Thursday, July 31, 2008

David Brent is the new Big Bird

A look at the "International versions" section of The Office Wikipedia page reveals that the British original has inspired five remakes in foreign countries (the US, France, Germany, French-speaking Canada, and Chile) with a sixth (in Russia) set to premiere soon. That will be six versions, plus the original, in just seven years since the series premiered.

The reigning king of foreign remakes is, of course, Sesame Street, which has seen thirty-two different international co-productions since it premiered in 1969. The Office has quite a long way to go if it wants to catch up.

Of course, after Sesame Street had been on four seven years (1969-1976), it had only inspired three other versions - in the Netherlands, Germany, and Brazil. The Office has twice that already.

In conclusion, The Office is on pace to have sixty-four international versions by the year 2040.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What does "definitive" even mean, anyway?

Well, there are only seventeen months left in this decade (have we decided what to call it yet? Is it “the aughts”?), and I think it might be time to start discussing what the definitive TV shows of the decade are. We could still see great movies, or albums, or books – those things come out as single entities. Any lasting TV shows that premier from here on out are unlikely to really find their footing until “the aughts” become “the tens”.

So what TV shows – one comedy and one drama – best sum up trends we’ve seen in American TV during the last eight-and-a-half years? It sitcom is easy – it has to be Arrested Development. That series has the one-camera/no-laugh-track format shared by shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the cutaways and flashbacks found in Family Guy and Scrubs, and the same casual, assumed focus on dysfunctional family as Two and a Half Men and Malcolm in the Middle (which is different from 90s-style Roseanne “look how dysfunctional we are” shows where it was part of the shock. The newer series assume that all families are dysfunctional.)

It also uses sexual content not for shock value, but as background for jokes and character moments, much like shows from 30 Rock to Sex & the City (again, this is different from the 90s, where often the whole joke was “Hey, look. We’re talking about sex.”) Almost anything that marks a comedy as being “from the aughts” can be found in Arrested Development.

It’s harder to choose a drama. The past decade has seen no shortage of trends in TV drama. Shows like The Wire and Lost are dense with continuity and hard to begin watching in the middle of the series – each new episode depends on the viewer’s knowledge of what has come before. Lost and, to an even greater degree, Battlestar Galactica have shown that it’s possible to be a genre show and both be critically acclaimed and tell universally gripping stories. Shows as diverse as Six Feet Under, House and, again, Lost have shown a refusal to stick to a status quo, with situations and characters changing at a rate previously unheard of. Speaking of Lost one last time, it offers the most prominent use of time as a device – time on many shows is no longer linear, but bounces back and forth as suits the storytelling needs of the creators.

So far it looks like I’m going to say Lost is the quintessential aughts-era drama, but I’m not. While it would be a fine choice, there are a few other criteria that it doesn’t meet. First of all, we’ve seen a trend towards morally ambiguous (or downright evil) lead characters – Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, Vic Mackey on The Shield, Dexter on Dexter. Finally, the decade has been positively stuffed with procedural dramas – the CSIs, Law & Order spin-offs, Cold Case, Without a Trace, Bones and many others. If any show is going to sum up the decade’s dramas, it has to include elements of a procedural. Lost is a mystery show, but it doesn’t follow any procedure I’ve ever heard of.

If it isn’t Lost, what is it? What show combines all of these elements – heavy continuity, changing status quo, morally ambiguous hero, playing around with time, a combination of genre and procedural elements? Well, to find it, we’ll have to go back to the very beginning of the decade, when the WB was airing a series called Angel. That’s right, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s younger brother positively defines television drama in the past decade.

Look at the evidence –

- By the time the show had entered its third season, it was impossible to follow without having watched not only the first two seasons of Angel, but also the first three seasons of Buffy. If that’s not impenetrable continuity, I don’t know what is.

- The status quo on the series changed constantly. There wasn’t a huge amount of character turnover, but every single character was put through an avalanche of changes over the course of the series. This was best symbolized by the series’ two moves to a new home base for the main characters. It was a series that always moved forward, never stopping to put things back the way they used to be.

- Angel wasn’t the most devious lead character ever to appear on television, but he did kill when necessary, and in his previous incarnation as evil vampire Angelus, he was a brutal mass murderer. That persona resurfaces a couple of times during the course of the series, and he’s still our main character – even as he’s gleefully slaughtering innocents.

- That’s where the manipulation of time came in – the series spent a great deal of time flashing back to delve into the back story of Angel or other immortal characters.

- It has the genre elements, obviously. It’s a show about a vampire. As for universally gripping, it was never as popular as Buffy, but I think that’s mostly because it’s harder to get in to. Anyone can start watching Buffy, but only those who already know that they like the parent show will watch Angel, despite the fact that they’re very different stylistically. I'm going to say that it isn't about demons, because it is. But if Buffy was, at heart, a show about trying to make it through high school, Angel was a show about how you never stop trying to figure out how to be an adult. Everyone can relate to that.

- On the critical acclaim side, the show has had several books written about it in the years since it ended, and I know it is frequently used in college classes and the like.

- It’s not just a show about a vampire – it’s about a vampire who happens to be a private detective, which is where the procedural elements came from. Many episodes featured Angel Investigations working a specific case, which would be resolved by the end of the episode.

So as you can see, Angel is it, folks. Just a couple of final notes – like many series are now, Angel was shot in widescreen. It was one of the first such shows on network television. Also (SPOILER), it has an abrupt, cliffhanger-type ending with no resolution. Just like The Sopranos.

You might disagree with my choices. If you do, you should let me know what you think the definitive comedy and drama of the decade are.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Zmed's Legacy

I’ve noticed a lot of unrelated (or tangentially related) sequels to old movies popping up lately. Things like WarGames: The Dead Code and Bachelor Party 2: The Last Temptation. Is this actually a new phenomenon, or have I just not noticed? I know direct-to-video sequels to newer movies have been common for years. Heck, American Pie and Bring It On have become franchises to rival The Land Before Time (and the American Pie Presents garbage bags at least all feature poor anything-for-a-buck Eugene Levy).

But this new breed consists of in-name-only resurrections of movies from twenty-five years ago – movies that weren’t tremendously successful in the first place. Oh, WarGames and Bachelor Party certainly have their fans, but it’s not like we’re talking about ET or Ghostbusters here. Of course, that’s it exactly, isn’t it? More beloved movies have a certain amount of credibility that the studios wouldn’t want to squander. I suppose these movies – ones that are kind of well-known – are the perfect ones for the nostalgia market.

Still, I have to wonder – who exactly is the intended audience for movies like these? All six superfans of the originals? People who recognize the names of movies they probably saw on cable one time? People who never saw the originals because they were too old? People who just plain wish it could be the 80s forever? In any case, it can’t be a very large demographic. And I haven’t seen any of these movies, but they can’t be very good, can they? Couldn’t the studios put that money into making something of value? Or, you know, give it to a charitable organization or something?

Because seriously, anything’s gotta be better than Slap Shot 2 starring Stephen Baldwin.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Something Old

I've been meaning for a while to post some of the pieces I wrote as a commentator for college radio. This one was written in April of 2007. It has some references to it being April of 2007, but don't let that distract you. Anyway, it's pretty silly.

T-Ball? More like Commie Ball

Well, it’s April (once again, that's 2007 - author), and spring is here, and that can only mean one thing – yes, TV shows are new again until the end of the season! Lost, The Office, Gilmore Girls, a bunch of shows I don’t watch – all back until the middle of May. I can’t wait to see what happens on the island, at Dunder-Mifflin, in Stars Hollow. However, this piece doesn’t have anything to do with that, because spring is also baseball season. The MLB is in full swing, my friends. I’m sure Moises Alou, Reggie Jackson, Ted Williams and the whole gang are having a swell time hitting balls, shagging flies and running bases.

