Monday, May 31, 2010

RIP - Dennis Hopper

Over the weekend, Hollywood rebel, iconoclast and sometime pariah Dennis Hopper died after a battle with cancer. He was 74. In 1969, he directed the film Easy Rider, one of counterculture's signature artistic works and one of the sparks that led to one of American film's most successful and artistically important periods.

Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas in 1936, though he and his family moved to San Diego in 1940. He began acting while in high school, and soon became a contract player with Warner Bros. His earliest work came in the early days of television, though it was his small role opposite James Dean in the classic Rebel Without a Cause that brought him to the attention of the higher-ups at Warners. He soon was cast in a co-starring role in another Dean film, this time as the son of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens' classic melodrama Giant.

Now part of the Hollywood young crowd, he dated Natalie Wood and Joanne Woodward and was seen to be a rising star. Then he began filming From Hell to Texas. He clashed epically with director Henry Hathaway, causing so much friction that his Hollywood career was effectively finished. He left for New York, to study with Lee Strasberg and continue working in television.

By the mid 1960s, Hopper began to make a gradual return to Hollywood films via small roles in such pictures as The Sons of Katie Elder, Cool Hand Luke and Hang 'Em High. He had become friendly with Peter Fonda, who was then starring in a series of motorcycle B-pictures. Together, they hatched an idea for a movie that followed traditional western archetypes while substituting outlaws for hippies and horses for motorcycles.

The rock n' roll soundtrack, counterculture themes, heavy drug use and completely anarchic style of Easy Rider was like a bomb going off in Hollywood. Hopper, along with Fonda and Terry Southern, wrote the screenplay. He and Fonda played the central characters and Hopper directed the whole thing. Not only was a huge success financially, but it was also a critical success and total game-changer, winning Best Picture at the 1969 Cannes film festival.

Easy Rider changed Hopper's career. Now he was seen as the chief auteur of the hippie generation. But he was also a committed drug addict and alcoholic by this point, which only served to heighten his already manic state of mind. When he and a relatively untrained hippie crew travelled to Peru to shoot his follow up, The Last Movie, things got quickly out of control. Though it won top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1971, it was largely an indulgent, incoherent mess that flopped with critics and public alike.

His behaviour and addictions made him mostly unemployable during this time, but he did close out the 1970s with a supporting role in Apocalypse Now, though his addled behaviour would greatly contribute to the legendarily troubled production.

In the 1980s Hopper finally sobered up. The first film he shot after leaving rehab was David Lynch's Blue Velvet in 1986. His performance as the psychotic, terrifying Frank Booth was mesmerizing and served as Hopper's great comeback vehicle. His performance the same year as an alcoholic father in Hoosiers earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

Hopper also returned to directing, shooting the celebrated cop and gangsta film Colors. He had a meaty role as the villain in Speed, which introduced him to the world of big-budget blockbusters, and he followed it up with similar roles in films such as Waterworld.

In 2001, he returned to television, serving as the antagonist in the first season of 24. During this time, he also became an avid photographer and collector of artwork. He was working on the TV adaptation of Crash when he fell ill.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tap Your Toes

Every once in a while I like to throw some tunes on here to let the peeps know what's got my toes a' tappin'. Below you'll find some really great music from three artists that I'm digging right now.

This just makes me want to dance.

Yes, that is a woman singing the song. I know, from the voice you couldn't tell.

Mlle. Gainsbourg is French, if you couldn't tell.

Also, Wolf Parade has released the first single from their new album Expo 86, which will be released June 29th. Head over to their MySpace page to check it out. The new songs are What Did My Lover Say? and Ghost Pressure. They're awesome.

And this very day, The Arcade Fire has released their first single off their upcoming album The Suburbs. You can hear it at Stereogum.

Comic Observations: The King vs. the Mouse

The legal battle between the heirs of Jack Kirby and Marvel Entertainment is heating up like crazy, as Marvel's new parent corporation, the Walt Disney Company, has recently filed a memo supporting Marvel's attempts to have the suit filed by the Kirby heirs dismissed.

For anyone not following comics or this legal fight in particular, Jack Kirby is perhaps the most influential illustrator in the history of the medium. He began working in the industry during its infancy, working alongside writer Joe Simon to create numerous classic characters such as Captain America, Manhunter and others.

the 1950's, he began working as a freelancer pretty much full-time for Marvel Comics. Along with editor and writer Stan Lee, Kirby helped set the house style and co-created such legendary characters and concepts as The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Ant-Man, The Avengers, and more. His relationship with Lee and Marvel, like more than a few artists, grew fractious over time due to disputes about proper credit given, the return of original artwork, and royalty payments. He left Marvel in the late 1960s and would work notably for DC during this period. However, he returned to Marvel in the early 1970s, during which time he negotiated a better deal than he had worked under during his first stint.

