Saturday, July 29, 2006

In Theaters: A Scanner Darkly

[Image from]

Richard Linklater's A SCANNER DARKLY is the first adaptation of Philip K. Dick that I've seen that captures the feel of his writing. Faithfully adapted by Linklater and directed in the same live-action-to-animation style as the director's WAKING LIFE, A SCANNER DARKLY has the same low-key intensity as its literary progenitor, a subtle wrongness that pervades the action in between moments of out-and-out surrealism. It's a finely crafted little film, slight on the plot side, low on intensity, but evocative and atmospheric and powerful. In short, it's what I'd hoped for when I first heard of the project, and I have to commend Linklater and company for sticking to their guns throughout. PKD may be one of the most adapted authors in science fiction, but this is the first time anyone's really gotten him.

Keanu Reeves is Bob Arctor, an undercover DEA agent in a near-future where the drug of choice is Substance D, a vaguely defined chemical compound which is highly addictive and has the long-term effect of separating the hemispheres of the brain and pitting them against each other. He lives as an addict with James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), in an increasingly dilapidated old house. To his superiors he's known only as "Fred"- they're watching the group (including Bob's girlfriend Donna, played by Winona Ryder) and suspect that someone there can lead them up the ladder to a big supplier, but they don't know which one of them he is. (At work he wears a "scramble suit" which masks his appearance, as does his supervisor and other workers.) So you might imagine Bob is already having identity issues, on top of what the drug is slowly doing to him. It's his slow decline which drives the story, such as it is.

In the meantime, there are the rants, the scares and the insane plans which drug-addled minds cook up, presented in casual and naturalistic detail. Philip K. Dick's novel was partly autobiographical, a sad and angry memoir of the people he knew and lost to drug abuse (comparing them in an afterword to children playing in the middle of the road.) It's not really about the plot, but the experience of knowing and watching these people and the erosion of their lives. Not that the film will be embraced by the Partnership for a Drug Free America anytime soon; the national War on Drugs is indicted as part of the problem, creating both supply and demand, and Bob's own work trying to combat Substance D requires him to become more addicted to it. There are many for whom the experience of watching the lives of hopeless drug addicts does not seem like a pleasant filmgoing experience, and this film probably won't convert them. For this kind of film you have to have a tolerance for shady and/or foolish characters who make bad decisions and don't realize just how shitty their lives are.

The animation, as noted, is the same kind on display in Linklater's WAKING LIFE (and a number of commercials since), in which animators effectively draw over a live action plate, creating an eerie kind of fluid motion which allows the visuals to slide easily from the real to the unreal. The style also helps to reflect the uncertainty Arctor feels about his own reality, an uncertainty shared by many other characters as well. Finally, it's just plain beautiful, possessed of a painterly quality and making the most squalid vistas strangely compelling. Particularly hypnotic are the conversations between "Fred" and his supervisor "Hank", both wearing the ever-shifting scramble suits which every second project hundreds of image fragments of men, women, and children of all appearances (both characters also speaking in altered voices.) It's one of the many genuinely clever concepts Dick created in his career, and to see it realized well on screen is a hoot.

Reeves may possess a somewhat limited range, but it serves him well here; Arctor is not meant to be outgoing or highly emotional, and he moves and speaks in the proper tone. Ryder and Harrelson also play to type well, their real-life reputations creating interesting connotations (a rarely exploited benefit of having well-known actors.) Robert Downey Jr., no stranger to infamy himself, provides a brilliant manic counterpoint as the manipulative and demented Barris, who at times seems almost a threat to those around him as opposed to just himself. Also notable is Rory Cochrane as Charles Freck, a fellow addict with a bad case of DTs whose lavish suicide attempt provides an interesting interlude.

By far the finest decision Linklater made was the inclusion of part of Philip K. Dick's original postscript, a dedication to many of the friends he'd seen harmed by drug abuse, their names and damages listed, many deceased by the time Dick was writing. As in the original book, a subtle but palpable sadness and anger is present, but also empathy and compassion. This is a powerful piece of work in its own small way.

These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The "enemy" was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.

Grade: A-

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Comics Page #3: The Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1

Superman has been a recognized international pop culture icon for longer than most people have been alive. And for around that long, superheroes in various media have been numerous enough to form their own separate genre. So to read the very first stories of the character recognized as the first superhero, at the very start of what is called the Golden Age of comics, is an unusual experience. Before he was a corporate icon, a brand, a modern myth, he was an original, offbeat creation, the unique vision of two kids from Cleveland who came to New York to make comics. DC's SUPERMAN CHRONICLES Vol. 1 collects Superman's appearances in the first 13 issues of ACTION COMICS, a story from a New York World's Fair special, and material from the first issue of Superman's own magazine (including a two-page text story- these were present in every comics magazine to qualify for superior postage rates), all in color, spanning 1938-1939, and all written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster.

An infant boy is sent from the dying world of Krypton by rocket to Earth, where he is placed in an orphanage and raised as Clark Kent. He grows up to discover he has amazing strength, and as Superman, he fights for the oppressed and people in need. In his first adventure he bursts into a governor's mansion late at night to persuade him to pardon a woman about to be wrongly executed for murder (he's got the actual murderess trussed up outside), goes on to stop a group of thugs harassing Lois Lane, expose a corrupt Senator and get involved in a conflict in the South American country of San Monte. And that's in the course of 26 pages.

