Thursday, June 28, 2012

#432. The Problem With Bloggers

I'm sorry, I'm about to break the taboo of trash-talking the blogging community again.  I suspect that after I did this at the start of A-to-Z in April, I limited the number of people who were going to frequent Scouring Monk (though I must again give thanks to everyone who did become a reader, and who has made comments since then).

The problem I have is that it's a bit of a shadow play.  The idea I've gotten in recent months is that the blogging community is supposed to support each other.  It's why everyone seems to be touting everyone else's newly published works.  Everyone wins when everyone works together!  But the impression I get is that most of this is done solely in driving traffic to the blog talking about that work, rather than active interest in supporting each other.  I guess I can be labeled a cynic.

Take Michael Abayomi, for instance.  For eight days he's been waiting to get someone, anyone, to donate to his ambitious project of getting a six-book fantasy series published.  He's willing to be patient about it, pragmatic (and maybe that's a key difference between us), but in the meantime he gets visitors to his blog and still no donations.  I would expect at least one of those visitors to donate, especially when he has on average a dozen comments to his posts and some fifty subscribed readers.  Now, I know from experience that subscribing to a blog does not mean that you are actively interested in that blog.  During A-to-Z I got a lot of people to subscribe to my blog, and as a matter of courtesy I subscribed to theirs as well, and I assumed at least their interest was a little less superficial than that.  Yet I get more regular business strictly from the blogs I regularly comment on than the readers who theoretically came because they just liked what I was doing.  That's a little messed up.  Maybe it's because it's a little hard to tell exactly what I'm trying to accomplish here and it seems like everyone else has a pretty strict focus?

Anyway, I like Michael, and I love what he's trying to accomplish.  The only reason I haven't donated is because I'm not in the best financial situation right now.  Maybe that's true for everyone, and maybe I'm overreacting by calling bull on the whole blogging community, taking away the lighthearted camaraderie that exists and the sense of support.  But it just seems as if "sense of support" and "actual support" mean two different things, and to me that's a little screwy.  Maybe it's that everyone seems to be in the business of promoting their own starter careers, and to get any support you have to at least pretend to support everyone else.  I'm likely going to be CreateSpacing a book of short stories, and I can say right now that I don't expect much benefit to publicizing it here, so this may be the only reference you read about it.

Again, that's just my current thought process.  Michael, I really do wish your campaign starts turning a corner.

Friday, June 22, 2012

#431. My Favorite Movies

As anyone who's visited my Fan Companion blog may guess, I can be a little obsessive about my interests.  I've spent the past decade trying to determine what exactly my favorite films are, and today I discovered that I may have been all wrong!

Let's back up a little.  Over at Stay on target..., Mock posted his current viewing plans, but he kept referencing his flickchart list.  I'd never heard of Flickchart, and maybe that was a good thing, because I just spent all day compiling my own list, which as I've said is something I thought I'd been doing for years.

Maybe it's the way Flickchart randomly populates the options, providing you with two films that you choose your favorite from, and so on and so forth.  Films repeat during this process and new films also pop up.  You have the option to input titles you're specifically looking for, but it just seems a little more pure to let it work itself out.  That's how I got my results.  I also made a list of 1025 films, so yeah, like I said, I'm obsessive, and yes, I surprised myself.

The film that ended up at the top spot was Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's 2009 effort that postulates an alternate version of WWII where a bunch of Jewish American commandos actually succeed in assassinating Hitler, thanks to a series of convoluted events that hinge on a Nazi's officer's obsessive relationship with a girl who managed to escape him.  No, I'm not really doing it justice in that summary, because everything that makes it great is what has made Tarantino's career so fascinating over the last two decades, only that he seems to have figured out how to make it all work in one cohesive plot.  It'd been on previous versions of the list, but never at the top.  And yet like the rest of the top ten, it seems everything has changed.

For instance, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the 2005 adaptation of Douglas Adams's comic masterpiece, ends up at #2.  I've loved this film to an inordinate degree from the rest of the general public since I first saw it in theaters, but it's never, so far as I considered it, been so far up there in my favorites.  Yet when I think about it again, all the elements that come together so ingeniously, from the "So long and thanks for all the fish" opening song from the dolphins to the brilliant casting and the fact that I no longer care that it's become increasingly unlikely that any of the other books in the "trilogy" will ever be put to film, I can easily see how it wormed its way to the top.

I've known that I greatly enjoyed Zack Snyder's Watchmen from 2009, but I used to believe that I liked its ideological predecessor, The Dark Knight, a great deal more.  Yet there it is at #3.  The casting is another calling card for this one's allure for me, as well as one of the finest pop soundtracks ever assembled for a movie.  I guess it's that the story is completely seamless, mostly because it has to be, since most fans will only care how it compares to the Alan Moore comic book from which it derives (in fact, all three of the films I've referenced so far were adapted from previous material), and most will only find it wanting.  Yet to my mind, Snyder's version perfects the story, and that's what makes it so special.

The biggest surprise was the presence of Juno, released in 2007 (another common factor of this new list is that nearly all of the films in the top ten were released in the past ten years, many long after I started trying to determine my favorites in the first place).  Perhaps it's because Ellen Page has appeared in at least two other exceptional films (Smart People and Inception) since starring in this breakthrough film, which still bucks the youth trend of every popular movie and TV show since unleashed on the public.  Juno's problem is that she's too smart for her own good.  Well, now you have proof.  I had no idea I liked it this much.

American History X, released in 1998, is still the center of controversy for director Tony Kaye and star Edward Norton, neither of whom have yet figured out how to get out from under its shadow.  It's an incendiary drama about skinheads perpetuating their own misery, and finally discovering a way out, but at terrible cost.  It's the best straight-up drama of modern film.

Stranger Than Fiction, released in 2006 and coming in at #6, was another considerable surprise for me.  The movie that used to occupy this spot without question was always The Truman Show, which at one point was my favorite overall film, and similarly takes an actor known for his comedic performances and forces them into a dramatic role in a surreal story that could not have featured anyone else.  In this case, it's Will Ferrell, who I think is one of modern entertainment's greatest assets.  His apparent one note is the most versatile of his day, and it doesn't hurt that this is a metaphysical study of storytelling, because that happens to be one of my favorite things.

If you want to know how much I think about Edward Norton, look no further than #7, 2006's The Illusionist, one of two movies about magicians released that year.  The other one was directed by Christopher Nolan (The Prestige).  Rarely has Norton been given the material he deserves.  This is one of those instances, and a clear indication, at least to me, that given the chance he could clearly prove himself the greatest actor of his generation.

At #8, 2004's Alexander is the standard-bearer for the list, being the former top film on many other versions.  From director Oliver Stone and starring Colin Farrell, the most consistent and because of that my favorite actor of his generation, this one has had a poor reputation since it was released, and I've never understood why, except that it doesn't try to do anything but tackle the tall challenge of figuring out one of the greatest figures in history.  If what you want from a movie is a story that plays by more conventional methods, then I guess you'll be nothing but frustrated by one that does nothing to explicitly explain why we should care, other than that he tried perhaps harder than anyone to make something of himself, and never really got anyone approval.  Well, then I guess it figures that the movie didn't, either.

Some manner of Star Wars had always been a mainstay in my top ten in previous incarnations of the list.  I guess what I finally realized that the essence of that franchise is conveying the best of movie magic.  Since the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest in 2006, I've suspected that I had found a successor.  At first I wondered if my interest in the film needed to be connected with the rest of that franchise, but by the time On Stranger Tides came out, I guess I finally accepted that it wasn't.  Dead Man's Chest is wild and woolly and it's the one where the ensemble around Johnny Depp actually gets to be as interesting as he is, and that's reason enough for me to love it above and beyond my previous standards.

Rounding out the new top ten is Shakespeare in Love, released in 1998.  When it won the Best Picture Oscar, everyone was outraged to think that anyone could believe that it was a better film than Saving Private Ryan, but the truth is, it really is.  It resounds a lot more than even the storming of the beaches at Normandy in an age where WWII is still within living memory, and it's because Shakespeare himself still speaks to us in an incredibly profound way, and even a love story that fudges details and doesn't really capture his ambitions still manages to tell us more about him than all the cockamamie theories about who Shakespeare had to be rather than who he actually was, just some guy who looked far beyond himself and spoke not just for a generation but for all mankind, in all times.

Anyway, you can look at the rest of my list here

Thursday, June 21, 2012

#430. Prometheus

There are now two movies in the Alien sequence.

Let me clarify this a little.  There's a difference between what happens in a story and what it's actually about. In 1979, Ridley Scott's Alien was released, and it told the story about a motley crew that ran across the wreckage of a ship with the corpse of a giant.  Of course, eventually that crew is terrorized and eliminated, one by one, by a vicious alien, and the only survivor is Ellen Ripley.

