Sunday, January 18, 2015

#788. The Top Ten Characters from America in the Past Hundred Years

via Paltry Meanderings
10. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce

Debuted in MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors (1968)

After more than a decade of Alan Alda's portrayal in the classic sitcom, it might need reminding that "Hawkeye" didn't even debut in the 1970 movie (played by Donald Sutherland), but in the pages of the Richard Hooker book.  Thanks to the show, however, the character became arguably the iconic voice of 20th century war weariness, although equally an anti-authoritarian prankster and womanizer.  Since Alda, it's become difficult to think of the good doctor in any other context, but the history alone has primed the character for further exploits, perhaps even centered squarely on him (which has already happened for his pal "Trapper" John, by the way).  As the obvious leader of an ensemble, he always stood out anyway, and would likely do so all over again should he remain in that context.

via Comic Vine
9. Rooster Cogburn

Debuted in: True Grit (1968)

After the Coens adapted the book a second time, everyone had a chance to remember that this character debuted in a novel by Charles Portis, not the John Wayne film adaptation from a year later.  Yet the Civil War veteran's significance in Wayne's own history stands tall, not just for the fact that it earned him his Oscar, but remains one of the few names of any character fans will be able to remember with little effort, a fact that helped lead to a rare sequel, the eponymous 1975 film.  That helps distinguish Cogburn as the most iconic fictional cowboy of the 20th century, when the archetype experienced a renaissance.  But it may perhaps be more notable still that the focus isn't even on Cogburn himself, but the young girl he helps find justice.

via Entertainment Weekly
8. Sarah Connor

Debuted in: The Terminator (1984)

The biggest surprise of the testosterone-heavy '80s action movies era is that its biggest icon is a woman, the mother of the hero.  Sarah Connor's significance increased still more in the sequel, Judgment Day, when she has to prove she isn't crazy (a theme shared by many fictional female icons, including one on this list, and Ellen Ripley), and the later Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series.  Before her son John could grow up to defeat the robotic uprising, Sarah not only had to survive attempts on her own life, but protect them both in further harrowing attacks from the future.  Oh, and make time to romance the guy who happens to be the father.  But you don't see him getting his own TV show, do you?

via Empire Online
7. Hannibal Lecter

Debuted in: Red Dragon (1981)

"Hannibal the Cannibal" is a true 20th century monster, who needed only a handful of minutes of portrayal by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs to become ingrained in popular culture.  The creation of novelist Thomas Harris, who wrote four books, all of them adapted into film, based on the character, Lecter debuted onscreen in the 1986 thriller Manhunter, later remade after its namesake, Red Dragon.  Recently revived all over again for television, Lecter's strange combination of cultural refinement and abject sadism is a stark update of the monster archetype, a symbol of the continuing obsession with serial killers, and is perhaps assured greater longevity in his original form than either "Hawkeye" Pierce or Rooster Cogburn, proving all over again the endurance of the written word.

via Oz and Ends
6. Dorothy Gale

Debuted in: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

The lost little Kansas girl who introduced us to Oz is the oldest character on the list, the L. Frank Baum whose legacy grew substantially with the huge success of Judy Garland's portrayal in 1939's film adaptation, which wasn't even, in fact not nearly, the first such attempt.  Dorothy appears in thirteen of Baum's original fourteen novels, not always as the lead.  She made a return to the big screen in 1985's Return to Oz, which was controversial in the sense that she was no longer portrayed by Garland, she didn't sing, and yes, like Sarah Connor later, had ended up being considered crazy.  Zooey Deschanel plays a contemporary version of Dorothy, "D.G.," in the 2007 TV miniseries Tin Man.  A classic literary orphan figure, Dorothy's defeat of the Wicked Witch has lately begun to be overshadowed by the Wicked Witch herself, starting with Gregory Maguire's 1995 book Wicked, whose popularity increased when it was adapted to stage.  For now, however, Dorothy remains the most popular Oz figure.

via Genius
5. Tarzan

Debuted in: Tarzan of the Apes (1912)

Edgar Rice Burroughs first published Tarzan's debut in the pulp All-Story Magazine, then two years later on its own.  Hollywood quickly and wildly embraced the character, a prototypical civilized man in an uncivilized world.  A number of TV adaptations have also appeared, and among recent film appearances are 1984's live action Greystoke and Disney's animated version.  It's worth noting that comic books have any number of characters inspired by Tarzan, from Ka-Zar to Sheena to Kraven the Hunter.

via Hollywood Reporter
4. Zorro

Debuted in: All-Story Weekly #2 (1919)

