Friday, October 29, 2004

Breakfast In Bed, With a Knuckle Sandwich

On this week's "America's Next Top Model," Tyra Banks sneaks into the apartment while the contestants are asleep. She awakens each and every one of them with a merciless beating. No, seriously. She flings herself on their beds and just slaps the crap out of them. The contestants are delighted. "My jaw was just fractured by Tyra Banks! The Tyra Banks!" I have to believe this was staged. For one thing, if somebody pulled that nonsense with me, I'd instinctively grab onto something -- say, an alarm clock or a table lamp -- and smash it into my attacker's face before I'd even opened my eyes. I'm just sayin'.

Tyra has brought along a plus-size model and a nutritionist, and she gatheres the contestants to talk about body image and proper eating habits. She offers the contestants one-on-one counseling. Cassie confesses to Tyra and Co. that she binges-and-purges occasionally, which in her mind isn't an eating disorder. Except that it totally is. Bonus creepy moment: in a phone call, we learn that Cassie's boyfriend knows that she has an eating disorder, and doesn't seem terribly upset about it. Right on, dude! No fat chicks! Jackass.

Cassie has another problem: the other contestants hate her. Cassie keeps to herself and she's kind of a slob, or as Alliterative Albino Amanda puts it, "a sloppy slut." Cassie whips up a batch of low-carb brownies that none of the other contestants are allowed to eat and leaves the kitchen a mess. The He-Ann Cassie-Haters Club (a.k.a. Ann and Eva) swings into action. Ann seizes a knife and carves into the brownies a demand that Cassie "clean up [her] shit." Eva keeps watch. The other ladies giggle and shush one another. Kelle merrily anticipates "Drama!" When Cassie discovers the vandalism, she's naturally upset. But then she takes it to a weird extreme where the mutilated brownies act as some kind of rape metaphor. She interrogates all of the roommates. Nobody owns up to the crime. Did I say "crime?" This sounds like a job for... Saint Ya Ya! Did you know that Ya Ya is a nurturing caregiver? Yeah, me neither. That's because Ya Ya is actually a condescending twit whose sole agenda is to impress other people with her moral superiority. Ya Ya is fresh out of Buddhist robes and nuns' habits, so she instead dons the most passive-aggressive T-shirt she owns. Dinner that night takes place at Moby's famed restaurant, "Teany," where the patrons may subsist only on select lichens and the very air itself. The other contestants are intrigued by Ya Ya's T-shirt, which is emblazoned with a Portugese word. Ya Ya regally explains that the word means "respect." As a ray of light illuminates her face, a dove with an olive-branch in its mouth lands on her shoulder, and the table centerpiece bursts into heavenly flame, Ya Ya tells them that they need to respect one another more. This goads Ann into confessing, but it only makes Cassie even angrier. She's so angry she could cry! And then she cries. In the background, a pale, stunted vegan waitress schleps dishes, looking none-too-pleased by the presence of so many aspiring models.

The next morning, the women attend a grueling "boot camp" style workout. Most of the women are excited by the indoor obstacle course. Apparently they'd spend all their waking hours at "Chuck E. Cheese," if the food wasn't so fattening. The drill instructor tries to look like a total badass, with fatigues and a crew cut and a scrubbly goatee, but the effect is completely ruined by his severely plucked eyebrows. He claims to be a former military man. In what branch? The Kiss Army? Cassie's body is currently devoid of all nutrients, so she's weak and miserable and not the least bit motivated, even when she's yelled at by The Prettiest Sergeant Ever. After the workout, the women head down the street to another building, where they are greeted by the very same drill instuctor! He's a witch! (Well, he does have eyebrows like Billie Burke.) The women now have to run up fourteen flights of stairs, straight to the roof, where they will immediately be photographed in the most alluring poses they can muster. All that running makes Eva want to throw up, but she can't quite commit to it. ("HUCK!" Pause, stagger a few feet. "HORP!") Nothing comes out. She should ask Cassie for pointers.

The next day, the women are photographed while bouncing on a trampoline. Taking the judges' previous advice to heart, Ya Ya succeeds in looking less 'like a dancer" and more like a total spaz. Ann inexplicably brutalizes herself, slamming her body face-first into the trampoline. She ends up with a lot of scrapes and a "best photo" that makes it look like she's been shot out of a cannon. Kelle's boobs slip the surly bonds of both Earth and her outfit. Even pixelated for family viewing, the liberated breasts flop gaily about, and with more grace and abandon than the rest of Kelle's body combined. Kelle keeps jumping up and down, grinning moronically, while people scream at her to tuck her breasts back into her dress. Everybody thinks Kelle is the worst model left in the competition. Even the little toy dog that sits on the fat guy's lap thinks so. With the last few shreds of her self-esteem blasted into tiny atoms, Kelle is booted from the contest. So, Kelle... still enjoying the "drama?"

