Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Detectives, Inc. (Collected Edition)

Detectives, Inc. by Don McGregor, Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan (Material from the 1970's and 1980's; this IDW edition 2009): IDW is really winning my heart with its reprints of great comics from the 1980's and 1990's. 

This B&W collection of writer McGregor's Detectives, Inc. comic stories comes along with several prose pieces on the genesis of the detective comic, along with a piece on the filming of the Detectives, Inc. movie. My only caveat about the volume is that it's unfortunate that it couldn't be reprinted in a larger format -- the hyper-detailed art of Marshall Rogers on "A Remembrance of Threatening Green" originally appeared in a larger album size, and things do get a little squinty at times.

Still, this is a tremendous achievement both in writing and art. The world of McGregor's private detectives, Rainier and Dennings, gets the hypercrisp, hyper-detailed treatment from Marshall Rogers (best known for his Batman work in the 1970's), and the moodier, more humanistic approach from Gene Colan (best known for Tomb of Dracula and about a dozen other books). 

Both art styles work, and both look great in black and white. Indeed, this may be the late Rogers' greatest work. The attention to detail is stunning, and Rogers experiments with some really fascinating one and two-page designs.

Private detectives aren't all that common in comic books unless they wear costumes or have occult powers. Rainier and Dennings remind me a lot of revisionist 70's PIs from the movies -- not so much Jake Gittes in Chinatown, as Rainier and Dennings are less cynical than Robert Towne's PI, but more the characters we see in films like Night Moves (with Gene Hackman on the case) and Cutter's Way (in which non-PI's John Heard and Jeff Bridges try to solve a case). They're battered and bruised sometimes, emotionally as well as physically, but they stay on the case. 

McGregor invests his characters with a lot of heart -- he's one of the great comic book writers in terms of creating sympathy and empathy, at creating plausibly flawed and self-doubting protagonists, and at incorporating both sex and romance into a comic book without being prurient or exploitative. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Keanu (2016)

Keanu (2016): written by Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens, and Jamie Schaecher; directed by Peter Atencio; starring Jordan Peele (Rell/ Oil), Keegan-Michael Key (Clarence/ Smoke), Tiffany Haddish (Hi-C), Method Man (Cheddar), Nia Long (Hannah), and Keanu Reeves (Voice of Keanu): 

Fun action comedy nods a lot to such movies from the 1970's and 1980's (especially anything starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder). Key and Peele play cousins Clarence and Rell, suburban blerds who are forced into action to save Rell's kitten Keanu, kidnapped by gangsters. Knowledge of George Michael and the conventions of action-comedy capers are probably necessary to derive something like full enjoyment out of Keanu, which sometimes veers too much into 'serious' territory. Recommended.

The Big Sleep (1939)

The Big Sleep (1939: Philip Marlowe#1) by Raymond Chandler: Worried that in seeing the great Howard Hawks adaptation of The Big Sleep you've ruined yourself for the novel? Worry not! The novel diverges enough by page 50 or so that it's pretty much a different story than the movie.

Of course, it's also a lot more explicitly bigoted and homophobic than the movie, so there's that too. Get through that stuff and you've got a superior hard-boiled detective novel, one which had a psychological and stylistic depth that would influence hard-boiled fiction ever after.

This is the first novel-length adventure of Chandler's Philip Marlowe, the Los Angeles PI with a heart of gold. Well, gold alloyed with cynicism and pithy, pungent comments on The Way Things Are. Chandler's Marlowe arrives here pretty much entirely formed. He'll stay on a case if he thinks justice needs to be done, regardless of what a client wants. He likes chess, whiskey, and pondering the dusty nature of his office.

The written word in America 1939 had a bit more freedom than Hollywood movies in 1946, so certain portions of the plot are simply a bit more explicit when it comes to the pornography ring that drives part of the action. This also leads to the bigotry and homophobia becoming more explicit -- Bogart couldn't utter the opinion that "a pansy has no iron in his bones" in a movie, but Marlowe sure can, and does, in the novel. Hoo ha!

