Monthly Archives: January 2006

Suggestions for new comic book readers

My response to a fan of the classic X-Men who hasn’t kept up with comics recently and is wondering if Ultimate X-Men is worthwhile. He’s skeptical of what he’s heard about the modernized characters but hasn’t read any of the actual issues:

I got into the Ultimate universe from the beginning, with Ult. Spider-Man, so when Ult. X-Men debuted soon after — written by Mark Millar and illlustrated by Adam Kubert — I picked it up from the beginning and really enjoyed the first couple story arcs (6 issues each, which is usually standard nowdays because of TPBs).

It was probably ideal for me because I had never been an X-fan and I always felt daunted by the years of regular X-Men contunity, so Ultimate X-Men gave me an opportunity to read the characters yet be in on it from the beginning. I remember enjoying Millar’s storytelling and Kubert’s art was perfect for the series. I kept collecting the issues for a while but I admit I didn’t read them all because I was busy with college. (About a year and a half ago I quit collecting monthly issues across the board so now I’m a notorious “waiting for the trade” man, but it’s more fun to read full stories straight through without month-long interruptions every 22 pages.)

In your case especially, Trade Paperbacks are your friends. Don’t start collecting new issues until you’ve read what’s come before to see if you like it or not. Marvel has done a good job regularly collecting the entire Ultimate line.

For example, next month Ultimate X-Men #67 will be released as well as Volume 13 of the TPB series, collecting #61-65. They’ve also been releasing hardcover versions that include the contents of two or three of the original paperback volumes in a slightly larger format (which might be a slightly better value depending on how many issues are included but you’d have to compare them yourself).

So you could go out and buy an uninterrupted run of the first 65 issues in 13 softcover volumes, and be up-to-date within two months of the current issue. Or visit Borders and read as much as you want without buying.

Unfortunately, Marvel’s website is an absolute nightmare of inconsistent updates and unnavigable web design. There is some info here, but when it comes to Marvel, often Wikipedia is a better resource for sorting out comics series and figuring out what collections are in print.

(The nice thing about DC history is you can learn a lot just by browsing their very organized back catalogue, and the schedules and descriptions of current issues is very easy to navigate. God bless the DC website!)

As for the regular universe X-Men, I can’t think of anything I’ve read in the normal Marvel Universe (admittedly my first love) for a few years EXCEPT the recent Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon (yes, the Buffy guy) and artist John Cassaday. The second trade just came out a month or two ago as well. So if you want to read some good adventures of the modern X-team check out the “Gifted” (vol. 1) and “Dangerous” (vol. 2) TPBs, collected six issues each. (And all 12 will be included in a single hardcover in April for $30.)

I didn’t read it at the time but the most highly acclaimed X-Men stories of the past few years have been Grant Morrison’s run (#114-154) on “New X-Men” (not to be confused with the current series of that name) with various artists like Frank Quitely, Chris Bachalo, and even Mark Silvestri. They’ve been collected into 7 paperback volumes, but they might not be the classic style X-Men you’re used to. I think he was into exploring the continuing evolution of mutant-kind and the advancement of humanity, so there were a lot of new characters and big ideas, I think.

There are a lot of Morrison fans (who isn’t?) who would better be able to direct you regarding his run. One of the fun things in comics is following writers and artists rather than just characters. I used to be just an artists guy but recently I’ve been discovering a lot of new characters and series by checking out certain writers’ other stuff. Comics.org is good database for checklists of creators’ work.

Anyway, hope some of that might help. Over the past five years I’ve drifited from Marvel and become an almost exclusively DC guy, but I have to credit the Ultimate universe for at least keeping me interested. Ultimate Fantastic Four has been fun too. And in many ways Ultimate Spider-Man is more classic than the “real” one in the Marvel U. I mean, what’s up with Spidey now? Can someone please tell me what Straczynski’s weird animism stuff is all about? Totems? Huh?

