Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dollhouse Ends

And it's an awfully strange ending. In a lot of ways, the second-to-last episode felt like the real ending to the series. The final episode is a sequel to an episode that never aired--the infamous extra episode that was added to the DVD--that felt almost like an imaginary possible future. Much of the second season is filled with portents that only make sense if you've seen that episode, and in the final episode, that imaginary, possible future becomes established history, and we see the aftermath.

And once more (with feeling), Joss does the same thing he did with Tara in Buffy and Wash in "Serenity" and proves himself the master of the out-of-nowhere beloved character death. Bastard.

Dollhouse was not a show that I was looking forward to before it premiered, but it was amazing how this show about high-tech prostitutes convincingly morphed into a show that addressed basic concepts of personhood and simultaneously became an action-drama about the end of civilization. And if the final episode featured some Frank Miller-style over-the-top silliness, it also contained some touching drama and a fitting end for a series that became much more than it appeared to be at first.

I look forward to Joss's next project.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Out of the Vault - Big Numbers

Once again, a comic too big to fit in my scanner. Just imagine, if you will, that the names Alan Moore and Bill Sienkeiwicz are underneath the illustration there. Thanks.

By 1990, it seemed to me that Alan Moore could do no wrong. He seemed to have an almost effortless command of anything he touched. He had written some of the most amazing comics I had ever read, from Swamp Thing to Miracleman to Watchmen. Even his one-offs, like Batman: The Killing Joke, or the Superman issues he wrote in the mid-80's, "For the Man Who Has Everything" and "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?," were amazing, bringing a new vision and clarity of character while remaining true to the histories of the heroes portrayed.

So when I saw that there was a new Moore comic out, especially one with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, I grabbed it up immediately.

Big Numbers, published by Moore's Mad Love imprint, tells the story of Hampton, a small town in northern England where an American company plans to build a shopping mall. Christine Gathercole, an author who moved out of Hampton years ago, is coming back to visit her family and work on her next book. But she is haunted by her past.

But Christine's story is just one among what seems like dozens that weave in and out of the pages. That cab driver? He's a recurring character. Virtually everyone in the town is a recurring character. And they're not what you'd call normal.

Or perhaps I should say that in this town, crazy is normal. Christine's family are all eccentric, from her mother's complete cluelessness, to her father's angry ignorance, to her sister's refusal to act as if her husband is, in fact, dead. They're all using their quirks to deal with tragedy and loss; in this environment, Christine's being haunted by the ghost of her aborted child makes her fit right in.

And as the characters are dealing with the losses and upheavals in their own lives, the town is dealing with losses and upheavals on a large scale, in the economic stagnation that has afflicted the town and in the coming American development. And Moore plays with this idea, of the large reflected in the small and vice versa, by referring to fractals and chaos theory.

And here you can see a glimpse of Sienkiewicz's graphic style, alternating between almost photo-realistic images and then reverting to sketchier or cartoonier styles when the story calls for it. Sienkiewicz was a guy whose art I hated when he was first starting out (his Moon Knight stories for Marvel in the early 80's being nothing more than really clumsy Neal Adams swipes). But by the time Big Numbers came out, he had developed a unique style that took influences from Adams and Disney animation and Ralph Steadman and somehow fused into his own unique thing. Sienkiewicz's comics were not only technically brilliant, they didn't look like anything that anyone else was doing. And I loved that.

Big Numbers wasn't perfect. The cast was very large, and it was hard to keep track of who everyone was. Especially when some pages were so dense with dialogue that there was barely any room for art to show you who was speaking. So humorous as it was, by the end of the second issue, it was hovering dangerously close to dull, which resulted in Sienkiewicz tossing in more and more stylistic tricks with the art, making it almost incomprehensible.

Still, I would have read the entire 12 issues if 12 issues had been published. Alas, Big Numbers stopped after two, so we never got to see what would have happened to Hampton.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Random Thursday Crap

So I was in the break room today, where I'm training for my new job, and a local morning show was on. And even though it's not February Sweeps yet (at least I don't think it is), they had this sex "expert" on to discuss ways to spice up your sex life.

And I hear her say this meaningless little phrase I've heard a thousand times before, in her discussion of various erogenous zones ("Erogenous zones" being places you can touch to arouse a woman before you "stampede toward the clitoris"):

Of course, the brain is the greatest erogenous zone of all.

