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Monday, December 22, 2008
Let Me Save You $10
Here, in a nutshell, is the moral of The Tale of Despereaux:
Pretty is always Good and always Right. If, inconceivably, Pretty is somehow Wrong, you are obliged to forgive Pretty. Because Pretty is always Good and Right and Pretty being Wrong must have somehow been your own fault. By the same token, Ugly is always Bad and Wrong. Even if Ugly isn't actually Bad right now, eventually they will do something that proves their inherent Badness. Because Goodness and Badness are not character traits that vary from individual to individual, they are unassailable, intrinsic truths about Pretty and Ugly.
Now, this mornings post aside, I don't really have any strong feelings about the Watchmen film. I just thought the pose and costume looked a bit silly in that picture. I personally doubt there was any pressing need for a Watchmen film, and think that it would be largely impossible to do a faithful adaptation of the comic into another medium, as part of the strength of the work is its masterful exploitation of the comic format. But I'm not the one who makes these decisions, and I've never seen any of Zack Snyder's other films so I don't feel qualified in guessing how this film will turn out. Let's say that I'm skeptical, but open to being persuaded.
By the same token, though, I'm not going to argue against people having a strong negative reaction to these early publicity stills. And so I find this needlessly defensive comment by Peter David more than a bit off-putting:
Y'know...maybe it's just me. Maybe it's the fact that when I was growing up, superheroes were represented by the Adam West Batman, and the ghastly live action Justice League. And yeah, there were the occasion bright spots (Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman), but then came the Reb Brown Captain America, and the Matt Salinger Captain America with the rubber ears and the Italian Red Skull, and the Spider-Man TV series miscast from top to bottom, with the clunky web belt and bracelets (to facilitate wirework, presumably) and the TV movie Daredevil with the black costume, the blindfold and the lack of horns because no one wanted to risk offending the religious right, and then Thor who was demoted from Thunder God to big ass Viking warrior...
I guess what I'm saying is that anyone who nitpicks this incarnation of "Watchman" with the obvious adoration of, and fealty to, the vision of the original book, simply doesn't appreciate the care lavished upon superheroes these days.
So, because the publicity photos for the film don't look as bad as the costumes in twenty, thirty and forty year old television productions, no one should be expressing skepticism about the look of the movie?
Sorry, but I can't buy that line of reasoning. Just because the self-loathing fanboys still feel the need to "live down" the Adam West Batman series, that doesn't make it the bench-mark against which we should measure all super-hero themed film and television productions. It is absolutely fair to compare these stills to both the comic and current super-hero films, and most of the negative responses I've seen have been fairly spot-on in their criticisms. And when the positive responses are as breathlessly out of proportion as this sort of thing, well...Let's just say that I'm more than happy to stay on the skeptical side.
You know how I've mentioned before that one of the problems with comic publishers is that they don't do a good enough job of separating out their children's lines from their general audience lines from their mature readers lines? Well, it's not a fault unique to comic publishers. Film-makers apparently have difficulty telling the three audiences apart as well. If you doubt my word on that, go and see Transformers, and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about.
The Transformers film is an attempt to take a children's toy line and make it palatable for the general audience, but somehow along the way they ended up making a film for, well, guys my age, who played with the toys when they were kids, and now want the property to be as "serious" and "mature" as they imagine themselves to be. What you end up with is a film pretending to be for children, but with enough overtures towards sex and violence as to firmly place it in the "not for children" category. Let's take, for example, some of the violence. The film ends with a giant robot battle through a busy, densely populated city. The death toll from this fight must enter into the thousands, minimum. Yet that is all glossed over, because we're supposed to feel bad that one of the robots got hurt. It's a strange "Saturday morning" approach to the consequences of carnage, that simply doesn't fit with the "this is serious" tone it's supposed to be taking place in. The sexual references in the film are more of the sniggering adolescent variety, and don't fit in at all with either the "kid's movie" aspects or the "serious adult action film" aspects, but they did seem to make the many dads with young kids in the audience uncomfortable.
