Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dredged from Youtube: Moon Madness (Secret of the Selenites)

DVD Cover and Amazon linkWhen a cable channel starts out, it usually doesn’t have much money to produce its own programming and is dependent on buying shows from wherever they’re available. A side effect of this is that kids like me, watching Nickelodeon and/or the Disney Channel back in the late 80s and early 90s, saw some really weird shit. I believe it was the former that broadcast MOON MADNESS (or SECRET OF THE SELENITES) back when I saw it, and for a couple of decades the theme tune and some of the visuals have bounded around in my mind, in the area where nostalgia becomes “What the Hell was that, anyway?” One Youtube search later and here we are.

I am, of course, completely compromised on this. To see this at last in an adult and lucid state is gobsmacking, and though I’m not blind to MOON MADNESS’ flaws, it’s such a bizarre work of art that I don’t think I can give it a fair assessment. Also, since it’s either Youtube or ultra-low-budget DVD that may or may not even be in print, this isn’t so much a review as it is an introduction. However you wish to see this is up to you.

The story takes place in 1753, as the astronomer Sirius tells his cousin and good friend the Baron von Munchausen of a legend about the inhabitants of the moon, and a talisman they possess which gives them eternal life. Sirius wants immortality for himself, and promises to make the Baron his sole heir if he gets it for him. The loophole there is kind of obvious, but the Baron is game and takes his ensemble of superhuman companions on a trip to the South Seas, where a helpful typhoon helps lift their boat into the air, and some hot air balloons do the rest and take the travelers to the moon. Settling into one of the craters, the Baron and company dodge attacks from some bizarre monsters before meeting the Selenites, friendly satyr-like creatures with detached crescent-moon heads and three legs. The Selenites knew the Baron and company were coming, and hope they can help defend their people from an invasion of “Green Means”, tiny green robot-like characters attacking from an orbiting satellite. In the meantime, there’s plenty of time to have an athletic competition, and to watch the young Selenites spring fully-formed from walnuts.

On a couple of key technical points (and the minor theft from YELLOW SUBMARINE notwithstanding), the film has not held up that well. The animation is extremely crude, with a weird tendency for characters to bob in place or undergo strange repetitive movements for no reason other than their being animated. Despite this over-drawing in some parts, the film frequently recycles brief shots, leading to a bizarre pace.

The English voice dub is also far from top-level; the Baron has a thin, vaguely Snidely Whiplashian voice, the Selenite King sounds like Ed Wynn with a bad cold, and nobody really sounds that good. Not that the writing is particularly great, but better delivery would have sustained it a lot more.

And yet, the film has a special atmosphere to it that can’t be written off. The look of the inner moonscape is wonderfully strange and whimsical, bringing 18th century ideas of space travel to life in a way that hasn’t really been matched elsewhere. (Terry Gilliam’s live action ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN has a fun moon segment, but it’s not nearly as detailed.) It’s a lush and colorful hollow world that plays by unusual rules. There’s an insanely catchy theme tune, and a dreamlike tone- the conflict never seems too serious, and everyone is good natured throughout, so the film seems less of a narrative than a short assembly of pleasant images.

Like I said, I’m biased. This is too wired into my subconscious for me to not like it, and whatever flaws it has just seem to wash by in what is, after all, a very short space of time. It’s not half as good as it should be, but it’s also the only film that tries to do what it does, and until someone actually improves on the same story it’s hard to dismiss. You should see this simply because you’d be hard pressed to find anything like it, but be warned, you may never be sane afterwards.

Written by Jean and France Image
Directed by Jean Image

Grade: ???

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Random Movie Report #65: Battle Beyond the Sun

Poster and Amazon Link
I honestly had a good reason for buying this one. I own the poster. I got it years ago from a booth in a mall where a guy was selling a bunch of sci-fi/horror memorabilia, and anyway, I had this thing for years without ever having seen the film it was based on. BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN is actually an interesting obscurity in a couple of ways. One, it’s a cut-down version of a hugely ambitious Russian space epic that still bears faint traces of Soviet politics. Two, the American edit was supervised by none other than Francis Ford Coppola. In its re-arranged form it’s a brief, almost slight science fiction adventure, but the central theme of scientific idealism and cooperation holds, and it’s still kind of impressively made, despite some questionable additions.

