Monthly Archives: November 2006

PAN’S LABYRINTH

I’m sorry to report that Del Toro’s latest was a huge disappointment for me.

Admittedly I was expecting a completely different movie; the teaser and trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth are completely misleading: I was expecting a fairy tale with some historical window dressing but what I got was primarily a Spanish Civil War drama interrupted by two or three relatively short scenes of fantasy.

That isn’t to say the fantastical bits aren’t great, they are great and undoubtedly the highlights of the movie, but there is little more of them than what is shown in the trailer. Unfortunately its R rating (deserved) is for the brutality of its realistic scenes, not the boldness of its vision.

So some of my disappointment is due just to the content which made me restless and bored, but I was also disappointed to find it actually an anti-fairy tale, in a couple of ways. Firstly, the fantasy bits are used to emphasize the horror of real life, rather than realistic scenes being the foil for the fantastical. Imagine The Wizard of Oz as mostly a black-and-white movie about Kansas, with just a few color detours along the Yellow Brick Road to reinforce the rest of the movie’s dreariness.

That’s actually a pretty good analogy now that I think about it, because (and this is the second way) the film itself is not a fairy tale. There is a fairy tale in the movie but as I said the movie is an anti-fairy tale, whose fantasy is “true” only in the weakest sense.

The inevitable comparison is with Tideland, which is basically the same concept with a radically different execution. Both are about a girl who uses fantasy to escape from horror, but Tideland achieves that fantasy exclusively through point of view. I know everyone thinks Gilliam’s movie was self-indulgent and gratuitous, but it was more interesting.

But don’t take my word for it because Pan’s Labyrinth is still at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Mark Kermode of the Observer calls it “the very best film of the year” and “a Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema” so I’m afraid I just missed the boat on this one.

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Close Encounters of the Salkind

Tom Mankiewicz, the man who actually wrote most of Superman and Superman II, gives Newsarama what might be the greatest interview ever. By all accounts the producers of Superman were basically crooks, for example signing Ann-Margaret to play Miss Teschmacher then signing Valrie Plame for the same role because they could pay her less. When Mankiewicz said, “But how’s that possible? You just made a deal with Ann-Margret,” Alexander Salkind replied, “She can sue.” The interview is full of gems like this:

Donner and the Salkinds just loathed each other. Donner had called them assholes in print. The old man, Alexander Salkind, had paid the government of Costa Rica money to make him the cultural attaché to Switzerland. This gave him a diplomatic passport which made him immune from arrest because he was wanted on lots of fraud charges.

Alexander Salkind couldn’t even attend any of the openings in the United States because there was a warrant for his arrest. The FBI said, “I’m sorry, cultural attaché from Costa Rica to Switzerland doesn’t cut it with us. That’s not a diplomatic passport as far as we’re concerned.” So he couldn’t show up for any of the openings. In the meantime, another parallel story was going on.

Richard Lester was owed several million dollars by the Salkinds because of his share of the profits from directing The Three and Four Musketeers. Lester sued them and he won the lawsuit except he won it against a Bahamian corporation which was a company that was broke. So he couldn’t get any money. In essence the Salkinds did two things when the first Superman opened. They fired Donner immediately because they hated him and they said to Lester “If you finish Superman II we’ll pay you the money we owe you.”

Of course, their other absolutely inexcusable thing that they did was they took Brando out of the second movie. They read in the contract that he had a piece of the gross and if he didn’t appear in the film they didn’t have to pay him so they just cut him out.

I hate to sound pretentious by using words like arc but when Jor-El sends his son to Earth, it’s almost God sending Christ to earth or it could be Allah sending Mohammed to Earth. Then when the son screws up in the second picture and he loses his powers and falls in love, he in essence, becomes a selfish human and has to go back to the Fortress of Solitude and apologize to his father. All those scenes with Brando were just wonderful and they were all taken out and replaced with Susannah York, who had nothing to do with anything. She is a perfectly nice woman and a very good actress but was available for, I’m guessing, $5000 a week.

I never understood that because obviously the first one was a hit and the second one was going to be a hit so there was money for everybody. Marlon may be the signature star of the 20th century so cutting him out was just inexcusable. Then Lester called Donner said, “Listen, you’ve already shot 75 or 80 percent of [Superman II] so let’s share credit.” Donner said, “No, I don’t share credit.” Then Lester and the Salkinds found out that, according to the Director’s Guild, unless Lester had directed 40 or 45 percent of the picture, he couldn’t get his name on it as director. So they started eliminating scenes and sequences that we had shot already and replacing them with other ones.

Terry Semel asked me to go back and work on the film but Donner and I were friends had offices as Warners at the time. I said, “Terry I can’t do that. Dick is my friend and he brought me on the picture and it’s just inexcusable that he got fired by these people when he delivered them this huge hit movie.” Then Terry said “Well could you fly to London and arrange to accidentally run into Lester and have dinner with him?” I said, “No, I can’t do that either.” Terry said, “I understand.”

