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.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Justice League (2017)

Justice League (2017): written by Joss Whedon, Chris Terrio, and Zack Snyder; directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon; based story-wise on works by James Robinson, Gardner Fox, Nicola Scott, Mike Sekowsky, Geoff Johns, and Jim Lee; starring Ben Affleck (Batman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Ezra Miller (The Flash), Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg), Jeremy Irons (Alfred), Ciaran Hinds (Voice of Steppenwolf), Amber Heard (Mera), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), and Henry Cavill (Superman):

Saw Justice League at the 12:45 p.m. show in Galleria on opening day. The 'print' arrived late so they hadn't done a sound-check before showing it. Oops! 

The first ten minutes played without any noticeable treble in the mix (seriously!), which made for an interesting audio experience. I wondered if Christopher Nolan had done the sound mix until they stopped the movie, fixed the sound, and started again from the beginning.

Then for another ten minutes or so, the theatre made almost inaudible announcements that it was seeking out the source of the fire alarm (which we couldn't hear) and not to panic. Friday was a PA Day for kids. Damn kids going to a superhero movie in the afternoon and pulling fire alarms! Rascals!

Also they never quite got the movie framed properly. But then we all got free passes at the end of the show, so really, who's complaining? Though it did all make me wonder if Disney is paying people to sabotage the film.

As to the film -- well, the stitches between the fairly light-hearted, earnest or snarky Whedon scenes and the glum, occasionally straining-to-be-funny Snyder scenes are pretty obvious. Whedon also turned up the Brightness, which means Superman is actually dressed in bright blue and red for the first time in the DCEU movies, so that's good. 

Whedon clearly also had the job of hacking and slashing the movie down to two hours, and having it be basically 'stand-alone' rather than Part One. So Darkseid gets only one mention, though it's clear that the big bad works for him (the villain is Steppenwolf, who is a Kirby New Gods character whom writer James Robinson promoted to Darkseid's world-conquering general in the Earth-2 comic series from 2012). 

The hacking and slashing results in some pretty funny 'infodumps' which end up feeling like homages to the crazily fast-paced, Gardner-Fox-scripted Silver Age Justice League comics from the 1960's. The explanation of what a Mother Box is is especially... compact... as is an exchange between Aquaman and Atlantean Mera (Amber Heard) which condenses Aquaman's back story into about 45 seconds of dialogue.

The acting is pretty solid. The Flash is genuinely funny and charming. Jason Momoa's Aquaman seems to have been written as a surly underwater hillbilly Wolderine by Snyder and as a jolly underwater stand-up comedian by Snyder. Cyborg is, well, a cipher.

Also, somebody (probably Snyder) basically restages the opening battle against Sauron from Fellowship of the Ring as part of the backstory of Steppenwolf's previous invasion of Earth, and even frames it in terms of it being the last time the various races of Earth (Atlanteans, Amazons and Greek Gods, and what seems to be King Arthur and his knights) united against a common foe. I kid you not. Wonder Woman narrates, per Galadriel in LOTR: TFOTR...

Bonus points for including parademons and getting a mention of Kirby's New Gods into the dialogue. Fun fact: the movie's 'Unity' seems to pretty clearly Jack Kirby's Anti-Life Equation restated euphemistically.

Though the only two rational explanations for Superman's unintentionally funny, late-movie line to Bruce Wayne ("How did you get the farm back from the bank ?!?!?") are that Superman doesn't understand how money works or that Lex Luthor owned the bank that foreclosed on the Kent farm.

Also, maybe it's swim-suit season on Themyscira, Snyder-haters! Did you ever think of that?

There are two end credits sequences, one early and one right at the end. Plan accordingly.

Hey, the movie is only 2 hours and one minute long. Kudos! My butt thanks you!

