I’m into Bondage.
That’s big-B Bondage, by the way, fandom that has James Bond and friends (and enemies) as its fetishes. Much in the way that I grew up reading comics, I also grew up watching James Bond movies and later read a bunch of the Ian Fleming novels that inspired the films.
A huge part of my Bondage profile has musical roots, thanks to composer John Barry. I imagine I’ve spent at least as much time listening to his film scores for Thunderball (we wore the grooves off that record; I’m hearing “Death of Fiona” as I tap the keys), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (mainly its chase theme, which I never tire of), and Diamonds Are Forever (for which even the music was cheesy) as I have watching Bond movies. There’d have to be an underlier for my fetish to endure as strongly as it has because, bluntly put, the early Bond films are, by and large, awful. Unwatchably so. You Only Live Twice easily makes my list of the worst films I’ve ever sat through entirely. I can liken it only to a Toho Godzilla movie minus the polished special effects and plus sides of ham-fisted “intrigue” and hammier acting. Yes, From Russia With Love is a fine thriller, and Goldfinger has its moments, but overall? Junk.
But I’m not here hammer old James Bond. Much. Instead, I’m staggering under the weight of cinematic espionage tonnage. Know how there’s nothing coming from Hollywood anymore but superheroes? Well, bullshit: Clearly, half of what’s coming from Hollyweird is super spies. In theaters now: Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic The Secret Service. In the trailer park: director Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Of this incoming stealth barrage I’m most excited by the prospect of Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo in U.N.C.L.E., given how much I enjoyed him as Clark Kent in Man of Steel. Plus: Guy Ritchie! Mr. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels himself! Yeah, I know, too frenetic for some folks. And just my speed.
But let’s get back to Commander Bond for a moment. As I’ve already written in this blog, I’m ever so pleased to see Ernst Stavro Blofeld back in the hands of the Bond franchise after years of legal entanglements, and doubly pleased that Christoph Waltz might be playing him in SPECTRE. One reason I’m so harsh in my estimation of the pre-Daniel Craig Bonds is my conviction that they finally perfected the character onscreen once they adapted Casino Royale for the third time. Craig communicates an ideal mix of damage and danger that puts him in a league of extraordinary gentlemen agents all his own. And the tough-minded realpolitik of the most recent Bonds rinses the preposterous lows of the Roger Moore years right out of my head.
As for why we might be getting this surfeit of secret operatives, coincidence is the likely culprit … but conspiracy theories and spies go together like hand and fingerprint-concealing glove. Know how some people point to electronic war games as an especially insidious form of recruitment? Well, consider that Hollywould usually needs the cooperation of the government to portray our military convincingly. Consider further that our of-late embattled friends at No Such Agency have a black budget, one whose dollar amounts themselves are secret.
I always took the sinister covert organization in Brian DePalma’s The Fury to be a cartoon version of the Fort George Meade gang — one of whose operatives flashes his credentials in that film, gets a that-does-not-compute response, and says*, “We don’t spend a dime on public relations.” But what if the real No Such Agency spends many dimes on normalizing the covert aspects of our government? What if part of that black budget goes toward Hollywood productions that cement our notions of the rectitude of spies?
Stranger things have proved to be true.
*More or less, anyway.
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
When someone asks the main character that question bare minutes into a new show, amid a flashback literally subtitled “LIFE BEFORE DEATH,” you can expect some dire shit to follow the inevitable smash cut. And the CW’s “iZombie” does not disappoint. This Rose McIver-starring comedic procedural follows that line with mayhem, flames, and a wee outbreak of undead cerebellum-gobbling.
Thereafter we get a credit sequence incorporating illustrations by Michael Allred, who alongside Chris Roberson co-created the like-named Vertigo comic that inspired the show. I’ve been meaning to read the comic for years but still haven’t, so I can’t outline the differences (which I understand are significant) for you. But I can tell you that the series’ pilot made for diverting viewing.
Olivia “Liv” Moore comes through that aforementioned mayhem pasty, unsleeping, and hungry for — you guessed it. Where do you go to satisfy a craving for human brains when you have a past as an emergency room worker? In Liv’s case, she takes a job at the morgue, which brings her the gray matter she needs and the friendship of medical examiner Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahuli Kohli) and Detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin).
