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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Super Movie Monday – The Amazing Spider-Man, Part 3

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Continuing our look back at The Amazing Spider-Man, the reboot of the Spider-Man series directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Two-thirds of the way through, the movie is a mixed bag. The attempt to update Peter Parker as a skateboarding slacker feels odd, but I think there are a lot of things that work about it. Garfield has great chemistry with Stone as Gwen Stacy. Martin Sheen and Sally Field make a pretty decent Uncle Ben and Aunt May. The costume is not classic Spider-Man, but it works okay.

On the other hand, the attempts at visual flash don’t always work well. The dark lighting makes some of the action hard to follow. It’s interesting that they’ve dug deeper into Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery for this film’s villain, but so far, the Lizard has only been barely glimpsed and we haven’t seen what his endgame is.

However, that’s about to change now that Dr. Connors knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.

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The Lizard bursts up through the floor into the school bathroom. Peter changes into Spider-Man and fights the Lizard through the halls of the school. The fight is not bad, with Spider-Man having to try increasingly desperate gambits to try to stop a villain who is essentially a scaly Hulk with claws. Detachable tail optional.

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We also get one of the funniest Stan Lee cameos ever, with Lee playing a man so lost in appreciation of fine music that he doesn’t notice the battle raging right behind him.

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But even though there are several entertaining bits in the battle, like Peter telling Gwen he’s going to throw her out the window right before he throws her out the window, overall the fight is underwhelming. The Lizard is a bit one-note as a villain, and though Peter is clever and inventive, the emphasis on Peter’s fast reflexes makes the rhythm off-kilter.

The Lizard disappears as soon as he hears police sirens approaching, making the entire episode kind of pointless. It seemed like he was there to kill Spider-Man, but he takes off without a word, even though nothing Spider-Man did seemed to hurt him.

Peter follows him into the sewers and calls Gwen to ask her to make an antidote to the serum at Oscorp. Not long after, he finds the Lizard’s secret lab, where he has helpfully left an animated graphic looping on a computer monitor illustrating his plan to use the MacGuffin device introduced earlier in the movie to dose the entire city with Lizard serum. Kind of a double danger signal. Not only is this obviously a blatant ploy to get the plot moving, but it’s kind of a stupid plot. The Lizard can only stay a lizard for a few hours at a time. Dosing the city with the serum might cause pandemonium, but it will be a very a short-lived pandemonium.

So the Lizard sets out for Oscorp with Spider-Man on his tail (heh), but the cops attack Spidey and zap him with some kind of taser dart that puts him down for the count.

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Captain Stacy rips off his mask, and though Peter tries to keep his face hidden as he fights his way free, the Captain discovers his secret. Peter tells him that Gwen is in danger, and Captain Stacy lets him go, but another cop shoots Peter in the leg.

Meanwhile, Gwen has ignored Peter’s phoned plea to escape, because the antidote only has a few minutes left before it’s ready. The Lizard bursts into the lab, seeking the dispersal device, which Gwen is hiding with. The Lizard sniffs her out with his tongue and takes the device, but doesn’t bother hurting her.

Peter’s leg wound is really hurting, and it looks like he might not make it in time. But it turns out that the guy whose son he saved on the Williamsburg Bridge is a crane operator, and he calls all the other crane operators on Sixth Avenue and has them line up their crane arms so Spider-Man will have a clear path.

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This scene comes in for a lot of ridicule, and I can see why. I see what they were going for, wanting something like that heartwarming moment where the crowd takes Spider-Man’s side against Green Goblin in the first Raimi film, but there are a bunch of small sillinesses all adding up to a big ridiculousness.

First, there’s the idea that Spider-Man even needs the cranes at all, when we’ve clearly seen that he has no problem swinging from building to building. Then there’s the fact that this one guy can easily get all these guys to ignore an evacuation order. Then there’s the fact that there are like six or seven cranes more or less evenly spaced along this small stretch of street. Then there’s the fact that Spider-Man sprays a web bandage over his bullet wound and suddenly he’s fine again with barely a limp after two or three steps.

Captain Stacy reaches the Oscorp building and meets Gwen coming out with the antidote. He tells Gwen he knows Peter’s secret and she gives him the antidote for Peter to use on the Lizard.

Upstairs, Peter fights his final battle against the Lizard, but Connors is just too big and strong and invulnerable. Until Captain Stacy appears and uses a shotgun to shoot a canister of liquid nitrogen, which weakens the Lizard’s cold-blooded metabolism and also makes his body brittle and easily shattered. The Lizard is on the ropes.

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Captain Stacy gives Peter the antidote, but instead of injecting Connors with it, Peter decides to put it in the dispersal device. Meanwhile, the suspiciously large number of liquid nitrogen canisters on the roof (exactly why do they need so much liquid nitrogen up there, anyway? To supercool their cellular phone tower or something?) runs out and the Lizard is able to regenerate his shattered limbs and kill Captain Stacy.