And suddenly, I couldn't stop myself from imagining being just about to get busy with a woman, so I pull out her brain and start licking it. Mmm, sexy. Does that make you horny, baby?


Oh, and this link is wicked funny, especially if you've ever worked in or near TV news.

And then there's this goofy thing I sketched up over 20 years ago, when I was trying to charm the future Mrs. Frazier. Found it as I was digging through the archives recently.

Try not to freeze in the ice and snow.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Advance and Be Recognized

When I got to USC, I discovered that there was an official Wargames Club, so I joined. I showed up the first day with my Basic Dungeons and Dragons Boxed Set, only to discover that no one there played Basic D&D. They played Advanced D&D, which was split into several hardcover rulebooks. So I ended up sponging off of other players until either my birthday or Christmas, at which time I got my own set of books. There's my Players Handbook on the right, scuffed and frayed from a few years of hard use.

My first character was a cleric. Not by choice, necessarily. In AD&D, you rolled up your stats randomly and used the stats to determine what kind of character to play. I scored highest in Wisdom, so it was Cleric for me. I don't remember anything else about him, not even his name.

Our Dungeon Master was a guy named Scott, a New Wave-y guy who introduced me to KROQ (at the time, a tiny little independent station out of Pasadena playing weird-ass songs I'd never heard before) and tried to talk me out of registering for Selective Service. He wore this bracelet out of homemade chain mail that he kept adding to until it almost covered his forearm. And because he was literally building the chain mail around his arm, he couldn't take it off. After a few months, the skin underneath the chain was black from corrosion and dirt that the shower wouldn't rinse away.

We would meet in the basement of one of the buildings on campus at around 11 a.m. every Saturday and play until we felt like stopping. When I started, Scott was the only DM, so we would quit around 6 p.m. or so. But at some point, another player named Paul (whom I hated on first sight, because he was so loud and boisterous, and I was so not) started DM'ing a game in the evenings, after Scott was done. So we would often not finish until the middle of the night, or sometimes until after the sun had come up on Sunday.

Scott and Paul ran very different games. One thing they had in common, though, was that there wasn't much actual role-playing to be had.

Which was par for the course with AD&D in those days. You have to understand, Dungeons and Dragons evolved from miniatures wargaming. In those early days, if you were playing, say, a Napoleonic miniatures game, you would use a miniature soldier painted with an authentic historical uniform. But that one figure would represent a number of soldiers: one figure representing a company or a battalion, for example.

The big innovation that Dungeons and Dragons (or actually its predecessor, Chainmail) brought to miniatures wargaming was that one figure represented one person. But functionally, characters in D&D weren't meant to be any different from the different types of units used in miniatures wargaming, which was why you had character classes. Thieves were recon units, fighters were infantry, magic-users and clerics were artillery. The emphasis of the game was on the dungeon as tactical challenge, not as some sort of fictional second life. That evolved later.

So it wasn't any surprise that the mindset in those early days was often DM versus players. Monsters and traps were deadly, and the players had to be super-sharp to keep from being killed off, because the entire game really revolved around combat and tactical challenges. I have an issue of The Dragon from 1983 that has an 8-page article about how to survive in D&D, with a ton of suggestions, both tactical and non-, about courses of action to take to keep the DM from killing you off. Because it was just assumed that that was what the DM would try to do.

And it was a pretty accurate assumption. Take, for instance, setting up camp. One of our guys, a Chinese dude named Homer (who ended up being one of my best friends, but whom I lost touch with fifteen years ago), tried to tell Scott that a series of actions we took when setting up camp would be our Standard Operating Procedure every time we set up camp. But if you didn't specifically state that you were doing it that way every time, Scott assumed the characters had gotten lazy and sloppy and blown off their precautions, because he wanted to be able to ambush us and catch us unprepared. If at least one character didn't die in every combat, the DM just wasn't trying hard enough. Wasn't giving enough challenge.

Now keep in mind, the other phrase you always heard in those days was "The DM is God." And in the sense of controlling everything in the world other than the characters, that's true. But the DM couldn't just arbitrarily kill players left and right and expect the players to stick around. So he had to kill them every chance he could, but it had to look fair.

I came to hate that mind-set. The game is meant to be fun for both players and GM. That's why they play, after all. So that was probably my second big realization in the course of playing RPG's.

ROLE-PLAYING RULE #2: The players and GM aren't opponents.