However, a condition of his improved deal involved selling his rights, which he did. But under the agreement, any and all characters affected by the agreement would go into public domain by 2014. But the US Congress changed that law in 1978, and offered an escape clause to anyone who signed an agreement based on the old law. Basically the clause said that the original copyright holder, or their heirs, could terminate the rights transfer on the date of the original expiration, which in this case is 2014.

So, this is where we stand. The Kirby heirs claim that they are entitled to their father's fair percentage of ownership to the characters he created. They also name Spider-Man in the suit, but Kirby's claim to authorship there is pretty shaky and it's probably more a legal tactic than legitimate claim. Marvel (and by extension, Disney) quite understandably doesn't want to see any of these properties go into the public domain, but they don't want to lose any control either. The Kirby heirs have probably heard all their lives how Marvel screwed over their dad and many other artists (and Kirby and others have a very solid point there), and are probably justified in asking for fair compensation and recognition.

But there are a lot of comic book fans out there who side with Marvel on this. Presumably it's because they don't understand the law surrounding the case, and also because they see the outcome of this case as threatening the existence of beloved icons of the genre.

Well, first of all, it's important to note a couple of things. Jack Kirby was not on staff at Marvel. He has always insisted that he was not an employee, and that he never worked under a work-for-hire contract. According to Kirby, he was always a freelancer. Being a freelancer means that, even though you may be creating work for another company, you still retain your rights as a creator unless you willingly transfer them. As noted above, the law exists to allow his heirs to reclaim the rights. so, in the absence of an employment contract or a work-for-hire agreement, I don't see Marvel/Disney winning this.

As for the other concern by fans, namely that winning this case would allow the Kirby heirs to create another version of, say, The Fantastic Four over at DC, or that they could somehow bar publication or force changes, I don't see it happening. First of all, Stan Lee permanently transferred his rights to all of these characters to Marvel ages ago (and probably got a much sweeter deal for it than Kirby did), so Marvel will always own 50% of these characters forever. Also, the value of these characters lies in their legacies, so I can't see them jeopardizing that. No, this is about money and credit.

I can't say that Jack Kirby, a man who defined the style of an entire generation of comics, a man who co-created some of the most memorable characters in pop culture, a man so revered they called him "The King", doesn't deserve it. And if they couldn't give him what was fair while he was alive, there's still time to give his family what is fair today.

Here's a link to the original complaint, for those who enjoy reading legal documents!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Absolutely, Completely, Finally "Lost"

I must be among the last people on Earth to blog about the ending of Lost. The interwebs have seemingly collapsed up their own collective asses spouting their opinions as to how the finale measured up, so what's one more voice, right? And I really wanted to think about before I voiced my opinion.

To say the reviews have been mixed would be an understatement. It seems that people are either dissatisfied with an ending that seemingly offered no answers, or they enjoyed the character-focused, overtly sentimental ending they were presented.

For my part, I found the finale to be a well-done, deeply felt, totally appropriate ending to the series, while somewhat agreeing with those who felt cheated of answers to series-long mysteries.

But, the reality is that they gave us all the answers we really needed. What was the island? Well, I believe it was some sort of repository of the collective human soul. The light at the bottom of the cave was the source of all the island's mystical mojo, and also connected to humanity in general. I would suppose that there has always been some sort of guardian on the island, which is what Mother's (Allison Janney) role was before it was assumed by Jacob. But if the light represents the positive side of humanity, then there must also be a force to represent the negative, and to me, that's the Smoke Monster. Jacob's role then changed to be not only protector, but also warden over this Monster that wore his brother's face, and the island by extension also became a prison of sorts. For centuries, each opposing force, Jacob for good, MIB for evil, manipulated and schemed to find ways to defeat the other.

Why were the castaways brought to the island? Well, they were candidates to replace Jacob, who suspected that MIB would eventually find a way to kill him and attempt escape and loose evil unchecked across the Earth. Some candidates opted out, some were disqualified by their actions, some died. But someone had to do it eventually, to protect what would appear to be the repository of humanity's inner spirit.

