Saturday, May 31, 2014

Another story about me and my ego

It's a little strange to me to find myself back in the public eye, years after leaving Marvel, but that's what's happened over the last week and all over a single e-mail intended only for my immediate colleagues.

I helped support the Kickstarter for the book Nelvana of the Northern Lights, which collected all of the 1940s adventures of Nelvana, Canada's first super-heroine. Happily, we at the University of Calgary were asked to help provide material for the book, so I found myself able to support the publication from two separate ends!

Receiving the book last week, I informed my colleagues that University of Calgary Archives had received a special thank you for our efforts; there I thought it would end, but the story grew from there as the rest of campus became interested. As of this writing, it's led to a story at UToday (read it here) and may yet lead to me appearing on radio or television to speak more about the George Morley Collection, which, despite having been in our hands for most of a decade, hasn't received a great deal of attention until recently, largely because of my efforts.

Compared to the days when I had to struggle to get anyone interested in promoting my work at Marvel, I rather enjoy this set-up - people approach me, ask if I'd like to talk to them about comics and voila, the media machine takes over!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Gone Hollywood

Although I have been editing at for some time, it's only recently that I received an entry at that august website; a page has been dedicated to me in recognition of my co-producer's credit on the documentary film Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont's X-Men.

I became attached to the project via Kickstarter - in fact, this was the first Kickstarter I contributed to. My motivation was, in part, sheer vanity, an ego boost, a naked attempt at giving myself an imdb page. However, it was not only about my ego, but also my complicated feelings about Chris Claremont.

I say "complicated" because although I grew up reading his X-Men comics, I knew none of the details behind his departure from the franchise in 1991. By the time he returned in 2000 I had become part of that jaded, cynical internet audience which was eager to see Claremont fail, to expose his new work as worthless, to even reexamine his original 17 year run as overrated. I was a chump, in other words.

Only when Grant Morrison began his New X-Men run did my feelings begin to change; so much of the series' lore had been cast adrift that I soon myself looking at Claremont's contemporaneous X-Treme X-Men and appreciating how he kept the series anchored to what had come before, while still integrating what Morrison had begun introducing. Happily, I came back to the fold in time to enjoy many more years of Claremont's stories and eventually I contributed a supplementary text piece for an issue of his series X-Men Forever; Claremont graciously autographed that issue for me.

By the time this film turned up at Kickstarter, Claremont's writing prospects at Marvel were - for the first time in 12 years - nil. Having then only recently resigned from my own work at Marvel, it bothered me to realize Claremont had run out of work; he's someone who, ideally, I would like to see keep working until he think he's had enough. My support for this documentary was founded primarily on a desire to demonstrate support for Claremont.

Happily, not only was the film successfully funded and produced (replete with my ego-stroking credit), but Claremont has since resumed working at Marvel via Nightcrawler, which I would surely read if I were still reading Marvel Comics. The documentary itself is concerned with Claremont's first 17-year run on X-Men - there is a brief mention of X-Men Forever, but the narrative the film chose was to follow Claremont's career only up until 1991. Along with many discussions with Claremont himself are included the reminiscences of Louise Simonson, Ann Nocenti, Len Wein, Jim Shooter and my friend Peter Sanderson (conspicuously absent are John Byrne, Jim Lee & Bob Harras). Although the film is a brief 42-minute jaunt, there are many bonus clips from the interview sessions of interest to anyone who likes to hear behind-the-scenes anecdotes about 1980s Marvel.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gravity-> All is Lost-> conclusions

I find it extremely difficult to sleep on airplanes, yet for the past several years have been making lengthy trips to Africa which require me to spend copious hours trapped in my barely-comfortable seat. How to pass the time? Obviously I use the in-flight entertainment; in fact, I plan my use of the entertainment well in advance, taking time to visit the airline's website and determining which films they'll be showing. I then judge which films I absolutely plan to see and which I'll watch if I need to pass the time.

During my trip to Sierra Leone this past month, by the time I reached the middle of the journey (Calgary-> London), I had already watched my top picks from the programming. In the next stage (London-> Lungi) I finished off the other films I considered worthwhile with still hours to spare. Never mind what to watch on my return flights - what would I do to finish this leg?

One of my top picks was last year's hit film Gravity, which you have undoubtedly heard of. It tells the tale of novice astronaut Sandra Bullock who is caught in the path of deadly shrapnel debris which steadily destroys everything orbiting the Earth; Bullock has to rescue herself as her options rapidly diminish.

I didn't finish Gravity on the first flight - I only started the film in the last hour of the trip after deciding that no, even with my earplugs in I could hear that child crying nonstop in the compartment and I couldn't sleep through it so, I might as well try another film. I left the picture with 30 minutes remaining and caught the rest on the 2nd flight. However, I felt a little peeved after seeing the conclusion; the last 30 minutes (the business of Bullock successfully rescuing herself) held absolutely no surprises. The method she's told to use to save herself works and all that running time is simply eaten up going through the motions; the film ends exactly as you'd expect.

Which, isn't a bad thing, I guess. Gravity has nice visuals and at about 90 minutes long with a relentless amount of activity and motion, you're never bored with it. I suppose I expected something special from a movie nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (why I expected something special from the Academy is beyond me). Gravity is storytelling 101 - perfectly solid at communicating it's story, but nothing transcendental, nothing so arresting it pushes at the boundaries of cinema. Heck, this is a movie where - at one point - George Clooney has to point blank tell Bullock what her character's motivation is (you couldn't save your daughter so you escaped to outer space and you need to get over this by saving yourself and returning to Earth) because someone assured Hollywood that Audiences Are Morons. It's a solid movie, but it ain't subtle.