The GM may play the opposing forces, but his goal is not to beat the players. The goal should be for everyone to have a fun and satisfying gaming experience--challenging, but not necessarily adversarial. The GM doesn't lose when the players win.

Of course, there was a flip side to the killer campaign. I'll talk about that next week.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman Forever, 1995

Continuing our journey through the history of live-action Batman features, we come to Joel Schumacher's first outing (and I mean that literally), "Batman Forever," from 1995 (BTW, the title image above does not appear in the movie--I had to combine two sequential images to get the whole title concept in there). If you remember last week, Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" had met with some negative reaction from parents because of its weirdly dark characters. So for this installment of the franchise, Warner Brothers brought in Schumacher to lighten things up and make Batman more kid-friendly. Let's see how that went.

In his introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer introduced me to the concept of Batman as gay man, an idea put forth by Fredric Wertham in his anti-comic book screed, Seduction of the Innocent. Feiffer didn't agree with Wertham's assessment, and neither do I. There are always those who want to read a homoerotic subtext into any instance of male bonding, but that doesn't make it so.

Then again...

Sometimes the Batman/Robin relationship in the serials and the TV series made such a subtext easy to read, even if it was inadvertent.

But with "Batman Forever," the film that introduced Robin to the Batman series of the 90's, director Joel Schumacher took that subtext and put it front and center in a big way. And surprisingly enough, it wasn't through the character of Robin.

The film also continued that character creep that had begun with "Batman Returns." Not only did "Batman Forever" feature two main villains, but it also added Robin to the mix, plus a love interest for Batman in the character of Chase Meridian.

The film opens with a girding-for-battle montage--Batman getting dressed, then entering the new Batcave and preparing to enter the new Batmobile, just so we know this isn't the same Batman as the previous films (literally, since he's now played by Val Kilmer, instead of Michael Keaton).

And Batman's first line of dialogue is a joke, just to let us know that this Batman isn't as dark as the one before.

Batman meets beautiful psychiatrist Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) when he is called to stop a robbery by Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). He manages to save the money, but Two-Face gets away.

Later, Bruce Wayne meets an employee of WayneTech, a scientist by the name of Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), who has invented a helmet that manipulates brain waves to create 3-D television images (it looks like a blender filled with packing peanuts).

Bruce turns down Nygma's request for funding to develop the helmet. Nygma snaps and kidnaps his boss, Mr. Stickley. While testing the helmet on him, Nygma learns something interesting--the device can transfer brain energy from one person to another. As Stickley gets dumber, Nygma gets smarter. Nygma kills Stickley and makes it look like suicide.

Meanwhile, Batman answers the Batsignal, only to learn that it was activated by Chase, who intends to seduce him.

Batman turns her down (because he's, what, gay? You think?), but is intrigued enough to look her up as Bruce Wayne and ask her out to a charity circus.

At the circus, Two-Face shows up with his gang and a bomb, to lure Batman into a trap. However, his plan is foiled by the Flying Graysons (whose costumes just happen to resemble Robin's costume in the comics).

Two-Face kills them all except for Dick (Chris O'Donnell), the youngest Grayson. Bruce takes Dick in (no, not like that). Soon enough, though, Grayson figures out Bruce's secret identity and wants Batman's help in killing Two-Face.

Nygma becomes the Riddler and teams up with Two-Face. Dick becomes Robin, causing Bruce to renounce crimefighting for about three seconds, until Chase is kidnapped by the bad guys. Batman and Robin ride off to the rescue.

The film is a really odd bag of stuff that doesn't hold together at all. And strangely enough for a film that's ostensibly part of a series, it changes virtually everything. The brooding Gothicism of Anton Furst and Bo Welch is replaced with neon everywhere in Barbara Ling's production design.

Gotham City's architecture is crazier than ever, with the omnipresent brooding statuary of "Batman Returns" grown even larger and more commonplace. There's virtually a statue in every scene.

The Batsuit, Batcave, and Batmobile are completely redesigned. You can't see it well in the shot above, but the Batsuit has returned to the more realistically sculpted muscles of the first film, and added nipples to the chest. The mask is not much changed from the previous film, although the sharp nose line has been blunted again.

And to make sure we can have more toy tie-ins, Batman switches to a new, improved costume for the finale.

The new Batcave looks more modern than the previous iterations. Anton Furst's retro-rust look is almost completely gone now.

