Revisiting Howard The Duck (1986)

  I have a soft spot in my geek heart for the Howard The Duck flick. I saw it a few times as a kid (not when it came out, but I was young-ish) and really liked the mix of what seemed like a kids movie (alien from another planet palling around and learning about earth, eventually fighting a space monster) with the strangely adult elements (naked lady duck, tiny duck condom and hints at interstellar bestiality). But really, I just thought Howard looked and acted cool. He handled adversity (being stranded on another planet) pretty well and even made the best of it by joining a band. That probably seemed like a pretty good life to me when I was young.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I’ve been slowly reading through the Howard The Duck Omnibus I got a few years back. I checked out the Essentials version a few years ago, knowing Steve Gerber’s issues are considered some of the best around, but just couldn’t get into that black and white format. I love reading the book in color and am really glad I got the omnibus, I just wish it was easier to read. Damn thing’s heavy! Anyway, I ordered something off of Amazon recently and was a few bucks short of the free shipping threshold, so I looked up the HTD DVD and it was only $5! Welcome first to my shopping cart and soon after my home movie Howard!

I just finished watching the movie again for the first time in probably a decade and I still liked it! Sure, there’s some super corny elements and a few things that don’t fit, but what else would you expect from a movie about a duck getting sucked away from his version of Earth to ours? Notice I said a movie, not a comic. In the issues I’ve read, Gerber tackles everything from Kung Fu flicks and gang violence to artistic integrity in a way that couldn’t really be done in a major motion picture. Maybe a series on Adult Swim, but not something that Hollywood would put money into.

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, a science experiment drags Howard from his home planet to ours where he lands in Cleveland. He soon befriends Beverly (Lea Thompson), a musician who lets him stay at her place. Bev asks her scientist friend played by Tim Robbins to figure out what his deal is. After some fish-out-of-water (or duck-out-of-pond if you will) scenes, a scientist played by Jeffrey Jones explains that he and his team were trying an experiment that went wrong. They try it again and Jones winds up with a space monster growing inside him. Eventually, Howard has a showdown with Jones and then the monster itself, which looked amazing because George Lucas executive produced this flick.

The movie was and has been panned pretty intensely, but I don’t think it’s really fair. The actors did a killer job, the effects look amazing and overall it’s a solid story that has elements of Short Circuit, ET and Ghostbusters that work pretty well together as far as I’m concerned. Most importantly, no one seemed to think what they were doing was silly, they all played their parts and did what they did seemingly thinking they were making an awesome movie. My one complaint about the movie is that it’s probably 20 minutes too long. I think the filmmakers might have put too much in the movie which wound up extending the period of time audiences had to suspend their disbelief. You might buy the overall premise, but why are you watching such a long scene of Howard and Robbins flying a tiny plane? Aside from that, though, I think it holds up pretty darn well.

At the end of the day, the movie’s absurd and doesn’t really stand up to the comic book, but it’s a fun romp on its own. The DVD itself is pretty rad too because they actually put some effort into it. Robbins is the only person who didn’t come back for interviews as far as I can tell (of course). I’ve watched the first two modern retrospectives and both were pretty interesting. I haven’t gotten to the archival featurettes yet, but I can honestly say that my $5 was very well spent.

Book Vs. Radio Play Vs. Movie Vs. Comic Vs. Movie: War Of The Worlds

This post has been a long time coming. After reading and not particularly enjoying H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, I decided to go on and listen to the radio play again, watch both the 1953 and 2005 movie versions and read Alan Moore’s interpretation of the adventure using his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the second volume of that book. I listened to the play again online, watched the first movie and read the trade within a pretty short amount of time, but then got hung up on watching the latest movie for timing reasons.

To sum up my previous post, I thought WOTW (first published in 1898) was an interesting book that based an alien invasion story around the technology and military practices of the time. Overall, the way the story was told (almost completely in first person recollection–like a journal–with almost no dialog) sapped a lot of the tension right out of the proceedings. Hell, you know he survives because he’s writing the book you’re supposedly reading. The basic idea of the book is that our white collar main character sees something fall from the sky that turns out to be a Martian. These head-like aliens with giant eyes and tentacles shot here in cylinders, built huge tripods, walked around in them destroying things with heat rays and green death fog only to be SPOILER brought down by Earth germs. Without spoiling too much, I enjoyed every other version of this story more than the original text.As I mentioned in the post about the book, I was fascinated by the 1938 radio play version of the story orchestrated by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater (you can listen to it here if you’re interested). It was done on Halloween that year and–this is the part that blows me away–some people thought it was real! This might seem ridiculous, especially considering the opening, intermission and very end make it very clear you’re listening to fiction, but just imagine how many times you’ve tuned into a TV show a few minutes after the start. The way the story was presented to people back then was basically the same as a mockumentary now. A live concert was interrupted, first by reports of strange streaks in the sky and later by a full-on report from New Jersey where one of the pods landed. There’s even a great moment early on when they interview a guy who was just driving around listening to the radio program that we are listening to. He says he was getting bored and dozing because it was boring!

