Saturday, May 26, 2007

Another anniversary of sorts

Bully's blog, Comics Oughta Be Fun, turned two yesterday. It's one of the best comic blogs out there, exploring the past and present of comics with a spirit of creativity, good will, and awesomeness. It's great stuff, and I highly recommend giving it a read by clicking the pic above.

I am not just doing this to boost my rate of updating without writing actual content.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Star Wars Saga Round-Up

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the original STAR WARS, and though I'm definitely the sort of blogger who should do something to mark the occasion, I've already reviewed all of the movies and pretty much said my piece on them. With not much new to comment on, I'll just point you there and hope you enjoy reading. May the Force, etc. Have fun.

Reviews by Episode:

- I - II - III - IV - V - VI -

In Theaters: Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters

It took over a month for AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE COLON MOVIE FILM FOR THEATERS to reach Columbia, Missouri's one art-house theater, which, having one screen, booked it for about a week. In a college town, unquestionably full of Adult Swim fans. I went to the penultimate showing on Wednesday night, which was a sell-out. I guess what I'm trying to say is, distribution was a problem. I hope this hasn't been the case for the rest of the country. Anyway, I've been waiting a long time for this film, and it's every bit as disorienting as it should be. The film (which I will call ATHFCMFFT for purposes of convenience) captures the surrealist vibe and general pointlessness of the 15-minute TV series while somehow managing to eventfully fill 86 minutes. The animation is cheap and the story doesn't even try to hang together, but neither of those things matter. It's funny and entertaining and imaginative in a stoner kind of way.

The Aqua Teen Hunger Force consists of three giant-sized living food objects: Frylock, an intellectual box of french fries (voice of Carey Means), Master Shake, a giant milkshake and utter, utter asshole (Dana Snyder), and Meatwad, a childlike wad of meat (Dave Willis, the film's co-writer/director.) They are ostensibly superheroes or crime solvers of some kind, but generally spend most of their time hanging out in their house in Jersey next door to professional loser Carl (also Willis). The main thread of the film, such as it is, revolves around the Insano-Flex, a highly advanced exercise machine of unknown origin that the Aqua Teens come into possession of somehow. As they try to assemble the device, which requires fetching a part from the lab of the mysterious Dr. Weird (C. Martin Croker), two Plutonians (Andy Merrill and Mike Schatz) join up with the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future (Matt Maiellaro, the other co-writer/director), a robot whose job consists of delivering incoherent stories that dubiously explain certain events, to try and steal the device, which the Cybernetic Ghost etc. says that one of the Plutonians ends up inventing in the future. Frylock, Shake, and Meatwad get the machine put together, and Carl tests it out, at which point the machine turns into a giant exercise robot that begins running amok downtown with Carl trapped inside, doing endless reps to inane club music. All of this is watched over by the mysterious Walter Melon (Chris Kattan), a talking slice of watermelon who lives inside a watermelon with his partner, drummer Neil Peart of Rush (himself.) Somehow this all ends up involving the secret origin of the Aqua Teens, as well as Ignignokt and Err (Willis and Maiellaro again), the Mooninites, Atari-style space aliens who spend most of their time engaging in petty theft, and the guys featured in those Lite Brite devices that were mistaken for WMDs in Boston a while back.

So, yeah. A lot of goofy shit happens, none of it really hanging together beyond a basic stream-of-consciousness association. Which, really, is not a problem, as the film is clearly not trying to have things hang together, and indeed, not making sense becomes the point of the enterprise after a while. What matters is that it's funny. Not entirely consistently so- an opening animation spoofing the old "Let's Go Out To The Lobby" featurette as well as aggressively laying out the rules of conduct is so hilarious (and let's face it, NECESSARY) that it kind of dwarfs some of what comes after (as a side note, it should become the new standard for movie theaters instead of the wimpier "Don't Ruin The Movie By Adding Your Own Soundtrack" spots.) There's a stretch of the film near a roller coaster that goes on a bit. Fortunately, even when it isn't hilarious, the movie is amusing- when I wasn't laughing, I still had a grin on my face from all the weirdness. The movie, like the show, has an infectious quality in its combination of crudeness and surrealism.