Far better than a lot of superhero movies, a list that includes Whedon's studio-garbled Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Dark Knight Rises, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Spider-man 3, Amazing Spider-mans 1 and 2, X-Men: The Last Stand, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the first two Thor movies, Dr. Strange, the two Hulk movies, Wolverine: Origins and The Wolverine, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, X-Men: Apocalypse, Ant-man, Superman Returns, Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and many others. Recommended.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Spielberg (2017)

Spielberg (2017): directed by Susan Lacy: Earnest HBO hagiography of Steven Spielberg dishes almost no dirt, almost no critiques of his work, and almost no mentions of the writers who wrote many of his finest movies. Welcome to Hollywood Auteurism 101. 

It's nonetheless an often engaging film, especially as it lays out Spielberg's childhood and the increasingly strained and then broken relationship of his mother and father that led to Spielberg being estranged from his father for more than a decade. Don't look for a discussion of Always, though. Lightly recommended.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express (2017): adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie by Michael Green; directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot) and a cast of dozens: Enjoyable, good-looking adaptation of the 1930's Agatha Christie classic of British mysteries stars Kenneth Branagh and his crazy prop mustache as Hercule Poirot, world's greatest consulting detective. 

Branagh directed as well, in a classic Hollywood style buttressed by CGI for some of the large-scale visuals with which he opens up Christie's locked-room mystery. Well, locked-train mystery.

The all-star cast has about three lines each, which is pretty much how the movie has to work unless it's going to be 8 hours long. Critical backlash to this film puzzled me. It's pretty much exactly what it has to be, and it's far superior to the stiff 1974 version that netted Ingrid Bergman a sympathy Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): based on characters and stories by Jack Kirby, Walt Simonson, Sal Buscema, Larry Lieber, Stan Lee, and others; written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost; directed by Taika Waititi; starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Cate Blanchett (Hela), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Mark Ruffalo (Banner/Hulk), Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie), Jeff Goldblum (Grandmaster), and Karl Urban (Skurge the Executioner): Almost too jolly and jaunty an entry in the Marvel Movie Sweepstakes, given the death toll in the movie. Reducing Gotterdammerung to a punchline seems both too much and not enough.

Oh, well. Thor: Ragnarok is also the Marvel movie that looks most like the comic books it's based on, particularly Jack Kirby's 1960's work on Thor and Walt Simonson's writer-artist duties on his great Thor run of the 1980's. 

The tone is really more Simonson than Kirby -- there was a jocularity and a sense of the absurd to his run, though he was better than the film-makers at balancing the epic and the absurd. Full credit to director Taika Waititi, whose What We Do In the Shadows was an absurdly hilarious faux-documentary. 

The movie goes on about 15 minutes' worth of CGI battles too long. All the actors are as fresh and lively as in any Marvel production to date, and Cate Blanchett camps it up as super-villain Hela, whose crazy head-piece comes right off the Jack Kirby pages (so, too, the designs of many of the aliens in campy Jeff Goldblum's space-court, extras from Kirby's 1970's space-god saga The Eternals). Even Bruce Banner and the Hulk are funny. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Blade Runner On a Train

The Girl On the Train (2016): adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson from the novel by Paula Hawkins; directed by Tate Taylor; starring Emily Blunt (Rachel), Haley Bennett (Megan), Rebecca Ferguson (Anna), Justin Theroux (Tom), Luke Evans (Scott), and Alison Janney (Detective Riley): 

Based on a best-selling psychological thriller, The Girl On the Train is neither thrilling nor psychologically believable. Unpleasant pretty people do unpleasant things. Someone gets murdered. Whodunnit? Who cares! Emily Blunt's portrayal of an alcoholic probably merits inclusion in the Hall of Fame for Unintentional Funny Bad Performances by Otherwise Capable Actors. Not recommended.