Subsequent movies inspired by Alien involved both the alien and Ripley, and they were of varying degrees of quality, but it wasn't until Ridley Scott himself returned to the franchise that the story from the first film continued.  So now we have Prometheus, the origin of that crashed ship, and what it's all about.  Yeah, so the answer is, not that rampaging alien, and not even Ellen Ripley.  It's about the quest for knowledge, about selfish and self-destructive desires, about the nature of intelligence, about endurance, about self-preservation...Basically it's about everything but everything Alien actually inspired.

Prometheus is almost exactly like all the other movies in the franchise, and yet it's the first one since the first one to actually be relevant, to try and continue the greater story.  We discover what exactly that alien was, how it came into being, and maybe that answers some of the questions that movie itself poses, about the burning desire to know where mankind came from and why it came into being.  There's a lot to do with science but very little actual science going on.  It's a parade of human foibles, even from the android who's the most manipulative one of the bunch, worse than the old man and his young daughter who attempt to dominate the conversation but have nothing to say, or the two lovers who never stop to think about consequences, or the impulsive rebel who doesn't want any trouble but keeps walking into it, or the pilot who knows better than anyone when to walk away but can't bring himself to do it before it's too late.  Did that first Engineer we see get exiled and poisoned, or was it deliberate?

I'm not much for horror, and horror can be more horrifying in an age that can show unnatural things acting naturally, so clearly that was not my interest in seeing Prometheus.  I'm a bigger fan of Ridley Scott than Alien, mostly because Alien was always buried in a franchise critics grew tired of without realizing why, but now I think I may understand more of it than before.  Scott is a man who brings his particular vision to all of his projects, and he doesn't usually go back to a subject once he's covered it.  When he does it's because there's more to say, not more to see.  He's one of our most cerebral filmmakers, so of course he's rarely among the most popular.  Prometheus is the first time he's been culturally relevant since Gladiator, and that was more than a decade ago.  We happen to be in the thick of a period where someone like Christopher Nolan can be wildly popular.  That's why something like Prometheus can happen.  The whole reason that game of whether or not it was related to Alien was necessary because it forced fans to wonder whether or not it mattered that those aliens or Ripley were present.  Once you eliminate them from the equation, then you have possibilities again.

When people wonder whether Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, they look at the summer blockbuster schedule and count the number of sequels.  Well, Prometheus is a sequel.  And it blows all those assumptions out of the water.

Monday, June 18, 2012

#429. These Were Five Interesting Movies

Over the weekend I got to enjoy a number of movies.  If I could provide some intelligent thoughts to the string of John Wayne movies, I'd write about them, too, but here's what I do have for you:

All About Eve (1950)
One of Hollywood's favorite leading ladies, Bette Davis, saw her career revived by the unexpected success of a movie that explores the pitfalls of fame and ambition.  Davis plays Margo Channing, a Broadway star who's just turned forty, and definitely feels it.  She's got a comfortable amount of success, but she's not happy.  Enter Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), Margo's biggest fan, who's watched every performance of Aged in Wood and is dying to meet her, and thanks to the playwright's wife, actually does (meet her, not die).  Margo has just been talking about how much she hates her fans, but Eve is a breath of fresh air, but she quickly uses Margo's interest to enter a new life, and eventually becomes a star herself.  Margo's jealousy and insecurity has nothing on Eve's great popularity, emphasized by the opening scene of her being the youngest recipient of an acting award, an introduction that presents each of the key players in this drama as they're important to Eve's success.  This whole movie is like a love letter to the old star system, whether on Broadway or in Hollywood, and remains timeless.

An Affair to Remember (1957)
Like a companion piece to the above film, this is another portrait of Hollywood in a moment of transition.  Cary Grant is the star attempting to make a comeback, as an aging lothario everyone falls in love with, though he's only got eyes for Deborah Kerr, though they meet cute when both are in the midst of long-term relationships.  They make a famous vow to reunite at the Empire State Building, but Kerr is unable to make it when she's involved in a terrible accident, and Grant has no clue what happened, so when they reunite, it's their greatest test yet.  The casualness with which the entire affair unfolds beggars reality, but it's romance for the very fans movies used to adore, affluent and unconcerned with what anyone else thinks, absorbed in their own lives and nearly incapable of how they affect others.  In a way, Grant and Kerr are rebelling against that system in the film's conclusion.

Descent (2007)
Rosario Dawson stars in this movie about the baggage we all carry with us, which can come to define us in ways we never anticipated.  She plays a college student reluctant to move beyond a relationship she once enjoyed in high school, which affects her ability to open up to others in the present.  She meets a boy at a party and goes home with him, but the evening violently degenerates when he sexually assaults her.  Soon she doesn't know what to believe about herself anymore, until she comes to a most unexpected answer about how to resolve the experience.  Has she really changed?  It's a chilling tale of personal discovery that delves deeply into the psychology of pain, about perceptions and ego and the need for control.  At what cost do we attain personal identity?

Coriolanus (2011)
Based on the play by Shakespeare, this is from Ralph Fiennes and co-stars Gerard Butler as his bitter rival.  An allegory about the limits of power, Fiennes is one of those military commanders who believes he's only been doing what's right for his people, but ends up rejected by them and sent into exile.  He makes the decision to join forces with Butler and lead an assault on his former homeland.  It's not one of the more famous tragedies, but Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan effectively convey the power and immediacy in Shakespeare's words, punctuated by frequent bloody war sequences, as the man reluctant to justify himself but fully convinced of the need for all his questionable actions becomes a martyr.  Vanessa Redgrave has a showcase moment as she pleads with Fiennes to show mercy, a speech worthy of any great figure in the Shakespeare canon, though this one belongs to the title character's mother, of all characters.  Jessica Chastain, the MVP of 2011, also appears.

Immortals (2011)
Tarsem's third movie (after The Cell and The Fall, a brilliant tragedy in its own right) was considered to be a poor imitation of 300 last year, but it deserves so much more than such an inadequate summary.  Like many movies before it, Immortals seeks to understand the motivations of great heroics.  Theseus (Henry Cavill, soon to be Superman in Man of Steel) is not so different from Sam Worthington in Clash of the Titans, except he's far more interested in challenging fate, which in this case means mad King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) in his quest to unleash the Titans and thus bring an end to the era of the gods.  The gods, naturally, are interested in averting this calamity, though Zeus (Luke Evans) is reluctant to interfere, leaving Theseus to experience a fair amount of tragedy, including the death of his mother by Hyperion's own hand.  Phaedra (Freida Pinto) is Theseas's best ally, an oracle who has foreseen the worst, but she gives up her gift thanks to her growing belief in him.  This is not a movie you'll understand in the first or second viewing.  Tarsem's art direction, always a hallmark of his films, was consciously modeled on the heavy shadows of Caravaggio, and this makes some of the action hard to distinguish, but the resulting effect is to emphasize the great drama of the story.  John Hurt is predictably full of earthy gravity as an enigmatic mentor to Theseus, and there's a neat trick involved with this character that helps tie everything together.  It's a powerful film that rewards a little patience.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

#428. Seven Reasons To Love Voyager Season Three

Yes, I love Star Trek.

I also can't stop talking about it.  Recently I sat down to watch Star Trek: Voyager - Season Three, a DVD set my sister gave me for Christmas.  Now, I watched this season during its original 1996-97 TV broadcast, but that was the last time I'd seen most of the episodes.  This was a good opportunity for a refresher course, and some fresh insights.  Here are the seven reasons to love this season:

