Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Look Back: The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)


This is the first of occasional posts about some favorite films…



When the Year of Living Dangerously was released, it made quite an impact on me. I’ve always enjoyed smart political and newsroom dramas (films like Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Shattered Glass come to mind). Adding to the appeal of this film was its exotic locale, Indonesia.

Though the movie was a U.S.-funded production (MGM/UA) that featured American actors in prominent roles (such as Sigourney Weaver and Michael Murphy), the film is otherwise thoroughly Australian, with Aussie director Peter Weir at the helm and, in the lead role, a young Mel Gibson, who had already gained international attention for the first two Mad Max films and Gallipoli, but was not yet a superstar. (Though born in the U.S., Gibson was raised and trained as an actor in Australia.)

Of course, one of the film’s most memorable performances is delivered by actress Linda Hunt, as cameraman Billy Kwan, a male character. Hunt deservedly received the Academy award for best supporting actress for her performance.

Based on the novel of the same name, the film follows a green but ambitious Australian journalist named Guy Hamilton on his first overseas assignment in the early 1960s. Set against the backdrop of real-life historical events, the country of Indonesia is on the verge of Civil War, as Communists threaten to topple a government that is dominated by the military and Islamists.

Actress Linda Hunt earned an Oscar for her portrayal
of male television news cameraman Billy Kwan
On the surface, the film is somewhat in the same category as Casablanca—a love story mixed with foreign intrigue, where a journalist must choose between his ambition to break a big news story and his love for a British embassy worker/undercover intelligence agent (Weaver). But this being a Peter Weir film, the addition of Hunt’s character—as a half Asian-half European dwarf—and the backdrop of Indonesia lends the film an otherworldly “magic realist” quality that is greatly accentuated by the film’s score by Greek composer Vangelis (who also scored Blade Runner).

As I mentioned up front, this movie greatly influenced me. As anyone familiar with my work on Rob Hanes Adventures knows, stories of foreign intrigue set in exotic locales are a favorite genre of mine.

In fact, one of my earliest stories–”The Assassin”—which appears in the Rob Hanes Archives trade paperback collection of the series’ early zine adventures—was very much influenced by this story, partly in its ambiance and particularly in the “protagonist” of the story, Jacoby, who was based somewhat on Gibson’s appearance in the Year of Living Dangerously.

A few other tidbits: when I first watched the film, I was surprised that I understood some of the "Indonesian" spoken in the film. I was aware the movie was mostly filmed in the Philippines, where my parents are from, but assumed they were speaking Indonesian. (Many of the Indonesian roles are played by Filipino actors.) It turns out, of course, that the characters are simply speaking their natural Filipino dialects, most likely Tagalog.

In addition, after I saw the movie, I was anxious to read the book. Surprisingly, at the time, the book was no longer in print in the U.S. As a result, since this was well before the Internet (let alone Amazon), I was left with ordering the book from overseas and having to get a cashier's check in Australian dollars that also covered a postage fee that was was more than the price of the standard paperback book I was ordering. Nevertheless, I ordered the book and enjoyed it, so never regretted the outlay of money and effort it took to get it. It's still a valued part of my home library.

This film was one of the first I purchased on VHS and in widescreen format. The film only relatively recently has been finally made available on DVD in widescreen format.

Monday, February 2, 2015

REVIEWS: Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary

I’ve mentioned in prior posts that the increased mainstream interest in comics has led to an explosion of serious, in-depth biographies and documentaries focused on cartoonists like HergĂ© (Tintin), Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Will Eisner (The Spirit), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), and Alex Toth.

A recent such book that I read awhile back and am finally getting around to reviewing is Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary by Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen. Capp is the creator-cartoonist of L’il Abner, a hillbilly comic-strip that ran from 1934 to 1977, which often satirized American culture and politics, and reflected Capp’s rather cynical view of the world. I grew up with L'il Abner in the pages of the New York Daily News during the 1960s and '70s, and, as an early avid student of comics history, was well aware of the history of the strip. (The following is a review of the Kindle edition of the book.)

Though now partly obscured by the passage of time, at his peak, Capp was a media celebrity, partly because, like many of the most successful of newspaper cartoonists, he was a master self-promoter. He was among the first cartoonists to become wealthy merchandising his characters and he successfully leveraged his syndicated comic strip into other media, including a still-staged Broadway musical based on his comic strip. Capp himself was a popular public speaker and often appeared on television, including the Tonight Show.