The set-up is clever enough, especially the wrinkle that brain ingestion gives Liv both memories and behaviors of the deceased people whose organs she eats. The trio of actors has admirable chemistry, with Goodwin being something of a revelation for his vocal gifts and blithe presence. Kohli has enviable comedic timing. My favorite bit of McIver’s comes early in the ep as she gives a nervous cashier that spooky restless-eye stare characteristic of some cats. She’s likable enough, though, so I’m happy to give her time to grow on me.
For folks who have read the comic and seen the pilot, which version did you prefer?
Jadedness may be setting in for me, I fear.
Shows that have been relative or steady sources of pleasure now annoy me. “Agents of SHIELD,” even as it upends the predictable amid yet another escape during prisoner transport, also catches a dose of the Creeping Secrecies, a terminal inflammation that has long afflicted “Arrow.” Its symptoms: Characters conceal the essential from one another for no reason better than to fuel melodrama.
Yes, granted, spies populate “AoS,” as the title tells us, so perhaps they’re likelier vectors for the malady than … whatever the hell Oliver Queen and company are these days. And yes, if the dread CS were the sole impairment for “Arrow,” how improved that show would be! Instead, it’s backtracking into the indifferent staging and shoddy stunt work that marked this season’s early eps, clinging to the absurd reversals that have remained the series’ stale bread and questionable butter (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Merlyn), and wallowing in pout-fests of forgettable misbehavior. Yet despite its manifold deficiencies, its makers managed to leave Oliver in a relatively interesting place, one the characters of “Angel” came to face in their final season: sticking around long enough to, perhaps, become the villain. “Angel” executed that particular entrechat superbly, however, so “Arrow” has set itself a real challenge.
The truest measure that the spring of my discontent has sprung, though? The general grumpiness I feel during my belated viewing of the most recent “Archer” season to reach Netflix. “Archer Vice,” which forcibly dragged the animated spies of ISIS away from that now politically tainted name for cocaine-powered hijinks, has led me to some serious laughter and beyond. Jessica Walter’s delivery of the line “Baffling” provided a deliciously subtle acid, for example.
For a season that was supposed to be transformative, to remake the show and rescue creator Adam Reed from a sense of creative boredom, however, much here feels dreadfully familiar. What used to be smilthy now seems merely filthy (Pam mistaking thermometer graphs for cocks? Low-hanging orchids, gang.), and the characters’ tensile strength has grown disturbingly variable, even for a comedy. Most annoying of all, though, is the show’s ongoing devotion to Burt Reynolds' cinematic Smokey-ness. I get that it stems from nostalgia, I sense that it recognizes the cheesiness of the love object (personally, I prefer the far less cheesy “Sharky’s Machine”), and I enjoy the season 3 ep with Burt Reynolds as a character. But to end not one but two “Archer” eps with "comedic" freeze-frame chases in the offing? Pure Limburger.
Maybe the full onset of spring will put me in a better mood. Here’s hoping.
What’s making my week is a vid I stumbled upon via Twitter: The Uncanny X-Men, a short by Patrick Willems that imagines those merry mutants as directed by auteur Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox). From the moment the Sentinel appears onward, it’s pretty much comedic bliss.
What’s making my month is the tough-minded eps of “Gotham” we’ve gotten lately. Before the show aired rumors circulated that we’d see someone each episode who might later be the Joker. The series took it’s time getting there, but the delivery was worth the wait. We saw one contender in the ep with the Flying Graysons and another, of course, in the Red Hood ep. Also, while it may be true that “everyone has a Cobblepot,” no other Batman series I’ve seen or read has a more jovially terrifying Penguin than the one played by Robin Lord Taylor.
What’s stirring my memory and making me think about the line between self-indulgence and public service in journalism is “Men in Black: The Series.” Somehow, I forgot this flat-out brilliant TV spin-off of the Barry Sonnenfeld films. Would it be wrong of me to encourage everyone who reads this entry to demand that the show be made available, whether via streaming or some other means? Maybe so, but that’s what I ask. You’ll thank me once you’ve seen it (if we get to …). I’m calling this action a case of benighted self-interest.
What’s got me rubbing my hands together in anticipation? More than ever, it’s the previews for “iZombie,” shambling toward us for a St. Patrick’s Day premiere/massacre of broadcast standards and practices. I was already psyched for this adaptation of the Vertigo comic when the CW unveiled a new tag line for the show: “Kicking ass and taking brains.” Okay, folks: You’ve got hold of my gray matter. Can you maintain your grip?
