Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wagner and Sons Tea (food)


imageBack in the 60s, if you wanted tea, your had only one choice:  orange pekoe,* and in most cases, that meant Lipton.**  Chinese restaurants had their own blends, but they were never sold unbrewed.  Celestial seasonings could be found in hippie stores, but nowhere else. It was Wagner and Sons Tea that showed me there was more to life than flo-thru tea bags.

Wagner’s was loose tea, and sold in a distinctive square tin.  Most were 3/4 oz., with a tin about 2 in. high.**  The tins were colorful, with each tea having a different color, with its name emblazoned on the front.

imageAnd the types of tea were things you never saw in supermarkets.  Orange pekoe, of course (orange tin), but Keemun (black), Jasmine (yellow), English breakfast (red), Formosa Oolong (light green), Imperial gunpowder (medium green), Irish (kelly green), Earl Gray (purple) Rare Mandarin (lavender), Pan fired green (blue), and Ch’a Ching Chinese restaurant (white).

The flavors let you experience a world of tea – and fairly cheaply.  The variety was appealing and soon you would get tea infusers to try out all the flavors.

The company was founded in 1847.  The teas were usually sold in gift stores and specialty food stores.  I knew of one not far from us where I’d go every few weeks to pick out old favorites and try things that sounded interesting.

Then, at some point, Wagner teas vanished. The company, around for almost a century and a half, sold out to a company named “Rose Spice” in 1996.  The company seems to have vanished, and with it, Wagner: the trademark lapsed in 2000.

At this point, all that is left are the tins, which are collectors items.  I can see why:  it must be fun to try to collect all the colors.  But the tea inside probably introduced many Americans to the idea that there was a world of tea to explore.

*Which is not named for a growing region or drying method or variety:  it’s part of a grading system for black tea with leaves of a certain size and the tea can come from anywhere.

**Red Rose, Tetley, and other teas were available, but if you ordered tea in a restaurant, Lipton was what you got.

**There were also full-size tins of 4.5 oz.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Directed by
Val Guest
Written by Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest
Starring Janet Monro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd, Arthur Christiansen
IMDB Entry

The British always did downbeat science fiction well, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a minor classic in the genre.

It starts out with an abandoned London, where reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) staggers sweaty in the heat.  He goes to his office, so hot the typewriter platen* is melting.  He then starts to dictate the story.

It’s three months earlier.  The newspaper is humming and Bill McGuire (Leo McKern**) is covering for Peter’s absence due to his personal problems.  But things are going wrong.  There are sunspot and seismic activity that seem to be connected with a nuclear test a few days before. And that’s just the beginning:  a solar eclipse happens ten days early and a massive heat wave envelops Britain. And more and more weather anomalies occur.  Eventually the news gets out:  The explosions have changed the tilt of the Earth – for a start.

The movie is reminiscent of films of the 30s:  rapid and witty dialog (especially from McKern).  Another nice touch is that the newspaper scenes were shot at an actual newspaper, and the editor of the real Express newspaper (Arthur Christiansen) plays the editor in the film.

The results of the changes are well thought out, and the movie does not have a conventional happy ending, leaving the result ambiguous.

Director/Writer Val Guest got his start in science fiction by writing and directing the movie version of  the seminal British SF TV show The Quatermass Experiment.

*For those of you who have never seen a typewriter, the platen was the cylinder, usually made of rubber, where the keys strike the paper.

**Yes, Rumpole.  It’s odd seeing him so young.  He is one actor who is always a pleasure to watch, and I remember him as the villain in the Beatles’s Help and as Number 2 in The Prisoner.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Book of Life

The Book of LIfe(2014)
Directed by
Jorge R.  Gutierrez
Written by Jorge R. Gutierrez, Douglas Lansdale
Voices by Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube
IMDB Entry

This is the golden age of film animation.  Studios have found that animated films are relatively cheap to make, and can make a hatful of money. Of course, the assumption is that animation is for children, and films are usually aimed at that audience, with some hints to keep their parents amused.  But sometimes a film comes along that aims at a slightly older audience, and last year, this brought the delight that is The Book of Life.

The film leans heavily on Mexican mythology. A museum tour guide takes a group of unruly children to see the Mexican town of San Angel, whose story is in the book of life.

It starts out with a wager.  La Muerte (voice of Kate del Castill0), who rules the Land of the Remembered (basically, heaven) joins in a bet with Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten (the opposite).  In the town, there are three children:  Manolo, Joaquin, and Maria. The bet is as to who will marry Maria when they grow up.  La Muerte picks Manolo; Xibalba, picks Joaquin and, of course, cheats by giving him a medal that will make him invulnerable.

