New Video Up on YouTube: Wizards of New York

So I have a new video up on YouTube titled Wizards of New York, about that OTHER SF/F movie released by 20th Century Fox in 1977 and how it was influenced by the city where it was made. There’s a section that features a retrospective about depictions of New York in the mid- to late-1970’s that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and I think it turned out pretty well. I apologize for the wind noise during the live shots. I did my best to filter some of it out, but it was just too strong.

Also, I have started a Patreon to help with the making of the videos. I think I do pretty well for having a budget of essentially zero, but with a little extra income, I could do much better, I think.

You can look at my Patreon page and throw in your support here.

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Super Movie Monday: Amazing Spider-Man 2, Part 3

Here it is, the final chapter of our recap of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, just in time for the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming this Friday. Going into this final chapter, I want to repeat that I don’t reject the entire Andrew Garfield reboot out of hand. I think they did some interesting things with the character and the franchise this time around, but as far as the sequel goes, yeah, it’s really bad, and it’s the kind of bad that just gets worse the more times you watch it.

When we left off, Peter Parker had just discovered his father’s secret genetics lab hidden in FDR’s secret subway station and found out just how deep the corruption in Oscorp went.

Meanwhile, Harry Osborn, on a quest to get his father’s company back, somehow talks his way into Ravencroft, sneaks into the unit where Max is being held prisoner and pleads with him to help Harry regain control of his company and kill Spider-Man in exchange for his freedom. Guards arrive and drag Harry out, but not before Harry zaps Max with just enough electricity to enable him to disintegrate. Oops.

But then all the guards get zapped to death and Electro reforms like Dr. Manhattan.

Electro agrees to help Harry catch Spider-Man.

As Peter is leaving the subway, he gets a voicemail from Gwen. She got into Oxford, and she’s on the way to the airport right at that moment. Heartbreak!

Meanwhile, Harry and Electro show up back at Oscorp, and Electro is now wearing a special custom-made jumpsuit with lightning bolts on it.

No idea where he got it, especially since it seems like they came straight here from Ravencroft. But I guess cool trumps making a lick of fucking sense.

Harry heads down to Special Projects with the Head Douche, where he gets himself injected with spider venom (there’s also a brief glimpse of a set of Doctor Octopus-style metal tentacles). The spider venom causes a painful transformation, but Harry manages to get himself into a special metal battlesuit that includes a healing function, so he’s fine now, I guess.

Gwen is stuck in traffic when the cabbie spots Spider-Man and Gwen sees that he has spelled out “I LOVE YOU” in webbing on a neighboring bridge.

Um, Peter, you might not have gotten the memo, but Oscorp destroyed all the spiders. You might want to ration that webbing, is all I’m saying.

So Peter offers to go to England with Gwen because he loves her so much, and they share a romantic kiss at sunset, when the entire city goes black. Max is absorbing all the power from the grid. Somebody’s got to do something about that.

Gwen helps Peter magnetize his webshooters to protect them from electricity or something, then he webs her to a car and goes off to fight Electro. There’s a scene where Electro is teleporting from place to place as a lightning bolt that feels a lot like that “ride the lightning” scene in Ang Lee’s Hulk, while at the same time, the music sounds a lot like Escape from New York.

Spidey follows Electro to a power station where he tries that water trick again, but it doesn’t work this time. They fight, and though he fights valiantly, eventually Spider-Man is helpless against Electro’s power. Until Gwen hits Electro with a cop car she’s stolen.

So they make a plan for Gwen to bring the electrical grid back up so that the excess power will blow Electro up, which, I thought he had been absorbing the power all this time, but maybe not? Anyway, there’s lots of leaping and dodging and speed-ramping, and then Electro explodes and everybody’s happy.

Until Harry shows up as the Green Goblin and spoils everything.

They don’t even try to put Harry in the classic Goblin mask. Instead, Harry’s medical condition and the spider-venom “cure” have combined to make his skin green and his teeth pointed. It’s not a bad look, but it seems weirdly late in the game to introduce a new villain. Until he showed up at this moment, it really felt like they were setting Harry up for the sequel. But suddenly, here he is, all villained up for the second climax.

Seeing Spider-Man with Gwen, Harry realizes that Spidey is Peter. So to take revenge for Peter refusing to help him, Harry decides to kill Gwen. There’s a big fight in a clock tower that ends up with the Goblin knocked out, Gwen falling and Spider-Man catching her with his webs, just a moment too late.

Gwen hits the ground hard, stopping the clock at 1:21 (the comic book where Gwen died was Amazing Spider-Man issue #121). She doesn’t even get to wake up and have a dramatic death speech like Harry did in Spider-Man 3. Andrew Garfield really nails Peter’s panic and grief in this scene, but it’s all so suddenly arbitrary after the second climax, it feels almost like an afterthought.

Peter is so devastated by Gwen’s loss that he stays by her graveside for literally a year (to judge by the changing seasons in the graveyard montage, although the film later says it’s only five months). And at Ravencroft, where he is now an inmate, Harry gets a mysterious visitor. There’s a plan afoot to use the stuff in Oscorp’s Special Projects to do, I don’t know, something bad now that Spider-Man has disappeared. We see the Doc Ock tentacles again, along with Vulture wings and a Rhino exo-skeleton. They decide that their first member of the team will be the Russian plutonium hijacker from way back at the beginning.

Aunt May tries to give Peter a pep talk about putting things aside when their time is past. Peter cleans up the stuff left over from his dad, and finds a thumb drive labeled “Gwen’s Speech.” He watches the graduation speech he missed, where Gwen talks about maintaining hope through hard times.

So when the Rhino rampages through Manhattan, opposed by a little kid in a Spider-Man costume (someone Spidey earlier saved from bullies), the real Spider-Man shows up finally to fight once again.

Credits.

