The Mockumentary: The Long and Short of It

No doubt about it, This Is Spinal Tap was one of funniest movies of the eighties. Why stop there? I’d say it’s one of the funniest movies ever! Written by and starring, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner (who also directed), This Is Spinal Tap is the story of an up-and-down rock band across two decades. Often referred to as just Spinal Tap, its actual full title is This is Spinal Tap®: A Rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi. Although its title calls it a This Is Spinal Tap“rockumentary,” this is the first movie that I recall being referred to as a “mockumentary,” as Reiner described it in contemporary interviews. The term, which surprisingly dates to the mid-sixties, conjoins the words “mock” and “documentary” to describe a work that parodies a subject via a distinct filmic style. This is Spinal Tap parodies metal bands that take themselves too seriously, while simultaneously poking fun at the documentary process itself.

The origins of the mockumentary are unclear. The seeds of the style date back at least to the 1950s, when variety shows would often use sketch comedy to lampoon current topics and public figures.  For instance, early television innovator Steve Allen – on the appropriately titled The Steve Allen Show – staged fake interviews with members of his comedy troupe for the ongoing “Man in the Street” segments. He also created a send-up of NBC’s nightly network news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, which in his hands became “The Nutley-Hinkley Report.”

The difference between parody and mockumentary is that the latter takes it a step or two further. Whereas a parody is executed with the performers giving a literal or figurative wink at the audience indicating that they’re fully in on the joke, a mockumentary is carried out with straight faces, requiring the viewer to determine where the humor is contained. Mockumentaries are also created by copying a specific filming style that, in some cases, blurs the lines between truth and fiction even more.  In fact, upon the release of This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, some people thought that Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was an actual documentary.

A Hard Day's NightPerhaps the first film that can be categorized as a mockumentary is director Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which seemingly records events occurring over a few days in the life of The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. Four years later, satirist Pat Paulsen, a regular on TV’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, launched a mock presidential campaign as a running gag on the show. Paulsen, with his usual deadpan delivery, used lies, double-talk, and attacks on other candidates, to poke fun at the campaign process. It culminated in his own TV-movie, Pat Paulsen for President, which was narrated by iconic actor Henry Fonda! That mostly-forgotten program, however, provided the blueprint for the mockumentary format.

Stand-up comedian Woody Allen directed his feature-length debut in 1969 with Take the Money and Run, which documented the story of bungling bank robber Virgil Starkwell. Allen returned Real Lifeto the style twice later in his career: 1983’s Zelig and 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. In 1978, Monty Python’s Eric Idle wrote and co-directed The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, a send-up of The Beatles. Idle also starred as one of the members of the imaginary rock band (fellow Python Michael Palin also had a supporting role), while much of the extended cast was made up of Saturday Night Live players. Albert Brooks, who has his own SNL connection and is sometimes called “The West Coast Woody Allen,” made his directorial debut, like Allen, with a mockumentary. In 1979’s Real Life: An American Comedy, Brooks drew direct inspiration from PBS’ pioneering 1973 documentary series An American Family.

Since helping to popularize the comedy subgenre with This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to create a cottage industry of sorts with a continuing line of mockumentaries. Guest Waiting for Guffmandirected, co-wrote (with co-star Eugene Levy), and starred in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, 2000’s Best in Show,  and 2003’s A Mighty Wind. Those films took on the subjects of small-town community theater productions, upscale dog shows, and folk music, respectively. Although they are not blockbuster hits, they have a proven audience, and all have received critical plaudits.

The biggest sleeper hit of 2006 was probably writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The story of a supposed Kazakh TV reporter who is sent to the United States to make a documentary about American life and culture, however, drew criticism from several quarters. Baron Cohen, a TV star in his native England, was able to dupe countless Americans into believing his cover story, making many of them look incredibly foolish in their filmed interviews.

The OfficeDespite the success of Guest’s films and of Baron Cohen’s film, the use of the mockumentary style has mostly shifted to TV sitcoms in recent years. The first to use it to great success was the original, British version of The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, which ran from 2001-2003. To date, it has spawned additional versions in seven other countries:  The United States, France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden. The American version of The Office debuted in March 2005 and was an immediate hit.  It ran for nine seasons, propelled several cast members to stardom, and received six nominations for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, winning once.

You might think that The Office would have become so identified with the mockumentary style that no other television show producers would dare use it again so soon. Surprisingly, that Parks & Recreationdidn’t prove to be the case, at all. In 2009, two more mockumentary sitcoms debuted – and both also found success!  NBC’s Parks and Recreation bowed in April of that year and recently began its sixth season, having been nominated once for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy. ABC’s Modern Family, premiered in September 2009, and has won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series each of its first four seasons. Apparently, the mockumentary is a comedic style that Americans just aren’t tiring of quickly.