Of course, it helps to already be a fan. Most of the characters are familiar faces, and the "story" manages to involve quite a few cameos by lesser guest monsters from the show's past. In many ways this feels like a feature-length version of the TV show, though that doesn't feel like a criticism this time around. It actually feels good just to spend more time in the world the series has created, and at the same time the scope has been extended just a bit to let us see more. Of course, I suppose the only way to really make the movie feel different from the show would be to give it a strong, coherent storyline, and that would just be missing the point.

ATHFCMFFT, if you can still catch it anywhere, is worth a ticket; it probably won't lose a lot on video, but there's something to be said for seeing it with a crowd of like-minded people. (Before the screening I saw, the Ragtag's owner asked if we would prefer to see the film or have a discussion about seventies hairstyles. It was a tough decision.) I had my doubts about the project when I heard about it, yet at the same time there's a part of me that's wanted this to happen for a while. As such I am satisfied. My only regret is that anyone reading this probably already knows whether this kind of movie is for them anyway.

Written and Directed by Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro

Grade: B+

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Random Movie Report #27: Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter

I suppose some disclaimer of sorts is in order. It is possible that there are those who will find the basic premise of JESUS CHRIST VAMPIRE HUNTER- which is almost completely encapsulated in its title- to be vaguely blasphemous. The irreverent tone probably doesn't help. As a reasonably open-minded Episcopalian I can't say any of it offended me, though, nor does it really set out to offend. The premise of this weird Canadian indie- shot entirely on 16mm and in a deliberate Seventies-retro style- seems to have been chosen for its goofiness more than any kind of shock value, and it mostly works as a particularly twisted exercise in dumb humor. Some occasional cleverness seeps in, but it's the exception. In a way Jesus fighting vampires seems even natural- the "vampire" concept, of immortal creatures taking the blood of others so that they might live, is in some ways an inversion of the Christ story, so if they coexisted they would pretty much be at odds. But let us leave such heady theological matters for later.
In the city of Ottawa, vampires are preying on lesbians, and walking around in broad daylight like it doesn't bother them. Nobody's sure why, but the church isn't pleased, and they ultimately decide to enlist the help of Jesus Christ himself (Phil Caracas), who happens to at the beach baptizing people. (Whether or not this is the Second Coming is never really explained.) After a battle against a couple of the bloodsuckers, and a run-in with a batch of atheists, Jesus teams up with church agent Mary Magnum (Maria Moulton) to investigate the menace. They discover that mad scientist Dr. Pretorious (Josh Grace) has been grafting the skin of the vampires' sapphic victims onto the vampires themselves to protect them from the sunlight. Jesus and Mary are ambushed by the bloodsuckers, and Jesus is knocked unconscious. After being rescued by a drag queen who views him as a fellow outcast, a despondent and partnerless Jesus receives advice from his father God, who appears to him in a bowl of ice cream and cherries. The more-sugary-than-usual Heavenly Father advises His son to seek the aid of Mexican wrestler Santo Emascarado de Plata (Jeff Moffet). The action is framed by the vivid crazed ramblings of a bearded narrator (Ivan Freud), whose speeches relate to the plot somehow I think.

There's not a lot of story here to begin with, and the film runs it down in a pretty cursory manner. Obviously the point here is more to emulate cheap 70s action/horror movies- though the action is set in modern times, the aesthetic is pure funk (when Mary takes Jesus to get some threads, they go to a vintage clothing store.) A lot of the film's short running time is spent on goofy and often bloody action sequences where Jesus uses stakes and kung-fu to defeat his enemies. Because there weren't that many professional stuntpeople in the production (IMDB lists one), the action is never terribly fast, and as such sometimes seems just a little drawn out even for comedic purposes (though Jesus does manage to fire off some good zingers.) I do have to say that I would have liked the premise explored further; you've got Jesus in the modern world, without any apparent "End-of-the-world" situation, vampires as a fact of life, Jesus as their natural enemy, etc. I know it's asking a lot of a cheap cult comedy to attempt any sort of world-building, and I'm not going to judge the film too harshly for this, but playing more with the concepts would have made it more memorable.

Still, it works, and some of the credit has to be given to Phil Caracas' performance in the lead. It's worth mentioning that Jesus gets himself a makeover early in the proceedings, and so goes through much of the action with short hair, no beard or mustache of any kind, and an earring (maybe two.) Despite this modern look, it's easy to keep thinking of the character as Jesus, because a certain personality remains- approachable, compassionate, contemplative, the way you'd kind of expect Jesus to act. Simultaneously Caracas makes a good 70s action protagonist (he's also the title character in the HARRY KNUCKLES "series" of films by the same filmmakers) and is good with the comedy as well. He even delivers a modern Sermon on the Mount with a good degree of conviction.

