Friday, March 21, 2014

Today's best picture ever: Salvador Dali

Comic art: Captain Marvel print by C.C. Beck

Pop culture roundup: Charlton Comics is back! New Peanuts film!

Charlton Comics was always the cheap-o, low-paying #3 publisher of mainstream comics when I was growing up in the 1970s, but it also gave many later prominent creators their start. Now some of those creators are celebrating the publisher and its legacy in a new anthology title.
It started when a fan commented on a Charlton Comics Facebook group that someone should publish a new magazine, but writer Paul Kupperberg responded, and that ended up with enough artists signing on for a 44-page book – the Charlton Arrow. It got the attention of new artists, as well as veterans like Paul Kupperberg, Joe Staton and Roger McKenzie, artists who worked at Charlton Comics and went on to work on characters like Captain America, Daredevil, Batman and the Green Lantern. The collection of new stories can be ordered online starting this month, and the creators are already working on a second issue.

A new Peanuts film, directed by Charles Schulz' son Craig and written by his son Bryan, is on the way. See the teaser below (some folks will undoubtedly hate the CGI, but what do you expect these days?) NON-SPOILERS:
"It's about a round-headed kid and his dog, and that's about as far as I'm willing to go," Craig Schulz told USA Today.

Fab Friday: Beatles and famous friends!

Beatles with Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield and Marlene Dietrich.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Record Store Day list is out! What do you want?

April 19 is Record Store Day again, and local shops promise a bounty of limited edition releases -- mostly on vinyl. There's a lot of stuff coming out. See the complete list here.

This is what caught my eye, though I likely won't find it all locally and couldn't afford it all if I did!
  • Albert Ammons "Boogie Woogie Stomp"/"Boogie Woogie Blues" Blue Note 12" Vinyl 3000
  • Sam Cooke Ain't That Good News ABKCO 12" Vinyl 1800
  • The Everly Brothers Songs Our Daddy Taught Us Varese Sarabande 12" Vinyl 1500
  • The Everly Brothers Roots Rhino 12" Vinyl 2700
  • Meade "Lux" Lewis "Melancholy"/"Solitude" Blue Note 12" Vinyl 3000
  • The Standells Dirty Water/Twitchin' Sundazed 7" vinyl 2000
  • The Sunrays Our Leader/Won't You Tell Me Sundazed 7" vinyl 2000
  • Tame Impala Live Interscope Vinyl 5000
  • Various Artists The Folk Box 50th Anniversary Rhino 4 X 12" Vinyl 2000
  • The Yardbirds Little Games Rhino 12" Vinyl 2500
  • The Zombies I Love You Varese Sarabande 12" Vinyl 2500
  • The Zombies Odessey and Oracle Varese Sarabande 12" Vinyl
  • Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar ORG Music 12" Vinyl 2000
  • Neko Case & Jason Lytle Satellite of Love Brink 7" vinyl 1000
  • The Idle Race The Birthday Party Rhino 12" Vinyl 1000
  • R.E.M. Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions Rhino 4 x 12" vinyl 1000
  • Django Django The Porpoise Song Late Night Tales 7" vinyl 500
What do you want?

It was 50 years ago today: George Harrison and Hayley Mills attend the premiere of "Charade," March 20, 1964

Today's best picture ever: Cary Grant

Pop Artifact: 1970 Batman Batcycle toy

Pop stuff: Doctor Who - An Adventure in Time and Space; Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reconsidered!

What I'm watching, reading, hearing, etc.

Doctor Who: An Adventure in Time and Space
Set for American release in May, this BBC TV film aired late last year as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for "Doctor Who."

It's not a Doctor Who adventure, but a docudrama that looks behind the scenes at the beginnings of the show and the interesting stories and personalities that led to its creation.

"Mad Men"-like in its period details, the film -- penned by sometime "Who" scripter Mark Gatkiss -- nails the early 1960s at the BBC and in Britain. Brian Cox plays Sydney Newman, the American producer who hatched the early idea -- a pseudo-educational time-traveling series helmed by a friendly grandpa type -- and handed it off to his young assistant Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine), who turned it into much more than that.

David Bradley is a dead-ringer for First Doctor William Hartnell, a skilled stage actor who thinks he's above all this rubbish, but who comes to love the Doctor and all the celebrity that comes with the role.  Sacha Dhawan plays Waris Hussein, the series' early director.