Mockumentary, parody, straight comedy, or otherwise, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of movie and TV series titles from which to choose. DVDs rent for $2.00 apiece, checkout for one week, and no longer have a limit other than the fifty-item overall limit. Come in and checkout as many as you can carry!


The Financial Crisis of 2008 on Film

It’s been five years since the height, or should I say the depth, of the Financial Crisis of 2008, the worst in America since The Great Depression almost eighty years earlier. The collapse, or near collapse, of several national banks and major brokerage houses precipitated the resulting Wall Street crash, which has affected every one of us. For some, it’s been severe and direct, for others it’s been moderate and indirect, but no one has escaped its consequences. At Wall Streetworst, people have become unemployed, been evicted from their homes, lost their health insurance coverage, and/or significant portions of their life savings. Others may have not seen a pronounced change in their current lifestyle, but have been forced to put retirement plans on hold in order to maintain it. Even those who didn’t lose money themselves are still affected by the loss of governmental services, as a result of suddenly lowered tax bases.

The crisis actually began with the bursting of the housing bubble, which peaked in 2006, causing a domino effect on related financial industries.  According to the Senate Financial Crisis Report, 2011 (aka  the Levin–Coburn Report), the meltdown was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.” By the time all was said and done, trillions of dollars of personal wealth had been lost by American citizens, and a global financial crisis had been triggered. Despite the far-reaching effects of the downturn, only marginal efforts have been made in terms of (re)regulating American finance, or bringing any of the culprits to justice. Many of us still have a lot of unanswered questions regarding this calamity.

My quick summary above is meant only to be an entry point into this topic. I’m not an expert on high finance, and I don’t pretend to be. If you too are still searching for a better understanding of what happened and why, but don’t have time to trudge through some dry, thousand-page, highly pedantic account of this subject, then I’ve got an alternate route for you. Filmic attempts to explain the crisis began appearing from the earliest days of the debacle. Several first-rate documentaries have been produced that do a stellar job of elucidating the major causes of the crisis. The following titles are owned by the Des Moines Public Library. You can find them among the non-fiction DVDs. They carry a Dewey Decimal number denoting their subject matter (the economy), which in this case is the 330s. If you look for a left or right bias in any of these titles, you’ll likely find one; that’s unavoidable, but each one presents its case in a reasonable, rational manner. As a group, I believe that they cover the main arguments from either side of the American political spectrum.

Maxed OutMaxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders (2006) – Produced and released in the midst of the bursting housing bubble, this doc details how American wealth has been built as a “house of cards” that can’t help but collapse. It makes clear how predatory lenders offer credit cards to those who can least afford to pay them off, making card holders lifelong customers often able to pay only the minimum balance. Too easily acquired home and auto loans are also addressed.

IOUSAI.O.U.S.A. (2008) – Released in late-August 2008, the month prior to the ultimate unraveling of the national banks and investment banking institutions, I.O.U.S.A. predicted the collapse based on various factors at play in the market at the time. Original interviews, with such heavyweight figures as Warren Buffett, Paul O’Neill, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Rubin, lend credence to the filmmakers’ conclusions.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) – Populist filmmaker Michael Moore ventures Capitalism - A Love Storyout to show the human impact of the financial meltdown. Moore visits several locales and interviews numerous average Americans whose lives have been upended by corporate greed run amok. Afterwards, he seeks answers to why this can occur in a Democratic society by going to Washington and Wall Street, where governmental leaders and corporate heads are less than forthcoming. In the final section of the film he outlines some strategies for change that have been employed successfully in other Western nations.

Inside JobInside Job (2010) – If you have time to see only one film about the financial crisis, this one is it! Narrated by Matt Damon, Charles Ferguson’s fine overview of the financial crisis won the “Best Documentary, Features” Oscar in 2011. Pointed interviews, well-chosen graphics, extensive research and worldwide locations are used to explain the global economic meltdown in an easily understood fashion. On top of all of that, it’s a surprisingly sleek film for a documentary, with crisp, gleaming photography that suggests the budget of a high-production-value Hollywood movie.

The FlawThe Flaw (2011) – The title derives from a famous quote by Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in which he admitted before the U.S. Congress that he put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets, convincing him not to impose regulation on the then-current risky mortgage lending practices. That flaw, the film contends, is people’s greedy nature and their willingness to swindle people if it means they will profit from it personally. Although the film takes its subject seriously, it also uses selected film clips (especially old cartoon segments) to add humor to the otherwise heavy mix.

