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We Love the City Posts

The Amazing Return of Art Adams

I love Art Adams’ work. He was drawing the occasional X-Men story when I started reading comics, and he made quite the impression: the New Mutants in Asgard, Mojo and the X-babies, and a nifty High Evolutionary story were quite entertaining in the age before annuals became a dumping ground for crossovers and sub-par fill-in teams. Unfotunately, Adams isn’t terribly prolific – he makes Frank Quitely and Bryan Hitch look like speed freaks, and I suspect he must do significant work in film or design – so new work always seems like a treat. The last interior work I can recall was a story in Tom Strong, and before that some work on Authority; since then, I’ve only seen covers. That trend continues with DC’s December solicits, which have him doing variant covers for JLA, Manhunter, and Midnighter. Nedless to say, the two that have been previewed are very nice. The also point to an interesting development in DC’s marketing strategy.

JLA isn’t a big deal, though I have to wonder how Michael Turner manages to get any work, let alone the regular cover gig on a flagship title. Midnighter also isn’t terribly surprising, since most of the Wildstorm relaunches are getting variants. But a variant cover for Manhunter is quite interesting: Most of the time, DC and Marvel seem to put out variants for their top sellers: “Buy even more of this book you were going to buy lots of anyway!” they say. But here, they’re really putting their money where their mouth is, using a variant to try to boost orders for a low selling book with a significant fan and critical following. Personally, I didn’t see what the big deal was about Manhunter, but it’s nice to see DC trying to promote a title everyone wasn’t already going to buy anyway.

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Don’t Judge a DVD by its Cover

Last year, I saw S.P.L. at the Toronto Film Festival. It was a tremendously enjoyable film, melding cop drama with some phemonenal martial arts sequences. It’s at least several levels above most films in either genre, given its moral ambiguity, tight script, and stylish direction, as well as two major fights at the finale that are absolutely pheneomenal.

I’ve been waiting for it to show up on DVD since then, and was surprised when I found out about this the other day:

Yes, that’s the North American DVD release of S.P.L.. And as much as I’m excited to see the film available on this continent, I’m fairly traumatized at the marketing approach the distributors took.

First: Kill Zone? Okay, I understand that the original title (which is based on the Chinese zodiac signs of the three main character) may lack some dynamism for North American audiences. It’s possible you could come up with something more descriptive and exciting. But Kill Zone? That sounds like a fucking Steven Seagal movie. It’s horribly generic and bland, and really says nothing about the movie.

But at least there’s some synergy going on here, because that cover is just as bland and lifeless. For one thing, I have no idea what the hell Donnie Yen is supposed to be doing; everyone else is standing around trying to look cool, but Yen looks like he’s having some sort of seizure. The guys at the bottom look halfway cool – couldn’t that have been the main cover, with Sammo overshadowing everyone or something?

On the up side, from what I’ve heard there have been no structual cuts or changes made to the film, so what’s inside is still the film I saw a year ago. But both the title and cover undersell the film tremendously, and if I weren’t already familiar with it, there’s no way I’d pick the DVD off a shelf, let alone rent or buy it.

It’s a much, much better film than it looks like. Don’t pass it by just because it looks like every other generic martial arts film out there.

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Ostrander & Mandrake!

So Grant Morrison’s Batman is pretty good. It’s a fun, snazzy story that so far has featured the Joker meeting his maker in front of a group of disabled children and Batman fighting an army of ninja man-bats. I’d probably be more enthusiastic about it if not for Andy Kubert’s art, which has that generic post-Image gritty and excessively cross-hatched style going on.

But yeah – Grant Morrison makes me want to buy Batman, which is a fair accomplishment. But after four issues, him and Kubert seem to be taking a couple months off, which might ordinarily cause me to do the same. But instead we get the following solicitation for December:

BATMAN #660 & 661
Written by John Ostrander
Art by Tom Mandrake
Covers by Gregory Lauren
Don’t miss a 4-part murder mystery by the acclaimed team of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake (THE SPECTRE), starting with two chapters in December! Three horrific murders rock Gotham with only one gruesome connection: parts of the victim’s faces have been carved away. Meanwhile, a brutal Russian gangster called Perun threatens Amina Franklin, a doctor working at Leslie Thompkins clinic, which brings in not only the Batman but his bizarre new foe: Grotesk!
And as the mystery of Grotesk deepens, a vicious new player enters the game — a Japanese yakuza named Johnny Kareoke! Batman confronts Kareoke and his murderous Geisha Grrls while the monstrous Grotesk strikes once again!