The blind Village girl is GWEN STACY

The Hollywood Reporter reports:

Bryce Dallas Howard is in negotiations to play Peter Parker’s love interest Gwen Stacy in Columbia Pictures’ “Spider-Man 3.” Sam Raimi is directing the movie, which is scheduled to roll this month.

Gwen is pivotal in Spider-Man lore as Peter’s high school crush, his first girlfriend and his first love. She ended up being kidnapped by the Green Goblin and died during a bridgetop battle in “Amazing Spider-Man” issue 121.

In “Spider-Man,” Columbia put Mary Jane Watson, a later love interest of Peter’s who was a model, in the Gwen role, casting Kirsten Dunst as the high school crush. The movie featured the famous battle on the bridge with the Green Goblin, though a Hollywood ending was added, and the character survived.

Columbia is keeping a tight lid on the third movie’s story line, though it is known that Gwen is the third part of a love triangle and that the character does survive.

Nothing about MJ surviving, fortunately! Off with her head and out with her hamster teeth.

But back to Gwen. “Of course she will be blonde,” assures Avi Arad. Since they hired a blonde to play a redhead, I guess it’s appropriate to hire a carrottop to play a blonde.

P.S. Harry Knowles has picked up and is now propagating my Kill Off Mary Jane meme.

The Best Superman Comic Book of the Decade

Grant Morrison’s second issue (out this week) of All Star Superman is a must-read. Can’t wait till all 12 issues are out and collected. I’d even get the hardback version, ’cause this one is a classic.

THE HIDDEN BLADE

I saw Yoji Yamada’s follow-up to Twilight Samurai tonight at my city’s modern art center. They have three standard stadium seating screens, but special engagements like The Hidden Blade are shown in their cubical multi-purpose gallery, which they set up for films by putting in 25 love-seat couches, so there are only 50 tickets per showing.

Anyway, the film is really called “Kakushi-Ken: Oni No Tsume” which should translate to “Hidden Blade, Devil’s Claw”, the names of two special samurai moves. Which might be a spoiler, since you think the un-named (according to the subtitles) Hidden Blade move has been used when actually it’s something else.

Anyway, the good news is: The Hidden Blade is very similar to The Twilight Samurai.

And the bad news is: The Hidden Blade is very similar to The Twilight Samurai.

The plots and many specific situations from both movies are practically interchangeable. The main characters are almost identical, their personal dramas are almost identical, and their professional dilemmas are almost identical. If you watched both movies back-to-back for the first time you would not be faulted for getting them confused.

So you’ll be shocked, shocked to discover the story is a combination of two stories by Shuuhei Fujisawa, the author of the novels that Twilight Samurai was based on.

One of the subplots that is more pronounced in The Hidden Blade is the samurai’s attempted adoption of new western military technologies. Yamada uses near slapstick to satirize the ridiculous acceptance of idiosyncratic cultural traditions (such as English marching) that the Japanese assume is inseparable from the use of western weapons. For better or worse, these become the most memorable scenes.

There is not much else to say except that if you liked Twilight Samurai, you will like this one. But there is nothing really new, comparable to the House of Flying Daggars having similarities to Hero yet going in new directions.

The only criticism I can think of is that the protagonist’s personal drama is very distinct from the other half of the movie, and it does feel like two different stories whose scenes were intercut together without affecting each other. If I recall correctly (and I’m not sure I can now trust my memory of it) Twilight Samurai did a better job of building the suspense of his final showdown, because the outcome affected people in his personal life more directly.

Still, the Hidden Blade is an enjoyable and relaxing look at the life of a humble, honest samurai in a time of change and all that.

MATCH POINT

I really enjoyed it and was definitely into the drama. I loved the use of opera (as score, not just source music) at least three times during the story.

I don’t want to comment on the story really, other than I was surprised the affair started later than I expected, which improved the suspense. The trailer actually did a good job of not tipping off too much of the plot.