Even though this thing was done almost 75 years ago, it still felt thrilling and spot on from a news standpoint. Even though I’d heard it before a bunch of times, I was excited to hear what was going on. It’s kind of like watching Jaws or Halloween again. I know what’s happening but I love the ride. I’m also really impressed that it still feels like a modern up-to-the-minute news story. It reminded me of seeing the events of 9/11 unrolling when I was in college. You have no idea what’s going on except for a few things you’re hearing/seeing and you’re trying to put the pieces together. And, man, it just feels hopeless at times. How are these people going to defeat these giant monsters they can’t seem to even touch?

Compared to the book, the radio play is far more exciting. They use the same basic story structure, but the inclusion of New Jersey and New York City as locations and more common language make it easier to follow. By this time, the language of sci-fi was more established, so it’s easier to explain what’s going on. We also see some straight-up sections taken from the book mostly after the intermission with the narrator explaining what’s going on. The character of the infantryman showing up and giving his spiel about sneaking around and building up a resistance to fight the aliens. And, of course, the story ends with our hero realizing the aliens have died from Earth germs. The 1953 version of War Of The Worlds is considered a sci-fi classic. I had no idea, but I can see why after watching the movie. It’s a very 50s flick with nearly everything shot on backlots (I know this might look corny to some people, but I love the look of studio lot movies like Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry). This time around, our hero meets up with a girl and winds up getting stuck in a house with her (like the hero in the book was, but he was with an annoying guy). I thought this change in dynamic was interesting and offered some different elements that I enjoyed. There’s also a really intense scene where one of the Martians sticks an eyed tentacle into the house and the couple have to avoid it for fear of being killed.

Another new element that you can see on the above poster is that, instead of riding around in tripods, these aliens use flying ships (which were actually mentioned as potential transport for the Martians in the book). The effects look amazing–especially when you see an actual Martian’s hand–and there’s an excellent behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD that I got from Netflix that goes through and shows how they did a lot of the practical effects for the movie (fun fact: Ray Harryhausen shot test footage because he wanted to do the movie, but it went to someone else).

Again, compared to the book, this is a much more engaging journey right off the bat. Four minutes in and I was jazzed about the story and wanted to see what was going to happen. One interesting thing is that, in the very beginning, they actually show Mars and then the other planets, explaining why they wouldn’t work for the Martians (which is interesting because at the end of the book, we’re told another planet would work, I think it was Venus, but scientifically speaking that’s nonsense). Anyway, they use more science than Wells had access to, but it’s funny to see a drawing of Earth from space instead of a picture, because, well, we hadn’t been to space yet.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you should do yourself a favor and rent or just buy this bad boy. The movie is awesome, but it’s also jam packed with extras. You’ve got the FX thing I already mentioned, plus interviews with the surviving cast members, especially the female lead who knew a LOT about what was going on with the making of the film. The most interesting aspect though, was a featurette which compared Wells with the other godfather of sci-fi Jules Verne. Apparently Verne didn’t like Wells because Verne took the time to do the science and Wells just made stuff up that doesn’t make a lot of sense (like the seemingly nonsense Martian biology his narrator describes). Oh, they also have the full radio show on the DVD too, if you don’t want to listen to it on your computer. Aside from the radio play, the second volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was the other version of War of the Worlds I’d experienced before. There’s a lot more going on in these issues that originally came out between 2002 and 2003 from Wildstorm imprint America’s Best Comics, including a visit to Dr. Moreau (as in The Island Of) and a pair of confrontations between members, one romantical, the other super duper gross and bloody. But, the overall thrust of the story involves Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man doing what they can to stop the Martian invasion (Moore went with the traditional tripod designs for the Martian walkers as you might expect from the master of detail).