Yes, that’s John freaking Ostrander, the writer of the very excellent Suicide Squad, Firestorm, Hawkman, and Spectre, and Tom Mandrake, who joined Ostrander on Firestorm, Spectre, and a Martian Manhunter series that was supposedly very good.

Morrison is one of my favourit writers, but Ostrander is one of the best modern superhero writes I know. He’s got a knack for twisting and intelligent plots, as well as a creative approach to revamping superheroes without abandoning their root essence – he’s written the only interesting Firestorm I’ve ever read, and his Spectre run was a fantastic mix of divine epics and human interest. And Mandrake has a great, creepy and majestic style that, I have to think, is perfect for Batman.

I was happy to see Morrison on Batman, but I’m even happier to see these two guys back.

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Important Questions

Tales to Astonish 48

  • If the Wasp is helpless to save a man – a very tiny man, at that – from drowning, exactly what kind of superheroics is she cut out for?
  • Why doesn’t Ant-Man know how to swim?
  • Why doesn’t Ant-Man just grow back to normal size and step out of the sink?
  • Why doesn’t the Wasp grow back to normal size and pick Ant-Man out of the sink?
  • Why is The Porcupine so dreaded? Because he can pick up a tiny man and throw him into a sink?
  • If the big deal in this issue is that the Wasp and Ant-Man fight the Porcupine, why aren’t they fighting him on the cover? Why are they doing something entirely unrelated (unless, as suggested, the Porcupine threw Ant-Man into the sink), while the the Porcupine stands about in a box that was apparently added to the cover at a later date?
  • Why did Marvel lie to us when they said we’d never forget the Porcupine? Clearly, we have.

Yes, all these questions are rhetorical.

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Random Thoughts on a Monday

I’ll try to start blogging about the films I’ve seen at the Toronto Film Festival tonight or tomorrow, but for now a few odds and ends:

  • I’ve seen five films over the past four days, and I’m tired. Saturday night was the only chance I’ve had thus far to sit down and do nothing. But still, I’ve seen two great films, two very good ones, and one okay one, which is quite a good ratio. I’ve also seen Ron Perlman, Forrest Whittaker, and Guillermo Del Toro in person, as well as the Finnish ambassador, which isn’t quite as impressive but still pretty cool.

    I will also make this prediction now, before everyone else gets in on it: Forrest Whittaker will receive an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Partly because he’s very good, but also because he’s playing a real-life historical figure who’s kind of crazy. The Academy loves that kind of thing.

  • I am going to be spending entirely too much on comics over the next couple months. As if Lost Girls weren’t expensive enough, I found out that the Beguiling managed to get me a signed copy after all, so I get to exchange my copy and shell out another hundred bucks. Expensive, but worth it.

    Next, Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad comes out this week, and I’m looking forward to it enough to pick it up in hardcover. Also this week, Drawn & Quarterly has the next collection of Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s work, Abandon the Old in Tokyo. That’s probably not an immediate purchase, but The Push Man and Other Stories was good enough that I want to see more of Tatsumi’s work.

    And later in the fall, there’s going to be League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Dark Dossier and Absolute Sandman.

    I will be poor.

  • I don’t have a strong emotional reaction to September 11th. As much as it was a horrific event, putting it in perspective with world history shows it to be just another atrocity, more evidence that thousands of years haven’t done much to evolve certain parts of humanity. (Perhaps it’s just my recent infatuation with Lars von Trier, but I think my point of view fits nicely with most of the Scandinavian movies I’ve seen over the past decade)

    But still, the little things fascinate me. It seems bizarre, perhaps even perverse, that the date that’s emblazoned on our recent past should appear in such mundane and insignificant ways: A phone bill due on September 11th, or tickets to a movie or a baseball game. It seems strange, but at the same time inevitable, since the only alternative is shut down society entirely on that day, which doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea.