However, I’m not here to talk about them either, or even about the MLB. At a lower level, kids all across the country are getting ready for summer baseball, which should start up shortly after the season finale of Lost. There’s an organization for boys of every age – Legion for high schoolers, named after a team of DC Comics superheroes; Babe Ruth for junior high boys, named after that guy Benny Rodriguez dreams about in The Sandlot; and Little League for upper elementary kids, named after Little Luth, the mascot of the National Lutheran Youth Convention.

Well, based on the fact that I’m turning their names into terrible pop-culture references, it’s probably obvious by now that I’m not actually too interested in any of these levels of baseball. What I am interested in, however, is the lowest level of organized baseball play – Tee ball, for ages 6 through 8. T-ball isn’t regular baseball, of course, as it modifies the game in a number of ways, theoretically to make it easier for young children to play. Unfortunately, it has a much more negative effect in practice. Easier? Maybe, but certainly far more Soviet-esque.

Yes, friends – tee ball mirrors the threat of international communism in a number of ways, starting with the title figure – the “tee” itself. Similar to a golf tee, but much larger, it allows every player to hit the ball with little or no effort. Much like Stalin’s infamous Five-Year-Plan, this gives the appearance that everyone is skilled and productive. Even the bad kids can hit the ball nearly every time. This, of course, gives them a sense of false confidence, allowing them to think they’ll be able to beat the US to the moon. When they find out later in life that this isn’t true, they’ll only be disappointed.

This spread-the-wealth mentality continues in the structure of every inning. Rather than having three outs per team per inning (or four, or seven or any other number), tee ball allows every player on both teams to bat every single inning. On the surface, of course, this also appears to give everyone an equal chance. Each boy gets a chance and everyone is happy. In reality, of course, it just puts the teams at the mercy of the governmental structure. Like the Berlin Wall, the much-bally-hooed “Laaaaast Batterrrrr!” signals a split between innings that can not be moved.

Finally, at the end of every tee ball game, both teams are always told that they won, and well. In the history of the sport, no team has ever scored less than 30 runs and no opponent has scored more than 5. Just as Stalin told the people of Russia that they were leading the world in every conceivable area, these kids are told that they are unstoppable. This serves no purpose other than to tear them down when they lose at life, but this doesn’t matter to short-sighted Bolshevik coaches. They have only their immediate concerns in mind.

All I really mean to say is this – tee ball might seem like innocent fun, but every kid who plays it is going to grow up someday. They’ll remember the lessons they learned in tee ball, much better than the baseball skills. They’ll grow up to idolize Vladimir Lenin, not Vladimir Guerrero.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

I didn't even know it myself

So my friend Jon pointed this out to me the other day. Apparently I'm running a My Name is Earl fansite. Who knew?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wild College Fun

Today, while packing for my upcoming move, I found a bunch of notebooks from college. In between taking notes, I would often turn to the back on a notebook and start writing random things. Often, this took the form of a list. I had apparently forgotten just how geeky these lists were. Today, I found all 43 recurring or regular characters on Buffy, all 13 Beatles albums, all 16 Martin Scorsese movies I had seen at the time, and (then) all 38 members of the Justice Society of America. Each of those lists, and dozens of similar ones, were ranked in order of my personal preference.

So that was what I did for fun in college. Currently, I'm making a note reminding myself to not do the same thing in graduate school.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Don't cry to me; I was out with Herman Glimsher last night

I’ve been watching The Dick Van Dyke Show: Season Two, and I think I’ve developed a crush on Sally Rogers, the female half of Rob’s writing staff at The Alan Brady Show (of course, I’ve always wanted to be Buddy Sorrell, the male half, but that’s a completely different story). If you’re familiar with the show, you’re certainly aware that Sally’s inability to get a date with anyone but Herman “Warm Milk” Glimsher is a prominent running gag.

That’s ridiculous, I say. Sally’s pretty attractive in an off-beat way. She’s smart – she’s generally more in control of any situation on the show than either of her co-writers - and she’s all kinds of quick-witted and funny. She works on a hit TV show. There must be guys out there in early-60s New York City who’d be dying for a girl like her, right? Not to mention that her circle of friends includes Rob Petrie and Buddy Sorrell, who are by all accounts hilarious guys. Her boyfriend would probably get to hang out with them all the time. Heck, I’d date Sally in a second if I lived in the same time period and were both single and fictional.

Of course, you know what? 30 Rock tries to pull the same conceit with Liz, played by Tina Fey. And that’s even sillier. Why can’t intelligent, funny TV writers be objects of desire, huh, TV writers? Just what do you have against, um, yourselves?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

This is a weird moment: Rappin' Winslows

When Family Matters premiered on ABC in the fall of 1989, it was little more than a pale imitation of The Cosby Show. You had an African-American family, sitting around relating to each other in loosely plotted stories. The show didn't really develop its own identity until Steve Urkel became a regular. This would eventually lead to the show doing decidedly non-Huxtable-esque stories involving things like robots, cloning, and time travel.

Never was the Cosby influence more evident than in this episode from late in the first season. In 1985, The Cosby Show had done a story where the Huxtable children performed for Cliff's parents on their 50th anniversary, as seen in this clip.

While the Family Matters episode in question is far from a direct lift - it involves eldest child Eddie shooting a music video for a contest - it's certainly an attempt to capture the same feeling. The problem is that while the Cosby Show Ray Charles number was unbelievable in a charming way (watching it, you almost wish you had a family capable of pulling together to put on a show like that), the Family Matters rap is just bizarre. The song isn't catchy, the jokes aren't funny, and you never believe that Eddie wrote and directed it himself.

Now, yes, I'm insulting a sitcom episode from 1990 for no reason at all. But my point is this - this is a series with no real reason to exist. This scene is strange, but mostly it's just laughably bad. By allowing a supporting character to completely take over, the series became something intensely memorable. Say what you will about UrkelBot or Steevil the Dummy, but you won't soon forget them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Two advertisements in a comic book

Recently, I read the entire run of DC Comics’ Starman by James Robinson. As far as I’m concerned, Starman is as true a masterpiece as has ever been produced in fiction of any kind – a large cast of well-written characters, a plot that continually builds to an amazing climax, consistently fun side-stories along the way. I’ll probably go into more detail about why I love Starman so much another time. In the meantime, check out Scott Tipton’s overview of the series at Comics 101.

This post concerns one particular issue - #54, published in April 1999. This is a terrific story, flashing back to 1899 to tell a story of Opal City, its citizens, and an object of great importance to our characters in the present. But I own the series in single issues, so it’s not just a story – it’s also a vehicle for delivering advertising. In this issue, two ads jumped out at me, and both of them were promos for new prime-time cartoons about to debut on FOX. I don’t know how comic book readers at the time reacted, but the two ads reveal a great deal about the respective quality of both shows.

First, on the inside front cover:

Here we get a tiny glimpse of the world of Futurama. We don’t really learn anything about the characters, except that one is named Fry and looks like a hipster. We don’t even know who Fry is. He might be a celebrity within this world, endorsing this product. What we do learn is that Futurama takes place in a universe where Earthlings have made contact with other planets. More importantly, though, it’s a world where advertising exists that promotes the tastes of alien cultures. If we want to learn more, we need to tune in to find out just what this world looks like.

