... stuff. It happens.

Anyway, we're going to do this way the same way as my previous MST3K post(s) -- this post will cover my overview of season 4 and the two subsequent posts will cover my favorite episodes from the season and why and my favorite host segments.

So... on with Season 4!

Really, I don't know where to begin... mostly because the creative team had reached a kind of plateau. The cast and crew were mostly stable (we'll get to the "mostly" in a minute) and they had been working together for such a long time that they operated like a well-oiled machine. They churned out 24 episodes which filled a two-hour programming block without a visible hitch and while not every episode might be a laugh riot there wasn't a clunker in the bunch this season and at their weakest they were still entertaining. They had reached a point of consistency that few shows could boast.

One area where improvement could be seen was with some of the tougher movies. The gang tackled some of the arguably worst bad movies. You see, bad movies can basically be broken down into two categories -- ones which are so ridiculously bad they are actually entertaining in their badness and ones which are so bad they are boring and/or incomprehensible. In season 4 the writing and riffing team handled some real snooze-fest films. Titles like Fire Maidens of Outer Space, Monster A-Go-Go, and the infamous Manos, the Hands of Fate just to name a few. In season 3 the gang had struggled with the more boring and/or incomprehensible films like Castle of Fu Manchu (where they used crying and complaining to try to cover the fact that they just failed to come up with some witty one-liners) and the two Master Ninja movies (using that word loosely) but in season 4 the worst of the worst are considered by many to be some of their best, most inspired, riffing jobs. Not only that but Manos had a strong showing despite coming at the end of the grueling season when the team had to have been feeling the burn-out.

One thing which probably helped defeat the burn-out was the addition of two regular writers for the series. Colleen Henjum and Mary Jo Pehl were added to the writing staff -- hence why I say the cast and crew were "mostly" stable.

There was only one departure this season -- that of Production Manager Alexandra "Alex" Carr. While Carr worked behind the scenes apparently she also had one role in front of the cameras... sort of...that of the uncredited "Magic Voice" -- the dulcet tones of the Satellite of Love's computer A.I... or something -- it was never properly explained WHAT Magic Voice was. Either way, with Carr's departure there was a change in Magic Voice's... uh... voice and fans of the show will recognize that Mary Jo Pehl took over the role -- still uncredited.

There wasn't a lot of innovation this season but we do see the gang say goodbye to the movie serial installments. For the first three seasons on cable the gang had often padded out their episode run times by pairing a shorter movie with either a film short or else an episode from a movie serial. With this season they did a couple of movie serials and experimented with a couple of episodes of a soap opera (General Hospital) to fill out episodes before finally and fully settling on the shorts from here on when they needed to pad out a run time.

While your actual miles may vary I found that the gang did seem to take a while to find their feet in season 4. While, as I said, none of the episodes are bad, the first three were just not extremely funny to me and it took until the fourth episode in before I felt like they really started getting inspired. Once they got past that point, though, they turned in some really terrific episodes.

The gang also had a really nice variety in their film choices this season. They balanced traditional sci-fi with some fantasy/myth movies and peppered in some wanna-be noir pieces, 'dangerous youth' films, and even a 'post-apocalyptic' style flick. It was a cornucopia of styles of bad filmmaking and it gave the season a nice diversity to keep the riffing fresh and different.

The one thing I didn't like and was quite happy to see go was the General Hospital experiment. The show's focus had always been on the "movie experience" so throwing in episodes of a TV series just felt wrong to me. In addition, it seemed like it was a little unfair picking on a soap opera. Movies tend to have long gestation periods and layers of people involved where one would think that someone, somewhere along the chain might say "You know what? This isn't very good" and fix the things that were going wrong -- doctor the script, get a new director, get new actors... something! A soap opera on the other hand, had to be written quickly and shot even faster since it went out on the air five days a week. Also, the very nature of soap operas are built on ideas of very little character development and mostly an illusion of change without there being much actual change. Soap operas also are completely built on the kind of overblown plots that the guys tended to make fun of in movies. And on top of all of that... I just didn't find the riffing that funny. It felt like the guys were always kind of struggling for inspiration with them and there were only a few gems of humor in the installments so I was glad to see them go.