With a fun soundtrack, esoteric cultural references and an overall easygoing atmosphere, JESUS CHRIST VAMPIRE HUNTER is a pleasant experience even if doesn't completely live up to its potential. Given how little money it was likely made for, that's probably good enough, and I am interested in anything this group produces in the future. If the concept has any interest to you at all (and if it doesn't, you might be reading the wrong blog) I highly recommend a rental.

Written by Ian Driscoll
Directed by Lee Demarbre

Grade: B

Monday, May 21, 2007

In Theaters: Spider-Man 3

Image from Movieweb
SPIDER-MAN 3 has, of course, been out for a while, but the debate over its quality still rages and I suppose now's as good a time as any to weigh in. In some ways I'm grateful for the film's ambivalent reception, as it enabled me to see it without any preset expectations whatsoever. I heard something about a dance sequence, that was about it. In the end, I came out entertained, mostly satisfied, but with a vague sensation that I should have gotten more- the same reaction as at the end of the first film. There are worse things, and Sam Raimi has without a doubt made a good picture, and yet...

The film starts with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, in an unusually good place. New York City has finally come to love its red-suited protector, and Peter also has the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), a young model/actress who is just making her Broadway debut. Things are going well enough that Peter decides to ask MJ to marry him, but life has other plans. Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin of the first film (played then by Willem Dafoe, whose voice is heard a couple of times here), who still blames Spidey for his father's death and found out in the last movie that Peter was the web-slinger's alter-ego, has taken up his father's old profession of flying around on a giant hoverboard and throwing high explosives and sharp things at his archnemesis. While Peter has to deal with that, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), an escaped convict, flees from the police into a particle physics testing facility, and one giant flash later he's a being made entirely of sand, able to change shape and fly on the winds and absorb just about anything that can be thrown at him. Peter gets a little too involved in hunting down this crook (dubbed the Sandman for obvious reasons) when he finds out that he was the hood who pulled the trigger on his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson, also briefly visible- there is, apparently, no leaving the franchise.) An obsession with revenge starts to overtake Peter, especially when a strange symbiotic black ooze that fell from the sky creeps into his Spider-Suit, which not only gives it a new monochrome look but also somehow enhances his powers and starts to mess with his personality, making him more aggressive, more confident, more self-centered and generally a bit more of a dick. His style as a superhero starts to become more violent, and he even seems to kill the Sandman. Meanwhile, his relationship with Mary Jane deteriorates as a result of his swelled head and personality shift (and strange failure not to notice when MJ is dropped from her show after a week), not to mention the arrival of a very lovely girl named Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) who develops a crush on Spider-Man soon after he saves her life. Gwen, meanwhile, is pursued by Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a freelance photographer who gets better pics of Spidey than Peter does and a rival for a staff position at the newspaper. I'm probably blurring the order in which these things happen.

If reports are correct, this may actually be the most expensive film ever made, which is almost surprising given how low-key Spidey's adventures tend to be in comparison to those of other comic heroes. The money's definitely there on screen, and the spectacle has definitely been amped up from earlier entries. It's saying something that a sequence involving part of an office floor being knocked out of a building by a runaway crane really just marks a minor plot point, and there's a brilliant mid-air battle between Peter and Harry that zips along narrow alleys in a way reminiscent of the Death Star trench run. The Sandman reportedly ate up most of the budget, presumably because nobody at the studio bothered to say, "Hey, isn't this guy going to be hard to animate?" Apparently a lot of money was spent trying to get the sand effects just right, but it does work in the end. Obviously, with characters like these, you know when you're looking at CGI because there's no other way this could get on film, so the old "if you know it's an effect it's not working" axiom doesn't apply, but there's a certain beauty to some of the character's scenes, most notably when Flint first pulls himself together out of an undifferentiated mass of sand.

The film isn't as elegantly plotted as the first two were, and as tired a cliché as the criticism itself is, I may have to admit that "too many villains" may have been the problem. Sam Raimi reportedly just wanted to focus on the Sandman and Harry, but fan demand to see the 1980s "Venom Saga" on film was overwhelming. As a result you've got several subplots jammed together jostling for attention, and it's to the writers' credit that the important ones do basically get resolved and addressed; nonetheless, an odd compressed feeling hangs over many scenes, and characters tend to pop in and out with odd irregularity. (There is, for example, not nearly enough J. Jonah Jameson, as J. K. Simmons so gloriously renders him.)

