Monthly Archives: December 2006

Blogging DOES Pay

I’m absolutely delighted to report that I’ve just received the first (to my knowledge) blog award for this site, ironically for a post about neither film nor comic books: at the Unbridled Warhorse 2007 Horsey Awards I won the category “Most Outrageously Informative Response to a Question Posted Here” for my thoughts on The Underworld, Otherworld, Faerielond, and Underland.

Unlike most awards in the blogosphere, however, the Horseys come with a monetary prize! An Amazon.co.uk gift certificate for £5 is nothing to sneeze at–that’s practically $10!

Many thanks to the Unbridled Warhorse for his generosity and excellent judgment of character!

Advertisements

CHILDREN OF MEN

I noticed that Children of Men is opening Christmas Day so I thought I would post my recollection of it (rusty though it is after three months), just in case anyone needs encouragement.

My first recommendation about this movie is not to read any reviews, including this one (though I’ll try not to ruin anything). Most of the ones I’ve read recently spoil things accidentally or not, and I’m glad I saw the movie without seeing anything about it besides the trailer.

Ironically, the trailer made me think it had given away most of the plot, which in turn made me uninterested altogether, but while watching the movie I realized the trailer was in fact a cleverly conceived paratext to prime you with the wrong expectations. I know I criticized the marketers of Pan’s Labyrinth for misrepresenting the movie in its trailer, but in the case of Children of Men the trailer is perhaps an essential ingredient of misdirection, designed to ensure your capacity for surprise.

The movie begins as all dystopian visions do, with offhand exposition crammed as naturally as possible into TV reports and everyday dialogue, and though it is utterly conventional, the movie does it as well as any other. As you would expect, the social and political situation depicted twenty years from now is consumed by today’s hot-button issues in the UK like immigration and terrorism.

After twenty minutes of such set-up, I feared Children of Men would continue in this track and allow itself to remain a tedious and uninsightful commentary on politics and society like V for Vendetta, but the possibility that Cuaron might do something new and unexpected with this material kept me in my seat. And sure enough, by the end of the first act (IIRC) something surprising happened that announced to me: this is not the movie you thought it was going to be.

From then on I couldn’t afford to blink, as scenes appearing sentimental in the trailer were shown in their actual context, and the true narrative of the movie was suddenly revealed via a portentous location and a telling profanity. From there the movie achieved successively new heights, from the most exciting low-speed chase since Al Cowlings puttered his Juice-conveying white Bronco up the 405, to a long uncut shot through a street battle that itself begins audaciously and ends nothing short of religiously.

Another reason I love this movie is that it had the correct ending. While watching I kept thinking, I hope it doesn’t go too long or show too much. Characters in the movie make a big deal out of an organization called the Human Project, and “the greatest minds in the world working for a new society” is a description sure to make anyone roll their eyes, but fortunately the movie is not about them. The Human Project is portrayed as so altruistic that a cynical audience couldn’t possibly view them without suspicion, and Cuaron makes the right decision not even to show these practically angelic ministers. Everyone I saw the movie with (about 10 friends) were disappointed by its lack of closure, but if anything I would have cut the final shot maybe five or ten seconds earlier. Those who want to ask biomedical questions, and those who wish the movie went longer, both confuse the story with its trappings.

Though Children of Men uses a sci-fi premise — all women have been barren for 18 years — it wisely never attempts to explain it, because it is not a movie about infertility or its cure. Indeed, the movie’s premise, its “political relevance”, and even the objective of the characters, are all window dressings to defamiliarize a story so commonplace it has become difficult to empathize with or even imagine. As soon as you become interested in the accidents of this movie you have lost hold of its essence. To be sure, the director regards his work as having lots of relevance to the current world, and there are moments when his attempts at comment on it seep through (tableau-like recreations of the photos from Abu Ghraib for instance) but I think the movie is even better than intended because the film’s own story transcends the built-in metaphors for which it was meant.

I rate Children of Men the best movie of 2006, and I can’t imagine even The Nativity Story making a better Christmas movie.

Tony Scott Gets His Due

Tony Scott is one of my guilty pleasures, though I resent the expectation that I ought to feel guilty about liking his movies (post-2000 especially). That’s why I loved reading Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson’s review of Deja Vu and Scott’s filmography alike. Their piece in Cinema Scope uses his latest movie as its point of reference but–reflecting the structure of a Scott film–it is regularly interspersed with a critical re-examination of the rest of his usually maligned oeuvre.

With the subtitle “Tony Scott’s Vertigo” I couldn’t not read it, and I was rewarded with a series of provocative but always supportable claims (“A quick comparison of their early shorts proves which Scott was going to be the pompous artiste and which one the grand entertainer”). Whether you’re a misotonist or a philoscott, I trust their piece will repay your reading.

