Friday, September 29, 2017

Kansas: Miracles Out of Nowhere

Kansas: Miracles Out of Nowhere ~ I stumbled across this documentary the other night on one of the MTV channels, and it brought back some great memories.  The doc tells the story of the band Kansas from its beginnings to their commercial success through individual interviews with the original six members. 

I remember hearing Kansas on the FM AOR radio, mostly WMMR and WYSP in the mid-seventies, and thinking they were okay.  I wouldn't change the station if they were on, basically, but I didn't really appreciate their music or their artistry until I heard them played in a neighbor's basement that had a killer stereo system.  That brought Kansas to life for me. 

I also remember a trip to the Ocean City boardwalk and a busker who refused to play "Dust in the Wind" because it was 'the hardest song ever to play properly,' and he 'didn't want his fingers to bleed.'  He got booed by both those who requested it and wanted to hear it.  True or not, it gave me added awe for the tune. 

My favorite Kansas song was "People of the South Wind" from the album Monolith, a song and an album both considered failures, but its content pulled at me.  Native Americans shoved aside by the white man, and wearing space helmets on the cover of the album drew me just like the fantastical elements of the cover of Point of Know Return.  It's still one of my favorite songs from that time. 

The doc is compelling, and tells stories of their early days, composition of songs, dealing with Don Kirshner, fighting with Steven Tyler, and the internal struggles of the band.  This is one of the better rock docs I've seen, cool for Kansas fans old, new, or fans not at all.  Check it out.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Orville

Yesterday, I talked about how cool I thought "Star Trek: Discovery was, so today I'm going to talk about the other, unofficial, Trek show being talked about lately - "The Orville." There has been a very vocal group of Star Trek fans out there saying that "The Orville" is more Trek than "Discovery," and while that might possibly be true, you all know how I feel about Star Trek fandom.

The first hype that was out there about "The Orville," from creator Seth MacFarlane of "Family Guy" fame, was that it was a plagiarization of Star Trek, with fart jokes. But as reviews began to come in on "Discovery," with its wholesale changes to the Klingon mythos, weird ship designs, and shaky retcons of established Trek timelines… the Trek fans began to warm to "The Orville," almost as if in retaliation. Some may say it's about content, but I think it's about paying for it, because "Discovery" airs on the pay service CBS All Access. Apparently, Trek fans will take fart jokes as long as they’re free.

Personally, as I said yesterday, I think "Discovery" is brilliant, but, hold on to your drinks, so is "The Orville." I think with the involvement of Seth MacFarlane, most folks expected a big joke-filled parody of Star Trek, but the fact is, he is a huge Trek fan himself. He not only created a loving homage to Trek mythology, but did it so well, that when vulgar humor does show up, it feels out of place. Yes, it's true, MacFarlane has out-Trekked Trek. This show is damn good.

The humor has brought up situations that we know must happen in the Star Trek universe, but no one has tried to tackle before. Not only is it hilarious in those moments, it's thoughtful, refreshing, and in some cases, daring. In the space of three episodes, we have seen on "The Orville" both the best elements of the original series and TNG, with fart jokes. That is impressive. This is a show to watch, and you should watch it because it's good, not just because it's free. Two thumbs way up.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery

There have been reports before the fact about this series that are the stuff of nightmare, and there is of course the whole concept of having to pay for it as part of CBS' new All Access network, so even before it started, "Star Trek: Discovery" had a hard road ahead of it. First imagined as an anthology series, taking place at any time or place in the mainstream Trek universe (as opposed to in the Kelvin timeline of the last three cinematic films - here, here, and here), this series now might just be about one ship, one crew, and one time - time will tell.

I have been impressed with the previews myself, especially the acting and casting, but not so much with some of the designs, particularly the Klingon ones. Further while I was very happy with the casting of "The Walking Dead"'s Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham and one of my favorite actresses Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou, I was disappointed that Green would take lead as the POV protagonist with Yeoh in a more background role. That said, as with all such things, I should have an opinion until I actually see it, right? It's what separates the Trekkers from the Trekkies, I suppose, pre-perception.