In the future of 1997, after an atomic war, the world has been split up between the major powers of North and South Hemis. Both empires are planning expeditions to the planet Mars in secret, and we follow the team from South Hemis (which, according to the map, just happens to contain most of Russia), led by a kindly, brilliant old doctor with a plain peasant wife. The crew is first shuttled from Earth to an orbiting space station, where the Mars craft, the Nebula, has been built. While they’re waiting, though, a North Hemis craft docks for emergency repairs, and it turns out to be their own Mars craft. When the North Hemis expedition runs into trouble, the South Hemis scientists must decide between the success of their own mission and helping their fellow explorers. Okay, you can imagine what the decision is, but it leads to further surprises and complications.

Though this is an obscure film released thusfar only on a “budget” DVD, BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN was a big production for Mosfilm at the time, and despite poor picture quality it’s easy to see how. The miniature work is very elaborate and impressive, with some interesting use of mattes as well, and the orbiting space platform is particularly gorgeous. The original film was made in 1960, and this is about as good as pre-Kubrickian spaceflight scenes would get. There’s a strong atmosphere throughout, with repetitive but evocative music.

The American cut of this film anglicizes all the names (even in the credits) and leaves only a credit to Mosfilm as any indication that this was a Russian production, but knowing that now it’s interesting to see the subtext. The North Hemis characters are clearly Americans, and as such impulsive and misguided, but the film’s compassionate enough not to make them into out and out villains. There really aren’t any such things in the film, if you don’t count the space monsters.

Oh, right, the space monsters. These were also a late addition, crudely grafted onto the film’s third act (though it’s not clear what was supposed to have originally happened in the part of the movie.) And... the poster art may not make this terribly clear, but these are the most Freudian creatures ever not created by H. R. Giger. One is tall, one is round, and when they get into a fight the outcome is outright pornographic. There’s no way the U.S. team didn’t know what they were doing when they filmed this, and precious little way I can imagine them not falling over laughing while doing so. I’m not sure why you’d go this route, but for better or worse the monster scenes are a very short part of the movie.

Though this is clearly a greatly compromised version of whatever the Russians originally shot, and suffers from a choppy pace at times, I have to say its charm won me over. It’s pretty, optimistic, and doesn’t condescend to its audience. The DVD itself is not terribly good, and the original version of the film has yet to be made available, but in its mutant form it’s still worth your time.

Written by Mikhail Karzhukov, Yevgeni Pomeshchikov, and Aleksei Sazanov
Directed by Mikhail Karzhukov and Aleksandr Kozyr, and “Thomas Colchart” (Francis Ford Coppola)

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Random Movie Report #64: Redline

Redline DVD cover and Amazon link
Let me set this up for you. Rutger Hauer plays a criminal in a dark cyberpunk future who’s betrayed by his partner, killed along with his wife, is brought back to life by the government, breaks out and goes in search of vengeance. Sounds like a good movie, right? Hell, it’s Rutger Hauer, the movie doesn’t even have to be that good for him to kick ass, right?

This is the premise of REDLINE, one of the worst films I’ve seen in a while that wasn’t accompanied by snarky commentary from a man and two makeshift robots. I picked it up for $1 at Half Price Books and I think somehow I was cheated. REDLINE is an ultra-low-budget direct-to-video affair from 1997 that’s also appeared under the name DEATHLINE, and it manages to waste just about any scrap of potential there was in the premise, its star, and an assortment of undressed European girls.