Here’s the other, opposite page 7:

Here we learn that the dog can talk, and makes puns about bodily functions.

Draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A question for my readers

Like two of my three brothers, I've never seen a James Bond movie. Until I was about twenty, I never even considered it. Then I decided it was going to a badge of honor - watching James Bond pictures was just something I didn't do, like sports or Star Trek.

Well, last month I broke my life-long Star Trek ban by watching "Space Seed" from season one of the original series, followed by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I enjoyed both of those things a great deal. So I'm thinking it might be time to do the same thing with James Bond. It's a pretty important piece of pop culture, and I've never even touched it. Of course, I never read superhero comics until I was nineteen, and when I started, I became obsessed and unable to stop. That won't be much of an issue with Bond, of course. There's only twenty-one movies. I'd have to stop a lot sooner.

Is it worth it? If I start watching Bond pictures, will I become a better person? If, in fact, I will, what are the best entries in the series to start with? What are some I should specifically avoid?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ramblings about some Batman movies


Having gone to see The Dark Knight yesterday, my friend Justin and I watched three different Batman movies today, from three different directors:

Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin (on cable television)
Tim Burton's Batman Returns (on DVD)
Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (on DVD)

I realized something while watching them - The Dark Knight has changed how I view all of them.

First, Batman Begins is pretty slow in spots, just like I remembered (the early scenes with Liam Neeson seem to last hours), but it's also pretty great - once Bruce gets back to Gotham, it's non-stop excitement. That said, considering how revolutionary it seemed when it was released three years ago, it's shocking how much it feels like a prelude to The Dark Knight - almost as much as The Terminator plays like a text scroll for T2. In Batman Begins, we watch Bruce get to where he needs to be to become Batman. I won't deny that the second half of the picture is thrilling. But it's most exciting at the end, when it points boldly forward by saying "The Joker is coming". The Dark Knight delivered on that promise. In fact, it reinforces that point by giving Begins villain The Scarecrow a brief cameo where he gets defeated in about five minutes. "If you thought that guy was scary last time," the movie seems to be saying, "wait until you see what's coming up next."

Until today, I maintained that Begins was not the best-ever Batman movie, often loudly proclaiming that that honor went to the never-slow-for-even-a-second Batman Returns. Tim Burton's second Batman movie - his first, entitled simply Batman is good, but spends too much time being nothing other than a Joker origin movie - is insane in the best way. While Nolan's recent movies have been grounded in reality, Burton's pictures are like cartoons brought to life. Everything is over-the-top, and no character is allowed to behave like a normal human being. Danny DeVito's Penguin is a garish caricature, eating raw fish and biting people in the nose. Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is brought back to life by the magic licks of street cats. A powerful businessman is played by Christopher Walken. Actual penguins waddle around with rockets strapped to their backs. Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle struggle to cover up their respective battle wounds during a make-out session. Over the years, the movie has gotten a lot of criticism for being wacky fun that never takes itself seriously, but that's what I love about it.

Here's the thing though - Today, I realized that Batman Returns doesn't look nearly as good to me now as it did a week ago. As you can hopefully tell from the preceding paragraph, I had a good time. But it's not quite the same. For over a decade, I always tossed off Returns whenever anyone would ask me my favorite Batman movie. I felt that Begins, in taking itself just a little bit too seriously, didn't live up to its full potential. "It's just not as much fun as Batman Returns", I would say. And it isn't. But The Dark Knight totally is. It does everything right. It's dark and serious and funny and exciting. It just might be the perfect Batman movie. Watching Batman Returns today, I felt like I was running into an old high school girlfriend. You know, someone you used to think was amazing, but now, compared to your wife, you wonder what you ever saw in her.

Yes, I just compared Batman Returns and The Dark Knight to my non-existent high school girlfriend and equally non-existent wife.

Conversely, The Dark Knight made me feel quite a bit better about Batman & Robin. Yes, it's still laughably awful - full of terrible acting and painful wisecracks and eye-infecting costumes. But now that we've gotten two stellar Batman movies in the years since, I don't really care anymore. I used to complain about Joel Schumacher all the time. I'd yell and scream "What is wrong with Warner Brothers?! HOW COULD THEY LET THAT HAPPEN?!" Today, I just laughed. "This is a really awful movie. You're a silly man, Joel Schumacher," I said aloud. But Warner Brothers has righted that wrong. Batman & Robin is just this unfortunate thing that happened one time. It didn't kill Batman. There's no reason to hate them or Joel Schumacher. Not anymore.

Thank you, The Dark Knight. You've helped me confront my pain, and made me a happier person.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

This is a weird moment

Let’s talk about Ernest Goes to Camp.

Now, in no way am I claiming that the second in the Ernest series (after Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam, of course) is a good movie. It’s not. It features a grown man covering himself in poison ivy on the recommendation of a cabin full of convicted juvenile delinquents. It also features a toilet bomb.

But that’s exactly what makes this moment so strange. About an hour into the picture, Ernest (the aforementioned grown man, played by Jim Varney) sings a mournful song about how disappointed he is in his campers and himself. No songs are sung before or after that point. Once again, this is a ridiculous comedy full of crotch jokes. And yet it asks us to accept a straight-forward ballad sung by the butt of those very jokes. It’s not an ironic scene. We aren’t intended to laugh.

The movie is only twenty-one years old, and yet it seems like a relic of a different civilization. There’s absolutely no way this would happen today. This kind of scene might be used as a wink-wink “musicals are dumb” joke, but no silly kids’ comedy would shoe-horn a song in where it doesn’t belong. Even at the time, it must have seemed strange. Sure, other 80s movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Better Off Dead had only one song number each. The difference is that those songs are explained, however flimsily, by the plot – a student talent show in the former, a dream sequence in the latter. Here we have, for no reason at all, an idiot man-child singing to himself about his insecurities.

That has to be one of the strangest moments in movie history.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jim Gordon is Awesome


I'm still trying to process a lot of things about The Dark Knight, but one of the things that struck me most was how well it balanced all of the characters. It was promoted as being a movie about Batman, The Joker, and Harvey Dent. And it is, but it's also a movie about James Gordon. All four of those men have great arcs. None of them seems overused, and none of them gets the short end of the stick.

For me, though, Gordon is the heart of the movie. When we, the audience, believe Gordon to be dead, I was actually angry at the filmmakers and worried for him. True, I should have assumed that he'd be back (if only because he hadn't become Commissioner yet). But nothing seems impossible in the Bat-world that Christopher Nolan has created. He went out like a hero, and it would have been satisfying. The fact that he is faking his death (even fooling his wife and children) out of dedication to his job just underlines all the more what's great about Lt. Gordon - he will stop at nothing to do what's best for his city.

At the end, his basic heroism is underscored again when he agrees to help Batman paint himself as a villain for the good of Gotham. The last movie ended with Gordon creating the Bat-Signal, and this one ends with him destroying it - in both cases because it will help to clean up his city. Jim Gordon is the unsung hero of Nolan's Bat-series, and I can't wait to see where he goes from here.

You can read more adventures of Commissioner Gordon in the pages of DC Comics.

This will be the last post about Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon for a while, I swear.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Thoughts While Mowing: Part III

This should totally be the Coen Brothers' next movie:

(Special Thanks to Joe Hennes for making the poster for me).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Faith Restored

Joss Whedon is awesome.

I'm a big Buffy and Angel fan. That's no shock to anyone who knows me. But over the last year or so, I had begun to think that maybe Joss Whedon had lost his touch. His Astonishing X-Men comics weren't that great (well, they read like regular X-Men, I suppose), and the Buffy Season Eight comic book was at its best when actual comics writer Brian K. Vaughan was doing the scripting. As for the Angel continuation series that Whedon helped plot, I have a hard time remembering anything that happened it.

