Showing posts with label Pop stuff. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pop stuff. Show all posts

Pop stuff: The legendary John Peel; Batman v. Superman

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

Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life. From psychedelia to Sonic Youth, John Peel was always a few steps - and sometimes years - head of his fellow disc jockeys.

In numerous cases, he was the first person in Britain - and, often, the world - to play music by now legendary acts. The list stretches from the mid 1960s, when he was a disc jockey on pirate station Radio London, through his long tenure on the BBC's Radio 1, and it includes everyone from Elton John, Davie Bowie, T. Rex and the Faces up through the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and his beloved Undertones, to Joy Division, the Smiths, Nirvana and the White Stripes.

And those are just the big names. Peel's wide-open ears and broad tastes also exposed audiences to world music, electronica, jazz, avant garde, comedy and numerous other, often uncategorizable, sounds. If Peel hadn't died in 2004, who knows what he'd be playing us now.

Today in Britain and even the United States, where listeners tuned into his shows on the BBC World Service and are familiar with releases of his "Peel Sessions" featuring live-in-the-studio performances by numerous acts, Peel is seen as an icon.

There's an annual John Peel Lecture in Britain, which has been delivered Pete Townshend, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, and the BBC's eclectic Radio 6 Music was built on the Peel template, delivering sounds of all sorts 24 hours a day.

Yet, during his long radio career, as this book by David Cavanagh details, Peel was largely taken for granted and often shabbily treated.

The BBC allowed Peel to say and play essentially whatever he wanted for more than 30 years, yet the network confined him to the wee hours of the evening, often cutting back the length of his shows and bouncing him around the schedule to make more time available for safer and more predictable fare.

In numerous cases, daytime jocks got credit for introducing hot new acts that Peel had played on his show, late in the evening, months before.

Yet, he persevered, listening to the thousands of records and cassettes unsigned and otherwise unheard of musicians sent him in the mail and playing those he liked best on the air.

Cavanagh's book isn't a biography, but a tour through Peel's nearly four decades on the air. Rather than conventional chapters, we're presented with chronological entries in which the author details highlights from Peel's shows, including his remarks and some of the music played, and contrasts these with a news story from that particular day.

Through the Irish Troubles, the 1970s energy crisis, the British miner's strike and the Falklands War, we see how Peel's musical choices reflected the temperament of the times.

The book also highlights some of Peel's most legendary exploits on the air. He wasn't a wild, frenetic U.S.-style deejay, but a soft spoken, self-deprecating, often mordant, wit. And full of nerve.

When the BBC banned the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax," Peel played them anyway. And when he got excited about music, he let it show. He once played five Chuck Berry songs in a row and, upon playing the Undertones "Teenage Kicks" on the air for the first time, wept with joy and immediately played it again. The tune's lyrics are on his tombstone.

As Cavanagh makes clear, we'll be scrutinizing Peel's set lists and gaining a better understanding of his huge influence for decades to come.

It all goes to show that, sometimes, its not just the players who make music history, but the fans as well.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has been roundly trashed by critics and crowds alike, but I had to give it a look. After all, World's Finest was one of my favorite comics titles as a kid and I've been a Batfan since nearly birth - I had see who won!

Nobody, it turns out. Unless you count Wonder Woman. I agree with the many viewers who thought Gal Gadot's portrayal of the Amazonian princess was the highlight of the movie. So there's five minutes.

The rest of the film is nearly three hours of humorless, joyless set-up and execution. We need to get these two guys at odds, have them fight for a bit and then team up. But couldn't it have been done with a bit of fun and pizazz?

There's not one laugh in the picture - nothing to diffuse the overwrought, soundtrack-fed tension and let us know this is all for fun. No "you're light, I'm dark banter" that might provide either of the title characters with a little (super) humanity or character. By the time the heroes finally battle, you don't really care who wins, because both are so glum and cardboard it's tough to muster up much emotion over either of them.

Director Zack Snyder and the film's writers take it all so seriously. The intention, it seems, is to make this improbable story as "real world" as possible. But doing so just highlights how ridiculous it all is.

The movie is distractingly full of real people: Charlie Rose, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Anderson Cooper, Nancy Grace - it's like flipping through cable channels. And the film's efforts to amp up it's real worldiness via scenes of terrorism, including blowing up the U.S. Capitol, are outrageous and tasteless.

The perpetrator of all this destruction is Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg), though he might as well be the Joker - he's more unhinged chaos agent than scheming super scientist.

After the whole bombastic, predictable ordeal of watching the film - seriously, the soundtrack nearly pummels you with pounding percussion - I came away thinking about how much Marvel does this stuff than DC.

Marvel's films, while full of high-stakes action, are always winking at the audience. The characters joke, falter and triumph. Unlike this Batman and this Superman, they are identifiable and full of personality. You want to hang out with them - maybe not for three hours, but for two. I wouldn't want to chat with this film's Batman or Superman for two minutes at a cocktail party.

The comparison between Marvel's and DC's films today is much like the one between their comics of the 1960s. Back then, Marvel came along with books that were fun and full of interesting, flawed, "human" characters. And, until they started copying Marvel, DC's heroes were old-fashioned, dull, interchangeable cardboard cutouts. Hasn't DC learned anything in 50 years?

Before they screw up a could-be-great Wonder Woman movie and fully launch a Justice League franchise, DC should take a close look at what Marvel's been doing - and copy like crazy.

Pop stuff: Deadpool, Hail Caesar!, 11.22.63

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc.

Deadpool isn't a film I'd likely ask a friend to go see. I'd be a little embarrassed. And, certainly, from the get-go, I'd know better than to ask my wife. She doesn't even care for normal superhero movies, let alone profane, hyper-violent parodies thereof.

So it's fortunate that I have a teenage son. When he asked if I wanted to go, I didn't say no - but I also didn't have to say it was my idea. Best of all worlds.

I've never read a Deadpool comic, and probably never well. But I was curious to see how Marvel pulled off a raunchy comedy and how it fit in with the rest of their on-screen universe. Not badly, it turns out.

The story of a super-powered sociopath on a revenge kick, "Deadpool" contains numerous jokes and scenes that made me twinge a bit - but I figure that's my deal. I knew what I was getting into. There are also a fair number jokes and scenes that made me laugh despite myself.

It's good to see Marvel taking some of the wind out of its own sails. The opening credits, which spurn star's names for labels such as "CGI superhero," "hot chick" and "gratuitous cameo" were inspired, as were all the fourth wall breaks. In one scene, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool jokes about the mediocre acting abilities of ... Ryan Reynolds.

The film is also able to integrate the X-Men's Colossus (the "CGI superhero" voiced by Stefan Kapičić) into it's insane world while not disturbing the notion that it's the same, serious Colossus from the X-Men movies. A tricky thing to do.

If you're remotely offended by anything - anything at all - stay far away. But if you're not above a brief wallow in vulgar silliness, you may get a kick out of this film. Despite yourself.

