Monday, September 18, 2017

As in Stretchy

Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched To Their Limits (2001): by art spiegelman and Chip Kidd: Writer-artist Jack Cole was one of the brightest of the bright spots of the 1940's 'Golden Age' of American comic books. And he was Hugh Hefner's go-to artist during Playboy's first few years. And he seemed to be on his way to success on a syndicated comic strip when he committed suicide in 1958. 

The reasons for the suicide remain shrouded in mystery. The brilliance of Jack Cole almost from the beginning of his professional comic-book career is not a mystery but pretty much a fact: he was a genius.

And a very weird genius at that, one weird enough to captivate Art 'Maus' Spiegelman, whose contempt for superhero comics is pretty well-documented, and Ace Book Designer Chip Kidd. Spiegelman's essay on Jack Cole appeared previously in a magazine; here, in book form, it's buttressed by comics and art and Chip Kidd's oddball lay-out.

Jack Cole's Plastic Man was a wonder for about a decade. Plastic Man's stretchable, squeezable, Protean nature allowed Cole to play with lay-out and space and panel composition in innovative, always enjoyable ways. Plastic Man always seemed on the verge of breaking out of his comic book altogether. Even the best of those who came after Cole couldn't recapture Cole's manic, fluid, occasionally polymorphously perverse vision of the comic book.

The latter stages of the book showcase Cole's own protean ability to change styles, from his full-page, one-panel 'Good Girl' art cartoons for Playboy to his stripped-down comic-strip style. He was a rare sort of genius, doing popular yet often dazzlingly weird and avant-garde work. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


The Infinity Gauntlet (1991/ Collected 2000): written by Jim Starlin; illustrated by George Perez, Ron Lim, Josef Rubinstein, Tom Christopher, and Bruce Solotoff: An enjoyable Marvel-cosmos-smashing tale written by Jim Starlin, whose super-villain Thanos will be assaying some similar plan in the Marvel Cinematic Universe some day soon. There's a lot of super-hero battles here. A lot. 

Possessed of the universe-controlling Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos can do pretty much everything and anything he wants. Thankfully, old (and seemingly deceased) nemesis Adam Warlock assembles a variety of Marvel heroes, villains, and cosmic entities to defeat Thanos. But can they?

The great George Perez pencils the first three-and-a-half issues of what was originally a six-issue miniseries. And those chapters are swell. Ron Lim takes over to finish, and while he's a more-than-competent superhero artist, he lacks the often insane detail of Perez, especially when it comes to the differentiation of characters. 

Along the way, Perez's art makes one long for a Perez Dr. Strange or Silver Surfer story: his work on these characters he's rarely drawn is superb and suggestive of great things that have never happened.

Starlin's cosmic tale hangs on a hook that's clever but articulated too soon in the narrative. But it lends Thanos a level of poignance that's refreshing in a super-villain. Starlin portrayed cosmic battles against Thanos back in the 1970's with Marvel's original Captain Marvel and Warlock as Thanos' chief opponents (and Starlin drawing everything). Both those sagas, much more quirky and personal than this Big Box Superhero Crossover Epic, were superior to this one and perhaps should be read before tackling this. Recommended.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman

Cat breath!
Wonder Woman: Rebirth Volume 1: The Lies (2016/ Collected 2017): written by Greg Rucka; illustrated by Liam Sharp, Matthew Clark, and Sean Parsons: DC's Rebirth event resulted in an odd sort of reboot for its characters last year, with various past elements of the characters being dropped from or added to continuity as part of a larger crossover event that's still in the preliminary stages, one that seems to involve Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan.

Rebirth also brought some writers back to characters, most notably Greg Rucka to Wonder Woman. And it's good to see him back. Or read him back. Whatever. In this first Rebirth collection, Wonder Woman wrestles with memories that may or may not be real while also trying to save old (as in 1940's old) enemy the Cheetah from being stuck as the Cheetah, a woman-cheetah tribal god. Perennial WW squeeze Steve Trevor appears, now a Seal Team leader. Man, Steve Trevor has had a lot of jobs.

Rucka keeps things moving while making the Cheetah interesting, which has always been a struggle, and sympathetic, which is almost unprecedented. The art, primarily by Liam Sharp, is, um, sharp. Recommended.

And she's bisexual!
Wonder Woman: Rebirth Volume 2: Year One (2016-2017/ Collected 2017): written by Greg Rucka; illustrated by Nicola Scott and Bilquis Evely: Wonder Woman gets another revised origin as DC's Rebirth event rolls along. By my count, this is #123. 

But it's good, interesting, accessible stuff from past-and-present WW scribe Greg Rucka, beautifully drawn by the always under-rated Nicola Scott. Along the way, we get yet another revised version of WW's home, Themyscira, and her parentage. 