Spoiler-free comments on the acting now:

This is kind of minor, but it was honestly great to see Brian Cox as a 100% nice guy without a hint of a sinister gleam in his eye. A rare thing.

Jonathan Rhys Myers was great but kept reminding me of Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator all the time. A lot of simpering I guess. His posh accent made it hard to buy his working-class upbringing though.

I don’t have to reiterate my credentials for devotion to Scarlett Johansson but to be honest, I don’t think this was her best performance. I don’t know if she just couldn’t make the script sound right or what. Stewie Griffen played drunk better in the Family Guy movie. She’s sexy and has a dead sexy voice, but when she tried to play sexy it just rang false. She’s better at playing ironic and aloof and sarcastic (and even naive, in The Island) but here she had to be more obvious and I don’t think it worked. In any case, her Golden Globe nomination is a fraud.

Emily Mortimer was great though, and even though she tried a little too hard to play young she was still very engaging.

I’m not a Woody Allen aficianado so I can’t compare it to most of his work, but I thought Match Point was better than Melinda and Melinda, and had better performances across the board (of course anyone would be better than Chloe Sevigny in that movie).

All Star Batman and Robin #3

The Letdown.

I gave the last two issues the benefit of the doubt, and even praised them for being different and doing unexpected things, but NOTHING HAPPENS in the third issue.

The first 15 pages are a kind of new origin for Black Canary but it is tedious and repetitive. It’s extremely overnarrated from a third-person perspective. When you think about how much information Miller was able to fit on a page of the Dark Knight Returns, it’s actually amazing how many words are used to develop so little here. It’s like Frank “Terse Noir-ration” Miller was raped by Brian “Dia(rrhea)logue” Bendis and produced a neverending afterbirth of faux-noir verbiage.

Running out of room (but most likely time) to develop the primary plot, Miller returns to Batman and Robin for four pages. At the end of issue #2 he showed how much could be squeezed into just a few pages, but here gives Jim Lee TWO full-page splashes followed by a TWO-PAGE splash, which gives Batman’s narration only enough room to re-cap what he did in the previous two issues. Their relationship is not advanced in the few seconds that elapse here since the end of #2, and the only thing that happens is that the Batmobile (which sprouted wings and flew in the previous issue) dives into the water and becomes a submarine. But we still don’t know where they are going. Since kidnapping Dick Grayson in the first issue, at this rate it will be a miracle if they reach the Batcave by the fifth.

The next two pages (narrator- and dialogue-free, supporting my ran-out-of-time theory) introduce Clark Kent, who is inordinately angry at the news of Dick’s abduction. He’s so pissed, he destroys the newspaper (and his glasses) with his heat vision. Big bitch-fight next issue over who gets Dick apparently.

Miller and Lee then cheat with their 22nd page, nothing but a giant S-symbol to tease the next issue. Thieves!

The timeline is also screwy because it says Clark read the morning paper (with the news of Batman kidnapping Grayson) 15 hours before the scenes with the Batmobile. Which means Batman and Dick have been driving around for at least 24 hours, if not two days. If the Batmobile doesn’t surface in the Mediterranian next issue I’m going to wonder what’s been going down in those unaccounted hours.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1995)

Okay everybody. I just watched the first half hour of the BBC production again and I have to be honest with you all: it sucks.

The acting is terrible. Everyone recites their lines, like they’re quoting Bible verses, instead of actually acting.

Mrs Bennet is obviously a stage actress because she simply screams all her lines, and she tries too hard to be irritating instead of physically incarnating irritation and superficiality as Brenda Blethyn does in the new one.

Most importantly, Jennifer Ehle is disgustingly sweet. Constantly squinting her eyes and doing her little cutsie face quickly becomes intolerable for the viewer. After a half hour I wanted to stab her in the face but I couldn’t so I just turned it off.

Darcy has to state (to Bingley’s sister) fairly early on his admiration for Lizzy because otherwise we would never know he likes her. And when he says so, it’s a complete shock and we have to take his word for it because there’s literally no evidence till then in the movie to support it.