Hauer’s character is named John Anderson Wade, and he’s an American doing business in Russia, and that is more or less the extent of what we learn about him. His cowardly evil partner is named Merrick (Mark Dacascos), and he’s in deep with the Russian mob which goes by some name I’ve already forgotten. Trios or Triage or something. Anyway, Merrick doesn’t have much of a motivation either, he’s just a jerk. Wade is picked up by the government because they have some way of bringing people back to life and turning them into super fighters or something, but he breaks out of the lesbian-nurse-staffed hospital (and no, nothing interesting comes of that plot detail) and hits the streets. After this it’s bog standard revenge movie fare, you know the drill, villain sends assassins after the hero, none of them get anywhere near doing their job, hero uncovers some grander plan, etc. Along the way Wade meets up with Marina K. (Yvonne Scio), a prostitute who happens to look exactly like his late wife. She goes along with him for some reason, and a vague romance blooms. Oh, also, the MacGuffins being smuggled are electrochemical stimulants that can be used to induce voluntary fantasies, but apart from a few scenes that goes nowhere either.

If you’re noticing a certain vagueness to my description, that’s because I was rarely if ever entirely sure of what was going on. The details aren’t so much complex as they are unclear and unimportant- there’s some sort of coup in the making, the police are corrupt, but nothing’s ever allowed to get in the way of what is basically a string of random scenes. Wade and his girlfriend move from one blasted post-industrial set to another, one minute a parking garage, the next a nightclub where nobody wears shirts, the next a great hall where a boxing match is taking place well outside anywhere the ultra-rich patrons would be able to see.

There’s just nothing here. The action sequences are uninspired; not only do the bad guys always miss, they always miss so completely that Wade doesn’t have to duck. There’s no sense of any challenge, there are no crazy death defying stunts, even the explosions are weak. The closest we get to an interesting setpiece is when Wade is ambushed by a couple of naked boxer women in a gym area at the boxing match mentioned above, and even that sequence just sort of fizzles out. The visuals are a constant stream of grey and lifeless images.

Now, Rutger Hauer is a genuine bad ass, the kind that demands that you use both words separately. He’s a pretty good actor with loads of presence. NONE of that is on display here. He has no character to play; there’s some banter between him and the girlfriend about how he’s apparently got a problem with women, but we see no evidence of this and it’s forgotten about two scenes after it’s mentioned. Yvonne Scio is very pretty, and not very fully clad, and there’s the spark of a potentially interesting character somewhere in her portrayal, but again, nothing comes of it. The villain is so bland it hurts, and the only thing remarkable about the entire Russian Mafia angle is that his boss (Michael Mehlmann) is doing a pretty good impression of Christopher Walken. To make a good dumb action movie you at least need some crazy quirk for the bad guy, or to make the hero a wisecracking surfer, or throw in some veiled homoeroticism, or... you need to DO SOMETHING, basically. This is close to being absolutely generic- it’s not an action movie, it’s the template for one.

The film just sort of unspools, all the way through an idiotically drawn out climax. There are exactly two clever sequences, which I will list now. The first is a scene from “Russia’s Most Wanted” wherein Wade, now a hunted criminal, is given the dramatic re-enactment treatment, and the re-enactment is a blatant low-budget riff on BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN’s legendary Odessa Steps sequence. The second is a scene where Wade has been captured and is being interrogated- or, rather, subjected to a hallucination of a violent interrogation via the electro-plasmid-thingies the film is supposedly about. It’s a little twist but I like it.

Otherwise this is a chore. I’m not sure why I didn’t hit fast forward on this thing, except that I knew it would be good blog fodder. Also, it’s the kind of bad movie that’s an object lesson in how not to make a low budget picture; anyone could have made a better film using the same resources, just by having things actually happen and letting a plot take shape. I hope this is the worst movie Rutger Hauer has ever been in, because if not, God help us all.