He leaps up to stop Peter from disabling his device, but Peter is able to switch out the antidote at the last moment, and we can see the horror in Dr. Connor’s eyes as he begins to change back to human.

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There’s a little bit of random destruction, and Dr. Connors saves Peter from falling to his death. Captain Stacy dies from his wounds, but not before making Peter promise to stay away from Gwen for her safety, which makes for a dour last few minutes, until in the last moments, Peter implies that he has no intention of keeping that promise. Happy ending, I guess!

So I come out of the movie feeling definitely ambivalent. There are a lot of things the film does well, and I do really like the different interpretation that Andrew Garfield brings to the role. But as they say, a movie is only as good as its villain, and the Lizard ends up being one-note and kind of boring. Also, the movie’s strongest dramatic moments are in the early parts and the middle, where we see Peter working out his anger and see the chemistry develop between Peter and Gwen. Once the action starts, it seems to get progressively duller.

But it does get the iconic Spider-Man poses right. So a mixed success, I’d say. Very flawed but watchable. I’m almost afraid to revisit the sequel now, considering how much vilification it gets now. I guess we’ll see, although it might not be next week. I have a vacation coming up.

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Super Movie Monday – The Amazing Spider-Man, Part 2

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Continuing our in-depth recap of Marc Webb’s 2012 reboot of Spider-Man, starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. When we left off, Peter Parker had learned two things: that his spider-enhanced abilities gave him a unique ability to get justice (or revenge) on the man who killed his Uncle Ben, and that it might be a good idea to cover his face during his nightly escapades.

At first, he goes out in normal street clothes with a mask he has designed with lenses that cover his eyes.

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Over time, Spider-Man begins to develop a reputation as a vigilante, getting onto the radar of Police Captain Stacy (Gwen’s father, played by Denis Leary) once he starts delivering webbed-up criminals directly to police headquarters. At school, Gwen Stacy also notices Peter’s knuckles are scraped like hes been fighting.

Then he starts getting more creative, ordering a racing suit worn by lugers (this film’s apparent explanation for the whole costume bit is barely hinted at sideways in a scene where a couple of nerds talk about the speed at which a pendulum swings being determined in part by wind resistance, hence the luge suit), and silk-screening a spider emblem onto it. The other, more controversial thing he does is mail-order a bunch of Oscorp Biocable (the stuff being produced by the spiders in the lab, including the one that bit him), hundreds of miles of spider-silk in tiny canisters. Peter designs a special wrist-worn web-shooter that enables him to deploy it quickly and precisely, after a couple of false starts.

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While I appreciate the full-circle-ness of Peter perfecting a product originally developed by his father (who bred the spiders), it opens up so many questions in terms of both the police and Oscorp potentially being able to track down Spider-Man once they realize he’s using Oscorp Biocable. The questions are never really addressed, except in one throwaway line where Dr. Connors later recognizes the webbing as an Oscorp product.

Finally, once the costume is completely finished, Peter catches a car thief in a scene which contains so many things which I like and dislike almost in equal measure. The good: I like Peter’s cockiness and sense of humor. One thing the Raimi films never quite nailed was Spider-Man’s tendency to wisecrack in costume. Tobey Maguire tries, but even when he’s cracking wise, he just sounds so Magiure-ly earnest and soft-spoken. Garfield nails the attitude, even when the lines he’s saying are kind of stupid (yelling “CROTCH!” before leaping up and wrapping his legs around the crook’s head, for instance).

I kind of like Spidey’s weirdly angular body language in this, but also kind of hate it. It gives him a strangeness factor that really works in moments like the one when he has the crook trapped and then moves in to check for the tattoo. But other times, you just want to smack him and say “stand up straight!”

The bad: in their efforts to make Spider-Man come off as cool and super, they have him appear and disappear in ways that are physically impossible unless he can literally dematerialize and walk through walls. Also, the editing of theaction is too fast and off-rhythm. I get that they’re trying to emphasize his freaky-fast speed and reflexes, but the dark lighting and the spotty editing frustrate me more than excite me.

All that said, the close-up when Spidey goes quiet and we move in on that eyeless face is genuinely a little disturbing. This is the effect that Batman is always trying to achieve on-screen, and never quite hitting, mainly because you can see his eyes.

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The cops show up and try to arrest Spider-Man, so he has to flee. But the cops are nothing next to Aunt May, who is waiting up when he gets home and is horrified to see his banged-up face. I’m not a huge fan of Sally Field, but she plays Aunt May’s horror and frustration at what Peter is doing to himself really well here.

Back at Oscorp, Dr. Connors’s boss is impressed by the rat’s regrown leg and wants to try the serum out on humans.  He proposes giving “vitamin supplement” shots to veterans. Connors refuses, and the boss tells him he’s fired, since the corporation owns the serum anyway. Connors panics, injects himself with his own serum and passes out, Dr. Jekyll style.  At school,Gwen asks Peter to dinner at her house.

