Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Day That Will Live In Infamy

And in honor of the occasion, and to help the m80 marketing firm promote the new AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE season 5 DVD (which I'll be receiving and reviewing shortly), a song:

I am not a member of the firm and insist on my editorial objectivity, but swag is swag.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Moments of 2007

It’s become tradition among some folks I know to list, as Film Comment used to, special moments from films of the past year that stood out. It’s a fun pastime and an easy post. Beware, spoilers abound. So here goes:

- A chained and disheveled Christina Ricci throws off her shirt and leaps upon what has to be the luckiest teenager on Earth in BLACK SNAKE MOAN.

- “Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, does whatever a Spider-Pig does...”

- Daniel Plainview explains oil, milkshakes, and the sheer depth of his genius in the glorious finale of THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

- “I’m okay!” Zoe Bell pops out of the brush in DEATH PROOF.

- Viggo Mortensen bloodlessly snips off the fingers of a corpse like they’re sausage links in EASTERN PROMISES.

- The Sandman pulls himself together in SPIDER-MAN 3.

- Captain Jack Sparrow finds that Hell is, in fact, yourself in PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: AT WORLD’S END.

- Mrs. Lovett imagines life at the seaside, with Sweeney scowling in a Victorian bathing suit, in SWEENEY TODD.

- The pert behind and flopping ponytail of Amy Adams as she bounces excitedly down a corridor in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR.

- “Dark” Peter’s impromptu street dance in SPIDER-MAN 3. Yes, I liked that scene.

- “No semen. Story of my life.”

- Josh Brolin leaps into a stream to escape an attack dog before realizing that, yes, dogs can swim in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

- Anton Ego’s first bite of ratatouille and the memory it brings back.

- From the opening song from AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE COLON MOVIE FILM FOR THEATERS: “Don’t Talk! Watch! Don’t Like It, Leave! We Still Have Your Fucking Money!”

- Prosthetic-jawed drill sergeants croon “I Want You” to new draftees in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.

- The miniature town fight in HOT FUZZ.

- A spaced-out astrounaut watches young women laugh and scream as waves buffet them in SUNSHINE.

- Bill Murray appears out of nowhere to try and catch a train in THE DARJEELING LIMITED.

- Every line uttered by Kristen Wiig in KNOCKED UP.

- “How did it feel changing your name from Cat Stevens to Yusef Islam?”

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Top 10 Films of 2007 and Assorted Miscellany

Any year in which I have to regretfully bump great films from the Top 10 is a good year, and so by that standard 2007 was a fine time indeed. It was a great year for comedy, with a lot of humor pervading subjects like unplanned parenthood, cookery, cannibalism, cross-country trips, teenage drinking, and the love between man and pig. Sure, the end of year Oscar fare was typically grim, but overall this was a welcome shift upward which I hope continues. We need optimism. This could have been a better year in terms of roles for women and films told from their point of view- most of the best stuff was from the male side- but even then a few distaff turns stand out. Enough preliminaries, let’s get to the list.

1. KNOCKED UP. Every time I think of this movie, the words “Annie Hall” come to mind. At once both crude and sophisticated, the film tells the story of how maturity can sometimes sneak up on people in the context of a raucously funny bad taste comedy. It’s consistently funny, sharp, and rewarding, the kind of rich farce that promises to get better with age.

2. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. The Coen Brothers undertake one of their darkest projects in a long time, a lean, spartan suspense thriller featuring a villain destined to take his place among the all-time greats. The ending is jarring and unsettling, but ultimately in a good way, leaving room for interpretation while fitting the tone of the picture perfectly.

best film since 1994’s ED WOOD, this gloriously bloody entertainment captures both the depth and spirit of Stephen Sondheim’s musical while creating a visual landscape all its own. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter offer unique perspectives on the characters of Todd and Mrs. Lovett, and what they lack in pipes they make up for in passion.

4. RATATOUILLE. By this point you expect the combination of Pixar and Brad Bird to result in nothing but great things, but somehow the film is still surprising and unique, a tale of the passion of art and the love of doing something well. This film sparkles with great characters and sensuous visuals, a treat for gourmonds and animation lovers alike.

5. THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Daniel Day-Lewis rips and roars across the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hale, full-bodied adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!”, bringing to life the bigger-than-the-big-screen character of Daniel Plainview, an oil man who will do anything to be on top of the business and has no other desire in life. Gritty, grimy, and oddly fun stuff, characterized by an atmosphere that always leaves you waiting for the other shoe to drop.

6. HOT FUZZ. Virtually perfect for what it is. Having conquered the world of zombies and relationship comedies, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright move into the world of buddy cop pictures and the vaguely homoerotic relationships therein. Built around a small town murder mystery that’s plotted so well you could almost do it as a straight thriller, the film is the kind of sincere comedy that makes you love its characters beyond their ability to make jokes, and provides opportunities to shine for everyone in the cast. A gem.

7. AMERICAN GANGSTER. Ridley Scott puts his substantial visual and technical skill in service of a story of the rewards of vice and the price of virtue, and the strange overlap between the two. A fantastic showcase for the talents of Denzel Washington and Russel Crowe, and a finely constructed narrative that may or may not have anything to do with what happened, if that matters.

8. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. A daring, fully cinematic musical which celebrates the fundamental spirit of rebellion, creativity, and hope which underlines the music of the Beatles. Not only do we get several unique and visually dazzling reinterpretations of the music, but a story that engages with the issues of counterculture and revolution that the band and the music found itself facing. It’s a film which wrestles with the question of whether art and idealism are enough to have in times of war and brutality, and whether it’s possible to hold onto peace and love when they don’t seem to get things done fast enough. Julie Taymor puts an amazing amount of skill into bringing to life a modern piece of psychedelia. We need more films like this.

9. SUPERBAD. Possibly the funniest movie of the year, this epic assembly of teen irresponsibility has never a dull moment and actually has a well constructed storyline despite the appearance of simply rambling to a conclusion. From the strange adventure of McLovin to the arrival of our heroes at the kind of party nobody wants to be at for very long, this is a wildly creative coming of age comedy which at heart is about the pain of being forced to grow up too soon, and the joyful insanity that accompanies it.

10. THE DARJEELING LIMITED. A vision quest movie that cleverly takes the piss out of vision quests. Wes Anderson’s latest brilliantly unites Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman as three brothers who seek spiritual enlightenment while also struggling with their inability to share a cabin. Funny, sincere, and wonderfully lush and chaotic in its realization of India as a place far messier than most pilgrims imagine. The inclusion of the pleasantly erotic short film HOTEL CHEVALIER at the start adds the perfect accent to this strange little adventure.

Special “To Hell With This, I Want To Write More About These Movies Too” Runners-Up List:

11. GRINDHOUSE. Many people said there was no point, especially after the film bombed at the box office, but Quentin Tarantino and Richard Rodriguez deserve our gratitude for working to create not just a pair of films but a genuine, long-lost cinematic experience, one that celebrates the ritual of moviegoing. And they’re good films in themselves, the over-the-top splatterfest PLANET TERROR making a good counterpoint to the talky but brilliant auto thriller DEATH PROOF (I would pay full evening show prices to see an entire series of films in which Zoe Bell and her girlfriends have wild kickass adventures.) Throw in some of the greatest trailers ever (which need to be expanded into features and I don’t care how financially unviable that is- though thank God for MACHETE)- and you’ve got a grand old evening at the pictures.

12. MICHAEL CLAYTON. Tony Gilroy’s astonishing thriller of a man pulled by loyalty into doing the right thing. It’s not quite a message movie, because the corporate malfeasance that the title character must confront is stated but not delved into deeply, but there’s no mistaking the passion and clarity of the film’s voice as it says that corruption can be confronted and defeated and therefore must be. A smart and inspiring picture with a note-perfect performance by George Clooney.

13. EASTERN PROMISES. David Cronenberg’s newest thriller isn’t quite as gut-punchingly astounding as HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, but it’s a great vehicle for the talent of Viggo Mortensen and features the director’s most intricate and most visceral action sequence to date. Less concerned with the specifics of plot and more with the overlap of two worlds, the movie develops strong relationships and manages to feel different from more conventional crime thrillers.

14. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE. It may be an expanded TV episode, but it’s a good ‘un, with the sparkle and wit of the show’s best installments wedded to a suitably epic storyline that doesn’t actually mean much. A refreshingly offbeat summer blockbuster with some gags destined to become classics.

15. CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR. Aaron Sorkin proves he’s still got it with the script to this unusual true story, not quite a comedy or a drama or even a standard dramedy. Tom Hanks proves wonderfully convincing as the titular Senator who, for all his decadent ways, finds a cause worth the use of his remarkable acumen, and is magnificently counterbalanced by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s jaded and completely undiplomatic CIA agent who knows more than you’d think. A fun film that also makes you think twice about realpolitik and its misapplication then and now.

Not Seen: Atonement, Perseopolis, Once, The King of Kong, others I'll remember as soon as I've posted this.

Most Underrated Film of the Year: BUG. William Friedkin’s return to form was spectacularly mispackaged as some kind of horror film, ensuring a quick death at the box office. What it really is, is a psychological thriller that treats insanity as a contagious disease, borne by loneliness and desperation and the need to make contact. Ashley Judd gives a fearless performance in a compellingly intimate picture that was somehow totally ignored.

(Runners-Up: Grindhouse, Across the Universe, Black Snake Moan)

Performances that Impressed Me (a non-comprehensive list):

Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Josh Brolin, No Country For Old Men
Josh Brolin, American Gangster
Jonah Hill, Superbad
Michael Cera, Superbad
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood
Denzel Washington, American Gangster
Russel Crowe, American Gangster
Ellen Page, Juno
Michael Cera, Juno
Zoe Bell, Grindhouse/Death Proof (Yes, she’s playing herself, and I don’t care.)
Ashley Judd, Bug
Amy Adams, Charlie Wilson’s War
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Seth Rogen, Knocked Up
Katherine Heigl, Knocked Up
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Julie Kavner, The Simpsons Movie

The Unofficial Saul Bass Memorial Award For Best Opening Credits Sequence in a Film that Bothered to Have One: Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Runners Up: Juno, Superbad, and that unfortunately is it.)

A special "Moments of 2007" post will follow shortly. And look for me to harp further on this opening credits sequence thing.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

In Theaters: There Will Be Blood

Image from
The film’s title is an interesting one- it’s not inaccurate, but it perhaps leads you to expect a more gruesome and violent picture than you actually get. There is violence, and death, and betrayal and so on, but not to excess (in fact this is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s more restrained films.) The film’s real draw is its utter killer of a lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, portraying a magnificent monster of a character whose oversized ego is wedded to a ferocious intelligence. It’s both a focused character study and a sprawling epic, dominated by a sardonic tone that keeps it from weighing too heavily on our heads. It’s rough, gritty, and disturbing, but also perversely funny.

Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, whom we first meet as a grizzled oil prospector who makes his first strike only after breaking his leg falling down the shaft. He drags himself back to the claims office, gets a few men to help him, and when one of them is killed in an accident he adopts the man’s orphaned son. Several years later, he’s a genuine oil baron, using his son’s face to add legitimacy to his operations, when a young man tells him there’s oil to be had in a patch of particularly desolate farm country. Daniel moves in, buys up the property and sets up a drilling operation, but finds himself increasingly at odds with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the twin brother of his informant and self-appointed prophet and faith healer of the Church of the Third Revelation. Eli, who helped negotiate the initial deal, is owed some five thousand dollars for his church, and though he appreciates the support Plainview gives to this community, he’s wary of a kind of evil creeping in. The eventual striking of oil does not simplify anything, and if anything is merely a formality.