So, in the final summation -- season 4 merely continued the same good work the gang had already been doing. Plenty of funny work and a relaxed ease that really shone through on camera. There are several points in the host segments where you can see things happen which were more than likely accidents or ad-libs but the gang has reached such a level of competency that they often take it and run with it -- incorporating the accident into the episode seamlessly.

Next up -- some of my favorite episodes... and why.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Children of a Lesser Bond: "Solo"

If you've never heard of a TV series titled Solo well, there's a very good reason for that.... It doesn't exist. Or rather, it doesn't exist under that title. You're probably more familiar with the name the TV series ended up being produced under...

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

So why am I calling this post Children of a Lesser Bond: "Solo"? Because that was the name initially given to the series and the name the original pilot was filmed under and the pilot for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is such a fascinating piece of spy TV I felt it deserved an entire post devoted to it.

Out of all of the Children of Bond that cropped up The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had the rare boast of actually having James Bond creator Ian Fleming as a consultant for the series. Except that Fleming never really did contribute much to the original idea beyond a few character names -- including suggesting "Solo" for the name of the protagonist.

What set "Solo" aside was several things. The pilot was movie length for one -- something that was rare for those times. The pilot also had noticeably better production values than the average TV series -- including being filmed in color when most American TV was still in black and white. The reason for all of this was series creator and producer Norman Felton convinced NBC TV executives to spend a bit more time and money on the pilot by arguing that even if it didn't get picked up as a TV series at least NBC's owner MGM could sell the pilot as a movie in overseas markets. In point of fact, despite the fact that NBC *did* pick up the series the pilot *still* was distributed overseas as a movie -- retitled To Trap a Spy.

The movie "Solo" was never fully seen on American TV during the original run of the series. When it came time to launch The Man from U.N.C.L.E. NBC executives chopped and cut the movie horribly, switched it to black and white, and made a few minor changes... but we'll get to those later; for now -- let's take a look at the plot!

The Plot: Napoleon Solo works for the secret (sort-of) organization known as U.N.C.L.E. -- the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (for the record, a lot of people erroneously give the acronym as the more logical United Network Command for Law Enforcement but there is an 'and' in there). U.N.C.L.E., a kind of 'espionage United Nations', exists to combat threats to world peace and stability -- most notably from the evil organization known as THRUSH (note: the explanation of what THRUSH stood for was never given during the TV series. Later novelization writers assigned it Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). U.N.C.L.E. comes to believe that multi-millionaire industrialist Andrew Vulcan is secretly an agent of THRUSH and more to the point that Vulcan intends to cause the death of the Prime Minister of an African nation that has recently gained it's independence.

In order to uncover Vulcan's plans U.N.C.L.E. sends Solo to recruit Vulcan's former college sweetheart, Elaine (actress Patricia Crowley) -- now a suburban housewife and mother. The woman reluctantly agrees but soon finds herself swept up in a glamorous world as she presents herself to Vulcan as a wealthy widow. Even more, she finds that her feelings for Vulcan are perhaps not so dead as she once thought.

THRUSH is still in the game though and Solo and Elaine find themselves targets as they discover that Vulcan and THRUSH's plans are far more elaborate and deeper than they thought. Can they save the African nation from descending into anarchy and becoming easy pickings for THRUSH? And more to the point, can Elaine and Solo save themselves?

So What's the Result?

The pilot was strong enough for NBC to order the series and it's easy to see why. While some of the action is still clunky and doesn't make much sense Vaughn is suave, charming, and roguish in the lead role and there is just a hint of vulnerability here which, sadly, was mostly erased for the series proper. Patricia Crowley does a nice turn as the "innocent" thrust into a wholly strange world -- coming across as mostly believable although there is a moment close to the end where she turns into a horrible, weepy, stereotype of the "weak female". The villain is debonair as well and the audience actually feels a bit for him as he seems to genuinely be attracted to Elaine as "the one who got away." And the plot itself holds together, is action packed and contains a nice twist (oh, and there is a kind of reverse Speed death trap that proves that movie isn't quite as original as some might think). On the downside there is the aforementioned sometimes clunky action sequences and the sets range from good to merely serviceable -- showing that the pilot still had some budget constraints.