That tonal inconsistency is probably the most profound when the toy commercial aspects of the film come most to the fore. We're not meant, really, to identify with any of the human characters. At best, they're broadly sketched and one-note. The robots, ironically, are the only characters with which any effort has been made to develop their personalities. And even that was limited. Amongst the Decepticons, the only robot to have anything resembling a personality on display is Frenzy; the other evil robots all have interchangeable "evil thug" personas. You suspect the only reason they even have names is so that there is something to put on the toy boxes. It's also particularly notable whenever Optimus Prime or Megatron are speaking. To the delight of hard-core Transformers fans, I'm sure, their dialogue sounds like something directly lifted from the cartoons. And that's when you realize that something which kinda-sorta worked in a campy half-hour toy commercial for the 12-and-under set utterly fails to work in a serious adult action film clocking in at two hours plus. It becomes cringe-worthy, and you start to hope that Bumblebee's inability to speak English was a trait shared by all the robots.
The height, however, of this inconsistency of tone, is a scene in which Shia Labeouf must explain, totally straight-faced, the back-story behind the film to skeptical government agents. It's an utterly ridiculous scene, and an utterly ridiculous story he's expected to tell. And the other actors must react to him as if he's putting all the pieces into place and now everything in the film makes sense. It's utterly absurd in it's postmodern decadence, and I can only pity Mr. Labeouf, as I can only imagine the number of times the scene had to be shot and reshot, the number of takes ruined by Labeouf or the other actors cracking up at the sheer stupidity of what they're expected to swallow.
Had these tonal problems been solved, the film could have been enjoyable, perhaps even fun. There's nothing wrong with "dumb" action movies, especially when they're not trying to be anything other than what they are. But as these problems keep coming up, I found myself being less and less well-disposed to the film. My inner 12 year old was okay with the idea of big robots slamming twelve kinds of hell out of each other. But, if you're going to make a movie for twelve year olds, make a movie for twelve year olds. Don't make a movie for thirty year old men who can't get over a toy they liked when they were twelve.
The only redeeming grace for the film, is that without it, we probably wouldn't have gotten these little guys made:
"Hey, guys, I've got a brilliant idea! How about we release a trailer for our new movie, that features a bunch of pretentious hipster white people filming a party with a camcorder!" "And?" "Something happens!" "What happens?" "Something! There's noises and explosions in the distance!" "Signifying?" "Something really cool and interesting happening a long way away that the characters can't see!" "Okay...what's this movie called again?" "That's the brilliant bit! After all this, we don't tell the audience the name of the movie!" "Won't that just confuse and alienate the audience?" "No, of course not! Trust me, I pull this shit on Lost all the time and the stupid fucking rubes eat it up!"
As you know, I really hate the "torture porn" genre of horror. I think, in the long run, it's bad for the genre for those types of films to dominate, and I really don't like what their financial and popular success says about American tastes. And then I found this interview with the marketing co-president for the studio that releases the Hostel movies:
The next image in the campaign was from a photo session Palen did with film costar Bijou Phillips. It shows Phillips nude, holding her own severed head in her hand. Knowing the image was too graphic to ever be shown in a theater or in a newspaper ad, Palen gave the poster to international Internet sites, which are not subject to MPAA guidelines, and Comic-Con festivals. ...
Palen defends his work in two ways: in terms of context and execution. The poster of a naked Phillips holding her severed head in her hands, he says, "is completely inappropriate to be on a billboard on the street or even in the lobby of our offices." But he says it is suitable for theaters in foreign markets — where people are far less concerned about sexual images — and for hard-core horror fans.
"It's for the boys in the backpacks at these comic conventions, waiting in line for hours to get the posters signed," says Palen.
And that's what the legacy of sexism and misogyny in the comics industry has wrought: film studios thinking it's okay to market sexually violent images because they'll appeal to comic fans.
Sigh... I really feel like I should be insulted by Palen's characterization, but I have a hard time arguing against the point he's making, based on the on-line and real life conversations I've seen comic fans have.