And while the Batmobile still retains the basic torpedo shape and rocket exhaust of the previous model, it now sports glowing neon cut-outs, round headlights and a big central bat-fin (plus some new gadgets, of course, like this doo-dad that lets it drive up a building). The wheel hubs don't rotate, so the bat logo is always right-side up--that's a pretty cool effect, actually.

There's a weird bit mid-way through the film, though, where Dick Grayson steals the Batmobile, and that central fin is suddenly a double fin in a V shape. No idea what that's about.

And for even more potential toy sales, there's also a new Batplane and Batboat, both sporting the same common design elements of neon cut-outs, central rear tailfin, and glowing rocket exhaust.

Robin gets a high-tech make-over, too, with his circus leotard changed out for a rubberized sculpted bodysuit in bronze and green. It's hard to make out in this shot, but there is never a clear, well-lit shot of it in the entire movie, so make do.

But the changes go deeper than the gadgetry. Danny Elfman's iconic score has been replaced with new music from Elliot Goldenthal. We even have new actors in the roles of Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent (who was played by Billy Dee Williams in the first film and missing from the second film). And by the way, Val Kilmer makes a dapper Bruce Wayne, but he looks awfully young in the role sometimes.

But at the same time, both Pat Hingle and Michael Gough reprise their roles as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred. Alfred is the movie's calm anchor, as usual.

And in one scene, Chase Meridian mentions Catwoman (though not by name) in a callback to the previous Burton film. It's as if all the films in the so-called "series" actually exist in slightly different parallel universes.

One other thing that the Schumacher films do is name-check more recent developments in the comics. For instance, this is the first film in which Arkham Asylum makes an appearance.

It's frustrating for a fan, because on the one hand, you're saying, "Cool, they're actually using the mythos," but on the other hand, they end up mis-using the mythos. It is a nicely dramatic image, though.

But I was talking before about the homosexual not-so-sub-text of this movie. And it's not so much Robin who brings it out as Jim Carrey's Riddler.

When Edward Nygma first meets Bruce Wayne, it's clear that Nygma has a crush on Bruce, talking about how he has saved his hiring letter with Bruce's name on it, and describing him as "so intelligent, witty, and charming." When he first meets Two-Face, he spends a full thirty-five seconds doing an extended riff about how Two-Face's pad is decorated. Some of that is just Jim Carrey not knowing when to stop (which kills the movie dead in several spots), but still...

I don't think Blogspot allots me enough memory space to post shots of all the girly, hipshot poses Carrey adopts in his Riddler tights. But here are a few.

He and Two-Face giggle and hug constantly. He wears a diamond tiara while counting his money, and changes outfits constantly, including his final outfit, that fabulous bodystocking in Liberace white covered with sequins above. Yes, he does borrow one of Two-Face's girlfriends for one party sequence, but only to look more like Bruce Wayne (and maybe to make him jealous?). Even the arms of his throne in the shot above are two nude male figures.

But then, look at Gotham City above. Nearly all of the omnipresent statuary in the film consists of nude male figures. And just in case that's not blatant enough, we get a close-up of Batman's codpiece in the opening montage and a close-up of Bat-buns in the second girding montage just before the big finale.

It's not that I'm against fan service for the girls or against gay characters done well. I just think it's odd that, when Warner handed Schumacher this multi-million dollar franchise and said, "Make it more family-friendly," Schumacher's answer was "More homoeroticism! Batman needs nipples!"

You could argue that this is just Schumacher trying to make it campy, like the 60's series. Just like the constant wisecracks, the scenery-chewing by the villains (hell, Tommy Lee Jones doesn't just chew the scenery, he seizes it in his jaws then bangs his head against the wall until pieces break off--and even then, he can't keep up with Carrey, who is just out of control), and if you'll notice in the shots above of Gotham and the Riddler on his throne: the 60's Tilt-A-Cam has returned. Holy Deja Vu, Batman! (which reminds me that there's a really lame shout-out to that particular habit of Robin's from the series, as well)

So does the movie do anything right?

Well, yeah. I mean, I like the design of Gotham, though it's campy and over the top. And the movie manages to give the impression that Gotham is actually a big city, in a way the two Burton films (both shot on backlot sets) don't. And though Batman still has some ridiculous gadgets (including a grappling hook gun that can punch all the way through a thick stone wall), the movie actually features a Batman who's not afraid to get his hands dirty beating up a few thugs. The action is handled better in this one than in Burton's films.

