Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Website: still functioning

As of yesterday, my webpage is back online after being down for more than half a year. I hope to have new content added soon - I've prepared more than 200 new entries for the story index since the last update.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nick Spencer, Comicdom's Answer to Ingmar Bergman, part 4

Iron Man 2.0#12, page 2; This time, Spencer is joined by writer Will Pfeifer; artists listed for this issue were Carmine di Giandomenico, Andy Troy, Ariel Olivetti and Mirco Pierfederci. It's a Choose Your Own Artist Adventure! I can only be certain this page wasn't produced by Olivetti: Yep, another splash page turned over to a single action: the action of War Machine rescuing a falling woman in mid-air. This is rendered with the hero and damsel in distress at the centre of the page at a wide angle, emphasizing depth, I suppose. And yet, the artist has angled this tripod shot so War Machine's back is to the tripod, with the fire from his jetboots so intense it almost completely covers up his figure. Good thing there's a speech balloon saying "gotcha" in a War Machine font, lest we think she was being rescued by, I dunno, Mothman? Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer? If this action required a full page, why couldn't it have zoomed in on the action of War Machine rescuing the woman? So long as the distance between them and the pavement was still established the peril would have been kept clear. How about framing this from the worm's eye viewing, looking up at the characters from the ground level?

I'm not even going to start discussing the standard comic book physics problems of rescuing falling people mid-air; death of Gwen Stacy aside, comics almost always get it wrong. It is a pity, though, to note the damsel in distress here is Suzi Endo, a superhuman woman who doesn't normally require someone else to save her. Happy 2012, strong female characters!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Fu Manchu at Paramount

One thing I've learned from talking to people about Fu Manchu is that people aren't interested in talking about Fu Manchu. Even within the ranks of Fu Manchu enthusiasts, there's a lot to do with the character and property which isn't brought up because there are so many stories and adaptations existing and they almost all require a bit of work to obtain.

In many ways, I'm sure contemporary culture would like to just leave Fu Manchu where he is - in the past. Forget about the Sax Rohmer novels, forget about the film adaptations, keep looking forward and don't bring up the racial issues surrounding the character. I'd be willing to oblige, except that I keep finding nuggets of real value in Rohmer's fiction. Which brings me to the Fu Manchu films.

Of the Devil Doctor's many entries into cinema, he's probably best known for MGM's 1932 picture the Mask of Fu Manchu starring Boris Karloff, which still has a following because Karloff still has a following; the Harry Alan Towers series of pictures starring Christopher Lee still have a following, as does the still-living Lee; even the Republic serial Drums of Fu Manchu is considered one of the better serials.

But what of Fu Manchu's first foray into the talkies? He figured in three Paramount movies from 1929-1931 (one per year), each starring Warner Oland and with a surprising amount of continuity for the time in which they were made. To the best of my knowledge, Paramount hasn't rereleased these pictures for modern audiences. Perhaps it's their old shame.

And it is a shame - because these movies aren't too bad and not quite in the same tone as the later Fu Manchu pictures. Thanks to the wonders of Youtube I've finally seen all three movies; follow along as I guide you through the saga...

The series begins with the Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. It's interesting to note how the first two films include "Dr.," just as the titles for the first two US editions of the Fu Manchu novels were the Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu and the Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, while later novels omitted his title (ie, Hand of Fu Manchu, Island of Fu Manchu, President Fu Manchu, Wrath of Fu Manchu, etc.). Our director is Rowland V. Lee and the part of Fu Manchu is played by Warner Oland, who would later come to fame as Charlie Chan. Although Oland claimed to be part-Asian, it seems he would wear a mustache to help him appear "oriental." Thus, by adding a mustache in these films, he permanently branded the character with one, even though he was clean-shaven in the novels.

We open in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Dr. Fu Manchu is a practicing physician and friend to the Caucasians, using his skill with hypnosis to help treat patients. However, in the midst of the fighting, the British/Russian/French/German forces wind up shelling Fu Manchu's home while trying to strike down enemy forces. Fu Manchu's wife and son are slain by the blast and he vows revenge upon the white race - but specifically, he vows revenge on the officers who ordered the attack, determining to one day claim their lives and lives of their male heirs, to balance the scales for the loss of his family.

In the novels, Fu Manchu had no particular origin; it wasn't even clear how many years he'd been active as his life-prolonging Elixir Vitae could have kept him alive for hundreds of years. Fu Manchu of the novels was out to conquer the world, not simply obtain revenge. I think it's interesting to note how the filmmakers believed it was important to give Fu Manchu a motivation for being the figure of evil he was. Up to a point, Fu could have been the hero of his story - exacting revenge on the officers who killed his family is a very sympathetic motivation. It's only when he decides to kill the officers' offspring too that he loses the audience's sympathy.

Even as Fu is vowing his vengeance, his servant Fai Lu presents him with Lia, a tiny white child whose family have just died but wanted Fu raise their daughter. Fu Manchu honours the request, using her to supplant his lost family. And so, nearly 30 years pass in which Fu Manchu evidently spent a lot of time pooling together his servants, perfecting his chemical weapons, raising his foster daughter and obtaining the identities of the men who ordered the attack on his house. I say "evidently" because after nearly 30 years, he's only just finished off his second-last target; as we rejoin the story, Fu is after the last officer, General Petrie, plus his son Sir John Petrie and grandson Dr. Jack Petrie. However, Fu hasn't counted on Scotland Yard's Nayland Smith, who comes to the Petrie family's defense, nor could he have expected Lia would fall in love with young Dr. Petrie.

Here are some more departures from the canon: in the novels, Fu Manchu admired Dr. Petrie and would always try to spare him from death, believing Petrie was an honoured colleague who would be fascinated by his experiments; as for Smith, Fu had nothing but contempt for him as an unintelligent lout. In these movies, Fu expresses regard for Smith's intelligence but has an unreasoning hatred for Petrie due to his vow of vengeance.

For fans of the novels, this depiction of Fu Manchu falls a little short; his instruments of death aren't the terrifically visual sort famously described in the novels such as his wailing Dacoit assassins or horrific insects like the "Zayat Kiss." Instead, Oland's Fu Manchu uses potions, hypnosis and a quicklime pit (the latter off-camera); his servants have nothing more interesting than throwing daggers. This interpretation of Fu lacks the exotic flair of the novels, reducing him to just another "mad scientist" or "man-out-for-revenge" the type of which movies like Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum were based upon.

Fu works his way through the Petrie family, killing General Petrie and his son. Finally, by hypnotizing, he captures Dr. Petrie and prepares to throw him into his quicklime pit. Petrie is certain Smith will come to rescue, prompting a rather dry response from the Devil Doctor, dripping with sarcasm:

"I humbly apologize. I'm afraid my somewhat weird and Oriental methods may have misled your Occidental mind into believing that, uh, this is nothing but a gigantic melodrama in which the detective's arrival at the last moment produces the happy ending. Don't deny it! I can see by your face it is so."

