Sunday, December 31, 2006

Leave the Cannoli, Take the DVD

Last night I watched THE GODFATHER on DVD. I've seen the movie before, on cable TV, and in bits and pieces; and frankly, when I first saw it, I was too young to understand it much beyond the sex and violence. This time, I got to see a nice quality print, in widescreen, on a big TV, so it was a rough analogue to watching it on the big screen.

I was struck by how much of a sea change it was in cinema. I can't imagine a movie like this being made in any decade before the seventies; and the look and feeling of it is mirrored in many subsequent films and TV series. An important aspect of the movie is that Coppola and his crew made everything look so damn good. That's probably why mass audiences were willing to put up with the ugliness, in regard to both violence and human nature. That, and America's everlasting love of its monsters.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Wi-Fi Watering Hole Wandering

I'm currently writing this post from Cafe Balcony, one of my favorite wi-fi watering holes, located in Santa Monica. I'm sitting in a slightly-uncomfortable chair at a slightly-too-small marble -topped table in the window, savoring a nonfat green tea latte and clicking away.

Why do I like WFWHs? They allow me to perform computer-required tasks -- both work-related and entertainment-related (like this post) -- but let me get out of the house to do them. Plus, the people-watching can be fun.

To help fellow WFWH fans, I've added a wi-fi hotspot directory at the bottom of my blog. If you're on a laptop, you can insert your location and find the WFWH's in the vicinity.

I was tempted to add my tips for creating a superior WFWH. But the folks at JiWire have published this article, which echoes most of my recommendations. One thing I'd add: I am turned off by signs that set forth time restrictions on wi-fi use, or those that ask users to spend a certain amount for food or drink for every hour that they are present. The reason to offer wi-fi is to encourage folks to set at your establishment long-term, with the idea that while they're there they will buy food and beverages. If you have a problem with folks lingering, perhaps you shouldn't offer wi-fi.

The Silver Screen

Fox's teaser trailer for FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER is online. I am well pleased.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Notable passings recently:

-- Gerald Ford (today). I didn't grow up with a huge respect for the presidency. Part of that was growing up in a Democratic house while Nixon and then Ford dominated it. (I was too young to really perceive Johnson, who was president when I was born.) I certainly had little cause to respect Ford, who, along with his vice-president Nelson Rockefeller, were the first un-elected presidential duo in history. Nor did he quite distinguish himself in retirement; he had a golf tournament named after him, and his wife's clinic made more of a splash than he did. Still, he was president.

-- James Brown (yesterday). An example of how those who make great art are also those capable of despicable acts -- in particular, his domestic violence and his armed rampage. But he made music that captured joy and fire and pride and fun.

-- Shirley Walker (back on November 30, but her obituary appeared today): Not as well known as the first two, but certainly important. She was a pioneering female composer who toiled in the all-man's-land of action scores. She orchestrated Danny Elfman's comic-book scores (Batman, Dick Tracy), and then moved on to craft and supervise the fantastic scores for Batman: The Animated Series and the other series it spawned in the '90's. Her booming, minor-key and heroic scores for those series mirrored the noir/deco mood and look of the art.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Surfing in Silver

When TERMINATOR 2 came out in the early '90's, it was obvious to comic book fans that the technology used to create the liquid-metal T-1000 would likely be used one day to replicate one of Jack Kirby's most visually striking creations: The Silver Surfer. This weekend, the teaser trailer for FANTASTIC FOUR: THE RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER is playing in theatres with NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM; and the image above, from the movie, makes evident that the movie's version of Norrin Radd is indeed the descendant of the T-1000.

Although the comics have always described the Surfer as wearing a silver-metal coating, the comics have been inconsistent on depicting him that way. Kirby drew him as sort of a gun-metal color, rather than with a mirror-silver finish; he had a metallic glint, but was not reflective. And John Buscema, who drew him in his late-sixties-early-seventies series (which, as the panels above show, depicted him as the universe's most philosophical whiner), essentially drew him as high-gloss white. Only when the Surfer's series was resurrected in the mid-eighties, by the team of writer Steve Engelhart and artist Marshall Rogers, did Rogers finally draw the Surfer as shiny silver.

As I blogged last year, I liked the first FF movie (though many didn't), and based on the trailer description I'm looking forward to this sequel.

