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


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.