Even if you never heard of Capp or aren’t familiar with his work, many of the characters and settings that sprang from his imagination—L’il Abner, Daisy Mae, Pappy and Mammy Yokum, the town of Dogpatch—have become part of iconic mainstream American lore. His strip also gave us Sadie Hawkins Day and the Shmoo.

Capp also had a legendary dark, misanthropic and curmudgeonly streak that ultimately proved to be his undoing, which has somewhat cast a shadow over his achievements.

To partly understand the man is to know that Capp lost one of his legs in a trolley accident at the age of 9. While the ambitious Capp early on refused to let it define him, his very determination to do so no doubt colored much of his personality. To his credit, this made Capp, to a degree, a model and advocate for people with disabilities. The book movingly tells of his work in reaching out to amputees, especially children, to assure them that they could continue to have normal, successful lives. During World War II, he produced a comic-strip pamphlet for war amputees that drew on his own personal experience.

Capp came from a home with an absentee salesman for a father and a mother who doted on him but always struggled to make ends meet. Due to his father’s absence, Capp was forced to be the “man of the house” at an early age, but he also had a streak of independence and rebellion. As a youth, he hitchhiked across much of the country and soon realized that his artistic talent was his ticket to fame and fortune.

Capp never shied away from a fight and several such scrapes brought him notoriety:

Best known is his legendary bitter feud with fellow cartoonist Ham Fisher, creator of Palooka Joe, for whom Capp once worked as an assistant. Capp chafed at Fisher’s claims that the concept of L’il Abner originated in his strip, while Fisher resented the success of his once assistant. The feud became very nasty, with Fisher accusing Capp in court surreptitiously placing pornographic images in his comics; in turn, Capp taunted Fisher and turned his cartoonist peers against Fisher. The incident led to Fisher being humiliated and ostracized, and his eventual suicide.

There is also Capp’s infamous 1969 public encounter with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a Montreal hotel room, during the couple’s famous “bed in” for peace during their honeymoon. The incident coincides with Capp’s seeming political shift from bleeding heart liberal to arch conservative during the 1970s. At the risk of over-simplifying, much of this shift could be attributed to the generation gap. While Capp always sided with the “little guy,” his poor background and hard scrabble upbringing made if difficult for him to sympathize with the hippie youth movement, particularly since, in his eyes, many of these young people were privileged college kids. Capp went all out in going to the other side, embracing people like Nixon and Spiro Agnew, taunting student audiences at his college appearances, and even considering a run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. (Capp at one point received serious encouragement from the GOP establishment, including the White House.)

The ego and ambition that led him to fortune and power also was his undoing. As the book shows, Capp was likely a serial sexual predator, often using his celebrity and power to bed women. While Capp always found willing partners who, as social climbers or would-be starlets, were often willing to trade favors with Capp, he also apparently often preyed on co-eds at the university campuses he frequently visited. (Actress Goldie Hawn has acknowledged that she was the victim of one of Capp’s “casting couch” encounters, but she walked out on him.) While some of his college age victims simply let it slide (or the colleges, in those less enlightened times, simply asked him to leave town), serious charges were eventually brought against him that proved to be his undoing. While never charged, the notoriety put a chill on his work and reputation. (The Capp family initially cooperated with the authors of the biography; though they initially understood the writers would necessarily cover some of the darker aspects of Capp’s life, the family apparently became less cooperative once they saw the extent of the coverage of these incidents in the early drafts.)

In the meantime, Capp’s complex relationships with his family and money also added to his problems. Though he genuinely loved his family and took seriously his obligations to support them once he attained a measure of affluence (including his siblings, who helped him with his business dealings, and his mother), he nevertheless still felt resentment and enormous pressure, which manifested itself in frequent feuds, health issues, and at one point, even a suicide threat. In addition to his serial affairs, Capp also had a longterm affair with an entertainer; though he and his wife considered divorce, Capp ultimately could never bring himself to end the marriage.

While Capp left behind a legacy and an estate which continues to control his creations (he was one of the few cartoonists to gain ownership of his own characters in his lifetime), he nevertheless died a somewhat lonely, broken man, having been ill equipped to enjoy or handle the wealth and fame his cartooning brought him.

