Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, March 07, 2005
      ( 3/07/2005 01:57:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"RUNRUNRUN-RUNAWAYS. . ." – After reviewing Ex Machina early last week, I thought I'd take a look at another of writer Brian K. Vaughan's series, Marvel's Runaways – which conveniently is available in a trio of inexpensive Marvel Age digests. One of the questions that has recently come up in discussions of Vaughan's work (see Johanna Draper-Carlson) is whether the writer can hold up to his promising beginnings. Runaways, which ends its first eighteen issue run with the recently collected third digest, provides a good opportunity to see if the guy is up to it.

The series opens strongly enough: six kids, brought to what they think is gonna be a boring yearly parental get-together, are horrified to discover that their folks are actually an enclave of super-villains. After secretly witnessing a ritual sacrifice, they covertly investigate and learn to their dismay that their parents comprise a group called the Pride, which basically controls all illegal activities on the West Coast. They take it on the lam, hiding in an earthquake-sunken mansion in the Hollywood hills, unsure what to do but certain that they want nothing to do with their parents. Along the way, each runaway learns a secret about themselves – usually involving something inherited from their parents (one girl has an empathic connection to a watchdog dinosaur, the youngest has mutant super-strength, etc.) The main story focus, then, is on this prickly sextet of girls and boys as they evolve from a group of guarded teens and almost-teens into a semi-cohesive team. One of the six, we learn, is sending out dispatches to his/her parents, while members of L.A.'s Finest – who are also aligned with the Pride – are scouring the city, looking for our gang.

A fine set-up, like I say – and by chapter/issue seventeen in volume three, Vaughan actually resolves most of these plot threads. The identity of the group mole is revealed (not a big surprise), as well as the underlying reason for the Pride's existence; we also get to witness a climactic showdown at the Evil Parents' underwater lair. Vaughan does a brisk job differentiating our cast of reluctant super-kids (he's less effective when it comes to the adults), and there are some fine bickersome moments reminiscent of early Marvel throughout. Though Runaways flags a mite in the middle volume with the infusion of a Buffy-indebted plotline, the writer generally keeps his eye on the prize.

A decent li'l short-run series, in other words, with the added advantage of being only marginally connected to the Marvel Universe. (Obscure duo, Cloak and Dagger, make an appearance, and there's at least one reference to the West Coast Avengers – but it really is the kids' show.) Marvel's attempt at wooing readers with manga lite packaging, art and plotlines may, at root, be a compromised half measure, but in the case of Runaways, at least, it seems to've paid off. Though not as layered as a work like Ex Machina, the Marvel Age series succeeds on its own lightweight terms. So perhaps Vaughan can slap a tidy "finish" to one of his creations.
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      ( 3/07/2005 01:49:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WHEN I'M CALLING YOU-HOO-HOO-HOO. . ." – Caught the champeenship finish to this round of Celebrity Poker Showdown on Sunday – not as egregious as I thought it might be: knee-jerk caller Colin Quinn actually played some hands where he didn't call with nuthin', while Brad Garrett had some actual funny lines to go with his loud-mouth bluster this time. Me, I wish Bonnie Hunt had won – 'cause dammit, I've got some serious audience lust for her – but when she didn't call what seemed like an obvious Garrett bluff (would've been a good hand to do "How Would You Play It?"), it was obvious that this was just not to be. . .
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Saturday, March 05, 2005
      ( 3/05/2005 02:57:00 PM ) Bill S.  

JUST LIKE ELVIS WITH THAT TEEVEE – A few quick bullet points, all related to this week's TV viewing:
  • Caught the recent – can't really call it a season finale since the show's returning in summer, right? – finishing ep to Monk this week. The offering was amusing (even if the mystery as once again negligible), but once you start resorting to Cute Kid stories, you've definitely shifted in the realm of character comedy at the expense of anything else. It was undeniably fun to see Tony Shaloub's uptight character loosen up enough to get playful – even as we know that it couldn't last since Monk's inability to unwind is what makes him the Great Detective – but the whole time I was watching it, I remained ever mindful of the fact that this show's days are clearly finite.