So overall, it’s a movie with a couple of good qualities, but several major problems. The pacing is sometimes slack in the scenes with Garfield and Stone, while the editing of the action sequences can be frantic and confusing. There is the entire issue of Peter’s father, which not only unnecessarily retcons parts of the first film, but contains major story logic issues.

But I think the film’s biggest problems are with the villains. Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn has this dank, sweaty vibe that makes him off-putting, yes, but it’s hard to buy him as the major villain behind the villain. He’s icky, but not scary, until the moment when he suddenly has complete mastery of his strength and armored technology within minutes of being introduced to it.

Jamie Foxx is better as Electro, except for the fact that, as others have noted, his starstruck-loser-whose-technology-is-stolen-by-evil-corporation-then-turns-evil-after-an-accident-with-that-same-tech schtick is essentially the same as Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever, which is not a movie anyone would want to draw comparisons with. He has nothing in common with the original comics’ Electro–who was basically just a common thug who could shoot electricity–but that kind of villain would be too slight to carry a feature anyway. However, it’s hard to square the sweaty loser he starts out as with the growling, ultra-powerful Dr. Manhattan wanna-be he becomes.

Often in the case of films that are almost universally despised, I kind of cut against the grain in finding much to like, but not in this case. It’s certainly not a Superman IV: The Quest For Peace type of disaster, but it is a movie that fails on most every level, so no, really not recommended.

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Super Movie Monday: Amazing Spider-Man 2, Part 2

Continuing with the second part of our look at the second movie of the second iteration of Sony’s Spider-Man franchise. One problem that sequels have is what to do with the first act. In a normal story, the first act is all about scene-setting: here’s the world, here’s the time period, here’s the hero and the villain and what they each want and why they’re in conflict (though it’s true that the villain’s true identity or motives are often held back for mystery or suspense, we usually get something: “He calls himself The Phantom and he’s been stealing common coal, though we don’t know why”). We spend some time getting to know everyone and learning the rules and the stakes.

People forget that it’s almost 30 minutes into Die Hard, for instance, before the first shot is fired. We spend a lot of time getting to know John McClane and the dismal state of his marriage and learning the geography of the Nakatomi Building before we ever see a single terrorist.

But in a sequel, we often know a lot of that stuff already, so sequels are presented with the problem of what to do in that first act. It’s tempting to think that, with the problems of introductions already finished, you can just jump straight into the action in the sequel, except that presents several problems. What about people who didn’t see the previous film? What crucial facts might people have in the interim that they might need to be reminded of? How have things changed in the interim between the first and second story? If not handled correctly, the first act of a sequel might feel as if its rushing ahead too quickly, leaving its audience behind, or conversely, that it’s spending a lot of time throat-clearing while waiting for something interesting to happen.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 manages to have both of these problems, throwing lots of complications into what should have been a fun opening action scene and then spinning its wheels for a long time after, introducing its new villains and manufacturing new problems for Peter Parker’s personal life.

We were left last time with Peter agonizing over his break-up with Gwen, Harry Osborn dealing with his father’s death and the revelation that he has inherited his father’s fatal medical condition, and electrical engineer Max Dillon having a workplace accident, falling into a vat of electric eels that then shock him to death.

So Harry Osborn is having a come-to-Jesus meeting with his board of directors over his inheriting the company, and taking his father’s pretty female assistant Felicia as his own (and I’m guessing she’s supposed to be Felicia Hardy, also known as the Black Cat in the comics, aka Sequel Bait). A servant comes in and says that Peter Parker is there to see Harry.

There’s this really awkward scene where Peter meets Harry for the first time in what we learn is eight years, It’s not just strange because we never heard about their friendship in all the Oscorp-related doings of the first film, but because of the inconvenient timing. Harry just inherited this huge fortune and out of nowhere, here comes an “old friend” to make sure he’s all right. But after some initial hesitancy, Harry opens up to Peter and they go out walking around the city to catch up, watched by nefarious agents of Oscorp.

Meanwhile, Max’s body is lying in a morgue someplace, when he comes back to life, glowing from within. Lights overload, electrical appliances turn on in his presence, and he is able to zap away a saw that would have dropped on him.

Peter gets a call from Gwen and goes to meet her, and instead of the angsty stuff of their last break-up meeting, they’re all flirty and funny again, at least until Peter reveals that he’s been stalking Gwen and Gwen tells him that she might be moving to England for a scholarship. I like the chemistry between Garfield and Stone here, but I don’t like the scene much. There’s a whole “ground rules for being just friends” bit that goes on way too long, and the whole “Going to England” thing feels weird.

Meanwhile, Max is stumbling through the streets making car alarms go off by his mere presence. He absorbs the power from a car battery and is drawn to Times Square, full of lights. He opens a grate in the street and begins to draw power from the electrical cables there, gaining the attention of the police and triggering Peter’s Spidey-sense.

So the cops arrive AMAZINGLY quickly, and we finally get our first really good look at Max’s transformation.

It’s an impressive effect, but I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be. He was zapped by eels, but he looks like a jellyfish maybe, so… I don’t know. It’s kind of cool, I guess, but I’m not sure what they were going for here.

The cops aim weapons and shout a bunch of orders, so Max gets pissed off and blasts the cars away from him. One cop looks done for, but suddenly, Spider-Man appears and catches the car, which may be a callback to the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #306, which was itself an homage to Action Comics #1.

Spider-Man tries to talk Max down, and Max keeps saying it’s his birthday (because this is all still the same day? It felt like Max was in the morgue for a while, but he may not know that), but a police sniper decides to screw with that plan, which causes Max to lash out. There’s a fight which is weirdly unbalanced, combining some action almost too fast to perceive with a drawn-out bullet-timey spider-sense moment that takes way too long to play out.

Spider-Man ends up using a firehose to short out Max’s powers, but not before Max manages to destroy a lot of Times Square. Funny that water would be his undoing, since he got his powers from electric eels and looks like a jellyfish, but what do I know?