Later, Dr. Connors awakes with a new, not-quite-fully-finished arm.

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At Gwen’s place, Peter has dinner with her, her parents and her brothers. Captain Stacy starts talking about how this spider-vigilante is an amateur and a menace who needs to be taken off the streets. Peter disagrees and an argument starts that Gwen defuses by taking Peter to the roof where he demonstrates his secret to her by webbing her butt and yanking her into his arms.

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But they are interrupted, first by Gwen’s mom, and then by sirens. Turns out that Dr. Connors, in trying to catch his boss who is on his way to a veteran’s hospital, has turned into a giant lizard-man and is terrorizing the Williamsburg Bridge.

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Peter uses his webs to stop several cars from plunging into the water and then saves a young boy who is trapped in one of the cars. It’s a good scene in which Peter takes off his mask to establish a rapport with the boy and also in which Peter realizes that there’s more he can do with his powers than just hunt down the guy who shot Uncle Ben (who is still not caught and will be forgotten from now on).

Peter goes to visit Dr. Connors (who is now human and one-armed again) to see if he can help figure out how to stop the Lizard (Connors apparently managed to kill his boss before he could turn in that ‘Dr. Connors is fired’ paperwork). Peter starts to suspect something is wrong because one, Connors is acting super-sketchy, two, he has a weird scaly patch of skin on his neck, and three, Freddie the rat has turned into a super-strong lizard Muto-Rat who has broken out of his cage, killed and eaten his fellow rats.

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Connors heads down to build a secret lab in the sewer. Peter goes to Captain Stacy to report Dr. Connors, but he sounds like a crazy man because it’s a crazy story. As he’s leaving the station, Peter sees lizards heading into a sewer grate, so he goes down into the sewer in costume and spins a web. His plan is to catch photos of the Lizard with a camera he has rigged to shoot when the web is tripped. He is discovered by the Lizard, and the two fight. Spider-Man barely escapes with his life.

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Peter goes to Gwen’s to get help with his wounds. The Lizard discovers the automatic camera with “Property of Peter Parker” on the back. He now knows Spider-Man’s secret identity. That’s not good.

Got to say, so far, I kind of like the reboot. There are things I miss about Sam Raimi’s version, but there are things I think this version actually does better.  If this movie can stick the landing, it will be a respectable contender.

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New Video Posted: Superman/Batman Criss-Cross

So the latest video is up. I have been trying to keep a buffer of between one and two weeks between the time I finish the video and the time it goes up on Youtube. However, this latest video ate up all that buffer.

Part of the problem is just that it was so long, around twice as long as my shortest videos, so it took longer to edit together. Also, there’s just a lot more subject to cover, so I had to gather a lot of reference material.

But there were two reasons above all why it took so long. First, I decided to ask my work buddy Sam Carrico, who also has a Youtube channel (and whose youthful enthusiasm for his led me to take mine up again), to interview some of his friends on camera to illustrate the point I wanted to make, and having just started school again, it took him a while to find the time to do it. And once I got the footage from him, it was a completely different kind of challenge to find a way to boil almost 20 minutes of interviews into a minute-and-a-half of comprehensible information. I think it works really well in the finished video, but it took a lot of work.

And second, I decided to add animation to the videos. I had been wanting to do this for a long time, but finally found a way I could afford that could give good results. I had considered springing for the $20-a-month Adobe After Effects subscription, but then I discovered that Blackmagic (the company that makes the awesome free editor I use, Davinci Resolve) also had a video compositing/special effects program called Fusion.

Learning Fusion from scratch was its own special kind of hell, but I ended up making six different animated bits, from a simple custom transition to a fairly elaborate (for a beginner, at least) main title animation. I’m really happy with the results, but once again, a lot of extra work.

So here’s the video, which features the phrase “Trump in a cape” not once, but twice. I hope you enjoy it. I don’t know what I’m doing for next week. I know what video I want to make, but I don’t want to rush it too much, and I really want that buffer back. We’ll see.

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Monday Cancelled on Tuesday

So it’s Tuesday, and I missed updating Super Movie Monday yesterday. I tweeted that it would probably be going up today, but there’s just no way. I didn’t think my ambitions for this Friday’s “Hero Go Home Presents…” video were too high, but I WAY underestimated the amount of work needed to make this thing. When you see it, I hope you understand. Interviews, animations, custom wipes: I’m throwing the kitchen sink at this thing trying to bring it up to a fairly professional level. I’m not planning on making anything else quite this elaborate for a while, but it’s a great learning experience. However, it is also crowding out the considerable amount of time I need to do screen grabs and write Super Movie Monday. So with luck, I’ll be done editing the video tomorrow, and I can get Super Movie Monday back on track by next Monday. Thanks for your understanding.