From what I can gather, a major criticism of the film has been that it spends too much time on Peter Parker and not enough on Spider-Man; that is, it is more about the problems in the hero's personal life than about fighting bad guys. To an extent this is true, but I don't really think of it as a criticism. For one, there is plenty of action, and for another, that is simply the story that is being told. I remember how SUPERMAN RETURNS was raked over the coals for its hero never actually punching anyone, and that seemed to me to miss the point. On the one hand, critics complain when filmmakers emphasize spectacle and brainless action over character, but when they do the opposite, that meets with disapproval as well. There's definitely a balance, but wouldn't we rather moviemakers- especially ones like Raimi and Singer with just a little bit of clout- err on the side of substance? I'm not sure either, but it seems to me whenever this complaint comes up, the movie in question- be it Singer's SUPERMAN, Peter Jackson's KING KONG, Tarantino's DEATH PROOF, or Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 3- is one I enjoy quite a lot. (Whereas in comics, I think that a lot of creators could stand to aim for great trash instead of great art. So I dunno.)

Where was I going with this? Oh, right. The characterization. A lot of the burden of making this work is placed on Maguire and Dunst, and you can sense them straining just a bit under it. In the end they're convincing enough, and the turmoil in Peter and MJ's relationship is well handled and becomes a central thread in a film that really needs one. The acting is quite strong, and there are too many actors in this one to run down their performances, but I look forward to at least some of these characters showing up in sequels. The ever-awesome Bruce Campbell shows up yet again, this time as a French maitre'd, and Hollywood Actor Ted Raimi gives a powerhouse performance as a marketing consultant at the Daily Bugle. One bit I liked much, much more than I expected to was Peter's darkening. Yes, his hairstyle and dress sense gets just a bit emo, but what's entertaining is how much of an absolute cad he becomes. He struts down the street and breaks into dance in a scene that looks like a body spray commercial gone horribly, wonderfully wrong, and has the landlord's ultra-cute daughter (who clearly has a crush on him) feed him cookies while he's hanging on the pay phone. By having some fun with this "dark side" business, Raimi prevents the melodrama from getting too severe.

And yet I have a number of nitpicks. The Sandman ultimately doesn't get enough screentime, and strangely, neither really does Brock. A few plot points don't quite make sense, and the climax, though impressive in itself, doesn't get enough of a buildup. I never found the movie dull for an instant, but it is sloppier than it should be. However, the major themes of revenge and forgiveness are articulated quite strongly, and again help to bolster the movie's structure.

All in all I quite enjoyed the picture, reservations aside. It's not really a climax to the series at all, and leaves many doors open, which is as it should be since Sony apparently intends to make at least three more. SPIDER-MAN 3 is not quite the picture it wants to be, but then again it aims quite high, so if it misses it still does better than most. It's an impressive action-adventure, does right by the characters, and continues to deliver a very believable and fun version of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's unique web-filled corner of the superhero universe. 'Nuff said.

Based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Story by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Screenplay by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent
Directed by Sam Raimi

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Random Movie Report #26: Read or Die

I can appreciate a good anime as much as the next man, even if I don't catch it that often. I don't really know enough about what's good in the genre (apart from Miyazaki), so I just occasionally pick stuff up on a whim. I remembered seeing a message board post or two about READ OR DIE, and so as I was beefing up my Netflix queue to Hulk-esque proportions, I placed it on there, and the rest tells itself. That was uninspired. Anyway, READ OR DIE is not so much a film as it is an OVA (Original Video Animation), and though it's feature-length it's divided into three "Episodes". Whatever. It's as close to a movie as makes no ends.