  1. "Basics, Part II" For two seasons Voyager traveled through Kazon space.  This is partly to do with the series pilot, "Caretaker," when the crew made an enemy of this race of gangs by interfering in their affairs.  Then the former Maquis known as Seska, who everyone thought was a Bajoran but was actually a Cardassian spy, betrayed both the crew and first officer Chakotay personally, joining forces with Maj Cullah and beginning a campaign to hijack the ship, which had some brilliant moments in the second season, and actually ended in success.  "Basics, Part II" sees most of the crew marooned on a primitive planet, deprived of all that technology they refused to share with the Kazon and beholden to monsters, the local population, and volcanoes (suffice it to say, they had a few hurdles).  Then there's also Lon Suder, another former Maquis with issues, still aboard ship and forced into helping the Emergency Medical Hologram (otherwise known as The Doctor, but not to be confused with Doctor Who, even though he...doesn't have a name) lead a siege against the invaders.  This is a problem because Suder really doesn't want to murder again.  And Tom Paris, meanwhile, is wrangling allies in the form of Talaxians.  You would be worried, too.
  2. "Flashback" The celebration of the 40th anniversy of the franchise is better known for the Deep Space Nine episode "Trials and Tribble-ations," but Voyager had its own whiz-bang moment when George Takei finally got what he wanted.  Well, sort of.  For years, he campaigned to get Sulu his own TV series, insisting that it was exactly what Star Trek and its fans needed.  It took Sulu four films to be promoted to captain (famously losing the intended moment in Wrath of Khan).  "Flashback" pulls most of its fun from The Undiscovered Country, actually, allowing Tuvok and Janeway to revisit the period thanks to a Vulcan mind-meld, and five years after the film was made, most of the actors cast for Sulu's bridge crew were brought back together.  It's great fun for two generations.
  3. "False Prophets" A sequel of sorts to the Next Generation episode "The Price," we discover the fate of the two Ferengi who traveled through an unstable wormhole, and for them it's paradise!  Unfortunately for the natives who believe in a prophecy they seem to have fulfilled, the Ferengi are up to their typical schemes.  A pleasure mixture of the Ferengi as depicted in Deep Space Nine and those represented in Next Generation, it's a good franchise moment altogether.
  4. "Future's End" A two-part episode (something the series would embrace in earnest beginning the next season), this one bring our crew back to Earth!  The problem is that the year is 1996, and they need to pry technology from the 29th Century away from a 20th Century opportunist.  The unexpected opportunity to explain why small technology is not necessarily the best technology is just one interesting tidbit.  You also get Sarah Silverman, years before she became one of the most controversial standup comics of her day.  And The Doctor gets his mobile emitter!
  5. Kes, Neelix, and Harry Kim: Should I Stay or Should I Go? Jennifer Lien would leave the series two episodes into the next season, replaced by Jeri Ryan as the Borg bombshell Seven of Nine.  It's common belief that she was a last minute substitute for Garrett Wang getting the ax (during the season finale, it's Harry Kim who has the proverbial Sword of Damocles above his head), and that only a timely People "Most Beautiful People in the World" issue that saved him.  Yet the season, already a marked transition from the arc style of the first two, was a transition for many reasons, and it's how Kes, Neelix, and Harry are handled this season that truly illustrates its character.  In "Warlord," Lien is given an unusually meaty role when Kes is taken over by an alien looking to consolidate power.  It's very reminiscent of the kinds of things Charmed writers were throwing at Shannon Doherty in her final seasons, trying to prove they could still make things interesting for her.  Neelix meets a crossroads in "Fair Trade," in which he wonders if he'll still be useful to the crew when he's no longer so familiar with the space they're traveling in.  Harry nearly leaves, too, in "Favorite Son."  Kes almost departs in "Darkling," but it's in "Before and After" where the most telling analysis falls.  It's here where the series has a long hard look at what it would actually be like to keep a character with a short lifespan (always the signature of Kes).  It would force everyone to accept the ship as home, force everyone into families, and force them to question, basically, whether or not getting home is still what everyone wants.  Keeping Kes around, in "Before and After," means Paris marries her, rather than B'Elanna Torres, whom he's finally developed a relationship with during this season, and it also means, in the episode, that Harry marries her daughter.  Was that really something the series could afford?  If anything, this season made the decision for the creators.  Kes had to go.
  6. "Distant Origin" This may be one of the greatest hours of the entire franchise.  Basically an allegory for scientific progress, and the fierce resistance it can sometimes face (witness: Galileo), it's also one of the rare episodes told from the perspective of the guest rather than the regulars.  An alien species that evolved millions of years ago from dinosaurs now resides in the Delta Quadrant, and has become convinced that this is where it's actually from.  Suffice it to say, but we know better.  This does not make the results of questioning this a foregone conclusion.  In fact, far from it.  That's just one of the reasons this episode is so fascinating, even after repeated viewings.  There's also Chakotay, once again demonstrating the ineffable, essential qualities he possesses, so easy to overlook, his ability to quietly accept beliefs that seem so contrary to his own, a certain counterpoint to what develops.  You must watch this episode.
  7. The Borg Starting in "Blood Fever," the drumbeat to the Borg begins.  "Unity" is the first Borg episode.  "Scorpion, Part I" concludes the season with the extraordinary suggestion that the dreaded Borg Collective has an enemy even it can't handle, Species 8472.  Many fans grew disenchanted with the Borg after Voyager seemingly overplayed them, but I prefer to see it as Star Trek looking beyond the shock value best exhibited by the famous "Best of Both Worlds" Next Generation experience (and certainly First Contact as well) and seeing the true possibilities of a foe that essentially perverts the entire Star Trek message, that the future we all want can be achieved by working together and using some wicked awesome technology.  "Scorpion" also pushes Captain Janeway back to the brink of making a terrible decision (even Chakotay doesn't agree with it this time!), just like she had to in the pilot (and would again in the series finale), marking it as integral material for the show itself.
All that and Q besides!  I'd say that's worth remembering.

Friday, June 15, 2012

#427. The Star Trek New Classics Project

I've been working on the Star Trek Fan Companion for several years now.  The whole point has been to try and rehabilitate the reputation of the franchise.  I found this necessary even after the wide success of 2009's Star Trek because it seems most fans still think the conditions that ground the franchise to a halt in 2005 are best described by this statement: "Star Trek grew greatly diminished in quality."

Now, this conclusion was reached by a combination of factors.  The first was the failure of two successive Next Generation movies, Insurrection in 1998 and Nemesis in 2002.  The second was the perceived notion that two successive TV series, Voyager and Enterprise failed to motivate the core audience, and find one outside of it besides.  Ratings and box office results fell at an astonishing rate.  Apathy was the name of the game.

Now, there's a lot of analysis possible for why exactly that happened, and I've certainly done my fair share of that, but what I'm really trying to get at here is that Star Trek as a whole is still worth considering.  That used to be far easier when there were far fewer screen adventures to consider.  I think at a certain point it became a little overwhelming, and fewer fans tried to make the effort to determine what exactly still made Star Trek worth celebrating.

So I launched the Fan Companion in 2010.  At first, it was a simple survey, and it covered every TV season and every movie, and my rather extensive notes, and I thought that was that and I moved on.  I didn't illicit much interest, so I figured there wasn't much interest.  Eventually I came back to it, because of all the topics I covered at the Fan Companion blog, Star Trek had, of what interest at all I garnered there, the most of it.  I started writing about individual episodes, individually.  I set up certain criteria, fairly objective, so that if these criteria helped explain how these episodes were relevant to certain elements of what made the franchise interesting, then so be it.  I always thought Star Trek was about more than just random sci-fi adventures.  Sure, you could watch it from that perspective, and if you did, then maybe you'd get your fill and move on and maybe not care how many Star Treks there were.  If you liked it for the story, then chances were the story came from a certain perspective, how the series in question tended to tell them, whether you're talking about one of the series with a particular premise or not.  If you liked it for a particular character, then it didn't hurt to try and explain how an episode helped define that character.  And as an added bonus, I wanted to make it known whether or not an episode was essential to understanding how any of these elements really worked.

Four four specific criteria, each episode had a shot to be considered, as I eventually realized, a New Classic.  When it was just the original series, classics were easy to define.  "The City on the Edge of Forever," that kind of episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles."  You get what I mean.  The ones that really stand out, that define a legacy, that shape what Star Trek actually means.  This is the kind of thing that got lost along the way.  Fans started watching just to see if they liked a series, and if they liked an episode, that was fine.  Star Trek began to be taken for granted.  It was no longer special.  It was just something that wouldn't end, until it did.

Well, now that I've been doing that for a while, I've started compiling a list of these New Classics.  Because I'm trying to provide commentary on every episode, this is going to be a long process.  I'm nearing the end of the second season of Voyager.  So far I've covered that one, of course, as well as the fourth and sixth seasons.  I'm doing the first season of Deep Space Nine next, and then the second and fourth seasons of Enterprise, and these seasons in particular, in this kind of order, because they were the popular season summaries from the original Fan Companion effort.

I'm trying to make it okay to like Star Trek again, not just the ones you know and already love, but the ones you maybe hated, or never watched, or were ambivalent about.

(Here I'll make another plug for the "Star Trek '12" project over at Sigild V, exploring the years 212 thru 3112 in franchise history, all the little bits of franchise lore that help explain what it is.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

#426. Comic Book Movie Chronicle, Part 5

We've never come this close to comic book movies becoming truly mainstream, in the same way Westerns used to be ubiquitous (which may make Samuel L. Jackson the new John Wayne), a regular and dependable genre that audiences will accept and take seriously, and it only took a decade's long and hard push to reach this point.  In the same way that Star Wars would never have happened without a long sci-fi tradition that helped make it not only possible but wildly popular, we now have The Avengers thrust into box office history.  Let's see how we've reached this point...

The Losers (2010)
This is one of my favorites, and it's another one where you don't even need to know that it's based on a fairly obscure comic book, just a lot of great actors, characters, and action coming together for a wonderfully vigorous experience.  That's really all you need for a comic book movie to become something other than that label, or to make the label earn its place.