  • CBS, perhaps themselves mindful of the fact that Monk wouldn't be new for the next few months, shifted its competitive offering, Numbers, into the Jag time slot for one night: a decent ploy since it has the potential of luring viewers like myself over to this new genius 'tec series. The show is well cast (I like Rob Morrow as an FBI agent more than I did a neurotic doctor, while Judd Hirsch is one of those teevee actors who just automatically brings audience good will to any project), and its gimmick – math genius (David Krumholtz) uses formulae to track down serial criminals – is intriguing. But I've gotta wonder if it's sufficient to meet the rigors of weekly series television. We shall see. . .

  • Tom the Dog may be giving up on Joan of Arcadia, but to these eyes, the show – after months of moping around – has rediscovered its comic rhythms. While the Duff Sisters eps may've been annoying on principle, in terms of watchability they were heads and shoulders above all the angst-ridden lawsuit and miscast Annie Potts entries, while this week's offering (Joan does community service!) was even closer in tone to the show's first season. Let's hope they can hold it up.

  • Speaking of teleseries that have lost some of their oomph, though, watching some of the earlier episodes of C.S.I. on Spike has really made it apparent how much the current season is lacking with the plot-driven decision to split the show's forensic team up – and demoting William Petersen's quirky, but ultimately kind-hearted supervisor into a more subordinate role. Without Gil Grissom's overriding presence, several of the series' regulars come across as just plain irritating (am I the only one wanting to see Marg Helgenberger's Catherine Willows get thoroughly slapped down?) – which says something about the value of a mediating central figure in an ensemble show like this.

  • Fred Hembeck states that he hasn't started watching the who's-getting-tortured-this-week? fest that is this season's 24 and has the plan of catching up in a marathon binge. Not sure I envy him the task: too much time in Jack Bauer's torturous world is the kind of experience that could plunge this viewer into a pit of profound existential despair. Or at least grumpy impatience with the dumb things so many of the characters do. . .

  • One commercial that I no longer care to see on my Toshiba (though, of course, I will): too-skinny model type who we're supposed to believe is the typical American woman struts across the screen to the strains of an overly familiar rock moldie. And while we're at it, could someone please lock Sarah Jessica Parker away in a trunk?

  • So Lost's Hurley (Jorge Caldera) is a millionaire? Well, that explains what his raggedy ass was doin' on that airplane. But, for my money (not as much as Hurley is worth), the most absorbing aspect of this plotline is the mysterious set of "cursed" numbers he used to win the lottery. There's a whole mythology around mysterious transmissions from so-called numbers stations, and if you've ever heard 'em, you can definitely get the spooky allure of these late nite sounds. A neat addition to the storyline. . .

  • Haven't caught the current tourney finish to Celebrity Showdown yet, so I don’t really have the wherewithal to be completely outraged by the results. But I know I will be. . .
More later - keep watching the tube!
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Friday, March 04, 2005
      ( 3/04/2005 04:35:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"DESPERANTO IS SPOKEN HERE" – Of all the rock 'n' roll survivors who sporadically revisit the studio to crank out a new disc, Marianne Faithfull has been one of the most entertainingly uncompromising. Ever since 1979's Broken English officially proclaimed the former sweet-voiced songbird's transformation into gravelly-voiced world-weary chanteuse, Faithfull has periodically emerged with a new release of bracingly clear-eyed art-pop. Listening to her newest, Before the Poison (Naïve), can't help but serve as a standing condemnation to all the namby-pamby rock 'n' roll suicides who've passed over the years. Just hear that cracked and craggy voice as she ruefully notes the perils of "Crazy Love," and you know that time has neither tempered nor defeated this most adult of singers – if anything it's added mournful resonance to her work.

As a singer and occasional lyric writer (as opposed to a full-blown songwriter), Faithfull rises and falls with the inventiveness of her collaborators. And with the likes of P.J. Harvey and Nick Cave (with spry guest shots by Damon Albarn and Jon Brion) providing strong musical support to her mournful lyrics this time out, Poison is definitely one of the high points. A meditation on the bonds of lover, friend & family, the disc may be less immediately walloping than English – call it alt-folk-cabaret, perhaps – but its dazzling music sticks with you.