My intentions were good, I swear. I was opening Netflix the other night to watch an ep or two of the animated series “Adventure Time” as part of my current examination of kids’ comics and their occasional intersection with animation. And there was a promo for an animated movie from last year that I’d wanted to see at the cinema, but, well, that’s always a tricky undertaking.
So I thought, why not? Reviews had been mixed to good, and I always prefer to make my own assessments. Quickly enough I was enchanted, then laughing, and not long after that I was flabbergasted. How many truly smart films for kids have poop and asshole jokes, in addition to puckishness toward world history, a clever Philip Glass allusion, and voice work from Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Colbert, and Mel Brooks (who has demonstrated his own puckishness toward world history)?
Probably just this one. And what’s it called, you ask?
Yes, it’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, 2014’s feature-length revival of a segment from the ’60s-era “Bullwinkle Show.” For readers unfamiliar with either, Bullwinkle J. Moose was the televised counterpart to Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman: the familiar, somewhat hapless fool (or was he …) who gave a face to a collection of largely disconnected and somewhat vaudevillian silliness. Just as Mad warned its readers not to trust mass media (including their publication), “The Bullwinkle Show” never let its viewers forget that it was a television series with paying sponsors whose products might be dubious and whose methods of selling were assuredly suspect. Among the show’s recurring characters were the ingenious and bespectacled talking dog, Mr. Peabody, and his adopted boy, Sherman.
The film details Sherman’s upbringing by this canine Nobel laureate, Harvard alumnus, and (secret) inventor of a time-travel device called the WABAC Machine. The waggish and endlessly accomplished Peabody could easily rule the world with his miraculous technology, but instead he uses it to educate his child. Of course, nobody likes a (Mr.) know-it-all — especially, in this case, not a classmate of Sherman’s named Penny. After Sherman contradicts Penny’s rote delivery of platitudes about George Washington (whom the boy had met, after all), she bullies him with unfortunate results that propel the plot.
I was already in love with this movie when it did something I really did not see coming, despite knowing that animators love “Jonny Quest” as much as I do: One of Sherman and Peabody’s antic escapes quotes that (personal favorite) show’s closing credit sequence. Thereafter, all I could do was bask in the wonderfulness. The radiantly gorgeous computer animation. The sly-dog metaphor for adoptive same-sex parenting. The Danny Elfman score. The puns (some of which I had to hear twice to get). The Bill Clinton bit. The other great visual quote, one from Abel Gance’s Napoleon. You should bask, too. Kids’ stuff does not come more sophisticated or more delicious than Mr. Peabody & Sherman.
In the aftermath of last week’s blog I still have animation on the brain. The form is one I’ve adored for my entire life, and among my earliest memories (or perhaps most vivid dreams) is watching something relating to “Jonny Quest” (probably only through nearness in time) on a makeshift screen in my parents’ dining room. As there were no video projectors in those days, and movie projectors worked only in darkness or near-darkness, I suspect some merging of separate memories here. “JQ” did air in the evenings when it premiered in 1964, though, so its broadcast followed by whatever 16mm movie screening that might’ve occurred in the Hall home some Friday ages ago strikes me as a winning theory.
Next time I’ll discuss a comic spun off of an animated series, both putatively for children but easily enjoyable by adults: “Adventure Time.”
Right now I’m pondering the divide between entertainments for adults versus ones for children.
The dismay I expressed last time over “The Super Friends” and what I perceived, even when that show first aired, as its almost purposeful cloddishness makes a lot more sense to me in light of this viewing history, which I had almost forgotten. Keep in mind that “JQ” was sort of an expensive flop in some ways, one that had a single, pricey season before it migrated to nigh-endless reruns on Saturday mornings and thus became the high point of my week throughout childhood.
Despite having two children among its main characters, “JQ” never felt childish to me. Its animations, based on the drawings and designs of Doug Wildey, are almost anti-cartoonish, at times even lush. Attempts to reboot the show failed aesthetically because the detail lavished on the original series was part of what made it so costly. Its vocal performances, prefiguring Andrea Romano’s triumphal work on the DC Aniverse, sounded like people talking rather than like ham actors trying to counterfeit characters they had no business portraying in the first place. And the show’s scores by the great Hoyt Curtin, abominably undercredited by its producers as mere “musical direction,” constitute one of television’s compositional monuments.
