Joss the Boss

Marvel(ous) Heroes

Joss Whedon – there isn’t a hotter name in Hollywood at this moment than his. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, however, it’s not too surprising. It’s not as though Whedon is a high-profile actor who courts publicity in the tabloid press. Instead, he’s a creator/producer/writer/director primarily of TV shows.  His latest success, however, wasn’t on the small screen, rather it was this summer’s mega-blockbuster motion picture event The Avengers. It was Whedon who co-wrote and directed the Marvel Comics superhero opus, which passed The Dark Knight to leap into third place on the all-time US box office list with over $600 million in ticket sales.

Whedon’s fans, of course, know him best as the brains behind some of their favorite horror and sci-fi TV shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, both enjoyed long series runs, while two other Whedon shows, Firefly and Dollhouse, though short-lived, developed fervent cults nonetheless.

It seems weird now, but Whedon actually cut his TV teeth on a sitcom, ABC’s Roseanne starting in 1989. He helped write four episodes during the show’s second season, at a time when the series was a ratings monster. From there, he moved on to the TV series version of the hit Steve Martin movie, Parenthood. No, not the current NBC version that just began its fourth season. Rather, it was NBC’s failed first attempt to translate the property from big screen to small in 1990. That version of Parenthood only lasted 12 episodes and its sole claim to fame may be that it featured a then 15-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio.

In 1992, Whedon’s script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was launched on movies screens starring Kristy Swanson in the title role. The film did OK, more than doubling its production budget in US ticket sales alone, while getting some decent reviews, but it didn’t prove a starting point for a film series. More script work followed, with Whedon contributing to Pixar’s Toy Story, which turned out to be one of the biggest films of 1995. Toy Story earned Whedon his only Oscar nomination to date, coming for “Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.”

Buffy, Spike in Hand

At the same time that Whedon was getting big-screen writing assignments, he was also retooling Buffy for a small-screen version. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now with Sarah Michelle Geller in the title role, premiered on the fledgling WB Television Network on March 10, 1997. It quickly became one of the WB’s signature shows. The delicious mix of sexy/tarty beast killers and sexy/scary beasts aired on the WB for five seasons before moving on to The CW for its final two.  Not only was Whedon the series creator and one of the executive producers, but he was the only behind-the-scenes talent to write and direct an episode in each of the show’s seven seasons.

Two years later, Whedon spun off one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s most popular characters to create the series “Angel.” David Boreanaz starred as Angel and that series enjoyed a five-year run of its own. Whedon continued his multi-tasking, serving in the same capacities on “Angel” as he did on “Buffy.”

If all of that TV work wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Whedon continued to write for the movies. He got sole screenwriting credit for Alien: Resurrection, an entry in the “Alien” franchise that appeared in 1997. Then two more animated features followed with 2000’s Titan A.E., on which Whedon was one of three credited screenwriters, and 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for which he provided the original story.

In 2002, Fox premiered the science fiction series Firefly, but did little to support the series. Bizarre scheduling practices – including skipping weeks between broadcasts, airing episodes out of order, and not airing some episodes at all – severely hurt the show’s chances for success and it was cancelled during its maiden season. Once again, in addition to being the series’ creator, Whedon wore several hats on the production side of the show. Surprisingly, the DVD release of Firefly quickly made the show a cult favorite and Whedon was even able to tie up loose ends with the 2005 feature film Serenity, with Nathan Fillion and the rest of the TV cast reprising their roles.

In the period 2005-2008, Whedon did less script work (in part, due to the Writer’s Strike) and focused much of his attention on graphic novels and comic books. In addition to canonical continuations of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, he began writing for Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men. One of his X-Men graphic novels, Gifted, was used as source material for the 2006 movie X- Men: The Last Stand. Another project during that time was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a wacky superhero musical that Whedon self-produced for TV for just $250,000. It earned him his second Emmy nomination (his first was for a Buffyscript) and lone Emmy win, coming in the category of “Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Programs.”

A Living Doll

Whedon was back on weekly television in early 2009 (again, in various creative roles) with the sci-fi drama Dollhouse, starring Eliza Dushku. The Fox series lasted only two partial seasons, ending in early 2010, but generated a devoted, if too-small, following. After several minor TV and video projects, Whedon co-wrote the horror thriller The Cabin in the Woods, which appeared in theaters earlier this year. Starring a cast of relative unknowns, the movie garnered strong reviews and was a minor hit.

