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Saturday, June 27, 2015

TODAY I AM FIFTY

Kissing my forties goodbye with two staunch pals whom it is my distinct honor to know..

Dear Vaulties,

Despite many years of assorted idiocy, Yer Bunche somehow managed to live to see my fiftieth birthday and I'm quite pleased to say that I did. I have stuff to do today but I wanted to note that the big day is here and that I will be reporting on my entry into the half-century club over the next few days. STAY TUNED!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME


THE PERFECT SONG FOR MY 50th BIRTHDAY

This one speaks for itself.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

R.I.P. PATRICK MACNEE (1922-2015), TV'S JOHN STEED

My hero.

It is with great sadness that I note the passing of the one and only Patrick Macnee, who has left us at the age of 93.

THE AVENGERS is one of the classic cult TV series from the 1960's spy craze, earning its place in pop culture history for introducing the badassed female to the screen, and for its eccentric, veddy British quirkiness/surreal aesthetic. Anchoring the show throughout its original run and 1970's revival was Patrick Macnee as foppish gentleman secret agent John Steed, a charming, urbane, witty bon vivant who was the antithesis of government-sanctioned school bully with a license to kill, James Bond. Admittedly something of a caricature of complete and utter Britishness, Steed was a breath of fresh air to American audiences who had never before seen his like, and to me he was the greatest of all the '60's super-spies. Bond may have gotten more pussy than a litter box, but Steed was the one who could offer a companion quality conversation spiced with a genuinely dry sense of humor without Bond's decided mean streak. Capable, smart, and classy almost to a fault, John Steed was — and is — my kind of hero, so three years ago I felt it was finally time to write to Macnee and express my admiration for his work in general and for Steed in particular. Macnee was getting on in years (he was 90 years old when I wrote to him) and I figured my window of opportunity was rapidly closing, thus I sat down and composed what can best be described as a well-worded gushing love letter to Steed and the man who played him, and what he meant to this now-grown American black kid. I then went to Macnee's website to order one of his personalized autographed 8 x 10's and sent the letter along with my request. About a month later, the treasure seen above arrived in the mail.

Raised by his lesbian mom in a country house with her rich lover and forced to wear kilts to feminize him, booted from Eton for selling pornography and being a bookie for fellow students, gaining pop culture immortality as the constant in THE AVENGERS, and appeared in both THIS IS SPINAL TAP and LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS, Patrick Macnee, you were truly awesome. Rest well, sir.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

JAWS AT 40

There are some movies that are sheer perfection when seen properly projected, and JAWS is one of them. Arguably the first true summer blockbuster, as we have come to understand the form, the film has been re-released for limited screenings during this, its fortieth anniversary, so I hauled myself to the temple of the flickering image to take in an all-too-rare revival of a horror masterpiece.

Seeing it on the big screen (at the Union Square multiplex in Manhattan) for the first time in 40 years transported me right back to being a few days shy of turning 10 and my embracing of it as my favorite movie for a couple of years. In my early years I had my career goal set on being a marine biologist with a concentration on shark studies and I dragged my parents to every shark-related activity that I could gain access to, so seeing JAWS was an inevitability. Though rated PG, the film's poster featured the ominous tacked-on caveat, "MAY BE TOO INTENSE FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN," which only guaranteed the attendance of this budding gorehound, so considering that and the fact that it all boiled down to a story about a huge goddamned shark merrily munching its way through summer season beachgoers (and a hapless dog), you had a recipe for perfect entertainment. (And as long as we're keeping it real, whatever would transpire onscreen couldn't be any more intense or emotionally scarring than the daily witnessing of my parents' marriage rocketing down the bowl.) And when I finally did see JAWS, I fucking loved it. It was a perfect "man versus force of nature" yarn, sort of an ancient seaman's legend writ for the late-20th century, and it's that primal simplicity of the narrative, coupled with some stunning sequences of suspense and stellar characterization, that so resonates. 

It was great to see JAWS again with an audience and when the lights went down, it was like settling in as a skilled elder storyteller wove a yarn to scare and enthrall kids while also instilling in them the string and basic lesson of taking what lurks in the depths seriously. There were some audience members who were clearly veterans from the first go-round but the majority of attendees were thirty or younger, most of whom had seen the movie numerous times on cable or DVD, and the few who who had never seen it before were easy to spot, thanks to their sudden vocalizations of shock in all the places that scared the motherfucking shit out of us back in the summer of 1975.