And it's a very pleasant little surprise. The title's bibliophilic implications are a part of the story, but it goes in some very weird directions and becomes a unique brand of spy adventure that is at times deliberately goofy but doesn't sacrifice drama. However, the reason to see this is for its protagonist, a girl who is not only endearingly geeky, but makes that into her greatest power.
Yomiko Readman loves books. A lot. Her small apartment is piled with them, and all the money she earns at her substitute teaching job goes towards buying more. Bookstore staff bow to her when she leaves, and keep a picture of their best customer posted so they know to treat her well. Shortly after buying an original German-language copy of "Immortal Beloved", she is attacked by a man riding a giant grasshopper who wants the book for himself. She manages to defend herself and her first edition, and reports to her second job, as an agent for the British Library's little-known elite espionage division. It seems that other rare one-of-a-kind books are being targeted for theft by a cadre of criminals born from the DNA of historical geniuses. As "The Paper", Yomiko (voiced by Rieko Miura) is teamed with "Ms. Deep" (Michiko Neya), a mysterious woman with a shady past and the ability to pass through walls. And Yomiko? Well, she gets her name from her ability to shape hundreds of sheets of paper into aircraft, shields, parachutes, etc. A sort of Paper Lantern, if you will. The Paper and Ms. Deep end up becoming close friends as they set about trying to protect the books and work out what, precisely, they're being collected for.

READ OR DIE was based on a manga series, and like a lot of manga adaptations it has the feel of being sharply condensed. We don't know how Yomiko fell in with this lot or where her power comes from, and the core story has to move along very quickly (I do plan to pick up the Manga at some point- and to be sure, knowing Japan, I don't expect every question I have to be answered.) So it's just a little thin on the actual story, but maybe to compensate for this, the overall tone is fast and jazzy and encourages you not to sweat the details. I appreciated that.

One complaint I would lodge with the story is that the focus on books and reading seems to actually get lost about halfway through; I was perhaps expecting something like the anime version of THE NAME OF THE ROSE. Granted, part of the problem is that some of the villains are historical and literary figures perhaps better known in Japan than in America (I actually had to do some websearching to figure out who the head villain was supposed to be.) Nonetheless I felt that the concept wasn't being explored fully. (There's also a TV series, though Yomiko is no longer the main focus and so, really, what's the point?) That said, I realize that with less than ninety minutes allotted for this sort of thing the filmmakers could only do so much.

These quibbles aside, READ OR DIE does feature what I may consider, in my highly biased opinion, the greatest anime protagonist of all time. Yomiko Readman is, on the one hand, disarmingly normal, a very believable sort of nerd with a chipper attitude and tiny quirks (her apartment is littered with little reminders to "save up! up! up!" and "lock up! up! up!") that make for a certain subtlety of characterization. But despite her vulnerability, Yomiko is powerful. Even when she isn't using her paper-bending powers, she has a heroine's resolve, especially when it comes to keeping hold of her beloved first edition. And she eventually develops a more important attachment to her partner Ms. Deep (indeed, their friendship is so close that it nearly approaches the level of lesbian subtext, though that could be my mind filling in the blanks.)

READ OR DIE is a sort of apéritif of anime- something light and fizzy with a bit of kick to it, with the effect of stimulating the appetite. I would like to see more of these characters, and of this world, and I suspect that was the point. If so, well played. The spirit of this thing is infectious. I feel a need to buy more books. You can never have too many of them, after all.

Written by Hideyuki Kurata
Directed by Kouji Masunari

Grade: B

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Comics Page #13: The All-New Atom: My Life In Miniature

If I may briefly interject something personal into my posting, today I made a very big stab at both the "professional writer" and "moving to England" parts of my ambition by sending a radio script to the BBC Writersroom. Vibes, prayers, blessings of the Muses, etc. would be welcome.

On to new business. Gail Simone's ALL-NEW ATOM is the best comic out there that you're not reading, and now it has a trade out so you can at least make up for it. I don't want to sound too haranguing, but it's easy to get frustrated when something great slips past public attention. I won't get into a rehash of the stuff I already talked about in my BLUE BEETLE review. Suffice it to say, THE ALL-NEW ATOM: MY LIFE IN MINIATURE collects the first arc of the new series, including material that previously appeared in BRAVE NEW WORLD. It's a very fun book, full of wild ideas and crazy plot twists that recall the limitless imagination of DC's Silver Age.

