Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Hard Day's Night in 50 Years or Less

He's very clean. I remember being a little kid back in the early 1970's. I was probably 3 or 4 or so, when I heard my first Beatles song. Thanks to my mother and my aunt, and their love for the Fab Four (as well as Elvis), my childhood was filled with the vinyl swirlings of Let It Be, The White Album, and Rubber Soul. Yeah, that's right...vinyl! Granted, I do remember having both Let it Be and Hey Jude on 8-track, but the records are what I really remember - and remember loving. Sure, I still hadn't even turned three yet, when the band decided to do the whole break up thing (they were still young too, with the eldest band mates, Ringo and John, just 29 when they went splitsville) but the biggest musical influence on this little kid, were those four lads from Liverpool. This is why, when hearing of the 1964 in Film Blogathon over at Hitchcock's World, I leapt at the chance (serious, I actually jumped up and down several times) to write something up on one of my favourite films of '64, and my favourite all-time rock & roll film, A Hard Day's Night. So without further ado, here it is.

Now, I'm going to take a slightly off-kilter approach to talking about A Hard Day's Night. I mean, anyone can talk about the movie itself. That's easy peezy, lemon squeezy. Any ole blogger can go on and on about how it not only helped to introduce The Beatles to a world that up until then had only heard them on records or the radio (or maybe saw them on their tiny tube television sets when they were on Ed Sullivan's show), but also reinvented the musical film for a new generation, and spawned the quirky rock and roll films that came after it. Any writer can talk about how the music from the album, with that incredible opening note that changed music as people knew it at the time, was transformed into one of the most fun films ever put on the big screen, or how the film helped to highlight each band member's own personality, as well as the band's wacky persona as a whole. Anyone can blather on about how A Hard Day's Night was both the aforementioned wacky beast that it most certainly was, and one of the most groundbreaking albums and films of all-time. Yeah, anyone can ramble on and on about such things. Hell, I just did it, without actually doing it. But that is not what this blog post is about. Instead of using my so-called talents as the film critic I once claimed to have been (a decade plus in the game, so there!), I am taking a more personal look at this oh so great film from fifty years ago.

Now, I have already spoken of how I grew up with all those Beatles albums (and a coupla 8-tracks) and how they influenced my childhood, and eventually the adulthood with which I might one day finally come to grips. I even once came up with the idea for a novel (that I never did write) about a famous rock band falling to pieces. It was highly (obviously) influenced by stories of The Beatles, but I digress. Just how else has this film (and the band behind it) touched my life? I'll show you on the Ringo doll, just where it did touch me. Seriously though, this film does keep popping up in my life now and again. I remember, when I was seventeen, I made the first major purchase using money I actually earned on my own. That purchase was a VCR. Hey, it was 1984. VCR's were all the rage. Oh, and for all you kids out there who have no idea what a VCR even is, first of all, learn something about the world from before you were born, for christ's sake. I mean, there is a past out there, and it's full of a lot of great things. One of those things is the VCR. Just Google it guys. Then after that, come back here and read the rest of this post. Anyhoo, when I bought my VCR, back in the hey day of the home video revolution (so quaint sounding these days, eh?), I also went and bought a few VHS tapes to go along with said VCR. The first one I bought was Citizen Kane. The second one was...ta da...A Hard Day's Night. I watched the hell out of that tape!

Later on in life, long after those VHS tapes went the way of the dinosaur, the public telephone, and Joe Piscopo, A Hard Days Night popped up again, and this time I actually got to touch the film itself. You see, there was once this place called Midtown Cinema. Opening in 2001, it was the first arthouse cinema in my hometown of Harrisburg, Pa. I even ran the place for a while, from 2009 until last year. Shortly before taking over the place though, the manager before me held a music film festival. One of the films played during that festival guessed it...A Hard Day's Night. And it played in 35mm even. A thing that sadly does not happen that often any more. So yeah, I got to touch the print. Take that! I may have even licked it, but let's not open that can o' worms. Anyway, the best thing about A Hard Day's Night playing at the cinema, other than being able to watch it up on the big screen (and the possible licking of the print), was the one day a dad and his little six year old kid came in. This kid, much like another wee Beatle lovin' kid we may have read of (wonder if he has Let it Be on 8-track), was so so so excited about seeing A Hard Day's Night. So so so excited. Yup, that is one cool kid...and that is one hell of a parenting job, if ya ask me!