Hail Caesar! is a film my wife DID want to go see with me - and it was a lot of fun.

Set during the heyday of studio-system Hollywood, it's the wittily written-and-directed romp you might expect from the Coen Brothers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the stoic minder charged with keeping everything on the up and up at the fictional Capitol Pictures. It's not an easy task.

A pair of gossip columnists (twins, played by Tilda Swinton) is on the prowl for a scandalous scoop and one of the studio's biggest starlets, played by Scarlett Johansson, has got herself in the family way - without a family. Eddie also needs to decide whether he wants to take a different, less stressful but less interesting job.

But then Eddie's bad day gets worse. The studio's biggest male star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped off the set right before filming of the final scene of a big budget epic. The longer Baird stays missing, the more it's going to cost.

If you're a lover of the Coens, old movies and Hollywood history, it's a magical, hysterical blend. The film's two big musical numbers, which simultaneously lampoon and pay tribute to the movies of old, are worth the price of admission. But there's plenty more movie for movie lovers to love here, too.

11.22.63 is a J.J. Abrams-produced original mini-series on Hulu based on a Stephen King book about a creative writing teacher (James Franco) who travels back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination.

As you can tell - James Franco as a creative writing teacher! - the whole thing is pretty preposterous. But with storytellers like Abrams and King behind it, I was curious enough to give it a try and am now too curious to give it up.

By entering what my son aptly described as a "time closet" - nothing fancy or trans-dimensional, just a closet - Franco's character, Jake Epping travels back to 1960 where he does his best to blend in while trying to figure out a way to prevent JFK's death.

Every nerd and/or drunken undergraduate has speculated about the ability to prevent JFK's death, or to kill Hitler, and all the potential risks and ramifications involved, so it's fun to see a mind like King's take up the prospect.

There are numerous funny, entertaining and thought-provoking moments in the series, along with some downright perplexing ones, such as Jake's 1960s sidekick, Bill, getting the hots for Oswald's wife, Marina. There's something creepy and weird about fictionalizing an extramarital love interest involving a still-living, real person.

All the period details - the clothes, the cars, the music - are nicely realized. In fact, those details are what I like about so the show most of all. I'm curious to see if Jake is successful in his mission, but mostly I like hanging out in early 1960s America. Sort of makes me wish I had my own time closet.

Pop Stuff: Love and Mercy

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

Love and Mercy is an imaginatively conceived and moving portrait of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.

The film shifts back and forth through time, using two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, to portray Wilson both at his 1960s height and as a damaged, lost soul in the 1980s.

But, rather than being shown how Brian became what he became, we see that he's always been much the same: Musically brilliant, gentle and kindhearted, but assailed by depression, auditory hallucinations and other issues of mental illness.

From his youth into middle age, he is also consistently exploited by those around him. By his abusive stage dad Murray, by label bosses and his bandmates who want him to be "more commercial," and even by his own psychologist, Eugene Landy, who kept him trapped in a fog of medications for years while making money off Wilson's recordings and "autobiography."

It's a sad story that's constantly redeemed by Wilson's ability to stay positive and persevere. When he meets his future wife Melinda (played by Elizabeth Banks), he's a broken man. Landy, who keeps Wilson drugged and under surveillance by goonish assistants 24 hours a day, has shattered Wilson's creative spirit, his confidence and independence. Yet, there's still a glimmer there: a goofy sense of humor, flashes of musical brilliance, hints of Brian's true self. By reaching out to Melinda, he's reaching for a way out, and she helps pull him the rest of the way.

The film never loses focus despite the time shifts and despite using two actors that don't look much alike. Dano is bright, energetic and awkward as the young Brian -- excited by his musical discoveries and hurt and confused when his dad and bandmates don't understand them. Cusack's performance is quiet and understated, built on subtle body language that reflects the older Brian's lost and defeated state. It's a testament to both actors, and to the film's direction, that we consistently see them as the same man.

The film always seems real. Unlike most bio-pics, with their parade of bad wigs, period music and headlines to tell us "when" in the story we are, we feel genuinely in the 1960s when Dano is on-screen. The clothes, sets, cars and hair are all just right, not cheesy.

The studio scenes, which depict, mostly, the recording of Wilson's brilliant Pet Sounds album, are spot on. If you're a musician, or if you've seen the documentary "The Wrecking Crew" about the studio musicians Wilson worked with, you'll be amazed by the authentic details. All the gear -- amps, guitars, studio equipment -- is just right. The scenes convey the giddy excitement of creativity, as Wilson dictates his ideas to the musicians and they play music unlike any previously heard.

The other performances are all remarkably good. Banks isn't the crusading savior. She's just a normal woman trying to figure Brian out and unsure about how to help him. Paul Giamatti is both menacing and ridiculous as Dr. Landy: a dork who's managed to latch onto, and take control over, a much better and more-talented man's life. The smaller roles, including Jake Abel as Mike Love and Johnny Sneed as the great studio drummer Hal Blaine, are also well-played.

If you're a Wilson/Beach Boys fan, you'll be pleased by the authenticity of the film and its faithfulness to the facts. But even those unfamiliar with Wilson are likely to be moved and inspired by his story.

Pop stuff: Jurassic World, The Illusionist

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

Jurassic World. Set your expectations accordingly for this one. If you want lots of dinosaurs chases, thrills and chills: bingo. This is your movie. If you want anything else, well ... what the hell were you thinking?

The story and set have been updated. There's now a new "Jurassic" theme park. The head marketeer of the place, Claire Deering (Bryce Dallas Howard), is trying to make people forget about the old one, where people got eaten by the attractions, but -- naturally -- the owners are flirting with disaster.  Just like Disneyland and Captain Eo, bigger and ostensibly better attractions are needed to ensure the tourists keep coming through the gates.

In this case, the big new thing is a huge, new, scary dinosaur. A genetic cocktail of t-rex and God knows what else. Resident raptor trainer, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), knows the thing is too dangerous to live, let alone display. But doesn't anyone believe him?

It's only a matter of moments before Indominus Rex is on the loose and munching on humans and every other variety of dino. But we knew that would happen, just like we knew Claire wasn't as prissy and uptight as she seemed, and that she'd end up kissing Owen, and that Claire's two nephews, who are visiting the park while their parents are in the process of getting divorced, are a pair of scrappy little survivors.

There's not a single surprising thing about the movie, other than that something so utterly predictable can still be entertaining.

It would be nice if the filmmakers had flattered us a little by springing a surprise or weird curveball or two. Or by making better use of Pratt, whose great charm and comic chops remain largely unexploited here. You wonder why they spend the bucks casting him. 

But the filmmakers know they don't have to try hard. But it's summer. Dinosaurs are cool. The tickets sell themselves

The Illusionist is lovely, charming exploration of age and innocence based on a script by French director Jacque Tati, but never produced as the live-action film he'd intended. Instead, his story has been captured in beautiful animation by Sylvain Chomet, who created the popular "Triplets of Belleville" several years back.