Written by Brian Irving and Tibor Takács
Directed by Tibor Takács

Grade: F

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Random Movie Report #63: Gamera, Super Monster

Cover of the Elvira Movie Macabre DVD 2-set featuring Gamera, and Amazon link
It’s a sign of my kaiju addiction that I buy DVDs of films in this genre that I don’t even expect to be any good. GAMERA, SUPER MONSTER was made by Daiei in 1980 at their lowest ebb; the Japanese film industry was still in bad shape and the company was facing substantial debt. To try and raise money quickly, they made the first Gamera film in 8 years, while spending as little money as possible on it. The bulk of this film is simply clips from other Gamera movies, arranged around a plot that steals as many elements from recent blockbusters as it can. It doesn’t work: the movie is only of interest as a morbid curiosity, a threadbare production drenched in desperation and attempting to reach an audience despite having nothing to offer.

A series of still images informs us that the evil and apparently sentient spaceship Zanon (which in no way resembles an Imperial Star Destroyer) is on its way to attack Earth. It’s apparently chasing after three superpowered spacewomen, who have blended into the normal population. Despite their powers, they’re unwilling to confront the evil spaceship directly, and can’t even turn into their super selves without alerting the ship to their presence. So, Zanon starts sending monsters to destroy the Earth, starting with the bat creature Gaos. Fortunately, through what seem to be the whims of a precocious monster-loving child named Keiichi (Koichi Maeda), Gamera appears out of nowhere to battle these monsters and save the day. In the meantime, Zanon sends a female agent to befriend Keiichi and track down the spacewomen, all while monster fights ensue.

All of the footage of the evil space monsters, and their battles with Gamera, are culled from previous Gamera movies. (They even manage to fit in some material from the black and white original by showing it as TV news footage.) New music has been slapped on, but this is basically a clip show. Some new footage of Gamera himself was shot, but it seems like they didn’t bother to build a full suit- instead, the monster is a stiff prop, always seen in the same flying position and only capable of moving its jaw. He resembles nothing so much as a prop for a theme park ride, and the evil spaceship fares little better, seen only a few times, never in much detail. One also suspects that the superwomen aren’t using their powers because that would cost too much.

It’s almost amusing how little effort this movie makes in cribbing from the hits. You’ve got a STAR WARS-type spaceship and three super-people two years after the SUPERMAN movie, the spacewomen rely frequently on a three-note chime that sounds suspiciously like the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS music, and when the sharklike Zigra’s fin cuts across the water, music a lot like the JAWS theme starts up. On top of this, Keiichi has two separate dream sequences in which he envisions Gamera flying through space alongside the Space Cruiser Yamato and the Galaxy Express 999- both scenes simply have the monster superimposed in front of shots from the relevant anime series, and it goes without saying that this has nothing to do with anything else in the movie. There’s even a plug for Shonen Jump and what looks like the M.U.S.C.L.E. franchise. It’s a genuine surprise when something happens that can’t immediately be identified as a steal from something else.

Of course, it would help if what was left weren’t so unmemorable. The characters are never established in much detail, except for Keiichi, who, among the Gamera series’ various monster-loving children, may be the most insistent and irritating of all. He holds the film hostage twice with his organ rendition of the Gamera march (not the same as the one from the Sixties films), insists that everything he dreams about Gamera will come true, walks through the entire film with the most maddening grin plastered on his face. To call the plot episodic would be charitable- you can basically tell things are winding down when they run out of monsters, and while the climax makes a game attempt at drama, the fact that it takes place in an abandoned playground kind of kills the mood.

The reason this film’s not a complete failure is that, even out of context, the older footage is still somewhat entertaining. A monster fight is a monster fight, after all, and while you may have seen these scenes before, it’s not bad as a greatest hits package. This doesn’t really excuse the movie, but it makes it almost painless as a viewing experience.

GAMERA, SUPER MONSTER is a curio, a career low for the super turtle but an interesting portrait of a studio trying something they had neither the resources nor the public interest to pull off. Only completists should bother.

