Friday, February 29, 2008

Trailer park

First, the greatest actor ever in what will certainly be the greatest movie ever:

Second, a new kick-ass trailer for Iron Man. Hint: This is how you make a superhero movie.

Iron Man Exclusive Trailer

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mensa chairman issues a guide to smart television

In 1961, Newton N. Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a speech in which he referred to television as a “vast wasteland.”

Ever since, many intelligent people — and not a few people who just think they’re intelligent — have harbored a prejudice against TV.

But now at least one officially smart person has dared to come out of the closet and admit he loves television.

Mensa International Chairman Jim Werdell recently named his list of the 10 smartest TV shows of all time.

Some, like Carl Sagan’s science documentary series “Cosmos” and the game show “Jeopardy,” are obvious picks. Well, except during the “Jeopardy” celebrity tournament. Celebrities can be pretty stupid.

Three of Werdell’s other choices are also favorites of mine: “House,” the original “CSI” — please spare me “CSI: Miami” and David Caruso’s wooden “acting” — and “Boston Legal.”

And then there is Werdell’s one baffling pick — the 1990s sitcom “Mad About You.” But the minds of geniuses often work in strange ways.

If I were compiling such a list, I’d include the Discovery Channel’s science series “Mythbusters,” Showtime’s provocative “Penn & Teller: Bull----!” and Fox’s late, lamented comedy “Arrested Development.”

The reality is that TV has never been as mind numbing as its critics have often contended.
In his speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, Minow infamously said, “... when television is bad, nothing is worse. ... I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

Of course, what’s often left out is what Minow said first: “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.”

Of the 10 shows on Werdell’s list, four are still on the air. That may just reflect a bias toward programs Werdell is more likely to have seen recently. But it may also reflect an improvement in TV programming.

Despite the explosion of “reality television,” most TV shows are getting smarter and demanding more of their viewers.

In his 2005 book “Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter,” Steven Johnson graphs the complexity of TV plots. He finds, for example, that more recent programs, like “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos,” ask far more of their viewers than did dramas of earlier decades, like “Dragnet” and “Starsky and Hutch,” to use his examples.

Of course, the politics depicted on “The West Wing” is a bit less accurate than the medical science depicted on “House,” but that’s beside the point. The point is that watching television is no longer a passive activity. It takes a lot of mental effort just to keep up. You almost need a scorecard to follow the goings on of “Heroes” and “Lost.”

Comedies are also more complex. Apart from “Arrested Development,” Johnson cites “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” as examples of far smarter writing than, say, “Three’s Company.”

Simple sitcoms — Johnson mentions “Everybody Loves Raymond” — still prosper, but so do intelligent ones with rapid-fire dialogue and ongoing stories. For every “Raymond” there is now a “Scrubs” or “The Office.”

Given a cable lineup of 100-plus channels, you’ll certainly come across a lot of bad TV, but it’s more likely than ever that you’ll find TV worth watching, too. Just ask the chairman of Mensa; he’s a pretty bright fellow.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The goddamn Batman thinks you need Jesus

Decatur, Ala., City Councilman Ray Metzger, who owns a not-quite-authentic reproduction Batmobile, has been handing out come-to-Jesus pamphlets featuring everyone's favorite Dark Knight. Take a peek and maybe you'll be as moved as I was — moved to hysterical fits of incredulous laughter. (Click images to enlarge.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, dies

When I mention the name Howard the Duck, you probably think of the 1986 movie produced by George Lucas that became one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history.

You probably don’t think of Steve Gerber, the man who, in the early 1970s, created Howard the Duck for Marvel Comics.

That is a shame because while Lucas’ movie was a turkey, Gerber’s comics often approached genius.
Gerber died Feb. 10 from complications from pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease. He was 60.
In the ’70s, Gerber was one of the most creative and influential writers in comics. He brought the irreverent, satirical attitude of underground comics to the superhero genre.

As Gerber’s friend and fellow writer Mark Evanier tells it, a job offer from Marvel editor Roy Thomas “rescued” Gerber from the drudgery of writing advertising copy. At Marvel, Gerber soon took over the writing duties on “Adventure into Fear,” which at the time featured Man-Thing, a swamp creature charged with guarding the Nexus of All Realities, a place where various universes come together.

The story took an unexpected turn, however, when a talking, cigar-smoking waterfowl from another dimension came through the Nexus and found himself trapped on Earth, a planet populated by, as Howard put it, “hairless apes.”

Gerber didn’t plan for Howard the Duck to be anything more than a one-off character. But Howard quickly developed a following, which led to his appearing in more comics and, eventually, getting his own monthly title and a Sunday newspaper strip, all of which Gerber scripted.