Friday, January 16, 2015

REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


I’ve often mentioned at this blog my love for Lord of the Rings (LoTR). While I’m admittedly not nearly as well steeped as Tolkien superfan Stephen Colbert in all things Hobbity, I’ve still got pretty good bonafides. Tolkien’s work hit the mainstream in the U.S. in the 1970s when I was in junior high school, a perfect age to discover the books. One of my prized possessions is a boxed edition of the Hobbit and the trillogy that I received as a Christmas present in the early ‘70s, which I have read in their entirety numerous times. I have an early edition of his “prequel” work, the Silmarillion, and excitedly watched the Rankin-Bass adaptations of the Hobbit (and, later, the Return of the King) when they first aired on TV, as well as Ralph Bakshi’s ill-fated animated film adaptation of the first half of the trilogy when the film debuted in theaters.

So, of course, like all LoTR fans, I was thrilled by Peter Jackson’s epic film adaptation of the trilogy. Co-scripted by Jackson with screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson’s film faithfully interpreted the spirit and poetry of Tolkien’s masterwork. Tolkien was able to create a rich and believable Middle Earth because, as a linguist, he understood that language, culture and history were intertwined—details that Jackson and his design team incorporated into their work to breathe life into the movies.


While I don’t doubt Jackson’s sincerity in tackling the Hobbit, the prequel trilogy nevertheless has felt a bit more calculated and less spontaneous than the original LoTR trilogy. Warner Brothers, understandably, was anxious to continue the franchise and no doubt thrilled by Jackson’s request to turn what is essentially a children’s story of dwarves, magical rings and goblins into a full-fledged Middle Earth epic. Jackson now likely had all the means and resources at his disposal, and more freedom, to do the films as he saw fit.

With that said, I have to admit I was left a bit cold by the first two Hobbit films. While I certainly felt they were well done I felt that Jackson’s desire to surpass the early trilogy with even greater spectacle and special effects turned it more into a roller coaster ride and somewhat overwhelmed the original story and its characters.

With the set up of the first two films now out of the way, the Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies rushes headlong into an extended climax to the story. Unlike the other films dating back to the original LoTR trillogy where Jackson took time to use the opening sequence to ease the audience back into the story, the story picks up at full tilt from where the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug left off, with the re-awakened dragon, Smaug, on his way to wreak havoc on Laketown. People not familiar with the book may be surprised at how quickly Smaug is dispatched, leading to the real climactic conflict of the Hobbit, as the humans of Laketown and the elves of the Woodland Realm seek redress and recompense from the dwarves who provoked the dragon. Thorin, beginning to show the same obsession for treasure that drove his father and grandfather to madness, refuses to be extorted. Bilbo, while loyal to Thorin, nevertheless tries to broker peace by turning over to Thorin’s besiegers the one item he values over all else: a rare jewel called the Arkenstone, the heart of the dwarven kingdom under the mountain. As Thorin prepares to go to battle, however, all the armies of the free peoples soon find themselves attacked by armies of goblins and orcs, led by Azog the Defiler.

Although the last installment is action-packed, for me, the trilogy ended on a positive, strong note. The time Jackson spent at the beginning of the film (following the Smaug sequence) and in the previous films to develop the characters finally pay off. The resolution to the Tauriel/Kili romance ends on a moving note and the battle scene near the beginning of the film between Galadriel, Elrond, Sauron, and Gandalf against Sauron is a particular treat. Thorin’s final battle with Azog is perhaps a bit too drawn out and represents one of Jackson’s most extensive digressions from the original book, but like the extended closing sequence of the earlier trilogy, Jackson has earned the right to end the series on his own terms.

My only complaint is that I wish the film spent a little time showing the surviving dwarves make peace with the people of Laketown and the elves at the end. Aside from that, the final film was a satisfying end to the sprawling telling of the original Hobbit novel and becomes a fitting “prequel” to the Lord of the Rings trilogy that follows chronologically.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Entertainment Roundup for 2014

As I do every new year, here is my annual list of films, books, TV shows, comics, and other entertainments I took in this past year.

The list of television shows I watch always tends to be a bit thin since I don't always do a good job of keeping track of what I watch. I follow few shows regularly, partly because many modern television shows require a level of commitment I don't have the time to give. This makes shows with relatively few shows per season—like "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock" —more appealing to me.