Nonetheless, the novel still reads with a surprising amount of stylistic freshness. Chandler was not better than all those who would follow him into the hardboiled world he remade, but he certainly was better than most -- and better than Dashiell Hammett, who was the epitome of the hardboiled writer before Chandler. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Herzog & Kinski X 2

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972): written and directed by Werner Herzog; starring Klaus Kinski (Aguirre) and Del Negro (Brother Gaspar/Narrator): As the IMDB tells us, "A few decades after the destruction of the Inca empire, a Spanish expedition leaves the mountains of Peru and goes down the Amazon river in search of gold and wealth." The time is about 1560. And the Spaniards have brought their heart of darkness with them.

Werner Herzog is in peak form here with this story of human evil and the sublime and haunting jungle which swallows anything it wants to swallow. Klaus Kinski's greedy, murderous, deluded soldier dreams of claiming all of the land around him for himself. In a way, he does. Well, him and a bunch of cheeky monkeys.

Human perversity ends up dwarfed by the jungle, never more threatening than when everything goes silent and a barrage of arrows kills off members of Aguirre's party. Again and again. 

The Catholic monk who serves as the film's narrator dreams of conquest as well -- spiritual conquest. Well, and maybe a gold cross for himself. Aguirre searches for El Dorado, the legendary Lost City of Gold of the Americas. He's going down the Amazon to find it. Silly rabbit -- as we learned from Nick Cage's National Treasure movies, El Dorado is located beneath Mt. Rushmore!

Klaus Kinski is superb -- craven and menacing and delusional. The rest of the performances are solid. Shots of the party on their makeshift raft built to hold 20 people and a horse repeatedly surprise as the raft drifts in and out of encounters with the dangers of the river and the shore. An influence on pretty much every horrifying journey in movies ever after -- most notably Apocalypse Now -- Aguirre, The Wrath of God moves towards a climax that sums itself up with its final scene. Highly recommended.

Burden of Dreams (1989): directed by Les Blank: Documentarian Les Blank managed to make a great documentary about the filming of a great movie -- Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. One can enjoy this without having watched Herzog and Klaus Kinski's second journey into the Amazon jungles, but you probably should if you haven't already. 

Herzog's often loopy monologues are the highlight of the movie, which also sometimes offers surprising moments of humour. I'm not sure there's any better example of why one should never go to the movies for history than this documentary. The 'real' story of Fitzcarraldo involved the titular character moving a 30-ton steamship in 19 pieces overland from one bend of a river to another. Herzog inflated that to 300 tons, moved the whole steamship at once, and constantly imperiled everyone on the film pretty much all the time with increasingly arcane and difficult business. 

But for all his faults,  Herzog let this documentary show him in all his Faustian strangeness. Fascinating, involving stuff. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Bright (2017)

Bright (2017): written by Max Landis; directed by David Ayer; starring Will Smith (Ward), Joel Edgerton (Jakoby), Noomi Rapace (Leilah), and Lucy Fry (Tikka): The most expensive Netflix movie ever at about $95 million, Bright actually entertains. A mash-up of buddy-cop movie and urban fantasy, Bright teams grumpy LAPD patrolman Will Smith with perennially upbeat partner Joel Edgerton, in heavy make-up as the first Orc to ever serve on the LAPD.

Yep, Orc, as in Lord of the Rings. Like the Warcraft series, Bright gets to use the term 'Orc' because it's not peculiar to Tolkien -- he borrowed the term from an Old English word for 'whale.' But the backstory of Bright steers very close to Tolkien. How would the Orcs and Elves of Tolkien's time operate in society today if the battle against The Dark Lord really happened 2000 years ago?

Well, the Elves are the 1%, the Orcs are a despised underclass because of their long-ago pact with the Dark Lord ("We chose the wrong side," Smith's partner tells him, "and we've been paying for it ever since.") Of course, the Dark Lord was an Elf, not an Orc, but the Elves live the high life, with humanity beneath them on the social ladder and orcs below that. Tinkerbell-like fairies mainly make things interesting at bird feeders. So it goes.