On the other side of the coin, we have last year's All is Lost, aka, "how I spent two of those remaining hours en route to Lungi." I hadn't researched this one in advance - hadn't read any reviews. I saw the lead (Robert Redford), read the premise (man stranded at sea) and went in.

All is Lost is a curious film. It depicts Redford as a man living alone on his boat somewhere in the Indian Ocean; while Redford's asleep, the boat strikes a cargo shipping container which had been (randomly) abandoned on the waters. Redford goes about the business of making repairs, but not all of the damage can be fixed and there's rough waters ahead.

All is Lost runs two hours long. Wait, that's not right, let me try again: All is Lost shambles two hours long. It's a slow, quiet movie (Redford speaks about two times - he has no co-stars). It's practically a silent film - the story is told through images and actions, not dialogue. Gravity is from the school of Noel Coward while All is Lost comes to you via Charles Chaplin*.

Speaking to my friends on the flight, those who sampled the film found it pretty bland. It's definitely not to all tastes, yet I think I kinda like it - it's almost as good a film as Gravity, in it's own way. Both films involve a protagonist caught in a situation beyond their control and constantly readjusting their plan of survival. While Gravity is super-compressed** storytelling where characters tell you what they're thinking about and how their struggle to survive relates to the tragic death of their child, All is Lost is super-decompressed storytelling where everything is ambiguous. They're both ambitious films on a technical level, yet Gravity surely goes down much more smoothly. I'm not normally one to champion decompressed storytelling, but it's almost worth seeing All is Lost for the experience of the movie's final shot. When I described it to my friends (who abandoned the film early) they couldn't believe it. See it for yourself and tell me you didn't smile at the audacity!

*=I still had one hour left before reaching Lungi, so after All is Lost I watched a Chaplin documentary. It seemed appropriate.

**= If the shrapnel debris arrives every 90 minutes as stated in the film and we witness it 3 times, then the movie covers about 4.5 hours in the life of Bullock's character, right? Yet you'd swear only 90 minutes pass because the camera never seems to cut away from her. Solid editing, that.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

People looking at things: my short Godzilla review

I heard enough about Gareth Edwards' Godzilla to have my expectations set pretty low; I went to see the film more to spend time with my friend Alastair rather than any genuine interest in the movie. I'm afraid my thoughts on the film echo much of the criticism I'd heard.

Being that Edwards is a first-time director, you might wonder if he's any good. Having seen his film, I couldn't say - his background in visual effects serves him well as he spends most of the time creating set pieces. Otherwise, he's clearly a Spielbergian fellow - much of the film consists of people staring at things. Poor Ken Watanabe seems to spend 80% of his scenes with his mouth open like a guppy.

Spielberg also comes to mind when one thinks of his War of the Worlds picture (2005), an incredibly somber and truly post-9/11 film which took the excitement of an alien invasion and transformed it into depressing sludge. Likewise, Godzilla is somber and morose about the business of giant monsters fighting. 9/11 destruction porn is trotted out (as in so many films) against slow-motion footage of buildings collapsing while sad music plays; precisely what the Godzilla audience demographic wants to see, am I right?

The film frequently devotes its running time to establishing a set piece - the locale, the people, the cute kids in peril (re: Spielberg) leading up to the arrival of the monster at which point destruction commences - for about 1 minute, then it's back to slowly setting up the next action scene. It's quite a languid pace. When Godzilla made his first full appearance confronting one of the film's villainous monsters I began to grow excited - but then the scene pulled away and the fight was simply glimpsed on television. Consequently, when the film began setting up the next monster fight, it's hard to get excited. Godzilla and the other monster are going to have a rematch? I didn't even get to see the first fight! Oh, will it be another brief shaky cam action scene followed by 10 minutes of people talking? I wouldn't bet money against it.

In his review, J. Caleb Mozzocco described the cast of characters as "generic character types cut from an Emmerich-like disaster/apocalypse film." He's being far too kind; Emmerich's casts of easily-identifiable stereotypes and comic reliefs are deeply-honed figures of meticulous craft compared to the human cast of Godzilla; any attempt to recall the cast will only put you to sleep. I did find myself transfixed by Watanabe, but only because I assumed his character would eventually justify his presence in the film; spoiler warning: he doesn't. Did you ever see Red Letter Media's review of Star Wars: the Phantom Menace where he challenged people to describe the personalities of the film's cast without talking about their jobs or physical appearances? I defy anyone to do the same with the cast of Godzilla and come up with words other than "bland," "dull" or "sepia." The only dynamic character dies about half an hour in. Good thing Edwards is the next Star Wars director, huh?

What I liked: The atomic breath, both times it was used (I actually said "right on!" aloud when the Big G's tail began glowing the first time - I was afraid he might not use it in the film considering how it had been going); I liked that the film involved Godzilla fighting other monsters rather than being a Godzilla vs. army film; I liked a lot of the visuals, especially Godzilla's spikes sticking out of the ocean.


Exiting the theater, Alastair informed me there's new military technology which is proof against EMPs - he tells me modern military jets can survive an EMP without losing control of their vehicle; if he's right, that would have buried a lot of this film's "nothing stops EMPs" science.

My friend Craig and I have opined the real test of how good any Godzilla movie is whether the humans' plot is any good; if the human plot is terrible then the movie is lousy (Godzilla vs. Megalon); if the human plot is passable then the movie is good (Godzilla 1985); if the human plot is actually interesting, then the movie is great (Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla). In this instance, the human plot is dull; unfortunately, it's also 95% of the film. There's no sense of fun, joy, excitement...

...Wow, after seeing this I'm beginning to realize I really did enjoy Pacific Rim.

"I think Gareth Edwards' Godzilla is dead, but we should check for a pulse."

*shoots film in the head three times*

"No pulse."