The script, by Lee and Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman, revisits Batman's origins again, and indulges in a bit too much therapy speak, but toward the climax, we get this impressive image, in a scene lifted from Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

So even though it's bad, it's not all bad. And it's certainly more watchable than, say, the "Batman and Robin" serial from 1949, simply because it's less boring. It could be worse, is what I'm saying.

As we'll see next week, when Seth Gecko faces off against Harry Tasker and Beatrix Kiddo in the film that killed the series dead.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Out of the Vault- Star Fems #1

This is a weird one. Star Fems #1 was published in 1980 by a little outfit called Paragon Publications. You can tell from the cover that this is not published by one of the big boys, simply from the fact that they didn't even go for full four-color printing. Plus, you know, there's tits.

Star Fems was "science fiction" adventure that hovered uncomfortably between cheesecake and soft-core porn. There are three stories in this first issue.

The first story features Stormy Tempest on the run from bounty hunters. Why? Because two-bit tyrant Ralff the Ruthless wants her huge breasts for his very own. So Stormy ends up being captured by slave trader Leatheretta, who is then ambushed by arch enemy Polly Vinyl. Stormy escapes, then assaults Ralff's castle, and we find that our space opera adventure has suddenly veered into women's wrestling fetish territory, as Stormy settles a score with Polly.

I love how Ralff is all laid back on his throne, like some fat dude watching porn from his couch. He's even got a beer. You don't want to see where his other hand is, or use the remote after he does. Dude.

The next story features the Star Fems themselves--Mysta of the Moon, Gale Allen, and Futura--fighting to save a Prince from an evil wraith called the Shimmerer. It seems like a pretty straightforward adventure, with hero saving princess from evil creature, only with the sexes reversed, until Mysta and Gale are attacked in the throne room by guards, and suddenly, oops, Gale's clothes fall off.

The third story is a hackneyed three-page bit of fluff about a beautiful sex droid named Syren, Synthetic Seductress of the 21st Century. The rest of the pages are padded out with filler material like pictures of Jane Fonda as Barbarella and this pin-up of the Star Fems, contrasting their current stripper poses with the covers of their original Golden Age comics.

Yes, the Star Fems were all public domain characters from the 40's.

So why waste time writing about this silly little black-and-white fetish comic?

Let's rewind.

The creative force behind Star Fems was a guy named Bill Black. He owned Paragon Publications, wrote the stories and did art as well, pencilling Stormy Tempest and inking Star Fems. Black may have been a mediocre writer and a middling artist, but he knew how to package stuff and how to find talent.

This goofy little independent comic featured a front cover by Dennis Fujitake, who went on to draw Dalgoda for Fantagraphics. The back cover was by Howard Chaykin, whom I've talked about before. The Chaykin piece was inked by Terry Austin, who was inking The Uncanny X-Men at the time. Austin also contributed the inside back cover. The Stormy Tempest story was inked by 17-year-old John Beatty, who would go on to ink Marvel's Secret Wars. The Star Fems story was pencilled by Marc Hempel, a few years before Blood of the Innocent.

Black himself would go on to found Americomics, which would (surprise, surprise) find its greatest hit in1985 with Femforce, a book featuring a team of female superheroes, some of whom were original characters and some of whom were updated versions of public domain Golden Age characters. Femforce would go on to become a big hit, running over 150 issues (and as far as I can tell, still being published today).

Americomics is now known as AC Comics, and offers not only comics, but figurines and even independent video productions featuring, among others, Stormy Tempest.

Which, no matter what you think of the quality of the Stormy Tempest comic or videos, is not a bad result for a little home-made comic self-published by the author and inked by a high-schooler.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Tonight is my last shift at my current job, and on Monday, I start my new gig. So I felt it was time for a change here at They Stole Frazier's Brain. I'm not changing the current line-up of regular features, at least not yet. Movie Monday and Out of the Vault are both already in the can for next couple of weeks, and Big Game Wednesday is brand new and raring to go. I may be putting together some new graphics for those, and playing around with the banner more often. And at some point, I need to start making Hero Go Home into a viable site. I've paid for it, I need to use it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Role-Playing 101

So in the perhaps over-optimistic belief that I'll have the time to do this, I'm launching a new regular feature: Big Game Wednesday, in which I take an Out of the Vault approach to role-playing games. Every Wednesday, I'll feature a different game (or related publication or object) from my collection and speak about it both on its own terms and how it relates to gaming history or my own philosophy of role-playing. I'll try to go easy on the war-stories, although I'm sure there'll be quite a few.