The film is based on “Oil!”, a book written by Upton Sinclair in 1927, though I’m given to understand it was radically altered. What we get here is basically Daniel’s story from beginning to what may as well be the end, a kind of ultra-twisted CITIZEN KANE in which Kane seeks not approval or love but victory. Daniel Plainview does not want to retire and live a happy peaceful life; he could have done so long before the main storyline begins. He’s an oil man, and making a lot of money from oil is his thing, and he continues to do this to the exclusion of all other activities, never even taking much of an interest in the opposite sex (or the same sex for that matter.) He is an energetic and passionate man, but all that energy and passion is poured into the same pursuit. There are moments of weakness; he is at times concerned for the welfare of his son, and for that of a brother who appears at his doorstep, but these are subsumed in time.

This actually sounds kind of cold and boring when I write it down, but Anderson, never a dispassionate filmmaker, goes out of his way to make the proceedings lively and messy. Part of it is that oil drilling in itself is an intensely messy and dangerous process, especially given turn-of-the-(last)-century technology, and Daniel is not only seeking to get the oil but to run a line out to the ocean without relying on the good graces of other oil companies who enjoy buying up wells rather than drilling on their own. There’s a lot of suspense here, with death and destruction lurking in every shaft. Anderson never loses sight of the story’s visceral side, and even though the picture nears three hours, it doesn’t feel like it.

But I’m tiptoeing around the main reason why this movie is so good, which is Daniel Day-Lewis. “Chewing the scenery” has certain negative connotations in critical jargon, and most of the time that makes sense; an actor going over the top can shatter our suspension of disbelief. Lewis may well be masticating pieces of the set, but he’s not going over the top, simply because there’s no top to go over. In Daniel Plainview he has been given a role that demands to be played at maximum intensity, a man of such drive and appetite and cunning and grotesquerie that the screen can barely contain him. And even though Lewis is playing this at top volume throughout, you can still pick up the subtle modulations when Plainview has to put his mind to work, has to restrain his passion for the sake of his greater greed. The film is worth seeing for this performance alone (one with echoes of John Huston in CHINATOWN and Jack Palance in, well, everything.) It’s to Dano’s credit that he holds his own against this beast of a star turn, and serves as an excellent counterpoint to Plainview’s character on several occasions.

Much more can probably be written about this film, since there’s so much to absorb the first time around. But it’s taken me too long to write what I have already, so I’ll say this- THERE WILL BE BLOOD is an excellent film, one which stretches Paul Thomas Anderson’s comfort zone and provides Daniel Day-Lewis with the opportunity to do with acting what Godzilla does with model buildings. It’s muddy and ugly and beautiful and grimly hilarious, and it ends exactly as it should. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way, like a Wagner opera or a Rolling Stones concert. I’m still not sure why it has the title it does, but everything else, I got no complaints.

Based on the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair
Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Grade: A

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In Theaters: Cloverfield

They were handing out motion sickness bags at the ticket counter when I went to see CLOVERFIELD, and I’m trying to figure out whether that was a response to legitimate concern or some kind of marketing gimmick. The film is a monster movie shot entirely on a hand-held camera, and the ShakeyCam work does border on the nauseatingly excessive at times (and the crap they serve at concession stands doesn’t help.) You may feel compelled to look away from the screen or shut your eyes at times, not because what is being shown is that horrific but because you need to remind yourself that you’re not actually in motion. If you can handle that, then CLOVERFIELD is worth seeing, though with the additional caveat that you’re not going to get much of an explanation for what you do see. Lack of closure is apparently the new black, and to be sure the unknown is pretty scary. Some people will no doubt be disappointed by this film after all of the hype, but it’s a solid monster movie which puts some nice twists on the genre. It has a couple of dramatic shortcomings, but it accomplishes its main goal of looking and feeling like an authentic firsthand account of an utterly fantastic event.

“Cloverfield” is the code name given to the top secret footage we’re seeing, all taken by a video camera on the night that a giant monster comes ashore on Manhattan Island and rapidly lays waste to the city. Our witnesses on the ground are a group of yuppies who have assembled for a going-away party for the protagonist, Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who is headed to Japan. The party breaks up pretty quickly when the monster attacks (this is the footage you all saw in the trailers), and Rob, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel), Jason’s fiancee Lily (Jessica Lucas), videographer Hud (T. J. Miller), and friend-of-a-friend Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), on whom Hud has a crush, all try to get off the island. However, after the creature attacks the bridge and Rob gets a phone call, he heads back to midtown to find his psuedo-girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), and his friends follow.

