Saturday, September 01, 2007

Fall Movie Preview 2007

It's September and I can feel a chill in the air that's been absent for months. Fall is nearly upon us and with it will hopefully come some halfway decent movies. I didn't see too many movies this summer, and the ones I saw weren't particularly gripping. When you've got the choice between watching a John From Cincinnati or seeing a crappy blockbuster or decent indie movie, it's not much of a choice. But, there's a lot of promising stuff coming up, let's delve in.

September 7
Shoot 'Em Up - Bellucci, Giamatti and Clive Owen in one movie is quite a cast. Putting them all in an absurdly over the top piece of two guns action excess has me very interested. I'm hoping this is to action movies what Beyond The Valley of the Dolls is to melodrama. Either way, if Monica's in the movie, there's some guaranteed visual magnificence.

September 14
Eastern Promises - I'm not a huge Cronenberg fan, but I like him enough to take a look at anything he puts out, and the combo of Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel is hard to top. A History of Violence was brilliant and this seems to travel in the same territory. I hope it gets into a bit more of the craziness that infused his early work. Crash in particular was a great example of fusing really bizarre concepts with an essentially real world setting.

Across the Universe - This extremely troubled Beatles musical is probably going to have some cringeworthy moments, but like Moulin Rouge, I'm guessing it will also have some awe inspiring ones. Evan Rachel Wood is one of the best young actresses out there, and I have a soft spot for musicals. Plus, with Beatles songs, you know the music's going to be good. If nothing else, it'll have a strong camp classic value. I'm really looking forward to this one.

September 21
The Assassination of Jesse James by That Coward Robert Ford - I'm hearing this one is a Malicky, moody story and that has me interested. Now, that could result in this being a great movie or it could make it just a boring one, which is what I guess most people will call it. But, if the reviews are decent, I'll give it a look.

September 28
Lust, Caution - Tony Leung alone makes any movie worth a look, but teamed with Ang Lee and it's a must see. The NC-17 rating is getting all the buzz, and hopefully that won't obscure the film's actual merits. Brokeback was fantastic, and I even liked Hulk, so I'm confident Ang will drop another good one. It's probably the closest thing we'll get to a Wong Kar-Wai film this year considering the absence of a release date for My Blueberry Nights.

The Kingdom - It's produced by Michael Mann, and looks like a lot of his films. Director Peter Berg also directed the amazing Friday Night Lights pilot, so he's got a lot of good will from me. If reviews are strong, I'll give it a look in the theater.

The Darjeeling Limited - Wes Anderson's films are always unique and a joy to watch, I'll see anything he does and this is no exception. I think The Life Aquatic was a bit unfocused, hopefully this one will branch out of his comfort zone and push him a bit. But, even if it doesn't, it should be worthwhile viewing.

Blade Runner: The Definitive Final Cut - It's one of my top five movies all time, so I'm both excited and nervous about the new cut. There are a few issues that could use resolving, but hopefully it won't go too far. Either way the five disc set will have every possible version of the movie anyone could want. But, I'm hoping to see the movie earlier then that, at the New York Film Festival.

I'm Not There - Probably my most anticipated movie of the Fall. Haynes's two best films are his musician biopics, and this one seems to be just as crazy as Velvet Goldmine. I'm not a big fan of Dylan, but the audacity of the concept and Haynes's guiding hand should smooth that over. There are only a few directors as exciting as him working today and I can't wait to see this movie.

November 2
American Gangster - Ridley's obviously got some filmmaking chops, and the trailer for this one looks great. The 70s is always a good setting for a film, and the Vietnam themed plot will have some resonance with today. Plus, that's a pretty badass poster, well played marketing department.

November 9
No Country for Old Men - Buzz on this one is really strong, hopefully it'll mark the Coens' bounce back after a couple of weak films. It'll be good to see Tommy Lee Jones back in a serious role after indignities like Man of the House.

Southland Tales - I've heard the bad buzz out of Cannes, but the comments make me only want to see this thing even more. It sounds like the biggest, messiest movie to come along in a while, but just take a look at the cast list, are you expecting some traditional? Kelly's Donnie Darko was one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time, but his instincts in crafting the director's cut were way off. Hopefully this is more on mark, and hopefully the re-editing haven't smoothed off all the crazy edges.

