Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Movies: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

I think we can admit right off the bat that the studio and creators of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies got greedy. The Hobbit, one of my favorite novels of all time (I originally read it when I was 12, the perfect age for the book), is a breezy, folksy adventure tale of a hobbit and his dwarf friends and their Wizard pal going on a grand adventure. They travel, fight elves and trolls and end up torquing off a dragon pretty badly over ownership of his gold horde. The big battle at the end of the book, also about the ownership of said gold horde, is mostly told off-camera and exists to illustrate the futility and terror of war.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a different animal. Instead of telling that story, the producers have made a big-budget spectacle, full of sfx, massive battles and something around a million times the scale of what Tolkien originally envisioned. The end battle in the movie exists, if anything, to glorify the destruction of evil forces by the might of right. Surprisingly, I have room in my heart for both versions of the story.

Say what you will about director Peter Jackson, he loves Tolkien’s fictional universe and wants to portray it to the best of his ability. The new characters and storylines added to pad out the story into three films fit organically into Tolkien’s universe and their stories are interesting and well told. Their tales meander through the first two films in the series, but Jackson manages to make all diversions and sub-plots resolve themselves to the viewer’s satisfaction in the final film.  

The set pieces at the ending battle are awesome. Huge, troll-driven trebuchets, human-sized vampire bats and a cast of thousands of orcs, goblins, wargs, elves, dwarves and humans are all things Jackson unleashes on the final battlefield, and they create unlimited havoc. To his credit, Jackson never loses site of the narrative throughout all of the carnage. From wide-angle attacks with thousands of warriors to personal duels between combatants, Jackson goes from story to story with accomplished precision. He’s done this before, and he’s good at it.

In the end he wraps up the action with actually fewer main character casualties than Tolkien himself. Bilbo finishes as he does in the book and the stage is expertly set for Lord of the Rings. I really did love this movie, even with its excesses. However, I couldn’t help but notice that a real Hobbit movie, from my simple Hobbit novel, exists within this bloated Hollywood blockbuster trilogy. I’d pay good money for an alternate version of the movie in the inevitable Blu-ray set. A quieter, folksy version that follows the original novel, without any non-Tolkien characters or plotlines. A movie that would run maybe two to four hours and be faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original vision of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Oh well, I can dream.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tales of my Childhood - Christmas with the Shinhelms

Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in a suburban neighborhood, we had next-door neighbors named the Shinhelms. Mr. Shinhelm was the stereotypical “get off my lawn” mean old German. His grown daughter who lived with him wasn’t much better. Pray to God your baseball/frisbee/wiffleball didn’t go into their yard—there would be hell to pay. They mostly kept to themselves and browbeat the neighborhood kids. We used to have a profane nickname for them based on both syllables of their surname—I’ll leave that to your imagination. They had a well-deserved reputation of being unpleasant, and for the most part the neighborhood kids stayed well away from them. On Halloween, their house was always dark and foreboding. No visitors were welcome.

Every Christmas, my lovely stay-at-home mom would bake banana bread for the neighbors,  mostly for her friends and parents of the other kids I played with. I lived on a long street and it was packed with kids my age. One Christmas, when I was around 10, mom made a few extra loaves and asked me to drop one off at the Shinhelms. I really didn’t mind—it was Christmas. I thought they might not even answer the door when they saw it was a kid. I went around the neighborhood one Saturday morning on deliveries and many of the intended bread recipients weren’t home. I had around four loaves left in a big picnic basket when I got to the Shinhelms—I figured I would just give them their loaf and deliver the rest when the other neighbors got home.

When I got to the Shinhelm’s door, I nervously rang the doorbell. Miss Shinhelm opened the door and said “What?” with all the friendliness of an IRS agent beginning my audit.

“My mom baked some banana bread for you,” I explained.

Her attitude changed instantly. She invited me in. The old man was on the couch and seemed a little less menacing than usual. A little. They fawned over the bread and me a bit. Regaling me with how much they loved banana bread, she took all four loaves out of the basket and thanked me. I started to explain that all four weren’t for them, but something popped into my brain and told me not to. They were so friendly I didn’t have the heart to tell them the remaining loaves were for other people. Or to try and take them back.

When I arrived at home with an empty basket, mom asked, “Oh, was everyone home?” I had to explain that no, I gave four of the ten loaves to the Shinhelms. Mom didn’t lose her temper, but was understandably agitated. She had baked all day the day before to give gifts to many friends and neighbors, not just the mean folks next door. Now she would have to make more and had wasted all that work! I felt horrible, but I really didn’t have the words to explain why I gave them all the bread. I felt guilty about wasting mom’s time and upsetting her.