That brings us to The Avengers. Whedon wrote the screenplay (he also received co-story credit) and directed the film at an estimated cost of $220 million. The superhero epic, which gathers together four of Marvel Comics most popular characters, was the movie event of the summer. It thumped the competition, earning over $180 million more than The Dark Knight Rises, its closest rival. With two months remaining, The Avengers is all but assured of being the top hit of the year.

So, what’s ahead for Joss Whedon? Later this fall we will likely see the release of Much Ado about Nothing, the Shakespeare comedy that Whedon adapted and directed for the big screen.  Also headed to theaters in the near future is In Your Eyes, a very modestly-budgeted romance for which Whedon wrote the script.  There are other projects in the works, as well, but the biggest news is that Whedon has already signed on to write and direct Avengers 2. Don’t get excited yet, however, as the projected release for that sequel isn’t until 2015! Big screen or small, mega budget or low, it’ll be interesting to see what projects will next interest Whedon, wielding his newly-earned Hollywood clout.

Nearly every title mentioned in this post is owned by the Des Moines Public Library (heck, we’ve even got Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog!). So, visit us at any of our six locations, or take a look at us online, because books are just the beginning of what we do.

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Iowa-Born Musicians

fun.

According to Billboard, the song “We Are Young,” by the band fun. was the first alternative rock song to reach number one on the Hot 100 singles chart since Coldplay‘s “Vida la Vida” in 2008. Key to breaking that dry spell for alternative acts is someone with an Iowa connection. The lead singer/songwriter for fun. is Nate Ruess, who was born in Iowa City. Ruess was just five when his family moved out of state, but he still has relatives in the Iowa who he visits regularly.

Iowa has had a pretty decent run lately in producing music artists of note, though the state’s previous record in the music field had been rather paltry. Apart from turn-of-the-century (that’s 19th and early 20th centuries, for anyone who wants to jump in their WABAC Machine) singer Lillian Russell, tragic twenties trumpet icon “Bix” Beiderbecke, tragic Swing Era-bandleader Glenn Miller and recently departed crooner Andy Williams, the state didn’t produce many notable musicians in its first 150 years of history.

Slipknot

More recently, the phenomenal success of Slipknot helped shine a spotlight on Des Moines, where the band formed in 1995. Slipknot, of course, is a nine-member alternative metal act known for its outrageous and energetic live shows. Fronted by singer Corey Taylor, Slipknot became a jumping off point for a number of side projects that have achieved a modicum of success of their own. In truth, to describe the success of Stone Sour as “a modicum” would be ridiculous. The band, whose origin actually predates that of Slipknot, was revived by Taylor in 2002 and quickly developed a massive following of its own. Among other Slipknot personnel, percussionist Shawn Crahan has used hiatuses to found the bands To My Surprise and Dirty Little Rabbits, while drummer Joey Jordison shifted to bass for his stints with Murderdolls.

Still another extremely successful band of the past decade has an important Iowa connection. At age 20, Pella guitarist/songwriter Dave Keuning moved to Las Vegas, where he put an ad in a local weekly to recruit musicians interested in forming a band. The result was the alt-rock group The Killers, who have sold millions of albums on both sides of the Atlantic.

The aforementioned To My Surprise featured Brandon Darner as frontman, but when Darner was asked to join The Envy Corps in 2004, it was as lead guitarist. The Envy Corps, founded in Ames three years earlier by Luke Pettipoole, has had limited commercial success stateside, but has garnered a sizeable following in England, where it has spent considerable time recording and touring.

TLC

During the nineties, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’s low, raspy vocals were a distinctive part of the female trio TLC. Watkins was born in Des Moines and lived in the capital city for nine years before her family moved to Atlanta, where TLC was formed. TLC’s fusion of R&B, rap, soul and funk was laid down on four multi-platinum albums combining for sales of over 50 million records worldwide, making them the second-best selling female group of all time.

Greg Brown

Among Iowa-born solo artists are Mount Vernon’s Dan Bern, Fairfield’s Greg Brown, as well as his daughter Pieta Brown, born in Iowa City, and Waterloo’s Tracie Spencer, a champion on TV’s “Star Search” who went on to have several chart hits. Two Iowa-born drummers spent decades-long careers with durable pop/rock bands: the late Richie Hayward, of Clear Lake, was a founding member of Little Feat, while Shenandoah’s Willie Leacox was an early addition to America. Current Iowa bands that have enjoyed much regional and some national success include Ames’ The Nadas, Indianola’s Index Case and Story City’s Radio Moscow.