What almost everyone who comments on the early Superman stories notes, but that you still don't really "get" until you read it for yourself, is how far the character was from the law-abiding, establishment-serving boy scout he eventually became. He was a nigh-radical reformer, always on the side of the little guy, in the vein of classic 30s progressivism. He lures wealthy partygoers into a mine to expose poor safety conditions. He begins destroying a city slum to force the government to put up improved housing. He gets himself sent to prison to expose unfair treatment of prisoners. Nowadays he would be accused of class warfare and worse.

He's also much more cocky than one would expect. He brags about his powers and plays around with terrified criminals, jumping around town with a captive under his arm (Superman couldn't fly yet, merely leap tall buildings in a single bound.) He's presented as an extreme contrast to alter ego Clark Kent (who works for the Daily Star, not Daily Planet), a complete milksop who downright infuriates a decidedly frigid Lois Lane with his wimpiness. In fairness, he's a good reporter.

All of this is drawn by Joe Shuster in a crude but enjoyably direct manner. However sloppy some of the detail work may be, the art does a fine job of actually telling the story, and is very pleasing to look at in a way that some more detailed comics art isn't. DC's decision to reprint these stories in color was a wise one- though Golden Age art wasn't very color-sensitive (indeed, the coloring was often done out-of-house), it still benefitted from the bright, exaggerated hues used at the time to mask the effects of newsprint.

Crude but vivid might well describe the entire collection of material here. Siegel and Shuster had hit on something new, and were testing the waters, exploring the possibilities their concept opened up and trying to establish just what it was they were doing. (It's interesting to note that, according to official DC continuity, the stories in this volume aren't the adventures of the Superman being published today- they're the history of the "Earth-2" Superman, who recently died at the end of the INFINITE CRISIS mega-event.) If there's one sour note in this whole collection, it's the knowledge that while they were creating these stories, Siegel and Shuster were effectively being robbed blind by National Publications (later DC), being paid a modest per-page rate while signing away the monetary and creative rights. Both would have unhappy futures.

But the creation endures, and in these pages you can see the uncertain beginnings of a figure who has since come to be very firmly nailed down (I'm convinced the mixed reaction to SUPERMAN RETURNS is at least partly attributable to people having very specific expectations of what a Superman movie would be- both on the positive and negative sides.) Of course, apart from being a great cheap slice of cultural history, it's also fun. After nearly seventy years, these Superman stories still seem fresh and vivid and exciting, an example of creative alchemy at its simplest. Whatever the period, there's something very appealing about seeing someone with almost limitless power just go and fix what needs fixing.

Grade: A-

Monday, July 24, 2006

In Theaters: Strangers With Candy

[Image courtesy]

STRANGERS WITH CANDY has been a long time coming to the big screen, following its memorable three-season run on Comedy Central (which ran from 1999 through 2000, oddly enough). Now it's slowly working its away across art houses, and I recommend catching it if you can. If you're a fan of the show, or of any of the work of Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and/or Paul Dinello, it's practically a legal obligation. It's a bit harder to explain to the uninitiated; the series was created as a satire of mawkish after-school specials, starring Sedaris as Jerri Blank, a 45-year-old ex-con and recovering addict who decides to start her life anew by moving back home and starting high school all over again. The film follows the same premise, but is even more vulgar, filthy, and generally insane. By this point you should have worked out whether you're the target audience.

The film plays as a "prequel" to the TV show, starting with Jerri's release from prison (complete with heartwarming flashbacks to her carefree days in the joint), and her first visit home, where she finds that her mother has died, his father (Dan Hedaya) has remarried a woman who barely acknowledges her existence (played by Deborah Rush), and has at some point during all this gone comatose. Dr. Putney (Ian Holm) determines that her father may reawaken if Jerri manages to undo all the debauchery of her past by picking up where she left off (high school) and theoretically doing well. Returning to school, she's generally ostracized, but is befriended by Indonesian exchange student Megawatti Sacarnaput (Carlo Alban) and pretty geek Tammi Littlenut (Maria Thayer). Meanwhile, Principal Onyx Blackman (Greg Hollimon) has a problem- the school board is demanding that his students demonstrate exceptional achievement or it will rescind its grant money, which Blackman has already gambled away. In an effort to save his skin, Blackman decides to hire ultra-popular high school science teacher Roger Beekman (Matthew Broderick) to put together a presentation for the upcoming science fair. Meanwhile, the school's actual science teacher Mr. Noblet (Colbert) has to struggle with his own class, as well as his on-again, off-again affair with Geoffrey Jellineck (Dinello), the school art teacher. Megawatti convinces Jerri to sign up for the fair, and soon she's part of Noblet's team, trying to put together a presentation while also wanting to get in good with the cool kids (who are naturally on Beekman's team, despite their lack of scientific aptitude.)