A few minutes later, the phone rang, and mom went to get the call. When she came back, her eyes were watering and she told me what I had done was totally okay. “Miss Shinhelm just called,” she said. “She was in tears. They thought no one in the neighborhood liked them, and then you show up with multiple loaves of their favorite bread for Christmas. Now she’s crying at what she called “such a generous gift.” She couldn’t stop thanking me for sending you over there. You know, giving them a loaf of bread was an afterthought. Now I’m glad you gave it all to them. I guess sometimes things work out for the best.”

I’m not sure what happened to the Shinhelms. They didn’t live in the neighborhood much longer. I don’t remember them being particularly nice after that, but I don’t remember them yelling at us anymore either.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Comics - Fantastic Four Epic Collection Volume 1

As tough as I am on the Marvel Comics of today, and as much as they deserve it, they do come up with a good idea once in a blue moon. For example, I absolutely love their new Epic Collections. Epic Collections are large (400-500 page), color reprints of old comics. They are a nice thick chunk of comics goodness. Since Marvel can’t do anything 100% right, they have been printing the collections wildly out of order, sometimes as late as volume 10 or 17 of a series coming out first. They finally got around to printing the #1 volumes of some of their classic series and I’ve been snapping them up like Hungry Hungry Hippos.
The first such collection I had the pleasure of reading is the Fantastic Four Epic Collection Volume 1. This reprints the seminal FF issues #1-18 from 1961-62 (two years before I was born). I’ve read a lot of the early issues of the Marvel Universe, but nowhere near all of them. The chance to read how it all started, in order, in color, on crisp white paper is a rare treat. Hats off to Marvel for thinking of it. I was a mite concerned that these stories may turn out to be lacking; that they wouldn’t live up to the golden glow of my childhood memories. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of course these tales don’t have the sophistication of modern comics; no, in many ways they’re better. Turns out Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were geniuses from the get-go.
Fantastic Four #1 tells the group’s origin story, with the lovely and dated “beat the Commies into space” theme. The second half of that first issue introduces the villain Mole Man and his underground kingdom. The seeds of everything to come are here; Reed’s brainy aloofness, Ben’s anger and heartbreak, Sue’s motherly support of the team and Johnny’s humor relief. It is incredibly fun to see the creators and characters getting more comfortable in their skins as the series progresses. The group doesn’t even have uniforms until issue #3. Ben keeps changing back to his human self, then back into the Thing, compounding his bad attitude and disappointment. Issue #3 also introduces the Fantasticar and a full body uniform for Ben—this may have been the one and only time it was used.
Issue #4 introduces WWII character Namor the Sub-Mariner into modern Marvel continuity in one of the most memorable scenes in comics history. Continuing their red-hot streak, Lee & Kirby introduce the most famous and iconic comic book villain of all time in Issue #5, Victor Von Doom. It is also revealed in this ish that there are Fantastic Four comic books in the Marvel Universe. Apparently in the Marvel Universe, Reed Richards relates the team’s true adventures to Marvel Comics, and Lee & Kirby act as “stenographers” of a sort. Brilliant idea. Now totally on fire, Lee & Kirby have the first super-villain team-up in Issue #6. Namor and Doom work together to capture the FF, and in a breathtaking Kirby art scene, Doom’s technology actually lifts the team’s NY headquarters, the Baxter Building, into orbit. Issue #6 also introduces key Marvel concepts such as the FF’s uniforms being made out of “unstable molecules” and the Yancy Street Gang, who make life extra-miserable for the Thing.
Issue #10 is a fun body-switch story where Dr. Doom takes over Reed’s body and traps Reed’s mind in his. With a maniacal sneer, Doom/Reed tries to destroy the team from within. He completely underestimates Reed’s will and intellect, as he will continue to do for at least the next 50 years. Of course Issue #11 introduces the Impossible Man, a comedic treat that apparently Lee got a lot of guff for at the time. I’m not sure why, the story was hilarious and absolutely charming. Issue #12 was one of the first Marvel hero team-ups, as the FF attempt to capture the Hulk for the army. I remember reading this as a kid and being totally disappointed that the Thing and the Hulk didn’t throw down and have a major, city destroying battle. Those matches would have to come later. Luckily, come they did. In Issue #15, Reed faces another foe who rivals his intellect; the Mad Thinker (and his Android!). It’s a battle of wits until Reed humiliatingly puts the Thinker in his place. It’s great to see the Thinker strut and stutter and refuse to believe he’s been outwitted.
The alien, shape-changing Skrulls (introduced in FF #2) return in Issue #18, with their newest genetic experiment, the Super-Skrull! The Super-Skrull has all of the powers of the Fantastic Four and a really superior attitude, so he should easily defeat the FF, right? Well, one would think so. Also by now Ben Grimm is much more endearing and wisecracking, on his way to becoming the Thing we all know and love today.
These tales lived up to and surpassed every expectation I had of them. They nearly burst with energy and creativity. I had to remember while reading them that nothing like this had ever been done in comics before up to this point. A team bickering amongst themselves? The love interest who can’t decide between the lead and a villain? (Sue had a crush on Namor for years before she finally chose Reed, and is not shy about saying so). These stories invented internal continuity from one story to the next and are building the Marvel Universe one comic at a time. Reading them was pure pleasure, not to mention it was like looking through a time machine into the Cold War 1960s. I’m ready for Volume 2 next (not Volume 12)—Marvel, could you get on that, please?
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Prison Tales – My Friend Sam, Part Four