Few narrative movies have been made that dramatize the financial crisis. Perhaps the subject is too massive to easily, and successfully, cram into a two-hour window. Or, maybe Hollywood types think it’s too much of a downer to appeal to audiences. In any case, at this time there are only a pair of movies that deal directly with events of that period that I can recommend (several other films, including Up in the Air, The Company Men, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, deal with it only peripherally or incidentally). Find the following titles in our regular DVD collection.

To Big to FailToo Big to Fail (2011) – HBO produced this reenactment of events during September 2008 when there appeared there would be further banking/brokerage house failures in the wake of the demise of Lehman Brothers. William Hurt stars as Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and centers on his efforts to create a federal government bailout that will prevent additional failures and help restore consumer confidence in Wall Street.

Margin CallMargin Call (2011) – Margin Call is an ensemble thriller offering a 24-hour window into an investment bank (read: Lehman) at the height of the financial crisis. It’s more focused on dramatics than on getting details right, but it does provide Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci ample opportunity to display their considerable talents.

“Our (Iowa) State Fair”

“Our state fair is a great state fair, don’t miss it, don’t even be late!” That’s right, it’s state fair time again in Iowa. For me, it brings back a lot of memories. My first experience with the Iowa State Fair was marching in the State Fair Parade as a member of the Mount Vernon High School band. That was back in the days when bands wore their full uniforms, no matter what the temperature. As I recall, it was 90 plus degrees that night. It was also at a time when no one had State Faireven heard of water bottles. If you were lucky, sometime prior to falling into rank, you found a drinking fountain and took enough gulps to last you a couple of hours. We proudly marched down Grand Avenue – as a trombone player I was in the front row – and we played our hearts out. We won our class (the small school one), but got edged out by one of the big school bands for the Governor’s Trophy, awarded to the best band over all.

The male bandsmen pitched tents in a farm field adjacent to the fairgrounds (the females stayed in the 4-H Club Girls’ Dormitory) and we goofed off most of the night. The highlight was an apple fight in the orchard next to us (my very late, but sincere apologies Mr. Farmer, as I suspect the $5.00 apiece you charged us for the camping space didn’t make up for the damage we did to your apple crop). We ran through the fairground gates when they opened the next morning and ventured through the fair until about mid-afternoon, when many of us were too exhausted to walk another step. We spent the remainder of the day dozing and slowly rocking in the rockers that lined the veranda of the 4-H Dorm. By the time the school buses were ready to load us for the return trip we were more than ready to board. All in all, however, it was a very good time.

The opening quote above was written by Oscar Hammerstein II. Together with composer Richard Rodgers, it’s part of the opening lyric for the song “State Fair,” from the musical of the same name. That song always reminds me of the Iowa State Fair and with good reason, the musical is set in Iowa. Now I don’t know Oklahoma!how much two New York City songwriters knew about either Iowa, or our state fair, but I consider it an honor that they chose to set it here. Actually, they based it on the Philip Stong novel and the screenplay for Fox Film Corporation’s 1933 movie starring Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers. Rodgers & Hammerstein, of course, were renowned for their wildly popular Broadway musicals, but State Fair wasn’t one of them. The score for State Fair was the only one they wrote expressly for Hollywood.

In 1945, 20th Century Fox produced State Fair starring Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews, though both were dubbed.  That wasn’t the case with the second leads, Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine, who show off their considerable vocal talents. The score featured six compositions, one of which (“It Might as Well Be Spring”) went on to win the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. Directed by A-List director Walter Lang, it was filmed in gorgeous, saturated Technicolor. For the record, the 1962 version starring Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, retooled by Rodgers after Hammerstein’s death in 1960, was reset to Texas.

As early as 1969, The Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis adapted the movie version for the stage under the direction of James Hammerstein (Oscar’s son), and with the supervision of Rodgers. The show was revived in July-August 1992 as part of the Broadway Preview Series at the North Carolina School of the Arts, South Pacificat the Stevens Center in Winston Salem. Strangely enough, I was at one of those early performances to review it for an area publication. From there, the show moved to the Long Beach Civic Light Opera in October 1992. Three years later, a restaged version opened at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines on August 12, in conjunction with the 1995 Iowa State Fair. A lengthy national tour followed, during which it was further tinkered with and refined.