I'll try to keep it interesting.

So as I've said before, my introduction to role-playing games was the Basic Dungeons and Dragons Boxed Set, which I bought in late 1980 (could it really be almost 30 years ago? am I really that old?)

But the story actually started before that, in high school. I vaguely remember reading an article in Time or something that referred to Dungeons and Dragons as a new game that was a new favorite of geniuses. Sometime later, I saw some friends in school with the books and wondered why they had them, cause D&D was a game for geniuses, which these guys surely weren't.

And I'm sure it's just my low self-esteem talking, but that article actually intimidated me away from the game. I had been exposed to some traditional wargames at that point. Another classmate had told me he thought I'd be good at them, so I bought Starship Troopers, an Avalon Hill game adapting the Bug War from the Heinlein novel.

And it looked cool, but fuck, it was overwhelmingly complex. And this wasn't even a "genius" game. So I didn't even consider trying Dungeons and Dragons.

Until the summer of 1980, when I visited Europe with a choral group made up of high school and college students from Oklahoma and Kansas. As we were riding on the bus one day, I heard some guys having a very odd conversation narrating how they were entering a graveyard following some tracks or something. And one of the other guys was telling them what they saw. I asked them what they were doing and they said they were playing Dungeons and Dragons.

And it was like the clouds parted and heavenly choirs sang and a single glowing ray of light shone down on my head. This wasn't some weird, hyper-complicated genius game. This was like pretending to be in a movie or something, and not one of those boring ones. This was a movie with monsters and swordfights and shit, and it was actually you doing it.

Holy crap, I was hooked. I desperately wanted to play with them, but it didn't happen.

I did learn one interesting thing, though. They weren't actually playing Dungeons and Dragons. The DM was using Dungeons and Dragons for monsters and settings and encounters, but was actually using the Chivalry and Sorcery rules for combat and stuff.

Which was how I learned my first lesson about role-playing.

ROLE-PLAYING RULE #1: Nobody plays the game straight.

Every GM worth his salt customizes, house-rules or Franken-games to some extent. The only time you were likely to encounter straight by-the-book gaming in those days was in a tournament. And even today, the Happy Jack's gang have recently talked about how they adopted house rules to alter hit points and damage to speed combat in D&D 4th Edition, and how they will have to fix the broken money rules in the Savage Worlds pulp-era game they've just started playing.

Even though some games have been around for decades and have accumulated hundreds of pounds of support materials, they will never be so complete or so perfect that the GM won't have to adapt or improvise something, or change a system that just doesn't suit their group's style of play. Over the next few years, I would see hundreds of examples of that, and do quite a bit of it myself.

But first, I had to buy the game myself, which I did once I returned home. I bought the Basic set with dice included, read through the 48-page rulebooks and tried running my step-brother and nephew through the included sample dungeon, "In Search of the Unknown."

And it was kind of fun, but not at all what I thought it would be like from what I had watched the other guys doing. I needed to learn the game from other guys who had been playing a while. And I got that opportunity when summer ended and I went away to college.

Next week: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chuck Versus the Shark

I mentioned a while back that I was afraid Chuck had jumped the shark, but I couldn't be sure until I'd actually seen which way they were going to go with it.

Sadly, I'm afraid I was correct, although it's not as bad as I'd feared. The writers are doing some good things with the characters, letting Chuck grow into his role as a spy, and also giving Morgan some surprising growth.

So why do I say it has jumped the shark? Basically because at the end of last season, everything had changed. Chuck was out of the Buy More and had mad Matrixy Intersect skillz, Morgan had left to pursue his dream of being a chef, Ellie and Awesome were married and moving on with their lives. And if the show had continued along those lines, it might have been good or bad, but it wouldn't really have felt like Chuck anymore.

But that doesn't mean I prefer what they've done, which is the same thing that shows like Smallville have done in the past after incredible finales that changed everything: had a season opener that takes pretty much everything and resets it to the status quo. Chuck is suddenly back at the Buy More, his Intersect skills as unpredictable as his previous flashes. Sarah and Casey are back to their old roles as his handlers. Morgan has returned, and Ellie and Awesome, although they've moved out, are living right next door and still just as much a part of the show as before.

and although it seemed as if they'd killed off Awesome last week, it was just a feint, and so as dramatic as last week's ending was, it's all undone now and we're back to the same old same old. And that gets tiresome and frustrating after a while. I won't stop watching the show, because I like the humor and the cast, especially Zachary Levi and Adam Baldwin.