To these ears, the instant keepers include Albarn's "Last Song" (why couldn't he have come up with something this gorgeous for Think Tank?), an ambivalent lament over the loss of village greens that Ray Davies would've killed to come up with; Harvey's "My Friends Have," a moaning mid-tempo catalog with a smart bassline and banshee backing vocals courtesy of Miz Polly Jean; her "No Child of Mine," a spoken verse lament ("Every man I've ever loved has been a child!") with two infectious choruses, plus Faithful & Cave's "Desperanto," which startles you with its squawnking sax and throbbing organ riffs after the trio of more subdued reflective pieces that preceded it (including the title song) but quickly establishes itself as the disc's old-fashioned Patti Smith-styled rocker. The rest of the disc takes a little longer to seep in, but once it does, you feel you've known these songs for ages: heard, perhaps, over a decade ago - when you woke up nervous in the middle of the night to worry about where your life's going.

You know, just the fact that this album exists makes me feel good. That it sounds as great as it does makes me out-and-out optimistic. . .
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      ( 3/04/2005 07:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HOW MANY HOURS A DAY DOES A CAT SLEEP? – Let's wake Savannah and ask her. . .

Some days, when you remember being awoken in the middle of the night by a kitten racing up your body, it's hard not to give into the impulse to bop on over and immediately start ruffling this sleeping cat's fur. . .
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Thursday, March 03, 2005
      ( 3/03/2005 03:17:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"YOU'VE GOT PERS-ON-ALITY, PERS-ON-ALITY . . ." – Aaron Neathery (check out his posting on the Edwoodian children's matinee director, Barry Mahon!) takes small issue with my words on Wheeler & Woolsey. To wit:
I don't think current tastes are quite the reason for W&W's latter-day "also-ran" status. For audiences in the 1930s, Wheeler and Woolsey were right up there with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. But when tastes shifted in the 40s, even comics that we consider completely distinctive today were rapidly put out to pasture. I doubt the comically naive Wheeler and Woolsey would have stood a chance in a world where Abbott and Costello and the Ritz Brothers were box office champs, but that's not to say their screen characters had, then or now, lost the ability to entertain. I'm not suggesting that I believe W&W to have been as talented as many of the aforementioned comics, but if their films had received the same vigorous TV exposure in the 60s and 70s as the Three Stooges' Columbia shorts, Hope and Crosby's "Road" pictures, and the canon of Laurel and Hardy, I think they'd have much more of a following today. Unfortunately, aside from a select number of features (King Kong, the Astaire/Rogers musicals), RKO's film library was sadly neglected until its acquisition by Ted Turner.
Aaron makes some good points: cheap teevee repackagings definitely played a part in keeping the works of Laurel & Hardy and the Three Stooges alive – I can remember first seeing the latter in the fifties as part of a kids' show hosted by ventriloquist Paul Winchell. But I hope I wasn't giving the impression that W&W had "lost the ability to entertain" because that's definitely not the case. . .
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      ( 3/03/2005 06:50:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"I'LL KEEP YOU WARM, AND YOU'LL KEEP ME SANE!" – And a Happy Birthday to my spouse and friend, the woman who's been patient enough to live with me, lo these many years, through my long distracted moments and my fuck-ups – the wonderful Becky Fox!

I love you, babe!
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Wednesday, March 02, 2005
      ( 3/02/2005 07:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"AND HERE I THOUGHT CHEESE WAS YOUR KRYPTONITE. . ." – First story image we see of Mitchell Hundred (a.k.a. the Great Machine) is of the short-term superhero racing through the sky to intercept what seems to be a falling jetliner. "You're probably sick of that picture by now, huh?" a tee-shirted Mitch asks the reader as the panel pulls back to reveal that we're looking at a painting on a basement wall. "Christ knows I am!"

But Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Tom Feister's Ex Machina (Wildstorm/DC) isn't just the story of an embittered former superhero. Turns out that Mitch has also been mayor of New York City. The First Hundred Days, which collects Ex Machina #1 – 5, describes the new mayor's rocky beginnings as leader of the "ungovernable city," and one of the basic underpinnings to the series is the idea that working effectively in city government can be even slipperier than chasing after super-villains. Hundred and his staff face challenges that range from a serial killer in a city-paralyzing snowstorm to the presence of a politically sensitive piece of agit-art at one of the city museums. As the world's first and only supertype, Mitch's powers (the ability to communicate with machines) and good intentions weren't enough to keep bad things from happening – he's haunted by the fact that he was unable to keep the first plane from destroying the one twin tower felled on 9/11. How much good he'll be able to do as "just another cog" in the political machine is still unclear.