The central problem with adapting State Fair to the stage was that six songs wasn’t nearly enough for a Broadway-style show. What had been done to remedy this during the early nineties was to add Rodgers & Hammerstein material from other sources to increase the size of the score. For instance, a song from the 1962 movie version, written by Rodgers alone, had been inserted, as well as a pair that they had written for Oklahoma!, but had not used. Other, lesser, scores that had been rare misfires for the team – Me and Juliet, Allegro, and Pipe Dream – were all mined for appropriate material. It wasn’t enough to find unknown Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, they had to be songs that could be integrated smoothly into the existing score.

The Broadway production, co-directed by James Hammerstein and Randy Skinner (also choreographed by Skinner) premiered on March 27, 1996 at the Music Box Theatre. That version ran for 110 performances and eight previews, and was nominated for two Tony Awards. The cast included John Davidson, Kathryn Crosby, Andrea McArdle, Ben Wright, The King and Iand Donna McKechnie. In Broadway terms, it was neither a hit, nor a flop, but it was probably still a disappointment. The thing that stands out to me most as the most glaring error is the miscasting of Davidson as the Frake family patriarch. Although Davidson is a Broadway veteran, he’s also an overly charming, pretty boy singer, and as far from my conception of an Iowa farmer as anyone could be.

Both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had had significantly successful careers prior to coming together as a team. Rodgers paired with Lorenz Hart for such major Broadway shows as A Connecticut Yankee, On Your Toes, and Pal Joey. Hammerstein had worked with various composers, but his greatest partnership was with Jerome Kern. Together, they wrote such hits as Show Boat, Sweet Adeline, and Music in the Air. Independent of the other, Rodgers and Hammerstein both wanted to turn Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical, but neither of their then partners shared that interest. Eventually, they decided to work together. The result was Oklahoma!, which opened in 1943 and quickly became a landmark production in the history of Broadway. Incidentally, Hart died of complications of alcoholism that same year, while Kern died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945. What started as a temporary partnership soon became a permanent collaboration.

After Oklahoma!, Rodgers & Hammerstein created Carousel, which opened in 1945 and was another tremendous success. Their score for State Fair was just their third combined effort. Many of the greatest successes of the Broadway musical theater of the forties and fifties were Rodgers and & Hammerstein shows. Among them were South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music. They also created one show for television, Cinderella, which has been produced three times. All of the titles mentioned in this paragraph were committed to film. By clicking on the linked titles you will be directed to the DVD held by the Des Moines Public Library. Don’t miss them, don’t even be late!

Baseball Movies That Hit a Home Run

As a kid, my summers were filled with baseball. Sure, there were afternoons at the pool and bike rides with friends, but the majority of my activities were tied to the big green field with the dirt diamond in the corner. For instance, I attended one to three Little League practices and played in two games most weeks of the season. Another two or three nights a week, I watched my friends and/or rivals play their The Sandlotgames. I often stayed for the adult softball games that commonly followed our games, or attended softball only nights, serving as an unofficial bat boy for any of the teams that would allow me. I frequently manned the score board for the games, child or adult, manually hanging the tiles as runs were scored. If I wasn’t at the ballpark, I’d likely be out back playing catch with my brothers, or playing an impromptu game with kids from the neighborhood. Once a week, I walked up town with my allowance in my pocket (one thin dime) and bought two packs of baseball cards. Several nights a week, one of my brothers would tune in the Minnesota Twins game (in those days they were carried by WHO) on the old tube radio that had been handed down to him by my parents once they’d gotten a transistor one. For years, I regularly watched Chicago Cubs games on Cedar Rapids’ KCRG-TV, and (while they carried them for a time in the sixties) Twins games on Waterloo’s KWWL-TV. On rare, special occasions, my parents took us to Veterans Memorial Stadium to watch Cedar Rapids’ Class A team take on a Midwest League opponent. All of these experiences helped form my love of baseball! Mind you, I wasn’t very good at it myself, but I still loved it. I still do!

I’ve also been passionate about movies since I was a kid – big surprise there, huh. I lived in a small town, but we were fortunate to have a movie theater: The Strand. I probably went twenty times a year. Almost everything it ran was a year or two old (I’m not kidding, theatrical distribution was a lot Moneyballdifferent then, but still). Not that it really mattered, as we’d seldom seen any movie before it made its way to The Strand, anyway. Strangely, The Strand didn’t sell popcorn (I also really love popcorn). I later read that 99 percent of theaters in that era sold popcorn; just my luck! About twice a year, as a family we went to Cedar Rapids to see some really big release at one of the three huge, single-screen theaters downtown, or one of the two huge single-screen theaters along First Avenue. Believe it or not, until the early seventies, Cedar Rapids, with a population of over 100,000 people, only had those five screens! Of course, I watched a lot of movies on television. Back then, before TV had been around very long, it didn’t have a large inventory of shows available to run and rerun endlessly. As a result, local stations played movies endlessly, especially late at night, but also weekday afternoons and just about any time on weekends. In addition, the three networks played movies in primetime several evenings a week. I loved movies, and as I’m sure you know from this blog, I still do.