Kick-Ass (2010)
Because we weren't really there yet, we get this Mark Millar creation that errs on the cynical side, with some punk kid and a band of equally eccentric allies trying to make superheroes real, even though they're not even qualified to be vigilantes.  This is superhero as a cultural stamp.  I still have yet to see it, but I'm getting there.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
I love this movie.  It's as much a superhero pastiche as an ode to video games, and it's based on a popular series of graphic novels that buck the mainstream and is just as punk as Kick-Ass but without the cynicism, even though everything about it is sarcastic.  Rock the Sex Bob-ombs!

Iron Man 2 (2010)
I actually like this one better than the first movie, but maybe that's because Sam Rockwell costars, and I love Sam Rockwell.  But here's where the momentum really begins, because the Avengers franchise starts to ramp up, and that's how we get where we are now, isn't it?

Jonah Hex (2010)
Most people considered this to be a bomb, but I loved it, its wicked sense of character and how the story revolves around that character.  If there's a problem, it's that the movie is short, like everything but that sense of what it wanted to accomplish was lost.  Hex could have been the new Wolverine, and that's basically what he is for DC, though he's so far from the mainstream he's only a few steps ahead of all those Marvel characters who've failed to launch their own movie franchises in recent years, or've been stuck with the same low opinion of the resulting efforts.  Plus it's a Western.  Like I said, superheroes are the new Western.

Megamind (2010)
Deconstructing the rivalry between Superman and Lex Luthor is the brilliance of this movie, like making a version of Grant Morrison's All Star Superman where Luthor isn't just a jealous human but a fellow alien castaway who's...still jealous of Superman, and does everything in his power to upstage him.  The funny thing is that in this story Superman voluntarily leaves the stage, and forces Luthor to become him.  Would Lex Luthor really do that?  The cleverness of this movie is that it forces a new conversation.  Anyone care to start?

RED (2010)
Based on another recent and fairly obscure comic book, so that you really get to enjoy the actors and the action, rather than think of the source material.  Pretty entertaining.

The Green Hornet (2010)
The stoner's version of Kick-Ass takes a comic book property that's relatively obscure and tries to see what it'd be like to make a superhero out of someone from a version of the real world.  I enjoyed this one, too.  It's a certain amount of necessary deconstruction that allows people to decide if that's what they really want, or the genuine article.

Thor (2011)
The Avengers initiative kicks off in earnest by taking the opposite of what most people think of with superheroes but what superhero fans secretly believe, that superheroes are the new mythology.  That's what this one really does, grafting Norse gods with a narrative that brings them down to earth and then recontextualizes them.  As epic fantasy, it falls pretty flat, but then, that's not really what it's trying to accomplish.  Does it stand on its own?  Only if you see what it's really doing.

X-Men: First Class (2011)
Many fans consider this to be the best of the X-Men bunch, which is a tad insulting to the Bryan Singer flicks it so clearly draws from (quite heavily in its key aspects), but that's the key and what The Amazing Spider-Man really needs, to start fresh with a property that soured in the recent past, but whose glory days were far enough away that there's a new generation that will embrace it.  Because there's a precedent for the exact mold, but the resulting product puts greater emphasis on the necessary thematic elements that now seem glossed over in that previous incarnation, it's an affirmation and a confirmation.  That's how you reach the next level, folks, by improving on success, not simply banking on it.  It's the same franchise, but it's better.  If that's the popular perception, then you've reached the mainstream.

Green Lantern (2011)
I've struggled a great deal with why this movie failed.  I had a vested interest, and I loved it, but pretty much no one else did.  In the course of this survey, I think I've found the answer.  Green Lantern is to mainstream audiences an obscure property.  For all intents and purposes, it's no different from Ghost Rider or Punisher, or perhaps more accurately, Daredevil.  It has no relation to Superman or Batman, and certainly nothing to do with the franchise currently dominating mainstream audiences.  In the comics, Green Lantern has gone mainstream, but that's only within the last few years.  There're dozens of characters who call themselves Green Lantern, and it's been that way for decades, even without breaching the topic of the original one recently turned gay.  Before this movie, the franchise didn't even have its own animated series.  It only became possible to envision as a movie in the modern era.  Except the results are bound to be a lot more like the Hulk than Spider-Man.  Spider-Man can be simplified to a visual appearance.  There's a definite template to Spider-Man stories that audiences can understand.  The Hulk, meanwhile, is also a visual, but his story doesn't really scream "superhero."  Green Lantern is the same way.  He's not even the only one of his kind.  Any first attempt could never have hoped to convey everything he means, so trying to explain any of it to the uninitiated would always have come across as convoluted.  Audiences don't like complication.  They want complication resolved.  The end of the beginning of Green Lantern's story is still only a beginning.  Anyway, suffice to say, it was a miscalculation to expect this movie to be a huge success.  I understand that now.  But that does not mean it was the failure that most observers believe it to be.  It's the kind of ambition this new era needs.  Ambition spawned the Avengers initiative, after all, and even that needed a few kinks ironed out.  Hulk only worked on the third try.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
This one is like capturing the whole phenomenon of the superhero genre in one movie.  You've got the pulp origins.  You've got the superhero seen as a savior.  You've got the superhero seen as a joke.  You've got the superhero thrust into something bigger than himself.  You've got the superhero being humbled.  You've got the superhero becoming a key component of the Avengers initiative.  I consider this one to be the most pivotal of the movement that made the genre part of the mainstream.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Better known as James Bond meets Indiana Jones (but only the actors), this one's based on another obscure recent comic book, but is more Jonah Hex than Men in Black.  I'm not surprised that it didn't become the huge hit it deserved to be.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011)
Because movies will always follow their own trends, an obscure comic book becomes an obscure film.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
Because the career of Nicholas Cage has spun even deeper into his eccentricities in recent years, the second movie is automatically dismissed.  I bet it's fun.

Chronicle (2012)
This might be considered to be Unbreakable 2.0, a completely different perspective on superheroes, one that jazzed critics just enough to make them interested again.  I think this one's a key component of how we've reached this point.

The Avengers (2012)
"This point" is defined by this film.  Four films and finally getting the Hulk right helped make this one an event that's pushed superheroes into the box office pantheon.  No, it's not all about how much money a movie makes, but the consensus has been that this is a seminal moment.  I've been trying to figure out how we reached this point and what it means.  My conclusion is that we've reached the point where superheroes are now a legitimate movie genre, and the fluctuations and doubts that plagued Hollywood and audiences for years may no longer have the same sway they once had.  Yes, burnout is completely possible, but not in the same way the Superman movies dominated and collapsed interest within a decade, or Batman did the same soon after.  At the start of this century we saw two franchises vault into comparable positions, and they've both reached the reboot point without radical reinventions so much as taking new looks at what already worked.  No, we haven't seen The Amazing Spider-Man yet, don't know if it'll succeed, but the visual impact is still driving the character, even if the tone has shifted and it has nothing to do with Sam Raimi's version.  But the thing is, we've got the Christopher Nolan Batman films, too, and now a powerful franchise in the Avengers, which has many legs.  That's more success than ever before, with greater sustainability.  It's about momentum, folks.

Does that mean all comic book movies will succeed from here on?  Not in the slightest.  But there's a greater chance now than ever before that "the right property" can be any property.  It used to be just Superman.  And then just Batman.  Now we've got Blade, Hellboy, the X-Men,the Avengers, Spider-Man, and yes, Batman, and maybe Superman again.  The future is no longer as uncertain.  That's how we reach the mainstream.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

#425. Comic Book Movie Chronicle, Part 4

The new millennium began with a comic book movie explosion, so big even I wasn't crazy enough to try and write about all of it in one post.  Here's the first decade's worth, continued:

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Maybe you can picture it for yourself, but it's incredibly rare for a threequel to be considered thematically worthwhile.  Go ahead and try to name the third movie in any film trilogy that fans actually enjoyed (I can think of Return of the King and...), I'll wait.  The problem is by the third film the story either needs wrapping up and the conclusion is dissatisfying, or there've been some changes behind the scenes.  In this case, it was Brett Ratner replacing Bryan Singer, and because Ratner has a bad reputation, everyone assumed that they wouldn't like The Last Stand.  Surprise, surprise, they didn't.  I loved it, still my favorite in the series, by the way.  This, by the way, is also about the time where fans started wondering if the superhero genre was another fluke, like the early success of the Superman and Batman eras.  (And so, yes, the successors of those eras, for those counting score, are officially the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Avengers.  Nolan's Batman exists, currently, in its own bubble.)

Superman Returns (2006)
This was a hit movie that nobody loved (well, except me), and the reason is fairly obvious in hindsight: it met none of the expectations the current superhero movie genre has produced in fans, and while it was as cerebral as Nolan's Batman, it had none of the action.  Big ideas and mythology must be met with an equal amount of "Hulk smash!," silly Bryan Singer.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
This one counts as much as a Hollywood creation as what was at the time the continuing effort to cash in on the cult success of Uma Thurman's iconic turn as The Bride in Kill Bill.  I will still see it, some day, for the latter reason.  But again, a female-led superhero movie fails at the box office, three different ways now (well, four, if you include Supergirl).  Well, thanks god for The Hunger Games.