The original pilot is available as a DVD extra on the Man from U.N.C.L.E. complete box set and I highly recommend checking it out either through Netflix or your local library or some other legal outlet since it really was a nice, solid introduction to the series and comes across much better than what was aired on TV for the pilot.

Next up, we start tearing into the first season of the show proper...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Retro Comic Book Reviews

A.K.A. Comics you might have missed but really shouldn't have.

For the inaugural RCBR we have Matthew Loux's 2006 OGN (that's Original Graphic Novel) for those who don't speak comic book abbreviations) SideScrollers.

"Side-Scrolling" usually refers to a video game in which the characters move from left to right across the screen encountering various enemies and obstacles which must be defeated in order for the player to move on to the next level and eventually win the game.

Side-scrolling games are among the favorite video games of recent high school graduates Matt, Brian and Brad. They are prepared to while away their summer playing games, discussing pop culture, eating junk food, and pursuing new shipments of action figures at the local big box store.

Their planned routine, however, is interrupted by a day of adventure as Matt learns that the girl he secretly has a crush on, Amber, is planning to go to the big rock music show with Dick the school bully and football jock. More to the point, Matt, Brian and Brad discover that the bully intends to seduce Amber to make her just another notch on his belt. Matt, Brian and Brad's attempts at stopping Dick's plans put them on the run from Dick and his football buddies.

Along the way the three friends must deal with a troop of angry "Girlie Scouts", a Satanic cat, an escaped scorpion, and various elements of mischief and mayhem. Will Matt be able to defend Amber's reputation? Will Brad escape the Satanic cat with his soul intact? Will all three ever get to the big rock show? Tune in to find out!

SideScrollers has some swearing and sexual innuendo so this is not a comic for the little kiddies. But for anyone who remembers the early films of Kevin Smith this graphic novel will touch a chord. Action moves from satire to the ridiculous and absurdly impossible but always with a genuine sense of humor and a deft touch. No matter how silly the action gets (like a talking South American Bark Scorpion) the characters remain oddly grounded in their emotions and motivations.

Also, the pop culture references fly fast and furious -- mostly movies and video games -- so those unfamiliar with the culture may be a bit lost but for those of us who are denizens of that world the conversations are familiar... and funny. Writer and artist Loux also never misses a chance to throw in a good-natured little jab at those bits of pop-culture. Sometimes the jabs come in the form of dialogue but sometimes they are hidden in the background artwork.

And that does lead us to a discussion of the artwork. The comic is in black and white and Loux has a style that is... well... highly stylized. His figures look and move like exaggerated cartoon characters -- which also ramps up the hilarity throughout the comic. The whole thing looks like it's built for animation -- in a good way.

If you're a gamer geek, sci-fi geek, comic book geek or any combination thereof then check this graphic novel out. SideScrollers is guaranteed to get a laugh out of you -- or at the very least a grin.

You can order SideScrollers from publisher Oni Press.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Children of a Lesser Bond, pt. 1: "The Wild, Wild, West" Season 1

The Wild, Wild, West was not the first American show to come out of the spy craze of the 1960's but it was arguably the most variant on the theme.

In the mid-1960's spies were not the only popular genre in TV and movies -- Westerns were also making a strong showing on both the big and small screens. Series creator Michael Garrison came up with the bright idea to marry the two genres in hopes of creating something wildly popular. The result was a kind of James Bond in the 1870's. Garrison also wanted to make sure he kept the James Bond trappings of the wild spy gadgets so the writers took mostly modern devices and cleverly transposed them to the time frame -- deliberate quasi-anachronisms which winked at the modern audience. For example, in one episode Artemus Gordon, fellow agent and gadget guy, invents tear gas. In another episode, since radios didn't exist as a form of communication in the 1870's, instead of having a radio hidden in a cigarette case Agent James West produces a telegraph apparatus hidden in a cane and a cigar case. In another episode West is given a carriage with various gadgets -- including a spring-loaded 'ejector seat'! It is interesting because those elements now lend the show a kind of proto-Steampunk and proto-Teslapunk feel making it seem ahead of it's time.