So there you go. Some of my personal ruminations on A Hard Day's Night. Perhaps this isn't the most cinematically informative of posts (my old film critic skills are left wanting tonight), but like I said earlier, any ole blogger can give you the facts and figures (Phil Collins was one of the screaming teens in the film) or talk about the film's influence (can we say The Monkees!?), or toss out any other random facts about the film in question (George would meet his future wife, and Eric Clapton's future wife as well, Miss Pattie Boyd), but only this one can give you these personal ramblings. So there! To close, I would like to thank the fine folks over at Hitchcock's World (which is actually just one person, who may or may not be named John Hitchcock), for allowing me to be part of their 1964 in Film Blogathon. I hope they like my contribution. Or not. What do I care. They're not the boss of me. Anyhoo, I'm going to sign off now. Probably go watch me a little Beatles or something like that. I'm still trying to figure out why Paul was so concerned with his grandfather being so clean. Actually, it was due to actor Wilfrid Brambell, an already established British TV star on the show Steptoe and Son (the show upon which Sanford and Son was based) who was often referred to as a 'dirty old man' on the show. But enough of these actual film history facts. That's not what this is supposed to be all about. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.

Monday, July 21, 2014

See ya in the Funny Pages: My 10 Favourite Comic Strips

Everyone who knows me, knows full well of my love for comic books. But what of comic strips? Yeah, I like those too. Hell, I remember reading the likes of Charlie Brown and Hagar the Horrible long before Spider-Man or Batman made their debuts into my world. There have been more than a mere slew of comic strips lo these past 120 years or so since their invention with the Yellow Kid (shown to the right), but I somehow managed to whittle this myriad of funny page panels down to my ten favourites. I would like to toss out the names of a few that, alas, did not make the list, but are still quite fun comic strips. These are, in no particular order, Beetle Bailey, Red-Eye, Broom Hilda, Hagar the Horrible, The Wizard of Id, Mutts, Bringing Up Father, Andy Capp, Lil' Abner, Pearls Before Swine, Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Blondie, Flash Gordon, Alley Oop, Terry and the Pirates, and Funky Winkerbean. I could have tried to look all sophisticated and political, and included Doonesbury, but hey, they just did not make the final cut, so I guess I'm not all that sophisticated after all. There are also several fun web comics out there. Granted, they are well hidden inside the 99.9999% of crappy web comics, but they are in there. Two that come to mind are R. Stevens' Diesel Sweeties and Kate Beaton's Hark, A Vagrant. Then there are also the web based meta comics, This Charming Charlie, wherein Lauren LoPrete takes Peanuts panels and introduces Smiths lyrics into them, and Garfield Minus Garfield, which is exactly what it sounds like. Notice there is no mention (except this one) of Mary Worth or Mark Trail. Yeah, that's on purpose. There is also Charles Addams' iconic New Yorker cartoons of The Addams Family. One final shout out to the WWII era Batman strips. I have a giant hardback complete collection of these on my shelf at home, and they are a nostalgic blast. But anyhoo, let's get on with the countdown. Oh, and to all the creators of the forthcoming strips, I hope you don't mind my using images of your comic strips for my little countdown here. No disrespect or exploitation meant. I just admire your work, and wanted to share it in this top ten list. But enough of that.

And awaaaaaaay we go...

Special Mention: La-La & Lu-Lu

Ya know, since this pop culture heavy black and white strip is written and drawn by yours truly, it would probably be wrong to include it on the list proper. But then again, I couldn't give up the chance to promote my strip, so here it is as a special mention. Created in July of 2013 (yeah, it's barely a year old) this strip, a sort of blend of such influences as Matt Groening's Life in Hell and David Lynch's The Angriest Dog in the World, is a pun-fueled, Mary Worth-hating, satirical take on all things pop culture-y. The images of the 4-panel strip may be the same each time, but the words are where it's at, baby! So far, I have only created 42 strips over the past year, but more are coming soon (I hope). To catch 'em all, head on over to My Official La-La & Lu-Lu Tumblr. Page, and peruse to your freakin' heart's deeelight.

10. The Angriest Dog in the World

The dog who is so angry, he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis. A big influence, at least visual repetitiveness, on my own comic (as was mentioned above) this strange little comic strip is from the strange little man who also gave the world such strange little films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Dr.. Actually I quite love David Lynch, and I quite love the strange little man's films, and obviously (it is on this list, after all) I quite love his comic strip as well. Conceived in 1973, when Lynch was apparently quite angry, the strip would eventually run in the L.A. Reader, from 1983 to 1992. Great, stupid, existential stuff, indeed.

9. Spider-Man

There have been several superhero comic strips. I gave a shout out to the Batman ones in my introduction, and Superman had a daily strip for a while, but it's Spidey that was the best. Began in 1977, the strip was originally written by Stan Lee himself, with art by John Romita, Sr., eventually being taken over by Stan's brother, Larry Lieber. Over the years, the strip has given many great out-of-comics-continuity moments, including one where after a year or so of Peter Parker suddenly being an unmarried college student, he wakes up one day, a la Dallas' famous Bobby's alive shower scene, to find it was all a dream, and Mary Jane is still his hot ginger wife. In fact, it is only in this daily strip, that one can still find a happily married Peter Parker. 