I loved the opening of the first episode, "The Vulcan Hello," as well as the new theme. The composition by Jeff Russo incorporates elements of the original theme, and while it's no country song like in "Enterprise," which I found original, refreshing, and catchy, it is adequate. The visuals are much less exciting, and disappointing. But as noted, the acting and lesson of the intro with Green and Yeoh showed much promise and dedication to the cause. It had my hopes up that I was able to get through the less-than-stellar credit sequence.

Ten minutes in, introduced to Doug Jones' paranoid science officer Saru, and others in the diverse crew of the USS Shenzhou, this was feeling very Trek, from the dialogue, to the uniforms, to the procedural, and I was digging it. This crew gets along, knows each other's quirks, and has a camaraderie similar to later seasons of "TNG." There is however an annoying Motion Picture conceit of showing off special effects and model building, almost like a child jumping up and down and yelling, "Look what I can do!" and it results in scenes dragging and taking much longer than they should.

And then there are the Klingons, some might say drastically different in appearance and conduct to what we have known before. They have been known to change their physical appearance in the past, but this is quite different, and quite possibly what drove fans up the wall when images surfaced. We have more gothic, more bestial, more feudal Klingons here, with a darker, larger, more sinister and menacing bird of prey. I am willing to accept this, after all, who knows how much and how fast Klingons might evolve physically or change culturally.

A more sophisticated explanation from the showrunners suggest that the Klingon Empire is huge, and not all Klingons come from Kronos. Their various cultures and styles and even physical manifestations vary from house to house, their system of power, similar to that of "Game of Thrones" in a way. Just like a New York businessman would look different from an Aborigine shaman for instance, these Klingons are just as different as say Kang and Worf are to each other. Seems like a lot of dancing to just make more fearsome alien monsters and not change the name. And once the thought that they were more like "Doctor Who" monsters than "Star Trek" villains entered my mind, it would not leave.

The setting is ten years before the original series, and the USS Shenzhou has discovered a Klingon ship. Burnham, who has a history with the Klingons who haven't but rarely been seen in generations, goes to investigate and ends up killing one of their Torchbearers. Burnham, we learn was the only survivor of a Vulcan-Human space station attacked by Klingons. Her parents killed, Sarek (yes, that Sarek) took her in, educated, and trained her. So this discovery is a hot issue for Burnham.

As the episode continues we see more of Burnham, as well as Saru and Geogiou, all doing fantastic jobs. The performances are on mark. Meanwhile we are also learning of Klingon culture and how one house is trying to unite all twenty-four houses against the Federation. The cliffhanger on the first episode is a tight one, and must have been very frustrating for those not subscribed to CBS All Access. My take on this however, based on the first episode, would be it's worth it.

Lucky folks outside the United States got to see it on Netflix, it should be noted. And in watching the second episode, "Battle at the Binary Stars," it's evident that the structure of the show fits Netflix to a tee. This is a binge series, and watched best as a binge. It's episodic, with a binge-worthy flow, interspersed with character-revealing flashbacks - this is a Netflix show, and CBS couldn't have found a better formula to copy. It's damn good. I dug this a lot, recommended.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Cat in the Hat Ride at Universal

The last time we went to Universal in Orlando, there were more than a few disappointments, not the least of which was the food, but on our way out of the parks, The Bride and I, both Dr. Seuss fans from waaay back (pre-school really), saw the Cat in the Hat Ride and thought we'd check it out. Sure, it's for kids, but we're just big kids.

The first time I saw the Cat in the Hat in this ride, I knew I would be having nightmares. Universal managed to take the more scary parts of the old Snow White and Mr. Toad rides and injected them with Dr. Seuss surrealism, and a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of crazy eyes. A rather pedestrian ride, but with psycho eyes, and just a touch of technicolor Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… is this for kids?

As much fun as the kids book "The Cat in the Hat" seemed when I was a wee one, I would not want to be in that book, and that's what this ride does. Sure, on that last trip to Universal, I was dying to get out of the sun, and this ride is air conditioned, but consider this - so are the retail stores and they don't have giant cats in hats with crazy eyes you'll be seeing in your nightmares for days to come…

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

F is for Family

Like many of the television situation comedies of the 1980s and 1990s - like "Seinfeld," "Home Improvement," or "Roseanne" - "F is for Family" is built around the stand-up routines of a popular comedian, in this case, Bill Burr.  What makes this one unique is that it's animated, and set squarely in 1973.  And as a child of the 1970s suburbs, let me assure you, they got this right.  This is no That 70's Show. 

