comic books

R.I.P. Stan Lee (1922-2018)

Stan, you just had to go, I know that.  You’ve been here for 95 years and entertaining us for most of them.  You gave, and you gave, and you gave.  You deserve your rest now.

Stan, I knew who Spider-man was before I knew the Prime Minister of Canada.  You brought me the Star Wars comics that kept me going between movies.  Through those pages I discovered all that so many of my favourite heroes were yours!  Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men…I always preferred Marvel to DC and I can’t really explain why.  I liked Superman, but the Marvel lineup was so much better than DC’s.  Their characters were more interesting to me, and it was addictive, how storylines weaved through one title to another.

My dad would buy me one new comic on the trip to the cottage each time. I always chose Marvel.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some version of Spider-man is still popular in another 95 years.  Perhaps these characters you helped create will be remembered as literary classics.  If not, I am confident that the Marvel heroes will be a part of our cultural backdrop for a long, long time.

Excelsior!

 

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GUEST MOVIE REVIEWS: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

It may be considered a childish holiday, but it’s not about candy!  Here’s HOLEN MaGROIN with the next in his series of Halloween themed reviews.  For the last, Soundgarden’s Screaming Life/Fopp EPs, click here.

 

BATMAN (1989 Warner Bros.)
BATMAN RETURNS (1992 Warner Bros.)

Directed by Tim Burton

Given the influx of homogenized yet generally consistent MCU movies, and the equally homogenized yet generally inconsistent DCU movies, it’s almost hard to remember a time when superhero films were not guaranteed billion dollar investments, or when they had a shred of character and individuality. The first film that truly hinted at the superhero genre’s potential to be taken seriously was Richard Donner’s Superman. It was a huge financial and critical success, with Gene Hackman giving the movie a professional actor that legitimized the comic book superhero film as an art form, and not just a niche market for children. However, DC was unable to sustain the quality of the Superman franchise, and it slowly fizzled out until crashing and burning with the critically mauled fourth installment The Quest for Peace. The future of comic book movies looked grim. That is until Warner Bros. handed the keys to the Batmobile over to the artsy and dark visionary Tim Burton, who created two acclaimed and commercially successful Gothic Batman films that work great as Halloween viewing.

At this point in his career, Tim Burton had only made two films, the eccentric road comedy Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the twisted paranormal comedy Beetlejuice. It’s not evident what Warner Bros. saw in those two comedic movies to make them think Tim Burton would be the proper choice to direct a Batman movie, but choosing him to helm the franchise would turn out to be one of the least controversial moves. The much more derided decision would be the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman, an actor primarily known for his comedies. Because of his credentials, physique, and height, many believed that Keaton was the wrong choice to portray the Dark Knight. Thankfully, these fears were unfounded as Keaton would go on to become one of the most beloved actors to don the cape and cowl. Fears were also alleviated by the casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, a man who does what Gene Hackman did for Superman in granting the movie a certain ethos just by being present.

To say that Batman was a success would be an understatement; it was a cultural phenomenon. People were getting the bat logo shaved into their head, before anyone had even seen the movie. It became the highest grossing movie of the year in North America in 1989, being beat out internationally by the third Indiana Jones picture.*

The film opens at night as a family of three leaves the theatre, and I’m pretty sure anyone seeing this movie for the first time assumed that they were the Wayne family. No, the movie was playing a trick on you. It’s just a normal family in the present time being mugged, with Batman running to apprehend the criminals as they make their way up to a rooftop to count their loot. As one criminal discusses his fear of being on the roof because of mysterious bat rumors, the other tells him that it’s all hogwash and that he needs to shut his mouth. That’s when Batman glides in behind them, ready to strike. The two criminals look up at a creature that they can’t fully identify. One opens fire and they see the bat creature fall to the ground. The fear reignites in their eyes as they see it menacingly rise off of the ground, presumably from the dead. After incapacitating one of them with a kick to the chest, he grabs the other and holds him above a ledge, as the bat creature asks him to tell all his criminal friends about him, and to be very afraid. “What are you?!” the criminal asks. The creature simply replies, “I’m Batman.” He sees Batman walk off the building, and the criminal scrambles to look over the ledge to see the Batman nowhere in sight.