Having said this, Fu reveals he's already captured Smith! Fu Manchu comes within a hair's breadth of winning the day, but Fai Lu betrays him for love of her charge and Fu is seemingly poisoned to death.

Also of note: Smith cooperates with the Chinese government in this picture, reporting to a Chinese official in one scene; it may seem like an obvious gesture to you and I, but the early Sax Rohmer novels had a raging paranoia where any Asian characters were concerned; if this were a Rohmer book, the official would have either been killed or revealed as one of Fu's servants. Further, the paranoia about Asians was often expressed by Smith himself - it's hard to imagine the Nayland Smith of the early novels cooperating with the Chinese government (although eventually Rohmer introduced benevolent and heroic Asians and took some pains to make it clear Fu Manchu was as much an enemy of China as he was the "white race").

Let's move along to the second film, the Return of Dr. Fu Manchu, again directed by Rowland V. Lee and with virtually every actor from the previous film reprising their parts.

We open at Fu Manchu's funeral as the survivors from the previous film hope to carry on with their lives and Lia and Dr. Petrie begin planning their wedding. However, Fu Manchu's poison simply placed him into suspended animation. Rising from his coffin, he kills Fai Lu for betraying him, then prepares for revenge on Petrie, the last of his designated targets.

In a cute moment, Fu explains how the formula which only "temporarily" killed him was inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet! At one point Fu pilots an airplane which would seems weirdly out-of-character for the novel's version (who would surely have a servant take the controls), yet fits this economy-size Fu well:

Again Fu menaces Petrie, Smith and, again he's halted at the last moment. This time he falls into a river with a bomb which explodes, seemingly killing him... but who'd believe that? We actually saw his dead body last film and it sure didn't stop him!

Sure enough, 1931 saw the grand finale to Paramount's Fu Manchu saga with Daughter of the Dragon, directed by Lloyd Corrigan, who had helped write the screen treatment for the previous two pictures. Oland reprises Fu Manchu again, but only for the first few scenes of the picture. The real star is Anna May Wong, the best-known Asian actress of the 1930s.

Startlingly, the movie opens twenty years after the previous picture! So this is, what, 1950? Dr. Petrie has grown old and raised a son, Ronald Petrie; said son is in love with Ling Moy, a Chinese woman who's been trying to locate her long-lost father.

As misfortune would have it, Ling Moy's father is the nefarious Fu Manchu, back from the dead and still intent on killing Dr. Petrie. And after twenty years, he finally makes his mark, killing Dr. Petrie. Now only Ronald remains, but Scotland Yard officer Sir Basil Courtney renders a fatal wound to Fu Manchu. Slowly dying, Fu is reunited with Ling Moy and tells her the story of how his wife and child died, causing him to vow revenge; Fu laments how without a son to be his heir, his vendetta will never be completed. Ling Moy offers to be like a son to her father, claiming she'll finish his work; Fu accepts this and as the authorities close in on him, he pretends to attack Ling Moy, knowing the police will kill him to save her - and thus she'll remain above suspicion as his heir.

So it is we take our leave of Dr. Fu Manchu... yet his legacy lives on. It soon becomes clear Ling Moy only promised to be his heir so she could bond with the father she never knew in his last moments; she truly loves Ronald and doesn't want to kill him, but her late father's servants keep demanding she fulfill her promise. It's interesting to note how Ling Moy & Ronald's romance keeps from breaking Hollywood's miscegenation rules as their attempted kisses are interrupted.

However, Ronald is also being pursued by white woman Joan Marshall; to complete our romantic rhombus, inspector Ah Kee loves Ling Moy... and boy, is he made to suffer for it! Ah Kee is the one man convinced Fu Manchu has cheated death yet again, but for not realizing Ling Moy is the real criminal mastermind he winds up walking right into her hands and bound up in an attic. When he tries to get the attention of the police on the ground below, he tumbles out of the window and nearly dies! In the chaotic finale, it's Ah Kee who delivers the fatal gunshot which kills our reluctant villain Ling Moy; Ah Kee then succumbs to the wounds from his fall and dies at her side.

Despite having very little Fu Manchu, Daughter of the Dragon is probably the best of the trio - Warner Oland stepped up his game for Fu's final scenes and Anna May Wong was simply a terrific actress; it's also interesting to see an Asian leading man (Sessue Hayakawa as Ah Kee) in 30s cinema. Corrigan had some fine touches as a director, notably in an above shot when Ronald Petrie is trapped in a tiny room, fumbling to find his way out:

If you're a Fu Manchu enthusiast, I definitely recommend seeking out the three films; if you're an Anna May Wong aficionado then the third film is required viewing!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Let's talk about modern comics storytelling again...

Here I am again, criticizing the storytelling decisions creative people make while producing comic books. Those who can't do, teach.

This is Six Guns#4, page 11, by writer Andy Diggle and artist Davide Gianfelice; three characters have just stolen an APC vehicle from a mercenary army and are trying to evade pursuit while traversing a mountainous road:

When I first read this page, I was confused and it took me a moment to realize where my problem lay. It's the third panel where the APC is trying to bring itself to a halt while swerving to its left. Because the artist framed the image with another cliff in the foreground, I couldn't tell that the APC was headed directly to a steep drop; since the vehicle was veering to its left into a piece of scenery which wasn't visible to my eye, my mind didn't process this panel as "vehicle unable to stop driving over cliff" and instead translated "vehicle following a road with a hard left turn."

Elsewhere in the same issue we get a second look at this cliff:

Why the nature of the cliff couldn't be made clear on page 11 is beyond my understanding.

I'm Michael Hoskin and if you learned something from this example... then that's more than I hoped for. Ciao.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Great moments in off-panel storytelling

It's not just contemporary comics which have this problem; check out Don Heck in Tales of Suspense#1 (1959):

Boy, that was a close one! You almost had an action scene on your hands, to say nothing of depicting an world inhabited by mechanical men! I wonder if the scripter (Stan Lee?) was trying to make the pages seem more exciting by hinting at greater perils we hadn't witnessed. Regardless, the writer and artist were clearly living worlds apart.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Comic books of 2011: the good

In the 1990s, I was an avid fan of Siskel & Ebert's television program, watching every broadcast. I'd hoped to open this post with a particular clip, but sadly, I can't locate it on Youtube.

This moment has always stuck with me: the duo were reviewing the film Gamera: Guardian of the Universe; Ebert liked it, Siskel did not. Siskel covered the film first and closed off his review by saying he couldn't recommend the movie and instead suggested viewers seek out the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters from 1956. Ebert was almost livid in his reaction, asking Siskel (words to this effect) "If we're just going to recommend old movies, why don't you and I stay home all year rewatching Citizen Kane?"

In several of my discussions about the current state of comic books over at Colin Smith's blog, he and I have bandied words to the effect of "Kirby knew how to do this," "Toth would have done it right," "Wood forgot more than most artists have ever known," etc. I think all we mean to do is point to ready examples of clean, inventive comic book storytelling. The danger of such statements is you begin to imply comic books of the past are inherantly superior to what's being produced today.