So they got David and Leslie Newman to write these scenes. In the new cut of Superman II, Lois throws herself out the window because she knows Clark is Superman and that he’ll catch her. There’s also a scene where she shoots Clark. Then there are all the Brando scenes. There’s about 45 minutes to an hour worth of new stuff. In my opinion it’s a vastly better movie than the one that was released theatrically. What they did was make a really good movie for the theatrical version of Superman II when they could have had an exceptional movie.

Mankiewicz also correctly diagnoses the big problem with Superman IV, whose story was conceived by Christopher Reeve:

Christopher Reeve, who was the nicest guy in the world and such an idealist, was about to do Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and he asked me to help him. I said to him, “Chris you’re forgetting the rules of Superman. World disarmament is a wonderful thing but Superman can’t get involved in things like that because everybody knows he could disarm the whole world in 20 minutes if he wanted to do. You can’t bring up famine in a Superman movie because Superman could feed the world if he wanted to. So don’t get into those areas because it’s not going to work. Chris understood but he went ahead and did it anyway. He’s a very idealistic guy and I think that put a lid on Superman for a while.

Incidentally, Mankiewicz was also the screenwriter of Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man with the Golden Gun, and I agree 100% with his opinion of Daniel Craig compared to the other Bonds:

I didn’t dislike Pierce Brosnan but I didn’t think he was exceptional. I’ve seen the new one [Casino Royale] and I think Daniel Craig is just great. He’s a wonderful actor. Even though I’m a friend of Roger Moore’s and it was fun working with Roger there was something about Sean [Connery]. Sean has the face of a bastard. Sean looked dangerous and Daniel Craig is dangerous and that’s a really good thing.

The difference between Sean and Roger, was that Sean could sit at a table with a girl at a nightclub and either lean across and kiss her or stick a knife in her under the table and then say, “Excuse me waiter, I have nothing to cut my meat with.” Whereas Roger could kiss the girl but if he stuck a knife in her it would look nasty because Roger looks like a nice guy.

Morrison on Seven Soldiers and Co.

Newsarama has posted a substantial interview with comic book rock star Grant Morrison. It’s obviously an email interview since his responses are long and comprehensive. Most of it is ideas we’ve heard from him before but compared to the usual creator interviews a Morrison Q&A can’t not be a highlight, and a few things caught my eye.

Having picked up Batman #658, the conclusion of Morrison’s four-part arc introducing the son of Batman and Talia, I felt that it just kind of fizzled out in the last few pages despite its great promise. Apparently it was a last-minute change, and the whole arc should be seen as an introduction to Morrison’ run on the title rather than a self-contained story:

I’d originally planned a heartbreaking death scene for the Damian character in that book. He was to save Batman’s life then perish in what was a really nice and emotional conclusion…then I started writing the character and realized he was too good to waste. He started coming to life as I wrote and I soon realized there was too much long-term story potential in this kid, so I had to completely discard my beautifully-constructed ending and instead leave it open and inconclusive for Damian and Talia’s comeback which now forms a major strand of this 15-part Bat-novel I’m planning. If I’d stuck to my original plan, I’d have had a more affecting conclusion to a 4-part story but I’d have lost a character that will now provide me with a much bigger and more powerfully resonant finale.

It sounds like Morrison isn’t exactly overjoyed (“disappointed” might be more accurate) with how “his” Seven Soldiers characters have been subsequently used in the DCU, since he was hired in the first place to revamp these second-rate characters into viable properties. Surprising, perhaps, since Morrison is supposed to be one of the four writers of 52:

Ian Brill: I must know, what happened to The Buleteer between Seven Soldiers #1 and 52 Week 24 where she goes from being a severely reluctant hero to someone who joins a version of the Justice League (a rather makeshift version, but still)?

Grant Morrison: Beats me. She’s found her way into the regular DCU as a kind of cipher who crops up when writers need a ‘lame’ hero to stand around in crowd scenes. I have no control over how people handle the Seven Soldiers characters in my wake – Klarion already seems barely recognizable and appears to have returned to his role (a role no-one could ever sell in the first place) as a teen warlock who turns up to fight DCs younger characters – a sort of Goth Mr. Myxyzptlk. I honestly don’t expect anyone to actualize the potential of these characters, but I’d like to be proven wrong. The Guardian and Frankenstein could join the JLA.

Finally, a lot of my recent posts have been related to metafiction in the DCU, including Infinite Crisis as well as Morrison’s own Animal Man, and similar themes are woven into Seven Soldiers. Ian Brill comments: “There seems to be meta-commentary on the superhero comic book industry in Seven Soldiers. The major example I can think of is The Seven Unknown Men, who are like seven editors arranging and rearranging these characters’ lives.” After a couple long paragraphs Morrison says:

So the Time Tailors/Seven Unknown Men (whom I imagined to be all the DC writers who have appeared as themselves interacting with characters inside the DC Universe – like me, Julius Schwartz, Cary Bates, Elliot Maggin etc…) present a sci-fi take on the job of maintaining a comic book universe, repairing its plot holes, refreshing its characters and set-ups and generally patching it up, like tailors adding to an old, tattered quilt.