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New Video Posted: The Superman Continuum

Hey guys, guess what? It’s a new video to close out my unofficial Superman month on the Youtube channel. This time, I’m addressing the idea that many of the things people know about Superman originated not in the comics, but in other media, and that most of the media depictions of Superman are based on three basic sources.

Hope you enjoy it. Next week, we’ll be talking about Superman and Batman, and there will be some enhancements that I hope you’ll like. Working hard on improving these videos every time until I get a really professional-looking product.

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Super Movie Monday – The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Part 1

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Five years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 came out to critical and fan disdain, Sony decided to release a new Spider-Man film. It’s easy to understand why they would take such a step; despite its critical drubbing, Spider-Man 3 made a pile of money. But they broke away from the Raimi/Maguire films and rebooted, in part because Raimi said he couldn’t deliver a satisfying number four on their deadline. I’m thinking it’s also because they were looking at marketing research numbers and wanted to skew a little younger.

Which makes sense because time was taking its toll. At the time that The Amazing Spider-Man came out, Tobey Maguire was on the wrong side of 35, not great for a character whose major appeal is his youth. So no matter how much loyalists loved him in the role and some still cry for a Tobey comeback,  Tobey Maguire (now over 40) will not be playing Peter Parker again unless they do a Spider-Man Beyond, with Maguire as a grizzled old Parker coaching a kid to take over the mantle of Spider-Man.

So they brought in director Marc Webb, a music video director who had done just one feature previously, with a new script from a story written by James Vanderbilt (who had also been one of the screenwriters of the aborted Spider-Man 4 movie). Alvin Sargent, credited screenwriter for Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and 3, also got a screenplay credit, as did Steve Kloves, who had just spent apparently half a lifetime writing scripts for ALL SEVEN Harry Potter films.

At first, it’s hard to tell just what’s supposed to be different, as the opening credits feature the same sort of 3-D animated flybys of spider webs that opened all three Raimi films. But then things take a decidedly different turn.

We see young Peter playing hide-and-seek with his dad (and in a nice bit of foreshadowing of this film’s villain, we see a toy dinosaur on the coffee table in the background of one shot). Peter discovers that his dad’s office has been broken into, which freaks Dad out so much that he grabs Mom and Peter (and an official-looking file that he stuffs into his briefcase) and flees the house, leaving Peter with Uncle Ben and Aunt May before disappearing into the night.

Fast-forward to now, with Peter Parker now a teenager (played by a decidedly non-teenage Andrew Garfield, almost 30 when the movie came out).

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Peter is a skateboarding slacker, shy with girls, but not afraid to be brave when the situation demands it. When he sees mean jock Flash Thompson picking on a smaller kid, Peter draws Thompson’s ire onto himself by committing the unspeakable sin of using Flash’s given name, Eugene.

Flash beats Peter prettily mercilessly, until he is saved by the arrival of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who is tutoring Flash after school.

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She saves him, get it? It’s like backwards and feminist and shit. Gwen talks Flash down. He’s obviously intimidated by her, not just because she’s smart and pretty, but because (although it’s never mentioned in the film) she holds his sports eligibility in the palm of her hand. Later in class, Gwen flirts with Peter a little, which Peter thinks is cool, because he has been staring at her from afar (and taking pictures, which is jest a little stalkery).

After school, Peter returns home to Uncle Ben and Aunt May, and they have gone a little star-crazy on the casting with Martin Sheen and Sally Field, although I don’t mind that they’ve made Aunt May look a little younger. It may not be comics accurate, but I always thought the comic book Aunt May (and Rosemary Harris in the Raimi movies, as much as I love her) looked more like Peter’s grandmother than his aunt (then again, this is apparently based more on the comic book Ultimate Spider-Man, which I never read, so…).

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Peter manages to deflect their concern about his facial bruises with some help from a timely basement flood. In the process of rescuing stuff from the water, Peter finds his father’s briefcase, which includes this ominous security badge.

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So Peter’s dad wasn’t just some random office schlub, but a genetics researcher at Oscorp. And we know what species he was working on, because we saw a spider mounted under glass on his desk in the first scene. Also, Peter finds that secret file we saw his father shove into the briefcase earlier, hidden behind the lining of one section of the case.

Urgh, so many mixed feelings. On the one hand, I like the fact that we’re actually talking about Peter’s parents, who have been mostly treated as if they never existed over the course of the Spider-Man series (comics and movies). But on the other hand, I always side-eye attempts in the movies to tie everything together.

Uncle Ben comes in later to tell Peter that his father’s former co-worker, Dr. Curt Connors, might have some information on why Peter’s father left so suddenly. To the Internet! Peter learns that Connors is researching cross-species genetics, trying to eliminate all human weakness to create a master race, because that never goes wrong.