Another icon to emerge from the pulps is Johnston McCulley's creation, who like Tarzan has long been a favorite of Hollywood.  A direct precursor to the idea of the superhero, much like the earlier Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro is as much known for his mask as the man beneath it, an aristocrat who scoffs at the vigilante's adventures in his personal time.  Clearly an inspiration for another character on the list, and in fact some versions literally an element of their origin, Zorro continues to be revived periodically, recently in the pages of comic books, which have curiously tended to leave him behind.  Also of note is Isabel Allende's 2005 fictional revival, which took the character in more of a literary direction.

via The Plumber 702
3. Spock

Debuted in: "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (1966)

The lone holdover between the two pilots commissioned for the original Star Trek ("The Cage" was later spliced into the two-part "The Menagerie"), Spock is the iconic alien of the 20th century, and he looks very much human, doesn't he?  A true representation of both our fears and hopes in that regard, Spock is a much-cherished colleague and friend who nonetheless still encounters xenophobic hostility.  His cultural norms, and the ways he practices them, set Spock apart as much as his pointed ears.  Spock quickly leaped ahead of Kirk, the intended lead character of what would become a whole franchise, a point emphasized in the 2009 reboot when the only returning actor, Leonard Nimoy, appeared alongside his successor in the role.

via Alpha Coders
2. Batman

Debuted in: Detective Comics #27 (1939)

In a century dominated by superheroes, which is a phenomenon we see continue at the movies today, there remains none more iconic than Batman, created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, a character that has weathered numerous interpretations, from the self-deprecating Adam West portrayal in the 1960s TV series to the brooding Christopher Nolan cinematic vision epitomized by 2008's The Dark Knight, as well as a constant surge of comic books from such creators as Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison, all of whom converged in the late '80s to explore his past, present, and even future.  

via Today
1. Darth Vader

Debuted in: Star Wars (1977)

It's rare that the villain so decisively outshines the hero, but that's exactly what Darth Vader did from the start.  In George Lucas's original vision, Vader as he's known now is nowhere to be found, but his screen debut proved immediately compelling, and the twist ending of The Empire Strikes Back created the opportunity to change the saga forever, which is what happened in a separate series of films as Anakin Skywalker's transformation from naive recruit to tragic figure and finally villain is explored in detail.  A new kind of fictional icon that forever changed the landscape around him, Vader's is the story of a true antihero, whose improbable redemption comes in the form of a son who refuses to give up on him.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

#787. The Top Ten Characters from the British Isles of the Past Hundred Years

via Above Top Secret
10. Zaphod Beeblebrox

Debuted in: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Primary Phase - Fit the Second (1978)

Douglas Adams made a huge impact on pop culture across radio, literature, television, and film with his creation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Out of all the memorable characters to populate what became best known for the original five books (HitchhikersThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything; So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish; Mostly Harmless), choosing the obnoxious Galactic President Zaphod seems like the best choice for an era filled with politicians most people would rather forget.  Later featured in a spin-off short story (Young Zaphod Plays It Safe), this parody is so spot-on that the longer H2G2 endures the more likely that future iterations will gravitate more in Zaphod's direction, whenever someone has the opportunity to follow-up on Eoin Colfer's headstart (And Another Thing...).  In the 2005 Hollywood version of Hitchhikers, Sam Rockwell offers an amusing taste of things to come.

via Comic Vine
9. Judge Dredd

Debuted in: 2000 AD No. 2 (1977)

This iconic British creation is actually an American character, part of a future filled with a version of law enforcement that reflects its bleak landscape.  A reliable comic book presence that has crossed over from his country of origin to series published by DC and IDW in the United States, Dredd has also been the subject of two films (1995's Judge Dredd and 2012's Dredd).  Dredd's endurance over the years belies a relatively low profile compared to other creations on this list, but with his continued appearances makes a bigger and bigger statement to long-term viability.

via Comic Vine
8. Dream

Debuted in: Sandman #1 (1989)

Neil Gaiman's version of a classic comic book superhero quickly became a full-blown literary phenomenon, helping launch DC's Vertigo line and establishing Gaiman's later widespread success.  The original seventy-five issues of the series gave way to much-celebrated returns in the pages of Endless Nights and The Dream Hunters, as well as the current Overture.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is currently working on the character's big screen debut.  Dream's sister Death, who became the quintessential Goth Girl, is another reason this one continues to endure in pop culture.  Dream is also known as Morpheus, and represents one of the more philosophical creations from any culture in the past hundred years.