Did the writers answer every detail? No. We'll never know why Walt had crazy psychic powers. We'll never know for sure why the massive statue had only four toes. We'll never know who air-dropped those Dharma Initiative supplies. And the part that makes me agree somewhat with the detractors is that, to some extent, Lost had always been a show that promised at least some resolutions to their assorted mysteries. But I didn't want a exposition-laden lecture as a final episode that merely answered questions without involving me emotionally. It had to work as a piece of drama, too.

To me, I'm satisfied with the answers I got, and I'm also content to leave some things ambiguous, allowing each viewer to make up their own mind. The show, from the very first season, has been about embracing faith. And part of having faith is accepting things even without all the answers and therefore reaching your own conclusions. As a finale, it stayed true to the ultimate and constant spirit of the show that gave it its heart all along, even if they left some mysteries unsolved.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Li'l Golden Books Goes to the Movies....Inappropriately

/Film has posted some excerpts from a book being worked on by Pixar storyboard artist Josh Cooley called Movies R Fun! in which the artist depicts moments from numerous R-rated films in the style of the classic Li'l Golden Books of all our childhoods.

They are pretty awesome. Let's look at some more, shall we?

Most....depressing....Pixar film....EVER.

I love that it says "suggested Billy Batts." Next up in the film, Tommy and Jimmy "suggest" that Billy stop breathing.

Ah, Fredo. you broke my heart.

Yep, that's pretty much the most quotable movie of the last 15 years, isn't it?

Get Outta There!

Need I say more?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Back Off, Man, I'm a Scientist

So, the New York Public Library is currently facing the harshest budget cuts in their history, over $30 million. As a way of reminding people that reading books next to a guy that hasn't bathed in four months and has breath like he just swallowed a wet dog that had rolled in feces is a civic duty, the NYPL asked a group called Improv Everywhere to stage some sort of even at the library.

Take a look below. It is all kinds of awesome, and may very well be better than Ghostbusters 3.

and, folks, support your local library. Keep in mind that that smelly dude you sit next to there, he's the same dude updating the Wikipedia article you just used as a source for your history paper.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Beef Says He's Sorry for Indy 4

Over at the LA Times, they've posted a very good little interview from Cannes with Shia LaBoeuf where he basically takes his share of the blame for the more lackluster parts of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Here's how he opens:

I feel like I dropped the ball on the legacy that people loved and cherished...If I was going to do it twice, my career was over. So this was fight-or-flight for me.

The "doing it twice" he's referring to is his appearance in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in which he takes on the Charlie Sheen role of young man who idolizes Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko. And yeah, Shia, you do not want to imitate that career trajectory.

Here's another pearl from a guy who's probably not going to set foot on the Skywalker Ranch anytime soon:

You get to monkey-swinging and things like that and you can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven [Spielberg]. But the actor's job is to make it come alive and make it work, and I couldn't do it. So that's my fault. Simple.

And here he outs Harrison Ford as a hater, too:

We [Harrison Ford and LaBeouf] had major discussions. He wasn't happy with it either. Look, the movie could have been updated. There was a reason it wasn't universally accepted.

And he even admits that his mentor Spielberg may not be happy about his comments:

I'll probably get a call. But he needs to hear this. I love him. I love Steven. I have a relationship with Steven that supersedes our business work. And believe me, I talk to him often enough to know that I'm not out of line. And I would never disrespect the man. I think he's a genius, and he's given me my whole life. He's done so much great work that there's no need for him to feel vulnerable about one film. But when you drop the ball you drop the ball.

Look, there's a lot of hater out there on the Interwebs for the Beef, which I've never really gotten. The thing is, a lot of people thought that when he was cast as the lead in Transformers or Indy 4, that he in some way didn't deserve to have such high-profile roles. Well, he himself has always said it was largely luck, and you have to remember that this guy had a lead role on Even Stevens, a really good kid show that he was great in. It's not like he came out of nowhere.

To me, he's never been the problem. He's been in some bad flicks, and some decent ones. When he was called upon to actually anchor one (Disturbia), he did all right. And this kind of honesty is really refreshing. The film was disappointing, there's no doubt about it, and it's better to step up and face the music than do the usual bullshit quote of: "I thought there were a lot of great elements in that film", etc.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

4 Clips That Will Probably Be More Fun than "Robin Hood"

You know, Robin Hood opens this weekend. And the more I see of it, the less I want to go see it. It's got a reasonably solid team behind it; I like Ridley Scott as a director, I like Russell Crowe most of the time, I think Cate Blanchett can pretty much do no wrong. But the whole thing looks like absolutely no fun at all. It look like a bleak historical trudge through mud with a Robin Hood that is as far away from Errol Flynn's entertaining derring-do as you can get. You know you're in trouble when a film with Kevin Costner looks more enjoyable than your film. Look at that picture of Crowe. It's like he's become incapable of being charming, isn't it?