Peter goes to visit the Oscorp offices, featuring a giant holographic portrait of “Our Founder” Norman Osborn with the face almost completely in shadow which is not just the most sinister thing ever.

AmazingSpiderManOscorp

Who would ever want to work here if they have to walk past that every day? They must have a great health plan, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, Peter is mistaken for an intern and is able to infiltrate a tour group led by… Gwen Stacy, which seems awfully convenient. Gwen is smart and all, but a high school student as the “head intern” on a cutting-edge science project? Wouldn’t that go to a college student, and even more, like a college senior rather than a high schooler? But it does let us meet Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), whose interest in Gwen may not be entirely about her brain, if you know what I mean. I mean, the script never goes there, but there’s a vibe in this first scene. Oh, and he only has one arm.

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Peter sneaks away from the tour group almost immediately after seeing a sketchy corporate dude with a file that bears the same special characters–Ø Ø–as the file in Peter’s father’s briefcase.

Which leads him to the “Biocable Development Unit” and this creepy room full of hundreds of spiders.

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While Peter is in the spider room, Sketchy Dude meets with Curt Connors and we learn that the secret purpose of the entire project is to save Norman Osborn from some unspecified medical condition. And time is apparently running out, because old Norman is in his last stages. Awfully convenient timing, given that the project was apparently started back before Peter’s dad left, and Dr. Connors has apparently never figured out the formula that Peter’s dad stole away in the ten-plus intervening years. How has this incompetent hack managed to keep his job all this time? Was he just a quota hire to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Back in the spider room, Peter stupidly twangs a web, which sets off an alarm and causes a dozen or more spiders to fall on him. He brushes them off and flees the lab before he’s caught, but he runs into Gwen on his way out, just in time to get bitten by one last spider he missed. His fake intern badge is confiscated and he is ejected from the building. He takes the subway home, and the spider bite is already affecting him. His senses and reflexes are heightened, and his hands randomly stick to things, like the shirt he rips off a pretty woman, leading to a fight with five or six dudes (the editing in the action scenes is often confusing) who all end up on the floor.

AmazingSpiderManSubway

The fight is actually pretty funny, with Peter constantly apologizing as his reflexes and strength act almost without his conscious control. This continues the next morning as he accidentally destroys the bathroom in the process of brushing his teeth (echoing a similar scene in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is not a movie you should be reminding people of, just saying). He ends up holed up in his room, flinching at every random noise, realizing this all came about because of that spider bite.

To the Internet! He researches spiders and spider bites, until he has to stop because his keyboard keys are all stuck to his fingers. Instead, he visits Dr. Connors at his home, where he finds out that Richard Parker (his father) is the one who bred the super-spiders.

Back at school, Flash Thompson is picking on another innocent victim when Peter decides to intervene. Only this time, Peter isn’t helpless, so he hits Flash where it hurts, by out-basketballing him in front of all his teammates and then knocking him down as he’s driving to the hole. This white man CAN jump.

AmazingSpiderManSlamDunk

He shatters the backboard, and once again, the movie loses all credibility. Because instead of immediately being recruited for the basketball team, Peter is instead sent to the principal’s office, where he has to deal with a furious Uncle Ben. Uncle Ben tells him he has to pick up Aunt May that night.

Peter and Gwen have a cute moment where he kinda-sorta asks her out in a someday-maybe sort of way. Then he goes skateboarding and has a quick training montage where he learns to use his powers more fully. Then he is with Dr. Connors, where he gives him the formula that Peter’s dad apparently died to keep away from him. Way to go, Peter.

They test the formula on a computer-simulated rat, and it works perfectly in helping the three-legged virtual rat regrow its virtual missing limb, because no matter all the lip service about curing Norman Osborn’s Macguffinitis, we know it’s really about Dr. Connors’s missing arm. So they mix up the formula and give it to a real rat to see what happens.

Peter returns home to an even more furious Uncle Ben, because Peter forgot to pick up Aunt May. Wait, all that stuff happened on the same day? Uncle Ben chews out Peter and Peter blows right back up at him, where we learn the extent of the anger Peter usually keeps bottled up at his parents for abandoning him.

And this scene I love, because it’s raw and honest and gives Peter a reason to eventually go out and beat up on people. One place where the first Raimi Spider-Man stumbled was depicting the transition from shy, bookish Peter to masked-man-who-beats-up-on-criminals. We saw why he could do it with the guy who shot Uncle Ben, but why keep doing it? We get that here, and Garfield plays the hell out of it.

Oh, and speaking of Uncle Ben getting shot…

AmazingSpiderManThief

Peter runs out of the house after the argument. Instead of the classic comics tale of Peter entering a contest to stay in the ring with a professional wrestler, Peter goes to a convenience store, where he gets in an argument with the cashier over the Take-a-Penny-Leave-a-Penny bin. It’s ridiculously petty, so you can understand Peter not caring much when the store gets robbed.