The plot is mostly secondary to the gags, which mostly revolve around Jerri's inability to fit in either at home or at school. As in the TV series, Sedaris' character is an endearingly unlikeable mix of the very jaded and the very naive; she eats like she's still in prison and makes sloppy, desperate passes at whatever men and women strike her fancy, but at the same time she can't work out high school social dynamics and is as awkward as any teenager in her desire for acceptance. She wants the love of her comatose father, but isn't willing to do the work. That she's also just not that bright complicates things. It's a brilliant performance, one honed to perfection on the series and delivered without a false note.

The acting is generally the best part of the film as a whole. Sedaris, Dinello, Colbert, Hollimon, Rush and Thayer all reprise their roles from TV (I'm not sure they're the only ones), and are supported by a number of celebrity guest stars, including Holm, Broderick, Allison Janney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sarah Jessica Parker. Alban and the other new cast members fit in well, though fans may dislike the changes. For those wondering, Colbert's character is vastly different from the gravitas-endowed host of Comedy Central's THE COLBERT REPORT, but he brings the same level of enthusiasm. There are several original songs, and some fairly good background gags.

To be sure, the film does play a lot like an extended episode of the television series, and it begins to lose steam near the end; a funnier climax would have elevated this to the level of a comedy classic. As it is, it's simply satisfying, the kind of solid cult comedy that should have a long life on TV and DVD. Then again, it'd be unlike Jerri to aim too high.

Written by Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert
Directed by Paul Dinello

Grade: B

Saturday, July 22, 2006

In Theaters: Lady in the Water

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I'm gonna be the only one who likes this movie again, aren't I?

I mean, I'm used to it. THE AVENGERS, EXORCIST II, GODZILLA, it's my lot in life. But it's not like I seek these things out. Wasn't even that intent on seeing this one, but I had a date at the movies and we were both vaguely interested, so there you go.

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that LADY IN THE WATER will be my "most underrated" pick for 2006. The critics despise it, and it doesn't look like a crowd-pleaser either. It's such an odd film, the kind of thing that only a filmmaker with total carte blanche is allowed to make, and that's not a criticism. It's sui generis, a fantasy film unlike any I can name. Like many of Shyamalan's films, it resembles an extended TWILIGHT ZONE episode. That's not a criticism either.

The story, you may have gleaned from the trailers. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the super at a Philadelphia apartment building with a variety of vaguely unusual tenants. Someone's been in the pool at night, which you're not supposed to do, and one night, Cleveland, on the watch, slips and falls and almost drowns, before being rescued by the mysterious intruder. Her name is Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), and she is a 'narf' (a kind of nymph) from 'the Blue World'. She, like others of her kind, has been sent out to find someone to communicate with- she knows the person is a writer, and that he or she's in the building. To send her home, Cleveland has to find the writer, and protect her from the 'scrant'- a wolf-like plant creature hiding in the underbrush, who is out to kill Story, and possibly anyone in her way.

It gets complicated. There are people with powers who can help protect Story and perform the ritual that makes her return possible, but they're normal tenants and don't realize their significance. Cleveland doesn't find this out from Story herself, but from Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), a Korean college student who lives with her mother, who knows the bedtime story that explains everything, and communicates through her daughter most of the time. The writer may just be Vick Ran (played by Shyamalan himself), who's been struggling for months to finish "The Cookbook", a compendium of sociopolitical observations. Ran's book will apparently be very important in the future, and Story, like the ancient muses, must make sure his work is completed.

The most disconcerting thing about the film is the way it's shot. Almost all the film's visuals are tight shots, with characters speaking OOS and importing early exposition almost in passing. There isn't an easy, comfortable set-up- the film plunges straight into the myth. As becomes plainly obvious midway through, this is a film about stories and mythmaking and the truth behind legends (much like Shyamalan's UNBREAKABLE, but on a smaller scale.) The drawback is that this almost requires the characters to speak in very open and not terribly naturalistic ways about the concepts being explored. The acting sometimes veers OTT. There's a lot of humor, and just plain weirdness.

And then there's the critic. Bob Balaban plays Harry Farber, a somewhat pompous film writer who moves into the apartment at the beginning, offers some advice as to mythic structure based on his knowledge of film, and... well, suffice to say, actual critics have harped on this portrayal somewhat out of proportion to the actual screen time the character takes up. I'm not going to say that this influenced their overall assessments, but the fact that I feel compelled to give this minor supporting character a whole paragraph shows how I think just a little bit of objectivity has been lost. Obviously, film criticism can never be truly and purely objective, but honestly, if the character were a book critic, would we even hear about him? (This is no slight on Balaban, who can do no wrong.)

The myth itself, well, it's fascinating. Some may find it silly, but it has connections to stories of muses and nymphs and angels, and is just elaborate enough to be surprising. There's no single big twist in this movie, but there quite a few inversions of expectation. The introduction of the various fantasy elements into a mundane setting is beautifully done, and though this is not a horror film, there are scares aplenty.

The film boasts one of the most diverse casts I've seen in a Hollywood film this year. Not just racially, but in terms of appearance and body type and style. Cleveland has a stutter and a bit of a tic. There's a guy who is meticulously exercising one half of his body, just to see how lopsided he can become.