Anyway, I thought I'd save you some cash and some time and present 4 clips of other Robin Hood associated things that should provide you with more fun than the upcoming film. Enjoy.

First up is the trailer for Robin & Marian, which was, like our current film, a revisionist story. But it was a good one. And by the way, Connery here is the same age as Crowe is today. Weird.

Next up we've got the opening credits to Disney's Robin Hood, and man, that is one catchy tune. I don't know how anyone can hear that thing and not hum it the rest of the day. Roger Miller was folksy master.

Here's the intro to an insane little cartoon series called Rocket Robin Hood. I used to watch it, and, yup, it makes as little sense all the way through as its theme song implies. Still, the jet packs are cool.

And finally, we have an exchange between Dave Chappelle and a character named Blinkin in Robin Hood: Men in Tights that still cracks me up to this day no matter how many times I watch it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

RIP - Frank Frazetta

A legend passed away yesterday, as the master of fantasy illustration, Frank Frazetta, died at the age of 82. His visceral, violent, yet somehow refined, oil paintings for the covers of paperback editions of the adventures of Conan, Tarzan, John Carter of Mars and others in the 1960s singlehandedly redefined the look of fantasy adventure, and made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.

He was born in 1928, and raised in Brooklyn. His talent was recognized as early as eight years old, when he enrolled in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts. Sadly, Frazetta's patron and mentor died eight years later, and the school's subsequent closure changed Frazetta's career path.

Not an "arty type", Frazetta was a physical man for most of his life. He was a good enough baseball player to nearly sign with the New York Giants. He was easily as muscular as some of the warriors he would gain fame depicting, and he had a long-standing love affair with motorcycles.

From the late 1940s and into the 1950s, he made his name in the comic book world through solid work on countless books of all types, doing Westerns, funny animal books, The Shining Knight features for DC and classic Buck Rogers covers for Famous Funnies. He did some fill-in work for Al Capp on Lil Abner. He worked with Harvey Kurtzman on the Little Annie Fanny comic strip in Playboy, and his painting of Ringo Starr for Mad led to his creating the movie poster for the woody Allen-scripted, Peter Sellers-starring film What's New Pussycat? He also began working for Warren Publishing, providing art for their horror magazines Creepie, Eerie and Vampirella.

But it was his cover for a paperback pulp book called Conan the Adventurer that made him a legend. With that single painting, he began a body of work that would redefine what fantasy could look like; he brought an earthy, sexy, bloody reality to his painting that still managed to retain a fierce beauty. Publishers would commission artwork from him and then have authors build a story around the result. Books would sell simply because they had one of his covers.

In the 1970s, his fame and influence reached their zenith, as his style merged perfectly with the rise of the Heavy Metal genre. He would paint album covers for bands such as Molly Hatchet and Nazareth, continuing to do album covers until 2006, when he painted Wolfmother's debut album.
Frazetta would continue to work well into the later 1990s, when a series of strokes made his work progressively difficult. He would switch to using his left hand, and become the focus of a documentary about his life. His wife Ellie, whom he married in 1956 and who had been his model often, passed in 2009. He is survived by his four children, two sisters and 11 grandchildren.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Weaving is the Skull

Marvel Studios today confirmed speculation that director Joe Johnston has cast Australian actor Hugo Weaving as Captain America's arch-enemy, the Red Skull in The First Avenger: Captain America.

Weaving was a popular choice for the role, alongside other contenders such as Christoph Waltz and Mads Mikkelsen. First coming to the attention of audiences with his starring roles in celebrated Australian films Proof and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, he shot to stardom in his scene-stealing role of Mr. Smith in The Matrix and its two sequels. He built upon that break with starring roles in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and V for Vendetta. He and Johnston had previously worked together on The Wolfman.

The Red Skull is Captain America's arch-enemy, being among the first villains the hero ever fought when he was first created in 1941. In the comics, he is Johann Schmidt, an unremarkable young man raised in Germany in the 1930s and plucked from obscurity by Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler trains him to be the ultimate Nazi symbol of fearsome propaganda, giving Schmidt the codename The Red Skull and a gruesome red skull-like mask to wear. It is newsreel footage of the Skull rampaging across Europe that inspires frail Steve Rogers to enlist in the Army. And it is his power as a propaganda tool that convinces the U.S. government to create their own symbol through the Super-Soldier project. This results in Rogers being chosen for Project: Rebirth and eventually becoming Captain America. Like Rogers, the Skull survives WWII through a process of suspended animation and has returned to plague Captain America in the present-day, though his actual face has now come to resemble the mask he once wore.