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The Batman-Superman of Earth-X! (Jimmy Olsen #93)


In the June, 1966 issue of "Jimmy Olsen," our hero dons his most stylish outfit -- brown suit, green bowtie with black polka dots, and a vest that seems to have been made from the hirsute, jaundiced back of a circus strongman -- to visit his friend, Professor Potter. Potter shows off his "dimension-travel machine," which resembles a bathysphere with piano legs. Potter then exits, telling Jimmy to "wait here -- but don't touch anything!" That's panel two. In panel three, Jimmy has already climbed inside the thing and "accidentally" pushed a button. Panel four depicts a mammoth explosion. THE END.

Naw, I'm just foolin.' The only effect of the explosion on Jimmy's person is to muss his hair and knock his ugly green tie slightly askew. The machine, meanwhile, is a wreck. But it worked! Jimmy is now on "another Earth" and immediately encounters a double of his boss, Perry White. But this Perry White is a matador! With a blue cape! Because this is another earth, where the seamstresses are all colorblind, I guess. Jimmy saves Perry from a charging bull and makes an astounding discovery: "Maybe it was the explosion's radiation reacting with this Earth's sun... but here I have superpowers! YAHOO!" Giddy with power, Jimmy uses his remarkable abilities to... redecorate. "I'll surprise Perry by focusing my heat vision to burn his ranch brand right on his front door!" And if he complains, you can just stare at him real hard and blast his head off! Jimmy also does some chores, shoeing a bull with his bare hands, while in the background, what appears to be a giant metronome smokes ominously. In no time, Perry dies, but not before giving Jimmy a letter of introduction to his nephew, Metropolis World's Fair employee... Clark Kent.

The letter somehow entitles Jimmy to traipse about the fairgrounds after hours and by himself. He can eat all the saltwater taffy he wants! While fondling a statue of Earth-X American president Benedict Arnold, the super-strong Jimmy knocks it over, into another statue, which falls into another, and so forth. He uses his superpowers to put the statues back in place, but is spied by Clark Kent. "You can fly!" Clark observes. "You have super-strength! You're Steel-Man!" Clark reveals that he is a science-fiction writer, specializing in lame, unattractively costumed superheroes. A poster in his apartment depicts "Solarman," who wears black trunks, a red "muscle shirt" with flared shoulders, and a pointy purple stocking cap that some bully jammed down over his eyes. Also, he's barefoot. Fashion-conscious Clark sees that Jimmy's stylish suit was unharmed by the explosion and must therefore be indestructible. As Clark watches, Jimmy unravels his clothing reweaves it into a replica of the outfit that Clark Kent creation "Steel-Man" wears. He adds a cowl to protect his identity, and the cowl looks exactly like Batman's (with the ears!) for no goddamn reason at all.

Soon, Jimmy tangles with the LUTHAR League. LUTHAR stands for "League Using Terror, Havoc And Robbery. So, the full name is "League Using Terror, Havoc And Robbery League." Jimmy becomes the toast of Metropolis after foiling one of their dastardly capers. The city honors Jimmy with a ticker-tape parade, depicted with some very dubious perspective. Observe the policeman who isn't much larger than the child he's standing next to! Gape at the convertible that seems to be about seven feet wide and twenty-five feet long! Marvel at how Jimmy is about twice as tall as the people who are sitting in front of him! Later, the LUTHAR League has an emergency meeting! (And I'm sorry, but as organizational names go, "LUTHAR League" sound about as menacing as "The Daughters of the American Revolution" or "The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty To Animals.") The head of LUTHAR may possibly be the Joker! Or perhaps not. The narration is quite coy about this.

The LUTHAR League (of Women Voters) raids the World's Fair "Art Pavilion," nabbing "a genuine Rembrandt portrait of that great actor, Mickey Mantle." Ha ha ha! Shut up. Jimmy fights valiantly, but is felled by radioactive rocks. Professor Potter shows up to bring Jimmy home, but Jimmy doesn't really feel like going just yet. Since there's apparently nothing at all going on in the Professor's life right now, he agrees to just hang around on Earth-X until Jimmy changes his mind. Jimmy is lured into a trap by the Joker -- er, make that Clark Kent! He was wearing a suit that looked just like the Joker's outfit and a clown mask that just happened to look exactly like the Joker's head, for no goddamn reason at all! (And yes, it was ostensibly to protect his identity, but nobody else in LUTHAR wore masks during their meetings and they all dressed in coveralls, not purple tuxedos.) Clark uses a machine to transfer Jimmy's superpowers into himself. He embarks on a reign of terror that lasts for exactly one panel before powerless, unmasked ("So that's what he looks like!") Jimmy confronts him. Jimmy tricks Clark into exposing himself to a mysterious gas that destroys his powers. Jimmy nails Clark with an uppercut to the jaw! Clark rots in jail. "Bah!" says Clark. (I couldn't agree more.) Jimmy finally returns home, leaving behind a promising romance with the Earth-X version of his girlfriend, Lucy Lane, who unlike the more familiar version, is not an emasculating harpy.