Rucka does some interesting things with the Greek Gods, along with Wonder Woman's long-time nemesis Ares/Mars. We also discover that Wonder Woman is 6'3" and was once nearly killed by an evil tree. Fascinating! Recommended.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Altman and Aldous

Get Him To the Greek: Unrated Version (2010): based on characters created by Jason Segel; written and directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Jonah Hill (Aaron Green), Russell Brand (Aldous Snow), Rose Byrne (Jackie Q), Colm Meaney (Jonathan Snow), Dinah Stabb (Lena Snow), Sean Combs (Sergio), and Elisabeth Moss (Daphne Binks): Rapidly becoming an all-timer on my list of film comedies that cheer me up. Jonah Hill has never been funnier. 

Russell Brand has only been used well in one other film -- Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which he also played dissipated Brit-rocker Aldous Snow. There's a bizarre, endearing, obscene, profane chemistry between Hill and Brand that makes me wish they'd do another movie with writer-director Nicholas Stoller and Aldous Snow-creator Jason Segel. Even Sean Combs is hilarious. And Aldous Snow's songs are hilariously catchy. Highly recommended.

Altman (2014): written by Len Blum; directed by Ron Mann: Excellent, too-short documentary from Canadian Ron Mann on the life and times of Top Ten All-Time director Robert Altman (1925 –2006). The iconoclastic Altman spent about 20 years in TV and B-movies before his film version of M.A.S.H. made him an 'overnight' success. 

Even when ha had access to major-studio money in the first decade after M.A.S.H., Altman was fiercely iconoclastic and eccentric in his film choices. Losing studio money after 1980 or so didn't finish him -- instead, he directed on the stage, came up with an innovative TV show, and eventually came back 'into the fold' (sort of) with popular and critical hit The Player. His movies are his testament; this documentary does a nice job of looking at the man, and the affection so many actors had for probably the greatest actor's director of all time. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver (2017): written and directed by Edgar Wright; starring Ansel Elgort (Baby), Jon Hamm (Buddy), Eliza Gonzalez (Darling), Lily James (Debora), Kevin Spacey (Doc), CJ Jones (Joseph), Jamie Foxx (Bats), and Paul Williams (The Butcher): It's my least favourite of the movies Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) has directed. That still makes it pretty good. Baby Driver, named for a Paul Simon song, is slathered in songs. Our hero, 20ish guy 'Baby,' drives the getaway cars for a heist operation run by Kevin Spacey. He doesn't want to, but he's stuck. When 15, Baby stole a car loaded with stolen property from Spacey. He's been paying it off ever since.

How are the car-chase scenes? Very good. Anedgar wrightd the conceit that Baby listens to music constantly to drown out the tinnitus suffered in the car accident that killed his parents means, well, a nearly constant, eclectic flow of pop music. Wright gives Baby a couple of interesting quirks -- most notably a deaf African-American foster father whose existence, and Baby's mastery of American Sign Language, tells us that Baby is All Right. Lily James plays Baby's cute-as-a-button diner-waitress love interest, labouring away in the world's (or at least Atlanta's) largest yet most empty diner ever.

The improbably named Ansel Elgort seems to have been intentionally selected for his sweet, occasionally blank niceness. I don't know that it entirely works. He's often overpowered by the other actors, most notably the acerbic Spacey, a mercurial Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm as The Terminator. Wright nods to one classic 'Driver' film, The Driver (1978), directed by Walter Hill, by casting Hill in a cameo. One is also reminded of the more recent, excellent Drive with Ryan Gosling as a preternaturally cool heist driver. In all, Baby Driver is an enjoyable entertainment, the sort of summer movie that used to be more common before the Rise of the Tentpoles. Recommended.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk (2017): written and directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Damien Bonnard (French Soldier), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), and Cillian Murphy (PTSD Soldier): Between May 26 and June 4 1940, about 400,000 troops from Belgium, the British Empire, and France were trapped on the French beaches of Dunkirk. Then, for various reasons still argued about by historians, Nazi Germany chose not to overwhelm those trapped forces with infantry, tanks, and heavy bombing. 

The result was the greatest and most important Maritime evacuation in military history as a fleet of British military and civilian ships of about 800 evacuated approximately 350,000 of those troops to England. Lose those troops and the Allies probably lose the war long before the United States of America joins it.

Christopher Nolan doesn't attempt a wide-reaching, expository historical epic here. Instead, he focuses his film on three targets operating on three different but converging timelines. That would be a week on the beach with the waiting troops, a day on a civilian-piloted boat helping with the evacuation, and an hour in the air with RAF pilots engaging the Nazi air force over sea and land.