LOEG is not only one of my favorite concepts (Expendables is basically the LOEG of action stars!) but also one of my all-time favorite comics. I even did a big paper comparing the characters in the comic to the characters in the original books back when I was in college, though it was confined to just the first volume because otherwise, I would have gone insane. Anyway, what I like most about Moore’s take on the story is that humanity actually gets to do something more than fumble around until germs kill the Martians. If you haven’t read this trade yet (what are you waiting for?) this is SPOILER territory. Not only does Hyde fight one with his bare hands, but the trip to Moreau is to get a bioweapon mixing anthrax and streptococcus that they fire at the aliens to take them out. YEAH! Humanity FINALLY got to do something instead of knocking a few tripods down with rockets or whatever. The final entry in the post comes down to 2005’s War of the Worlds flick directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins and even cameos by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson who were the leads in the 1953 flick! This time around Cruise stars as a divorcee who doesn’t have the best relationship with his son and daughter (Fanning). He’s got them for the weekend when the aliens start their invasion and goes on a tour of the east coast trying to keep them safe. Spielberg incorporates elements from all the previous official renditions mentioned above including paraphrases or direct quotes from the radio play, book and 1953 movie along with a few scenes from the previous movie. This time, instead of arriving in cylinders, the war machines were supposedly buried on Earth years ago (before roads were built) and a lightning bolt somehow brought the aliens down from Mars into the robots while also taking out communications and machines with an electromagnetic pulse. I understand why they changed this: modern humans wouldn’t wait around for an alien to build a craft in a hole. But, it just feels kind of strange and goes back to one of the problems with Wells’ original: some of the science doesn’t make any sense.

Anyway, the aliens once again ride tripods, feed off of humans and destroy lots and lots of things and people with their heat rays. Cruise–the luckiest man in the world as everyone around him gets zapped to death and he almost never gets grabbed by the aliens unless he wants to–gets home, gets his kids and they make a break for it. Once again, even though I knew how the story would end, I was still really drawn into the story thanks to the obstacles Spielberg put between Cruise’s family and safety.

Back when this movie first came out I wasn’t very interested because of Cruise’s real-life craziness, but I actually liked him in the movie, partly because his character is kind of a crazy asshole. It’s like watching Nic Cage’s enjoyable movies like National Treasure instead of the ones where he’s trying to be serious (Bangkok Dangerous SUCKED). I had a lot of fun with the movie, but once again, it ends with people discovering Earth germs kill Martians, though there are a couple scenes where humanity takes a few of them down, which is nice. Again, even knowing the ending, I was just waiting to see how things would end (aside from the germs).

After reading the book I thought “Well, I don’t like this version, but the story has a lot of potential.” Clearly that’s correct, though I’m not sure how much more it might have. Frankly, the fact that humans don’t get to actually do anything, makes for a less-than-stellar story. I know that the meat of the remakes have been about the perseverance of the human spirit in the most daunting and adverse situations, but with the same ending every time (minus LOEG Vol. 2) it gets kind of neutered. In the end, I think I’m all set on War of the Worlds remakes and reinterpretations, unless they can recreate the real life panic started by the radio show. THAT would be interesting.

Computer Movies: Antitrust (2001)

After a lengthy discussion with some friends on Facebook about the merits of Hackers as opposed to The Net and other computer movies, my buddy from way back in the 5th grade Geof suggested I check out Antitrust. I immediately added it to the top-ish of my queue, but didn’t get around to watching it until the other day. Glad I did as it’s a fun mix of crazy computer stuff and fairly decent dramatic action. Kinda.

Here’s the deal: Ryan Phillippe’s a genius computer kid who gets hired by Tim Robbins’ giant Microsoft-like company, but one of his fellow genius computer programmers stays home to work out of his garage in his own start up company. Phillippe’s got a girlfriend in Claire Forlani who moves there with him. He also meets Rachel Lee Cook, a fellow programmer, and Tyler Labine (the bigger guy from Reaper and now Sons of Tucson) who seems to just show people around. As the movie progresses, Phillippe realizes this might be the most perfect job in the world as he starts suspecting Robbins and company of shady practices as he randomly pops up with pieces of code for Phillippe to use in his program.

Welcome to SPOILER country, taste the flavor! Turns out, of course, that things are WAY more devious. Robbins has goons like Labine kill programmers to steal their code, including Phillippe’s friend who staid home. Once he connects the dots, Phillippe hatches a plan with Cook to bring Robbins and company down. He chooses her because he discovers that Forlani is actually working for Robbins. Now that I think about it, this movie reminds me a lot of The Skulls with tons of betrayal and more twists and turns than you can easily keep track of.

Unlike some of the other Computer Movies, I can’t find any fault with the actual computer stuff in this movie, again, not that I’m any kind of expert, but it all seemed to play true. Plus, I watched a special feature on the DVD which had a woman talking about how she put the code together. I didn’t understand it, but no big deal there. What made me laugh is the idea that not only does Robbins’ company steal code from and spy on seemingly everyone with some talent, but also goes so far as to murder people and cover everything up. PLUS, he set Forlani up as a mole with Phillippe well in advance. We’re getting into spy/supervillain territory here. Now, I get that this came out around Bill Gates’ Microsoft antitrust case and there has always been corporate paranoia, but I just kept thinking of guys like Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs and just laughing at the thought of them trying to kill someone. My outsiders view of the computer industry is that there are definitely some shady business practices, but I just can’t see it getting into murder territory. Just doesn’t seem to hold water for that particular industry.