As usual, family and other obligations prevented me from seeing as many films as I did in my youth, but among those I caught, the ones I really enjoyed were Gravity, Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Laggies, Begin Again, Belle, Big Hero 6, and The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies. (With the children getting older, at least we've graduated beyond animated fare!) The year in films ended strongly for me since I really enjoyed the latter films, particularly Laggies, Begin Again, and Belle. Films I thought were fine but a bit overrated critically: the Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy.





As to other distractions, I greatly enjoyed Andy Weir's hot novel, the Martian, Robert M. Edsel's Monuments Men, Cary Elwes' As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of Princess Bride, and B.J. Novak's collection of short stories, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories.

And now without any further ado...

Films:

Spy Games (HBO)
Rocketeer - Netflix streaming (1/4/14)
Iron Lady - Neflix (1/11/14)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - HBO (1/18/14)
Good Ol’ Freda - DVD (1/21/14)
Gravity (1/26/14)
The Campaign - HBO (2/6/14)
This is 40 - HBO (2/6/14)
Mother - Netflix streaming (2/7/14)
To Rome with Love - DVD (2/8/14)
42 - HBO (2/11/14)
Ride with the Devil - HBO (2/14/14)
Admission - HBO (2/16/14)
The Lifeguard - Netflix streaming (2/21/14)
The Lego Movie (3/9/14)
Grand Budapest Hotel (3/29/14)
Muppets Most Wanted (4/2/14)
Captain America: Winter Soldier (4/5/14)
The Emperor - Netflix (6/1/14)
Don Jon - Netflix (6/1/14)
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People - Netflix (6/2/14)
X-Men: First Class - DVR/FX (6/8/14)
Little Big League (6/9/14)
Haunted Mansion (6/20/14)
Guardians of the Galaxy (8/3/14)
Letter to Momo (9/1/14)
The French Minister (9/3/14)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (10/11/2014)
Belle - Amazon Streaming (10/19/14)
Laggies (10/25/14)
Begin Again - Amazon Streaming (10/26/14)
Cuban Fury - Netflix Streaming (11/3/14)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail - DVD (11/8/14)
Big Hero 6 (11/9/14)
Sherlock, Jr. - TCM (11/10/14)
Faded Gigolo - Netflix (11/15/14)
Theory of Everything (11/23/14)
The Duchess - Netflix (11/25/14)
Penguins of Madagascar (11/27/14)
It Happened One Night - TCM (11/28/14)
Il Sorpasso - TCM (11/28/14)
Tootsie (11/29/14)
Horrible Bosses (11/30/14)
A Dangerous Method - Ovation (12/11/14)
Tower Heist (12/20/2014)
The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies (12/21/14)

Theater:

Into the Woods (12/13/14)

Television:

Arrested Development Season 4 - Netflix (1/15/14)
Downton Abbey
Sherlock (2/2/14)
Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Baseball
Holy Flying Circus

Books:

The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler (1/3/2014)
The Martian by Andy Weir (2/21/2014)
Five Came Back by Mark Harris (3/7/14)
Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel (7/9/2014)
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (10/24/2014)
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak


Friday, December 19, 2014

Happy Holidays from WCG Comics


Thanks to everyone for a great 2014 and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015.

This past year was a banner year for WCG—Rob Hanes Adventures #15 was released and we exhibited once again at the San Diego Comic-Con in July.

In addition, WCG marked its 20th anniversary publishing and, in July, Rob Hanes Adventures debuted at Comixology, marking the series’ debut in digital format. The first two issues are now available there, with more on the way as the entire series becomes available at the site. But not to worry—the print edition will continue as always!

Yes, it’s been a busy year—in fact, we have really big plans for 2015, but we’ll save that news until after the holidays!

Until then, have a happy holiday season and new year!

Click here to view holiday greetings from years past...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

REVIEWS: iPhone 6

Around the time I began thinking about upgrading my mobile phone, reports emerged that Apple would be announcing and then releasing the iPhone 6. I decided the release of the new device presented the perfect opportunity to upgrade from my iPhone 4s.

When the phone was released, I bided my time until I truly felt in the mood to upgrade. In the meantime, I checked it out a few times at local stores—my first reaction was, “Boy, that’s big!” — and I was just referring to the smaller iPhone 6.