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What a very nice day

It’s late and I have to go to bed, but two quick points about how good my day was:

The Toronto International Film Festival started today, and I saw a very good movie. I’ll be blogging about all the films I see (8 scheduled for the next week), but I just want to say how much I love the festival: Great films, you get to see directors and stars, who usually look just like regular people, and audiences that are there because they love film.

I got my copy of Lost Girls today. There will, I’m sure, be an extensive post about it eventually (it’ll be hard to set aside time to read it this weekend), but I’m just happy to have a copy of the first printing: Distribution is somewhat limited in Canada, with Diamond Distribution not carrying it at all (presumably due to content and possible legal problems), and the first print run sold out across the U.S. in a couple of days, with a second printing scheduled for October and a third for December. But thanks to the greatest comic store on Earth, I’ve got mine. I’ve only had time for a brief perusal so far, but it looks very, very nice, both as an artistic work and as a wonderful looking book. I took my time unwrapping it from its plastic, partly for fear of damaging it, and partly out of the fear of being disappointed. The book is in A-OK condition, and I don’t think I’m going to be disappointed.

Or, put another way: Yes, I just paid $90 for a three-volume set of comic book porn, and I’m damned happy about it.

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Weekend Rental III: Manderlay

Lars Von Trier doesn’t hate America. Well, perhaps he does – I certainly don’t know the man – but if so, it’s not obvious from his films.

If anything, the maker of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville is simply misanthropic, not holding a lot of hope for humanity in general, whether American, Japanese, or Danish. It’s true that several of his films have focused on the United States, but there are perfectly good artistic reasons for that.

America is a land of contradictions. It is revered, both by its citizens and by foreigners, as the land of opportunity, a beacon of freedom and democracy. Yet it is still plagued by most of the same problems as the rest of the world: There’s plenty of poverty, racism, and inequality; there was slavery even as the founding fathers declared that all men were created equal. What sets America apart, at least from my view as a close-but-not-too-close Canadian, is the willfull blindness and devout patriotism that seems to arise against any criticisms, legitimate or not. “My Country right or wrong” often morphs into “Love it or leave it” and “You’re either with us or against it.”

It’s this contradiction Von Trier finds fascinating, as he showed in Dogville: Smalltown folk who look friendly and welcoming, but are ultimately as mean and selfish as any gangster. People who want to feel as though they’re doing the right thing but can’t quite stop looking out for themselves. With its stark minimalism, Dogville was an incredible, if rather unpleasant, look at transparent motivations and small-town life.

Manderlay is the thematic, and largely literal, sequel to that film. Grace, now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, finds herself on a plantation where slavery was never abolished: The blacks toil in the fields and live in shacks while the white owners live in relative luxury. She finds this appalling, naturally, and manages to upset the status quo: Soon the blacks own the plantation, while the whites find themselves indentured servants until the next harvest.

That act wasn’t good deed enough for Grace, who stays to help everyone adapt to their new lives. Having been under another man’s thumb for all their lives, the blacks don’t quite know what to do with their freedom, so Grace sets about teaching them the ways of business and democracy, and perhaps even civilization.

The central metaphor, then, is set, and it’s not entirely about America. Grace could very well be any Western nation, caught up in the ideal of rescuing and civilizing a people who may or may not be ready for it, or even want it. Grace quickly changes from an equal to an authoritative schoolmistress in Manderlay, as she realizes the people she’s freed aren’t as ready for freedom as she’d thought. At the same time, she sees it her duty to show the whites what it’s like to be degraded and treated as property. Grace may be shocked and appalled by the slaves of Manderlay, but ultimately her attitudes towards them might not be terribly different from those that owned the slaves.

It’s not at all subtle, but that’s not Von Trier’s aim. He’s clearly of the thought that many people won’t pay much attention unless you slap them in the face, so Manderlay is, at times, just as uncomfortable and disturbing as Dogville. It’s about race, and people’s perceptions of it, and all the superiority and alienation that comes with it.

The decision to make Manderlay a more-or-less sequel to Dogville is an interesting one, though not without its drawbacks: One cannot help but feel that anyone would be a downgrade from Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Grace, and Howard, though earnest, is expectedly not quite up to snuff. Howard is perfectly capable, and her youth and enthusiasm suit Grace’s new role quite well, but it’s simple one of those unfortunate comparisons. Even if Von Trier wanted to maintain certain elements from Dogville, he could have focused Manderlay around Grace’s sister, or some other friend or relation.