As with that film, there's little dialogue here. Subtitles are unnecessary as we see the aging title character, a struggling magician, travel to Scotland, where his tricks -- mistaken for real magic -- enchant a young girl. Not wanting to let her down, he tries to keep up the act, but ultimately fails as she grows up and becomes just as enchanted with the outside world. It's a sweet, funny story laced with melancholy that will resonate with parents watching their children grow up.

Pop stuff: The Clouds of Sils Maria; IDW's Disney Comics; The Last Man on Earth

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

The Clouds of Sils Maria is a quiet, thoughtful meditation on aging and  changing perceptions named for a mysterious natural phenomenon that occurs in south central Switzlerand, in which clouds drifting through a valley in the alps take on the appearance of a snake.

Just as you need to be in the right spot to notice that the clouds look like a snake, you need to be in the right spot to see the full picture of life. Most of time we perceive it only from our current vantage point, whether it's early on or smack in the middle.

Maria (Juliette Binoche) is in the middle. A veteran actress, she's been persuaded to revisit the play that made her a star when she was young. The play focuses on two women: one young, one older. This time, Maria is set to play the older one. Recruited for the ingenue role is a Lohanesque terror named Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe-Grace Moretz). Kristen Stewart plays Maria's personal assistant, Valentine.

Most of the scenes, shot beautifully on location in the real Sils-Maria and featuring those cool clouds, focus on Maria  as she struggles to understand the new role she's taking on, and begins re-thinking the meaning of the play. Like the cloud shapes drifting through the valley, her perceptions shift and tranform before our eyes.The performances by all three actresses are as fantastic and surprising as the film's revelations.

Duck comics. After a long absence, new Disney comics featuring Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge and Mickey Mouse are making their way back into comics shops courtesy of IDW Publishing. It's good to see them back. I've picked up the first two issues of Uncle Scrooge - I like those long, funny adventure tales - and enjoyed both. The second one was especially good, featuring a Carl Barksian tale in which Scrooge, Donald and the boys find themselves on a desert isle haunted by ghost pirates.

IDW is rolling these out gradually. They started with Scrooge in April, added Donald's own title in May and introduced Mickey's comic this month. A revitalized Walt Disney Comics and Stories joins the lineup in July.

The stories aren't "new" per se, but new to American audiences. IDW is cherry-picking Disney stories originally published overseas -- where funny ducks, like jazz and Jerry Lewis, are appreciated more than here -- and they've done a good job so far.

The artwork is great. The translations are smooth and witty and the page counts generous. The debut issue of Uncle Scrooge was 48 pages while the second was 40. The publisher is retaining the "legacy numbering" of each title in parentheses, too, which collectors will enjoy. I wish they'd also tell us when and where each of the included stories was published. It would be interesting to learn more about Disney's publishing legacy in Europe and about the creators involved.

But that's the collector in me. The comics booster in me is just happy these titles are back. I hope new generations discover them. Between them and the continuing reprints of Carl Barks' complete works by Fantagraphics, we're in duck heaven.

The Last Man on Earth. What if the last-surviving man on earth wasn't a resourceful, heroic Robinson Crusoe, but a selfish, hapless doofus? Kinda like all of us, but with all our worst qualities amped?

That's what you get with SNL-vet Will Forte at the helm of this new series, which recently finished  its first season on Fox. I've been watching on Hulu Plus.

While the premise seems one-note at first, the show finds all sorts of topics to explore and make us laugh about, asking what would happen if civilization collapsed? How would we act?

Hopefully better than Phil, who's a truly awful person. Yet, he retains our sympathies throughout. Maybe it's because we wonder, ourselves, if we'd do any  better in his situation.

It's not a huge spoiler to mention that Phil isn't entirely alone. The great Kristen Schaal of "Flight of the Conchords" fame arrives early on to make us laugh. And to drive Phil crazy. There are a lot of other surprises, too.

Pop stuff: Mad Men

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

Mad Men ended it's seven-season run this week on a perfect, mysterious note. Sitting lotus style on a law overlooking Big Sur, we see ad man Don Draper meditating with a group of other seekers. He intones "om" and a little smile comes to his lips.

Then the scene fades into the classic Coca-Cola commercial featuring a group of young people of all races and creeds perfectly harmonizing "I'd like to teach the world to sing..."

The show's creator, Matthew Weiner, certainly took a cue from "The Sopranos" here. Just as we were with that show, we were left wondering. Did Tony finish his meal at the restaurant with his family, or was he gunned down in a mob hit? Did Don finally reach some inner peace, or did he jump up, rush back to New York and create the classic ad that ended the show?

Ultimately, it's up to each of us to choose our own ending. Certainly, there were clues dropped that lead us to the Coke conclusion. The prospect of working on the Coca-Cola account was a possibility throughout the last several episodes, and Peggy mentions the possibility to Don, hoping to coax him back home. There's also a seen in with a motel owner enlists Don's help to repair a Coke machine.

And what about the sad man Don hears during a group therapy session at his Big Sur retreat? The one who is always there, always dependable, but who feels overlooked. He mentions his dream of being on a shelf in a refrigerator. People look in on him and smile and the light turns on. They don't choose him, the door shuts and the light goes off.

Seemingly moved, Don walks over and hugs the man. But is he moved by compassion or thankfulness? Is the sad man a human deserving of compassion, or a human bottle of Coke, who's just helped re-fire Don's creative engines?

It's a brilliant ending to a brilliant show, which played more like a novel than TV series, with its understated dialogue, left turns, and questioning themes of what it means/meant to be a man or woman in America and how we choose or are forced into the roles we play.

It's also a great ending, because it makes you want to go back to the start and see how it all fits together and leads to this point. I suspect many of us will be watching the series again. And maybe again after that.

Pop stuff: Avengers - Age of Ultron, While We're Young

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

Avengers: Age of Ultron hits the ground, literally, running. Our heroes, who we now know so well from the first Avengers movie and their various solo films, are on the move through a European forest, closing in on castleful of Hydra hold-outs. The action, and the funny quips, fly furiously.

Those previous films have done their job. Millions of people are now Marvelmaniacs, even if they've never cracked open a comic book. They no longer need to be told that Captain America was given a serum that made him a super soldier, or that the Hulk was hit by gamma rays, or that Thor is a Norse God. We can skip the background and leap straight into the adventure.

For an old comic book reader, the experience of a film like this is similar to picking up one of those great super-sized summer annuals of the 1970s. You'd grab it off the spinner rack, bike home and sit under a tree and be entertained for a good hour or so.

There's no deep thinking here. It's a summer popcorn movie of the best sort. Just lots of action and laughs and the feeling that you're a welcome member of a fun club. Just as the Marvel Comics of the 1960s and 70s made you feel part of something special, so does this film. You get credit for having kept up with and seen all the other films, and maybe even the S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter TV series. There are cameos by characters from the various solo films (along with you-know-who) and references to Wakanda, the infinity stones and even the Invaders. The Marvel Universe on screen has become a real place.