The horror from the deep revealed.

For the record, my favorite moment is still the part where Brody chums the water and meets the shark — sea monster, really — face-to-face, after which he backs into the Orca's interior, his face a frozen, stunned mask of horror as he matter-of-factly states, "You're going to need a bigger boat..." Also of note, you could have heard an amoeba fart during Quint's chilling recounting of his experience following the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, so all-consuming was the silence in the auditorium. The moment when Quint describes reaching over to wake up his friend, only to have the man tip over to reveal that he had been devoured from below the waist by one of perhaps a thousand tiger sharks... *SHUDDER*

Quint (Robert Shaw) makes with one of the most riveting and horrifying speeches in the annals of cinema.

Seriously, if it's playing anywhere near you, hie your ass to the theater and pay your respects as a true cinephile by JAWS again as it was intended. I'll never watch it again unless it's projected and you can bet your ass I'll be there for the 50th anniversary.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

THE BOOK OF MORMON on Broadway

This afternoon I finally saw THE BOOK OF MORMON on Broadway and, if I'm being totally honest here, I was not as impressed with it as I had expected to be. 

The show was certainly fun and I liked it but I found it to pretty much be "South Park Lite." A good number of the themes had been explored on SOUTH PARK over the years and the musical numbers, while undeniably well-performed and amusing, mostly couldn't hold a candle to almost any of the musical segments from the TV series or the feature film SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT. The ending came off as rushed and the instantaneous conversion of African warlord General Butt-Fucking-Naked from a sadistic, murderous, female genitalia-mutilating despot to a doorbell-ringing proselytizer did not work for me at all. I'm willing to bet that a good percentage of the Broadway audience and the tourists who flock to shows on the Great White Way are not watchers of the series, so they go to THE BOOK OF MORMON and are happily shocked by its content, which is admittedly a lot more profane and potentially offensive than everything else currently running. 

For me, the highlights were the set designs and the excellent "Hasa Diga Eebowai" number that advises curing one's blues by repeating the titular phrase (which translates as "Fuck you, God"). And seeing my ultra-religious mom laugh her ass off at the religious offensiveness and profane songs was a treat. If nothing else, seeing THE BOOK OF MORMON now has her interested in checking out SOUTH PARK.

Friday, May 01, 2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Metal heavy: Ultron (James Spader) gives Earth's mightiest heroes a run for their money.

Three years after the global box office success of MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS, the Earth's mightiest heroes are back and this time the "gathering of the fellowship" stuff is out of the way, so the films drops the audience straight into super-powered action and mayhem. On a mission to the Eastern European country of Skovia, the Avengers take down a Hydra base where the powerful scepter used by Loki in the first film is held by Baron von Strucker and used upon human subjects in experiments intended to generate Hydra-controlled superhumans. Only two humans have survived the testing, twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson), and they utilize their respective gifts of super-speed and mind-control/telekinesis/magic to hinder the Avengers' efforts and grant Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, a horrifying vision of his comrades laying defeated and dying as a fleet of extra-terrestrial conquerors head to the Earth through a wormhole in space. That grim tableau greatly rattles Stark and upon retrieving the scepter and taking it back to the opulent Avengers tower in Manhattan, Stark and fellow uber-brain Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) utilize the alien scepter's advanced tech to craft Ultron, an artificial intelligence meant to act as a preemptive defense system for the planet. That quantum leap in A.I. is arrived at without the knowledge of the other Avengers — yes, it's Stark once again proving himself to be an entitled, arrogant prick and a power unto himself, despite being a member of a team — and in no time flat it manifests as a seven-foot chrome megalomaniac whose twisted agenda does indeed amount to solving all of mankind's security issues, though in a way that Stark and Banner absolutely did not foresee. As all hell breaks loose in several international locales, the Avengers must marshal every bit of their skills, powers, wits, and unbridled badassery to handle Ultron and his army of deadly robotic doppelgangers.