8. Peanuts

It's hard to make a list like this and not include this great Charles Schulz classic. I mean, you have Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy van Pelt, Peppermint Patty, Pig-Pen, and Snoopy and Woodstock. What's not to love!? Begun in 1950, Peanuts was a highly influential strip that helped make the four panel gag strip the next big thing in comics. I've always considered myself a Linus kinda guy - sensitive and artsy, but also kind of nerdy, so I do have some sort of affinity with Peanuts. From the obsessive desire of Charlie Brown for that oh so elusive red-haired little girl to Lucy's equally obsessive desire to thwart Charlie Brown on the football field, to Marcie's even more obsessive desire for Peppermint Patty, Peanuts was a grand old time of obsessive comedy. And we got a World War I flying ace as well.

7. Pogo

We have met the enemy and he is us. Created in 1941, by former Walt Disney cartoonist Walt Kelly, Pogo the Possum made his first appearance in the Dell comic book Animal Comics #1. Eventually Pogo, along with his cigar chewing swamp pal Albert Alligator, moved into the newspaper comic strip world in 1948, and would stay there until 1975, two years after Kelly's death (Kelly's widow, Selby, would draw the comic for it's final two years). One of three predominately political satires on this list, and with his Faulkner-esque dialect language, Pogo was a a huge influence on everyone from Bill Watterson to Jim Henson to Robert Crumb to Jeff Smith, who pretty much admits to his Bone character being mainly influenced by Pogo. Even Alan Moore wrote a Pogo homage while doing The Saga of the Swamp Thing run for DC Comics.

6. Nancy

In 1922, Larry Whittington created a daily comic strip called Fritzi Ritz. It was about a ditzy, man-hungry flapper. In 1925, 20 year old Ernie Bushmiller took over the strip. In 1933, Bushmiller added the character of Nancy, Fritzi's precocious niece, and she took off so much that in 1938, the strip was changed to Nancy, and poor Aunt Fritzi was turned into a sensible bore, and relegated to a minor character. Fritzi still did exist as the star of her own Sunday comic until 1968, mostly drawn by various ghost artists, but in the pages of the daily strip, from then on, it was Nancy and her BFF Sluggo who ran the show. Over the years, Nancy has been a bastion of not just funny gags, but also often a home for surprisingly absurdest comedy. Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik wrote in their "How to Read Nancy" essay, that Bushmiller's gags "have the abstract feel of math, and Nancy was, in fact, a mini-algebra equation masquerading as a comic strip." That's pretty cool. And why not check out the American Heritage Dictionary's entry for comic strip. Guess what strip they choose to show as an example. Yup.

5. The Far Side

Easily the most nonsensical, ridiculous, and wackiest strip on this list. Consisting mostly of one panel gags, often quite absurd and/or surreal in nature, these anthropomorphic gag panels were the brainchild of Gary Larson, first appearing in 1980. Involving many jokes about strange social behaviour and puns on classic parables, often involving talking chickens and snakes  and cows and fat, stupid children. Larson eventually stopped doing the cartoon in 1995, claiming he wanted more time to take up the trombone. The Far Side is probably one of the most successful comic strips of modern times, being reprinted in tons of collected editions, and a perennial favourite in the calendar biz. Too bad the guy had to quit doing the strip. Wonder how good he is at the trombone these days?

4. Zippy the Pinhead

One of the gaggle of underground comix creators of the late 1960's and early 1970's, cartoonist Bill Griffith created Zippy in 1971, and would turn him into a daily strip in 1976. I first came across the surreal pinhead back in 1988 when I was first working at a place called Encore Books. Eclectic and often absurd beyond belief, Griffith's famed pinhead is the kind of character that is either gotten or isn't, with no inbetween. Last year, I did a La-La & Lu-Lu strip (see the special mention above) that was an homage to the Zipster. I sent the strip to Bill Griffith, and he actually said he liked it. That was more than enough for this lapsed cartoonist, and I immediately added an "endorsed by Griffy" banner on the strip. What more could a boy ask for?

3. Krazy Kat

The oldest strip on this list, first appearing in 1913, Krazy Kat is also one of the most influential comic strips ever made. Created by George Herriman, Krazy Kat was a nonsensical, absurdest comic, that was done in a myriad of different styles over the years, often in strange and unusual manners. For a while it even ran vertically down the side of the newspaper. Backgrounds would change from panel to panel, there would be panoramic shots, and one never knew what was coming next. The strip was so popular (ee. cummings was a fan even!) that there was a series of animated film shorts, and even a TV show years later. In 1944 Krazy Kat ended, and the world of comic strips was a lesser place because of it. After decades of so-called standard panel construction in the comic strip world, Bill Watterson (probably Krazy Kat's number one fan) would bring back Herriman's Krazy panel deconstruction with his Calvin and Hobbes, but more on those wacky kids in a bit.