It's all fun stuff, and the only bad thing about it is that it might be too fun. For all the great aspects of the movie the movie--the sharp quips and dialogue, a funny set piece where everyone tries to pick up Thor's hammer--we're never really placed in suspense. And the plot, which concerns Tony Stark creating a mechanism aimed at protecting Earth from pretty much any threat, is too similar, but not as compelling as, the last Captain America film, which was a commentary on the security state.

With nearly 20 films on its upcoming docket, Marvel will need to work harder to keep all the plots and characters from blurring into a big, colorful mush. It's the same deal as in comics: Heroes always need a challenge, a threat. And it's tough to keep coming up with something new, that seems perilous and is emotionally resonant, and which makes your characters grow and change. If the films start becoming too similar, too routine, that fun feeling is going to fade.

As a sidetrack, I know there's a lot of debate currently regarding Black Widow, sexism and Marvel's failure to slot a female-led movie in its lineup. I have a daughter who's interested in superheroes and comics, too, and am frustrated that there's--still--such a lack of strong females heroes on screen and in comics.

So far as "Age of Ultron," though, I didn't come away feeling that Black Widow had been treated poorly, or was diminishing or offensive to women. As played by Scarlett Johansson, she is strong and smart. In the film, there's more going on for her storywise than say, Thor or Captain America, who mainly stand around and hit stuff. We get a glimpse into her back story and emotions. The same is true in this film for the other non-powered member of the team, Hawkeye.

It's true that Black Widow is captured at one point, but she's never a damsel in distress. She doesn't panic and isn't shown as weak. The sequence is unnecessary and too predictable, but I don't think it was intended to a send a message that women are in need of "rescue" from men. But I'm not a woman, and I can see how women viewers must be pretty damned sick of this sort of thing.

On the more positive side, I'm encouraged that the film introduced a second female Avenger, and that "Agent Carter" will be back for a second season. We'll also see Wonder Woman on screen soon, first with Batman and Superman, but eventually in her own film. Plus there's a Supergirl TV series on the way. DC and Marvel have also both announced initiatives to publish more comics and other books intended for female readers. All this is much too slow in coming, but a sign of progress.

While We're Young might've been a pretty funny, broad comedy about the onset of middle age, but it's smarter and more clever than that.

Yes, the story centers on Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a couple in their late 40s who befriend a couple of young hipsters, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who are about half their age. Predictably, Josh and Cornelia try to skew younger. Josh buys a hipster hat and starts riding a vintage bike. Cornelia takes up hip-hop dance. 

But the film takes aim at the younger couple, too. They have a chicken in their apartment, indiscriminate musical taste (along as it's on battered vinyl, it's cool), and they are always busy looking at their phones when the restaurant bill arrives, allowing the older couple to pay the tab.

More than a comedy about age, the film is a study in authenticity. Both Josh and Jamie are documentary filmmakers and we're provided a debate about what's real and what's artifice, both in terms of creating a film, but also in our daily lives.

Why is some behavior "young" while other behavior is "old"? What's age appropriate? Do we adopt behaviors at particular ages because it's natural, or because we're trying to "be" something? How can we be real?

Josh and Cornelia are friends with another couple, who have become parents in middle age. They've adopted their own new worldview as a result. Josh's father-in-law, played by Charles Grodin, is a documentarian of an older generation, and his views of what is acceptable in creating documentary film--staging or helping create events vs. merely observing--has grown more relaxed.

The result is a film that, certainly, will make you laugh. But it may make you think even more.

Pop stuff: Brian Wilson; The Wrecking Crew

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

Brian Wilson - No Pier Pressure. This is a real grab bag of an album, but a successful one overall.

Most of the songs were intended for a followup to the Beach Boys' surprisingly strong 2012 LP, That's Why God Made the Radio. When that didn't materialize, Wilson elected to release the songs on his own (hence the LP's punning title). However, he did recruit fellow Beach Boys singer Al Jardine and the group's original guitarist David Marks to contribute.

Wilson also got tangled up with the idea of doing a duets album. And here he teams up with a number of younger acts: Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities; Zooey DeSchanel; Kacey Musgraves; Peter Hollens, and Nate Ruess of Fun.

And then, just to mix things up further, he recorded a few tracks where he's the sole lead vocal.

The common thread to all this, of course, is the gorgeous harmonies that only Wilson can write and arrange. Yet it still doesn't quite all tie together.

Of the duet tunes, "Runaway Dancer" with Simonian is the worst. The song's electronic beats don't blend with Wilson's harmonies and the lyrics are godawful. "Our Special Love" starts off promising, but its Beach Boys-style opening soon  devolves into Boyz to Men barbershop. Hollens' vocals on the tune don't have much character. "Saturday Night," with Reuss is much better, a decent song with a 1970s A.M. radio vibe. It doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album, yet it's pleasant and catchy.

The women fare much better. "On an Island" with DeSchanel has a fun retro-lounge feel with bachelor pad organ and jazzy guitar fills by her She and Him partner, Matt Ward. And "Guess You Had to Be There" with Musgraves is one of the best tracks on the record, its light-hearted lyrics referencing Wilson's own rise and fall during the 1960s. Her voice and Wilson's blend well.

The piece also fits well with most of the rest of the songs, which tend to have a melancholy twilight spirit to them.

Highlights include the opening track "This Beautiful Day," a lovely prelude in the spirit of "Meant for You" off the Beach Boys' Sunflower album,;"I'm Feeling Sad," a sort of update to "Busy Doin' Nothin'" from the Friends LP, and the trio of songs prominently featuring Jardine: "Whatever Happened To," "The Right Time" and "Tell Me Why."

Jardine still has his youthful "Help Me Rhonda" voice, which puts a Beach Boys stamp on everything he and Wilson sing together. Their collaborations on this album rank with the best tracks on That's Why God Made the Radio.

Holland-era Beach Boys member Blondie Chaplin is on hand for the album, too, and he and Jardine sound great on the "Sloop John B"/"Sail on Sailor" nod, "Sail Away."

The album certainly features some Auto-Tune and other studio trickery, but not to distraction. On some tracks, Wilson's voice is more exposed than it's been in years and it sounds wonderful. You can hear the age, but -- in the studio at least -- his range and feeling is remarkable, as are all those harmonies.

It's not a perfect album by any means. But by judicious editing, you can turn it into a pretty dang good one.

Note: The version of No Pier Pressure reviewed here is the "Deluxe Edition," which has 16 tracks, three more than the "Standard" edition. These songs are: "Don't Worry," "Somewhere Quiet" and "I'm Feeling Sad." These are all great songs featuring Wilson on sole lead vocal, so you don't want to miss them. There's also a version of the Deluxe Edition at Target stores that includes two additional bonus tracks (a 1975 demo of "In the Back of My Mind" and an undated, alternate version of "Love and Mercy") for a total of 18 songs.