Turns out that maybe Joss should just stick to writing live-action programming. The first part of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was posted yesterday. You can call me a big giant fanboy if you want, but it's stellar. The songs blend seamlessly into the action - kind of like Sondheim, but intentionally funny - and the jokes are terrific. This is hardly the first time we've seen a villain-hero dynamic from the villain's point-of-view, but it's certainly the most amusing.

What strikes me most, though, is the character work. In just under fourteen minutes; Dr. Horrible, his love interest Penny, and his cartoonish nemesis Captain Hammer are all fleshed out to a remarkable degree. I'm not interested only because it's Joss. I can't wait to see what happens next to Dr. Horrible, the character.

Good stuff.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Thoughts While Mowing: Part II

So after yesterday’s post, I was thinking about character actors and also Robin Hood. Naturally, my mind rolled around to Disney’s 1973 version. It’s a movie that gets a lot of criticism for employing familiar character actors to play character roles, but I don’t think it deserves to. All of the actors are terrific. They might be playing themselves, but they’re doing a bang-up job of it.

Anyway, I realized today that five characters in the movie are played by actors who had supporting roles on CBS programs. Five! All from CBS!

Phil Harris (Little John) played himself as the smooth-talking bandleader of The Jack Benny Program for sixteen seasons on radio (1936-1952).

Ken Curtis (Nutsy the Vulture) played scraggly deputy Festus Haggen on the last eleven seasons of Gunsmoke (1964-1975).

George Lindsey (Trigger the Vulture) played replacement gas station attendant Goober Pyle on the last four seasons of The Andy Griffith Show (1964-1968) and all of the weak replacement series Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-1971).

Pat Buttram (The Sheriff of Nottingham) played slimy local salesman Mr. Haney on Green Acres (1965-1971).

John Fiedler (Church Mouse) played meek patient Mr. Peterson on The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978).

That’s kind of neat.

Monday, July 14, 2008

5 Good Perfomances by Character Actors in Warner Brothers Movies

For a lot of motion picture fans, myself included, character actors are more fun to watch than big stars. It’s magic to see someone take a supporting role and make it sing. I’m not going to say that Warner Brothers is the All Time Greatest Studio for character actors, but it has to be close. During the Golden Age of Hollywood (you know, the 1930s and ‘40s), the studio had a stable of great bit players like no other. With the collapse of the studio system, the contract player died out, of course. But in honor of those halcyon days, here’s a sampling of some great WB character performances spanning seven decades.

1933 – Frank McHugh as Francis in Footlight Parade

Stocky, cock-eyed Frank McHugh played sidekick to James Cagney in a number of movies for Warner Brothers, most prominently The Roaring Twenties in 1939. But without singing a note, he steals this musical away from talents like Cagney and Ruby Keeler. As nervous, excitable dance director Francis, he frets and moans his way through the picture, always seeming to be on the verge of a breakdown even when things go right. You get the sense that Francis always wanted to be an accountant, but fell into choreography by mistake. The character appears for maybe twenty minutes total and, yes, I’m writing back-story for him. He’s that good.

This clip features McHugh at the beginning and at the end, the second time spouting his catchphrase from the movie.

1938 –Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Robin Hood is all about Errol Flynn, of course. He’s in just about every scene, and he’s amazing. But like most WB pictures from this period, it’s also full of great performances perfectly matched to its tone. If Casablanca is full of subtlety, Robin Hood allows every actor a chance to play over-the-top. And no one is broader than Pallette. He plays a Friar Tuck who is simultaneously upset and over-joyed at everything happening in front of him. He loves the spectacle, but he would rather be eating. He’s a good fighter, but a better sleeper. Somehow, the character never seems like a paradox. He’s just too big a man to have only one personality. It’s all contained perfectly in Pallette’s distinctive voice and enormous presence.

1975 – William Duell as Sefelt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Cuckoo’s Nest is a dream for a fan of character actors – all-time greats Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, and Vincent Schiavelli, to just name a few, appear as mental hospital inmates alongside Jack Nicholson. William Duell isn’t as well-known as his castmates – he’s probably most recognizable as Johnny the Snitch on Police Squad! – but he’s no less remarkable. As little Sefelt, Duell has no big moments. His job, almost entirely, is simply to react to what other people are doing. While the others act like raving crazy people, Duell is left to act like an entertained crazy person. This scene, for example, is all about Lloyd as Taber and William Redfield as Mr. Harding. Duell does little more than giggle and repeat words (that's him saying "heh" at 00:49, for example). But that’s my point – you chuckle at him when he has funny reactions, and you don’t dwell on him when he isn’t on-screen. In a movie full of memorable performances, William Duell helps sustain the reality, and does so brilliantly.

WARNING: This scene contains dangerous words.

1985 –Carmen Filpi as Hobo Jack in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

Carmen Filpi was not a homeless man. He was an actor who worked steadily in Hollywood for decades. You may have seen him in 1990s Adam Sandler movies or in that on episode of Boy Meets World. And yet, when he sings his filthy old heart out in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, you can almost smell years and years of hobo-ing on him. No one watches this scene and thinks “Carmen Filpi is a great actor;” they just think “That’s one disgusting old man.” Bravo, Mr. Filpi.

2005 –Gary Oldman as Lt. Jim Gordon in Batman Begins

For years, the Batman supporting character Commissioner Gordon never got the respect he deserved in live-action adaptations. In the 1960s TV show, Neil Hamilton played Gordon like a friendly uncle who called on his nephew Batman for help. In 1989’s Batman and sequels, Pat Hingle started out as a buffoon and got more embarrassing as the series got worse. One of the many things that Batman Begins did right was to finally raise Gordon to his proper place in Gotham. As played by Oldman, he’s a weary-but-dedicated cop who loves his job and loves his city even more. He’s amazed at the things happening around him, but doesn’t let that stop him from carrying out his duties. You look into Oldman’s eyes and you have no doubt that this man will one day be Police Commissioner.

Is it even possible for this movie to not be terrible?

Land of the Lost: The Big Budget Will Ferrell Movie From the Director of Casper.

I mean really, is it?

Friday, July 11, 2008

No Posts this weekend

I posted twice today, and I shall post twice again on Monday. I can't post tomorrow or Sunday because I have familial obligations. Sorry about that, large and adoring audience.

Thoughts While Mowing: Part I

With Scrubs moving from NBC to ABC this fall, I started thinking about what would happen if other sitcoms switched networks. If, say, My Name is Earl went to CBS, it would probably have a laugh track, which would make a lot more sense. However, if 30 Rock were to move to another network, it would be chaos. It would change the series in a way no show has ever been affected by a network change in the past.

30 Rock takes place behind-the-scenes at an NBC program. It often pokes fun at the reality programming favored by the network, among other things. NBC, really, is an essential character. Sure, if the show switched to (for example) CBS, they could simply have TGS get canceled and picked up by CBS. They could do all kinds of jokes about multi-camera sitcoms and procedural dramas. That’d probably be okay.

Most of the characters could survive easily – if TGS were to move to a new network, it makes sense that the actors, producers and writing staff would go with it. But there would still be problems. Two of the show’s most popular characters could not credibly be brought over to a new network. Jack, played by Alec Baldwin, has spent years building a career at NBC/General Electric. Sure, at the end of last season, he was working for George Bush, but we all know he’ll be back where he belongs. But what he certainly wouldn’t do is go to work for NBC’s direct competition. Not in the long term.

