I’m in the Limelight, Big on My Block Now

XTC: This Is Pop – I’d heard about this documentary and added it on Netflix, but they don’t currently have it in stock. Then, when Beth and I were looking at movies available to watch On Demand, we came across this one. It’s only about an hour and fifteen minutes, so it’s not a real time investment. On the other hand, that means there’s a lot of stuff that’s basically skipped over. XTC is one of my favorite bands, although it’s been a while since I listened to them. I agree with the premise Andy Partridge puts forth in the film, which is that they started out good and got better. That’s not to say that every album is better than the last, just that there was a general forward progression over time. The documentary starts out with Andy complaining about rockumentaries, saying that they’re all the same and all depressing. I’d say this one was mostly positive in tone, although it really wasn’t that far removed from the typical format.

Andy, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Terry Chambers, and Barry Andrews were all interviewed for it, as were some other people involved with the band including producers and session musicians, plus Harry Shearer who’s a fan but I don’t think ever worked with them. Was he also in the They Might Be Giants documentary, or was that just Michael McKean? It did cover a few of the darker stories from the band’s history, like giving up touring after Andy suffered a breakdown on stage and the clash between Andy and Todd Rundgren, who produced Skylarking. According to Andy’s own account, his mother was extremely obsessive-compulsive, never letting any other kids into the house and throwing out Andy’s toys. When she was institutionalized for a time, the doctors put Andy on Valium, which was common at the time. He took it consistently for years until his wife forced him to quit cold turkey, and the breakdown was soon after that. He was actually going through withdrawal, but no one at the time really knew anything about that, so they just thought it was nerves. Although Terry left the band soon after the decision to stop touring, Andy discussed how not being limited to songs they could reproduce live was ultimately beneficial. It does seem that, at least nowadays, bands tend to make more money from touring than from recording, but apparently XTC was hardly making any money anyway. While there was a brief mention of this from Andy, the film didn’t get into their seven-year strike against Virgin Records, which is pretty significant when trying to present a full history of the group. I don’t know whether there were legal reasons they couldn’t talk about it or they just chose not to so as to focus more on the music itself. As for Skylarking, as terrible as the experience was, Andy admits in hindsight that Rundgren really did do a good job with it. There was some talk on how “Dear God” became a hit in the United States, but was also quite controversial, while apparently it really wasn’t either in the United Kingdom. From what I’ve heard, Rundgren always wanted it on the album, but Andy preferred to make it a B-side not because it was potentially offensive, but just because he didn’t think he’d successfully addressed the subject.

I do think they glossed over a lot of material, with Mummer pretty much just getting some discussion on “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” (which probably is the best song on there, but still), and The Big Express being almost totally overlooked.

It’s kind of weird that they would make a point of how the band changed after they stopped touring, then barely explore the music they released in the next few years. It was still an enjoyable watch, though, largely because of how entertaining and informative Andy was.

At one point, he discussed how his songwriting is influenced by synesthesia, in that he’ll find a guitar chord and he’ll think of a specific image. He says he started writing his own songs because he didn’t know how to play other people’s, which doesn’t sound so humble to those of us who can’t do either. Anyway, definitely check this out if you like or are interested in the band, but know that it only scratches the surface in some respects.

Posted in Music, Television, VoVat Goes to the Movies, XTC | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Little Booties Matter

The Burning Maze, by Rick Riordan – The latest in the Trials of Apollo series, which revisits characters from the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus books, continues the plotline of the three resurrected Roman Emperors trying to take power. It was revealed in the earlier ones that the first two were Nero and Commodus, and here we find out that the third is Caligula. His horse Incitatus, whom he allegedly tried to appoint as a consul, also shows up, and it turns out he really can talk. And he’s really mean. Caligula has teamed up with Medea to kill Apollo, still stuck in the mortal form of Lester Papadopoulos, and magically transfer his essence to the former emperor. Helios, the former sun god and Medea’s grandfather, is also involved, and his heat is making the Labyrinth even more dangerous. Reappearing characters include Jason Grace and Piper McLean, now broken up, and Piper’s movie star father having lost all his money through the emperors’ conspiracy. Also, both of the the major satyr characters, Grover Underwood and Coach Gleeson Hedge, play significant parts. Grover is now wiser and more skilled than before, but still retains some of his sillier traits. The Coach is now a husband and father, but has the same over-the-top militaristic attitude. There’s nothing that really makes this particular volume stand out among Riordan’s mythological tales, but if you like his style, you’ll want to read it. We once again get references to the Greco-Roman gods affecting modern history as well as ancient, characters from mythology and history adapting to the modern world in their own ways, and some pretty obscure mythical beings like the giant-eared pandai.

Posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Greek Mythology, Heroes of Olympus, History, Humor, Monsters, Mythology, Percy Jackson, Rick Riordan, Roman, Roman Empire, Trials of Apollo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toys Are Only Human After All

Toy Story 3 – The most disturbing entry so far in this franchise was originally intended to serve as a finale, but now they’re making a fourth one. Anyway, this starts out years after the last one, when Andy, who hasn’t played with his toys in years, is packing for college. He tries to put the toys in the attic, but when they accidentally almost get thrown away, they instead choose to donate themselves to a local day care. At first, the prospect of there always being kids there to play with them is exciting, but they soon come to realize that they’re confined to a room with toddlers who play really rough. Enforcing this is the leader of the day care toys, Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear, or Lotso for short.

He initially comes across as very friendly and folksy, but it’s all an act. He’s pretty similar to Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2 in that respect, as well as in how it’s later revealed that he became nasty because he was abandoned, although his behavior is even more extreme. When the day care director’s daughter Bonnie takes Woody home, he learns from Chuckles the Clown, one of Lotso’s old companions, how much trouble his friends are in, and returns to the day care center to help them escape. Woody confronts Lotso about lying to another fellow toy from his old home, the rather creepy Big Baby, who turns against the bear and throws him away. He drags Andy’s toys down with him, though, and they’re all almost crushed or incinerated at the garbage dump. Woody saves Lotso’s life, but the teddy bear still backstabs them in the end. He’s discovered by a truck driver who had that kind of bear as a kid, and ends up catching flies on the front of the truck. When the toys do get away with the help of the three claw machine aliens, Woody writes a note (which, as far as I could tell, we never actually get to read) convincing him to give them to Bonnie.

I’d say this is a happy ending, except we never do learn the fates of some of Andy’s toys who were already sold or given away, including Bo Peep. I read that they didn’t want to include her because there’s no way a porcelain doll would survive getting anywhere close to an incinerator, but it seems to me they could have written around that somehow. She is apparently supposed to reappear in the fourth film, but I’m not sure about Wheezy or the Etch-a-Sketch. I wonder if they’re going to get a replacement for Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head; they already did get one for Jim Varney as Slinky Dog. R. Lee Ermey has died since this movie came out, too, but his part was much smaller.

This movie made interesting and often amusing, if sometimes confusing, new developments with some of the toys. When Mrs. Potato Head loses an eye in Andy’s room, she’s able to see what’s going on there even when she’s nowhere close by covering her other eye. Mr. Potato Head is able to function when he puts his body parts on a tortilla and a cucumber, perhaps a reference to how the toy was originally intended for use with an actual potato before they started just including a plastic one.

(You know, we had a Mr. Potato Head, and the arms were not removable and a pair of eyes was a single unit. Has that changed, or are we just supposed to suspend disbelief?) Lotso’s gang gets Buzz Lightyear to work for them by changing his settings to demo mode, which reverts him to his original personality of thinking he really is a Space Ranger. When the other toys try to reset him, they temporarily activate his Spanish language mode, which has the side effect of making him an amorous salsa dancer. Barbie’s role is expanded quite a bit, as she and the Ken doll who’s one of Lotso’s henchmen immediately fall for each other. She takes advantage of this to free her friends, but Ken eventually does have a true change of heart.

He’s portrayed as rather effeminate, as per his status as a male toy marketed for girls. I thought it was cool that Bonnie had a stuffed Totoro, although I don’t think he had any lines.

And it was pretty sad seeing Buster, the dog from the previous movie, as old in this one.

Posted in Cartoons, Humor, Revisiting Disney, Toys, VoVat Goes to the Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hey, Mr. Eurovision Song Contest Man

Noir, by Christopher Moore – As can be guessed from the title, this is basically Moore’s take on the noir genre, but not the hard-boiled detective variety so much as the normal guy who has stuff happen to him. Set in San Francisco in 1947, it’s mostly narrated by protagonist Sammy Tiffin, a bartender who falls for a woman named Stilton. It starts out parodying the sort of detached, metaphor-heavy prose that the genre is known for, but it seems to gradually become less prominent as the story becomes increasingly more convoluted. There are other running gags that continue throughout, however, like a kid who uses random words to try to sound tough. The plot turns out to involve a black mamba snake that narrates the parts of the tale where Sammy isn’t present, a secret society, aliens, and somewhat bumbling men in black. As mentioned in the afterword, a lot of elements of the story are based on reality, although obviously it goes off the rails a bit. It also touches on some heavier topics, like racism and homosexuality, and Sammy turns out to have rather progressive attitudes for the time period.

