Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, November 12, 2005
      ( 11/12/2005 09:48:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT SUNSET?" – From its subtitle ("For Active Senior Living") and opening pages, I half expected Rob Osborne's Sunset City (AiT/Planet Lar) to be a graphic novel variation on one of those condescending Hollywood geezer comedies featuring randy geriatrics. Reading the first few pages – where we see the book's retired hero, Frank McDonald, walk his dog, take in a younger lady power walker's ass and grapple with a dog turd – the impression still held. (It's Grumpiest Old Men in comics form!) But as Osborne's book progresses, a deeper story prevails.

For Frank, forced into retirement just weeks after his wife died of stomach cancer, is both stuck in a state of grief and suffocated by the sheltered life of the elder community that he now calls home. "I hate this place," he tells his dog Wally, and as Osborne opens up the rest of Sunset City, we see that he's not the only one. One centenarian resident, unable to blow out the candles on her birthday cake, makes as her birthday wish, "I wish the good Lord would bring me home." Sunset City is a place where people go to die: some do it "passionately;" others just give in. Despite the efforts of his neighbors (one of whom advises Frank to "take life by the balls"), our hero appears to have chosen the latter course. He can't even acknowledge the overtures of an attractive widow who’s moved into the neighborhood.

Osborne's black-&-white graphic novel is about Frank's reawakening – which begins when he witnesses an unsuccessful robbery at the local convenience store (an effectively realized sequence that climaxes with a full-page image of our hero with blood on his face). Like many elder communities, Sunset City attracts more than its share of predators, a fact which Frank knows through morning readings of the daily paper. His "solution" hinges upon an act of violence, and though the ethics and morality of this act are deliberately kept questionable, we understand the forces that drove Frank to it.

Sunset City is an ambitious work (not surprising from a writer/artist who previously dreamed of world domination), though its ambitions arguably outstrip its storytelling. Osborne's use of faux newspaper pages to give us additional information is only moderately successful. Though Frank is established as a bit of a loner, for instance, he does communicate with his neighbors enough for much of the necessary info to get established via dialog, while hearing more of Frank's thoughts on the events of the day might've better set up his ultimate actions. Too, some of Osborne's subplots could've benefited from additional space beyond their place on a newspaper column. A sardonic bit about the mentally fragile adult daughter of the homeowner's association president reads like it belongs in a different story altogether (perhaps that Grumpiest Old Men comic?) – more an arbitrary diversion than a part of an organic whole – in large part because we never get a clue what Frank thinks about it.

Obsorne's unblinking art is a treat, however. Where too many artists either airbrush or comically caricaturize the trappings of aging, Osborne looks for the humanity in his figures and frequently captures it. A three-quarter-page panel depicting Frank and Sophia as they leave an acquaintance's funeral service is as mindful of the characters as it is the way Sophia's stockings sag, while a shot of Frank as he experiences a "good night" of sleep is plenty telling in its own right. Considering the expressiveness of his art, there were times I found myself wondering whether Osborne had given his characters more plot than they needed. But better too much story than not enough . . .
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Friday, November 11, 2005
      ( 11/11/2005 01:42:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC – S'been a heckuva week at Gadabout Central – as the gaping holes in the past week's bloggery attest. But no matter how stressed the day-to-day may make us, how can you not be cheered by the sight of a yawning dawg?

Image hosted by Photobucket.com

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      ( 11/11/2005 12:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

Image hosted by Photobucket.com"AN INSTANT SUSPENSION OF LIFE THAT WILL LAST FOREVER!" – Back when I was younger and dumber, I had a starkly dismissive attitude when it came to dubbed horror flicks: with typical teen geek condescension, I sneered at every throwaway offering that came my way on the Saturday afternoon teevee matinees. Today I know better, of course, but it doesn't mean my knee-jerk reaction wasn't occasionally on the mark. So let's consider the 1964 French/Italian horror outing, Castle of the Living Dead, which was recently broadcast on TCM for Halloween, shall we?

Directed by Luciano Ricci/"Herbert Wise" and Lorenzo Sabatini/"Warren Kiefer" – with assistance by the young British director Michael Reeves, who had a hand in the screenplay and would later go on to make Witchfinder General – the movie's one of those strange Euro-blends which contains both English-speaking (Christopher Lee and a very young Donald Sutherland) and French (Philippe Leroy) and Italian (Gaia Germani) actors working in their own languages. In the British and American releases, the latter were dubbed, while Lee and Sutherland were allowed to hold onto their native tongues. Judging from the whole off-kilter package, I have to wonder if anyone on the set knew what the rest of the cast and crew were doing. (Decades after the fact, the directorial credits remain a muddle.) But though the onetime horror snob in me would've sneered at its piecemeal construction, the movie remains raggedly diverting. It's the kind of Euro-horror flick I suspect Richard Sala knows and remembers fondly.

Set after the Napoleonic Wars ("There was no war," a narrator tells us, "but the killings had not stopped."), Castle centers around a motley quintet of traveling actors who have the misfortune of being invited to perform at the castle of the mysterious Count Drago (Lee). Our five-member troupe, which includes a long-haired dwarf and a deaf mute strong man, specializes in a "comic" routine where a prisoner who's about to be hanged turns the tables on his executioner. Watching it performed in the movie's opening, you just know it'll later be replayed ironically and disastrously.