Dear lord, there's a lot of stuff coming out this week. After two relatively light weeks, we would get a big week right when all my bills are due. I think I'll probably end up getting The Black Diamond Detective Agency...eventually. That it comes out the same week as MPD Psycho and Young Bottoms in Love is too bad, as I don't feel the same urgency to purchase or read it as I do those two books. I feel like I should feel secretly ashamed that I plan on buying New Warriors, not only because it's got "cancellation-bait" written all over it, but because it's got that "we'll inflate sales by using the book as a bridge between the last cross-over and the next cross-over" vibe on it as well.
The things you learn from old comics:
The "master of evil" wears pixie boots and European swim trunks. Huh.
You know what we all need more of? Random, gratuitous beefcake:
Full Price Pierrepont: the Last Hangman: I can't imagine that a film like this, which examines the issue of capital punishment from the very personal angle of the executioner, and doesn't shy away from the ambiguous morality of that position, will do well in America. Or even get much notice in America. We tend to like our morality black-and-white, which is why "the villain" in our movies always has to die, preferably messily or in some poetic manner. That execution leaves a stain on the soul of the people tasked to carry it out is not something we want to dwell on.
Hairspray: Dear trailer narrator, please stop talking over the music. And while John Travolta is a poor substitute for either Divine or Harvey Fierstein (or even Bruce Vilanch), and even though the trailer doesn't seem to have quite the charm or energy this film probably needs to sell itself in a market that's almost actively hostile to musicals on film...yeah, there's no way I'm not going to see this. Part of me now really wants to see Avenue Q as a motion picture, just to watch the pundit classes heads explode as they try to deal with the cognitive dissonance of puppets for adults.
Balls of Fury: I suspect that my final evaluation of the film will be something like "needed more Thomas Lennon" but I'm not going to feel guilty about wanting to see this. I sat through The Baxter people! That's how deep my devotion to the former cast-members of The State is!
Stardust: Man, an ordinary man discovers a world of wonder and magic just outside his everyday world? What a novel and completely new and original idea from Neil Gaiman! While it does look pretty, I'll grant you, and the fairy-tale aspect has an appeal, there's something vaguely...pedestrian about how this looks to be presented.
Underdog: I think this may be the film that puts the "Peter Dinklage makes everything better" theory to the test. I mean it looks...cute. Slight, but cute. It's a very cute doggie. I'm sensing "cute" may become one of the buzzwords associated with the film. I also suspect I'm more charitably inclined to the notion of a live-action version of a poorly animated cartoon I barely remember from my child-hood because, when I saw the trailer in the theater, I had to put up with two annoying sorority girls bitching about how "lame" it looked. I think I'm more inclined to like things that people I can't stand don't.
Paprika: The real question with a new Satoshi Kon film is not "will I see it in a theater" but "can I see it in a theater, or do I have to wait for the DVD release?" Falling to the curse of foreign language trailers, any suggestion of plot or theme is abandoned in favor of arresting and compelling visuals. I also could have done without the review quoted in the trailer, which is based solely on the oft-repeated fallacy that anything Japanese is inherently superior to anything American, a lapse in logic quite popular amongst anime and manga fans in recent years. Did these people never see Tetsuo the Iron Man? If they had, they wouldn't be so quick to blindly laud Japanese pop culture.
Martian Child: Oh, John Cusack, why must you test my patience with you by entering into the "children are holy and magical and solve all your problems and fix your personality defects" genre?
Death at a Funeral: Frank Oz, when not working with puppets, is a bit hit or miss as a director. Still, Peter Dinklage puts in an appearance here as well. Though, I must admit, I have personally lost track of the number of "dysfunctional family has comically amusing breakdowns at funeral" films I've seen over the years.
The Golden Compass: This is another of those films that looks pretty, but I'm mostly curious to know how the "anti-Narnia" will play in the US. My suspicion is that early rumors were correct, and anything in the story that could even vaguely be construed as anti-Christian or irreligious has been excised from the film.