Will Smith and Edgerton propel the movie through its rough spots with their charisma and occasionally hilarious back-and-forth. I probably liked Bright a lot more than I should have. Oh well. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Little Sister (1949) by Raymond Chandler

The Little Sister (1949) by Raymond Chandler: The Little Sister is the fifth (of nine) novels featuring Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe. Marlowe gets involved in the madness that is Hollywood this time around, along with gangsters and tabloids and a particularly nasty killer who enjoys sticking an ice-pick into the base of his victims' skulls. As is often the case, Marlowe doesn't seem to end up being paid for his cynical, dogged, heroic efforts on the parts of all the people who need his help. 

A seemingly naive young woman from rural Middle America hires Marlowe to find her brother, who moved to LA to see the lights and hasn't been heard of in months. As with every Marlowe case, this initially simple proposition blossoms into a labyrinth of corruption, blackmail, and murder in which almost no one is what she or he appears to be.

Chandler's style was so influential that it permeated hardboiled detective fiction, as he added a level of pungent description and social criticism to the prior pinnacle of hard-boiled fiction (and still influential and excellent, then-and-now), Dashiell Hammett and his detective Sam Spade. 

Both characters were played by Humphrey Bogart, appropriately and memorably, in movies: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. An odd but enjoyable movie version of The Little Sister was made in the 1960's with James 'Jim Rockford' Garner as Marlowe. 

The Little Sister moves fast and tight, plot-packed without neglecting Chandler's strengths, deployed through first-person narrator Marlowe, at character study and subtly metaphoric descriptions of the California setting. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Postmodern Paradigm? Pure Power Pop?

Anti-Matter Vatican What???
Dan Brown's Angels and Demons (2009): adapted from the novel by Dan Brown by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman; directed by Ron Howard; starring Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Ewan McGregor (Chief Pope's Dogsbody McKenna), Ayelet Zurer (Woman Who Knows All Things That Langdon Does Not Know Especially Italian, The Map of Vatican City, Anti-Matter, and Whatever The Hell Bio-ub-Nuclear-Physics Is), Stellan Skarsgard (Swiss Stellan Skarsgard), Nikolaj Kaas (The Non-Albino Albino), and Armin Mueller-Stahl (Suspicious Red Herring Cardinal):

Pure postmodern power pop!

In The DaVinci Code, Harvard Symbologist (not an actual thing)  Robert Langdon battled a conspiracy that hides the true nature of the relationship of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. The conspiracy was dangerous because, um, it might hurt the great-to-the-Nth-power-child of Mary and Jesus. 

Wait, were the stakes that low in The DaVinci Code?

But now, in a tactic ripped from the escalatingly epic pulp space operas of EE "Doc" Smith, Langdon returns to battle a conspiracy that intends to kill all the popes and blow up Vatican City with an Anti-Matter Bomb stolen by The Last Illuminati from the Anti-Matter-Bomb-Making facilities at the Large Hadron Collider in Poussy, France.

Anti-Matter Bomb? WTF?

Angels & Demons is enjoyable nonsense. Tom Hanks looks a lot more relaxed than he did in The DaVinci Code. He runs around Vatican City trying to save the four most likely candidates for Pope because he knows more than anyone about Italian things even though he still cannot speak or read Italian despite Italian things being the focus of 90% of his academic studies and 97% of his exciting adventures.

Tom Hanks is joined in his awesome world-saving adventures by an Italian biosphere genetic astrophysicist who knows everything about Vatican City, the history of the Popes, and Anti-Matter. 

Jesus, these people have weird fucking skill-sets!

The only thing that would make Angels&Demons the greatest movie ever made about anti-Catholic conspiracies deploying Anti-Matter Bombs against the Vatican only to be thwarted by an Italian woman with a crazy skill-set, Forrest Gump, and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) would be if the self-flagellating, Opus Dei-serving, super-Albino super-assassin (Paul "The Vision" Bettany) showed up to turn over a new leaf like Jaws at the end of James Bond in Moonraker and help Langdon, Robert Langdon save the Vatican. Highly recommended!