The title of this comic, then, is wittily multi-faceted: on one level, it refers to our hero's mysteriously defined abilities to hear and control machinery; on another it connects to Thomas Jefferson's description of democracy as a "Great Machine;" while on a third it also alludes to the Greek drama device of "deus ex machine," the god-in-the-machine that dropped down out of the skies at the end of a play and put things right. Hundred may think of himself as a good Jeffersonian liberal (who ran for office outside of both parties), but the reality is he was elected in a wave of voter response to his public display of heroism on September 11th. ("People blame me for Bush in his flight suit and Arnold getting elected governor," he notes in the opener. "But the truth is. . . these things would've happened with or without me.") He's been voted into office as Big Daddy Rescuer, not as Great Mediator.

Mayor Hundred's friends and co-workers have their own different takes on the man, of course. To Russian émigré Kremlin, the amusement park mechanic who designed the Great Machine's jet-pack costume, the fact that Mitch has turned away from costumed heroism is a betrayal of his god-given powers. To police commissioner Angoti (a lifelong Republican "with the alleged 'fashion sense' of a Democrat"), Hundred's powers are something to be kept in check, just like the rest of her unruly city. To cynical dreadlocked political advisor Dave Wylie, Hundred's inexperience and desire to buck the established political machine are both strengths and weaknesses. To Hundred himself, looking back at his term from 2002 through "godforsaken 2005," his tenure as mayor is essentially one big tragedy. We may not know the specifics yet, but it looks like this story isn't going to end well.

Vaughan's engagingly hard-mouthed script at times comes close the sitcom quips of the Michael J. Fox-led Spin City (our hero has a wisecrackin' assistant who could've come right out of that show), but he also uses his book's "mature readers" advisory to allow his characters to speak (once they're out of press earshot) with a candor not allowed in mainstream network television. When Mitch and his advisors receive word of an inflammatory painting that's part of a new display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (a portrait of Lincoln with what everyone keeps calling "the N-word" plastered across it), the first thing Mitch and Wylie want to know is the race of the artist who created it. When the museum curator states that, "I think creators of all colors have the responsibility to appropriate 'taboo phrases' from hatemongers," Mitch replies, "Fuck! That means she is white."

Tony Harris & Tom Feister's art – as a seven-page supplement showing both the photo sources and sketch-to-finished-page process reveals – favors the dark-toned faux realism of so many superhero comics today. The approach is suited to the muttery backroom action that comprises so much of the book (we do get a few flashbacks of Mitch in full superhero glory), though at times the panels come off a bit too posed and subdued to capture all that's happening in the story. Still, if you're gonna err visually in a book like this, underselling is probably the way to go.

I missed latching on Ex Machina when it first began appearing as a regular comic, so I'm happy to have the opportunity to catch up with this nicely priced ($9.95) collection. Aside from the intro chapter, the rest of the book comprises a four-part story arc that, in trade form at least, is well-paced and tightly constructed. I suspect that this - like Vaughan's other "mature" series for DC, Y – The Last Man - is a work well-suited to the collected format. If DC keeps releasing 'em that way, I know that's how I'll be following Mitch and the gang. . .
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Tuesday, March 01, 2005
      ( 3/01/2005 07:51:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"THAT GIRL SHOULD BE PENALIZED: BACK FIELD IN MOTION!" – Gotta admit I knew so little about the work of 30's comedians Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey that when I received a copy of one of their movies as part of a taped collection of little-remembered movie comedies, I didn't know whether it was a feature film or a short subject. Turns out that Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934) is a short feature, one of several that the twosome made for RKO Pictures. Smoothly directed by Mark Sandrich (who would go on to helm the early Astaire & Rogers musicals), the movie is frequently touted by the duo's admirers as one of their best vehicles. On the basis of my first viewing, I'd say the praise isn't misdirected because Hips is a pretty entertaining movie: packed with plenty of pre-Code innuendo and comic inventiveness, not to mention chorine-heavy song-&-dance intervals and the kind of art deco set design RKO seemed to have a lock on in the thirties.