Netflix-able Fay Grim: It's a sequel to a film I've never even heard of, and I'm slightly taken aback now to discover that Parker Posey is now apparently old enough to play the mother of a teenager. But there's a certain snap to the wit here that I found amusing, and something of an absurdist attitude, as well as a mocking approach to post 9/11 American paranoia, which makes me curious as to the final product.
Bratz: I doubt I would actually see this, in any circumstances, but it at least looks more tolerable than the average Disney-channel teen movie. It's interesting to see that the message of the film is one of friendship overcoming the stifling and near-fascist "clique" organization of high schools. Especially when that seems to conflict with the creepy, vaguely sexualized images of the Bratz dolls the film is (supposedly) based on.
Fido: I'm not sure how Zombie Tom would react to this; it seems to be turning the notion of zombie servitude into some kind of joke. Now, normally I don't much care for zombies, and feel that, to be generous, the genre has been over-exposed and well worn out its welcome in recent years. Which may be why we're getting a sardonic satire mixing zombies, slavery, and Lassie satires all in one.
The Brothers Solomon: The Wills Arnett and Forte tend to be fairly funny on their own, so pairing them seems like a natural idea. If anything, this looks like it could be a welcome antidote to the "aw, having a baby completely fixes the lives of self-absorbed career women and shiftless losers" spate of films recently.
La Vie En Rose: I think they revoke my Gay Card if I don't offer at least a token amount of enthusiasm for the idea of an Edith Piaf bio-pic.
The Boss of it All: Lars von Trier makes an office comedy. Well, I should perhaps type it "comedy" after all. I don't quite grasp the appeal of the genre. I work in an office all day, why would I want to watch a movie or television show about people working in an office when I get home?
The Bourne Ultimatum: The first film was...okay, as far as it went. The influence of European action films was fairly strong on American films of the genre at the time, to mostly good effect. But at its heart, this was just another spy thriller, with an almost clever gimmick to see you through a paper-thin and conventional plot. This doesn't look offensively bad, but nor does it look like it has anything in particular to recommend it either.
Duck: I have no idea what the hell is going on here. Is the duck real? Is the old man senile? Does this take place in the future? Explanation please!
The Savages: Laura Linney usually gets points from me, but a laughles comedy about committing elderly parents to a nursing home is going to be a real hard sell. I can't really quite grasp a situation in which I can see myself really feeling the need to see a movie like that.
Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior: The web-site says this came out in April. I somehow managed to never hear of it. And while Vikings may be the new pirates/ninjas/monkeys for the obsessive nerd set, I'm just not feeling it. Still, sword-fights and half-naked men...granted, that couldn't get me to see 300, but this doesn't look as ponderously stupid as that...just regular stupid.
The Brave One: It feels like it's been awhile since we had any entries in the "female vigilante out for revenge" genre. In fact, I can't even remember the last "you touched my stuff" film with a female protagonist to come out without it being a "mother defending child" film.
I Don't Want Eyes Anymore Rise: Blood Hunter: Have I ever mentioned that I really fucking hate vampire movies? This looks like a particularly bad example of an attempt to up the angst stakes in the genre, in a rather calculatingly "hipster" vein. Either that, or a female knock-off of Blade starring a formerly hot Asian-American actress. In a just world, it would be a direct to DVD film. And not a general release DVD, a "Hollywood Video" or "Blockbuster" exclusive.
Crazy Love: A documentary about a woman who married her psychopathic stalker after he was released from prison for blinding and disfiguring her with lye. And the tone of the trailer suggests that this is just some "kooky" love affair gone wrong, not a horrendous portrait of the damage abuse does to people. You can not only count me you, you can count me physically sickened at the thought this even got made.
The Kingdom: It would be nice if, after all this time, we could get a thoughtful film about terrorism...and not yet another action movie.
Joshua: The "evil child" genre of horror has never really worked for me. This particular outing seems to have made an extra effort to add "your child is a psychopath" to the list of "things to scare American parents" with. Or, I'm misreading the trailer, and this is more of a satire on the "holy child" philosophy that seems to dominate American discourse. Although it seems a bit straight-faced for that.