It all works beautifully. The only drag is a fictional sub-plot on the boat that seems clumsy and obvious. Otherwise, Dunkirk is a war movie that portrays the fear and tension of warfare in a number of set-pieces. The only traditional war-movie 'release' comes with the RAF's battles with the German fighters and bombers. Otherwise, Dunkirk is the war movie as psychological horror, with groups of men listening for the sounds of bombs dropping through the air, pinned down under fire from an enemy they can't see, or struggling to escape the flooding compartments of a sinking rescue ship.

Civilian boat captain Mark Rylance and Commander-on-the-beach Kenneth Branagh supply the personable acting here, with smaller turns from several of the young actors who portray the troops and Tom Hardy as one of the RAF pilots. The aerial combat scenes are thrilling and expansive; the rescues at sea are thrilling and horrifying. It's a marvelous, focused movie (less than 2 hours long!), and it may come to be regarded as Christopher Nolan's best. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Prequel and Sequels

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016): written by J.K. Rowling; directed by David Yates; starring Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Colin Farrell (Graves), Katherine Waterston (Tina), Alison Sudol (Queenie), Dan Fogler (Jacob), Ezra Miller (Credence), and Johnny Depp (Grindenwald): A Harry Potter prequel (one of at least four, apparently) set in New York in the 1920's. The rare modern movie whose charms lie almost entirely on the CGI end of things. Eddie Redmayne, mumbling and whispering and retiring, was a terrible choice to play the lead: he's perpetually drowned out by pretty much everything else in the movie. 

The film might have been 25% better if David Tennant had played Scamander in full blustery Doctor Who mode. Between this and his performance in Jupiter Ascending, bad in a different way, Redmayne really needs to avoid potential tent-pole blockbusters. He's too finely tuned an actor to look comfortable in front of a green-screen battling for attention with giant birds and immense balls of crackly darkness.

J.K. Rowling's first original screenplay is a mess, vague and unfocused and rambling for the first hour. Characters we don't care about whiz by, leaving only Eddie Fogler's Muggle-out-of-water baker and Alison Sudol's perky telepath to cheer for, and be cheered by. A movie about the two of them and their magical bakery would be a Potter prequel I could get behind. The appearance of Johnny Depp at the end inspires the wrong kind of dread for the future of the series. Lightly recommended.

Spider-Man 2 (2004): based on characters created by Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, John Romita, and others; written by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon, and Alvin Sargent; starring Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Alfred Molina (Dr. Octopus), Rosemary Harris (Aunt May), and J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson): 15 years further into The Superhero-Movie Age, Spider-Man 2 seems smarter and more human than ever. The actors charm, the villain is more of a tragic figure than anything else, and everything hinges not on a final fist-fight but on a final appeal to a doomed character's humanity. 

In terms of choreography and spectacle, the final battle isn't quite as interesting as two earlier set-pieces, though that may explain the sudden left-hand turn the plot takes at its conclusion away from all-out punchiness. Only the decision to have Spider-Man's webs be biological rather than mechanical is a drag: the fun of Spider-Man's encounters with super-villains in the comic books sprang partially from his scientific and engineering prowess deployed in the service of stopping said super-villains, and Spidey could really use some high-test webbing when he battles the homicidal, cybernetic arms of Dr. Octopus! Highly recommended.

The Dark Tower (2017): adapted by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Nikolaj Arcel from the series by Stephen King; directed by Nikolaj Arcel; starring Idris Elba (Roland), Tom Taylor (Jake), and Matthew McConaughey (Walter): Shortly before its release, The Dark Tower was called a sequel to the 8-novel+ Stephen King series by its creators. And it actually makes sense as one if you've read the series. 

Is it a great movie? No. It's bracingly short and compact, though maybe 20 minutes' more questing and world-building would have been nice. Idris Elba does fine work as a more tortured Roland the Gunslinger than we see in the novels. Tom Taylor does fine work as Jake, the boy on 'our' Earth who dreams of the Gunslinger and his fantastic quest to save the Dark Tower at the centre of reality. And Matthew McConaughey is suitably smarmy and smug as Walter, the Man in Black who's trying to bring down the Dark Tower in service to his own dark god(s). 

There are Stephen King Easter Eggs galore (Hello, Charlie the Choo-Choo! Hello, Room 1408!). There are rat-men and assorted other servants of darkness. Its weakness is occasionally seeming rushed, though that's better than bloat in my book any day. The Dark Tower also understatedly offers a multi-racial cast, something that seems to have gone unremarked upon the curious critical rush to pan the movie. Oh, well. Recommended.