The Wrecking Crew. Brian Wilson also figures in this documentary, which focuses on the crack crew of Los Angeles session musicians - Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine, Glen Campbell and more - who played on hundreds of top hits of the 1960s.

The musicians could simply sit around naming all the tunes they've played on and it would be a jaw-dropping film. From the Beach Boys to the Monkees, most of Phil Spector's sessions to Frank Sinatra, to the 5th Dimension, the Association, Sonny and Cher and a zillion more, these musicians played with simply everyone. Nearly every tune you'll hear on oldies radio features at least some of them.

But the film, directed by Tedesco's son Denny, goes deeper than that, giving us an idea of what it's like to have lived the very busy, generally well-paid, yet completely anonymous life of a session musician.

Being constantly on call was stressful and meant days and weeks away from your family. You also didn't get writing credit for all the hooks and licks you created, and which made all the difference in making songs into hits.

There are some great group discussions between these musicians and input from talking heads ranging from Wilson to Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Nancy Sinatra to the late Dick Clark. There are nice musical moments, too, such as Carol Kaye - the sole woman in the Wrecking Crew ranks - demonstrating her classic bass line on the "Mission Impossible Theme." Yes, many TV soundtracks of the 1960s also featured these folks.

There are plenty of musical clips throughout. Getting clearances for them all took years. But "The Wrecking Crew" is finally widely available. You can stream it now on Amazon and it will be out on DVD June 16. Like the equally vital "20 Feet From Stardom" and "Muscle Shoals" it's a must-see for fans of classic pop and rock'n'roll.

Pop stuff: Cinderella, The Reluctant Dragon, Daredevil

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

Cinderella. This is a fun, albeit not terribly necessary, live-action update of Disney's animated classic. I guess they're doing this with a number of the originals - "Pinocchio" is up next.

As Cinderella, Lily James ("Downton Abbey") looks and dresses much like her cartoon counterpart. She's not much more dimensional either. She's a sweet girl confronted by nasty people who learns to stick up for herself while remaining nice. Not a bad life lesson. But beyond being a sad Pollyanna, James doesn't have much to do.

Cate Blanchett is given a bit more to work with and has fun vamping it up as Cinderella's evil stepmother. She's provided a back story that makes her somewhat sympathetic. And we see, via her behavior and Cinderella's, how loss and adversity has the potential to either destroy or strengthen you. This contrast is a nice touch. I liked, too, that the stepsisters in this version aren't ugly. They just act that way.

As in the original, Prince Charming (Richard Madden) has little to offer beyond good posture, nice hair and a bright smile. He's dull. Cinderella could do better.

Helena Bonham Carter, meanwhile, steals the show as Cinderella's offbeat, possibly tipsy Fairy Godmother. Her magical transformation of pumpkin into carriage and mice into horses is great fun.

The Reluctant Dragon. Never having seen it before, we gave this 1941 Disney film, now on Netflix, a shot for Family Movie Night last weekend. And it's great!

Though it includes the animated short in the title, the real highlight is everything leading up to it. This is a full-length feature focusing on writer/actor Robert Benchley's tour of the Disney studios.

Along the way, we see how the Disney animators in art class and at work, working with animation cels, creating sound effects and background music and more. It's all planned out and scripted, of course. But it's shot on location and provides an opportunity to see behind-the-scenes Disney stars such as animator Ward Kimball and Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck) on screen.

The animated shorts included are actually less entertaining than the scenes of Benchley meeting and interacting with these folks. There's also a great scene where the action marvelously transforms from black and white into Technicolor. Check it out.

Daredevil. I'm not a serious binge watcher, but I have watched the first couple episodes of this new Marvel series on Netflix. I liked it, though I found the first couple of storylines a bit predictable and the pace - apart from fight scenes - a little slow.

Charlie Cox star as Matt Murdock/Daredevil and the show has a dark mood obviously inspired by Frank Miller's classic early 1980s run on the "Daredevil" comic book series.

Daredevil inhabits the ground level of the Marvel Universe. No bombast and epic, world-shattering action here, just dark shadows and urban blight.

At least in the first couple of episodes, Daredevil fights mobsters, not super-villains. And he has no super strength or invulnerability of his own, just heightened senses brought about by a freak accident that stole his sight but fine-tuned everything else.

The fight scenes are especially well-executed and dramatic. Daredevil has great martial arts moves, but he also gets pummeled. He gets knocked down and picks himself up only be sheer force of will. He's super human in the sense that he's very, very human. There's a sense he could be killed at any moment.

Accordingly, Rosario Dawson turns up as a nurse in the second ep to fish a beaten Daredevil out of a Dumpster and treat his (many) wounds. Dawson is good, bringing personality to a cliched part. Also nice are Elden Henson as a funny, self-deprecating Foggy Nelson and Deborah Ann Woll is the sad and troubled Karen Page, who becomes the secretary in Foggy and Matt's law office.

Cox is very good in the lead role. He could be overly brooding, but is charming, funny and mysterious instead.

I also like that the show connects to the rest of Marvel's on-screen universe in a very subtle way.

There are mentions of "the incident," which resulted in the destruction of the show's Hell's Kitchen environs, but it's up to viewers to realize this refers to the epic New York battle that took place at the end of the first Avengers film.

"Daredevil" and other Marvel series planned for Netflix will apparently have their own niche and tone, while still acknowledging their connection to the rest of the Universe.

It will be interesting to see more. Judging by these episodes, the series if off to a promising start.

Pop stuff: Inherent Vice; Hyperbole and a Half; Alter Ego #131

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

Inherent Vice. This first-ever adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel is a gonzo noir that rambles and confuses, but also entertains.

Joaquin Phoenix is funny and likable as the stoned, mutton-chopped private eye Larry "Doc' Sportello, who spends the picture trying to get his "ex-old lady," Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) out of a jam of increasing perplexity involving a real estate magnate, black revolutionaries, Nazi bikers and an underground dental cartel.

Weird folkstress Joanna Newsom acts as the film's hippie-dippie narrator, disappearing and reappearing throughout. Only Doc is able to see her, apparently. Josh Brolin is a blast as flat-topped police detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen and there are numerous other entertaining bit parts and cameos.

I can't say I followed much of it, but it was fun. The cast and direction, by Paul Thomas Anderson, captures early 1970s in all its hazy craziness, which seems to be the main point of the thing, anyway.

Hyperbole and a Half. After hearing most of my household giggle its way through this collection of short prose-and-comics essays, I figured it was my turn to see if it's really that funny. I mean, my god, they were laughing - a lot.

Turns out it is really is that funny. Books generally don't make me laugh out loud, but this one did - a lot.

In hilarious, frequently profane prose accompanied by her primitive comics, Allie Brosh psychoanalyzes her pets - Simple Dog and Helper Dog - and herself, as if trying to figure out which is the worst off.

