Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Action Figure Conundrum

Clearly I need to dedicate more time to writing. I started out this blog before Christmas 2016, and I am finishing it just now, April 2017... note to self: be more constant on my writing habits!

Ok, so, back then, as Christmas was rapidly approaching, I started thinking more and more about the subject of Action Figures.

I used to love them. As a matter of fact I still do.

When I was a kid I spent long hours playing with my Big Jims, GI Joes, Mego’s Planet of the Apes and Star Trek action figures, Mattel’s Space 1999 figures and of course, Kenner’s Six Million Dollar Man. 
When Kenner launched the Star Wars 3 ¾ figures… well, that was a turning point that revolutionized the industry and the way we played. A lot of movie properties were released on that format (and are still being released for collectors).
However I’ve noticed today's kids outgrow action figures at a very early age. As they get older, they buy them mostly as collectibles, not toys to play with.

This got me to thinking about how we used to consume entertainment years ago.

If you wanted to see a film you had to catch it while it was playing at the movie theaters, otherwise you would have to wait literally for years until they were shown on TV (or sometimes re-released theatrically).

If you were lucky, rich or both, your family had cable or a satellite dish and you could catch them a bit sooner (these just became popular during the late 70's and early 80's). Or maybe you had a super 8 movie projector to show them in your own living room, but these were expensive and not very common (you usually had to settle for a silent, cut print that reduced a 2 hour film to a 20 minute short). Remember, I’m talking about the time before home video systems (laser discs or VCR’s) became popular.

The same was true for TV shows and TV movies: you had to be home at the precise hour of the show, otherwise you missed it (if you were lucky you could catch it on a re-run -if there was one- months later). I remember sitting by the TV waiting impatiently for the showing of the first episode of the Planet of the Apes TV series fearing that, if I missed it, I wouldn't be able to watch it for months, if ever (as I write this, the complete series is sitting comfortably on a DVD box set in our family room).

So if you really liked and were excited about a movie or TV series, the only option to relieve it was to use the available tools: comic books, soundtracks, the infamous Ben Cooper costumes in Halloween, board games, model kits, Mad Magazine parodies and, yes, action figures among many other licensed products.

As a side note, comic books were published based on almost every imaginable TV show and movie (most of the time they also did the continuing stories based on your favorite characters as they still sometimes do, but... ¿A Jack Kirby drawn 2001 Space Oddisey comic book continuing the story where the film left off? That was just plain weird).

You could also get the soundtrack for most films very easily (I remember listening repeatedly to James Bond’s Live and Let Die LP record over a decade before I was actually able to watch the film).

You had your view-masters and your toy “animated” entertainment varying from simple opaque object projectors and slides mounted on cardboard strips, to actual film running on very basic plastic contraptions with a crank that you had to operate by hand.You also had a lot of fanzines that told you what the film was about, and even movie photo magazines that used stills from the actual film to tell the story. Oh, and movie books, of course; almost every film had to have a tie-in book.

The merchandising opportunities surrounding a property were endless while the actual entertainment experience –i.e. watching a film or a particular TV show- was perceived as unique and precious.

Nowadays if you want to "re-live" a film or TV show you can simply stream it through your favorite platform or, in the worst of cases, if the film or TV show is too obscure, buy it online through a specialized store. That’s that.

Even when this is wonderful, I have to admit I miss some aspects from the good old days: I loved listening to my late sister colorfully narrating Twilight Zone episodes (watching them on YouTube is just not the same) and discussing ad-nauseam with friends the minutiae of a show that we barely remembered, leaving a lot of interestng, unanswered questions.

I also miss the excitement of reenacting favorite scenes with recently acquired action figures or reading a movie comic book while listening to a cool movie soundtrack. Yes, entertainment is easily attainable today, but I think the whole multimedia experience has devaluated itself a little bit.

The offer is simply much larger than the demand.

And now kids can also recreate a movie and explore further adventures through sophisticated video games that place you right in the middle of the action. Just look at what I had to play with when I wanted to explore the world of James Bond or escape the Alien on the starship Nostromo on my Atari 2600 (this was the early 1980’s, at the dawn of home consoles when video games began substituting action figures, which is just after the time I described above), versus the new Xbox adventures my kids are playing today.

