Saturday, December 9, 2017

The League Of Regrettable Heroes (2015) by Jon Morris

The League Of Regrettable Superheroes (2015) by Jon Morris: Jon Morris of the Gone&Forgotten blog does a terrific balancing act here, mocking and celebrating in equal measure some of the goofiest super-heroes in the history of American comic books. 

While the Golden Age (1938-1954) supplies such non-luminaries as the Red Bee, The Black Dwarf, and Doctor Hormone, the book also presents some of the most ridiculous heroes from other eras. 

AKA X-Poochie
The mullet-ridden, EXTREME 1990's provides such unfortunate decisions as Marvel's Adam X-the-Extreme (probably not coming to a Marvel movie any time soon, though there's always Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.!) and Ravage 2099 (don't ask). 

Earlier decades gave us Marvel truck-driving hero U.S. 1 and DC's dadaistically ridiculous 'New Look' Blackhawks and the Metamorpho-wannabe Ultra the Multi-Alien.

CTE forced an early retirement
Those were the days.

Most of these heroes had fairly short runs, demonstrating that the marketplace sometimes knows what it's doing. Some are absurdly offensive (Mr. Muscles conquers polio by working out a lot). Some are awesome and recognized as such (Joe Simon's Prez got a terrific return appearance in Neil Gaiman's Sandman in the early 1990's). 

Some have even moved into the mainstream (Steve Ditko's hilarious Squirrel Girl). Some are truly screwed-up product advertisements (Marvel's NFL Superpro, who really deserved a crossover with Marvel's Kickers, Inc., a team of crime-fighting professional football players). 

There's now a second volume of this focusing on goofy super-villains. I'll have to pick that up. In any case, hours of fun and education make this Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Mmm... big yellow cocktail.
The Long Goodbye [Philip Marlowe #6] (1953) by Raymond Chandler: It's difficult to assess a Raymond Chandler novel when you've read a lot of the novels influenced by Chandler's hard-boiled detective style, much less seen great movie adaptations and great movies influenced by Chandler's transformative work.

The voice of the Chandlerian narrator -- in this case and many others, Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe -- is that of a cynical, world-weary detective who will nonetheless try to do the right thing. As first-person narration, it's almost infinitely adaptable. 

The narration of the original theatrical release of Blade Runner echoes it. The bleak world of Chinatown subverts it. The triumph of The Big Sleep lies partially in almost perfectly adapting it to the big screen, with help from Chandler himself (and Leigh Brackett, who 30 years later would help write The Empire Strikes Back, the most world-weary Star Wars movie of them all.

Chandler famously railed against the artificiality of most mystery novels in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder." The Long Goodbye seems like the fictional expansion of that essay. Marlowe doesn't so much solve a couple of mysteries as get caught in their undertow before being vomited upon the shore. 

It's a triumph of style and characterization. As a plot, The Long Goodbye makes Murder on the Orient Express look like a true-life case study -- and as the climax recedes once and once again, things get stranger and more complex.

Chandler's depiction of grimy, gaudy Los Angeles rings about as true today as it did then -- or at least as truthy. Philip Marlowe exists not as a possible character, but as the more poetic extrapolation of Dashiell Hammett's earlier Sam Spade. Humphrey Bogart played them both, which somehow makes all the sense in the world. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The War of the Worlds (2005)

The War of the Worlds (2005): adapted by David Koepp and Josh Friedman from the novel by H.G. Wells; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Tom Cruise (Ray Ferrier), Dakota Fanning (Rachel Ferrier), Justin Chatwin (Robbie Ferrier), Tim Robbins (Harlan Ogilvy), and Miranda Otto (Mary Ann): 

Spielberg and company's so-so, 9/11-inflected update of H.G. Wells' seminal tale of alien invasion has some nice moments between about the 20- and 80-minute mark. Unfortunately, the movie features two of the most annoying offspring in film history for Tom Cruise to bond with during an alien invasion because alien invasions just aren't interesting unless they involve Steven Spielberg's go-to trope, The Absent Father.

It's important for Spielberg, as Old Hollywood's last air-bending Avatar, to remind us that even when billions of humans are literally getting dusted, as in 'turned to dust,' FAMILY IS THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS

And what a family! They're so great that the kids' grandparents live on the only street in Boston that doesn't get destroyed by marauding alien tripods who thirst for human blood to... fertilize their plants? I think Wells really nailed the concept of 'Keep it simple, stupid'  by having the Martians suck human blood out of people for their own dining pleasure, and not to feed their high-fructose corn crop. 

The tripods look nice. The redesign of the tentacled creatures of Wells' novel sucks, though. They look like teddy-bear versions of the aliens from Independence Day. Tim Robbins is wasted playing a guy who's somehow found safe haven in the basement of a house located about three feet from a major battle between aliens and the U.S. military. 

Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise. He's supposed to be an unlikeable cad who LEARNS BETTER, but he mainly seems justified in his animosity towards his annoying children. He also turns out to be the most competent man in the world, single-handedly taking down an invulnerable tripod with a hand grenade, among other things. Yet he doesn't know his ten-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts! Ha ha! Absent Dad, you are such a card.