This opening scene sets the tone for the film, and illustrates the brilliance of Michael Keaton’s Batman. This is a far cry from the campy ‘60s movie. While Adam West was a public servant, and Christian Bale was a ninja, Keaton is a creature that no criminal understands. No one even knows if he’s human, and by allowing himself to get shot, he creates the illusion that he can’t be killed when he rises from the ground. This iteration of Batman is fully committed to theatricality and mystery. Keaton’s portrayal is very effective at representing the tortured soul of Batman, how he feels completely obligated to fight crime because no one else can. He feels the need to avenge his parents, and his dedication to fighting crime has left him lonely and obsessive over his one goal. His motives had never been clearer, and the film also makes the wise call of making Bruce Wayne more of a recluse in this film than a playboy. While it is ridiculous writing that a man as famous as Wayne does not even have a picture on file at the newspaper for reporters to find, the idea of Wayne’s isolation as a character makes perfect sense in this movie. He is a man driven to fight crime no matter the personal sacrifice or threat to his own mental health, which happens to be pretty unstable throughout the movie.

More unstable is main villain Jack Napier, a nasty gangster that is sold out by mob boss Carl Grissom after Grissom learns that Napier is boning his girlfriend. Grissom sends Napier to clean out a front company, and then calls a Lieutenant that happens to be on his payroll to kill Jack. However, Batman turns up and ruins the operation. Napier opens fire at the Batman, who deflects the bullet sending it straight through Napier’s face. Napier then stumbles over a rail above a vat of chemicals. Batman extends his hand in an attempt to save him. In this scene you see a close up of Batman’s eyes. This creates ambiguity. It’s almost as if he recognizes the man that killed his parents, leaving the audience to decide whether he lost his grip or intentionally let the man go as Napier takes the plunge into the chemicals that will turn him from Jack to Joker. This is another point in which Keaton’s acting deserves praise. He’s able to convey so much emotion with only his eyes visible, something that he’d carry over to the next film.**

The film proceeds with a dark atmosphere, reminiscent of a noir story from the 1940s based on the clothing and set design. Gotham City is a very repressive setting because of all the Gothic architecture. The movie is grim. Napier transforms from a nasty gangster into a full on “homicidal artist”. Nicholson sells the material with great conviction, and manages to be simultaneously hilarious and absolutely terrifying. He strikes this crucial balance arguably better than even the late Heath Ledger, a tribute to the ethos Nicholson lends the picture. We see the Joker proceed with his plans of anarchy and death as the world’s greatest detective does all he can to stop him, culminating in a final steeple confrontation.

Since the Batman creates the Joker in this film, and Burton decides to make the flimsy and misguided creative decision to make the Joker the murderer of Wayne’s parents, a fundamental aspect of the movie is how these two characters are connected. They are two sides of the coin as Ace Frehley would say. They’re both highly motivated and highly intelligent characters set on achieving their own goals without any regard for the law, and they’re both a little crazy. Even after all Joker has done to him, after Batman knocks him off the bell tower, he still tries to save him by looking over the ledge, only to be surprised by the Joker and put into a precarious situation. While Joker does end up getting killed, it’s more of his own fault for not telling his chopper to land on the roof so he could detach the rope from his leg.

By no means is it a perfect film, there are some pacing issues with the third act dragging on too long, the Prince songs don’t work particularly well,*** the issue of Batman killing in this movie, and the fact that the cops don’t just arrest the Joker when he held the bicentennial in the streets after he announced it. Main love interest Vicki Vale is also completely disposable, as is proven by her absence in the second film with only a few sentences explaining where she went. Many of the secondary characters in this movie aren’t needed or even interesting, something remedied in the second film. The main draw of these pictures is the adversarial relationship between Batman and the Joker, good and evil. The first two Nolan Batman movies are ultimately better, but this movie has a 1980s charm and a personal directing style that makes it feel uniquely enjoyable, and it still holds up remarkably well today.

The film itself is highly stylized thanks to Tim Burton’s direction. It also has a camp factor that would disappear from superhero movies altogether after Sam Raimi’s very personal and excellent Spider-Man trilogy.  Camp isn’t necessarily bad, it’s actually very pleasing to see a movie acknowledge its own ridiculousness, and bask in it. Relish the goofiness in order to make a more entertaining picture. This actually feels like a Tim Burton movie, whereas many superhero movies today are devoid of any style or originality. They take themselves way too seriously, and sacrifice being fun. This movie manages to blend serious story telling while still acknowledging the inherent silliness of a man that fights crime dressed up like a bat.

When the time came for a follow up picture, Burton was initially not interested. He felt he had done all he could with Batman, until the studio offered him total creative control, something that he hadn’t had the first time around. If the first movie felt like a Tim Burton film, this one ups the ante by a factor of 100. This was an improvement in some areas, and a detriment in others. Tim Burton has never been overly concerned about a coherent plot, or the quality of the plot, tending to focus more on characterization and style. Batman Returns is arguably the most polarizing film in the Batman cannon, and it’s really easy to see why. Burton has little regard for the comic book origins of the characters, and decides to make the film in his own way more so than the first one. Because of this fact, both Michael Keaton and Tim Burton have expressed their preference for this sequel over the original.

A creative move like this would never be allowed today. There is no way that a studio would agree to a film so warped, dark and sexually charged. It takes place at Christmas time, to provide an interesting contrast to all the dark mayhem. Burton loves monsters, and his love of freaks is the engine of this second film. Danny DeVito plays the penguin, who is not the sleek slimy opportunist of the comics, but an actual deformed baby with flippers abandoned by his parents and raised by penguins in the sewers under Gotham City.  Now, if that sounds absolutely ridiculous it’s because it is. The suspension of disbelief in this movie is very high. As a matter of fact, to enjoy this movie you have to give in and let it all happen. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the imagination and the character development that went into making it is breathtaking and deserves appreciation.

The plot of the movie is ridiculous, and a little dumb. Cobblepot runs for mayor at the suggestion of corporate tycoon Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken) because Shreck knows he can control the Cobblepot in order to get his power plant built, that will ultimately suck power from Gotham so he can store it and sell it for a higher price. The citizens of Gotham line up behind the Penguin as a serious candidate after his gang creates chaos to make the current mayor look bad. He becomes a heartwarming story around Christmas time as he creates a public image of goodness by forgiving his deceased parents for abandoning him. Batman reveals Cobblepot for the sleazebag he is in public, and the city immediately turns on him. He responds by trying to kidnap their first born sons as he feels betrayed by his fellow humans and has abandonment issues from his parents. This movie isn’t really about the plot; few Tim Burton movies actually are. This movie succeeds in its own way because of the strength of the characters, and the affection with which Burton treats them. Penguin elicits great sympathy despite being an absolutely grotesque monster, because he was never given a chance. Businessman Shreck is the true monster, as the movie makes the point that not all monsters are disfigured, ugly, or even hated by their fellow man. As the Penguin himself puts it to Shreck “We’re both monsters, but you’re a well respected monster, and I am to date…not.” Shreck is the real monster, it is impossible to feel sympathy for him at all. The first time I saw this movie, I disliked it because of the outrageous plot and the high campiness factor despite being an even darker and more Gothic film that its predecessor. However, on subsequent viewings it became clear to me that the story in this movie is really just sandbox for the characters to play in, and they’re the main reason to watch the movie because they’re so damaged and complex. The movie is like a fairytale, ungrounded and not obeying the normal laws that govern reality. While the first Batman movie seemed to be a studio compromise with Burton’s vision, for better and worse Batman Returns is a true Burton piece of work.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Catwoman, who is licked back to life by alley cats (just go with it) after sifting through confidential files by her boss Max Shreck. There really is no competition, Pfeiffer is the definitive live action Catwoman, and the movie should have focused on her character more in the movie. Her suit in this movie is intimidating, and at the same time strangely alluring. Her antagonistic relationship with Batman is one of the most interesting parts of the movie, and her life as Selina Kyle with Bruce Wayne represents how uncomfortable the two are as themselves. Before becoming Catwoman, Kyle was a ditzy, timid, awkward secretary. Bruce Wayne, when not being Batman, looks uncomfortable in his own skin and the two together seem to sense there’s more to each other than a lonely secretary and a reclusive billionaire. This tension in the relationship comes to a head in the scene where they both show up to a costume party being the only two people seemingly not wearing costumes, because their day personas are their costumes. They both feel more comfortable as Batman and Catwoman than as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. You can see it in Keaton’s face as he stumbles around as Bruce Wayne, but looks right at home in the Batcave. It’s apparent in Pfeiffer when Batman implores her to spare Shreck’s life at the end in order to come and live with him. He rips off his cowl and tries to appeal to Selina Kyle as Bruce Wayne to live a normal life, but Kyle ultimately decides that she has to be Catwoman and “couldn’t live with myself” if she settled down again as the pushover Selina Kyle. The Penguin’s attempts to fit in and be accepted as mayor under his Cobblepot name are also thwarted, and he ultimately only reacts in anger because of the rejection, crying “I am not a human being, I am an animal!” This statement could be equally true for any of them. The three characters find different ways to handle their isolation, and they are all essentially animals that cannot be tamed. Catwoman knows that both she and Batman could never be content living together as Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne.

Possibly one of the best aspects of this movie I have yet to mention is the score. Danny Elfman brought his absolute best to the first movie, creating the definitive Batman theme and a fantastic score. He ups his game even more for this sequel, creating the perfectly dark and enchanting soundtrack to match the movie that elevates each scene to that surreal fairytale level that Burton seems to be operating on throughout the movie. The soundtrack is absolutely perfect, especially the sections that deal with the Penguin. They generate actual sympathy, and the theme that connects to him is melancholic. It achieves Burton’s goal of making you sympathize with the monster, because even as he commits all these egregious acts of violence and hate, the theme calls back to early in the movie where he was ostracized by his own parents at birth near Christmas time. The theme of the movie seems to be that people can only act in their own nature, and that society’s view of monsters is only skin deep. That is why Penguin can never truly be accepted, and Max Shreck can.

Despite the blatant disregard for the source material, I find both of Burton’s Batman pictures to be thoroughly enjoyable entertainment that contain enough thought provoking content to merit repeated viewings. Some people say that these movies are all style and no substance because of the stunning atmosphere yet underdeveloped plots, but those people fail to realize that the substance in these movies aren’t found in the plot, they lie in the complex characters, their motivations, and the superb acting that goes into portraying them. While I consider the first Batman to be the superior film in a traditional sense, Batman Returns is more enchanting, captivating, visually stunning, personal, and unrestrained. They both have their own merits that make ranking them a tough call. If I’m being objective I’d say…

Batman 3.5/5 stars

Batman Returns  3.25/5 stars

If I was to state my personal feelings and attachments to the movies…

Batman 4/5 stars

Batman Returns 3.75/5 stars

 

 

The Last Crusade, which ironically LeBrain reviewed for his Grade 11 Film Class essay, comparing and contrasting it with Steven Speilberg’s first film Duel.  And I lost a mark for using the word “picture” instead of “film”, which is why I applaud Holen MaGroin for describing it as a “picture”.

** Holen MaGroin has convinced LeBrain to watch these again soon, to pick up on all these things I apparently missed when I was a kid.

*** Before Prince fans get all medieval on Holen, let me point out:  he’s right.  Every time a Prince song comes on, it causes a mental “skip” in the brain.  Like, “Hey, it’s one of those Prince songs from the album.”

#539: Been a long time since I been to Frankenmuth

GETTING MORE TALE #539: Been a long time since I been to Frankenmuth

Frankenmuth Michigan is a small Bavarian hamlet/tourist trap not too far from the Canada border.  Some people love going; I seem to be one of the only dissenting voices.  My best friend Peter introduced us to the Frankenmuth tradition.  His family would typically go once a year, staying at the Bavarian Inn.  The big draws to the town are two.  One is the big “family style” chicken dinner at Zehnder’s, where the food just keeps coming.  The other attraction is Bronner’s, an all-year-round Christmas store.  Some in my family seemed absolutely thrilled to be buying our Christmas ornaments in April.

Frankenmuth seemed a long way to go for some chicken and Christmas ornaments.  However, it’s not too far for a shopping excursion focused on music, so that’s what I turned it into for me.  In the three years I went to Frankenmuth, I found plenty of goodies, and accumulated some entertaining memories.

frankenmuth

My first year was 1992.  I had just finished writing all my final exams for my first year classes at Laurier.  The Freddie Mercury Tribute concert had just aired.  I taped the whole thing, and then recorded it to cassette (three 100 minute tapes).  I tossed that into the Walkman, and joined the family for our first US road trip together.

The Mercury concert was special.  Queen shared the stage with some luminaries as David Bowie (RIP), George Michael (RIP), Mick Ronson (RIP), and many more.  Vivian Campbell played live with Def Leppard for the first time.  Tony Iommi and James Hetfield shared the stage with Queen on “Stone Cold Crazy”.  Guns N’ Roses were there, and Axl got to sing with new friend Elton John.  The excitement in the air was genuine.  There was talk afterwards of someone charismatic, like George Michael or Gary Cherone joining Queen permanently so they could continue.

Our first road stop was a McDonalds in a small town just outside of Flint.  The washroom stunk of piss so badly that my dad couldn’t even use it. Great first impression, Michigan!

When we got to the Bavarian Inn, I had the chance to watch MTV for the first time at length.  After all I’d heard about it, I was disappointed to see it was not nearly as good as Canada’s MuchMusic.  The American coverage of the Mercury concert (which was re-running all weekend) was truncated compared to what we saw in Canada.  MuchMusic had Erica Ehm and others on site at Wembley interviewing the stars and covering behind-the-scenes, while the US coverage cut away to other things.  The food at the Bavarian Inn was incredible, including what I remember to be the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.

I can’t say that I cared for the family style chicken dinner.  “Family style” isn’t my thing (where everybody has the same dinner, all served together on big platters).  If I’m eating out, I will rarely order chicken.  Seemed like a big waste of a night out, to go and eat somewhere that serves chicken dinner just like you get at home.  But I didn’t make these decisions, I just complained about them!

On the way home, we stopped at a Target store in Port Huron.  My first Target store; I had never even heard of them before.  This is where I made my first US music purchases.  In stock was the cassette single for “Let’s Get Rocked” by Def Leppard.  This featured the bonus track “Only After Dark”, a Mick Ronson track, who had just played at the Mercury concert!  The other item I picked up was Slaughter’s new The Wild Life CD, which had a different cover than the ones I’d seen in Canada.  It still appears to be the rarest version today.

The 1993 trip was even better, because this time Peter came with us.  In 1993, Peter was the man with the plan.  He was looking for something.  Something very specific, that as of yet was not released in Canada.  He had read about this new comedy tape called The Jerky Boys, and he was determined to find a copy.  And find a copy he did.

We found The Jerky Boys at a record store just on the outskirts of Frankenmuth.  At the same store, I picked five tapes that I couldn’t get back home:  Savatage’s first albums Sirens (1983), The Dungeons are Calling (1985), Power of the Night (1986) and the brand new Edge of Thorns (1993).  There was also Richie Kotzen’s third album, Electric Joy.  These fine records meant that the summer of 1993 was filled with sounds both heavy and complex.  The Kotzen album was a whole level beyond was I was used to listening to.  As for Savatage, they heavied up my tastes at a time when I was craving faster/heavier/louder.

I spent a lot of time absorbing each of these albums, but it was The Jerky Boys that dominated the car tape deck on that Frankenmuth trip.  Peter and I listened to the entire thing through.  Tarbash the Egyptian Magician, Sol Rosenberg and his glasses (he can’t see goddammit), and the whole gang had us laughing so hard, my sides actually hurt.  When the tape was done, we put it on repeat and played it again.  I’m not sure if my mom and dad enjoyed the Jerky Boys as much as I did.  I started calling people “sizzlechest” and responding to questions with “listen jerky, I don’t need to talk to you.”

What a summer.

This Frankenmuth trip was also my Karaoke debut.  I chose “The Immigrant Song”.  And I fucking killed it, in my opinion!  Like Axl Rose gyrating on meth, I owned that stage.  The heels of my cowboy boots stomped the boards, keeping their own beat.  I asked my entire family to leave the room, but I lost my place in the song when I caught them spying around a corner.

On we sweep, with threshing oar, our only goal will be the western shore.

That was a fantastic trip.  Mission accomplished, with both the music shopping and the Jerky Boys acquisition.  On my third and final year going to Frankenmuth, Peter really upped his game.  Once again, the goal was to acquire something that we could not get in Canada.

Instead of travelling in one car, we did a convoy with two.  Peter and I needed transportation of our own to run the missions we were planning.

As much as MTV did not impress me on my first US trip, our goal this time was dependant on MTV.

“Let’s rent a VCR and tape some episodes of Beavis and Butthead!”  We didn’t get the show in Canada.

That is exactly what we did.  We drove over to the local video store, and rented a VCR.  You might think renting a VCR in a foreign country might be difficult, but it wasn’t.  We hooked it up to the hotel TV (much easier than doing something like this today — more on that in a future instalment of Getting More Tale also involving Peter).  Tuning up MTV, we watched some music before Beavis and Butthead was scheduled.

This time, MTV really pissed me off.  They gleefully ran the embarrassing 1994 Motley Crue interview that the band infamously walked out of.  But the band didn’t do themselves any favours in that interview. MTV baited them a bit with the questions, but they didn’t have to attack Vince Neil in their answers. “No one cares anyway,” said Nikki Sixx when asked about his former frontman. Pushed further, they were asked to comment on Vince’s recent jet-ski accident that put him in hospital with broken ribs. Laughing, Mick Mars asked “What happened to the coral reef?” Sixx answered, “Hey, when 300 pounds of blubber lands on a coral reef, there’s gonna be some dust flying around.”

The question that killed the interview was about “women, hairspray and fire.” MTV ran the segment complete with Nikki mocking the question, while showing images of women, hairspray and fire from their music videos. Stick in a fork in that lineup; it was done.  No matter how good that 1994 Motley Crue album was (and is), that interview polished off the attempted comeback in one stroke.

We recorded a couple episodes of Beavis and Butthead and called it a night.  The next day we did some music and comic book shopping.  US exclusive once more:  Quiet Riot’s reunion album Terrified found and liberated.  I didn’t even know they had come out with anything new.  A cassette single for “Heaven Help” by Lenny Kravitz also found its way home with me. I scored an oversized Black Sabbath comic (Rock-It Comics) and Transformers: Generation 2 #1 with the silver foil fold out cover.

With another successful trip in the books, we packed our bags and checked out.  The last mission to run was returning the VCR to the video store.  There was only one snag.  We were primed and ready to head home early…and the video store opened at noon.  We had to kill some hours driving around, but when that store opened we got the hell out of dodge.  Not the greatest return trip ever, but at least we had Lenny Kravitz.

I stopped going to Frankenmuth after that trip, although Peter and his family returned yearly for some chicken and Christmas ornaments.  My family too.  My mom tells me of a memorable trip that ended in the hospital!   Four years ago my mother, father and sister made a trip where they did the usual; Frankenmuth chicken and the Christmas store. They also ate a lot of junk food; pizza, hot dogs, French fries and candy. On the way home they stopped along the 401 for more French fries. That night my mother ended up in the hospital with a gall bladder attack. It was serious enough that she had it removed two weeks later.  Thank goodness they were home when it happened as they never bothered with extra insurance for a short trip to the US.

As years went on, I ran into people all the time who had gone to Frankenmuth for a vacation.  Inevitably, they will always talk about three things:  the Bavarian Inn, the chicken dinners, and the Christmas store.  None of them seem to have any stories about cool comic books, or finding rare tapes and CDs in Frankenmuth.  Very few of them have done Karaoke, and none have performed “The Immigrant Song” at the Bavarian Inn.  Nobody rented a VCR to record Beavis and Butthead, and then have to wait hours for the store to open to return said VCR.   Nobody even discovered the Jerky Boys on their Michigan trips.

I guess that means that Peter and I are the only ones who did Frankenmuth right.

#417: Tim-Toons!

RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#417: Tim-Toons! Brought to you by the makers of Brett-Lore!

Grade 10 was a great time – good music, good friends.  In Grade 10 I witnessed Rob Szabo blow the school away with a lunchtime performance of “YYZ” by Rush.  It was the talk of the school.  I remember sitting up there in science class after, talking about the band with the teacher Mr. Marrow.

Mr. Marrow (“Joe”, for unknown reasons – his name was Paul) was awesome.  Strict, but fascinating.  Made science interesting.  He did me a favour by appearing in my highschool music video for “Nothing But A Good Time”, as the pissed-off teacher.  Marrow was a moon landing skeptic, but refused to elaborate on his beliefs when pressed.  Like I said, a fascinating guy.

There was a kid in my science class named Tim, who quickly became known as “Pyro Tim” for turning on the gas for the Bunsen burners to see what would happen if you lit it directly from the tap.  “Pyro Tim” and I later went to University together majoring in History, and we had more hijinks there.

In second year, Tim and I were hanging out a lot outside of class.  We had a number of classes together including classic Greek and Roman history.  It was us and a pair of really, really attractive blonde girls named Lee and someone else.  (I can’t remember the other girl’s name — it was Lee I had a crush on.)  We had become an inseparable quartet in class.  We would study after class, or just hang out.  One afternoon post-class, we watched Monty Python (The Life of Brian) and Star Trek (“The Trouble With Tribbles”), just like stereotypical University students in the 1990’s.

One thing that tended to irritate the three of us about Tim was his knack for missing classes (particularly Monday or Friday mornings), and then ask to borrow our notes afterwards.   The ultimate moment of frustration was when he more or less copied an essay I wrote, and then got a better mark than me on it!  I couldn’t believe it!  He copied mine, made some changes and scored a better mark.  How was it possible?  Was he greasing the palms of the professors?  He definitely liked to talk their ears off after class, all dressed up in his shirt and tie.

The frustration boiled in us, but mostly me!  An old Klingon proverb says that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”  It is very cold in Canadian winters.

Another Friday came and went, with Tim a no-show in class.  So, we decided to sabotage him.  With the encouragement of my two friends, I took two sets of notes that day – one for me, and one for him.  I substituted the Greek names of historical figures with characters from the Beachcombers and Star Trek.  I made events up and did absolutely nothing that would have helped him.  He figured out my ruse and got someone else’s notes, and a better mark than me as usual!

All the rest of the guys from highschool that worked on Brett-Lore, our highschool rock-and-sci-fi comic book, had gone to different schools afterwards.  I was the only one left to carry on the legacy.  Enjoy these cartoons from my University days!*

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* On the back of one sketch, I found music, lyrics, and titles that I was working on for song ideas.  They include “The Seven Hills of Rome”, “Cypselus the Tyrant”, (gee, I wasn’t listening to Iron Maiden a lot, was I?), “National Anthem From Some Weird Planet Nearby” (instrumental), and “Hypnotize You”.  For those last two, think Steve Vai and Skid Row respectively.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Ultimate Cut: Watchmen – The Complete Story (blu-ray)

Hot on the heels of my Man of Steel review, here’s…the Watchmen.

WATCHMEN : The Ultimate Cut – The Complete Story (2009 Warner 4 disc blu-ray set)

Directed by Zack Snyder, 216 minutes 

What’s the greatest comic book movie of all time?  I’ve seen a lot of them. There’s quite a few I haven’t seen as well, but it’s a great topic for discussion.  I always have to put Watchmen on the table when discussing great comic book adaptations.

Watchmen is a complex tale.  Its original comic was ambitious, containing page after page of dense backstory information in the form of documents and faux-magazine articles, all very relevant.  There’s even a parallel story taking place, a comic within a comic, which directly reflects one (or arguably more) of the characters in the main story.  Characters and their psychology are key.  In addition, neither the comic nor the movie are linear.  The story unfolds within different time periods, flashing back and forth, as we learn more about the characters, their motivations, and the world they inhabit.