The images above are copyrighted by Marvel Entertainment.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Holidays Can be Happy

A recent "Character Counts" commentary by Michael Josephson echoes some of my thoughts about those who rage about the greeting "Happy Holidays" as if it is a knife thrusting at the heart of Christmas. Josephson notes he received militant letters from readers when he signed a recent mass e-mail, "Happy Holidays."

"One militant note said: 'This is the Christmas season, not the Holiday season' and closed by wishing me a Merry Christmas.

"In my reply, I accepted his Christmas wish with grace and gratitude, but I pointed out that though Christians own Christmas, they don’t own December. Since I and my family celebrate Hanukkah during this same period, wishing me a Happy Hanukkah would have been even more appreciated.

"I agree with concerns that the true meaning of Christmas is often diluted and demeaned in a commercialized fervor to celebrate giving and getting gifts. It’s disgraceful when Santa and his bag of toys play a more prominent role than Jesus and his teachings.

"This troubling trend, however, isn’t caused by using a generic holiday greeting, especially when it’s intended to be inclusive and respectful of a diverse audience. And using moral coercion to induce everyone to wish everyone else a Merry Christmas would only transform the greeting into a hollow, insincere ritual.

"Among Christianity’s great gifts to the world is the Christmas spirit, a way of thinking and being that reflects transcendent values taught by Jesus, especially love, unity, acceptance, and forgiveness. These values uplift and inspire Christians and non-Christians to care more for others and live better lives. We shouldn’t allow this spirit to be hijacked in a misguided zeal for orthodoxy."

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Animating Actor

When a reunion special for "The Dick Van Dyke Show" ran a couple of years ago, I was nonplussed by a short segment where Rob Petrie showed off to his wife a silly computer animation of Dick Van Dyke dancing. It was the sort of story-stopping cute bit that I generally loathe. It had nothing to do with the character or the show, and I couldn't figure out why they would include it.

Well, in this sidebar to the (negative) review of Van Dyke's new movie, "Night at the Museum," the explanation becomes clear: Dick Van Dyke himself created the animation. Turns out that the actor has a fascination with animation and special effects that stretches back to "Mary Poppins"; and as a hobby he creates computer animation -- including segments of a younger version of himself dancing.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Riverdale Makeover

Archie Comics has been experimenting with the house style it's used to draw its teen characters for, oh, about the last 50 years. (The Archie comics had a different look in the '40's.) It recently published the adventures of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch in a pseudo-manga style. Now it has recruited Steve Butler, super-hero artist, to draw slightly more realistic versions of the dual goddesses of the Archie pantheon, Betty and Veronica.

Frankly, I don't see much purpose in it. The Archie line is one of the few lines to sell steadily from the "Golden Age" of comics through the present -- even seizing the most valuable real estate for a periodical, the rack by the checkout in supermarkets, where a parent can easily grab an Archie digest to quiet a squalling kid. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

ME Hannah-Barbara-Colored Memories

Starting before the death of Joseph Barbara (of Hannah-Barbara fame) earlier this week, and intensifying afterward, Mark Evanier has been posting memories on his blog of Barbara -- of the man himself, of Evanier's experiences working at H-B, and of young Evanier's experiences with early H-B shows. Here's an especially evocative memory of watching the first episode of THE JETSONS on a neighbor's color TV set.

Hallow, Hallow

The title of the final Harry Potter book has been revealed: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS.

Since this book will likely tug along with it the combined readership of all the previous HP novels, it will likely be one of the best-selling books ever, propelling its author -- already a billionaire -- into another stratosphere of wealth.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Th-th-that's Propaganda, Folks!

I am fascinated by the propaganda animated shorts that Warner Brothers Studios turned out solely for U.S. Armed Forces consumption during World War II. These are like weird dream versions of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons -- you have the same directors, the same gags, the same voices (Mel Blanc and others) -- but you also get swearing, sex and bathroom humor. Mark Evanier has been featuring some of the PRIVATE SNAFU cartoons on his blog, and these have been available on home video (albeit not-well-publicized home video) pretty much since home video began. But here, he features a MR. HOOK short, the parallel series made for the Navy. Purportedly, Dr. Seuss was involved in writing the PRIVATE SNAFU cartoons, and Hank Ketchum (later known for DENNIS THE MENACE) worked on the Mr. Hook ones.

Warning: For those not up on their history, this short came out while the U.S. was at war with Japan; and racial stereotypes of Japanese people were not only acceptable, but a mark of patriotism. Thus, this cartoon features quite blatant and offensive stereotypes.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Itunes Hosannas and Dirges?