You’d think that baseball – so extremely popular during the last century that it was nicknamed “America’s pastime” – and movies – which are considered the greatest new art form to be created during that same century, might have a lot of overlap. Well, to some extent, they do. There have been dozens of baseball-themed movies made over the years. The problem is, however, that many of them Bull Durhamjust haven’t been that good. There are several reasons for that being the case. For one, many thespians just don’t look comfortable (or should I say graceful) running, throwing, catching, or batting on a ball field. For another, if you say it’s the big time, then pay Major League Baseball for the rights to use their logos – none of that lame New York Knights crap that plagued The Natural, starring Robert Redford. Similarly, big league games draw thousands of fans, so you can’t go cheap by pretending that you’re staging a major league game in a minor league stadium with a few hundred fans. Conversely, if it’s a movie about neighborhood kids or high schoolers, don’t give them all brand new equipment and a field that’d take a professional grounds crew to maintain. And finally, don’t dumb down the game to attract moviegoers who aren’t baseball fans. Chances are that non-fans will go based on who’s in it, not because they’re seeking a faithful representation of the game, whereas actual baseball fans will only embrace it if they feel it doesn’t in some way denigrate the sport they love. The truth is, baseball-themed movies often spend very little time on the diamond anyway, so you don’t have to get that many details right in order to satisfy die-hard fans. So why alienate them?

Great baseball movies are ones that tell a captivating story, whether it’s dramatic, romantic, or comedic, while drawing on the sport’s considerable tradition, and evoking the passion of its followers. That’s simple enough, right? Then why do so few films achieve it? Fortunately, some do. So here’s an Eight Men Outalphabetical list of ten baseball movies, representing all levels of play and various eras, that should entertain fans and non-fans alike.

1) Bull Durham – Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins form baseball’s greatest love triangle in this charming romantic comedy;

2) Eight Men Out – Baseball’s most notorious scandal (the “Black Sox” gambling on the 1919 World Series) gets an even-handed dramatization;

3) Field of Dreams – Kevin Costner, again, has big questions and baseball helps provide the answers in this Iowa-filmed fantasy;

4) The Final Season – Tiny Norway, Iowa’s outstanding baseball tradition (20 state titles between 1965 and 1991) came to an end due to a school merger, but they worked hard to make that 1991 season a memorable one in this by-the-numbers, but inspiring Iowa-shot, movie;

5) A League of Their Own – Starting during World War II and for about ten years after, women played baseball professionally, too, as shown in this comic drama about the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League;

A League of Their Own6) Moneyball – Based on the book by Michael Lewis about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, this movie makes sabermetrics sexy, or perhaps that’s because Brad Pitt was cast as Beane;

7) The Rookie – The unlikely, but true story of Jim Morris, a former minor league pitcher turned high school baseball coach, who discovers that the injury that had forced him out of the game a decade earlier has heeled beyond all believable expectations;

8) The Sandlot – This kids’ comedy gets so many things right about childhood and the love of the game that it’s pretty easy to overlook the episodic nature of the movie generally.

9) The Stratton Story – Jimmy Stewart plays Monte Stratton, a major league pitcher for the White Sox, who doesn’t let a hunting accident that resulted in the partial amputation of his right leg beat him;

10) Sugar – Partially shot in Iowa, primarily in Spanish, Sugar tells the story of a pitcher from a small village in the Dominican Republic and his struggle to use his physical abilities to make good in America, for himself and for his entire family.

If you’re interested in seeing other baseball titles in the DMPL collection, perform an Any Word search using this phrase: baseball dvd. Your results list will include dozens of Hollywood movies, instructional titles, and historical documentaries about baseball.

Marvel Is Marvelous. Will The Man of Steel Be Super?