Zoom (2006)
There's a better movie mashed in with a kid's movie, and that one stars Tim Allen, who for some reason took a precipitous fall as a movie star.  I guess there are only so many iconic roles he could inhabit before audiences turned him into mush.  Anyway, half of this movie is worth watching.  So watch that half.

300 (2007)
A huge cult hit whose impact can still be felt today, even if just about everyone is fighting it, based on a Frank Miller comic.  It's funny that comic books, which are themselves highly stylized, can produce highly stylized movies, and critics will still complain about that.  If one medium can influence another medium in a wide variety of ways, then I call that a success.  I applaud when a movie breaks tradition.  Movies can be an incredible art form, which something like 300 represents.  If your movie looks like it could have been produced on home video, good for you.  If it takes talent and vision, then I say all the better.  To continue this rant a little further, some say "showing less is sometimes more," and thereby implying the inverse.  If you've got a visual medium, it's nonsense not to show, and show spectacularly, your story.  Unless you're really good at implication.  (I do not endorse horror movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, which exhibit cheap and lazy filmmaking.)  Anyway, watch 300!  Moving on!

30 Days of Night (2007)
I'm eventually going to see this one.  It's based on another of those obscure, if cult favorite, comic books, and stars a bunch of interesting actors, and has a classic Hollywood horror plot.

TMNT (2007)
A computer animated version of the Ninja Turtles.  Nobody cared.  Did you know this existed?

Ghost Rider (2007)
This is exactly like every other Marvel movie, and yet it (and its sequel) gets no respect, probably because it has no connection to any other franchise, even the comic book character can never get out of cult gear, and it stars Nicholas Cage, who is assumed by everyone to mostly work in shlock material.  This is really no different than Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, but with less sarcasm.  Actually, I think Ghost Rider got into the mythology game better (not to mention earlier) than the Avengers flicks, so that's another reason why I hate to see such a bad reputation hung on it.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Another threequel that gets no respect (and another one that happens to be my favorite in the sequence, thanks to Thomas Haden Church and the Sandman storyline).  The breaking point of this particular period of Marvel dominance, but not the end.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Probably better than its predecessor, this movie makes the cardinal error of teasing a giant villain without actually using him (that would be Galactus), instead focusing on the existential problems of a cool visual whose source material has never broken out of cult status despite decades of history (Surfer, meet Ghost Rider; Blade probably succeeded because he's been even less successful as a comic book, and so that much easier to assume as practically an original cinematic creation).  This is the big addition to the franchise?

Underdog (2007)
You know Hollywood is starting to get a little antsy about the whole superhero genre when they make a movie out of Underdog.

Wanted (2008)
Between this and Kick-Ass, you can hear Mark Millar trying to become known as the new Frank Miller/Alan Moore.  The only problem here is that Wanted is almost completely transformed from its original comic book material, which features superheroes, whereas this version features a vague conspiracy of assassins.  This is an adaptation that might as well have been an original creation, and was probably assumed to be by most filmgoers.

Superhero Movie (2008)
Ah!  The spoof movie!  Now you know the movement is pretty much over (or so everyone believes).  Actually a pretty good movie.

Iron Man (2008)
The modern age is reborn with full snark as Robert Downey, Jr. revives his career and wears a metal costume.  Arguably the transformation of superhero movies from being seen as superhero movies to being seen as spectacles with noted actors pulling an equal amount of attention.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The problem here is that they hired Edward Norton and didn't allow him to play Edward Norton.  They took everything interesting out of it, and tried for spectacle instead, and discovered that it's very difficult to make a movie out the Hulk while leaving Bruce Banner out of it.  Hence the success of the character in The Avengers.  Also tried too quickly to shoehorn the budding franchise mythology into a story about someone who wanted nothing to do with it.

Hancock (2008)
Better known as a Will Smith vehicle, though I'm not really sure why this is such a problem with Hancock in particular, because at this point Smith had made a career of having his cake and eating it, too.  There's actually a tremendous story to this one, while most people assume it's just the setup, which leads me to believe that either most people haven't actually seen the whole thing, or they gloss over what they assume to be incongruous elements.  It's called a story, people.  The reputation of Hancock is like saying Obi-Wan Kenobi is just some crazy old hermit.  I beg anyone to see this one for what it really is.  For me, it's one of my favorites, and not just as a superhero movie.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Otherwise known as the sequel del Toro did after Pan's Labyrinth made him visual visionary.

The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger achieved the impossible, making people actually care about the acting in a superhero movie.  There are so many things to love about Christopher Nolan's second Batman flick (not the least that it didn't even have to have "Batman" in the title), and most of them have exactly to do with that transcendent quality exhibited by Ledger's Joker.  Part of me fears a great deal for The Dark Knight Rises.  It's a threequel trying to follow in the footsteps of a celebrated sequel.  See: The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, X2: X-Men United, Spider-Man 2, Blade II...But this is Nolan.  He's triumphed over his own reputation before.  He's made a career of subverting expectations.

Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Yes, there was a second Punisher.  Yes, there was a second Ghost Rider.  Move along.

The Spirit (2008)
This was actually Frank Miller making a movie out of his chief inspiration, Will Eisner, thanks to the success of Sin City.  I loved it, most people didn't.  Well, it's a movie based on a pulp character.  What did you expect?

Whiteout (2009)
Basically the same deal as 30 Days of Night.  Basically exactly the same.

Watchmen (2009)
Based on an Alan Moore comic, but you already knew that.  The failure of this one actually hurt me.  But I guess in time I've come to realize that its similarities to The Dark Knight meant that it could do nothing but fail, because audiences didn't embrace The Dark Knight because it was a comic book movie, but because it transcended them.  Watchmen is the quintessential comic book movie (and comic).  It doesn't fit in with the Marvel movie trend, and outside of that, it's really hard to be relevant these days, because that's now what audiences think of in this genre.  Iron Man succeeded because it booted up a franchise.  The Incredible Hulk failed because it was assumed to be just another monster movie.  Watchmen failed because it assumed people actually wanted to see good comic book movies.  Yes, I love this movie.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
The decade ends on what was supposed to be a hopeful note.  After all, Hugh Jackman was finally starring in his own Wolverine movie!  Ah, try five years too late, buddy.  Iron Man changed a lot of things.  As we all know now, the strategy to build a franchise from the ground up worked really well.  Making a Wolverine movie at the dawn of this new era was like trying to do one last Superman after the third one flopped, and this metaphor is more apt, considering the last X-Men flick was poorly received.  I guess it doesn't really help to tell an origin for a character best known for being dangerous, not growing more tame.

Coming tomorrow: a new decade of destruction!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

#424. Comic Book Movie Chronicle, Part 3

The new millennium started with a bang and never really let go, as far as comic book movies go.  It was the dawn of the Marvel Age...Well, anyway, let's just dig in!

X-Men  (2000)
After a rough start and near extinction, the X-Men became one of the most popular and profitable franchises in comic book history, so it's no surprise that when Marvel finally got around to making a strong push at movies, they were the stars.  It's no wonder, really, because for years the company has built its reputation on characters that're supposed to be relatable, and a bunch of outcasts trying to make their way in the worlds, whether blacks or homosexuals, or mutants, stood a good chance of being noticed with or without superpowers.  Of course, the success of X-Men came in large part to the unexpected breakout status of Hugh Jackman, who redefined Wolverine as more than just indestructibly awesome, but downright cool, so that he's actually gotten his own spinoff franchise (the reverse of the Avengers approach, but something maybe the Hulk won't find unfamiliar).  Toss in a phenomenal cast around him, and you've got something that's more than superheroes, and that's exactly what comic book movies have been needing.  This changes everything.

Unbreakable (2000)
Still known as the second movie in M. Night Shyamalan's increasingly disappointing career after The Sixth Sense, this one's also one of the most innovative and striking superhero movies ever made, an origin story that cleverly plays with all the regular tropes of the genre.  Perhaps at some point fans will figure out what Shyamalan has been doing with his career, and stop overlooking gems like this.

Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
How many people even remember this movie was made?  Basically capitalizing on the then-budding youth surge in entertainment, it's an adaptation of an obscure Archie Comics property that seeks to expand the scope of what comic book movies can be.  On that score, it's a wild success.  No, I have not seen it.

From Hell (2001)
Just as two decades earlier Hollywood fell in love with Stephen King, this marks the beginning of its love affair with Alan Moore.  Actually, stalking might be more like it, because Moore has never been happy about any of it, even though his work helped expand both in comics and in movies the kinds of stories fans were willing to accept.  This one's based on Jack the Ripper, by the way.

Ghost World (2001)
Here's the real transition mark, wherein Hollywood and the independent movie scene finally cross paths.  Critics adored this adaptation and helped give the whole genre a gloss of respectibility.