With about 30 minutes to go, the film-makers seem to lose interest in their story, sticking us in that basement with Tim Robbins for an eternity before rushing through the last 15 minutes of the film like holiday travelers with a plane to catch. Oh, well. The ferry scene is pretty swell, as are the early city scenes with the tripods rising out of the ground. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Wonder Woman Rebirth Volume 3: The Truth (2017)

Wonder Woman Rebirth Volume 3: The Truth (2017): written by Greg Rucka; illustrated by Liam Sharp, Bilquis Evely, Renato Guedes, and Laura Martin: The first arc of the once-again retconned Wonder Woman's Rebirth storyline is a good one, though burdened with a bit too much continuity to make it completely transparent to someone who's hopped back on-board WW with the Rebirth reboot.

Still, Greg Rucka is one of the Amazon's two or three best modern-day writers. The art by Liam Sharp is, well, sharp, as are the fill-in pages by others. Rucka upends a lot of Wonder Woman's modern-day background by the end, including a really deft job of actually showing Wonder Woman winning by using forgiveness and love rather than fisticuffs and swordplay. Recommended so long as you've at least read the first two Rebirth volumes.

A beat-off manual for closet sadists

Punisher: Bullseye (2010-2011): written by Jason Aaron; illustrated by Steve Dillon: Writer Jason Aaron takes the Punisher so far into the black in this arc that there seems to be no way back. Ditto super-assassin/serial murderer Bullseye, now a cross between the Joker and some sort of Violence Whisperer. The late, great Steve Dillon draws it all in his cool, matter-of-fact style. 

The jokiness attached to the never-more-reprehensible Bullsye steers the arc into the realm of Violence Porn. It's unpleasant, and for all the nods to Uber-Punisher scribe Garth Ennis, Aaron is no Ennis: he lacks that writer's bleak humour and ability to be violently funny without somehow making the slaughter of innocents seem like hilarious larks. 

It's sort of a vile piece of work. Wertham, thou shoulds't be living at this hour. Well, no. Kids don't read comic books any more anyway, and this one seems like a beat-off manual for the closet sadist. Not recommended.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Forbidden Planet (1956)

No scene like this in movie...
Forbidden Planet (1956): very loosely adapted from Shakespeare's The Tempest by Cyril Hume, Irving Block, and Allen Adler; directed by Fred Wilcox; starring Leslie Nielsen (Commander Adams), Walter Pidgeon (Dr. Morbius), Anne Francis (Alataira Morbius), Warren Stevens (Doc), Jack Kelly (Lt. Farman), Richard Anderson (The Chief), Earl Holliman (Cook), and Marvin Miller (Voice of Robby the Robot):

Forbidden Planet is a great, flawed movie. But the flaws mostly relate to the sexist culture that created it, and are somewhat curbed by the mostly ahead-of-her-time female character of Altaira, who's clearly smarter than all the men but her artificially brain-boosted father, a magnificent Walter Pidgeon.

Jarring the viewer most is a young, brown-haired Leslie Nielsen in the straightest of straight leading-man roles. But he's good, along with Jack Kelly as his second-in-command, Richard 'Oscar Goldman' Anderson as the Chief of Engineering, Anne Baxter as the somewhat liberated for the time daughter of Morbius, and Warren Stevens as the ship's Doctor.

The character dynamics wil remind one of the original Star Trek. The visual effects, a combination of traditional animation, models, and matte paintings, are still extremely impressive today. Robby the Robot is a hoot. His interactions with the dopey ship's cook seem like a prehistoric ancestor of similar interactions (and robot belches) in the Transformers series. Everything old is new again. Also, the Transformers never made 60 gallons of bourbon for anyone free of charge. That we know of. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Shut Up, Crime!

Super (2010): written and directed by James Gunn; starring Rainn Wilson (Frank Darbo), Ellen Page (Libby), Liv Tyler (Sarah), and Kevin Bacon (Jacques): Super pretty much asks and answers the question, 'What if Travis Bickle had wanted to be a superhero?' 

The answer is a bleak, bloody satire that does everything well except stick the landing. Frustrated, mentally ill fry cook Rainn Wilson loses his recovering addict wife (Liv Tyler, way too good-looking for the movie, especially when she's supposed to be in the throes of drug use) to drug kingpin Kevin Bacon. Inspired by a Christian TV show superhero (Nathan Fillion under a hilarious Jesus wig), Wilson sets out to fight crime as the pipe-wrench wielding Crimson Bolt!

Let me tell you, writer-director James Gunn (in his pre-Guardians of the Galaxy days) is on to something here -- a massive pipe-wrench really is a good weapon!

Gunn maintains a certain tone for much of the movie -- violent, satiric, but weirdly weightless -- that only collapses in the coda. One could interpret that coda as yet another delusion by Wilson's character, though there aren't really any cues that is meant to be a delusion and not a curiously sentimental summation. 

A similar problem occurred with the unearned (and anomalous) treacle at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, meaning that I'd say that the very similar Defendor is a better version of almost the same movie, by a smidgen, because its ending supports more ambiguous interpretations as to the worth (or lack thereof) of superheroes. Actually, Hobo With a Shotgun might be the best version of this story in recent years.

Ant-Man (2015): based on the character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd; directed by Peyton Reed; starring Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Michael Douglas (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Corey Stoll (Darren Cross), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), Anthony Mackie (The Falcon), and Michael Pena (Luis) (2015): Still the greatest pilot ever for a superhero TV show that was never intended to be made and never will be made. If only Edgar Wright had been allowed to stay onboard as writer and director, this might have been an all-time great superhero movie. As is, still refreshingly zippy and fun, with a cast up to the hijinks. Recommended.