2. Bloom County

Created by Berkeley Breathed, this socio-politically slanted strip ran from 1980 to 1989. A real child of the 1980's, satirizing everything about the Reagan era America, Milo, Opus, Cutter John, Steve, Bill the Cat (who incidentally ran against Reagan for president in 1984) and all the rest of the Bloom County family were much preferred by this guy, to that droll, snooty Doonesbury gang over on the editorial page. Breathed even won a Pulitzer in 1987. Yeah, I know, Trudeau won a Pulitzer in '75 for his Doonesbury (and was even nominated for an Oscar once) but I still much prefer the denizens of Bloom County to Trudeau's bunch of rabble rousers. Okay, actually I do quite enjoy Doonesbury, and almost made the list, but I'm supposed to be talking about Bloom County here. Breathed had some great, and sometimes controversial, storylines going on throughout the decade long run of his strip. I remember picking up the first few collected edition trade paperbacks back in high school, and really digging them. These were probably the first more mature comic strips I discovered, and were most likely an influence on the rather Leftist political bent which began to materialize in me around this time. Eventually, Breathed would get back into things with sequel strips Outland and Opus. A great comic strip indeed, but now onto number one...

1. Calvin and Hobbes

Seriously, who could make a list like this, and not have Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes at the top of said list? No one in their right mind, that's who! As I said above, Watterson was highly influenced by George Herriman's Krazy Kat, and would do quite amazing things with his panel construction and storytelling. Watterson's strip, which began in 1985, was a groundbreaking work. His esoteric take on the comic strip form, and his ability to deconstruct the genre, make his strip the most creative, most intriguing, and the best damn comic strip ever. At the height of his fame, he was powerful enough to take on the comic strip syndicators, and demand that his strips be printed without any editing, which until then, was a common practice among the newspaper syndicates. He actually changed the way things were done, and gained more rights for him and his fellow cartoonists. Watterson would call it quits in 1995, after just a mere decade of Calvin and Hobbes. Earlier this year, Watterson guest starred on the strip, Pearls Before Swine (which just missed out on making this list) and may very well get back into the daily strip game very soon.

That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Unknown Gunman

In the tradition of Mad Magazine and their classic song parodies, here is a song I have written about the JFK assassination*, sung to the tune of The Fall Guy theme song. And just in case you don't know the show or song, you can check out the original here. So now, on with the show. Enjoy...or don't. I'm not the boss of you.

Well, I'm not the kind to conspire and tell
But I've been seen with Jack Ruby
I've never been on a mission I didn't complete, so neat

I've been hired by the CIA
Gone to work for the KGB
But when it comes time to set blame, it's never me, so sweet

It's a lonely, secret life I lead
I never get the spotlight
I kill for a livin' but I never get on TV
But the hardest thing I ever do
Is watch some other patsy
Take the credit while they all just ignore me

I might shoot from a tall building
I might fire on a president's car
'Cause I'm the unknown gunman
Who made Oswald such a star

I never spent much time with people
But I've shot some targets plenty
It's true I hire my skills out for pay, hey hey

I've gotten burned in Nicaragua 
Nearly blown up in Istanbul
But when they look for the killer, it's never me, no way

I might hide in the grassy knoll 
Or the Dallas Book Depository
'Cause I'm the unknown gunman
That made Oswald history

*ed. note: too soon? oh well.

That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Heavenly Body of the Week: Yavin IV

Moradmin Bast: "We've analyzed their attack, sir, and there is a danger. Should I have your ship standing by?"

Grand Moff Tarkin: "Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances."

Yeah, how'd that work out for ya? Here is a shot of the red giant planet known as Yavin, viewed from the jungle moon of Yavin IV, where the Rebel Alliance had their base at one point. For those woefully unaware of Star Wars lore, Yavin IV is the moon to which those damn Imperial bastards were trying to blows all up with their Death Star, when Luke, with the last minute assistance of Han and Chewie in the Millennium Falcon, destroyed the fuck out of said Death Star. "Great shot kid. That was one in a million." - Han Solo

Check out the Heavenly Body of the Week Space Database.
That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On Projectionists: A Look Back at Cinema's Portrayal of a Lost Art

The first time I laid my hands upon a movie projector (other than my parents eponymous super 8 projector as a kid back in the seventies) was the Summer of 1990. I was a few weeks shy of birthday number 23, and had just started a job at a local theater called the Eric Twin (a company long out of business now, its building demolished to make way for a PetSmart). At first I worked the concession stand, but shortly I was being trained on how to run the cinema's projectors (for those in the know, we still had to change over reels in those days). Cut to nearly twenty years later and yours truly, along with his lovely wife, found himself running Harrisburg's very own Midtown Cinema for nearly five years, and once again (at least until we left that world a year ago), I had my hands on a movie projector. Sadly, those days are gone now, as the digital age is now upon us, and the art of film projection is now an almost completely dead art form. Now you just push a few buttons or click a mouse, and viola, the movie begins. No threading, no rewinding, no platters, emulsion, nor that wonderful clicking sound of an aperture opening and closing 24 times per second. No Maltese Cross or Latham Loop. A sad sad world indeed. Anyway, as I obviously have a certain affinity for the profession of movie projectionist, and being one of the last generation of people who will actually ever have such knowledge, it got me to thinking on how the projectionist is portrayed on film. Granted, it was a stretch to find such a profession portrayed on film, or at least portrayed prominently, but find them I did. Let's look at these noble knights of the darkened cinema, shall we?