But I used to watch because I wanted to see where these characters were going to go, and now I know where they're going.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman Returns, 1992

So after Burton's "Batman" tore up box-office records, the same Bat-fans who had once howled in dismay at the idea of Tim Burton directing Michael Keaton as Batman now adamantly declared that no one else would do. If Warner Brothers made a sequel, Burton and Keaton had to be the ones directing and starring in it.

And three years later, in 1992, that sequel materialized--"Batman Returns," directed by Burton and starring Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Walken.

In interviews given before the movie was released, Tim Burton talked about what a nightmare the first "Batman" was to make, due primarily to studio interference. He said that his greater clout after the success of the first one had allowed him to pursue his own vision more clearly in the sequel.

But if you thought that this meant the cartoony silliness of the first film would be gone, the very first scene will disabuse you of that notion. Remember when I mentioned that Bat-fans were apprehensive before Burton's first "Batman" came out because he had previously directed a picture starring this guy?

Well, here you go.

This wealthy gent, played briefly by Paul Reubens, and his wife spawn a horrifying mutant baby that they abandon to the sewers. Thirty years later, Gotham is terrorized both by rumors of a vicious Penguin-Man (DeVito) living in the sewers and by a gang of criminal circus performers.

Meanwhile, as Christmas approaches, rich department store owner/industrialist Max Shreck (Walken) is fighting for political favors so he can build a power plant. His secretary, Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), discovers a dark secret behind the plant, so Shreck kills her.

Or thinks he does. She wakes up to find cats gnawing on her fingers and remakes herself as Catwoman before setting out to take revenge on Shreck. She battles Batman after blowing up Shreck's department store and falls from a high rooftop, only to land in a dump truck full of kitty litter. That's two deaths she's survived so far.

Meanwhile, the Penguin, who it turns out is leader of the circus gang, kidnaps Shreck and makes a deal with him. Penguin will keep mum about Shreck's dirty dealings (which Penguin has proof of) if Shreck helps reintroduce Penguin to polite society. Penguin spends weeks combing the city's birth records, ostensibly to learn the identity of the parents who abandoned him, but Batman fears a darker agenda. As a result of Penguin's newfound celebrity, Schreck convinces him to run for mayor, hoping to get the political favors from Penguin that the current mayor will not give him.

Penguin and Catwoman team up to destroy Batman's reputation before killing him, even as Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne may be falling in love. But the two villains fall out, with Penguin trying (and failing) to kill Catwoman for her third time.

Batman crushes Penguin's political hopes, and then foils Penguin's consecutive plots to kidnap all of Gotham's children and destroy the city with penguin-bombs. But in the end, he fails to stop Selina from killing Shreck and dooming herself to life as a fugitive.

The film had a darker tone than the first "Batman," but it was was also sillier in many places. In many ways, it's a very flawed film, but overall, and it pains me to say this, it's a better film than the previous one. It's not as incoherent as the first film. There are no odd pointless scenes that appear improvised, the dialogue is better, and thank God, there are no Prince songs. The performances are better overall.

But the inclusion of basically three villains ends up creating an overstuffed plot with scenes and characters that are only hastily sketched. It's both too complex and too simple at the same time.

Michael Keaton is a lot better this time as Bruce Wayne.

He's more self-assured and confident in this one, which is good. He's not as bumbling and absent-minded this time around, and there are no disastrous improvs in this one like that scene in Vicki's apartment in the last one, though he sometimes loses track of which face he's supposed to have on ("Sorry, I mistook me for someone else.").

Danny DeVito is just... weird as the Penguin.

He does a good job in the role. But I don't really like Burton's take on the character that much. I don't mind the flippered fingers, but the black slime constantly dripping from his mouth, the soiled longjohns he wears in most scenes, his gang of circus clowns (shouldn't the Joker be the one with the circus-themed gang?), all just rub me the wrong way. I understand that they were trying to get as far from the 60's television version as they could, but even at that, so powerful was Burgess Meredith's influence that DeVito's laugh as the Penguin sometimes sounds like Meredith's distinctive wak-wak.

And his story never really comes clear. Apparently, his scheme all along is to kidnap the children of Gotham and kill them because of his resentment of the "normal" people who made him an outcast. But there's so much else going on in his story that that part of it is never made clear. He's been hinting at this mysterious plan he has involving lists he made from the birth records, but when he actually announces the plan, it seems so over the top that you just can't believe that was his real plan.