The most valuable asset of any monster movie is, of course, the monster. I was briefly worried that we wouldn’t get to see any of the monster beyond brief glimpses, in keeping with the “the less you know” approach, but it’s hard for something like this to hide from camera view. The creature pretty much looks like what you’d expect a modern movie monster to look like: gray, toothy, with spindly limbs and an odd walk. The proportions are interesting and there’s an awkwardness to it that’s effective, but it’s not as distinctive as it could be. We never find out what the creature really is or where it comes from, which is probably just as well. In the meantime the beastie also sheds a number of spidery parasites who menace our party a couple of times, though it seems done mostly to expand the running time and up the body count. The special effects are integrated rather seamlessly with the live-action footage, a bit of a challenge considering how shaky said live action is, but the cheapness of shooting the main material left a lot of money for digital wizardry.

One thing that keeps this film from being as good as it could be is the characterization. There are some fairly well-drawn, quirky, interesting people here, including the geeky and awkward Hud (whose name is a bit of a clever gag, I think), but the focus is really on Rob and, later, Beth, and to be quite honest, the problems of two yuppies in love don’t seem to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. They’re the two blandest characters in the film, being the romantic leads apparently by virtue of sheer prettiness. Rob’s desire to find Beth and at least tell her how he really feels before this is all over provides the film with its dramatic structure, but I honestly think more could have been done with the other relationships we see in the film (Hud’s crush on the unreceptive Marlena, for one.) This seems to be a problem common to genre films, though you also see it in romantic comedies- the supporting cast is colorful and distinctive with clear relationships to each other, the leads are bland and attractive with a relationship defined by generic affection and generic complication. It’s as if we’re afraid to let the really interesting people take the spotlight. Or does the act of protagonization by nature reduce a character’s distinctiveness and place him or her in a more iconic realm? I’m going to have to do some research on this.

One thing I do appreciate about this film is its sense of humor. On the one hand, this is a very serious situation and the tone is generally grim, on the other, people do actually make jokes in life-or-death situations precisely to break that tension, and on still the other doing so in a film risks wrecking same tension. This film gets it right; the characters do say funny, even witty things, but we get that they’re doing this because their nerves are frayed, and at no time does the humor really overpower the situation. It simply makes the proceedings more endurable. The film does lose some dramatic tension near the end- it becomes a bit too obvious how things are going to turn out, and said resolution is milked for slightly more than it’s worth. It could be a lot tighter, which is weird considering we’re only talking about an 85 minute movie in the first place, but monster extravaganzas, even postmodern street-level ones, tend to move quickly.

What the film manages to accomplish in this time is impressive. It feels real throughout, creating a sense of immediacy that’s uncommon for the genre. Beneath the shaky camera work there’s a smart, well-constructed thriller with less backstory than most, and maybe a longer ending than necessary, but still a thriller that works. Just skip the concession stand going in.

Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves
Grade: B

Friday, January 18, 2008

In Theaters: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Image, as usual, from
Tim Burton’s film of Steven Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD is the most fun I’ve had at a movie theater this holiday season (or rather just-past holiday season), which is a bit of an accomplishment. Holiday movies seem to divvy up into serious Oscar bait and agonizing attempts at family entertainment, so something as ghoulishly pleasant as this is a wonderful surprise. Sure, this film’s been hyped substantially, gotten great reviews and a Golden Globe or two, but I still wasn’t quite expecting to feel as enthusiastic, as downright giddy as the film made me. Sure, it’s a dark and sad tale of revenge and tragedy and cannibalism, but Sondheim’s original musical/operetta achieved a near-perfect mix of horror and gallows humor, and Burton and screenwriter John Logan appear to have gotten the recipe right as well.

Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, returns from London after a long exile, a sentence imposed on him by the less-than-honorable Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who levied a bogus charge on the man to get at his lovely young wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly.) In the ensuing 15 years, Lucy has disappeared and her daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) has become Turpin’s ward/prisoner. Sweeney, planning a gruesome revenge, rents a room from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a frazzled woman who sells, by her own admission, the worst meat pies in London. Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), a sailor who rescued Sweeney at sea, happens by Johanna’s window and instantly falls in love with her, and tries to come up with a plan to rescue the girl from Turpin and his weaselly accomplice Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall). In the midst of this, Sweeney ends up killing a rival who intends to blackmail him, and decides he can cut quite a few throats on his way to the judge’s. Mrs. Lovett, pondering what to do with the body, works out that Sweeney’s victims will make an excellent supply of fresh meat, and so a truly diabolical partnership is formed.

Sondheim’s musical was not the first take on the material (which may or may not be based on a true story) by far, but it’s become the most well-recognized, not to mention just plain beloved as musical theatre. Burton was stepping on sacred ground here, and the casting of Depp and Carter- two very distinguished non-singers- was cause for concern. But there’s method to the madness, and Burton seems to know what he’s doing. Both the acting and singing are cinematic, not theatrical; the characters communicate in hushes and pleas, giving things time to build. Neither Depp’s nor Carter’s singing voices are unpleasant, though they’re not really professional either (the latter seems to underplay and even gloss over some of the darker jokes in her lyrics, and to be sure the “Little Priest” number could have been much grander.) The pitch of the film is very precise, not realistic but not stagey either, blending genuine Victorian dinginess with a more artificial Grand Guignol look and feel to create an atmosphere that’s heavy on dread, but still has room for laughs. It’s a very rich mood and it creates an air of genuine uncertainty, even while the laws of revenge melodrama dictate that certain things fall into place.

I was supposed to be talking about the film in relation to the stage musical, wasn’t I? Well, it’s a lot more faithful than I expected; anyone who’s seen the original will notice obvious omissions like “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” itself (a shame, that) and other numbers, but the plot unfolds pretty much as I remember it, perhaps across a few more locations to avoid being stagebound. Most of the same themes are covered, from revenge to family to forms of love both cancerous and benign. What changes there are have been made to make the story more immediate and visceral, which actually helps recapture the sense of intimacy lost when moving from stage to screen. The acting is all around splendid- Depp’s singing has a certain rock-star quality to it, Helena Bonham Carter manages both to fill out Mrs. Lovett’s costume nicely and add a twisted maternal brooding to the character- she’s competing with the memory of Angela Lansbury’s performance among fans (and with the memory of a particularly good high school performance by Ms. Wendi Butterworth for me), but she makes the part her own. Sacha Baron Cohen has a wonderful and brief role as a rival barber, and Anthony Stewart Head pops up for all of three seconds, regretfully not to sing. The one really wrong thing with the film is that the romance between Anthony and Joanna isn’t allowed to develop very much and seems rote as a result. It’s a minor sacrifice, but the young actors do what they can to compensate, and the subplot still serves its purpose in the larger story.

Tim Burton may not have made a film as excellent as this since ED WOOD back in 1994; then as now, he weds his skill at creating great visuals and a strong mood to a solid narrative and a great script. This is an amazing spectacle, full of grit and gore and song and laughter and tears. From the ingenious opening credits to the final tableau, the film remains utterly committed to a twisted and beautiful vision, not forgetting to entertain us in the process. It does right by Sondheim while working quite well on its own level, and it’s easily one of the year’s best films.

Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Screenplay by John Logan

Directed by Tim Burton

Grade: A

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Comics Rambling: Can You Feel A Brand New Day

I may be the last blogger on the Internet to comment about this, but it’s taken me a while to compose my thoughts. For the non-comics-readers on my blog, what’s happened is this: during the course of “One More Day”, a story arc spanning the major SPIDER-MAN titles, Peter Parker’s beloved Aunt May was at death’s door. Apparently spent for options, Peter sought out Mephisto, the Marvel Universe’s Satan-analogue (rather one of them), who offered a deal- Aunt May’s life in exchange for Peter’s marriage to Mary-Jane Parker. Peter agonized about this, until MJ persuaded him that their love would survive somehow, and the two of them agreed. Mephisto worked some kind of reality-altering mojo, and now he and MJ were never married- in fact they don’t seem to know each other yet. This leads us to “Brand New Day”, the first arc of the now thrice-monthly AMAZING SPIDER-MAN comic, and the first issue of this story arrived in comics shops Wednesday. And I decided to give it a look.