Maybe Howard didn’t fit in on a planet full of humans and superheroes, but he definitely seemed at home in the cynical post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world of the ’70s. He was a voice of reason trapped in a world he never made.

Despite being a duck, Howard was an everyman. Evanier writes that Gerber’s “Howard the Duck” is, in fact, “obviously autobiographical to a large degree.” Except, of course, for all of the time Howard spent fighting a bizarre array of costumed supervillains. Gerber’s comics were as much a commentary on the absurdities of superhero comics as on the real world’s foibles.

Howard even ran for president of the United States, a story arc that Marvel turned into a successful publicity stunt.

During this period, Gerber also wrote other comics. He had a memorable run on “The Defenders,” which featured characters like the Hulk and Dr. Strange. He also created “Omega the Unknown,” a short-lived series that made a major impression on at least one young reader — future “Fortress of Solitude” novelist Jonathan Lethem, who currently is writing a new “Omega” miniseries.

Howard the Duck’s success, however, ultimately led to Gerber’s departure from Marvel and a lawsuit about ownership of the character. The parties settled, but afterward Gerber worked only sporadically in comics, for Marvel and other publishers. He also wrote for television, creating the popular 1980s Saturday-morning cartoon “Thundarr the Barbarian.”

Eventually, Gerber returned to his most famous creation. Marvel’s adult-oriented MAX imprint published Gerber’s six-issue “Howard the Duck” miniseries in 2002.

At the time of his death, Gerber was writing a “Dr. Fate” series for DC Comics. But his legacy will remain intertwined with his fowl creation, Howard, and with turning comic-book superheroics on its head.

That’s not a bad legacy to have, even if George Lucas didn’t quite get it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Not a lot of love to go around for Valentine’s Day

It seems lots of people, not just singles and charter members of the Lonely Hearts Club, have reasons to hate Feb. 14.

Some reasons are better than others. A quick search of the week’s headlines turned up several stories from the Middle East. As you might guess, it turns out that the terrorists actually hate us because of Valentine’s Day.

OK, it’s not really “the terrorists,” but they’re probably not happy, either.

Ahead of America’s annual orgy of romance, chocolates and greeting cards, some Muslim countries are making sure no one within their borders gets too amorous.

Fox News reports that in Kuwait, the nation American troops “liberated” during the first President Bush’s administration, the head of the National Assembly’s Committee Monitoring Negative Alien Practices is looking to suppress Valentine’s Day, blaming it for spreading corruption among Kuwaiti youths.

In Saudi Arabia, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has ordered florists and gift shops to remove red roses, along with anything else colored scarlet, according to a Reuters news report. Apparently, Saudi religious authorities see red at the prospect of anyone else seeing red.

Perhaps Islamic fundamentalists would look upon the holiday more kindly if its true meaning hadn’t been lost.

St. Valentine was a Roman priest who was beaten and beheaded in the year 269, or thereabouts. And there’s nothing particularly romantic about that. Valentine’s Day didn’t come to be associated with love until the Middle Ages. In fact, the earliest link between St. Valentine and romance is probably a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Yes, that’s the same Chaucer whose “Canterbury Tales” is now the bane of most English-speaking high school students. Evidently, he has much for which to answer.

Like many modern holidays, Valentine’s Day may have originated as a pagan festival. The ancient Romans, for example, celebrated a fertility festival, called Lupercalia, from Feb. 13 through Feb. 15. Not that ancient fertility rites had much to do with romance.

Of course, I’m not convinced that Valentine’s Day as Americans celebrate it has a lot to do with romance, either. There are too many obligations involved.

Cards, flowers, expensive dinners and boxes of candy — all given in accordance with a day on the calendar — do little to show genuine affection. They’re expected. Try not giving your significant other a gift for Valentine’s Day, and you’ll see just what I mean. There certainly won’t be any fertility rites in your immediate future.

But I’m not picking on women for expecting roses and heart-shaped boxes from their husbands and boyfriends. Men expect something on Valentine’s Day, too.

I’m sure my female readers will agree that they’re expected to be, shall we say, extremely grateful for all of the tokens of the holiday that they receive from the men in their lives.

Valentine’s Day is like a primitive mating ritual that refuses to go away, even after you’re married. Showy displays of flowers and candy are like the colorful feathers male birds use to lure female birds into their nests. But birds don’t really care about such things after the deal has been sealed.

Humans, however, have long memories. And some of us like to keep on reliving those mating rituals because they were a lot more fun than what followed.

So, this year, as we do every year, we all celebrate Valentine’s Day, either by going through the obligatory motions or by complaining about going through the motions.

Even singles celebrate it, mostly by moping about the fact that they’re not celebrating it with anyone.

On second thought, maybe Valentine’s Day is rather like getting beaten up and having your head chopped off.