Now I have to admit that I was never really a big fan of Bill Burr.  I always enjoyed when he was a guest on the late great Opie and Anthony radio show, and never turned the channel when his stand up was on, but I never sought it out either, and I've never heard his podcast although I know it's quite popular.  Burr always seemed fun, and funny, but a little mean spirited and pessimistic.  In this format however, I think it works. 

Bill Burr voices the father, Frank Murphy, who in the opening credit sequence set to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," we see go from hopeful young man with dreams to the crushed spirit of a family man with responsibilities.  The wordless bit actually reminds me if the beginning of Disney-Pixar's Up in that it conveys so many feelings in an economy of dialogue and time, brilliant. 

Frank's wife Sue is voiced by Laura Dern, and burnout son Kevin by Justin Long.  Sue fights for her rights as best she can as a housewife in 1973, and Kevin tries to better himself but it never seems to work out thanks to his other burnout friends.  Frank struggles with his wife, his family, which also includes a younger son and daughter, and a job that is quickly headed toward disaster. 

Besides Bill Burr, who voices, writes, and inspires, there are two other executive producers who may be of note, Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley.  Vaughn you all know from his many acting roles, including Swingers and "True Detective," and Billingsley was Ralphie in Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story, who since then has does considerable work behind the camera. 

As I said I grew up in the suburbs of South Jersey in the 1970s, with the show taking place in nearby Pennsylvania, and this is dead on.  I not only know these people, in some cases I was them.  The comedy is funny but the people and the situations are real, sometimes too real, and at times override the jokes.  The ongoing subplot of a strike at the airline where Frank works is a serious concern. 

My favorite episode of the first season is "Bill Murphy's Day Off" where the parents take Kevin to a rock concert so he and his friends can see the opening act, Shire of Frodo.  Fans eager to see the headliner Lifted Riffs don't let them even start a song but Riffs is a hoot.  While both bands are parodies of different aspects of Led Zeppelin, Riffs really takes it to town with a song called "Lick My Pickle," a clever and hilarious riff on "The Lemon Song."  Loved it. 

The second season became available, all ten episodes of it, just a couple months back.  Frank adjusts to new jobs and old, Sue fights the glass ceiling, and Kevin tries to make a go if his own band.  There are bigger parts for Frank's rich swinger neighbor played by Sam Rockwell, and his two younger kids as well, one a bullied boy standing up for himself, and the other a smart girl up against many of the same barriers as her mom. 

"F is for Family" is coming of age, it's nostalgia, it's emotional, it's funny, and it's definitely worth checking out. If you grew up in the seventies, ever didn't want to turn into your parents, or tried to turn everything into a bong, this show is for you. 

Monday, September 18, 2017


I have to admit that until her name came up as a possibility for the role of the thirteenth incarnation of The Doctor on "Doctor Who," I had never heard of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.  She's apparently an award-winning playwright as well as an actress, but I didn't know.  Neither she nor the other favorite Kris Marshall of Love Actually, got the role, it going instead to Jodie Whittaker.  We'll have to wait until at least Christmas to see how that goes.

Back on track I was surprised to see Phoebe's name again recently as I was browsing Amazon Prime.  She is the star and writer of a show called "Fleabag."  The ongoing saga of a young single woman in London as she tries to make her way through life after the death of her best friend might not sound like anything special, but Waller-Bridge makes it work wonderfully. 

As the title character, Phoebe's dry sarcastic wit, self-deprecating humor, and breaking of the fourth wall bring this series to a level above most sitcom dramas.  The characters, situations, and problems are all very real, her caustic wit severing them all with precision.  It feels like the later meaner seasons of "Seinfeld" and the earlier more earnest seasons of "Girls," mixed with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "I'm Sorry," with just a touch of Britcom sensibility and "Sex and the City."  Yeah, all that. 

I love this show, so funny, so clever, and so tragic.  My mind reels to wonder what she would have been like as The Doctor.  Perhaps someday we'll see, until then we have "Fleabag," definitely recommended. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Marvel's New Animated Spider-Man

The worst part of superhero reboots is retelling of the origin story over and over and over again. Despite the official Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Spider-Man thankfully skipping over that detail in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming, when the folks at Disney XD rebooted the animated version, based on the new movie Spidey, they felt the need to beat us over the head again with that same origin story that we all know now. 