The other character who would be out of place outside of Rockefeller Center (Say, that’s another thing – the name of the show is a GE-owned building. They’d have to rename the series CBS Television City) is Kenneth the page. Kenneth has spent his whole life with only one goal in mind – to aid those who work in television. The NBC page is the loftiest position one can achieve in that field. He lives to be an NBC page, and he would never abandon the dream just because one show got canceled.

Of course, this is all silly speculation for something that will never happen. If 30 Rock did get canceled, no other network would pick it up. It’s owned by NBC/Universal. Scrubs only got picked up ABC because it was owned by ABC parent company Disney. In this day and age, no network would pick up a canceled series that they won’t even own distribution rights for. Never.

Sorry for wasting your time.

Let's Hope It's For Real This Time

DC announces that they’re going to step up movie production.

How did this not happen the first time, back in 2003? Warner Brothers owns DC Comics, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to that DC Comics own the most diverse fictional universe out there. Marvel is having success with their superhero movies, sure. In the ten years since Blade was released, Marvel has put out seventeen movies using their superhero characters. In the same time, DC has released five movies using their characters (and I’m counting Constantine).

But if DC gets their act together, they could put out so much more. In the DC Universe, even putting aside the familiar Justice League characters, there are masterpieces of a wide variety of genres just waiting – just begging – to be put on film. Now, it would be impossible to tie all of these together into a coherent universe in the movies (although the Justice League could and should be interconnected quite easily), but let’s take a look at just a few of DC’s more off-beat in-universe properties. There are only examples. There’s a lot more where these came from.

Comedy – Super Buddies. I would have said Justice League International, but that would probably confuse people. Anyway, I think a Super Buddies movie could be good, as long as it acknowledged that the characters all used to be a lot more prominent than they are at the time of the movie. A story about a bunch of upstart joke superheroes would just be Mystery Men again, but one about has-beens trying to stage a comeback could be comedy gold.

Action – Suicide Squad. This is a comic book where the government employs super-powered criminals to carry out jobs that can’t be accomplished through honest means. The cast varied throughout the series, so there are dozens of great characters to choose from. No matter who the characters are, though, the concept is a guaranteed winner.

Fantasy – Sandman. Hollywood has already adapted one of Neil Gaiman’s novels, so why not his epic masterpiece? Obviously, it would be impossible to do a completely faithful adaptation in the space of a movie. But with an approach based around The Endless as a family, I think it could be really terrific.

Horror – The Spectre. It might not be a typical slasher film, but the Vengeance of God going around punishing sinners in outrageously grisly ways is a pretty creepy idea, I say.

Procedural – Gotham Central. Imagine it – a picture about a mystery in Gotham City and the police who solve it. It would be, on the surface, a typical cop movie, but it could also introduce fantasy elements easily, as it’s set in Gotham City, a city everyone knows to be completely fictional and full of weird stuff. Also, a Batman movie without a high-cost Batman - it’s like printing money!

Science Fiction – Metal Men. It’s about a guy who builds himself a surrogate family of robots and may or may not be crazy! That’s awesome!

War – Enemy Ace. This could be a great character piece and a fun action movie. On the one hand, you have the examination of what went through the mind of a German fighter pilot in WWI. On the other, you have all kinds of exciting mid-air fights. Clint Eastwood scored an Oscar nomination a couple years ago by looking at WWII from the Japanese perspective, so why not WWI from the point-of-view of a German?

Western – Jonah Hex. There’s talk that this is in development, and for good reason. With a good script, director and cast; the scarred, amoral bounty hunter has the potential to be one of the great western heroes of all time. He’s serious about his work, but he’s got a dark sense of humor. He doesn’t relish using his gun, but he doesn’t hesitate to do so when he has to. He’s ugly, but women throw themselves at him all the time. It’s been years since we’ve seen a great new Western hero, and he’d the perfect front man for a comeback.

In addition to all of these, DC could use their characters to tell the kinds of movie stories that Marvel can’t – those that depend heavily on legacy. The public has seen enough origin stories in superhero movies that this is the ideal time for a second-generation hero onscreen. James Robinson’s Starman – where a young hipster reluctantly goes into the family business – or The Flash (volume two) – in which a former sidekick rises to fill the role of his dead mentor – would be perfect choices.

There’s a whole universe out there, Warner Brothers. Get to it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

When Bad Things Collide

Bad news.

I’m not going to take the time to explain why I so intensely dislike Family Guy (especially since Jaime Weinman already wrote the definitive post on the subject. He says it all, far more eloquently than I ever could).

Additionally, I have to admit that I understand why Google thinks this is a good idea. The kids go crazy over Seth MacFarlane, and he’ll almost certainly draw attention to websites where these ads appear. That’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

That said, it’s still a terrible, awful thing to happen. I’m not alone in disliking online advertising that talks at me – really, does anyone? – but this is a new low. Online advertising that not only talks but was created by Seth MacFarlane?! It’s bad enough that he’ll soon have three shows on TV – including the upcoming, sure-to-be-hilarious Cleveland – but now his unique brand of unfunny will interrupt me while I’m trying to listen to They Might Be Giants.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The world's big enough for all different Batmans

I’ve been enjoying Paul Dini’s run on Detective Comics, thus-far a series of done-in-ones and two-parters focusing, like the title implies, on Batman as a Detective. A crime is committed, Batman uses his skill to solve the crime, The End. The most recent issue, #845, was a typically solid entry, until the last page, where I saw this:

Now, Batman: R.I.P., appearing in the pages of Detective’s sister book Batman, has been pretty good so far, but it’s a story about Batman going crazy after learning about some kooky stuff that happened to him in the ‘50s. The Batman of Detective Comics is, so far, not cracking up at all. And I like it that way. Batman R.I.P. writer Grant Morrison is writing a story that only he understands, and tie-ins can’t help but be watered-down versions of the same story. Paul Dini shouldn’t be forced to fall in line when it will be keep him from doing what he does best.

Even the continuity hounds would have to admit that this crossover isn’t necessary. Batman hasn’t always been crazy. Someday, he will again not be crazy. Those looking for a single Bat-continuity could simply assume the Detective stories take place sometime before (or after) Batman R.I.P.

Grant Morrison is also writing Final Crisis, where he completely ignores Dini’s supposed lead-in Countdown to Final Crisis. DC would be wise to let Dini return the favor and ignore Batman: R.I.P.

The return of Hush is also a bad idea.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Real Nerdy Interlude

I was listening to "I Can't Get Next To You" by The Temptations today, I noticed something that I'd never really thought about before. There's a line in the second verse where Melvin Franklin says "I can live forever, if I so desire."

Is it just me, or is that staggeringly brilliant? His metaphorical superpower, in this case, isn't that he's immortal. It's that he could be immortal if he decided that he felt like it. He's so powerful that living forever is something he may or may not decide to do.

That's a short story just begging to be written. Good work, song writers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.

Monday, July 7, 2008

I knew there was something I liked about that guy.

Here are some excerpts from a feature on the Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy director entitled “Inside the Mind of Guillermo del Toro” in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly (#1001, July 11):

1. “Del Toro’s favorite superhero is a misunderstood mound of sentient muck named Swamp Thing.”

2. “Comic book creator Jack Kirby was del Toro’s biggest influence for his Hellboy movies. ‘Kirby’s monsters were incredibly powerful and incredibly silly – creatures with massive teeth wandering the streets popping cars in their mouths like popcorn,’ he says.”