But then the crook runs into Uncle Ben, searching for Peter, and Uncle Ben is shot. While I kind of like the new version of Peter’s letting the thief get away, the way the shooting is staged isn’t as effective.

Peter is grief-stricken, so full of guilt and rage that even Flash Thompson feels sorry for him, which is a nice moment for his otherwise really one-note character. Peter has a copy of the police sketch of the crook, plus a description of the star tattoo on his wrist. One night as he’s walking down the street, he sees a girl in an alley arguing with a guy who might be the guy. So Peter goes up and starts punching him, which is when the dude’s friends come out to play.

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There’s a quick frantic battle between Peter, who at this point is just trying to get away in one piece, and all of these guys who seem to be almost as fast as he is, because no matter what wall he scales or how far he jumps, there always seems to be a guy or two right on his tail. The action choreography and editing are not top-notch in this movie, is my point.

Finally Peter manages to isolate the first guy on a rooftop and realize he doesn’t have the star tattoo. Then he falls through a roof and we finally get the pro-wrestling callback we didn’t have earlier in his origin story. As the gang members are yelling that they know his face, Peter looks up and sees this.

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So now Peter Parker must become El Hombre Araña!

Be here next week to see him in an Amazing Grudge Match in Part 2 of our recap.

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New Video Posted: A Sinister Theory

New Hero Go Home Presents… video posted to my Youtube channel today, Superman Returns: A Sinister Theory. This is the third entry in my unofficial Superman month of videos. Next week will be something I call The Superman Continuum, and then we’re off of Superman (slightly) for a video I’m currently calling Superman/Batman: Criss-Cross.

Why all the Superman stuff all at once? Two reasons. Number one, I figured that with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year and Justice League on its way that Superman might draw some attention to the channel. And second, doing a lot of Superman videos all at once might save me a little work, by letting me reuse clips from one video in one or two others (which has happened, although I don’t know how much work it actually saved).

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please share.

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Super Movie Monday – Spider-Man 3, Part 3

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Wrapping up our three-part in-depth look at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. When we left off, Peter and Harry had just had a knock-down, drag-out fight which ended with Harry blowed up real good with his own grenade.

And as I said last time, the movie is surprisingly not horrible at this point. The Uncle Ben retcon is horrible and unnecessary, Mary Jane has spent the movie being insipid, and there are so many sub-plots that none of them get fleshed out beyond nodding toward cliches.

But Peter and Harry have an interesting dynamic, the special effects are good, and the emotional baseline of the story works pretty well. And the next scene is pretty decent.

Peter, having seen the latest Daily Bugle which features a picture of black-suited Spider-Man on the cover in front of the bank Sandman robbed, goes to the Bugle to confront Eddie Brock, who has just won the competition and landed the staff photographer job. Peter reveals to Robbie and Jonah that Eddie actually ‘shopped in a photo of Spider-Man that Peter had taken and recolored his suit to black.

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Once again, for all his clownishness, we see for just a second that J. Jonah Jameson actually has some journalistic ethics and is a serious person at heart.

Thus Eddie is destroyed, earning Peter his undying enmity, and by the way, not only is Eddie’s journalistic career over, but so is the part of the movie that is any good whatsoever. The rest of the movie is a descent into horribility that must be experienced more than described, but I will do my best.

Now we begin the infamous Evil Douchebag Montage, in which Peter (with the black suit on under his clothes) is strutting down the street to the strains of James Brown’s “Drive That Funky Soul,” finger-gunning every woman in sight. It’s a very uncomfortable sequence; the German word for my feeling in this sequence (and I think most of the people watching) is fremdschämen, feeling embarrassed for someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel embarrassed for themselves.

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This sequence has its apologists, who mainly say that this is Peter acting in the way he thinks a cool badass would act, and because Peter is a dork, his idea of a cool badass is also by definition dorky, thus the fremdschämen. This may in fact be the explanation, but I don’t think it’s an artistic choice that works. I think it’s a failed attempt to hang onto audience sympathy for Peter after showing him doing some authentically dark things: blowing up his best friend and killing (as far as he knows) Flint Marko. It’s an attempt at a takeback, saying look, Evil Peter isn’t really evil. He may try to be bad, but he’s a failure at it.

But not only does that attempted takeback feel clumsy in and of itself, it’s also badly executed. The shots in this montage seem to have been meant to build in a certain order, but got out of whack in the editing process. First, we see Peter talking to Dr. Connors on the phone, who is concerned about how the symbiote feeds off of aggression (to which I can only say, “Welcome to the party, pal!”). As Dr. Connors is talking, Ursula is feeding Peter cookies as he orders her around, and it seems like her crush is back in full force.

Then we get the strutting and finger-gunning with women on the street looking at him like a freak, intercut with Peter flirting heavily with Betty, to the point that she’s about to make out with him right there in the office. Jonah shuts that down, but Peter offers him new shots of black-suit Spider-Man, that show Spidey beating crooks down far more thoroughly than before, and when Jonah asks him what he wants, he confidently says he’ll take the staff job.