via Wired

7. Gollum

Debuted in: The Hobbit (1937)

It's safe to say that J.R.R. Tolkien, like Douglas Adams, is responsible for more than one memorable character, but Gollum in particular skyrocketed in the popular consciousness after Peter Jackson's depiction of him in his adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, particularly thanks to the much-acclaimed motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis.  A portrait of abject corruption, Gollum is surprisingly one of the more nuanced characters on this list, a conflicted individual who sometimes literally argues with himself over doing the right thing.  His first appearance, however, depicted a still more complicated version, as a playful Sphinx figure who delights in riddles.  Not bad for someone who embodies obsession...

via Narnia Wikia
6. Aslan

Debuted in: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

Well, unlike Adams and Tolkien, C.S. Lewis probably knew exactly which character from his books outshone the rest.  That would be the eponymous lion, Aslan, who leads the Pevensie kids and later groups of Narnia heroes to eventual victory in The Last Battle.  Various screen adaptations led to Liam Neeson voicing him starting with 2005's Lion.  Lewis plainly used Aslan as a religious allegory, but you don't need to care about the symbolism to know that his brutal murder in Lion is the most affecting scene of the series and one of the defining moments for any character on this list.

via Broadway
5. Mary Poppins

Debuted in: Mary Poppins (1934)

The star of eight books (Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Mary Poppins in the Park, Mary Poppins From A to Z, Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door) was popular before the 1964 film, but chances are she endures most because of the film.  The torturous journey from book to film was the subject of the 2013 movie Saving Mr. Banks, in which a battle of wills is pitched between creator P.L. Travers and Walt Disney.  Mary may be reflective of how others from the list may age as the years advance, but she's a remarkable entirely of her own accord, a modern fairy tale creation about the transformative potential in both kids and adults.

via Audioboom

4. Doctor Who

Debuted in: Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (1963)

The Doctor's significance has increased in recent years as he becomes more and important as the most significant British TV character around the world.  It doesn't hurt that after fifty years he remains one of the most unique fictional creations to emerge from anywhere, who has survived more than a dozen portrayals (including an unofficial one in the form of Peter Cushing from 1965's Doctor Who and the Daleks and 1966's Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150) without skipping a beat thanks to a built-in explanation concerning regeneration.  In recent years Doctor Who has even had a number of spin-offs (Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures).  It might also be noted that Douglas Adams first envisioned H2G2 as a story of the Doctor.

via NPR
3. James Bond

Debuted in: Casino Royale (1953)

Ian Fleming created a prototypical spy in his fourteen books, but he likely had no idea how big 007 would become after Sean Connery appeared as the character for the first time in 1962's Dr. No.  Bond had previously been adapted to screen in a 1954 TV version of Royale, which was also adapted in one of several noncanonical films, with David Niven's portrayal in 1967 and later again with the reboot films starring Daniel Craig.  Various authors have continued the literary exploits, but Bond, James Bond has become one of the most significant film characters ever, arguably the single most important one.

via Today
2. Peter Pan

Debuted in: The Little White Bird (1902)

The oldest character on this list had a complicated path to full-blown exposure.  Author J.M. Barrie adapted his creation for the stage in 1904's Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, and then back into literature for 1911's Peter and Wendy.  Yet his legacy kept building.  Disney included him in its series of animated films with 1953's Peter Pan, a modern live adaptation was made in 2003, Spielberg created his version of a sequel with 1991's Hook, and Barrie's own story was told in 2004's Finding Neverland.  Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson have a series of books that take an alternate look at the mythology that were later adapted to stage as Peter and the Starcatcher.  2006's Peter Pan in Scarlet was officially commissioned by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which received the copyright from Barrie in 1929.  The Doctor, Bond, and Peter all serve as unique insights into modern England, how its countrymen view themselves.  Notably, they're all isolated figures who can count on the support of others, but most often exist in isolation, surely a statement on the post-empire era.

via Geek Tyrant
1. Harry Potter

Debuted in: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997)