Though top-billed, Lee doesn't have a lotta screen time compared to our motley crew of wagoneering actors – as in many of the continental horror films he made during this period, his primary role is to basically stand around and look imposing. Lee's goateed Count Drago sees himself as "something of a scientist," which naturally means the guy's dabbling in areas where Man Isn't Meant to Go. Said scientific inquiries revolve around making living statues out of animals and people, the specifics of this are kept deliberately opaque. First time we get any foreshadowing as to the dire deeds a-comin' is when our merry band comes upon a stiff raven on the branch of a tree not far from Drago's place. When they enter the castle, they're confronted with an array of displayed birds and beasts that'd make Norman Bates envious. Neither this display nor the sinister servant skulking around the joint dissuade 'em from staying the night, of course – even after one of their group seemingly perishes during a botched performance of the executioner routine. Beats sleeping on the wet ground, I guess.

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements in the flick is its focus on the dwarf performer (searching the Internet, I'm unable to discern the actor's identity, but he's one of the more watchable performers in the film and I'm fairly certain that I've seen him in at least one Hercules movie) as our primary point-of-view for most of the proceedings. It's he who gets singled out by a prophesying witch (one of three roles played by Sutherland, who reportedly named his first son after director Sabatini's English pseudonym) and fends off evil henchman Dart (Luciano Pigozzi) in a pursuit around the estate. The latter sequence is one of the movie's highlights: set in what appears to be an actual castle landscape filled with large menacing statues.

The film's climax, where a hidden room is revealed to display an unconvincing tableau of the Count's frozen not-quite-dead human victims, is as flat as a Poverty Row cheapie from the 40's (something featuring Lionel Atwell or George Zucco in the Lee role, perhaps), though a sequence where the troupe's actress Laura (Germani) comes upon the preserved body of Drago's wife lying in bed is reasonably creepy. (One sign of the slapdash nature of this movie's script: we're never given advance word that the Count is a widower.) Sutherland's crone – who turns out to've been the victim of an early botched Drago experiment – shows up at the finish to put down Lee's character for good. Watching on the sidelines is a dim Sergeant (also played by the Donald), who's been representing comically inept authority through most of the picture. Sutherland arguably overplays the latter character's slack-jawed goofiness, but he's still amusing.

Like I say, my younger self would've spent all his viewing time picking this flick apart. But my y.s. would've also probably missed most of the movie's more enjoyable specifics: the rough-and-tumble relationship between members of the acting troupe (much more vivid than the rote romance between actress Laura and the former Captain of the Hussars who joins the troupe), the small bits of traveling show that we're allowed to see, the large face that serves as a castle entrance, the moments when our dwarf hero climbs one of the statues to escape Dart and is later tossed off a castle parapet to land in a convenient haystack, Sutherland as both comic relief and ominous foreshadower. Scary? Not particularly. But just-plain-odd and entertaining enough to get this psychotronic junkie thankful that he set the timer when it aired in the wee small hours of the night.

Nyaaaah to you, Younger Self.
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Thursday, November 10, 2005
      ( 11/10/2005 07:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FIDDLE-DEE-DEE – Away from his fresh and jam-packed comedy blog, The Third Banana, Aaron Neathery examines the 1930 debut of Ub Iwerks' "Flip the Frog" cartoon shorts series, "Fiddlesticks," which is available for viewing on the Internet Archive site. Uwerks was an essential FX brain for Disney and other companies (among other things, he was a photographic advisor on Hitchcock's The Birds), but as Aaron notes, his Flip the Frog cartoons can be pretty dire. The title hero has even less personality than early Mickey Mouse, while the gags in "Fiddlesticks" possess less-than-none of the weird-eyed inventiveness that the Fleischers were already presenting in their shorts. (One thing that Iwerks shares in common with the Bros.: the kind of visual casualness that results in a fiddler mouse who has distinct whiskers from a distance and loses 'em when we see him in close-up.) As an early soundie and demonstration of early cartoon color, "Fiddlesticks" is an instructive – if not particularly entertaining – artifact, but what's all the brouhaha on the Archive page from Don Markstein about?
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Monday, November 07, 2005
      ( 11/07/2005 09:52:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WING-LESS – West Wing's much-ballyhooed "live debate" ep aired last night, and – while you just know that the show's overseers were hoping viewers'd come away going, "Wow, why can't real political debates be like that?" – the actual dramatic results were less-than-riveting. For those not following the show at this stage of the game, "The Debate" centered around two presidential candidates, mildly liberal Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and mildly moderate Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), as they stand before the cameras in their only scheduled televised debate. Both characters have proven over the past Wing season to be commanding figures – Smits and Alda are old hands at winning over audience good will – but neither of these teevee pros could make much of the flat drama offered on-screen.

At its best, West Wing makes political debate palatable by keeping it in the context of its characters’ lives. We care, for example, about Toby Ziegler's passionate animosity toward clandestine military ops because 1.) we know he's at heart a face-to-face confrontational kinda guy and 2.) we know it's gonna ruin his career sooner or later. Last week's ep, where we saw the two candidates dance around the abortion campaign issue, was similarly fascinating for the way it showed both men (who essentially stood on the same side of the issue) accept or reject political tactics and arguments. Each move they made told us more about what they were as political people. (One of the show's great themes is the constant conflict between political belief and political expediency.) No such luck with the debate hour, though, which largely consisted of the two faux candidates shouting and lobbing predictable talking points at each other.

While I do admit that I'd love to see real-life candidates drop the restrictive rules of debate like they do on Wing - it'd be revelatory for voters to see that much spontaneity from actual candidates – but since we've spent so much teevee time with the Wingers behind the scenes already, we have a pretty strong hand on both Santos and Vinick. (Would like to learn more about some of the latter's crew – like Patricia Richardson's no-nonsense campaign manager – but then the Dems have a leg up on this since we already know about Bradley Whitford's Josh from years of seeing him act roguishly in the White House.) In the end, "The Debate" wound up telling us less about the series' candidates than we already knew. Chalk this 'un up as a noble failure – if arguably more watchable than Aaron Sorkin's notorious dashed-off post-9/11 talkathon . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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