Writer/director Joss Whedon pulls off the seemingly impossible by upping the ante from MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS with wall-to-wall action and sequences that give all of the featured characters solid things to do while allowing each to shine as more than just cookie cutter action figures brought to life. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is fleshed-out into more than just "short guy with bow and arrows and bad haircut," glimpses into the back-story of the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) add a poignancy to her fighting proficiency, Captain America (Chris Evans, in the role he was born to play) once again leads the group while butting heads with Stark, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) remains the resident Viking powerhouse, and Bruce Banner's struggle with his "sulky, kinda bulky, kinda Hulky" rage-fueled other half is given and interesting new wrinkle (that I will not spoil). Wanda and Pietro, though never referred to as the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, are a lot of fun, and both War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are along for the mayhem. But the movie is stolen by James Spader's voice performance for Ultron, a character that I never enjoyed in his many comics appearances but whose unexpected interpretation in the movie was a triumph of assured villainy. There have been numerous robotic/A.I. threats throughout cinema history but Ultron comes from out of nowhere to stand among the very best of his antagonistic automaton brethren.

A lot goes on that is best left un-described so the viewer can be caught up in the story's events and surprised by what unfolds, but I will say that it's exactly what I wanted from a super-hero spectacle, and then some. The only complaints I had were with the generic musical score (a problem I had with its predecessor) and the latest design for Iron Man (which all-too-obviously looks like the already available action figure), but those are very minor quibbles that in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the movie. The only other things that I would like to add are the following considerations that you need to know ahead of time:
  • Get all bathroom needs out of the way before the film starts. The movie is two hours and twenty-one minutes long and you won't want to miss any of it. And I don't know if this is how they'll handle it elsewhere but the theater I saw it at listed the showtime as 7pm but made sure to tell all of the ticket holders that the movie proper did not start until 7:20 because there were twenty minutes of trailers. They were not kidding.
  • Do not waste your money on seeing it in 3D. The 3D appeared to have been added in post and it adds absolutely nothing to the film. There is not one sequence that was designed to be seen in three dimensions.
  • Contrary to some early reports, there is an Easter egg at the end of the film, only it comes early during the end credits. Once the list of the cast and the title are out of the way, the Easter egg happens — you can't miss it — and after that you can walk.
  • There's the customary Stan Lee cameo but also look for comedy legend Buck Henry among the guests at a party at the Avengers tower.
  • I advise seeing it during a screening when it is unlikely that very young children will be present. Parents at the show I attended brought kids as little as a few months old, so there was crying, kids asking loud questions, and many cases of parents and kids walking in and out of the theater for bathroom breaks and distracting the audience in the process.

Friday, April 10, 2015

THE END OF AN ERA

At a DC Comics event, circa 2002. L-R: Yer Bunche, Sergio Cariello, Lysa Hawkins.

Today marks the closing of DC Comics' Manhattan offices as the company moves to Burbank, California, a former colleague (now a dear friend and drinking buddy) from my days as a comics biz grunt attended the closing. With some minor edits (made to conceal the person's identity) here's the email I received with the photo seen above:

Was just up at DC for the closing of the offices toast (a dixie cup with a half mouthful of champagne), which was handled about as half ass-edly as you'd expect. But I spotted this pic on the remembrance board and thought you'd like to know you were represented. 

End of an era, and lots of good memories for me to go along with the bad - the lack of respect and flat out betrayal I experienced in this biz. But the offices, especially pre-9/11, when you could pop in and out at will, were always a great place to hang out, shoot the shit with friends in editorial or whoever was in town from abroad. Anyway, you missed nothing today, but thought you'd like to know.

Indeed, I do appreciate being made aware of this. After the royal and very much politically-motivated screwing-over I received during my years years in Vertigo (and to a much lesser extent as an artist in the production department by a closeted asshole of a direct superior, before I made the leap to editorial), I long-ago accepted that my contributions to the company would be swept away and forgotten, a revising or whiting-out of of history facilitated by some of the very petty and childish power-wielders who were my superiors at the time, despite the noted fact that my award-winning rise from production to an associate editorial position was, up to that time, the swiftest in the company's history. But let us not speak ill of the "dead." It's nice to know that though a footnote I may be, my existence within the home of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman has not been totally expunged from the company's memory.