First, let me point out one thing: I did not actually read “One More Day” beyond its first issue. I consider myself a fan of John Michael Straczynski’s run on AMS, even the much-criticized “Sins Past” storyline, but this particular plot twist had been long-telegraphed, especially in interviews where Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada would not shut up about how he hated Spider-man being married and how it apparently cut off so many storytelling opportunities. I’ll get to that later- the point is, I knew this was coming in some form or another, and I felt they were really dragging their feet on it. If you’re gonna piss off readers, do it quickly. Tom Petty was a liar; we do not want it done nice and slow. Anyways, I waited.

Now, I personally feel that this was a bad decision. I never felt there was any problem with Peter and Mary-Jane being married, in fact it was kind of sweet. Their relationship works. Moreover, the idea that their marriage cuts off story ideas is not entirely true; it’s true in that you can’t have Peter Parker having dating troubles or wondering which girl is right for him, but it’s also true that him not being married means you can’t have stories focusing on the trials of married life, which admittedly are harder to fit into the superhero genre. At worst it seems like a minor net loss against the multitude of stories that can be told involving the other sources of drama in the life of our favorite web-slinger, so why Quesada was so intent on changing this, I have no idea. On top of which, the method by which the marriage was removed is bizarre; I’ll give them credit for not killing Mary-Jane or causing some kind of bitter separation that would make it difficult to reunite them, but from a plot perspective the “Satan did it” angle causes many problems. Not only has the marriage been retconned out of existence, but apparently so has Spider-Man’s unmasking in the pages of CIVIL WAR and the death of Harry Osborn, among other things. It causes a lot of weird continuity wrinkles in relation to other books and events, which means that the writers of non-Spidey books are going to have their hands full.

That said, I gladly gave BRAND NEW DAY a try. For starters, I’m a fan of Dan Slott’s writing, and I didn’t feel like punishing him for Joe Quesada’s sins. For another, there is the character of “Jackpot”, New York City’s newest and most official superheroine, who is almost certainly our MJ benefitting from some weird side-effect of the deal. The character first was previewed in one of Marvel’s Free Comic Book Day offerings, also starring Spidey and written by Slott, and the concept is, for lack of a better word, adorable. MJ’s sparkling personality makes her a surprisingly good fit for the superhero role, and the couple’s inevitable (if also inevitably far-off) reunion should be nicely spiced up by her new role.

So, AMAZING SPIDER MAN #546. I was supposed to talk about that, wasn’t I? It’s good. Quite good. It’s bright, fun, and decidedly old-fashioned, the sort of thing Slott knows how to write well and which helps cleanse the palate of a long string of grim Spidey stories. Granted, our hero still has the fabled Parker bad luck, but here it translates to money troubles and girl troubles and the sort of thing that leans more to humor than melodrama. Peter Parker has been unemployed for a while and also not Spider-Man for some time either- he had hoped that putting his hero career on hold would let him make a normal life, but with that not working out, and with a mugger in a Spider-Man mask ruining his reputation, Parker gets pulled back in as he tries to find an apartment and a job. In the meantime his dear Aunt May has been working at a soup kitchen, and J. Jonah Jameson has his hands full trying to prevent a buyout of the Daily Bugle. It’s a good dense start, and a few back-up stories help justify the extra dollar on the price.