November 16
Margot at the Wedding - Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale was raw and full of energy, a brilliant film, so I'm eager to see this one. The cast is great and the trailer was pretty good, so I'm down.

December 14
I Am Legend - I always enjoy a good post apocalyptic world, so if this one gets decent reviews, I'm there. The buzz is pretty solid, so it should work out well. Either way, I've heard the shoot in New York shut down many streets and had a ton of wrecked cars, so it should be full of nice scenery.

Juno - Jason Bateman and Michael Cera back together! With Ellen Page and Jennifer Garner! The cast doesn't stop and Jason Reitman is coming off great work on last year's Thank You For Smoking. Hopefully this will top the year off with another really strong comedy. Either way, Michael and George Michael Bluth together, that's a must see.

Youth Without Youth - Francis Ford Coppola returns to directing with his "student film." He said "I was so excited to discover, in this tale by Eliade, the key themes that I most hope to understand better: time, consciousness and the dream-like basis of reality. " I'm sold.

December 21
Sweeney Todd - Burton's been working towards a musical for years and now he's finally doing a full blown adaptation of one. Hopefully this will bring back the mad darkness that made 1988-1994 such a strong period for him. The visuals look appropriately crazy, and Depp in the title role should be a joy. This is the most exciting Burton project in a long time.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - The sight of John C. Reilly in disco gear sold in the trailer sold me on the film. But, this generation spanning musical humor is right up my alley. Music always makes things funnier and the formula sincerity of recent musical biopics is ripe for parody.

December 26
There Will Be Blood - Finally, Paul Thomas Anderson is back with a new film. It's been five years and I'm hoping this one will return to the visual grandeur of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Anderson is one of the best directors in the world today and I'll see anything he does. I can't say I'm thrilled about the subject matter, but I trust him to deliver something great.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

X-Factor: Fall of the Mutants

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first volume of Essential X-Factor. It was full of the personal drama and character turmoil that made Claremont’s X-Men a compulsively readable series. However, after finishing the X-Factor segment of Fall of the Mutants, I’m decidedly disappointed with the direction of the series. There are some glimmers of hope, but right now, it’s at a very weak place.

For X-Men, Fall of the Mutants was the glorious climax of Claremont’s run, a reaffirmation of the series’ central themes and a perfect finale to the story Claremont had started telling way back in X-Men #94. It was full of really emotional moments and incredible tension, some of the best writing of his entire run. However, over in X-Factor we’ve got essentially one long, near impossible to follow action sequence tracing X-Factor’s battle against Apocalypse and their former friend Warren, now reborn as Apocalypse’s Angel of Death.

The key to Claremont’s X-Men, and its stylistic children like Joss Whedon’s Buffy, was the use of action sequences to play out emotional drama. The characters’ lives are rarely threatened in a serious way, so we need to have emotional stakes to the drama. The rebirth of Angel was an attempt to do this, but it just doesn’t play in any meaningful way. One issue is the black and white reprints, which diminish the drama of his blue transition.

However, a bigger issue is the fact that the Angel we see here has virtually no connection with the Angel from earlier in the series. He doesn’t attack the characters on an emotional level, like Dark Phoenix, he is just a villain who happens to be the guy they used to know. At the end, they manage to turn Warren back to good, but it’s done in such an easy way, there’s no emotional price. Claremont knew you need to put the characters through hell to make their victories mean anything, here we get a bunch of action scenes, then X-Factor gets a ticker tape parade. It’s not earned, and as such, it feels false.

The major problem with the series is that of the core cast, only Scott and Jean are interesting character. Beast and Iceman remain essentially blank, and Beast’s declining intelligence plot is just forced drama. It never feels real. The kids are more entertaining than that bunch, but they’re absent for the entire crossover. The whole thing is essentially a real time action sequence spread out over three issues, with no breather. It’s in those moments between the battle that you get to know the characters, when you see the people on the edge, facing death, but committed to each other. That’s what I remember from the X-Men side of Fall of the Mutants, the characters coming to terms with the fact that they are going to have to sacrifice themselves. That was the emotional part, the battle itself was almost an anticlimax.