On the positive side, I can now exchange information with my children about likes and dislikes at the swipe of a finger over a tablet, share with them a Twilight Zone episode and meet their favorite blogger on the same sitting.

Despite some drawbacks, even when action figures have become collectibles instead of toys, I honestly believe we’ve made giant leaps forward on the entertainment field, and with Augmented Reality and VR looming large on the horizon, it seems the best is yet to come!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Remembering the two First Families of Halloween

Long ago, in a decade far, far away during the monster craze period, two wonderfully creepy family shows were released through different networks and ended up competing against each other to everyone's delight.

According to Wikipedia, The Addams Family aired for two seasons on ABC from September 18, 1964 to April 8, 1966 for a total of 64 episodes; while The Munsters aired on CBS from September 24, 1964, to May 12, 1966 with a total of 70 episodes. Both shows have lived in our cultural psyche ever since through reruns in syndication and now video collections, becoming enduring franchises.

I had the chance to discover them in the early 70’s and immediately became enamored with the concept (as a child I even had my mom sew me up a black Herman Munster costume and buy me a red Herman rubber mask… yeah, red, go figure).

The Munsters had an arguably successful revival with The Munsters Today, a more traditional sitcom which (according to Wikipedia) “broadcast 72 episodes from October 8, 1988, to May 25, 1991, giving it more first-run episodes than the original series”. However, I doubt anyone under 35 remembers this iteration.
In 2012 they tried to unsuccessfully reboot the franchise with something called Mockingbird Lane (a reference to the Munsters’ home street name). Immediately since I saw the photos and read the concept, I guessed it would fail miserably -and it did (although I can’t be sure why, since I haven’t had the chance to watch it). I’m not a sightseer or the best TV concept analyst, but it obviously derived too strongly from the original’s vibe.

The Addams Family, on the other hand, has had various successful reincarnations including an animated cartoon in the 70’s, another animated series in 1992, and of course the great, classic Raul Julia / Anjelica Huston films of 1991 and 1993.

There have been other iterations of both franchises (TV movies, a Munsters' theatrical rekease with the original cast, animated series and even an Addams Family play), but these are the most enduring ones.
Now, even when The Munsters have been my favorites ever since my early childhood, I have to recognize The Addams family as the best developed concept.

So now that we are in the Halloween mood, following are the basic ideas I believe are behind each original incarnation so you can be the judge if later revivals kept close to them and if that had anything to do with their success (or lack thereof):

As everyone knows, The Addams Family is based on the dark and delightfully macabre cartoons of Charles Addams, however the TV show had many more layers to it: you had a very strange but united family, a family who had a very impresssive (albeit weird) lineage that saw everyone else as “strange”, and which was ironically seen by others like eccentric nouveau rich.

Even when to everyone else they were weird, they weren’t a dysfunctional family, quite the contrary, they were a loving, supporting bunch. They saw themselves as a normal family with a strong lineage, pretty much accustomed to their wealth –which made them abhor the rich, uptight and pretentious guests that sometimes dropped into their home.

That's what made them so appealing: they made you feel your own weird, dysfunctional family was normal in comparison. They behaved weirdly and were proud of it, not trying to change to fit within the society that surrounded them.

The Munsters, on the other hand, were immigrants from Transylvania, referred most of the time as "the old Country" (this in a time when post-WWII european immigration was fairly common). They were trying their best to subdue their nature to become the typical all-american family while looking like the classic Universal Monsters. They even had visits from the Gillman (Uncle Gilbert) and the Wolfman (Lester Dracula, Lily's brother) among other creatures.

Even when the basic idea was not very strong (making fun of contemporary family oriented sitcoms with monstruous characters) the real key to their success was the wonderfully talented cast:

Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis and the glamorous Ivonne DeCarlo did an amazing job creating and portraying these characters, supported by Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster like a normal kid, and the stunning Beverly Owen and Pat Priest, who both played the part of Marilyn Munster, the awkwardly "ugly" duckling of the family. These characters were faced with typical, suburban problems, and the comedy derived from people reacting to them, even though they behaved "normally".

To be successful, both The Munsters and The Addams Family need extraordinary actors to portray them (Raul JuliaAnjelica HustonChristopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci were essential in making the 90's Addams films a success), however while The Adddams Family is a great, fully conceived concept, The Munsters needs to be visually referential to its source, otherwise it's main appeal is lost.