Captivity: More sadistic torture porn. I've gone from being tired and frustrated with the ascendancy of this genre of horror to actually being angry that so much of this sick, misogynistic garbage is still around.
Good Luck Chuck: In the past, I might have, might have mind you, said that, at the very least, Dane Cook isn't actually bad looking. But the years of being painfully unfunny and untalented appear to have taken their toll, and he looks absolutely horrible in this. Oh, and Jessica Alba's downward career spiral continues, with her appearance in this.
Civic Duty: I don't think this is the thoughtful film about terrorism we're looking for, either. Frankly, even though the trailer seems to suggest that it's about paranoia and mistrust, and how racism and fear-mongering politicians exploit that, I don't think I trust an American film studio to follow through with that premise to a conclusion that makes "America" or "Americans" look bad. In short, I fully expect the resolution of the film to be about the scary terrorist next door and the brave man who discovers him in the face of official indifference.
License to Wed: Hey, remember when Robin Williams was funny? Me neither.
Superbad: Modern teen sex comedies do nothing except make me longer for the quality of the Porky's trilogy.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry: What do you get when you combine an aging comedian, well past his prime, and a complete and utter trivialization of a civil rights issue? A frat-boy pandering ninety minute fag joke. The Gay Deceivers should have been the last word on this particular joke.
Severance: I'm not sure we needed a melding of the "office comedy" and "slasher/stalker" genres, to be frank.
The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, published by DC/Minx
Being pretty far removed from the target audience for this book, both by age and gender, I wonder if that makes me a better or a worse judge of its quality. It reads a bit like some of the better shojo manga out there, with a dramatic, if not melodramatic, emotive approach to story, placing its emphasis on relationships between characters instead of plot. But a little more plot wouldn't have hurt, as new girl Jane, eager to reinvent herself in a new town after her parents fled the city in the wake of a terrorist incident, forms a new clique with three other girls named Jane. By the rules of high school cliquedom, that these four girls would so easily become good enough friends quickly enough to form an underground art collective that peppers the city with conceptual and installation pieces...well, it seems unlikely, and a bit too conveniently handled in order to hurry the plot along. But those quibbles of pacing and convenience aside, the story does have a nice emotional resonance that I suspect will mean more to someone not quite as old and jaded as I. Although, if I can inject a small complaint over one of my pet peeves: the gay best friend character? Who adds nothing to the story other than to be the "gay best friend" type of character? Yeah, I don't need to see that character in anything anymore. Jim Rugg's art is nicely matured here from his earlier work. He strikes a nice balance between a realistic and a cartoony style, which allows him to very clearly show emotion and action, but still caricature and exaggerate characters for whatever effect or mood the scene calls for. If there is a fault, it's the sometimes odd choices of "camera angle" which just call attention to themselves for their peculiarity. Just because Gil Kane could pull off an up-nostril shot, that doesn't mean they're always a good idea.
Countdown #51, by Paul Dini, Jesus Saiz and Jimmy Palmiotti, published by DC
Judging by online critical reaction, I seem to be in the minority in enjoying this comic. For what it's worth, it's not that I necessarily disagree with any of the more intelligent and perceptive critics who have been disappointed by this book. It's just that: what they call a slow story, I call deliberate pacing. I also can't get too bothered by the the somewhat insular appeal of this book. Let's be perfectly honest: this isn't going to be anyone's introduction to the DC universe. And while overtures to new and returning readers who aren't caught up with all the intricacies of contemporary continuity are always appreciated, I don't think a book that's designed specifically to appeal to the regular super-hero reading audience has to necessarily go out of it's way to pretend that "every comic is somebody's first." Even the much maligned scene from Justice League of America which reappeared in issue #50 works within that context, as it establishes a benchmark by which events in other DC books can be placed on a time line. Given that the title of the series is "Countdown" that seems like an acceptable use of a few pages every couple weeks. All that being said, I actually do enjoy this book. Dini has a good ear for dialogue and the voices of the various characters, his plotting is very deliberate, and the co-writers and artists lined up for this series have all done good work which I've enjoyed in the past. No, it's not the super-star line-up of 52, but it's competent craftsmen who know how to tell enjoyable super-hero stories in service of the corporate properties.