First up, chronologically speaking, is Buster Keaton in the 1924 silent classic, Sherlock Jr. He would play the offshoot of a cameraman four years later (in the appropriately titled The Cameraman), but here he was the projectionist. Playing a typically hapless Keaton character, the silent clown and comic genius is an unnamed movie projectionist (a precursor to Eastwood's Man-with-no-Name perhaps) who dreams of being a famous detective a la Sherlock Holmes. Keaton's projectionist, a poor schlep with the proverbial heart of gold but also with a conniving streak, dreams not only of a detecting prowess (as well as the inevitable pretty girl) but also of being part of the films that he is showing. Falling asleep and dreaming himself into the movies, Keaton's projectionist certainly has the love of movies (and Keaton the director an innate ability to create some of the best gags in silent film history) even if his ability to work without falling asleep (something a projectionist in those days could never do since he or she had to change reels manually) leaves a bit to be desired.

Next up we have Salvatore in the 1988 Italian romantic nostalgia piece Cinema Paradiso. Played by Philippe Noiret, Alfredo is the projectionist at the title cinema in Giancaldo, Sicily (a small village similar to director Giuseppe Tornatore's own hometown) who begrudgingly at first, becomes a father figure to a young boy named Salvatore, or Toto as he is called, and helps the boy learn the ways of life. After a fire at the cinema (oh that darned flammable old nitrate film stock!), Alfredo is blinded, and once the cinema is rebuilt, Toto takes the old man's place as projectionist. A heartwarming, but far from trite (as heartwarming often plays out in motion pictures) film, Cinema Paradiso is a film that only a true lover of cinema, a cinephile if you will, could make. Its success helped put the Italian cinema industry back on the map. The best scene, of course, comes at the end. After years of being made to cut kissing and other sexually provocative scenes out of the films that played at the Paradiso (oh those darned small village priests!), a grown Salvatore, now a famous film director himself, is shown a reel of all these spliced kissing scenes.  As the projectionist starts the reel, all those old thoughts of his childhood and of Alfredo come flooding back to him. Not to sound too sentimentalist of me, but this may well be one of the most emotional scenes I have ever seen on film.

Another interesting look at movie projectionists on film is found in a movie that is not actually about a movie projectionist, but just seen as a small subplot of a much larger and much more convoluted plot line. The film is Fight Club and the projectionist is Tyler Durden. Played by Brad Pitt (one of the actor's best roles), the somewhat batshitcrazy Durden, when he isn't out making fat soap or forming secret underground fight clubs (we are not supposed to talk about this though), works as a movie projectionist. Durden's favourite projection habit (other than breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience about those cigarette burns in the corners of the frames) is splicing frames of pornographic images into family films. Fleshy, bulging subliminal images bounce across the screen as children cry and parents look around anxiously, never quite sure of what they just saw.  Before the age of digital projection (a thing that will sadly bring the age of film to an end in a few years) this was a rather popular prank pulled by many an animator, including those oh so wholesome guys over at Disney Studios. Now as a former projectionist myself, I have never done such a thing (or at the very least I refuse to admit it in such a public forum) but I will fully admit to having licked both Blue Velvet and Godard's Breathless before projecting them. Yeah, you read that right - I licked 'em, and I'm proud of it. I'd do it again if the opportunity ever were to present itself.

Now there have been other movie projectionists that are more implied than actually seen, such as the projectionists in Singin' in the RainSunset Blvd. and Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. We also get to see Stooge Shemp Howard as a somewhat crazed projectionist in the little known but highly entertaining H.C. Potter film, Hellzapoppin'. Other projectionist appearances can be seen in the Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive, the Taiwanese film Goodbye Dragon Inn, as well as in such a diverse array of films like The Muppet MovieThe BlobNight of the CometKings of the RoadGremlinsThe TinglerThe Last Action HeroThe Shawshank RedemptionThe Majestic and Phantom of Paradise. Of course then there is the 1971 film The Projectionist. A sort of retake on the aforementioned Keaton film, with Chuck McCann as the projectionist who dreams of his life as the superheroes he sees portrayed on screen.  The most interesting of these other projectionist is the one portrayed in Peter Bogdanovich's feature debut, Targets.  The story of a sniper who is offing people at random, the showcase finale of the film takes place at a drive-in theater. Bogdanovich cast real life drive-in projectionist Byron Betz as the film's projectionist. To not spoil things too much, let's just say things do not end well for the screen version of poor Mr. Betz.