The book is often at its funniest when it takes on tough and complex topics. Brosh's account of depression is hilarious and touching. And true.

That's why the thing's so damned funny. Brosh nails it, whether it's how stupid dogs are, or how crazy humans can get. Her pinpoint self-awareness becomes are own, and we can't help but crumble in giggling recognition.

Also, wait until you read the part of the goose...

Alter Ego #131. I always enjoy breezing through Roy Thomas' history-of-comics mag, especially when the topics overlap with my own comic-reading youth.

That's the case with this latest ish, which features a lengthy interview with Marvel and DC scribe Gerry Conway. I read loads of Conway-written stories as a kid, and enjoyed his recap of those days, starting out as a teen at Marvel and writing the adventures of numerous top characters.

He's the guy who killed Gwen Stacy, co-creator of the Punisher and Firestorm - among others, and wrote the first DC-Marvel crossover comic featuring Superman and Spider-Man. All that is covered here, and well worth a look if your also a fan from those days. Click the link above to order a copy from the Tomorrows Publishing, which has lots of other good stuff, as well.

Pop stuff: Birdman; Moon Knight Epic Collection

What I've been watching, reading, hearing, etc.

Birdman is a hypnotic meditation on all the pressures - internal and external - faced by the artist. In this case, the artist is Riggan (Michael Keaton) an actor typecast as a superhero, but trying to break out and revive his career by doing something "real" - a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver stories. 

He's taking a risk and questioning whether it's worth it, as is everyone around him: his daughter (Emma Stone), attorney and co-investor (Zach Galifianakis) his cast (Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough) and the critics. 

Can Riggan pull it off? Why is he trying? Is he even creating art, or just trying to revive his career? Is he a true actor at all, or just a guy who made a lot of money in childish adventure films? Were those films any less valid than what's he's trying to do now? 

These questions and doubts race through his mind, and throughout the film, given intensity by a pressure cooker score, played entirely on drums, by jazz musician Antonio Sanchez.

Riggan is cracking up. He falls off the wagon. And he starts seeing and talking to his Birdman self, who keeps telling him to give up and get back into costume - he's not too old. 

As we watch, we wonder how artists can create at all, or how we can even see their work through all the layers of expectation, cynicism and biased interpretation we bring to them.

The film answers its own questions by being brilliant. Casting a former Batman alongside Spider-Man's girlfriend and a one-time Hulk was a clever, meta move that provides the audience its own part in the film. 

When Birdman tempts Riggan to just be a superhero and forget about art, we know we've been tempted, too, to just enjoy movies for their big explosions and popcorn value. As moviegoers, we're sometimes complicit in typecasting actors and drowning out more thoughtful, more quiet stories. We've also been hypocritical by being snobby, looking down our noses at blockbusters and mistaking pretension and over-ambition for true "art."

The film, written and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu stays with you long after you've seen it and makes you look at films, art and artists in a new way. Keaton's performance is a subtle tour de force and the supporting cast is just as great. It's one of the most remarkable and worthwhile films I've seen in a long time.

Moon Knight Epic Collection: Bad Moon Rising. Created as a villain in Marvel's 1970s Werewolf by Night series by writer Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin, Moon Knight eventually evolved into a hero featured in his own comics.

Conceptually he was a blend of Batman - with his costume, fighting style and gadgets - and The Shadow - with his multiple secret identities, mystical elements and supporting cast of girlfriend Marlene and chauffeur/helicopter pilot "Frenchie."

This book, an entry in Marvel's new and awesome "Epic Collection" series,  includes all the character's appearances from the late 1970s into the early 1980s, when Moon Knight secured a backup slot in the color Hulk! Magazine, eventually gaining his own title.

This is when the character really came into his own, with scripts by Moench and artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz doing his best Neal Adams impersonation. 

Looking back at those strips now, Moon Knight was clearly a bridge between Bronze Age newsstand superhero fare and the new Dark or Grim-and-Gritty age. 

Frank Miller gets most of the credit/blame for this transition into darkness, but Moon Knight was slightly ahead of the curve in crossing over. 

The Hulk! backups and Moon Knight's own series were non-Comics Code Authority approved and featured elements of horror and violence not found in other superhero comics of the day. 

I have vivid memories of many of those stories, likely because they were so different . By forsaking the code, Moench's scripts became more realistic, even while their central character stayed in a superhero costume. 

Apart from, sort of, crossing over with the Hulk in one memorable tale, there were no super villains and superheroes in the episodes. Moon Knight fought serial killers not space aliens or mad scientists. 

Moench and Sienkiewicz were very obviously paying tribute to the O'Neill-Adams' early 1970s Batman run in their work, but were also breaking new ground.

In this book, we see an era of comics storytelling shift before our eyes. It's interesting for that reason, but also fun to read. Apart from some muddy color from the Hulk! comics that doesn't translate well into this new format, it looks great, too.

Pop stuff: The Imitation Game; Amelia and the Snowman; Lost

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

The Imitation Game. This film very well could've been another entry in the overwrought brilliant-but-tortured-man genre. You know the type: Lots of melodrama, emotional speeches and clobbering the audience over the head with its message: "This guy is really smart, but messed up and deserves our sympathy and understanding."

Yet, "Imitation Game" tells the story of World War II codebreaker Alan Turing with gentle humor and understatement.

Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is not another "Sherlock." Yes, he's socially awkward and sometimes abrasive. But he's also self-effacing and gentle, with halted speech and an occasional stutter. He'd love to fit in, but knows he ever will.

So he follows his true nature, working doggedly and obsessively on his Nazi code-breaking machine, not caring that anyone else thinks. And thank goodness he did. Not only did Turing's work bring about a quicker end to the war, saving thousands of lives, but also laid the groundwork for the modern computer.

Cumberbatch is nicely balanced by the always compelling Keira Knightley, who is on hand to make Turing seem more human. Her character, a quirky, slightly nerdy mathematician who keeps pace with the lead character is refreshingly different, too.

Like "Lincoln," this film zeroes in on one crucial episode of its subject's life rather than telling his story cradle to grave. That helps keep the story focused and makes it less of a conventional bio-pic.

The film also tastefully refrains from amping up the drama related to Turing's sexuality (he was gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain) but makes it just one aspect of his wholly interesting character. The result is a very human story about a very extraordinary man.

Abigail and the Snowman is a delightful new mini-series from KaBoom Comics that just released its second issue last week. My daughter is a fan, and so are her parents.

This is excellent stuff: whimsical, heartwarming, funny. It reminded me a bit of "Calvin and Hobbes," but less zany, more gentle.

Written, illustrated and even lettered by the talented New Zealander Roger Langridge with lovely colors from Fred Stresing, the comic tells the story of 9-year-old Abigail, who's just moved to a new school and has recently lost her mother.

She has trouble making friends and her only ally -- apart from her funny, loving, but somewhat clueless dad -- is an imaginary dog named Clyde.