Professor Jennings’ Holiday Midterm

I’ve been meaning to take Prof. Dave Jennings’ Milton-Free, Universe-Explanding Holiday Midterm ever since Dennis Cozzalio posted it a couple weeks ago, but unfortunately my own grading obligations took precedence — till now!

1) What was the last movie you saw, either in a theater or on DVD, and why?

On DVD: The Wedding Party, because I’m trying to fill the lacunae in my De Palma viewing.

In the cinema: Stranger than Fiction, because I love meta with my fiction.

2) Name the cinematographer whose work you most look forward to seeing, and an example of one of his/her finest achievements.

Robert Yeoman; apart from his collaborations with Wes Anderson my favorite movie he photographed is CQ (actually three films in one) directed by Roman Coppola, Sophia’s more talented brother.

3) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?

The Rock!

4) Name a moment from a movie that made you gasp (in horror, surprise, revelation…)

The Long Goodbye surprised me as everyone else has mentioned, but I could not believe it when Michael Caine’s Italian Job ended as it did.

More recently, Children of Men suprised me when someone dies in the first act.

5) Your favorite movie about the movies.

Haneke’s Cache, the best film about cinema since Rear Window.

6) Your Favorite Fritz Lang movie.

Cliched as it is, it has to be Metropolis.

7) Describe the first time you ever recognized yourself in a movie.

Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate, when he was excitedly comparing variants between copies of the same book.

8) Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina?

Utter ignorance.

9) Name a movie that redeems the notion of nostalgia as something more than a bankable commodity.

Pixar’s Cars was refreshingly, even subversively nostalgic for gasoline-fuelled automobiles. Does that disqualify it? The movie itself was quite bankable as well…

10) Favorite appearance by an athlete in an acting role.

For its sheer novelty value, LA Laker Rick Fox’s short-lived acting career as a college recruiter in He Got Game.

11) Favorite Hal Ashby movie.

I like the films he edited for Norman Jewison — The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair — more than his own movies.

12) Name the first double feature you’d program for opening night of your own revival theater.

If it’s a double feature it would have to feature doubles, so:

A Zed & Two Noughts / Dead Ringers

or

Mulholland Dr. / Femme Fatale

I would also have a Double-Double Feature on Saturday // Sunday, in which each double feature is its own unit, but the fourth film synchretizes the first three:

Vertigo / Obsession // Rear Window / Body Double

Psycho / Dressed to Kill // Tenebrae / Raising Cain

13) What’s the name of your revival theater?

The Cinecure. (groan!)

14) Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould?

Much as I like The Long Goodbye, Bogart delivered Chandler’s memorable lines definitively.

15) Favorite Robert Stevenson movie.

Mary Poppins, though I’ve always liked the idea that he directed Kidnapped just because it was a Robert (Louis) Stevenson novel!

16) Describe your favorite moment in a movie that is memorable because of its use of sound.

Blow Out is my favorite movie about sound, though I was recently impressed with the sound design of THX 1138.

17) Pink Flamingoes– yes or no?

Just not yet.

18) Your favorite movie soundtrack score.

Though A Fistful of Dollars has the best two minutes in the history of film music, the best score is Once Upon a Time in the West. More recently I thought Birth had a great score from Alexandre Desplat.

But if “soundtrack score” means a collection of non-original selections then I’d say it’s a tie between the first Austin Powers movie and Kill Bill Vol. 1.

19) Fay Wray or Naomi Watts?

Been in love with Naomi since Mulholland Dr. and The Ring.

20) Is there a movie that would make you question the judgment and/or taste of a film critic, blogger or friend if you found out they were an advocate of it?

Pleasantville is one of the few movies I despise; however I would love to see an attempt to make sense of this incoherent film.

21) Pick a new category for the Oscars and its first deserving winner.

Most Gratuitous Product-Placement-turned-Cameo-Appearence.

And the Oscar goes to: Virgin’s Richard Branson (for Superman Returns and Casino Royale)

22) Favorite Paul Verhoeven movie.

Starship Troopers, though I like Basic Instinct as a “remake” of Vertigo.

23) What is it that you think movies do better than any other art form?

Manipulation, in the sense of controling the viewer’s experience. In theater, everyone sees the action from a (literally) different perspective, but in film everyone sees the same thing and cannot see anything outside the frame or before and after the cut.

For the viewer, it means that in fiction you’re able to identify with practically any type of character, but in documentaries it means you cannot trust anything you see because there is always a context out of sight.

24) Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney?

Ustinov forever, if only for his Nero in Quo Vadis.

25) Favorite movie studio logo, as it appears before a theatrical feature.

RKO’s original “A Radio Picture” logo with the three-dimensional globe.

26) Name the single most important book about the movies for you personally.