The animated shorts, how Disney XD leads into their Marvel shows these days, tell that story all over again, adding very little to the tale we all know.  Even the terrible Amazing Spider-Man gave us something new in that area.  Peter Parker in this new 'toon is less geeky and nerdy as much as he is annoying and obnoxious.  He's almost arrogant.  Unlike the Parker of the comics who we sympathize with and identify with, I really don't like this guy.  I almost want him to fail. This is so not Spider-Man.  Simply spouting science does not make a Peter Parker.

As we watch this annoying kid learn his new powers and video document them with complete arrogance in the "Origins" shorts, the showrunners carefully insert appearances of cast members like Harry, Liz, Smythe, and even a Stan Lee cameo, but key characters like Aunt May and Uncle Ben are rarely seen.  Not seeing May or Ben until the last of six shorts completely diffuses the tragic lesson of "With great power comes great responsibility." 

Whether it is network rules to protect children or misguided writing, but we never get to see the actual origin of Spider-Man with the burglar.  It's diluted, and we feel nothing as we don't know Ben or May.  Add this in to the fact that this version of Parker is already unlikable, this was not a great start, and perhaps, as in the MCU version, the origin should have been left untold, rather than told badly. 

The actual show is better in both execution and presentation of Peter Parker.  He still spouts science, but he's a little more humble.  The depiction of the Vulture is less than stellar, especially after his terrific MCU revamp, this animated mash-up of the Beetle and Black Canary is a bit embarrassing. Much time is spent on school stuff, including introductions of Miles Morales and Anya Corrazon (Arana). Without those name drops, I might have been bored. 

Other name drops include vibranium and Wakanda, placing the series solidly within the wider Marvel Universe.  One supposes we will just have to imagine the "Ultimate Spider-Man" cartoon never happened, just like all those early animated appearances of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the second official episode, continued from the first, we are once again more concerned with the school than with the superheroics.  We're introduced to Dr. Otto Octavius as a teacher, and Max Modell's Horizon is lifted from Dan Slott's comics run.  Spider is still in his homemade costume and the Scorpion is considerably less interesting than his Homecoming counterpart. 

Even after finally perfecting his costume and facing off against a pseudo-Spider-Slayer, the episode is more about the school soap than the superhero saga.  Horizon seems more like a breeding ground for potential future Spider-villains and their tech.  Still this is more origin stuff when I would rather have adventures of the fully formed hero. Later we see the Rhino and the Black Cat, revamped versions, and of course their episodes focus more on school than superheroics.

The new series is not bad, but it's not what I want, so until we get a seasoned Spider-Man doing the superhero thing with the cast in place and rogues gallery established, I may give this a pass. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Len Wein and the Golden Age of Comics

There's a saying among comics fandom, a play on words really, that the real golden age of comics is ten. Traditionally the Golden Age is considered roughly from 1938 to 1951 when all the great characters were created and things were simpler and better in general. Also as implied, when most folks start reading comics they are a magical age when they believe all the wonders they read, and that nostalgia stays with them, forming the basis for their love of the genre. For me, that love came roughly between the ages of six and twelve, and most of the good comics that formed my magic time were by a guy named Len Wein.

The man passed away this past weekend, and many folks have memorialized him, in personal blogs, comics press, and even the mainstream media. Most mention his huge triumphs in the field. Len Wein created Wolverine, Swamp Thing, co-created the New X-Men, and edited Watchmen - all events that advanced, shaped, and transformed comics as an entertainment medium - and all true. However, that's not really what I remember him for. I remember him for the comics that shaped me and my thinking, and my love of comics.

As I was beginning to learn to read, more from comic books and Dr. Seuss than from any of the Dick and Jane readers at school, Len Wein wrote the comics that thrilled and amazed me. When comics were coming down off the social relevance trend of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wein sought to bring back the characters that made comics fun for him. He re-established the paradigm of superheroes and super-villains, and returned a fun Silver Age and even Golden Age vibe to the oncoming Bronze Age of comics.