At the end of October, I finally decided I was ready, only to discover the phone was sold out and on back order at most places. My local AT&T store—which is my carrier—said that they could put me on a waiting list. They couldn’t give me a delivery date, but said customers usually received them in 2-3 weeks. Meanwhile, I went straight to the source at apple.com. The site had them on back order too, though they had “real time” updates that allowed you to check immediate availability by stores in your local area. Only one Apple boutique that was local to me (I had four within reasonable driving distance) was listed as having them in stock—but when I called to confirm, they said they were out.

That evening, I decide to just go to my AT&T store and get on the waiting list. As we sat down to start the process, the AT&T representative told me that a friend of his told him earlier that day the store was available at the Apple Store in Century City and suggested that I go ahead and call so that I could get the phone immediately! He even pulled up the number for me.

Unfortunately, when I called the Century City store, they informed me that they had sold out—but their records noted that it was available at stores at the Grove (an open air upscale mall near Farmer’s Market) and Santa Monica. Since I live just a quick freeway ride of about 4 miles from Santa Monica, I drove there, arriving about 40 minutes before closing, only to be told they were no longer selling the phones for the day (I presume because of the time it takes to register and activate the phone). But the sales person advised me to go online that night, reserve the phone for pickup, and return the next day for it. Which I did. Which is how I got my phone.

Just as exciting, a few days later, I transferred my old iPhone 4s to my wife’s Net10 pay-as-you-go account under their “bring your own phone program.” Since it was no longer on contract, all I needed to do was purchase a compatible Net10 SIM card at a local Best Buy (they’re also available online from Net10) and activate the phone with Net10, porting over my wife’s number from her old Net10 Nokia phone. With Net10, the plan is more than half of what my plan was with AT&T with the same level of phone, text and data (unlimited calls and text, 500 MB of data) –– $35 per month.

REVIEW: When people ask me how I like the new iPhone, I simply reply, “It works exactly like my old phone.” Yes, of course, it has upgraded features (particularly the camera I hear) and the main reason I went with the 6 (as opposed to the 5) was to have the ability to use Apple Pay if the feature gains critical mass. But since I use it exactly as I did my last phone, it isn’t much of a new “toy” with “new” features to explore. Aside from making and taking calls, texting, my main use of the phone is to surf the web; use the maps function for travel and GPS; social media; picture taking; and banking. (I also use it to store all my passwords via SplashID.) Just like my old iPhone. I do like the extra real estate of the screen, which has given me a bit more breathing space for organizing my apps on different screens.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Twenty Years (and more!) of Rob Hanes Adventures

Classic High Adventure Lives on in the Modern Age in the Long-Running Indy Series


Be sure to click here or the read more button at the bottom of this link to expand and read the full post.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of my globetrotting action-adventure series as a full-size indy comic-book series under my WCG Comics imprint.

For those needing a primer to the series, Rob Hanes Adventures features the globetrotting exploits of the newest agent at Justice International, a worldwide private investigation, espionage and security firm. This simple premise has given me the freedom to put the character in a wide variety of settings, taking him to one international hotspot to another, and just as importantly, tell stories that have varied widely in genre and tone, ranging from straight adventure and espionage to light comedy. Along the way, there even has been a sports issue and a romance story!

I’ve made no secret of my inspiration for the series: the great syndicated newspaper adventure comic strips that had their heyday from the 1930s through the ‘50s, like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Noel SicklesScorchy Smith, Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and, later, Buz Sawyer. Other major influences include Will Eisner’s Spirit and the work of Alex Toth, another standard-bearer of the classic adventure strips epitomized by Caniff, Sickles and Crane.

I'm a fan of modern-day comics too, but for some reason, those classic strips really captured my imagination when I first discovered them in the 1970s in books about comics history. I loved the black and white art and how the stories dove-tailed with real-world events—such as revolutions in South America and World War II—which gave the stories an immediacy I found compelling.

However, Rob Hanes Adventures has never traded on nostalgia. I’ve tried to develop a style of my own while staying true to the genre and creating a fun, forward-looking strip that reflects modern-day sensibilities, intrigue and political realities.

The War Comics Group

Of course, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the long-winding history of the series and the character.1994 is the year that WCG Comics officially became a small business and solicited its first title, Adventure Strip Digest starring Rob Hanes in the direct-sales market. In actuality, however, the roots of the character and WCG Comics go back to the 1970s and the early days of the small press of comics fandom.