Is it too early?  Does Mary Poppins offer an example of what early fame can lead to, without the intervention of other media?  Except Harry has already leaped into the adaptation phase, and led the whole modern thrust for franchises at the box office.  By the time of 2004's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling's creation had become a global phenomenon, a series of books that children of all ages eagerly embraced.  Harry's world includes the sum of every other character on this list (the Doctor himself is a space-age wizard), an orphan figure on a massive quest against evil and general acceptance, who navigates a story filled with every imaginable obstacle, dirty politicians, self-centered jerks, secret agents, committed allies, and nurturing support that otherwise keeps him learning his own lessons.  Since 2007's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling has insisted she won't write anymore Harry Potter adventures themselves (echoing the most significant British character of a century earlier, Sherlock Holmes), though she has since written additional stories around him.  Like Star Wars before him, Harry is a perfect representation of what it takes to dominate pop culture, make an impact early and make it stick.  Will kids still read the books as eagerly as they did a decade ago, will the films last?  The further careers of Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson may be one indication.  Yet in time, there will be other adaptations, and if history is any proof, Rowling won't stay away from Harry forever, whatever that ultimately means, whether additional short looks as she's done lately, or more books...Harry is a statement on tradition, the present, and a cautionary tale for the future.  Countless imitators and competitors sprang up in his wake, yet none of them have captured the sheer breadth of his achievements to date.  As with the others on this list, this is a story that continues.  And that's what it's all about.

Friday, January 09, 2015

#786. Mock Squid Soup: Better Off Dead

via Entertainment Weekly
I'm the mock squid this month!  (To be clear, there is no "mock squid" in the Mock Squid Soup club.  "Mock" refers to the proprietor of What's up, Mock?, just as "Squid" refers to the host of Armchair Squid; Mock and Squid are the founders of our little film society.  As far as I know, there is no "Soup."  Although if there were, what would be your pleasure, and do you often have soup while watching movies?)

I'm the theoretical mock squid because this is the first month in which I have not seen the selected movie, 1985's Better Off Dead, starring someone who is apparently obsessed with Q-tips.  Incidentally, if you remove said Q-tips, the pictured actor looks a little like How I Met Your Mother's Josh Radnor.  Upon reflection, Better Off Dead could almost read like something Radnor's character Ted Mosby would have done.  This sounds all too plausible, actually...

But the actor in question is not Josh Radnor, it's John Cusack, who is famously tall.  Although he's really only 6'2", which would be short for, say, a professional wrestler, or Shaq.  Apparently Tom Cruise is not the only short actor...

Cusack would be a pretty good reason for me to have watched Better Off Dead (although I had every intention to, and simply let the calendar get away from me).  He's pretty darn great in Grosse Pointe Blank (which is itself pretty darn great in general!), and Martian Child is quite amusing.  That is more or less the extent of my first-hand experience with John Cusack.  I've probably seen more of his sister Joan's work.  Or maybe it just seems that way?

I've never seen Say Anything..., which features one of the iconic images of '80s movies, John holding a boombox above his head (this is one of those things that cannot be duplicated today, along with disco), but, and no offense to Mock Squid Soup or Better Off Dead, I would probably prefer to have watched Say Anything... as my '80s John Cusack movie over Better Off Dead.

I'm sorely deficient in my '80s teen angst movies in general.  I've never even seen The Breakfast Club.  I did see Risky Business, which features Tom Cruise, a shorter actor than John Cusack (although Shaq is taller).  Also, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and of course Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, which was excellent.  Does Back to the Future count, or does the image of Michael J. Fox and the actress playing his mom in the backseat of a car cancel out that sick guitar solo?  Jumping gigawatts!


Thursday, January 08, 2015

#785. The Portman Wars

Natalie Portman recently spoke about how doing Star Wars nearly ruined her career.  Now let's set the record straight:

That's a complete exaggeration.  All it really amounts to is a classic instance of someone disassociating themselves from an experience they now regret.  For famous people, this is Appease the Fans Syndrome.  In other words, everyone says she was horrible in the Star Wars prequels, and so now Portman wants us to believe it nearly ruined her career.  #SympathyTears.  Everyone feels better.  The end.

Except it's not even remotely believable, no matter how accurate it might be to what she actually experienced.  Today, Portman is an Oscar-winning actress who can choose whatever she wants to do, even when she works.  Quite an enviable position to be in, even better than starring in three of the biggest blockbusters of all-time, as far as living arrangements go.  But let's rewind a little and see how we got there, shall we?

In 1999, Portman is featured in the hotly-anticipated Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.  Previous to this, her biggest claims to fame were a child actor performance in 1994's Leon: The Professional and supporting roles in 1996's Everyone Says I Love You and Mars Attacks!  There's a three-year gap between Attacks! and Phantom Menace.  Following her casting in Star Wars, Portman stars in Anywhere But Here and Where the Heart Is, both of which are box office misfires ($18 mil for the former, $34 the latter) despite being fairly generic feel-good movies featuring a suddenly high profile actress.