Two stories augering the future of the Itunes online music service -- one positive, one negative.

On the positive side, Fortune Magazine reports that Apple may be on the verge of obtaining the holy grail for a music service: The Beatles catalog. (Of course, Apple Computers and Apple Corps. would have to work out that chronic litigation between them over the Apple business name.)

On the negative side, conflicting stories about the volume of downloads from Itunes in 2006 caused turmoil with Apple stock. One analyst said that the number of downloads dipped 65% this year from last. Other analysts quickly jumped in and opined that Itunes had far more downloads in this last quarter than the same time last year.

In any event, Itunes still remains the juggernaut of the music industry today -- tied into the Ipod, with its dominance of the MP3-player market.

The Royale Treatment

I had intended to read CASINO ROYALE, Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel, before watching the movie version that came out last month. I didn't succeed, but I did pick up and read the book after seeing the movie.

A good chunk of the book made it into the movie, which is unusual in light of the later Fleming adaptations (like THE SPY WHO LOVED ME) which only retained the title, and sometimes characters, from the source material. The major additions were the Bond-as-neophyte subplot, the update from the cold war to the war against terror, and the action sequences. In the novel, Bond doesn't beat anyone up. He survives an assassination attempt only because the attempt self-destructs (literally) through incompetence; he gets out of another tight spot basically by falling on his opponent; and the one time he tries to fight someone, he fairly quickly gets his Union Jack kicked.

Another update was the change of the card game from Baccarat to Texas Hold-em Poker. The change is predictable, in part because of Hold-em's insane popularity these days, and in part because explaining Baccarat might take the audience out of the picture (although the novel provides a fairly compact, comprehensible explanation of the game's simple rules). But Baccarat, as Amy commented to me, is the perfect game for spies, because faces are meaningless.

The scene that is most directly taken from the novel is the torture scene, which had movie critics whining that it was too upsetting for a PG-13 movie. (Like a torture scene isn't supposed to be upsetting.) Bond's witty-under-pressure repartee is unique to the movie, however; in the book, Bond doesn't say much during torture except the occasional screams of pain.

Parallel-World THUNDERBALL Titles

THUNDERBALL was the James Bond movie released the year I was born (1965). It was the first Bond movie to feature the trademark opening titles, with silhouettes of nude women performing graceful ballets and gymnastic routines based on the movie's theme (here, the movie's underwater-battle climax).

The movie was released with Tom Jones singing the swaggering opening theme. But the theme originally intended for the opening titles was a James Barry written theme called "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" -- named after the Japanese nickname for Bond -- sung by Dionne Warwick. The main titles were synched to that song, and the melody reappears as a motif throughout the movie's score. But the song itself is nowhere to be found in the movie. (It has been released on one or more anthologies of Bond music.)

Both songs have the same basic message: how cool Bond is. MKKBB is -- as you might imagine -- more slinky about it.

MKKBB has some clever lyrics, but does feature one of those strained attempts at rhyme that always hit a false note with me: "He'll soothe you like vanilla/The gentleman's a killah." Sort of like the Turtles rhyming "et cetera" and "bettah" in "Eleanor Really," or Sting rhyming "jail ya" and "failure" in "Spirits in the Material World."

Somebody with too much time on their hands has edited MKKBB into the THUNDERBALL main titles. The results are below.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Penny-Wise and Hobbit-Foolish

As you'll recall, Peter Jackson's movie versions of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy made mountains of money, swept the Oscars for the last film, and will probably continue generating capital via DVDs for as long as people watch movies. Those who know the source material will also recall that there is a prequel, THE HOBBIT, which has been adapted to the stage and to an animated special, but which is still ripe to be translated into film. The ideal situation would be for Jackson to make a HOBBIT film, with Ian McKellan as Gandalf and some other members of the LOTR cast who are in the earlier story, and make everyone involved a dragon's hoard more money.

But alas, pending litigation looks to prevent it. Jackson and New Line pictures are in the courts, with Jackson disputing the cut of merchandising ducats paid him and seeking an accounting. New Line purportedly refuses, although the suit's been through an attempt at mediation. Meanwhile, New Line's option on the property is set to expire around 2008, so if the company doesn't make a movie it will forever lose out.