Manga Catch Up: Some manga titles I've been reading, that I don't believe I've talked about before.
Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs, by Yukiya Sakuragi, published by Viz A very, if not deliberately, cute comedy about a dog-crazy girl and the misunderstandings and adventures she gets into because of her infuriating naivete and love of dogs. It has good, if somewhat unremarkable art, with the exception of highly realistic and exquisitely rendered dogs. And in a really nice change of pace for a story about a naive girl in the big city, there's so far not a hint of any romantic subplots.
Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki, published by Dark Horse A comedic horror/mystery series with engaging art in an original style, with a wacky cast of characters who, in any other title, would be really messed up, but just fit in perfectly and work here? What is not to love?
Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara, published by Del Rey I was actually a bit underwhelmed. Oh, the art is lovely, to be certain, but the stories are so...vague and ephemeral. Yes, I understand that what we're going for here is more tone and "bigger picture" effects than any emphasis on plot or character would allow. But the end result is something that feels a bit hollow.
Reiko the Zombie Shop by Rei Mikamoto, published by Dark Horse I can't even begin to adequately describe how much I've come to love this comic. I'm not sure if it's the super-cute artwork, or the utterly depraved over the top gore, the absurdist black comedy, or the intersection of those three elements, but it all comes together in a glorious totality of cute girls and horrific violence that puts the most ambitious torture-porn producing shlock producer to shame. And, to its benefit, unlike the torture-porn films, the women actually legitimately kick-ass and take no grief.
Welcome to the NHK by Tatsuhiko Takimoto and Kendi Oiwa, published by Tokyopop Unlike the various iterations of Train Man that have come out in the last year, this is not the story of a nerd who comes out of his shell and discovers the wide world outside of fandom. No, this is the dark mirror of that story, about a shut-in who only falls further and further into more and more depraved and soul-numbing depths of misanthropic nerddom. There's a bit of "there but for the grace of" feel to the enterprise, especially as this is no gentle mockery of the foibles of nerds, but rather a vicious evisceration of all their negative personality traits.
I hate the kind of scuttlebut that says "if you don't support Book X it will be cancelled" because the suggestion that a book is on the cancellation bubble is usually enough to get it pushed over, but since there seems to be concern over the survival of Aquaman, I thought I'd take a moment and say that Tad Williams has been doing a bang-up job with the title since he's taken over, adding a nice, lightly humorous touch to a super-hero adventure title that retains the best elements of Busiek's revamp while bringing the title more in line with a traditional Aquaman book. It's good stuff, in other words, and you should give it a shot if you haven't yet.
Speaking of which...I've been enjoying Will Pfeiffer's run on Catwoman a great deal since the start...but if there are any dead babies in upcoming issues, I'm done with the book. I put up with Nazis buzzsawing children because I trusted that Johns was going somewhere with it, and y'know, Nazis are bad. But killing a baby we've known for over a year, who actually brought something new and interesting into the title character's life...no, that's my limit. Consider yourself on notice, Pfeiffer.
I love comic book fans. "Oh noes, a not very good picture has been released to the internet! Clearly the movie is going to suck! I'm going to go on every message board I can find and make a Brokeback Gotham joke to express my displeasure!"
Apart from Doctor Who, the only television I've been watching much of lately is the new BBC Robin Hood series. It's overall good, but the "family appropriate" heart it wears on its sleeve is very telling and overpowers the stories a good deal of the time. If anything, the series is a bit too bloodless. When even the villain of the piece is making metatextual comments about how the hero is stupid for not just killing him already, you've perhaps pushed your "the hero doesn't kill" rule too far. But, apart from that, I enjoy it, and I'm continually fascinated that even the BBC was willing to put a children's show on the air that's basically a thinly veiled condemnation of the "war on terror" and Britain's and America's domestic policies in response to it.