Now, according to Portman, after the horrid reception (although, of course, giant box office returns) of Phantom Menace, she became persona non grata, and could only subsist on personal recommendation.  Which would be fine if this were somehow a span of many more years than we're actually talking about.  And yet just a year after the release of her second Star Wars film, 2002's Attack of the Clones, Portman co-stars in her second biggest non-blockbuster hit to date, 2003's Cold Mountain (hey, would you like to read a completely unrelated rant concerning Jude Law and how he starred in a thousand movies at the time, had this one hit, and actually became persona non grata for years?), and then a couple of smaller releases in 2004's Garden State and Closer.  Then 2005's final Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith.  And then V for Vendetta.  And eventually, 2010's Black Swan.

The thing casting directors love above all else is casting to type.  They love that.  It's the rare actor who manages to avoid that, but even then, versatility is a type, too.  Portman's type, for all intents and purposes, was created in Phantom Menace.  And it wasn't Slightly Terrible Actress (because of the directing, apologetic nerds scream!) but rather, Girl Most Likely to Have Unfortunate Relationship.

That's exactly what she is in Star Wars.  And that's what she is in V for Vendetta.  That's Black Swan, the full art version.  Portman has a fairly limited range.  Her acting, if you care to watch, say, Revenge of the Sith and Black Swan back-to-back, doesn't vary that greatly.  The feel of the material changes, certainly.  But not the acting.

I'm not saying Natalie Portman is a bad actress, or a good actress, or a mediocre actress who keeps getting high profile gigs regardless of her talent.  Landing Star Wars made her career.  Don't even make the Professional argument.  Most child actors have no adult career.  That's a fact.  And when they do, they certainly don't go on to win Oscars.

But Portman's type rang true for casting directors.  That's how she landed Cold Mountain, which if you've never seen it is all about people whose lives were made miserable by the Civil War, but in this instance in an Odyssey kind of way.  Portman plays third fiddle in the actress side of the film, to Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger (I'd ask whatever happened to her, but if you've heard about her new face, then everything else is semantics, isn't it?).  If she needed special favors to get a minor role, then so be it.

Garden State is Zach Braff's best-known film to date.  The would-be new Woody Allen had a window where he could do whatever he wanted, and co-starring with Natalie Portman sounded like a pretty good thing.  Portman made a cameo in 2001's Zoolander, which is a good way to let everyone know you don't take yourself too seriously (although Zoolander is seriously hilarious; after I finish writing this up, I'm going to practice my Blue Steel!), which is another way of saying, Portman had a shrewd sense concerning her career prospects from the start.

Making a string of minor art films starting with 2006's Paris, je t'aime, was another shrewd decision.  After the fiasco of the mainstream effort following her initial casting in Star Wars, Portman knew she had to reconsider her options.  Prior to Star Wars she effectively had no real public profile.  She opted to build her indy and critical cred.  Even a notorious flop like 2007's Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium  couldn't slow her down at that point.  2008's more successful The Other Boleyn Girl probably helped with that.  Suddenly she was visible for something other than Star Wars, and it was a relatively good thing (and also just about Eric Bana's last visible mainstream release, and once again, unlike Portman he's never managed to turn it around).

So Black Swan comes around, everyone loves it, Portman unleashes a flood of new movies.  And then does the Thor movies.

All of which is to say, Star Wars didn't ruin Portman's career.  And word of mouth from sympathetic filmmakers didn't save it.  This is not a story that confirms how bad the prequels were.  It's all about an actress who maneuvered her career in ways few others would have considered, and had remarkable success at it.  Everyone regrets decisions they've made.  I'm sure Portman regrets Wonder Emporium far more than Star Wars.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

#784. Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas originally published the poem "Do not go gentle into that good night" in 1952.  I'm writing about it today because it seems to have become the latest go-to poem in pop culture, succeeding Yeats' "The Second Coming."

Need reminding what "...into that good night" is?  Here it is:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Most notably, Michael Caine recites it in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar:

Strangely, wrestler John Cena has also done a version:

And I've seen it referenced in the pages of Grant Morrison's Annihilator.  I am likely among a very select few to have noticed such a common link, between movies, professional wrestling, and comic books.

Caine's reading is particularly haunting as he intones "rage, rage" in his deepest range, creating an evocative effect as his character propels a team of astronauts into the unknown.  It's a message, I think, that like "The Second Coming" speaks to our uncertainties about the future, which seems to have become the mantra of our modern age, though issued as a note of defiance.  (In case you were wondering, WWE, like Levis, does tend to use classic literary references more often than you'd think.)

As a student of literature, I like seeing nods like this, especially if they're striking, as this one is in each of the instances I've spotted it lately.


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