|Pop Culture Gadabout|
Monday, August 07, 2006 |
( 8/07/2006 12:41:00 PM ) Bill S.
THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR – In these lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, we sometimes find ourselves checking out the TV-movie mysteries on Hallmark Channel. Formulaic and inoffensive, crafted by solid unexciting pros who've been doing this stuff for decades, featuring TV performers who primarily appear to be between major network sitcoms (John Larroquette, Lea Thompson, Kellie Martin), these offerings are basically designed to appeal to the same geezer audience who made Murder, She Wrote, Matlock and Diagnosis: Murder long-running ratings performers. This weekend, we caught the rerun (it first aired in January) of what looks to be the start of a new series of Hallmark TV-flicks, Murder 101, starring Dick Van Dyke, shifting gears from a murder-solving physician to a dotty criminology professor.
Never watched Diagnosis: Murder when it was a first-run series on The Tiffany Network, but from the promos that I've seen over the years, I'd gather that Van Dyke’s character there was a fairly no-nonsense Jessica Fletcher type. 101's Jonathan Maxwell is a more broadly comic figure – prone to locking himself out of his house and occasionally knocking into the end tables. To see the once lithe physical comedian do these mild bits of stumble business is more than a little disconcerting: you keep worrying that the guy'll break more than a simple ceramic statue. Too, Van Dyke's ol' professor appears to be equipped with a pair of ill-fitting dentures that definitely impede his delivery. Perhaps this is the way the comedian wanted to play the character, but it definitely impedes his delivery. Halfway into the TV-movie, I found myself yearning for the relatively subdued performing style of Jerry Van Dyke.
Our series lead is teamed with another family member in this outing: son Barry, who I see from IMDB also had a role on Diagnosis. This was my first time seeing him in action – though presumably brought in to play the William Katt or Moses role from Perry Mason teleflicks (you know: the guy who gets to do all the running), his primary function in 101 is to flirt with suspect Tracey Needham. Though not related to Professor Maxwell in the story, every once in a while you can hear his father's voice come out of his mouth. Pretty odd.
Haven't mentioned the telemovie's "mystery" yet because, frankly, there wasn't much to it. The sleazy CFO for an Enron-type company (to emphasize the comparison, scripter Dean Hargrove has more than one character say, "This is just like Enron!") appears to've been blown up in his home, and the last one seen with him was Needham's financial reporter, Cheryl Collins. Unlike another Hargrove Hallmark movie series, Jane Doe, which pits its puzzle-mistress heroine against a series of "impossible" crimes, the stakes are fairly low-pressure in 101; we never once worry that prime suspect Cheryl will be found guilty of murder. Thing is, none of the other suspects prove interesting enough for us care about them either.
One of the more toothless Hallmark mystery TV-movies, in other words – and considering the modest bar that's typically set for these genre works, that's sayin' something. Think I need to view some prime Dick Van Dyke to push this turkey out of my brain: his sixties sitcom, perhaps, or Cold Turkey or Carl Reiner's Hollywood downer, The Comic. No, skip The Comic. I'm bummed already . . .
Sunday, August 06, 2006
( 8/06/2006 10:43:00 AM ) Bill S.
"OH NO, THEO, NOT ANOTHER SWEATER!" – Funniest moment in this week's episode of USA's Psych: when phony psychic Shawn Spencer is shown standing in front of a blackboard filled with indecipherable calculations because "it works on Numbers." Best joke against the competition since Sledge Hammer was shown watching ratings bruiser Cosby inbetween cases. . .
( 8/06/2006 09:12:00 AM ) Bill S.
"THIS IS MY TRUE FORM. IT IS WHO I AM!" – So I'm sitting in my study Friday a.m., doing the work at home thing, when the dogs rouse to tell me someone's at the door. It's the UPS man, and it turns out he's left a comic-sized envelope on my porch from DC Comics. When I tear it open, I see it contains the first issue of the eight-part mini-series, Martian Manhunter. "This is new," I think.
As a polymorphous pop culture blogger, I've gotten review copies before, of course, but the only item from one of the two majors that I'd received in the past was a black-&-white photocopy for an issue of Firestorm. "Maybe it's the start of a trend?" I can't help wishfully thinking. Perhaps, a small corrupting voice in the back of my head starts wheedling, if I write a full-on rave for this title, I'll be added to the big package list of reviewers – like David Alan Doane or Joanna Draper Carlson – and start to get boxes of similar books to blog review? Should I add my middle name to this blog to make 'em take me seriously? (William Robert a.k.a. Billy Bob Sherman? Naw, forget that!) Okay, then:
Martian Manhunter is the best superhero comic that I’ve read all year!!!!!!!No, not really. Though tight personal finances have kept my mainstream superhero comics purchases to a barebones minimum this year, I have been following Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, which immediately renders the abovewritten hyperbolic statement wrong-headed. So wot's the True Review?