So Peter goes home and to distract himself from thinking about Gwen going to England, he starts investigating the stuff from his father’s briefcase again. I would have thought that he already investigated it pretty thoroughly in the first film, but somehow there’s now suddenly a new set of clues that jump out at him, in the form of a note about “Roosevelt” and a subway token. He makes one of those big investigation collages on his wall, but doesn’t receive any new insights.

Unlike Harry Osborn, who accidentally drops a plastic cube his father gave him onto his desk, activating a surface computer. At Oscorp, they have seen the future, and it is a big-ass table.

Several Easter eggs in the listings here, including shout-outs to Ravencroft, Venom, and Morbius. Harry checks out some of the files and sees a video of Norman Osborn and Richard Parker, talking about how special hybrid spider-blood might be able to cure diseases. So Harry calls Peter, who has been spending all night trying to figure out how to use his webbing to absorb electricity or something. It involved a lot of zapping, anyway.

Harry has figured out that Spider-Man got his powers from the special hybrid spiders his company bred, so he asks Peter to tell him how to find Spider-Man so he can get a blood transfusion to cure his disease. Peter says he’ll “try.”

Meanwhile, Gwen is getting into trouble because she searches for Max on the company computers (and they have seriously the shittiest search algorithm ever). Gwen flees security and ends up running into Peter. They hide in a security closet and make out while discussing about three different topics simultaneously. Then Peter distracts security while Gwen escapes in the elevator, only to run into Harry, who emphasizes to Gwen that she needs to help Peter make the right decisions.

At Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane, a crazy doctor named Kafka tortures and interrogates Max, who names himself Electro.

Peter comes home to find that Aunt May has discovered his wall of crazy. Peter asks her what she’s hiding from him about his father, and Sally Field gets a nice moment where she gets angry that Peter is so concerned about the father who was never there for him when she is the one who has raised him all these years. It’s not as good as the scene in the first film where Peter expresses his own hidden rage, but it’s the same type of thing.

Peter visits Harry as Spider-Man to tell him he won’t give his blood because of possible side-effects or something, then interrupts Gwen as she’s arriving for her Oxford interview to give a rambling speech about how everything is messed up. It feels like Garfield and Stone do a lot of improvising in their scenes together, which makes for some cute chemistry, but also means they meander a lot.

Frustrated, Peter goes home and rips down his wall of crazy and smashes his father’s scientific calculator, revealing lots more subway tokens. So he researches “subway” and “Roosevelt” and discovers that there was a secret subway station built for FDR (which was apparently a real thing).

At Oscorp, Harry talks to Felicia and mentions the spiders all being destroyed, apparently in response to lawsuits following the Lizard’s attack in the first film. So that means no more biocable? What will Spidey do when he runs out of webs? Harry learns of something called “Special Projects” and sees video of the torture of Max Dillon. Then like Gwen, his user access is revoked and the slimiest board member comes in to tell him he’s being forced out of the company due to falsified evidence of misdeeds.

Peter explores the subway and finds the hidden Roosevelt station. He uses one of the special tokens on a turnstile, and suddenly, the track opens up, and a special subway train rises from the ground with a super-secret genetics lab inside.

No.

No.

Even if you grant that the station–no.

Simply no.

I mean, I can sort of see how–but no.

How the hell was Richard Parker supposed to have built all this? The answer is “no.”

Peter watches the”I’m a monster” video we saw being recorded way back at the beginning, an hour-and-a-half ago (among this movie’s many sins is that it’s way too damned long), where he says how much he loves his son, but he has to keep his work from being misused by Oscorp, and it’s supposed to be a cathartic moment, but this subway bullshit has just body-slammed my suspension of disbelief like the Undertaker doing a Tombstone Piledriver, so fuck you, movie. Go back to blowing things up, please.

Which is what it will do in a big way (but not necessarily a good way) in the final part of our recap, coming next week.

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Super Movie Monday: Amazing Spider-Man 2

So yeah, I am way behind the curve on getting back to the blog, because I’ve spent six months trying to figure out what I want to do for my next big project, and guess what? Still not there yet. But I’ve had this sitting around for a few months waiting for the time I was ready to start up again, and I figured, what the hell? Let’s finish off the Spider-Man stuff before Spider-Man: Homecoming comes out.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out in 2014, two years after Sony rebooted the Spider-Man series with Amazing Spider-Man. Marc Webb returned to direct, with Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner providing the screenplay this time. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone also returned as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. There seems to be a general consensus that Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the worst of the Spider-Man films, even worse than Spider-Man 3. So let’s see what I think upon re-viewing.

The film opens with gears in a watch. Not sure why that’s relevant right now, but we see Peter’s dad deleting files from a computer, killing a bunch of spiders in glass jars, and being trapped in the lab when his card doesn’t work. So he puts on his coat and leaves by a different way (which means that maybe he wasn’t trying to get out before, but if the film can’t tell the story clearly in the FIRST MINUTE, we may have a problem).

Next, we see him recording a video message about how he might be regarded as a monster in the future or whatever, when he is interrupted by Peter calling from upstairs, which takes us back to the opening of the first film, where he walks into his home office and finds it ransacked. Except that if you remember the other end of this story from the previous film, Peter and his dad were playing hide-and-seek. So Dad’s in the middle of a rainy afternoon game of hide-and-seek with his son and figures, “What the hell? I’ve got a few minutes. Why not record a video about what a monster I am?” Am I getting this right?

Mom and Dad drop Peter off with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, then we see them on a private jet, where Richard is uploading the files from his laptop to someone called “Roosevelt,” and hey, Richard Parker’s using a Sony Vaio (thanks for the synergy, Sony Pictures). There’s a bit of violent business with a flight attendant who’s actually a hitman, which ends with everybody dead and the plane crashing, but the files got uploaded, thank goodness (I guess).