It would be very easy to stop reading new comic books. If I spent the rest of my life just reading old stories by Kirby, Toth, Wood, Colan, Williamson, Krigstein, Maneely, Kurtzmann, Cole, Eisner, Barks, Kelly, Frazetta and Everett, I think I would be reasonably happy (and would have plenty to enjoy, even at the pace I take in comics). However, I'd be allowing my tastes to stagnate, denying myself the pleasures found in contemporary works which communicate how people living today feel about the world around them.

Thus, I've remained with contemporary comic books. I've taken some risks on new material and untested talent which haven't paid off, but I've also happened across new works which are really meaningful to me, entertaining me, bolstering my imagination, encouraging me to open my mind.

Therefore, here are the contemporary comic books of 2011 which I'm pleased to recommend:

Given how I complained about storytelling in comics yesterday, I feel I should begin with a series which wears brilliant storytelling like a glove: Usagi Yojimbo. The advantage Usagi has, of course, is that Stan Sakai is responsible for everything on the page - plot, script, art and letters. I'm very nearly completely caught up with Usagi now and it's a rewarding book, telling stories today which are as solid as those 20 years ago. It's particularly great to see how the cast of characters develop over time, revealing new layers and altering their connections to each other.

On a very similar wavelength is Sergio Aragones Funnies, which is likewise the brainchild of one man, Sergio Aragones. As I've said before, while I enjoy Sergio's gag cartoons and humorous stories (even the occasional dramatic tale), what I most enjoy are his biographical pieces. The most recent issue (#6) recalled an episode from his childhood and even though it's not life-altering or momentous (he and a friend once accidentally boarded a moving freight train), it's easy to see why it's remained etched in his memory; now it's etched on paper. I suppose what I really enjoy in Sergio is his openess and honesty.

Comic Book Comics completed its 6-issue run in 2011, but it could have easily kept going another 6 issues. Or 12. Or 18. It amazes me whenever I find a piece of information on comic book history I was previously unaware of. I wish Comic Book Comics had found the space to cover other turning points like the foundation of Image Comics, the Marvel bankruptcy or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles saga, but I'll treasure all of what they did deliver. Learning about comics history with Comic Book Comics is like having the stories told to you by a close friend.

Although I'm an all-around Marvel Comics guru, I don't care much for Daredevil. It's a serious blindspot in my mastery of Marvel - there are huge chunks of Daredevil I've never read (not even all of Miller), even though there are five Daredevil comics I'd place on my all-time favourite list. I've never really warmed up to protagonist Matt Murdock and the deeply depressing life he leads, but Mark Waid may yet change my way of thinking. Thanks to his collaborators, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera, he's turned in one of the most beautiful super hero comics I've seen in years; the amount of love and craft on every page is invigorating, especially in how Murdock's radar senses are brought to life by sound effects. In most super hero comics, sound effects seem to be workmanlike at best; Daredevil uses sound effects in ways I normally only find in indie comics, such as Matt Murdock dodging bullets represented by sound effects (above). Daredevil is the super hero book I most anticipate - quite a reversal!

Speaking of Daredevil, someone had the bright idea to have the Black Panther take over Daredevil's job as defender of Hell's Kitchen in Black Panther: the Man Without Fear/Most Dangerous Man Alive. I haven't put any real stock into Black Panther since Christopher Priest left the franchise and this series was saddled with depriving the hero of his supporting cast, setting and special weapons while putting him into Daredevil's setting. To top it off, writer David Liss is a newcomer to comic books, being an import from the world of prose. You wouldn't expect Black Panther to work, and yet... it's both true and liberating to the character. Removing the Black Panther's special weapons, army of loyal allies and political power scales him back down to a point where he can actually lose; what's great then is that he gets to display new strengths, relying on his initiative and reflexes to get past problems. To top it off, it's hopeful.

In Black Panther's Fear Itself tie-in, the Hate-Monger uses his emotion-altering powers to inflame locals, fanning racism to turn them against the Black Panther. However, the Hate-Monger's most ardently racist supporter - Chambliss - isn't even under the man's power. When the crisis is averted, Chambliss goes to the Panther asking to make amends; he's then made a janitor in the Panther's diner. So yes, we all get a good laugh at the racist, but at the same time, the Panther is extending a second chance to him; very cool and all too rare. Finally, most of the series has boasted the art of Francesco Francavilla, who's just been exploding on the scene at various titles (Detective Comics, Captain America & Bucky); he's one to watch, for sure.

It probably also helps David Liss that his mini-series Mystery Men was illustrated by Patrick Zircher. It flew under most people's radar, but as a 1930s super hero tale it was well-crafted and told at a breakneck pace. Virtually every character in Mystery Men was created by Liss for the series, but in just five issues he makes his characters come to life, including some of the background characters met along the way. Somehow Liss and Zircher managed to tell an alternate history epic where Ayn Rand helped conspire in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; that's chutzpah, there.

Xombi lasted a mere six issues; six issues of glorious insanity. Big, bold imaginative ideas by John Rozum with art to match by Frazer Irving. Everyone reading Xombi realized it couldn't last, but I for one was glad they made the effort. Even with no experience of the original 1990s version of the comic and despite the dense text, I accepted Xombi on its terms and its bizarre ideas were as much charming as usettling. More about Xombi here.

Finally, who would have thought Journey into Mystery would work its way into our hearts? It became a darling of comic book fans almost immediately, with its adventures of a child-sized Loki trying to save Asgard and his brother Thor by playing tricks on everyone. Every issue has held so much deft plotting and characterization by Kieron Gillen, it's a joy to behold. Young Loki's desire to good by committing little evils creates an interesting balance in the book, where we readers don't want Loki to fail, but fear his solutions will only increase the misery of others.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Comic books of 2011: the bad

Theodore Sturgeon opined "Ninety percent of everything is crap." Some days I look at the state of contemporary comic books and think, "he needn't have been so optimistic."

As I consider the "bad" side to comic books in 2011, let me assure you now, I'm not going to hold up any particular book as the "worst" of its ilk. I am, however, going to cite two recent examples of poor storytelling which are representative of my problems with present-day comic books. If I held up every example which bothered me, this blog post would take about 72 hours of non-stop composition. The two which I have chosen are not the worst offenders of their kind, they are not even necessarily comic books I dislike; they are simply convenient.

I try to be an optimistic sort; circa 2007, I often told friends I believed the time we lived in was the best possible time for comic books. I felt that way because we'd (seemingly) learned so much from our past and even though Marvel & DC's super hero comics comprised most of the marketplace, there were plenty of alternatives riding on their coattails. Improvements in technology and communication made it easier for average Joes and Josephines to create their comic books from home. Comicdom was practically Leibniz-like.

Have I really become so cynical within four years?

I try to hold back my cynicism and express it in humorous ways, such as my occasional series Nick Spencer, comicdom's answer to Ingmar Bergman. But even behind those posts is my unspoken fear...