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente – By the author of the Fairyland series, this is a science fiction comedy based largely on Eurovision. Now, I’ve never watched Eurovision, although I have an idea of how ridiculous it is from people who live-tweet it every year. I’m sure there are bits I’d understand better if I were more familiar with the source material, but I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy the book. It has an engaging style largely inspired by Douglas Adams, with some of the same sort of observations on humanity’s place in the universe. There’s also the same general theme of Earth being considered culturally backwards by most of the galaxy, yet the aliens sharing many of the same foibles. The back story has it that, after the brutal Sentience Wars, the galaxy switched to a system where all sentient species participate in a big, flashy, over-the-top annual music contest, the Metagalactic Grand Prix. When a new species that seems borderline sentient is discovered, they’re allowed to have a representative in the contest. As long as they don’t come in dead last, they’re then permitted to join the interstellar society. Otherwise, they’re obliterated. When Earth is given this choice, their representatives by default (this takes place in the near future when all of the aliens’ preferred choices have died) are Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros, a British glam-rock band that had been really successful, but had since broken up, and one of the trio had died. The two remaining members, Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet (real names Danesh Jalo and Omar Caliskan), are taken to the overly cheerful world of Litost in a ship powered by paradox by a creature resembling a cross between a flamingo and an anglerfish and a time-traveling red panda. Valente is quite creative with the various species involved in the contest, including a collective of algae, rock monsters who are known for their military strategy and psychiatry, virtual mechanical life forms (at one point, one of them manifests itself as the Microsoft paperclip), and viruses that zombify corpses of other beings, all of them with their own ways of performing. Even wormholes are living beings in this universe. I understand the book has been optioned for a movie, and while I’m not sure how some of these creatures are going to be represented on screen, that’s pretty cool.

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Basic Cable

Deadpool 2 – I had originally wanted to see Solo yesterday, but I waited too long to buy tickets and it was sold out, which is strange for an alleged box office flop. Maybe I’ll see it next week. Anyway, SPOILERS! Like the first one, the sequel has a lot of parody elements, yet still plays itself straight enough that you can feel for the characters. I guess that’s not too uncommon. Sometimes you get movies like The Naked Gun or Monty Python and the Holy Grail (both favorites of mine, by the way) where the characters and stories are really just there to serve the jokes, but many comedies do have a certain amount of investment in the characters and their story. Deadpool breaks the fourth wall constantly, and some supporting characters are killed off casually and painfully, but there’s still a certain amount of heart to it. I wonder if there’s any real rule for when Deadpool is allowed to recognize that he’s a character in a movie and when he isn’t, and while perhaps this wasn’t even intentional, it seems like he can only break the fourth wall when it doesn’t affect the story, making it a power that’s funny but not all that useful in his life. He comments that Cable isn’t as big as he is the comics, yet doesn’t recognize him when he first shows up. People have complained that a hero’s girlfriend being murdered to serve as a plot device is way overdone, and they have a point, but I guess I feel the film worked well enough in other ways that it didn’t matter so much to me. Besides, there were more prominent female characters in this one than in the first, and the death was eventually undone anyway. After Deadpool’s fiancee is killed, he tries to commit suicide, but Colossus collects his parts and allows him to heal at the X-Men’s mansion.

Wade becomes a trainee X-Man, with his first assignment being to try to calm down a young fire-producing mutant boy called Firefist (real name Russell Collins), who lives at an orphanage run by an abusive guy who thinks mutant powers are an abomination unto God.

When Wade kills two of the staff who have abused Firefist, he and the boy are both locked in a prison where collars neutralize their mutant powers. That’s something I always thought was a little weird about the X-Men universe, because if mutant powers are something natural and inborn, how can they be turned on and off like that? Maybe it’s because they’re all supposedly connected to the same X-gene? Regardless, Cable shows up, having traveled back in time to kill Russell, who becomes a serial killer after teaming up with Juggernaut and killing his old headmaster, which gives him a taste for murder.

Of course, Deadpool kills a whole lot of people but not innocent ones, so I suppose it’s different for everybody. I remember Cable appearing in the X-Men animated series back in the nineties (even though I didn’t even have cable television), although I think he was from farther in the future in that. He shares my first name, although it was never used in the movie. Josh Brolin, whom we just saw as a genocidal alien overlord in the last big superhero film, also plays Cable. Deadpool forms his own team to try to rescue Russell, but all of them die except Domino, a cool character whose superpower is luck.