Cut to present day, where Spider-Man appears to be skydiving, but is apparently just doing his normal webslinging with a bit of poetic license thrown in. We hear a radio transmission that plutonium has been stolen, so Spidey swings into action. There’s a gigantic tow truck pulling an armored car with about a million cop cars in pursuit.

Spidey jokes around with the driver, a crazy Russian played by Paul Giamatti, when he sees a pedestrian in danger. So before stopping the Russian, Spidey saves Max (Jamie Foxx) from being run over, and when Max protests that he is a nobody, Spidey gives him a harmless little pep talk. “You’re not a nobody. You’re a somebody!”

Thus are the seeds of a Shakespearean tragedy planted.

So there’s a lot of crashing, and some comedic business with Spidey trying to catch a bunch of bouncing plutonium vials, and it’s funny, but also happening so quickly, with so much else going on, that the joke doesn’t really land the way it should, and then he’s hit by a truck and has to take a phone call from Gwen who sez oh by the way, he’s late to graduation, lol, AND he’s being haunted by the ghost of Captain Stacy and oh my god I’m tired of this movie already. Seriously, take a breath, movie.

So Spidey stops the truck and catches the bad guy (and leaves him webbed up with his pants pulled down, because he’s wacky like that) and let me get one compliment out of the way early on by saying that this is probably the most perfect Spider-Man costume (in terms of being true to the comics) to appear on film yet.

Meanwhile, at the graduation, they’re getting close to announcing Peter’s name, and both Aunt May and this guy are getting nervous.

After the first film’s brilliant Stan Lee cameo, this one is kind of a let-down.

So after graduation, Peter’s supposed to meet with Gwen’s family, but he’s feeling such guilt over his promise to Captain Stacy that he can’t bear to go in. So he and Gwen have an angsty argument about Peter being unable to bear Gwen getting hurt because of him, and my God, with that yellow trenchcoat, she looks so much like classic comic book Gwen that it hurts.

Oh, and she breaks up with him, with a little nod to the Seinfeld Pez Dispenser episode. “I break up with you.”

Spidey montage! Peter throwing himself whole-heartedly into web-slinging now that there are no more icky girls in the way, as we hear radio commentary about whether Spider-Man is a hero or menace. And who should be one of the callers but our old friend Max, who says that Spider-Man is now one of his best friends. Could that be true?

Or could Max be a little bit crazy? We see that Max has built a crazy-ass shrine to Spider-Man in his apartment, where he pretends to have conversations with him (doing both voices, of course).

And hey, it’s Max’s birthday! He’s just getting ready to light the candles on the little cake that Spider-Man didn’t bake for him when the power goes out. Look, Max, the whole city is celebrating, waiting for you to light those candles!

Max heads to work, where he is an electrical engineer working on the new Oscorp power grid (which he claims to have designed and which Oscorp apparently stole from him). And he has violent fantasies. And he meets Gwen, so of course, that’s bound to be a thing.

And while we’re waiting for it to become a thing, let’s meet Harry Osborn, son of Norman. Harry comes home to visit his father’s deathbed.

If you remember from the first film, Curt Connors’s research was intended to find a cure for Norman Osborn’s unspecified illness (it is here retroactively given a name, “retroviral hyperplasia”). Now with that research gone bust, Osborn is dying. And so is Harry. It’s genetic, you see, and it seems to not only be killing Osborn, but to have turned his skin slightly green and given him claws. This isn’t “foreshadowing,” it’s more like “fore-brick-to-the-head-ing.”

Time for some quick plotty things. Peter sees a news report about Norman Osborn dying and Harry having returned to inherit the empire, and hey, Peter knows that guy! Funny he never mentioned being Harry’s former best friend in all the Oscorp related goings-on last movie. Gwen gets a call from an Oxford scholarship program, and Max is told to work late on his birthday, because there’s a problem with the new electrical grid that Oscorp has installed (apparently related to that blackout in his apartment earlier).

So Max goes to the electrical lab, where we learn that the new grid is not fueled by coal or natural gas, not by wind or solar or nuclear fission or fusion, but by vats of huge electric eels. Oh, what the HELL, movie?

Max finds a sparking cable that has come loose, stands on a handrail in a patently unsafe, non-OSHA-approved manner, connects the cable without shutting down the power first, which of course shocks him (this is the brilliant electrical engineer who designed the whole thing, remember, and not some random janitor) and knocks him into a vat of eels, which attack him with more electrical shocks until the entire thing explodes. And all the while, he’s been singing “Happy Birthday,” because symbolism.

This can’t be good.

And that’s where I’m going to stop for now. Part 2 next week.

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Superman vs. the Underpants Gnomes

You hear a fair share of knocks against Superman as a character nowadays—that he’s boring because he’s too powerful or because he’s a Boy Scout without meaningful character flaws, that his movies aren’t as good as Batman’s or as the Marvel ones. But my personal pet peeve, the thing that gets my goat, the recurring criticism made by people who have no idea what they’re talking about, is that Superman wears his underwear on the outside.

It’s not just that it’s lame and unoriginal, a decades-old standby of mediocre stand-up comedians everywhere. It’s that it’s so patently wrong, which would be obvious to anyone who gave it five minutes of thought instead of mindlessly parroting the snark.

There are lots of articles referring to Superman’s “underwear” on-line, moreso in recent years as DC has gone through multiple redesigns of the costume in order to lose the much-ridiculed “underpants.” Some articles defending the trunks do so from a design perspective. Many others will give a half-hearted nod to the costume’s original inspiration from circus strongmen, obvious not only from the trunks but also from the original design of Superman’s footwear as gladiator-style sandals rather than boots.



But those same articles still continue to refer to the trunks as “underwear” when they are clearly not, any more than any other athletic short.

Maybe it can be put into more perspective by talking about another act that used to travel with carnivals back in the 19th and early parts of the 20th Centuries: professional wrestling. Here’s early professional wrestler Frank Gotch.