I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. $3.99 buys a $0.99 comic book, publishers are going bust, shopkeepers keep variant covers under the counter. Zombie memes are running wild in the web and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know Tarot Witch of the Black Rose is unfit to breathe and Hawk and Dove is unfit to eat, and we sit watching the CBR feed while some press release tells us that last month we bought 100,000 event comics and 1,000 art comics, as if that's the way it's supposed to be! We know things are bad - worse than bad, They're crazy! It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone at our laptops. Let me have my Batman and my Justice League and my Fourth World Omnibus and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone!' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone! I want you to get MAD! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to e-mail your local comic shop because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Grand Theft Auto and the digital comics price parity. All I know is that first you've got to get mad! You've got to say, "I'm a human being! My life has value!" So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the widescreen proliferation. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!

Where is all of this fear and anger coming from? Strangely enough... storytelling. This is the truth everyone says yet no one wants to believe: quality storytelling wins out in the end. My friend Colin Smith could probably blog about all 12 issues of All Star Superman for 365 days straight and not run out of complimentary things to say (his essays on All Star Superman led to my discovering his blog). But the more Colin challenged me to think, "what could be," the more I felt, "why isn't it so?"

Another major influence upon me is Miguel, whose articles on the diminishing quality of comic book storytelling expressed much of what I had been musing (I had been planning a similar post the very day I first read Miguel's work; read those articles here and here).

I read comic books from across its history and over time I've been putting out feelers to more international and "art" titles. Because I read so many books in the course of a year, I see a lot of a different styles... and then I see a lot of similar styles. It's hard to escape noticing the trends in mainstream publications. As Miguel notes, thought balloons, speed lines and other narrative tools are gone; when this trend began, it seemed as though comic books were becoming movie pitches... now they've simply become movie storyboards. Circa 1999, Dwayne McDuffie opined comic books were like a movie with an infinite special effects budget. Now it seems as though comic books are afraid to spend those infinite dollars because it might scare away film investors!

There, I think that's long-winded enough... now, on to my first example:

In this panel taken from Near Death#4, the protagonist (far right) has just reunited a man with his wife (left), having bargained to release the wife from the clutches of the Triads. This panel is the husband and wife's reunion. What I hope you've noticed is the body language of the couple; they're standing apart from each other, arms at their sides, faces unreadable. How is this couple's reunion supposed to make us feel? Do we like them? Are we glad they're reunited? Do they like each other? Are they glad they're reunited? Why can't there be some passion in this panel, a warm embrace? Why should the dialogue have to carry all of the information?

If I were to be charitable with this panel, I would take it the artist didn't have time for these concerns; he's no doubt trying desperately to make deadlines, provide for himself or his family, there aren't enough hours in the day for artists to contemplate panel composition or body language, they need to stay on autopilot just to survive. That's my charitable view.

However... if this is how it has to be - storytelling sacrificed for expediency - then why show up to play? Comic books are not a charity case; the answer to "how does this story make you feel" should never be: "how sorry I am that the creators couldn't spend more time on it." This is where Colin's Pop Manifesto comes to mind; to some extent, comic books are still a disposable medium, but they shouldn't be knowingly created as such.

On to the second example; Avengers Annual#1 concludes a lengthy Wonder Man versus the Avengers story which had been teased since 2010 with this dust-up between Wonder Man and Iron Man:

A two-page spread of two men throwing punches at each other, with Iron Man catching Wonder Man's swing; this is where you think, "Kirby would've done it in one panel; and he would've had one guy dodge out of the way while the other one smashes something like a brick wall to show us how strong he was." So what happens next in this tussle of the titans?

Ab-so-lutely nothing. Wonder Man is beaten off-panel by the energy doohickey visible on Iron Man's gauntlet in the two-page spread. Evidently, there was enough room in the book for a two-page spread of men swinging their fists at each other (what a paradigm shift! we've never seen that before!), but no space for even a single panel depicting a strange, sci-fi device grabbing a full-grown man and vacuuming him into its sphere (old hat! we see that all the time!). The pay-off to a long-teased fight - and the single most interesting visual in a story which is in an, oh yes, visual medium - didn't make it to the page.

This is what I'm afraid of: comics choose to be this way... and most people think it's swell.

Tomorrow: why I still loved comic books in 2011.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Texts of 2011: reconsidered champions and new landscapes

So much of my spare time in 2011 was spent on films and comic books that I don't believe I read as many books as I do in a typical year. However, a few things stand out:

I continued my fascination with author Sax Rohmer, reading his books the Sins of Sumuru, Return of Sumuru, Slaves of Sumuru, Dope, Fire-Tongue, the Orchard of Tears, Bimbashi Baruk of Egypt, the Sins of Severec Bablon (more about it here), Tales of Chinatown, the Haunting of Low Fennel and Wulfheim. I'm just about done with Rohmer - in two senses; first, I've read very nearly all of his books, which is no mean feat since when I first began hunting for him in second-hand bookstores circa 1999, his books were nowhere to be found; second, the more I read of his lesser-known works, the less respect I have for his fiction. I used to be quite the Rohmer apologist, but when I hit Fire-Tongue and found it racist even by his own culture's reckoning, it was a turning point for me in terms of how far I'm willing to defend him. Also, while working my way through the Fu Manchu books way back in 1998, I noted how by the 1940s, Fu Manchu had lost a lot of his exotic flavour, becoming what I felt was a more generic criminal mastermind. The more I read of Rohmer's 40s fiction, the more I see how generic his villains had become - his 40s Fu Manchu could've been swapped with any of them and the villains are usually the best part of his early novels. Indeed, the early novel Dope was one of the few highlights of last year's readings. Who knows, perhaps 2012 will be the year where I finish reading all of his novels and short stories?

The only other piece of fiction worth noting was John Buchan's Witch Wood, primarily because it was the last remaining work of Buchan's fiction I hadn't read. It didn't strike me as being quite as good as it was made out to be in Buchan fan circles, but it was an interesting book, very similar to the Blanket of the Dark.

The real winners for me in 2011 were two pieces of non-fiction I pulled from my uncle's home in Angola: King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild and the State of Africa by Martin Meredith. It may seem silly to you that I spent a portion of my time in Africa reading about Africa when I might've done it from home before I departed. It wasn't lost on me, to be sure, but feeling "better late than never" and being instantly fascinated with both books, I delved straight in; several of my nights in Angola were spent sitting up reading in the living room with family and guests, so why not spend the time learning a little more about the continent?

King Leopold's Ghost told the story of the Belgian Congo and the shrewd, underhanded means King Leopold used to seize a second kingdom for himself. I think like many, I was unaware of the early 1900s human rights campaign to end the sufferings of the Congo, which is exactly what drew Hochschild into unearthing the story for his book. What it really impressed upon me is that while slavery was supposedly abolished in the western world, colonial powers in Africa could run their territories as slave states, which was even worse than buying and trading human lives.