Monkeybone (2001)
This is pretty much the opposite of Ghost World.  I still want to see it.  I'm willing to bet that if Tim Burton had been involved, people might actually remember this movie today.

Blade II (2002)
Without this movie, Blade would probably have been quickly forgotten (or relegated to direct-to-video sequels, rather than a third movie and a short-lived TV show).  Ah, and also, without it, we likely wouldn't have Guillermo del Toro, who went on to direct the Hellboy movies and Pan's Labyrinth.  Anyway, hugely influential, helped increase Marvel's movie cache, what else can you want?

Men in Black II (2002)
Clearly a major success that at this point had no relevant connection to comic books anymore, the Men in Black franchise now rests entirely on the shoulders of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, but it still technically counts.

Spider-Man (2002)
This is the mark of explosion for modern superhero movies.  Until this point, Spider-Man was not really technically possible.  Oh, sure, he'd been on TV, but no one really likes to think about that.  With the dawn of digital art as a regular canvas for films to draw from, Spidey's adventures webslinging across New York City themselves became a huge draw, and it became easier to believe that a superhero could be real.  That's the true distinction that's resulted in the explosion that continues to this day.

Road to Perdition (2002)
Tom Hanks did a comic book movie.  No, really!  (I'm sure, he's done drag and a toy cowboy, but c'mon, this still has to count as cool!)  This is a gangster movie about family, and is doused in great acting and cinematography, but it's also based on a comic book.  Anyone still doubting the versatility of the medium no longer had a leg to stand on.  Now if we can only get people to remember this movie exists...

Daredevil (2003)
Believe it or not, but at the time, this movie but not a member of the black sheep of Marvel movie adventures.  Ben Affleck took a steep fall not so long after, and Jennifer Garner's Elektra spinoff tanked, but at the time, small scale superheroes still worked.  Of course, notably, small scale has never worked again.  Audiences began demanding epics, and Daredevil is simply not an epic kind of guy.  There are two cuts of this movie, and both are worth enjoying.  Based almost completely on actual comic book stories, the famous Frank Miller tales, by the way, and so counts as the dawn of the geek era (well, this and the Lord of the Rings films), which has driven Hollywood pretty hard ever since.

X2: X-Men United (2003)
Considered the best of the X-Men movies until First Class came along, this one helped set the precedent of creator control in these affairs, with Bryan Singer keeping a steady hand on the tiller, something that could not be said for the third flick.  What it really accomplished, though, was the idea of a working, popular film franchise, the first since Batman fizzled last decade.

Hulk (2003)
The whole concept of the Incredible Hulk is basically the comic book version of the classic monster genre Hollywood perfected in its golden age, and for two films, Hollywood tried to keep Hulk exactly in that mold.  The first attempt came with impressive pedigree, directed by Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana, but aside from a few attempts to give the movie a true comic book feel, it was a little too pretentious for most fans, who loved to see Hulk smash, just not in this way.  Actually, this movie still basically stands as the exact basis for the entire Avengers franchise, especially in the storytelling.  It only lacks appreciation, on any level.  The problem is that while audiences were primed for superhero movies as a regular genre of filmmaking, they weren't yet prepared to embrace it without reservation.  They'd been burned before.  Who was to say it wouldn't happen again?  It was the skeptic that prevented Hulk from being anything more than a monster movie.  And the lack of Nick Fury.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Another Alan Moore movie, and ironically almost the exact template for The Avengers, released ten years later.  Moore believed it was interesting to mash-up existing literary creations.  Van Helsing believed it was interesting to mash-up existing monster creations.  Anyway, neither experiment found a willing audience.  The Avengers found another way to corner that market.  LXG deserves more credit and more respect, especially as it was Sean Connery's last movie, his last starring vehicle, and like I said, exactly the same movie as the one that has become one of the most popular movies ever.

American Splendor (2003)
This is the story of Harvey Pekar, starring Paul Giamatti, an unlikely pairing for success, consider that to this point neither had really had any.  Pekar was the kind of independent comics, Giamatti was the best unrecognized actor of his generation.  Somehow combining them boosted both their fortunes.  This was the zenith of the critical approval of comic book movies.  Somehow there hasn't been another movie like it since.  I guess it only figures.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)
Based more on a series of cult comic book mash-ups than either of the movie franchises from which they derive (I omit the second one because it then becomes more about movies again than comics), this one helped make a number of things possible.  The Aliens franchise had been run into the ground, and the Predator films had been neglected for years.  The improbable union brought both back to levels where new things could happen again, so eventually we get both Predators and Prometheus.  Thank you, comic books.

Hellboy (2004)
Hellboy is a cult favorite among comic book fans, but to mass audiences he's still pretty obscure, so that making a movie out of him was a fairly standard move on Hollywood's part.  What no one expected was for Guillermo del Toro to add his particular style to the proceedings.  This is not a serious franchise, but it's pretty epic.  The film series isn't wildly popular, but it's certainly distinctive, like a new Ghostbusters.  Plus, how else does Ron Perlman become a bona fide movie star?

The Punisher (2004)
I think Marvel started making these movies because they thought they could have either another Blade or perhaps another Daredevil on their hands.  Punisher is probably more of a Blade than a Daredevil, considering you don't even need to know or care about his comic book appearances to accept him as a viable (and somewhat familiar) cinematic character.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Notice that there's a lot more movies based on Marvel characters than DC at this time?  That's because Marvel has captured the moment, and the popular imagination, and it really doesn't hurt to have a character so eminently ready to command the moment.  This one's generally considered to be the best Spider-Man movie so far.

The Incredibles (2004)
Computer animation giant Pixar got into the game with this loose adaptation of the Fantastic Four, depicting a world where superheroes have been outlawed, and so everything about them must be rebuilt from the ground up.  This is a deconstruction of the genre, at a point where superheroes are starting to be taken seriously, and so a key moment in the ongoing phenomenon.  I'm not actually a big fan of the movie.  Pixar tends to gloss over some of its movies, and this is one that could've been better.  Not to be sacrilegious or anything, but it's no Megamind.

Catwoman (2004)
Almost everyone considers Halle Berry's Catwoman to be a black sheep (or cat, as it were) of the genre, but it makes perfect sense to the period.  Hollywood still hadn't figured out how to reliably interpret the instincts of either its target audience or the potential mass audience around it.  DC movies had petered out, everyone was falling all over themselves to reboot Superman and Batman, who had dominated the genre for decades, and it was still considered a safe bet to try and bring superheroes to earthly proportions.  Catwoman is a mash-up of instincts (Hollywood is a town of entrenched instincts) that didn't ring true, not the least being that the central character was reinterpreted and made out to be a good guy, rather than a bad girl.  You can't start something new in this genre and expect it to be taken lightly.

Blade: Trinity (2004)
The cult series that ushered the Marvel movie era comes to a close and has basically been forgotten, which is a shame.  This probably happened because other Marvel movies met with far greater success, so the definition of cult hit took on a dramatic curve into the mainstream.

Constantine (2005)
This is better known as a Keanu Reeves movie than the DC adults imprint Vertigo series on which it is based.  Otherwise this might be considered the DC answer to Blade.  A little late, guys.

Elektra (2005)
Probably thanks to Catwoman, and the lack of any overt connection to Daredevil, audiences were primed to ridicule this one from the start.  I still consider this to be a crying shame.  But it probably helps explain why that first solo Wolverine outing basically failed.

Son of the Mask (2005)
Okay, so maybe this is why nobody is reading Mask comics today.

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005)
Ladies and gentlemen, witness the secret origin of Taylor Lautner!  This is also one of Robert Rodriguez's many attempts to make kid movies starring kids, but it's also a sign that Hollywood was willing to start creating some of its own stuff again.

Sin City (2005)
Rodriquez makes his Pulp Fiction based on Frank Miller material.  Outside of Alan Moore, no comic book creator is more of an influence on Hollywood than Miller.  This is one of my personal favorites.

Batman Begins  (2005)
Christopher Nolan revamps the playing field with a dark, serious, cinematic, epic vision of an established comic book and movie franchise.  This is the alternative that Marvel is still playing against, though The Amazing Spider-Man looks to have taken its cue directly from Nolan.  What this means, and what still has yet to play out, is that superhero movies don't need to be interpreted as superhero movies anymore.

Fantastic Four (2005)
The complete opposite of Batman Begins and something that was potentially an ongoing franchise until Marvel launched its Avengers initiative, takes comic book superheroes pretty much at face value, really isn't so different from the Spider-Man movies, yet somehow doesn't get any love these days.  Not great, but not terrible, either.

Sky High (2005)
Taking superheroes back to Hollywood's comfort zone.  It's okay if you haven't heard of this one.

