Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ultra really was an awesome Superman villain

It's been months since I last blogged about Golden Age Superman, but I'm going to get back into it. I left off at Action Comics #20, when Superman's first (and at the time, only) recurring villain was the mad scientist, Ultra (formerly the Ultra-Humanite, but I guess that was too unwieldy a name). Ultra had transplanted his brain into a young actress, intentionally choosing that body and becoming a transgender character. In the next issue, Action #21, she seduces a male scientist in order to steal his atomic disintegrator technology. Siegel and Shuster never indicated what Ultra's sexuality was before he changed gender, so it's easy to imagine that he always identified as female and was attracted to men. That's pretty amazing for a comic from 1941.

I suppose we could dismiss it since Ultra's a villain and not meant to be a role model, but I think it's also important that the comic never condemns or even comments at all on Ultra's change. It's very matter-of-fact; not at all presented as evidence of depravity. I mean, Ultra is clearly insane, but no one ever talks about that being connected to her changing gender. Was that assumed or implied? Maybe, I guess. Golden Age comics were always light on explanations and motivation. Readers had to fill in a lot of blanks themselves. But that's one of the things I love about the Golden Age and it's awesome to be able to read about a transgender character where that's just a part of who she is. I'd love to know what grown-up readers of the day thought about that, if anything. Were Superman comics such works of fantasy that no one wondered about these kinds of questions?

As fascinating as Ultra's gender identity is, it's not the only thing the character had going for her. Also in Action #21, Superman learns that she's built a domed city inside an extinct volcano and has populated it with giant robots as guards.

Guys, why is nobody using this character anymore?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

My expectations for the new Jack Ryan movie were really stinking low. I've enjoyed the couple of Tom Clancy novels I've read (Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse), but I wouldn't exactly call myself a fan of the books. I loved the first three movies based on them though. Hunt for Red October is a great thriller and Alec Baldwin's Jack Ryan is a different kind of hero: an analyst who prefers to think his way out of problems rather than use violence. Hiring middle-aged Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger made a lot of sense then, letting the character continue to be an intellectual instead of an action star.

I never saw Sum of All Fears, partly because I'm not super fond of Ben Affleck as an actor, but also because I hated the concept of de-aging Jack Ryan. I was afraid that he'd become just another actiony superspy. I still have no idea if that was true for Sum of All Fears, though no one's ever recommended it to me as a must-watch, but it was also my fear for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It felt like such a cynical gimmick for Paramount to reboot the series, like they wanted their own Bond or Bourne series and this was the way they were going to get it. If it hadn't been for the cast, I wouldn't have even bothered with it.

I can take or leave Chris Pine, but Keira Knightley and Kenneth Branagh are people I love. I'll watch pretty much anything with either of them in it. I'm also interested in Kevin Costner at this stage of his career. I was hot and cold on him in early days (mostly cold except for The Untouchables and maybe Bull Durham), but in spite of the huge problems I had with the way Pa Kent was written in Man of Steel, there were no issues with the way Costner played him. I was looking forward to seeing him mentor Pine in Jack Ryan.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Her (2013)

I've heard from several people that they have a hard time getting past the premise of Her. That's fair enough; it's about a dude who develops romantic feelings for his phone. If that's all you have to go on, it's a tough concept to buy into. Even if you accept the main character's feelings, how are you supposed to relate to them? Fortunately for me, I had several other ways into the film.

First is the cast. I love every one of the people mentioned on that poster. Joaquin Phoenix is one of the finest actors working today, as is Amy Adams. Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde are also very talented and I have good feelings about them from Side Effects and House respectively. And even though Scarlett Johansson's face never appears in the movie, she's also a great actor and I love her voice. Then there's Spike Jonze, an ambitious filmmaker with interesting things to say and powerful ways to say them. And finally, there was hardly a Top 10 list for 2013 that didn't include Her on it. I knew it would be about much more than a creepy relationship and I was right.

Her does have some things to say about the relationship between people and our technology. That's actually the least insightful commentary it offers though. It's not profound to suggest that we love our phones and computers, but Her goes much deeper than that. It's about relationships in general. What do we want from them? How much work are we willing to put in?

Monday, January 13, 2014

My Top 10 movies of 2013

10. Admission

It's not difficult for a romantic comedy to crack my Top 10 as long as it's good. I love a good romantic comedy, but there are so few good ones that when one does comes along I cherish it. I've said before that I'm a big fan of Paul Rudd; I also enjoy Tina Fey in most things. Admission is a fine example of their doing what they do best while paying attention to one of my favorite themes: letting other people into your life. It probably wouldn't make my list of Top 10 romantic comedies of all time (there's an idea for a post), but it was the best of the genre this year and that's why it sneaks into 2013's Top 10 for me.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

11 movies I really dug in 2013

Counting down the 2013 movies I saw, from worst to best.

20. Machete Kills

What separates Machete Kills from the action flicks on Monday's list is love. It's not demonstrably better crafted than say 2 Guns or Homeland, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up in passion. I don't love everything about Machete Kills, but I love a lot about it, and I especially love that Robert Rodriguez is able to make exactly the kinds of movies he wants and that his enthusiasm is all over the screen.

Monday, January 06, 2014

10 movies I liked just fine in 2013

Counting down the 2013 movies I saw, from worst to best. These are the ones I'd grade in the C to B- range.

30. G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Dumps the over-the-top fun of the first G.I. Joe movie in favor of gravitas, which is something I didn't feel I needed. But having said that, there are some amazing action sequences and I liked all the good guys. It's pretty much G.I. Joe in name only, but still a fine action movie.

Friday, January 03, 2014

8 movies I didn't care for in 2013

Counting down the 2013 movies I saw, from worst to best:

38. Gangster Squad

I wanted another L.A. Confidential or The Untouchables, but Gangster Squad is a cliché-ridden mess that can't decide if it's serious and brutal or a tongue-in-cheek lark.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

32 movies I wanted to see in 2013 (but didn't)

Happy New Year! As I've done the last couple of years, I'm going to spend the early days of 2014 running down the movies I saw in 2013 and ranking them from worst to best. I made it to 38 movies in the theater last year, which leaves 32 that I wanted to see, but will have to catch up on at home. I mention them here partly by way of explaining why some potentially great movies aren't among my favorites, but also so you can tell me which of these need to be at the top of my queue and which I shouldn't bother with.

Here they are in the order in which they were released. Some of the posters are high res, so I put most of the list behind a break for the sake of browsers everywhere.

1. Spring Breakers

Mostly just curious about Disney Princesses Behaving Badly. And I tend to like James Franco.


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