3. “‘All movies should be designed like animation, where the style is the substance,’ del Toro says. He’s been inspired by certain cartoons from Chuck Jones, such as the Bugs Bunny opus What’s Opera Doc?, and by Eyvind Earle, the color stylist on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.”

4. “One of his favorite authors is Charles Dickens.”

5. “Del Toro loves . . . [Terry Gilliam’s] Brazil.”

6. “I saw them [James Whale’s Frankenstein movies] at a very early age, and thoroughly identified with Boris Karloff’s performance as Frankenstein’s creature. Karloff embodies the most essential, existential quality of being human – a creature expelled from a womb of darkness and silence by an uncaring creator and thrust upon a world of fire, rain, and hatred.”

7. “I was weird as a kid. What can I say?”

Here are some facts about me:

1. Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing (v. 2, #20-64) is one of my two favorite comic book runs of all time.

2. Like all sensible comic-book-reading humans, I think Jack Kirby is awesome.

3. I love Chuck Jones. I own all five volumes of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection. Also, I believe that Eyvind Earle’s work is the best thing about Sleeping Beauty.

4. I read A Christmas Carol every year. Really.

5. Brazil is, officially, my 7th-favorite movie of all time.

6. Frankenstein is one of three so-called “horror” movies I really love. Until I recently moved out, I had a Frankenstein poster hanging in my apartment. Also, I always called Karloff’s character “The Creature” or “The Monster”, as opposed to “Frankenstein”.

7. I, too, was weird as a kid.

The only conclusion I can draw is that I am Guillermo del Toro.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Anthony Strand Substitute Video Guide

This past spring, I worked as a substitute teacher in the Fargo Public Schools and in the Fargo Catholic Schools Network. For those who don’t recall, substitute teachers don’t actually teach. Their job consists mostly of making sure none of the students (none of whom is paying any attention to anything going on in the classroom) gets injured. No sane educator would let a sub actually teach. Often, the sub will supervise a test or hand out a worksheet to be completed by the end of class. Just as often, the sub will show a video.

These videos might be educational, but are they entertaining? I’m going to look back at all of the videos I showed this spring (at least those I can remember) and rank them on a scale of 1 to 10. Now, of course none of these videos would be my first choice for Saturday night viewing, but it goes without saying that some are more tolerable than others. When you’re showing the same video as many as five times in a single school day, having one you can stand is better than gold. So here they are: the productions that pass for substitute education in Fargo, North Dakota.

Bill Nye: Energy (9th Physical Science, Fargo North High) – 1990s TV science man Bill Nye talks about various forms of energy and how they can be harnessed and used. Just like on the TV, Nye’s enthusiasm rubs off. The show is full of good information, presented in an off-beat way. It’s dry sometimes, of course, but it’s a video about energy. It could be so much worse. 7/10

Biography: Neiman Marcus (Marketing, Fargo North High) – Again, this is just an episode of the old A&E TV series Biography. This particular one is about the founders of Neiman-Marcus clothing stores. Did you know Neiman and Marcus were brothers-in-law? Did you know that Mrs. Neiman (sister of Mr. Marcus) worked on the floor of the original store? Did you know that heir Stanley Marcus lived to be 96 years old and worked almost until his death? Neither did I. Good program. 9/10

Parent/Child Communication: Making Things Better (9th Health, Fargo South Campus II) – Oh my sweet Nord. Amazing. We all saw videos like this as kids – ones with awkward conversation-inducing setup that doesn’t ring true in any way. They’re ever more bizarre and amusing in adulthood. In this case, it’s a group of students and a teacher meeting during lunch hour to discuss how to improve communication with their parents. You get students saying things to each other like “You need to act like the adult. You made a contract with your father and now you need to honor it,” as well as hilariously introspective voiceovers where one group member tries to reason out how to apply the lessons he’s learned to his negotiations with his father. It’s from about 1986, and the generic 80s music and fashion just add to the fun. I saw this video four times, and I awaited each new class period like I was going to Disneyland. 10/10

Planet Earth: Deep Oceans (7th Science, Sullivan Middle School) – This is part of the acclaimed Planet Earth series that aired on the Discovery Channel. Narrator Sigourney Weaver (sweet!) takes us underwater for a look at some fish and various other sea creatures. It’s tremendously well-done, if that’s your thing. It isn’t mine. I can’t fault the production, but I can only look at so many fish on a TV screen before my eyes start to glaze over. I did have a student mutter "I wish it was Oceanic flight 815," which led to a nice discussion of Lost, though. 5/10

Roofing (Tech Ed, Fargo North High) – Here, an astoundingly chipper man and woman tell us how to get started on our own roofing project at home. I kicked a kid out of class for being foul-mouthed during this video once. That was by far the most exciting part of my day. 3/10

Selling Parts IV & V (Marketing, Fargo South High) – Some guy who works for Ben & Jerry’s walks the audience through a typical sale, from initial meeting to final agreement. That’s what happened in part IV, I think. Part V was something else, about following up sales and making sure the customer is happy. I don’t know. I had mostly seniors in this class, and it was right at the end of the year, and I read Ultimate Spider-Man all day anyway. 4/10

Ser and Estar (8th Spanish, Carl Ben Eielson Middle School) I actually read during this day, too, (the first three A Series of Unfortunate Events novels) because the room had a student teacher and he did everything (in fact, we had a nice talk about our mutual disdain of student teaching). But I stopped reading for these fourteen minutes each period. A heavily accented narrator explains the proper usage of the Spanish verb forms ser and estar in rhymes such as:

“Do you know ser? And Estar, his brother?

When to use one, when to use the other?

It’s easy, man. Just like kissing your mother!”

Meanwhile, the cartoon images on the screen are completely hideous. They look like they were drawn by an eight-year-old using Microsoft Paint, and they aren’t actually animated. The camera just moves over the static image, in the style of a Random House Read-Along video. The whole thing is like an insane fever dream. I have no idea how to use ser or estar properly, but I won’t soon forget the experience of watching this amazing motion picture. 10/10

Sport Science: Reaction Time (9th Physical Science, Fargo South Campus II) – This is an episode of a series on FOX Sports Net which I hadn’t heard of. I’ve since noticed my brothers watching it, though. It looks as the science behind various things in sports. Here, as you may have guessed, the subject is reaction time. It looks at quarterbacks trying not to get hit, basketball players changing directions quickly, and a variety of other topics. I’m no sports fan, but I was fascinated. Also a plus: the announcer’s tendency to act like the sports guests are Amazing Humans (“One of the best quarterbacks of all time: Big Ben Roethlisberger!) 8/10

T3: Witness (8th Religion, Sullivan Middle School) – This is a pretty typical Christian “pastor talks to an audience of teenagers about some aspect of faith, and the camera frequently cuts to audience members who are clearly having a good time” video. I saw a bunch of these in confirmation. It’s a well-done example of the genre. A young pastor (who clearly thinks he’s a lot hipper than he really is, but seems like a nice fellow) talks about standing up for your faith when others mock you. It moved well, got its points across in an entertaining and occasionally genuinely amusing fashion, and wasn’t condescending, as these videos can often be. 7/10

Working with Acrylic (Tech Ed, Fargo North High) – I showed this the same day as Roofing. It’s a thousand times worse. Some guy who looks kind of Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds talks about acrylics and how his products are the best and you can use acrylics and your work will look just like this if you follow his step-by-step instructions that you can get if you call this number. It was only eleven minutes long, which was nice. I’ll give it one point for brevity. 1/10

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Eater X is the France

Like all Americans, you watched the 93rd Annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN yesterday. You don’t need me to tell you that last year’s champion Joey Chestnut beat Takeru Kobayashi, the winner of the previous six years. You saw the exciting photo finish, which was declared a tie, and you thrilled to the five-dog eat-off, which ended with Chestnut victorious by a bun heel. But did you see the symbolism? While glued to your television for ten minutes plus a five-dog eat-off, did you notice that all of American history was staring back at you?