The series adopted a tongue-in-cheek tone focusing on action, adventure, and exaggerated villains with a heavy dose of humor.

For the main lead, James West, young, athletic actor Robert Conrad was chosen. Conrad was a natural man of action and insisted on doing his own stunts. He argued with studio executives until he got his way but this would come back to haunt Conrad and the whole production team in a later season… something I hope we’ll get to in another post. Conrad’s desert-dry line delivery paired well with his co-star…

Character actor Ross Martin was picked for the role of West’s partner – Artemus Gordon. Martin had gained his start in radio where his ability to do different accents and change his voice was a considerable boon. He made the move to movies and then television but his career did not really take off until he played the villain in the movie The Great Race. It was on the strength of that role that he won the part in The Wild, Wild, West.

The premise was simple – Secret Service Agents James West and Artemus Gordon traveled around the country in their private train stopping threats to the President of the United States and the country at large. Along the way they meet lovey ladies in distress and some who cause the heroic agents a bit of distress, diabolical villains, and deadly perils.

So let’s look at the fist season, shall we?

With the aforementioned simple premise there really wasn’t a lot of tweaking of the series that occurred over the course of the first season. A character called Tennyson – West and Gordon’s British butler on the train – was added but he only lasted three episodes before being quietly jettisoned. The only other noticeable change was the growth of Ross Martin’s role. In the first produced episodes Martin’s Gordon didn't really add much to the stories. He tended to appear at the beginning, sometimes in the middle, and then at the end dropping in only to dump some necessary exposition to move the plot along then heading off to ‘investigate other leads’ – which were often never mentioned again. The writers, however, soon realized that Martin and Conrad’s obvious on-screen chemistry and Martin’s comedic timing and ability to create characters out of whole cloth were benefits and began increasing his role. And it should be noted that Martin was given pretty much free reign on the disguises that Artemus Gordon utilized throughout the series – he would decide on the costuming, wigs, make-up, prosthetics, and voice -- which showed his innate talent.

Shows from this era also really can’t be judged on characterization – and particularly not this show where the focus was always on the plot rather than on the characters. Out of all who appear the villains often get the most character development. The two leads – West and Gordon – were pretty much exactly the same when you first met them as at the end of the season and you never learn much about their pasts. West is originally an Army officer and a trained fighter. Gordon is a former stage actor, inventor and chemist. You get all of that within the first few episodes and that’s all you get for all 28 episodes in the first season.

Two groups in general kind of suffer here as well… women and minorities. The series has just about zero feminist credibility today as women appear in the episodes to either provide someone for West to flirt with and seduce or to be the villains. And outside of the villains very few of the women who appear are shown to be strong, capable, figures. Even the villains tend to fall apart at the end and repent of their evil ways thanks to Wests’ charms.

(and a charming backside it was, too...)

In regards to minorities – well, there aren’t too many in the first season but the ones who do appear tend to suffer from painful racial stereotyping. A few manage to escape this – and it’s a real breath of fresh air to see from that time period – but most are simply a product of less enlightened times and less enlightened writers bowing to terrible social conventions of the time period. Additionally, a great many roles were often played by white actors in make-up. It's kind of wince inducing today -- although even today it's a battle still being fought in Hollywood.

Where the show excelled – even here in the first season – was with the humor, the plotting and the villains. The writers knew how to amp up the action. The threats were nicely threatening and nearly each commercial break ended on some kind of cliffhanger. Conrad threw himself into fight scenes and stunts with abandon and the result was that most of them were really action packed melees and stand up well today. This, too, though would come back to haunt the show as the level of violence there made it a target for various anti-violence crusade groups. In the first season alone we see a (relatively) innocent woman impaled (bloodlessly) on a thrown sword, another unarmed and non-threatening woman take a knife to the stomach, and four men hung from rudimentary scaffolding. And those are just a few of the examples. People tended to die in the show… a lot… and often violently… and not just the villains either.

