Sorry, but the Wonder Woman movie is just okay

Remember the term “middle-brow?” Middle-brow entertainment. Books, magazines, movies, for those who weren’t high-brow but wanted to be better than they were. Better educated, behaved, cultured. Movies, largely, understood the subtleties of culture, manners, and morality, and that part of the audience who didn’t, were a little embarrassed about it.

Hollywood movies were shown overseas, but to appreciate them and understand them took knowledge and intelligence or, at least, cultural curiosity. No longer. Expensive movies expect to make most of their income in foreign lands.

Enter Marvel (Disney) and DC Comics Entertainment (Warner). It would be awkward to stop a culturally-American movie to explain customs and social norms that were already understood by all the characters in the movie. Comic-book movies mostly eliminate any confusing eccentricities. They’re set in a fantasy world with a minimalist culture. They still stop to explain, but it’s everyone who needs the explanations now: no one knows what the Infinity Stones are; few know the Norse gods Thor and Loki; every enemy needs to be explained to the other characters by the one person who happens to know all about them.

In comic-book movies, America and other countries are comprised of landscapes, populated cities, the government, and perhaps news media. The street-filling citizens are there to be saved or killed. The government is there to do shady things and generally be unhelpful.

Wonder Woman put in a brief appearance in Batman v Superman to help with the “boss level” battle at the end. In her own movie, the actress does a fine job, credibly portraying a goddess created and gifted by the gods of Olympus, and she and the film make her a sympathetic character who the fanboys can admire without feeling gallantly protective.

Princess Diana leaves her Amazonian home to join in WWI on the side of the Allies. Hmm, not quiet. On the side of – mankind, against the god Ares. Ares improbably killed all the other gods of Olympus except Zeus, who created Diana to slay Ares.

Steve Trevor has a mission to stop the evil scientist making poison gas for the Germans. Chris Pine handles the role well, and his chemistry with Gil Gadot makes the movie a fun ride

Wonder Woman is a big hit among grownup comic book enthusiasts. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. And compared to crap like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, it’s a triumph. But if you’re tired – tired of comic book movies you can’t possibly take your children to, tired of villains as disdainful of humanity as the film they’re in, tired of long boss fights, tired of movies with America-free America – the numerous good ingredients of Wonder Woman will not stop it from being One More of These Damned Bleak Things. I look forward to the next movie Ms. Jenkins makes without having Zack Snyder influencing things.

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Star Trek: Discovery, first trailer

My thoughts, since the internet is waiting.

I hope there is not a disinterest in straight males. That could be, but I can’t tell. I would like a more masculine crew, because I think it would be nice for popular culture to start teaching young men how to behave, as it used to do. (But, perhaps a show limited to one provider’s streaming service doesn’t qualify as “popular culture.”)

I like the captain.

If you’re in a desert with winds whipping sand around, you may want to cover your eyes, nose, and mouth. Maybe not a great look for a visual story, but no one asked you to go to the desert. If you’re there, act believably.

Aa usual, diversity isn’t taken to an extreme where anyone not physically pretty is included.

What’s with all the, what are those, support beams on the bridge? One torpedo hit, and everyone and his mother will get his head split open on those. Hell, JJ’s bridge looks better.

I hate to say it, but as a TOS and TV-Trek man, I hate how expensive this looks! Where are the re-purposed salt shakers, and the painted packing materials stuck to the corridor walls?

I might like the Klingons later. It doesn’t seem too creative — that spider web with their heads poking through the center, I’ve seen that before in sci-fi. But, given the differences in TOS and TNG, I think they not only had the right to be different and bold, but they couldn’t not be so.

You could pick up an Axanar vibe from this trailer. I never found that project interesting, because I’m not interested in Trek as a vehicle for war stories. But I can see that warfare is not going to be the focus. Good.

I like the crew. I like that Vulcanness is involved, and I’m interested to see how. I like the look of the death-sensing dude. I may even like the uniforms, even though the inside of the ship is ugly.

I like the trailer ending on the logos, and not returning with a few seconds of comedy afterward, as a movie trailer would. (“He likes that seat!”)

I like the captain, and I like the first officer. Is it fall yet?

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Review – The Jack Benny Show

I happily experienced WVXU before it became “a world of ideas,” and found the wonderful world of the early 20th century, represented by pop music and radio comedy and drama. For the sake of my column, I’ll only discuss my favorite, The Jack Benny Program (1932-1955, and TV until 1965).