Written, in a sense, by Nisan Takahashi
Directed, after a fashion, by Noriaki Yuasa

Grade: D+

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In Theaters: Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek movie poster
Rebooting moribund franchises has become the new “in” thing, and I suppose I really can’t complain when the results are this good. Nobody doubted that the STAR TREK franchise needed a good kick in the pants, and J. J. Abrams was, as predicted, the one to do it. The un-subtitled reboot is a fun, fast-moving space opera built on strong characters and a commitment to capturing the energy of the original series while sloughing off the accumulated burden of 40+ years of continuity. It has to do a lot of work just to tell the tale of how a young James T. Kirk became a starship captain and met up with Spock, McCoy, Uhura and company, and in the process it sometimes skips over plot points, but it holds together very well nonetheless.

James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up in the shadow of his father, who died in a battle between the Federation starship Kelvin and a mysterious spiky craft that appeared out of a mysterious anomaly (see, it’s not that different from regular Star Trek after all!) He’s reckless and troubled and gets into a lot of fights, but is encouraged to join Starfleet by Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and after a cunning trick involving an Academy simulation program, ends up serving under Captain Pike on board the newly christened U.S.S. Enterprise, when it and several other ships are dispatched to respond to an emergency signal from the planet Vulcan. The mysterious ship has returned, captained by the vengeful Nero (Eric Bana), who witnessed the destruction of his homeworld in the future and blames the Federation- and specifically the half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto)- for the calamity. Pike is captured in the battle, leaving Spock in command, but Kirk thinks he knows what has to be done, leading to a conflict between the two over how to stop the madman.

One of the more interesting decisions that the filmmakers made here was not only to reboot STAR TREK, but to explicitly reconcile the new TREK universe with the continuity that every fan knows by heart (even though none of it makes any sense.) The future calamity that destroys Nero’s homeworld of Romulus also creates the time vortex that draws his own ship into the past, and his arrival and destruction of Kirk’s dad’s ship messes around with the course of history. Thus the entire movie takes place in an alternate timeline, thus explaining any discrepancies and allowing the filmmakers to make some pretty dramatic changes. It’s arguable how much this is actually necessary, since it does add an extra layer of complication to the story, but it’s a nice gesture and it allows for a welcome torch-passing cameo by a familiar face.

I was surprised at just how good the cast was for this movie. Chris Pine may look like one of a hundred CW players, but he manages to play Kirk as a sly, sort of self-satisfied bastard who’s too damn charming for any of the above to be a problem. Zachary Quinto plays Spock’s visible repression well, while Karl Urban nails Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy from his very first line. Zoe Saldana carries Uhura well through a plotline which makes more use of her character than the entire original series, but it’s Simon Pegg’s Scotty who nearly steals the show, interpreting the engineer as a tech geek boy genius who can’t help but think several steps ahead of everyone else, as long as he doesn’t have to think outside his field of expertise.

As one expects, this is mostly a movie about Kirk, and Spock to a lesser extent. But it seems that for every “bridge” character, the script is calculated to give them something awesome to do that’s not necessarily confined to the station they have. Uhura is great at picking up subspace transmissions, and is the only woman in the universe who is completely immune to Kirk’s charm. Sulu (John Cho) can drive the ship and also swordfight, while Chekov (Anton Yelchin) has trouble with his V’s but is good at beaming people out of difficult situations. McCoy uses his medical knowledge to guarantee Kirk a place on the Enterprise. The characters aren’t defined entirely by their jobs, and the film similarly ignores the chain of command whenever it’s convenient- there are field promotions flying everywhere from scene one, and it’s a good way of puncturing the formal pomposity that had undermined the franchise for so long.

The plot does have a few problems, mostly hinging on unlikely coincidences and VERY chance meetings. Also, a common movie cliché pops up not once but twice, and both times it’s justified by the plot but without spoiling too much, once is acceptable, twice is a Disney movie. I love the shiny and unspoiled visual style, but the lens flare gets so excessive at times the film really shouldn’t be viewed by the seizure-prone. (I understand even Abrams has said they went a little too far, but by the time they figured it out it was too late.) And though this isn’t actually a flaw, it’s interesting how the engineering areas of the ship now look like the kind of factory they used to shoot low-budget sci-fi movies in.