In the second story in this issue, Jimmy goes undercover as a drill sergeant. Except that doesn't do anything to disguise himself, and he uses his real name. Still, Jimmy is 'a trained secret agent" who was given this important assignment by "the Pentagon." God help us all.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Hey, Nerds! Comics!

I meant for this blog to focus mainly on comics, hence the name. And yet, this is only the first post about them. Go figure. I buy comics every week or two -- it's mostly DC stuff, with some manga. I'll review my purchases here. My other comics posts will most likely deal with some of the treasures I've acquired during my thirty years of collecting. (I have a complete run of "Dazzler." Jealous?)

Last Friday, I bought...

Teen Titans #17 by Geoff Johns, Mike McKone, and Marlo Alquiza.
So... bloody, amputated limbs are "approved by the Comics Code Authority" now? Of course, the teeny-tiny stamp on this issue's cover consists of white lettering on a black background, which is the reverse of its usual look. Maybe this is the Bizarro Comics Code Authority. ("Bloody, amputated limbs am REQUIRED!") This book also contains a scene with a character getting shot in the face. Thank goodness for that code stamp, or else I'd think this was unsuitable for children. Now, that said, I'm not a kid, and if all superhero comics still read like they did in the 70's, well, I wouldn't be reading superhero comics anymore. No, sir. I'd be much, much happier. In this issue, the Titans wind up ten years in the future, and find that the junior members -- Wonder Girl, Superboy, Robin, and Kid Flash -- have all become grim, possibly villainous versions of their adult counterparts. There's also a buck-nekkid, feral version of Beast Boy, who has amped-up powers -- he can become two separate animals at the same time. (I thought he was actually cooler than the current version.) The future Raven -- well, I don't know what's up with this Raven, but it clearly ain't good. Johns throws in a future version of the new Aquagirl, just for good measure. The young Titans enter into an uneasy truce with their future selves, and wonder how things could have gone so wrong. But then Superboy sees something they didn't want him to see... (Hint: bloody, amputated limb.) It's good, violent, soapy fun.

Identity Crisis #5 by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales, and Mike Bair.
Atom fans will probably be pleased as punch about what transpires this issue. Firestorm fans, not so much. Meltzer's script offers up another possible suspect in the murder of Sue Dibny, even as it suggests that the person who sent Lois Lane that note in a previous issue wasn't threatening her, but warning her. As always, the dialogue and characterization is spot-on. Morales' stunning artwork really sells the story, particularly in the final sequence, as two young men listen to what may be their fathers' final words. The faults and merits of "Identity Crisis" have been discussed to death on the web, so I'll restrict myself to this: I think that superhero storytelling is diverse enough to allow for something like this book as well as more lighthearted fare such as "She-Hulk" or even the Cartoon Network stuff. And I think that DC (and Marvel) superhero continuity is fluid enough to accomodate radically different tones in storytelling about the same characters. I have umpteen versions of the Legion of Superheroes in my collection. For me, dealing with the events of "Identity Crisis" is a freaking cakewalk.

H.E.R.O. #21 by Will Pfeifer, Dale Eaglesham, and Wade von Grawbadger.
This is the next-to-last issue of "H.E.R.O." I've followed this book since issue number one, and I have to say that I enjoyed it a lot more when it functioned as an anthology title. Pfeifer is certainly wrapping things up in an explosive fashion, with most of the former users of the H.E.R.O. device dying at the hands of a super-powered... serial... killer...ZZZZZ. *snort* Sorry, nodded off there for a second. Luckily, I'm still interested in the character of Robby Reed, so I'll buy the final issue just to see what happens to him. Eaglesham handles the pencilling chores with his typical aplomb, meaning that it's quite dynamic, as well as anatomically shaky and just unbelievably ugly. It's probably for the best that "H.E.R.O." is ending. I would've dropped it soon enough anyway.

Plastic Man #11 by Kyle Baker.
Baker's standard approach with this book is to throw a bunch of jokes at you and see which ones stick. As per usual, this issue consists of more "hits" than "misses." The bulk of the plot gives us a "brain swapping ray" that redistributes the pysches of Plastic Man, President Lex Luthor, an FBI agent, a mad scientist, a cat, a frog, a fly, and (wait for it) Bizarro. According to the internet (so it must be true) Woozy Winks' surreal speech at the end consists of actual George W. Bush quotes. I find this sadly plausible. Baker also throws in some meta-textural jokes that don't work at all. And in a move meant to bolster one of those failed jokes, he gives us a Vice-President Pete Ross who is Black. The funny part for me was thinking about all the hard-core fanboys going out of their minds with rage when they saw that. Haw! Losers.