The State of Africa attempts to recount the stories of every African nation in chronological order as they obtained independence in the 20th century. Although it's a massive tome, the chronological order makes the "story" of Africa difficult to follow because so many major leaders are introduced, then disappear while others are added to the cast, sometimes leaving behind earlier characters at a "dramatic" episode (I was quite convinced Kwame Nkrumah died in Vietnam in 1966 when his story was abruptly cut short at the end of a chapter; perhaps a chapter later his story continued, much to my surprise). It's sprawling, but immensely rewarding. After reading this book, I had a much better picture in my mind of the continent, the major turning points in recent history. It also helped me to see many of the (sadly) recurring patterns in independent countries, which would seem to either descend straight into civil conflict or, if they were politically stable, drive their economy down so that civil conflict erupted about a decade later. Points of history which I knew of on a superficial level such as the Ethiopian famine were explained succinctly and memorably. Before leaving to Angola, my African geography was simply terrible - I could identify perhaps six nations without reading their names off a map. I'm much, much better now and that's partly due to this book for granting me a "big picture" view of the land.

Tomorrow: The bad side of comics books; when they hurt, I hurt.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Movies of 2011, day five: it's good to be surprised!

Today I'm ending my five day look back at the movies I watched in 2011 to consider a few movies from off the beaten path. As I recounted in the second installment, I was working through a list of films which interested me, but in the course of checking libraries, Youtube, Netflix and their ilk, from time-to-time I dug up something I hadn't heard of, but found fascinating; in other cases, I dug up a movie with a certain reputation and found it stronger than I'd been lead to believe. Here's the best surprises of 2011:

In 2011 I went through the few remaining Alfred Hitchcock movies I hadn't seen, including Torn Curtain. Every Hitchcock book I've read came down hard on this movie, describing how wrong Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were for a Hitchcock movie and so forth. Finally watching it for myself, I have to say: it's not bad. I wouldn't call it great Hitchcock, but it isn't the trainwreck the critics led me to believe it to be. Newman is scientist who defects to the Soviets, but only so he can uncover one of their secrets. The espionage elements fit pretty well with other Hitchcock films in the genre and the scene where Newman has to kill an enemy agent - yet finds it takes a lot of work to kill a man is a nice reversal of the usually simplistic Hollywood death scenes; the dying agent fights back to the very end and Newman needs a woman to rescue him! Near the end, the scenes of Newman and Andrews trying to get out from behind the Iron Curtain with the aid of resistance agents are pretty good too, reminding me of the circus people who sheltered Hitchcock's heroes in Saboteur. I tell you, never dismiss a Hitchcock film out of hand!

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde should be utter trash. It's a Hammer film where Jekyll transforms into an evil woman, primarily so the filmmakers could flash some skin on the screen. It's also not content to be simply be a gender-swapped Jekyll-Hyde story - no, it becomes a Jack the Ripper and Burke & Hare picture, too! Hey, why not throw in Spring-Heeled Jack while we're at it? Jekyll isn't particularly likable either as he performs a few evil acts; usually it's Hyde who embodies the character's evil side. Splitting the role between two actors seems like a bad idea too, since presumably one of the reasons actors like the part is so they can play two versions of the same person. And yet... Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick do share an uncanny resemblance (not much of a compliment to Beswick, I suppose). For all the problems that being a 1970s Hammer picture entail, this a pretty good horror movie, even if the similarities to Robert Louis Stevenson's story end with (during?) the title.

After returning from Angola, I went through Netflix to find films about Africa and happened across the Devil Came on Horseback, a documentary which relates Brian Steidle's tale of witnessing genocide in Darfur and attempting to rally the world to the cause of ending the conflict, yet finding while people were vocally opposed to the genocide, they weren't particularly in favour of action. It's a pretty sad tale and all too familiar - Romeo Dallaire expressed many of the same frustrations about the Rwandan genocide in Shake Hands With the Devil.

I assumed Danny Kaye's Wonder Man was one of his lesser films, having only heard of it via various jokes Jack Benny made about it on his radio program during an episode where Kaye visited. My family watched quite a few Kaye movies as I was growing up, so I (wrongly) believed I had a pretty good grasp of his career. Wrong! It turns out Wonder Man was a smash hit in its day, won an Academy Award and still holds up even now, with Kaye playing twin brothers, one a meek bookworm, the other a show-stealing entertainer. I would have enjoyed this movie even more if I had seen it as a kid.

I sought out Ken Burns' Empire of the Air because it was a documentary about radio, so I assumed it would feed my hobby pretty well. However, it isn't about aspect of radio I'm interested in - the networks, the cultural impact, the rise and fall of comedy and drama - it's the story of the men who made the radio device viable, particularly Lee DeForest and Edwin Armstrong. It's a fascinating recount of two intelligent men with strong personalities and the surprising amount of politics which came to figure in the development of radio.

I don't see much love for the 1935 version of Crime and Punishment, evidently because it took some liberties with the source material. However, I found this to be an astounding movie; I haven't read the novel myself, but it seems to me even watered-down Dostoevsky is fantastic. Peter Lorre has the lead role in this picture (I'd heard him in a radio adaptation of the story too) and he's magnificent; this has to be Lorre's best English film of the 30s. This film dearly needs reevaluation by scholars - scholars other than Dostoevsky fanatics.

Next week: moving on to literature!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Movies of 2011, day four: poor choices

Thus far in my look back at films I watched in 2011, I reflected on movies I watched at the cinema, older films I rather enjoyed and films which didn't quite click. Today, I'm looking at those films which I actively disliked. One of them may earn a reprieve (see below), but I feel I'm well rid of the rest; agree or disagree if you will, just meet me below...

It's strange to me how for more than a decade I've been close friends to a dinosaur fan, yet I hadn't watched Jurassic Park. My friend Craig likes dinosaurs; really, really, really likes dinosaurs. He also knows his dinosaur movies incredibly well, from the b-pictures of the past to the CGI fests of the present. It was only when he moved to Hong Kong in 2011 that I inherited his copies of the first two Jurassic Park pictures and decided I might as well give them a whirl. I did find a lot to like about the first film, but as to the Lost World: Jurassic Park? This movie has serious flaws. You may already be familiar with some of them: Vince Vaughn, Goldblum as a leading man, Vince Vaughn, the girl using gymnastics to defeat dinosaurs, Vince Vaughn, the cliched evil businessman plot, Vince Vaughn... It looks nice, but it's big, dumb and too predictable.

On the first night of my vacation trip to Angola, I noticed Sucker Punch in the video-on-demand list. I was only barely aware of the film's existence and knew nothing about the plot or even premise of the picture. However, having enjoyed other Zack Snyder films, I thought it would be a good choice, even though it was getting late for me and I really should have been settling down to try and sleep on the plane. The movie concerns a young woman in a mental institution who concocts a false reality where she's in a brothel who concocts a false reality where she's a video game-style action hero. I gradually realized the fight scenes in the latter reality existed just to indulge Snyder and had nothing to do with the plot - I might as well skip those scenes so I can sleep sooner! But then, the second reality had nothing to do with the plot either - I might as well skip those, too! And the first reality is so by-the-numbers... hey, look, I've skipped ahead to the end! Now I can sleep.