Joachim, Manolo, & MariaYears later, Manolo (Diego Luna) becomes a musician, against the wishes of his father, who wants him to join in the family tradition and become a bullfighter.  Joaquin (Channing Tatum), aided by his magic medal, has become a war hero.  When Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns from several years in Spain, they both woo her, and when it looks like Manolo is going to win, Xibalba kills him.  But that’s only the beginning…

The plot is filled with nice twists and surprises and never goes exactly where you expect it to.  The visual style of the film is striking.  Director Jorge R. Gutierrez uses bright colors and Mexican motifs through out.  One subtle conceit is that many of the characters are made to look like wooden dolls, like the dolls in the museum.  The design is awash with color and the characters are like nothing else in film.*  Guillermo del Toro produced the film and you can see how he would have liked the style.

The movie did OK, but was not a massive success.**  Certainly it wasn’t something that aimed directly at kids (though certainly kids could enjoy it), and, unfortunately, adults are reluctant to go to animated films alone. At this writing, I don’t know if it’ll be an Oscar contender (but, in any case, it won’t win), but you’d be hard pressed to find a better movie this year – animated or not.

*I had caught a few ads for it, then forgot it. When I saw the title in a theater (second run), I didn’t place it, but one look at the movie poster and I knew exactly what it was.

**Possibly the title hurt; for most Americans, it doesn’t evoke anything.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Captain Marvel (comics)

Created by
Bill Parker and C. C. Beck
Written by Otto Binder
Wikipedia Page

His name and catchphrase are an important part of comic book history, but the original Captain Marvel has been overlooked by even those who love comics.  The Big Red Cheese was something that was far different from the other comics of the time, and something that has been completely lost today.

Everyone knows his origin story:  Billy Batson, a lame newspaper boy, is taken into a mysterious cave by a wizard and taught a magic word:  Shazam.  This changes him into the superhero, who then goes to fight crime and evil villains.  Saying “Shazam” again would turn him back to Billy.  He first appeared in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics* in 1939.

But the Captain was different from any other superhero of the time (or since).  It was more cartoony, and the captain really acted like a 12-year-old boy.

imageMost of the stories were written by Otto Binder.  Binder had been a veteran of science fiction pulps** and he worked to create a mythology that was both fun and entertaining.  As time went on, he added an entire mythology of characters, becoming the Marvel Family.  These included:

  • Mary Marvel -- Billy’s sister, who turned out to have the same magic word.
  • Captain Marvel, Jr. – Freddy Freeman, whose magic words were “Captain Marvel”*** and who wore a blue uniform.
  • Uncle Marvel – Dudley H. Dudley, a chubby old man who discovered Mary Marvel’s secret.  He claimed to be her uncle, and helped them fight crime, mostly as comic relief.  When he tried to use superpowers, it turned out his shazambago was acting up and nothing worked.  The rest saw through the fraud, but humored him.
  • Hoppy the Marvel Bunny – the funny animal version of the family, who showed up in Fawcett’s animal comics.
  • Tawky Tawny – a tiger (and natty dresser) who had been given a potion that gave him the power of speech.

imageOf course, you can’t be a superhero without an arch enemy, and the Captain’s was world’s maddest mad scientist, Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, a bald evil genius out to rule the world.****  Sivana was sometimes assisted by his son and daughter, Sivana, Jr. and Georgia; there were two other children, Beautia and Magnificus who worked on the side of good.

Other villains included Captain Nazi, Black Adam, and Ibac (the evil version of the Marvel superpowers).  A favorite of mine was Mister Mind, and evil worm from another planet.

The stories were usually more cartoony than the more serious superhero strips.  Beck’s art was deceptively simple, with bright colors and large swaths of color.  It worked well:  in the 1940s, Captain Marvel was the most popular comic book out there, and was the first to be made into a movie serial.

But all was not well.  In 1941, National Periodicals sued Fawcett, claiming that Captain Marvel infringed on Superman.  The court ruled in 1948 that it did not infringe, but National (later DC) appealed and the court found in 1952 that some elements of the stories did infringe.  And sent it back to make a final determination.

By this time, though, Superhero comics – and comics in general – were losing popularity.  Captain Marvel was selling at only half its peak, and, in 1953, Fawcett settled out of court and let the character die.  The agreement forbid Fawcett from publishing comics, so they licensed it to DC.  Unfortunately, in the meantime, Marvel Comics had created their own Captain Marvel character.  DC had to name the revived version “Shazam,” though the character was referred to in the book as Captain Marvel, and they were able to reprint many of the old Beck and Binder stories.  Eventually, the character moved away from the original concept.

Of course, comics and their characters constantly evolve, so one wouldn’t expect the Captain to remain as he was.  But the original version is one of the greats of the comic book world.

*Founded by Bill Fawcett.  Fawcett made a name for himself for a magazine that everyone who has ever seen The Music Man has heard of:  Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.  “Whiz Comics” refers to that.

**Originally co-written with his brother Earl, and billed as Eando Binder.  Their “I, Robot” (no connection to Asimov) was considered a landmark in the field.

***Making him incapable of saying his superhero name, or that of the Captain without changing.  “Shazam” wasn’t used because the publisher felt he should be promoting the Big Red Cheese.

****He appeared before Lex Luthor, and Luthor wasn’t bald in the beginning.