This is part four of a continuing look at my friend Sam’s prison stay for selling overloaded fireworks. Sam is a law-abiding, well-educated entrepreneur who ran afoul of a government who really wanted to put someone in prison. This is his story.
If you care to read about our previous prison visits, Part One is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here.
This past weekend was my fifth visit to see my friend Sam in prison. I never thought I would know this much about the Federal prison system, but there you go. Signing in and getting past the guards (no wallet, no watch, no plastic explosives) is old hat now. Sam came out to the visiting area quickly and was extremely happy to see me. I’m sure he’d be happy to see anyone not dressed in a gray or blue uniform. It seems all the folks who know him are getting used to the fact that he is in prison. Letters, cards and visits have slacked off to only his closest friends and family. His other close friends and I continue to send friendly reminders to folks who would be inclined to keep in touch or send him a card occasionally. Presently communications from the outside world are sporadic at best.
Unfortunately, things inside are all too routine by now. Sam has spent 230 days in the “work camp.” He has approximately 195 days to go before he can go to home incarceration or a halfway house for two months; then he is out. That’s out of prison in June and out of incarceration in August. The day after he passed the halfway point he called me, jubilantly proclaiming he had less time to serve than he had already served.
Sam said two unusual things had happened recently. Morning counts of prisoners are usually conducted at 10:00am, but in reality it is 10:05 or 10:10 before the counts begin. One day he forgot something in his cubicle and was one minute late to the count. A nasty female guard who thinks she’s defending Stalag 13 climbed his frame and read him the riot act. He was not verbally resistant to her, but apparently didn’t show the proper amount of deference and she put him in her sites. The next day the other unusual thing happened; he thought the incidents were related but it turned out they weren’t. A guard found him and said he had to report to Administration right away. He thought he was going to get a dressing down and tossed into a well, but one of the Administrators had called him in to ask if he wanted a higher paying job at the prison. I believe the standard job of cleaning/organizing, etc. at the prison pays around $26.00 per month. This one would have paid around $35.00. It would have involved taking a shuttle to the maximum security prison across the street, cleaning the visiting room there, and sitting around for long hours waiting for the return shuttle several times each week. He thanked the Administrator and declined, admitting he was satisfied with his present duties.
By the way, I don’t mean to slight the guards at the prison. It’s true some are less than friendly, but most are just human beings trying to do a tough, stressful job.
I asked Sam what had been happening. He related a story of an incident with another prisoner. Each night, Sam puts his shoes on the top of the wall separating his cubicle from the prisoner next to him. The tips of the shoes overlap the wall on the other prisoner’s side an inch or two. The other prisoner didn’t like that, but said nothing to Sam. He finally started stealing and hiding the shoes until he came clean with Sam and lost his temper. He yelled strangely, “I don’t mean to be rude, but dust from your shoes falls on my bed and I don’t like it!” Sam agreed to put his shoes somewhere else and everything was resolved. But how many prison stories do you hear that involve someone yelling, “I don’t mean to be rude?” Minimum security could be a lot worse.
As a nosey busybody, it’s always interesting to hear what folks have done to be sentenced to prison. Sam mentioned some of the new offenses he had heard. One was a CPA that cooked the books and embezzled from his Fortune 500 company. Another was a drug offender that was in year 18 of a 25-year sentence. That’s a long sentence for minimum security. We figured he was either caught with a warehouse full of heroin or sold drugs to children. If it’s the latter, 25 years is way too lenient. Another unlucky felon was a farmer who grew and sold marijuana (alongside his legal crops) serving a 5-year sentence. That seemed like a lot, but Sam said the police found a few guns in his house and connected them to his drug crimes, turning the 18-month sentence into 5 years. The farmer swore he just likes guns, bought them years before he started the marijuana business and had the receipts to prove it. Nonetheless, an ambitious prosecutor connected them and the man got 5 years. If true, that’s punishing someone just for buying a gun, which is unconstitutional. But in prison everyone is innocent; just ask them.
Sam usually inhales the food from the vending machines during our visits, as he has a sweet tooth and little access to sweets. During our visit he had two large honey buns, two heated up White Castles, two packages of chocolate donuts, three cups of coffee and two cans of Pepsi. I got full just watching him.
As usual, the guards kicked me and the other visitors out at 3:00pm sharp. As we said goodbye, we agreed that there was a light at the end of tunnel. June is right around the corner. Unfortunately, the holidays are too. It’s never easy to serve prison time, but we both knew the holidays are going to bring even more loneliness and possible depression. I told Sam I would make it down again around Christmas—the rules dictate that I can’t bring him a present, but I can buy lots of honey buns from prison vending and have some type of celebration.
If anyone reading this would be willing to send Sam a letter, card or magazine—especially a simple Christmas card—please contact me at jerrysemail@fuse.net. I’ll set you up with his contact information. I know it would mean the world to someone who needs some kind words right now. He needs to know that the universe recognizes—and is pleased—that he is alive.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Around the ‘Net - The Comics Curmudgeon