But after all these other great movie projectionists, the one that tops my list is Shosanna Dreyfus, as played by Melanie Laurent in Quentin Tarantino's audacious masterpiece Inglourious Basterds. Now anyone knowing me and my obsession with everything Tarantino should not be too surprised at Shosanna being my favourite. When I first saw QT's 2009 masterpiece in the theater (the first of three times that week!) I instantly fell in love with the character of Shosanna Dreyfus, but then who wouldn't. A Jewish survivor hiding out from the Nazi's right under their very noses, Shosanna, going by the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux, runs a cinema in Occupied Paris and takes it upon herself (and her lover and co-projectionist Marcel Ido) to help put an end to World War II by setting her cinema ablaze (oh those darn flammable nitrate prints again!) with Hitler, Goebbels and many other high ranking Nazis (including Oscar winning German actor and Nazi sympathizer Emil Jannings) trapped inside. This penultimate set piece (including, *Spoiler Alert, Duh*, Shosanna's death) is the highlight of an already filled to the brim motion picture event as only Quentin Tarantino can make. And, with Tarantino being Tarantino, there should be no surprise that he glorifies the art of film projection, as lovingly as one would expect the rabid old school cinephile to do.

Well that's about it for movie projectionists on film. Even as the digital age of cinema has finally hit the movie theater, and the era of movie projectionists, as we know it, will forever be dead (except of course in the revival houses of America, but even they will succumb someday), the noble profession of projectionist will still be able to be seen up there on the big screen. The format may change (I don't want to get all maudlin and start decrying the death of cinema, for that will not happen) but the projectionist, hidden away in the dark (perhaps even licking a print or two), will always be there somewhere, either in the aforementioned films or in new ones yet to be made. Now before I start crying for the inevitable loss of such a great institution as the movie projectionist, a job I did and loved doing for seven years of my life (much preferring my time in the dark dusty projection booth, to being out among the actual moviegoers), I should just end this post right now. So, take care, and always remember, even if it's only up there on the screen, there is someone in the dark, making all your cinematic fantasies come true. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.

Monday, July 14, 2014

No Capes Nor Cowls Need Apply: The 10 Best Non-Superhero Comic Book Movie Adaptations

Sure, we all love superheroes. Whether you want to believe it or not. It's inherent in our DNA. But we are not here today, to talk about our constant need for heroic figures in our subconscious. Yeah, I just laid some psychological mumbo jumbo on your butts. Deal with it. But I digress. What we are here for today, is to take a look at those comic books without the capes and cowls. Or more specifically, the filmed adaptations of said non-superhero comic books. Yeah, I still love me some Batman and some Captain America (and when the hell is Wonder Woman getting a proper movie adaptation!?) but today is not the day for such things. Today is the day without super powers. Today is the day without the costumes and crimefighting (though there still might be a bit of the latter). Today is the day to discuss, or countdown and discuss, if you will, all those comic book adaptations where there isn't a superhero in sight.

Actually, even though superheroes are the bread and butter of the big two (Marvel and DC) and therefore the most visible aspect of the comic book industry, there are many more non-superhero comics being made than superhero ones. And some of these (though not nearly enough) have been made into motion picture adaptations. Yeah, they may not have the budgets given to Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon, for them to pull off their comic book adaptations (though a few of these are Hollywood productions) but that shouldn't mean they are of lesser importance. More often than not, smaller budgeted films are better than the big blockbustery stuff of box office legend.Any good cinephile knows that. But enough of this rambling and meandering and such, let's get going with our countdown. Oh, and for a few runners-up, why not Daniel Clowes' Art School Confidential being turned into a Terry Zwigoff movie; or Alan Moore's V For Vendetta (the book was a whole lot better than the film); or even the animated Heavy Metal, which is sort of based on a comic book. And, before you ask, no, I am not that big a fan of Zack Snyder's 300 adaptation. So there. Anyway, let's get this countdown started.

And awaaaaaaay we go...

Special Mention: Terry Zwigoff's Crumb

Technically, I suppose this documentary on the great underground comix mad genius known as Robert Crumb, isn't actually based on any one particular comic book. But still, it's close enough to get a special mention. Being the artist who created both Fritz the Cat AND Mr. Natural, as well as that Keep on Truckin' guy, Crumb needs to be included here somewhere. And oh yeah, you should really check out this film, as Crumb is not only an extremely talented artist, but also an immensely fascinating human (or possibly alien) specimen.

10. Road to Perdition

Written by Max Allen Collins, and published by Paradox Press (a DC imprint), and later released by DC's Vertigo line, this crime noir graphic novel, was adapted into a film by Sam Mendes, the guy who gave us American Beauty, a film that is half great and half grating. Starring Tom Hanks in an against type role of villain (or at least villainesque), Mendes' film is a dark, slick neo-noir, that may not hold all that true to the original novel (though Collins said he liked more than he disliked about the adaptation), but still keeps the original idea of how violence can destroy a man's soul, quite intact. 

9. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Written and directed by the man who actually did the original graphic novel, Joann Sfar's 2010 French comic book and film, is a surreal biopic of the late great Serge Gainsbourg, husband to Jane Birkin, lover to Bridget Bardot, and father (and possibly more) to Charlotte Gainsbourg. Since the film is directed by the author, there is no real problem with the adaptation. Actually it's quite a fun film, using puppetry as well as live action. And it's about Serge Fucking Gainsbourg!! How can that not be cool as all get out!?

8. Blue is the Warmest Color

This is actually a comic book I was unfamiliar with before hearing of the film. Yeah, there are a few things I am unaware of...but just a few. Anyhoo, after reading about the film (a three hour French lesbian movie!? How could I not be on board!?) I sought out a copy of the book, and read it the night before seeing the film on a visit to Washington DC (it never hit my hometown of Harrisburg Pa, of course). I must say that the film verges a bit away from the book, especially in one major plot point, but both versions are still quite fun...if not a bit harrowing.

7. From Hell

The great, and batshitcrazy, Alan Moore (my favourite comic book writer) has written some of the best comic books of all time. Several of these have been made into movies. Watchmen, the best Moore book and the best comic book movie adaptation is one of these, but that is a superhero movie, and therefore ineligible for our lovely list here. V For Vendetta is another, but as has already been alluded to in the intro, that was a great book that was made into a rather mediocre movie. And don't even get me started on that horrible adaptation of Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So, that brings us to the one Alan Moore non-superhero adaptation on the list...From Hell. Directed by the Hughes Brothers, the film does change a lot of what Moore had written in the novel (though not as much as the aforementioned Un-Extraordinary Gentlemen adaptation) but even so, it is a fun film. Moore, of course, hated the film, and had nothing but bad things to say about it. But what else is new? And yeah, no one, not even Zack Snyder, has managed to do Moore the proper way.

6. Persepolis

This 2007 French/American animated film is based on the wonderfully harrowing autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. Based on the author's childhood in Iran, during the 1979 Islamist revolution, the film was a huge critical hit (tons of top ten lists, a Cannes Jury Prize, and even an Oscar nomination) and was also a huge political powderkeg in many Islamic nations, as well as in some Middle American communities. A beautiful and quite haunting tale, in both comic book and movie form.

5. American Splendor

A life long autobiographical comic book written by Cleveland's very own Harvey Pekar, with revolving artwork from the likes of Drew Friedman, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Crumb, and even Alan Moore, American Splendor is one of the finest series of comic books ever produced. The film, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is good mostly because of the casting of Paul Giamatti as Pekar. Perfect casting has never been, perfect.

4. Ghost World

Out of the ten comic books on this list, this one is actually my favourite. Obviously, in movie form it is only my fourth favourite. Written and drawn by Daniel Clowes, my hardbound special edition of Ghost World sits proudly on my comic book shelf. Esoteric and quaintly hilarious, Clowes' ability to deliver such subtly subversive and quite funny fare, is kind of the guy's trademark. This is the author's best work (though one should definitely check out the rest of his oeuvre) and director Terry Zwigoff, though changing some things, does a swell job in turning it into a film. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, as Enid and Rebecca, respectively, give surprisingly droll performances. 

3. Frank Miller's Sin City

Much like Alan Moore, though not as crazy-eyed about it, Frank Miller is another one of those creators upset about his work being twisted around in adaptations. So why not co-direct the film adaptation yourself. Which Miller did here, with Robert Rodriguez (and a guest scene helmed by Quentin Tarantino). Miler is the guy often credited with giving Batman his balls back (although really, Denny O'Neil had already done so. more than a, decade before Miller's Dark Knight returned) and his neo noir style (in both words and art) is a staple of his style. With Sin City, this gritty style comes to brilliant life, and the film adaptation manages to equal Miller's powerfully drawn style.

2. A History of Violence

Adapted from the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, this 2005 film from the great David Cronenberg, featured Viggo Mortensen in what may very well be the actor's greatest performance ever - and that is saying quite a lot. Granted, Cronenberg's film is very loosely based on the original comic (the opening scene is near identical, but the film goes further and further away from the comic as it progresses) but the basic themes of violence and how it effects people, is still quite intact. Oh and those sex scenes between Viggo and Maria Bello (including a cheerleader outfit at one point) are hot hot hot.

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Based on a series of comics by Bryan Lee O'Malley, this Edgar Wright directed film tells the story of a young man who must battle the seven evil exes, in order to win the hand of his dream girl, the lovely Ramona Flowers. Wright cast the usually insufferable Michael Cera as the film's hero, and he does a surprisingly damn fine job with the role. And of course Mary Elizabeth Winstead is pitch perfect as Ramona. Wright manages to make his film actually appear like a comic, and therefore is one of the best page-to-screen comic book adaptations ever put to film. And I'm including all those superhero adaptations as well.