Blade Runner 2049 (2017): based on characters created by Philip K. Dick; written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Ryan Gosling (K), Dave Bautista (Sapper), Robin Wright (Lieutenant Joshi), Ana de Armas (Joi), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), and Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard): 

A slow-burn fever dream of a movie, and a worthy successor to the cult-favourite original. Ryan Gosling is pitch-perfect, while the visuals are marvelous. It doesn't quite equal the original because Jared Leto as the new 'Tyrell' is terrible in that specifically Jared Leto Hambone Way. More operatic scenery chewing from Rutger Hauer, or someone like Rutger Hauer, would have helped give the film more drama. Nonetheless, it's a haunting work at points, one that stays in the memory. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Avengers: Age of Ennui (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ennui (2015): based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Jim Starlin, Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and others; written and directed by Joss Whedon; starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man/ Tony Stark), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/ Hulk), Chris Evans (Captain America/ Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/ Hawkeye), James Spader (Ultron), and a bunch of other people: 

Marvel Studios interfered with the production of the second Avengers movie so many times that Joss Whedon is now doing emergency surgery on DC's Justice League movie and developing a DC Batgirl movie. Yay! 

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a busy, crowded mess with plot holes one could fly the SHIELD helicarrier through. It's a good time-waster on TV because one can pause it every 45 minutes or so and because, as with the majority of Marvel Studios movies, it looks like the world's most expensive movie to have ever been shot on the same videotape used for 1970's Doctor Who episodes. Jesus, I hate the colour palette of most Marvel Studios movies. Lightly recommended

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Spoiler-heavy thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

VIVA LAS VEGAS


1) Ryan Gosling's character is called 'K' and then 'Joe', which seems pretty clearly a nod to Franz Kafka's THE TRIAL . But I also wonder if K was chosen for Sir Kay, adoptive brother of King Arthur, with Deckard and Rachel's child being the Arthur figure for the replicants.


2) My meta counter-reading of Jared Leto's character goes like this: he's a parody of Ridley Scott and his belief in the loopy, overcomplicated scenario in which Deckard is actually a replicant in the original movie.

For one, BR 2049 does not answer the question 'Is Deckard a replicant?'

Instead, Jared Leto's character, when he meets Deckard, hypothesizes a ridiculously complicated plot in which Deckard is a replicant who was programmed to fall in love with Rachael and procreate with her, thus creating the first natural-birth replicant who can also reproduce naturally. 

Deckard's look of 'WTF?' during this scene can be read as commentary on Harrison Ford's oft-stated disdain for Scott's belief that Deckard is a replicant. 

And this plot makes even less sense than previous 'Deckard is a replicant' explanations, given that Tyrell could simply, you know, have had the Deckard replicant have sex with Rachael rather than programming it to believe it's a Blade Runner and send it on a mission to catch other replicants (all with the cooperation of the police and gov't) so that in the course of events it would meet Rachael, fall in love with her, have its life saved by her, and run away with her.

So if Jared Leto (whose character is blind and sees with the aid of several flying cameras deployed around him at all times, basically making him the Director of his own film crew) is Ridley Scott, Jared Leto's character makes way more sense and is actually a great piece of commentary on Ridley Scott.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Klosterf*ck

Intentionally upside down, btw.
But What If We're Wrong? (2016) by Chuck Klosterman: Chuck Klosterman started his public life as an iconoclastic music critic and reporter before branching out into memoirs, novels, and non-music-related essays. He's still best at music, sub-category rock, though. Here, he tries to branch out into futurism (seriously) and cultural criticism (yes, seriously). The results are fun and awful.

Klosterman's central point would be better suited to a book of essays by various experts on the fields he tackles. The overall question in the book is, what will be proven wrong in the future based on how we've been wrong in the past about the future, and what things will survive? 

Impressively enough, Klosterman attempts to answer this question in relation to various fields of human endeavour without once referring to any major predictive (right or usually wrong) written works of science fiction or, for that matter, very many futurists. His construction of how we were wrong in the past is mostly a collection of general assertions, I'm assuming because specific examples would require research time that Chuck clearly had no intention of spending on this book. Or any book, now that I think of it.

When Klosterman stays on music (and, to be fair, sports) , the book's flaws are minimized. Even then, Klosterman's vagueness and indecision about what it is exactly that he's assessing -- popularity or critical 'goodness'? rightness or longevity? -- causes problems. 