A Future DVD Purchase I Won't Regret: The Grudge (2004)

The Grudge opened last Friday amidst a brutal critical drubbing. Almost to a man, reviewers have described it as illogical, repetitive, clich├ęd, and -- the kiss of death for a horror film -- not scary. I saw "The Grudge" yesterday, and in my opinion these reviewers are out of their goddamn minds.

When deciding whether or not to see a film, I tend to give a lot of weight to critical consensus. Although I always take the opinions of individual reviewers with a grain of salt -- I remembered Roger Ebert's shrill anti-Bush editorials and his so-glowing-it's-radioactive review of "Fahrenheit 9/11" when I read how much he despised "Team America" -- when legions of reviewers hate a film, I figure it's for a good reason. Before I saw "The Grudge," the only positive review I read was from a guy who loved "Ringu." And as you can see a few posts back, I thought "Ringu" was godawful. But "The Grudge's" trailer had intrigued me and I'm fascinated by the film's Japanese setting and I'm a sucker for anything with Sarah Michelle Gellar in it. So I plunked down my dough for a matinee ticket. I'm glad I did.

"The Grudge," a remake of the Japanese film "Ju-On" (2000), concerns a haunted house so potent that even if you manage to escape it, the ghosts will just follow you home and kill you anyway. The story occasionally moves backwards in time, but unlike most of the reviewers who've seen it, I didn't find this confusing in the least. And I don't think most other people will either. The present-day storyline with Sarah Michelle Gellar moves steadily forward, and it's intercut with the stories of the man who killed himself after visiting the house and the first family to move into it after the deaths of the previous tenants. The film lays out these puzzle pieces for the audience and then proceeds to fit them all together into a compelling whole. This technique culminates with a masterful sequence in which the house seemingly transports Gellar to a day three years in the past, allowing her to witness the impetus for one of the deaths. Director Takashi Shimizu increases the tension with moments in which the dead character seems to be aware of Gellar's presence. As an amateur horror story writer, I can tell you that one of my biggest challenges is finding ways to impart backstory without making it tedious. "The Grudge" accomplishes this quite deftly.

Most of "The Grudge's" negative reviews focus on how the various characters always investigate strange sights or noises instead of running away or calling the police. I feel I must defend "The Grudge" on this score. I watched the film with an eye for this sort of thing, and I think in most cases the characters' behavior is logical. They are usually following what appears to be a small child or a cat (although it's actually something that manages to be both and neither) or someone in distress. At one point, a ghost even disguises itself as another character. Is "The Grudge" repetitive? In the sense that the house keeps killing people, I suppose so. The difference, however, is that the victims in the grudge are not the ciphers of a slasher film but are instead interesting, sympathetic people. If their personalities are only lightly sketched, I can forgive that in light of their limited screen time -- as opposed to something like "Don't Look Now," which had a whole film in which to make me care about Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and failed miserably.

I think a lot of reviewers were put off by a lack of a central character in "The Grudge." Although Gellar gets top billing, her story occupies only about half of the actual running time. The film's puzzle-box structure gives us glimpses of many characters' lives... before they are dispatched by the house's bloodthirsty ghosts. This is not a character study, but something far more visceral. The movie doles out its scares pretty regularly and always manages to keep them from being repititious. There's a powerful scene with a character in her office tower's stairwell, with the lights flickering out in the upper levels, causing darkness to sink down towards her while something is crawling up from the lower levels. During an elevator ride, we see through the window (but the character isn't looking) a ghostly little boy standing on one of the passing floors. And the same ghost is waiting on the next floor, and on the next, and on the next...! "The Grudge's" ghosts also have a sense of humor. When a character in an apartment building gets a phone call from another character who claims to be waiting several floors down -- and who the audience knows is dead -- the first character agrees to "buzz [him] in." She does so, unlocking a door several stories below. She turns around, aaaannnd... cue doorbell. (Candygram!)

Is "The Grudge" perfect? No, although it's pretty damned close. There are a few scenes that are meant to be frightening but just aren't -- like the shower scene with Gellar finding a dead hand (or as a brilliant Television Without Pity post described it, "zombie baby ass") on the back of her head. She feels the hand, looks scared, turns around, and that's it. That's not scary. That's just weird. Also, the film would have been even better if it had ended one scene earlier. Still, it was well worth my time and money, it did a great job of repeatedly scaring the bejeezus out of me, and I plan to see it again. And you can bet your (zombie baby) ass I'll be buying the eventual DVD.