Thinking about the creative process, it seems like The Munsters were the result of a TV studio creative concept meeting, while The Addams were born from the imagination and sensibility of an artist and built upon by other creative minds, making it a seemingly stronger basic idea.

Anyway, Halloween is the perfect time to revisit them and, even when I love them both, the original Munsters are still my favorites!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pathway into the Stars

As someone who was born in 1970, one year after man first set foot on the Moon, I grew up believing space travel was a common thing.

As a boy, I regularly watched TV series like Space 1999, Star Trek, the British UFO and the Japanese Ultraman, so to me starfighters were as common as a Sopwith Camel or a Curtiss P-3​6 Hawk might have been to my dad (and remember, this was a few years before Star Wars!).

Some of my TV heroes such as Steve Austin (The Six Million Dollar Man), Virdon and Burke (The Planet of the Apes TV series), and even I Dream of Jeannie’s Major Anthony Nelson, were all astronauts.

One of my favorite movies was “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” starring Roy Thinnes. It was one of those slow, bleak-ending films with a weird premise about an astronaut finding a mirror-image Earth at the other side of the Sun. I don’t recall much about the story, but I remember I loved the space-travel aspects of it… and the bleak ending. Oh, how I loved those bleak endings back then (any of the first four Planet of the Apes’ films, anyone?).

Last year I had the opportunity to re-visit NASA’s Space Center in Houston with the wife and kids.

I was there many, many, MANY years ago when I was a boy myself; back when I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what I was seeing. This time I clearly remembered the small auditorium they let you in to see the original Mission Control Center.

What I didn’t remember was that this medium-sized room behind Mission Control used to hold the computer mainframe that put the first men on the moon. This room, the tour guide explained, was filled with refrigerator-sized machines with processors and memory banks that amounted to… get ready for this… 4MB!! Yes, the guide concluded, the same amount of memory taken up by 4 or 5 hi-res photographs from your cell phone was enough to send the first men to the Moon.

Then we went to see the exhibitions… there was this HUGE hangar that held the gargantuan engines that propelled the rockets into space, basically a fuel bomb waiting to explode behind their backs.

And then we visited the dark exhibition room where they have the original space capsules and space suits. Remember I mentioned I Dream of Jeannie before? There’s this scene where Major Nelson lands on a beach and finds Jeannie’s lamp. I always thought the capsule looked ridiculously small and fake, as if it was made of flimsy tinfoil. Well… turns out it was pretty accurate to the actual thing. Capsules back then really looked like large metal cans with barely enough room to hold astronauts inside with their equipment and space suits. My God… talk about feeling cramped. My car’s backseat has more leg room than those guys had… and to think they were sitting in these small tin cans on top of those gigantic rockets brimming with the most explosive, flammable fuel, hoping they would get them to the Moon and back…

We also saw a couple of films that talked about the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. I vividly remember the first one because as a fifteen year old I watched the launch live on TV and the impression of watching the ship go up in smoke burnt a lasting mark in my psyche.

I’m writing all this down because technology has made such giant leaps that we sometimes forget how far we’ve gone in such a small amount of time. We’ve become cynical and impatient, wishing the space program had gone beyond what they’ve already accomplished. Yes, I also think we should. However, it’s truly amazing that inhabited space stations and unmanned missions to mars are a reality.

Twentieth Century Fox (yup, blatant commercial time, kiddies) is releasing a film called “The Martian”, based on the book by Andy Weir and starring Matt Damon, later this year. I’m currently reading the book and, let me tell you, it pretty much nabs what a miracle -and a triumph to our ingenuity, man’s exploration of space is.

I’m also writing this to express my admiration for those first guys who had the courage to strap themselves to a tin can and explode their asses into space, and also for the men and women currently building our pathways into the stars.

I don’t think we give them enough credit.

If you are interested in learning more from NASA’s current programs, here’s a list of links they gave us at the end of our visit. Check a couple of these out, just out of curiosity. I bet you will be surprised:

NASA Homepage
Space Flight – Shuttle and ISS
Cool Sites for Kids
Ditigal Images
Mars Exploration Program
Human Space Exploration
Nasa Spin-offs
Nasa Info in Spanish

Friday, July 11, 2014

Your own personal Holy Grail

First off, I've just realized I haven’t posted anything since last October… which goes to prove I really only post when I have something to say.