The cast of the show included: Jack; his announcer, Don Wilson; his bandleaders, the most famous being Phil Harris; his singers, Kenny Baker and Dennis Day; Jack’s sometime co-star, sometime girlfriend, and real-life wife, Mary Livingstone; and Jack’s butler/cook/driver, Rochester Van Jones. (Benny and his wife were Jewish off-screen, born Benjamin Kubelsky and Sadie Marcowitz.)

The characters are delightfully funny and two-dimensional: Jack is vain, cheap, and wealthy; Don is fat, dignified, and the man who reads the advertisements; Phil Harris, who was hilariously introduced as a bashful character, quickly changed to a stupid, booze-loving, loud, raucous egomaniac; Kenny and Dennis are stupid kids; Mary Livingstone is smarter and funnier than Jack and lets him know it; Rochester is underpaid and overworked.

The premise of the show is that it is a radio show, with a song, a band number, a couple advertisements, and some skit which is often based on a popular movie or book – by “the premise,” I mean that the show is conscious of being a show, and would often pretend to dramatize the characters on a day off, or to show events leading up to, or following, a broadcast.

The show never ran smoothly, and Jack Benny’s cast was always questioning and disrespecting him. Jack, the main character of the show (which bears his name), is not a liked or likable character. Everyone gets the best of him.

Perhaps I can sell you on the show with a four-episode “trip to Yosemite” National Park.

Of note about the show was that Jack often did not get many laugh lines, and when he did zing someone, he was zinged right back. One season opened with a show that traveled from co-star to co-star, each commenting on some unpleasant aspect of Jack’s character. Jack was only heard from in the last few minutes. Shows where he spars with guest stars Ronald and Benita Coleman, or Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, hilariously make him out to be an awful character.

I hope you will give Mr. Benny’s show a try, dear reader. You may like it right away, or the nearly-100-year-old comedic stylings may take a little getting used to. But please do try.

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Review – Nero Wolfe mysteries

In my youth, I used to go to the downtown library often, and check out books on tape. Some favorites were Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, Leo McKern’s many readings of John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories, and a reading of the first novel by Rex Stout featuring the private detective, Nero Wolfe. (This was not the recording by Michael Prichard currently available, but an out-of-print one read by Ken Welsh.)

I channeled Mr. Welsh’s voice when I picked up the paper versions of these stories, and read all 33 novels and 39 short stories, published from 1934 to 1975, to my mother. Jonathan Cecil’s reading sold me on PG Wodehouse as the text itself would not have, and likewise, Ken Welsh’s sold me on Rex Stout.

Fer-de-Lance (1934) establishes Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in their “brownstone home on West 35th Street” in New York City. It opens with Nero Wolfe, an immensely fat gourmand and genius, sampling a great many legally-produced 3.2%-alcohol beers. (Forgive me for omitting the interesting historical circumstances.) Nero Wolfe, always “Mr. Wolfe,” is established as being wealthy and eccentric, and acting as a private detective for reasons of income, of being able to pick and choose his clients, and of being in control and to be heavy-handed, at his whim. Later stories established Wolfe as having been born in Montenegro and involved in political strife there before emigrating to America.

Archie is the man of action, who leaves the house to do detective work, and collects facts, suspects, witnesses, and potential clients for Wolfe to use or interrogate.

The delights that I find in these stories are the interactions between the characters. Wolfe and Archie are often sparring, and they often spar with clients, suspects, and police. The stories are believable, with marvelous dialog and action, and the reader cannot but love the main characters.

The characters are brilliantly drawn. The interactions are realistic and interesting. The prose is intelligently written, and the author, Rex Stout, takes care to make sure that every character and prop is kept track of, and every setting described. The solutions are easily forgotten between readings, making the books repeatedly enjoyable.

In Fer-de-Lance, Wolfe finds that he likes a number of the legal beers, and says to Archie, “This is a pleasant surprise, Archie. I would not have believed it. That of course is the advantage of being a pessimist; a pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant.” When Archie (as he does in most of the stories) is frustrated with Wolfe’s inability to solve a case quickly, Wolfe tells him, “Compose yourself, Archie. Why taunt me? Why upbraid me? I am merely a genius, not a god. A genius may discover the hidden secrets and display them; only a god could create new ones.”