To wit: because the general population only 'knows' a handful of classical composers now, Klosterman believes the population will only know of one rock musician a few hundred years from now. Or maybe more. A problem develops in Klosterman's reasoning in this section when he consults an expert on classical music, who sub-divides the classical composers the general public 'knows' into centuries and movements. OK, BUT, the general public doesn't remember any of these composers by century or movement. It just knows classical music as the names of a handful of composers.

OK, BUT, the general public really also knows classical music by familiar pieces and snippets of pieces used in popular works -- ads, movies, and Warner Brothers cartoons. Klosterman doesn't assess the music this way, however. And in treating rock music as if it were one of those classical-music subsets -- 19th-century classical, or Baroque, or whatever -- he's reduced himself to thinking about what one rock musician will still be known by name in 500 years rather than assessing a handful AND a second assemblage of pieces and snippets. So the argument doesn't really hold together.

And this is the best part of the book.

When Klosterman rambles into The World's Most-Remembered Writer and Great American Novels, the results are dire and ill-researched and absolutely blind to genre (Klosterman may have been born a rock critic, but he's a snob when it comes to literature even though he admits to have never finished a work by several major American authors, and even though much of his argument suggests that he may have never finished reading a novel by anybody since he was in high school). 

When he ventures into science, diligently reporting that Neil DeGrasse Tyson seems to be really pissy with him, one wonders the Tyson didn't punch him. In this section, Klosterman sets up a false dichotomy between what Tyson's talking about and what another scientist is talking about. I'll leave it to you to figure that one out. 

Later in the book, Klosterman  notes that he's not going to go on at length about global warming. So he does for three pages instead, glibly and infuriatingly. At one point, Klosterman's discussion of what he thinks will happen with global warming suggests that Klosterman, raised in North Dakota, remains unaware of the Canadian province due North of North Dakota and what its principal crops are.

So it goes. Klosterman reveals in the acknowledgements section that he was unaware hedgehogs weren't native to North America until the book had already been typeset, thus making his anecdote about watching a hedgehog in his yard in Illinois (or maybe Brooklyn) seem a bit... unlikely. Maybe it was a woodchuck, Klosterman notes. OK. This all ties into Klosterman's recurring riff on the old saying that the hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox many small things. Or maybe the woodchuck knows one large thing. Maybe Klosterman needs better editors and fact-checkers. Maybe the hedgehog doesn't know anything at all.

Klosterman also hilariously uses the term "third rail" as if it were a synonym for "happy medium" during his discussion of global warming. What? Does Chuck Klosterman actually know anything? Did anyone copy-edit or just plan edit this book? Should someone tell Chuck to go back to music and the occasional sports piece? Do repeated references to Citizen Kane imply that the Citizen Kane Film 101 class was the only class Klosterman attended in college?  Only recommended for Klosterman completists.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wonder Women, Again

Hidden Figures (2016): adapted by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi from the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly; directed by Theodore Melfi; starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson/Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monae (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), and Glen Powell (John Glenn): How does Taraji P. Henson not get a nomination for this? Oscar noms for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) and Best Adapted Screenplay have been given to this fine docudrama. 

Does it play fast and loose with the facts, especially in compressing 15 years worth of events into two years? Well, yeah. So, too, so many other docudramas and biopics. It is a bit of a drag, though, to discover that with a wealth of real-life racist moments to draw upon, the film-makers chose to invent certain incidents and exaggerate others so as to get their desired response. 

Hidden Figures presents the Space Race as a thrilling exercise in math, engineering, and race relations. How great is that? Less great is the hour or so devoted to boilerplate domestic melodrama. We can get boilerplate domestic melodrama from almost any Hollywood film. We can't get realistic space stuff. So it goes. A spoonful of sugar for the audience.

The acting is superb, from Kevin Costner's (composite) team leader of NASA Langley's mathematicians striving to put an American in space and in orbit to the aforementioned Henson as pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician who helped put Americans into orbit and on the Moon. Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae also do terrific work as an African-American computer-team leader and engineer, respectively. It's a movie about the thrill of intelligence and lofty aspirations, dominated by women. Recommended.