In Justice League of America, a comic he was only on for a short time, he turned these characters from a group of heroes who sometimes worked together into a team of friends who were a finely tuned fighting unit, who knew each other, watched each other's backs, and even socialized together. Wein returned not only traditional Silver Age villains like Amazo, the Key, Felix Faust, T.O. Morrow, the Shaggy Man, Eclipso, (and indirectly the Queen Bee and the Lord of Time), but also revived Golden Age superheroes like Earth-Two's other super-team (a decade before the All-Star Squadron) the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and gathered the old Quality Comics heroes as the Freedom Fighters of Earth-X, a parallel world where Germany won World War II - soon to be featured in an animated series on CW Seed. In an age where young readers were being newly introduced to these characters in the reprints of the 100-Page Super-Spectaculars, Wein brought us new stories of these greats.

Wein also, in his all-too-brief fifteen issue run on JLoA, expanded the membership for the first time in years. He added the Elongated Man, a move that was a long time coming; moved the emotional android Red Tornado over from Earth-Two, after killing him in one of comics' earliest hero deaths; and inducted the mysterious and seemingly out-of-place Phantom Stranger into the team's ranks. He was able to make the Stranger work within the team better than any later writers, probably because Wein himself was writing the character in his own title at the same time. He always had a mastery of these new members, as well as guest-stars, the Justice Society, when under his pen. Speaking of the JSA, Wein had the honor of writing the hundredth issue team-up of the JLA/JSA, as well as introducing the concept of adding a third team to the annual mix, and even wrote the only one-issue teaming of them. Speaking of guest-stars, he also helped engineer the first unofficial DC/Marvel crossover at the Rutland Halloween Parade.

Speaking of the JSA, another story that resonates with me to this day is Flash #215, written by Wein during his short stint on that title, which I've briefly talked about before. With a dramatic Neal Adams cover and interiors by Irv Novick, in my opinion, the Flash artist, this story told the tale of Barry Allen waking up in bed with his Earth-Two counterpart's wife Joan, finding that he'd replaced Jay Garrick. After that weirdness, Barry goes on the find Jay in the limbo dimension and fighting the Vandal Savage, yet another Golden Age character that Wein breathed new life into. This remains one of my favorite Flash stories, and made me love Jay Garrick.

Also notable from this era were his Adventure Comics stories with Supergirl and Zatanna respectively, which I still love. I bet if he'd stayed on JLoA longer, he would have brought Zatanna on to the team much earlier than she ended up joining. While they were going on at roughly the same time, and I did not read them at the time, I did eventually read Wein's fantastic stories of the Swamp Thing, Phantom Stranger, and Korak, and dug them. And let's not forget that he also co-created the Human Target, a back-up feature I never understood as a kid, but loved as an adult.

This was the mid-1970s now, and Len Wein had moved across the street to Marvel Comics, where he would create Wolverine as a Hulk foe; assemble the New X-Men, reviving that title which had been in low-selling reprints for a while; and had longer (if not as memorable, to me at least) runs on titles like Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Fantastic Four, and Marvel Team-Up. What I do remember him on was Defenders, which he picked up on after Steve Englehart left the book. Wein would recruit Nighthawk to the team, one of my favorite Defenders, after an eerily familiar clash with Marvel's parallel universe evil Justice League, the Squadron Supreme (or was it Sinister? I always get confused).

Len Wein would return to DC Comics however as an editor. He was editing both Justice League of America and Flash ironically when I met him at a Creation convention around the time of those two titles' 200th and 300th landmark issues respectively. I told him how much I enjoyed his Justice League stories, but also expressed, perhaps too cockily, an opinion that the 200th issue shouldn't be so full of guest-stars as the 100th issue was. He took the left-handed compliment well, smiled, and said I would be pleased with Justice League of America #200. I was, the tale, which pitted the original members against all the later members of the team in a retelling and return to their origin, is not only one of my favorite stories, but also a lot of folks' too.

Later Wein would go on to edit Watchmen, write the new Blue Beetle series, and oversee the Who's Who project, all wonderful stuff. He continued to write and edit for years to come, including Batman, Wonder Woman, and After Watchmen. He won many awards, even wrote for television animation, the last work I saw from him was the adaptation of Harlan Ellison's script for Two-Face on the 1966 "Batman" television series. We have lost one of the greats in the comics field, and we are all poorer for it. Len Wein was and is a legend, and he'll be missed.