And I should add that the scene before the montage, where Peter sees the headline, we see women in the street looking at him admiringly. So at first, Bad Peter is also Hot Peter. This is reinforced with Ursula worshipfully feeding him cookies and fetching him milk. But then we get this weird pair of shots that show women grimacing at him from the front (who is this weirdo finger-gunning at me?), with a reverse angle of women ADMIRING him from behind, followed by Betty nearly jamming her tongue down his throat, followed by more women treating him like he’s toxic.

And I think the initial idea of the sequence was that it gets worse over time, that when Peter first lets himself run with his dark side, some women find it hot, but the further he goes, the worse he gets. But the shots aren’t shown in that order, so you start looking for more explanations, like is it all in his head? Does he think women are turned on by him, but they’re really turned off? No, because the angles are backwards. Does the suit itself exert some kind of mind control on the women he flirts with? Maybe, but it’s never discussed.  It’s just the viewer’s mind trying to find rational ways to reconcile contradictory data before giving up and saying, “Okay, this just sucks and there’s no good explanation for it.”

Urgh. I’ve spent way too much time trying to explain that mess, so let’s move on. Turns out Flint Marko’s not dead, it just took him a while to reconstitute.

So next Peter takes Gwen Stacy to the jazz club where Mary Jane is working (and once again, Bryce Dallas Howard is in one of the weight camouflage outfits that just draws attention to what they’re trying to distract from). Mary Jane gets up to sing, and Peter somehow manages to start playing the piano, totally distracting from Mary Jane’s performance. And suddenly, it’s a musical… again.

SpiderMan3ClubDance

And once again, it’s confusing, because last we saw, everybody who encountered Evil Peter seemed to think he was a total idiot. But now when he gets up and starts dancing through the club, with Gwen joining in for part of it, everybody seems to love it (lending validity to that mind control theory I totally just made up?). Gwen totally doesn’t understand that Peter’s just using her to hurt MJ until the dance is over. Gwen runs out, devastated.

Peter then confronts Mary Jane, but for what purpose, we never find out, because the manager and bouncers suddenly decide to throw Peter out. And as he’s wiping the floor with them, Mary Jane decides to get in the middle of it, with the predictable result that Peter knocks her to the floor.

That seems to sober him up, because he decides to get rid of the black suit once and for all. But once again, we get one of these weirdly random moments where stuff just happens the way it does because the plot needs for it to happen. In the comics, Peter goes to a church bell tower to get rid of the symbiote because Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, who has been studying the symbiote (the way Dr. Connors has in the movie), tells him the symbiote can be weakened by loud sounds. Peter chooses the bell tower strategically.

In the movie, Peter chooses the bell tower just because it happens to be close by. He discovers the thing’s weakness quite by accident.

SpiderMan3LosingtheBlack

Also randomly, Eddie Brock just happens to be in the same church, praying for God to kill Peter. When he hears the bell ringing, he goes into the base of the bell tower to see what’s up (not any of the other people we see in the church, just him, conveniently), where two things happen. He sees Peter getting rid of the black suit (thus learning his secret identity), and he gets covered in the goop himself, becoming Venom.

SpiderMan3EddieBecomesVenom

We have finally been introduced to the final villain of the piece, and the movie is now 3/4ths done. Not much time to flesh out this plotline, is there?

Peter sulks in his apartment and gets a pep talk from Aunt May. This scene seems to exist only to allow for some separation between Venom’s creation and the moment he finds Sandman in an alley, where they decide to team up to kill Peter. The visual look of Venom is very much in keeping with the comics, but he has Topher Grace’s voice, so there’s no real menace here.

SpiderMan3Venom

After another quick filler scene, we see Venom kidnap Mary Jane and we’re into the climax. Television news reports show Mary Jane trapped in a cab that has been webbed up twenty stories next to a building under construction. It’s efficient exposition, but also incredibly clumsy (and contrary to what I said before, the news reports do actually name Marko “the Sandman”).

Peter sees the news reports and puts on his old red-and-blue uniform. Before going after Mary Jane, he stops by Harry’s penthouse to recruit his help. Turns out Harry wasn’t killed by the grenade, but horribly scarred on one side of his face. Or I should say, he has facial scars carefully calibrated to make sure he can still retain our sympathy–damaged, but not too damaged.

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Peter tries to convince Harry to help him rescue MJ, but Harry sends him away.

After Peter leaves, Butler Bernard enters and tells Harry that the wounds on his father’s dead body confirm that he had been killed by his own glider, and therefore Peter is innocent. The way it’s written, it seems as if Bernard was always in on Norman Osborn’s secret (he can identify wounds received from the glider, for instance). He’s like the evil version of Batman’s Alfred or something, not the doddering old fool he’s always appeared to be. Still, it’s not a very convincing speech, clumsily written with no real proof in it, and the delivery is barely competent. In fact, Bernard–who has been in all three movies–has always been played by a man who seems barely able to deliver dialogue at all.

