Monday, November 12, 2018

Excelsior!


His name was always at the top of every Marvel comic book when I grew up. The first page would have a small box that briefly described the character, in a sentence or two, and then the words: "Stan Lee Presents."

I knew who he was because he was on TV, sort of. He would do voice-over introductions to The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends on Saturday mornings.

It was comforting, in its way. To my mind, it was like he was the caretaker of the Marvel Universe, a constant, active presence who acted in its best interests, though I couldn't have phrased it that way back then.

I met him at a convention once. He autographed for me some comics he had written, including a special issue of my favorite comic, Fantastic Four.


Marvel Comics used to have a newsletter-type page in every comic. Sometimes he would say a few words in it, usually reporting from Hollywood about the in-roads Marvel was making: a new TV show here, a new video game there, that sort of thing. It was exciting.

Those in-roads laid the foundation for the Marvel kingdom of today: a subsidiary of the mightier Disney empire, true, but his creations — in collaboration with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, and all the rest — have never been more popular. (Whether or not this has translated into higher sales of the comics themselves is another story.)

Recent years have not been kind to him: embroiled in one lawsuit after another, not to mention a contentious relationship with his daughter. I can only hope he made peace with her before he went to that great bullpen in the sky.

Today is a sad day for Fandom Assembled, but we will never forget him and his great gift to American popular culture. I have distanced myself from the comics; they no longer mean to me what they once did. Still, if it weren't for them, my life — the friends I've made over the years, the passion I have for visual art in general — would be quite different.

Face front, true believers.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

So far, my favorite Melissa McCarthy movie is this. It's a short from 1998, long before she hit the big time. She's everything you would want a genuine movie star to be: funny, engaging, a embodiment of her character that allows the real her to show through, and beautiful.

So now that she is a movie star, she takes an almost perverse glee in de-glamming herself in her roles. I get it, it's what made her popular, but it holds no appeal to me, especially when she plays mostly slobs!


Then came Can You Ever Forgive Me? Once again, she plays a slob, but it's a real-life one, in a dramatic role no less, which as we all know, is a surefire way for comedic actors to gain credibility with the Academy come Oscar time. The first time I saw the trailer, I didn't recognize her at all!

Lee Israel is a struggling biographer. She struggles because she doesn't play well with others, but she don't give a damn about her bad reputation until money troubles force her to rethink her career options. She stumbles into a scheme to make money by forging letters from famous authors. She's pretty good at it, but how long can she keep it up?

I have no doubt McCarthy will get her second Oscar nod for this one. It's a dream role for any actress: a hard-drinking, unapologetically surly woman who wants to live her life her way for as long as possible.

Richard E. Grant was good in this too.
It was nice to see him again.

McCarthy brings enough humanity to the role that she's not totally repulsive. I would compare this to her big comedic roles, except I've never seen them. When I was in the hospital two years ago, I watched part of the cop movie she did with Sandra Bullock, but I didn't finish.

How long can McCarthy keep on playing slobs? I would've thought she'd have veered away from them by now, but maybe she really likes these kinds of roles. I can't see her sticking to them when she's in her sixties, but these days, who knows?

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

This just in from the WSW newsroom...

In this month's link post I mentioned my friend Anna Crawford, who wrote a Halloween-themed piece. Well, she's agreed to make an appearance here, too, so look for her later this month. She and I were in the same writing group for a little over a year before she moved out of New York. I think she's a good writer, and hopefully, so will you.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens, NY

I don't have any special memories associated with the music of Queen. They were part of my rock education, listening to classic rock radio in high school, and I dug them. I'm glad there's a movie about them in general and lead singer Freddie Mercury in particular, but that's about it. I didn't lose my virginity to a Queen song or anything like that.

As far as musical biopics go, Bohemian Rhapsody was pretty conventional: typical "rise and fall and rise again" story, with all the hit songs you know and love, all the conflict you expect, even a bit of romance.


The music was what kept me interested, that and the sensational portrayal of Mercury by Rami Malek — but it felt by-the-numbers. I'm not sure what Bryan Singer could have done to make this different, but I was aware, as I watched it, of its conventionality, and that kinda dimmed my appreciation.

There will be more rock biopics on the horizon: next year will bring the Elton John movie, and you can bet your bottom dollar someone, somewhere, will make a Bowie movie (I nominate Michel Gondry), and probably a Prince movie too.

Will any of it make rock relevant again?


Rhapsody ends with Queen at Live Aid, a benefit concert — the benefit concert — made when rock still seemed capable of changing the world. I can't recall the last time rock mattered to such a degree. Of course, if the "Rock and Roll" Hall of Fame is any indication, the very name has been diluted to include singers and groups as far removed from rock as you can get, but that's another issue.

I suspect the answer is no: Freddy Mercury the cultural icon will always be in, but the music he made with Queen will get a little juice while Rhapsody plays in theaters and then return to the classic rock radio ghetto for the old fogies like me, to be trotted out once in awhile for car commercials and the occasional American Idol contestant.


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Bohemian links

Big news! Some of you are familiar with The Dark Pages, the newsletter (as in actual paper, not an e-newsletter) of the film noir website All That Noir. The December issue is a year-end, oversized special, and guess who got an invitation to contribute a guest article?