Von Trier continues Dogville‘s set conceit of shooting on a sound stage, with buildings marked in outline on the ground and only a few props and accessories actually present. It doesn’t seem quite as striking here, in part because we’re now familiar with it, but also because it doesn’t really tie in to the film’s central metaphor. Dogville was about a small town where everyone knew everyone and no one had secrets; the idea of a set without walls displayed the truthful hypociscy quite effective. But here, it just seems like and idea Von Trier liked and wanted to use again. It’s still a creative approach, and forces the actors to really work for their supper, but one wonders if it won’t grow old by the time Von Trier makes the final film in his American trilogy.

Manderlay both shines and suffers in the shadow of Dogville: The first film prepared us for Von Trier’s vision, and introduced themes that are quite resonant in the second; many of the points, as well as the contrast of Grace’s reactions to the two situations, are built upon nicely. But at the same time, it doesn’t feel quite as fresh, and having to replace a leading lady like Nicole Kidman is no easy task. It is still a very good film, if a challenging and uncomfortable one, and displays Von Trier’s top-drawer filmmaking and insightful, if morbid, grasp of the darker elements of human nature. Those who enjoy Von Trier’s films (as much as one can enjoy such daunting pessimism) will find much to like, but those who dislike him will find little that is new, and those who are unfamiliar would be best served to start elsewhere.

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Weekend Rentals Part II: The Producers and Syriana

The Producers

That The Producers is very funny isn’t really up for debate: It is. At least, as long as you find Mel Brooks and faux-Broadway funny, which I do. So there.

Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane are both impeccable in reprising their Broadway roles as an innocent accountant and a down-on-his-luck producer. Gary Beach steals all his scenes as the very talented and very gay director. Uma Thurman is blonde, leggy, and Swedish, which is really all you could possibly want from an entire film, let alone one role. Even Will Ferrell is funny, though he seems to fit neither the Broadway production nor the Mel Brooks script.

The Producers is clearly a great Broadway production. Sadly, it doesn’t hold up quite so well as a film. Director Susan Stronam’s background seems to be almost solely in theatre, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the film often feels like they just took a few cameras to the theatre and set up in the aisles. Not that it’s bad, but most of the shots and editing are pedestrian and run-of-the-mill; there’s not a whole lot of energy or creativity to the film that didn’t come with the actors and dancers.

On top of that, it’s just too long. 130 minutes is perfectly fine for a theatreical musical, but it’s much too long for a film comedy. One suspects Stronam was too in love with the material to make later cuts in editing, but it needed to be done: Several numbers go on too long, and the film as a whole ends up too massive to be lightweight musical comedy.

A less ponderous running time and some more creative staging might have made The Producers as big a hit on the screen as it was on stage; unfortunately, the film seems to have been made by and for people who loved the Broadway version so much that they wanted an exact copy on DVD. Maybe they should have let Mel Brooks direct, and left Stronam to the choreography and staging she knows so well.


One cannot accuse Syriana of not being ambitious. In just over two hours (less than the running time of The Producers!) it attempts to explore the politics, economics, and religion that make the Middle East so volatile. It tries very hard to make sense of several different stories, but seems to have bitten off more than it can chew.

George Clooney is a CIA operative who carries out some dirty business in the Middle East. Matt Damon is an economic adviser who ends up working for an Arab prince who eschews American influence and sells a valuable contract to the Chinese. The American bidder ends up merging with another U.S. company, who lays off some of their workers at a Kazakhstan refinery. One of the workers is a boy who finds comfort in a religious camp.

It’s a lot to take in, and occasionally difficult to process. It comes together fairly well in the final half hour or so, but until then there are plenty of confusing and obscure scenes, and characters who come and go with little introduction or explanation. The plots intertwine and weave, but not quite enough to infuse the story with any real momentum. There are a few nice attempts at character building, and George Clooney turns in some excellent work, but the film’s need to address all the characters and stories means that few actors are on screen for even half an hour.

Perhaps there’s a forthcoming director’s cut that will make sense of it all, but the current version tries to do too much with too little. The Clooney and Damon plots tie together nicely, but the corporate merger storyline is complex, dull, and confusing. The religious camp aspect is similarly undeveloped, with nothing tying it to the main narrative except its opening and closing moments.