The strength of early X-Factor was in the exploration of Scott’s conflicted feelings about Jean’s return, using the awful writing of the first few issues as a jumping off point for exploring Scott’s character. That stuff worked great, as did the material with the kids. But, most of the adult team remains frustratingly unengaging, and screentime with Beast and Iceman feels wasted.

Another issue is Walt Simonson’s art. It’s not necessarily bad, but it just doesn’t feel suited for black and white reproduction. The clear lines of a Byrne or Kirby look great in this format, but the muddle of Simonson’s art can make it difficult to distinguish between characters and determine emotion. The writing doesn’t help, with a lot of off panel dialogue and awkward panel structures.

But, the end of Fall of the Mutants does point the way to something better, Inferno. Scott sets off to find Maddy, and Jean must once again deal with her conflicted feelings about her return. Inferno was a crazy, over the top and brilliant crossover that essentially ended the golden era of the X-Men by clearing the major lingering plotlines away. It looks like Inferno picks up at the end of this book, so I could be due for a reread shortly.

Saving John From Cincinnati

I don't think it's too likely to happen, but I just wanted to throw a link over to the DumpOut Weekend, an effort to save the series from cancellation, or at least promote it to people who haven't seen it. As you've probably gathered from the blogging here, I love the show, and I'd definitely recommend giving it a look to anyone who hasn't seen it. And, as this letter from Jim Beaver makes clear, Milch did not abandon Deadwood to make the show, he wanted to do both, but Deadwood was cancelled and could not be saved despite his best efforts. So, don't blame the show for Deadwood's death, just be happy that both shows had the chance to exist. I'm still working my way through Deadwood's second season and while I really like the show, it's nowhere near JFC for me. But, I'd still love to see those movies, and hope they turn up eventually.

Anyway, here's the info:

There are so many great ideas out there about what to do to show HBO that we want another season of JFC. So no matter what you choose to do, or where, let's all do SOMETHING between Friday August 31- Tuesday Sept 4.

Postcards, teddy bears, 1's and 0's (paper, house numbers, etc.), petitions, letters, phone calls, protests, sit-ins, monad posters, fliers, billboards... whatever, all during the same period of time.

And advertise what you are doing... Call your local papers and news stations and let them know about your Dumping-Out BBQ in the parking lot; your best John Monad impersonator contest, your Monad teddy bears for needy children... you get the idea...


And please, let's be visible but kind. Some things I know... Save John From Cincinnati

From: Postcard Campaign

The Ever Expanding Spider-Man Narrative

I saw Superbad last night, a really hilarious movie, and another fantastic piece of work from the Apatow comedy machine. His recent run of films is virtually unparalleled in comedy history, both Knocked Up and Superbad had me laughing through the entire film, in a smart way, not the idiotic way of way too many mainstream comedies today.

But, Apatow’s films are symptomatic of a larger trend in films right now that’s gotten rather annoying. Grant Morrison talks a lot about superhero narratives as our modern myths, their archetypal journeys serving as templates for other narratives. Almost all superhero narratives hew pretty closely to the classic hero’s journey template, but there’s a world of difference between the Superman narrative and the Batman narrative. However, the narrative that’s dominating our culture right now is the Spiderman narrative. In almost all the mainstream movies I’ve seen this summer, with the ironic exception of the third Spiderman film, I’ve seen a replaying of the Spiderman origin story.

So, what is this story? Geeky guy wants attractive popular girl, but she’s in a relationship with a shallow attractive, popular guy. If only he could show her the real him, she’d fall in love with him and ditch that guy. Luckily, an inciting incident occurs that gives him the chance to prove his merit, and by the end of things, the geeky guy has proven himself worthy of the popular girl and won her affections. Adjust the details slightly and you’ve got the basic story of Knocked Up, Superbad, Stardust and various other contemporary movies.

There’s no problem with this narrative, it clearly has social resonance, there’s a reason that Spiderman was much more successful than Superman Returns at the box office, people want a hero they can relate to. However, I feel like the relating has crossed a line, and we’ve now reached the point where we’re glorifying the qualities that are actually these guys’ weaknesses, while at the same time reducing women to prizes to be won. The problem I have with the genre is that it’s always if only the pretty girl could see the real me, it’s never let me see something worthwhile in the girl who isn’t popular or pretty, but probably has a lot more depth.