Look at these wrestlers from the Tim Burton film Ed Wood and you’ll see clearly the uniform I’m talking about:


Trunks over tights, and clearly athletic wear, not underwear. When I was a kid, maybe 6 or 7 years old, I wore the same type of trunks/tights combo in my junior wrestling league (I was terrible, BTW).

And the weird thing is, only Superman gets this particular complaint. Batman, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men: all shared the same design element in their original costumes, but only Superman gets grief for it.

And if it’s just the fact that the pants are short that prompts the remark, well, then we have to dismiss a huge percentage of athletic endeavors.


These guys ? Running around in their underwear.

These guys, too.

Mike Tyson? Underwear model with a bad temper.

The NBA? A bunch of guys running back and forth in boxers and wifebeaters.


I mean, sure, there are some people who dismiss sports completely. There are plenty of nerds and hipsters who think such pursuits are below them and wear their ignorance as a badge of pride.

But if you think being ignorant of something you don’t like somehow makes you appear smarter, you’re wrong. And being kind of a douche.

Which brings me finally to the point of this essay. Thinking that Superman’s outfit is is dated and needs changing is a valid opinion. But thinking that it’s stupid without understanding why it is the way it is, or worse, merely echoing the idea that it’s stupid without thinking it through for yourself, that’s less valid.

Superman’s outfit has a history, a lineage that connects it to the time and place where it was conceived, and history is important. If you care about Superman, then knowing that history can only help enrich your appreciation of the character. If you don’t care about Superman, then you don’t need to know the history. But mocking things you don’t understand–especially when you’re just lazily parroting decades-old jokes like you just thought of them–doesn’t help anybody, least of all you.

Which is why I’m thinking of starting a Patreon that will explore the intersection of popular culture with history, especially fantasy, science fiction and superheroes, relating the works to the historical circumstances that shaped them.

And I’m not talking about dry names-and-dates stuff. I’m talking about topics like “Why didn’t Robin’s original costume have anything to do with birds?” or “How were Batman and the Joker inspired by the same character?”. History related through what I hope will be interesting topics—topics you’ve rarely (or maybe never) seen addressed before, at least like this—never losing sight of the fact that these characters were created by real people like you and me at a specific place and time, with their own unique experiences and concerns.

 

If you want to know more about the approach I plan to take, check out this video I did on Youtube last year.

I’m putting together a new video now that should make the approach even more obvious. Leave me a comment if this interests you enough to throw some money at it. I don’t need much. My lifestyle is pretty simple right now.

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Scary Movie Monday – Cloverfield

ScaryMovieMonday

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No theme to the Halloween coverage this year. I’ll be lucky just to get through it. Also, there won’t be many screencaps in this one, because the shaky-cam nature of the film makes good frames really hard to come by.

In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made a ton of money with a super-low-budget film they’d made titled The Blair Witch Project. It made so much money thanks to two gimmicks that worked in synergy to propel audience interest.

  1. They used the concept of “found footage,” using a gimmick from horror stories dating back to “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe, making it seem as if the story had really happened.
  2. They created a promotional campaign centered on a website that described the backstory of the movie, again as if it had really happened. It was one of the first really successful viral marketing campaigns and built huge, fervent anticipation for the film.

Audience reactions on seeing the final film were decidedly mixed, some saying it was an exercise in absolute terror, others saying it was a mediocre low-budget indie in which nothing much happened with the added gimmick of inducing motion sickness in the audience.

Whether people loved or hated it, one thing was indisputable: it made a ton of profit, therefore guaranteeing that other films would follow in its wake. One of those attempts to imitate the Blair Witch formula was Cloverfield, a 2008 film that took the basic elements of the earlier film’s success–found footage technique combined with viral internet marketing–and combined them with a HUGE budget, incredible production values, and state-of-the-art visual effects. And motion sickness.

Directed by Matt Reeves from a script by Drew Goddard and produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot, Cloverfield begins at a going away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who has landed a job in Japan. The found footage gimmick in this case is that one of the partygoers, Hud (T.J. Miller), has been tasked with “documenting the night”  and recording people’s good luck wishes to Rob. One brilliant bit of scripting here is that Hud is not too bright, so when he is tasked with documenting the night, he takes it really seriously and keeps recording things long after the party has been forgotten.

The important things to note here are that Rob is having girl problems–he has recently slept with best friend Beth (Odette Yustman), then broke things off because he didn’t want to deal with a long-distance relationship while he was in Japan–and Hud has a huge crush on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who barely acknowledges his existence. And things are tense between Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) who organized the party.

But in the middle of all the celebration and break-up drama, there’s an earthquake… or something. Everyone rushes to the roof to see something explode out toward the ocean. They run panicked down to the street, where Hud films something huge moving in the distance. Something flies at them and smashes to a stop in the street.

It’s the mangled head of the Statue of Liberty.

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One of the most brilliant moments in the film right here, as the jaded New Yorkers immediately forget the terror and danger just long enough to mill around the head and take pictures with their phones.

Rob, Hud, Marlena, Jason, and Lily decide to get out of Manhattan immediately, and of course, many things go wrong, not least among them when Beth calls Rob to say that she’s trapped in her apartment and begs him to come save her. Of course, along the way, our heroes die one by one and in the process manage to have several close encounters with the kaiju that’s terrorizing Manhattan.

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Between the shaky cam and the smoke and debris, we never see the creature quite as clearly as we’d like, but it is huge and alien and terrifying.

One interesting bit is that we never get any explanation of what the creature is. The viral marketing campaign hinted at a connection between the creature and Slusho!, a popular drink made from a secret ingredient called Seabed’s Nectar, which is obliquely referenced in the film when Hud mentions that the creature may have risen from deep beneath the sea. The Slusho! material also references a satellite falling from orbit (which can be briefly glimpsed in a flashback shot at the end of the film), and someone briefly mentions that the creature may come from space.