Shunned by the other kids, things look bleak for Abigail until she encounters another creature nobody -- at least no grownups -- can see: an on-the-lam yeti from a government research center.

Abigail is the first kid to spot the snowman, who is being pursued by Men in Black wearing special yeti-detecting goggles. Forgetting all about her made-up dog, she renames the creature Clyde and vows to keep him safe.

When it turns out other kids can see Clyde, too, Abigail's popularity zooms. Especially when she brings her new friend to school. As you might imagine, all manner of hi-jinks ensue.

Langridge's artwork is warm and engaging, cartoony but with lots of nice detail. The story and action flow smoothly and the dialogue between Abigail and her father, who's struggling to make ends meet without adding to his daughter's stress, is funny and real.

I look forward to the remainder of the four-issue run and hope it won't be the last we see/don't see of Clyde and Abigail. 

Lost. Longtime Pop Culture Safari readers know I developed a perhaps unhealthy obsession with this show during its original run. And if you read all those posts, you probably know I hated the ending. It made me wish I'd never invested so much time into the show in the first place.

So, I've somewhat surprised myself by giving the whole thing another look. The main reason is my son, who missed it the first time around and was curious. He's been warned about the end, without receiving any spoilers. My wife if re-watching again, too.

Anyway, watching the show on Netflix, with no ads and no long waits between episodes or seasons, has been fun. Less focused on the mystery, I'm enjoying the performances by the ensemble, especially Jorge Garcia as Hurley, Josh Holloway as Sawyer and Daniel Dae Kim as Jin, and the crafty storytelling.

Even if they botched the ending, Lindelof, Cuse and crew, knew how to keep people coming back week after week. The cool touches of 1970s sci-fi, comics and cultdom are still lots of fun.

I also find I'm less annoyed by Kate, more annoyed by Locke and just as annoyed by Jack as compared to the first time around. And watching the WTF reactions from my kid as it all unfolds is the most entertaining part of all.

Pop Review: Come Spy with Us!

A collection of 25 diverse tunes from the height of mid-60s spymania, this recent compilation from Ace Records is full of all the twangy, reverbed guitars, stabbing horns and over-the-top dramatic vocals you might expect. But the selection of material is far from obvious.

Yes, we get music from the Bond movies, "Danger Man," and "Man from U.N.C.L.E.," but, for the most part, all in less-familiar versions.

We also got lots of rarities and oddities, many not readily available except on vintage vinyl.

John Barry is here, but not doing a Bond theme. Instead, we get "A Man Alone," his theme for "The Ipcress File." The tune -- highlighted by the unique sound of cymbalon, a hammered, eastern European percussion instrument -- is instantly recognizable as Barry, but is more subtle and mysterious than one of his Bond tunes, .

When we do hear the "James Bond Theme," it's not the movie version, but a supercool surf rendition by Johnny and the Hurricanes. There's more guitar instro sounds, too, from the Ventures, performing the theme from "Arabesque," the Challengers doing "Man from U.N.C.L.E." and Al Cailoa picking out "Secret Agent Man."

That latter tune is one of three themes for the Patrick McGoohan TV series "Danger Man" (retitled "Secret Agent Man" in the states) present on the compilation -- all of them great.

Of course, there's some outright silliness on display, too. The theme for the "Silencers" -- starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm -- features singer/actress Vikki Carr sultrily comparing firearm calibers with the dimensions of a woman's curves. "The Last of the Secret Agents," the title song for a 1966 spy send-up, features Nancy Sinatra singing silly lyrics over a "Boots" beat, and the campy "We Should've," from 1966's "Modesty Blaise" spotlights Ray Ellington and Carmen McRae as a spying couple reminiscing about their cloak and dagger past.

In the way-over-the-top category, we get the Walker Brothers doing the theme for the 1966 Bulldog Drummond adaptation, "Deadlier Than the Male." It's all über dramatic vocals and ridiculous words, but you do get to hear how much Scott Walker influenced David Bowie. And then there's Shirley Bassey, but not singing "Goldfing-ah!" Instead, we get her equally bombastic theme for 1966's "The Liquidator," which she pronounces "Liguidate-ah!"

On the jazz front, there's Hammond-master Jimmy Smith swinging through "Where the Spies Are, " pianist Wynton Kelly on the "Burke's Law Theme," and Sarah Vaughn doing a cool/odd vocal version of Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme," titled "Bye Bye."

Maybe the most "normal" tune in the set is Dusty Springfield's "The Look of Love," a Bacharach-David tune that escapes its spy trappings, but which first appeared on the soundtrack of the Bond farce "Casino Royale." More cool vocals are on hand, too, via bossa queen Astrud Gilberto singing "Who Needs Forever" from "The Deadly Affair."

Back to TV, "Hogan's Hero" star and swinging drummer Bob Crane leads a combo through the "Get Smart" theme, plus we hear the original 45 rpm single version of Lalo Shifrin's classic "Mission Impossible Theme."

Meanwhile, Motown collectors may want to pick up the collection just on the basis of two oddball rarities: The Supremes' theme for "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine," a cult dance hit among the Northern Soul crowd, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Come Spy With Me."

 As is usually the case with Ace, the sound, graphics and liners for this set are all uniformly excellent. It's the most fun comp I've heard in quite a while, and the team should be commended for diving deeply and coming up with so many treasures.

Pop Stuff: "Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "20 Feet from Stardom" reviewed!

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

Amazing Spider-Man 2

I doubt anyone here needs them but, SPOILERS.

Ok, then. As anyone with a passing knowledge of Spider-Man comic book continuity over the past 40 years knows, the story of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy doesn't end well, and in this movie, we witness Gwen's tragic death at the hands of the Green Goblin.

Things, of course, don't transpire exactly as they did in Gerry Conway's groundbreaking comic book script all those years ago, but the gist is the same. Gwen dies -- in this telling, quite heroically -- and it's a huge downer. Not to mention a risky way to end a film. I credit the filmmakers for daring not the change things and give us a happy ending.

It's the chemistry and superb acting of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone that makes Gwen's death so gripping and touching. Stone, especially, is such a likeable and vibrant screen presence that it makes you genuinely sad we won't be seeing her as Gwen again.

It occurred to me that this is one of the few, and probably most significant, times we've seen human-level loss in a superhero genre film. The closest equivalent is probably the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents in the Batman films, or the death of Phoenix in the X-Men movies -- but she never stays dead, so that doesn't really count.

All of us have experienced the loss of a loved one, and the pain and sadness Peter Parker feels here is very real considering it occurs in a genre that still, for the most part, traffics in cardboard characters and fantastical situations. Although, there's plenty of all that, here, too.

While the Peter-Gwen story is transfixing and full of heart, the villains of the piece all get short shrift. The story of Jamie Foxx as Electro, a Spidey-obsessed nerd who accidentally gains super powers, is dealt with in a campy, supposed-to-be funny fashion that doesn't really resonate. It comes across like a throwback, in a bad way, to one of the 1980s Batman films. Besides which, Electro is too grade B to be a big screen super-villain.