The movie concerns a pair of amiable hucksters, Andy Williams (Wheeler) & "Dr." Bob Dudley (Woolsey) who've been selling a line of Dr. Dudley's Flavored Lipstick on the city street corners. When they set up shop across the street from a struggling cosmetics company, Maiden America Beauty Products, they sweet-talk dippy salesgirl Daisy (Wheeler-&-Woolsey regular Dorothy Lee) and her boss Mrs. Frisby (a statuesque Thelma Todd, gamely matching Woolsey's every double entendre) into believing they're really wandering millionaires. Lurking in the background is an oily type named Armand Beauchamp (George Meeker), who is spying on the company for rival cosmetics firm, Madame Irene. After our heroes are mistakenly accused of swiping securities from the office of a banker, Armand takes advantage of the situation to force the duo to go on the lam.

There's more in the movie – unlike some of the earlier 30's comedies I've been reviewing, this 'un is stuffed with story – along with two delightful musical interludes. The first 'un features Ruth Etting at the mic (the songstress is given prime billing alongside Todd, though she really only appears in the movie's opening), the second contains the boys with Daisy and Mrs. Frisby doin' an extended comic song-&-dance entitled "Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" as they wreak havoc to the city office set where they're cavorting. There's a comic pool game – where our heroes enter into a "friendly" game with the two cops tailing them – featuring lots of stop motion work, plus a climactic cross-country car race filled with cartoony visual resourcefulness. And speaking of cartoonishness, we even get a moment where the bespectacled Woolsey, checking out the flavors on his lipstick line with a group of obliging beauties, lifts both legs and stiffens his body like a Tex Avery wolf! There are several erection/arousal jokes in this flick, and each one's surprising and amusing.

In their heyday, Wheeler & Woolsey matched the Brothers Marx and Laurel & Hardy in terms of popularity, but they're rarely remembered today. In part this can be attributed to the shoddy treatment that the duo received at RKO (once the studio started making money on its Astaire & Rogers musicals, it shifted the moviemaking talent to those projects and away from the comedies) and the fact that Woolsey started having health problems that led to a too-early demise in the late thirties. But I also think that their obscurity can be explained by the nature of their characters. Though the twosome played distinct types (Wheeler was the watery-eyed, somewhat dim boy ingénue with the pleasing tenor voice; Woolsey was the lankier, somewhat shiftier "brain"), in Hips, at least, their characters remain a little fuzzy around the edges. They lack the distinctness of their better-known peers, who immediately stand out the moment any of 'em enter the movie frame. Contrast Wheeler & Woolsey to a more enduring comedy duo from the forties, the "Road" Hope & Crosby, and the issue becomes even clearer. The two may've been adept at playing comic characters, but they weren't full-blown comic personalities.

Perhaps a longer career and better treatment would've changed that. But, as it stands, the boys' work has since become the kind of movie fare that you're more likely to find broadcast on the movie channels at 7:00 in the a.m. than on prime time. It's definitely worth tracking down if you're a fan of old movie comedies, though. Turner Classic Movies is dusting off two as part of its April Comedy showcase (Hips is being broadcast on April 24th), in fact, and I know I'm setting the timer. . .

(Thanx once again to Aaron. . . )

ADDENDUM: An Interesting Fact That Nearly Everyone Who Writes About This Movie Winds Up Mentioning: Bobby Watson, who plays a flagrantly flitty choreographer in Hips ("My girls could never do that - they bruise!") and who also appeared in a small role in Follow the Leader, had a steady movie career from the forties on, playing Adolph Hitler. He's also the diction coach in Singin' in the Rain.


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      ( 3/01/2005 06:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"SOCKS AND SANDALS, THAT'S WHAT I WEAR!" – Wulp, this blog is another year older today: three full years of blogging under our frayed leather belt. Not as impressive as neilalien, who just celebrated his fifth birthday over the weekend (Excelsior!) but, hey, in dog years I'm twenty-one, right? (I used to know the formula for "really" calculating dog ages, but I think that part of my brain has been overwritten with the lyrics to Scissor Sisters songs.) It's been an odd and periodically stressful year at the ol' Oakhaus, but through much of it blogging has served as a welcome form of respite. Thanx to all out there who've regularly come to visit, those who've stayed around long enough to comment and the many great acquaintances and friends I've made in the blogosphere!
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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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