The theme for this special issue is "great couples of noir," and after watching so many of his noir films back in 2015, I decided to take on director Anthony Mann, along with his DP, John Alton. The issue will come out December 20. It's sure to make a nice last-minute Christmas gift for the noir fan on your list.

My thanks to Kristina from Speakeasy and TDP editor Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for the opportunity.

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By the time you read this, the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody should be playing in theaters everywhere. If you like Queen and the movie, I'd like to give a plug here for a graphic novel by my friend Mike Dawson called Freddie and Me.

It's a memoir about when Mike grew up a Queen fan, in England and America. He's a very good artist, and he infuses this story with a lot of love for Freddie Mercury and 80s pop music in general. Check it out; you won't regret it.

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The novel rewrite is close to done, and once it is, I'll have to edit it, which means checking for grammar and spelling, not to mention any other minute changes I may want to make (and I will want). In the new year I'll go shopping for an agent and we'll see what happens.

I've decided not to self-publish after all. After giving it some thought, I don't think I have the resources or wherewithal to commit to that route at this time. Maybe I'd do it in the future.

With all due respect to people like Jacqueline, from what I can tell, it's not like self-publishing comics, where it really is as easy as folding and stapling some Xeroxed photocopies and selling them at your local con, or better yet, scanning those pages and posting them online. It costs more, for one thing. And the truth is, I really do wanna see my book in a bookstore. Queens has seen the birth of two new independent bookstores within the past year. (Yes, it's possible to get your self-published book in a bookstore, but my understanding is it's rare.)

I have a couple of ideas for what to write next; it's just a matter of deciding on them.

Links after the jump.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes
YouTube viewing

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a film I had wanted to see for awhile. I went into it knowing nothing about it, expecting Vincent Price in a campy mad scientist flick, one with which I could laugh along. What I got was something more.

It's a simple revenge story: Price, the titular doctor, blames Joseph Cotten (!) for failing to save his wife on the operating table (though he did the best he could), so now Price has launched an elaborate scheme to kill Cotten and everyone involved in the failed operation, and boy, is it elaborate.


It's a vendetta worthy of a Bond villain, with a symbolic theme, perfectly timed death traps that would've taken months to plan individually, a henchman — or should I say henchwoman, a secret lair Dr. Evil would find excessive, and a shtick of his own: a fondness for the organ with a wardrobe Elton John would be embarrassed to wear.

It all sounds derivative, but the way it was done was something else. The first ten minutes are silent; Price doesn't speak for the first half hour. The score is minimal and non-intrusive. The editing is crisp and serves the story well. The set design and costumes are eye-catching. The acting is not tongue-in-cheek; everyone plays it straight.

And then there's Price. He has a thingamajig that makes him speak without moving his lips, though you see his jaw and Adam's apple move. His performance is mostly in his eyes and face and body. At times, he's disturbing to watch.


Director Robert Fuest keeps him from going too far overboard by focusing on atmosphere. He frames the shots well. The tension they generate is almost — dare I say it — Kubrickian.

Phibes isn't original by any means, but it's entirely watchable due to the magnetic cinematography, the bizarre visuals, and Price's performance. I have no doubt horror fans consider this an all-timer.

UPDATE 11.6.18: I didn't watch the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, until after writing about the original, because I didn't want to be disappointed by it, but it turns out it's almost as good. Fuest directs again, and co-writes. This time, Phibes travels to Egypt, pursuing an ancient legend that would revive his wife, but he's got competition from another dude who's pursuing the same legend. More scary, torturous deaths, more organ playing, even some legitimate humor. Both movies are good!

Monday, October 22, 2018

First Man

First Man
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

The moon was half full the day I saw First Man. I noticed it on my way home, the sky darkening early in the fall sky. Sometimes when I look at it, I wonder what our primitive ancestors made of it — an image in the sky that changes shape consistently. I'll bet they made up some pretty good stories about what it was and what it was for.

We can only guess whether they thought it was a place to which humans could visit.

Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, when Neil Armstrong made his "giant leap for mankind," with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. First Man makes us appreciate, with nail-biting, white-knuckle clarity, how utterly dangerous this venture was. No lie, some of those scenes in space were difficult to watch because the camera kept spinning and spinning.


This movie has been used as a piƱata by the right and the left for reasons too stupid to get into (seriously, I'm not even gonna justify them with links). I didn't read about any of it until after I saw the movie. I think they're both full of shit, as they usually are. And that's all I have to say about that.

Some very rich people are investing in space travel these days so some other rich people can pay for the privilege. The rest of us will have to wait our turn, and by then, who knows, we could all be dead. It seems to me space travel would be a good idea so we can think about living in places other than Earth — but what do I know? I'm not Elon Musk.


So how about that Damien Chazelle, huh? In a short time, he's established himself as a filmmaker to watch: one who takes on a variety of subjects with a vision for carrying them out. He gets some intense performances out of his actors, his cinematographers are distinctive, his Oscar-winning composer, Justin Hurwitz, is superb (I liked his work on First Man), and he's only 33. Dude's going places.