Wonder Woman (2017): based on characters created by William Moulton Marston, H.G. Peter, George Perez, and others; written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder; directed by Patty Jenkins; starring Gal Gadot (Diana), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Connie Nielsen (Hippolyta), Robin Wright (Antiope), Danny Huston (Ludendorff), David Thewlis (Sir Patrick), and Elena Anaya (Dr. Poison): 

Director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg go back to Richard Donner's first Superman movie for inspiration (among other sources). The result is a crowd-pleaser with a female superhero. It may go on just about one climax too many, but overall Wonder Woman is a delight, as is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. A relative unknown, she shows the star power and charm of that other relative unknown, Christopher Reeve. The film-makers even figured out how to make WW's boy-pal Steve Trevor interesting. 

I do miss certain elements of the original (to comics) island of the Amazons, which possessed some pretty trippy 1940's attributes (high technology, invisible planes, giant riding kangaroos called Kangas). Superheroes should be rooted in the fantastic moreso than in the realistic or realistically imagined, though I realize I'm probably in the minority on this. These are children's characters. The more Wonder the better. 

The BluRay has some pretty decent featurettes on it, though none on WW creator William Moulton Marston and unacknowledged (starting with the credit-hungry Marston himself) co-creator, artist H.G. Peter. Shame! Recommended.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Spenser, Dire

The Godwulf Manuscript (Spenser #1)  (1973) by Robert B. Parker: The first published novel featuring Robert B. Parker's hardboiled but sensitive PI Spenser (no first name ever given) involves the Mob and... academia? The titular manuscript is an illuminated medieval manuscript stolen from a Boston university (though not Boston University). The administration suspects campus radicals and hires Spenser to investigate. The case turns out to be more complex than that.

Some of Spenser's defining traits are already in evidence, though muted compared to even a couple of books later in publication. He's a good cook, and cooking will get described in detail that suggests at points that Parker was a frustrated cookbook writer. He's sarcastic, so sarcastic that some scenes strain credibility. He loves quoting literature. He can beat up almost anyone. And he's a sexy beast. 

My personal rating of hardboiled detective series seems to now revolve around just how much of wish-fulfillment character the protagonist seems to be, as much for the writer as the reader. The more wish-fulfilly a PI, the less interesting I find the series. And after this first adventure, Spenser was about to become way more wish-fulfilly. It doesn't help that the mystery isn't that mysterious. Lightly recommended.


God Save the Child (Spenser #2)  (1974) by Robert B. Parker: The Spenser series begins to shift into some serious wish-fulfillment territory, along with some jarringly creepy stuff involving a gay body-builder having a sexual relationship with a teenager who's way below the age of consent. This doesn't seem to particularly irritate or offend Spenser. 

Ah, those carefree days of the 1970's! 

Spenser's investigation of the disappearance of that teenager once again seems to be peculiarly non-mysterious, even with the 11th-hour introduction of a sex ring (also involving underage teenagers!) into the narrative. Spenser's long-time gal-pal Susan Silverman appears for the first time, giving Spenser his own wish-fulfillment figure. And someone to cook for, in detail. Not recommended.


Promised Land (Spenser #4) (1976) by Robert B. Parker: This won the 1977 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel. Was 1977 a bad year? Were no other mystery novels published? On the bright side, there's no creepy references to sex with underage teenagers this time around (or 'Statutory Rape,' as it's also known). 

There is a lot of relatively enlightened talk about feminism and what seems like half a novel devoted to Spenser's relationship with Susan Silverman. Spenser explains how to cook and drinks enough booze to make one wonder why he's still able to function as a PI in his late 30's. Well, really everyone drinks an extraordinary amount and eats a lot of seafood and the occasional spaghetti dinner.

Parker's attention to minute detail as to what people wear makes for a lot of hilarity in these 1970's novels. In today's terms, an awful lot of characters are dressed like garish clowns. So when Spenser himself reacts to one character's choice of clothing as being odd (a white-leather cloak with a hood), one notes that hey, that's actually the most normal-for-now outfit anyone has worn in any of these three early novels!