However, I've got to write down on my agenda reminders to update my blog periodically!

Ok, off to today’s subject: the Holy Grail.

As everyone knows, the Grail from the legends of King Arthur is supposedly the cup from which Christ drank during the Last Supper and later became the sacred object of various Knights’ quests. The ultimate McGuffin, if you will (masterfully used in films such as John Boorman’s Excalibur and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

The Grail represents the ultimate prize, powerful and valuable enough to justify life-long quests and epic crusades.

So I got to thinking: is there a Holy Grail in my life? Should everyone have one?

And the answer, of course, is yes. And I don’t think it should be generic stuff as “be happy” or the common “get married and have kids”, because as those of us who have gone through that know very well, marriage and kids should not be a lifelong objective (it’s an important part of the journey, not a destination).

No. The Holy Grail should be your ultimate objective, something truly spectacular: Fortune and Glory, World Domination, Ultimate Enlightenment… the stuff of legends.

That’s the whole point of having a Holy Grail. Even when there’s a slight degree of plausibility, in most cases it should be elusive: so great that it becomes your unreachable guiding star, dictating your general life-long direction.

You may or may not reach it in the end, but it will become a beacon that will lead you to great adventures and an overall more enjoyable and purposeful life.

And of course, having found it or not, in the end there will come a point when you will probably have to let it go, with the satisfaction of having done everything you could to find it (and the memories of the countless adventures that went with it).

Recently I got to thinking what has been my life-long Holy Grail. The good news is I actually do have one that's been with me since I was very young.

The bad news is: I haven’t recently thought much about it. And when that happens you kind of lose your purpose, your momentum, your drive… you start drifting and moving with the everyday flow of things.

I've made a point about reminding myself what that goal is, and have purposefully started rowing back into course. This blog, hopefully, is part of that process.

Enough with this busy procrastination. Let the true epic crusade continue!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Early Halloween edition: What’s in a souvenir?

I finally have a little time to pick up my blog, and since we are already in October, I chose a Halloween-ish theme, only because the idea came up from a monster bobble head figure (even though it’s not really a Halloween-related monster).

If you weren’t a kid in the ‘60’s or very early ‘70’s you probably have no idea of who this character is:

That’s Ed “big daddy” Roth’s “Ratfink”. Ed Roth was a drag racing car aficionado and designed a lot of outlandish customs back in the '60's. He was also the cartoonist who created Ratfink, among many other similar frantic monstrous creatures (very similar to the Weird-Oh’s characters created by Bill Campbell). Anyway, that’s not really the point of today’s blog.

I grew up looking at some of these monstrous creatures around the house and they always bring back memories from my childhood. Last year while on vacation with the family in San Francisco, I visited the Cartoon Art Museum where I was fortunate enough to see some Mad Magazine and Marvel Comics’ originals, which was absolutely exciting (my wife and kids were ho-humming the time away, but at least they got a kick out of some of the most outrageous Mad cartoons, plus there was a small Paranorman exhibition featuring some of the original stop motion figures, so they had a good time too).

As we were coming out I stopped by the gift shop and bumped into this:

Yup, a Ratfink Wacky Wobbler figure. I really wanted to get it as a memento, but there was a group of people chatting away with the cashier and I decided I didn't want the family to wait any longer for me, so I left.

Months later I found the figure on Amazon and ordered it by mail. A few weeks later I received it at my hotel during one of our company’s L.A. Summits.

The point is (yep, it took me 8 paragraphs to get to it) that even when it’s great and all, it kinda lost its original appeal. And that's because I didn't get it at the right place at the right time: back in San Francisco, during one of the best trips we've ever had.

As I've grown older, I've lost interest in accumulating dust catchers and collectibles, but sometimes there’s this really cool souvenir you should get, not only for what it is, but because of what it represents at the moment you get it. If I had gotten that figure in San Francisco, it would have been a reminder of a great afternoon I spent with the wife and kids that also connected my early teen's fascination with comicbooks and my fun monstrous childhood memories. As it is, it’s just another cool looking plastic figure I got through the mail and out of a big brown cardboard box.