And of course, the most disgusting bit is the fact that every time the monster appears, people mention slime that seems to have come off it, which doesn’t mean much by itself, except that the viral material makes it seem apparent that the creature’s first appearance was to destroy an oil rig run by Slusho’s parent company, Tagruato. The wreckage of the oil rig was covered by oil and Seabed’s Nectar. In other words, that secret drink ingredient may have been slime they were harvesting off the creature itself as it slumbered under the ocean.

But none of this is in the movie itself. The movie quite admirably, but also frustratingly, sticks to the limited perspectives of its somewhat shallow and not very bright characters as they try to save Beth then escape intact. Of course, the fact that the footage is identified in the very beginning as having been found in the area formerly known as Central Park lets you know that things aren’t going to go well for our heroes. The movie is pretty ruthless in dispatching characters one by one, although there are some moments that make oyu roll your eyes.

There are also some bits that strain suspension of disbelief and might drop you out of the movie momentarily, like the way Hud is able to use the light on the camera for apparently hours of hiking through subway tunnels without running down the battery, or the fact that the footage is identified in the beginning as having come off a SD memory card, when the movie itself keeps referring to (and acting like) a video tape.

And of course, although the filmmakers apparently used a special kind of camera rig to minimize the shaking and keep the experience viewable, I still got a monster headache from watching this movie in the theater.

Still, I do recommend the movie if you’re a fan of giant monster movies, but to get the entire experience, you should also visit the tie-in websites which are surprisingly still active.

Tagruato Corp.

Slusho!

Now I want to hunt down 10 Cloverfield Lane and see what it’s about.

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Scary Movie Monday – Fire City: End of Days

ScaryMovieMonday

 

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It’s October, which means it’s time to start with the scary stuff. First up is something I chose on the spur of the moment, because I just finished playing a long tabletop RPG campaign featuring demon hunters in a West Coast city, so when I saw a movie about urban demons, I figured I’d give it a shot.

Fire City: End of Days is a one of those low-budget straight-to-video features that manages to be slightly notable for the fact that it was the feature directorial debut of Tom Woodruff, Jr., an effects make-up guy with a long career going back to the original Terminator.

It is a story about demons in a modern-day city (which is recognizable as, but never named as, Los Angeles), who live in a disgusting tenement also inhabited by some truly wretched humans. From what I gather (because the movie is told in a rather roundabout fashion without a lot in the way of concrete exposition), the people living in the tenement are so horrid and miserable because the demons exert an influence to make them that way (and then feed off the misery).

Until a demon oracle posing as a storefront psychic receives a message that something big and portentous is coming. She warns our protagonist, a demon named Vine, to be on the lookout for anything unusual.

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The demon make-ups are pretty good, thanks to the director being an expert and all. But if you’re wondering why there aren’t a lot of screencaps in this one, it’s because visually, it’s a kind of boring movie. There are a few decent shots, but most of the movie is this kind of underlit wanna-be noir with people glowering under inches of prosthetics.

Anyway, despite a promising moment at the open showing Vine in silhouette texting someone else in the building that makes it look as if this movie might feature an amusing juxtaposition of ancient demons with modern technology, turns out this joke isn’t really a joke. The entire movie is ponderous and deadly serious and super hard-to-follow as far as who’s doing what and why.

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The upshot is that Vine performs an act of mercy, saving a young girl in the building from being raped by her mom’s shacked-up boyfriend, which apparently causes some sort of demon infection that makes the people in the building happy or something. They suddenly just ignore their own pain and fear and guilt (and magically kick their addictions) and turn their lives around to become productive citizens. Which means the demons are starving.

There is some gory violence, but not as much as you might expect. The closest the movie comes to humor is one scene where a demon prostitute, visiting a human couple to find out what’s going on with them, suddenly breaks into a strip dance right in the middle of the room (I’m thinking maybe she feeds on lust instead of misery or something), but rather than shock or embarrassment or lechery, all they give her for the entire performance is this kind of befuddled non-reaction. In another scene, the woman says she is finally becoming “truly human,” by apparently losing all connection to human emotion. Seriously, it’s like “truly human” actually means “Vulcan.”

It all wraps up in this really nonsensical conclusion where it was all a dream, maybe, because it somehow happened, but didn’t happen, and Vine becomes a kind of demon Batman, protecting and avenging humans from demonkind or something. I don’t really get it, and it’s not worth watching again to try and decipher it.

Oh wait, there is one more sort-of joke in the movie. In the scenes where the demons are visiting the human inhabitants to see what’s up with them, one demon visits an apartment inhabited by this guy and his wife.

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That guy is Bob Burns, a fairly well known collector of movie memorabilia (now that Forry Ackerman’s dead, Burns apparently has the title of world’s largest collection of movie memorabilia). Burns got his start in Hollywood as a gorilla guy, back in the days when there were just a few, like three guys with gorilla suits who would get hired whenever a movie or TV show needed a gorilla. Starlog magazine did a long profile of Burns centered on hte elaborate Halloween productions he would set up with his special effects buddies in his yard and garage (one year, it was a time traveller routine, featuring the actual Time Machine from the George Pal movie, another year it was an Exorcist show, another year it was War of the Worlds with an alien capsule apparently crashed right through the wall of his garage).

So yeah, there’s a Halloween connection here, but other than the one cameo from Burns and his wife and some well-done demon make-ups, there’s not much to see here.

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Super Movie Monday – Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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Another under-the-wire entry. I decided to hold off on The Amazing Spider-Man 2 until after Halloween, since I only have this one week before we get into October. So here is a quick look back at the cyberpunk classic, Ghost in the Shell.

Directed by Mamoru Oshii from a screenplay by Kazunori Ito adapting the manga by Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell is a meditation on the nature of humanity and our relationship to the technology that enhances our capabilities so much that it seems to be changing us into entirely different beings. The story centers on special agent Motoko Kusanagi.