A History of Violence (2005)
The last movie to date that attempts to take serious comic book material as serious drama, in the tradition of Road to Perdition kind of fell on deaf ears (possibly because it's a little full of itself).

V for Vendetta (2005)
Another movie based on Alan Moore's work!  This one probably features the most improbable superhero costume ever committed to film (the Guy Fawkes mask!  the terrible wig!), and the most alliterative dialogue ever, a message movie disguised as a superhero movie disguised as a comic book move!  These were good times.  Many things would change.

Next: more from the first decade of the millennium!

Monday, June 11, 2012

#423. Comic Book Movie Chronicle, Part 2

There seems to have been some confusion following the first installment of this series.  I promise you, after this one, there won't be.  Here's my continuing examination of movies based on comic books, this time from the 1990s:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Sometimes it can be hard to remember that the Ninja Turtles originated (and still star) in comic books, partly because they were one of the earliest and most successful creations of the modern indy scene, and because it's become just as easy to think of them as stars of movies and cartoons as the printed version only true fans will be able to find in the first place.  Anyway, so yes, the Ninja Turtles helped kick off the modern era of comic book movies, starring in the first release after Tim Burton's Batman, spawning a franchise that continues to this day (in case you weren't aware, that'd be Michael Bay taking a fresh crack at the Heroes in a Halfshell).  For the record, even though it's a tad dated today, this entry is still awesome.

Dick Tracy (1990)
Perhaps more of a comic strip movie than a comic book movie, this one's perhaps better known as a Warren Beatty vehicle than anything, even though it's incredibly awesome, like the Sin City of its day (or perhaps more accurately, The Spirit), featuring a whole rogues gallery of foes working together against our hero.  It surprises me that both this movie and the character of Dick Tracy have basically been forgotten.  I'd read a Dick Tracy comic book, easily.

Darkman (1990)
Now, clearly, the folks at Hollywood reacted to Tim Burton's Batman more as if it was inspired by the pulp adventures of yore than the camp nature of the Adam West version, or even Christopher Reeve's Superman.  Sam Raimi's first superhero effort is still something I've never experienced myself, even though it stars Liam Neeson (before he became known as an auteur, mentor figure, or action star), but clearly fits into the mold of what people were then thinking about superheroes at the movies.

Captain America (1990)
It's like Marvel tried to capitalize on both Batman and Superman at the same time (when you think about it, that's exactly what the character is), and in this incarnation couldn't figure it out.  Took another decade before the company tried it again.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Hey, the Turtles were huge!  And like Marvel would later do, their producers struck while the iron was hot.

The Rocketeer (1991)
Just like Darkman, another of the early comic book movies from this era was a counterfeit piece of nostalgia.  While everything about it seems to indicate The Rocketeer comes from the serial days of Hollywood, at this point the comic book on which it was based was only ten years old (and even more obscure today than the Ninja Turtles).  This is another lost treasure, but probably not surprisingly so, considering Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and John Carter failed with similar gimmicks.

Batman Returns (1992)
It's no surprise to modern audiences that Tim Burton loves to go Gothic, and there were certainly traces of that in his first Batman effort (and not to mention Edward Scissorhands), but the inclination was incredibly thick and unexpected here.  It's an awesome movie, but it doesn't have a ton of Batman in it (Michael Keaton was always surprisingly inert in the role, and it wasn't just because he was encased in unyielding rubber).

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
The Turtles leave the city, which is the most iconic thing about them, in this movie, turning Japanese and losing the popular zeitgeist.  If you've seen these movies, you know that it takes a stretch of the imagination to accept the Turtles as plausible in the first place, not hard for kids to do, sure, but maybe harder when they're taken out of their element and thrust into a more realistic setting for their gimmick.  And actually, I haven't seen this one yet.  I'm assuming.

The Meteor Man (1993)
There was a movie I chose to skip over in my earlier survey, Condorman, which is so obscure today I'd never heard of it, or at least never even came close to seeing it.  Meteor Man was basically the Condorman of its day, starring Robert Townsend as a black superhero, played for laughs, but basically an attempt to create an original superhero for the big screen, which happens less often than you'd think.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Fans tend to forget that perhaps it was easier for Warner Bros. to let the films go in a different direction after Batman Returns because suddenly they had a huge TV hit on their hands, a series so popular it spawned a whole franchise.  I'm talking about the Bruce Timm version of Batman, which like the Adam West Batman improbably got a theatrical version, which is a little obscure today but at the time was enthusiastically embraced, at least at a critical level.

The Crow (1994)
Best known today as the film in which Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, died during production, The Crow was another movie based on an obscure comic book, and was clearly inspired by the success of Tim Burton's vision of Batman.  Who knows how this franchise might have evolved had fate been a little kinder to the Lee family?

The Shadow (1994)
Ah, so Hollywood finally figured out that maybe trying out some actual pulp heroes might work better.  Of course, by this point it was far too late.  Film audiences wanted something a little more sensational.

The Mask (1994)
Based on another obscure comic book, Jim Carrey's career shot off like a rocket thanks to the CGI effects that stretched him into an actual cartoon.  It's weird that this is a franchise that has been basically forgotten, especially considering that it's the comic books that really dropped the ball.

Batman Forever (1995)
After the increasingly tepid response to superheroes and the wild success of The Mask, is it any wonder that someone thought the solution was to combine Batman with Jim Carrey, basically reviving the Adam West version of the franchise?  It wasn't such a stretch, considering Tim Burton had already made his villains such outsize personalities.  Joel Schumacher basically reshaped everything else around that core concept, dragging everything into a more modern setting, which basically helped prime audiences for all those movies based on Marvel characters.  If you really think about it, just because fans didn't think it worked with Batman, it clearly doesn't mean that they didn't think it worked with, say Iron Man.  And so, yes, thank you, Joel Schumacher.

Judge Dredd (1995)
Sylvester Stallone was at a point in his career where he tried any and everything to connect with audiences again.  This was not the only movie of its kind that he did during this period, but it's the only one with superheroes.  The extremely odd thing is that Judge Dredd is a British creation.  Even the British don't seem to realize this.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
Bet you don't often think of the Power Rangers as superheroes.  They basically are.  Someone figured out that kids love superheroes, and made this happen.

Tank Girl (1995)
I assume that someone started wondering where all the female comic book characters were, and someone came up with this obscure punk creation and made a movie out of her.  Even the movie is obscure today, but it happened, and at some point, someone will remember.

Barb Wire (1996)
At this point in pop culture history, someone was also trying to revive the concept of the bombshell as culturally relevant, and so Pamela Anderson happened, and so did this movie, based on another obscure comic book.  Does anyone get the sense that Hollywood really liked obscure comic books?  Perhaps they were easier to film, because their scope is quite a bit different than, say, just about any mainstream comic book.  At the time.

The Phantom (1996)
It's perhaps no coincidence that a lot of these movies don't actually feature superheroes in traditional costumes, because it's something that's always hard to translate from the page to the screen.  The Phantom features someone in a costume, and it's also another pulp recreation.  I like it because it's also a direct precursor to The Mask of Zorro.  But yeah, it shared the same fate as every other comic book movie at the time.  Audiences just didn't care.

The Crow: City of Angels (1996)
Someone else was curious to find out if Brandon Lee was the only reason anyone cared about The Crow.  It took more than this movie to discover that he basically was.

Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie (1997)
If it weren't for the fact that the Power Rangers are actually still chugging along in their latest reincarnation from the same basic mold, this is a franchise that could use a reboot and might actually be worth it.

Men in Black (1997)
You'll never guess this, but Hollywood found another obscure comic book and made a movie out of it.  Even though the film franchise has become something of an institution thanks to the uncanny chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, no one has thought to bring the comic books back (possibly because there really is no relation between the two).  Still, Men in Black is perhaps the film that finally broke the spell, the funk, the genre had been mired in throughout the decade.  It made it okay to look for less traditional properties to adapt, and that's exactly what started happening.

Batman & Robin (1997)
There were a few sacrificial lambs before the new era officially began, however.  The first was Joel Schumacher's second and definitely last crack at Batman, in which he takes his impulses to their most obvious conclusions.  If he'd done this movie with any other franchise, it would not be a punchline today.

Spawn (1997)
Those who remember the comic book boom of the decade have strong memories of the impact Image left on the industry, like an entirely new beginning to the superhero phenomenon.  Hollywood believed the same thing, and thus Spawn happened.  It never happened again.

Steel (1997)
Like Supergirl all over again, a miscalculation that deserved a better fate than it got.  But I'd argue that it's the last necessary link between what superhero movies were this decade and what they'd become the next.

Blade (1998)
The complete opposite of Schumacher's Batman initiated a whole subgenre of black leather and trenchcoat antiheroes and was the first success based on a Marvel creation, not to mention tellingly a cult hit based on a character so obscure he is still obscure today even after gaining a film franchise.  This one is the last link needed in the chain begun by Men in Black and Steel, all featuring black lead characters.  Well, it's not as if Hollywood could possibly be ungrateful about that particular fact, right?