The mystery is again perfunctory, while not one but two climactic set-pieces occur almost entirely without tension. Spenser's eventual pal/occasional partner Hawk (played by Avery Brooks in the 1980's Spenser TV series starring Robert Urich) makes his first substantial appearance in the series in this, the fourth Spenser novel. He's sort of cool. The novel, not so much. Not recommended.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Freshman (1990)

The Freshman (1990): written and directed by Andrew Bergman; starring Matthew Broderick (Clark Kellogg), Marlon Brando (Carmine Sabatini), Bruno Kirby (Victor Ray), Penelope Ann Miller (Tina Sabatini), Frank Whaley (Steve Bushak), Jon Polito (Chuck Greenwood),, Paul Benedict (Prof. Fleeber), Maximillian Schell ('Larry London'), B.D. Wong (Edward), and Monitor Lizards (Komodo Dragon): 

Classic screwball comedy from... 1990? Marlon Brando gives his funniest, warmest performance in, possibly, ever. As in 'intentionally funny.' He plays the 'real' basis for the character of Don Corleone of the Godfather series, New York 'importer' Carmine Sabatini, aka 'Jimmy the Toucan' ("No one actually calls him that," notes his spitfire daughter Tina to the Godfather-loving film professor played wonderfully by Paul Benedict). 

For some reason, freshman NYU film student Matthew Broderick catches Brando's interest. And after a somewhat slow first 20 minutes, The Freshman rockets off into scene after scene of inspired lunacy and surprisingly affecting sentiment. Broderick and Brando make a terrific team. One wishes for more scenes between them, or perhaps another movie. 

Writer-director Andrew Bergman (writer or co-writer of such comedies as Blazing Saddles, The In-Laws, and Fletch) really should have had a bigger Hollywood career -- when he's good, he's very good. Recommended.

Wind River (2017)

Wind River (2017): written and directed by Taylor Sheridan; starring Jeremy Renner (Cory Lambert), Kelsey Asbille (Natalie), Graham Greene (Ben), Gil Birmingham (Martin), and Elizabeth Olsen (Jane Banner): Wind River Reservation is located in Wyoming, though the state is played by Utah in this movie. Fish and Wildlife Service officer Cory Lambert is our protagonist, drawn into the investigation of a murdered female Native American teenager when the assigned FBI agent (played by a game Elizabeth Olsen) requests help in navigating both the social and physical terrain of the reservation and all its wild landscape.

Writer-director Taylor Sheridan (writer of Hell or High Water and Sicario) keeps things terse and taut while also allowing for the Sublime landscape to play a major role in the film. But he's also a sharp observer of human character amongst a variety of laconic individuals and of small moments amongst the landscape. For some reason, a shot of a spider running across the snow caused me to laugh out loud in delight.

The mystery isn't complex. Wind River is more engaged with the sorrow and horror of the murder, and of the plight of the Native Americans in general, and of Lambert's secret (to the viewer) source of sorrow, the last teased out only towards the end of the film. And Jeremy Renner gets to act again. 

And we remember how good Renner was in The Hurt Locker and how misused his talents have been in the Bourne sequel and those three Marvel movie appearances. He's at his best here expressing a sort of stoic pain. Elizabeth Olsen is solid as the fish-out-of-water FBI agent, as are Graham Greene as the tribal police chief and other actors playing police and citizens and oil-camp workers. Wind River isn't a great film, though in a marketplace dominated by bombast and CGI it's refreshing, much like a Junior Mint. Recommended.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

La La Land (2016)

La La Land (2016): written and directed by Damien Chazelle; music, songs and lyrics by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul; starring Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) and Emma Stone (Mia): A 2016 Oscar winner for Best Director and Best Actress, though memorably not Best Picture (oh, look it up). La La Land is a fairly frothy musical salute to Hollywood and, um, jazz clubs, two things not generally associated with each other. And following your dreams! 

La La Land is at its best when it stays light -- a third-act move into melodrama doesn't entirely work, in part because that also means an end to songs and dancing for the space of about 20 minutes. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are good in their roles as star-crossed lovers of the jazz-loving and film-acting variety, respectively. 