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She works for Section 9, a special government agency that seems to be into black operations. To this end, she has been given an almost entirely cyborg body. The only parts of her that can still be said to be human are a few brain cells and perhaps her soul (referred to in the movie as a “ghost”).

Problems arise when Section 9 runs afoul of a hacker known as the Puppet Master, who can actually hack a person’s ghost, giving them false memories and manipulating them into doing his bidding without realizing they’re working for him. Like this guy with the awesome submachine gun, who we are first led to believe may be the Puppet Master.

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The film ends up going back and forth between some genuinely brilliant action scenes, long stretches of barely-comprehensible exposition combined with philosophizing on the nature of memory and humanity, and a couple of long stretches just letting us dig on the awesome setting design and music by Kenji Kawai.

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It feels a lot slower-moving now than it did twenty years ago, but it’s still gorgeous. The second half of the movie picks up some momentum as it turns into one long sequence tying together the two separate strands introduced in the first half. There’s an exciting and visually impressive climax which features Kusanagi facing off against a spider-like tank and literally tearing her own body apart trying to get into it.

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But she’s a cyborg, so this is far from the end. I don’t know that I love the film as much as I did back when it was new, but I do love the original far more than the half-assed “2.0” special edition that was put out in 2008.

If you have Hulu, as of now, you can watch both versions to compare and contrast.

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New Videos Added – Captain Marvel, Batman

So I added a new video today about the history of Captain Marvel. There are actually several excellent videos out there explaining various aspects of the characters history in more depth than I go into, but I think mine is a good overview with an interesting thematic perspective.

But I also realize that I forgot to post about last week’s video, an overview of Batman’s history focusing on two major influential moments and why that 1966 series maybe doesn’t deserve all the hate.

Enjoy.

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Super Movie Monday – Wizards

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Coming in late today with a non-Spider-man film because The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is being shipped here as you read this. By amazing coincidence, I happened to find a copy of this film for five bucks at Wal-Mart, and I hadn’t seen it for probably 20 years, so I thought I’d check it out. And it’s an amazing example of how much has changed, both technologically and culturally.

Wizards, directed by Ralph Bakshi, is just about the most 70’s film I’ve seen in years, and more uniquely, a film that marries two very different strains of 70’s cinema. On the one hand, it’s a typical 70’s sci-fi/fantasy picture, made toward the end of that particular period in the late 60’s/early 70’s in which SF and fantasy were often blended, the theory being that modern audiences simply could not buy into a story of elves and dragons unless you gave some sort of technical explanation for why they existed (see, for instance, the Dragonriders of Pern series).

On the other hand, it exhibits the influence of that group of so-called New Hollywood filmmakers from the 70’s, people like Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes and Brian De Palma and Bob Fosse and Sidney Lumet, giving it a bluntly depressing urban sensibility completely at odds with the more mythic subject matter.

The opening titles (seen above) are written in a typical 70’s “futuristic” font over a typical synthesizer-heavy score, after which the story begins in more-or-less Disney fashion with a 4 minute prologue told via storybook-type illustrations.

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Except notice that the storybook illustrations look more like comic book drawings (they were done by the brilliant Mike Ploog) with limited animation effects and occasional live-action effects like smoke and lightning composited in the background. And the picture above can’t convey the effect of Susan Tyrell’s narration. She has a very distinctive style, but between the gravel in her voice and her general low-key demeanor, it sounds as if the story is being told by someone who stayed up all night smoking and drinking bourbon in some dive in lower Manhattan.

The story, such as it is, involves two twins born under very mysterious circumstances who grow into rival wizards, the good wizard Avatar and the bad wizard Blackwolf. Magic and fairies and elves have come back to the world in the wake of an atomic holocaust which wiped out civilization. Blackwolf and Avatar fight after their mother’s death, and Blackwolf is driven out into the radioactive wastelands, populated by mutants and monsters, vowing his revenge.

The actual story begins with Blackwolf setting his revenge in motion, sending out three assassins from his fortress in the land of Scortch. The main one we’re interested in is this guy, Nekron 99.

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I’m not going to get into the whole issue of how much Bakshi might have plagiarized from Vaughn Bode in the creation of Avatar and Nekron specifically, but Nekron is probably the most striking and visually consistent character in the movie. His nearly single-color design and brooding presence make him stand out. He looks especially good in the shot above, in front of an amazingly detailed background by famed artist Ian Miller (Miller did all the Scortch backgrounds).

That shot above brings up one of the love-it-or-hate-it aspects of Wizards, which is its visual inconsistency (or visual variety, I guess, if you’re in the love-it camp). It’s often hard to tell if Bakshi’s films are so visually inconsistent by design or because of budget problems, but according to commentaries and interviews, Bakshi is said to prefer using a variety of visual approaches for emotional and artistic effect. For instance, all the backgrounds in Scortch are rendered in that very stylized pen-and-ink manner seen above, while in Montagar, the land of the good fairies, the backgrounds are rendered in softer watercolors with black lines over top for definition.

Similarly, characters like Avatar and sexy magic student, the fairy Princess Elinore, are rendered like classic American animation characters ( animated almost exclusively by old-school MGM animator Irven Spence)…

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While the massive battle scenes feature lots of very impressionistic rotoscoped figures from old movies done in a very high-contrast style, with some occasional details like glowing red eyes or bat wings added after the fact.

wizardsrotoThis was done partly to finish the film very cheaply when 20th Century Fox refused to pony up more funds to finish the film (Bakshi tells the story that he and Lucas were turned down for extra funding on the same day). Also partly to prove that Bakshi could produce massive battle scenes on a budget, an important consideration for someone who was planning to adapt The Lord of the Rings as his next project.