Check out these Iowa musical treasures, and I mean that literally, at the Des Moines Public Library. CDs check out for three weeks, free of charge, and can be renewed up to two additional times depending on demand.

The Dead Walk Again

AMC’s breakout hit

The Walking Dead returned to American Movie Classics Sunday night and hordes of non-zombies tuned in to watch one of television’s most intense and gruesome shows. If you missed catching one of the four, yes, four Sunday evening/Monday morning showings, don’t worry. AMC has five more airings scheduled for this coming weekend. I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre, per se, but I became a fan of this series during its Halloween night 2010 premiere (for clarity’s sake, that would be October 31, not to be confused with Beggar’s Night on October 30, if, like me, you live in Des Moines). I absolutely loved season one, though season two had its ups and downs. The producers’ decision to save money by keeping the action contained in one location during the second season probably wasn’t the right one. Nevertheless, The Walking Dead “remains” highly entertaining TV. That said, I’m sure fans of the show hope that the humans become more mobile again this season, as in the first season.

If you’re coming to the series late and need to catch up, you’ve got a total of 19 episodes from seasons one and two to watch if you want to become fully up to date. If that’s the case, set your DVR to save the new ones and go zombie for a few nights/weekends as you watch the old ones.  If you don’t have a DVR, relax. You’ve got plenty of time get up to speed, because I guarantee you that the Des Moines Public Library will have several copies of season three available as soon as it’s released next year.

In doing research on zombies for this post, I found out something sort of funny about the word zombie, that is, how it has recently come to be redefined. The original meaning of zombie is tied to the practice of voodoo.  In voodoo, a zombie is a will-less corpse that has been resurrected by a sorcerer to carry out his (usually nefarious) plans, with the zombie existing in a trance-like state. In that state, zombies aren’t inherently evil, crazed, or even dangerous – just creepy. Perhaps that’s why zombies, as monsters of horror, never caught on in the way that vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, werewolves, or even mummies did.  Occasional zombie movies were made over the years, however, the most notable being 1932’s The White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi, and 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie, both set in the voodoo context.

The seminal zombie flick

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is regarded as the first modern zombie movie. That low-budget non-Hollywood flick made millions of dollars of profit for a film that only cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. Surprisingly, the word zombie was never used in that film to describe the menacing corpses that roamed the Pennsylvania countryside. The word zombie, in fact, wasn’t applied to the burgeoning horror subgenre until several years later. Traditionally, the term most commonly used to describe such a creature was ghoul, but somehow zombie trumped ghoul along the way. Similarly, the phrase “the walking dead” was reserved,  until recently, for vampires, but that terminology has also been co-opted by the zombie subgenre. In modern movies, a zombie has nothing to do with voodoo or any practitioner of the dark arts. If a zombie has now been imbued with a will of its own, however, it goes only so far as trying to eat the flesh of the nearest live human. That makes for a truly frightening movie monster by any name, especially in the numbers that generally populate modern zombie gorefests.

Frankly, I’m more than a bit surprised by the sudden, massive popularity of all things zombie. Apart from AMC’s The Walking Dead, zombies seem to be lurking everywhere. In Des Moines’ East Village, the Zombieburger restaurant does scary good business, while the annual Zombie Walk gets more popular every year. Zombie-themed fiction has recently become the only real challenger to vampire-themed fiction within horror literature. As for movies, the production of zombie fare (and its related subgenre: contagion films) is at an all-time high.

This is the point where you might expect me to give you a list of the greatest zombie movies ever made, in order to help you familiarize yourself with the classics, or maybe to help you pass the time while you’re waiting to get a hold of previous seasons of The Walking Dead. But I’m not going to do that (well, OK, If that’s what you really want, just stick with Romero’s “Dead” saga and their remakes). Instead, I’m going to lighten the mood a little by giving my five picks for the funniest zombie movies ever made.  That way you can get your gore and belly laughs all at the same time. Here they are:

5) Shaun of the Dead, 2004 – apparently the British enjoy a good zombie flick, as well, at least well enough to give the horror subgenre a send up; frequent co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost head the cast.

4) Planet Terror, 2007 – originally, this was part of the Grindhouse double feature, though it was later released on its own; director Robert Rodriguez’ style is so over-the-top and the action so frenetic that you can’t help but laugh, even when it doesn’t seem appropriate.

Simply hilarious!

3) Fido, 2006 – an under-seen, underappreciated Canadian gem that actually has two comic targets: zombie movies and 1950s-style conformity, and it hits both masterly.