I haven’t yet read the final bookend issue of the series myself because I still haven’t finished Volume 3 but it shouldn’t be long till Volume 4 is out, including the final issue. I flipped through it at the shop though and JHWIII’s art is amazing.

New Spider-Man Trailer

See it here.

Great to see a glimpse of Hal Fishman in there. Almost makes me homesick. I have fond memories of the days when his hair was slicked back Pat Riley style. It was so essential to his image that I audibly gasped the first time I saw the mature Michael Caine look he switched to a few years ago. He wears it well, though, and I’ve come to like his short hair with vague part.

Action Cinema

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The interface between comics and cinema continues in Action Comics, now co-written by Richard Donner in same the month as his new cut of Superman II debuts.

Superman’s post-IC reintroduction to the DC universe “One Year Later” in the 8-part “Up, Up, and Away” story by Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns was in effect an in-continuity reimagining of the Superman Returns plot: Superman returns to Metropolis after a long absence (one year instead of five) to thwart Lex Luthor’s discovery of Kryptonian technology resulting in giant crystals sprouting up through the Earth’s surface during which Superman is overexposed to Kryptonite and loses his powers culminating in a dramatic free-fall to earth, and while Superman is weakened Lex gets in a few punches (also evoking Superman #164, October 1963).

But the arc’s most explicit acknowledgment of the film series was its ending which for the first time since 1978 introduced Donner’s “crystal cathedral” style Fortress of Solitude into DCU continuity.

Now, with Richard Donner collaborating with his former assistant Geoff Johns, Action Comics is exploring another theme from Superman Returns: Superman as father. But rather than following Singer’s recapitulation of Superman’s Kryptonian relationship, with Kal-El succeeding Jor-El role as the genetic father of a boy adopted by human parents, Donner is letting Superman imitate his earthly father Jonathan Kent as the surrogate parent of an orphan boy evidently from Krypton.

However, I’m not reading the series (waiting for the trade) so I’ll have to direct you to Double Articulation for Jim Roeg’s analysis of the story’s imitation of the characteristics of film practice. But having flipped through a copy last week, I concur with his praise of Adam Kubert’s art which in my opinion overshadows his brother Andy’s current work on Batman.

Kubert’s Clark (shown above) takes a cue from Morrison and Frank Quitely’s interpretation over in his All Star title — hunched over, slightly dishevelled, hair mussed — reinforcing New Earth’s departure from John Byrne’s depiction of Metropolis Clark as confident and slick.

I just love Adam’s work on this and can’t wait till it’s collected.

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THX 1138 (1971) Director’s Cut

The overwhelming sensation one feels while wathcing George Lucas’ theatrical debut is of disbelief. It’s hard to believe Lucas ever had an artistic bone in his body (he did not direct The Empire Strikes Back after all), but the truth is he had more than one! But they say every cell in our body is replaced every ten years and bones are the slowest, so Lucas’ current skeleton is removed from its artistic ancestors by four or five osteal generations.

There are some great shot compositions, with Lucas exploiting the 2.35:1 ratio to maximum effect, though his taste for placing the point of focus at the far left or far right of the shot becomes too predictable after a while. That said, it is a consistent aesthetic throughout the film so it cannot be argued that Lucas’ best shots are accidental.

Besides the visuals, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is the sound design, though much of that is probably due to Walter Murch. But the final element of THX that confounds the post-prequels viewer is the extremely naturalistic acting. It is simply impossible to reconcile the performances here and in Attack of the Clones as being approved by the same director. It’s hard to ignore the perpetual thought while watching THX that the glimmers of genius and promise reveal Lucas’ subsequent fall to be all the more tragic.

The only thing disappointing about THX itself was discovering that the quaint term “Director’s Cut” did not mean “original footage restored to its rightful place” as much as “Special Edition a la Lucas” with transitional scenes of gratuitous CG wonder inserted sporadically. I assume from the run time reflecting two additional minutes that the new shots do not actually replace pre-existing ones, however, by comparing shots in the 1971 trailers it is evident that a couple of original shots are embellished.

For example, a sewer-midget attacking Robert Duvall is joined by some CG accomplices that look like rabid Ewoks, and the scaffold that Duvall’s car crashes through is slightly more elaborate. The rest of the new scenes (identifiable only by their digital appearance and incongruity with the rest of the film, but otherwise unacknowledged) are Coruscant-like exterior shots, including an expansion of the car chase.

Though perhaps because it’s the least of possible evils, I’m actually relieved by the fact that the additional scenes contribute absolutely nothing to the film.