I admit it, I was never a comic book kid growing up (nor am I a graphic novel guy now). I did, however, Superman Imagewatch Adventures of Superman, the hokey 1950s TV series starring George Reeves as The Man of Steel, and Batman, the campy 1960s TV show with Adam West as The Caped Crusader. I even remember seeing random episodes of Spider-Man and Fantastic 4, two late-sixties Saturday morning cartoons. The production values for all of those shows were marginal, at best, but they were products of  their less technologically savvy times. That and the fact that superhero stuff wasn’t exactly big time then, so producers just weren’t willing to throw a lot of money at them, let alone attempt to make them cutting edge. Perhaps as a result, I was never more than a fair-weather fan of all things superhero.

 A few weeks ago I went to see Iron Man 3. Frankly, it was a blast! In Iron Mancontrast to the superhero shows of my childhood, Iron Man 3 is probably as cutting edge as it can be. Imaginative special effects and quality sets in the service of an engaging story with clever acting adds up to a great time. You know, I’ve really come to enjoy many of these page to screen adaptations of superhero stories that are so popular currently. It seems as though the honchos at Marvel Studios have really figured out the formula, with wildly successful versions of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, as well as the X-Men. First Class and The Amazing Spider-Man reboots, all coming in just the past five years. There’s always a lot of fan boy talk about which of the two major comic book empires – Marvel, or DC – is the better of the two. For movies, at least right now, it’s no contest.  Marvel is at the top of the comic book-turned-silver screen superhero heap!

And then there’s DC Comics. This weekend, DC (through Warner Bros.) releases Superman ReturnsMan of Steel, the second reboot of the Superman series since the glory days of the franchise when it starred the late Christopher Reeve. The last entry, 2006’s Superman Returns was a complete dud. The last five DC Comics creations to reach the big screen were (in reverse chronological order) The Dark Knight Rises, Green Lantern, Red, Jonah Hex, and The Losers. OK, I’ll admit that The Dark Knight Rises was a very good, if not great, film, while Red was just successful enough to warrant its upcoming sequel. Along with the others, however, they don’t exactly constitute a winning streak. It’s clear that DC has not had the same run of success that Marvel has had since they created their own production companies several years ago.

Before DC and Marvel ventured into film production themselves, other companies purchased screen rights from them to produce movies based on their properties. The first superhero movies, however, were few and far between. Not surprisingly, the first comic book stars to get the Hollywood treatment were the two biggest of the period – Superman and Batman – and there are many parallels between their transitions to film. Superman first popped up on the big screen in a pair of serials: 1948’s Superman and 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman. His first feature-length appearance came in 1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men, starring the cast of the concurrently-running TV series. That was it until Reeve starred as the refugee from planet Krypton in four films released between 1978 and 1987: Superman, Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Likewise, Batman first graced theater screens in the serials Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin Batman & Robin(1949), while his first feature-length appearance was in 1966’s Batman, also starring the cast of the concurrently-running TV series. He didn’t re-emerge from the Batcave until Michael Keaton assumed the role for 1989’s Batman, and again in 1992’s Batman Returns. Those were followed by 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin, starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney, respectively. Some were more successful than others, but all were big hits and DC clearly held the upper hand.

In 2005, Christopher Nolan revived the Batman franchise with a vengeance, co-writing and directing the highly-acclaimed and mega-lucrative trilogy starring Christian Bale. Batman Begins was followed by 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Unfortunately for DC Comics, however, they’ve never been able to establish any characters beyond Superman and Batman as big screen stars, not Swamp Thing, Supergirl, SteelCatwoman, Constantine, or The Spirit.

Marvel is doing marvelously well now, but it too has more than its share of The Punishersuperhero skeletons in its Hollywood closet.  It took until 1998’s Blade that they had a hit movie and until 2000’s X-Men that they had a bona fide blockbuster. Among the Marvel properties that were unsuccessfully transferred to the screen were 1986’s Howard the Duck, about a cigar-chomping alien humanoid duck; a barely released 1990 version of Captain America; an un-released 1994 version of The Fantastic Four; and three (count `em, three) attempts to establish The Punisher as a silver screen star, in 1989 (which went direct-to-video in North America), 2004, and 2008.

As last year’s The Dark Knight Rises brought that Batman trilogy to a close, it’s now up to British-born actor Henry Cavill (best known for the TV series The Tudors) to help resurrect DC’s fortunes as the Man of Steel. On July 19, Red 2, based, as was the original, on a limited comic book series, will open on U.S. screens. The original was a mid-level hit, so the sequel isn’t really expected to do blockbuster business, that is, certainly not Marvel-level business. After that, the next DC production isn’t expected until 2015, when Justice League should arrive in theaters.