Mystery Men (1999)
Because superheroes were still a punchline, the decade closed out with a comedy that was like a last gasp for everything audiences might have thought of the genre to this point.  It's also based on an obscure comic book.

Coming up next: the first barrage of the 2000s!

Friday, June 08, 2012

#422. Comic Book Movie Chronicle, Part 1

I like movies.  Perhaps there's no more clear statement to make than that.  Because of that, I like a lot of movies, and maybe there's not a clearer statement to make about that, either.  I like a wide variety of movies.  Is that more clear?  Movies offer a wide variety of storytelling, and storytelling is definitely something I'm interested in.  Breaking this down by genre could take a long time, so at the moment, I'm going to stick with movies based on and inspired by comic books.  There was a time where there weren't a lot of those.  I like to refer to this period as prior to 1990.  I'm going to try and explore these movies, and try and explain my relationship with them...

Superman and the Mole Man (1951)
Basically the pilot of The Adventures of Supeman, this was the first modern superhero movie (there was a tradition of movie serials previous to this, but I've decided against including those in this review), and stars George Reeves (whose fate is chronicled in the excellent Hollywoodland), the father of modern superhero acting. 

Batman (1966)
Originally intended to be a sort of theatrical pilot to the infamous Adam West TV series, but was instead held off until the end of the show's first season, this is probably as good a sample as anything to what that experience was all about.

Superman (1978)
Thanks to Star Wars, a lot of what we know today as modern cinema was possible, including superhero movies, famously ushered by Christopher Reeve, who made audiences believe a man could fly.  Still essential viewing to this day.

Superman II (1980)
Where the first one made Superman a viable movie franchise, the second one made Superman a movie legend, thanks in large part to "Kneel before Zod!"  Better than the original, and even better in Richard Donner's later director's cut.

Superman III (1983)
Many fans scoff at this movie today, but there's so many prescient elements to its production, mirroring what Hollywood would do with superhero movies on a ridiculously regular basis.  This was only five years into the superhero era, and there had only been three movies, all of them featuring Superman.  Someone figured that maybe mixing it with another genre would help retain the viewing public's interest.  (Remember this idea.)  Anyway, so Superman meets Richard Pryor (this was not such a wild idea; only three years later Eddie Murphy was supposed to meet Captain Kirk in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).  It's essentially two movies in one: the inner struggle of Superman to match his own ideals, and a Richard Pryor movie.  Now, I still haven't seen too many Richard Pryor movies, but I liked this one.  And I also liked the Superman movie.  This one receives a bad rap because it's basically incomprehensible if you can't multitask.  I guess it takes a certain perspective for it to make any sense.

Supergirl (1984)
Well, what if you make Superman a chick?  Basically it's exactly that.

Howard the Duck (1986)
Known today as the infamous George Lucas bomb, it's also based on a Steve Gerber character.  At some point Howard will get a shot at redemption.  The sad part is that this really isn't different from other movies released at the time.  It was that kind of decade.  (Please note that for future purposes as well.)

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Honestly, I think people don't like this one even today because people at the time were tired of trying to care about something that hadn't really been relevant in nearly a decade.  It's not that bad a movie.

Batman (1989)
Sweet redemption at last, like the second coming of Superman, a fresh take that seems to transcend the genre (make note of that, too), even though fans feared at the time that every single decision that could be made poorly was indeed made poorly.  Tim Burton, Michael Keaton, and Jack Nicholson instead achieve the impossible, turning the Dark Knight very dark indeed, and come up with a movie fans would still be talking about today if someone hadn't come along and done it even better.  Anyone who wants to know what Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire may be looking at might start here.

Up next: the absurdly adventurous '90s.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

#421. Excerpt from The Cloak of Shrouded Men

I self-published The Cloak of Shrouded Men in 2007 after having written its three acts during NaNoWriMo from 2004-06.  The evolution of the story can be traced backward here, but the short version of it is that it features Cotton Colinaude, a native of Maine who found his way to Traverse, AL, where he became the vigilante known as the Eidolon (a word meaning phantom or ideal, and is also associated with idol; and is in fact pronounced pretty much like that).  The first act deals with the influences on his career, both the ones that shaped it and the ones that eventually tear it apart.  The second act is about the rebuilding process, and the third is about tearing it down again, in the hope of finally getting it right.  It's metaphysical and hard-hitting and deeply personal, but it's a lot more like Watchmen or The Dark Knight than it is The Avengers.

Some of the writers I was influenced by at the time included Mark Waid (who went a long way to dominating my comic book experience to that point in his brilliant work on The Flash, including the seminal Return of Barry Allen arc which has less to do with Barry Allen and more to do with Wally West) and Herman Melville (thanks to The Confidence-Man), though my spheres of influence widened by the later installments, heavily falling on Oliver Stone's Alexander and the Trojan War, for instance, as well as the Bhagavad Gita.

So eventually I finished writing it, and had been planning to self-publish even before it was concluded, and so that's what I did.  It was originally going to be called The Heroic Ideal, but I settled on the more ambiguous Cloak of Shrouded Men, with a slightly more evocative-for-the-genre Escapades of the Eidolon, Cotton Colinaude subtitle, because it caught the mood of the story better.  The problems I caught after publication I didn't anticipate, and that was my inability, and the publisher's disinterest in helping, to catch all the grammatical errors.  It's something that still haunts me, and is one of the reasons why I've been cautious since then and certainly less interested in the self-publishing route that has actually become increasingly popular in recent years (it's a good bet that most of the people who will read this have at least contemplated if not done it already), especially on the digital front.

Some writers say the first book is a learning experience that may be better left tucked away.  I'm proud of what I accomplished in Cloak of Shrouded Men.  It's exactly the statement on superheroes that I hoped it to be, the flipside of every adventure where the hero somehow gets over their latest traumatic event and moves on and generally does not experience any growth or ramifications from their actions, and not just in characters written by many writers, but even those envisioned by a single creator.  The Dark Knight had not happened yet.  Even Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns refuses to offer definitive consequences.  Batman becomes a legend.  Even Alan Moore's Watchmen is ambiguous.  The Eidolon definitely reaches a conclusion by the end of the book.  It's only his future, and his own understanding of it, that remains a mystery, but there are mirror characters in the story that suggest where he might be headed, because they've already shared this fate.

Anyway, even though the whole thing in its original form is still available on the Internet, here's an excerpt:

“I bid you clear waters,” Godsend said.  Once again, he was gone, as if he was never there.  If anything had ever bonded the Terrific Tandem immutably together, it had been their mutual defiance of reality, of the senses.  There were senses now Colinaude wished he didn’t have.  His last task before the Cad was to visit Cassie.  After having dropped her off here originally, he had made the journey to the Traverse Tracks building, where he made one last tarry with Peter Cooley’s office.  There on his desk was Hopper’s paper, the one that had told Cooley everything he already knew, in considerably greater detail.  Colinaude thought about how he had needed to work at retrieving Hopper’s notes in a new copy after leaving that one behind, discovering all the Cad’s appointments for himself, not needing Cooley after all.  Perhaps he never had.  Perhaps Cooley had never even decoded Hopper’s work.  Perhaps, in the end, Cooley had never helped Colinaude at all.
     It was an unpleasant thought.  Colinaude had searched the rest of Cooley’s office, finding in a locked drawer the photos he would give Godsend, the only evidence that there was more to Cooley than met the eye.  Had Colinaude not trusted Cooley, if he had made this sweep before and discovered these photos, he might have saved himself heartache.  It was probably the reason the photos were there to begin with.  Cooley had wanted him to find them, to learn the truth earlier.  It had been a test; one of many Colinaude had failed.
     Returning to the roof of the hospital after retrieving from No.33 Cobb Lane the beacon, he knew he had left Cassie alone for a very long time.  He knew every word he spoke with Godsend only delayed longer his return to her side.  He was afraid to see her again, as if the ghost of the Cotton from Stonewine Alley would be waiting instead of a broken woman who had trusted in him, believed in him.
     He entered the sliding doors, still clad as the Eidolon, and struggled wordlessly for a moment with the desk clerk before striding past her directly to Cassie’s room.  He hesitated at the door, and then pushed in.  A solitary pulse greeted him, the only sign of life, a monotonous mockery of it.  Colinaude broke down, removed his goggles, his mask, and collapsed on the bed beside her.  For a long time, he didn’t move, didn’t breath, and didn’t think.  He couldn’t bear to.  Something stirred, however.  It was Cassie.  She lifted an arm punctured with an intravenous unit and rested it again on Colinaude.
     “Hey,” she said.
     He struggled to look up, to look at her.  “Hey,” he replied in turn.  “Left you in a bit of dire straits, I’m afraid.”
     “It was bound to happen,” she said.  “I think I was owed it.  Something you delayed.”


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