First of all, there are the obvious things. What’s more American than rampant waste and excessive eating for absolutely no reason at all? At the Hot Dog Eating Contest, hundreds upon hundreds of hot dogs and buns are dipped in water and swallowed whole, to serve no end at all. The people eating them might not actually become obese, but a regular American who attempted the same feat certainly would.

So how are these processed-food-consuming giants different from the average man or woman on the street? Why, they represent President Herbert Hoover’s ideal of Rugged Individualism, of course! These people trained themselves from nothing – from nothing! – to achieve perfection. Men like Joey Chestnut and Kobayashi can eat as many as sixty-four hot dogs in a single sitting, and that takes an inconceivable amount of work. The rest of the nation can view them as a shining example to look up to. With a little self-motivation, all Americans could be so astoundingly productive at work.

On a completely different level, the Joey Chestnut/Kobayashi rivalry is a metaphor for the battle between the United States and the forces of Eastern Imperialism. Kobayashi is a native of Japan, while Joey Chestnut was born in the United States somewhere, probably. Kobayashi’s six wins were kind of like six Pearl Harbors. Joey Chestnut’s victory last year was the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, and this year’s was Nagasaki. That’s right. Joey Chestnut’s win at the Hot Dog Eating Contest was, in effect, Fat Man.

That’s America, gang.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy 4th of July everyone!

No real post today. Just this holiday treat:

I didn't say which holiday.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

How many of the 12 Angry Men are actually angry?

I was thinking today about the movie 12 Angry Men, as I very often do. The title works well – it’s very striking, and it teases the viewer into wondering what twelve men are angry about – but it isn’t really very accurate, is it? At no point in the picture are twelve men angry at once. In fact, many of them never are at all.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to figure out just how many Angry Men actually appear in the movie. In ninety-five minutes of screen time, how many of the characters actually get angry? Let’s examine.

(The closing credits identify which Angry Man is which):


Juror #1 (Martin Balsam) – Probably the most affable of the twelve, he tries to get everyone to keep their heads on straight. NOT ANGRY

Juror #2 (John Fielder) – For most of the picture, he’s a meek, polite little man. Eventually, he gets pretty upset that no one takes him seriously and has one memorable outburst. ANGRY

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) – Still distressed over a falling-out with son, he’s pretty mad at everyone about everything. ANGRY

Juror #4 (E. G. Marshall) – He’s the cold, logical one. Even when he raises a passionate argument, he never remotely loses his temper. NOT ANGRY.

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman) – The youngest and most nervous member of the jury, he’s too intimidated to get mad. NOT ANGRY.

Juror #6 (Edward Binns) – A construction worker who seems like a nice fellow. He’s pretty genial throughout. NOT ANGRY.

Juror #7 (Jack Warden) – He couldn’t care less about the trial. He just wants to get to his baseball game, and all this talk of a murder gets him pretty annoyed. ANGRY.

Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) – The voice of reason within the jury, he convinces the others one by one to see things his way. His calm, rational approach is a big help in this regard. NOT ANGRY.

Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney) – A sweet old gentlemen, he breaks character and yells at #7 after the latter nails him in the head with a crumpled-up piece of paper. I’m going to call it ANGRY.

Juror #10 (Ed Begley, Sr.) – This crazy old racist can’t help but yell about “those people.” ANGRY.

Juror #11 (George Voskovec) – A straight-forward, soft-spoken European immigrant, he gets pretty upset when the validity of his opinions is called into question. ANGRY.

Juror #12 (Robert Webber) – It seems like nothing can cause the smooth-talking ad man to break a sweat. He gets slightly flustered a couple times, but never raises his voice. NOT ANGRY.

So there you go. Six who do and six who don’t. And of the six who do, three are only angry momentarily.

The picture, then, should have been called Three Angry Men, Three Men Who Lose Their Tempers Momentarily and Six Other Guys.

That would have been a much better title.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Personalized license plates have always bothered me. Without fail, they don’t make sense to anyone who isn’t a friend or relative of the car owner. Still, in theory the purpose is for the driver to express his or her personality. With that I mind, I started recording personalized license plates that I saw on the streets of Fargo. I’m going to make an honest attempt to figure out what they mean and/or what they say about the people who paid money to get them attached to their cars.

Before we go on, I must assure you that every one of these is a real license plate. I wrote down about one hundred and fifty. If you don’t think these are funny, I have a whole bunch more I can show you.

20MAX – But he or she usually only takes sixteen or seventeen.
3HOLSN1 – This person obviously has a three-hole punch that he or she uses to commit a variety of sins.
ALTIMTE – When this person plays football, he or she is always “All Time Tight End”.
APESCAR – This person stole his or her car from a gorilla.
BIG FOFO – This person was a big Follow That Bird fan as a kid, but got confused about Big Bird’s adopted name, having not seen the movie in some years.
BUD79 – Bud couldn’t remember how old he was, so he put it on his license plate.
CME4HMS – Actually, this sounds like a church ad. But it was on a personal vehicle, as far as I could tell.
DAJAVOO – I know I’ve seen that misspelling on a license plate somewhere before . . .
DR WILD – After earning his Doctorate degree, Tarzan got a vanity plate.
ERS – This person is well known for saying “Er . . err . . . err . . .” all the time.
FAB4EVR – This person wants to be fabulous forever.
GIGI RN – This person constantly runs to the video store to rent the Leslie Caron movie Gigi.
HIJUMPA – Hi yourself, but my name’s not “Jumpa”.
ILPETER – This person is named Peter, and gets sick quite often. Hence the nickname.
ITLDO – This is James Cromwell’s car.
ITLNSUB – This person really, really loves Italian subs. That’s funny enough, I think.
KRACKRZ – I lay awake at night wishing this plate was my own.
LUVYAH – This person loves me.
MDYBLUZ – In high school, this fellow had a crush on a girl named “Mandy Blutz”, and he hopes she’ll notice his shout out to her on his vanity plate.
MJ PI – This person is a private investigator who only serves clients with the initials “MJ”.
MNTROLR – This car is owned by a cyborg named “Mantroller”.
MOHRPWR – This person still can’t believe FOX cancelled Action starring Jay Mohr, so he or she is trying to devise ways to bring it back, using everything in his or her power.
MRS3577 – This woman loves the number 3577 so much, she married it!
OUTBUGN – While driving, this VW owner listens to Bugs Bunny’s rap song from the Space Jam soundtrack.
PRA4SUN – This person wishes he or she didn’t live in North Dakota for eight months out of the year.
R3BOYS – These boys love Robocop 3.
SHARMAS – Sharmas MacPherson recently emigrated from Silly Stereotypeland
SKOOL – This person usually skipped.
SNAVELY – Sharmas’s brother, Snavely MacPherson
TMUP – This person really loves The Muppet Show.
TOMIGRL – This person wanted to dedicate his plate “To My Girl,” but he can’t spell very well.
TRI E2 – This person is asking “You too?” in Latin three times.
WANKER – I swear to you I am not making this up.
WN2BCEO – This person is a serious tool, I guarantee it.
WORDS – False. That is only one word.
WRKN4YA – I am this person’s boss.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

10 Reasons Why Frank Miller Shouldn't Write DC Comics

Okay, that's a bit harsh, but it might have been a better title for this article (linked via Comics Should Be Good).