This is just a very strange little movie in a number of ways, and I guess readers should know that when I say "strange", I more or less mean "good". I feel glad that a movie like this was greenlighted, filmed, and released with only one studio rejecting it. Granted, it's similar to the good feeling I got when I saw XANADU and realized there was a period in film history when ANYTHING could be bankrolled, but that's just my attitude.

Anyway, LADY IN THE WATER is a very good film, one that doesn't do everything it sets out to do, but accomplishes quite a bit nonetheless. It's been called pretentious, and will be called that many times further. Perhaps it is, but that's the only way this story could be told. I consider that a fair sacrifice.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Comics Page #2: Showcase Presents The Elongated Man, Vol. 1

DC's Showcase series, like Marvel's Essentials, has been good for re-presenting the classic stories featuring the company's "A-list" characters, but PERFECT for giving the obscure stuff the spotlight. Metamorpho, the Haunted Tank, and now the adventures of Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man. He's never had his own regular book, instead solving crimes in the back of Flash and Detective Comics back when 10 pages was enough to tell a story. Arguably the best actual detective in DC's continuity (or at least the one who spends the most time on being a detective), Ralph Dibny, accompanied by his loving wife Sue ('scuse me, I've got something in my eye...), spent the Sixties travelling cross-country to various fictional simulacra of real cities, his rubbery nose twitching whenever he smelled a mystery, and using his wits and his stretchy body to set things right.

The backstory is simple. As a kid, Ralph Dibny saw an India Rubber Man at a circus and wanted to know what his secret was. Growing up, he tried speaking to various rubber men at various circuses (okay, that sounds kinda dirty- welcome to Silver Age comics), and though they were all mum, he observed that they all drank a soft drink called Gingold. Isolating the main ingredient of the drink- a rare tropical fruit of the same name- he created a potion and drank it down, and found himself with elastic powers. In the first story, he's mistaken for a criminal by the Flash, but the two learn to work together. Within issues of his first appearance, Ralph (who, despite wearing a mask at first, never really bothered to keep his identity a secret- making him unique among DC's heroes at the time) marries socialite Sue Dearborn, and the independently wealthy couple take to rattling around the US, Ralph encountering a new case to solve in every city.

Back in the Sixties, DC still hadn't adopted Marvel's approach of writing heroes with inner and interpersonal conflicts, instead keeping focused on a pulpier "weird dilemma of the month" format. The stories in this volume are, to be sure, formulaic; Ralph and Sue enter a new town, they see something mildly incongruous, Ralph smells a mystery (hence the aforementioned
twitching nose), gives Sue some money to go off shopping and proceeds to unravel the case and fight crooks by hitting them with his knuckles from across the room.

Fortunately, the material and tone are well suited for each other. The more "epic" tales of Superman and the Justice League that I've read from this era sometimes suffered from seemingly arbitrary complications and unnecessarily elaborate ruses that existed only to be explained in the final pages. However, as written by veterans Gardner Fox and John Broome, with crisp art by Carmine Infantino and others (including one by Neal Adams!), the adventures in this volume are clever, sharp, and never too long for their own good. Better yet, they get increasingly surreal as the decade wears on, with goofy hep-cat lingo and some downright freaky uses of the bendy man's powers (the highlight being an ocean sequence where Ralph spies on a boat by swimming near it and periscoping his eyeballs up over the water. God I wish I had a scanner.) There's also a team-up with Batman and Robin, as well as guest shots by Green Lantern and the Atom.

Ralph and Sue have often been likened to Nick and Nora Charles, and though in the unenlightened Silver Age, Sue was mostly sent off shopping while her man did the work, there's enough banter and chemistry between them to make the comparison appropriate. Theirs was a unique relationship in its day, and Sue's spunky personality makes her a notable presence even when she's not doing that much.

With Sue's untimely (and, ultimately, arbitrary) death in the 2004 miniseries IDENTITY CRISIS, fans of the couple have come out of the woodwork (though the happy couple had also previously graced the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire miniseries FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE and I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S NOT THE JUSTICE LEAGUE, helping to raise their profile). A solicit for an upcoming issue of DC's weekly series 52 hints at a resurrection, but I'm still convinced that may be a bait-and-switch. (Adding insult to injury, Ralph isn't even the Elongated Man anymore, having hung up the tights and thrown out the Gingold in the pit of his depression.) Still, superhero comics are nothing if not cyclical. I have a feeling they'll be reunited eventually. In the meantime, this Showcase volume is a nice intro to a classy, low-key, swinging, and neglected corner of the DC Universe, and at 559 pages it should keep you occupied for a while. Buy it for the sweetness, the nostalgia, and the floating eyeballs.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

In Theaters: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

[Image courtesy of the Cinematic Intelligence Agency]

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST hardly needs my stamp of approval at this point; it's the highest grossing film of the year, and though opinion seems to be mixed, it's got plenty of fans. Frankly, while I liked the first film, I wasn't as won over by it as others. I thought it had some great writing and fun performances, but the actual swashbuckling was somehow lacking. To be sure, great characterization and acting are usually neglected in your epic summer blockbusters, and welcome when they surface, but if there's action it ought to be done as well as everything else, and in CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL there was something less-than-gripping about it. I had more or less the same response to DEAD MAN'S CHEST; I still don't think Gore Verbinski quite has the genre down (though, to be fair, he's the only one trying), but I enjoyed watching the story develop and seeing the characters again. It's fun, if just a tad forgettable. Spoilers may follow.

Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) have their wedding indefinitely postponed when they are both arrested for aiding the escape of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp.) Will is offered a deal- if he can track down Jack and obtain a particular compass he carries (one which never seems to point just north), he and Liz will get a pardon. So off he goes, but Jack in the meantime has received a vision from Will's father, Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), who tells him that Jack owes a debt to the mythical Davey Jones (Bill Nighy), a squid-faced pirate who captains the Flying Dutchman, a legendary ship of the damned on which Bill is one of many strangely deformed crewmen. Fearing Jones' wrath, Jack first escapes to a tropical island where he is made chief of a tribe of cannibals. While Will tries to rescue Jack, himself and the crew of the Black Pearl from becoming long pork, Liz effects her own escape with some help from her father (Johnathan Pryce) and sets off to try and meet them. Will ends up on the Flying Dutchman himself, as Jack pursues a mad plan to track down the chest which holds Jones' heart and hold it hostage in exchange for his life. As it happens, Jones has not only his ship, but the ability to summon the Kraken, a giant tentacled sea monster who can pull ships underwater in a matter of minutes and is useful when Jones needs new crewmen. And this is the simplified version.

A lot goes on. There's almost a vintage pulp appeal to the ramshackle construction of the story, as characters run and sail madly across great distances trying to save their necks and preferably those of their loved ones. In addition to cannibals and sea monsters and the weird mutant sea monsters that the Dutchman's crew almost inevitably turn into, there's also a voodoo priestess, a zombie monkey, various intrigues on behalf of the East India Company, and the return of the disgraced commander Norrington (COUPLING's Jack Davenport, almost unrecognizable under layers of grime.)

Oh, yeah, and not a lot of this gets resolved. When the first movie became a hit, Verbinski and writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott decided to shoot for a trilogy, the two sequels being shot almost back to back (various disasters forced delays in the shooting of Part III), and so this film ends on a cliffhanger. This may turn some viewers off, and I had heard the ending was just a tad abrupt, but it actually kind of works. Enough happens in this installment that it doesn't feel like a cheat, and the writers pick a truly excellent stopping point. It works better than it should.

Unfortunately, I was having so much fun following the whacked-out story that I was downright disappointed when things stopped for an action sequence. Two of the major setpieces- involving, respectively, a rolling cage and an unstoppable windmill wheel- come off as far too cartoonish, and frankly almost all of the action is more funny than thrilling. The swordfighting is particularly weak- the characters never really come across like they're trying to hurt each other, more like they're trying to make their swords clash. There's plenty of visual splendor, and I do like the monsters, but there's a certain "oomph" missing. (The battle with the Kraken has its moments, though.)

The three leads are as good as they ever were; Bloom and Knightley are likeable enough that you want the two crazy kids to turn out all right, and Depp's Jack is again a study in charismatic loopy scuzziness (a cameo by Keith Richards as Sparrow's father is planned for the finale.) Much of the supporting cast of the first film returns. The script seems to flirt with a few interesting themes, or at least patterns; the freedom that Jack and the other pirates enjoy (and which Liz seems to long for) is threatened by the encroachment of the old word, Jack faces a genuine moral dilemma for what may be the first time in his life, and Will finds he may have to go to great lengths to release his father from a lifetime of damnation (there are, needless to say, some unusual religious implications.) I'm not sure how coherent any of this is, but it seems like the writers put at least some thought into it. I appreciate that.

So, I found myself liking this film quite a bit. It's interesting that despite the success of the first movie both with critics and audiences, the pirate genre still hasn't come back into vogue; maybe this will prove it wasn't a fluke. Though most actual pirates, then and now (and I'm not counting Bittorrent users), have been chiefly interested in taking people's stuff and causing violence when necessary, there were some in the day who seemed to believe in an ideal of liberty and adventure, and had a sort of code of honor; I suspect that's the reason why we still admire the image. I have no idea why I felt compelled to point that out, but the point is, we need pirate movies, and this is a good 'un. So there you have it.

Grade: B

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Random Movie Report #8: The Adventures of Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel was once the most popular superhero of all, outselling Superman and making "Shazam!" a household word. One lawsuit from National Publications (later to be known as DC comics) and several court reversals later, his publishers went out of business and Captain Marvel became DC property, vanishing from sight for nearly two decades. (In that time, Marvel Comics created their own "Captain Marvel" title, so when DC did decide to revive the character, they couldn't market him or his books with the title "Captain Marvel", hence 'Shazam' has become the character's trade name.) Even when DC allowed the theoretically-copyright-infringing character to return to the spotlight, he was never treated as one of the A-list, and at this point it's possible more people know "Shazam" from Gomer Pyle than the Big Red Cheese. But back in 1941, he was a rising star, and he got his own live-action serial when Superman was still in cartoons. It's good stuff, not great, but I haven't updated the blog in a while, so here we go.

Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) is a teenage boy who accompanies a group of archaeologists and their guide into the Valley of Tombs somewhere around Central Asia, where they uncover an old tomb (of course) and inside it, an artifact called the Scorpion which, when its lenses are positioned properly, can turn anything into gold and destroy mountainsides and so forth. Batson is visited by the tomb's guardian, the ancient sorcerer Shazam (Nigel De Brulier), who fears that the Scorpion will be used for evil, and so gives Billy the power to become Captain Marvel (played by Tom Tyler), a superhero with the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury. Which in practical terms means that Billy yells "Shazam!", there's a thunderclap and flash of smoke, and he becomes a large muscular fellow in red tights who flies around and beats people up. And it turns out his services are needed right away. The scientists agree that the artifact would be too dangerous in the wrong hands, and split up the lenses amongst themselves for safe keeping. But as it happens, one of the party takes to walking around in a hooded costume and calling himself "The Scorpion", planning to steal the lenses and use the artifact to gain power. First he incites an attack by the heavily armed locals, and then, when everyone has returned to the US (including the guide), he goes about trying to steal the remaining lenses with the assistance of several henchmen (lead by serial vet Kenne Duncan.)

Since this is a Republic serial, most of the proceedings boil down to shady gentlemen in hats breaking into houses and engaging in fistfights, with the twist that there's a super-strong guy in the mix. (Strangely enough, the most impressive fighting comes not from Marvel but from the unnamed butler of one of the scientists, who puts up a heroic struggle to prevent his boss' property from being stolen. You can't buy loyalty like that.) There's also a good "Whodunnit" angle to the film- the Scorpion is uncredited (and as it happens, the guy who does his voice does not play any of the characters who could actually be him), and all the suspects do a good job of looking shifty and uncomfortable whenever Billy Batson and partners "Whitey" Murphy (William Benedict) and Betty Wallace (Louise Currie) bring up the subject of who it might be. I freely confess my own hunch turned out to be completely off the mark.

Over 12 chapters, the story does get to be a bit repetitive- the serials sometimes suffer from our being able to watch multiple chapters at once. But it's slick, and decently plotted, and has the mystery angle to string you along. I can imagine kids in 1941 having spirited debates on the subject of which middle-aged, vaguely sinister gentleman was the evil Scorpion. They would most likely grow up to create the Internet, so that such discussions could be archived for eternity.

Grade: B+

Thursday, July 06, 2006

In Theaters: An Inconvenient Truth

Though I somtimes enjoy documentaries, I have trouble reviewing them. It's hard for me to decide whether I like what I'm watching because the documentarians happened upon a good story, or because they present it well. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, Davis Guggenheim's film about global warming and former Vice President Al Gore's lifelong crusade to bring the problem to light, has an advantage. Like Gore's numerous presentations on the subject, the film is an attempt to lay out the case for the existence of man-made global warming, its consequences, and our ability to prevent it, as persuasively and explicitly as it can. In this respect it is a remarkable success, compelling and dramatic and just a bit terrifying. I am recommending that everyone reading this blog see it, if both of them haven't already.

To be fair, I'll lay my cards on the table before the cut. I was pretty firmly convinced that man-made global warming was a problem before seeing the film. The basic "greenhouse effect" theory made sense, Mother Nature has been acting rather pissed at us as of late, and I could never buy the rationale that we shouldn't act until there's absolute agreement among every human being on the planet. But there was still a lot here that I didn't know. If you think my prior bias lessens the worth of my opinion, you probably weren't that keen on seeing the film anyway, but read some other people's reviews before deciding. I'd hate to dissuade anyone.

The bulk of the film is taken from one of Gore's many presentations on the subject of global warming, complete with photographs, films, and all the general wonders of Powerpoint. This is intercut with brief personal reminisces, reflecting on the experiences that have affected his drive and conviction when it came to tackling this issue. What will shock almost everyone who followed Gore's term as Vice President and the 2000 election is how good a public speaker he is. Warm, good-natured and optimistic, he doesn't come across as the stereotypical finger-wagging neo-Luddite that environmental activists have been so often portrayed as. He doesn't even really lay blame at the Bush administration; there is one bit of disinformation which he mentions coming from them, which is only really, in his view, part of a larger pattern of spin designed to frame global warming as an open debate, much in the way the tobacco industry tried for decades to cast doubt on the link between cigarettes and cancer. The Gore family, of course, were tobacco farmers for a long time until Gore's sister died of lung cancer. He parallels this experience, and the shock it took to persuade his family to stop, with the difficulty people have in seeing the link between our actions and their effects on the environment.