After having his legs broken off by Juggernaut and then regrowing them, Wade convinces the cyborg soldier from the future to give him a chance to change Russell’s mind, and succeeds by taking a bullet for him while without his healing powers. Cable uses his last time machine charge to prevent Deadpool’s death, but Negasonic Teenage Warhead and her girlfriend Yukio manage to fix it, and after the credits we see Wade using it to both save people and make meta-references.

It’s interesting that many of the minor characters were really in X-Men comics, including Yukio, Black Tom, and all of the short-lived super team except the non-powered Peter. I can’t say I’d heard of any of them, but fortunately the Wikipedia entry has links. Even the crooked orphanage is called the Essex Home for Mutant Rehabilitation, hinting at a connection with Mister Sinister.

Posted in Cartoons, Comics, Humor, Prejudice, Television, VoVat Goes to the Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yookoo Who?

Yookoohoos of Oz, by Paul DanaYookoohoos, as stated in The Tin Woodman of Oz and confirmed in Glinda of Oz, are magic-workers who specialize in transformations. According to Paul’s earlier Oz books, most of the Yookoohoos in Oz are related, with Grandma Natch as their matriarch. She’s a very well-defined character, a wise and stubborn old woman with a distinctive speech patterns who lives in the Forest of Gugu. In this book, she’s invited the members of her extended family, pretty much all of whom are loners, to a party at her home. The story is told from Ojo’s point of view, and while the Yookoohoos are anxious to meet his best friend Button-Bright, they see Ojo and his fairy magic (he received it in Time Travelers when he ate a magic loaf) as worthy of scorn. When Reera the Red’s son Delfar arrives with a present from his mother, the Yookoohoos lose their powers and many of them are transformed into miscellaneous animals or objects. Ojo, Button-Bright, and Grandma Natch travel with Delfar and his mechanical contraption Leggy to Reera’s hut, hoping to find a cure. Along the way, they meet up with the spiders from Glinda and the crab Ozma turned white. We learn more about Yookoohoo society, including how boys are rare in their family, and they’re usually protected instead of going out on their own at a young age. The story feels a little short, but it’s an excellent addition to the ongoing history of Oz. Although the background of Paul’s earlier books is summarized, I’d still recommend reading them first, as otherwise the additional information about Button-Bright and Ojo kind of comes out of nowhere. There’s some character growth for both of them throughout the preceding volumes. Another book with the two boys as heroes, The Immortal Longings of Oz, is scheduled for release next year, and from what I’ve heard, it deals with goings-on in the Land of Ev.

Posted in Book Reviews, Characters, L. Frank Baum, Magic, Oz, Oz Authors | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Food and Cheer Over Hoarded Gold

I saw two old animated specials last night that were quite different, although I guess you could say that Garfield and Bilbo Baggins both have a similar desire for food and comfort.

Garfield: His 9 Lives – This 1988 special, based on a book from 1984, showcases several different art styles in recounting Garfield’s seven past lives, as well as his current one and one in the future, treating them as different incarnations. I haven’t read the book, but I understand that six of the lives were adapted directly from it, while the other three were new. The one where Garfield reverts to a feral state and probably kills an old lady is, not surprisingly, one of the ones that was replaced. Another, “Babes and Bullets,” with Garfield as hard-boiled noir detective Sam Spayed, was made into a separate television special; they show some clips from it at the latest Kevin Geeks Out. Even without the darkest segment, the special is still pretty heavy in spots for a Garfield cartoon. And in other bits, it’s just a bunch of lame, obvious jokes. There are some real mood swings here. After a live-action bit showing God creating the first cat, “Cave Cat” has a fanged version of Garfield being domesticated by a caveman in the stone age. It’s very slapstick, with the typical cartoonish portrayals of the stone age: broken English, lots of clubbing (of the hitting variety, not the dancing one), and current animals given a prehistoric makeover. The first dog, Big Bob, is a giant, partially reptilian version of Odie who accidentally kills Cave Cat while trying to play fetch with an entire tree.

There’s also a fire-breathing mouse. In “King Cat,” a cat who looks just like the regular Garfield is the favorite pet of a very dim Pharaoh whose brother is trying to assassinate him. While the cat initially loves his life of ordering around dogs and tormenting pyramid builders, when he learns that he’ll be buried with the Pharaoh when he dies, he becomes actively involved in trying to preserve his master’s life. Since he doesn’t recognize dynamite (as, of course, it hadn’t been invented yet), the Pharaoh does die, but Odie rescues the cat from the tomb. In repayment, however, cats become the slaves of dogs. The third segment, “In the Garden,” is very bizarre and psychedelic, both in its look and story. While based on the Garden of Eden story, the girl and her orange kitten (basically Garfield drawn cuter and without stripes) decide not to give in to temptation.