The humor though was a much tighter wire to balance on. The writers deliberately threw in puns and word-play and often relied on somewhat broad humor but at the same time they rode the delicate line between gently satirizing the spy genre without going over the top into parody or spoof.

And finally there were the villains. There are a number of great ones here in the first season. Many… okay, probably most… are simply one-note wonders with a gimmick and some style but a few had genuine reasons for wanting to lash out and there is a bit of sympathy for these devils written in. This is surprising for the time period and makes the villains more rounded characters. None perhaps more so than Miguelito Loveless – played by dwarf actor Michael Dunn. The writers treated the character with a great amount of respect – always taking care to show the villain as supremely intelligent, crafty, able to defend himself, and complex – showing a great compassion for some people and things and a chilling disregard for others. More to the point, the character’s size was never treated as the main aspect of his personality.

The first season was the show’s only season to be filmed in black and white. It debuted in 1965 when American television was beginning the conversion to color. The various directors managed to use the black and white to their advantage though – playing with light and dark and using shadows to help hide some cheap and obviously reused and reused and reused sets.

So all that’s left here is to look at the good… And the bad.

Surprisingly, none of the 28 initial episodes are outright bad. There are a great many that are watchable but overall either forgettable or simply mediocre. There are a few though that stood out for me as being really well done…

The Night of the Torture Chamber”: A state governor is replaced by a double so that an avaricious art collector can pursue a mad scheme. What I loved about this one is that the villain’s plot is an eminently personal one instead of being a national threat. Ross Martin gets to do a truly hilarious turn as a French art agent (and for the record, Ross Martin really could speak French – among several other languages) and the way the villain is ultimately defeated is exceedingly clever.

The Night of the Steel Assassin”: Here is another one where I simply loved the villain… get used to it; most of these I’ve picked are because of the villain. Horribly disfigured in an explosion, Torres recreates his body in steel and wire and goes out seeking vengeance on those he feels should have been the ones to suffer. Okay, so the whole ‘cyborg’ aspect of this one is stretching the disbelief on the anachronistic gadgets (and no, they DON’T use the term ‘cyborg’ in the story) but the execution is just too good. The sound effects add a metallic overlay to the actor’s voice lending a creepily inhuman quality to it. The idea of Torres developing his mind because his body is little more than a shattered shell is compelling and, more to the point, there is some question as to whether or not he has a legitimate beef. Torres was blown up in a raid on an ammo depot because he had drawn the lowest card among his fellow Army unit members and thus had to do guard duty on the ammo depot. The thing is his card had been a Jack and the other six members of his unit had all drawn higher cards. He accuses them of cheating and really… he might be right! Because of this you actually feel a bit of sympathy for him and understand his anger… but his way of seeking “justice” – by killing all those who were in his unit including Ulysses S. Grant now President of the United States -- is still wrong. He also makes a truly noble exit -- adding to the feeling of respect for this villain.

The Night of the Grand Emir”: First thing: yes, it’s white guys playing really, really stereotypical (for the time period) Middle Easterners. It isn’t pretty. It frankly leaves kind of a bad taste in your mouth. Once you get past that though there is, again, a great villain here in T. Wigget Jones. Sure, you know he’s the villain right from the start but he’s got panache and style and actor Don Francks delivers the dialogue with obvious relish – but without chewing the scenery. On top of all of that there is an ‘Assassins’ Club’ here that is just a plain neat idea. And as a trivia note – the requisite lovely woman this episode is played by Yvonne Craig – who is more well remembered for her role as Batgirl in the 1960’s Batman TV series.

The Night of the Puppeteer”: Oooo, this one is just firing on all cylinders. Everything about this story just plain WORKS. The villain is a man (perhaps) wrongfully accused of murder. He was believed killed in an escape attempt but now all those Supreme Court Justices who turned down his appeal are dying one-by-one. Again, we have a sympathetic villain and the idea of him building life-sized puppets is just creepy. The actors playing the various 'puppets' do a wonderful job at it, the set design is avaunt-garde and loaded with symbolism, and the music by composer Dave Grusin has some great cues. The best scene in the episode is when West dances with what he believes to be the life-sized ballerina puppet Vivid. He loses himself in the dance and then is visibly disturbed that he did so – forgetting momentarily that Vivid was not real. The scene is well done and well-acted by all involved.

The Night of the Murderous Spring”: In Miguelito Loveless’s fourth outing he sends James West on a bad drug trip but that is only the first step in his plan to restore what he sees as balance to the world. Although I really like Loveless as a villain this is the only one of his stories to make my list. The others were good, don’t get me wrong, but this one had other elements which just make it the best of the bunch. Loveless, however, as a recurring villain actually does have some character development growing a little more unhinged with each appearance. By the time he arrives here he has reached a new, terrifying level of madness. Determined to wipe all of humanity off the face of the Earth he has created a drug which causes people to hallucinate and lose control. This episode features a really chilling scene in which Loveless, to demonstrate the power of his drug, gives it to his staff – 20 men and women – who then go mad. The whole thing is unseen – happening behind closed doors – but the old truism of horror remains true – what you can’t see is more horrifying than what you can. There are screams and cries and violent pounding on the closed door and then everything falls to a deathly silence. It sends a real shiver up your spine. Another good aspect of the story is the character of Kitten Twitty. Tall, overweight, and implied as illiterate, Kitten is devoted to Miguelito but in a heartbreaking soliloquy she tells James and Artemus exactly why – forever laughed at due to her size, all she wants is to be pretty, to be normal, and to have a chance at true love – and Loveless has promised to use his science make her into the woman she wants to be. Finally, there is the banter between James and Artemus. It’s particularly good here and is needed to bring levity into what would otherwise be a heavy and depressing script.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Dr. No" Turns 50!

I really can't pin down when I fell in love with all things pop culture espionage. I remember watching James Bond movies on TV when I was a kid and things only went on from there.

So imagine my surprise to hear recently that Dr. No, the first film in the James Bond movie franchise (although not Ian Fleming's first James Bond book) was turning 50 this year. 50 years of Bond movies, six actors in the lead role (not counting "spoofs") and over 22 movies. It's quite a record.

But it isn't just Bond himself. What Dr. No kicked off would be an upswing in other books, movies, TV shows, and even comic books all dealing with spies and espionage and all, in one way or another, owing a tip of the hat to Mr. Bond.

So I thought what better way to celebrate 50 years of spies in pop culture than to take a look at some of these spiritual children of Bond. As such, I'm starting a series here over the course of the year (I hope) that I'm choosing to call......


Children of a Lesser Bond

Tune in tomorrow for the first installment....

And don't worry, we'll spend a little time with Mr. Bond himself before the year is out....

In the meantime....

Monday, January 16, 2012

Friday, January 6, 2012

Day Late and a Dollar Short -- Doctor Who Christmas Special

So it's been a hectic Holiday season at the Stress Cave Secret Hideout.

Now that things have calmed down... a bit... it's time to start writing again on all sorts of geeky stuff. And of course, what would Christmas be without the Doctor Who Christmas Special.

2011 saw "The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe" -- an obvious play on C.S. Lewis's classic book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So how did this year's installment stack up? Let's take a look....

First of all, it should be said that the BBC did post a short "prequel" on their website that takes place before the episode opens.

In truth, it doesn't really add any necessary information and if you saw last season's finale then you already knew that Amy and Rory were no longer traveling with the Doctor.

So that being said, here's the rest of the plot:

The Doctor escapes from an exploding spaceship... the hard way... without the TARDIS... and lands... badly... in a sleepy English village. He is found by Madge Arwell who seems kind if a bit... scatterbrained. Madge takes the Doctor (whose face she never sees) to the TARDIS and in gratitude the Doctor tells her that if she ever needs his help to just "wish".

Three years later, on Christmas Eve, Madge learns that her husband, an RAF pilot, has apparently been lost in WW II. She hides this fact from her children and takes them to a relative's country estate to enjoy the holiday away from the bombing. She hopes to give them a happy Christmas before she has to tell them the truth.