To understate the case severely, “JQ” was a damn hard act to follow. What surprises me, in retrospect, is that its manifold qualities did nothing to diminish my taste for silliness or the cartoony in animation. They did make me something of an animation snob, however, one impatient with material that was dumbed down for youngsters. “The Stupor Friends” never stood a chance with me.
All of this history is preamble to the tale of grumbling I heard relayed by my cashier* at the comics shop. Others, I was told, were unhappy that Marvel, publisher of Serious Superhero Sagas, had deigned to publish (wait for it ...) The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1. Yes, Squirrel Girl has her own comic. And I couldn't be much happier over the results.
Ignore any haters who tell grown-up you that this comic is for kids. And please take down the names of any knuckleheads who tell you this comic is "just for girls" and email then to me. As if either state of being is some kind of sin for the form. Or art. Or anything.
For you folks unfamiliar with the charming SG, you can see her "more serious" interactions with the Marvel universe in issues of The New Avengers, where she got the job of babysitter for Luke Cage and Jessica Jones' offspring. Nothing wrong with those stories, either.
Here, in drawings far more antic (and, I daresay, livelier) than anything in The New Avengers, SG heads off to college, gets a new roommate, and strives without much success to conceal her "secret identity." She uses "Deadpool's Guide to Super Villains" to work her way out of the fix she finds herself in (and to generate great hilarity, ultimately). Perhaps most importantly, she uses skills that are infrequently deployed in superhero comics to achieve her ends. I refer to empathy and emotional intelligence. And if you think those two qualities are "just for girls," kindly take down your own name and email it to me.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: a kids' comic that's not just for kids.
*Or possibly one of my fellow shoppers; as we've already established, the trouble with my memory is that it's not as I recall it once having been.
Last blog I stated that the upcoming animated “Vixen” Web series for CW Seed will be a big-time game changer. And I asked you, dear reader, to take my word for it.
How, after all, is it going to be a bigger deal than the “Veronica Mars” spinoff (“Play It Again, Dick”) already airing on CW Seed?*
For starters, “Vixen” has a main character who is black, female, and African. Do I really need to amplify upon how unusual it is for a network show to choose her as its title character — even a program distributed via their website? Good, because those details are merely incidental to the series’ game-changerliness.
What “Vixen” proposes to be is a bridge between platforms, one that might never have been crossed the way this show’s makers intend to go.
Yes, Vixen, as discussed last time ’round, has been animated before. She appeared on “Justice League Unlimited,” itself a serious game-changer in terms of its quilting together narratives and characters from at least three other shows (“Batman: The Animated Series,” “Superman: The Animated Series,” and “Batman Beyond”). As I write these words, it occurs to me that “JLU” was the small-screen Avengers of its day. The “JLU” Vixen, aka Mari Jiwe McCabe, was a strong and powerful black woman who was romantically and desultorily involved with a strong and powerful black man — John Stewart, that League’s Terran Green Lantern.
But this Web series is, at least in theory, to share continuity with “Arrow” and “The Flash.” Its happenings are to be canon within producer Greg Berlanti’s corner of the onscreen DC universe. If anyone has shared continuity between an ongoing live-action project and an animated one, I missed it (and I encourage you readers to let me know when and where it might’ve happened). To put this penultimately important detail in perspective, imagine that a powerhouse producer/director — Joss Whedon, for example — carried forward storylines and characters from a multi-season, televised, and heartbreaking work of staggering genius in comics form. Oh, wait: He did that. Okay, imagine instead that as the so-called Buffy Season 8 was unfolding on comic-book pages, “Angel” was still on the air and the two series were crossing over!
I know. Brings a wistful tear to my eye, too. Even so, a hinted-at last detail looms in the game-changer potential of “Vixen”: Berlanti and company are rumored to want the actors from the producer’s live-action shows to voice their characters in animated form, too. And to carry us back to “Play It Again, Dick,” note that Kristen Bellˣ appears therein as Veronica Mars, a sign of CW Seed’s respect for its “little Web shows” that bodes well for “Vixen.”
Alternatively, things could go horribly wrong here.
How? Again, reader, I beg your patience and leave you with a name that ought to be familiar to you (and if not, don’t worry, ’cause I’ll make it so in Part III): Andrea Romano.
Same bat time. Same bat channel.
*And though that sentence may sound sarcastic, so vast is my respect for “Veronica Mars” that I sincerely believe the very existence of “Play It Again, Dick” to be a damn big deal.
ˣWho would’ve made an ass-kicking Buffy, as an old friend of mine once observed.
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