One of my all-time favorite (and funniest) sites on the Internet is The Comics Curmudgeon. Writer and humorist Josh Fruhlinger is a comedy genius, pointing out the illogic, foibles and downright dumbness of modern comic strips. I grew up loving comic strips. My mom would read them to me on her lap before I could read. Even then I loved their colorful antics and simple, cartoony artwork. When my sense of humor developed above that of a three year-old (I’m definitely up to at least a seven or eight year-old now) I noticed that as the years went on, not many of them were actually funny. Especially the “zombie” strips, Josh’s name for strips where their original creators have died and been replaced by family members or other creators. Strips like B.C., Wizard of Id and Blonde.

In Josh’s world, Marmaduke is a demon from Hell, Pluggers are rustic animal-men/women who wait and long for death, and Mark Trail is automaton who struggles to understand humans and their emotions. Funky Winkerbean is a morass of depression from smug, pun-obsessed hipsters and death-obsessed losers. But Josh saves his most hilarious and on-target observations for the Queen of All Media: Mary Worth. Question: Is the writer of Mary Worth being ironic? Or is this vast desert of oh gosh homilies and moronic advice for real? Who knows? Either way it’s entertaining, with or without Josh’s witty observations.

The Comics Curmudgeon is updated daily and ALWAYS makes me laugh. Here are some of Josh’s recent observations:

Dennis the Menace, 12/2/14


Pluggers, 11/27/14

Pluggers would like to remind you that if you serve a frozen pie to your family you’re human garbage.

Mary Worth, 11/19/14

Let me be clear: I may joke about this increasingly less coded elderotica storyline in Mary Worth, but, as someone with aspirations to someday be old and to also continue to be sexually active, I am 100% in favor of it. Today we learn helpful techniques! If you think your partner has mobility issues, let them set the pace. There are a wide variety of different kinds of movement that can feel good!

Funky Winkerbean, 11/15/14

This doesn’t involve any sort of flashback or anything, but it does nicely demonstrate that joy is so rare in the Funkyverse that people have no idea what it looks like when it’s happening. “Is he … is he having some kind of seizure?”

Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, 10/22/14

The tragic illiteracy of so many of Hootin’ Holler’s voters goes a long way towards explaining why the community is so poorly governed.

Hi and Lois, 10/18/14

Hi and Lois wraps up its nostalgia week on a particularly grim note. “Remember when you used to be able to yell at people and make them do what you want, instead of just putting a credit card into a machine and seething with ambient, targetless rage?”

Marvin, 10/16/14

It’s pretty impressive that, in a strip whose punchline is that Marvin’s family is in such constant terror of his poops that everyone keeps careful track of his digestive velocity, the most unsettling part is actually his smug little smile in panel three. “That’s right, my bowel movements are so vile my own grandfather refuses to deal with them! Heh heh.”

The Comics Curmudgeon content © 2004–2014 Joshua Fruhlinger