Dr. Ryan Choi is the newest professor of Nuclear Physics at Ivy University in Ivy Town, U.S.A., having recently arrived from Hong Kong. A friend of Ray Palmer's, Ray being the miniature hero the Atom up until his mysterious disappearance (at the end of IDENTITY CRISIS, which wild boars could not force me to read), the young doctor wonders where his mentor has got to when he starts finding cryptic messages that lead him to the location of the Atom's shrinking belt. The belt allows Ryan not only to shrink to subatomic size, but control his mass and density, so he can deliver a full-sized punch when the size of an ant and so on. At first he simply wants to continue Palmer's experiments, but he's quickly drawn into a developing war in Ivy Town, one between science and magic, order and chaos, between a group of miniature weird-talking aliens and the Lovecraftian horror M'Nagalah. It seems that Palmer's experiments in shrinking, scientifically impossible as they were, actually managed to distort the fabric of reality, making Ivy Town a nexus for the bizarre, a nexus that will be very useful if either the forces of reason or chaos manage to control it. The upshot of all this is that the Twin Peaks-ian inhabitants of Ivy Town find their cozy little hamlet beset by alien armies, B-list supervillains, and a giant naked woman. There only hope is the Atom, but he's new to all of this.

A sense of joyful craziness pervades this book. Gail Simone is best known for her long run on the more sedate and down-to-earth title BIRDS OF PREY, and here she gets to cut loose in a very Silver Age sort of way. The tone is often comic- the Waiting, the aliens on the side of "order", live on dogs and will have had a sideways relationship to time which been had the effect of will altering their speech. And yet, I wouldn't class this as a "funny" book like the Giffen/DeMatteis JUSTICE LEAGUE- it comes close, but the emphasis is more on action and surrealism. But it is a book that is funny, if the distinction isn't too fine, and the emphasis on humor and imagination is welcome.

It's very hard to tell if something in a DC or Marvel comic that seems like a new idea actually is; some of the characters have fairly solid pedigrees, such as M'Nagalah, created by Len Wein for SWAMP THING before Alan Moore rebooted the series (not to mention the triumphant return of Liza Warner, Lady Cop), but I'm fairly sure the Waiting always having been new, and there's also the serial killer Dwarfstar, who is given a size-changing belt of his own by a mysterious benefactor with instructions to kill either Ryan or everyone close to him or both. The book's blend of old and new is particularly well handled in that there isn't much of a difference between what's "original" and what isn't- the old stuff isn't fanservice, the new stuff isn't pushed more heavily, it's all there to dazzle the reader with neat ideas and sights.

On top of which, the characters work. Ryan Choi is neither a cipher nor a token minority, but a young man with the energy of an undergrad and the curiosity of a mad scientist, not quite as insane as some of his associates but still all too willing to find out exactly what his new toy is capable of, as well as invent some others. (One nice running gag is that, unlike the stereotypical science geek, Choi has a lot of women making the eye at him, students and professors both.) The arrival of his father in the last issue provides some great family tension, and the supporting cast of fellow academics is charming.

The one area where this book falls short of greatness is the art. The first few issues (and the BRAVE NEW WORLD piece) were handled by John Byrne, who has done some very fine work in his career, but here his pencilling seems sloppy and even excessive- there are a lot of unnecessary lines that give images a scratchy and not wholly pleasant look. Eddy Barrows pencils the rest, and his art works out better, but the overall look is inconsistent, and initial dislike of Byrne's art, coupled with dislike of Barrows' art by those fans who had liked Byrne's, probably contributed to the title's struggling sales. I've always followed writers more than artists, so this meant nothing to me, but obviously someone cares.

With a slick cover, a decent price, and a quote from Entertainment Weekly proclaiming THE ALL-NEW ATOM "the best new ongoing comic of 2006", this trade is definitely packaged to reach out to everyone who hasn't been following this book. I hope it works, because I will be very upset if yet another good title goes down while the sales charts continue to be dominated by the same books every month. MY LIFE IN MINIATURE is witty, snazzy, sharp, and sexy, a trade that reflects so much of what draws me to the superhero comic. It's a world where everything's more bizarre, more fantastic, more dangerous and more fun than reality. You will believe a man can shrink.

Grade: A-

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Saluting the Great Opening Credits Sequences

The opening credits sequence is becoming a lost art in modern cinema. All too often, filmmakers, wary perhaps of audiences getting bored, opt to skip out and place the contractually required opening credits at the end. (This results in a number of redundancies, such as the repeated cast list that first time around doesn't even tell you who played whom.) And, to be sure, they're not strictly necessary. But they have a function. David Cronenberg has referred to the opening titles sequence as a "vestibule" for the film; it's a way to set the tone for what's to come and get the audience in the proper frame of mind after ads and trailers and the visit to the concessions stand and so on. It's not the only way this can be done- the STAR WARS movies have their opening crawl, for example- but I can name a number of films that, in just jumping right to the first scene, get off to an awkward start.