Meanwhile, Dane DaHaan as Harry Osborn doesn't get enough character development and screen time for us to really get to know and hate him.

The scenes in which we're supposed to gain an understanding of Peter and Harry's friendship are barely scripted, leaving the two talented actors stranded -- all they can do to convey a history and warmth between these two characters is slap one another on the back and chuckle while giving one another crap like a couple of frat bros. It's all very undercooked.

So, an uneven, though moving,  second entry in the current Spider saga that sets things up for what is likely to be an epic Spidey-Goblin showdown in number 3. The Vulture and Doc Ock may turn up, too.


20 Feet from Stardom

Now playing on Netflix, pop and soul fans will enjoy this examination of the overlooked, but vital, backline: the background singers who helped sweeten and bolster the vocals of countless chart hits.

As is pointed out in the film, many of us, when singing along to a familiar hit, tend to sing the backup parts, which shows how memorable and important these singers are. Yet, not many of us could attach faces and names to these voices.

It's an anonymous and generally thankless job, we learn. And for many of these singers, it's even worse than that. Darlene Love, voice of the Phil Spector-produced classic "He's a Rebel," which was credited to the Crystals, is offered up as a prime example.

Her vocal trio, the Blossoms, sang backup on countless hits by Elvis, Sam Cooke, Sonny and Cher, and a whole Top 100 more. Yet, Spector didn't credit her for much of her lead vocal work, while also keeping her under contract and preventing her from branching out. A singer who could've, should've been a solo star, was kept under wraps for years.

David Letterman should be commended for helping to redress some of the injustice, having invited Love on his show to sing her hit "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" each holiday season since 1986.

We also hear much from Merry Clayton, who sang the unforgettable vocal opposite Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and who also should've had great solo success, as well as Lisa Fisher, a more recent case of the same story: great singer, troubled solo career.

There's not a ton of analysis of why backup vocals are so important, and what makes the most successful examples so memorable -- that would've been nice. But the documentary humanizes these folks and lets us see their faces and hear their stories, as well as hear their voices and see them in action in a wealth of vintage clips.  Maybe watching this film and remembering these singers the next time their voices turn up of the radio is the best way we can provide them with at least some of the recognition they deserve.

Pop Stuff: Captain America: Winter Soldier

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 

After the so-so "Iron Man 3" and entertaining but inconsequential "Thor: The Dark World," Marvel turns things up a notch with the second Captain America film.

This is the best second installment of any of the Marvel movies, having the advantage of being able to place its hero in an entirely different context from the first Cap film. We saw some of Cap's interactions with the 21st century in "The Avengers" movie, but here the "man out of time" theme has more space for development, and it serves as a commentary about what's happened in, and to, our world since World War II.

Cap is the heroic symbol of the Greatest Generation (at least in the Marvel Universe), and represents the American ideals of fairness and freedom at their best. But modern-day America in the film looks much like our own -- a nation obsessed with security, often at the expense of liberty. The film's political commentary isn't terribly sophisticated and it's not at all heavy-handed. But it's there, and it works, making this -- S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers and the debut of the high-flying Falcon aside -- the most realistic and down-to-earth Marvel film to date.

Chris Evans strikes a nice balance between bemusement and grim disappointment as he learns more and more about what's become of his country over the 60 years or so he's been in deep freeze. In a funny scene early on, we see him jotting down things to learn about and catch up on, that he's missed between 1945 and 2014: the moon landing, Thai food, Marvin Gaye albums. But he can also lecture his "younger" colleagues like they're ignorant whipper-snappers, getting in a heated debate with Nick Fury about a plan to take out threats in death-from-above drone fashion "before they become threats."

There's more suspense than super-heroics here, though there are plenty of those, too. The key villains here aren't super powered, but they are super evil. And though Evans holds our focus, there are nice supportive performances, too. Samuel L. Jackson gets plenty of screen time, and plenty of action as Fury. Same with Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, who has nice chemistry with Evans. Anthony Mackie is good and likeable as Sam Wilson, the Falcon, acting as a foil and equal partner -- not an obnoxious sidekick -- to Cap. And Robert Redford, after many years, gets to play a politician again -- this one with formidable power and skills.

With Marvel making so many films with so many characters, there's a danger of all these films becoming repetitious, of losing the individuality of these different heroes and what makes them tick. This time out, at least, they've made a film that stands on its own, that comments on aspects of our world, and provides some genuine intrigue and suspense.

Pop stuff: The Muppets Most Wanted, Enemy reviews

What I've been watching, reading, seeing, etc.

Muppets Most Wanted

There was a real sweetness, along with all the expected silliness, in 2011's "The Muppets." After Kermit and crew's long absence from the movie screens, it was nice to have them back. Jason Segal, in the lead, non-muppet part was a stand-in for all fans who grew up loving "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show," and -- on behalf of the rest of us -- rounded up the old gang for a new adventure.

"The Muppets Most Wanted" ditches all that nostalgia and sentimentality and goes straight for the laughs. It's an entertaining film, with lots of fun star cameos and absurd scenarios that keep it moving at a good clip. Like the best Muppets ventures, it plays on two levels: Amusing adults with jokes that will slip right past the kids, but keeping the kids engaged with the action and broader, more slapstick humor.

Trailers for the film played in theaters and on TV for months and months before its release, so you know the plot (and, unfortunately, many of its jokes) already: Kermit has an evil look-alike who swaps places with him. It's evil Kermit, who speaks in an evil-sounding accent of indeterminate origin, who garners the most laughs in the film, upstaging his human co-stars, including Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey.

It's interesting to note two different actors voice the lead parts: Steve Whitmire as Kermit and Matt Vogel as Constantine. I'm always amazed at how much emotion and humor the muppeteers can coax from the faces of these characters, particular Kermit, which is basically a very simple puppet with immovable half ping-pong balls for eyes.

As far as the humans go, Ty Burrell is quite funny as a Clouseauian Interpol inspector. I won't spoil the numerous, and funny, star cameos.

The songs, as in the previous Muppets film, are  by Bret McKenzie of Flying Conchords fame, and they're a riot, with lyrical inventiveness and humor that's several notches above the typical kid-focused musical.


Another evil double movie! But this one, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the dual/duel roles is quite different from any you've likely seen before. 

Surreal and perplexing, you'll spend some serious time thinking about it after you leave the theater. There are no easy answers, for Gyllenhall's characters in the film, or for the audience. 

These two men are suddenly faced with the realization that he has an exact duplicate he didn't know about. The revelation troubles them and forces them to think about their own lives and choices.

It's not an action film, or necessarily a good vs. evil conflict. It's more a head trip, open to multiple interpretations. Well worth seeing for its uniqueness, effective direction and performances.

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.