Truffaut/Hitchcock.

27) Name the movie that features the best twist ending. (Please note the use of any “spoilers” in your answer.)

That would have to be the ending invented for Polanski’s adaptation of Oliver Twist! Ha ha.

I thought the revelation in Oldboy was rather clever until I discovered it was stolen outright from Obsession. Now that is a great movie.

28) Favorite Francois Truffaut movie.

Haven’t seen enough to answer justly.

29) Olivia Hussey or Claire Danes?

I haven’t seen Luhrmann’s R&J but it doesn’t matter since Hussey is the definitive Juliet.

30) Your most memorable celebrity encounter.

Brushing past Sylvester Stallone at the LA Auto Show. My first thought was “Gee, the hair on that tiny man with the big head looks just like Stallone’s” before I did a double-take: “That midget IS Stallone!”

31) When did you first realize that films were directed?

Standing in line for Star Tours at Disneyland, I asked my dad why it said “from the imagination of George Lucas” or something. (Given his last name I thought he was Mexican for a long time.)

This was fun, though I wouldn’t have minded if it wasn’t Milton-free! Now I’m going to have to take Prof. Kelp’s Endless Summer Chemistry Test as well.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

In contrast to my review of Pan’s Labyrinth, I’m happy to report that I had high expectations for Stranger than Fiction, and the movie exceeded them.

One of the reasons I like comic books is their tendency for metafiction — probably because of the self-mythologizing of writers, artists, and editors epitomized by Stan Lee (see the current series of “Stan Lee meets” issues) — and DC in particular has been courting metafictional relationships as the basis of its universe(s). So I’ve been excited about Stranger than Fiction ever since I first saw the trailer. Unlike Grant Morrison’s pessimistic preaching at the conclusion of his run on Animal Man, however, Zach Helm’s script almost supernaturally reconciles predestination and free will through his character’s humility and heroism.

I didn’t even recognize Tom Hulce beneath his beard and it is good to see Buster Bluth get work, but the only disappointment was Emma Thompson’s overacting, too often mugging for the camera like Hugh Grant. Maggie Gyllenhaal also annoyed me, but since I’m not sure if it’s just her slouchy shoulders and droopy nostrils that irritate me or also her acting, I’ll reserve judgment. Like Sydney (The Matrix, Superman Returns), Chicago seems a favorite choice for anonymous cities (Batman Begins) and is used here to make the story of Harold Crick applicable to us in general rather than specific and historical.

As all stories about authors and their characters are, it is inevitably theological, and I think it is superior to both Jim Carrey’s less-comedic turn in The Truman Show and his more slapstick return to the territory in Bruce Almighty. And in a year filled with Christian typology if not allegory (Superman Returns, Children of Men), Stranger than Fiction is in many ways the shrewdest. (However, I still regard Children of Men as the best movie of the year, and one of the best Christmas movies of all time.)

Quite apart from its theological interest, Stranger also captures the metaphysical aspects of the creative writing and editing process that elude systematization, especially the successive stages of incarnating a story from thought to paper, and in increasing stable forms from script to type. Admittedly I have a masters in editorial theory so the questions of authorial intent, in particular the relative authority of versions of a text, might have been disproportionately interesting to me, but the moment when Emma Thompson types “The phone rang a third time” but pauses before striking the period key was simply climactic in its suspense and fulfillment.

The film begins, perhaps unexpectedly, like Fight Club, illustrating the tedium of a cubical drone’s daily life with superimposed graphics, but soon reveals more similarities to Ferrell’s original attempt at a more serious role, Melinda and Melinda, likewise a metafictional exploration of the differences between comedy and tragedy. But while Woody Allen’s film was a merely academic exercise lacking any heart, Stranger than Fiction makes a high-concept, self-conscious premise seem real and personal.

Will Farrell is a revelation as Harold Crick, and I think he will succeed where Carrey failed due to the latter’s seeming inability not to overact (Eternal Sunshine alone excepted), because Ferrell has an everyman’s face and can be subdued. I was never a fan of Ferrel’s SNL antics (honestly, Dog Show?), which usually amounted to shouting-equals-funny, though Anchorman finally forced me to admit he could make me laugh. (Speaking of Anchorman, there was only one time in Stranger when I could picture him saying, “I’m totally unprepared.”) Even so, I would never have imagined Ferrell as a sympathetic character, but during the final act of Stranger I started crying three times, each for different reasons. His “garden of Gethsemane” scene affected me more than pious depictions of Christ sweating blood. Along with Children of Men, these two movies have probably done more to capture for me the experience of Christ’s birth and passion than any historical recreation. In radically different ways, they each use the mundane to achieve moments of absolute transcendence.