As the cover asserts, MM is a follow-up to DC's Brave New World one-shot. I've missed that particular 80-Page Giant, so part of what scripter A.J. Lieberman has to do on the first four pages is bring me up to date. The Martian Manhunter I primarily remember is a back-up feature superhero in the pages of fifties Detective Comics, a bland green-skinned Yul Brynner whose Martian name J'onn J'onzz conveniently translated into English. (As a kid reading those Silver Age comics, I used to imagine turning my own name into an alien one with the expedient use of a few apostrophes and some creative spelling: B'ill Sh'urmnn, Gadabout from Mars!) But the current version is determinedly more alien-looking, more like the denizen of a Star Wars cantina than an Eisenhower Era green man. This markedly different look doesn't set well with all of us Earthlings: "I've seen the JLA," one suspicious cop says. "I know what the Manhunter looks like – and it ain't anything like you."
The times, in short, are much less tolerant than they were even in the McCarthyite Fifties, when a shape-shifting alien could join a confederation of justice-minded super-types and fit in easily. Hero J'onn is treated to the same wary-eyed hostility accorded to a Marvel mutant. It's a harsh comic book world out there, a point scripter Lieberman unsubtly hammers home by opening this mini-series with a recreation of Cain & Abel that'll be visually echoed in the first ish's last page. Humankind's first recorded killing, our condescending alien hero states, made murder a part of our D.N.A., but before now he always thought he was immune to the impulse. Like Identity Crisis, the DC event series that first pushed the JLA into a prolonged game of Scruples, Martian Manhunter is designed to push its hero to the brink of Moral Quandary Land.
You might wonder, as I sometimes do, whether every costumed super-type has to be shoved to the brink every time (stock answer: sure they do, because coming back from it is what makes 'em a hero, dammit!) But let's not immediately get sidetracked into broader questions, let's just consider the dilemma that is presently facing J'onn. The book (which has a slightly squishy timeframe) opens on our hero flying down as he considers all that has occurred in the past year: a friend murdered, his killer killed and the JLA disbanded. "I thought I'd lost everything, only to learn had more to lose than I had ever dreamed possible," he tells us – then we backtrack "thirty-two minutes ago" to a mysterious building where a figure is making a run for it into the dark city night. Cut to a conference room where a sinister looking businesswoman is chewing out her scientist underlings for letting "the creature" escape. The lady is named Ms. Ferdinand, and she quickly establishes her villainous bona fides in time-honored James Bond criminal mastermind tradition by blowing away an incompetent project head (so much for that retirement party!) and putting another eager underlings in his place.
Without giving away too much, I will note that the escapee's an alien (you can tell there's something different about him simply from the way artist Al Barrioneuvo won't clearly let us see him at first) with an ultra-obscure Silver Age pedigree – and he is in telepathic contact with our hero. The agency in pursuit of the alien is one of those shadowy corporations with vague political connections. They appear to developing weaponry based on alien physiology – at one point our hero is assaulted by a "psionic pulse," which we're told Martians can produce under duress ("Did I know that J'onn could shoot a 'psionic pulse?'" I wonder.) – and would rather kill their escapee than see him connect with our hero. To this end, Ms. Ferdinand sends out a Psy-Ops assassin from the "Liberty List." J'onn races to save the fleeing alien, but since we know from the get-go that this is a flashback to events that will lead to the Martian Manhunter losing it, we're fairly certain he can't be successful.
Nothing too unfamiliar here, though artists Barrionuevo & Bit treat their urban setting with a moody oppressiveness: the panels where our shadowy alien first escapes into a street scattered with debris and cast-off street people are especially convincing. I'm not fully certain about the parameters of J'onn's powers: at one point we're told he's as powerful as Superman, though there's a hint that this might be an underestimation. Yet the one battle scene against what appears to be a robot drone – a chance for our hero's powers to be shown in play – could use more narrative support from Lieberman to tell us what the heck is happening. Is J'onn using that "psionic pulse" to behead the robot or what? The visuals don’t really tell us.
In the end, Martian Manhunter #1 proves an efficient example of the current drive to add an edge to back-of-the-book characters who once were most notable for their conspicuous lack of personality. J'onn's new Say-It-Loud-I'm-Green-And-I'm-Proud persona and the subsequent hostility it evokes may have a currency in these days of heightened xenophobia, but I don't think you can take that comparison too far. Let's just state that the J'onn J'onzz we see in this comic is part of a long line of upright heroes who get Pushed Too Far – and whether you accept what he does as a result depends on how much affection you hold for the original version of this non-character. Me, I'm okay with it (I'm still, however, holding a grudge over what was done to Elongated Man and his wife), though I honestly don't see this roughening up elevating the Martian Manhunter to first tier status. But what do I know? I thought Identity Crisis was gonna be written out of existence within a year of its conclusion . . .