Stone's pre-movie work-outs to prepare for all the dancing did leave her face looking dismayingly gaunt when photographed from certain angles and in certain lighting. Gosling continues with the cool, generally laid-back persona that suggests he's watched a lot of early Jeff Bridges movies, to positive effect. The direction and choreography both work nicely for the most part, and some of the songs are quite catchy. Recommended.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

What Are 3 Movies I Recently Watched?

Hugo (2011): adapted by John Logan from the novel by Brian Selznick; directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Ben Kingsley (George Melies), Sacha Baron Cohen (Station Inspector), Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloe Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Christopher Lee (M. Labisse), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Michael Stuhlbarg (Rene Tabard), and Jude Law (Mr. Cabret): Hugo pretty much swept the 2011 artistic and technical Academy Awards for sound, art direction, visual effects, and cinematography. It was Martin Scorsese's first foray into 3-D film-making AND Young-Adult-friendly narrative.

On the small, non-3-D screen, Hugo still boasts some impressive set and production design as it depicts a somewhat fanciful Paris c. 1932. Unbeknownst to the authorities as embodied in Station Inspector Sacha Baron Cohen, the orphaned Hugo Cabret keeps the clocks running in the film's central location, the main Paris train station. 

Hugo also works to repair an automaton rescued from museum storage by his late father. And unbeknownst to Hugo, the cranky toy-stall owner at the station is seminal French film director Georges Melies. Is that a spoiler?

Hugo is slow in its initial hour or so, and the supporting characters never seem to be drawn sharply or funnily enough. However, the movie looks great, and Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz make a charming pair of investigators. More time devoted to recreations of Melies' fanciful films would have been nice -- there's a little too much lead-foot in the movie's shoes when it comes to film's ability to transport a viewer to new, strange places. Scorsese may simply be too rooted in the quotidian, no matter the goodness of his intentions, and John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis) is something of a literal-minded plodder when it comes to the fantastic. Nonetheless, recommended.


The Boy (2016): written by Stacey Menear; directed by William Brent Bell; starring Lauren Cohan (Greta), Rupert Evans (Malcolm), and Ben Robson (Cole): Who names their son Brahms? Oh, well. Lauren Cohan plays an American hired as a nanny/au pair by an elderly English couple. She's there to take care of their eight-year-old son while they go on vacation. The son is a life-sized doll. OK!

The Walking Dead's Cohan carries much of the film's best moments, as improbable as they often seem. And the movie plays fair until the epilogue, which one could argue is as much an imagined nightmare as the 'hand shots' that appear near the ends of Carrie and Deliverance. Rupert Evans brings a muted affability to the thankless role of New English Love Interest. The doll is pretty creepy. 

The director whiffs several times on disguising the fact that the movie was shot in and around Victoria, British Columbia rather than England. Either that or The Boy takes place in an alternate universe in which England has redwood trees. Lightly recommended.


Spider-man (2002): created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee; written by David Koepp; directed by Sam Raimi; starring Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/ Spider-man), Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/ Green Goblin), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben), Rosemary Harris (Aunt May), and J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson): Still a mostly jolly, romantic romp, this Spider-man. Maybe a bit too romantic, but the doomed love affair of Mary Jane and Spider-man was a key factor in drawing in a better-than-average-female-audience (for superhero and/or action movies, that is). 

Raimi and company dumb Spider-man down, eliminating the comic-book wish-fulfillment genius that allowed him to create mechanical web-shooters and many other awesome Spidey gadgets, which is a shame -- organic web-shooters are gross, and suggest that Peter Parker must spend a lot of time eating high-protein foods after a particularly heavy bout of web-slinging. 

Still, the cast -- even James Franco as Parker pal Harry Osborn -- is a delight. Would that they had come up with a better rendition of the Green Goblin's comic-book costume, though, if only so that many scenes didn't look like Spider-man vs. the Green Mattel Chocobot. Recommended.

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

Thanocide

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.