Is it worth the frankly-mind-boggling lengths that Marvel has gone to in order to set up this new status quo? Probably not. But what’s done is done, and it’s almost certain that the next EIC to come along, whenever that is, will push Spidey and MJ back together. And if not him/her, then the one after. In the meantime, the title’s making the best of a bad situation, and I’m viewing the whole event with a certain zen detachment. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion, this entire entry proves otherwise. But this too shall pass. Really, that’s the only way you can handle this sort of thing.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Random Movie Report #40: Futurama: Bender's Big Score

So, FUTURAMA is back. Technically they’ve been back for a while, as this direct-to-DVD feature was released last November, and to a lesser extent it doesn’t feel like it’s been gone too long since the reruns have been on long enough for me to see just about each episode three times over (with the exception of “Jurassic Bark”, and everybody knows why.) This is the first new content we’ve gotten in years, though; BENDER’S BIG SCORE marks the start of a series of four direct-to-DVD FUTURAMA movies (to be broken up into about 16 episodes for TV airing later), and if they do well we may see a lot more. So, apart from it being great to have all the characters back, how’s the show? Er, movie? Whatever?
Pretty good. Not great, there’s a bit of rust, but the intelligence and earnestness of the show is still there, as are some good laughs. As other critics point out, the movie does engage in a hefty amount of backslapping over the return of the Planet Express crew, and your enjoyment of this will vary depending on whether or not you’re actually a fan, but despite this and a wealth of references to episodes past, the show/movie/etc. does settle down to tell a strangely compelling tale of time travel, interstellar invasion, and nudity.

After Hermes Conrad is injured in a horrific limbo-related accident, the Planet Express crew is dispatched to the Nude Beach Planet to make a delivery, and while there end up on an e-mail list run by a group of scammer aliens, who quickly phish the entire company out of house and home. A tattoo of Bender is found mysteriously located on Fry’s rear end, and is found to contain a binary code which, when spoken aloud, creates a portal in time. The aliens want to exploit this to steal Earth’s treasures, but it only goes backwards- so Bender, under their control thanks to a computer virus, goes back, steals whatever they ask for, and simply waits out the ages. All of this upsets Nibbler, who is convinced that continued use of the time sphere will eventually destroy the universe. Meanwhile, Fry is heartbroken by the fact that Leela is dating Lars, a Head Museum technician who’s mature, responsible, and just about everything he isn’t. The inevitable complications of time travel arise, duplicate bodies and all, and when the aliens sic Bender on Fry, it only gets worse.

Because this film is designed to be broken up for TV airing later, the story is broken down into four fairly discernible “acts”, which gives it an unusual structure. It’s kind of slow to start off, arriving at its plot in the kind of rambling way familiar to viewers of THE SIMPSONS, and I do confess I expected it to more quickly leap into epic mode. The first quarter also understandably has most of the return-of-the-show jokes, starting off with a fairly amusing riff concerning the unfortunate fates of the “Box Network” executives who canceled Planet Express’ shipping license (not that Professor Farnsworth bothered to tell anyone.) This leads to a nice running gag that appears in all four segments, and I have to say, as a fan of the series, I enjoyed the in-jokes. As the time travel moves in and weirds things up, the structure gets more complex, and there’s some fine use of parallel action in the last quarter. What’s interesting is that as complex as the time stuff is, it actually holds together- there are a number of duplicates to keep track of, but as far as I can tell there’s only one true paradox, and that seems almost deliberate (especially given the TERMINATOR references elsewhere in the picture.) A lot of thought was put into this for such a silly film.

The balance between plot and gags has always been one of FUTURAMA’s strengths. Even when the humor tends towards the corny, the show is carried along by the bond it creates between us and its characters. It’s not afraid to be beautiful, even poetic at times, and the central relationship between Fry and Leela is handled believably enough to make it a draw as well. BENDER’S BIG SCORE is no exception, and the film builds plenty of romantic tension alongside the big stupid action and cameos from countless supporting characters. The resolutions feels like a cop out, but thinking back it has a lot of implications for the future of our favorite not-yet-couple.

The animation here is superb, and the voice acting strong as ever, with a number of surprise cameos. The epic-ness I was longing for does finally kick in after a while, and there’s a climactic space battle that’s both funny and dazzling. It’s a very slick production, and really all that seems to have changed is that Zoidberg sounds a little different. It’s a very good return for the show, and makes one eager to see what the crew will run into next.

The DVD also includes a full-length episode of “Everybody Loves Hypnotoad”, but I feel like I MUST WATCH IT NOW. GOODBYE.

Developed by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen
Story by David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler
Teleplay by Ken Keeler

Directed by Dwayne Carey-Hill

Grade: B+