Please race over to your nearest used book store or library, begin with Fer-de-Lance, and see if you’re able to stop reading before getting to 1975’s final entry, A Family Affair. I leave you with an exchange between Archie and Wolfe:

“Archie.”

It caught me in the middle of a yawn. After that was attended to I said:

“Yeah.”

He was frowning at me. “You’ve been with me a long time now.”

“Yeah. How shall we do it? Shall I resign, or shall you fire me, or shall we just call it off by mutual consent?”

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Movie review – Mr. Holmes

2015, 103 minutes.

Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes in the December of his years, out in the country, keeping bees. Laura Linney, of HBO’s “John Adams,” returns to Media Comment as his widowed housekeeper with her son, played by Milo Parker.

We’re not far from the end of WWII. Holmes is beginning to suffer from dementia, after quitting his profession when his last case had a particularly bad result.

Mycroft and Watson are dead. Mycroft left Holmes, among other things, a collection of Watson’s stories. Holmes, never having read them (yes, contradicting one of the stories), does so, and is sure that Watson’s version of his last case is incorrect, but cannot remember what actually happened.

Attempting to reconstruct it in written form, he cannot get past his dementia. He travels to Japan and visits the dark-but-not-dead ruins of Hiroshima to acquire an herb that may assist his memory, giving us a B-story that I won’t spoil for you.

Back in the country, Holmes and the fatherless son of the housekeeper start to bond, and Holmes teaches the boy about bee keeping. This interaction helps Holmes to remember his last case, which caused him to face his lonely life and the limits of his logic.

The story is nice, in a minor key but not too heavy. My experiences with my father allowed me to appreciate the elderly Holmes, although McKellen should have kept still for a couple beats after getting to his feet to be entirely convincing. My only other complaint is that conversations were almost entirely shot by flipping from speaker to speaker. There are almost no “two shots” to speak of.

If you have time, give this one a go on Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Epix.  McKellen and the boy, Parker, are excellent.

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Internet Review – Star Trek Continues

When Vic Mignogna was a pre-teen, he saw Star Trek, appreciated Captain Kirk as a father figure, and made Trek home movies with his friends. He really got into it, creating props and costumes. Wikipedia will tell you he is an “actor and musician, known for his prolific voice-over work in the English dubs of Japanese anime shows.”

Vic became involved in a couple of Star Trek “fan series,” and was inspired to make his own. He gathered together a team with more professional and technical know-how than is usual for a fan series.

For those who don’t know, Star Trek, Star Wars, and other established properties have fans who’ve created web videos and audio dramas (and visual art and written fiction). I’m not too knowledgeable about these, not having seen much more than Star Trek New Voyages, a “Cops” take-off using stormtroopers, and “Hardware Wars.”

Star Trek Continues began with three short “vignettes” and a full-length episode. Two “crowd-funding” efforts and six episodes later, Vic and his team are indeed continuing the philosophy, characters, and look of the original series. Let’s take a spoiler-free look at the available episodes.

1. “Pilgrim of Eternity.” A sequel to the original episode featuring the Greek god Apollo. The original actor Michael Forest reprises his role, and finds that a god feeds not on fear and worship, but by expressing love and compassion.

2. “Lolani.” A green-skinned slave girl is pursued by a no-pun-intended green-skinned Lou Ferrigno, and we learn what happens when good men stand by and do nothing.

3. “Fairest of Them All.” In a sequel to “Mirror, Mirror,” the actors get to enjoy playing their evil-universe parts, and we find out what happened after “our” Kirk left, and evil Kirk returned to serve the empire. The quick unfolding of events strains credulity, but was necessary to resolve the story in an hour.

4. “The White Iris.” Vic Mignogna takes on the idea that Kirk was callous or superficial about his romances, and incidentally gives a two-fingered salute to The Wrath of Khan‘s idea that Kirk “never faced death.” The subject is self-forgiveness.

5. “Divided We Stand.” Kirk and McCoy are thrust into the American Civil War, and Kirk gets to lay eyes on Honest Abe again.

6. “Come Not Between the Dragons.” A sci-fi treatment of parental abuse. An excellent “practical” alien costume, and the first appearance of Engineering.

Vic and company’s “webisodes” are designed to finish the series, and explain how the characters got to where we found them at the beginning of the first Star Trek movie. These episodes feature a less brash Kirk, who at times appears to be a bit drained by the “five year mission.” Women’s roles are larger and more serious in his series. I urge you to give these a try.

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