And Batman foils it in about five seconds, off-screen. At which point Penguin decides to bomb Gotham with remote-controlled penguin cyborgs or something, but Batman foils that one pretty easily, too.

But the funny thing is, as ludicrous as this movie's Penguin is, and as ultimately pointless as his story turns out to be, he has ended up influencing the later Penguin depictions, just because he is more interesting than a simple fat dude in a tux.

Meanwhile, you've got Michelle Pfeiffer doing the movie's real star turn as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

Pfeiffer has a field day with both the mousy Kyle and the sensuous Catwoman. And in scenes like the one above, shows Kyle grappling with her own mental disintegration, fearing it, yet unwilling to stop. The screenplay was by Daniel Waters (with story co-credits given to Waters and Sam Hamm), who had previously written "Heathers," and Selina's scenes show his deft touch. After this movie came out, Waters went on to do what looks like script doctoring on two of the biggest mega-flops of the 90's, "Waterworld" and "Demolition Man," and then he mostly disappears from IMDB. A cautionary tale, and a shame, because there's some really good stuff in this script.

The shot above is from what I think is the best scene in the movie, where both Selina and Bruce have shown up to Max Shreck's costume ball (where Catwoman and Batman are the only two people in the room not wearing costumes while the chamber group plays Rick James' "Superfreak"). They dance and talk, and Selina seesaws from flirty to scared to vengeful to desperate and afraid, at one point laughing and crying at the same time. It's a powerful scene, plus there's a Siouxsie and the Banshees song, so it's all good.

Meanwhile, as Catwoman, Pfeiffer is slinky and nuts. I don't know that I love the concept of the patchwork costume they designed, but at least it's interesting to look at. One of my favorite bits of business happens when Selina first designs her Catwoman costume. She has a neon sign on her wall that says "Hello There," and as she walks past, she breaks the "o" and "t" so that the sign now says, "Hell here."

Funny thing is, although the publicity for the film revolved around the Penguin and Catwoman, neither of them is the central villain. That role is saved for Shreck. It's his lust for power that leads him to ally with Penguin and murder Selina, and both villains end up revolving as much around him as they do Batman.

But at least for me, after the film was over, I forgot that Christopher Walken was even in it. I forgot about much of Penguin's political campaign, or the excellent scenes of Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle. The weirdness of the two characters, Penguin's flippers and black ooze and Catwoman's patchwork costume, overwhelmed everything else in the movie.

Oh yeah, and in case you were wondering, yes, even though everyone raved about how wonderful and perfect the production design on the first Burton "Batman" was, they redesigned everything for this film.

Batman's costume is pretty much the same, although they stylized the muscle sculpt, flattening some of the curves to make it look more like high-tech body armor.

They also seemed to refine the mask. The nose is a straight, sharp line, like the prow of a ship, or a bird's beak.

Perhaps it was to emphasize the duality of Batman's personality, because when you light it from one side, that sharp nose neatly divides the face into light and dark.

The Batmobile is largely the same, but with a bunch of added gadgets. But the Batcave is new, and better.

And Batman has a new toy, a jet-powered boat he rides through the sewers (sorry for the blurry picture, but it is never seen clearly in the film--it never gets a hero shot).

Oh, and we get a new method for Bruce to get down to the Batcave. Instead of a secret passage through a grandfather clock, or sliding down a pole behind a bookcase, Bruce climbs into an Iron Maiden and slides down a chute.

Visually impressive, but weird.

Which you could say about the whole movie, really. But I said before that it pained me to admit the strengths of "Batman Returns," and you may be wondering why.

It's just this: everyone in Hollywood had come to see Batman as a wacky comedy property, and fans of the modern comic were dying to see Batman played straight. The first film got us closer than we had ever been, but was fucked up by studio interference, Prince, and bloody Nicholson.

Now along comes this cartoonier version of Batman, with Penguin riding around in a giant duck-car and using a supermarket kiddie ride to remotely control the Batmobile.

But at the same time, there was a backlash against the film from parents, saying it was "too dark." Once again, the weirdness just overwhelmed all the good stuff in it.

So by the time the third film came around, the reaction from the studio was, "Keep the funny, tone down the dark." And once again, villain casting ended up warping the film in some very bizarre ways.

But that's next week, when Madmartigan faces off against Ace Ventura and Agent Kay. See you then.