This is pretty damn cool news, as far as I'm concerned. Weaving can play a pretty menacing bad guy, and you're going to need someone with a pretty solid presence to act through whatever make-up they're going to put on him. I think you probably couldn't have asked for a better choice, really. Weaving joins a cast that includes Chris Evans as Steve Rogers and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. The screenplay is written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (with a possible polish by Joss Whedon).

Monday, May 3, 2010

Class, Thy Name is Coco

Last night, 60 Minutes aired the first interview with Conan O'Brien since his ousting as host of The Tonight Show. I'm embedding the interview in two segments below because, it's incredibly rare that we get to see the pain in the eyes of someone who has attained their dream only to have it dashed to the rocks by a bunch of douche bags. Seriously, that's like seeing a rare white elk. Or a Unicorn. Or a Unicorn and a white elk humping to produce the rarest of all creatures, the White Elkicorn.

Seriously, the man is a class act. Yeah, I know he's limited by the legal agreement he had to sign. But you get the sense throughout that he's a guy with character that's been terribly hurt by this whole thing. He was led down the garden path by people he thought were friends and colleagues, and then he just got mercilessly shafted. As he states, he's okay, he's doing fine. But it's pretty heartbreaking to watch someone have to admit that he came this close to his lifelong dream, and then had it stolen away.

Also, he makes NBC, Leno and Jeff Zucker look like even bigger dicks than before, and who would have thought that was even possible? Rad.

Can Polanski be Forgiven?

The whole Roman Polanski controversy just makes me tired all over. It's the kind of morally complicated issue that frustrates a lot of people and makes them want to simplify it; reduce it to a right or wrong kind of thing in order to not consider the complexity it presents.

Recently, Polanski released a statement about the LA District Attorney's attempt to extradite him from Switzerland. It is a largely self-serving document, but then it's perfectly natural that it would be. If you feel you are being persecuted by people who only are after to you capitalize on your fame and enlarge their professional standing, then you are going to look out for yourself pretty strongly, wouldn't you say?

Here's the thing; he's not entirely wrong. I'm not saying Polanski isn't guilty of a crime. He is. A serious one. And the breadth of his talent as a film maker and artist in no way justifies any leniency. And he's guilty. Even Polanksi has never denied that. He is guilty of raping an 13 year old girl. And it's not the "not really rape" you're thinking of, Whoopi Goldberg. He gave a teenager booze and drugs and then raped her. Yeah, he didn't jump out of the bushes with mask on and knock her to the ground, but rape is rape.

But Polanski isn't wrong, because, from the second he was arrested, his case became about punishing a permissive society (Hollywood) for having the temerity to flaunt the laws of decent people. And it also became about a judge making a name for himself by sending a big-shot Hollywood director to prison. People wanted to see him sent to jail not just because he was guilty, but also because they were sick of hearing about movie stars doing drugs and having sex and living life like it had no consequences. Polanski knew this, even during the initial trial. And his suspicions were confirmed, when, after having arranged a plea deal and pleading guilty, the judge then turned around and recommended jail time and deportation.

Now, I'm not saying the Polanski didn't most likely deserve a strong sentence. If it was anyone else, he almost certainly would have gone to jail for years. But the fact of the matter is, his process through the justice system was incredibly biased, culminating in a judge that makes a deal that is agreed to and then reneges and violates the conditions of said deal.

The Hot Blog writer makes a case for throwing the book at Polanski, and I see his point. And I certainly can't fathom the passionate defence people have for him on a personal level. He's a talented man who did a reprehensible thing. But his victim has asked that this whole debacle end, claiming she has forgiven him (And why no one has ever asked her parents what they were thinking letting their 13-year-old daughter go alone to a private photo shoot with Polanski at Jack Nicholson's house is beyond me). The original trial is clearly tainted by judicial, if not misconduct, then at least errors.

This thing is now just a springboard to make the political careers of some attorneys in LA, and do we really believe that putting this sad old man in jail is going to award us any sort of moral victory? After a trial built on compromise and double-dealing? Does the justice system truly think it claims the high road, here? We screwed up. We had our chance to fairly and justly convict and sentence a man who committed a crime. Certainly if a man feels that the justice system has lied to him and wants to put him away for its own reasons that have little to do with actual justice, should we be that surprised when that man feels he has to run? Guilty or not, would we do any different?