The advice here is: if you are going through a particularly memorable moment in your life and you find something that connects you to that moment, by all means try to get it (very different than trying to find something as a souvenir just because you want one; if it feels forced, it probably is). You will probably not regret it later. Not exactly rocket science, right? You probably could have gotten the same advice from your grandma while cleaning up the closet with her, but I had to get it out.

So there!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A lesson from the workings of a teenage girl’s mind…

Hey, finally making a quick, much anticipated (mainly by me) comeback to my blog!

And to celebrate the occasion, I’d like to reminisce about something that happened to me a long time ago, when I was a teenager: one day, a friend’s daughter (she was about 6 years younger than me) anxiously asked if I liked Alyssa Milano. She was dead serious about it. Back then I only had a slight idea of who Alyssa Milano was (the girl who played Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter in “Commando”, right?) and I did think she was cute, so I told her so.

She immediately sighed with sincere relief, so I asked her why she was interested about it. She explained that Alyssa Milano was dating Corey Haim, and if I liked her I could date Alyssa so Corey would be free to date her.

Yes, she was absolutely certain of this.

That was a very enlightening moment about the workings of a young teenage girl’s mind, but more importantly, it was also a lesson about the perception that people have about us: She was actually convinced I could date Alyssa Milano, even if I thought it was impossible (and whoo-boy, would I have wanted to date Alyssa Milano a few years later… before getting married, of course –my wife’s likely to read this, you know?)

It’s funny how people usually think much higher of your potential than yourself, isn’t it?

We admire people and believe them capable of amazing things, and don’t realize there are some who have total faith in our own ability to achieve something that sometimes we don’t feel capable of doing. If only we always had the same confidence in ourselves as we put onto others…

Anyway, kids, the lesson here is: support everyone around you and help them realize their full potential. Chances are they’ll do the same for you. And by all means, try to have more confidence in yourselves!

Have a great week!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Next time you feel old, kick yourself in the butt!!

If there’s something that really, really bothers me, are people my own age acting as if they were old. I’m only 42, and I’m already surrounded by self-appointed pipe-smoking old men, cat ladies and old maids. What’s wrong with these people? I’ve never really felt old at my age (because I ain’t!)

Hugh Jackman (who’s less than 2 years my senior) in his first “The Wolverine” photos, became a wake-up call for me to shape up again (not to mention Daniel Craig’s physical condition in Skyfall- who’s also 2 years older than me).

I believe attitude is EVERYTHING! If you feel old at 40 (or 50, or 60, or… shall I continue?), man, you are really not getting it.

And to prove my point, here’s a list of people I truly admire for keeping active, current and with a positive attitude (there are a lot more, but these are the ones that truly stand out for me):

STAN LEE: I didn't meet either of my grandfathers. But damn, I wish one of them had been like Stan the man (as a matter of fact, I’ve already adopted him as my unofficial grandfather, he just doesn’t know it yet). The most important person in Marvel Comics’ history and co-creator of most of their greatest characters, he still keeps busy, loquacious and funny at 90 (he’s one of the co-creators of the Comikaze expo). Check him out here in one of his most recent “Stan’s rants” videos. He’s SO cool… ‘nuff said!

CASSANDRA PETERSON (aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark): funny, smart, sexy entrepreneur (and she likes horror films!). I’ve been a fan of hers since I was a teen. She’s always kept busy and trim, has maintained her sassy attitude, is also co-creator of the aforementioned Comikaze, and looks spectacular at 61! That's her in costume at a premiere earlier this year... you just gotta love her!

CLINT EASTWOOD: Yes, you can say anything you want about Clint’s recent political escapades, but at 82 he’s still a commanding presence, great director and a man’s man (he was never the most emotional actor, but he just has to stand in front of the camera to fill up the screen).

SEAN CONNERY: same age as Clint Eastwood and, If you know me, you know he’s one of my life’s biggest role models: a truly self-made man, educated, politically active, no-nonsense attitude… he’s just the best. He decided to retire from acting a few years ago, but you can still catch glimpses of him laboriously supporting causes for his beloved Scotland and attending sporting events such as the tennis finals in NY.

So, next time you start feeling old, get off your butt and start doing SOMETHING, anything to keep you interested, busy and current. Because you aren’t old unless you believe you are.