The problem is that, while I can appreciate the underlying reasoning behind the approach, in practice, the effect is very jarring. Bakshi did not have a large staff, and while he did have some talented people who produced the occasional beautiful shot, the mixture of silly comedy relief Avatar with Ploog-styled comic book elves with Terrytoons-style cloying fairies with underground-comics-style comedy stormtroopers with psychedelic rotoscoped armies over backgrounds that are variously drawn or painted or live-action is very jarring. Not to mention the fact that often, the goals seem to be undercut by cut-rate, inconsistent animation of even the main characters (there are only five animators credited with only three assistants(!) and no time or budget for pencil tests, so clean-up and quality control were almost nonexistent).

And all of this is overlaid with a thick layer of mid-70’s cynical New York ick. Like these fairy prositutes.

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I haven’t even gotten into the meat of the story, which is that Blackwolf has uncovered a secret weapon from the ancient world which will motivate his mutant armies to conquer the world. So Avatar, Elinore, elf warrior Weehawk and reformed robot assassin Nekron (now renamed Peace, with the typical subtlety exhibited by Bakshi’s script) set out for Scortch to destroy the weapon. And what is the weapon?

Nazi propaganda films, making this the first of two SF/fantasy films released by 20th Century Fox in 1977 to be inspired in part by Triumph of the Will.

The quest itself is surprisingly brief (not too shocking for a film with an 80-minute run time), but it feels a lot longer than it is. The group ends up in a long side quest featuring cute fairies who turn a lot less cuddly when one of their leaders (voiced by Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, credited as “Mark Hamil”) is shot.

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Notice again the jarring combination of elements: a beautiful background painting with psychedelic colors (is their moon a blacklight?), cute dead fairy in a puddle of blood in the foreground, live-action smoke and lightning effects visible through the trees. Beautiful, but depressing, and not nearly as emotionally affecting as Bakshi clearly intended it to be.

The group escapes the fairies, gets lost in the snow, crosses into a desert where they meet up with this film’s version of Aragorn, ginning up a force to attack the gates of Mordor, er, Scortch, while Avatar’s group plan to continue their mission to destroy the one movie projector to rule them all. Elinore has a face-heel turn which is clearly meant to echo the episode of Pippin and the Palantir in Lord of the Rings, but is so abrupt and out-of-the-blue that any emotional weight it might have held is lost.

Setting us up for the final battle, the simultaneous conflict between armies on the battlefield and wizard brothers in the fortress. The wizard conflict is abrupt and surprising and for me on first viewing, completely unsatisfying. One reviewer I read years ago described it as a kick in the balls, and I completely agree. Years later and much older, I can appreciate the fact that Bakshi was subverting a trope here–I get the joke, and I can even laugh at it sometimes–but it still disappoints on some level. The movie has spent over an hour setting up this titanic battle of wizards, only to spit in your face at the end.

Meanwhile, the final battle is more of what we’ve seen before, only even more graphic.

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If one shot can really sum up this movie’s approach, this is it. Live-action explosions in the background, a pile of heavily-stylized demon bodies in impressionistic colors, a Frazetta-style action elf attacking a cartoonish comedy-relief stormtrooper, WHOSE BRAINS ARE SPILLING OUT OF HIS HEAD WOUND.

And understand some context here that I haven’t mentioned before now. Bakshi had spent the last few years making very dark, very adult animated films featuring graphic violence, sex, drug use, profanity, odd digressions into leaden comedy blackouts–equal parts Borscht-Belt corny and ethnically offensive–or “artistic” Greek chorus-style commentary, organized crime, disorganized crime, racist and sexist stereotypes in ham-fisted attempts to subvert and condemn those stereotypes, all in a typically bleak and blighted New York setting. His previous film, Coonskin, had been driven out of theaters by protests from black advocacy groups, and his next project, Hey Good Lookin’, had had its funding pulled by the studio. This was Bakshi’s attempt at rehabilitating his animation career by making a family-friendly film, a movie for kids that would be more “honest” than what Disney was making.

That, up there, is Bakshi’s version of a movie for kids, and he proudly believes he succeeded.

And the weird thing is that, in one sense, he’s right. I saw it on its first release in my mid-teens, and I liked a lot of it. You have to understand, when I say this is a very 70’s movie, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Most movies, especially before Star Wars exploded into theaters later that year and changed the industry forever, depicted a world that was generally depressing and awful. Even the feel-good movies were awful. The urban blight and despair that run through Rocky and Saturday Night Fever. Wacky comedies like The Bad News Bears featuring foul-mouthed latchkey kids playing baseball for an alcoholic coach, and even a screwball homage like What’s Up, Doc? has a nasty grungy undertone in several scenes.

Wizards, as horrifying as it was for the several people I watched it with last week, was actually pretty average on the depressing, grungy scale of the mid-70’s. It is remembered fondly by many fans (most of whom probably haven’t seen it for decades, admittedly). It was Wizards which not only made a decent profit on its miniscule budget, but convinced J.R.R. Tolkien’s daughter to give Bakshi permission to adapt The Lord of the Rings to animation. The two works do have similar themes regarding technology versus love and magic, no matter how tin-eared and clumsy Bakshi is in expressing them.

The other thing you have to understand is that, in those days before the Internet, before the widespread penetration of VHS, before all but the most badly dubbed and butchered-for-kids anime, and most importantly, before it was popularized and made socially acceptable by the unprecedented success of Star Wars, science fiction and fantasy were a ghetto in popular culture. You took what you could get, and most of the time, it was low-budget, badly-written and acted schlock, but it scratched that itch you couldn’t get scratched any other way.

So you had to pan for gold, look for the good moments in mostly bad films. Rollerball is a serious drama that is tremendously boring for much of its running time; Logan’s Run is juvenile schlock for the most part. But both are fondly remembered as classics in the pre-Star Wars era, because they had enough good parts to pick out of the bad. The bad was constant. The bad was a given, always. Hard as it may be to see from a modern perspective, Wizards had enough good parts that it, too, is remembered by many as a classic.

And while it’s not, really, it still has a place in my heart all the same.

I’ll probably revisit some of this in a video next month.

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