Logically, New Line should pay Jackson the money he seeks -- regardless of whether it thinks it will ultimately prevail -- so that it can get Jackson working on a movie that will make it far more money. There is no incentive for Jackson to back down; he may want to make this one, but if he doesn't he's got the original trilogy and KING KONG too. And although he may have enough money now to buy all of New Zealand and part of Antarctica, I can see him sticking to his guns if he believes New Line went back on a deal.

So the question is which will win out in the eternal battle of he two strongest motivating forces in show biz --pride and greed.

Car-veat Emptor

Cousin Sam Barer's blog FOUR WHEEL DRIFT offers a comprehensive guide to shopping for a new vehicle.

Yet Another Family Business

Various cousins have commented in their blogs recently that the "family businesses" for my family include law, writing, and scrap metal. Apparently a burgeoning addition is the rag trade -- er, the garment industry. Cousin Linda Woods's "I Am Art" shirts have become trendy among gluestick users nationwide; and now her brother Tod has struck back with his own line of shirts, tops, and hoodies. All use a portmanteau he coined that merges an Anglo-Saxon word that begins with "F" and a currently-frowned-upon term for those with an adult IQ of 70 or below. Since I generally don't use such words in this blog without substituting inane, futile asterisks for internal letters, I won't repeat the word here; but if you don't mind being barred from Carrow's and Chuck E. Cheese restaurants nationwide, you might want to buy one -- or gift one to a friend who isn't easily offended (or one you want to offend).

Mart Nodell, R.I.P.

A comic book creator who came up with one of the best superhero concepts in history has passed away at the age of 91.

Back in the '40's, Mart Nodell hit on the concept of a hero who had a magic ring that generated a light beam that could do just about everything. Since this was the age of electronics, the mystic ring was recharged with a mystic battery -- in the shape of a green lantern. He incongruously clad his blond hero in a red tunic, and called him Green Lantern.

About 15 years later, editor Julius Schwartz, artist Gil Kane, and writer John Broome would retool and streamline the character, introducing a more science-fiction based Green Lantern (this time in a green-and-grey suit) modeled after the E.E. Smith LENSMAN novels. Via DC's then-popular parallel-world scheme (in which the adventures of DC's 1940's heroes took place on an alternate earth, Earth-2), the two Green Lanterns often teamed up.

Between the two of them, these heroes must have had thousands of kids donning cheap vending-machine rings, touching them to batteries, and uttering sacred oaths -- wishing that they could gain the power to make their dreams reality cast in emerald light.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It Was the Weekend that Was

Another lazy weekend.

On Friday, Amy was working late, so I headed over to Santa Monica's Unurban Coffee House to watch and listen to Open Mic Night. Friday nights at the Unurban are one of the best entertainment deals in town. For no cover charge (except a couple bucks for a drink or a brownie) you get to hear an eclectic night full of surprisingly talented performers. Within the space of a couple hours, I heard not only the stereotypical skinny blonde 20-something guitar strummers, but also 60-something blues artists, a string quartet of guitars and mandolins, a country-western singer who kept singing about her friends ("Oh yes, he was a friend of miiine . . . "), and two young women singing Japanese songs in perfect harmony.

On Saturday, after I missed the UCLA-USC game on TV (I couldn't stand to see my team creamed once again. Little did I know . . . .) we scored passes to an event at UCLA: "Marvel Then and Now," an onstage conversation between filmmaker/comics writer Kevin Smith, Marvel legend Stan Lee, and current Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, with cameos from BET head/comics writer Reggie Hudlen and X-Men movie producer Tom DeSanto. Smith was as scatological as always ("Only a bunch of f***in' comics nerds," he greeted us, "would come see this on the night of the biggest f***in' game of the year"); Stan was energetic, if a bit confused (unable to see in the spotlights, he would face Smith when Quesada was talking, and vice versa); and Quesada unfortunately found that his verbal talents could not match the others.

On Sunday, we drove up to Santa Maria to attend a holiday party held by friends. We stayed at the ravishingly beautiful Historic Santa Maria Inn. Unfortunately, the Inn's service was not the equivalent of its looks. We were awakened at around 1 a.m. by the sound of a key in the lock, followed by a loud pounding on the door. It turned out that was a security guard; according to the front desk, the staff had somehow listed the room they rented us as "empty." We woke up quite bleary-eyed that morning for our drive back to LA.

Los in Los Angeles

Our photos from the 2006 Loscon (held over Thanksgiving Weekend) are up. Here's one of them: A photo of master comics artist Bernie Wrightson holding a piece from my collection -- a page of his pencils from the early '70's SWAMP THING comic book.