I’m no fan of Frank Miller’s writing or his art, and for all of the usual reasons. He seems to be trapped in a state of suspended adolescence, cranking out stories full of ridiculous over-the-top violence, mind-numbing amounts of T&A, and dialogue right out of a high school freshman’s creative writing project.

But that wide topic is a subject for another post. Reading the article, I can’t help but notice that nearly all of Miller’s views on what a superhero is go directly against the ideals and attributes generally possessed by DC’s lineup of heroes. In his own words, he demonstrates why his work for that company is often laughable. Let’s take a look at some of Miller’s “10 Superhero Commandments” and see how they compare with the typical DC hero.

1. The hero sacrifices everything.
Miller’s origin story goes like this: Born in 1957, he grows up in Maryland and Vermont with three brothers and three sisters as a self-described “maladjusted child,” obsessed with comics. At age six he meets his destiny. Instead of being bitten by a radioactive spider, he goes to the movies and gets bitten by the old B-film The 300 Spartans. “It changed the way I looked at heroes entirely,” remembers Miller, who decided then and there to pursue a life in ink. “It stopped being the fresh-faced guys who get medals on their chests at the end of Star Wars. It became people who were willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good.” The lesson stuck with him: “One of the most heroic movies I ever saw was Rocky, a guy who lasts 15 rounds before he loses a fight.”

This one sounds okay at first. In the DC universe, heroes are always willing to sacrifice everything, including their own lives. Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Oliver Queen, Conner Kent, and dozens of others have died to, as Miller says, serve the greater good. However, the last quote shows Miller’s idea of a noble sacrifice – Rocky Balboa, who *loses*. I won’t argue that Rocky should end differently than it does, but Rocky isn’t a superhero. There’s nothing at stake in his fight against Apollo Creed. To me, this reads like Miller feels that heroes should sacrifice everything they have to accomplish nothing. He actively wants to see a downbeat ending. I’m not saying that all superheroes need happy endings every time, but if a hero sacrifices himself in the DC Universe, it will always be for a reason.

3. The hero does nothing small.
Miller grew up in small towns dreaming of Gotham, Metropolis, and planet-hopping superheroes. “It’s all got to happen on a grand scale,” explains Miller, who first became famous for his crime-fiction influences and later his wild style of slashing lines, abstract action, and Jackson Pollock–like splatter. “C’mon, Superman is ridiculous—he has blue hair, he can fly. It can’t just be, ‘This guy’s having a bad day.’ If Daredevil has a nervous breakdown, people are going to get hit.”

In the DC Universe, superheroes can and *do* do things small. The Flash might help save the world from a CRISIS every couple of months, but he’s just as likely to save a woman falling out of an airplane even though he can’t fly. Superman is frequently seen helping citizens with miniscule problems that he could just as easily ignore. In the DC Universe, no job is too big or small for a superhero.

Also, why does Frank Miller think Superman has blue hair?

4. The hero loves women of all kinds: Blondes, brunettes, redheads, dominatrices, strippers, hookers…
From his earliest strips to the strippers of Sin City, Miller’s heroes have been surrounded by beautiful, often nude, women. Why? Because, like many school-age outcasts, Miller has always loved to draw hot girls. “When you have a brush in your hand, inking a beautiful woman is a lot like running your hands over her,” Miller says. “It turns me on, OK?”

One thing is clear just from reading this passage: Frank Miller is a creepy, creepy dude. The portrayal of women in comics has enough problems without him. He certainly has no business writing Wonder Woman or Black Canary when Greg Rucka or Gail Simone could be doing so instead.

5. The hero fights dirty and looks ugly.
A Frank Miller man is nasty when he needs to be: He fights dirty, uses his fists, and knows how to take a beating. He’s not the clean-cut Captain America type. He’s almost always some nasty-looking, hulking freak who’s half-human, half-rhino. Miller’s Batman is a pink-fleshed Hulk. Sin City’s brutish Marv is Miller’s take on a modern-day barbarian. “If I go for a strong guy” he says, “I want him to be ugly.”

Miller likes the rough image for himself too. He’s earned a reputation within the industry for being ferociously demanding, a quality mirrored in his heroes. “Frank talks about his characters as if they won’t let him go until they’ve told him their stories,” says 300 director Zack Snyder. “The only characters that survive are the ones who are tough enough to fight back. Maybe that’s why he ends up with the hardest and scariest.”

Once again, “Frank Miller’s Batman is a pink-fleshed Hulk.” He in no way resembles the Batman of other writers. He’s a soldier, not a detective. He uses his fists, but rarely uses his brain. DC heroes are marked by their ability to solve problems using their wits. This isn’t just true of Batman, but also of Superman (in the Silver Age, he thought his way out of more than one red sun situation, I can tell you) and scores of others. Frank Miller has no use for brain power, so his “heroes” never use it.

6. The hero has a reason, but he doesn’t need therapy.
“When I first got going on what became The Dark Knight, I just thought about him a lot, what kind of guy would do this stuff,” he says of his endlessly influential 1986 reinvention of Batman. That said, Miller says he’s sick of “therapy culture” and hand-wringing heroes like Spider-Man who go around whining all the time about the burden of great power. In 300 Sparta’s King Leonidas didn’t have to ponder the Persian Empire’s diplomacy—he kicked Xerxes’ diplomat down a well.

Miller’s right that heroes shouldn’t whine. That’s certainly something I dislike about Spider-Man. But that doesn’t mean superheroes shouldn’t be able to talk like human beings or show feelings. One of the most memorable issues of the last fifteen years – Hitman #34 – consists of Superman and Tommy Monahan sitting around talking. Miller’s characters are unfeeling Dirty Harrys who couldn’t care less about the people around them. In fact, I’d say most of Miller’s characters would do very well indeed to seek therapy.

9. The hero is hated and misunderstood.
Miller has always been a controversial figure. The more popular he becomes, the more he seems to piss off colleagues, infuriate fans, and confound expectations–because he’s always restlessly pursuing some new direction. In Miller’s universe, superheroes are outlawed and ostracized—there are no trophies. “Community approval isn’t the motive for a hero anyway,” he says. “It’s the motive for a politician. A hero does the right thing because it’s the right thing.”

At Marvel, this is true – newspapers slander Spider-Man, the X-Men get garbage thrown at them in the streets, Silver Surfer gets driven out of town for stopping crimes – but at DC it is patently false. At DC, the heroes are beloved, for acting like heroes. They are pillars of their communities. All of Metropolis offers Superman a friendly wave as he passes by. Central City builds a museum for the Flash. The Opal City police department gives Starman all of the powers of an officer. Even Batman, who is perhaps more feared than loved, is without a doubt Gotham City’s protector, and people respect him for it.

10. The hero believes in good and evil.
Miller’s 300 became a lightning rod for criticism since many read it as an endorsement of the war on terror, the West versus the Middle East. “I did this comic in the 1990s, so I never could have expected that it would get this reaction from hawks,” says Miller, laughing. “I did 300 years before 9/11, but you don’t have to read much between the lines to see that I believe there is good and there is evil. As the great cartoonist Wallace Wood said, it’s the job of the good guys to kill the bad guys.”

DC Superheroes do not kill. That’s what separates them from the villains. Superman will never kill Lex Luthor. Batman will never kill the Joker. If Frank Miller doesn’t understand that, he has no business trying to write DC comic books.

And yet they keep letting him.