At the house Madge and her two children discover a new caretaker for the empty old place -- a rather strange and manic young man who has redecorated the house for Christmas, transforming it into a wondrous place of play for the children. There is also a large present under the tree wrapped in TARDIS blue paper....

Late that night, Madge's son sneaks out of bed, opens the present, and finds it a gateway to another world. "The Caretaker" and Madge's daughter follow as does Madge but this "present" proves to be far more dangerous than the Doctor anticipated. Now the family is in for the Christmas of a lifetime... if they can survive it.

My Take: Sadly this story was only 'mediocre'. Doctor Who has a reputation for pulling out all the stops for grand and action packed Christmas specials -- or at least deeply moving, emotional stories -- but this one sort of fails on both fronts.

The bones of the story are good and sound -- the attempt to use the delights of the season to drown out the deprivations of war -- the rationing, the loss of life, etc. -- is interesting and has the potential to resonate well from an emotional stand-point but the execution feels too rushed.

The story does a good job of establishing Madge and her two children but when we get to the alien world nothing else is as well developed. There is a lovely special effect with two alien beings -- a wooden "king" and "queen" -- but we learn nothing about them. They exist and they spout some cryptic exposition and that's it. The special effect seems wasted on them. The native inhabitants of this alien world are also given short shrift as we learn nothing about them, their society or culture. Again, they exist but that is pretty much it.

We also meet some invaders who provide a bit of comedy relief but here they're really not very funny being instead insultingly incompetent and existing to spout exposition... then leave. Arrrggghhhh!!!! It's like the whole episode is made up of characters who are merely "Captain Exposition"!

On top of all of that there are plot holes abounding -- all of which could have been easily fixed... but weren't and unexplained events that are handwaved away without even the good grace of an attempted technobabble explanation.

And all of this probably sounds like the episode was more 'bad' then 'meh' BUT it has a few graces which save it from being outright terrible:

The sets and locations are lovely and there are some great special effects here (and a couple of pretty poor ones but we'll let that slide).

The story of Madge struggling to hide the loss of her children's father just before Christmas is compelling as it means she must constantly swallow her own grief and deal with the knowledge that this will "ruin" Christmas for her children for years, if not a lifetime, to come.

Matt Smith again turns in a bravura performance. His manic Doctor whirls with childlike glee and we see again the mixture of the old soul with the young eyes. He connects with the children on their own level and he becomes joy personified. And yet he also is able to sympathize and understand Madge's struggle. And in the end he struggles with his own connections to humanity and the Christmas season and what they mean to him.

Steven Moffat seems to be keeping true to his word at the end of last season of the Doctor deciding to try to maintain a low profile. In past Christmas adventures the Doctor has often stormed in, loudly proclaiming who he is and his intention to 'save everyone'. Here, he never speaks his name, allowing Madge's family to continue using his alias-away-from-alias "Caretaker" (more on that next) and the one time he tries to take control of the situation he is rebuffed and must take a backseat to another. This is a Doctor who is quickly learning his lesson and discovering that sometimes 'less is more'.

Finally, I adore the Doctor's temporary new 'name' here. "Caretaker" could almost become his new alias if the show wasn't "Doctor Who" and had been for nearly 50 years now. The Doctor may be playing the role of the caretaker of the manor house but it is quickly apparent that he sees himself as the 'caretaker' of Madge and her family as well. And the name can even apply on a more global and galactic scale as the Doctor has proven himself to be the 'caretaker' of the Earth and even to a large extent the 'caretaker' of oppressed beings across multiple worlds and eras.

To wrap (heh) things up: "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe" was kind of like the blind gift exchanges at work. There's always a price limit and since no one knows who their gift is going to they try to pick out something blandly neutral that could go to anyone. So the gift you end up with is something unspectacular without any personality or personal touches to it. Yeah, that's this episode. It is, however, all we're getting until the fall. Settle in for your "long winter's nap" and peruse some older episodes until the return of Amy, Rory and the 11th Doctor!