It’s hard for me to make up my mind just how much I enjoyed this movie; because of the relentless speed and unpretentiousness of the film, some bits don’t stick strongly in the memory, but I still have an overall great impression. As some have noted, the movie lacks any major intellectual themes and is short on gosh-wow concepts like the Genesis device in WRATH OF KHAN, but if the film shortchanges the “visionary” side of the franchise it doesn’t betray it. It’s still a bright and colorful universe full of neat aliens and gorgeous looking spaceships and people boldly going places- they haven’t removed the underlying optimism of the franchise, just focused on the action elements. Maybe the next voyage will give us a touch more sense of wonder, but really I can’t complain. Too much has been done right here for any flaws to linger. STAR TREK is what a summer blockbuster should be: spectacular, exciting, and generally upbeat. I had my doubts, but it works brilliantly, and I think I’ll see it again.

Based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry
Screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Directed by J. J. Abrams

Grade: A

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Comics Page #23: DC Showcase Presents Ambush Bug

Ambush Bug cover and Amazon link
Comedy superhero books have an unfortunate habit of not lasting very long, so those of us who appreciate the genre tend to treasure the ones that come down the pike. To call Ambush Bug a superhero would maybe be inaccurate, and he’s only briefly a supervillain, but he’s the DC Universe’s silliest resident and primary deconstructionist, and while his current miniseries languishes in publishing limbo just shy of its final issue, it’s as good a time as any to enjoy DC’s comprehensive showcase collection of his earlier misadventures. Created by Keith Giffen, and given dialogue by Robert Loren Fleming, Ambush Bug can be seen here quickly evolving from a mildly interesting supervillain concept to a character whose very existence seems to threaten the tenuous nature of comic book continuity itself.

Ambush Bug first popped up in DC COMICS PRESENTS in the early 80s, during a bit of a doldrums for the company. The Bronze Age was slowly moving towards a close and a bunch of characters and concepts were on the verge of being retconned by CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, and in this bleh period the green suited bug first pops up to menace Superman and the then-new Doom Patrol, murdering a Metropolis D.A. just to establish his villainy and popping around town thanks to a miniature robot bug teleportation network (and that idea makes a lot more sense in context.) He gets away and causes trouble later for the Legion of Substitute Heroes and Supergirl (who he thinks is Superman, just looking a bit different) before starting to work as an independent hero type and slowly drifting out of normal continuity as we know it, into a succession of miniseries and specials.

Ambush Bug’s actual origin story involves a suit sent from a doomed planet in a rocket that was later bitten by a radioactive spider, before ending up in the hands of Irvin Schwab, who was raised by a solid-state television set. Or maybe not- later he insists that his secret origin is just that, secret, and you aren’t ever gonna hear it. Whatever he is, wherever he comes from, the Bug can go anywhere he pleases, and with his loyal sidekick Cheeks, the Toy Wonder (don’t ask) he confronts discontinuity, giant Koalas, editor Julius Schwartz, an evil sock, and... *gasp*... DARKSEID!

Silliness doesn’t begin to describe it. To say that Giffen did the plotting for Ambush Bug (at least after he came into his own as a character- Paul Kupperberg wrote the Doom Patrol and Supergirl stories) implies that there’s plot, which is a half truth at best. Oh, there’s usually a pretense of a story, but Giffen and Fleming frequently get bored and digress into side gags like puppetry, art lessons, recipes for teriyaki burgers, data sheets (of the DC and Playboy variety), Cheeks as a combat medic, the adventures of Ambush Bug’s magna counterpart Mitsu-Bishi, the list goes on.

Most of the humor comes from satirizing comic trends, specifically DC’s attempts to present a coherent and serious universe in light of decades of pure silliness. Its efforts are personified by Jonni DC, the continuity cop who is turned from a personified DC logo into a disturbingly curvy woman due to the efforts of the Interferer, who revises and reboots comic characters at a whim. As inside-baseball as it sometimes seems, Giffen and Fleming’s satire is sharp and engaging, and Giffen’s uniquely scratchy art style matches the material pretty well.

In some ways the collection is a mixed bag, with a few almost normal superhero stories preceding a slide into absolute insanity. I actually enjoyed the early appearances just as a look at what DC was like in the early 80s, and it’s fascinating to see how Ambush Bug developed from a mildly humorous villain concept to a pure comedy figure. There’s some really brilliant stuff here, and some stuff I don’t understand at all, and the occasional moment that’s almost moving (Cheeks is nothing if not sympathetic.) Definitely worth having around and dipping into now and then, if only as a reminder that good comic books don’t necessarily have to make sense.

Grade: A-

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Comics Page #22: Dan Dare: Prisoners of Space

Prisoners of Space cover and Amazon link
I actually picked up DAN DARE: PRISONERS OF SPACE thinking it was the immediate follow-up to THE RED MOON MYSTERY, which ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. Hey, these things aren’t numbered. Instead we end up jumping ahead a few years for a return engagement by Dare’s favored enemy the Mekon, in a story that is conceptually bog-standard but executed tightly enough to be a fun read. Not every story arc could involve ancient mysteries from the depths of space, after all.

The action starts at Space HQ’s Astral Training College, where promising cadets Steve Valiant and “Flamer” Spry (don’t say anything) are taken on a tour of Dan Dare’s new experimental rocket, the “Performing Flea”. Through normal boys’ adventure shenanigans they accidentally launch the rocket (with a curmudgeonly Scotsman named “Groupie” on board), and are forced to dock with a nearby space station while Dan prepares to pick them up. Unfortunately, said station has been commandeered by the reptilian genius known as the Mekon, along with his loyal Treen soldiers, and the cadets and Groupie are quickly captured. The Mekon promises he’ll let the prisoners go in exchange for Dare’s surrender, and Dare solemnly agrees. However, Digby stows away on Dare’s ship, and they quickly discover that the alien mastermind has designs on reconquering his old Venusian stomping grounds.

This is pretty much pure cliffhanger stuff as soon as the plot gets moving; it’s a simple set-up, so writers Frank Hampson and Allan Stranks don’t have to dwell on any potentially boring exposition. Nothing really strange or exotic pops up, we’re just watching the good guys face off against the established bad guys for what was then the third time.

Most of the drama this time comes from Dan Dare’s very heroic and very properly British integrity- once promising the Mekon that he’ll give himself up to save the boys’ lives, he’s pretty thoroughly committed to that course of action even when an opportunity to save them and himself arises. It’s up to the others to help him and to the Mekon to be so predictably underhanded as to force the hero to act. We know that one or both of these things must inevitably happen, so the fun is in seeing how. Codes of honor and such also come into play regarding the boys trapped on board- Steve Valiant is forced to play along as the Mekon’s willing servant to prevent the others being killed, which causes Flamer to see him as a dirty deceitful rat. Such are the sacrifices one must make for the greater good (the greater good).

That heady business aside, most of the strips are just about twisting the story enough to keep the reader hooked for next week, and on that level the writers do their job. There’s never the sense that the plot is being unnecessarily dragged out or that the pacing is off; overall this particular arc lasted for almost a year, but despite its simplicity it never outstays its welcome.

The art here- by Hampson, Desmond Walduck, and Don Harley- is a bit more polished than on RED MOON, though this may just be a sign that Titan Books improved their printing process. The colors are bright and candylike, and though this story doesn’t offer as many opportunities for visual spectacle as the other I’ve reviewed we get some nice spacefights and the like.