This is also one of many scenes in the BBC version not witnessed firsthand by Lizzy — one of the best things in the new version is that it is shown totally from Lizzy’s point of view, which contributes greatly to its coherence as a film.

Finally, and maybe this is too harsh for a made-for-TV series, but the camera is 100% static. Everything is a stationary shot. There are also a lot of unnecessary shots. No reason for it to be 5 hours long with this many useless shots.

Quite simply, these two versions of Pride and Prejudice can hardly be compared. The BBC might be enjoyable as an audiobook or as a CD instead of a DVD, but in terms of direction it is a waste of filmstock. Perhaps fun to listen to, even despite some of the bad acting, but torture to watch.

PRIDE & PREJUDICE: Second Thoughts

My grandmother visiting for Christmas wanted to see Pride and Prejudice so I happily offered to take her, eager myself to double-check if my initial praise for the movie was actually sane or a passing fever. But after a second critical viewing, I emphatically endorse my original review and would add that it is in fact a flawless movie.

The only difference I noticed in the American cut of the film is the terribly cheesy final scene in which Darcy calls Lizzy “Mrs Darcy” a dozen times while kissing her. It is the only scene that feels out of place in a movie ripe with suggestion but never explicit. One of the things that struck me this second time was the movie’s achievement of sensuality without a hint of vulgarity.

For a movie without a single kiss (at least not until the last scene in the American version) it is sexually charged with a kind of latent eroticism found only in PG movies like Hitchcock’s Notorious. The tension, longing, even frustration experienced by Elisabeth and Darcy is so palpable that a tacked-on quasi-consumation was destined to be anticlimactic.

Deborah Moggach is my choice for Best Adapted Screenplay. Every line, whether humorous or not, adds to the plot or character development — the snippets of conversation overheard during the long party shots being ideal examples — and the acting is uniformly expert.

Unlike Narnia, with its inartful paraphrases of Lewis’ dialogue — would Aslan ever say something so prosaic as “There must be an explanation”? — P&P never feels like an adaptation. In fact the script feels invisible, a remarkable feat for a novel and screenplay with so many precisely worded and memorable passages.

And unlike Oscar Wilde scripts, whose incessant cleverness almost inevitably reduces actors to reciting their lines without being able to sustain the illusion of spontaneity, it is a credit to the actors of P&P that even the most clever lines and exchanges always seem unrehearsed.

And speaking of actors, everyone cites Colin Firth’s supposedly authoritative interpretation of Darcy ten years ago but, by becoming a professional Darcy in two Bridget Jones movies, Firth ended up identifying himself too closely with the character, retroactively making his original portrayal of the role in the BBC production now seem more Colin Firth than Darcy. Make mine MacFadyen.

The new version is also a masterpiece of editing. At nearly two hours there is not a single unnecessary or overlong scene. I loved King Kong but I distinctly remember a dozen shots that could have been cut with no harm to the movie. Peter Jackson is like the Ron Howard of action epics, and Kong shares with LOTR too much sentimentalism.

But P&P, in which moments of sentimentality might have been understandably excused, never approaches them because every facial expression shown actually contributes to character. Instead of Jennifer Ehle verbalizing (because that’s what Austen wrote!) the thought, “Of all this I might have been mistress,” while strolling through Pemberly, Moggach’s effecient script is silent, wisely deferring to Keira Knightley’s ability to show the thought all over her face as soon as she stands up in the carriage.

Though Dickens adaptations can be artistic — as Polanski’s Twist was this year — they always lack an ultimate level of realism because even when the sentimentality is removed from his stories, most of Dickens’ characters remain inherently comical. Joe Wright’s P&P, however, is both artistic and realistic in its vision of Austen’s England (even though Bingley’s hair is too perfectly mussed with Bryl Cream). His film is tightly plotted and perfectly executed, making it in my opinion the best Austen adaptation ever, if not one of the best-ever period pieces, period.