On the way back from Angola, one of the in-flight movies was Water for Elephants. I should have slept through it, but I didn't feel tired. It wasn't objectionable the way Sucker Punch was, but the protagonist in this film is such a lunkhead. Things happen to him, never because of his own actions. After he drops out of med school because his parents are dead, that's pretty well the last time he makes a choice. After that, he chances upon a circus and they chance to welcome him with a job, and they chance to need a veternarian, but the evil ringmaster's not-evil wife chances to have feelings for the med student and the other employees chance to have a growing ill will towards their boss... so the "protagonist" wanders around vacantly while everyone else drives the action. You want your high concept? This film is Toby Tyler meets the Brother From Another Planet.

I shouldn't have watched the Cat People. I rather like the 1940s Val Lewton Cat People, the film praised by many for daring to keep its monster mostly off-screen. I knew from reviews that the 1980s remake had none of the original's sense of subtlety when it came to the monster, violence or eroticism, yet I gave it a try when I found it on Netflix. This movie is just unpleasant, delving into incest and beastiality. What a bad idea.

During a family get-together, we turned up the Black Swan on Netflix and started watching it. However, we knew nothing about how explicitly sexual the movie was and we gave up about halfway through; I might go back to it later, but boy, it ain't one I want to watch with other people in the room.

I knew Jet Li's the One would be a stupid movie; that's why I chose it out of Netflix, I felt like watching something dumb (and none of the Jackie Chan films were loading). Oh my, this movie is dumb. The most interesting thing about it is seeing Jason Statham before he was famous and Space: Above & Beyond's James Morrison (who's never been that famous). What killed the film for me was seeing Li's CGI stunts; a martial artist as great as Jet Li doesn't need CGI to impress audiences. Argh.

when I found the Vanishing on Netflix I really should have opened my Leonard Maltin guide before proceeding any further. I recalled there were two versions of the movie, but I couldn't recall whether the Kiefer Sutherland/Jeff Bridges version was the original or the remake, nor did I recall if the remake was supposed to be any good. Well, this is the remake and no, it's not very good. Bridges' lispy Capote-like delivery made him a pretty poor villain in my estimation. This movie is also very confused about how the characters relate to one another, with one supposedly-pivotal moment between Sutherland and his girlfriend being instantly contradicted by the following scene. The original may be a great picture; this wasn't worth the $0 I paid for it.

Tomorrow, it ends on a positive note: pleasant surprises.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Movies of 2011, day three: disappointments

As I worked through my aforementioned list of films I'd been curious about watching, there were a few films which didn't live up to my expectations. For a film to be disappointing, I have to have held some belief at the outset that the personal recommendations, glowing reviews and/or familiar stars & directors were going to turn out something I'd find interesting, perhaps even outstanding. So, here's the films I watched in 2011 which I didn't really take to; I wouldn't call them bad, but I don't imagine I'll grant them a second chance.

I only recently began watching films by Martin Scorcese and I'm finding his filmography to be hit-or-miss, though I've never out-and-out disliked his movies. Gangs of New York is a good example of what I mean by "miss." I never connected to the historical setting, the characters or the conflict, so the lengthy running time surely didn't endear me either.

I passed up a chance to see Hero in the theatres during its original release so that a friend could use the free tickets I'd been given. I felt a minor regret at giving away the tickets, but now having seen the film for myself... no more regrets. I have a lot of time for good martial arts movies, but I just can't stand wire stunts, which is where this film goes to at every fight scene. The film was otherwise inoffensive.

I've mentioned before how westerns are one of the film genres I'm trying to make myself appreciate, so I tracked down one of the supposed greats: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. However, I never took to this film, in spite of a few scenes I did enjoy. It's very long and languid and I found it a struggle to stay invested in the slow-moving story.

Mission to Moscow is an odd footnote in film history, being a pro-USSR film made at the behest of FDR to help US citizens accept the Russians as their allies in World War II. In terms of fostering good relations between two peoples, it's a laudable goal. However, the execution in this film is simply terrible. By creating such a Hollywood-ized depiction of the USSR (and not Hollywood in the same way the earlier film Ninotchka played the USSR for laughs), it does a real disservice to history and to the then-current suffering in the Soviet Union when it was released. It essentially reduces purges into "people getting what they deserve" and repeatedly bending over backwards to claim the USSR isn't as bad as people claim, while the bad reports must all be propaganda. Don't believe their propaganda, believe ours! It's a pity to see Walter Huston - such a great actor - in this movie.

I saw the Towering Inferno despite having heard it was a big, dumb, loud disaster movie because I was curious to see what Paul Newman and Steve McQueen achieved in the picture. Answer: not enough to make up for Irwin Allen's excesses.

On the flight back from Angola last summer, I gave Megamind a chance; it's a story about a super villain who suffers an identity crisis when his nemesis is seemingly killed. As a time-killer, this was a great picture - there was no point at which I was bored of this movie. On the other hand, it was supposed to be a comedy... and there was no point at which I was amused by this movie.

Knight and Day comes so close to working. In retrospect, the trailer was the best part, but it used up all the really great moments. The concept of a violent anti-hero appearing in the midst of a romantic comedy is a terrific one - but the movie doesn't take any chances with the idea; all the creativity was used up in the film's pitch.

I blogged before about Star Trek. As I said then: it's a decent time-killer, if you don't think of it as Star Trek.

I had seen part of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on television before and didn't think much of it, but after noticing it on Netflix I decided to give it a chance. I was curious about the immense cast, containing dozens of great comedians (not counting Milton Berle). The end result is that my first impression hadn't changed - this movie is too much of a broad, slapstick farce for my tastes.

I had barely heard of Extract, but it turned up on Netflix too; given how much I enjoyed Mike Judge's films Office Space and Idiocracy, I hoped I'd found another brilliant film which snuck beneath the radar. well, not so much. The characters and premise are fine, but there's something really lacking in the execution of this film.

Speaking of a fine premise, Capricorn One has a great one: during the faked first manned mission to Mars, the flight crew are declared dead and must run for their lives. That sounds like a great picture, but the movie is actually about a reporter trying to uncover the secret of the faked mission, not the desperate struggle of the astronauts to stay alive and tell the world the truth. Pity.

Having seen most of John Carpenter's films recently, I decided to try Prince of Darkness, even though it's reputation isn't stellar. Seeing so many familiar Carpenter actors (quite a few from Big Trouble in Little China) and opening with what seemed to be a science fiction-style take on horror movie tropes, this movie never came together for me; the nature of the threat seems so unclear and contradictory... like, Satan was an alien? But the supernatural exists anyway? And if the antichrist is creating a body for itself out of a vat of goo, why does it wind up possessing someone else's body instead?