Another new one, “Court Musician,” makes Garfield the blue-furred pet of George Frideric Handel (Garfield calls him “Freddie”), who has to help his owner write a new concerto. His third movement turns out to be the first jazz music. The very brief “Stunt Cat” makes the sixth incarnation a stunt double for Krazy Kat, and has a bunch of bricks dropped on him. This was before “no animals were harmed” became standard. “Diana’s Piano” is a very bittersweet segment that made Beth cry as a kid, and still does now. This incarnation, Diana, is more distinctly different from the regular Garfield than any of the other lives: white-haired, female, and not at all anthropomorphized.

The story is narrated by Diana’s owner Sara, who receives a kitten and starts piano lessons on the same day. Diana loves sitting on the piano while Sara plays, and eventually dies there years later. It’s quite unexpectedly sad for an overall tongue-in-cheek special. The opening bit has Garfield say this was how he developed a love for music, even though this was AFTER the life where he invented jazz. Where’s the story editor when you need them? In the seventh, “Lab Animal,” Garfield is drawn to look a lot like Oliver from Oliver & Company.

He’s used in lab experiments, but eventually escapes and manages to avoid notice because he turns into a dog. The eighth life is the current one, showing Garfield’s birth at an Italian restaurant and his adoption by Jon, his mother having previously been introduced as a character in Garfield on the Town. It also retcons Odie into another pet Jon buys to keep Garfield company, leaving out the whole Lyman plotline. Finally, in “Space Cat,” Garfield and Odie (the latter first as a computer and then a series of clones) attempt to survive in space, but are blown up by nasty aliens.

At the end, Garfield pleads with God because he didn’t think he was given a fair chance in his last life, and God not only agrees but gives both Garfield and Odie another full nine lives. He says this is because the computers are down and He doesn’t know which life Garfield is on, but He’s then revealed to have feline features Himself.

It’s interesting that only four of these vignettes actually show an incarnation of Garfield dying (“Cave Cat,” “Diana’s Piano,” “Stunt Cat,” and “Space Cat”); the others just imply it happens eventually.

The Hobbit (1977) – I saw this Rankin-Bass made-for-TV adaptation when I was a kid, but it’s been some years and three big-screen versions since then. I think it mostly holds up. The animation is somewhat limited, but the backgrounds are quite detailed. The style was somewhat reminiscent of the animated Watership Down, which came out in the following year. The line readings were a little flat at times, but that might have been hard to avoid because that’s often how J.R.R. Tolkien wrote dialogue anyway. There’s definitely a talented cast here. Orson Bean (They Might Be Giants fans probably understand why I always want to follow his name with Sky & Telescope) voiced Bilbo with a wry, understated humor. Oscar winner John Huston voiced Gandalf, Hans Conried was Thorin, and Paul Frees Bombur. One odd choice was Austria-Hungarian-born director Otto Preminger as a heavily accented Elvenking. The take on the Wood-Elves was very strange anyway, with their wrinkly greenish-gray skin and long, stick-thin legs. I thought Middle-Earth Elves were supposed to be ethereally beautiful.

Gollum was much more frog-like than Tolkien described him, although this was hardly the first time he was shown that way; I guess that’s where some people’s minds go with a flat-footed, large-eyed, croaking character who lives in a lake.

This, for instance, is how he looked in a 1971 German edition of the book:

And Smaug had bat-like features and headlight eyes, but there’s no reason dragons have to be entirely reptilian.

At an hour and seventeen minutes, it feels a bit rushed (for instance, the Dwarves show up right after Gandalf tries to recruit Bilbo, rather than later for a meal), but it manages to cover pretty much all the main plot points. Beorn isn’t there, but he didn’t really impact the story that much anyway. The most major change is the removal of Bilbo’s theft of the Arkenstone, which really pissed off Thorin, so instead the Dwarf is just mean to Bilbo because he disapproves of going to war. A few reviews I’ve seen mention that there was a pretty heavy anti-war theme that wasn’t so much present in the book, although I think it was already sort of there. One thing I didn’t like about the modern trilogy was how it threw in so many extra fight scenes where they really weren’t necessary. Yes, there were fight scenes in The Hobbit, but generally only when the characters had no other choice. The cartoon, being made for kids, went out of its way not to show any graphic violence. Characters do get stabbed with swords and die, but this is represented by a spinning freeze frame. Most of the songs in the movie (and there are a lot) are adapted from Tolkien’s own lyrics, often given a folk sound. I’d say it’s a more faithful adaptation of the book than the later film trilogy, which is saying something considering how short it is.

Posted in Authors, Cartoons, Comics, Humor, J.R.R. Tolkien, Monsters, Music, Poetry, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments