Friday, June 26, 2009

Goodbye Michael

On reflecting on the career of the late Michael Jackson, I have to start by saying that I hate child singers. Their voices grate on my nerves. The Osmonds and the Jackson Five are at the top of this list. That colors my views of the rest of Michael Jackson's career.

Something else, he was always a little creepy. His first number 1 solo hit was Ben which was a love song sung to a rat from the movie of the same name. I didn't pay much attention when he released his album, Off the Wall.

Then came Thriller with its first two releases, Billie Jean and Beat It. I didn't mind Billie Jean and I kind of liked Beat It, especially the video (although these days I can't watch it without thinking of Weird Al's version). The rest of the world went crazy over Michael. Everything he touched turned to gold. MTV devoted huge chunks of time to Thriller and the Making of Thriller (which was longer). Just signing background for an unknown like Rockwell (Somebody's Watching Me) guaranteed a huge hit. All of his siblings released records, even the ones who had never recorded before or who had retired from singing.

Michael began to get seriously weird. It is impossible to say at this point just how strange Jackson actually was. Some of the original stories were planed by Jackson and his publicists. He didn't really sleep in a hyperbaric tube. He just posed in one for a fake story. The same was true about his wanting to buy the Elephant Man's skeleton.

Other stories were true. He underwent a lot of plastic surgery. Between his first and second solo albums he changed his nose and straightened his hair. Later he added a cleft chin. His face kept changing over the years until he began to resemble Morbius the Living Vampire. At the same time his skin got paler and paler. Officially he was under treatment for a skin condition. There were rumors that he had taken drugs that totally removed all skin color. This is possible. He stopped going out in the sun and even when he moved between a car and a building his handlers held up umbrellas to shield him from the sun (another Morbius similarity).

Pop psychiatrists say that he was so busy performing that he missed his childhood causing him to fixate on it as an adult. He was said to be fond of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. This was the inspiration for his home/theme park, Neverland.

This might be charming in a 20-something but it starts to get strange in a 20-something and outright disturbing in a 40-something.

As Michael was to find out, once you start planting stories about a celebrity being strange, they develop a life of their own and can never be taken back.

By the end of the 1980s, pop music had moved on. Michael still managed some hits into the 1990s but his production costs were so high that even his best-sellers didn't make money.

Michael married Elvis's daughter. They broke up and he married the mother of his first two children. That also broke up.

Questions remain. Did he actually sleep with either of his wives? Did he really give his second son the same name as the first? And did he actually call him Blanket? How did a black man produce blond children? Did he die a wealthy man or one heavily in debt?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

FF blogging - the Inhumans

Continuing my blogging on old issues of the Fantastic Four...

I left off with the defeat of the Frightful Four. This was followed by an annual where Reed and Sue were married with nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe making a cameo. The monthly comic continued from there with a four and a half issue story. It started with a domestic scene - Reed turning his inventing skills to making a dishwasher for Sue.

The issue introduced Gorgon who could shake the entire city or cause a building to collapse with a stomp of his foot. He was chasing Medusa, the only member of the Frightful Four still at large. She carjacked the Torch and had him drive her to someplace secluded. Gorgon stole the FF's helicopter and followed.

As it turned out, Johnny drove Medusa to an area near Empire State University which had figured in one of the last single-issue stories the previous year. Gorgon found them there but the ruckus disturbed the Dragon Man, an artificial creation from that same issue. Sue had made an impression on Dragon Man in kind of a King Kong/Fay Wray way. Remembering Sue, Dragon Man took Medusa to safety.

The FF and Gorgon caught up with them on an abandoned sky scraper. Dragon Man grabbed Sue, Gorgon grabbed Medusa and caused the building to collapse.

In the following issue Reed, Johnny, and the Thing survived the building's collapse, recovered Sue, and sort of adopted Dragon Man as a pet. This caused problems since he had the mind of a child, could breath fire, and was stronger than the Thing. They finally sedated him.

Cut to the remnants of Johnny's love life. While he had his own comic he had been dating Doris Evans but she dumped him. He was wandering around a bad part of town when he saw a lovely red head. She called up a wind storm and vanished. He managed to find her again. She caused a fire but he flamed on and absorbed the flames.

It turned out that she was an inhuman and mistook him for one also. She started introducing him to her family. Things went well enough until she got to Gorgon and Medusa. The Torch summoned the rest of the FF and Black Bolt, the head of the Inhumans returned. Cut to the next issue.

The Inhumans attacked the FF. Black Bolt took on the Thing fighting him to a tie. The Inhumans were mainly trying to hide from someone called the Seeker who managed to capture the Inhuman Triton during the fight. The rest of the Inhumans escaped with the help of Lockjaw, the Inhuman's giant dog. Lockjaw could open time/space portals.

Next the Seeker invaded the FF's headquarters and took Dragon Man, thinking that he was an Inhuman.

When they returned, Reed checked his survelance tapes to see what happened to Dragon Man then used one of his gadgets to track the Seeker. The Seeker turned out to be quite reasonable. His job was to rund up Inhumans and return them to the Great Refuge where they belonged. He offered to return Dragon Man with appologies. Unfortunately, the sedative wore off and Dragon Man woke up, tore loose of his restraints, and left.

The next issue started with Reed and Sue saving Triton after Dragon Man shattered his water tank. Johnny and Ben pursued Dragon Man. In an amazing coincidence (that would be repeated two months later), they caught up with Dragon Man right outside Alicia's window (Alicia was the Thing's girlfriend). Johnny eventually subdued Dragon Man and the army took him to a deserted island off-panel.

The Seeker escorted Reed and Sue out and returned to the Great Refuge, but not before Reed planted a homing device.

The FF chartered a jetliner and followed. Johnny was obsessed with Crystal, the red haired Inhuman.

In the meantime, Lockjaw trasported the Inhumans royal family back to the Great Refuge and we found out a little more about the politics. Black Bolt was the rightful ruler but lost his voice in an accident caused by his brother Maximus. Maximus was the current ruler and dreamed of killing humanity so that the Inhumans would be the only race on the planet.

Things got a little confused. Maximus wanted to marry Medusa. She, in turn, was in love with Black Bolt which is why she left the Great Refuge in the first place. There was an implication that Gorgon had been sent by Maximus to retreive her which does not explain why he took her to Black Bolt, instead. Possiblt Stan gave Gorgon a line that he meant to give the Seeker.

Regardless, Black Bolt reclaimed his crown with Medusa speaking for him. Maximus went along with this since he intended to activate his human-killing device and reclaim the crown.

The FF finally made it to the Great Refuge as maximus activated his device.

Cut to next issue - the device was a dud. Humans and Inhumans are genetically identical. The only difference is their artificially-induced powers. This knowledge drove Maximus mad and used his machice to create a negative zone cutting it off from the rest of the world. The FF escaped with the help pf Sue's force field but the Inhumans, including Johnny's new girlfriend, Crystal, were trapped.

And that was just the first half of the issue.

These issue were interesting for several reasons. It introduced the Inhumans who continue to be supporting characters in the Marvel Universe. At four and a half issues, this was the longest continued story that Lee and Kirby did. It also marked the start of Joe Sinnott as the FF's regular inker. He gave Kirby's art an updated look.

This story arc marked the beginning of Reed and Sue's marriage, one of very few super hero marriages in the 1960s. Implied, Johnny Storm graduated from high school and moved into the Baxter Building along with Sue (they previously lived in the house she inherited from her parents). Johnny and Crystal's infatuation marked Johnny's transition to adulthood. Their romance lasted through the Lee/Kirby years.

The only problem was what to do for an encore? With issue 50 coming up fast, Stan and Jack had something special planned.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Land of the Lost II

I haven't seen the Land of the Lost movie and I don't intend to so I can't offer a review of it. What I can do is review why I don't want to see it. I'm not alone in this. The movie is a major flop. It cost something like $200 million to produce and promote (IMDB gives $100 million but does not include marketing) but it only took in $18 million on its opening weekend.

Some movie ideas are so stupid that you wonder how anyone ever thought that people would watch them. The Jack Black/Green Lantern is one of these. Mercifully, it never got beyond the talking phase.

Land of the Lost can best be described as a Bizarro-world version of the TV show. The TV show was a serious drama aimed at kids (although adults could appreciate the science-fiction concepts). It was centered around a family of a father and his two kids. It was produced on a shoe-string budget. Top science fiction writers worked on it. The kids acted like kids and the animals acted like animals.

In contrast, the movie is a crude PG-13 comedy. It revolves around three unrelated adults. According to several review, the plot is mainly a bunch of comedy sketches strung together. There are no kids and the animals act like whatever the comedy bit requires.

So who was the audience for this thing? Fans of the original will not find much to like. Will Farrell fans who were not into the show are probably wondering why he did this?

This is not Farrell's first problem with translating 1960s and 1970s material. Bewitched and The Producers both bombed. The Producers was actually pretty good but Bewitched wasted both Farrell and Nichole Kidman in a script that couldn't make up its mind what it wanted to be.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Futurama Returns

Futurama was created as a companion piece to the Simpsons. Originally Fox showed it immediately after the Simpsons but the later player with the schedule, showing it at 7:00. In addition, once they started carrying football, the games always lasted until 8:00 or later so Futurama was only seen for the second half of the season. Between the earlier time and reduced exposure, it's audience averaged half that of the Simpsons. Since Fox ordered full seasons worth of episodes but only showed half-seasons, Futurama continued for a season after Fox stopped ordering new episodes.