It’s that element of the genre that makes it feel a lot like male fantasy. The female characters in Superbad have very little depth. While this is admittedly appropriate for the story they’re telling, it does reduce the characters’ entire motivation to I want to get with her because she’s hot. With Seth’s character in particular this was an issue. We’ve watched him do all kinds of awful selfish, but very funny and somewhat endearing things over the course of the film, but I don’t think we’ve seen any reason why Jules would actually want to be with him. It’s one thing to have this kind of logic gap in the McLovin storyline, but I felt like the Seth part of the film was meant to be a bit more reality based.

Knocked Up got a lot of criticism for similar issues, but I feel like that movie is actually a bit more honest about the incongruity of their relationship, and the entire film hinges on the fact that they really don’t belong together, but are put in this situation where they have to work together. Ultimately, that movie works because it engages in the drama of the situation, not just the fantasy of it. Superbad has much less emotional reality, it may be funnier, but it winds up playing as more of a fantasy, that you can have it all, not through sneaking it drunk, but through actual personal interaction.

Apatow’s work has always walked the line between hard edged reality and indulgent geek fantasy, never more so than in Freaks and Geeks. There, his guys hanging out milieu was balanced by Paul Feig’s dramatic sense. Never in the rest of Apatow’s work have we seen a female character anywhere near as well realized as Lindsay Weir. The more Apatow makes, the more it feels like he was mainly responsible for the lighter stuff on the show, mainly the geek side, while Feig lorded over the heavier dramatic stuff, particularly Lindsay’s arc.

I don’t think there’s a problem with having some films like this, where the schlubby guy is the hero and gets the girl, but I hope it doesn’t mean the disappearance of the ultra competent slick hero. Coming out of Star Wars, no one wanted to be like Luke Skywalker, the ultra sincere farmboy, they wanted to be like Han Solo, the badass morally ambiguous anti-hero. I’d much rather see heroes in the Han Solo mode, or the Batman mode, conflicted, uncertain, but always able to do the job. There’s more conflict there, and the characters have more agency. In Superbad, the characters ultimately don’t have to do anything to get what they want, they just had to show up. For me, it’s more interesting to wonder if an ambiguous character will choose to help someone than wonder whether a heroic character will be able to save someone.

Ultimately, both kind of heroes are a kind of wish fulfillment. One is presenting the audience as they are and showing them that it’s cool to be like that. The other is showing them what they could be. My taste in film runs towards the more out there and removed from reality. I like an emotionally real basis, but I’d rather see my world on screen through metaphors and surrealism than just straight up recreation. So, I don’t feel the need for the protagonist to be exactly like me. But, I guess a lot of people do, and that’s probably a big part of the success of a film like Superbad.

I think the change in type of hero is a big part of what soured a lot of people on the later years of Buffy. The first three seasons were all about wish fulfillment, taking these high school outsiders and showing that they were doing so much more than the popular kids. People complained that by season six the characters had become insiders, and the outsiders were the villains. I think that is a valid complaint, but it ignores the fact that the characters were much more interesting when removed from the strict social hierarchy of high school and placed into the nebulous “real world,” Buffy herself in particular.

Buffy began on the same journey as Spiderman, gifted with powers, uncertain how to deal with them, and constantly beset by troubles. By season six, she was on a much darker Batman style journey, identifying more with her enemies than the ‘normal life’ she once envied so. In general, TV allows for much more complex stories, and even something like the Sam/Cindy Sanders relationship on Freaks and Geeks had a harsh dose of reality, where the film would have ended with the clinch.

My favorite high school character in recent media was Claire from Six Feet Under, who dealt with the same issues as your classic geek characters, but actually had agency and an identity. She was the person she wanted to be, and just had to move on to a different social environment to get it.

So, I’m not sure there’s really a point here. I loved all the movies I’ve been criticizing here, it just bothers me that this fantasy is so prevalent for a number of reasons. One is I think it’s on some level pretty misogynistic, reducing women to an object to be one, and second, it’s just getting a bit tired. Let’s see a new narrative.