It is the world they inhabit that was the hook for me.  I’m a sucker for alternate universe stories.  Here’s one that sets us on Earth, 1985, but things have unfolded very differently.  The influence of various superheroes/vigilantes has caused history to unfold very differently.  Specifically, it is the presence of Dr. Manhattan, who puts a swift and decisive end to the Vietnam war, who influences history the most.  In this 1985, Richard Nixon is still president, and masked vigilantes are now outlawed.

The Watchmen are a group of such vigilantes, originally known as the Minutemen.  Some, such as Dr. Manhattan truly are superhuman.  Others, such as Nite Owl and his successor Nite Owl II, are mere mortals with high-tech gadgetry and skill as their allies.  All have retired, some in fame and some in anonymity…all but one.  Rorschach.  He remains active, alone and wanted.

The movie begins as a murder mystery.  Someone has managed to identify and kill Edward Blake — The Comedian, once one of the most dangerous heroes alive.  To overpower and murder Blake would require an individual of tremendous resources.  Who?  And are other former vigilantes also at risk?  Rorschach seems to be the only one who wants to know.

Being a fan of the graphic novel, I was very happy with the way that Zack Snyder captured Watchmen. It was done with love and care. The things that are discarded, I didn’t miss so much. The things that he changed, I understand why it was done.  There’s one layer to the story/mystery that has been discarded, probably to keep this thing under 4 hours!  The things that are reverently exactly the same as the comic made my jaw drop in awe.  The acting performances are what they are, but I have to give special mention to Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach.

WATCHMEN_0006The soundtrack is one of the best in recent memory. Outside of Wes Anderson, I haven’t loved a soundtrack this much in a long time.  It’s awesome from the stunning Bob Dylan classic “The Times They Are A’Changing”, to Nat King Cole, to Simon and Garfunkel, Hendrix and Philip Glass, and probably the weirdest use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in movie history.  The soundtrack is where it’s at.  The movie even contains a Village People sighting!  I’ll skip My Chemical Romance.

This Ultimate Cut weaves the comic-within-a-comic, Tales Of The Black Freighter, previously only available on its own, into the main body of Watchmen. These segments are narrated by Gerard Butler.  New live action linking sequences connect the movie to Black Freighter, much like it worked in the graphic novel. People who haven’t read the graphic novel might not understand what “Black Freighter” is doing there, but they should probably start with the less daunting theatrical cut to start with anyway.

WATCHMEN_0003The box set includes four discs, beautifully packaged. Hardly a complaint to be registered. The box is heavy and sturdy. Included is Watchmen: The Motion Comic, packed in its own case, 5 hours long on its own. One disc is the expired digital copy of the theatrical cut (whoop de do) and another disc is loaded with special features. Best of these is Under The Hood, which is based on the graphic novel segments covering Holis Mason.  Mason, the original Nite Owl I, wrote an autobiography called Under the Hood; this film is a faux-documentary on his story. It is presented as a television program from 1975 re-run in 1985, including commercials and scratchy footage. At 35 minutes, this is an absolute must. Other special features include brand new audio commentaries, for those who dare to keep going deeper. This set is just loaded.  Unfortunately I found the sound level inconsistent, I had to turn it up and down frequently.

Having said that, I’m not going to discard my Director’s Cut of Watchmen. Clocking in at almost four hours, watching this version is a commitment. I know that occasionally, I will want to watch the “shorter” version of the film. Since a digital copy of the theatrical (shortest) cut is included here, maybe you won’t feel the need to double-up on Watchmen editions.  For an enriched viewing experience, set aside the four hours one afternoon and enjoy.

4/5 stars

Malin Akerman … Laurie Jupiter / Silk Spectre II

Billy Crudup … Dr. Manhattan / Jon Osterman

Matthew Goode … Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias

Jackie Earle Haley … Rorschach

Jeffrey Dean Morgan … Edward Blake / Comedian

Patrick Wilson … Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl

Carla Gugino … Sally Jupiter / Silk Spectre

Matt Frewer … Moloch