And for the record, the ending completely surprised me, but I soon realized it was perfect if not inevitable, as it transformed the film’s explicit ambivalence between tragedy and comedy into wholehearted affirmation of both.

Saint Bruce and the Batman

As mentioned previously I haven’t been buying 52 on a weekly basis, prefering to read it in collected format, but I did give in and pick up the issue for Week 24 given Jim Roeg’s allusive review. Given that precedent, then, all it took was J.G. Jones’ ingenious cover to make me pick up Week 30 no matter what was inside.

The icon of Bruce Wayne slaying his cape and cowl a la Saint George and the Dragon is perfect on so many levels, I think it is the best cover of a series without a single bad one, if not the Image of the Year outright.

sidebyside.JPG

Since I bought it, I figured I might as well read the insides, and while doing so I had exactly the same thoughts as Caleb Mozzocco, but since he posted them first I’ll quote him:

The history of the Batman, for example, sounds an awful lot like what Grant Morrison told Newsarama.com in an interview was his vision of Batman’s personal history, and some of the lines read like they poured right out of Morrison’s finger tips (Not only the “Defeat me and the ten-eyed surgeons of the empty quarter will come to slice out your demons,” but even the offhand comment about the Joker being “this crazy, brilliant clown running around”).

That last phrase reminded me of the same interview, in which Morrison conceived of the past 62 years of Batman continuity as fitting into Batman’s career overall. We can now see that this interview basically functions as a gloss on the first three pages of this issue, a more self-conscious elaboration of Batman’s timeline:

So before starting the book [i.e., he flagship Batman title], I read through every Batman story I own and tried to synthesize all of the portrayals — from the ’30s to the present day — and all that history into the real life of a single extraordinary man. When you condense nearly 80 years [No idea how he figures that. –Nobody] of Batman’s adventures into a little more than ten years of Bruce Wayne’s life, his descent into grimness becomes not only clear but quite understandable! And the need to get him out of it is even more urgent.

The very rough timeline I have in my head runs as follows — 19 year old Bruce Wayne returns from his journey around the world and becomes the (1930s style) Dark Avenger Gothic Vigilante Batman for his first year of adventures. Then, aged 20, he meets Robin and his whole outlook changes — now he has responsibilities, he becomes less reckless, now he has a partner, he lightens up and learns to have fun again for the first time since his parents died. The police stop chasing him, the Joker stops killing and becomes a playful crime clown, and Gotham is bright and crazy like Vegas. Batman’s having the time of his life in his early 20’s, fighting colorful villains and monsters with his irrepressible young pal.

In 52, Dick Grayson narrates:

I made him laugh, and he was like the greatest big brother you could ever imagine. Those were pretty colorful years in Gotham, when it seemed like anything could happen and it was our town. The Joker gave up being a murderer for a while and there was just this crazy, brilliant clown running around.

It’s not surprising that his terminology in the interview should match the language used in 52, since he specifically mentions issue #30 below, so he was probably working on or had recently finished the issue when he gave the interivew. To continue then:

But by the time he’s in his mid-20s things are starting to go wrong — the first Robin leaves to go to college and hang out with the Teen Titans. Batman enjoys a period as a swinging bachelor for a couple of years but it’s not long before the hammerblows start to fall — in rapid succession, the now-homicidal Joker kills Jason Todd, the new Robin, and maims Barbara (Batgirl ) Gordon, Bane breaks Batman’s back, then Gotham is devastated by earthquakes, plagues and urban warfare, the Joker kills Jim Gordon’s beloved wife, Jason Todd returns corrupted, and a betrayal by his superhero friends leads Batman to the creation of Brother Eye and leads him on to Infinite Crisis where Batman winds up pointing a gun at Alexander Luthor’s head before deciding to leave Gotham for a year.

So it turns out that this was literally a panel-by-panel description of pages 2 and 3 of 52 #30, except that the comic book leaves out the Joker killing Sarah Essen Gordon and adds the death of Tim Drake’s father.

Thinking about it this way, the grim Batman of the last decade or so makes a whole lot of sense — the guy went from cool, assured crimefighter to shattered ***-up, barely clinging on with his fingernails. His mission, his life and his sanity had all gone off the rails. His confidence was shot. After a few years of relentless pain, bad luck and betrayal like Batman’s had, any normal man would be canceling the papers, pulling the blinds, then pulling the trigger. We had to address the effect of these tragedies and then move him beyond them.

In the upcoming issue #30 of 52 we see the post-Infinite Crisis Batman reaching rock bottom. The story of how he starts his comeback is revealed in a later issue of the weekly and it’s that revitalized Batman Andy and I are picking up on in our book.

If anything, this is a lesson to us to study every word of interviews with Grant Morrison because the man’s memory is so good he can’t help but reveal the content of future issues in detail.