Until such a time as things change, let's celebrate this grand tradition by looking at the great opening titles sequences- ones where the simple listing of cast and crew was turned into part of the experience. (My one major criterion for this was that it had to seem like a sequence specifically created as the opening credits sequence, and not just the opening scenes with titles playing over them.)

15. BARBARELLA (1968)- Say what you will about Jane Fonda, if you need a woman to take her clothes off in zero gravity, she's your girl. Add in some strategically placed flying letters (though not too strategic, thank God) and a classically dopey theme tune and you've got a great bit of cheesy eroticism that the rest of the film never quite lives up to.

14. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)- A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, God said, "Let there be lips!" And there were. And they were good. The opening song's lyrics combine B-movie references and cheap innuendo in a way that tells you right out whether this movie is for you, and the blood-red titles have become rather iconic.

13. CRASH (1996)- Minimalist electric guitar chords ring out while backlit metallic titles relentlessly cruise towards the camera. It's beautiful, sterile, and disturbing, the perfect opening for a David Cronenberg film based on a J. G. Ballard novel about car crash fetishists.

12. BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD DO AMERICA (1996)- As little as it has to do with the story of the film, this parody of 70s cop shows is pure genius, right down to Isaac Hayes singing the theme tune. The final freeze-frame is particularly great.

11. SCARFACE (1983)- Brian De Palma's brash update of the Howard Hawks crime drama is mostly remembered for the lead character's cartoonish excess, but it starts off by rooting him in very real and recent history. It's a reasonably simple sequence, intercutting the credits with news footage of boats arriving from Cuba, but the pacing, set by Giorgio Moroder's completely Eighties theme tune (sadly not available in its proper form on CD), gives it a driving intensity and the feel of an epic early on.

10. MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)- Mock Swedish subtitles turn into first a tourist pitch, then a story about mooses, then- suffice it to say the actual point of having credits is completely forgotten, to the point that the directors' names are buried at the bottom of a list of llamas. One of those great Python bits that seems to have had no conceivable origin.

9. THE AVENGERS (1998)- Even amidst the uniformly negative reviews there was praise for the film's opening titles. My thoughts on the movie itself are a matter of record, and its flowing, surrealistic opener captures its retro-modern phantasmagoria quite beautifully.

8. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)- It may be possible to create an entire list just from Saul Bass' work, so I'm going to limit myself ever so slightly. Here, we also have Bernard Hermann's dizzying theme tune (one of his best) working with some nicely skewed titles to evoke both anxiety and a sense of playfulness, which is just the right combination for what follows.

7. AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997)- I knew this spoof's heart was in the right place when this gloriously kitsch dance number started up. 60s cliche piles upon 60s cliche, from dopey disguises to swinging policemen, leading to a grand parade, backed by George S. Clinton's brilliant theme tune. A grand and affectionate salute to all that was groovy.

6. DEAD RINGERS (1988)- It's hard to set the right tone for a drama about drug-addicted twin gynecologists with identity issues, but I think this comes close. A delicate but vaguely pompous theme tune by Howard Shore plays over classical illustrations of birth and antique gynecology, all against a blood red background. Strangely beautiful in its way.

5. GOLDFINGER (1964)- I decided to limit myself to one Bond movie; otherwise we'd be here all night. There's a unique alchemy to the series' trademark compositions of mostly-naked women and action imagery, and sometimes it can stray into the realm of unintentional amusement (or just looking to see how carefully the dancers have been covered up), but the mixture here is just right- scenes of action and danger projected onto the golden form of model Margaret Nolan, accompanied, of course, by the most fondly remembered of James Bond theme songs.

4. VERTIGO (1958)- Another great work by Bass for Hitchcock. This is one is vaguely disturbing throughout, from the extreme close-up of a woman's face to the sudden blasts of music. It has an ethereal, supernatural quality, putting you off-guard from the start.

3. ED WOOD (1994)- Some cheesy-but-not-too-cheesy special effects make up a fun assembly of visual icons from the title character's films, creating a great fringe Hollywood atmosphere set to crazed bongo/theremin music (Shore again.)

2. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)- When in doubt, you can't go wrong with names flying at the camera against a starfield. I'm not quite sure if this was the first of its breed, but it says "epic" like nothing else.

1. FLASH GORDON (1980)- No point going into detail.

Honorable Mentions: Touch of Evil, Se7en, Alien, Dune