In the meantime, Marvel still has Kick-Ass 2, The Wolverine, and Thor: The Dark World all still coming The Amazing Spider-Manthis year. What’s more, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy are all expected next year. As if those aren’t enough, Ant-Man, as well as an Avengers sequel, plus a reboot of The Fantastic Four are all slated for 2015. I hate to say it, but Marvel isn’t just beating DC, they’re crushing them like the Hulk crushes a cockroach.

The Des Moines Public Library invites you to select your superheroes of choice from our wide collection of DVDs and graphic novels. Then use the superpowers contained in your library card to check them out through the wonders of modern technology, because at the DMPL, we’re cutting edge, too!

The Star Trek Universe: A Warp Speed Tour

Star Trek Into Darkness opens in the United States this Friday after having opened in a couple dozen countries since its May 2 London premiere. Once again, Chris Pine essays the iconic role of Capt. James T. Kirk and all of the key actors in the Enterprise crew return intact from 2009’s Star Trek, which Star Trek Rebootrebooted the franchise by taking the property’s original characters and shaving several years off their ages. Reboot director-producer J.J. Abrams, was also back on board for this latest voyage.

Unlike most other sci-fi sagas, which take place in other solar systems, galaxies, universes, and/or eras, the Star Trek saga traces its origins to planet Earth and takes place in the not-too-distant future. Due to the vast number of TV series, movies, books, games, etc., fans now refer to the franchise as the Star Trek universe. After 47 years of Star Trek in all its many guises, that’s not too much of an exaggeration, that’s a fairly apt description!

Writer-producer Gene Roddenberry first created the concept for Star Trek in 1964. NBC commissioned a pilot from Desilu Studios (later purchased by current Star Trek franchise owner Paramount) starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike. NBC passed on the show, but still had enough interest to finance a second pilot in 1966 starring William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk. That version was picked up and the series premiered on the peacock network on September 8, 1966. The progressive-thinking Roddenberry had sold the show to NBC as being like a western set in space, but used the series to comment on hot-button social issues  (racism, religion, imperialism, human rights, feminism) through slyly-disguised allegories. Star Trek, featuring one of TV’s first interracial casts, started strong, but Star Trek The Voyage Homefound its ratings slowly erode over the show’s three-year, seventy-nine episode run.

The series had already developed a cult-like audience as a network series, but it really built a fanatical following once it went into syndication in fall 1969. By 1973, there was enough interest in reviving the show for NBC to bring it back as a Saturday morning cartoon. That version of the series, now dubbed Star Trek: The Animated Series, ran for a season and a half with twenty-two episodes. Although many Star Trek fans choose to ignore the series’ very existence, it should be noted that all of the principals from the original cast provided the voices for their characters.

A  mid-seventies attempt to reunite the original cast for another primetime network TV show was scrapped, but eventually formed the basis for the first theatrical film, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Neither fans, nor critics, were wholly satisfied with the result, but the box office numbers showed Paramount that there was still plenty of interest among Trekkies (or Trekkers, as some prefer to be called). Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan arrived in 1982. Although it grossed less than the first film, its much lower production cost resulted in the studio earning a higher profit. Now that Paramount had figured out a workable model, they were just getting started. Soon, there would be more Star Trek titles than Cyrano Jones had tribbles.

Star Trek First ContactMore films followed with the original actors: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). In the meantime, Paramount had also created a new television series – Star Trek: The Next Generation – following different characters and set roughly 100 years after the original. Bypassing the networks, Paramount ran TNG in first-run syndication. The series, starring Patrick Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, premiered September 28, 1987, running seven seasons and 178 episodes.

Months after TNG ended, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations arrived in theaters with a storyline seeking to bridge the Capt. Kirk and Capt. Picard eras, but with the TNG cast taking center stage. Three more TNG movies followed: 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact, 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection, and 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, before the public tired of that crew.

Star Trek: Generations may have passed the figurative baton from the original series to TNG, but Paramount wasn’t just relying on the latter to keep the Star Trek banner flying. In 1993, the studio introduced Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while TNG was still in production. Like TNG, DS9 was also shown in first-run syndication, running for seven seasons and 176 episodes. Just two years later, Paramount launched yet another series in the franchise, Star Trek: Voyager. Star Trek Fan CollectiveVoyager, which premiered on the newly-created UPN television network, also ran seven seasons, but for four fewer episodes than DS9. Each of those series (TNG, DS9, Voyager) ended by the decision of the producers, not by cancellation.