SpiderMan3Bernard

Because you remember how I’ve mentioned in the previous movie recaps that Raimi likes to give minor roles to family members of cast and crew? Well, turns out that Bernard is played by one of those. The actor’s name is John Paxton, and he is the father of Bill Paxton, who starred in Raimi’s A Simple Plan. John Paxton had his first role for Raimi in that film, and has since appeared in at least five other Raimi films. He’s a horrible actor, but Raimi seems to feel a loyalty toward him such that he keeps casting him.

So Peter heads to the construction site, which just happens to be located in Uncanny Valley.

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Look, I can understand being confident in your digital doubles, and I have seen how they can make for more exciting and dynamic superhero action sequences. But for whatever reason, either the long takes they work on here or just the fact that they were rushing to finish a climax nobody was particularly excited to work on, the effects just don’t convince.

Venom and Sandman double-team Spidey, with the predictable result that he ends up pretty much helpless between the two of them, Venom holding him down while Sandman beats him to death. Remember this image, because I’ll be referring back to it in a bit.

SpiderMan3PoundSand

Of course, the day is saved by the arrival of Harry and his Goblin tech, yada-yada-yada. There’s some wisecracking and some teamwork and the cameos you expect from (this time) Sam Raimi’s kids. The whole thing ends up with Sandman being destroyed by Goblin bombs and Venom being destroyed by loud clanging sounds… and a Goblin bomb.

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SpiderMan3VenomKill

Happy endings all around, except for the fact that (as foreshadowed earlier) Harry ends up fatally wounded in the confrontation. Oh, and Sandman isn’t actually dead.

He and Peter have a final moment where Marko says he is sorry for killing Uncle Ben and Peter forgives him. And then he blows away.

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And I get that they’re trying to end on a grace note, giving Sandman a kind of redemption and Peter a chance to let go of the vengeance in his heart, but holy God, nothing in this entire Sandman plotline works. From the very first moments where he’s justifying his crimes to his wife (“I’m not a bad person. I’ve just had bad luck.”), the unspecified medical condition his daughter has, the unspecified experiment that “kills” him, the unspeakable retcon of Uncle Ben’s death, to this final moment of forgiveness just minutes after that moment above where Sandman was BEATING PETER TO DEATH, I just don’t buy any of it.

And the worst part of it is, there are hints of what could have been a really good story in there. Thomas Haden Church is better in the role than I thought he’d be, and the whole idea of a pile of sand animated by the ghost of a man with only one overriding goal–to save his daughter–makes me really want this to be better every time I rewatch it. It’s just that all of the Venom and Vengeance stuff forced in (apparently by studio decree) makes the whole thing into an overstuffed muddle, with an emotional throughline that doesn’t just not work for me, but comes close to offending me with the insincere manipulations it goes through.

And maybe the worst thing of all is the way it happens right before Harry’s big death scene, because I’ve still got such a bad taste in my mouth from the Sandman bullshit that it poisons what should be a very affecting moment, the culmination of three films’ worth of development.

SpiderMan3DeathofHarry

There’s some wordless grief at Harry’s funeral (well wordless other than Peter’s narration), where not only are Peter and Mary Jane and Aunt May and Bernard present, but also classmate Flash Thompson (last seen getting his ass kicked by  Peter in the high school hallway way back in the first film) and Captain Stacy and Gwen, for some reason.

Final scene: Mary Jane is singing in the club where she still works (“I’m Through With Love”), and Peter walks up. Mary Jane stops in mid-lyric (does she ever sing a song all the way though in this club?). Peter holds out his hand. Mary Jane takes it. They embrace and begin to dance.

But neither of them seems particularly happy about it. They haven’t actually worked out any of the issues that drove them apart in the first place. It’s a weirdly grief-stricken and bitter ending, two people stuck together because neither seems to have anyplace else to go. What an awful way to end a trilogy that was so good just one film earlier. Not only does this film end badly, but it seems to drain away all of the goodwill from the earlier films and exhaust any character development possibilities for Peter and Mary Jane in the process. I really don’t want to follow Peter any further on this path.

Which may be why it’s just as well that Sony ended up rebooting the franchise instead of going forward with the Spider-Man 4 they were developing. But given the fan reaction to the reboot, maybe not.

But that’s next week.

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New Video Posted – More Time Trouble

The third video in my new “Hero Go Home Presents…” series is up on Youtube now. This is the first video I’ve made using Da Vinci Resolve, which is giving me more professional results than my previous software. Enjoy the 720p goodness!

Oh, and you might like the content of the video as well, talking about the passage of time in Superman 3. Next week continues Superman Month with a sinister theory.

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