A PATENTLY SELF-SERVING POSTSCRIPT: Lookin' at the UPS label originally placed on the envelope to me, I see that it was originally addressed to "Bill Sherman, Residential, West Division, Normal, IL 61761," which may've kept it from being delivered in as timely as a manner as intended. So, hey, DC Comics – and anybody else who might ever want to send me spiffy review material, money and/or fresh fruit: it's 908 West Division, Normal, Illinois!
Saturday, August 05, 2006
( 8/05/2006 03:11:00 PM ) Bill S.
WEEKEND PET PIC – A quick shot of Kyan Pup, taken outside this a.m.:
NOTE: If you wanna see more dogg blogging, check out the weekly "Carnival of the Dogs" at Mickey's Musings. And for a broader array of companion animals, there's Modulator's "Friday Ark."
Thursday, August 03, 2006
( 8/03/2006 04:03:00 AM ) Bill S.
TWO WEEKS OF "FREE BIRD" – One quick comment on "You Know They've Got A Hell of A Band," the Oldies Show from Hell story that was used to conclude TNT's Stephen King Nightmares And Dreamscapes summer series: if you're gonna do a story predicated on the stultifying repetitiveness of the classic rock 'n' roll format, shouldn't you pay to have the actual over-familiar recordings on your soundtrack – instead of padding the hour w./ unsatisfying unreasonable facsimiles? Just askin'.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
( 8/02/2006 12:56:00 PM ) Bill S.
"SINCE I WAS A BOY WEARING HIGH-HEEL SHOES . . ." – When I first read about Morrissey's drive to push the extant members of seminal rock band The New York Dolls into reuniting, I wasn't all that optimistic about the probable results. As a general rule, rock band revivals have been dismal affairs (pick yer least fave Sex Pistols reunion for a quick 'n' dirty example), and, besides, how many living members of the original Dolls are there? Big noise guitarman Johnny Thunders passed into Heroin Heaven years ago; Mormon bassist Arthur Kane has more recently died. That left . . .what? Frontman David Johansen and 2nd string guitarist Syl Sylvain? Color me doubtful.
When I finally came across the revamped unit's first studio release, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This (Roadrunner), the fanboy in me quickly nudged those doubts aside, though. I've been an avid follow of David Jo's solo work – even have a copy of that Latin rhythms disc he released in his Buster Poindexter persona – so there ultimately was no way I was gonna resist a new disc with his singing and songwriting all over it. May not be a for-real NY Dolls album, but it could be a decent Johansen – and that can be plenty funky/chic on its own.
One week after telling my cynical self to shut the fuck up, I've happily embraced the New New York Dolls. From One Day's bellowy opening track ("We're All in Love"), it's clear this version of the Dolls isn't as enjoyably assaultive as the original model – lead guitarist Steve Conte just ain't as bracingly cacophonous as the late Johnny T. – but the group is a full-bodied unit, not just David Jo and a bunch of back-up musicians. Befitting their frontman's role as a sometime singer of trad blues with the Harry Smiths, the new disc has a more upfront emphasis on Stones-y blues growl, though Johansen's near all-encompassing love for old rock 'n' roll trickery pops up, too (the speedy sock hop rhythms to "Rainbow Store," the Bo Diddley beat on "Dance Like A Monkey," even the swatch of Harvest honed harmonica in "I Ain't Got Nothing.")
A few of the slower tracks ("Plenty of Music," "Dancing on The Edge of A Volcano") sound like they could've appeared on an 80's solo Johansen disc, though then you wouldn't have gotten a Michael Stipe singing back-up to "Volcano," of course. (Nuthin' wrong with using yer elder statesman status to pull in younger admirers like Stipe – or punk folkie Tom Gabel – for a track or two.) To show they haven't just been sittin' around playing their old 45's, David Jo and Syl (responsible for much of the disc's music) even toss a slice of Ramones-ness into "Gotta Get Away from Tommy." Lyrically, the songs reflect Johansen's usual concerns – heart-felt paeans to trashy street life, riffs on being broke and horny, melancholy love songs – though the filter we hear 'em through is thirty years older than the jet boys of old. Now, when our head Doll tells his audience to dance, it's more cajoling than the shrieking entreaties of old.
The whole thing sounds way better than any of us had a right to expect. Makes you wonder. If the Stones, say, had taken a twenty-plus hiatus after releasing Some Girls, could they have returned with an album as tuff as this? Probably not. One Day may not be the groundbreaker that the original New York Dolls was – how could it be? – but it still beats the snot out of much of what passes for rock these days.
Turning out to be a damn fine year for us rockin' geezers . . .
UPDATE: Longtime booster Robert Christgau (he gave both the debut album and Too Much Too Soon an "A+" grade!) has a swell Village Voice column on the elder Dolls and their new release . . .