Reading a big collection of work that was meant to be taken two pages at a time by bored British schoolchildren is an unusual experience, but PRISONERS OF SPACE holds up surprisingly well for something that was obviously never meant to be read all in one go. There’s nothing that makes it a real must read, but for someone already hooked on Dan Dare there’s nothing that disappoints either. Hampson and company deliver what they promise, with as much style as ever.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

In Theaters: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Wolverine Poster from
From the opening scene, in which a young boy in flannel pyjamas cries out “NOOOOO!” and stabs a man with bone claws embedded in his hands, you can rest comfortably knowing what kind of movie X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE will be. It’s not good by any means, in fact it hovers quite near outright bad. But it’s the rare funny kind of bad, not so close to good that it frustrates you but not so utterly horrible that it’s hard to bear. The first theoretically solo screen outing for Marvel’s immortal cash cow is comfortably dumb, and in a sense captures the unwarranted seriousness and bizarre plotting that have dogged the character’s comic incarnation ever since he became a draw.

Hugh Jackman plays James Howlett, later Logan, later Wolverine, a mutant with healing powers that allow him to survive just about anything and keep him and similarly mutated brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) alive through the Civil War, both World Wars, and Vietnam, which is sort of interesting because I’m almost sure they’re Canadian. They’re recruited by General William Stryker (Danny Huston) for a special covert group of mutant soldiers doing unsavory black ops, but flees when Victor and company massacre the inhabitants of a village in Nigeria. Years later he’s living in the mountains with a gorgeous girlfriend (Lynn Collins) and working as a lumberjack, when Victor shows up again and for vague reasons kills said girlfriend. Wolverine signs up with Stryker again to get revenge, and his powers are augmented by a skeleton of unbreakable adamantium, with claws to boot. He overhears that Stryker plans to wipe his memory and ship him to “the island”, so he breaks out and triggers a manhunt that eventually leads him to some old partners and the revelation that Stryker and Victor are working together to capture mutants for a program to build the ultimate mutant soldier under U.S. control, or something.

As twisted as the overall story is, it’s almost impossible NOT to predict where a given scene is going to lead. The script is composed of at least 75% action film clichés, and the film makes no attempt whatsoever to disguise the recycling. The dialogue is particularly ripe with this sort of thing, all sorts of macho posturing about blood and vengeance and badassery that becomes giggle-inducing after a while.

It helps that Hugh Jackman is an actor who’s apparently game for anything. After three movies he’s comfortable with the part of Wolverine, obviously, and he jumps into it with enthusiasm. There’s even a bit of comic exasperation in his performance, Wolverine being constantly betrayed, knocked around, having things fall on him, etc. Schreiber plays off him well, but strangely Victor gets sidelined in the film’s final act.

Now, I suppose you’re wondering what, for me, the practicable difference is between a bad but enjoyable film and one I’ll legitimately defend. I gave a good review to TRANSFORMERS, after all. But TRANSFORMERS knew it was kind of silly, while WOLVERINE comes across as almost entirely straight faced. There’s comic relief, of course, and a scene where Wolverine battles the corpulent Blob (Kevin Durand) in a boxing match approaches a kind of kitsch brilliance, but we’re apparently expected to take most of the amateur melodramatics seriously, and the filmmakers show too much restraint for the picture to realize its full camp potential.

A certain inconsistency dogs the action and effects sequences. Some of the effects work is quite good, some is not great but acceptable, and some of it was clearly done the day before release. None of the action scenes really stand out, although the climactic fight has a few good shots in it. The direction is sometimes quite sloppy and pedestrian, and last minute editing seems to have cut out most of Ryan Reynolds’ performance as Wade Wilson / Deadpool, which is a shame. Speaking of editing, I’m fairly sure that we don’t hear Wolvie’s girlfriend’s name until some time in the final act. (It’s Kayla.)

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE may be so slipshod it makes THE LAST STAND look like a polished masterpiece by comparison, but if you know what to expect going in it’s hard to dislike the film too much. Honestly, the convoluted backstory and enforced edginess of the Wolverine character/brand made any solo effort likely to fail from the start, and an effort that fails entertainingly is probably not the worst we could do. I’m disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be a musical, but that was too much to hope for.

Based on characters created by various persons within Marvel Comics
Screenplay by David Benioff and Skip Woods
Directed by Gavin Hood

Grade: C