In 2001, just months after ending Voyager, Paramount introduced Star Trek: Enterprise. Unlike the three previous Star Trek series, which all took place in the same time period, Enterprise took place halfway between the original series and three seven-season entries.  Like Voyager, Enterprise was a UPN show. Unlike Voyager, its ratings steadily declined. During its fourth and final season, Enterprise was canceled, though it was allowed to complete the season, having produced 98 episodes. The cancelation of Enterprise in 2005 made it the first Star Trek series to suffer that fate since the original in 1969. It also ended an uninterrupted 18-year run of new Star Trek product on television, with several of those years featuring concurrently running series.

All told, there have been six Star Trek series, totaling thirty seasons and 726 episodes. Now, with the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, there have been twelve films, featuring three distinct casts.  Where can you find your favorite Star Trek TV series/season/movie, or the one that has eluded you? The answer, of course, is the Des Moines Public Library, where DVDs (even entire TV seasons) check out for seven days for just one dollar. And so ends this warp speed tour of the Star Trek universe. “Take over, Mr. Sulu. Steady as she goes.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Career Continues Its Upward Trajectory

For someone primarily known as an “indie actor,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt has really been racking up appearances in blockbuster movies recently: Lincoln, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I guess the big paychecks allow him to continue the kind of challenging character work in low-budget features that he says is his passion. It also helps fund his personal projects, such as Don Jon, a comedy that he wrote, directed, and stars in that will be released later this year. As his first full-length writing and directing effort, it’ll be interesting to see what lessons he’s learned along the way as an actor by which ones he applies in his new role as a filmmaker.

14-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt is far right

14-year-old Joseph is far right

I first became aware of Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he was co-starring in the hit NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun in the mid-nineties. Although he was playing an alien living in a teenager’s body, I thought it unlikely that he was an actual teen. For one, because his acting was very good, beyond the usual scope of a teen, and two, because a customary practice in Hollywood is to cast young-looking adult actors as teens to avoid having to observe the strict work rules that protect underage performers.  As the show made its way through six seasons, Gordon-Levitt’s ever-increasing height made it obvious that he really was a talented teen actor.

If he already seemed like a seasoned pro at the start of that show’s run, it’s because he was. By the time 3rd Rock premiered in January, 1996, Gordon-Levitt had been acting professionally for over eight years. Having started in commercials at age six, he’d quickly landed numerous roles in TV shows, TV movies and feature films. Prior to 3rd Rock, he had already been a series regular on two short-lived shows: the Dark Shadows reboot in 1991, and the sitcom The Powers That Be in 1992-93. In addition, his big screen credits included significant roles in A River Runs Through It and Angels in the Outfield.

You are your own worst enemy!

You are your own worst enemy!

Even during the run of 3rd Rock, Gordon-Levitt actively pursued other acting opportunities. Some of his higher profile work during that time includes the movies Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and 10 Things I Hate About You. It was lower profile productions, however, that gave him his first starring roles, roles that allowed him to grow as an actor. Among those is 1998’s Sweet Jane, in which he plays a parentless AIDS victim.

From the time that 3rd Rock from the Sun ended in 2001 until 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Gordon-Levitt appeared in a succession of independent and low-budget Hollywood films, often in the lead. Since then, he’s mixed mega-budget and no-budget films in about equal ratio. One of my favorite films of the past year was Looper, a crime drama/time travel flick, which while not a mega-budget movie was certainly no indie. Many of Gordon-Levitt’s best performances, however, have been in indies and low-budget films. The following five films (listed chronologically) are ones that I feel include examples of his finest work, with the movies as a whole being of like quality.

Manic (2001) – Set in the juvenile wing of a mental institution, Gordon-Levitt plays a teen with rageissues but who is slow to deal with them in this exceedingly intense drama.

The "Summer" of love

The “Summer” of love

Brick (2005) – It may not even be a recognized category, but this tale of high school student (Gordon-Levitt) investigating the disappearance of his one-time girlfriend may be the best ever Teen Neo-Noir film.

The Lookout (2007) – Gordon-Levitt plays a once-promising athlete now suffering from brain damage caused by an auto accident; his life gets even worse when a gang of thieves attempts to take advantage of the fact that the only job he can hold is as a janitor at a local bank.

(500) Days of Summer (2009) – “This is not a love story” proclaims the voice-over narration that begins the movie, and yet it is a charming, if unconventional story about love.

50/50 (2011) – Given just an even chance of surviving a rare form of back cancer, Gordon-Levitt’s character learns about friendship and love by the reactions of those nearest to him.

The Des Moines Public Library has many DVD titles starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Click on any of the linked titles above to check out the work of one of America’s best, and most versatile, young actors. DVD checkouts are good for one week at the cost of just one buck. So what’s stopping you?