So, there you have it, the Doctor and his two companions, in real-life, navigating a challenging new advenutre: An old man, a woman and an Indian national, all working to come up with something new in an industry overseen by cybermen middle-aged white men dedicated to the status quo. It's a great story, well-written and played.

There are fun nostalgic touches all the way through: The early days of Dalekmania; Delia Derbyshire in the BBC Radiophonic Workship creating the program's famous theme, and a cameo by William Russell, who played original companion Ian Chesterton, as a BBC security guard.  But, mostly, this is a dramatic story, and a touching one at that.

Longtime Doctor Who fans will love the history, while newer ones will enjoy learning about the show's origins. Non-fans, I think, will enjoy the story and the film's ability to capture its period so well.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Well into its first season, Joss Whedon's S.H.I.E.L.D. series has a a lot going for it. Joss Whedon for one. Plus, an enjoyable cast, fun characters, occasionally zippy dialogue. But it still seems to lack a strong identity, both as its own show and apart from the Marvel movie franchise.

I keep waiting for something more to happen, and it doesn't help that the characters on the show are continually name-dropping Thor, Captain America and the Hulk and referring to the "Battle of New York" that ended the first Avengers film.

Obviously, Whedon and crew want to establish that this show takes place in the Marvel Universe. But all those reminders only really serve to emphasize that these characters are on the periphery of that world, not in the center of it. We keep hearing about Nick Fury and the big superheroes, but never see them. And the more it happens, the more this show and its characters seem like the B league.

Last week, Lady Sif (Jaime Alexander), from the Thor movies showed up and some minor movie-like Marvel mayhem ensued. It gave the show a shot of energy and showed that, despite everything we've seen to date, these black-suited spooks occasionally do run into real superheroes. not just stand around talking about them.

But rather than reminding us all the time that Agent Coulson kinda sorta knows Tony Stark, this series might be better off making us forget all that. Clark Gregg, as Coulson, is a fun actor to watch and different from your typical lead character in an action series. He's quiet, not dynamic. He's middle-aged with thinning hair, not young and strapping. But he's smart and funny and shrewd.

The rest of the crew is also good, for the most part, and has the potential to become much better if this show can put more focus on them instead of the characters who aren't there and likely will never show up.

Super scientists Fitz and Simmons are goofy and geeky and adorable in a Willow-Xander type of way. Chloe Bennett as novice agent Skye is funny and down to earth and provides a real person's perspective to all the strange and super goings on. Ming-Na Wen deserves an award of some sort for making an extremely stereotypical and cardboard character sympathetic and somewhat real. The weak link is Brett Dalton as hunky Agent Ward. I guess he's the misfit by being the dullest and most normal of the lot. Useful when you need someone beaten up, but not a vital part of the group when it comes to character development and repartee.

It'd be great to see the show's creators take these characters and run with them -- far, far away from the rest Marvel Universe. The plot thread concerning Coulson's mysterious and miraculous recovery from injuries sustained in the Avengers movie has been drawn out far too long, and is weakened by its association with the film -- another reminder that this show isn't yet standing on its own two feet.

This is a fun crew and deserves better than they've got to date. If their world needs to contain superheroes -- and I don't know that it does -- let's actually see them, not just hear about them. Marvel has many character that likely won't -- and probably shouldn't -- appear on the big screen, but might work just fine on TV.

But standing around talking about Thor, like nerds pretending they're friends with the high school quarterback who never gives them the time of day, is just sad. This show could be a lot more.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Today's best picture ever: Muhammad Ali

It was 50 years ago today: The Beatles receive Variety Club Awards in London, March 19, 1964

Excerpt from my in-progress book: "I Read the News Today: The Beatles phenomenon 1963-1970":

         On March 19, 1964, the Beatles visited the Dorchester Hotel, in London, to accept an award from the Variety Club of Great Britain. The Beatles had been named the club’s Show Business Personalities of 1963 and were joined at the luncheon ceremony by an array of other honorees, including actress Julie Christie, James Bond star Sean Connery, and Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman from the spy TV series “The Avengers.” But it was a celebrity of a different sort who presented the Beatles with their awards: Labour Party leader Harold Wilson.