The variety of things Gore talks about in connection with this issue is astounding. It starts with the basic fact that carbon dioxide emissions have rapidly increased and with them the global temperature, at a rate unprecedented as far back as we can record (which, thanks to arctic ice studies, ranges well into prehistory.) From here we go to the effects on once-permanent glaciers and ice formations (the snows of Kilimanjaro may vanish within years), on species (expect fewer polar bears and more pine beetles), ocean currents, sea levels, and so on. The argument that this is a normal part of a cyclical, unpreventable process of warming and cooling is well firmly disproved by comparing the temperature rise occuring now with the oft-cited medieval warming period (which was neither as severe nor as rapid). It is worth pointing out that, in the context of this film at least, Gore does not address the argument made by some that global warming may help offset the next ice age, but I'm not sure it's an argument worth dignifying with a response (based as it is on the assumptions that they will occur at the same time, and that since one is an "ice age" and the other has "warming" in the name they'll balance out fairly.)

The facts are scary, and for a while I felt the same near-despair I often do when thinking about this issue. People are unwilling to take action and the clock is ticking (Gore talks about a ten-year time frame), and Michael Crichton novels and South Park episodes are being cited as reasons not to do anything. (I anticipate a debate on the validity and worth of peer review next.) But for a climax, Gore offers hope, arguing that action is possible on personal and political levels, that it does not involve crippling the economy let alone reverting to a Walden-esque existence, and that the fight has already begun in many nations and parts of the US. Not as much time is spent on the solution as I would perhaps like, but Gore is basically arguing for a number of separate approaches from fuel economy to greenhouse gas reclamation, each taking a chunk out of our emissions and possibly putting us back on 1970 levels. At the end, there are a few suggestions from the filmmakers for personal action to reduce our own impact, and a link to a site which I will include after the cut.

This is an unbelievably compelling film, wherein Al Gore speaks with eloquence and sharp moral clarity on the facts of an issue that too often has been framed as a matter of opinion. It is also great filmmaking, informing and entertaining and inspiring. I sincerely wonder if we will see a better picture this year.

Grade: A


Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Comics Page #1: DC's Brave New World

I keep meaning to make this more of a comics blog, but I discuss comics on so many other fora that I honestly feel talked out by the time I get through the week's purchases. I still have some words to spare on this one, though. And though I'm a few days late on this one, it's a big enough event that there might still be room for one more opinion. BRAVE NEW WORLD is DC's latest crossover tie-in special, giving us a preview of several upcoming titles and thusly a look at the DC Universe after the messy upheaval of the INFINITE CRISIS miniseries. It's 80 pages for a dollar, like last year's COUNTDOWN, and consists of six preview stories plus one big frame story. With that kind of value, it's worth picking up for most readers, but I was somewhat disappointed in the final product. As one might expect, it's a mixed bag.

Spoilers below the cut.

The first title previewed is MARTIAN MANHUNTER, written by A.J. Lieberman and pencilled by Al Barrionuevo, planned as an eight-issue miniseries. In the story, J'onn J'onnz, the titular alien detective with a downright esoteric array of powers, has caught a seemingly random criminal, and flashes back to a discovery he made earlier hinting that he might not be the last of his race. There's another flashback to his last hours on Mars, and the implication is that this series will yet again deal with his heritage, his past, and his identity as a stranger on a strange world. It's decently written, but the end is somewhat confusing, and frankly, we've been down this road before. Every story I can recall which focuses on this character has him dealing with his background or some dark, as-yet-unrevealed secret of the Martians or himself in particular. I don't think more navel-gazing is what's needed for the character, especially if they're trying to set up an ongoing series. It's time for him to move forward.

This is followed by OMAC, written by Bruce Jones and pencilled and colored by Renato Guedes. OMAC- originally standing for "One Man Army Corps"- was a Jack Kirby creation from late in his 1970s stint with DC, but was reinterpreted for COUNTDOWN, THE OMAC PROJECT and INFINITE CRISIS as a name for a project which gave birth to hundreds of weird robot soldiers appearing in human bodies and hunting superhumans at the bidding of the orbiting "Brother Eye" satellite. They spent most of IC floating around in giant swarms and not actually doing that much (the "Reverse Ninja" effect), and generally being not that interesting. For this miniseries they're theoretically going back to the roots and having just one of the 'bots around, this time presumably fighting for good, but the prelude here shows more of the same (I THINK it's a flashback), with Michael Costner, completely non-powered nobody, being chased around by the OMAC robots which still basically spend most of their time hovering in the air menacingly. He and his girlfriend are rescued by Superman, then she turns into an OMAC and tries to absorb him, then he wakes up next to a pile of drugs and somebody asks him if he wants another hit. Seriously. I have no clue what actually happened in this set-up, when it took place, or why I should be that interested. I can extrapolate that maybe Costner will become the new, good-guy Omac and I guess fight evil or something during the course of the mini, but it's not a very effective or compelling prelude.

UNCLE SAM & THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS is the darkest of the stories previewed, unfortunately in more ways than one. I saw the sample pages that DC put up on the Internet months before this came out, and the art, while not great, looked okay. However, this comic, unlike most of DC's, was printed on non-glossy paper to save costs, and artist Daniel Acuña apparently didn't compensate for this. The images are incredibly murky, to the point where it actually obscures the action, like watching a film at a cheap theater where they turn down the intensity of the projector's lightbulb. The story by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray fares a bit better. Despite having been brutally massacred in INFINITE CRISIS #1, the oft-forgotten Freedom Fighters team has reassembled (the dead characters having been replaced by people with the same names and powers), but now they're tough, ruthless black ops types fighting to protect American freedom by killing lots of people. As their leader, "Father Time", defends the team's ugly tactics, Andre, a normal fellow who's just figured out he can make fire, hitches a bit cross country, gets in a political argument with the ultraconservative truck driver, is thrown out and follows a voice in his head to the Mississippi River, where he discovers the long-missing, feared-dead Uncle Sam, who informs the kid that there's work to be done. A nice story, not really my style, but the politics are a bit clumsy and the art is muddled. Still, this could be okay.