That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Silver Chalice or: Paul Newman & the Holy Grail

Hi kids, and welcome to my blogathon. Well okay, it's not really my blogathon. This is actually my oh so humble contribution to someone else's blogathon. To be more precise (and why shouldn't I be?) this is my contribution to the Accidentally Hilarious Blogathon over at the classic film site, Movies Silently. The basic gist is this: we write up something or other on a classic movie that, not in the realm of greatness. In other words, bad films...but bad films that are actually enjoyable. At least I think many of the films being talked of in this blogathon are rather fun. Anyhoo, enough of this introductory blah blah blah. Let's get on with my oh so humble contribution, premiering a day or two early of the July 13th blogathon start.

Victor Saville's 1954 Cinemascope biblical epic, The Silver Chalice, set just a handful of decades after Jesus, should be considered an important film in the career of Paul Newman - for two very integral (and opposing) reasons. The first being that it was the iconic actor's big screen debut. The second being that it was the iconic actor's most hated film of what would eventually become an oeuvre of nearly sixty motion pictures. Newman even publicly apologized for his performance in this movie. Upon finally watching the film, after seeing it listed among Martin Scorsese's favourite guilty pleasures, I can certainly see why Newman disliked it so much (he is rather terrible in it and through probably no fault of his own), but I gotta admit, even with its nearly universal bad acting, a script that makes one's ears bleed and an overall "do-you-like-movies-about-gladiators" vibe, I kinda liked it. So go ahead and scoff if you must, but I am not going to change my mind.

The Silver Chalice is the true definition of what a guilty pleasure movie should be (as opposed to Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs - also on the aforementioned Scorsese list - which is, by all accounts, says the unabashed auteurist, a legitimately well-made film), which is where one derives enjoyment from a movie that is poorly made and/or sappy and/or cheesy and/or whatever other adjective one wishes to include. Though in reality the idea of a movie's pleasure bringing on the emotion of guilt is probably a misnomer of sorts, since I feel no guilt from my love of The Silver Chalice - or from any other film one might call, out of necessity of getting your point across to an audience, a guilty pleasure. Like I said before, and like I will probably say again before this whole shebang is over, I liked the damned film, so get used to it.

Two things in particular stand out to make me like this film so damned much. And no, Newman's rather lackluster performance (he is right to hate his performance here) is not among them. The first is the art direction and set design, courtesy of production designer Rolfe Gerard, Art Director Boris Leven and set decorator Harold Bristol. From the gaudy feast of Nero (set inside what appears to be the Roman equivalent of DC Comics' Hall of Justice!), where everyone eats what appears to be silver and gold food (actually the menu looks quite strangely yummy to this bizarre foodie) while scantily-clad, blue-skinned women (the kind of girls Captain Kirk would so take his boots off for!) gyrate around to a poppy jazz score that is so out of time and place it almost goes the entire way around again and becomes perfectly scored. We also get the simple geometrical designs of Jerusalem that make this holy city an abstract wonder to behold, as Newman's slave/artist Basil (a role originally turned down by James Dean) and the gorgeous Pier Angeli (James Dean's one-time lover) flee from Roman soldiers across the rooftops of this strange, exotic city, made even stranger and more exotic through staged architecture. Everywhere one looks (and thanks to the patented Cinemascope widescreen process, there are a lot more places to which one can look), and no matter the lack of charisma from Newman (who would have it in spades in future movies!) and the quite idiotic preenings of co-star and Roman femme fatale Virginia Mayo, one is given a sight to behold, indeed.

The other thing that stands out is (of course!) Jack Palance as the dastardly Simon the Magician (I assume based upon Simon Magus), wouldbe usurper to the aforementioned Jesus and all-around sly kook. Crazier than I have ever seen him, Palance, even while giving such a soft-spoken kind of performance, hands in probably his most queerly wicked role ever. Practically leaping out of the veritable closet as the no-good Simon, Palance is wonderfully kitschy in a role that he may very well have been oblivious to its camp goofiness. I mean c'mon. His playing with snakes and wearing the things he wore. He must have known, right? I mean, he is preening about in red superhero-esque tights with a cape and what appear to be giant black sperm designed into them. This get-up is adorning the actor when he decides that he can fly (an idea that, of course, does not come off so well for good ole Simon). He is by far, the most interesting character in the movie. Of course it is this very campiness that makes the movie so damned enjoyable (guiltily or not!!).

No matter that Newman took an ad out in 1966 (its television premier) decrying the picture and asking everyone to not watch (its ratings were phenomenal thanks to this actually) and would have friends over to watch it, handing out pots and pans and mallets and such in order to loudly criticize, like I said several times already (and I have forewarned of such again) I liked the damned thing - lock, stock and a big smoking Jack Palance. And to close out, below are several great shots from the movie (including Simon's aforementioned sperm outfit), showing just how succulent the imagery was/is, that were only magnified when I was lucky enough to see it projected up on the big screen. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.