         This arrangement was the result of some shrewd political maneuvering on Wilson’s part: In addition to leading his party, he was a Liverpool-area Member of Parliament and saw this as an opportunity to exploit his fellow Northerners to his own ends. After all, 1964 was an election year, and with Labour desperate to unseat Parliament’s Conservative majority, surely having his photo taken alongside the Fab Four wouldn’t hurt his party’s standing among younger voters.

         There was an element of political one-upmanship involved in all this, too, as Wilson’s opposition had recently tried using the Beatles to its own political advantage. Conservative Cabinet Minister William Deedes, in a speech to the City of London Young Conservatives, had portrayed the hard-working, high-aspiring Beatles as exemplars of his party’s ideals.

         “[The Beatles] herald a cultural movement among the young which may become part of the history of our time,” Deedes said. “Something important and heartening is happening here. The young are rejecting some of the sloppy standards of their elders, by which far too much of our output has been governed in recent years…they have discerned dimly that in a world of automation, declining craftsmanship and increased leisure, something of this kind is essential to restore the human instinct to excel at something.”

         Even more prominently, Prime Minister Sir Alec Home, noting the Beatles’ immense commercial impact, had recently pronounced the band Britain’s “greatest export” and “a useful contribution to the balance of payments.”

         Such pandering got under the skin of left-wing writer Paul Johnson, who was disgusted by the Tories’ cynical attempts to co-opt Beatlemania. He was also pretty disgusted by the Beatles, themselves.

         In a Feb. 28 New Statesman article titled “The Menace of Beatlism,” Johnson wrote that Beatles had become “an electorally valuable property.” He claimed that “Conservative candidates have been officially advised to mention them whenever possible in their speeches.” And he went on to savagely decry the commercialism and inanity of the Beatles and their audience, as well.

         Discussing the Beatles’ concerts and TV appearances, Johnson wrote “the teenager comes not to hear but to participate in a ritual, a collective groveling to gods who are themselves blind and empty.”

         The Beatles’ fans, Johnson observed, “are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.” Still, he held out hope that intelligent teenagers might see beyond this silliness and depravity and seek out the best in culture. Recalling his own youth, he said: “Almost every week one found a fresh idol—Milton, Wagner, Debussy, Matisse, El Greco, Proust…At 16, I and my friends heard our first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; I can remember the excitement even today. We would not have wasted 30 seconds of our precious time on the Beatles and their ilk.”

    Harold Wilson, on the other hand, had no such qualms about the Fab Four. As with most of the British public – conservative or liberal – he saw the band as amusing and harmless (long hair and noisy music aside) and admirable for its success. The Beatles weren’t Shakespeare or Admiral Nelson, but they’d put Britain back on the map.

          The Variety Club ceremony saw Wilson happily mugging it up with the band and touting the Beatles-Labour summit to the media, simultaneously poking fun at the Tories for trying to co-opt the Beatles and at himself for doing the same thing, only better.

          “This is a non-political occasion so I’ll stay non-political. Unless I’m tempted,” Wilson joked at a press conference. “There were attempts recently by a certain leader in a certain party — wild horses wouldn’t drag his name from me — to involve our friends the Beatles in politics. And all I could say with great sadness, as a Merseyside member of Parliament, which I am, was that whatever arguments there might be, I must ask is nothing sacred when this sort of thing can happen?”

          The Beatles, for their part, enjoyed the attention while claiming no interest in politics whatsoever. And, despite the political theater, they also managed to land the best quotes out of the whole event, which was covered widely in the newspapers and broadcast on television.

    Presented by Wilson with their silver heart-shaped awards, George Harrison feigned confusion and referred to Wilson as “Mr. Dobson,” a reference to the well-known British sweets manufacturer Barker & Dobson. When it was his turn to talk, John Lennon leaned into the microphone and straight-facedly thanked the Variety Club for the “purple hearts,” slang for a popular amphetamine. Corrected by Ringo — “Silver! Silver hearts!” — John did a comic double take and said, “Sorry about that, Harold,” to much audience laughter and applause. It was a bit of playful subversion that made the older generation think twice about who was using whom.

         Though the result likely had more to do with damage inflicted to the Conservatives by the Profumo Scandal than any boost provided by the Beatles, Labour won by a razor thin majority in Parliament in the October General Election and Wilson was named prime minister. The Beatles couldn’t have cared less. Asked by a TV reporter whether they’d had time to vote, Paul confessed they’d “missed it.” “We were having dinner at the time,” said John.