Ah well, all in all, this was a good suggestion, thanks Geof! Oh, I also wanted to note how funny the sets are, especially in Robbins’ company. There are huge bouncy balls everywhere, tables made out of giant puzzle pieces and a kid’s area made completely out of Legos. No idea if that’s how things were back in the heyday of late 90s/early 00s computer companies, but it made me laugh. Even Grandma’s Boy didn’t go that far.

Best Of The Best: High Fidelity (The Movie)

For a few years now I’ve been on this absorption kick, trying to watch as many new movies and TV shows, read as many new books, comics and trades and listen to as much new music as possible. And by “new” I mean new to me, not necessarily brand new. This has probably been going on since right after college. In college I didn’t have a lot of money, but I’d still check out new movies at the theater and on the rare occasion when I could rent something, so that left me to peruse my personal DVD collection and those of my friends’. Well, one movie that I saw in high school, which spurred me on to read the book and then eventually watch the movie over and over again was High Fidelity (2000).

When I first saw High Fidelity in high school I was pretty enamored with the idea of working in a record store (still am really). I also really liked the idea of Top 5 lists, discovering new music and hanging out with music nerds and musicians. It wasn’t until I read the novel that I realized how weird of a guy Rob (the main character, played by John Cusack) is. Saying the dude has relationship problems and issues with women is like saying Michael Myers is irked by promiscuous teenagers. Anyway, Em and I watched High Fidelity on the car ride back to Ohio about a month ago (well, I recited every line in my head while she watched it for the first time on our portable DVD player). It was probably the first time in three years that I watched it. I used to watch it about once a month my Junior year of college when my roommate would be away from the room at night, it was his copy, so I had to buy my own once he graduated later that year.

It’s funny how different I look at things now that I’m older. I still love all of Jack Black’s lines and still want to a own a magical record store that doesn’t go bankrupt, but I look at Rob a lot differently now. I see how damaged he is and wonder what happened to him. I’m also glad that things worked out for him by the end of the movie, but also wonder if they stuck. Maybe when he turned 40 or 50 he flipped out and went through another crazy decade or something. Basically, I’ve been thinking about how these characters that were so important to me when I was maturing, dealt with further maturation, cause this growing up stuff can really suck.

Philosophy aside, I actually got into an argument with someone in the middle of a movie for my film class in college over High Fidelity. The movie was called Mifune (1999) and is from Denmark. The main woman in the movie is taking care of her mentally handicapped brother who’s obsessed with Toshiro Mifune, an actor in many an Akira Kurosawa film. I think there was something about aliens too, but who can remember all those subtitles? Anyway, I got into an argument saying that the main female character was Laura from High Fidelity and whoever I was with was completely convinced I was wrong. Well, I went right home and IMDbed her and was right Iben Hjejle was in both, so suck it whoever that was. Knowing that, it explains a few of Laura’s vocal ticks that always made me curious.

So, I guess I haven’t really explained why I like High Fidelity so much, but I’m not really sure if I could. I don’t know how into the movie I would be if I hadn’t fallen in love with it when I was younger. It’s like, I didn’t like Reality Bites when I first saw it because I thought Ben Stiller shouldn’t have been such a pussy, but maybe if I was really into the idea of making films that would have been enough to keep me hooked. I should check Reality Bites out again actually, it’s been a while. Anyway, I used to wonder when I was in high school if I would still really like movies like Empire Records and Dazed & Confused when I got older, because I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High with my dad one time and I don’t think he enjoyed it as much, probably because you remember things like Phoebe Cates’ boobs and not that abortion stuff. Well, luckily for me (at least so far) I still like a lot of those movies. It’s a weird combination of quality and fondness, I’m guessing, with a sliding scale depending on the flick. High Fidelity still strikes a chord with me, but I wonder if 50-year-old TJ will be reclining in his hoverchair and still enjoying watching John Cusack go through his Top 5 Break-Ups Of All Time on my holo-glasses with the same enjoyment as I do now. If not, I at least hope I’ll still remember all of Jack Black’s lines. Let’s just hope I’m not wearing a Cosby sweater while watching.

Oh, and anyone wonder how close the movie is to the book, it’s super freaking close. Like, so close they turned the book into the script word for word. Well, it’s not British, but everything else is in there, just peep the deleted scenes for scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the movie (I love the stuff with the jilted wife trying to sell her cheating husband’s record collection). There was also a musical on Broadway that I missed out on, but Ben saw, hopefully he (or anyone else who’s seen it) will comment. Hopefully next there will be a video game to continue the slow media evolution of this property. Just think of how much fun it’s be to kick the shit out of this f#cking Ian guy in a myriad of different scenarios? Get working on that Flash dudes.

Also, check out this video I just discovered on YouTube, I’ve never seen it before!