This was a shame. The show started out amusing and got progressively better as time passed. Its best episodes were in its final season and it went out on a high note with Fry, the main character, exchanging his hands with the Robot Devil in order to gain the musical ability needed to make Lela love him (the Robot Devil got his hands back at the end leaving the show on an ambiguous note).

Cartoon Central bought the rights to the show and it quickly became a staple. When the rights expired Comedy Central picked it up and commissioned four made-for-DVD movies that could be cut into four episodes each. These in turn were popular enough that Comedy Central just announced that they are ordering 26 new episodes.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Land of the Lost

During the 1960s and 1970s, Hanna-Barbera ruled Saturday morning with limited-animation cartoons. In the late-60s and early 70s they had some competition from a couple of puppeteers named Sid and Marty Kroft. The Krofts produced several live-action shows that made a splash. The Krofts' first several shows were light-weight entertainment aimed at kids. In 1974 they did a serious show called Land of the Lost.

As originally promoted (and as implied in the theme song), a family was on rafting trip when an earthquake dropped them into a valley where dinosaurs still existed. What was actually produced was a science-fiction cult classic.

From the first few lines of the first episode it was established that the Marshall family was no longer on Earth. The world that they ended up in had dinosaurs but it also had ape-men called Pakuni and lizard-men called Sleestak.

Several of the best known science fiction writers were involved with the show as well as some Star Trek alumni. The story editor was David Gerrold, best known for the Trouble With Tribbles episode of Star Trek. Trek's story editor, D. C Fontaina contributed a script as did Walter Koenig.

As revealed over the first season, the Land of the Lost was a tiny pocket universe created by a lizard-like race called the Altrusians. This universe contained glowing crystals with special properties according to their color. If several crystals were combined into a matrix then they could control aspects of time and space. A number of pylons containing these matrixes maintained the Land of the Lost, controlling things such as the  weather and the movement of the sun and moons.

At some point the Altrusian race fell and devolved into the Sleestak. One of the Altrusians named Enik was stranded in his people's future and was trying to return to his own time to warn his people. Enik was a frequent ally but his degenerate descendants, the Sleestak were mainly interested in sacrificing the Marshals to their god.

A few times the closed nature of the pocket universe was demonstrated. The Marshalls tried to escape by following a river only to end up back where they came from. On a high cliff the Marshalls used binoculars to look at the next cliff only to see their own backs.

A young pakuni named Cha-ka was a regular. A consistent language was created for the pakuni.

All of this was at odds with the production values. Saturday morning shows were produced on a shoe-string budget. The Krofts typically spent most of their budget up-front on sets and costumes. Even that didn't go far. The show only had three sleestak costumes and three pakuni. In order to show a jungle-universe on a budget, many sets were constructed in miniature with the live-action cast added through chromakey. This was never very convincing.

The dinosaurs were animated through stop-motion supplimented by puppets. The models used were poor, even by 1970s standards.

While science fiction was part of the show, the episodes centered on the relationship of the Marshall family and their efforts to return home.

The show's cult status comes from this mix of ambitious science fiction and shoe-string budget. Watching it requires a major suspension of disbelief, much like the 1960s Dark Shadows.

The first season ended with a clever twist. Rather than leave the Marshals stranded in case the show was cancelled or precluding the possibility of other seasons, the last episode of the first season managed to do both. Enik managed to create a time doorway but it was stuck on the Marshall family plunging down a waterfall (as shown in the opening credits). The Marshalls couldn't leave the Land of the Lost until three people entered and the earlier version falling down the waterfall couldn't enter until three people left. The solution was for the two sets of Marshalls to exchange places. The current version went home and the earlier version came to the Land of the Lost, bringing the series in a full circle.

Presumably the second season was events that happened to the Marshalls before they left but had not been shown earlier.

For the third season the show changed studios and everything changed. Spencer Milligan who played the father, Rick Marshall, left the show and was replaced by his "brother", Uncle Jack Marshall. The family moved from the cave they had been living in to an abandoned Sleestak city.

The quality of the scripts declined. Many of the rules established in the first two seasons were dropped. The show was cancelled after this season.

A new version of Land of the Lost was created in the 1990s. It had a revised setting and improved production values but the scripts were uninspired.

A theatrical version will be released this week. The previews make it look like nothing more than a framework for Will Farrell jokes.