I'm somewhat intrigued by the years when the Walt Disney company was in decline, the era when Don Bluth created a rival studio, the movies had inferior animation and struggled at the box office until Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg turned the company around... so, Waking Sleeping Beauty seemed like it would be an interesting documentary of that era, even though it was produced by Disney themselves. However, by the end of the film I realized what I'd seen was simply a celebration of Katzenberg and nothing more. It opens by describing the state of Disney in the early 80s, it ends with the release of the Lion King and Katzenberg quitting. No mention is made of how Disney fared without Katzenberg (answer: just fine) or how Katzenberg fared without Disney (answer: just fine), nor whatever happened to Eisner (answer: outlasted Katzenberg by a decade), not even the fates of the other Disney films Katzenberg had put into production when he left. The filmmaker/narrator also has a sense of protectiveness about Disney (hurtfully describing Bluth as "kicking us when we were down") which interferes with objectivity. This film is just a love letter to Katzenberg's years at Disney; it assumes you're already one of the fawning faithful.

I keep saying I like Christopher Nolan films, but I guess what I mean to say is "I like his Batman pictures." Memento was worth watching once; the Prestige is the only movie I've ever taken out of my personal movie library (Reefer Madness and Star Trek 5 remain in). Inception developed a strong reputation in 2010 so I felt open to it, but ultimately, the fact that it's about characters in a dream world did a lot to diffuse the supposed tension of the story; it's all dreams within dreams and if reality is a dream... why am I bothering?

A clip of All That Jazz in Martin Scorcese's Journey Through... special really caught my attention; a musical director at death's door whose personal issues are brought to life as a muscical? That sounds like a great picture! Sadly, that's actually the plot of about 15 minutes near the end of the movie; leading up to that, there's a repellant, unlikeable protagonist who made me seriously grapple with the delayed pleasure of reaching the musical portion versus the immediate pleasure of not watching him on film any longer.

I'd also long known how Scorcese loved Duel in the Sun, David O. Selznick's attempt to out-Gone With the Wind Gone With the Wind via an epic western of two brothers whose different values turn them into enemies, especially as they both love the same woman. I do like a lot of the film's visuals, but Gregory Peck's villainous brother is so instantly unlikable (the most likeable thing about him is that he's played by Gregory Peck) that it's hard to get through 2.5 hours of him being villainous before his comeuppance. I wish it had been a little more subtle, but there I go, looking for subtlety in a Selznick picture...

Scorcese also presented a clip of Some Came Running, showing a gunman chasing two people through a carnival. It was a tense scene with unusual filming angles and instantly caught my attention. However, I never actually looked to see what Some Came Running was, assuming from the clip that it was a thriller. It's actually about 2 hours of Frank Sinatra being a self-loathing writer with the carnival scene arriving at the climax. I guess I should have done a little research here.

Finally, Pan's Labyrinth which is a lot like director Guillermo del Toro's Devil's Backbone, only with a big CGI budget, wider public acceptance and a downbeat ending. Personally, I'll stick to the Devil's Backbone; the child protagonist is so incapable of achieving any goals or of making anything better for herself or others that the entire experience rubbed me the wrong way. The children in the Devil's Backbone were similarly ill-equipped for the dangers they found themselves placed in, but at least they didn't exacerbate the situation.

Tomorrow: the movies I really didn't like.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Movies of 2011, day two: the best of what's been

Back in 2010, I sat down and composed a very lengthy list of movies I wanted to see. It was no hasty effort - I wrote down films which had intrigued me for years and films by directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Carol Reed, Orson Welles) or stars (Humphrey Bogart, Jack Benny, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff) who were my personal favourites. I drew some items from critic's lists, but others were recommendations from trusted friends. I took note of genres which I didn't usually watch (ie, musical, western, documentary) and decided I would seek out the films considered to be the best of their ilk. Watching Hollywood granted me a list of silent films I was eager to see while a Personal Journey With Martin Scorcese Through American Movies drew me to a number of lesser-known titles.

Although I began going through the list in 2010, it was during 2011 that I watched most of the 200-some titles (about 30 remain; I've already watched one in 2012 as I write this). At the same time, I remained open to all sorts of films which weren't on my list as I watched movies with friends or family and from what I unearthed on Netflix.

Below are my favourite films of the many I watched during 2011. Films are described in the order of which I viewed them.

In terms of documentaries, Errol Morris' the Thin Blue Line was the best-regarded film I had heard of. Having seen it, it's become my go-to recommendation to friends. I felt I had seen enough of Michael Moore-style documentaries, but Morris' style was instantly arresting - the way in which he holds back from commenting, instead letting the camera run and allow his subjects to say what's on their mind has changed how I feel about documentaries. I followed this film up with as many other Morris pictures as I could, including Standard Operating Procedure, his picture about the Abu Ghraib scandal. I watched all but one of his films within the last year and they all come highly recommended!

My friends are sometimes amazed by what I haven't seen, namely the many well-known commercial films I haven't watched. For instance, I hadn't seen Chicken Run until it came up for viewing at my friend Tom's movie night; similarly, I borrowed his copy of Field of Dreams. You probably don't need my recommendation for these films, but I will say they're great for viewing in friendly company.

L.A. Confidential came recommended by my cousin; despite the accolades it received from critics and the Academy Awards (which I knew well, being from the era when I read the entertainment section of two newspapers and watched Siskel & Ebert every day), it was my cousin's championing this film which convinced me to watch it - otherwise, I think I would have dismissed it as "film noir pastiche." It was strangely less dark than I expected to be, even becoming rather life-affirming by the climax.. not genuine noir, then!

The Petrified Forest was of interest to me because it was Humphrey Bogart's big breakout role; I had heard a few radio adaptations of the story, so the plot held no surprises, but Bogart's performance was indeed the tentpole of this picture; I was also fascinated by the racial attitudes, as I blogged about here.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (this being the 1939 version with Robert Donat) is another picture whose story I had heard dramatized via old-time radio programs, but the picture was quite moving; I also happened to realize how despite Donat being a favourite Hitchcock hero (the 39 Steps), I hadn't really considered the rest of his film career.

The French film Les Diaboliques had a very simple plot, but oh so oh so much style; the story of a wife who murders her husband with the help and guidance of her husband's mistress just ticks along, making the viewer wonder where the complications will arise and how frayed the killers' alliance will become.

Getting back to documentaries, I watched Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, not entirely certain what I was in for. Herzog is certainly more of an editorialist than Morris, but when the film steps back and allows its subject - passionate yet foolish bear-lover Timothy Treadwell - express his thoughts, it's quite a show; to some extent, perhaps Herzog's heavy-handed narration and summation was needed to comment on Treadwell's behaviour, yet I wish Treadwell's footage could have stood on its own.

Beau Geste is from that interesting span of years in the late 30s when Hollywood would create big, rousing, exotic adventure pictures. Beau Geste still holds up, especially when it moves to the big set piece - the Foreign Legion outpost in the desert, divided by revolt within, beset by adversaries without. Everything after the battle for the outpost feels anti-climatic.