IMITATION OF LIFE (1959) at the Film Forum

Lobby card from the film's original release, featuring Susan Kohner as the troubled Sarah Jane Johnson.

Just got back from the Film Forum's screening of IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), a film that has fascinated me since I first encountered it in the great Esther Newton's infamous "American Society On Film" class during my SUNY at Purchase college days. It's a re-imagining of a 1934 chick flick/"weepie" about two mothers, one black and one white, and their daughters, who all come together under one roof as a blended family and contend with issues of class, race, and family dysfunction, and the 1959 version is one of the all-time classic examples of a textbook emotionally-manipulative Hollywood soaper. Its examination of how American society of its era made true equality/harmony between blacks and whites in general unlikely at best hauls out the longstanding tropes of the martyred, saintly older black woman who's the emotional backbone and real strength of the family (to both black and white factions), and the so-called tragic mulatto whose case of self-loathing is invariably more compelling than the upper-class travails of the white protagonists.


Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), surrounded by white masks. Subtle it is not...

I won't spoil the plot's details but the 1959 IMITATION OF LIFE's portrait of Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), the angry, self-loathing light-skinned daughter of a black father who's described as "almost white," is far more compelling than the rote rags-to-riches showbiz rise of its white main character (Lana Turner) and how her success leads her to unintentionally neglect her blossoming 16-year-old (Sandra Dee). The actress's storyline is not bad by any means, but it was something that was already seen numerous times prior to the film's release, however it's essential to the overall narrative by providing the perfect background against which to contrast the entwined lives of Sarah Jane and her mother (Juanita Moore) who works as the actress's live-in maid and bosom companion whose support and caring for the actress's daughter frees the actress to pursue stage gigs. Sarah Jane's rejection of her dusky heritage and her shattering desire to pass for white from an early age form the true emotional core of the story and Susan Kohner's Oscar-nominated performance renders the character's arc as nothing less than painful and heartbreaking. In short, if you have not seen this film, seek it out for Kohner's arc.


Which brings me to last night's Screening at the Film Forum, where I met the one and only Susan Kohner. Kohner's spectacular portrayal of the deeply troubled, self-loathing Sarah Jane Johnson struck a very strong chord with my mother's side of the family, especially with a certain aunt who basically was the character in real life. (Though Sarah Jane never ran into the same kinds of issues with the law that the aunt in question did, but the less said of that the better...) Following the film, Kohner sat for an interview with a film professor  — whose questions/expoundings were of little or no weight and who clearly missed the entire point of the movie he was allegedly such an authority upon; that assessment was shared by a friend of mine who was also in attendance and is a highly-knowledgeable film scholar and director of films herself — and later answered questions from members of the audience. Since the opportunity was afforded, I took the mic and told Kohner of how much her character and performance meant to my family and especially my aunt. Following that, she was also kind enough to pose for a shot with her that I will send to the interested parties in my family, especially the aforementioned aunt.

 Yer Bunche, with the one and only Susan Kohner.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

NEMO: RIVER OF GHOSTS (2015)

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill have done it again with NEMO: RIVER OF GHOSTS, the latest adventure of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen's Janni Dakkar, the stone-cold badass daughter of Captain Nemo. It's 1975 and the Captain is in her twilight years, her life now consumed with a passion to track down and destroy the infamous Ayesha, whom she had personally beheaded thirty-four years prior and had good reason to believe was dead. It's another crazy modern-day pulp feast in which the creative team wear their love of the entire pop culture universe on their sleeves, including appearances by and/or references to Godzilla, the Boys from Brazil, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (!!!), the giant ants from THEM!, the Stepford Wives, Hugo Danner, and a few surprises that it would be criminal to spoil here. As usual, O'Neill loads the panels with visual gags that are sure to perplex the casual reader while they delight hardcore geeks, such as the inclusion of a statue of King Triton from Gerry Anderson's classic sci-fi marionette series STINGRAY, and the stuffed body of Squiddly Diddly in the Captain's study. (Seen below.) 

This final installment of the Nemo trilogy — following NEMO: HEART OF ICE (2013) and NEMO: GHOSTS OF BERLIN (2014) — utterly satisfies and leaves one wondering what Moore and O'Neill next have in mind for the world they've gene-spliced together over the run of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.