2) The Return of the Living Dead, 1985 – possibly the first spoof of the modern zombie subgenre (most famous now for adding the zombie call-to-arms, or should that be call-to-heads, of “more brains!” to the zombie lexicon, as well as for having the first fast-moving zombies); it works equally well as a comedy and a grisly shocker.

1) Zombieland, 2009 – this flick is just flat-out funny; sure, there are tense, even frightening moments, but the laughs are frequent and often very clever in this surprisingly thoughtful coming-of-age story.

Finally, there are two important things to remember: first, when trying to kill a zombie, aim for its head, and second, for movies and TV shows, go to the Des Moines Public Library, where DVDs check out for a week and still only cost $1.00!

The “Alien” Series

The June 8, 2012 U.S. release of the movie Prometheus added another chapter to the sci-fi world originally created by Alien, which premiered over 30 years ago. Prometheus, a prequel to the existing “Alien” franchise, expands on the series’ earlier themes and adds a few of its own to create a jumping off point for the other “Alien” titles. Ridley Scott, for whom Alien was just his second feature film assignment, returned to direct Prometheus, his sophomore outing in the seven-picture series.

Having cost $130 million to produce, Prometheus didn’t quite earn that back domestically with a $126 million theatrical release. Internationally, however, it more than doubled its U.S. take for a worldwide gross of over $300 million. The cost of release prints, marketing, and backend deals for talent, of course, greatly reduce the profit margin of a theatrical run. With its DVD bow today, October 9, will those combined returns be enough for the series to get yet another installment?

It may be hard to believe now, but Alien almost didn’t get made. The project was turned down by every major studio, including 20th Century Fox, which eventually did produce it. Certainly the earlier success of Star Wars helped get it greenlighted, but unlike that movie’s mix of science fiction and Western genres aimed at kids and young adults, Alien added horror to science fiction for a decidedly adult picture. In fact, 20th Century Fox even insisted that the most unsettling and bloodiest elements of the film be toned down before production rolled. The final result, of course, was hailed by critics and fans alike when it hit theaters in 1979. It also made a star of a young Sigourney Weaver, who despite starring in many hits since, remains most identified with the role of Ellen Ripley.

It wasn’t until 1986 that a sequel, Aliens, came out. Writer-director James Cameron took the helm for that film, only his third feature and hot off his surprisingly successful time travel/action pic The Terminator. Unlike the moody, leisurely-paced original, Cameron’s was a slam-bang, edge-of-your-seat, roller coaster ride. For those who claim that sequels never equal or surpass the original, Aliens is a very good counter argument.

The third time wasn’t charmed, however, as Alien³ didn’t match the success of its predecessors when it was released in 1992. Alien³ was the first narrative feature by TV commercial/music video director David Fincher. His only previous film was a Rick Springfield rock concert documentary he made several years earlier. The fourth entry in the series, Alien:  Resurrection, released in 1997, didn’t actually help resurrect the franchise.  That film was helmed by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had just two feature film co-directing credits on his resume at the time.

Now you may have noticed that I’ve made a point of mentioning what number each film was in the careers of the directors of the “Alien” series.  I did that because it’s pretty amazing that a studio would consistently entrust these fairly high-budget films to the novice directors they hired, especially after the considerable success of the first two installments. What may be even more amazing is the post-“Alien” series success of all four directors, even the latter two.

Scott went on to solidify his reputation as a stylist with such films as Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and American Gangster.  Cameron continued to create films of enormous commercial appeal with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Titanic and Avatar. Fincher found success with Se7en, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Finally, Jean-Pierre Jeunet returned to France and fame with Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and Micmacs.

For completeness’ sake, I feel I must also mention two other films with “Alien” pedigrees. Those are 2004’s AVP: Alien vs. Predator and 2007’s AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem.  That duo pits the “Alien” monsters against the “Predator” hunters of an entirely different film series. As those movies take place in a different period/setting than the previous titles in the “Alien” saga (and because most “Alien” series fans consider them to be inferior episodes), they are generally, and intentionally, left out of the “Alien” discussion, even to the point of being called non-canonical.

The financial success or failure of Prometheus from all revenue sources will determine the future of the “Alien” series, whether this is the first of a new run of films, or just proves a one off. In the meantime, if you’ve never seen the “Alien” movies, or just want another look, check them out at the Des Moines Public Library, where we own DVD copies of all seven titles, now including Prometheus!