Steve Niles writes "TV Eye on Me", a preview story for THE CREEPER, another miniseries. Jack Ryder, TV pundit and host of "You Are Wrong", has the ability (somehow) to become the Creeper, a wild, animalistic crime fighter who looks and acts like a heroic version of the Joker. The Creeper uncovers a plot to assassinate Senator Thurman, Ryder wants to warn the senator on the air, but the network overrules him. Instead the Creeper stops the assassination himself and is mistaken for the attacker, forcing Ryder to offer an on-air bounty for his own capture to throw the cops off the scent. It's an okay story, and the art by Justiniano has a nicely lurid quality, but nothing about it really stands out. I imagine Steve Ditko, who created the Creeper as another one of his Randian Objectivist superheroes who divided equal time between fighting crime and explaining the many ways in which they were superior to those who think differently, would roll his eyes at the fact that Ryder has now been cast as a "lefty blowhard." I consider myself a lefty, and none of said Randian heroes really retained that after they were acquired by DC (Blue Beetle becoming a loveable jokester, the Question a more broadly philosophical conspiracy theorist, etc.), but the detail doesn't add much to the character and just seems to have been put in because the comic reading audience wouldn't take to a hero whose alter ego is Bill O' Reilly. I'm not sure how well the pundit angle will come off in the long run- it seems more trouble than it's worth at this point, simply because, left or right wing, pundits don't strike me as the most admirable folk.

Finally we get to Gail Simone and John Byrne's ALL NEW ATOM, the best story in the collection by a long shot, and also the only ongoing series planned. Ryan Choi is a young Chinese-American scientist who has inherited the role of the Atom from missing scientist Ray Palmer (who disappeared after his ex-wife went crazy and killed some people in an attempt to win him back, in the pages of IDENTITY CRISIS.) Armed with the ability to shrink but still retain the mass and force of a full-sized person, Choi ventures into a carpet and fights a group of microscopic invaders who plan to inject mind-control devices into various world leaders. As with the Freedom Fighters, some of the concepts for the series were developed by the eccentric and highly imaginative Grant Morrison, and Simone seems to have caught some inspiration, throwing in nicely surreal touches like illustrative quotes from real and fictional scientists (including Lex Luthor) and aliens who speak in the past tense. Byrne's art is a tad sloppy, but the fresh writing and strong pacing more than make up for it. This is the one full-on fun superhero story in the whole collection, a strange occurence.

Finally we have a preview of Judd Winnick and Howard Porter's TRIALS OF SHAZAM!, a Captain Marvel miniseries. For those of you who don't know, the good Captain- who is really young Billy Batson- was given his powers by the wizard Shazam, and in the INFINITE CRISIS tie-in miniseries DAY OF VENGEANCE, Shazam was destroyed in combat with the Spectre. Chaos ensues, or ensued (I'm not sure of the series' timeframe.) Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, who both get their powers from the same source, find themselves powerless (the latter falling helplessly to the ground from hundreds of feet up when we cut away.) Meanwhile, Captain Marvel, fighting an ice giant in Antarctica, suddenly finds himself gifted with even more power than before, apparently killing the beast without meaning to, and not quite sure what's happening. Porter's art is excellent, but again the story is unsatisfyingly short (I'm not even sure what the timeframe is, whether this happens right after DAY OF VENGEANCE or in the DCU's "present", which is a whole year later). I may be prejudiced, though, given Winnick's already stated intentions of making the Big Red Cheese a darker and more serious figure. Plus, I think the "heroine falling from the sky" bit is more of a cliffhanger than "hero gets more power."

Then there's the framing story, "Look to the Skies...", written by Tony Bedard and drawn by Ariel Olivetti. All the other stories were observed from a satellite which fades into orbit around Earth. The inhabitants are the Monitors- five alien beings apparently related to the "Monitor" character from 1985's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. One of them talks vaguely about how the universe has changed, and some vague danger is on the horizon, and everything depends on the Earth's survival. The return of the Monitor (and his previously unseen pals) was touted as a major secret revelation, but it's not like the character ever did much to start with, or had any kind of personality. So far it doesn't seem like it changes anything, and given that DC probably hasn't planned the next megacrossover event yet, the unseen danger will probably be a while in coming.

So, in total, I'm not that impressed. I'll probably follow THE ATOM, give MARTIAN MANHUNTER a few issues, and skip the rest barring acclaim. So it's not the best marketing preview, nor does it provide a particularly good picture of the "new" DCU or what makes it terribly different from the old. It's worth a buy if you're a comics fan, but I hoped for more.


The whole thing: B-