Syriana could benefit from a serious trimming of the less compelling storylines, or it could use another hour to flesh everything else. I suspect there’s a very good film in there somewhere, and perhaps even a great one, but it needs to take another dip in the editing suite first.

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Weekend Rentals Part I: Friends With Money and Inside Man

The long Labour Day weekend was pretty dreary, overcast and grey if not actually raining. Not particularly condusive to outdoor activity, but more than acceptable for take-out Chinese food, wine, and lots of movies. The first batch:

Friends With Money

A cute, meandering, character-based film that ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. Jennifer Aniston goes through her life as a maid, after dropping out of a promising career as a teacher, while all her friends are rich, married, and seemingly happy. Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful fashion designer, married to a loving husband who may or may not be gay, and seems to be angry about everything; Christine (Catherine Keener), a successful television writer, is having marital problems with her writing partner husband even as they’re building a second story on their hous; Franny (Joan Cusack) just seems to be incredibly rich and happy.

It’s worth watching for the cast alone, which is, as one might expect, quite good. But the balance of the cast is also a drawback: Aniston is set as the focal point of the film, if not the star, yet she can’t compete with her more experienced co-stars. She’s a decent enough actress, but seems pale and two-dimensional next to Cusack, McDormand, and Keener. She ends up the least interesting of the quartet, and possibly the least likeable, an odd accomplishment considering Keener and McDormand spend much of the film being bitchy, if not downright psychotic. (See also: The Devil Wears Prada, with Meryl Streep vs. every other actor in the film)

The casting also creates a slight oddity: While the four women seem to have been friends for some time, one wonders how it came about. Keener is 46, Cusack 44, and McDormand 49, while Aniston is only 37 and looks younger than that. The older three might have been school friends, but it’s hard to see how Aniston fits. Your particular suspension of disbelief mileage may vary.

While all the performances are nice, the story doesn’t really go anywhere. Some character arcs get a bit of resolution, others don’t. Cusack’s character doesn’t really do anything other than act pleasant and reasonable. At just under an hour and a half, the film doesn’t feel like it gives all its characters room to grow and develop; in some respects, it feels like the pilot for a TV series, though I can’t imagine that any network would have the budget for the cast.

Cute, funny, sweet, and nicely acted, but ultimately diversionary.

The Inside Man

Let us not mince terms: Spike Lee’s latest film is a caper film. Clive Owen is the bank robber with the perfect, flawless plan. Christopher Plummer is the bank president with a secret in a safety deposit. Jodie Foster is the woman he engages to keep it a secret. Denzel Washington is the cop trying to figure it out. Willem DeFoe is the kind of funny-looking cop heading the SWAT team.

It’s all snazzily executed, full of plots and counter-plots, bluffing and stoic poker faces from both the cops and robbers. Clive Owen is cool and composed, Denzel Washington plays it loose and easy. The concept of the robbery is creative, though it does remind me of Bill Murray’s Quickchange performed with a straight face. Lee tries to keep the audience guessing, though certain aspects of the robbers’ plan begin to become obvious after a certain point. Still, it’s a fun, suspenseful thriller with a story that’s tightly plotted for about 95% of the film.

But Lee can’t seem to let go of his serious filmmaker credentials and let the film fly as a fun, tense thriller. So there are discussions of civil rights and police ethics and post-war morality. Lee tries to give the script more heft than it can support, and the film lumbers and sways accordingly. Sometimes, more is less, and the excise of 10-15 minutes might have made the film more successful, and let it remain true to its caper roots.

The core of any caper film, of course, a fair helping of suspension of disbelief: You can’t really pull off the perfect heist, particularly when it relies on secrets the robber has no way of knowing about, police politics, and some fairly shoddy and uninspired detective work. These things can be overlooked when the film has an aura of fantasy and escapism — no one really takes Ocean’s 11 seriously, because it doesn’t take itself particularly seriously — but Lee keeps trying to ground things. He’s trying to mix Bond-style escapades with gritty, modern-day realism, trying to add track lighting and a state-of-the-art home security system to a castle in the sky.

He almost gets away with it.

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I (heart) Warren Ellis

Why snark when others can do it for me? God bless Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, and Nextwave:
Nextwave Civil War

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