After all the serious documentaries I watched the Dark Side of the Moon was a hilarious change of pace; purporting to relate the story of how Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing, replete with testimony from major NASA and US government officials, this is a brilliant joke; it does a fantastic job of encouraging viewers to be inquisitive and questioning of the "facts" people tell them, especially those told by filmmakers (who can edit "testimony" out of its context), but it doesn't stoop to lecturing; it isn't until the closing credits that the film exposes itself as a hoax, but hopefully anyone who watches the film would catch on much sooner; many of the early scenes are off-putting, making you doubt what you're being told; by the end, the story of the faked moon landing has become so absurd (yet delivered straight-faced) that it becomes very funny.

A couple of years ago, I read the book version of the One That Got Away, yet the film adaptation was a little elusive. I was amazed at how faithful the film was to its source material, relating the tale of how German pilot Franz von Werra repeatedly attempted escape from the British, until finally winning his freedom by leaping from a prison train in Canada. The book is the superior way of experiencing this story, but I have no complaints about the movie!

I've never really warmed up Billy Wilder's pictures, yet because of the aforementioned Martin Scorcese... special, I felt One, Two, Three with Jimmy Cagney would be worth seeing. And how! I'm surprised I hadn't heard of this film until seeing Scorcese's special, it's a very well-played Cold War farce which is still funny in a post-Cold War world.

Of the many movies I watched aboard various planes during my trip to/from Angola, POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold was easily my favourite experience. I had previously enjoyed Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, so I was willing to indulge in this gentle mockery of movie product placement. I wish a little more time in the picture had been spent discussing product placement with the briefly-interviewed Hollywood directors, but many of the gags - especially the Mane & Tail shampoo - are quite funny.

Thanks to Netflix, I was finally able to see two top-rated pictures: Gandhi and Kagemusha. I was recently rewatching Richard Attenborough's picture Chaplin and wishing he'd filmed it in a style nearer to that of Gandhi.

Netflix also had Charade, a pretty good thriller in the Hitchcock vein; I think it's often been mistaken for a Hitchcock film because Cary Grant was the leading man (at least, my father seems to think it was a Hitchcock picture).

I wish Black Hawk Down had been a little more ambitious. It's a very well-done depiction of modern warfare and the comradery of soldiers which you'd expect, but it stops short of being about something other than an andrenaline-fueled reenactment of a historical event and that held me back just a titch.

I often watch comic book-related pictures even when I haven't experienced the comics themselves, simply to be supportive. If Netflix hadn't had Persepolis available for streaming, I don't know when I would have made time for the film or comics; it does such a fine job of what Mark Gruenwald claimed comics were meant for: "to help people connect with life experiences of people other than themselves, thereby expanding upon their concept of humanness." That's Persepolis and now I know I need to make time for the original comic.

Netflix also lead me to films of various reputations: Seven Years in Tibet, Blues Brothers, 1984, Marty... funny thing about 1984: the novel was a huge influence on me in high school, but I always balked at seeing R-rated films in my teen years. Now having seen the 80s adaptation, I realize it had always been a mature, adult piece of fiction - the R rating is all I should have expected.

I don't know why I should be surprised I enjoyed Pixar's Up; I haven't seen a Pixar film I didn't like (ie, I haven't seen a Bug's Life or Cars) but this film's concept wasn't easy to get a handle on from the trailer (as opposed to "toys," "monsters," "super heroes," or "robots"). I'm glad it allowed the creators to be a little more offbeat and imaginative than usual. This is a letter-perfect all-ages film.

Having seen Throne of Blood I'm down to just a few remaining Kurosawa pictures; this was his adaptation of Macbeth into a samurai film and it fits together perfectly, from the supernatural elements, to the "Lady Macbeth" treachery and especially in the climax as the forest moves and "Macbeth"'s soldiers revolt.

I think I heard mixed reviews of District 9, but one friend I confronted about this claims he never talked down about the movie; well, there was no need to put this off, was there? The most common criticism of the picture seems to be the lack of a happy ending, but I have to appreciate how the film on a hopeful note; at various times, it seemed to be heading to a tragic ending where nothing was learned and nothing was changed, so I'm simply pleased at how some things change and some hope exists.

Tomorrow: the letdowns.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Movies of 2011, day one: cinematic films

I'm not sure why so many best/worst lists appear on the internet during December; aren't the authors afraid they might miss something of real significance during the last few weeks?

Now that it's 2012, I feel confident sharing my thoughts on the various media I encountered in 2011, whether they were originally released in 2011 or earlier. I'm going to delve into films, books and comics and my goal is to maintain a fairly positive attitude, even when I'm discussing the items I didn't care for.

All this week I'll be looking back at films I watched in 2011. It was a fairly significant year in terms of what, why and how I was watching older movies, but I'll get into that tomorrow. Today's topic: theatrical films.

I made only five trips to the cinema in 2011, albeit I might taken in even fewer films if circumstances had been different.

First, there was the Eagle, a film about a Roman soldier who wanders around early England searching for an eagle figure his father left behind. My brother Matthew could probably speak to whether this film was historically reliable at all. I wouldn't have imagined going to see the Eagle myself, but a friend wanted to see a movie with me and the other option handed to me was Battle: Los Angeles; I'd like to think I made the right choice. The Eagle was an okay adventure flick.

I was concerned that Thor would be somewhat disconnected from the other Marvel super hero movies which have been produced in the lead-up to 2012's Avengers, what with the vast cosmic/godly locales and characters required by Thor's mythos and their being rather removed from the relatively down-to-Earth Iron Man (and so forth). I felt my concerns were pretty well borne out - the movie worked well when it struck a little closer to the familiar (Earth scenes) and was just a bit off when it ventured into Asgard. Still, the movie works just fine, it's only serious misstep is the disjointed "romance" between Thor and Jane Foster, which feels as though at least one scene were omitted.

X-Men: First Class, on the other hand, was better than I thought it would be...probably because I've come to expect so little from the X-Men's movie franchise. It was a little too cute and self-knowing (Xavier's jokes about being a professor and going bald were at least one too many; gratuitous Wolverine cameo, so forth), but I felt its version of Magneto was actually the most formidable film version thus far. I'm not clamouring for more (nor does anyone else, it seems), but this was a great diversion.

Captain America: the First Avenger is the super hero movie I was most looking forward to; Avengers is a postscript in comparison. Cap has long been my favourite super hero and I felt the film did a great job at giving the character the attributes which make him likeable, particularly by emphasizing how his sense of courage and morality existed before he became a hero. I feel the film loses its way a little once he dons the final version of his costume (the pace of the story suddenly jerks forward) and the final ending doesn't quite fit (I'm assuming it was originally meant to appear post-credits), but overall I am very pleased with this movie

My family often takes in a movie over the Christmas holidays and 2011's feature was the Adventures of Tintin, which we of the younger generation paid for on our parents' behalf. I wasn't sure about the film in advance since the CGI style seemed so unlike the visuals of the original comics, but Tintin turned out out to be a great bit of fun, the right sort of movie to see with your family at Christmas. It did a lot to remind me about the Tintin comics, which I hadn't really thought of for some 20 years.

Tomorrow: great film discoveries of 2011!